To the Lighthouse

Mukul Kesavan combines robust irreverence with lyric grace

Mukul Kesavan, a writer who has broadened our culture of conversation through his books and newspaper columns. YASVANT NEGI / INDIA TODAY GROUP / GETTY IMAGES
01 December, 2013

MANY YEARS AGO, I heard some buzz around Mukul Kesavan’s first book—a novel titled Looking Through Glass (1995)—and hastened towards a copy, only to throw it aside and retreat in bewilderment not long after. I was then an exacting young man who read Science Fiction and took it Very Seriously, and I got rather cheesed off with the way he treated the sacred trope of time-travel. The narrator falls off a bridge across the Gomti and finds himself in the year 1942. No clarification was offered for this mysterious event and the book rapidly lost my favour after that. I remember being annoyed enough to black-mark the author quite emphatically.

That opinion changed a bit when I came across his 2001 tract, Secular Common Sense, a few years later. Kesavan argues here that we must look more carefully at the Congress-led formulation of nationalism—that it was an “original” formulation in seeking to remedy economic subjection and colonial imperialism, unlike the line toed by the party’s competitors, who merely borrowed at will from European nationalisms based on “mystical and mystifying notions such as blood, soil or national essence”. The secularism that issues from this original formulation is constituted by one practical purpose—that of making the republic credible to all its constituents and is thus a work in progress—while the ‘real’ secularism of the right-wingers aims at no more than giving Hindutva (rather than Hindu) grievance priority over the process of building that republic. It was a stirring defence of an idea whose sheen had been rather successfully tarnished by the hot air of the 1990s. I decided that he wasn’t such a bad sort after all.

I came across his byline occasionally through most of that decade, and read him in somewhat desultory fashion. Perhaps I didn’t follow his writing more carefully because much of what he wrote appeared in The Telegraph, a newspaper a whole continent away from east Bangalore then, as it is now, despite all the twittering on my timeline. Or because some part of what turned up as email forwards then—and as retweets now—was his cricket writing. That black art causes me to switch off and walk away each time. Cricket became unwatchable a moment after I saw a dejected Javed Miandad depart during the Bangalore quarter-final of the 1996 World Cup, thus ending a decade of exacting hatred and fascination, and now I can only fall asleep when I hear people bandying about opinions on the game.

I began following Kesavan with interest only after I noticed the journalist Nisha Susan riffing on things he had said in her happy 2009 Tehelka piece ‘Why Indian Men Are Still Boys’—in particular, a line about “the bullet-proof unselfconsciousness … [which] comes from a sense of entitlement that’s hard-wired into every male child that grows up in an Indian household”. Susan’s piece seemed to draw some of its considerable energy from the jolt of recognition that this line provides.

I found that the quote was a line from an essay that lent its title to a selection of his journalistic forays over a decade and more: The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions (2008). After taking in the title, I simply had to get a copy, and progressed through its pages with much speed, and pleasure. There was a chustness—to borrow an Indian word that holds senses such as nimble, compact and energetic in an inimitable balance—about that book. It began with the title, continued into the various indelicate implications of the etceteras in the title, and subsisted in every one of the 30-odd pieces of prose, and the several delightfully irreverent poems, that it included. The fact that this volume also renewed my acquaintance with Secular Common Sense was yet another bonus.

What is this chustness then? I cite Kesavan’s preface in Ugliness—a quicksilver marvel. It begins with a disarmingly modest downplaying of what he has to offer. “Every English-speaking Indian man between twenty-five and sixty,” he says, “has written about the Hindi movies he has seen, the English books he has read, the foreign places he has travelled to, and the curse of communalism”. This is a feint that leaves the reader unprepared for the ambush to follow. You course through scathing dismissals of each of these urges, and you take them in good faith till you reach a sentence about the urge to rage against communalism. The careful historian who might be puzzled by this as by the previous interests is referred to “that acute critic, Lal Krishna Advani, who coined a useful term for this tendency: pseudo-secularism … this peculiar interest in Muslim or Christian welfare is to be charitably understood as a form of misguided chivalry … [or] to the self-hatred that afflicts deracinated Hindus.” The reader must now begin laboriously resetting dials, gauges and needles to point to ‘ironic impressions’, and may well miss the sly act of reinstatement that follows: “Whatever their explanation, these regularities in the behavior of Anglophone Indians await their historian and their anthropologist; the book that follows is an attempt to show that their habits are odd enough to be interesting.”

This diagnosis, of Kesavan’s distinctive chustness, is a first-glance thing. It comes from a memory of all those places in the book that caused me to let out involuntary hoots of laughter: his theories on how Bollywood works, on why sedentary middle-aged men watch sports on television, on why Princess Diana went down well with television audiences, and his story of a descent into election-eve Uttar Pradesh that ends with him being pursued at some length by an Advani intent on making the same memories-of-the-demolition speech everywhere. He is likewise a sensei of the drive-by shooting, of the carefully tossed grenade. This ability may turn up in the chance phrase (“The hill-station hedonism of Shammi Kapoor”), in moments of anthropology that spin away from articles that are going elsewhere (“Post-Partition Delhi speaks a slurred argot made up of Punjabi, Profaniti, and Hindi sentence endings”) or in sustained fusillades (“The only class of dilliwallah that doesn’t use autos is the chaufferati. Given that this social sliver drills its own water, generates its own electricity and either dreams about or actually lives in Gurgaon, it’s a mistake to think of it as a part of Delhi’s demography: its members are best understood as a special subset of NRIs who don’t live abroad”.)

This talent for a necessary, robust irreverence can lead him to zones that the ordinarily prudent will avoid. His return from such sorties is usually marked by the holding aloft of an insight that may be absurd but true. This comment on the relationship that most Indians have with the national anthem offers us precisely such a moment:

If Abid Ali’s free translation into Hindustani of Jana Gana Mana, Subh Sukh Chain, commissioned by Subhash Bose, had been adopted as India’s anthem, its meaning would have been clear to Hindi speakers and opaque to the rest of India. This might have excited discord because Hindi speakers tend to feel proprietorial about the things they think they understand. Sensibly then, the Constituent Assembly on January 24, 1950, adopted the original Bengali version; written as it was in an elaborately Sanskritized idiom, it kept Indians equal in their common incomprehension.

In a novelist, this ability would set the writer apart as a comic genius. On considering Ugliness and Kesavan’s new book, a compilation of his columns and opinion pieces titled Homeless on Google Earth, alongside his uncollected pieces, we may begin to see more clearly the trajectory that he has marked out for himself. His writing does not seem to be limited to a balletic comic timing, and the many laughs that this might raise. The special burden it takes on is that of bridging the fatal separation between wit and seriousness produced by our need to be modern and Anglophone.

In talking of reconciling wit and seriousness, I fall back on, and modify, a notion TS Eliot offered while talking of the Metaphysical poets: “a tough reasonableness beneath the slight, lyric grace”. Kesavan writes a prose textured to provoke laughter while also bidding the reader to seek after a rational tough-mindedness, an inbuilt resistance to bullshit. His chustness is thus also a capacity to make visible the connections between disparate experiences by an ambush with words, by a short-circuiting of everyday language. Some instances should help make this idea clearer.

Impatience with that great Delhi conversation-starter, the perfidy of autorickshaw drivers, leads him to investigation and thus to this moment:

… and in a city like Delhi, ruled by the urban salariat, the State treats autorickshaw drivers in the way that the Raj used to treat Criminal Tribes … Till recently, an autorickshaw could cost as much as Rs 600,000 when the actual cost of a new vehicle was under Rs 200,000. This happened because of an artificial scarcity of permits, which meant that the price of the auto consisted mainly of the bribe paid to corrupt transport officials to get a permit to drive one. Not content with crushing the auto-driver with debt up front, the government then panders to the city’s salariat by not raising fares each time the price of CNG rises. In effect, then, the auto-driver subsidizes his middle-class customers every time this happens.

If we look to the hysteria of the last few months, caused by the premature crowning of a politician, it is Kesavan who has consistently produced the most insightful responses seen in the English-language media. In ‘Death and Development’, a piece that appeared in The Telegraph in July 2013, he takes apart some of the dissimulation that has gone into the good governance slogan. While Narendra Modi’s votaries may repeat the slogan endlessly, Kesavan argues that this is not some ideology-free, secular good. In his continued patronage of those known to be associated with the pogroms, Modi’s actions speak for themselves. As he puts it, “Modi is announcing, as if on a megaphone, that good governance and Hindutvavadi nationalism are joined at the hip, that the former grows out of the latter”.

How highly should we rate Kesavan’s capacity for chustness? In a context where the right-wing mix of debate-hall rhetoric and playground bullying reduces all liberal arguments to plaintive, high-minded bleating, Kesavan’s capacity for biting wit embodies the possibilities of a hardier liberalism. As in this playful examination, that was much shared across the interwebs, of the future meanings that await ordinary words in India’s political lexicon:

modi~fy: to shift the blame for violence on to its victims ... This transference can be helped along by the use of the dangling modi~fier and its uncanny knack of recasting victims as passive-aggressors: ‘Eyes bloodshot, hoarse with vengeful shouting, the ghetto was burnt to the ground by the mob.’ Bloodshot, vengeful ghettoes aren’t likely to attract much sympathy even if they are burnt to the ground.

Which brings me to something that piques my curiosity. One of the pitfalls of being online apparently is that you can’t so much as exhale in disagreement before some internet warrior descends on you. Ramachandra Guha has written extensively about the love and affection that has come his way. Meena Kandasamy merely tweeted about attending a beef-eating festival in a Hyderabad university campus and the air grew thick with responses of the rape and violence variety. From the looking that I’ve done up Twitter and down Facebook, the internet Hindus don’t seem to be bristling very much about Kesavan’s existence—despite the fact that he’s infinitely more dangerous than the people they normally attack. The last attempt on his modesty I can trace is a 2001 review of Secular Common Sense by Swapan Dasgupta, where that worthy produces the regulation three burps of right-wing rhetoric, and then subsides, quite uncharacteristically. This can only mean one thing: that they don’t have among their online stormtroopers anybody who can parse sentences for anything other than the propositional.

KESAVAN’S CAPACITY FOR TOUGH-MINDEDNESS works just as well outside immediate politics. While writing about Steve Jobs’ demise in October 2011, he avoids fanboy hyperbole and the blurred vision that besets teary-eyed obituary-writers to produce a parallel worthy of Plutarch’s Lives. The real measure of Jobs’ career, he argues, is to be found in comparing his work to that of William Morris, the Victorian writer remembered for the design ethic that he pioneered. Jobs is thus the author of a “paradoxical achievement”, that of “making mass-produced objects feel like personalized tools, this sleight-of-hand by which industrial fit and finish was haloed by the coolness and cachet of style … that inspired the cult-like worship of Apple, that allowed otherwise sensible people to love their laptops”.

It may be useful to talk of scrupulousness while clarifying the extent of the compliment implied by the term “tough-minded”. In a piece titled ‘A Harvest of Khans’, Kesavan points out that while Muslim actors may no longer have to take acceptable pseudonyms, the people they play are still rarely marked for anything other than the same Sanskritic acceptability. It can be extremely easy, at such a moment, to succumb to a lazy generalization: that Bollywood is inherently communal. Kesavan chooses another way of looking at what this might mean:

On the contrary, no professional world in India has been more open to talent and less concerned with ascriptive origin or identity than Bombay cinema. Anglo-Indians, Jews, Muslims, Parsis, Germans, Americans, people of every sort have come to this world with change in their pockets and have prospered. So it isn’t malevolence or discrimination that’s the issue; rather, a concern that Hindi cinema has become lazy, that it has been content to mine a narrow vein in a terrain that’s bursting with rich and various ores.

The little sally quoted above may offer us a glimpse of Kesavan’s other major talent: a capacity for contrarian, counter-intuitive illumination, the will to do battle with the various lazy approximations and the untested affirmations and negations that become, sometimes by a kind of social bullying, the common sense of our times. Such, indeed, was the common sense on display in Delhi University’s decision to drop the AK Ramanujan essay ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’ from their syllabus after a bunch of campus goons managed to make its inclusion controversial. Kesavan’s response takes on the insect scurrying that this controversy seemed to provoke among those in some authority:

I can only imagine that the vice-chancellor and the academic council made an honest mistake, that, prompted by a misplaced sense of prudence or superabundant caution, they offered “Three Hundred Ramayanas” at the altar of a lumpen god, hoping to appease it. It won’t, of course: this god is insatiable. Instead of pandering to unreason, the university should be true to itself, stand its ground and reinstate Ramanujan.

The two books capture quite accurately the role that Kesavan has fashioned for himself—that of public intellectual. He travels beyond the constricted address prescribed for academics into the rough-and-tumble of writing for newspapers, into conversation with an audience larger than he is supposed to be talking to, and chooses to perform in a visible, everyday way the academic ethic of thinking rigorously. The debate over enforcing the Right to Education, for instance, causes him to open up for readers the forgotten term—fraternité—in the rousing French slogan that is short-form for republican ideals. The relatively new idea of the republic is constantly contested and undermined by its natural ideological foe—a casteist spirit. The exclusions and segregations that make up the difference between private and government schools are equally a means by which the republic is lost to caste. There is thus something to be said for an intervention that forces rich and poor out of isolation into fraternity.

This willingness to think in public can transform familiar columnist operations such as mining memory. Where most people would be content to restrict themselves to the public nose-digging for which we use the polite name nostalgia, travels into the past are for Kesavan an attempt at asking how much of a different country the present might be:

Pundits sniff disapprovingly about the consumerism that the liberalization of the economy has encouraged. This would seem to suggest that before 1991, Indians, willy nilly, lived in a state of non-consuming grace. This is just not true; the middle-class children of the 1960s loved things much more intensely than their children do simply because they didn’t have them. You can spot us at a distance in airport terminals: we’re the grey-haired men who can’t tear themselves away from the cigarette cartons even though we stopped smoking three years ago and won’t part with money to buy any for our friends. We are that odd cohort, a Duty Free Generation that never went abroad in its youth … connoisseurs, therefore, of the unavailable.

Columnists who have had a long innings usually fall prey to a portentous high-mindedness. Some begin to look upon themselves as latter-day stylites, as magisterial presences beyond all reproach whose only purpose is to live on high and void turds of goodly wisdom on our waiting heads, thereby losing us. Kesavan is refreshingly different; we may return to the notions of agility and nimbleness for some measure of the register that his prose spans. His columns offer the reader a shinning-up now and then to examine what lies ahead, and an equal shinning-down in droll flibbertigibbetry.

When his thoughts turn to travel, he invariably shoves out the window the verities that are supposed to attend such writing and instead produces marvels of cheekiness. I’m going to deposit with you these two paragraphs from a piece about visiting the Kruger National Park. The first is about a bookings fiasco that nearly leaves the author and his famous fellow-traveller stranded miles from said park.

“Ve do not haf you on our komputer,” said the woman in reply. I think she spoke like that but I can’t be certain because between Dawie’s directions and her bombshell, Amitav and I had begun to feel beleaguered and I may have regressed to a Commando Comics sense of the Enemy.

The second occurs a little after that anxiety is resolved. If you know wildlife-bores and want to troll them into an early grave, I can make no more effective recommendation than this paragraph, and perhaps one or two more from Valmik Thapar’s Exotic Aliens.

We also saw two elephants, a big one and a little one which could have been its child but we couldn’t tell what sex they were partly because it was dusk but mainly because we didn’t know exactly where to look on an elephant. Specially the African elephant, which is enormous. Ours seemed puny in comparison. I felt a pulse of elephant patriotism. This lot were large good-for-nothings. They couldn’t be taught or tamed or trained to do anything. They just hung around in profile, staying still so people could take pictures. They made great silhouettes, though. They were so big that driving past one was a bit like driving by India Gate.

We will stop here to lament one aspect of the new volume. It doesn’t work by the instant seduction-by-title model favoured with Ugliness. If a paradox must mimic a striptease to be successful, then the title Homeless on Google Earth is perhaps a pointless struggle with popping a top button. It does no justice to Kesavan’s range, or to his concerns. It seems like a terrible mistake, though there is one thing that must give us pause. This juxtaposition—the dreary melodrama of the term homelessness against the miracles of scale we associate with Google Earth—might just be a sweetly contrived McGuffin. In which case, I’m inclined to approve, and fantasise.

Perhaps a dozen reciters of postcolonial incantations in academic backwaters might be misled by the title into believing that they were acquiring some diasporic pica, if not Pico. Or some of the million or so sheep who baa or MBA in ersatz but seemly arousal as they march to self-improving tunes piped to far corners by ponytailed impresarios or potential Paulos might mistake this book for some arcane how-to and go nom-nom at its pages. Or the types who skulk around bookshops having loud conversations with each other about whatever is trending this weekend might take the book for some sermon about how to mount the world better in the days of Web 2.0, and gobble it up. The thought of the nuclear frissons that Kesavan might induce in these lambs is worth several indecorous cackles.

Permanent Black make the claim on their blog that Kesavan is the finest living writer of Indian English non-fiction. Here we must cavil a little bit. The expectations that come with the slot afforded to the columnist tend to become Kesavan’s limitations. The strict walk-the-ramp requirements of the newspaper column or magazine opinion piece seem to militate against the unstructured, aleatory efforts that we might associate with non-fiction. Kesavan’s most distinctive quality as a writer, a hyper-rational ability that we have loosely described as wit, is also a constraint—we can never be too sure that such writing transcends a demographic, that it might ever be more than a conversation amongst men of a certain age.

Also, his writing, for all the measured curation that has gone into the latest volume and the previous one, is by necessity a dialect of assertion more often than it accommodates tentativeness, or failure. Pankaj Mishra, for all that he succumbs now and then to oracular eye-rolling, does more justice to doubt. To that list of writers who do things differently, add Kai Friese whose wry stick-to-it-iveness can shape or even replace an announced quest, or Samanth Subramanian in dogged pursuit of conversations that illumine as much as they conceal. The problem is with Permanent Black’s claim—apart from shrinking non-fiction into its subset, the newspaper column, it also turns people into racehorses—and not with the writer. The fact remains that in choosing to write as he does, Mukul Kesavan has made exceptional contributions to the bid to broaden the culture of conversation in a time when such exchanges are menaced from more than one direction. He continues to be a writer we must read carefully.