Editorial/Dreams of rare device
Enigmas of distance
Letters to the Editor

Incongruity, they say, is one of the chief sources of laughter. One wonders whether the state government in West Bengal is at all aware of this piece of conventional wisdom. Nowadays it does not talk about anything short of nuclear power plants and millennium convention centres, the last to be built on the lines of the millennium dome in London. There is no harm in dreaming of course, and perhaps, something charmingly quixotic in dreaming big. Only to dream big and talk big in a state in which infrastructure is worn to tatters and the world prefers to walk away, be it out of state investors or the British Airways, is to be just plain funny. Each time a big project is proposed, people in the state are left wondering whether the progenitors of the scheme know what they are talking about. Even at a very basic level. The nuclear power plant, for example, needs funding. There is no way the international financial institutions are going to come up with money for a nuclear power plant. The fate of the Kalpakkam project in Kerala should at least seem relevant. Since the Eighties, successive prime ministers have kept on giving it the green light, but the allotted land remains as virgin as ever. There is a unique lack of planning that dogs every major project of the West Bengal government. The commissioning of the cracker at Haldia Petrochemicals Limited exemplified a reality becoming a dream. A tremendously expensive project has come to fulfilment, and no one is quite sure who the takers are for its products.

The millennium convention centre is equally intriguing. It is not clear why people who have to struggle to reach their workplaces everyday, because of bad roads, traffic jams and processions, should suddenly want to use billiard rooms and bowling alleys overlooking the Hooghly. Or even watch the centre grow, admiringly, out of their own money. This weird scheme comes a close second to the proposal for a Formula One racing track which caught the fancy of some of the state’s ministers not so long ago.

The problem is not in the dreaming, or even in the shouting out the dreams from the rooftops, but dreaming in spite of the total and proven inability to implement the simplest of practical measures to improve the quality of everyday life. Flyovers are elaborately planned, some even get off the ground — with no further plans about managing traffic when construction is advanced. Road connectors are begun, and roads still remain desolately unconnected. Pollution control machinery is repeatedly put in place, and repeatedly fails. Taxis are taxed for refusal — for one day when a driver refuses to take in the family of a police officer. An electric bus is made to ply unceasingly along a short distance in Salt Lake, presumably to try out a pollution free mode of transport. Being the most expensive vehicle on that route, it always travels empty. Public money and much hot air are expended on the simplest schemes, but West Bengal remains exactly where it was.

It is not as if nothing can be done. Calcutta’s Metro Railways still function, and the system is reasonably clean. True, punctuality and maintenance leave much to be desired, but the Calcuttans’ eagerness to look after the system has saved it from disrepute. What the state government represents, with an ironic fitness, is a peculiar tendency to create a facade of bustling improvement, without a single serious attempt to plan projects carefully, let alone complete them. Perhaps this has to do with the growing anxiety of the Bengali psyche vis a vis the rest of India, the desire to define a political and cultural identity with “great works” — never mind the reality. Whatever the intricate reasons behind the dreams of greatness, surely the state government cannot seriously believe this is the right time for nuclear power plants and millennium domes. Or perhaps, the Left Front hopes its failings will be forgotten if it can create this pink haze of great dreams as the assembly elections draw nearer.    

Dev and Miranda, two of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Bostonians, are standing on a “transparent bridge” in what looks like the inside of a luminous globe. A stained-glass map of the world surrounds them. Dev points out India, the Mariana Islands, the Antarctic archipelago; Miranda locates London. The Mapparium, Dev’s favourite place in Boston, also has weird acoustic properties. For the lovers — who have picked each other up in a departmental store only a week ago — it is like an echo chamber. They stand apart from each other, and Dev’s disembodied whisper reaches Miranda’s ears curiously amplified, turning her on as she feels his words “under her skin”: “‘Hi’, she whispered, unsure of what else to say. ‘You’re sexy’, he whispered back.”

This scene from the story, “Sexy”, in Lahiri’s Pulitzer-winning Interpreter of Maladies is both vividly particularized and emblematic of the universe she creates in her fiction. Her stories revisit scenes of individuals, usually female, being made to look at maps, usually by their fathers or lovers. The maps confront them with projections — in the cartographic and imaginative sense of the word — of an absent or a distant terrain that is either linked to their own history, or to that of persons they feel, or want to feel, close to at that moment. For Miranda, Dev’s India is an important key to the being she is eager to fathom in her sexual obsessiveness. Yet, it is also just another stained-glass shape, like Siam or Italian Somaliland, which Dev points out to her.

Such moments bring the actuality and complexity of particular human bodies, rooted in real time and space, face to face with the oddly two-dimensional representation of an altogether different order of reality. The glowing map holds them to itself, but it also feels unreal, even ludicrous. The lovers are like two children in a church — irreverent, yet awed into hushed whispers. The domed mapparium holds them together, but also separates them. The bridge keeps them apart, and as the echoes of Dev’s whispers reach Miranda’s body, she experiences a strangely disquieting combination of the intensely physical and the magically disembodied.

Paradoxically, what Miranda apprehends — perhaps with a little, secret shudder — in this moment of capricious intimacy is “the meaning of distance”. I take this phrase from another map-haunted work of fiction, Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines. As his past reveals more intriguing connections, Ghosh’s narrator draws whimsical circles on his atlas with his pencil and compass. He unlearns “the reality of nations and borders”, grasping the “meaning of distance”, between events, people and places, the arbitrary “enchantment of lines” that divides Calcutta (where Dev also comes from) and, in this case, Dhaka, by a “looking-glass border”.

Ghosh’s novel must be somewhere in the genealogy of Lahiri’s stories, as could be another literary work, a poem whose eroticism is inextricable from the excitement of discovering unfamiliar worlds. In the course of reading English Renaissance literature in Boston, Lahiri must have come across John Donne’s “The Good Morrow”, which evokes — as does her mapparium episode — the sense of “one little roome” momentarily becoming “an every where”. “Let Maps to other, worlds on worlds have showne,/ Let us possesse one world, each hath one, and is one.” Rereading Donne’s lines this time, I am struck by how his initial proposal of a fantasy union (“Let us...”) quickly gives way to an assertion of separateness (“each hath one, and is one). The restive lover in the poem wonders, whether every man could be, perhaps, an island.

It is this inevitable and ultimately unbridgeable, unfathomable distance felt at the heart of intimate knowledge, that brings about the dénouement in Lahiri’s most memorable stories. The nuanced and reticent precision with which she presents this sense makes it — and I’m being deliberately reductive here — what these stories are “about”. It is what makes discussions of their Indianness, Americanness or Indo-Americanness quite irrelevant. This also constitutes her most significant departure from a political exploration of cultural difference in the context of American “immigrant” literature, if at all such a category could be invoked in her case. Lahiri’s most remarkable contribution is in imagining how shared and unshared histories are lived out in the everyday whimsies and desolations of particular people, brought randomly together by a range of circumstances.

This is why the viewing of maps is invariably eroticized in her stories. Sexuality becomes the sphere in which the encountering of differences and the resulting distances are elaborated, bafflingly and often perversely. For sexual intimacy both transcends and returns us repeatedly to forms of difference, which are then pursued or repelled with a compulsiveness that stubbornly defies the politically correct.

Lahiri takes brave, and often brilliant, risks here. In “Sexy”, as Miranda begins to self-consciously wallow in her absorption in Dev, Lahiri makes her enjoy him in terms of the lowest of “orientalist” kitsch: “when she and Dev made love, Miranda closed her eyes and saw deserts and elephants, and marble pavilions floating on lakes, beneath a full moon. One Saturday, having nothing to do, she walked all the way to Central Square to an Indian restaurant, and ordered a plate of tandoori chicken.” This is both deeply vulgar and pathetically true to a certain kind of obsessive excess. Yet, it uses orientalist stereotypes to explore the nature of this obsession, rather than the other way round, forestalling a reductively political reading.

But her final sleight of hand displaces the political with the perverse, quite brilliantly. In this story’s ending, and in “When Mr Pirzada Came to Dine”, the predictable political themes are constantly and teasingly waylaid by an irreducibly ambiguous sexuality that someone in a Woody Allen film would have described as “polymorphously perverse”. Her relationship with Dev fast petering out, Miranda offers to look after, for a day, the unhappy and precocious nephew of her friend, Laxmi. With the utmost tact and restraint, Lahiri builds up their encounter, in the course of which this child, Rohin, becomes a little Dev for Miranda. He asks her to put on, for his entertainment, the slinky cocktail dress that she had once bought with Dev in mind. As she obliges, Rohin comments, exactly like Dev in the mapparium, “You’re sexy”. There is the same shiver of response in Miranda.

When physically pressured by Miranda to explain “sexy”, Rohin’s teasingly whispered answer comes in a single sentence that could well have been the epigraph to this entire collection of stories, providing the most succinct interpretation of its chief malady: “It means loving someone you don’t know”. What the classicist and philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, has called “love’s knowledge” is here eclipsed by a radical scepticism, that is primarily sexual, but must also be implicitly philosophical.

Lahiri repeatedly gives to her vision of human communion a core of impossibility that goes beyond despair, in which her characters remain stranded and “enisled”, as Matthew Arnold had once put it. “Knowing” brings no deliverance. In “A Temporary Matter”, Shoba [sic] and Shukumar, who have their own mapparium moments of playing “truth or dare” during daily power-cuts, grow closer and closer apart as truth follows truth, till, at the end, they weep “together, for the things they now knew”.

That the idea of cultural difference is taken up by her into a larger vision of the limits of human mutuality, rather than the other way round, must surely be strategic on the part of Lahiri as a contemporary American writer. Taking on a society, an academic establishment and a literary market all given to commodifying “otherness” unabashedly, Lahiri’s self-assured shifts of emphasis may be seen as masterfully elusive. Her resistance to being mapped comes through in the way her subtitle leads from Bengal to Boston “and Beyond”.

The enigmas of distance inform the writing of this explorer of inaccessibilities. It is in keeping with the pathos of her best stories that when her relations in Calcutta — fondly and proudly poring over her old photographs and letters, and rehearsing their reminiscences to the media — tried to get her on the phone in order to congratulate her, what they repeatedly got at the other end was the recorded message on her answering machine.    


Sister in harms

Sir — So fireball Germaine Greer almost met her nemesis in the hands of her own gender (“Student beats up Greer”, April 28)? Former bra-burners would argue otherwise. The student assaulter of Greer, who also happened to be female, would be seen as a cynical tool used by the male-dominated society to get back at a rebel who has dared to expose the curious patterns of gender oppression in society. The truth could be quite different. Who knows? The student might be one of those many young things who have had their love-lives screwed up after reading Greer’s volatile assaults on the male. After all, Greer and her ilk cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility of having generated more confusion than was really necessary.

Yours faithfully,
Pradeep Mehta, New Delhi

Late vigil

Sir — The chief vigilance commissioner, N. Vittal, has taken the laudable step of posting the names of government and public sector officers charged with corruption on the internet. Recently, the state-owned electricity company in Andhra Pradesh published names of large defaulters, including many former and current ministers and legislators.

Earlier, some nongovernmental organizations had published names of telephone defaulters; one consumer body even went to Bombay high court to force Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited to disconnect the lines of high-profile defaulters. It was hoped that publicity would shame defaulters into prompt payment of arrears and deter prospective defaulters.

Such hopes were completely misplaced. Names of income tax defaulters are routinely given out by the government. These include many famous cinema actors and industrialists, who are now Rajya Sabha members. Bank loan defaulters include several big businessmen who are also politicians. Dwarfing all these are scandal-tainted politicians ranging from former chief ministers and prime ministers to members of state and Central legislatures. This latter class is also involved in laundering money through hawala.

Despite all the publicity, there has been almost no lessening of corruption. Therefore the latest publication is not going to make any difference. It will not be easy to recapture the ethics of public life that have been eroded by permit licence raj growth and quota-induced social justice.

Yours faithfully,
Parijatha P, Hyderabad

Sir — Kidnapping, theft and tax evasion can be effectively checked by taking stringent measures to curb circulation of currency, so that people begin considering excess currency useless “paper”. Payment by cheque, credit card and draft should be encouraged; punitive taxes imposed on purchases beyond a certain sum and business transactions conducted by cheque alone.

Emergency cash bills like that of hospitals must bear names and addresses. Income tax authorities and auditors should be informed of large cash transactions. Misuse of benami drafts as carriers of black money can be checked by reducing their validity period to 45 days. Unnecessary surcharges and special taxes on purchases by credit cards must be abolished to encourage tax compliance.

The legislature and judiciary should be brought under the jurisdiction of the CVC. Corruption and malpractices in these two wings of the government can only be checked by making them accountable to each other. The CVC should be housed in a single office instead of being scattered over many different buildings in New Delhi.

Yours faithfully,
Madhu Agrawal, Dariba
Letters to the editor should be sent to:
The Telegraph
6 Prafulla Sarkar Street
Calcutta 700 001
Email: [email protected]    

Maintained by Web Development Company