Saturday, January 15, 2005

Amu, Amitav Ghosh, and Amardeep

It won't be too much off the mark if I say that today I lived in 1984. Morning, I read Shonali Bose's Amu (the novel), evening I saw her movie by the same name, and after that I read Amitav Ghosh's essay about those days of 1984 that Amu portrays, titled "The ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi".

It's Shonali Bose's first novel. It's also her debut movie. The story takes place in the period from October 2001 to February 2002. It's about Amu, a twenty one year old girl, who was orphaned in the 84 sikh pogrom that took place soon after Indira Gandhi's death. Amu was then adopted by social activist Keya Roy, who moves to Los Angeles with Amu, now named Kajori or Kaju. The main reason for Keya shifting to the US is that Kaju can have a truly new life there and her traumatic memories may not haunt her again in a totally different place. Kaju decides to return to Delhi -- where "the past and present are hopelessly mixed up", and where "she might really belong to" -- from the "emotional wasteland" that is LA. She doesn't quite fit into Delhi, at one point she even feels she doesn't really fit into her own (adopted) family. Kaju wants to trace her roots, her village, her jhuggi, her biological parents. Keya had lied to her that her parents had died of an epidemic, but Kaju soon finds out that this is incorrect. The story ends after Keya disclosing all the facts about her birth parents to Kaju. Meanwhile Shonali Bose shows us some of the ugly faces of that horrible tragedy. When the movie ends, in the background, we see Vikram Chandra of NDTV breaking the Gujarat riots news following the Godhra carnage. Massacring human beings is a rule rather than an exception?

The novel, though very short (less than 150 pages), has more details. It reads more like an extended screenplay, and the thrust seems to be solely on the content. The author must have taken the easiest route to take what she has in her mind to the reader. But there are so many minute details, and Shonali Bose wants her main characters to share all of her conviction. For instance Kaju would prefer local book stores to Barns and Noble kind of a chain. The movie of course doesn't have enough space to accomodate all these minute details, and that, to me, looked better. Also Shonali Bose is more comfortable when she explains all the details and the connections herself, and she doesn't leave much for the reader to decipher. Nevertheless the book is eminently readable. We meet people like Keya Roy, Lalitha Ramalingam, and Neel who have done a lot for the riot victims, govt officials like Arun Sehgal who were rather passive and did not do anything to prevent the mass killings, and politicians (like Sajjan Kumar, HKL Bhagat, and Jagadish Tytler) who openly instigated large scale massacres. (Rajiv Gandhi had infamously remarked: "When a big tree falls, the earth shakes.")

Perhaps it can be safely said that the power of the novel/movie comes from its content. Perhaps Shonali Bose hasn't been able to impart an extra force to the whole theme, say unlike Aparna Sen in Mr and Mrs Iyer. These and similar thoughts occupied my mind while I was walking back from the movie theatre. From there I went to the Oxford book store, where I had to go regarding a previous transaction. And it's there that I read Amitav Ghosh's "The ghost of Mrs. Gandhi". I havn't read much of Ghosh, and I hadn't known about this essay. It was a nice coincidence that I noticed this essay soon after reading and watching Amu. It's a wonderfully written piece. Amitav Ghosh writes about his own experiences in Delhi in 1984; he was teaching at the Delhi University then. While mentioning the famous "Who are the guilty?" compilation, he writes:

    "Human-rights documents such as "Who Are the Guilty?" are essential to the process of broadening civil institutions: they are weapons with which society asserts itself against a state that runs criminally amok, as the one did in Delhi in November of 1984."
Same is true with Amu too. As Ghosh continued, "there's an urgency to remember the stories that we have not written", and Shonali Bose contributes to that. In the same essay, Amitav Ghosh also quotes the Bosnian writer Karahasan who makes a connection between modern literary aestheticism and the world's growing indifference to violence. Perhaps, as Karashasan remarked, Amu shouldn't be read/watched just "as an aesthetic phenomenon, completely sidestepping questions about goodness and truth" -- I told myself. If you enjoy Amu also as an "aesthetic phenomenon", as I had enjoyed parts of it, I'll be happier.

I see that Amardeep has a comment about my previous post where I linked to Amitav Ghosh's recent essay in the Hindu. It's not easy for me to explain what I really did not like in Ghosh's article there. Now that I just read, and also very much liked Ghosh's essay about 1984, let me see whether I can compare and pinpoint what I didn't quite like in the first one.

In his 1984 essay, Ghosh recalls a passage from Naipaul, where Naipaul writes about watching a street march, his intense desire to join that, and his immediate realisation that it's not in his nature to join the crowds. Ghosh continues a bit later that writers usually don't join crowds, but in extraordinary circumstances, "you join and in joining bear all the responsibility and obligations and guilt that joining represents." I don't know when exactly Ghosh wrote this essay, but there, Ghosh clearly values bare reality more than writing and writers' habits. I guess I'm more comfortable with this position, than his apparent take in the Hindu article. Also I wondered/wonder how deep a distant writer's feelings for the victims of a disaster would be. Let me again compare with the essay about 1984. Ghosh was in the middle of the riots, he had a personal stake in it, he could easily have been a victim, he had enough to write about that. But he says he found it difficult to write about it, he wanted to be extra careful, and he wrote this essay years later. In this case, within weeks of the tsunami disaster, he goes to the Andamans, basically to write about his experiences. And there he finds the most powerful defence for writing in a tsunami victim's act (of choosing to keep his research slides instead of other personal stuff). I guess this last sentence/observation gave me a bad feeling about the whole essay. (Somehow I felt, if that particular victim wasn't there, Ghosh would have had something else in the defense of writing, and the essay would have ended with that observation instead. You often see what you want to see!) Otherwise it was an interesting read. I especially liked his argument for democracy, and the need to make the civilian officials accountable to the elected representatives.
Update: (i) Here's Amardeep's post on Amitav Ghosh's essays.
              (ii) Ghosh's essay on the 84 riots is available online here.


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