VASUNDHARA PRABHU: Good afternoon, everyone, and namaskar.
My name is Vasundhara Prabhu. And I'm happy to greet and welcome you to the 10th Annual Author's Lecture of the Tagore Fund for Modern Literature that was established by my parents in 1999.
The fund honors Rabindranath Tagore, India's first Nobel Peace Prize poet laureate. Tagore was born in 1861 and died in 1941, spanning two vibrant centuries, while sharing India's cultural heritage with the world.
My father, Uma Prabhu-- papa, could you stand so everyone can see you? OK-- and my mother, Sumi Prabhu, who is here today in spirit, established this endowment in honor of Tagore, one of India's greatest poets.
As you may also be aware, Tagore was well-known for his dance dramas, "Rabindra Sangeet," as an educator, and as an artist.
One of his poems, "Jana Gana Mana," became India's national anthem after independence from the British in 1947. Uma was 23. Sumi was 18.
Rabindranath came from a long and illustrious line of philosophers, writers, artists, and educators.
Tagore's Shantiniketan school and museum and Visva-Bharati University still thrive today and host students, artists, scholars, and visitors from around the world.
Many asked my parents, why did you set up this fund? And why did you name it after Tagore? Put another way, what does a mathematician from Kerala from South India and a person from Pune trained as a singer know about Tagore?
My father discovered Tagore as a 17-year-old. He was so moved by the artist and the person that he went to the [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] Town Library in Kerala and hand copied Tagore's poem into a book, a book he has in possession to this day. And I wish I could show you the beautiful handwriting in English.
My mother studied to become a singer and had an excellent ear. When they arrived at Cornell, they pursued their mutual interests in literature and music. My mother even learned to read and write Bengali so that she could appreciate the nuances of Tagore's music, literature, and writings.
By sharing her interpretation with my father, she was instrumental in deepening his understanding and appreciation of the artist.
My parents have always been global in their outlook, openly accepting people and ideas from many cultures. Unlike some others of their generation, they were not provincial in their thinking. Their friends were and are people from many parts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Australia, Israel, Europe, America. That is an international community.
My parents lived and live a very simple life. And in their gratitude they have given back to America and India in so many ways.
With this endowment, they hope that others may appreciate and become interested in South Asian literature, the authors who created, as well as the many artists, who form our global family.
Seeing you all here before me, I can see that you are interested, too.
It's my honor to thank my parents for setting up this unique lecture series here at Cornell at my alma mater, and where my father is professor emeritus. I hope you enjoy today's program. Thank you.
So now Durba Ghosh will introduce today's author.
DURBA GHOSH: So welcome, everybody, on this Friday afternoon. I'm Durba Ghosh, and I am faculty in the history department here at Cornell. I am standing in for Iftikhar Dadi, who is the real director of the South Asia program.
Iftikhar very helpfully sent me the introductory notes. And I'll tell you what he typed in. It says, good afternoon. My name is the Durba Ghosh. So I've done the first thing I was supposed to do. I thought that was so sweet.
Anyway, on behalf of the Cornell South Asia program, it's a very great pleasure to welcome you to the Kahin Center today for the South Asia program's annual Tagore lecture.
As we've heard already, today is the 10th consecutive lecture that we've done. And typically, it's scheduled in the fall semester as a way to welcome our faculty and our students and our community back to campus.
I also want to thank our previous director, Anne Blackburn, who issued the invitation to Neel Mukherjee. She finished a four- or five-year term as director, and also spearheaded the application for the renewal of our National Resource Center grant, which we received a few weeks ago. Is that right? Yeah.
I also want to remind you that Buffalo Street Books is outside. They are an independently owned, local bookstore. And they are outside selling books that Neel Mukherjee can sign afterword for the reception.
I want to just remind you all that the Tagore lecture was endowed by Cornell Professor Emeritus of Operations and Industrial Research Narahari Umanath Prabhu and his wife Mrs. Sumi Prabhu. They initiated a generous gift to Cornell and established this endowment in modern Indian literature.
The endowment was created to honor Rabindranath Tagore, who I think you've heard a little bit about. Probably many of you do not know that the Willard Straight Memorial Hall was named after a researcher in the agricultural school who did some research at Shantiniketan.
With the endowment, Professor and Mrs. Prabhu sought to project a strongly positive image of South Asian literature, which included non-fiction, prose, poetry, and fiction from India and from other locations in both national and English languages.
In the 10 years that we have had the lectureship series, we have welcomed a very impressive list of lecturers in various parts of the Indian subcontinent. Sunil Gangopadhyay, Kiran Nagarkar, Tahmima Anam, Mohammed Hanif, Ranjit Hoskote, and Shyam Selvadurai.
I know that Professor Prabhu and his family are deeply pleased to make possible today's lecture by Neel Mukherjee, where we cross this major milestone as the 10th Tagore lecture.
So I'm just going to brag a little bit. These are not in Iftikhar's notes. I've read everything Neel Mukherjee has written. I am also Bengali, and usually we're supposed to be a little embarrassed about that, but not today. That is not today.
Neel Mukherjee is an Indian-born writer who lives in London. He studied at Jadavpur College before attending University College Oxford, where he graduated in 1992.
He completed his PhD at Pembroke College Cambridge and graduated with an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. He's published reviews in The Guardian, The New Statesman, The Spectator, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Wall Street Journal. He's published three novels. And I'm assuming he's going to talk a little bit about his three novels.
But if I can say, I had dinner with Caroline Levine, who's the chair of the English department. She said, you're one of those novel readers that really likes plot and narrative, which is not what English professors usually pay attention to. So I'm going to excuse-- I'm going to say I'm a historian, but a novel reader.
And I'll just say that the novels are marked in some ways as being recognizable to genres and stories that we have read, but in all of them, they have an experimentation with form, and with pushing us beyond the boundaries of the novel form, if I can say that.
The other thing I will say is that they are all in one way or another concerned with questions of equality, of humanity, of social justice. And all of the novels have at the heart of them, because you all know how much I love revolutionaries, a revolutionary, a revolutionary or revolutionary aspiration that has been embodied in one form or another.
So with that introduction, let me tell you a little bit about the three novels. The first novel, which was titled Past Continuous received the Vodafone Crossword Award, India's premier literary award for writing in English for the best novel in 2008. It was published in the US as A Life Apart.
Appropriately enough for a Tagore lecture, the novel has two parallel narratives. One of a young man living in London who becomes undocumented, becomes liberated by being undocumented, but then also partially dependent on things he can't control.
The story within a story is also the story of an English woman who is the teacher governess for Bimala in Tagore's well-known novel Ghare Baire, or as we know it in English, The Home and the World.
A Life Apart is a hard novel to characterize in terms of style. There's something very old fashioned about this story in that it's a coming of age story, and yet there is also something very radical in the nesting of the two stories together.
I'll just say that Pankaj Mishra observed that, "It was a one in one of the most intense and disturbing works of fiction I've read in many years." And Ali Smith called it, "incisive and poetic, sensual and intelligent, a book with great breadth, heart, and courage."
The second novel, The Lives of Others, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014, and won the Encore Award for best second novel. This is-- if you haven't read this novel, it really is like a must read. And Ayelet, who is a real English professor, is nodding. So this must be true.
So this is a novel that could be recognizable as a multigenerational story of a family that resides in a joint family household in Calcutta. There is something very deeply pleasurable if you're a Bengali reading this novel.
There are tensions between siblings, in-laws, generations, and life narratives nested within other life narratives. Again, at the heart of it is the story or the figure of a revolutionary who discovers through his work with Adivasi populations the limits of his Bourgeois privilege.
This is where I think the novel takes some interesting turns and really challenges us to think about how a multigenerational novel does and does not tell the story of the nation.
For those of us who have read Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, or Amit Chaudhuri's Freedom Song, there will be much that's familiar. But I should also say that the text has many moments which will provoke some middle class discomfort about the ways that characters behave in private while upholding a certain kind of public morality.
The third novel-- oh, two great quotes. AS Byatt said in The Guardian, "One of Mukherjee's great gifts is precisely his capacity to imagine the skills of others, extraordinary tact in knowing what we need to see and understand as we read."
Amitav Ghosh noted, "The Lives of Others is searing, savage, and deeply moving."
The third novel, which appeared last year, A State of Freedom, again, about lives, about the lives of five, at least five, distinct characters with linked life stories as they live across India.
In form, it could be characterized as five short stories or novellas. And yet, of course, it is a kind of epic tale of where Indians are today.
There is the very memorable figure of the vagrant and his dancing bear, and the woman who becomes a cook for a Bengali family in Mumbai.
Again, there is a revolutionary figure who is a ghost in the story. A double for the woman who left the area to find work in the big city and survives against the revolutionary who doesn't.
It shows how the violence of rural and urban life are not as palpably separated as we might imagine. And I won't give the story away, but it is a fascinating and really wonderful account that presses us to think about how the pleasure of reading about a certain kind of character could be juxtaposed with the discomfort against reading about a different kind of character.
Sonia Faleiro in The Financial Times has called it, "His best work yet. This bleak and entirely justified vision of modern India is what binds together Mukherjee's stories and indeed his oeuvre."
With that note, please join me in welcoming Neel Mukherjee.
NEEL MUKHERJEE: Thank you. Thank you very much. That was a very moving introduction for me.
This is a very moving moment for me as well, because I am so honored and so grateful to be here. And it's such a great pleasure particularly to give a named lecture named after the person who forms such a central figure of such force in the culture in the milieu that I grew up in, Bengal.
And to some he can be seen as a sort of life force, and to others-- and I think the two are not exclusive-- like a boulder beyond which you can't get past. So he tops a certain kind of flow.
I was thinking about misreadings like a few days ago. And I was thinking of how Elliot in his essays misread Milton not once, but twice. And I was thinking how he thought of Milton as the poet who broke the epic for the English language. No one wrote an epic after Milton, because he broke that form.
And I think of Tagore-- I mean, he has had that disruptive force in Bengali culture as well in the way that a lot of Bengali culture became sort of hypostatized after Tagore.
And all the poets and the novelists and short story writers who made their name afterwards have had to tussle with that figure of great force. And great works came out of it. If we believe in the Bloomian paradigm of the anxiety of influence, I think his influence created great anxiety, but then it also created great art.
So I was immersed in his book-- I was being asked just a few minutes ago what Tagore meant to me. I can't say that in a few words.
But I grew up as a Bengali child, so I was immersed in his poetry, his songs. I sang a snippet to the person who has founded this lecture, Uma Prabhu, to whom I am extremely grateful. And I'm grateful that this program was founded by him and his late wife. And I thank him for that.
And I sang a little snippet of a Tagore song in his ear, because he reminded me of a particular song.
Anyway, I grew up on his short stories, his essays, his poetry, his novels. He was an extraordinary short story writer. He was an extraordinary poet that what-- to use a Western paradigm, he had a sort of Schubertian facility for song and poetry. Maybe nowadays we should say that Schubert had a Tagorian facility for poetry and song.
He was not a very good novelist, I'm afraid. But they're compelling and interesting.
So this is just my way of saying I'm doubly honored to be invited here to give this lecture. Thank you very much.
It's a great pleasure and honor to see you all. And thank you for coming. Thank you for the beautiful introduction.
You've read all three of my books. That is very touching and impressive. And I love the point you made about form.
Yes, in a small way, I'm trying to push form away. I mean, if you think of someone like Beethoven, he broke every single form that he touched.
And there's a wonderful interview of Naipaul, who is a great authorial presence for me. He was interviewed by James Wood about 10 years ago. There's a wonderful interview in The New Yorker, where Naipaul asks James Wood, is it true that Anita Bruckner writes the same novel over and over again?
And James Wood says, yes, she does.
And Naipaul says, that's awful. That's awful.
He had this tick of repeating himself, repeating phrases. And I think Wood captures that wonderful in prose, very succinctly in prose, saying, that's awful. That's awful. If you're a writer, your project must always be to break the form. I think, yes, that's what we do.
I mean, I feel storytelling has had it today. We should retire it slowly now. And I think what we should do should change the form.
At the same time, form is embodied in certain things. And we can't do away the embodiment entirely.
Remember what Mark Antony says-- no, Brutus says about Caesar says, oh, would that be could get to a soul without killing his body. That's not possible.
So I mean, we talk about form. Form is an embodiment. And to break form, we have to break the body as it were. So storytelling takes us in interesting directions.
So my talk today will be divided into two sections. I've never given a lecture before. So I'm going to read from this latest novel. I'm going to say a little bit about this book, A State of Freedom, which came out in January of this year in the US, and it came out in the UK last year in July.
And it's my homage to Naipaul's 1971 masterpiece In a Free State. I mean, we still haven't paid much attention to what a formally revolutionary novel it was. It still is.
He takes-- he calls it a novel with two supporting narratives. The novel actually has five narratives. It's bookended by a prologue and an epilogue. And these five sections are all named. They have titles.
And the first-- the prologue and the epilogue, they are from the writer's, from Naipaul's own travel journals. And the three narratives in the middle are stories, are fictional, and the longest story, the eponymous story, In a Free State.
And none of these five narratives join, not a single one. And yet, he calls it a novel, which leads the reader to think, what is it that we are looking for in the realist novel? What provides coherence to form? And if you ask yourself the question, the simplest answer you can get is in a realist novel, coherence is provided by plot, by continuity of character, continuity of character development, story, narrative.
What if we were to take out all those things one by one could we still have something that could answer to the term novel? This is how I started writing A State of Freedom.
I'm one of those writers. There are lots of writers who tell you that their novels came from an image or a story or a character. Mine usually comes in a past life. I was trained as an English person. I trained to be a late 16th century scholar. God. That was a long time ago.
And certain habits of thought are very difficult to break or get out of. Something quite productive for me for having trained in early modern studies is that I come to the novel not via plot or story or character, but from certain groundings in theory that I had when I was a student. And I find this interesting.
I'm tired of reading novels that are just storytelling where people just decided to make things up and write a story. I always start with the theoretical question I see, like usually something about form, or usually something about content. I mean, I know we can't separate the two.
So I find storytelling without theoretical underpinning, it does not attract me so much.
So the question I started with this book is, can we take away all that we have come to depend on as the coherent principles of the realist novel and sabotage the realist novel from within while keeping a certain kind of realist concerns about the real world and certain questions about the real world, which Durba said, questions about social justice and equality, to keep those things running as well?
So this was my attempt at it. And the novel has five narratives featuring five different characters. The stories don't join. And yet I call it a novel. And I have a very strong answer in my head why this is a novel.
Critics have had a more difficult time with it. OK.
I'm going to read from the longest middle section. It features a man called Lakshman who leaves his home in a small town in the hills of northern India. And he has come upon a bear cub. And he trains the bear cub to dance.
Some of the worst moments in my life was when I did the research for how a bear cub is actually trained to dance. It dances out of pain, actually. I'm just going to summarize it and quickly leave it there.
And he goes around the streets of small town India making the bear dance and getting money for it.
And yes, it's a practice that was banned in India in 1979. I think actually maybe much earlier than that. But in India, a law is something, and it's enforcement or practice is quite another.
So here is Lakshman and his bear is called Raju. And I'm going to read about 10 pages from it. And then I'm going to have a little sip of water. And then I'm going to read my lecture.
The town straggles into an isolated tea shop or two, a tire shop, and the frame of a house being constructed with iron rods sticking out of the foundation pillars, like tall, thin reeds, and then gives out onto an empty road bordered by vegetation.
A mile further on Lakshman comes across a small temple. Its outside walls are painted blue. There is a red pennant on the conical roof and garlands of drying marigolds festooned across the small grilled metal gate.
Lakshman ties Raju to a tree, removes his own chappals, and walks into the tiny courtyard in front of the gate. He expects to find an idol of Shiva inside, but it's Hanuman instead, a mace in his left hand, and a miniature mountain in his right, which is lifted up as if he's offering the mountain as a sweet to a particularly honored guest.
His face and body are painted blue too. Lakshman brings out the coconut, boughs his head, more in concentration than devotion, for he has only one goal at what he's about to do. Then with a force disproportionate to breaking the coconut in his hand, he brings it down onto the courtyard with something akin to fury, his teeth clenched.
The coconut shatters and the fragments are dispersed wildly. There is a dark spray along the concrete where the liquid has exploded.
Lakshman collects the coconut shards, reaches his hand through the metal grille, and leaves the fruit on the floor of the sanctum. The prayer he says inwardly reminds the god that the offering is for the surprise gift of food, the blessing that had made his escape so easy that he won't forget his part of the bargain, and will remember the god with gratitude every time he looks after his servant.
The heat is beginning to bare its teeth, and by the time he and Raju have walked another mile, Lakshman, wet from head to toe, feels he is going to faint. Raju has the self-possession that only an animal can have.
They cleave to the shaded areas, following the movement of the sun until that is no longer feasible. At its zenith, the sun has full ruthless command over everything under it; nowhere to hide. There is nothing to be done, except find some cover and while away the time until sunset, at which point they can begin walking again, but he cannot think that far ahead without drinking some water.
An image flashes through his head. The water tank in Golu's temple back in his village shaded partially by a neeli-gulmohar tree with its small grain-shaped leaves and, sometimes, the blue flowers strewn on its calm, green surface. After an hour of searching, when they reach what he thinks could be a stream, he discovers only a curving line of boulders and rocks, with a rare patch of yellow-green silt where the water has evaporated more recently.
Raju pulls him along, sniffing the rocky ground and, uncharacteristically, pulls at the chain around his neck, as if he wants to break free or lead Lakshman somewhere. Stumbling over stones, he follows Raju to a tiny puddle of water hiding in the dark opening under the point where two big boulders join their rotund stomachs.
Before Lakshman can negotiate his footing on the stones and get down to it, Raju, flexing the chain to its tautest, manages to perch on one of the fat boulders, push his snout down into the opening, his body at a mad angle, and lap up the water.
Lakshman can hear the loud slurping followed shortly by the habitual grunting sounds. He pulls Raju away and peers into the crack. All the water is gone.
He shuts his eyes tight-- he can see popping colors-- and opens them again; no, no water. Raju's enormous pink tongue is licking the mouth that houses it. He looks unperturbed, unreadable.
The world around Lakshman turns dark. Before he can think of a suitable punishment for the ungrateful animal, he detaches the nose rope from the collar and gives it a furious tug. Raju squeals and leaps over the boulder.
At that moment the punishment presents itself to Lakshman's conscious mind. He keeps pulling the rope without letting Raju descend onto more level ground, effectively keeping him hopping precariously from one rock to another, or sometimes jogging on one large boulder, the pain preventing him from finding an even surface on which he can at least balance while being kept dancing.
Lakshman lets out a crazed laugh. See, haramzada, what I can do to you? How does this feel, eh? How does it feel?
With each word, the pulling on the road becomes harder, more manic. The sounds now emerging from Raju change to an infernal combination of shrieking and yowling, the switch between the two random.
Lakshman feels fear and relaxes his hold on the rope. Will Raju now leap at his throat? Will he charge and attack him with his nails? Lakshman drops the rope to pick up the stick to protect himself in that eventuality, forgetting that Raju is temporarily untied and can easily run away, particularly after what has just been inflicted on him.
But Raju doesn't escape. He sits on a rock, emitting that frightening shriek, which peters out gradually. Lakshman waits at a safe distance, stick held ready in his hand. He swings between fear at a potential attack and anxiety at the possibility of Raju's escape. Raju, his shrieking now over, looks down at the ground, as if he's searching for something he has lost.
He clambers down and presses his snout between the two round boulders to peer at the spot where the tiny puddle had been, but there is no comfort to be had from there any longer.
The chain is now stretched out slackly on the stones. There is a reasonable length between its end and Raju's neck. With thudding heart, Lakshman catches hold of it, but doesn't dare pull. He will reattach the nose-rope to the collar later, when he feels safe.
Two weeks pass. They perform at a crossroads. Lakshman is now desperate; they've eaten once in the last two days. Traffic is desultory; a truck every 20 minutes, a few cars. From the open windows of a couple of them empty packets of crisps and gutka are thrown out.
Lakshman runs to the spots where these land, hoping to salvage something, praying that the people in the cars made a mistake, or were getting rid of unwanted food.
Raju licks the shiny salty-oily innards of an empty packet of Kurkure. Not a single vehicle stops. No one gets out to watch a bear and his owner sitting at the roadside, the man shaking his damru, the bear trying out a few steps.
After several hours of this, the heat becomes too unbearable for this half-hearted soliciting to continue. When it's dark, Lakshman makes his way with Raju to the railway tracks.
The heat is hardly any lower at night when the baked earth radiates it back in its weak revenge on the sun.
There was a far higher density of people and their settlements along the tracks. They wouldn't starve around here or die of thirst. But he works out quickly that these thin strings of slums, and sometimes even small villages, will not provide them with sustenance for more than a day or night. Besides, there were too few people to make more than one bear-dance worthwhile, or even one. They do not have anything to spare for roadside entertainment.
Lakshman and Raju live off bread and tea, dal and rice, bananas, the occasional samosa or fried snack, pakoras, sweets, biscuits, fritters.
How little one can get used to, he thinks, not for the first time, coveting the food of others, all the while trying not to think of food.
At a depleted reservoir under a railway bridge, he strips off and washes himself and his clothes. He spreads out the wet clothes on scrub bushes; they're dry in minutes.
He sees Raju, tied to a tree whose trunk casts a shadow as thin as a piece of loose thread, digging up the ground in the four-feet radius allowed him and apparently eating the dry dust and earth.
When Lakshman reaches him, he notices, but only after close inspection, that Raju has discovered a long line of black and has eaten all that have been within his reach. He has dug up the earth around him hoping to discover a network of nests.
Lakshman untethers him and leads him along to where he can spy more ants. They seem to be more readily visible to the animal's eyed to the human's
The glare of the burning soil doesn't make things easier. In a moment of both optical blindness and indulgence, he lets Raju lead him in a zigzag, spiral, circular dance, chasing tiny, scattering black insects, all the which the bear appears to be mopping up with the pink extended cloth of his tongue and devouring with sureness and ease.
The grunts and unnameable range of sounds coming out of him seem to Lakshman to belong to the same arsenal out of which his pain is expressed. Would Lakshman, if he had his eyes shut, ever be able to distinguish between the two kinds? The unexpected gift is exhausted all too soon. He thinks Raju looks mournful.
Chaley, he asks, we have a long way to go. He wants to stroke the bear's head but holds back.
Scourged by the hot winds, they can barely precede. The very air has become an invisible fire. Lakshman has salvaged empty, discarded bottles of Bisleri along the way. He fills up whenever he gets a chance, often from tea-stalls and roadside eateries. At least water is one thing he doesn't have to pay for. Besides, the novelty value for bear prises open some people enough to offer food.
But a substantial amount of their erratic and meager supply of food comes from foraging. It occurs to Lakshman that Raju is much the best equipped to do this and it may be in his, Lakshman's, interests even to let the bear free and follow where the animal's nose and instincts lead him, but that, of course, he cannot do.
They find watermelons lying among their decaying leaves like dark green boulders in a field. Lakshman waits until it is pitch dark, then gorges himself on four of them, breaking them open with the side of his hand.
He gets the runs through the night and soils his trousers. He exhausts his supply of water cleaning himself, but there is no way he can wash his pajamas until he comes to another pond or reservoir.
Disgust fills him, and shame, until he feels he can taste them as the rebellious ball of phlegm at the back of his throat, impatient to come out.
Like a helpless child, he surrenders to tears, tears of self-pity and anger. How did he get here, squatting yet again to let another brief hot, squirt come out of his sore sphincter, when he had a home, more to eat than he has now, his wife to look after him, children to carry on his line and take care of him in his old age?
The density of slums increases near the level-crossings and stations are bigger towns. It feels as if the greedy, unruly sprawl is restless in its desire to subsume the iron tracks within it.
Pigs, dogs, snotty children with matted hair, rutted earth that will turn to large stretches of puddle-pocked fields, sewage, open drains, narrow lanes with rickety houses closely huddled along them like too many bad, crooked teeth in a mouth, signage everywhere, on walls, on makeshift boards, on the front of houses and shops, signage in Hindi, which he can read, but often in languages he doesn't know but can tell are Urdu and English. And garbage, garbage everywhere, inseparable from the humans and animals and buildings and shops, each seemingly flowing into the other, with no lines to mark the boundaries. In the narrow roads and lanes, the thickness of traffic-- rickshaws, cars, motorbikes, buses, lorries, bicycles, scooters-- stuns Lakshman.
How is he ever going to penetrate to the center of these towns and make Raju dance? He can barely cross the road.
An odd thing happens. So far on their journey, Lakshman has followed Raju, now this reverses itself; Raju seems to want to hide behind Lakshman, making it awkward for him to hold on to the chain with his hand behind him at an angle to his shoulder. And-- and-- and who knows, what if the animal, in a moment of wildness, attacks him from behind?
But the sheer numbers mean that they attract attention, which, Lakshman is beginning to understand, he can attempt to harness. Set inwards a little distance from the railway-edge of the town, Lakshman and Raju put on their show under a tree near the crossing of three roads, in the narrow margin between an open drain and the stream of traffic, the band where fruit-sellers and snack-merchants sit during the day.
A sizable crowd gathers around them, impeding the passage of traffic. Encouraged by the number of people, Lakshman tries to up his game. He sings snatches of Hindi film song which are currently all the rage and which he has heard blaring out of loudspeakers everywhere along the way. He doesn't know the lyrics, only the refrain of the catchphrase, but that seems to be enough, coupled, crucially, with Raju's antic movements, to bring some entertainment to the gathering.
Halfway through the act, Lakshman feels an odd sense of detachment still over him after he inadvertently notices Raju's eyes, blinking, unfocused, looking at nothing, or seeming to be looking at something beyond what is in front of and around him. It is as if he is not present.
Lakshman begins to feel that he too is looking at himself in a different way, from a distance. A man playing a damru, mounting repetitive words of command or cajoling, singing snatches of popular songs with a funny black and gray animal circling him on its hind legs, sometimes shaking itself rhythmically, sometimes bringing up its front paws to its face as if in another state.
In this state of flotation, Lakshman feels that he has done this before many times, this roadside performance, including this very one in this very place at this very hour, so much so that he can predict the next few seconds of the action. All his life is becoming the repetition of the same few actions unfolding in slightly different destinations.
A corpse is borne past them on a pallet with its rationing of mourners. [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]
Lakshman, pulled out of his reverie, instantly notes that the dead body passed him on his left side, and ill omen. His heart goes out of the performance. He tries to wind it down.
But a child, accompanied by her father, wants to ride Raju. Lakshman, pushing down his anxiety, asks for an upfront payment before he assents.
The man gives him 10 rupees. Scarcely believing his luck, he lets go of the rope pulling Raju. The bear sits down immediately. Lakshman attaches the rope to the collar.
In a sign of how much he has been trained, Raju goes on all fours, thinking that it is time to go. The girl is seated on him gingerly, the father's hands on her, steadying her, unwilling to let go should anything untoward happen.
Lakshman's heart is a mad drum only he can hear. The trick will be to keep Raju in this position. Will he be able to understand the change in signals? Leash and damru, not nose-rope and damru.
The corpse bearers. He should not be attempting this on a day a corpse has passed on his left. The girl's legs come down to the sides of Raju by only a few inches. She holds them out. She's not relaxed, and clearly having second thoughts.
The father keeps up a comforting patter. Lakshman adds his voice to it, but more to keep Raju comfortable and steady.
Instead of playing the damru, he lets Raju see that he's standing up, and tugs gently at the collar band, hoping, praying, willing that Raju is going to start walking slowly, thinking that they are moving on from here. And Raju does exactly. He starts walking, the girl balanced on his back, the father at her side, reaching out to keep his hand on his daughter, and Lakshman following no more than 3 feet behind, chain in hand crooning, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]. Halfway through Raju's navigation of the circle, the crowd erupts into applause.
I'm going to stop there.
This is going to be a short lecture. I've called it "The Mirror and the Windowpane, Two Paths for the Novel." And it picks up some of the things that Durba mentioned in her introduction.
And I mean, looking at the first page, I just realized that the disease of intellect is still with me. And I haven't managed to just like cleanse it out of my system. There's [INAUDIBLE] mentioned here. So he matters a great deal to me. I think his essays on Mann have been such a formative influence on me.
So I think the writing of The Lives of Others, which compared the very great with the very small. The Lives of Others was a conversation with Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks. So I think without looking at this Marxist lens on the novel, I don't think I would ever have been able to write that book myself.
Who needs fiction? In the words of WH Auden, "Poetry makes nothing happen." When was the last time a novel changed the world? And changing the world perhaps lies at the heart of everyone in the arts and sciences. I mean, in any case, what else would you want to do in the world but change it?
Let me quote Marx. "Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point is to change it."
It is difficult to make a case for the need of the novel unless it be a very fundamental need for narrative in humans. We understand the world through narrative, but many people, such as mathematicians or astrophysicists, would justifiably disagree with this.
A more cogent case can be put together for what the novel needs, or what is necessary for the novel form. But this would have as many answers as there are novelists in the world. Far better to talk about if and how, need and necessity feature in the novel. In other words, need and necessity are subjects.
It has long been established the rise of the novel was simultaneous with the rise of the bourgeoisie and early capitalist individualism. In fact, the novel can be seen as nascent capitalism's very own literary genre.
I won't rehash the well-known arguments here. Suffice it to mention a few of the writers have written searchingly about the subject. Ian Ward, of course. Then of course there's Franco Moretti. Peter Gay. There's Fredric Jameson. There's [INAUDIBLE], and Thomas Mann.
Think of Jane Austen cataloging down to the last penny what each of her men and women are worth, and what the economic basis of their marriage and alliances will be. Remind yourself of the centrality of money in Dickens and Balzac. Think of the finances of Charles Bovary's parents and Emma's father. Think of how much we know about Dorothea Lydgate, Will Ladislaw, and Casaubon's economic circumstances. Everything, really.
Then money slowly disappeared from the novel. As capitalism marched on, capital began to be erased from fiction. The modernist moment in European fiction was a turn towards the interior, towards the mechanics and elasticities of form and language.
In any creative works, triangulation between the author, the text, and the world, modernism emphasized the text. What happened after that is a little bit unclear to me. And I'm setting out these ideas, hypotheses, as a way of not only thinking aloud, but also as a kind of proposition to discuss further.
What we have in our late capitalist times and apparently vast spectrum of fiction, historical, realist, mysteries, thrillers, fantasy, science fiction, novels about love, marriage, divorce, heartbreak, novels about migration and immigration, technology, the internet, virtual reality, things, non-spaces, such as airports and waiting rooms, novels about that seemingly endlessly fascinating thing, the self.
But you'd have to look very hard to find, especially in the [INAUDIBLE] American world, fiction that transparently acknowledges that increasingly and dizzyingly complex triangulation of labor, capital, and product that lies at the foundation of all human lives.
More importantly, alongside the disappearance of economics, there is also not the disappearance of work labor. Why has the novel in English so inexorably converged on chitchat about relationships and navel gazing?
All genres perform a social function. This is one of the big, and I think, and lasting contributions of Marx's criticism to literary studies.
For example, early children's books perform the task of instilling the civilizing process in children. The pastoral was caught up in the erasure of labor from agrarian and pastoral work for the pleasure of the reading land-owning classes.
This is my early modern training coming back to haunt me. There is a critical-- Louis Adrian Montrose, I think, is who wrote very beautifully-- I mean, his work, and of course, building on Raymond Williams's work, he wrote some beautiful articles on Edmund Spenser, on whom I worked in a past life, about Spencer's use of the pastoral farm. And he looks at the politics of the pastoral farm. And he points out how the pastoralist is such a political form, actually, and has been from the very inception, from theocracies on.
And Spencer was very self-conscious about the way the pastoral smuggles in a certain kind of politics.
Anyway, the novel appeared at a time of the rise of the leisured educated middle classes, and was shaped by, as well as shaping, the ideology and world view of that class.
But that class has disappeared, or at least morphed into something else. An increasing democratization of the Western world has meant that the novel in the West is no longer read exclusively by the people of the originary class.
The world has changed. The world has changed. The readership of the depicted world has changed too. Therefore the form too has changed.
The novel is no longer the novel of Balzac, or George Eliot, or Wolfe, or Mann. Yet history, especially literary history, the history of a form is a tenacious thing, not so easily shaken off or erased.
So for example, we understand Wolfe because we have read George Eliot, and we understand AS Byatt because we have read Wolfe, and therefore George Eliot.
It is not as synergistic as it appears. I can explain this later on.
What social function does the anglophone novel encode? I'm not being entirely facetious when I say that it would seem, one, helping us understand heartbreak, betrayal, infidelity, divorce. In other words, the endless complications of relationships, a theme not about to go out of business soon. And two, helping us understand terrorism.
On that first category, a brief look at the books currently talked about-- I'm talking about the relationship, divorce, complications of desire category-- a brief look at the books currently talked about, books that are buzzy, books on prize shortlists or those that win prizes, books advanced by newspapers that consider themselves opinion makers should be evidence enough. And you can tell I'm not naming names. I have enough enemies I feel.
As for the latter, the terrorism novel, this is what I call the Washington foreign policy novel. The slew of books that are all suddenly about Islamic radicalization and the terrible depredations it has wreaked upon the first world. It is as if the foreign office of the USA has post-9/11 brought into being a new subgenre of the novel. Think of the fashion for Pakistani English writing, which was a passing fad, then the fashion for Arab writers, which was also a passing fad, simply because these countries and regions were in the news. Never mind the fact that Pakistani and pan-Arabic writing has flourished, and continues to do so without its fashionable status in the anglophone world.
You know, I'm going to stop ranting.
But seriously, at a time when the world is only just waking up to the fact that the late strains of capitalism have possibly not created the best of all possible worlds, where are the novel forms awakening to this? There are the few odd books written about the great financial crashes and the credit crunch and the banking crises. Have you noticed that is an industry defined, it seems, by regular as clockwork crises points?
When will the time be we thought of banking as something consistently good? It has all these convulsive moments.
But I'm trying to get at something more fundamental than the symptomatic or convulsive expression. I'm trying to get some understanding of how economic order shapes both our inner and outer lives in the ways that Mann distilled the ethos of mercantile capitalism in the Buddenbrooks family.
I'm trying to reach towards the way the personal is always inevitably, inexorably the political, in the ways that the great forces of history leave their imprint on individual lives.
Read Jenny Erpenbeck to understand how brilliantly and profoundly this can be done. She is a German writer. She's the most brilliant writer of my generation.
Which is an intensely private film in a way if you know what the film is about. The film is about a woman who loses her husband and her child in a car accident in the very beginning. And she wakes up to find out that both the child and the husband are dead. And she has to learn to live again.
And Ken Loach comes to introduce the film and says, this is a woman who has lost everything, and has to learn how to live again in the world. If that is not a politics, I don't know what is.
AUDIENCE: Other than writing a novel, is there any need to be political?
NEEL MUKHERJEE: Yes, of course.
AUDIENCE: For example, political or social. [INAUDIBLE] about Oliver Twist, about a boy going into an orphanage. And then that also affects a government who actually, I guess, is [INAUDIBLE], mistreating their people, totally inside of that.
NEEL MUKHERJEE: Particular intensely aware of the social context which gave rise to Victorian orphanages like that.
AUDIENCE: So if you go look at Les Miserables--
NEEL MUKHERJEE: Yeah, yeah.
AUDIENCE: About poor people in France.
NEEL MUKHERJEE: Yeah.
AUDIENCE: And that had an effect on the French Revolution.
NEEL MUKHERJEE: Yes. Well, I put in my-- yeah, OK.
But Hugo was intense, as I said, like Dickens after him. Hugo was very aware of what it is. He was not creating a story that did not have any moorings onto the real world. It was very much a sort of reflection of the real world and a depiction of it.
AUDIENCE: Tagore's stories, they are stories about the [INAUDIBLE]. A deaf mute girl. I did see reality. They went out, riding the bus to work. I saw a mother, her son neatly dressed up and so on. And I saw this a couple of times. And then he asked his mother what's happening.
She said, bad news. So I've seen the [INAUDIBLE]. I've seen this, Tagore's stories be [INAUDIBLE] taking effect in real life.
NEEL MUKHERJEE: Well, yes. I mean, I don't know how many clear [INAUDIBLE] to do here. This is a wonderful work.
AUDIENCE: A passage [INAUDIBLE], running away from home.
And then also I've seen it in real life. [INAUDIBLE].
NEEL MUKHERJEE: Yes.
AUDIENCE: But I've seen the real.
NEEL MUKHERJEE: Yeah, the intention of [INAUDIBLE].
DURBA GHOSH: So can I ask you a question about the title, which I thought was so wonderful, "The Mirror and the Windowpane," right?
NEEL MUKHERJEE: Yes. Well, yeah, I was trying to say that writers, like readers, are divided into two categories. Writers were like looking at themselves in the mirror, and it's a reflection of themselves. And readers, who when they read the work, they also think they find their own lives in it. The work becomes a kind of mirror.
I belong to the latter camp, which is the windowpane camp. It's a view of the outside. And the invitation to the reader is to look away from their lives into a bigger world outside. So I thought that could be a useful classificatory lens to bear on how like particularly at this moment of world fiction, which like everyone is chattering about at the moment. And I think it's a painful thing.
But it's a fashion. It'll go.
DURBA GHOSH: I wanted to ask your novels in particularly. What's so striking is that in all of your novels, you have characters that are very, very different from you, right? And in the latter two, there is this tribal population in India that you have really brought attention to in the novel. I think there's other people who are doing similar kinds of things, I think. What brought you to that?
NEEL MUKHERJEE: I am interested in other lives. And someone asked me, why does your second steal the title of a German film?
I said, well, it wasn't stolen from a German film. It came while I was rereading this great novel, actually-- Light Years by James Salter. And this line-- I was reading it to teach in a class. And this line leaped out at me. How do we imagine our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?
And I instantly had my novel. I had the whole metaphorical ruling of my novel, I feel. And it's not a bad definition.
So what is a novel? A novel is a work about the lives of others. And I feel that moral imperative about imagining other lives, it's something that realist fiction does so well. And I do think we should throw out some of the dirty bathwater of the realist novel. But we are in danger of throwing out the baby with it as well, I feel.
No, so I feel-- I mean, think of the great English novelists. I mean, I'd rank her alongside people like Beckett and Naipaul and Patrick White. Her name is Penelope Fitzgerald.
She is somewhat of like a secret, I feel, still. And I feel that she should be much more widely read. And she started writing at the age of 60.
And first three or four books that she wrote, she wrote out of her life. And then her last four novels, it's like the four last-- they're as great as Richard Strauss's four last songs or something like that.
They're all very slim, 150 pages or something, 170 pages. They were all written away from a life, just like the pre-revolutionary Russia, post-war Italy, early 20th century Cambridge, UK, and 18th century Germany, which is her last novel The Blue Flower. They're astonishing pieces of work. They're absolutely-- I cannot recommend those books to you strongly enough. They will change your world. And I do not say this lightly.
They are like nothing in-- they're sui generis. Every critic who has come to them have wondered-- every critic has wondered, how does she do it?
So I find her a good-- she sits a lot inside my head. I find the fact that these were the days before anxiety about authenticity afflicted us. She was writing in such a slipstream that anxiety was not brought to bear upon her novels.
Now I feel the anxiety the novelist feels is that, and the reader feels that this is not out of her or his life. So why should we believe it? What is authentic about this?
The idea of authenticity in a form-- I main, form itself is something stylized and artificial. The idea of authenticity as something belonging to the autobiographical, biographical domain, I find very deeply problematic.
DURBA GHOSH: I think you had your hand up a minute ago.
AUDIENCE: Are you advocating a return to the styles of the authors that Uma mentioned, Dickens and so on.
NEEL MUKHERJEE: Oh, I can't abide Dickens, actually. I can't-- no, no, no. No, god, no.
AUDIENCE: No, I find more about their themes.
NEEL MUKHERJEE: Well, I mean, it's not possible to go back to something.
AUDIENCE: No, but I mean--
NEEL MUKHERJEE: You create. You create copies in that. If you go back, you create copies.
It is possible for-- and as I said, forms move in a different way. And it is not-- like it's not possible to write like Beckett. You'd be sub Beckett.
So it's possible to use someone and look at the map and not to want to go back somewhere in the map exactly, but to outline a new point on the map, knowing fully well what the line from there to here is.
AUDIENCE: Thank you. It was a very interesting talk.
I want to also press again on the metaphor of the mirror and the windowpane. I want to add-- I don't know if you know the piece, the thing about the stained glass window, right? So the mirror and the windowpane deal with content. Am I writing about myself? Am I writing through the mirror?
But what [INAUDIBLE] said adds to this. It's saying, we look at-- we need to look at the windowpane itself, which is the form, right? That's how we present this.
And so thinking about that and the politics of the stained glass window of how we read, and how you as a writer creates a form that forces me as a reader to read in a certain way, right? I mean, there's that as well.
Because the Ken Loach quotation that you just gave is the politics of how we read things, not necessarily the politics of the content.
NEEL MUKHERJEE: Absolutely. So this could keep us here forever. But I'm going to try and give some kind of provisional answers to you. So this is what modernism and the postmodernism moment clearly was. Looking at the medium, in which either the reflection is, or the view outside is the glass, which is either reflecting one or a view offering one, if you will.
And if you think of that, I was talking about the triangulation. And any literary work, the triangulation is between reader, work, and text. And the glass is the work, not necessarily the form. Yes, of course, the form. But the language, of course.
And I think a large part of the experimentation in the literary novel or any literary form has been on making the glass differentially opaque or transparent. And I think all kinds of-- if you look at the French [SPEAKING FRENCH] or a more daring and playful experimental work like, BS Johnson, where the novels are cut up, and there's a hole through the middle and stuff. This is all experimenting with the windowpane or the looking glass, I think.
It's the experiment of-- I am assuming for the purposes of building a certain model that the glass is not relevant. Well, of course, it is. Of course, it is very relevant.
It would take us into a slightly different domain, I think, to add the glass to it and talk about how linguistic and formal experimentations are not just such a clear-- I am-- as I said, for hypothetical purposes, I'm assuming that what you see in the glass is a straightforward reflection, or what you see outside is just like a clear view, as if it's a clear pane of glass. Of course, in practice it's not.
That intervening material distorts and adds its own meaning, or not just distorts. It is its own meaning in some ways.
I've had to leave that out for the purposes of this modeling. But I take your point entirely. What if the windowpane or the looking glass is everything? That has been the chief concern or modernist and postmodernist literature.
NEEL MUKHERJEE: Tell me a realist.
DURBA GHOSH: I think just one more question.
NEEL MUKHERJEE: Yes, yes, one more question.
DURBA GHOSH: And then the reception.
AUDIENCE: It's related, I think, to [INAUDIBLE] question, but it was interesting to me that you diagnosed this moment as the moment of autofiction, because it's also curiously the moment of world literature. And I think that one thing that this window proposition risks is precisely this proposition of windows on the world, which traffics in a kind of tourism, and looking on these windows with a kind of expectation of native informancy, of the capital O Other, and not maybe these others that you're talking about.
And so I'm just wondering if you could sort of [INAUDIBLE].
NEEL MUKHERJEE: I am worried. I am worried about that too. It worries me a lot that often the interest in non-Western literature is for a kind of, oh, we're eating Vietnamese this week. And then we move on. Oh, Afghani is the flavor of the month now.
I am deeply disturbed by it, especially straddling both worlds, where I come from one world, but I write in the language of another. And I live in the West. And I mean, I don't know how to address it. I mean, there are no solutions to this.
I'm told repeatedly that across the board, people say that, publishers, agents, reviewers, writers, they all say, oh, Americans like only reading about Americans. And here are the market statistics for this, actually.
It's true, but no one seems to be that invested apart from within academia in shaking this market up. They're all incredibly complacent about it. Oh, yeah, of course, no one is interested in fiction from other places. Except the outlier that makes it into a bestseller, like Khaled Hosseini.
I don't know. I can't answer your question about this actually.
What does it take to make a market, particular market in something so complicated as taste to change? So yeah, thank you. We can talk about this later. Thank you very much.
DURBA GHOSH: Let's have a round of applause.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact email@example.com if you have any questions about this request.
The world of writers divides into two kinds: those who write about themselves, and those who write about others. What is it that gives fiction truth? Is authenticity the right value to ask of fiction? How is authenticity, in a genre founded on making things up, measured? Neel Mukherjee is an India-born writer who lives in London. He delivered the 2018 Tagore Lecture in Modern Indian Literature Sep. 28 at the Kahin Center. The series is hosted by the South Asia Program.