The Intellectual Myth of MJ Akbar

So the government has saved M.J.Akbar. For now. One of the reasons Akbar got away with his tantrums, arrogance and campaigns was because he had an almost mythical reputation as an editor. But how justified is it?
Precious little.
Perhaps this article would earn me Akbar’s undying hostility and the ire of his employers. But the fact is that he was no great shakes as an editor. Akbar was a reporter and a very good one. He was versatile, tough and moved fast. He came in at a time when editors like Frank Moraes, Nihal Singh, Mulgaonkar et al were opinion leaders who gave intellectual stewardship to their papers. They were 9-5 bosses with generous lunch time breaks and were friendly with the powers-that-be but were never story breakers.
Readers were ready for deep throat news. ABP owner Aveek Sarkar sensed that it was time for a pushy weekly news magazine. He started Sunday and put Akbar in charge. Reporters like Akbar became editors because owners felt that they were changing the rules of the game and creating new readership. Any media product likes to catch readers in their late teens and twenties so they can stay with the paper/magazine for the next 3 decades or so. Akbar was that USP.
Then he got greedy. He always had an inflated sense of destiny. He became a Rajiv Gandhi acolyte and a Congress politician. His paper even cooked up the St Kitts story to discredit Rajiv’s enemies. When Rajiv died, Akbar went into the wilderness. None of his subsequent projects took off. He was fired from Asian Age humilatingly.
All that remained was the residue of a distant myth. Examining his writing now is perusing outdated text. Clumsy English, mixed metaphors and pompous prose made the books and columns read self indulgent and self congratulatory. Compared with modern historians like Albinia and Dalrymple, his books resembled shabby textbooks thick with hyperbole.
I was alarmed to learn that Akbar had no idea about what was news. When he was brought to edit India Today in 2010 his first cover story idea was Goa as a den of vice. It was a terrible yawn. A  20 year old story. But he had no idea that it was. He immediately put boots on the ground. One of the reporters even fabricated stuff. Others had no fresh information. And the charade went on. Akbar lacked visual sense. The IT covers were all so eighties. He had no editorial sense either; one day he argued that a person’s net worth and declared worth was the same. He wanted a hit job on his perceived enemies and got it.
Compared to other reporter editors like Prabhu Chawla and Shekhar Gupta, Akbar was at best a chief sub-cum-reporter. And an amateur author who paraded opinion in his small town English as analysis. Yes, he could structure a story and trim the flab but then that’s what all good sub editors do. Editors know what’s going on, they have vision and innovation. MJ has none of these; in big doses anyway. As he was fond of calling himself the only Muslim editor, he clearly knew clever positioning. He fancied himself as the Nehru of modern Indian thought but he was at best a Jinnah of Journalism.
Akbar was sacked from both Asian Age and India Today because he was simply not good enough and lacked modern journalistic instincts and methods; but his past reputation was good PR. He called himself the father of magazine journalism at India Today, and Aroon Purie being Aroon Purie must’ve just smiled to himself.
Only the government in its wisdom can say why MJ Akbar is an asset. For journalism he was no big loss.

Too Many Characters Spoil a Conspiracy

Plots are meant for conspirators and there is no greater conspiracy than writing. The writer of course is the main caballer, since the dice is unfairly loaded in his favor. The temptation to play God is never so stronger.

Yet writing takes as much discipline as making a pipe bomb. Once the broad plot is in place, the hard work begins. How many words? How many characters? How to find a common thread that makes every actor relevant to the big picture in every situation? It is usually a memory that sparks the desire to write a story; or it could be a stray phrase or colour. Writing is the art of planning an alternate future with the stolen riches of the past.

There are two types of writers. Those who plan meticulously and the others who go with the flow.

Last week at Odisha LitFest I was chatting with Devapriya Roy, whose The Heat and Dust project I’m currently reading and enjoying and Ira Nukhoty, whose Daughters of the Sun I’ve just read and enjoyed. Devapriya and I are on the same page; we like to see what the character does scene by scene, how he or she interacts with others and record, interpret or are simply delighted by the scenarios that follow. Ira being a historian does not have that luxury. Perhaps she will lose herself to the joy of sailing in the wind of narrative one day with a rush of words flowing through her (rather short but smart) hair when she tries her hand at fiction (which she will do soon because the ghosts of the characters she has exorcised on to her pages in such lucid detail will haunt her with the seduction of imagination). And there are writers like Vikram Seth whose genius for detail, patience to get the exact word and sentence and linkage right always leaves me gasping in admiration.

For a good story that will keep readers rapt avoid having too many prominent characters. Stick to six and give four of them varying degrees of importance. And stuff the rest of the book with the accouterments of the situations they get into. You’ll be amazed at what you come up with.

The reason is simple. You.

You already know what each important character is going to be like, what he or she is capable of, what they feel. Just allow them to react to the atmosphere and watch the fun.

I have found that my stories write themselves. I discover they produce characters I had never dreamt about before or dialogues and images that surprise me with their vividness.

Writing is an adventure. All conspiracies are adventures.

The Science of Thriting

The art of writing requires discipline of thought. However, do not be a captive of thought. Instead learn to control it. Writing is an art. Its also a science. Like science, it has formulae. Try to go beyond the formula you’ve discovered. This is how physics became quantum physics because an anomaly about energy and matter had to be reconciled. Its the same with thought and circumstance. Thoughts lead to action. Action to circumstance. Circumstance to conclusion blah blah blah.

So, start thinking. By thought I mean singular. Every writer, especially while starting out, has a lot of thoughts. Is oppressed by them. Like a harvest of apples. Or strawberries. There will be a few rotten ones. Some would be unripe and unfit for consumption. Some might have a blemish or two. Separating the best out of the rest is the art of writing. And having identified the lead thought, look for corollaries. The mind is more disciplined that you think unless you are on mind-altering substances. Even there, some like Coleridge, manage to pill it off.

Maybe the process will start with a single image. An image is always identified with a thought. For example, a man in a burning house. Then the next step: the thought becomes a circumstance. Hey, where is the house? Why is the man burning? How did the thought cross your mind? Is it something you saw in a movie? Or read in a book that strongly influenced you? Or stood out in a raconteur’s narrative? Leave the mind to dwell on it. Let it grow. It will crystallise. Explore its expansion. It will be like new skin growing around a wound. Yes, every idea is a wound. It thrusts itself into your brain. You develop it by only healing it. The skin that grows around it is the body that was there but you didn’t see. Like a voyeur you start examining the body.

So, Think. How many corollaries have you identified that relates to the original thought?
Thoughts are the matter of ideas. All writing starts with an idea.

There is a story waiting to be told in all of us, goes the adage. True. But most of us are voiceless. Or too noisy. We do not have a proper conversation with ourselves. Perhaps this is because we are afraid of where it might lead. My suggestion is, follow it. Then one stream of conversation will isolate itself from the rest. That is the current leading you to the idea waiting to be reaped. The subconscious is the writer’s real granary.

Carry I around. Don’t try too hard. Allow it to develop. Allow it to breathe the world. See the sighs. Let it eavesdrop on conversations. Remember it’s a part of you like a parasite using your mind as the host. Watch it until its time to shake it loose. Or kill it, but that’s another story we will come to another time.

This is not stream of consciousness writing I’m talking about. You always wanted to be a writer. Are you willing to start with the burning man? Maybe your book will be titled The Burning Man. Or the Mystery of the Burning Man. Or the Fire that Cleanses. Wait, where did that come from? Cleanses? Cleanses of what? Sin? Retribution?

Lets do a simple exercise. Write an outline on the man’s story. For example, you think the burning man has died unfairly. Or is a victim. Whatever. Hold that thought try to connect it with the other thoughts. Then you’ll have an idea about the circumstances of his burning. Maybe its not a man. Its a woman committing sati, whose hair was chopped off. Or the man is Joan of Arc’s best friend. Sounds ridiculous. Go on explore it and you’ll find it may not be all that stupid. The idea will be what you wish to narrate about the burning man or the situation or the times. This is the start of the plot of your story.

This is a process I call Thriting. Thoughtful writing. Mail me the plot. Lets work on it together.

Happy Thriting.

The Art of Haunting

This is my first blog on writing. Treat it as a cloud.

There comes a time in a writer’s life when the clamor is suddenly over. He feels like a pilot who has flown through rainclouds, skirted a couple of thunderstorms, hit a few air pockets until he has got the craft above it all, and is now swimming through the stillness. The world is spinning far below; engaged in its chaotic velocity of wars, genocides, betrayals, love stories, elections and the sundry activities that continue as real time history.

From his cockpit, the writer looks down.

Does he see a little boy drawing a boa constrictor, which has swallowed an elephant?

He tries to recollect Saint Exupery.

No. That part is over.

He simply remembers what he has read, seen and happened.

Effortlessly.

The writer is now ready. The effort at remembering is unnecessary now. The stories are all there, clear as stratospheric light, waiting to be told. That’s when he realizes at last he is a writer. Has become a writer. Like a swimmer who knows he has finished training and is ready for the Olympic pool. Or a fighter who suddenly knows he has become a warrior.

This ledge of arrival doesn’t mean there is nothing more to do. The sword needs constant polishing and sharpening. Know, the pen is a sword; it is as mighty. Words are the weapons of engagement, books are gauntlets to be thrown down to the world to be picked up and engaged with in a war of ideas.

Personally, I don’t see quietude as the necessary climate for creativity. That’s for people who cannot concentrate. Self indulgent and weak, they’re unable to banish white noise at will. I need the tumult of memories, events and ideas, the vertigo of epiphanies, the power of hurling a sentence into the void when I write. And hear the echoes as they spin away, like confetti from a spacecraft.

The writer is a storekeeper of lost souls. He is able to create a lonely room for himself, and listen to their chatter. They are strangers. Sometimes friends who are strangers. Or vice versa. Sometimes I wonder; are all writers haunted? Where do the characters come from? Biography and autobiography in fiction are easy ways out; the writer just plunders his memory bank and scribbles away like a creative munshi. But does he ever wonder where the dialogues come from? Who puts the words in the nib or the keyboard?

These are my rules.

I believe a writer cannot escape his past or the continuous present. But he must examine it mercilessly.

He has to learn what he should keep and throw away.

He must allow himself to be possessed by the spirits of his characters. Writing is a séance with the inhabitants of an imaginary world. No recollection is totally complete. Nothing is authentic.

Be vain. Be surprised at things that suddenly appear. Sentences that suddenly flow. Phrases that pop up. These are the vitamins of the creative ego.

And above all, be dishonest. All the crap about being honest to yourself and your writing is a load of Coelho type of crap. A writer is a pragmatic soul. Once Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow’s father, a rabbi, asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up.

“A writer,” Saul replied.

The rabbi disowned his son, saying writers are liars because they make up things. He was aghast his son wanted to be a liar.

So, this is all for now.

Happy lying. Keep your teeth shining.

The Laureate of Post Colonial Lament

Ravi Shankar Etteth

When I first met V S Naipaul at a party in New Delhi in the year he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the writer was enjoying a glass of wine, indifferent to the admirers and social voyeurs milling around him, talking little and
observing much as his wife Lady Nadira hovered around; protective and watchful as if the diminutive giant with one of the most famous faces in the world (“After one look from him, I could skip Yom Kippur,”: Saul Bellow) would vanish into Miguel Street where Mr. Popo is yet to build a chair and B. Wordsworth has never got past his first line of verse.

Sir Vidia’s “fastidious scorn”, as the critic Clive James put it, was apparent at a reception thrown in his honour later in the week, as I noticed the long line of guests waiting to shake his hand as he stood sheathed in the armour of polite indifference.

“Mr. Biswas yet to find a house?” I joked.

“I wonder,” Sir Vidia replied laconically in a crisp British accent.
In the mystic subtlety and civilisational complexity of Hinduism, Sir Vidia did find a home. Like Miguel he did in the end escape — but into the great white world of literary triumph, a salon lion and citizen of the world. Novelist Lady Antonia Fraser gave Naipaul his boarding pass to the upper class deck of British society.
“When I talk about being an exile or a refugee I’m not just using a metaphor,” he told The New York Times in an interview. “I’m speaking literally.” His Nobel was awarded in the shadow of 9/11, and many considered it a political statement by the West that was grievously wounded by Islam.

There was no love lost between Sir Vidia and liberals who see him as a misogynistic racist and Hindutva icon; Naipaul called the Babri Masjid demolition a “creative passion” and Babur’s invasion a “mortal wound” inflicted on India. Yet he could never belong there: its heritage he loved but the country he couldn’t. Starting with An Area of Darkness, the first of his three India travelogues, the country was a disappointing epiphany; Indians “forced into a nationalism which in the beginning was like a mimicry of the British.”

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born on August 17, 1932 to an Indian family that had migrated during British rule to Chaguanas in Trinidad and Tobago, but did not abandon their Hindu roots. He grew up in a literate and influential family; father Seepersad was a journalist and his mother belonged to the powerful Capildeo clan. In 1959, he left for England to study at Oxford, where he suffered a mental breakdown — a “half a person”, “living a borrowed life.”

His writing career began as a colonial narrative in 1954 while working for the BBC as an announcer. His vision of
Third World nationalism was merciless.

Edward Said calls him “a witness for the Western prosecution” full of contempt for newly freed peoples.
He mocked India as a land of defecators and Africans primitive and barbaric. He told The Washington Post once, “Africans need to be kicked, that’s the only thing they understand.” Yet for all his literary elitism, the white establishment did not forgive him his success.

Evelyn Waugh mockingly referred to him as a ‘black face.’ Paul Theroux hated him. Poet Derek Walcott called him “V. S. Nightfall”.

However, all Naipaul was perhaps attempting was to hold up an alternate standard of humanity, a literary drill sergeant’s discipline aimed at ahaming backward cultures to rise to global equality. In truth it was Naipaul who first foresaw the war of civilisations.

In over five decades of his writing career, Sir Vidya published more than 30 books, both fiction and nonfiction. His
work reflects his conviction that individuals are shaped by history.

The Mystic Masseur, The Suffrage of Elvira, Miguel Street and A House for Mr. Biswas, all set in the Caribbean, are irrigated with ironic humor and poignant debasement written by “the laureate of humiliation” as the influential literary critic Dwight Garner describes Naipaul; frustrated writer Ganesh Ramsumair cynically reinvents himself as a miracle man and then a successful politician; in Suffrage of Elvira post-colonial political corruption drowns an individual in its greedy tides. Naipaul’s work is an examination of the existential crisis of newborn nations that struggled to marry their indigenous and colonial heritages, the failed revolutions and the uncertainty of Independence.

In 1971, he won the Booker for In a Free State. In 1961, Miguel Street won the Somerset Maugham Award; the first-ever work by a non-European writer to do so.
In the late 1970s, Sir Vidia’s critical binoculars moved its focus away from the Third World to Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia where political Islamic fundamentalism ruled a cowed citizenry —“parasites” “who lock themselves away in belief shut themselves away from the active, busy world” and lacking intellectual mirrors.
Naipaul believed Islamic societies encourage tyranny since Islam offered no political or practical solution and only the faith.

VS Naipaul had a unique window to interpret history, straddling two centuries. He saw the decline of the British Empire, the rise and fall of fascism and the seismic horrors of World War II. In his lifetime, White Britain changed into a multicultural, multiracial landscape that he never would have expected when he landed in London. New nations were born throughout Africa and Asia exposing hidden faultlines in nascent democracies.
He witnessed the emergence of America’s might that ushered in a new world order. He saw the collapse of Communism and the Berlin Wall. The birth of the military industrial complex, the Internet and the Silicon Valley revolution happened on his literary watch. He also watched the world change as radical Islam began to commit murderous suicide on the civilized world’s shores. The Arab Spring toppled dictatorships only to open the doors to theocratic tyranny, creating one of the largest humanitarian crisis that is now redrawing the map of the world’s most volatile region.

Never in modern history has a writer ever received such a mixed bounty from history: to laugh, weep and sail on its tragic but extravagant tides. Naipaul’s editor always said that his novels needed no work and the words spoke volumes in his inimitably frugal style; perhaps because he had seen too much.

One of the greatest universal writers born in the twentieth century, Naipaul said of literature, “Plot is for those
who already know the world; narrative is for those who want to discover it.” Even after he went into the good night
aged 85 on 11 August, Sir Vidia’s narrative will continue to unfold through the plots milling around the collective subconscious.

RACISM IS THE KRYPTONITE OF EMPIRES

November 11, 1931, London was greeted by an unusual sight. Of a dark, frail bespectacled Indian, wearing nothing but a voluminous white shawl against the cold and a dhoti, going to meet the head of the British Empire, King George V; at Buckingham Palace. The invitation reluctantly given to Gandhi and all Indian delegates to the Round Table Conference irked Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who noted  contemptuously, “It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious middle-temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir… striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace… to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-emperor.”

Decades later, the head of another former British Colony flouted British royal etiquette by refusing to bow to Queen Elizabeth on his visit to her palace, shook hands with her against protocol and walked ahead of her, disregarding custom. Then he posed for pictures sitting in Churchill’s favourite armchair. The incensed British public and press went ballistic. “How Dare You!” ran the front page headline in one newspaper, with a full page photo of a smirking, seated Trump.

Donald Trump is a bully, a coarse amateur politician infamous for his unpresidential tweets and politically incorrect, bigoted behaviour. His conduct towards the Queen is typical of his graceless nature—pushing aside other world leaders at a NATO meet, keeping G7 leaders waiting for a photo op—tacky and immature. However, his absence of decorum and unconventional behaviour towards America’s closest ally sent out an unintentional message to decolonised nations; the Empire’s legacy has been significantly eroded by multiculturalism and the immigration wave. Gandhi would have chuckled at this karma backlash.

Trump is no Gandhi. He does not match the Mahatma’s gentle sarcasm (“His Majesty wore enough for both of us”), his compassion, moral fibre and grand vision. Being no Anglophile, Trump shares many racist characteristics with Churchill (who favoured using poisoned gas against “uncivilised tribes”) though he lacks the leadership qualities of the British premier. Yet contradictions unite the imperialist and the Anglophobe: Churchill, who vanquished the Nazis, had famously declared that the United Kingdom’s “Aryan stock is bound to triumph”.

Just as Trump is unapologetic about the brutal treatment of immigrants, Churchill mocked the victims of the Bengal Famine of 1943, calling it culling a population that bred “like rabbits”. At the core of both the British Empire and the Nazis was racism. Now, it is the pacemaker of Trump’s America. History is a graveyard of empires. Racism is the kryptonite of empires.

It is nationalism that fuels growing nations with the ambition to become global powers on the back of prejudice and stolen resources until history completes the cycle, overthrowing the conquerors with hostile nationalism. Mahatma Gandhi was a product of Indian nationalism, a prodigal son of the Raj who returned as an unexpected avenger armed with moral resources. Trump did inadvertently write  Britannia’s obituary. But the legacy of hatred he will leave behind will create a new Martin Luther King. The Mahatma’s comment on Western civilisation was: “I think it would be a good idea”. For all civilisations, being civilised is the next best idea.