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Picked up the only Wodehouse at the local library some weeks back, and have since been reliving some of the Jeeves-Wooster magic. The book is titled Very Good, Jeeves, and is, in the unlikely instance that you are unfamiliar with the series, a collection of short stories centered around the master-manservant duo of Bertie Wooster, a somewhat foppish character without a vocation thanks to an inheritance, and Jeeves, his über-smart valet often counted on to extricate his master from seemingly inextricable situations that often involve aunts and friends. A few of the other recurring characters in these stories are Wooster’s aunts – Aunt Agatha (the “nephew-crusher”), and the relatively benign Aunt Dahlia. One might say that Jeeves-Wooster are to British humor what Holmes-Watson are to detective fiction, set in and around the Edwardian era.

There are far too many passages of interest in the book to cite, and they may not stand by themselves as being funny unless one reads them in context. If your interest has been piqued, a close second to reading the book may be to watch the Jeeves and Wooster television series that is available on youtube. Go on, pip-pip.

In the Fall of 1989 while on a trip to the US, the yet-to-be-president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, visited a supermarket in Houston. He was amazed, or so we are told, by the impressive variety of goods available to the American consumer, an observation that stood in stark contrast to the limited choices and long waits in his home country. Yeltsin’s experience in the supermarket has been described as a watershed moment in his political thinking, and may have influenced Russia’s move towards free market policies when he became President of the Russian federation in 1991. It was in 1991 as well that India moved towards a free market economy, primarily in response to running out of foreign currency reserves and currency overvaluation and perhaps in some measure supported by the forementioned move by Russia, some of whose economic principles India had mimicked until that point. Such was the butterfly effect, if one can use that term, of Yeltsin’s visit to a supermarket in Houston.

My visits to the supermarket have, in comparison, been of little consequence to the world at large, except mine. Ironically, it has to do with choice – a word that has come to be synonymous with freedom as gurgling with babies. And I am not talking of days-in-a-week number of choices – those can be handled without a headache. However, there is something unsettling about being confronted by an aisle stacked with more varieties of cornflakes breakfast cereals than there are letters in the English alphabet. For even in that hurriedly disappearing habit of the weekday that we call a breakfast, it is important to emphatically exercise the right to choose.

Like the guard of honor accorded to visiting dignitaries, the cereal boxes stand in quiet unwavering discipline as I walk by for the cursory first inspection. As the visual information is absorbed and processed – contents, nutrition charts, colors, images, claims – a running tape in my head plays out incoherencies that, if one could slow them down as in time lapse photography, would translate to something like this: “….almost choked on that lethally tasteless calorie-saver; not the one high fructose corn syrup – might as well smoke my lungs out; the boxes in pink or those with smiling kids are not targeted at you; raisins love to cling to molars- don’t want to be reminded of them in subsequent meals; that one doesn’t soak up the milk well; that discounted price is much higher than the non-discounted prices for the boxes stacked about half a mile away and closer to the floor; what are those colored things – m&ms in breakfast cereals? really? thats like exploiting child psychology …..”

From what I have seen in those long moments by the aisle, breakfast cereal buyers range from those that march with singular determination towards the desired box, grab, and go, to those whose cognitive indecisions outlive mine. The former I admire for their monastic disregard of distractions, the latter make me feel like a reality show contestant that has just been told that he has moved on to the next round while the others wait morbidly with the hope that theirs will be one of the remaining names announced. If you thought that your grocery-shopping routine is a boring activity, you probably fall in the first category of those that are in-and-out so quickly they might catch themselves coming in when they exit.

On one occasion, my cogitations was interrupted by a sense of being watched. There was a lady besides me observing me intermittently. But before I made any further attempts at interpretation, I realized that she was observing my shopping cart as well. Her attempts at subterfuge demonstrated an evident lack of practice for I spotted her making quick notes in a notepad. Aha! I had almost come to believe that shopping behavior surveyors was another myth perpetrated on a consumer that couldn’t care less. I contemplated on what she may have been noting in her pad. Perhaps something on the lines of:

‘Name: (lets call him) Y
Age-Grp xx-xx,
Ethnicity: xxx,
Shopping Cart: xx1,xx2, xx3 (subject will suffer *evil laughter*), xx4 (hmm..now why would the subject need that?).
Observations: spotted subject in cereals aisle looking at cereal boxes; subject reading contents; subject momentarily distracted by another shopper; subject trying to assess which one is the heavier of brand x and brand y ; subject shaking the contents of a brand x2; subject cleaning glasses; subject knocks off a few boxes; subject is checking the contents of brand x3 again for the nth time; subject goes to brand x1, places his left hand on the box, and with his right hand tosses a coin; subject repeats this with brand x2, repeats with brand x3.. repeats with brand x229.. repeats with brand x512…subject has disappeared.

Conclusion: subject is (such a loony time-waster and needs to get a life!) not a good representative sample of the population.’

********

The news bits about the visit of the late Russian president to the Houston supermarket do not mention if he made a purchase. If indeed he had ventured to do so, certain histories may have panned out without their watershed moments.

The word tawaif is often too easily associated with a prostitute. Hindi movies of the 60s-80s may have partly been responsible for this degradation of usage, through their representation of jilted lovers and men alike seeking solace in the kothas, legendary houses of ill-repute, to be entertained by the erotic mujras of tawaifs. That these courtesans of the Mughal age and after were the living repositories of the art and literature of that time and trained in etiquette, is largely unmentioned. That the entertainment they provided in these mehfils may have been the equivalents of modern-day classical music concerts or a poetry recital is as easily overlooked.

In his excellent albeit unreferenced essay, The Tawaif, the anti-Nautch movement, and the development of North Indian Classical Music”, David Courtney summarizes the chapter on tawaifs with the following words:

The tawaifs were often poets and authors, in a period when the majority of women were illiterate. When everything was considered, the tawaifs had, education, independence, money, power, and self-determination, in a period when many women were little more than cattle.

The essay then explains the situations that led to the eventual stigma associated with this profession leading to their disappearance. These causes are entwined with the history of the country – the failure of the 1857 revolution (the kothas were centers of political debate, some of which led to the uprising), the puritanical wave in Britain around that time that came to India through the teachings of missionaries, and the emergence of an Indian bourgeoise educated in western ideals of society and their social reform movements that came to associate tawaifs with prostitution – a social evil to be done away with. As the tawaifs began to disappear, the art forms that they had sustained and excelled in – kathak, ghazal, thumri, were passed on to a growing literate middle-class in search of a national self-identity, a unifying cultural history that would be a motivator for the freedom movement. It is truly a sad irony that the very champion of women’s rights in India, overlooked the tawaifs’ significance when he rebuked their offer to partake in the freedom movement. This is mentioned in a review of Saba Dewan’s 2009 documentary, The Other Song, that highlights the largely unknown history of the tawaifs.

During the first non-cooperation movement in the early 1920s, a group of tawaifs responded to his call for Hindu-Muslim unity and support for the Independence movement. They resolved to sing only patriotic songs on all occasions. An outraged Gandhi lashed out at their “obscene manifesto”. He wouldn’t accept them as Congress workers or accept their donation unless they gave up their “unworthy profession that made them worse than thieves”.

My own notion of a tawaif was no different from what I wrote in the first line of this post. Delving into the history of this profession has changed this view. Stereotypes, it appears, are best dispelled by making an effort to understand those that we stereotype.

Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English August was released by NYRB in the US in 2006. For a novel published in 1988 in India, this release that comes almost two decades too late may be a testament to its continued relevance. Or it could be a testament to the much larger audience that now exists for books about the subcontinent, thanks to business pundits that have plauded its growing economy, mushrooming cities, and expanding workforce since the opening up of the Indian economy in 1991. Reading the book, I could not help being struck by its timelessness. Perhaps it owes this rare distinction to its setting in the small fictional town of Madna (“a dot in the vast hinterland”) that may have changed only cosmetically over the decades; or for that matter la vie bureaucratic that it describes and that has changed to an even lesser extent, at least in popular perception.

Agastya Sen, derisively named English August in school, leaves his comfortable life in New Delhi to move to Madna on a year-long training as a part of his initiation into the administrative mores of civil service. August is shocked and amused by what he observes around him and most of what follows of his social interactions is commentary interspersed with humor that pounces on you without warning. In his moments of isolation, August finds solace in marijuana, Marcus Aurelius, and masturbation. He grows increasingly disinterested in his work, coming up with excuses to avoid it. Stooging lunches off others offers him both delight and respite from the unsavory preparations of the cook at his lodgings.

What is remarkable about the book is not the plot. In an interview, Upamanyu refers to the book’s plotlessness as reflecting the pointlessness of August’s time in Madna. Rather it is his uninhibited writing style that, when he is not obsessing over scatological details, can be refreshingly irreverential and humorous enough to induce laughter. Take this example of a statue outside a meeting hall, and the ensuing conversation between August and his superior, the Collector Srivastav:

Gandhi hall stood beside the city police station, a three-storeyed building. For a moment he thought that it had been bombed, something out of a TV news clip on Beirut, broken window panes, old walls, an uncertain air, a kind of wonder at not having collapsed yet. A red banner over the door, and outside the statue of a fat bespectacled man with a rod coming out of his arse. He asked in wonder, “Is that a statue of Gandhi?”.
Srivastav laughed shrilly, ” Yes. Who do you think?”.
“Phew. What’s the rod, sir?”
Srivastav laughed even more. “That’s to prop up the statue”.

Or consider this comic imagery, set in a gathering at Srivastav’s house where he hosts the collector from a neighboring district and his wife, Mrs. Rajan

Mrs. Rajan leaned forward again, neck tensed, like a conspirator. “But it is so important for India to have the right exposure abroad. One must explode these wretched myths about India, you know, that it’s the land of cringing natives and snake charmers, elephants and Tantric rites. It’s..” she unfisted her hand, like a bud opening in time-lapse photography; perhaps she had hoped to find the telling adjectives in her palm.

In the interview mentioned earlier, Upamanyu, in referring to books about India, says that India tends to be romanticized, and English August is anything but romantic. One rarely encounters ornately descriptive paragraph-length single sentences of the kind that are meant to show off writing ability. Instead, we are served staccato short sentences. As in the lines below that offer comic relief amidst Srivastav’s monologue about futility of having a young man like him from Azamganj read Shakespeare and Wordsworth for the IAS exams.

A bat flew into the room. Srivastav scowled at it. It left

In his introduction, Akhil Sharma mentions that the book has often been described as India’s Catcher in the Rye – a Western coming-of-age novel. The descriptions of the bureaucratic pecking order and life in Madna is secondary to the real focus of the book – August’s sense of restlessness bordering on despair, his dissatisfatcion with his vocation, his search for meaning. “For the mind is restless, Krishna”, he quotes Arjuna in the Gita, “impetuous, self-willed, hard to train: to master the mind seems as difficult as to master the mighty winds.” Only two pages prior to these philosophical ruminations, we encounter August’s friend Bhatia arguing with the rickshaw driver over 2 rupess, till finally the driver relents, but not before spewing a final verbal volley – “When next your father farts, push that 2-rupee note up his arse”.

English, August is unlike any other book that I have read by an Indian author or author of Indian origin. It is unpretentious, original, blatant, on occasions even repulsive, and outright hilarious. The book was adapted into a movie in 1994 that remains unavailable on Netflix and therefore inaccessible by me.

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