Sunday, 5 August 2012

Pico Iyer, Graham Greene & the Malgudi Blues

N.B- In view of negative comments received, I have substantially revised this blog-post.

   Pico isn't from Malgudi. Nor was his dad- the late Raghavan Iyer. But, back then, Bombay, at least for  our clannish Iyerarchy, was still a small place and so my father, being a couple of years younger than Pico's dad, had to hear much kolaveri paternal palaver about  the latter's slimness, scholastic achievements and his not needing specs.
  However, it was Raghavan's self-confidence- there being no Iyer prodigy higher than himself- which set him apart. Few Indian origin Scholarship winners failed to be overawed or feel uncomfortable when translated to Oxbridge. Even Ramanujan, who was a genius, came to see the shortcomings of his methods and adapted himself to Western Mathematics on the urging of his Guru, Prof. Hardy. On the other hand, it was  Chandrashekar's Guru bhakti for Sir Arthur Eddington which placed a restriction on the development of his own theory. Similarly, under the blazing Eye of Tolkein, Naipaul was left blighted by the Shires' dreaming Spires, while Amartya Sen, according to Bhagwati, was intimidated away from his own, presumably Pigouvian proclivities, by Leftist harridans like, the blonde bombshell, Joan Robinson and the bald blancmange, the gorgeous, pouting, Nikki Kaldor.

  Raghavan Iyer, however, seemingly effortlessly, gathered up all the glittering prizes, save an All Souls fellowship, without compromising his own atavistic, Adyar, beliefs. Perhaps, the cult of Radhakrishnan in the 1930's, when he was the Spalding Professor at Oxford, boosted Raghavan's self confidence. Equally likely, Raghavan's faith in Theosophy- which found Universal Messiahs in the unlikely shape of Tamil Brahmin shitheads like the two Krishnamurtis- instilled in him a sense of a World Historical Mission. Annie Beasant, after all, had wanted Jeddu Krishnamurti to attend Eton & Oxford- but the boy was too dim. Raghavan, like his son Pico, had no such problem. Indeed, not Oxford, it was New Delhi which posed the difficulty. The India to which he returned had rendered marginal the verbose Theosophical/Servants of India Society Liberalism to which he had pledged an early and spontaneous allegiance.
   Later on, Raghavan's move to America might have seemed a flight from, rather than an expression of faith in, his boyhood creed. Even in Careerist terms it seemed retrograde; had he remained in India he might have become Manmohan Singh's boss or, if he'd settled in England, gained a seat in the House of Lords and become a household name as a BBC 'talking head'. But Raghavan had correctly identified California as the happening place and got there as the Sixties began to swing.
 The question is whether he had escaped Malgudi or actually, and atavistically, returned to that imaginary and geometrically frustrated topos by way of having failed Bombay, at least the Bombay of the Bombay Plan, by his 'contribution to democratic planning' while Research Chief to the Planning Commission. The reason I say this is because the very year that Raghavan and Nandhini settle in California is also the year Hollywood fucks up, Malgudi's Guide, Raju's metamorphosis into a Mahatma, not to mention, the Mem Sahib, Rosie's, metamorphosis into the bayadère, Nalini-  whereas Bombay redeems both R.K Narayan's novel as well as his Swedenborgian barzakh by concretizing it as Limdi- the little town that pioneered Women's education and which set Vivekananda on the path to World fame- and where Chetan Anand had once taught English. In other words, Bombay- I will not say put Malgudi on the map, it was there already, Narayan's talent is unquestionable- Bombay connected Malgudi to everything else on every map of India- Rosie to Gulab (that was name of Waheeda Rehman's character in the immortal 'Pyaasa'), Rosie/Nalini to Rukmuni Arundale, Scripture to Forgery, India's good behavior in the British Prison to its early release from the sort of famine Pearl S Buck chronicled (well, except for that experienced during the tenure of Muslim League Govts in Bengal and Punjab- the food surplus state refusing to sell grain to the food deficit province- the Muslim League having disdained both British Prison and good behavior), and finally early release from this Earthly Prison to the release of waters from clouds of Krishna hue which, verily to view, is the darshan of all release.
 What of the Hollywood version?
I found this on the web-  'Whereas the backdrop is authentic, the romance of a provincial Indian tourist guide with the dancing-girl-wife of an older merchant seems partly artificial and contrived, much more in the Hollywood spirit than in that of, let us say, Bombay. And the development of the narrative continuity is so erratic and frequently slurred—so clumsy and artless, to be plain-spoken—that both story and emotion are vague.'
  This is the problem with both Raghavan and Pico. When Nandhini Nanak Mehta/Iyer writes something she may get her facts wrong or her judgement may be faulty but what she says is meaningful precisely because it isn't vague, if not vacuous.
 Her husband and son, on the other hand, though not charlatans- 'the background is authentic'- yet make the romance of dialogue- and travel is a dialogue, dialogue is travel- seem 'artificial and contrived'- something much more in the Hollywood spirit than in that, certainly, of Bombay. It is the deficit in continuity, of connectivity, which mars their Art- I will not say Thought for neither has had an original thought- it is not that they do not subscribe to a Grand, or merely garrulous, Narrative, nor that their emotions remain unengaged - it is that both are nebulous and therefore without nuance.
   This is Pico writing about R.K Narayan-
Writing in English, perhaps, allowed Narayan to step just an inch outside his territory. Is this true? Surely, the opposite is the case. Writing in English allowed Narayan access to a collocational English availability cascade, which secured him an imaginary appellational terroir as a sort of after dinner Tamil Tokai, something sui generis- the highly acid and accidental product of a 'noble rot', or gangrene, disconnecting it with its natal sub-continent

 'The other thing that strikes you, within three pages of the beginning of The Man-Eater, is how you can hear the jingling ox-bells, smell the spices, see the humble scene with “appetizing eatable on a banana leaf and coffee in a little brass cup.”

It is perfectly natural to read books in line with stereotyped perceptions. Pico, like R.K. Narayan is a professional writer, who has trained himself to notice things. The jarring note enters when Pico says 'see the humble scene...'. Why humble? Does Pico really not know that Maharajas, that too from 21 gun Salute States, relished 'appetizing eatables served on a banana leaf' and drank coffee 'in little brass cups'? They may have also eaten of Sevres china when hosting the Viceroy, but that entailed ritual purification and besides, made everything taste less nice.
The odd thing here is that an English, Anglican, author, like Robert Wood, with a PhD from Oxford in Nuclear Physics, understood Narayan differently even before he first set foot in India. Why? In the English language, the very word Brahmin denotes something that is not humble for the same reason that it is the reverse of luxurious. 

'There are snake-charmers and swamis and elephant-doctors here-  but none of them are seen as more unusual than a knife-sharpener or a seller of “coloured drinks”;  everything is regarded with the unflappable good nature of a man just looking in on his neighbors. In that way, the exoticism of India is never Narayan’s selling-point or his interest; he writes of–and seemingly for–his associates as Isaac Bashevis Singer might of the Upper West Side or Alice Munro of rural Ontario. 

Pico's comparison of Narayan to Singer is interesting- psychologically, it might be illuminating, but what it highlights here is Narayan's deracination, he did not write in Tamil or Kannada, and the fact that whereas Singer's Yiddish readers- survivors like himself- demanded he continue with his writing against the judgement of his editor, Narayan might never have been published but for the accident of his catching Graham Greene's editorial eye.
Pico confuses a very English Pooterishness with Iyer authenticity.
 'Again, I can hear my South Indian uncles speakingly fondly of their wives as “The President of the Union” (or “The Speaker of the House”) - but so did suburban Solicitors in Slough back in the 70'sand catch all- all? All!-that is engaging and heartfelt in India when I read of the tough guy devouring a hundred almonds every day to train to become a taxidermist, the poet trying to write the entire life of Krishna (the completion of even a part of which causes mayhem), the forestry officer making up a collection of “Golden Thoughts,” arranged alphabetically. The textures and flavors and cadences are as Indian as palaver or hugger-mugger; the dramas and hopes and vexations belong to us all.'
Surely, all the things Pico highlights are what makes R.K a second rate writer- his Theophrastian cartoons advance no Aristotelian agenda. Kipling, the consummate journalist, had great powers of observation. He never resorted to cliches. There is always some new fact of sociology or ethology that re-reading his work yields up.  He shows more than he knows and, in consequence, everything he writes about becomes more interesting not less so.  Malgudi is almost infinitely less interesting than Mysore. It contains no intelligent or cultured people. It has no Balzacian depth. It is as fucking stupid and worthless and utterly and deracinatedly shite as Raghavan and Pico's own oeuvre. R.K was a Tamil speaker. For us, Kannada is a treasure trove. Ours is 'vanilla' Hinduism.  Kannada literature is inexpressibly rich and complex to us precisely because we are its Levinasian alterity- its material, that is Expressive, needs match exactly with our Spiritual ones. Neither R.K Narayan nor A.K Ramanujan make this explicit. Their homage, alas, is too humble, too Iyer Tamil. Kannada, like the God of the Vaishnavas, the Arhat of the Jains, is not content that merely the perfume of its incense settle on us from a distance. No. Something more is called for.

   Pico, of course, is deaf even to Iyer Tamil. He thinks the edible on the banana leaf humble. Chief Justice Anantanarayanan- Updike made a poem of his name- also has banana leaves and brass cups but the quality of his language, his poems, his scholarship is such that an enchanting image is created. Had Kipling himself gained employment in Madras, rather than Lahore, he could not have penned a more eloquent tribute to Tamil womanhood or, more to the point, avvial and applam- the both to be served upon banana leaf only, just mind it kindly I say


   In a sense- the sense in which Narayan speaks to Pico- Malgudi's idiolect is palaver- that last not being an Indian word, not even an Indglish word, though it does sound a bit Tamil, if you don't actually know Tamil- in other words, it is a sort of facetious literary pidgin from the Slave Coast- India no longer being a country of slaves though, perhaps, this Iyer at Eton didn't get the memo.

Similarly, hugger mugger is an old English word- meaning something done secretly or in a muddled manner- but the secret to this muddled thinking is that there is no secret, it's all just a facile availability cascade. Narayan believed in the silly American Spiritism dating back to the middle of the Nineteenth Century. Raghavan Iyer subscribed to Col. Olcott's generous but gullible Theosophy and speculated about whose reincarnation Eisenhower represented.

  Pico, like his Dad, is self-evidently a very bright guy- a person of good character, he attended Eton and Oxford in reverse order because of some administrative mix-up but was a good sport about it. Nor is his essay on Narayan a sloppy piece of work. Read the whole thing for yourself. Essentially an academically stupid guy with bad Tamil is being valorized by an academcally smart guy with no Tamil because that's how academic availability cascades in Literature operate. The joke here is that Narayan expresses India's disenchantment with Education. The heroes of K.S Venkatramani's novels- Murugan the tiller, Kandan the Patriot- only succeed when they turn their backs on passing exams and gaining Bureaucratic promotion. It was the pallidty of this world view- a future Chief Minister of Madras Presidency would advocate the destruction of factories, another would recommend that Schools teach lower caste students only their traditional skills- its futile gestures towards retrogression, which enabled Tamil- like that of Karunanidhi, but also the Kannada of Veerappa Moily- to rise up and displace the stupidity of English, the envenomed stasis it bequeathed Lawley extension. For Pico, Narayan is a high priest. Yes, but only because the Temple has been abandoned. India- of which Victor Hugo said 'India ended up becoming Germany'- had been downgraded by the Global Credit Rating Agencies of Credentialist Enlightenment and Education. All it was permissible to believe about India was that nothing happened there, nothing could happen, it was a Club of Rome basket case, R.K. Narayan the Virgil chronicling its transformation not from brick to marble but marble to mud.
'Reading Narayan, you soon see, is a little like sitting on a rocking-chair in a steadily churning train; the story is always pushing forwards, with not a wasted sentence or detail, and yet its theme and often its characters are all about going nowhere and getting nothing done.'
  Why is this so? Pico, son of Raghavan, though a Classical Scholar, doesn't answer quod nescis quo modo fiat, non facis- R.K's Occasionalist humility in denying any programmatic understanding of how or why he writes, extends also to his characters. Instead, Pico turns Narayan into Malgudi's malign Mayin- a feckless and effete Demiurge- orchestrating futility in a manner Bureaucratic and dilatory.


'There is a kind of ambling inevitability to the rhythm of a Narayan story, sleepy but intensifying, that at once evokes a leisurely and mischievous master-plotter and puts you inside the frenzied, but changeless, world of India right now. The fortune-tellers and astrologers who are such a staple of this world are always figures of gentle fun because no one can begin to predict what’s going to happen next. People learn to rue their acts of kindness and are constantly urged, for the good of all, to be cruel. No good deed goes uncomplicated, and no sin is ever overlooked.'
  In the light of the above, Raghavan Iyer must actually have been, to his son, a particularly cancerous hypertrophy of a R.K. Narayan character.

  He did unexpected things- he became a lion-tamer and married a tightrope walker- or, no, he became a Rhodes Scholar and married a Gujerati- same difference really- but the fact remains that his inner life retained the sort of synoecist legibility, or collocational familiarity, of a Malgudi character and, as such, ought to have interested- by being the reverse of interesting- Graham Greene in the sense of affording him a dimly nitid cameo for one of his dingily gaudy Entertainments- like the Indian 'Mass Observation' volunteer in 'the Confidential Agent'.
   Pico, of course, is the opposite of a 'Mass Observation' volunteer- having successfully fed a Mass Market taste for vicarious explorations of Observation's vacuity- and he takes Greene as a sort of literary father figure because he wishes to affirm the Theosophical, or, Obeyesekere 'Small-scale Society', truth that reincarnation means one becomes one's own Dad and so- since R.K Narayan's dad too was a Headmaster, and since all Iyers are R.K Narayan characters, and since Character and Inwardness and Thought and other such shite is merely Samskara, and since only pi jaw is eternal- it therefore follows that everybody is everybody and has a Global Soul and it turns out Greene was just the timid son of a Tamil headmaster who became a lion-tamer or trapeze artist in Lawley Extension and so, obviously, his books are all about fathers and sons and how- ever since the Brits chivied the Iyers out of their village agraharams- where, like Bihari Brahmins of the best stripe, they had previously spent their time cracking each other's skulls open with farm implements- it's like there's this hiatus valde deflendus between them if, but only if, both son and sire are the sort of little shits who get scholarships and publish worthless books because otherwise they could spend their time taunting each other for not getting scholarships or not securing Publishing deals for their worthless books.
  For Greene, for Waugh, Catholicism meant the World mattered because, as do families in the father, the World can find a Center, and since their travels in the wastes and the wilds had shown them that that Center was Everywhere, it therefore followed that the Father has a Son whose Passion is unspent and so writing is the ongoing project of inventing everybody's lost childhood for it is only in the concurrency of that alterity, as of Judas's lost boyhood, that Christ, that is everybody, has already been betrayed.
  For Raghavan and Pico, nothing has a Center because Eternal Recurrence makes everything the same. Pi jaw's Palingenesia ensures that samskars remain merely samskars, they never become stigmata, and are thus unconnected to Grace. At least, this is true with respect to the sort of samskar we term literary writing- which of course is only reading. Here, it makes for a facility without felicity, a yeasting without yearning, Polonius's Annunciation as opposed to Hamlet's Himmelfart.

And, no, since you ask, I haven't read Pico's book. Silly question. But I did read this-

'the father's last phone call to the son consisted of an answering-machine message racked with sobs, left in response to 'Sleeping with the Enemy'- an essay by Iyer on Greene. Greene's great gift and his fount of despair, Iyer had written in that piece, was his ability to "see the folly and frailty of everyone around him"- 


and this-


'and then his voice gave out and he began to sob. I couldn’t ever remember hearing him sob before, least of all over an answering machine. It was a shocking thing, to hear a man famous for his fluency and authority lose all words.”
Father and son had one brief subsequent meeting. “Ten days later, he was dead, at sixty-five, and the last real time I’d heard from him was the gasping call about Graham Greene.”
As he was finishing his non-memoir, Iyer found himself unable to explain to his wife, Hiroko, which man within his head he was addressing. He concludes that he knew — or knows — Greene better than his own father and that Greene knows Iyer better than Iyer knows himself.
That reads a bit too neatly.
What resonates is Iyer’s response when asked to cite a Greene passage that stays with him, emotionally.
His choice: the last line from A Quiet American: “Everything had gone right for me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.”

   It's an odd choice or a clever-too-clever one. For Greene, for Graves, for Le Carre's 'Naive and Sentimental Lover', the elimination of the sexual rival is the collapse of Adultery's trisexual house of cards- every arrested adolescences's last defence against prospering in Realty's Potter's field- but there's always someone you can drunk dial and say you are sorry to- well, at any rate, Raghavan managed it because by a splendidly Iyeronic atavism he had Theosophised his wife into the Goddess- Gandhism having foreclosed that possibility for his own Mum- and thus reverse Oedipalized Pico's conception.

 'A couple of days before I began reading The Man Within My Head, a friend told me she had met the author’s father, Raghavan N Iyer, many years ago. At that first and only meeting, the celebrated philosopher, Oxford University professor and theosophist told my friend that he had abstained from sex until his wife was ready to conceive. He wanted to ensure that the product of their union would be exceptional, he said. The result was their only child, Pico Iyer.'

In every act of abstention or indulgence, there is a man within us that is angry with us. Perhaps,  a Divine satire upon a diabolical satyriasis, Graham Greene- who feared his Anglo-Indian doppleganger, a vulgar con-man named Meredith de Varg, because to meet your double is to die- doubles for Pico as the unquiet ghost in the geometrically frustrated triangle between this chaste-all-too-chaste Iyer father and son.



9 comments:

  1. Great post! One niggling cavil.
    You write-
    'Pico's Heraclitean Mirandolism- such that all palaver's parabola reduces to a solitary and anachronistic Caravel's Conradian cannonade, not illumining but rendering Dark those Continents- or, indeed, canary colored islands like Japan- to which the Iyer complexioned, for reasons impersonally Demographic or bemusingly Cliodynamic, are condemned to, by a but gloaming roaming, immigrate- yet is some thing or other which I think really bad because I just saw it on some stupid Right Wing blog that I follow.'
    Should the last clause of that sentence not read- some stupid Right Wing blog that I have the nurses at my mental hospital read out to me because I'm totally illiterate?
    I ask for information merely.
    Inquiring minds want to know.

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    1. boo! not nice! Due to why such hurtingness? Wot I did?

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    2. Wot u did was write a pile of the proverbial.

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  2. The character of Harry Potter was originally based on Pico Iyer's adventures at Eton. Later, he used to fly around the world as a Quidditch champion. It was only in 1988 that the Japanese re-imaginengineered him as an Anime character.

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    1. I apologize to my readers for not having seen this sooner.

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  3. Still no response to my Email-
    Dear Pico Iyer Sahib,
    Your achievements in flying around world on broomstick since early education at elite boarding school of Hogwarts in England are a great inspiration to millions of young students in India. Furthermore, you are also doing levitation with Dalai Lama Sahib which is very good for World Peace.
    We would like to avail of interview via Skype of the Computer such that your good self can answer questions by capable students interested in following similar career path.
    God bless.
    Jai Hind
    my good self
    V.Iyer

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  4. You are depicting Raghavan Iyer as R.K Narayan character- like 'talkative man' or small-town busybody running around uselessly. Look at the facts. Iyer was topper in Advanced Economics M.A and appointed lecturer at Elphinstone Coll at young age of 18. He went on Rhodes Scholarship and was elected Pres. of Oxford union. He was topper in P.P.E and D.Phil. On return to India he was appointed Chief Research Officer to Planning Commission. At that time many prominent people were unhappy with Mahalanobis- even Haldane who took Indian citizenship. There is no blame on Iyer that he returned to Oxford. The reason he became neglected was because he associated with Club of Rome pessimists whereas the Resource crunch they predicted failed to materialize. Instead real commodity prices fell and there was Bull market which even Soviets and Chinese embraced. Thus younger generation devalued Iyer's contribution and concentrated to get rich from speculation.
    But this does not mean he was a foolish fellow. His religion is his private affair. You can make fun of any religion easily. Furthermore, if he had stayed in Planning Commission, a dedicated and patriotic man like him could have been sitting where Manmohan Singh is sitting now.
    Who brought Liberalization? Was it you or was it Manmohan Singh? You people have only enriched yourself and made fun of your elders. Not one of you has any honesty or integrity to sacrifice for the Nation, to sacrifice for the Humanity.
    Raghavan Iyer was not from Malgudi. He was from Bombay. You are an uncivilized person who is not tolerated even in the worst village or slum area. If you can learn this lesson it will be better. Why write nonsense on topics you are ignorant?

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    1. @ Anon- dear Sir, if you read this blog post carefully you will see that Raghavan Iyer remained celibate within marriage till his wife was ready to conceive. This happened after the couple left India for good and settled in U.K. His son could have got Indian passport with permanent British residency. Instead, parents got him British passport which he retains to this day. Iyer was a Theosophist. These people believe in Spiritual Guides and Messiahs. Iyer clearly wanted his son to be special. Annie Beasant had wanted her chosen 'messiah' Jeddu Krishnamurti to study at Eton and Oxford. Is it really a coincidence that Iyer sent his son to Dragon School and then Eton and so on? If he was such a great patriot why did he wait till he was settled in England, not India, to start a family? According to leading Economists who visited India in the Fifties and Sixties- their lifestyle was much higher in India than in U.S or U.K at that time. You claim that Iyer was a great patriot. Very good. But of which country? He worked for World Federalism not India.
      His son learnt Greek and Latin and French. Was it really impossible for such a gifted youngster to also learn Sanskrit, if not Tamil or Gujerati? If the parents could not teach him this, Eton certainly had the facilities. Sanskrit is much easier than ancient Greek. If he had some enmity against Govt. of India, Royal Govt. of Nepal could have provided tutors as they did for their own scions attending Eton.
      Iyer wrote a lot about Gandhi. His wife knew Gujerati. There is not one single sentence in his entire oeuvre which shows that he took advantage of this domestic resource. Foreign professors who write on Gandhi take the trouble to get expert help from Gujerati speakers. Gujerati is a treasure trove for true philosophers and thinkers. Iyer was only concerned to give voice to his own half baked nonsense.
      Economics is not about saying 'everybody should be good'. It is about incentive compatibility, Trade, Development etc. A small town 'talkative man' can be talkative in any milieu and repeat the same nonsense in any setting. That is what makes him a small town man.
      If Iyer was a great patriot and thinker and had the potential to be a Manmohan Singh- as you suggest- he would have taken a very different course. His son, who is surely not lacking in filial piety, would have taken a different course. His perception that India is just a mess and muddle and that people there have no awareness of their surroundings or their civic duties and obligations- i.e. India is dirty and Japan is clean- comes from some paternal prejudice. I have known thousands of second generation N.R.Is who get this mentality from their father. It takes them years to throw off such prejudices. Even when they do so- for professional reasons- still they feel they are betraying their father.
      This is a small town attitude. The small town man thinks his whole country is just his small town. So he rejects it and goes around the world thinking he has escaped that small town. He hasn't. It has escaped him and he is the last to learn this humiliating secret.

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  5. Has anybody actually read this book?

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