N.S. Madhavan’s Lanthanbatheriyile Luthiniyakal (2003), now translated into English as Litanies of Dutch Battery by Rajesh Rajamohan and published by Penguin, is an important novel and, to be honest, would have received much more international attention had it been written originally in English. It fits the billfor such writing, with its sweeping expanse, its mixture of the personal and the public, myth and history, culture and idiosyncrasy. Post-colonial critics would have made much of its fantastical social landscape, historical-mythic sweep and its humour. More colonial critics would have been flattered by its clever references to old colonial bridges. Epithets like “hybridity” would have been bestowed on it in England, much to the chagrin of narrow nationalist critics back home.
Unfortunately (or fortunately), Madhavan writes in Malayalam and lives in Patna, Bihar. This means that his “hybridity” and “post-coloniality” are just not visible to a lot of Western critics. After all, how many of them know what languages are spoken in Bihar or on the Malabar coast? This has, I fear, cost Madhavan’s novel the international attention it deserves, though it has been well-received in India.
But what of that? Read it as the “outstanding” work of fiction that, among others, Khushwant Singh has rightly called it. This excellent English translation of Madhavan’s novel was also shortlisted for The Hindu Best Fiction Award in 2011.
There was a time when books were supposed to expand your horizons. Perhaps they still do; I know that some excellent books of that sort, fiction and non-fiction, are written every year. Yet, why is it that when one looks up any major Western list of best-selling books, one comes across books that seem to be so nationally located? Here are the first five best-selling non-fiction hardbacks listed by The New York Times:
Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson. A biography of the recently deceased entrepreneur, based on 40 interviews with Jobs conducted over two years.
Killing Lincoln, by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. The commentator looks at the events surrounding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Being George Washington: The Indispensable Man as You’ve Never Seen Him , by Glenn Beck and Kevin Balfe. How Washington turned himself into the indispensable (if imperfect) man.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand. An American Olympic runner’s story of survival as a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II.
Jack Kennedy : Elusive Hero, by Chris Matthews.
Oh well, maybe I am an idealist, but how about just one book on a non-American up there?
Steven Pinker’s new data-infested tome, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, claims that violence has declined drastically across history. Pinker is right when he critiques the media-influenced belief that we are living in increasingly violent times. He is also right in his claim that many kinds of physical violence have declined in recent centuries. But his thesis is largely invalid because he does not fully contextualize the ways in which violence has changed with changing modes of production.
As Judith Butler puts it in Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Silence, “To the extent that we commit violence, we are acting on another, putting the other at risk, causing the other damage, threatening to expunge the other.” Obviously, in societies where capital empowers, and states are committed to creating “wealth” by aiding capital, it is often not necessary or even desirable to opt for physical violence. Your boss needs to fire you, not to beat you up. The state needs to move those “tribals” out, so that their ancestral lands can be “developed”. Actually, it is you who—on being fired or “relocated”—might want to beat someone up, and would be rightly restrained by the police from doing so.
So much for our better angels.
Tabish Khair is the author of the poetry collection Man of Glass and the novel The Thing about Thugs.
Write to Tabish at firstname.lastname@example.org