December 30, 2005

Pandi melam

The November-December 2005 issue of Biblio carries my review of Between the Earth and the Sky: The Penguin Book of Forest Writings, edited by Savyasaachi. Here it is. Comments, as always, welcome.

(I quoted the first excerpt below in this space last month, here, while I was wading through the book).


On page 48, feeling drained, I stumbled on this:
    Nothingness is not a thing in competition with other things. Indeed it is continuous with the heart of each thing which is also a not-thingness, like the selfhood of human personality which is also not a being in competition with other beings and things but the limitless space of not-thingness, emptiness.

Drained, because I was on the 21st page of Ramachandra Gandhi's A Great Forest Debate which is one of the essays in this book, and it had been 21 pages of hard reading, and I couldn't even figure what qualified it as "forest writing" apart from the third word of its title. Then I stumbled, and it was like a revelation. I could not understand these two sentences, no, not at all; and yet that very lack of understanding summed up this essay, and possibly this book.

Is it just me? Why do people write like this? Why would an editor pick a piece as opaque as this one to include in a volume like this? A Great Forest Debate ends on page 49, and my note to myself when I finished reads, simply, "What was it all about?" It's excerpted from Gandhi's book Sita's Kitchen, and all I can say is, I'm glad I wasn't asked to review that.

Gandhi's essay is the fifth in the Table of Contents, and by its end, I was greatly discouraged. Because the previous four had been about as opaque, and I had struggled through all these pages and was really beginning to wonder: Is it just me? Is this whole book going to be such tough going? Is it going to be as hard to find the connection to forests with every piece in here?

Perhaps the problem was with my expectations. "Forest writings": to me, that phrase hints at trees and ecology, natural history and conservation, hunting and gathering, maybe even mystery and thrills. Forgive the pun, but what could be more rooted, down to earth if you like, than forests? And so, I thought the writing would be like that: earthy, practical, vivid, full of the smells and sights of teeming jungle life.

Yet the book begins with a slew of metaphysical -- if it's metaphysical, I don't even know -- stuff that, yes, drained me.

Still, it gets better. My next note to myself came after exactly another 49 pages, and that one reads: "Arun Joshi's Billy Again is mysterious and delicious." This is an extract from his novel The Strange Case of Billy Biswas, and boy, would I have liked to review that one! Joshi's is writing that grabs you and soaks you in thoroughly believable characters and their conversation. Indeed, much of this piece is conversation, yet it never flags. The pace, the tension, the mystery -- it all builds and grows, and on page 98 I was left feeling just as a good extract must make you feel: itching to find the book and devour it.

Not the same feeling, let it be said, I had on page 49.

There are other gems as well. Two short tales by Jim Corbett are enough to have you yearning for more. Jungle Whodunnits, they are called, and they brought back delicious memories of the time I used to devour Corbett's writing, too many years ago. Corbett's powers of observation and deduction remind you of Sherlock Holmes, or Brother William in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose -- yet this is a real man, not a character in a novel, and he is able to read so much from so little.

In the second tale, watch for what unfolds when Corbett comes across what he calls "an unusual mark" on the side of a road, something he himself describes as "a little furrow three inches long and two inches deep where it started." That's all he has to go on, but his chain of reasoning from that furrow leads him to a tree stump in a glade. He sits with his back to it, waiting for a well-known tiger to return to its kill. And sure enough, the tiger does return. And though in the end Corbett gets only a "fleeting glimpse of him" because his (the tiger's) suspicion is aroused, you still marvel at this man and the way he knows his forest.

The thing is, as well, that the reasoning is so ... well, reasonable. You read Corbett and you think, I could have thought it through like that. But of course, few of us are so outrageously gifted with such powers, and even fewer of us can write so engagingly about using them. And that's why it is so rewarding to read Corbett.

Ruskin Bond's Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright is similarly delightful. Though if you feel for the tiger, which Bond clearly wants you to do, the story builds a sense of great foreboding as you turn the pages. How will this magnificent but aging creature survive? "The tiger is the very soul of India," one of Bond's characters says, "and when the last tiger goes, so will the soul of the country." He speaks metaphorically, but you know he also means, very specifically, the splendid tiger in the story.

At least one essay here had me reaching for my dictionary, and my copy of Hobson-Jobson. This was Prakash Moorthy's atmospheric story Pandi Melam -- watch for, and shiver at, the sentence that begins "Swaying slightly like their death."

But the story had me wondering, does the word "pandemonium" have etymological roots in India, like "chutney" and "verandah" do? Because Moorthy has this phrase towards the end: "Our master and his troupe unleashed two hours of pandi melam on the Austrians." "Pandemonium", why not?

Sadly and somewhat prosaically, the answer is no: the roots of "pandemonium" are in some dull Greek words. (I checked). Pandi melam is really a Kerala orchestral performance, but the way Moorthy writes of it, it could be "pandemonium." And the Austrians would likely agree.

A Brigadier-General called RG Burton has a strange exposition on How Tigers Hunt. Strange because the Brig-Gen seems to have an obsession with whether tigers can smell, and with the sense of smell in general. That is a theme that runs through his little thesis. At one point, he writes of how the lion's nose "is not a hound nose but a winding nose." Just when you're wondering what a nose that winds around and around might look like on a lion, the next paragraph explains that he means that these animals use the wind -- as in going upwind -- while hunting for game.

It is an odd piece, but Burton is not without a fine sense of humour. "Both tigers and bears have been known to worry a hat dropped by a man," he writes, "although the owners are to be congratulated that their heads were not in their hats."


But on the whole, these bright spots are too few to rescue this book. At the end, I felt much like I did when I wrote my note after reading Kamala Subramaniam's Yaksha Prasna. An extract from Subramaniam's 1988 retelling of the Mahabharata, this is of course the extended Q&A between the Yaksha and Yudhishthira, followed by the boon that gives the Pandava brothers their lives back.

Interesting enough, I suppose. But my note, similar to my note after being dazed by Ramachandra Gandhi, reads: "What was this about, forest-wise?"

I mean, being Indian and knowing the story of the Mahabharata, we know that the Pandavas were banished to the forest. But as far as I can tell, that bit of assumed knowledge is the only, and unstated, link to forests here. Is that connection enough to make this a piece fit for a book of forest writings?

Between the Earth and the Sky promises a lot. But somewhere along the way, it stumbles. Perhaps on nothingness that's not in competition, perhaps on something else.

Whichever it is, I'm off to look for Arun Joshi's books. Corbett too.


Anonymous said...

couldn't help laughing out at the extract from page 49. i know exactly what you mean. friend of mine forwarded an article by a french dude called Baudrillard. Bloke uses the word "irreference" three times in one sentence. It is that bad :-)

ever read "Politics and the English Language" by Orwell?

anyway, i have long been a fan of your writing on and here. thanks, and keep up the good work.


Anonymous said...

I think the reason why we continue to see such bad writing in India 14 years after we gave up socialism is that we haven't had enough economic liberalisation in India.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Anonymous, thanks. And Baudrillard! Talk about impenetrable. I have an entire book of his, and I have tried, believe me, to get past the first couple of pages. Can't. (You who gave it to me, please don't hold it against me).

Shivam: Yes. And now I'm off to do some bad writing of my own.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why we have such writers. But we do. Fortunately we also have people writing nice reviews like these.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the review.