Sunday, January 5, 2014

Charu Nivedita, English Speaking Biologists and Some Hypocrisies

I watched Bala's 'Paradesi' with my cousin and slept in the middle of the movie. My cousin asked me "if this movie had been about Holocaust by an American director would you fall asleep like this?" I told him "watch out for Charu's review he will ridicule this movie comparing it to Pianist and Schindler's List". Next day morning my cousin came down and said "you are great. Charu just now published a blog and he did exactly what you said he would do". Then there is Charu's critique of Ilayaraja. Whether it is Jeyamohan or Nanjil or S.Ra or Charu I've learned something from all. All that said I've deep differences over some books, ideas and blogs.

I've been watching with some amusement and some distaste about Charu's efforts to promote his student (as Charu calls him) Araathu's books. The books were published mostly as Facebook posts over the last year. The teasers filmed and broadcast were scarier. Araathu interviews some people and almost all confess cheerfully that they have no reading habit and some even talk of necessity of authors writing books that can sell. Full credit to Charu the book release function was a grand success. Question is did Tamil literature succeed? Charu delivered a much applauded speech. The speech delivered by one who is spoken of as a literary figure needs to be analyzed not just to expose contradictions or hypocrisies but to highlight the perilous path ahead for Tamil literature if this is what passes for a 'great speech' at a book release function.

Charu Nivedita scolded Jeyamohan and Nanjil for idolizing film personalities like Bala and Ilayaraja. Today's book release was 'star studded' to use a trite cinematic phrase. Gowtham Menon and Vasanth were the highlighted speakers. Then there was a cartoonist and historian (!!) of dubious quality, Madan. Gowtham Menon invited Arathu and Charu to write for movies. Is writing for movies the life's mission for literary writers? Would Spielberg invite Philip Roth to be a dialogue writer? Would Mario Vargas Llosa, a write Charu and I love, even allow Scorsese anywhere near his book release function? The standard reply I'd get is "if we don't do this then books would not sell in Tamil Nadu". I strongly disagree. This is insulting the Tamil reader. If film personalities are those who help sell books then why not invite Shakeela? Unfortunately Silk Smitha is dead. Books will not sell a single copy more just because Gowtham Menon is invited. Actually by inviting them Charu is sacrificing the due credit for publicity that should go to himself.

Charu would often pick on his bete-noire Jeyamohan on account of compromising his integrity to curry favors with film directors. How does Charu explain his fulsome praise of Gowtham Menon's plagiarized movie. "சினிமா என்றால், வசந்தின் கேளடி கண்மணியோ, கௌதமின் பச்சைக்கிளி முத்துச்சரமோ சொல்லவில்லை.. மோசமான சினிமாக்கள்.." Balu Mahendra's latest movie was warmly received only because many were courteous towards an aging film maker and polite not to say the truth, let alone harsh truth. Incidentally, plagiarizing Hollywood movies is standard practice for Balu Mahendra. 

The possible extinction of Tamil worries him says Charu. He narrates a day he spent with a group of biologists who were trying to save a rare tortoise (or turtle). All of them spoke exclusively in English throughout the day. Charu gets agonized that these biologists whose native language is Tamil speak in an alien language. I sympathize with the biologists. I can list 20 excellent books, not textbooks, on biology in English. I cannot think of even one good Tamil book that I can cite which is even remotely close to any of the English books. 

It is DMK style chauvinism to speak of Sangam literature poet writing about 99 flowers. The achievement of Carolus Linnaeus, Swedish biologist (and almost the inventor of the discipline of Taxonomy), in classifying plants and animals is a staggering intellectual feat that goes beyond the ability to name 99 flowers. Whether it is a Swede like Carl Linnaeus or an Englishman like Isaac Newton scientific treatises and anything that aspired to be intellectual was written in Latin in those days. Shakespeare was mocked as knowing 'little Latin and less Greek'. The language in which Einstein and Heisenberg wrote their Nobel Prize winning papers is no longer the dominant language of science. The economic and scientific dominance of US ensures that English is the lingua franca. When what they read in their professional life, which is most of their daily life, is in English can we expect them to speak in Tamil? I can also bet that their reading outside profession, if they read, would also mostly be in English. Finally they need to write in English too to be relevant in their field. If they need to write a a technical paper for a peer reviewed journal they need to be able to think in English and bring it out on paper. Charu, simply put, picked the wrong sampling of people to voice his worry. By the way why does Charu mostly cite French or Latin American authors?

During a visit to Paris in 1999 I saw an ad on the side of a bus which said "want Wall Street jobs learn English". When Churchill went to school since he was a less than mediocre student he was condemned to learn only English unlike his other brilliant classmates who learned Latin and Greek. Its a different debate but the remarks underscore how limited Charu's knowledge is of the world. By the way Aramaic, from which comes Hebrew, has a half million speakers says wikipedia, not a mere 1000. 

Sujatha, a wrier that Charu admires and one who many make the mistake of including along with Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov, has not written a single good book on science. Tamil is yet to see its Richard Dawkins or Sagan or John Gribbin. The reasons are deeper and beyond the scope of this blog. I can only say that most physics teachers in Tamil Nadu schools (or India) cannot even grasp why John Gribbin's 'In search of Schrodinger's cat' sells by millions. Most cannot even understand how Gribbin tells the story of quantum physics with the verve of a Sherlock Holmes thriller. Sujatha never understood it because he never outgrew his 'agrahaaram' mentality of seeing religion in quantum physics.

Sangam literature has a rich and hoary heritage. I've but dipped just my fingertips in those poems. Every time I read Kapilar's poems I used to think ruefully "if only western style authors sprung up in Tamil Nadu there would at least ten scholarly books just on Kapilar's poems alone". Charu who expresses great admiration for those poems and worries about extinction of Tamil has not written a book like Harold Bloom or T.S. Eliot on the Sangam poems. Rather it is Jeyamohan who has written a book on Sangam poems and delivered lectures on that topic. I've not read that book and hence I've no comment on its quality. How many of Charu's blog have even anything worthwhile to read let alone educate readers on the nuances of Sangam literature?

It is rich hypocrisy for Charu Nivedita to ridicule Facebook and social media. Charu's last book was nothing but a hodgepodge of Facebook chats, blog posts and what not dressed up with a nice label as 'auto-fiction'. 'Auto-fiction' sounds more like the runaway Chennai auto-rickshaw. Leonid Brezhnev (or was it Kruschev) once ridiculed modern art as something drawn by a paint brush tied to the tail of a donkey running helter-skelter. Just because 'Exile' is like that but it does not make Charu a Picasso or a Jackson Pollack. Araathu himself is creation of Facebook. 

Another writer (not Charu or Arathu) known for plagiarizing gathered his tweets and published them as a book. In the name of innovation FB posts and tweets are now getting the status of a book. A good writer could use FB to post parts of a progressing novel or book. I've nothing against it. As a capitalist I love self-promotion. But when somebody aspiring for the label 'writer' seeks suggestions from Facebook friends on the title, cover art, posts etc it completely voids the spirit behind the words 'creator's integrity'. Literature is not potpourri of ideas from all and sundry. Charu idolizes Latin American writers. Can he show one of them adopting techniques like this?

This blog is the result of an adulatory Facebook post by a 'fan', not a reader, of Charu who attended the function. I am not averse to a rambunctious literary function and nor do I suggest that book releases should be stuffy formal affairs dominated by prude victorian grey heads. 

When readers exult in euphoria over a very mediocre 10 minute speech they descend into becoming fans akin to Rajini fans. Charu fans please don't chuckle and gloat "for us Charu is Rajini". I actually prefer Rajini fans to Charu or Jemo fans. Rajini's fans have no delusion about their own or Rajini's intellectual status. In fact Rajini fans celebrate Rajini for his common-man mediocrity unlike the supposedly cerebral Kamal who was mocked, for what else but, being cerebral. I've a distaste for Charu's readers club or Jemo's Vishnupuram readers club. Once a reader goes into such an orbit they become a 'fan' and they lose their intellectual compass if they ever had one in the first place. A Jeyamohan reader wrote recently "இணைய தளங்களில் ஜெயமோகனை யாராவது வசைபாடுகிறார்களென்றால் அங்கே களமாடப் போவது நானும் அரங்கனும்தான். ஜெயனை ஓர் இழிசொல் சொன்னார்களெனில் நான் அவர்களுடனான உறவைத் துண்டித்துக் கொள்வதுடன் சம்பந்தப்பட்டவர் மானசீகமான என் எதிரியாக மனதிற்குள் உருவெடுத்து விடுவார்" ( who get angry for calling 'readers clubs' as 'fan clubs' need to re-read that. These are echo chambers for the intellectually insecure.

Charu's defense of Tarun Tejpal is the most shameful one ( தருணுக்கு நடந்ததை நினைத்துப் பாருங்கள்.  ஷேக்ஸ்பியர் அளவுக்கு ஆங்கிலத்தை வளப்படுத்திய, அதி அற்புதமான மூன்று நாவல்களை எழுதியும் மண்ணில் குழி தோண்டிப் புதைத்து விட்டார்கள். He recently wrote that Tejpal who contributed to English like Shakespeare is being hounded. I wonder if Charu has indeed read Shakespeare much less understood why the Bard is venerated all over the world across languages and cultures. I've visited Stratford upon Avon. Tourists come by the thousands, every day, from all corners of the world, to visit Shakespeare's home. Even if I concede, in a hallucinatory mood, that Tejpal is a Shakespeare does that condone his shameful act. An act that Tejpal himself confessed to. Jeyamohan is often tarred as 'Hindutva' but Charu who supports Modi, full throated, escapes any censure for that. Irony. (Note: This paragraph was added as an after thought)

If one takes the worst of the Jefferson lectures and compares it to the best speech of a Tamil writer the wide yawning chasm is evident to all but the intellectually deficient. I am yet to read or listen to any lecture that approaches the brilliance and encyclopedic range of Czeslaw Milosz or Igor Stravinsky delivering the Charles Eliot Norton lectures on poetics (not poetry) in Harvard.

I am aware that many would frown at some parts of this blog as snobbery or my usual India bashing. I am only irritated and angered by the celebration of mediocrity. And as long as that keeps happening in India I'll keep bashing. I am not ignorant to the fact that enough mediocrities enjoy fame and fortune in the West but somewhere they are put in their place. Check out the list of invitees to Jeffferson lectures or Charles Eliot Norton lectures or the Pulitzer prize awardees it will be difficult to call anyone a mediocrity. 

Every time I read a good book like Stephen Greenblatt's "Swerve" I wince at the thought that no such writings are done in Tamil. Greenblatt takes a poem by Lucretius and makes out the case that it is the corner stone of modern civilization. The amount of original research, almost like a detective on a hard to solve homicide case, is staggering. Greenblatt was rewarded with a rare win of both a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. Greenblatt writes about book hunters of ancient Italy. He painfully details how they scoured monasteries for books, how books were copied, discovered or destroyed. In Tamil Nadu U.Ve.Swamitha Iyer is passingly mentioned as "oh he saved ancient Tamil texts". 

I am well aware of the brickbats that would come my way. Charu may very well write an expletive laden Charu style rebuttal. Then the usual questions "how many Tamil stories have you read", "who have you read", "have you read that or this book by so and so". My answer is "none of that matters. Have I said anything untrue in what I wrote above". 

The worst part of the FB post by Charu's fan was "வழங்கப் பட வேண்டிய விதத்தில் வழங்கப் பட்டால் இங்கு நல்ல சரக்கு விற்றே தீரும் ". Excuse me. If somebody else had said this Charu's response would be "what am I? A circus monkey to dance to the tune of all and sundry" or "what is this? A book release or TASMAC bar?"

I await the day to write exultantly of a Tamil speech or book. Toward that end the first duty is to slay the dragon of mediocrity or should I say kill the cancerous disease of idolizing mediocrity that has eaten into the soul and innards of Indian society. I'll continue to speak and write that which none shall speak or write.

Tamam Shud. Amen. 


VarahaMihira Gopu said...

Here is a link to Jayamohan's talk on Sangam poetry. Truly excellent.

Here is the audio recording, if you prefer low bandwidth and since he is not showing any pictures.

Thekkikattan|தெகா said...

i loved the flow of language, and of course, the whipping.

Anonymous said...

//Charu gets agonized that these biologists whose native language is Tamil speak in an alien language.//

அரபியிலும் ஃப்ரெஞ்சிலும் ‘எஸ்பஞோலிலும்’ கரைகண்டவருக்கு ஆங்கிலத்தில்மட்டும் கொஞ்சம் தடையின்றிச் சரளமாய்ப் பேசவந்திருந்தால் முந்திக்கொண்டு முதல் ஆளாக அவ் உயிரியலர்களிடம் முழுநேரமும் ஆங்கிலத்திலேயே அளவளாவி மகிழ்ந்திருப்பார்தான்! இவ்வாறெல்லாம் வருந்தியிருக்கவும்மாட்டார்தான்!

எட்டாத திராட்சை

தம் இயலாமையின்/பொறாமையின் புழுக்கத்தையும் உளைச்சலையும் மிகக் கவனமாகத் திரித்து திடீர் அறச்சீற்றமாக/அக்கறையாக/அறிவுத்ததும்பலாக உருமாற்றிக்கொள்ளும் உளத்தியல் வித்தையில் கொட்டைபோட்டவர்களாக்கும் எம் தற்காலத் தமிழிலக்கிய ஆசான்கள்!

Yayathi said...

Amusing :-)
I don't mean to defend writer Sujatha, but I find the sentence "Sujatha never understood it because he never outgrew his 'agrahaaram' mentality of seeing religion in quantum physics" interesting. Having read some of your blogs on Tamil (not all), as a "Contrarian" you seem to be defining "Tamil Art, literature, cinema" as something like "Not Ilayaraja, Not Bala, Not Jeyamohan, Not Charu, etc." Isn't this similar to "Neti Neti" of the Advaita Vedanta? May be you too live in another Agraharam or may be on top of the "Madhil" to tell people where Agraharam is :-) Perhaps you have already written what needs to happen in the Tamil milieu - I may have to read more of your blogs :-)