Seminar (614): The Pursuit of Happiness
The venerable New Delhi-based monthly journal’s decision to devote an entire issue to Gross National Happiness came as a welcome recent surprise. ‘GNH’ is Bhutan’s unique development strategy, introduced by its former king in the early 1970s as a parallel development indicator to gross national product, and incorporated into Bhutan’s new Constitution in 2008. As it has become an increasingly central guiding principle for the Bhutanese state, however, GNH has appeared to veer wildly between altruistic inspiration and self-serving manipulation. One of the most baffling aspects has been the clear opportunity inherent in this holistic development approach, versus the Bhutan state’s apparent inability to accept any criticism of GNH – combined with its refusal to apply the idea to all of Bhutan’s ethnic communities equally.
Unfortunately, not only have the Seminar editors done nothing new to explore this discrepancy; they have done nothing whatsoever. Incredibly, over the course of a dozen articles, there is not a single line devoted to any kind of critical examination – or even dismissal of criticism. In addition to missing a significant opportunity to further the public discussion on this important topic, then, in allowing itself to become a mere propaganda tool Seminar has done a clear disservice to the people of Bhutan and further afield. Gross National Happiness is an important, thought-provoking idea; let’s treat it as such. (Carey L Biron)
Beautiful Thing: Inside the secret world of Bombay’s dance bars
by Sonia Faleiro
Hamish Hamilton, 2010
The bar dancer of Mumbai is a figure much beloved by Bollywood, which has typically glamourised her beyond all resemblance to reality. Still, she has been largely invisible in serious literature, at least until Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City. But here, Faleiro delves deep into the realities of these marginalised lives. What emerges is an intimate picture of dancers’ day-to-day reality – the abuse, exploitation and misery, but also an astonishing courage and resilience.
Faleiro follows the life of 19-year-old Leela, whom she met while working as a reporter. Living perpetually on the edge of danger and despair, Leela nevertheless manages to navigate the numerous shoals and reefs of a bar dancer’s life with confidence – at least until the Maharashtra government closes down the dance bars, forcing dancers to take huge risks to eke out a living. The picture of Leela that emerges is, to use Faleiro’s words elsewhere, ‘a metaphor for Indian women … For what we do to them, and offering so little, how much we expect of them. Of how … [they] still exceed our expectations.’ (Vidyadhar Gadgil)
Litanies of Dutch Battery
by N S Madhavan
translated by Rajesh Rajamohan
The stories of Dutch Battery (or Lantham Bathery, in Malayalam) are told by Jessica, who begins while still in the womb. She grows up to be a feisty teenager and a devout but reflective Christian. From her, we learn that the residents of Lantham Bathery name Vasco da Gama in their prayers, crediting him for both their conversion to Christianity and an end to their oppression as lower-caste Hindus. We hear how Amrita Sher-Gil, the painter, appears in Kochi and buys two easels, the most perfect that she has ever seen. We come to know that as a result of the rice shortage in Kerala in 1958, its communist chief minister introduced macaroni into the market – and was subsequently referred to as ‘Lord Macaroni’.
Litanies is set on the imaginary island of Lantham Battery, just to the north of Fort Kochi. ‘Historical’ anecdotes comprise the first half, with a prominent theme being the rise of communism in Kerala. The result, though, is the reader feels a little lost without a plot. One emerges in the second half, however, when Jessica is sexually harassed by her mathematics tutor. When she speaks up about the abuse, her family tries to shut her up, save for her grandfather. More interesting is that the response to Jessica’s plight by followers of god and Marx is the same: Let it be. The padre cannot intervene because her perpetrator is not a Catholic, and the local communist leader says she imagined it. In the end, Jessica has to choose between suicide and going mad – the latter her grandfather’s suggestion. (Meher Ali)
No Way Home
by Amarjit Sidhu
Diaspora fiction from Southasia – whether defined as fiction by diasporic writers, or literature about the diaspora (the two categories often overlap, given the navel-gazing propensities of this category of writers) – has become a growth industry in recent years. An undiscriminating publishing industry that appears more obsessed with volume rather than quality has lent a willing hand, resulting in a flood of uninspiring and uninspired fiction.
No Way Home comes as one more unremarkable addition to this deluge. Dave (Davinder) moves from India to the US, and then oscillates like a pendulum between the two countries. At no point does his story hold the reader’s interest, neither when he chases the American dream nor when he – as is almost inevitable in a diaspora novel – seeks his ‘roots’. Even the sections dealing with the horrific anti-Sikh riots of 1984 fail to rise above the pedestrian, and the faux profundity of Dave’s philosophical musings leaves one grimacing with irritation. Finally returning to Toronto, Dave feels ‘the final calm of a homecoming’. Clearly, even the writer of the cover blurb – ‘No matter how fond one might be of an alien land, no matter how much it offered, it could never be home’ – gave up before the end of this tedious novel. (VG)