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Parched before the arriving rains

Published May 23, 2017 01:13am

I AM not a superstitious person and have no faith in Zodiac signs. In fact, let me confess, when a certain Gulf daily I worked for ran out of money one day I thoroughly enjoyed my duties as the stone-sub, lifting bromides from the previous year’s horoscope for the newspaper’s most popular and most irrelevant page. None noticed the penury-driven faux pas as life continued in its sing-song-now-and-turbulent-the-next-moment way.

One cannot divide billions of people into 12 silly categories, their lives determined by gemstones and colours to wear or avoid. In fact, the way the dice are loaded since at least three years for Indians, for every person of reason born on a given day there would be two or more gaurakshaks (cow protectors) arriving bang on that very moment.

T.S. Eliot and Arundhati Roy gave us two months of the calendar year — April and May — to ponder in their own disarmingly languorous ways, however.

“April is the cruellest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.” Eliot published The Waste Land in 1922, and, at the risk of double guessing his intent I would see it as a melancholic attempt to address the apparent loss of cultural identity after the First World War.


T.S. Eliot and Arundhati Roy gave us two months of the calendar year — April and May — to ponder.


Roy wrote her heart-tugging fiction — The God of Small Things — 20 years ago. Her next novel is due for worldwide release on June 6. I am privileged to have read it, as were (or should be) a clutch of Delhi-based journalists, all given a proof of the book but only after signing a bond of confidentiality. We are told William Shakespeare made up for the lack of a similar legal instrument in his time by not writing a full play in a single volume but by assigning specific scenes and dialogues to each actor separately. All I can say without revealing much is that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a treat to read again and again, and I’ll give you the compelling reasons when allowed to.

Meanwhile, let’s go back to the description of the particular month that Roy began her first book with, one which has inescapable shades of Eliot. It also has a happy and tragic universality about it. “May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dust-green trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.”

The absurd life of Roy’s bluebottles is underscored by their fatal and inevitable missteps. Or do bluebottles suffer from an unadvertised death wish? Elsewhere in May — May 21, 1991 — a female suicide bomber, later to be identified as a Tamil Tiger from Sri Lanka, was carrying out a final rehearsal for the meticulously planned rendezvous with Rajiv Gandhi later that night, a precision moment she is thought to have practised several times over.

The massive blast was not an aggrieved Tamil versus a wily Indian kind of rage. An opposite variant was equally sinister. Wijemuni Vijitha Rohana de Silva, an unbridled Sinhalese chauvinist, was a Sri Lankan sailor before he became an astrologer. It was he as a navy cadet who assaulted Rajiv Gandhi with a rifle butt at a military guard of honour. Heads, a Sinhalese; tails, a Tamil. Choose. Two years after Gandhi’s murder, a bicycle bomb blew up Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-first president Premadasa. That was on May 1, 1993.

May must be etched in many minds for a few other reasons than for the fact that in Ayemenem, during the month, “the nights are clear, but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation”. The sullen nuclear tests by India, one in 1974 and two in 1998 — were carried out in May. Pakistan responded with its own two in the Chagai hills of Balochistan within days. Just as the nights are clear in Kottayam, Roy’s turf, the days are equally clear in northern India.

Occasionally, the clarity offers support to some dark intent, for instance, to verify a technology that would bring all strife and debate, love and hatred, religion and the questioning spirit, the rich and the poor jostling for advantage against each other to “stun themselves to death against clear windowpanes.”

On another insanely hot day this month, three years ago, millions of Indians elected the bluebottle way of fruity life for themselves. They chose Narendra Modi as prime minister on May 14, 2014. Neighbours showed up for his coronation with hopes of a share in the peace pie. Since 20 million Indians were promised jobs, and each family was promised Indian Rs1.5m from the loot to be retrieved from Swiss and other banks — on both counts a false claim — the neighbours too would rejoice in India’s discovery of its soul. The swearing-in happened exactly a day before the nation usually remembered its first prime minister with an admixture of love and doubt, on his death anniversary on May 27.

This May should also be remembered for its cornucopia of outlandish riches — $900 billion in China’s save-the-world-from-poverty investment, a $350bn envelope to President Trump to help Muslims defeat each other, and a $250bn Indian plan to turn its traders into manufacturers of sophisticated weapons.

Given the impact the searing heat can have on one’s ability to reason, I should wait for the pre-monsoon showers due next month to usher Roy’s book before commenting on some hothead actor’s call (May 21) to harm her in unspeakable ways. The actor, a BJP MP from Gujarat, has evidently fallen on bad times and needs a moment of cheer from friendly TV channels. It is of course irrelevant that Paresh Rawal was born on May 30.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

jawednaqvi@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2017