Charles Dickens in India

“Please, Sir, I want some more.”

Charles Dickens would have turned 200 today. If you haven’t read his books, here is the digested read. At the request of BBC World Service I wrote a brief reminiscence recalling my experience reading Dickens in my childhood. Here is the longer version of what I recorded for them:

Children have lurid imaginations. They don’t need much help imagining misfortune. But if you are aware of poverty, or see suffering around you, Charles Dickens can be a boon. This is because he is so good at populating that stricken landscape with indelible characters outfitted with violent habits and unforgettable names.

I grew up in a small town in India. The novels of Charles Dickens, in abridged form, were required reading in schools. My uncles on my mother’s side worked in prisons. I could look up from a page of Great Expectations and see the convicts working in the house, sweeping a stone courtyard or feeding the cows. Each man, clad in white khadi with blue stripes, would have an iron manacle around his ankle. I went back to the page I was reading, but now troubled by the thought that soon one of them would be beside me, asking me to fetch a file.

In the books that we read, a dramatic pencil illustration would be printed every few pages, with a line from the novel serving as a caption.

“Please, Sir, I want some more.” That line was Dickens’s gift to me.

At bus-stops, in the homes of less well-off relatives, outside tea-stalls, I looked at the faces of other children as they regarded food that was displayed, or that someone else was eating, and I’d think back to the line I had read in Oliver Twist.

In the new shining India, 42.5 percent of its children suffer from malnutrition. The term “Dickensian” evokes cold dark workplaces and cramped rooms. It doesn’t belong to the India of teeming cities with soaring flyovers and glittering multirise buildings. Yet, you can still look at the stunted children and remember, without sentimentality, that old line from Dickens: “Please, Sir, I want some more.”




We are all Indians

Franz Kline's New York

I had been asleep when the first plane hit the World Trade Center’s North Tower. What woke me was the sound of my wife sobbing. A phone call had come from India, from an editor, asking me to write. So, that is how we learned about what had happened.

The piece I wrote that day had some anger in it, anger not only at the hijackers but at the Americans. This was the kind of thing that would be called “the chicken coming home to roost” argument. A few days later, in the New Yorker issue dedicated to September 11, with its famous black cover designed by Art Spiegelman, I read a piece by Amitav Ghosh. His brief essay told the story of a man, an engineer involved in the design of the Twin Towers, staying back in the building to help people escape. The man and his wife, both of whom worked in the destroyed buildings, were Ghosh’s neighbors. And Ghosh’s piece was filled with a kind of sad tenderness that made me feel ashamed about my rage. I felt as if I had arrived drunk at a funeral. Continue reading

“First You Must Say Hello”


The film “Zero Bridge” is a film set in Kashmir and, therefore, the word “terrorist” is used in the film. But only once. This happens when a couple of young white men, tourists, lounging on a shikara on the Dal Lake have the following exchange with the film’s central character, Dilawar:

  • Western tourist 1: What does “Dilawar” mean? Your name?
  • Dilawar (with a smile): It means a terrorist.
  • Western tourist 1 (laughing): I knew it!
  • Western tourist 2 (also laughing): Yeah, you look like a bad guy.

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February 11

riot girl small.jpg

I couldn’t have been alone in this, but it was only after the news of Mubarak’s departure that I watched for the first time the video of Asmaa Mahfouz making her appeal for the gathering that became the protest action of January 25. That video, when posted on Facebook, became a rallying cry. As I learned a bit later from this interview with Mahfouz, January 25 was chosen because it is observed as Police Day in Egypt, and she was interested not in honoring the police but in pointing out that they were the arm of oppression. In the video you see this twenty-five-year-old woman speaking with great anguish of the three Egyptian men who had set themselves on fire to protest. It is humbling, and so wonderfully inspiring, to realize that such a tumultuous movement, one that has moved the entire world, could have had such small beginnings. Continue reading

Letter to a Young Islamophobe

Ayaan Hirsi AliAP061001023052-thumb-400xauto-4681.jpg Dear Young Islamophobe:

You will do well to start with any of the books written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Her best-known work is Infidel. Her latest book is Nomad. She has also written a few other things. Anything written by Hirsi Ali will do; they all say the same things about the terror of Islam.

I read Nomad recently. It is littered with stories like the following: “In February 2009 in Buffalo, New York, a forty-seven-year-old Muslim businessman who had set up a cable TV station to ‘promote more favorable views of Muslims,’ beheaded his wife, who was seeking to divorce him.”

This is a short short-story. You can narrate it at parties. Imagine the shock (but perhaps not the silence, because these days everyone, it seems, has a story to tell about Islam). But you should also learn from Hirsi Ali’s style of writing. Continue reading

Talking About Terror


[Amitava Kumar and Lorraine Adams will be in conversation today, August 27, at 6.30 PM at the Aicon Gallery in New York City. Admission is free.]

I have just received a letter from a man in prison. His name is Hemant Lakhani. Lakhani was a women’s clothing salesman who, in 2005, was convicted of selling an Igla missile to an FBI informant posing as a member of a jihadist organization.

Lakhani is one of the people I write about in my new book A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm A Tiny Bomb. He learned about the book’s publication by reading a review in the New York Times.

Mr. Lakhani writes to congratulate me but also to invite me back. There is more to tell, he writes. If I listen to his story, and write about it, he promises me that the book will be a bestseller. I will be interviewed by the mainstream press, including Charlie Ross (sic).

The Times review had also mentioned that I had visited a strip-club outside the Missouri high-security prison where Lakhani is incarcerated. I had a conversation there with a dancer about the man I had come to meet in Missouri. This didn’t sit well with Mr Lakhani and he writes in his letter that I must promise him that I will not go back to the strip-club again. Continue reading

Five Reels Later

96a8f5d0.jpg The media event today was Amardeep’s saying goodbye to Sepia Mutiny. Why, Amardeep, why? And why did you have to make your intelligent commentary on my novel your swan-song? menu_unda_chicken.jpg Have you read the comments section? What happened to the discussion of the point you had made, for instance, about provincial cosmopolitanisms? Talking of swan songs, you could perhaps have done this. Much better, nahin?. A friend ate a kati roll today and told me I should point this out in the comments section myself. Continue reading

Not All Indian Émigrés Are Engineers


[Originally published in The Caravan under the title “A Normal Man in a Not So Normal World.” Photos by Preston Merchant.]

On a warm July morning, I boarded the London Tube to Boston Manor station. The southbound Piccadilly Line, represented by a Navy Blue line on my map, would terminate at Heathrow airport. My stop came a few stations before the line ended.

The people I had come to meet were waiting outside in a car, and after introductions had been made, we drove to a store to buy meat and beer for lunch. The man who was driving was in his early 30s. He wore a stylish shirt and dark glasses. His name was Aryian Singh, but he later told me that this wasn’t what he had been named at birth. He had changed his name after he had come out of prison. When I questioned him about his job, he said he was working on a couple of film projects but didn’t provide details. I noticed that there were small scars on his face. I later learned that a couple of them were from injuries inflicted by his mother when he was a kid–once, his mother had smashed his face with a milk bottle.

The man whose face I was now watching in the rearview mirror interested me. His name change and the reason for it wasn’t what one has come to expect as a staple of Indian fiction about diasporic lives–Samiullah changing to Sam or a Madhu becoming Maddy, one pining for the neem tree outside his ancestral home and the other for her mother’s cardamom-scented fish curry. In those stories, particularly those written in the US, the only crime a human seems capable of is forgetting to write a letter home. Or if there are transgressions they seem to have blossomed out of a fantasy spun out in a garden called a creative writing MFA program. But Aryian Singh’s story appeared to be different. Sitting in the backseat of the silver Mercedes E220, I imagined an entry into another life. Not one offered as homage to quiet domesticity but one lived in recognition of the reality of the street. Continue reading

Tuna Princess


Tuna Princess by Daisy Rockwell

**Mohamed Mahmood Alessa was arrested with his friend (and co-conspirator) on the way to join a militant group in Somalia. His mother has said that he wanted to take his cat, Tuna Princess, with him, but she did not allow it and they argued. **

Acrylic on wooden panel, 14″ x 14″

I haven’t unpacked my bags yet. Just yesterday I was in North Adams, Massachusetts, where I had driven on Thursday to attend the opening of Rasgulla, Daisy Rockwell’s art-show. (Daisy is a wonderful artist whose work I hadn’t known about till only a few months ago; I have met her since, and regard her as a close friend.) The exhibition in North Adams of Diasy’s paintings draws upon the idea of what Sanskrit aestheticians called “rasas,” the nine perfected moods, distillations of human emotions into a pure form. An important part of the exhibition is Daisy’s exploration of “political rasas,” her attempt to take fleeting news-images of public figures and turn them into physical objects. You see the painting of the Ayatollah in a purple forest; Barack Obama as a boy, standing on the tarmac with his father’s arms around him; Sarah Palin, wearing red shoes, sitting on a sofa, surrounded by dead animals. For me, the greatest interest lay in Daisy’s paintings of those accused of terrorist acts. I have long held that many of the writers and artists working in the aftermath of 9/11 have presented a faux familiarity with the so-called terrorist mind. Daisy’s art makes no such claims. It returns us to what is real–and therefore surprising–about human lives. She has painted portraits of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, and there must be some bravery involved in putting these up on the walls of a gallery, but what Daisy is especially good at is painting those one would call ordinary terrorists. These are people who might be behind bars but in the paintings emerge as individuals, as individuals who are neither particularly heroic nor particularly villainous. This isn’t what DeLillo was writing about in a story that invoked Gerhard Richter–this isn’t about a viewer seeing that even terrorists can be forgiven. There is too much irony in Daisy’s paintings, and often, also glitter. There is ambiguity, perhaps, and more than that, a plain sense of attention. It is as if in an effort to find more about the world in which we are living, a world where the war on terror is a fact, the artist has finally found a human face.

But the state lacks all subtlety. Earlier this evening, I read that a six-year-old girl from Ohio, Alyssa Thomas, has been put on a “no-fly” list. Her father, Santhosh Thomas, a doctor, has readily admitted that Alyssa has probably been mean to her sister in the past. And added, “She may have threatened her sister, but I don’t think that constitutes Homeland Security triggers.” I think Daisy should paint the portrait of this little terrorist.
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Let’s Fly First Class


Objects are like people: they can tell you where they come from. I count objects that look desi. Look at the plane above. You have probably seen that art on trucks in places like Lahore or Ludhiana. It might be two in the afternoon. It is hot and dry around you, the man selling sugarcane juice is sleeping in the shade of a tree, and there’s no one else around. Your shadow is the smallest you’ve ever seen in your life. And then a truck comes to a stop beside you. The exhaust pours out as if from a chimney in a brick kiln. If you look past it, however, you see painted on the side of the truck, a landscape that includes snowy peaks, colorful huts, cool skies, fields brimming with flowers that will live longer even than plastic. Folk utopia!

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