Thursday, March 08, 2012

Review: The Other Country: Dispatches from the Moffusil

The Other Country is a collation of Mrinal Pande’s recent columns for newspapers like the Mint, Telegraph and The Hindu. What makes the enterprise worthwhile is Pande’s insights into the forces that push, pull or distort the world’s largest democracy, and a fearless liberalism that isn’t trying to squash itself into pat little moulds of right or left. 

She seems impatient with easy assumptions about India’s forward march, and she doesn’t pull her punches, whether she’s criticizing literature festivals (she likens conferences like Translating Bharat to ‘priest-giri’) or activists who try to beatify brothels by glossing over the brutalization of little girls.

Her sharp tongue is in evidence too and the critique is often peppered with delightful phrases such as ‘the milk of human kindness was never more tax deductible!’(My personal favourite is the (Mallika) ‘Sherawatting’ of the women’s rights movement.)

But aside from wit and startling observations, there are also heart-wrenching moments, such as Pande complaint that, “we women, bearers of life and death, are becoming like court jesters. We tell the horrible truth, everyone smiles in polite agreement, but it has no impact.”

This book raises important questions about language and power. But Pande’s best feature is her ability to draw out a string and weave half a dozen notions into a single loop. She hops from a lack of skilled workers to women’s juggling of responsibilities, to mangoes, to self-esteem and the President.

Importantly, she points at the joints in the twisted body of the nation to show how one set of problems feeds off, and bleeds into, another set. For instance, when she talks of the child marriage problem in Rajasthan, she touches upon not just tradition and patriarchy but also extreme poverty, whereby weddings and funeral feasts are sometimes a combined event.

Pande illuminates the links between linguistic racism, urban feminism and unethical media. There are introductions to women like Prabha devi, the only woman barber in her village, and Lad Kanwar, who explains why maternal mortality doesn’t hit the headlines the way farmer suicides do. There are all-too-brief forays into economic home truths, via tamancha (small desi firearm) manufacture in UP, a priest shortage in Maharashtra, Agra’s ailing ambulances, and Mineral Water Baba.

These are engaging and ironic and leave the reader hungering for more. Along with the diversions into Pande’s own memories of her family, her home state, or her attempts to prove an economic or feminist point, they make for good, insightful material. One wishes the book had more of these, and in a more fluid format.

The book would have held its ground if only Pande’s writing could be taken out of restrictive column-length jackets. The columns were written with an assumed familiarity with the current contexts on the part of the reader (as indeed, there would have been for a newspaper reader). It also subjects each piece to the unnecessary pressure of cramming in too much information, and constructing clear beginnings, middles and ends. 

All this book needed was to be treated like a book in its own right.

[A truncated version of this review appeared here.]

No comments:

Tweets by @anniezaidi