Saturday, March 22, 2003

a cynical, idealistic melange

Out of God's Oven: Travels in a Fractured Land, by Dom Moraes and Sarayu Srivatsa

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Asia Times in March 2003).

Honesty, they say, is its own reward. And it's a good thing, too, because it rarely wins many friends. In his latest book on India, Out of God's Oven, poet and journalist Dom Moraes wields candor like a bludgeon, confessing at the outset: "In 1980, [my return to India] had sounded like a prison sentence ... I sympathized with the poor, but too many of them existed. India had the most brutally stupid middle class in the world."

Critics from that disparaged group have responded in kind, taking Moraes to task for his pessimism, his anglophilia and, generally, for writing like a foreigner. The small praise given Out of God's Oven has been parceled out to his co-writer Sarayu Srivatsa, a woman whose relationship with "home" is less ambivalent. But it is a mistake to accept either writer's pose - charitable ingenue or cantankerous snob - too readily. These are devices, and terrific ones, for examining what the writers refer to as "terrible landmarks in Indian history". The pairing of the cynic and the optimist gives these "travels in a fractured land" a dramatic urgency, as grim event after grim event threatens, by education, to make the lark more and more like the owl.

The book's title, which derives from a story Srivatsa's grandmother told her to explain India's oppressive caste system, captures the essence of that struggle between innocence and experience. The first men the gods made were burned dark brown in the gods' hot clay oven, grandmother says. They became the Shudra, the pariah. Once the gods perfected the recipe, they made the beautiful, fair Brahmin. If I am a Brahmin, the young Srivatsa asks her grandmother, then why am I so dark? Just as Moraes' brutal sincerity is a mask for a great love, as emerges in his portraits of his many friends, Srivatsa's sunny optimism is a terrific foil, also, for cutting sarcasm.

Based on six years of nearly constant travel, Out of God's Oven captures the issues gripping contemporary India more completely than recent books with comparable agendas (Mark Tully's India in Slow Motion and William Dalrymple's Age of Kali come to mind). The book neither panders to the foreigner's obsessions nor caters to his ignorance. At the same time, Moraes and Srivatsa both "write like foreigners" to the extent that - unlike too many Indian journalists - they never neglect to provide the background necessary to understand the events they describe. But where a foreign correspondent like myself might be content muckraking (India is corrupt! Hindus kill Muslims!), they have the luxury of being able to go beyond sanctimonious outrage to more complex analysis.

In a book of remarkable scope, the two writers address many of the seminal events of Indian history of the past three decades, ranging from riots by Dalits (formerly untouchables) in Bombay, to the cooperative movement that empowered village women by granting them control over the marketing of the fruit of their labors, to the battle of communist Naxalites with Bihar's upper-caste landlords, to the various tragedies caused by an enduring religious mania. Though the timing of its release prompted publishers to market Out of God's Oven as a prelude to the deadly Gujarat riots, it is far more than an investigation of the persecution of Indian Muslims or Hindu fundamentalism.

Despite those numerous strengths, however, the book suffers from an over-reliance on informants who share the sensibilities and background of the authors. These interviews - spirited exchanges between the like-minded, to be sure - generate some terrific lines: "An Indian was not part of a team; he was part of a mob"; "The greatest freedom we have received from Independence [was the] freedom to talk"; "Corruption is an offshoot of hypocrisy, the habit of lying to oneself"; "Politics is the only profession where you do not need any qualifications." But the eloquent expression of consensus does not result in many new insights about the others: the fundamentalist thugs, the devoutly religious, the desperately poor.

Nevertheless, though it's peopled with too many talkers and not enough actors, Out of God's Oven is not completely without heroes: a teacher at a convent school combating the messages of religious hatred her students absorb from their parents; a 72-year-old writer who has lived among the poorest villagers of North Bengal, fighting their causes for 25 years; a man who takes in illegitimate children, mad and destitute women. But the overall feeling is that India has just too many tragedies. "I am tired, so tired," says one of these good souls. "If I had an alternative, do you think I would be doing this? Can I just leave everything and run away? They have no one else. So I continue. I have no choice. And I am so tired."

This is not the familiar quirky, mystical India that churns along, in chaos, yes, but never in collapse. It's a vision of a lighted bomb, the fuse sputtering fast. And the writers offer no solution, which means that in its darkest moments, the book seems to echo the novelist who tells Moraes: "I couldn't help you much. I think as you ask questions about India, you will find many people like me, who will point out what is wrong. That is, of course, glaringly clear. But I don't think anybody will be able to point out a way to make it right. If he could, he would be a leader, and India's tragedy is that it has none."