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Francis Bacon: The Painter’s Brutal Gesture

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“I would like, in my arbitrary way, to bring one nearer to the actual human being.”—Francis Bacon

The Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera is a rare artist in the sense that he has a deep understanding of all the three major art forms—the novel, paintings, and music. Kundera’s father was an important Czech musicologist and pianist who served as the head of the Janacek Music Academy in Brno from 1948 to 1961—the author started learning the piano from an early age. 

Apart from his novels, Kundera has written numerous essays and four non-fiction books—The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed, The Curtain, and Encounter—where he lucidly destroys conventional interpretations of art, enriches the reader with the aesthetic and the history of the novel, and talks with authority on paintings and music. One can easily figure out the artists he admires the most as even if he has discussed them at length in one work they still find reasonable space in all his other works—the novelists Franz Kafka, Cervantes, Rebalias, Jaroslav Hasek, Doestovesky, Flaubert, Hermann Broch, Thomas Mann, and Robert Musil; the composers Leos Janecek, Stravinsky, and Bach; the painters Picasso and Francis Bacon. This essay is about British painter Francis Bacon.

When Michel Archimbaud was planning his collection of Francis Bacon’s portraits and self-portraits, he asked Kundera to write the book’s introduction. He assured Kundera that the invitation was Bacon’s own wish. He reminded Kundera of a short piece of his, published long ago in the periodical L’Arc, a piece he said the painter had considered one of the few in which he could recognise himself. “I will not deny my emotion at this message arriving, after years, from an artist I had never met and loved so much,” Kundera wrote. 

The best commentaries on Bacon’s work are by Bacon himself in two series of interviews: with David Sylvester between 1962 and published in the later year, and with Archimbaud between October 1991 and April 1992. In both he speaks admiringly of Picasso, especially of the 1926-1932 period, the only one to which he feels truly close; he saw “an area there… which in a way has been unexplored, of organic form that relates to the human image but is a complete distortion of it.” With this very precise remark, he defines the realm whose exploration is actually his alone.

Aside from that short period Bacon mentions, one could say that Picasso’s light gesture transforms human body motifs into two-dimensional and autonomous pictorial reality. With Bacon we are in another world: there, playful Picassian (or Matissian) euphoria is replaced by an amazement (if not a shock) at what we are, what we are materially, physically. Impelled by that amazement, the painter’s hand comes down with a ‘brutal gesture’ on a body, on a face, “in the hope of finding, in it and behind it, a thing that is hidden there”.

But what is hidden there? It’s self? Every portrait ever painted seeks to uncover the subject’s self. But Bacon lived in a time when the self inevitably eludes detection. Indeed, our most common personal experience teaches us (especially if the life behind us is very long) that faces are lamentably alike (the insane demographic avalanche further enhancing that sense), that they are easy to confuse, that they only differ one from the next by some very tiny, barely perceptible detail, which mathematically often represents only a few millimetres’ difference in the various proportions. Add to that our historical experience, which teaches us that men mimic one another, that their attitudes are statistically calculable, their opinions manipulable, and that man is therefore less an individual (a subject) than an element of a mass.

What is new in that Baconian quest is, first (to use his expression), the ‘organic’ nature of those forms in ‘a complete distortion’. Which means that the forms in his paintings are meant to resemble living beings, to recall their bodily existence, their flesh, and thus always to retain their three-dimensional nature. The second innovation is the principle of variations. In Bacon the variations differ but yet retain something common to them all; the thing they have in common is ‘that treasure, that nugget of gold, that hidden diamond’, namely, the sought-for essence of a theme or, in Bacon’s case, the self of a face.

“Looking at Bacon’s portraits, I am amazed that, despite their ‘distortion’, they all look like their subject. But how can an image look like a subject of which it is consciously, programmatically, a distortion? And yet it does look like the subject; photos of the persons portrayed bear that out; and even if I did not know those photos, it is clear that in all the triptychs, the various deformations of the face resemble one another, so that one recognises in them the same person. However ‘distorted’, these portraits are faithful. That is what I find miraculous.”

Bacon never worked with the subject of the portrait sitting in his studio and he never painted strangers. He was fascinated by photography and by X-rays. “I’ve had photographs taken for portraits because I very much prefer working from the photographs than from models… I couldn’t attempt to do a portrait from photographs of somebody I didn’t know…” What is Bacon trying to tell us, what is he doing, and how is he able to achieve that. He gives another clue, “If my people look as if they’re in a dreadful fix, it’s because I can’t get them out of a technical dilemma.” He can’t paint strangers, he can do self-portraits and portraits of his friends or those he regularly drinks with. In the broader sense he says about his art, “I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail leaving its trail of the human presence… as a snail leaves its slime.” He paints people he knows as he understands them as human beings, so even if the brutal hand of the painter botches up the face the diamond lying underneath is still recognisable, the precious nugget, the self of the subject.

Bacon’s portraits are the interrogation on the limits of the self. Up to what degree of distortion does an individual still remain himself? To what degree of distortion does a beloved being still remain a beloved being? For how long does a cherished face growing remote through illness, through madness, through hatred, through death still remain recognisable? Where lies the border beyond which a self ceases to be a self?

Then I read the Archimbaud interview: ‘‘In painting, we always leave in too much that is habit, we never eliminate enough, but in Beckett I have often had the sense that as a result of seeking to eliminate, nothing was left anymore , and nothingness finally sounded hollow…”

When one artist talks about another one, he is always talking (indirectly, in a roundabout way) of himself, and that is what’s valuable in his judgment. In talking about Beckett, what is Bacon telling us about himself?

That he is refusing to be categorised. That he wants to protect his work against clichés. The similarity though is that in the history of art, Bacon and Beckett are not there to open the door, they are the ones who close it. 

.“In painting, we always leave in too much that is habit, we never eliminate enough…’ . Too much that is habit, which is to say: everything in painting that is not the painter’s own discovery, his fresh contribution, his originality; everything that is inherited, routine, fill up, elaboration considered to be technical necessity. That describes, for example, in the sonata form (of even the greatest—Mozart, Beethoven) all the (often very conventional) transitions from one theme to another. Almost all great modern artists mean to do away with ‘filler’, do away with whatever comes from habit, from technical routine, whatever keeps them from getting directly and exclusively at the essential (the essential: the thing the artist himself, and only he, is able to say).”

So it is with Bacon: the backgrounds of his paintings are super-simple, flat colour; but: in the foreground, the bodies are treated with the richness of colours and form that is all the denser. Now, that (Shakespearean) richness is what matters to him. For without that richness (richness contrasting with the flat colour background), the beauty would be ascetic, as if ‘put on a diet’, as if diminished, and for Bacon the issue always and above all is beauty, the explosion of beauty, because even if the word seems nowadays to be hackneyed, out of date, it is what links him to Shakespeare.

And that is why he is irritated by the word ‘horror’ that is persistently applied to his painting. Tolstoy said to Leonid Andreyev and of his tales of terror: ‘He is trying to frighten me, but I’m not scared’. Now a days there are too many paintings trying to frighten us, and they annoy us instead. Terror is not an aesthetic sensation, and the horror found in Tolstoy’s novels is never there to frighten us; the harrowing scene in which they operate on the mortally wounded Andrei Bolkonsky without anaesthesia is not lacking in beauty; as no scene in Shakespeare lacks it; as no picture by Bacon lacks it. Butcher shops are horrible, but speaking of them, Bacon does not neglect to remark that, “for a painter, there is this great beauty of the colour of meat.”

When Archimbaud asks Bacon which contemporary artists are important to him, he says: “After Picasso I don’t really know. There’s an exhibition of pop art at the Royal academy at the moment… [But] when you see all those pictures collected together, you do not see anything. To me there is nothing in it, it’s empty, completely empty’. And Warhol. He isn’t important to me.’ And abstract art? Oh no, he doesn’t like it.

‘After Picasso, I don’t really know’. He talks like an orphan. And he is one. He is one even in the very concrete sense of the life he lived: the people who opened the way were surrendered by colleagues, by commentators, by worshipers, by sympathisers, by fellow travellers, by an entire gang. But Bacon is alone. As Beckett is. In one of the Sylvester interviews: ‘I think it would be more exciting to be one of a number of artists working together…I think it would be terribly nice to have someone to talk to. Today there is absolutely nobody to talk to’.

For their modernism, the modernism that closes down the way, no longer matches the ‘modernity’ around them: a modernity of fashions propelled by the marketing of art. (Sylvester: ‘If abstract painting is no more than pattern-making, how do you explain the fact that there are people like myself who have the same sort of visceral response to them at times as they have to figurative works?’. Bacon: “Fashion.”) Being modern at the moment when the great modernism is closing down the way is an entirely different thing from being modern in Picasso’s time. Bacon is isolated (“There is absolutely nobody to talk to”); isolated from both the past and the future.

Like Bacon, Beckett had no illusions about the future either of the world or of art. And that moment in the last days of illusions, both men show the same immensely interesting and significant reaction: wars, revolutions and their setbacks, massacres, the democratic imposture, all these subjects are absent from their works. In his Rhinoceros, Ionesco is still interested in the great political questions. Nothing like that in Beckett. Picasso paints Massacre in Korea. An inconceivable subject for Bacon. Living through the end of a civilisation (as Beckett and Bacon were or thought they were), the ultimate brutal confrontation is not with a society, with a state, with a politics, but with the physiological materiality of man. That is why even the great subject of the Crucifixion, which in past times concentrated within itself the whole ethics, the whole religion, indeed the whole history of the West, becomes in Bacon’s hands a mere physiological scandal. “I’ve always been very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat, and to me they belong very much to the whole thing of the crucifixion. There’ve been extraordinary photographs of animals just being taken up before they were slaughtered; and the smell of death…’

To link Jesus nailed to the cross with slaughterhouses and an animal’s fear might seem sacrilegious. But Bacon is a non-believer, and the notion of sacrilege has no place in his way of thinking; according to him, “Man now realises that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason.” Seen from the angle, Jesus is that accident who, without reason, played out the game. The cross: the final point of the game played out to the end without reason.

No, not sacrilege; rather a clearsighted, sorrowing, thoughtful gaze that tries to penetrate to the essential. And what essential thing is revealed when all the social dreams have evaporated and man sees “religious possibilities… completely cancelled out for him”? The body. Only ecce homo, visible, touching, concrete. For “Certainly we are meat, we are potential carcasses. If I go into a butcher’s shop I always think it’s surprising that I wasn’t there instead of the animal.”

This is neither pessimism nor despair, it is only obvious fact, but a fact that is veiled by our membership in a collectivity that blinds us with its dreams, its excitements, its projects, its illusions, its struggles, its causes, its religions, its ideologies, its passions. And then one day the veil falls and we are left stranded with the body, at the mercy of the body.

Bacon often spied on that workshop of the Creator; it can be seen, for instance, in the picture called Studies of the Human Body, in which he unmasks the body as a mere ‘accident’, an accident that could easily have been fashioned some other way—for instance, I don’t know—with three hands, or with the eyes set in the knees. These are the only pictures of his that fill me with horror. But is ‘horror’ the right word? No. For the sensation these pictures provoke, there is no right word. What they provoke is not the horror we know, the one we feel in response to the insanities of history, to torture, persecution, war, massacres, suffering. No. This is a different horror: it comes from the accidental nature, suddenly unveiled by the painter, of the human body. 

What is left to us when we have come down to that?

The face;

the face that harbours “that treasure, that nugget of gold, that hidden diamond” that is the infinitely fragile self shivering in a body;

the face I gaze upon to seek in it a reason for living the “senseless accident” that is life.

Written by Deepan Joshi

July 3, 2020 at 10:38 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Madness and Civilisation—2

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“It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

And what is good Phaedrus,

And what is not good—

Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig is an unforgettable journey. It is a narration of a summer motorcycle trip undertaken by a father and his son that turns into a personal and philosophical odyssey into fundamental questions on how to live. Pirsig, who died in April 2017 at 88, wrote this eerie classic where the narrator’s relationship with his 12-year-old son leads to a powerful self-reckoning and the craft of motorcycle maintenance leads to an austerely beautiful process for reconciling science, religion, and humanism.

The strangeness of the book is that the narrator remembers a ghost called Phaedrus and there is a conflict between the two and admission to an asylum and electric shocks form the backdrop. The zenith of sanity can be mistaken for insanity. Phaedrus hates the narrator for being a sellout, a coward, who has abandoned truth for popularity and social acceptance by his psychiatrists, his family, his employers, and his social acquaintances. The narrator is cautious as he knows what happened to Phaedrus. No more shock treatment for him. Only at one point the narrator confesses his secret: that he is a heretic who is congratulated by everyone for having saved his soul but who knows secretly that all he has saved is his skin. There are only two others who know or sense this. The son Chris is one. He is going to pieces with confusion and grief as he looks for the father he remembers and loves and can’t find anymore. Phaedrus is the other. He knows what the narrator is up to and despises him for it. Phaedrus was dominated by intellectual values and didn’t give a damn who liked or didn’t like him. Now he had been socially destroyed—silenced. But the residue of what he knew still lingered in the narrator’s brain, and that was the source of the conflict. The son is in a quiet anguish throughout the book despite the calm and rational father. In the end it is Chris’s agony that releases Phaedrus. The climax is marvellous as for the first time in the trip, the narrator realises what is happening and what had happened. When Chris asks, “Were you really insane,” and the answer is “No,” it is not the narrator but Phaedrus who answers. And when Chris says, “I knew it,” he also understands that for the first time in the whole trip he is talking to his long-lost father again. They have won it. The dissembling narrator has vanished. “It’s going to get better now,” Phaedrus says. “You can sort of tell these things.”

Many people complained about the ending. It’s a book in first person and this powerful way of writing has a limitation as you only see what the writer or the character sees. Much later Pirsig illustrated this through a writing seminar he had attended in early 1950s by Allen Tate with the subject for many sessions being Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, in which a governess tries to shield her two protégés from a ghostly presence but in the end fails, and they are killed. Pirsig was convinced that it was a straightforward ghost story, but Tate said no, Henry James is up to more than that. The governess is not the heroine of the story. She is the villainess. It is not the ghost who kills the children but the governess’s hysterical belief that a ghost exists. Pirsig reread it and thought how could I have missed it. Tate said that the first person is the most difficult form as the writer is locked in the brain of the narrator. He can’t say “meanwhile, back at the ranch” as a transition to another subject because he is imprisoned forever inside the narrator. But so is the reader. The reader does not see that the governess is the villainess because what the governess sees is all the reader ever sees. Now come back to Motorcycle Maintenance and note the similarities. There is a narrator whose mind you never leave. He refers to an evil ghost named Phaedrus, but the only way you know that this ghost is evil is because the narrator tells you so. During the story, Phaedrus appears in the narrator’s dreams in such a way that you begin to see that not is the narrator pursuing Phaedrus in order to destroy him but Phaedrus is also pursuing the narrator for the same purpose. Who will win?

PirsigThere is a divided personality here: two minds fighting for the same body, a condition that inspired the original meaning of “schizophrenia.” Obviously the narrator was Phaedrus before they locked him up for inhuman treatment. After 121 publishers had rejected the book, a lone editor offered a standard $3,000 advance. He said the book forced him to decide what he was in publishing for, and added that although this was almost certainly the last payment, Pirsig should not be discouraged. Money wasn’t the point with a book like this.

But then came publishing day, astonishing reviews, best-seller status, movie offers, and endless offers to speak, and fan mail. The letters were full of questions: Why? How did this happen? What is missing here? They want to hear all. The book’s constant theme is Quality. And Pirsig replied that there hasn’t been any ‘all’ to tell. Writing it seemed to have higher quality than not writing it. But as the perspective around the book grew larger with the passage of time, a detailed answer became possible.

There is a Swedish word, kulturbarer, which can be translated as ‘culture-bearer’. A culture-bearing book, like a mule, bears the culture on its back. No one should sit down and write one deliberately—they occur accidentally, like a sudden change in the stock market. There are books of high quality that are an important part of the culture, but that is not the same. They are a part of it. They aren’t carrying it anywhere. They may talk about insanity sympathetically, for example, because that’s the standard cultural attitude. But they don’t carry any suggestion that insanity might be something other than sickness or degeneracy. The involuntary shock treatment described in the book is against the law today. It is a violation of human liberty. The culture has changed. The insanely rational wins over the merely confirming rational in this epic that continues to inspire millions. As writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb says: “I suspect that they put Socrates to death because there is something terribly unattractive, alienating, and nonhuman in thinking with too much clarity.”

The question of sanity and insanity or of right and wrong to what the novelists call as the lyrical souls, especially the ones educated in places so elite that they and the students have no connect with terra nostra (Our earth), is never a conundrum. The lyrical souls fall for the spirit of their times, the ones who respond with enthusiasm to slogans of building a better future even when the stink of a purge in the present has become the odour of air. The Joke by Milan Kundera, his first novel, is always in my top 10 despite the immense popularity of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The thoughtful, melancholy intellectual Ludvik is the protagonist. A joke meant to tease Marketa, a beautiful but credulous woman in the University who opts to go for a two-week training course in Socialism, changes the course of Ludvik’s life. Talking of himself before the incident Ludvik says: “When the Comrades classified my conduct and my smile as intellectual (another notorious pejorative of the times), I actually came to believe them because I couldn’t imagine (I wasn’t bold enough to imagine) that everyone else might be wrong, that the Revolution itself, the spirit of the times, might be wrong and I, an individual, might be right.”

Bosch-NarrenschiffComing back to madness, something new appears in the imaginary landscape of the Renaissance; soon it will occupy a privileged place there: the Ship of Fools, a strange “drunken boat” that glides along the calm rivers of the Rhineland and the Flemish canals. Bosch’s painting, of course, belongs to this dream fleet. But of all the romantic or satiric vessels, the Narrenschiff is the only one that had a real existence—for they did exist, these boats that conveyed their insane cargo from town to town. Madmen then led an easy wandering existence. In learned literature, too, Madness or Folly was at work, at the very heart of reason and truth. Folly also has its academic pastimes; it is the object of argument, it contends against itself; it is denounced, and defends itself by claiming that it is closer to happiness and truth than reason, that it is closer to reason than reason itself.

Written by Deepan Joshi

March 28, 2020 at 9:59 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Madness and Civilisation–I

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Pascal: “Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness.”

And Dostoevsky, in his Diary of a Writer: “It is not by confining one’s neighbour that one is convinced of one’s own sanity.”

We have yet to write the history of that other form of madness by which men, in an act of sovereign reason, confine their neighbours, and communicate and recognise each other through the merciless language of non-madness; to define the moment of this conspiracy before it was permanently established in the realm of truth. 

In the mountains and in ancient cultures there is complete communication and natural acceptance of people, who in the cities have been condemned as ‘mad’ and put away as ‘others’. The hills are also changing slowly and characters are vanishing: When I was growing up in the late 70s and 80s, the towns were full of jolly rogues and eccentric people who were never bereft of an audience. The language was far from merciless; it was, in fact, illuminating. The pahari (hill) way of referring was beautiful: “light aayi ree bhai joo” or “light aayi ree aisjoo” (the word for the ‘other’ was light; a literal translation is difficult but an approximation is that light has come to the brother or he’s possessed by light or light has come to him. Ironically, the word for the ‘goners’ is almost the same as that for the enlightened). Whatever the aberration, people not only listened but enjoyed their soliloquy’s or any other peculiarity. Laughter was a reaction but isolation or a sense of superiority was never there. Some of them repeated the same joke for years and for years people laughed at it as it wasn’t the joke but the endless repetition and its acceptance that brought out the laughter. 

Ira Pande, one of the daughters of the inspirational Kumaoni writer Shivani was in a talk show some 15-odd-years ago and spoke about their family home in Almora. The context would have been Ira’s memoir based on her mother that came out in 2005, Diddi My Mother’s Voice. Diddi is elder sister and that is what Shivani was to her four children—Mrinal Pande and Ira are established writers and the other two are Veena Joshi and Micky Pant. Ira described the complete ease with chaos in the household. That undivided state where reason and madness have not yet been relegated to one side or the other. There was an uncle who used to come and play table tennis in the house all by himself, every time he had to go to the other side to pick the ball. No one found that to be odd is what Ira said. As they say about the place: Almora mein 99 per cent literacy aur ‘cent per cent’ lunacy.

Madness has in our age become some sort of lost truth. Truth, perhaps, is not so much a matter of coherence of related meanings, and it is certainly not a simplistic conjunction of pseudo-fact and pseudo-experience. Madness, as Michel Foucault made so impressively-clear in his remarkable book Madness and Civilization, is a way of seizing in extremis the racinating groundwork of the truth that underlies our more specific realisations of what we are about. The truth of madness is what madness is.

Foucault makes it quite clear that the invention of madness as a disease is in fact nothing less than a peculiar disease of our civilisation. We choose to conjure up this disease in order to evade a certain moment of our own existence—the moment of disturbance, of penetrating vision into the depths of ourselves that we prefer to externalise into others. Others are elected to live out the chaos that we refuse to confront in ourselves. By this means we escape a certain anxiety, but only at a price that is as immense as it is unrecognised.

Ironically, Don Quixote’s insane life pursues and immortalises him only by his insanity; madness is still the imperishable life of death. To put it another way, madness is the false punishment of a false solution, but by its own virtue it brings to light the real problem, which can then be truly resolved. It conceals beneath error the secret enterprise of truth. Madness is also the most rigorously-necessary form of quid pro quo in the dramatic economy, for it needs no external element to reach a true resolution. It has merely to carry its illusion to the point of truth. Thus it is, at the very heart of the structure, in its mechanical centre, both a feigned conclusion, pregnant with a secret “starting over,” and the first step toward what will turn out to be the reconciliation with reason and truth. Madness rules all that is easy, joyous, frivolous in the world. It is madness, folly, which makes men “sport and rejoice,” as it has given the gods “Genius, Beauty, Bacchus, Silenus, and the gentle guardian of gardens.” All within it is brilliant surface: no enigma is concealed. 

Recent psychiatric—or perhaps anti-psychiatric—research into the origins of the major form of madness in our age, schizophrenia, has moved round to the position that people do not in fact go mad, but are driven mad by others who are driven into the position of driving them mad by a peculiar convergence of social pressures. A long brilliant piece that I read last year showed the complete guesswork and insensitivity of pharmaceutical companies and the interventionism of doctors. People on medications that helped the release of the happiness hormone serotonin became more and more dependent after years and years—the dosage kept increasing alarmingly while the underlying condition was getting more and more severe. 


Cruel experiments have been conducted on misfits and those considered to be odd.

In the serene world of mental illness, modern man no longer communicates with the madman: on one hand, the man of reason delegates the physician to madness, thereby authorising a relation only through the abstract universality of disease; on the other, the man of madness communicates with society only by the intermediary of an equally abstract reason which is order, physical and moral constraint, the anonymous pressure of the group, the requirements of conformity. As for a common language, there is no such thing; or rather, there is no such thing any longer; the constitution of madness as a mental illness, at the end of the eighteenth century, affords the evidence of a broken dialogue, posits the separation as already effected, and thrusts into oblivion all those stammered, imperfect words without fixed syntax in which the exchange between madness and reason was made. The language of psychiatry, which is a monologue of reason about madness, has been established only on the basis of such a silence. Foucault has not tried to write the history of that language, but rather the archaeology of that silence. 

This series would have many anecdotes from my growing up in the mountains and several other relevant stories; like the fact that the most insanely rational book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has an eerie atmosphere where a ghost called Phaedrus haunts the brilliant narrator and schizophrenia, electric shocks and other forms of treatment form the backdrop. The corporatisation of our culture and particularly that of journalism would find a special mention. 

An anecdote to end this part: Mandi, my hometown in Himachal Pradesh, holds a famous Shivratri Fair every year for a week or so. In the evenings there is a cultural programme lasting about four hours and since the budget is there some renowned artists are always there as a highlight. This is a story of how legends are made, a single act of bravado or madness and a person can enter the town’s hall of fame. Fame and money made in the big cities are not what entertain friends and family by the fireplace, it is the hilarious stories of near-insane bravado.

I was 19 or 20 and the open-air amphitheatre in Mandi can accommodate about 30,000 people and Hema Malani was performing that evening. The first row had sofas and chairs for ministers and dignitaries and the 20 rows of chairs behind were either dignitaries or people having paid a handsome amount. At the back is a cascading permanent structure of cement made in a way that everyone can see the stage. Someone our age, from our neighbourhood and a friend too, was in a chair where had he got up everyone could have seen him. 

Hema Malani came to the stage and did a classical namaskar, balancing on just one leg and bowing a bit, to the audience. With perfect timing, our neighbour climbed on top of his chair, lifted his right arm and shouted, “Basanti, en kutton key samney mat nachna.” He was bruised as the police took him away, less because of the actress but more because the CM and other dignitaries had been called dogs. No matter how much he fails in life, he became a legend that day and will remain so.  

Thinking with too much clarity has also been a major problem in human history and we’ll explore that as well as other unexamined facts in the next part…

Facebook’s wild and severe side effects

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Book Review: Facebook is undermining democracies and leading to shallow and degraded public discourse

The Dark Side of Facebook

Every social association that is not face-to-face is injurious to your health—Nassim Nicholas Taleb

In some ways, Facebook is like Mary Shelley’s fictional character Frankenstein’s monster in the author’s 1818 Gothic novel Frankenstein. It is an experiment of chemistry and alchemy where the creature takes a life of its own and turns against the creator Victor Frankenstein. That is where the similarities end as Victor and the world hate the hideously ugly but sensitive and emotional “monster”. Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg defends his platform like a stoic even when there is evidence to show how easily the connector of over 2 billion people can and has been manipulated for vested interests far from sinister than the use of personal data to gather insights for the company’s profitability.

Siva Vaidhyanathan’s Antisocial Media charts the journey of Facebook from an innocent social site built by Harvard students into a force that, “while it may make personal life just a little more pleasurable, makes democracy a lot more challenging. It’s an account of the hubris of good intentions, a missionary spirit and an ideology that sees computer code as the universal solvent for all human problems”.

Facebook is magnificent when you get in touch with long-lost friends from the past, or when you can share family photographs with people who matter. Almost everything else is a problem on Facebook. It certainly qualifies for the as-yet-unsettled dilemma over whether any system that is “too big to fail” is robust and good for the planet. As Nassim Taleb, the author of the vastly popular The Black Swan and of recent titles Antifragile and Skin in the Game says, “The internet allows the small guy a global marketplace. But technology is harmful in the sense that we get too much information from it. Because of the web we get 10 times the amount of noise we ever got, which makes harmful fallacies far more likely. I can’t imagine situations in which social networks could be useful except to arrange to have dinner with someone, and they clearly can be very destructive.”

Vaidhyanathan is more succinct with his first phrase of the book: “The problem with Facebook is Facebook.” In early 2017, Zuckerberg wrote a wide-ranging manifesto on his page that marked a shift for him and his firm. He was coming to terms with the fact that through 2016 Facebook had hosted and promoted propaganda that influenced the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump. Facebook also faced flak for its video streaming service after multiple people used it to publicise suicides and homicides they were committing. As criticisms mounted, Zuckerberg promised to do better, to explain the problems in the most general terms and, more pertinently, to shift blame where he could.

The central nerve of the book is how Facebook rather than connecting us creates bigger barriers and makes it impossible to have genuine debate. “Those who follow the rise of authoritarianism…would by 2017 list India, Indonesia, Kenya, Poland, Hungary, and the United States as sites of Facebook’s direct contribution to violent ethnic and religious nationalism, the rise of authoritarian leaders, and a sort of mediated cacophony that would hinder public deliberation about important issues, thus undermining trust in institutions and experts. Somehow, Zuckerberg missed all of that,” writes Vaidhyanathan. By November 2017, Zuckerberg was left with no defence but to investigate and reveal the extent of Russian interference with the US elections through advertisements purchased on Facebook and Instagram and targeted precisely to reach at least 126 million US citizens.

Vaidhyanathan informs that the culture of Silicon Valley is explicitly cosmopolitan and tolerant of difference and dissent. “So how did the greatest Silicon Valley success story end up hosting radical, nationalist, anti-Enlightenment movements that revolt against civic institutions and cosmopolitans? How did such an enlightened firm become complicit in the rise of nationalists such as Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte, and ISIS? How did the mission go so wrong?” These are some of the complex questions Vaidhyanathan asks upfront, and tries to answer with simplicity subsequently.

The roping in and the role played by Alexander Nix, the CEO of a market research firm called Cambridge Analytica, came out of obscurity and explained both the Brexit and the Trump upsets. This part reads like a spy thriller that is gripping as well as deeply unsettling for anyone concerned with the extreme direction the world has taken and how Facebook facilitates it just by being itself. Investigative and fearless journalists and reputed newspapers find less space in this fast-paced world ruled by trolls.

The rise and consolidation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Prime Minister Modi has been given due importance. Facebook staff worked with BJP officials during the Modi campaign. India has more Facebook users than any other country, with more than 250 million in 2018, about 30 million more than the US. That 250 million is less than one-quarter of India’s population, while the 220 million Americans constitute more than 60 per cent of the US population. So not only is the future of Facebook in India, the present of Facebook is as well. “As the BJP solidifies its political standing the overall political culture of India has degraded through social media harassment and intimidation,” writes Vaidhyanathan.

The problems that come with new technologies replacing old ones and causing narrowness is not new, Robert M. Pirsig wrote about it in his eerie 1974 classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I quote at length. “What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua…like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America…an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep. The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks…‘What’s new?’ is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question ‘What is best?’ A question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream…Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for.” Antisocial Media is an example of taking on a largely nonsensical behemoth and calling for some channel deepening.

(This article was first published in the 16-31st October issue of Down To Earth).

Bits of Shastri and pieces of Manjrekar

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Coach Ravi Shastri admitted after the fancied Indian team was knocked out of the World Cup that they needed a “solid” middle-order batsman, particularly in the semi-final, where their leading run-scorers Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli were dismissed cheaply.

On scrutiny the statement is as stupid as they come: you cannot change your XI just because two of your top run-scorers are dismissed cheaply. You should have kept it in mind that such a scenario can surely crop up in a long tournament. As I wrote in the previous piece that teams that don’t learn from their victories, as wins mask evident weaknesses, pay the price when the problem comes to bite in a crucial decider or a key Test.

Why did the team miss a “solid” middle-order batsman? Who was given an extended run before the tournament and had done well? Who was likely to succeed if given the confidence? As Sunil Gavaskar said that the country deserves to know some of the maddening decisions taken by the team management and not the selectors. I also don’t agree with those who are saying that Rayudu should have been picked as he hasn’t shown the nerves to score when the heat is on. Mayank Agarwal and Rahane should at least have been in serious reckoning considering that in England a lot of the surfaces would not have been hit through the line batting buffets. There was every chance that quite a few would have a good deal for the bowlers and batsmen who can stay at the wicket and play tricky passages to cash in later should have been kept in mind rather than those who can just clear the ropes. The defensive skills should have been given enough importance. Rahane is without doubt one of India’s best overseas Test batsmen and he’s done very well in ODIs away from home, especially in England, Australia and West Indies. Agarwal looked much better in shot selection and temperament when he was successful in all the three innings that he played in two Tests against Australia than many who boarded the plane for the World Cup.

Kane Williamson assessed the wicket in the semi-final beautifully and quickly after the first wicket fell in the fourth over. He said after the match that 240 to 250 was what the team was thinking and with their bowling and fielding it would be a good score. Had they gone for more thinking that India has a powerful line-up they might have ended 40 to 50 short. They ended on 239, plundering 84 runs in the last 10 overs.

Shami would have been a handful on this wicket. We might have had to chase much less as he picks top order wickets. Shami picked 14 wickets in just 4 matches and was at number 12 in the leading wicket takers in the entire tournament and Bumrah with 18 was the only Indian bowler ahead of him but in 9 matches. Shami’s bowling average and strike rate were an unbelievable 13.78 and 15, the best among all the 47 bowlers who had picked at least six wickets in the tournament. Bhuvi’s 10 wickets in 6 matches came at a bowling average of 26.90 and strike rate of 31. Going by the figures Shami was two-times more dangerous than Bhuvi. The strike rate is a key indicator here as Shami picked a wicket after every 15 balls and Bhuvi after 31. Also Shami was the only bowler to have one five-wicket and two four-wicket hauls. Shami mostly picked wickets in his first spell and Bhuvi usually in the last.

On MS Dhoni, Shastri had come prepared with a battery of answers, as he knew he would be grilled on it. “Everyone was in with it—and it was a simple decision, too. The last thing you wanted was Dhoni coming out to bat early and getting out—that would have killed the chase. We needed his experience later. He is the greatest finisher of all times—and it would have been criminal to not make use of him in that way. The whole team was clear on it.” So the decision deflected to the entire team so that everyone has 5 per cent or so responsibility. I think they should have gone with a specialist and not some “bits and pieces” player and requested the great Sanjay Manjrekar to bat at number four. Not that he could do much when he was playing as a specialist but we could have taken an off chance as it would have spared billions of people listening to probably the worst commentator in the world.

It was a very simple decision Mr Shastri as the team equation was or should have always been to promote Hardik if we had a really great start and to go with Dhoni if we had a bad or relatively bad start. And that is just on the evidence of Dhoni’s performances this year from the ODI series in Australia, New Zealand and then again against Australia at home.

The run rate is never a problem with Dhoni as he understands the conditions, the situation and the bowlers to attack extremely well and so at times he takes time to get set and on others comes out firing if he gets in with just a couple of overs left. India always had a number 4 or a number 5 in Dhoni. Rohit Sharma had in fact said in a press conference that according to him Dhoni should bat at number four. And Dhoni has the capability of boosting the confidence of young players and getting the best out of them; he can also indicate if he feels they are getting ahead of themselves or feeling like going for a release shot. He also helps players understand the strokes that have value on the surface and the ones that are full of risk.

It is understandable that the team would not have wanted Dhoni in at 3 for 5 in 3.1 overs but he surely should have come at 4 for 24 at the end of 10 overs. He would have had a chance to build a partnership with Pant, Hardik and Jadeja. Probably Pant and Hardik would not have played such ugly hoicks against the spin. Even on that helpful wicket and the brilliance of the Kiwis in the field most wickets fell to poor shot selection than to great balls. Rohit Sharma got an absolute beauty and you have to be in real good form to nick it. That is it. Kohli looked tentative from the first ball and he would have been better off leaving everything that was not directed at the stumps and played the swinging ball late by trusting his defensive skills for at least 20 balls in which he surely would have punished the loose balls. A set Kohli would have understood the surface by then. He played across the line to an incoming ball at Boult’s speed and was trapped in front. Poor shot selection early in the innings by Kohli’s standards. KL Rahul could have left the ball. Tough situation for Dinesh Karthik to come in considering that he had played just 9 balls for 8 runs at number 7 in his only batting outing in the World Cup against Bangladesh. He was not required to bat in the chase against Sri Lanka. He was finishing games well just like Jadhav was doing well up the order. India did not lose the game in the first 45 minutes as Kohli later said. They lost it because no one in the top six could stay at the crease and play a decent knock. Pant, Karthik and Pandya killed the game as they took a lot of time but could not generate any momentum shift. In 6.5 overs Pant and Karthik made 19 runs, Pant was the only one moving the scoreboard and DK could not even rotate the strike. Had he looked for singles the confidence would have grown. Now if you have taken balls to get set and are known for your ability to score quick runs then you should make it easier for those to follow rather than making it more difficult. Santner could easily have been hit by both Pant and Pandya if they played him like Jadeja did, reaching to the pitch of the ball and playing it in the V between mid-off and mid-on. Still given the situation the two youngsters did reasonably well and denied the Kiwis any wicket in the next 10.

At the end of 20 overs India were 70 for 4 and the Kiwis after 20 were 73 for 2. Less wickets meant that the Kiwis had two of their most experienced batsmen in Williamson and the new to the crease Taylor in the middle. India had two capable youngsters and most of the experience back in the dressing room. And the one with the most experience and renowned as one of greatest finishers of a game in Dhoni in the dressing room. The most crucial passage of play began with the lone spinner in the New Zealand attack coming in to bowl the 21st over. He starts with a maiden to Pandya and then Neesham who had gone for 8 in his first over concedes just 1 in the 22nd. A bit of pressure is building and Pant who came in to bat inside three overs after Kohli’s dismissal and was batting much better than Karthik or Pandya could not show the maturity that India were very much in the game at that point and the short period of 16 balls in which just a run came would not hurt their chances as much as throwing his wicket away would. The left handed Pant plays a very low percentage wild heave across the line and straight to the fielder at cow corner. Pant and Pandya went for strokes that had very little chance of success as they had allowed pressure to mount. Pandya too went for an ugly slog across the line and is caught at midwicket and the commentary says Dhoni won’t win this without anyone to stay with him. Completely stupid to send a player like Dhoni who can absorb pressure and not worry about what he has scored in how many balls while being completely aware of who to attack and when to cash in at number 7. Dhoni understands that if you take the game deep it puts pressure on the bowling side and a set batsman can use that to his advantage. The best performance from the batting perspective in the entire match comes from India’s number 8, the never say die attitude of Jadeja. A mesmerising 77 off 59 balls at a strike rate of 130.50 with 4 boundaries and 4 sixes on a surface where the top order and dangerous Ross Taylor, the second-highest run-getter of the match got his 74 at 82.22 after getting used to the wicket. Jadeja had no time to settle and the irony of the highest-partnership of the entire match, and by some distance, was that it wasn’t Dhoni who needed support but Jadeja’s brilliance needed just a little bit of aggression from Dhoni as well. A couple of fours and perhaps just one six from Dhoni’s blade might have flattened the Kiwis and given Jadeja the confidence that everything is not resting on his shoulders. Now taking responsibility means that Shastri should step down as the coach even if he is not asked to leave.

Time for the fun part about Sir Ravindra Jadeja and Sanjay Manjrekar that hit Twitter like a storm, with Manjrekar saying that he would always select a specialist over a “bits and pieces” player like Jadeja. Cricinfo’s player profile tried their best but could only manage 11 boring lines about Manjrekar and they struggled to leave many of Jadeja’s colourful characteristics and comebacks but it still took them 39 lines to capture a bit of him.

New Zealand captain Kane Williamson paid a superb compliment to Jadeja. “But the innings that Jadeja played, it was like he was playing on a different wicket, really. He timed the ball beautifully well. He was very clear in how he operated in that partnership with Dhoni, sort of swung things to parity, perhaps even them having the momentum going into the last few overs.”

Playing as a specialist batsman at the top of the order Manjrekar made 2,043 runs at 37.14 with a strike rate of 38.67 with four hundreds and 9 fifties. In 74 ODISs he made 1,994 runs at 33.23 at a strike rate of 64.30 with 1 hundred and 15 fifties. In Tests and ODIs combined he took 1 wicket.

Batting lower down the order in 41 Tests Jadeja has 1,485 runs at 32.28 with a healthy strike rate of 64.59 with 1 unbeaten hundred and 10 fifties. In 153 ODIs he has 2,112 runs at 30.60 with a strike rate of 85.33, 11 fifties and a highest score of 87.

As a Test bowler Jadeja has taken 192 wickets with 7/48 as his best in an innings and 10/154 as the best in a match. His bowling average is 23.68 and an economy rate of 2.37 with 9 five-wicket hauls. In 153 ODIs he has 176 wickets with a best of 5 for 36.

And what can you say about Jadeja as a fielder. He is lightening quick, picks the ball effortlessly and has a very strong-arm that more often than not can hit a single stump on view. No international cricketer takes a chance when the ball goes to Jadeja and if he does mostly he has to return to the pavilion. He saves at least 20 runs on the field and half chances look like easy ones when they go to him, it’s only the impossible ones that register.

One of his rare and supreme qualities is that whether you drop him for a short or a long period he never lets that dampen his confidence and he brings a gritty attitude to the mix once he is again selected. After India had lost the 5-Test series against England 3-1 before the final game with Jadeja sitting out for the first four games and getting a chance in the fifth, he showed what the team was missing. England made 332 in the first innings and Jadeja with 4 wickets at an economy rate of 2.63 was the highest wicket-taker. He walked in to bat with India tottering at 160 for six. A 77-run partnership with Vihari took India to 237 when the batsman Vihari got out. India made 292 with Jadeja not out on 86—the best contribution with the ball and with the bat in the first innings after having been left out for the first four Tests. Second innings England declared on 423 for 8 with Jadeja picking three wickets. Despite centuries from KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant, India lost by 118 runs.

The English team paid a great compliment to Jadeja when they said that they could not have been happier at India’s team selection when they left out Jadeja as they always thought of him as a big threat with the ball, the bat and in the field. The compliment for Manjrekar would have been the opposite: Teams would have been delighted that India had picked a player with no fire in his belly. Now the icing on the cake after the World Cup would be to keep Manjrekar out of the commentary box and Shastri out of the dressing room and to show more faith in players who bring every bit and piece of their mind, body and heart when they play for the country.

Written by Deepan Joshi

July 23, 2019 at 6:58 pm

India’s obstacle: Picking the winning XI

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Every good international sports team learns from its defeats. The difference between the good and the great teams is that great teams learn from their victories as well. The Indian cricket team historically has not displayed evidence that they learn anything from victories. And at this crucial juncture they must look at the seven victories and the one defeat to field the best XI for bringing the World Cup home.

On paper and on overall performance the World Cup is India’s to lose. They lost just one match in a long tournament of 9 matches per team and the heavens were not in favour of either India or New Zealand as that key encounter was washed out. So I repeat: 7 wins, 1 loss, 1 no result and a place at the top of the table. Now if we focus too much on just the one defeat it would be akin to looking at 12.5 per cent of the evidence and ignoring the 87.5 per cent.

A better way to get the team right would be to see what has not worked in the matches that India has won and to fix those problems. This is usually not done in Indian cricket and so on many many occasions players who have been performing poorly have got an extended run in ODIs and Test matches because the team has been winning or consistently doing well. Sooner or later this seemingly innocuous oversight has come to bite us like a Cobra and the cost has been a big series loss or an important final. If we had got our combination right we had a great chance to win a Test series in South Africa and England to go with the one that we managed to win against Australia. That’s history now so let’s come back to the World Cup.

Two selections are very easy to make and it’s strange that what looked obvious to just a follower of the game was not at all evident to the team management that picks the playing XI. Every time Vijay Shankar has come out to bat he’s displayed unmistakable signs that he doesn’t think that he belongs or is ready for this level. What is his role? Is he a top-order batsman who can build a big partnership if two early wickets have fallen or is he a dangerous lower middle order player who can clear the ropes and also give you three or four decent overs as an all-rounder who is also dynamic and lively while fielding? He had a chance to prove both these options and I am not blaming a one off day that any player can have but the fact that he looked like a fish out of water. Also in the mere nine 50-over games that he had played before the World Cup he did not give a single account of his potential and what could be possible if he clicked unless they like a bunch of idiots went by his 46 in 41 balls at home and a 45 in Wellington.

Next up is Jadhav who played one good hand against Afghanistan where his 52 in 68 balls was very precious to get us to 224 that we managed to defend. He played a terrible one too but that was in defeat and we’ll come to that later. Which brings me to his role? He is a decent touch player and can rotate the strike and put the bad balls away. Unlike Shankar he has experience and has played a few stellar knocks in home conditions. Jadhav is also a confident player but he is not a ferocious hitter and to keep him for the flourish at the end is setting him and the team up for failure. He’s also not been used as a bowler so if the team was serious about how to best use his game and boost his confidence he should have been given a longer run as the number four. Now India can’t risk it.

I am pretty sure both of them are not going to feature in the next two games and that is bad news because precious time and confidence-building innings have been denied to whoever is going to fill their boots.

All of this came to bite India in the game against England. Bumrah bowled superbly in his first spell but England had the rub of the green and inside edges went for boundaries and India failed to review a caught behind that would have sent the dangerous Jason Roy back. With Roy playing brilliantly, Bairstow too found his rhythm and for the first time India’s potent spinners were taken to the cleaners. We did manage to restrict them to 337.

The chase began in a very timid fashion as Woakes bowled three maidens in a row and also got KL Rahul for a 9-ball duck. Rohit Sharma was not at his fluent best initially but with Kohli looking good the partnership bloomed and so did Rohit and just as it was becoming threatening with India on 146 for one Kohli had a soft dismissal. In came the replacement Rishabh Pant and here too I am unsure of what exactly is his role. While it’s nice of Harsha Bhogle to say on TV that Pant always plays with a smile on his face, the way he began was not funny. The first few overs were sheer madness, he would run halfway down the pitch, then realize there is no run and run back. He did that twice. Then he gloved a ball that thankfully landed safely. Even the bat flew out of his hands and landed way back near England’s wicketkeeper. And all through he kept smiling at his stupidity. Does he realize that he is playing at number four for India in a World Cup? He can wear a smile as long as there is some intensity in his presence on the field otherwise he’s making a mockery of a serious campaign. And smiles at misfields and at what Pant was doing is like a contagion that spreads to the entire team just like a great effort in the field lifts the whole team. Don’t underestimate the intensity of India’s fielding under Dhoni when we won in 2011. And Pant is not a teenager; the profile tells me that he’s 21. He did make 32 off 29 balls but those first few minutes it looked liked he had no match or situational awareness. Not something that you would want in a top order player. Maybe that led to the settled Rohit Sharma going for something extra and losing his wicket.

Pandya tried his best and India still had a chance when he was in with Dhoni but he went for too much too soon and should have realized that all is not on his shoulder with the experience and calmness of Dhoni at the other end. Then came the phase that nobody could comprehend in the commentary box or outside. In India’s next match Bangladesh tried to get across the line even when the tailenders were batting. While India just gave up after Pandya even though we had two proper batsmen inside: 7 dots, 20 singles, 3 fours and 1 six in 31 balls of the Dhoni-Jadhav partnership when 71 were needed to win. We lost by 31 runs and primarily because we lost the first 10 over battle badly and the last 5 over battle. Jadhav brutally exposed again. And the most-settled unit in the World Cup suddenly unsettled in the bowling as well as the batting department. All this because we did not learn anything from our victories and so the burden of looking at vulnerable areas unfortunately fell on the lone defeat.

Which brings us to the big debate about Dhoni. I think Dhoni has been criticized unfairly as it’s unreasonable to expect him to bat the way he used to five years back. Even in the England match Pandya scored his 45 with a strike rate of 136.36 with four boundaries and Dhoni got his 42 at a strike rate of 135.48 with four boundaries and a six. He’s going to turn 37 soon and he’s is still perhaps the best wicketkeeper in the world. He reads the game better than most players in the circuit and he’s had a pretty good World Cup. A calm 34 (strike rate: 73.91) against South Africa; came in at 139 for 3 with Dhawan, Kohli and Rahul back in the hut and had a 74-run partnership with Rohit Sharma. We needed just 15 runs in 23 balls when Dhoni departed and Hardik came and blasted three fours. Dhoni then cracked 27 off 14 balls against Australia at 192.85 while hitting out in the death overs. He failed against Pakistan and made a sedate 28 in a low-scoring game against Afghanistan. Played superbly against West Indies and remained not out on 56 with three fours and two sixes at 91.80. We could have been in trouble but Dhoni at number six and Pandya at seven ensured we got to 268. Then came the England 42 and after that an important 35 off 33 balls against Bangladesh. He was dismissed in the last over and the match could have gone the other way without his contribution. The most important thing that Dhoni brings to the middle is his uncluttered mind and the role of a behind the scenes captain that the loud and exuberant on-field Captain Kohli can turn to when the heat is on.

The two big casualties of experimenting with Shankar and Jadhav have been Dinesh Karthik and Mayank Agarwal. Karthik has been in sublime form as a finisher for India prior to the tournament and he is vastly more experienced and scores at a better clip than both Shankar and Jadhav. His last clinical finish was a run a ball 38 not out with five fours and a six against New Zealand in New Zealand chasing 243. He’s short of match practice and at the last moment has got just one chance to bat. Mayank Agarwal showed that he is completely at ease at the top level in his three outings as a Test opener in Australia. A superb 76 on debut in Melbourne when the series was alive and a second innings 42, which was the highest score in the rubble as India’s top order collapsed to a burst by Cummins in which he took Vihari for 13, Pujara and Kohli for 0 in the same over and then Rahane for 1. Twenty-eight for no loss was 28 for 3 and then 32 for 4. Agarwal hit eight fours and one six in the first innings and four boundaries and two sixes in the second. The third outing in Sydney was also brilliant, 77 runs with seven fours and two sixes at a healthy strike rate of 68.75 when the Australian attack was fresh. He shouldn’t have been a replacement guy but a first choice. I am also not too convinced by KL Rahul although he’s had a great World Cup against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The piece now is way too long to elaborate on his performances.

Some certainty and some calculated risk is what I would prefer in the playing XI. Here’s my line-up batting order wise though the middle order can be tinkered according to the situation and anything is fine with the last four : Rohit Sharma, Mayank Agarwal, Virat Kohli, KL Rahul, Rishabh Pant, Hardik Pandya, MS Dhoni, Mohammed Shami, Kuldeep Yadav, Chahal, BUMRAH (In Reckoning: Dinesh Karthik for Pant and Jadeja Bhuvi depending on what kind of attack would be best for the surface).

There is a role for everyone here. Rohit plays freely and Mayank has given all the evidence that he can put the bad balls for boundaries and sixes and keep the good ones out and has the maturity to keep the scoreboard ticking. Virat is Virat. Rahul doesn’t have to come with the weight of the world on his shoulders and can ease into the innings or accelerate. If the start is very good Pandya can be promoted and if it’s very bad then Dhoni can be promoted to calibrate the target or take control of the chase and help Pandya and Pant understand that runs cannot be scored in the dressing room. Risk does not mean checking the depth of the water with both feet or crossing the street blindfolded. A few dot balls or even a couple of low-scoring overs don’t matter if you keep in touching distance. The bowlers feel the pressure if wickets are in hand and two good overs can compensate for five sedate ones. Even 60 or 70 in the last five overs should not cause panic as two big overs can turn the tide. This maturity is missing in Pant and someone needs to help him sharpen his cricketing brain else it’s better to go with Karthik. For inspiration Pant can look at how Alex Carey has batted in the tournament.

For the bowlers I have gone with the 87.5 per cent evidence and not the 12.5 per cent of the defeat. So I would first tick the ones who have been part of the success and the odd failure. Jasprit Bumrah, Kuldeep Yadav, Chahal and Shami. This is a tough call as there’s no sixth option in it in case a bowler has an off-day. Bumrah and Hardik already have their name on the playing XI and India has indicated that they would stick to the five bowler plan to give depth to the batting. The tinkering after the defeat has thrown up many combinations. Bhuvneshwar played the first two games against South Africa and Australia and had figures of 44 for 2 and 50 for 3 in 10 overs. Nothing in the opening spell in either game. Tailenders against South Africa but a settled Smith against Australia and the removal of Stoinis cheaply and Zampa to finish things. Injury brought Shami against Afghanistan and he provided the first breakthrough and then closed their innings with a hat-trick in which the first wicket of Nabi who could have taken the game away was crucial. Phenomenal against West Indies and conceding 16 runs in 6.2 overs and grabbing four wickets including Gayle as his first and then two more in the top six and finishing the innings by picking the last wicket. Went for 69 in the high-scoring game against England but picked 5 wickets: Root, Morgan, Bairstow, Butler and Woakes. He was also very unlucky as most of the initial runs off his bowling were inside edges and shaky attempts. Shami’s performance in that game should be looked from a different prism; he did concede runs but more importantly he helped drag England back from a score of 370 plus to 337 by picking five big wickets.

Against Bangladesh Shami was the most-expensive bowler and got just one wicket. The important first breakthrough. Bhuvi was economical and also got one wicket. Shami was not picked for the last game against Sri Lanka and here Bhuvi was almost as expensive as Shami in the previous game and just got one lower order wicket. Jadeja got a game and bowled 10 overs for just 40 runs and picked a wicket. Jadeja could also be in reckoning as he is a superb fielder, has the knack of picking wickets or at least keeping the batsmen quiet and his capability with the bat gives India much more depth. He also brings freshness to the attack. The best thing about him is that he’s got the heart and the stomach for a fight. And right now we need a tight XI that can bounce back from any tough situation. My XI could be wrong, I just hope that the one that is picked by the team management is right.

The hubris of poor travellers

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The brilliant Anderson
A 4-1 series loss is a 4-1 series loss. Statements from Captain Virat Kohli and Coach Ravi Shastri undermine the fact that there’s no hiding place on a cricket field or in any other sport for that matter. The aggressive Kohli’s statements in the press conference after the fifth Test were extremely defensive in nature. To paraphrase, he said that the scoreline of 4-1 to England didn’t show how competitive the series was, and that both the teams and those who understand cricket know it. Add to this the fact that Shastri said that the current crop of players are travelling much better than the teams of the last 15-20 years and you get a perfect example of the team management’s hubris.
If Shastri wasn’t speaking metaphorically then it means that this crop is better than any settled side that toured outside India 1998 onwards. Under Kohli India has won 9 matches away from home (5 against Sri Lanka, 2 against West Indies, 1 each against South Africa and England) and lost 8 (1 against Australia and Sri Lanka, 2 against South Africa and 4 against England). We have had series wins in Sri Lanka many times before Kohli took over and have registered series wins against much better sides than the West Indies that the current crop defeated. We’ve never won a series in Australia or South Africa and the best result of a drawn series in both the countries came with the crop Kohli grew up admiring. To put forth my brutally honest opinion, we could have ticked Australia twice, under Ganguly and then under Kumble but were denied both times by Umpire Steve Bucknor (It wasn’t about just one decision but several in Sydney in Steve Waugh’s last Test when Shastri was in the commentators box and remarked whether the Umpires were given a great breakfast for extending favour after favour and Mark Waugh and some other Australian commentators agreed). The second was too acrimonious to talk about but had that massive edge of Andrew Symonds who rescued Australia in the first essay been given, India would have had a decent chance of closing out the game.
There have been close encounters with South Africa as well but no blame can be laid on being hard done by bad decisions. The South Africans have defended their turf brilliantly. We were 1-0 ahead under Dravid but lost the 3 Test series 2-1 where the last Test was tantalizingly close where Zaheer Khan made getting 10 runs look like 40 and a needless change in the batting order that had succeeded in the first innings led to our undoing in the second. We came from being 0-1 behind to level the series under Dhoni when we were the number 1 Test side in the world rankings. The final Test was a brilliant draw, the first time we drew a series in SA, with Steyn bowling what is known as the ‘spell from hell’ and Tendulkar scoring a brilliant 51st Test hundred. It was Kallis who denied India on both the occasions, a very cautious and defensive partnership in a low-scoring chase with Ashwell Prince the first time round when we lost and a hundred in both innings to save the game when Harbhajan had left them reeling in the second innings under Dhoni’s leadership.
These were performances to be proud of and where a little bit of luck could have led to India recording series wins. We fought extremely well in South Africa under Dravid and Dhoni and in Australia under Ganguly and Kumble with the series being competitive till the last Test match. Under Dravid we also won a series in England but to be fair to Bucknor he did rule a plumb leg before in our favour at Lord’s else the series would have been a 1-1 draw.
The current crop is not battle hardened and they meekly surrendered against a struggling English side. They chopped and changed too much and got the combination completely wrong in the first two Tests against South Africa and England. Two wins and six losses against relatively beatable sides is not a record that qualifies this team to be labeled as the best travellers in the last 15-20 years. They might actually be somewhere near the bottom. The best player is not always the best person to lead the side, so we must at least ponder if a change is needed there—Rahane displayed a very cool demeanour in the Test where we won against Australia at home and wrapped the series as well. As for the head coach, a change is surely needed.

Written by Deepan Joshi

September 13, 2018 at 12:15 pm

The Nagpur Nightmare Can Haunt India

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In the build-up to India’s most-crucial Group stage clash, captain MS Dhoni in his pre-match talk a day before stressed on the importance of a start from the trio at the top that could then allow the explosive middle-order to play its A-game. “If we have slightly longer partnerships at the top, the explosive power of our middle and lower-middle order can be used more in the positive way,” he said.

Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, and Virat Kohli form the technically-accomplished core of India’s top order and Sehwag as a devastating plunderer completes the picture. On Saturday, when India came out to bat in front of a full house the tension in the atmosphere was palpable. Sehwag hit a boundary off the first ball and was then beaten a couple of times in the opening over by Steyn. Morkel came from the other end as Tendulkar took guard to face his first ball of the match. Unlike Sehwag, the Master betrayed no nerves and played his first ball on the up, right under his eyes, with his front foot movement so precise that it looked calibrated to the last millimetre. He opened his account with a single of that first ball and Sehwag was back on strike. The third ball took the edge and went slightly to the right of van Wyk, who couldn’t move a muscle as the ball raced to the fence and Sehwag got a reprieve.

Morkel was bowling with good speed and extracting disconcerting bounce making it difficult for Sehwag but Steyn leaked runs from the other end. Lance Klusener had said the previous day that playing at home India would feel the heat but it was the South Africans who looked dazed at the start. A regulation catch was dropped in the second over and the third over went for 14 with an overthrow that cost five and a huge wide by Steyn another five. Morkel overstepped in his second over and was lucky India couldn’t cash in on the free hit. It was a frenetic start despite Morkel keeping things tight by giving just 9 of his first two overs.

The momentum shifted decisively in Morkel’s third and the innings’ sixth over when the floodgates opened with three hits to the fence. At the end of 5 overs India had 33 on the board and they leaped to 70 in just three more overs with the help of eight boundaries; Morkel conceding six of them in his two overs. At the end of 15 overs the scoreboard read 128 for no loss; Sehwag was 62 in 54 balls and Tendulkar was 57 in just 37 balls.

On the big stage of a pressure game Tendulkar was at his absolute best and it is difficult to describe how beautifully and brilliantly he batted from that first ball onwards. It was a knock that had the stamp of inevitability. He knew he was going to get the runs and if getting them had meant dodging bullets he would have done that and yet stood his ground. Even by the lofty standards of the Master this was a special knock in a crunch game where the nerves could have been frayed at the start. A commentator reflected on the first 25 overs or so saying that amidst all the commotion at the centre—where catches slipped, the South Africans conceded extra runs on more than one occasion due to overthrows, the world’s premier fast bowler lost it in the third over of the innings and conceded 14 runs, and Graeme Smith didn’t know where to hide—one man was calmness personified.

There has been a lot of useless talk before the World Cup about doing it for Tendulkar; useless because the World Cup is not about individuals. But if one were to just consider it for argument’s sake then here was a perfect stage set by the genius and it only needed some backing up. India’s veteran cricket writer R. Mohan in his beautiful piece said, “It takes far more than the world’s greatest batsman to swing an ODI even if he is Superman who once scored a double century to seal a game.” In the 90s Tendulkar did it alone on many occasions as he knew that his wicket meant the game was done for India. This is a different team though and he may well have been under added pressure to play the big shots in the powerplay with the knowledge that traditional accumulation would deny his team extra runs as the power-hitters were in the dressing room. He now knows better.

Dale Steyn, the man of the match in Nagpur, picked up 5 wickets but for his first seven overs he toiled hard and went for 46 runs without a wicket to show. His partner Morkel bowled six overs for 50 runs with the wickets column being empty. The threat was not just taken care of but had been dismissed out of sight.

What then happened to India? How come the explosive batting line-up Dhoni was referring to went off like a cheap cracker? It wasn’t a choke as umpteen newspapers proclaimed in bold and big headlines on the front as well as the sports pages. A choke happens in a situation where a team has victory in sight but to get there it has to absorb some pressure (little or big) and not let the situation, the opposition, or its own hesitancy/lack of belief get to it—when it gets to the team you can say they choked. At 267 for 1 in 39.3 overs with Steyn having just three overs left and India having nine wickets in hand even the remote possibility of pressure had been taken out of the equation. What unfolded was far worse than a choke as India imploded without any pressure at all. And unlike a choke, where a team loses wickets by being tentative, India blazed its way to hell. They fuelled and lit their own pyre.

The first problem was the batting order and it started with number three. Gambhir is a really good player and if an early wicket had fallen he was an ideal choice but he has not been in the best of form and a crunch game was not the time where he should have been sent up to find his feet, especially after a blazing start. Virat Kohli has been in terrific touch for more than a year now and he also did exceptionally-well in South Africa earlier this year and India needed a player high on confidence and scoring freely without risk to allow Tendulkar to breathe easy for a while. Kohli at number seven is a complete waste as he is not someone who bludgeons the ball but plays conventional and smart cricket.

The combined average for Kohli at number 3 and 4 is 52.90 while at number 6 and 7 it drops to 12.66. Dhoni picked on the top order needlessly as they have done reasonably-well in the tournament and his emphasis on the explosive game of the middle-order belies its fragility and builds a case for wanton hitting.

South Africa was under the pump at 144 for 1 after 18 overs and Smith would have given his life for a sedate partnership compared to the carnage that had taken place. The next 18 overs yielded just 93 runs and South Africa clawed their way back into the contest. Even Tendulkar lost the pace of his innings with Gambhir finding it difficult to break free.

The bigger mistake was to send Yusuf Pathan up the order and I am not saying this out of retrospective intelligence. The move was disastrous for two reasons and the first is that the team management should have considered how Pathan has done in different situations. In 9 innings before Nagpur where he has batted up the order (batting positions number 3, 4, and 5) Pathan averages 14.11 with three ducks and two single-digit scores and not a single half-century—that average has now fallen to 12.70. In 26 innings at number 6 and 7 Pathan has an average of 42 with two hundreds and three fifties.

It is no secret that Pathan struggles against fast bowling and since India had already taken a powerplay, South Africa was always going to use their strength and would not have foolishly obliged the Indians by bringing on a spinner against Pathan. The other reason why his promotion was a mistake has to do with the message that it sends to the dressing room. It means that we are going hell for leather even at the cost of digging our own grave. Was the middle-order under undue pressure to cash in big time after a great start to demonstrate that the captain’s belief in their explosive abilities was not unfounded?

This game has made it clear that the explosive middle-order can implode any moment and they should be chastised for their approach rather than given encouragement for their suicidal ways. India’s middle-order showed a complete lack of understanding of the game’s situation. Dhoni himself could do nothing to take charge of the situation and shepherd India at the finishing line. It wasn’t an epic fightback that brought South Africa back into the game and Steyn didn’t bowl a hostile and unplayable spell. It was a complete abrogation of responsibility by everyone bar the trio at the top that let South Africa in.

Tinkering with the batting order was not a good example of out of the box thinking. A good one would have been to take the batting powerplay right after 15 overs with the instruction of playing normal cricket to Sehwag and Tendulkar. That would have caught the South Africans by surprise and it would have forced Smith’s hand to either bring back his strike bowlers, who had gone for plenty, or operate with lesser bowlers to two set players in a powerplay. Either way India would have benefited and could have been above 170/180 in 20 overs without breaking a sweat. And South Africa would have been gutted with the game killed for them.

Instead this game has thrown India’s campaign in disarray and though this team has shown character and bounced back on several occasions the biggest disadvantage here is the lift that the South African team would have got from it. They were dead and buried after the England game and were down and out against India after just 25 overs before India handed over the impetus to them. Graeme Smith saying that it is a massive win for us is actually an understatement.

There are matches that have little bearing on a team’s campaign bar their result and there are those that have psychological implications that go well beyond the immediate and sow seeds of self-doubt in the camp. This match potentially has the power of going beyond the Saturday and India would do well to remember the lessons and forget the game. How they bounce back from here would be the thing to watch out for and it would be very interesting to see their approach if they meet South Africa again in the tournament.

Doubts Punctuate The 1950 Milan Kundera Spy Case

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“Mirek rewrote history just like the Communist Party, like all political parties, like all peoples, like mankind. They shout that they want to shape a better future, but it’s not true. The future is only an indifferent void no one cares about, but the past is filled with life, and its countenance is irritating, repellent, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it. We want to be masters of the future only for the power to change the past.” The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

As if taking a cue from one of his characters a dark secret from the past threatens to crash on the opening chapter of Milan Kundera’s life. In October 2008, the Czech weekly Respekt published a story that claimed Kundera informed on one of his countrymen in 1950, leading to the man’s imprisonment for 14 years in a hard labour camp.

The basis of the assertion was an old police report that fell into the hands of Adam Hradilek, a historian researching the bleak days of Czechoslovakia’s Communist past. The police document reopened the story of Miroslav Dvoracek and that of his childhood friend Iva Militka. The report also brought the past of arguably the most brilliant literary surgeon of communism in Eastern Europe to the forefront. It is a widely reported and misreported story in which the jury is still out on the truth and doubt remains the only certainty.

The 1950 Police Report
The police report dated March 14, 1950 says: “Today at around 1600 hours a student, Milan Kundera, born 1.4.1929 in Brno, resident at the student hall of residence on George VI Avenue in Prague VII, presented himself at this department and reported that a student, Iva Militka, resident at that residence, had told a student by the name of Dlask, also of that residence, that she had met a certain acquaintance of hers, Miroslav Dvoracek, at Klarov in Prague the same day. The said Dvoracek apparently left one case in her care, saying he would come to fetch it in the afternoon… Dvoracek had apparently deserted from military service and since the spring of the previous year had possibly been in Germany, where he had gone illegally.”

The most important thing is the veracity of the police report and from what has come out the document is being considered as genuine (though there is speculation on whether its contents are genuine). Jerome Depuis of the French magazine L’Express travelled to Prague and cited the historian Rudolf Vedova from the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (USTR), the same institute Hradilek works for: “We had the document analysed by the Czech Secret Forces archive. The paper, the names listed, the identity and the signature of the officer were all examined—and the document was found to be authentic.”

Around the same time Jiri Grusa, a Czech poet and in 2008 the president of the international writers association PEN, told a German radio station that he went to Prague to see the police document for himself. Grusa said that he now has no doubts that “the document is real. There’s no denying it. Only it is not Milan Kundera’s document, it is no denunciation, it’s a police annunciation. And if Kundera says, I didn’t do it, then I have to believe him.”

The Background
In 1948 a putsch in Czechoslovakia led to a communist takeover. This resulted in the armed forces being purged and veteran airmen who had flown with the RAF in the war (about 40 per cent of Czech Air Force) were demoted, kicked out or sent to labour camps due to their exposure to the West. Even students were not spared. Two boyhood friends, Miroslav Dvoracek and Miroslav Juppa, who had attended the same school in a small town in Eastern Bohemia were included on a list of expulsions in a memorandum from January 1949. When they were ordered a month later to join an infantry unit, Dvoracek and Juppa, aided by Juppa’s girlfriend Iva Militka and her relatives fled to West Germany.

Click on the headline to read the full story.

The Joke, Prague, and Milan Kundera

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In October 1963 Jean Paul Sartre visited Prague as a guest of the Czechoslovak Writers Union and predicted that the great novel of the second half of the twentieth century would be produced by the search for truth about the experiment of communism.

Earlier that year, in July, when he was in Moscow for another one of his trips to promote the project of an East-West writers’ community, the Soviet leader Kruschev had initiated a clampdown. At a reception in his dacha in Georgia attended by Sartre, the Soviet leader denounced Western writers as the henchmen of capitalism, a theme reiterated at a conference in Leningrad which castigated Western art and culture for its decadence and corruption.

In his Prague visit Sartre confirmed that as a socialist he recognised that they were many unwholesome aspects of Western society but, to his credit, he refused to condone the attack on authors at the Leningrad conference. The writers dismissed as decadent at the Leningrad conference had names like Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Franz Kafka and Sigmund Freud.

Jim Holt wrote in a 2003 piece for Slate.com: “In the early 1950s, when the Cold War was at its peak, he (Sartre) realized that he was ‘living a neurosis’; despite his philosophy of action, he had been a mere bourgeois writer, like Flaubert. His interest in Marxism awakened, he decided to align himself with the Communist Party—this at a time when the crimes of Stalin were being documented and other intellectuals were abandoning the party. The erstwhile philosopher of freedom morphed into Sartre totalitaire.

That is something of a caricature, but Sartre did have his shameful moments over the next two decades. He broke with Camus because the latter denounced totalitarianism. He was silent on the gulag (‘It was not our duty to write about the Soviet labor camps’), and he excused the purges of Stalin and later Mao.”

The Paris take on him goes: “Sartre brought us both the malady—totalitarianism—and the antidote: freedom.”

Nevertheless, a novel did come out of the communist experiment but Sartre at that time was awake only to the ‘unwholesome aspects of Western society’. The Joke by Milan Kundera is a profound novel with an intricate and beautifully worked out plot. The novel was first published in 1967 in Czech under the title Žert but the English language translations left the author bewildered. It is the loss of many readers that a novel of such brilliance came distorted to them for almost 25 years in four different translations before the author could finally call the fifth English language version as being faithful to his Czech original.

Milan Kundera is an intensely private person and he broke a 25-year media silence when in mid-October 2008 he denied an article published in a Czech weekly that on the basis of an old police report said that he turned over a Western intelligence agent to communist authorities in 1950, a move which saw the man narrowly escape the death sentence and led to his spending 14 years in prison. It is a sensitive incident that has been widely reported and misreported and I would need a few days of research before I can comment on it.

Milan Kundera was born on April 1, 1929, in Brno, Czechoslovakia, and his first step in the arts began at an early age on the piano. His father, Ludvik Kundera, was a concert pianist and musicologist who had earned recognition for collaborating with the famed Czech composer Leoš Janáček. The influence and the understanding of music can be found throughout Kundera’s works.

Kundera was an important figure in the Prague Spring, the brief period of reformist activities crushed by the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia on 21st August 1968. In 1970 he was expelled from the Communist Party for the second time after an earlier expulsion in 1950 had yielded to a readmission in 1956. The second time he was also expelled from the Writers Union and lost his job as a teacher of world literature on the film faculty at the Prague Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. Access to his work was banned, and Kundera was reduced to making a living by writing an astrology column under a fictitious name. He described that experience in that unforgettable novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Some biographical material even says he worked as a labourer.

In an interview with Philip Roth, Kundera says, “Then they expelled me from University. I lived among workmen. At that time, I played the trumpet in a jazz band in small-town cabarets. I played the piano and the trumpet. Then I wrote poetry. I painted. It was all nonsense. My first work which is worth while mentioning is a short story, written when I was thirty, the first story in the book Laughable Loves.”

Jan Čulík, an independent journalist and a senior lecturer in Czech studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, says, “Most Western critics originally understood Žert as a political novel, a protest against Stalinist totalitarianism. Protest against Stalinism is however only one of many themes in the novel. Kundera rightly objected to such a simplified interpretation. He pointed out that the 1950s in Czechoslovakia attracted him as a scene for the novel only ‘because this was a time when History made as yet unheard of experiments with Man. Thus it deepened my doubts and enriched my understanding of man and his predicament.’ Czech critics of the 1960s correctly understood Žert as a work probing the deepest essence of human existence.”

In that interview to Roth, Kundera says: “Totalitarianism is not only hell, but also the dream of paradise—the age old drama of a world where everybody would live in harmony, united by a single common will and faith, without secrets from one another. Andrè Breton, too, dreamed of this paradise when he talked about the glass house in which he longed to live. If totalitarianism did not exploit these archetypes, which are deep inside us all and rooted deep in all religions, it could never attract so many people, especially during the early phases of its existence. Once the dream of paradise starts to turn into reality, however, here and there people begin to crop up who stand in its way, and so the rulers of paradise must build a little gulag on the side of Eden. In the course of time this gulag grows ever bigger and more perfect, while the adjoining paradise gets ever smaller and poorer.”

The Joke is a first person narrative by four characters-narrators and they appear reflectively in each other’s rendition. Armed with just a harmless little prank the novel exposes the brutal and bleak world of a totalitarian system and it does so with a deep understanding of the human condition. It is the power of the story coupled with Kundera’s genius to unearth every human emotion that makes The Joke such a complete delight.

In The Art of the Novel Kundera presents his conception of the European novel and also talks in detail about some of his books. It is a work of high erudition that grabs the essence of the novel as an art form and the novelist as an explorer of existence. “Well, I’ll never tire of repeating: The novel’s sole raison d’ etre is to say what only the novel can say.”

The novel shows the reader the world of possibilities. It is secondary whether the possibilities come into being or not. Asked that if you are trying to grasp a possibility rather than a reality, why take seriously the image you offer of Prague, for example, and of the events that occurred there; Kundera said: “If the writer considers a historical situation a fresh and revealing possibility of the human world, he will want to describe it as it is. Still, fidelity to historical reality is a secondary matter as regards the value of a novel. The novelist is neither historian nor prophet: he is an explorer of existence.”

“A character is not a simulation of a living being. It is an imaginary being.”

At the Fourth Congress of the Czechoslovak writers in June 1967, Czech writers openly clashed with the Communist leadership for the first time. Kundera became a leading figure in the movement for freedom. He delivered a speech that became a milestone in the history of independent, self-critical Czech thought.

“Nations tend to think of their cultures and political systems, even their frontiers, as the work of Man, but they see their national existence as a transcendent fact, beyond all question. The some-what cheerless and intermittent history of the Czech nation, which has passed through the very antechamber of death, gives us the strength to resist any such illusion. For there has never been anything self-evident about the existence of the Czech nation and one of its most distinctive traits, in fact, has been the unobviousness of that existence. This emerged most clearly in the early nineteenth century when a handful of intellectuals tried to resurrect our half-forgotten language and then, a generation later, our half-moribund people too.

Kundera said that small nations always face the threat of extinction and there is no point in preserving a separate Czech identity in a quickly integrating world if this community is incapable of making its own, innovative and unique contribution to mankind, in particular in the field of the arts. For that to happen he argued Czech literature must develop in conditions of total freedom. “All suppression of opinions, including the forcible suppression of wrong opinions, is hostile to truth in its consequences. For the truth can only be reached by a dialogue of free opinions enjoying equal rights.”

Having experienced democracy, Nazi subjugation, Stalinism and ‘socialism’, the Czechs are favourably placed to produce a unique testimony about man and his/her predicament, thus giving Czech culture meaning, maturity and greatness. The question remains, Kundera concluded, whether the Czech national community is aware of this opportunity and whether it will use it.

Kundera’s novels offer that unique and moving perspective on human existence. They tell a compelling human story with compassion and with rare insight of a world that is intoxicated with power and oblivious to individual sorrow. Describing irony he says, ‘the more attentively we read a novel, the more impossible the answer, because the novel is, by definition, the ironic art: its ‘truth’ is concealed, undeclared, undeclarable. Irony irritates. Not because it mocks or attacks but because it denies us our certainties by unmasking the world as an ambiguity. In other words, the art of the novel does not lie in the answer but in the beauty of the questions it raises.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being he writes: “A question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies hidden behind it. In fact, that was exactly how Sabina had explained the meaning of her paintings to Tereza: on the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth showing through.”

Sources: Sartre by David Drake; Slate.com, Interview with Philip Roth, writings of Jan Čulík, and the novels of Milan Kundera.

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