Three pages of books, three pages of ‘It’s Personal’ stories — there’s a lot to read in this issue and I’m quite chuffed with how the whole thing’s come out so I’m going to go page by page. In the first page of The Mag, we had the Great Game and the great literary game and some cinematic glamour:
- An exclusive extract from William Dalrymple‘s new book, Return of A King.
- A review of Conversations with Mani Ratnam by Baradwaj Rangan.
- An open letter from a disgruntled lit-fester.
Bloomsbury India has published Return of a King and they were kind enough to let me choose an extract. In DNA, we have the luxury of carrying 800- to 900-word articles as the central piece, which is a lot of words for an article but isn’t really substantial enough for an extract so it wasn’t easy to pick an excerpt. I loved the end of Return of a King but it seemed a little unfair to give away the end, even though it’s not precisely a thriller. (Super last line in that book, though.) To pick the first 800 words seemed too predictable. Ultimately, even though the book is actually about Shah Shuja and Dost Mohammad Khan, I chose this little section about Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab and Alexander Burnes. Because the maharaja was a rockstar.
From Return of A King
“Whilst stooping to remove my shoes,” Burnes wrote, “I suddenly found myself in the arms and tight embrace of a diminu- tive, old-looking man.”
This was Ranjit Singh, the Lion of the Punjab himself. Leading Burnes by the hand, he brought him into the court where “all of us were seated on silver chairs, in front of his Highness”. It was now more than thirty years since Ranjit Singh had come to power, assist- ing Shah Zaman to save his cannon from the mud of the Jhelum, and thirteen years since Shah Shuja had fled Ranjit’s enforced hospitality through the city sewers. Since then, the Sikh leader had taken the opportunity presented by the Afghan civil war to absorb most of the lands of the Durrani Empire east of the Indus and build a remarkably rich, strong, centralised and well-governed Sikh state in its place. As well as training his remarkable army, Ranjit had also modernised his bureaucracy and ran a formidable intelligence network.
The British generally got on well with Ranjit Singh, but they never forgot that his army was the last military force in India which could take on the Company on the field of battle: by the 1830s, the Company had stationed nearly half the Bengal army, totalling more than 39,000 troops, along the Punjab frontier. It was therefore extremely important that Burnes establish a good rapport with Ranjit.
The French traveller Victor Jacquemont penned a revealing portrait of the Maharajah just a couple of months before Burnes arrived in Lahore. He depicted Ranjit Singh as a clever and charming rogue – as disreputable in his private habits as he was admirable in his public ones. “Ranjit Singh is an old fox,” he wrote, “compared with whom the wiliest of our diplomats is a mere innocent . . .” Jacquemont reported a number of encounters with the Maharajah: “His conversation is a nightmare. He is almost the first inquisitive Indian I have seen, but his curiosity makes up for the apathy of the whole nation. He asked me a hundred thousand questions about India, the English, Europe, Bonaparte, the world in general and the other one, hell and paradise, the soul, God, the devil, and a thousand things beside . . .” Ranjit Singh regretted that women “no longer give him any more pleasure than the flowers in his garden”. …
Jacquemont also noted that the Maharajah “has a passion for horses which is almost a mania; he has waged the most costly and bloody wars for the purpose of seizing a horse in some neighbouring state which they had refused to sell or give to him . . . He is also a shame- less rogue who flaunts his vices as Henri III did in our country . . . Ranjit has frequently exhibited himself to his good people of Lahore with a Moslem public woman, indulging in the least innocent of sports with her on the back of an elephant . . .”
Burnes was just as taken with Ranjit Singh as Jacquemont had been, and the two quickly became firm friends: “Nothing could exceed the affability of the Maharajah,” he wrote. “He kept up an uninterrupted flow of conversation for the hour and a half which the interview lasted: he enquired particularly about the depth of water in the Indus and the possibility of navigating it.” The dray horses and the carriage were then inspected: “The sight of the horses excited his utmost wonder; their size and colour pleased him: he said they were little elephants, and as they passed singly before him, he called out to the different sardars and officers, who joined in his admiration.” Indeed such was Ranjit’s pleasure in his gifts, and Lord Ellenborough’s letter which accompanied them, that he ordered an unprecedented artillery salute of sixty guns, each firing twenty-one times, so that the people of Lahore would be in no doubt as to his enthusiasm for his new English alliance.
For two months, Ranjit laid on a round of entertainments for Burnes. Dancing girls performed, troops were manoeuvred, deer were hunted, monuments were visited and banquets were thrown. Burnes even tried some of Ranjit’s home-made hell-brew, a fiery distillation of raw spirit, crushed pearls, musk, opium, gravy and spices, two glasses of which was normally enough to knock out the most hardened British drinker, but which Ranjit recommended to Burnes as a cure for his dysentery. Burnes and Ranjit, the Scot and the Sikh, found themselves bonding over a shared taste for fire- water. “Runjeet Singh is, in every respect, an extraordinary character,” wrote Burnes. “I have heard his French officers observe that he has no equal from Constantinople to India.”
Since from now to January, it’s one literature festival after another, it seemed an opportune moment to let disgruntled lit fest goers have their say. This one channels the complaints of many.
Now is the winter of our discontent — us being the hapless lot that attends literary festivals. It’s that time of the year again when you come into the spotlight. The literary festival season in underway, which means more panels than the government of India has instituted in the past 65 years. You think this is wonderful, and understandably so. You’re on stage, you have a bottle of water, you have a moderator, you have an audience, and you hold forth. And you’re convinced, of course, that your audience is hanging upon every pearl of wisdom that you utter.
News flash: Contrary to what your ego is telling you, you really are not that cool. In fact, to put it bluntly, a staggering majority of your tribe is boring. So here’s a plea from someone who attends literary festivals out of the delusion that literature can potentially be fun: get your act together. Be engaging. Don’t make us yawn. Wake up and wake us up.
This is the part where you get huffy and say that I’m an illiterate yokel. Why is it that when foreign authors have panel discussions, people are gung-ho but when Indian authors do the same, they’re labelled boring, you will ask. Because, unlike you, they know how to play this game. Either that, or they’re just smarter and more interesting. The jury is out on that one.
Here’s the thing: I desperately want you guys to be good. I want to be able to tell people, “You must go and see this author’s session. They’re awesome!” Except you, dear writer, make it impossible for me to do so. I’m not sure whether you inherently lack charisma, but I can count on my fingertips the number of Indian authors who have a commanding presence. Most of the time, you say things you’ve said before. It’s absolutely depressing how lacking in humour most of you are. Neither you nor your moderators make any effort to engage an audience. You don’t have debates with panellists or have enlightening conversations. At best, when you talk, it’s like listening to the kid who sits in the first row and mugs up the entire textbook. Worst-case scenario, you say inconsequential bits of nothing that we forget by the time we’ve made our way to the exit at the end of your panel. No one tells you this because we Indians are genetically pre-disposed to rejecting criticism. Consequently, all we offer to one another is flattery, with varying percentages of helium.
You want to learn how to play the literary festival game? Look at foreign authors, like Margaret Atwood, Martin Amis, Gary Shteyngart, Zadie Smith, Hisham Matar, Teju Cole and Chimamanda Adichie. They’re witty, they’re insightful and even the most egotistical of them is aware that they need to work a crowd. At the end of listening to authors like these, the audience’s head is spinning with a million ideas. You feel awe at how this mind things, how much it knows, how incredible the experiences are, how cleverly they tell stories and — in case of writers like Smith and Adichie — how hot they are. Watching them is not the same as reading an interview of theirs. It’s richer, more informative and seriously fun.
I can’t think of too many Indian authors who inspire even one of these sentiments and I’d like to believe it’s not because we are basically a boring people. I prefer to think it’s you, dear writer, being complacent. The festivals are free so the crowds will come. You’re not trying to woo the reader. You want to woo the publisher and the agent, with whom you’ll netword during after hours. So we, the hoi polloi in the audience, are not really worth the charm. I’m not asking you to make provocative statements and get arrested (though if you are so inclined, I won’t complain. The spineless goodie-two-shoes nature of the Indian cultural scene needs to be slapped out of shape). All I’m saying is, give us a good time. You never know, you might find you’re having more fun too.