The many wonders in Ivan Bilibin


Most of my childhood was illustrated by two persons. One was Arthur Rackham. The other was Ivan Bilibin.

Red Rider

The Red Rider

If Baba Yaga (and her chicken-legged hut) as you imagine her looks just that way, and no other, it is because of Bilibin. If Ilya of Murom in your head will always have a red shield and scabbard, it is because of Bilibin. The magical wolf that helps Prince Ivan in The Firebird, the firebird itself, Vasilisa the Fair, a long line of princes and princesses, the Three Riders, not to mention Koschei the Deathless. Every single memorable character in Slavic folktales becomes engraved in the reader’s eye because of Bilibin.

Ilya of Murom is among my favourite folktale characters, and many years after I first read of him, I was overjoyed to discover he could have been based on a real person. In Ilya’s first adventure, when he comes across Solovei the Whistler-Robber (such names they had!), the fearsome bandit asks: ‘Are you a boyar?’ and Ilya says: ‘Not a boyar. I am a bogatyr.’

Long before I understood the contextual difference between a boyar (nobleman) and a bogatyr (a knight-errant, but the term can’t be accurately translated, I am told) and long before I read anything about class struggle, Ilya became a man after my own heart. Not a boyar. A bogatyr. And Bilibin’s illustration of that fateful encounter was equally responsible for this.

His art is distinctive in its line-work, and the use of primary colours, attention to detail in architecture and clothing, even weapons. You only need to see the Red Rider bursting out of the trees: the vividness of his armour, the glow of his horse, contrasting with the leaves on the trees. Here is an artist telling a story of the human form, of an animal in motion, and of a landscape simultaneously. And scenes set indoors capture furniture, and fabric, and items of everyday use. Nobody quite drew thrones like Bilibin did, for instance. One of the reasons I like him is also why I like Herge: the distinctness of the shapes, the loyalty to form and structure, even though Bilibin’s is not ligne claire.

Maria morevna

The Wedding of Maria Morevna

A lot of his illustrations have a unique touch — borders with geometrical patterns and recurring shapes, or landscapes and architectural forms. Bilibin travelled extensively in the region west of the Urals, and studied traditional Slavic peasant architecture, particularly in the deep north, forms which even in his time were dying. These styles and forms would become a part of the signature Bilibin style. A lot of Alexander Afanasyev’s excellent folktale collection, for instance, is accompanied by Bilibin’s art. Homage to him usually involves art with these borders, such as in Bill Willingham’s Return to the Homelands story arc in Fables, where the part of the adventure in the fable version of Rus takes place entirely in panels drawn after Bilibin.

After 1917, Bilibin was not quite happy with the direction revolutionary Russia had taken, so he went into exile, returning in the mid-1930s. He died at 66 during the Siege of Leningrad, in 1942.

Illustrating folktales is not just a matter of creating memorable physical representations of characters which have survived for long in the popular imagination. It is also about understanding the nature of the people who created these stories. As Jack Haney writes in his excellent The Russian Folk Tale: ‘I am convinced that he (the Russian peasant) found deep moral significance in them, something that goes deeper than the mere surface meaning attributed to him by scholars who have never experienced the totality of peasant life’.

Bilibin gets it. His ethnographic, architecture and folklore studies were part of trying to devise a visual language to explain this ‘totality’, and it comes out in each of his works, even drawings of those nameless extras that populate folktales — the maids in waiting or men-at-arms who appear and vanish in the whirl of heroic events. Consider The Wedding of Maria Morevna, and examine the spearmen and ladies in attendance. In many ways, Bilibin’s art is truer to Russian tradition than, say, his contemporaries like Viktor Vasnetsov. They both drew Ilya of Murom, for instance. Vasnetsov drew the three great bogatyrs of Slavic folklore together in fact, and what a heroic image it is: Ilya of Murom, Dobrynya Nikitich and Alyosha Popovich, surveying the landscape, possibly looking out for the next great quest.

But Bilibin’s Ilya is just more… Russian.

The ‘I am a Hindu, but…’ argument is flawed

We live in a time when religion is increasingly being debated in the public sphere. Till some years ago, it was hoped by many (I among them) that discussions on faith would be largely relegated to the purely academic sphere, where I for one was perfectly willing to participate. That this has not, and that the discourse on faith in the public sphere would actually become more political in tone, should have occurred to us. Why this has happened, globally, is an interesting question, and will be dealt with separately.

But it has happened, across religions. Faith-based political ideologies now occupy a considerable part of the general discourse. Proponents run the usual gamut, from true believers to the mean of spirit which faith-based systems seem to attract in all historical periods, because there is a good deal of exclusivism attached. The joys of belonging to a select club, let’s say.

It is the opponents of such ideologies that I want to talk about here, specifically a certain type of opponent that I have been wary of, for a while. In India, this is the kind that feels the necessity to preface a critique of Hindutva and its adherents with: ‘I am a Hindu, but…’

Unlike the Abrahamic faiths, syntactically this phrase is problematic for Hinduism, because we will first need to define what Hinduism is, and my blog will become a multi-volume book which will end with me admitting the answer could be anything at all. Doctrinally, being a Hindu could mean any of a wide number of sometimes contradictory positions. Legally, the Supreme Court has very kindly laid down about half-a-dozen qualifiers. We are on no firmer ground in terms of practice, considering the diversity of the practiced faith. Of course, a Hindutva proponent would have a one-line definition of what being a Hindu means, and this is one of the principal flaws with that ideology: the intellectual dishonesty of the simplistic.

Let us just say that when someone writes ‘I am a Hindu, but…’, two possible thoughts are occurring simultaneously to the person. First, being a Hindu is whatever the person thinks it is. In other words, she might be talking about a specific practice, such as not eating cow meat (itself a common practice for others self-identifying, or being identified by the upper castes, as Hindus). Or, she might be referring to being a Hindu from the point of view of refuting a specific argument made by Hindutva proponents. Such as, Hindutva proponents say a good Hindu, or the true kind of Hindu, does not eat beef. The critic might be saying, ‘I am a Hindu in every way, but I eat beef.’ In this case, the prefacing phrase is being used to argue against a specific definition in Hindutva.

My main discomfort with the phrase is that it is not, essentially, an intellectual argument. That is, it seeks greater legitimacy for whatever argument the anti-Hindutva critic might be making by pointing out that she, too, is Hindu. This leads to the corollary: that an argument against Hindutva is more legitimate, or should be seen as such, if it is made by a Hindu.

This leads us to the compulsion of agreeing that only those arguments made by people within a faith are truly legitimate. That is, ‘I am a Muslim or Christian, and here are the problems I have against Hindutva’ becomes a less significant critique. This in turn runs the risk of compartmentalising the discourse into faith-based positions.

One may say my objection to the phrase is common sense, but if one takes a look around, one finds a large number of people arguing from this essentially emotional ground. As I was informed recently, a certain senior journalist, who is known not to be a practicing Hindu, has made it a point to preface his remarks on Hindutva by clarifying that he is, actually, a regular temple-goer. His internal reasoning might be that this somehow increases the legitimacy of his voice.

A critique of Hindutva should actually be done on purely intellectual grounds. As a former Hindu, I have as much legitimacy in the arguments I make against Hindutva provided my arguments are based on facts, on doctrine, on practices, on the scientific method of understanding history, in this case political history. My critique of Hindutva should be based on an understanding of what their ideologues say, in addition to a proper understanding of both Hindu doctrine and practice. This takes time, and some degree of reading, and a great degree of interaction with believers, but in the end, for any discourse about faith, it is the only intellectually honest one.

To qualify any discourse on faith by seeking legitimacy as a believer is a fatal weakness, and does not stand up to unbiased scrutiny.

What the newsroom taught me: Part I — Class

This month, I celebrated (observed, really) 25 years of writing for newspapers, of which 14 years have been spent full-time in the newsroom. I have had the privilege of being in the field and handling some beats where, at least back then, some meaningful reportage could be done. I have also been fortunate to work with some wonderful editors (therefore the meaningful reportage).

In these years, I have seen the nature, the essence, of the newsroom change. I cannot speak for other countries, but journalism in India is no longer a profession I am comfortable advising young people to join. In these years, too, I have seen systemic faults become more entrenched, more insidious. It is possible these faults exist in other industries too. In journalism, however, they have had a direct impact on the quality of professionals I see around me today.

A former colleague recently informed me that, on being interviewed by HR for a newspaper, she was asked questions about her family. Specifically, what her parents and siblings did. The colleague told me she was assigned points based on her answers. Most big media houses have these algorithms in place to rate the employability of a ‘prospect’. The emergence of these algorithms, incidentally, has paralleled a very suspicious reluctance by senior editors to read resumes thoroughly. Taken together, this means what your family is may actually help you get a job more effectively than your resume.

I have always believed in not talking about my family or background with colleagues or the public. (One may say I make up for this by talking only about my family with my friends, for which, my long overdue apology). I have believed, and was told by my editors at the beginning of my career, about the importance of individual reputation.

Now, picture this. What if I applied to a newspaper or magazine, with my resume (unread) and the HR person, with senior editors present, asks me about personal details. What if my answers were: “My father is a farmer from Chhattisgarh, my mother was a housewife, now deceased, my sister is married to a railway clerk in Kanker (do you know where it is?). I am a Dalit, and it takes generations of high achievers in a family for Dalits to reach a position of equivalent privilege as the upper castes in urban India, so there isn’t anyone from my family in a good job in a big city. I have always topped, and studied on scholarship money. I love words, and I can tell stories. That is me.” The algorithm, you see, will not have much space for me.

Add that to the fact that print publications, and the new media, do not pay much to freshers. So you have to be willing to starve on big-city expense rates till such time as you master newsroom politics, by when you will have forgotten such things as ‘love for words’ and ‘telling stories’ and will be using words like ‘synergy’ and ‘optimisation’. Or you will break and quit. The people who can survive the algorithm and the low wages, obviously, are those for who beginners’ salaries are “pocket money”, as several young people have told me lately.

Therefore what we are left with are generations of people on starvation rations (and thus on the make) or people coming from privilege. There is, inherently, no crime in coming from privilege, if you can walk out of it. Without that freedom, you can’t chronicle the world.

Repeatedly, at every turn, class rears its head in the newsroom. There are phrases such as ‘people like us’, an oxymoron, because there are, actually, no people like us because there is no ‘us’. Ironically, the people ‘not like us’ are those who still read print publications. But not in English, perhaps, so they do not exist.

In the newsroom, presence is important. So guess who has an immediate and identifiable presence regardless of level of seniority — the hypothetical girl from Chhattisgarh with the weird accent but sterling resume (unread), or the girl whose daddy everyone remembers talking to, or who went to your college, or that senior editor’s school?

The class problem is quite apart from the usual nepotism that besets every Indian industry, and there is no need for me to speak about it here, it being axiomatic. Meanwhile, each succeeding generation in the newsroom is increasingly populated by people coming from enormous privilege, either from the national or regional elites. They are systematically groomed and encouraged into positions of authority, and given identifiable voices, and active mentoring.

A very senior journalist once told me about how new entrants are assigned responsibilities. “If someone is good at grammar and such, we assign her to the desk. If someone can write well, we make her a features writer. Those who can run around, we make reporters.” This is the exact quote. So if you take a look around, most reporters will be of two kinds. The small-town ‘dispensable’ willing to run around at low wages, or the big-city upper class youngster, probably related to a senior journalist or bureaucrat, whose connections open doors, at least at the beginning. And for some beats, it is very difficult for young reporters to open doors unless they are well-greased by power equations.

In the newsroom, class has always existed. It is just that now, it has become overtly malignant.

‘Shwaya, shwaya’: Gabriel Allon, Toynbee and Islam

As I have mentioned earlier, there have been very few espionage novels after the Cold War that can match the narrative scale or philosophical depth of what came before them. A promising exception could be Daniel Silva, who has been writing for a while. His creation, the art restorer and Mossad assassin Gabriel Allon, debuted in 2000 with ‘The Kill Artist’. A product of Israel’s 1970s Munich reprisals, Allon and the world he inhabits has evolved perceptibly in scale. In the past few years, the series has directly referred to events in the Middle-East and Europe.

In ‘The Black Widow’ (2016), a terror attack in Paris causes Allon, reluctantly in line to head the Mossad, to launch an operation. He recruits Natalie Mizrahi, a doctor born to French Jewish emigres, to masquerade as a French Muslim, Leila Hadawi, and get recruited by the Islamic State. Silva does what we have fruitlessly expected authors to do for a while, and takes the story to Raqqa, Syria, with a notable stopover at Molenbeek in Belgium, familiar to us after the attacks of 2015.

Silva falters occasionally, such as with the nom de guerre of the terror mastermind, a certain ‘Saladin’. I suppose I could write a separate post on the Silva the black widowfamiliarity of the 12th century Ayyubid general to the European consciousness. Saladin recurs as a name for Middle-Eastern characters in thrillers, notably in Stephen Hunter’s ‘The Second Saladin’ (1982). In ‘The Black Widow’, however, it strikes a false note. It is unlikely that a senior Islamic State functionary, trusted by ‘the Leader’ to boot, would go to war with the West under the name of a medieval Kurd.

Much before the scene shifts to Syria, however, while talking about the need for Israeli intervention in that country, Allon asks Natalie if she is familiar with Arnold Toynbee’s theory about history’s two pivot points — the Central Asian Oxus-Jaxartes basin, and the Syria-Palestine axis. Silva’s unsaid inference, to which I agree, is the IS, and now the post-IS Middle-East require intervention by world powers and neighbours. The degree of intervention needs, of course, to be individually determined. For Allon it is a single directed anti-terror op.

Apart from the welcome attempt at a theoretical underpinning to contemporary espionage, Silva’s choice of Toynbee, and quoted by a Mossad man, is interesting. In his multi-volume ‘A Study of History’, Toynbee examines 19 ‘major’ civilisations (incidentally, dividing Indian civilisations into ‘Indic’ and ‘Hindu’), four ‘abortive’ and an equal number of ‘arrested’ civilisations. But he also refers to ‘fossil’ societies, born of religious discrimination, classifying Judaic culture as one of them, a part of the abortive Syriac civilization. Considering the re-appraisal of Syriac culture in the intervening decades, there might be some substance to this, but in the 1950s Toynbee was suspected of anti-semitism over this classification, and it remains problematic.

But Toynbee also examined the nature of Islamic society’s reaction to the West in his time, from the late 19th century to the 1930s. In his essay, ‘Islam, the West and the Future’, published in ‘Civilisation on Trial’ (1948), he writes:

“Whenever one civilized society finds itself in this dangerous situation vis-a-vis another, there are two alternative ways open to it of responding to the challenge; and we can see obvious examples of both these types of response in the reaction of Islam to Western pressure today.”

Drawing a parallel between Jewish reaction to Roman imperialism and Islamic response to the West, Toynbee continues: “The ‘Zealot’ is the man who takes refuge from the unknown in the familiar; and when he joins battle with a stranger who practises superior tactics and employs formidable newfangled weapons, and finds himself getting the worst of the encounter, he responds by practising his own traditional art of war with abnormally scrupulous exactitude.”

The Jewish (not to mention Samaritan) response to Rome has been extensively documented, and its connection to the rise of Islam is being researched as we speak. A large part of the Western understanding of Islamic fundamentalism also revolves around the reaction theory. This, in my view, is a trifle simplistic, because it does not take into account the nature of a culture which reacts in just such a manner to the Other, and not in a different way. That is, why are some cultures more, shall we say, designed to take the zealotry option? How did Japanese society, to cite an example, accommodate its still-thriving xenophobia and ultra-nationalism with capitalism and Western dominance? These questions apart, Toynbee’s theories, a lot of which have still not been completely discarded, are a useful entrepot to understanding Islamic societies’ response to the West.

That an espionage fiction writer has made the effort to include this politico-historiographical tidbit is commendable. I expect Silva to theorise further on contemporary politics in forthcoming Allon books, of which the sequel to ‘The Black Widow’, titled ‘House of Spies’ was released this year.

Awesome portmanteaus

Featuring a unicorn, pshrinks, dinosaurs and Scientologists.

Aristotalitarian: Someone who insists Plato’s disciple’s teachings must be implemented completely, in everything. (Aristotle + totalitarian)

Pseudo-scientologist: Member of a cult that says an ancient alien supervillain is responsible for human mental problems, and hates pshrinks, but is sketchy about the details. (Pseudo-science + Scientology)

Dilettenterhooks: The feeling a fake expert in a subject gets just before being exposed. (Dilettante + tenterhooks)

Demonocrat: A supporter of equal voting rights for all demons, regardless of which level of Hell they live in, or nature of their job. (Demon + democrat)

Reunicorn: That one unicorn that keeps saying, “It’s been such a long time. Where is everyone? We should meet.” (Reunion + unicorn)

Troglodiet: A crash weight-loss programme by an exceptionally ignorant person. (Troglodyte + diet)

Doreuphoria: The intense joy that only a critic can feel after being pedantic, and getting away with it. (Doryphore + euphoria)

Diplomatodocus: That one long-necked dinosaur that always says, “Now, calm down, you guys. I am sure we can talk about this.” (Diplodocus + diplomat)

Bicyclotron: A low-tech particle accelerator powered by a bunch of physicists pedaling rapidly. (Bicycle + cyclotron)

Underminotaur: Mythical monster that lives in a labyrinth and keeps passing comments to depress people and make them give up. (Undermine + Minotaur)

Mughals in miniature: The perils of medieval reinforcements for contemporary debates

(Medieval Indian history is not my area of specialization. The only connection Mughal history has to anything I have researched in is the very tenuous Mongol heritage. What follows is not me speaking as a historian, but mainly as a political commentator)

The Mughals are back in the news, after the earlier fracas about Maharana Pratap versus Akbar. While the Right tries to erase the Mughals from history, Left-liberals have sprung to the defence of Babur’s line. I’m happy to see Audrey Truschke’s book on Aurangzeb being mentioned. A re-appraisal of Aurangzeb, and a demolition of some dearly-held myths, was long overdue, and I hope those on the Right do us the courtesy of reading it.

I am not a big admirer of the Mughals, or the way the early Mughals viewed themselves: as inheritors of Chinggis, an unfounded claim. This is not personal. The Assam campaigns of the 17th century, between us, have also been conveniently re-interpreted by the Right as a defensive war by Hindus against Muslim invaders. That the general of the Mughal land army was the Rajput Ram Singh is ignored. That the admiral (who met with a sticky end) was Munawwar Khan, quite possibly an Afghan, is doubly ignored. That among the indigenous armies who fought them were animist Nagas, too, is ignored.

Because not ignoring them would compel one to take into account the complexities of politics in the Middle Ages. The idea that the Mughals’ wars of expansion were not religious conflicts does not go too well with the Right’s version of history. It ignores the Hindus who worked very well with the Mughals. It ignores the subaltern allies of the Mughals’ opponents too, like the Bhils who supplied such excellent weapons to Maharana Pratap. We are all familiar with the dearly-held generalisations not based on actual evidence.

Mughal contribution to Indian society was immense, beginning with the administrative structure. This too, has been mentioned elsewhere. However, I am uncomfortable with the way in which the current debate is shaping up, where, to defend the Mughals from unfounded charges from the Right, we might be building them up into something they are not. Whitewashing is something both sides of the divide have been guilty of, and this time appears no different.

To begin with, Babur never intended to set himself up here, and Samarkand never lost its emotional primacy for him. Second, the true period of Mughal dominance, I believe, needs revision. The Mughal era truly begins with Akbar, and ends with the death of Aurangzeb, a total of 151 years. Of the four Great Mughals within this period, Jahangir benefited greatly from the momentum of Akbar’s reign. If he had been in a situation like Humayun, Jahangir’s career would have doubtless been different. So the contributions of Akbar, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb were what make the dynasty significant. Again, Mughal collapse after Aurangzeb was due to economic and administrative over-reach, not some great religious reprisal, which has been covered very well by late medieval specialists.

Now, if you leave apart the great architecture (a lot of which owes its influence to Central Asian forms), and paintings (derived from existing folk traditions), it is the Mughal administrative machinery that recommends this period for any student of history. This system was not created out of whole cloth by Akbar, but gradually evolved, borrowing a lot from their contemporary Iranians, and incorporating existing systems of the Turks and Afghans. So if one recommends that Mughal history be studied by school children, and it should be, these connections must also be adequately explained. No empire creates systems and structures in isolation. So while trying to defend Akbar from the Right, we are in danger of turning him and his descendants into some kind of medieval superheroes. This, too, is just as unfair as the claims of the Right.

The Mughals carved a place for themselves with technological supremacy. They were fortunate to have someone like Akbar, who realized that the only way to run a large empire in the subcontinent was to be inclusive. They lost their way because such lessons can’t be inherited, they can only be understood and internalized at an individual level.

But, overall, the Mughals were just like any other medieval dynasty, and must be studied as they were. We can’t afford to bring them in as reinforcements for a contemporary political debate. What we should be defending today are democracy (based on ideology, not birth-based majorities), freedom of speech, gender and caste equality, secularism (that is, the excising of religion from the public sphere), freedom of economic mobility, scientific temper, primacy of law and an equivalent freedom to change laws to reflect changing societies. None of these were started by the Mughals, and have nothing to do with medieval societies. We must, repeatedly, mention this. This country as it exists owes itself to a different intellectual and humanist tradition.

The Mughals must not be removed from school or college textbooks. Neither should the small nations that fought them. Nor should the Lodhis, Tughlaqs or Sayyids. Personally speaking, I would be delighted if the books also mentioned the Bhils, or, introduced, to north Indian children, the Cholas. Any move by the Right to ‘sanitise’ history must be opposed. But let us not make the Mughals into something admirable. They were absolute monarchs ruling a bountiful land, and successful at it. But they passed. I am glad they did. The society we are trying to defend, a far better one, needs other kinds of reinforcements.

The Coupe remembers

(This is the first of the Mobile Tales series. I have a small collection of miniature classic cars and aircraft, and these are their stories, written on MS Word on my phone. I have tried to preserve a sense of time and geography in the words, sentence structures and slang used in each tale.)

It was a heck of a time, as the 1933 Ford Coupe keeps reminding everyone, all the young fellows with their shiny chrome and wingtips and whatnot, and the posh Europeans with their sleek sophistication. They don’t really ever have the heart to stop the salty old-timer in his cups.

Yes, a heck of a time, between the two wars. The Coupe was the meanest, toughest thing out on the road, and could roar on, from county to town, hours over hours. The cops loved him, and in time the bad guys did too.

Oh, and there were so many of them back then, the wrong ‘uns, the old-timey gunboys, the Tommy gunners and bank robbers, the liquor smugglers on the old cross-border run to Chicago. The desperadoes on the lam. What a time!1933 Ford Coupe

There was Baby-Face Nelson, and Dillinger, and Ma Barker and her kid, and Bonnie and Clyde, and Pretty Boy Floyd and Machine Gun Kelly and hoo, boy! Ain’t never seen their likes again, says the Coupe.

And there was the Mob, too. The wiseguys, mafia you youngsters call them now. Al Capone himself, and all them guys who made money during the Prohibition.

And the broads. Every one of them like the girls in Hollywood. The broads were something, too.

The Coupe worked for some Chicago cops for a while, and saw a lot of chases. Even got dinged in the hood by a Tommy gunner once. Then was sold to some guys who ran a crew for Capone near the Exchequer restaurant. Saw Big Al himself, and gave a lift to Machine Gun Kelly once.

By and by, getting on in years, the Coupe was sold down south and became a sheriff’s car. Enforced the law in that there county, the Coupe did. Not a criminal could get away. The great Melvin Purvis hisself sat in the back once. A great man. A great one.

So the Coupe remembers, and there isn’t a one among the youngsters as salty and as full of life. Anyone who survived the Depression can take anything any other decade can throw at it.

On why I like the Repairman

Eons ago, I was standing one morning in front of the smallest lending library I have ever seen — a covered cart with second-books both known and highly obscure. I found a fat little battered book with a cover that had once been black. That book was ‘Nightworld’, by F Paul Wilson.

I borrowed and read it, liked it a lot, and returned it. The occasional well-written post-apocalyptic novel apart, it is interesting how few good fiction works exist on apocalypses themselves. Possibly because it is difficult to get right: the magnitude of social collapse; the individual stories; the reasons for the end of the world. Much easier to pick up the pieces and tell a story of the aftermath.

‘Nightworld’ is about the apocalypse, spread over a week or so. It begins with the sun rising late and setting early, progressively, till there is no dawn. Meanwhile giant sinkholes open up across the planet and monstrosities come out from another dimension. The fellow to blame, it turns out, is this millennia-old villain allied with the other dimension, part of an ancient feud between two cosmic entities. Opposing the bad guy is a small bunch of people with little in common and they are among the many delights of this book. One of them is a fellow called Jack.

A few years later, just before leaving the place, I found the book again and bought it. ‘Nightworld’ is the culmination of the six-volume ‘Adversary Cycle’, with characters’ backstories tying in, all of which I had to read. That began nine years of me looking in at bookstores across the country for the other five books. Turns out nobody had read Wilson, and noThe Tombbody stocked the books. Ever. This was much before e-tail, and I was stuck.

When I met Jack in ‘Nightworld’, I immediately thought what a wonderful series there could be about him. Jack is what his creator describes as an urban mercenary. He takes up jobs for people who do not or cannot take the help of the police. He calls them ‘fix-its’. But more than the actual jobs, its Jack’s life that makes him such a fascinating creation.

Turns out I was right. In the early days of the internet, a small fan site came up for Wilson readers (obviously the Adversary Cycle was a huge hit in the west) and they could not have enough of Jack. Wilson over the years would write 16 Jack novels, a trilogy about his early years, and a YA trilogy on Jack as a teen. Chronologically, ‘Nightworld’ is the last Jack story. We still haven’t had enough of him, but Wilson says that’s it, and we should stop bothering him.

In the ninth year of my search I found ‘The Haunted Air’, and with the coming of e-tail, at last, ‘The Tomb’, the first Jack novel. It remains my favourite horror story, but it is much more than that. Wilson, a doctor whose knowledge of classic horror novels and movies, crime fiction, popular culture and mythology is phenomenal, is also a fine writer and a delight when it comes to discovering New York. In his hands the city is a colourful character with a bottomless bag of tales.

And there is Jack. The Repairman, as his best friend calls him, is a complex piece of work. We are never told his true last name, and he lives outside the margins so adroitly that it is a delight to see him maneouvre around systems and laws. He has no social security number or official existence, deals mainly with cash, buys pop culture junk which he calls ‘cool things’, matches Wilson’s knowledge of classic movies and is physically capable (which of course is needed in his line of work).

I first met him when I was gradually easing myself out of systems, and could appreciate where he was coming from. His fans may not have dropped off the map as completely as he has, but one understands his views. To call him a libertarian would be simplistic. He just doesn’t want the government to butt in where it is not wanted. For instance, he believes it is a citizen’s right to do whatever she likes to her own body. If one does not want to poison oneself, one will not do drugs (he doesn’t, incidentally). The choice is one’s own.

The books’ highpoints are where Jack, the ultimate invisible man, comes up against forces working against humans. The two cosmic entities mentioned above are another of Wilson’s wonderful creations. Unlike established theologies, however, one of the entities is pure evil and wants to remove sentient life from earth. The other is not necessarily our friend, but merely values humans because sentient life makes this planet a prize in their Great Game. Jack, while dealing with more mundane cases, has his runs-in with the Big Bad Guys once in a while.

All the Repairman Jack books are worth a read, but ‘The Tomb’ is really something.

The problem with post-Cold War espionage thrillers

It has been a long-standing grouse with me that, in the past 16 years since 2001, I haven’t come across a really superlative work in espionage fiction. Every once in a while I am driven to return and delight in the wonders of Cold War fiction: of ‘Tinker, Tailor…’ or ‘The Spy Who Came In From the Cold’ (which transcends the genre, between us), or the underrated transitionals which mark the shift in world affairs from Second World War dynamics to the Cold War, like ‘A Small Town in Germany’.

I return to ‘The Looking Glass War’, or the prophetic ‘Smiley’s People’, the bleak nostalgia of ‘The Secret Pilgrim’. Le Carre apart, I find renewed joy in Deighton’s ‘The Ipcress File’ or the Hook, Line, Sinker series, the far-fetched guilty pleasure of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’. Even a Helen McInnes, or a Frederick Forsyth phoning it in with ‘The Fourth Protocol’ does not disappoint.

There is such variety in these works, from the pure literature of le Carre, or McEwan’s mighty effort with ‘The Innocent’, to the hammer-smashing thriller rides of Deighton and Condon. Something about the Cold War brings out the best in what would have been, under different circumstances, not very engaging authors. In which other period could we find, I ask, a work like ‘Death of a Thin-Skinned Animal’?

The transitionals and early Cold War works then take me to WWII, and Greene, and by meandering paths, through Buchan (always, always Buchan) to Childers and the prophecy of the end time. Sometimes, even, Conrad. And there I rest and marvel at this vast and complex body of work. There is no other period which can compare with such subtle explorations of the human condition, with such adventures, with such characters and systems, as Cold War thrillers.

And then we cross 2001 into a barrenness so profound that I wonder how so many authors, some at the peak of their craft, could get it so wrong. The 1990s finds some of them still clinging to the Soviet era with fondness, as to a friend who has to depart, mourned by all.

Some made a mighty effort to move with the times, confident that human nature would not disappoint, and a new conflict would replace the old, and soon. Forsyth makes his Sam McCready a wry witness to a civilian who confidently remarks, with the fall of the Wall, that everything would be all right in the world. Less than nine months later, in August 1990, as Forsyth tells us, Saddam Hussein took Kuwait.

The inference was the Cold War would be replaced by simmering conflicts around the world, including the Middle-East. Forsyth himself took this on with ‘The Fist of God’, about a half-British SAS officer undercover as an Iraqi during Desert Shield and Storm. Entertaining, but something was missing.

Gerald Seymour, whose best work as far as I am concerned is ‘The Glory Boys’, in which he shows a remarkable understanding of the Arab mind, went off on a different tangent, albeit a welcome one. In 2010, he revisited the Bosnian War in ‘The Dealer and the Dead’, about a Croatian village which takes out a contract against a British arms dealer who betrayed them in that terrible conflict. The Bosnian War, too, did not get the attention it deserved from other, better authors. Le Carre, meanwhile, was in the Caucasus, but not, as the epigraph in ‘Our Game’ says, “writing fairy tales” as Chekhov once wished. Instead, our Cornwell wrote about a British spy and a former Treasury bureaucrat involved with the Ossetians. There is much talk of righting historical wrongs, and of how small nations get pulverised by the mighty. Already we see ominous signs of what is to come, a sort of piecemeal effort at examining a broken world.

Since 2001, there has not been a single work which can match the scale or depth of the greatest of Cold War fiction. The divide can be gauged from the fact that my favourite Tintin, ‘The Calculus Affair’, too acquires literary greatness because it is essentially a Cold War thriller. Le Carre has since churned out passable works, and some very average efforts, with only ‘The Constant Gardener’ approaching anywhere near the greatness of his Cold War masterpieces. The others, and even counting those who were just stepping up their game when the Wall fell, have not produced anything worthy of going toe-to-toe with the books mentioned above.

Where does the problem lie? There are several explanations. First, the Cold War, though a long-running ideological conflict, was essentially between versions of the West. There were systems battling systems, men in suits battling other men, weapons and armies facing each other, ideas grappling each other, but all within a context that each side could, when it came to basics, understand. Therefore we could have situations where a George Smiley could sit and talk to Karla (in a Delhi prison, by the way) about how they were not much different from each other. And indeed they weren’t, these men of the shadows. The Soviets were purportedly defending an ideology which owed itself to a German who lived in London. The Russian Revolution owed its genesis to ideas from long-dead Frenchmen and Englishmen and Germans. Their worldviews, their histories, even the nature of their doubts or self-doubt were practically identical. For authors of the West, therefore, the Cold War was an immense pool of ideas, familiar if frightening, in which they could immerse at leisure confident in its essential elements.

The War on Terror, or whatever you may choose to call it, affords no such familiarity. Occasional efforts are made by writers, or screenwriters, to deal with the epistemology of it. The wonderful Judi Dench, whose ‘M’ in the second-best Daniel Craig Bond movie ‘Casino Royale’ says “Christ, I miss the Cold War” then says in the best Craig Bond movie, ‘Skyfall’, this: “I am frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map. They’re not nations, they are individuals. And look around you. Who do you fear? Can you see a face, a uniform, a flag?”

It is a measure of how barren literature has been since 2001 that the most incisive commentary on the situation comes from a movie, not a book. This unfamiliarity with the nature of the post-Cold War world, therefore, is not just the shortcoming of world leaders and their advisors. It exists, and has been compounded, in the realm of ideas as well.

I say compounded, because the only decent efforts have been in non-fiction (which was inevitable), or in a handful of literary works, such as those dealing with the immigrant experience in the West. But there is more to the world of today than merely exploring the process by which descendants of immigrants in the West radicalize.

To write a thriller, or espionage thriller, for our times, needs an understanding of Islam, a reading of it and more, a critical reading of scripture, of history, of doctrines and traditions. Of the interplay of ethnicities, such as in South Asia (if one set a thriller here). One can, of course, cheat and base it on the Palestinian movement, but that was long ago subsumed by events in the neighbourhood. How does one create suspense, or characters, based on or around societies and beliefs without exploring them first? And this needs a lot of reading and a lot of contemplation.

More (for these two activities are easy), it needs the willingness to step into fundamentally different shoes, to internalise attitudes to life (and death) which are fundamentally alien. Consider the Saarbrucken scholars, those quiet gentlemen and women who for decades have been studying across languages and histories to explain the genesis of Islam. Consider the effort it needs to see the world simultaneously from so many different points of view. And then imagine the possibilities of a thriller which truly explores the Islamic world. Which takes an honest look at what it means to be a Muslim, either in a Muslim society, or in the West. And which takes a look at the complexities of Islamic society.

Instead, what we have had are le Carre rehashing Cold War anarchism (literally, through his characters) in ‘Absolute Friends’, Forsyth doing a Sandy Arbuthnot with his SAS man from ‘Fist of God’ in ‘The Afghan’, for which I shall never forgive him, because Arbuthnot is among the greatest espionage fiction characters ever created.

At the shallow end of the talent pool, as I discovered while wildly casting about for any spark of inspiration among these authors, I found ‘The Infidel’ by Bob Shepherd, a former SAS man himself, by the way. In a sign of the times, while then bureaucrat Childers foretold World War I, and SOE men like Ian Fleming created assassins and former SIS men like le Carre created George Smiley, today we have retired special forces veterans trying to create fiction engaging with Muslim societies.

The Infidel at least has the grace to be set in Afghanistan, about two soldiers reaching a remote region of poppy growers and there acquiring immense power. An interesting premise, and one begins to appreciate an author who steps out of European comfort zones, till one remembers a story titled ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ by one Kipling, Rudyard. At least somebody has been reading the classics.

Therefore here I am, still awaiting somebody who writes a story worth lining up with the greats. Meanwhile, I read non-fiction, and the Saarbrucken researchers, and even Tom Holland’s ‘in the Shadow of the Sword’, a valiant attempt at early Islamic history by somebody whose better works are about ancient history (with ‘Rubicon’ being highly recommended).

There is somebody, however, of who I have nursed hopes for about a decade, and he has come close, really close.

Afghanistan: India Needs to Engage for the Long Term

And here’s a piece about India’s Afghan policy after the US withdraws. The mistakes of the past need not be repeated, but one suspects they will be:

The May 23 terror attack on the Indian consulate at Herat in western Afghanistan underlines one matter above all: time is running out for India to decide whether it will step up its engagement with the troubled country, and to what extent.

As mentioned in our article, the new government in Delhi will have to tackle the Afghanistan-Pakistan matter whether it wants to or not, and today’s attack will just make the clock tick faster. The Pakistan Prime Minister is also faced with a dilemma regarding the invitation to Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. If he accepts, it will be, at least for public consumption, a rebuke to the hawks of Pakistan’s military and the ISI. The Herat attack is thus a message to India by the Pakistan establishment not to forget who pulls the Taliban’s strings in that country.

India is not a part of the US-led ISAF which has been trying to normalise Afghanistan since 2002, but Indian interests have been attacked consistently over the years. In 2008, the Indian Embassy in Kabul was car bombed, with 58 deaths including an Indian defense attaché, supposed to be a primary target for insurgents. In 2009, the embassy was bombed again, and 17 people died. The group behind it, the Haqqani Network, is seen as particularly close to the ISI. A year later, Indian civilians were targeted in guesthouses, and nearly a dozen were killed. This time the perpetrators, according to Afghan intelligence, were from the LeT.


The question is: should the Indian government step up its intervention in Afghanistan? There are several reasons to support this.

Ever since the days of the anti-Soviet insurgency, India’s Afghan policy has been diffident at best and ambivalent at worst. The Afghan national consciousness never forgot that India’s engagement, which was at a high in the 1970s, petered off when long-time friend USSR invaded Afghanistan. After the end of the Cold War, India was presented an opportunity to both make amends with the Afghans and pursue an afghanistan-2014-300x200unprecedented opportunity: make a diplomatic breakout in the newly independent republics of Central Asia.

This was frittered away as Pakistan backed the Taliban to the hilt, and barring a few weapon and medicine shipments, and some intelligence inputs to Ahmad Shah Massoud in the Panjshir, India did not make a decisive intervention as the country tore itself to pieces. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex was virtually running the Talib-overrun parts of Afghanistan.

After 9/11, the American response showed where India had erred: NATO provided massive logistics support to the Tajiks (although Massoud had been assassinated just two days before 9/11) and the Taliban was routed. In theory, that is. What was to be a new beginning has since been bogged down by dogged insurgency.

As things stand today, it is not just a crucial period for India, with a new regime about to assume power, but also for Afghanistan. The ISAF is winding up, but the future looks spectacularly gloomy. In a 2012 Pentagon report on the future of Afghanistan, the process of transition to a stable government in Kabul expressed the hope that the Karzai regime could manage more or less on its own by the end of 2014.

However, the twin threats of low-level Taliban inroads into the vast Afghan hinterland, and poppy cultivation by locals, have never been successfully tackled in the two years since. With a practically non-existent economy and rural infrastructure, impoverished Afghans have been taking to poppy cultivation in greater numbers, filling warlords’ and Taliban coffers with drug money. In the 2012 report, only a handful of provinces were listed as on their way to ‘transitioning’ – Pentagonspeak for transfer of administration to a fully Afghan authority.

The Pentagon report of the year following, 2013, is not for the queasy. The regions in transition are still limited to central Afghanistan. Herat, where the latest attack took place, is partly in transition and mostly dominated by insurgents. The Taliban continues to make inroads and the Afghan government is, to use a term common in similar circumstances, beleaguered.

As things stand, the West can’t increase its military and economic engagement there, and an annexure to the 2012 report adds that at current rates of expenditure, the Afghan government will be spending one and half times its total annual income on defense alone for the next decade. There will be no space for any constructive efforts by the Afghans on their own, even if they have the political will to seek this.

In these circumstances, Pakistan will try to regain its lost hold on the country, through its numerous proxies. The two Pentagon reports are very clear that these proxies – The Taliban, the Haqqani Network and the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin – will continue to scale up their attacks on interests opposed to themselves and Pakistan. India is, naturally, on top of the list.

The new regime in Delhi will therefore have to either abandon Afghanistan entirely after this year, or increase its presence. Mere economic support will not be enough: businesses, construction workers, humanitarian aid groups are all convenient soft targets without a security apparatus to back this up. As a beginning, India needs to rope in the ethnic minorities of Afghanistan, beginning with the Tajiks and Uzbeks. This has cross-border ramifications.

Tajikistan has been friendly towards India, and the Uzbeks wouldn’t mind a helping hand since they have come under pressure of Islamist groups beginning with the Taliban’s attempt at exporting Chechen fighters to their south in the late 90s.

It is therefore apparent that India needs to commit to Afghanistan for the long term. This will have the twin effect of limiting Pakistan’s machinations, and also making a diplomatic breakout into Central Asia. India has for long harboured ambitions of expanding into that region, which would be a crucial countermove to China’s maneouvres in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, India has never pursued this idea beyond a vague level.

The present is as good a time as any to make friends in the region and assure all the players, friends and enemies alike, that we are there to stay. Unlike the West, this will not cause a kneejerk nationalist response in Central Asian Islamic society. The Iranians have been friendly as well, and have no reason to be close to Pakistan, who they view as a Saudi client.

As at every other period in the region’s history, this is a time for frantic diplomacy and economic investment, backed by security doctrines which will factor a future Afghanistan left to its own devices by the West. The last time this happened, the Taliban filled the vacuum and Pakistan scored. It is about time for a re-match.