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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 1, December 22, 2012 [Annual 2012]

Critical History of Our Times

Thursday 3 January 2013, by Rajesh Kumar Sharma



The Underside of Things: India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011 by Badri Raina; Three Essays Collective; 2012; Pages: xxii+758; Paperback Rs 850.

Badri Raina is like an all-season fruit-bearing tree. And the more he ages the mellower gets the fruit he bears. The 134 essays gathered between the covers of this book and written for Z-net over six years between 2006 and 2011 are ample testimony to his engaged critical productivity. Each essay is a timely, more than instantaneous, response to some pressing issue—be it embodied in an event, a pronouncement, a person, a law, a policy, a report, or a possibility crying imperatively to be cast into action. But beyond this, the essays also transcend the contingency of their moment under the force and lucidity of Raina’s reason which, aided by a ready and exact memory working as a sixth sense, never fails to put together the bigger picture. As a result, the essays together constitute a critical history of our times.

Raina has an acid tongue and a pen that leaves a fiery trail. He rages and thunders, often to the accompaniment of lightning/lightening wit, a Dickensian gift he has cultivated over decades of his literary scholarship, particularly of the great English novelist. In his foreword, Mani Shankar Aiyar rightly frames Raina’s India and the world against Dickens’s England and the world, disclosing the links and parallels that only a person of his erudition and sense of history could have traced so effortlessly. A foreword authored by one endowed with lesser wit would have been an unworthy prologue to Raina’s writings.

Reading Raina I have the sensation of being at the receiving end of bursts of an almost inhuman energy—of being assaulted with the jets of a water cannon. Blended with the balm of a deeply compassionate mind, it produces an inimitable sensibility. This, I guess, is Raina’s singular signature as a witness to the history that is the present. It is not easy for a writer as prolific as he is to always have something to say whenever he chooses to put pen to paper, or fingertip to keyboard. His rage, whenever provoked, never flounders in blabbering inanities (as it does in lesser media mortals) but augments the brilliance of an ever-incisive reason. And it is never poisoned by viciousness and never soiled by pettiness.
Partisan he is, but partisan in the way truth—as Alain Badiou says—is partisan, considering that the mortals we are it is beyond us to grasp the whole truth, if there be any. He stands on the left, the Left that is to say, and proclaims his choice of the position with unfashionable candour. But that does not mute his lashing tongue when it has to admonish the Left, as over the police firing in Nandigram, or over its defeat in West Bengal. The Left is still the best bet, he believes, to contain the reckless malaise of neoliberalism and to ward off the spectre of ‘majoritarian fascism’: we just cannot afford to let it wither any more, much less kill it for its lapses.

In fact, his uncompromised critical stance exemplifies the paradox of his peculiar subject position as a citizen commentator: a potent self-presence that is nevertheless never self-centered but impersonal. Hence the elegance of his colloquialism has its reason not so much in the adornment of articulation as in the will to draw the reader to his quills and pills. As such, he is the exemplar of what a non-specialist can accomplish, and the way he can, as an agent of intervention outside the easily visible frames and furniture of power.

The range of the essays is vast enough to spell out a substantial agenda for governments as much as for citizens in our times. And the treatment is modulated to the demands of the issue in hand. The opening essay, on capital punishment, documents evidence from the world’s history against this barbaric relic: the closing essay, after saluting—for her healthy sceptism—his mother who enters her hundredth year, dips into remembrance of his younger days in a happier Kashmir, before painting the ruins of the human community that fanaticism has bequeathed to the subcontinent. The several essays on Kashmir show Raina’s honest quest for a real, achievable end to a long tragic history. In these particularly, his credentials as a value-inspired pragmatist committed to democracy, secularism, peace and justice stand out. Elsewhere he tears apart ‘cultural nationalism’ as fiercely as he does imperialism and its contemporary baby, neo-imperialism. The ‘self-regulating’ electronic media, the pampered monster from the corporate ideological lab that he perceives as a menace to the sanity of democratic dialogue, is another object of Raina’s critical disrobing. On corruption, he is one of the few who can see it in its actual historical context, without melting hard reason into soft, shocked sermons. Indeed, his treatment of the Anna Hazare syndrome is a delectable critical feast as he goes about delicately exposing its authoritarian underside.

Unless my apology for a review should give the impression that Raina is little more than a dazzling word-spinner of great goodwill, let me declare that the real harvest I carry home from my sojourn among these essays is a deepened trust in the uses of analysis. He bores through surfaces and traces the obscurest of connections. For a sample, read his ‘Cricket as Surrogate Kill’ (228-32), penned in 2008. He begins with ‘naïve’ amazement over the universal seductions of IPL 20x20 cricket, using it as an opportunity to unravel in a few short paragraphs the history of capitalism which soon enough ‘needed to jettison enlightenment for entertainment’ in order not to share its profits with anyone other than the early beneficiary classes. And he rips through layer after layer of an inevitable-seeming cultural history:

In literary parlance, capitalism now needed to rewrite the 19C novel into a sexy quickie, knocking out reflections upon processes for the mesmeric event….
It needed to produce a social order that would displace the thoughtful walk in the country, garden, or bylane by the frenetic rush of jogging.

It needed to emasculate language into digital ejaculations, chop grammar into animal grunts, castrate conversation into a time-saving hi and bye.

And to dethrone the warm contexts of tea-brewing and tea-drinking in favour of the stand-up cup of instant coffee. (230)

The 20x20 cricket thus emerges as the symptom of a deeper rooted and more extensive pathology “that makes such an obscenity possible”. (232) And to remember that Raina himself was once a fine cricketer who played at the State level!

The realities of a class-divided society, exacerbated to the extreme and foregrounded sharply in the essay entitled ‘Destitution’, do not make him insensible of the equally troubling realities of gender and caste. He does not romanticise women and Dalits, as many good Samaritans do, believing that all persons are equally capable of good and evil. At the same time he notices that the darkness has gotten inkier as the old oppressive social order has found a new collaborator in the predatory corporate ‘culture’ (call it ‘barbarism’ of the sophisticated pedigree, if you will).

As a reader I can only say, in spite of the 758+ pages of this (vo)luminous volume: Give me more! And I wish Raina had said more on education and had written something on Delhi too, the city whose inhabitant he has been for over four decades, the city of Ghalib whose verses Raina once rendered into English.

The reviewer is a Professor, Department of English, Punjabi University, Patiala.

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