08 June 2015

On Her Majesty's Secret Service

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.


A handsome, successful, popular twenty-nine-year-old man is murdered in a tavern brawl. It is barely past six in the evening. The sun has not even set as yet. He has just enjoyed supper and a game of cards. It has been one of those languorous, wine-addled afternoons that seem to go by in fine company and the sort of stupor that powerful intoxicants can induce. The bill arrives. And it is steep. Clearly, much has been consumed by way of food and drink, especially drink. And of course, as on many such evenings, no one wants to pay the bill. An argument ensues which turns, unexpectedly, into a physical fight … and, chillingly, into the death of a twenty-nine-year-old playwright. His name was Christopher Marlowe. And, aside from being a playwright, a poet and a brawler, he was, probably, a spy.

Under Elizabeth I, university graduates were frequently recruited on her majesty’s secret service: they were intelligent enough for intelligence work and inconspicuous enough for espionage. Best of all, who would ever have suspected ‘sweet Kit Marlowe’ of anything more underhanded than a dangling modifier? Presumably recruited by Sir Francis Walsingham, the original badass spymaster of all over-the-top spy movies – let’s call him FW – Marlowe, one of whose characters wisely says, in Edward II, ‘You must be proud, bold, pleasant, resolute, / And now and then stab, as occasion serves,’ possibly served the Crown as an intelligence courier through his frequent trips to Europe. Later, he came under the literary patronage of a relative of FW, Thomas Walsingham – let’s call him TW.

Marlowe, who some contend was a homosexual and an atheist, was possibly murdered for one or both of these two aberrances. Ten days before his murder, his flat-mate Thomas Kyd was arrested and tortured for the possession of heretical documents written by Marlowe that propounded his serious, almost academic, speculations about the divinity of the Christ and the sodomy of the saints. Kyd finally gave Marlowe up as the author of the documents and Marlowe was arrested, but out on bail at the time of his murder. Heresy, being a capital offence in Elizabethan England, was taken seriously enough for the punishments to be as horrific as public disembowelment. Marlowe might have simply been spared that humiliation and been assassinated in a seemingly innocent tavern brawl.

More insidiously, Marlowe might have been targeted for murder by his own patron, TW, who, along with the likes of Sir Walter Raleigh, was part of a heretical group that promoted studies in rationalism and atheism. TW, no longer under the steadfast protection of FW – FW had died by this time and had been replaced as spymaster by Robert Cecil, who took a much sterner approach to heresy and treason than his predecessor – might have feared Kit Marlowe’s big mouth and sharp memory. Not only was Marlowe in possession of the knowledge that Raleigh, TW and others engaged heavily in heretical studies, he was also privy to several of the intrigues engineered by FW. The man simply needed to be silenced. What hugely aids this theory is the fact that the three men present in the tavern at the time of the murder were all in the employ of one or both of the two Walsinghams. And so, he was murdered.

Of course, every so often, a conspiracy theory will emerge that Marlowe faked his own death, escaped to the continent and wrote the plays that were later attributed to William Shakespeare, never mind that their styles and metres were drastically different and never mind that Marlowe, an intellectual snob who loved attention and wore his Cambridge education as a badge of honour, would never have borne kindly the idea of a glover’s son with nothing more than grammar school education taking credit for his greatest work.

Conspiracy theories, it would seem, haven’t evolved much since Elizabethan times since even today there are claims that Michael Jackson faked his own death and is busy buying cotton candy at Disney World, that Marilyn Monroe was murdered by the CIA for knowing too much, and that Paul McCartney died in a car crash and was replaced by that guy who won the Paul McCartney lookalike contest (as conspiracy theories go, this one is particularly egalitarian). 

But no, the coroner’s report from 31 May 1593 makes it abundantly clear that Marlowe – spy, playwright, atheist, bachelor – did indeed die the previous night for refusing to pay a hefty tab at a downtown bar.

14 February 2015

Sex and Literature: A Charged Relationship

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

The producers of the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James have chosen 14 February – Valentine’s Day – to release the film of the same name. Popular media has redefined this day to denote romantic love, and the release of this film goes far beyond that convention by deliberately turning the conversation into sex. In a country that is routinely denied sex education, it feels both progressive and ironic that, with this film (which, according to reports, devotes at least a full twenty minutes to depiction of sexual activity) being the biggest and most important release of Valentine’s Day, sex turns out to be the biggest and most important aspect of love.

Ultimately, though, the Fifty Shades phenomenon, which has been exciting and revealing and surprising in many ways, is also worrying, because the relationship in the book – and, consequently, the movie – does not seem entirely consensual. Anastasia Steele is in love with Christian Grey, the book’s brooding eponymous protagonist, but it is almost never clear how comfortable she is with the sexual proclivities of her partner. She is introduced to bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism (BDSM) by Grey. Sadism and masochism, by themselves, derive their terminology from the names of the Marquis de Sade, who wrote explicitly about violent sex, and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who wrote about a dominant-submissive relationship, not unlike the one that Grey attempts to foster between himself and Steele.

But in James’s novel, for the most part, Steele finds the idea of BDSM violent, repugnant and, in her own words, ‘depressing’. True practitioners of BDSM, though, lay emphasis on consent; they find communication of personal desire to be a meaningful and enriching aspect of ‘safe’ sex – safety from violence, that is, not safety from disease. With consent, the expectation is mutual gratification. And although Grey does offer Steele consent forms and the like, Steele’s reason for agreeing to most of Grey’s demands is, by her own admission, her fear of losing him. Steele, who loses her virginity to Grey at the start of the book, is almost never seen as sexually forthcoming.

In Henry and June, a memoir carved out of Anais Nin’s diaries, chronicling her marvelous, polyamorous, generous and sexually intense affairs with Henry and June Miller, who were married to each other, Nin devotes a lot of space to the very idea of proactive female desire. She writes: ‘Often, though, the passivity of the woman's role weighs on me, suffocates me. Rather than wait for his pleasure, I would like to take it, to run wild. Is it that which pushes me into lesbianism? It terrifies me. Do women act thus? Does June go to Henry when she wants him? Does she mount him? Does she wait for him? He guides my inexperienced hands. It is like a forest fire, to be with him. New places of my body are aroused and burnt. He is incendiary. I leave him in an unquenchable fever.’

At the Jaipur Literature Festival last month, Sarah Waters, Nicholson Baker, Deepti Kapoor and Hanif Kureishi – ‘writers whose books have lingered long between the sheets’ – were in conversation with Parul Sehgal at a session called ‘Basic Instinct’ about ‘the pleasures and pitfalls of literary writing about physical intimacy’. Waters said, in that session, ‘We tend to think of sex as something that takes us outside culture and society, but sex is part of the culture.’ Waters, who casts her beautifully written lesbian romances in the Victorian era, has, in a sense, normalized queer culture through her genre-defying works, a combination of historical fiction, erotica, queer fiction, romance, mystery, crime and thriller. In her writing, women take charge at a time when it seemed impossibly difficult to do so. They are sexually charged and dynamic: their sex is a function of their love, but almost never of their gender.

It isn’t as though writing about sex has not been celebrated. Every year, the Literary Review, a British literary magazine, presents the Bad Sex in Fiction Award to the author who has written the worst sex scene published during the year. The rationale behind the award is, purportedly, ‘to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it’. The award which has been, in the past, given to such luminaries as Sebastian Faulks and Manil Suri, has also been described as Britain’s most dreaded literary prize. Last year, Ben Okri won for a passage that ends with the sentence, ‘Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.’


One might appreciate, as well, the existence of an award for good sex in fiction.

03 February 2015

A Return to Poetry

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

The Zee Jaipur Literary Festival reaffirmed, for me, at least, the value of poetry in our lives. On the first day of the festival, extraordinary tribute was paid to the art of poetry with a keynote address on the poetic imagination. Vijay Seshadri, Ashok Vajpeyi and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra talked lingeringly, lovingly, even anxiously, about the many indulgences of the poetic habit. They questioned the interiority of the poetic tongue and wondered if the art still had a home in India. While Seshadri pondered the function of poetry, especially in a country like India, Vajpeyi had no doubts about the imperative social role it performs, the integrity of the framework it is birthed in.

Poets, Sesadri said, are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, harking back to that old, beautiful essay, ‘A Defence of Poetry’ in which Shelley writes: ‘Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ To which Vajpeyi countered that poets are, in fact, legislators of the unacknowledged world. Mehrotra seemed to agree, as he argued for the truth-telling propensity of verse, not its romanticized prettiness, but its hard, harsh perspective, the drama of the everyday world.

In his extraordinary Pulitzer-winning poetry collection, 3 Sections, Vijay Seshadri writes, in a poem called ‘Guide for the Perplexed’: ‘How strange would it be if you met yourself on the street? / How strange if you liked yourself, / took yourself in your arms, married your own self, / propagated by techniques known only to you, / and then populated the world? Replicas of you are everywhere. / Some are Arabs. Some are Jews. Some live in yurts. It is / an abomination, but better that your / sweet and scrupulously neat self / emerges at many points on the earth to watch the horned moon rise / than all those dolts out there, / turning into pillars of salt wherever we look.’

Literary festivals can be like that sometimes: perplexed souls wandering the pathways, only to find kindred spirits at every turn, book lovers on every seat. Poetry, it turned out, was to be one of the themes of the festival: there were live performances, readings and panels entirely devoted to poetry. The lyric found its way into the festival, as did rhetoric and music and gospel, all quietly reminding us of our poetic heritage. There was rain and there was fog, but poetry resolutely refused to be undone by the vagaries of the desert air. Umbrellas rose colourfully and people huddled together, clutching at tiny pots of tea – and the occasional flask of whiskey – and they listened hard for poetry in the rain and outside it.

And they found it everywhere: Salima Hashmi and Shabana Azmi talked about their fathers’ legacies, Lucy Hughes Hallet talked about the seduction of Gabriel D’Annunzio’s work, historians and poets discussed the ‘dingal’ poetic form of Rajasthan. Elsewhere, at designated poetry hours, poets – Keki Daruwalla, C.P. Surendran, Meena Kandasamy, Aruni Kashyap and many others – read their poetry, performed their work, sighed and cried for the art.

The crowning glory occurred when Arundhathi Subramaniam, as gracious and graceful as her poetry, won the inaugural Khuswant Singh Memorial Prize for poetry for her collection, When God Is a Traveller in a brilliant, funny, clever session called ’52 Ways of Looking at a Poem’. Jeet Thayil, Vijay Seshadri, Kevin Powers, Neil Rennie, Ashok Vajpeyi, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Ruth Padel – a panel that, at most places that are not Jaipur, would have outnumbered its audience – spoke thoughtfully about the poetry of our lives. When Subramaniam accepted her award, she said, ‘Poetry today is a muted form … poets feel inconsequential and unheard. An award like this is far more affirming than I imagine. It says that this art of murmur and whispers still counts.’

The collections shortlisted for the award – Escape Artist by Sridala Swami, Central Time by Ranjit Hoskote, Fire Altar by Keki Daruwalla, Selected Poems by Joy Goswami, translated by Sampurna Chattarji – are all powerful works that engage dynamically with a changing world, that challenge the twists of an evolving tongue, that slice the anxieties of a pluralistic society, that laughingly tease with the same words they use to accuse. The real win is, in fact, for poetry everywhere.

11 January 2015

A Case for Reading in the New Year

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

If 2014 taught me anything, it is that the world, which can be cruel and atrocious and heartrending, has more good than bad: its collective consciousness grows murky every so often, but it is lightened by a compass so tuned towards goodness that social institutions almost seem to be based entirely around the concept of kindness. But for this trend to continue – and it is in danger, perhaps, of being weeded out – society must be based around culture: strengthened by thoughtful discussion, expanded by cultural diversity and made capable of complex analysis by works of art. For me, this has specifically revolved around good literature. The best people I know read – they read a lot, they read regularly and they allow their opinions to be shaped by the thinking people who have gone before them.

Barbara Kingsolver, in an interview, once said, ‘I don't understand how any good art could fail to be political. Good fiction creates empathy. A novel takes you somewhere and asks you to look through the eyes of another person, to live another life. Literature sucks you into another psyche. So the creation of empathy necessarily influences how you'll behave to other people. How can that not affect you politically?’

Studies regularly show us how literature makes us more empathetic or compassionate. Readers of literary fiction have been shown to have higher emotional intelligence and sensitivity towards the world around them. Art appreciation has shown its worth to socio-evolutionary world-building, despite some of the greatest artists of the past few centuries having been well known for their misogyny, cruelty and selfishness. Literature, like the imparting of any form of wisdom, has revealed itself to be far more effective as a social agent to the recipient than to the giver. It doesn’t cure, but it does condition. It’s almost accidental morality – in that way that folklore is perceived to be morally significant to the development of children. It is the gentlest of consciences.

To read is to watch another life unfold, but to find that one’s own particular, peculiar quandaries are cast into that other life. And so, literature teases us into being active participants in what is, by all appearances, a most passive act; it channels our philosophies, shapes our feelings, articulates longings we didn’t know we had names for. It elegantly taunts us into appropriating our mirror images from within its pages through characters whose lives unknowingly shadow our own. In these bonds – which are often so intimate that they render us more capable of emotional engagement than many of the people we encounter in the flesh – we are available to practise an intensity of sentiment in its rawest, earliest draft. Reading casts vulnerability aside with its offer of discretion: what you can openly feel in the throes of literature will forever be concealed in a pact between you and the book.

And so, as complex social equations are navigated in real life and real time, the reader is endowed with a habit, almost unbreakable, of reading between the lines, of seeing the larger perspective, of putting oneself, as it were, in the shoes of another. As Walt Whitman says in Song of Myself, ‘I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.’ This is the great skill that any good art teaches; and its worth is immeasurable.

Which is not to say that clever, well-read individuals are good people. But it seems, sometimes, that a reading society – whose collective substance and binding values are crafted by the principles of art, are structured around human decency and empathy – can, very easily, be a good society. In a commencement address that J.K. Rowling gave at Harvard University, she said: ‘Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.’ And although I hardly ever need a reason to quote J.K. Rowling, the context here is particularly apt: the cult of fantastical literature espoused by Rowling and other writers who are so often easily slotted in the young-adult category flourishes because of that good, old-fashioned principle that good shall triumph over evil. It’s romantic and old-fashioned … but shouldn’t it also be true?

So read. To make the world, which has ravaged us this past year, a place that’s easier to love.