Review: Out of God’s Oven & Another India
A look a two collections of essays on India, one which shows the light-hearted ethnography of the columnist and another that contains determined reportage from the frontlines
“The British,” the economist Ashok Mitra told the poet Dom Moraes during a conversation, “imposed a unified administration on an area they called India. When they left, we thought we’d continue the colonial experiment, but we called it a democracy.” The magnitude of contradictions that make up both the concept and reality of India has always been the stuff of legend, but Mitra’s comment is more radical than that – it points to the fragility of democracy in this nation.
Is democracy fragile in India? Even as we face questions about the procedural propriety of local and national elections, the bigger danger seems to be the seamless interchangeability of democracy and majoritarian populism. Four days before the 74th anniversary of India’s constitutional declaration of itself as a sovereign, secular, socialist state, the state harnessed its administrative, media, and popular force to celebrate the inauguration of a temple for the mythic hero of a religious epic. Where this leaves minority rights on the planes of symbol and practice is not a question that is traceable anywhere on the horizon. But, of course, this is not the eruption of a day; nor is this without a tumultuous history of its own. Debilitating factionalisms in linguistic, regional, social and communal identities have strained the reality of nationhood throughout the history of India’s postcolonial formation through the violent partition of a subcontinent. Many of these eruptions, and the impulses behind them, are closely examined in Out of God’s Oven by Dom Moraes and Sarayu Srivatsa, originally published in 2002 by Penguin and issued as a revised edition in 2023 by Speaking Tiger. These differences also shape the diverse threads of the fabric that have sought to become a paradoxical nation of incomparable beauty. But the difference that in the end remains irreconcilable is also the one that has sharpened the most over the decades, pushing the nation farther and farther away from its socialist dream. This, as Moraes and Srivasta’s chronicles reaffirm, is the spectre of inequality – and its crueller twin, inequity.
The presence of a vibrant middle-class once distinguished India from its neighbours on either side. During my migratory life in North America, I remember regularly meeting Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who were far likelier to come either from the highest echelons of society or from the working class. By contrast, most students from Kolkata – or for that matter, Chennai or Hyderabad – were from the middle class, the kind which passed through the rarefied community of the IITs with the high fervour of bourgeois aspiration. The reality of an articulate middle class and inexpensive avenues of elite education available before all were key markers of a nation on the right track of development. But Out of God’s Oven, which lays bare the whirling eddies of hostility and difference across the fragile experiment of the Indian nation, reminds us that both equality and equity are pipe dreams in a country where the majority religion is structured with forbidding walls between people, casting them off into identities beyond touch or shadow. Sarayu Srivatsa recalls childhood holidays with her grandmother in Tanjore, her “Andamma”, one she loved dearly and yet one who would not let the dark-skinned pariah sweeper help her up even after a painful and debilitating fall. “As he bent down to lift her up, Andamma screamed, ‘Don’t you dare touch me, you pariah! Have you forgotten your caste?’ The fury in her voice frightened me.”
This family is India, where kind and benevolent authority is also blind with prejudice, where eyes appear distant and vacant in response to the question why a beloved granddaughter is not pale as a Brahmin should be, but dark like an untouchable Shudra. It is the same loving grandmother who slinks away from the walls of a new flat, saying, “who knows how many pariahs have touched them. Chee!”
The inertia of derision is powerful – it doesn’t like to change its course. The pale and fine rice and the brown and coarse ragi fought a similar battle of prejudice before Rama after he had defeated Ravana and stopped by the ashrama of the sage Gautama. Chandan Gowda summarises this poem by the sixteenth century saint, Kanakdasa, Rama Dhanya Charite, in his essay, “A different journey for millets?” As rice and ragi fought with each other, Rama put them in prison to test their endurance. After six months, when summoned to Rama’s court in the presence of Indra and other gods, ragi still looked fresh and vigorous while rice had gone stale. Indra declared ragi the winner. Such is the subversive impulse of the poem – Gowda argues that the dispute between rice and ragi is a powerful poetic metaphor for the ceaseless social tension between dominant and marginal castes in India. Their subsequent journeys have uniquely mirrored those of the communities where they occupy pride of place: “Ragi might evoke a deep emotional bond between their region, food and social identity for many castes in Southern Karnataka and in neighbouring areas in Andhra and Tamil Nadu, but rice has stayed the superior crop.” The shadow of caste prejudice is clear as most upper castes traditionally avoid ragi, while “the white colour of the ragi has also mattered in keeping the status of the dark-brown ragi low.” But in recent years, new age nutritionists and ecologists have championed the cause of the ragi and other humble millets, and the political strain of their argument has blended health and environmentalism with underlying narratives of social justice.
Gowda’s collection, evocatively titled Another India: Events, Memories, People, brings together many such essays he has published in different venues, including a regular column at the Deccan Herald. It was interesting to read this collection alongside Moraes and Srivasta’s book. The ironic origin story in the latter book contrasts richly with the gesture of plurality in the title of Gowda’s collection, which is also impossible not to read as a utopian dream, a longing for a nation different from the one which we are breathlessly becoming. Gowda’s collection enables us a closer look at south India, with a particular focus on Karnataka, its past, present and future, often through the play of myth, reality, and news, as through the story of the millet. But the scattering of newspaper articles also make up a collection that feels careless and meandering, and it was hard for this reader to remain invested in them through the various, often arbitrary trajectories of intervention in the various dimensions of culture, politics, myth, and history.
If Gowda’s volume shows the light-hearted ethnography of the columnist, Moraes and Srivasta’s book reveals determined reportage from the frontline, and the terrifying emotional scars they cost. It moves through riveting conversations with a range of people, ranging from the terrifying cop KPS. Gill in Delhi and Punjab to the writer and activist Mahashweta Devi in Calcutta. The stoic ruthlessness of Gill’s suppression of Khalistani activists in Punjab seems matched only by his ability to remain stone-sober through an entire bottle of expensive Scotch sponsored by the upscale hotel who are honoured to hold this meeting in their restaurant. The steeliness of Gill’s nature, its immersion in violence comes out in his aphorisms that have, over the years, proved disastrously true: “The Indian psyche is full of suppressed violence.” But in India, appearances reveal as much as they conceal: in her modest flat, Mahashweta Devi “had the manner of a friendly headmistress.” Sometimes, when Laloo Prasad Yadav spoke to him, Moraes turned to his Bhojpuri interpreter, only to be told aloud, “That’s English”, though Laloo “didn’t seem to mind” that his English was incomprehensible to his visitor – he had far more important things to worry about, about which “he spoke loudly, with a certain tolerance, as one does to a helpless foreigner.” If there was ever a man comfortable in his own skin, it is Laloo Prasad Yadav.
Out of God’s Oven makes extended stops in Calcutta, Delhi, Bombay, Chandigarh, Bangalore, Lucknow. Though it spends most of its time in cities, particularly in major metropolitan cities, it also pauses in Anand in Gujarat to understand the scale and impact of the dairy culture shaped by Dr Verghese Kurien, as well as deep in the heart of Madhya Pradesh’s bandit country. It concludes with the “fractured land” of Kashmir. The northeast remains a notable omission in this book which shows considerable ambition to be geographically comprehensive. It is a book which could have been a paean to the diversity of India – to the ironic nourishment and the final demolition of its stereotypes, a promise with which Chandan Gowda’s volume opens, on the fascinating subject of the absence of a significant Kannadiga stereotype. Why indeed, is there no Kannadiga representation in the array of bride and groom images that adorn the entry walls of restrooms in the New Delhi airport, when couples from Kashmir, Bengal, Maharashtra, Kerala, Punjab, and Tamil Nadu, all smile at you while you walk past? There is no standard Kannadiga dress, just the way there is no standardisable Kannadiga cuisine, and notwithstanding a few scattered notions about the pleasant weather and the IT sector in Bangalore, there is no entrenched image of the Kannadiga, unlike the linguistically committed Bengali, the Malayali with “the great survival instinct”, or “the fun-loving, ostentatious Punjabi”, limiting as these stereotypes are.
But the authors of Out of God’s Oven, first published in the fateful year of 2002 had something far grimmer than diversity in mind. Diversity, in this book, becomes the ironic name for the staggering inequalities that striate this great postcolonial experiment of a nation. The poetry and activism of Namdeo Dhasal and the sharp cinematic socialism of Mrinal Sen, with both of whom Moraes spends extended time, offers both form and politics to the grim narrative of inequity, but the book still remains far more prophetic than realistic, searing as its realism is. How far have we come in the decades since the first publication of this book, and in which direction? Class dictated fate even within the targeted communities. While Muslim shops and homes in poorer neighbourhoods in the Gujarat of 2002 were gutted by storming mobs with the police watching quietly, in the wealthier Muslim areas, the police warned the residents that the mobs were coming, and if they didn’t leave, they would be finished. “Most people left very quickly.”
A shimmer of hope is offered in the book by people’s stubborn attachment to this country; an attachment is far more emotional than rational. As Rajen, a Bombay journalist who’d worked extensively with Dalits and bore the trauma of their oppression, said about his stint in England: “Man, after this shit country, all my dreams came true. It was clean, the people were kind and decent... there was good food and plenty to drink. But I came back... I missed it all. My people have lived here for thousands of years. I could feel that in my bones. This shit country was part of me.”
Out of God’s Oven combines two fascinating perspectives in a single narrative: an Anglo-Indian poet and a Tamil-Brahmin writer, a man and a woman, with radically different senses of belonging and un-belonging to this nation. It is comprehensive act of reportage that often reads like fiction, but for realities we know down to our bones. Fictionality, after all, has nothing to do with what is real and what is not – fiction has the same claim on the real as nonfiction has on the fabricated. The difference between fiction and history is often about the minute textures of characterization – in Gill’s steely alcoholism and in Mahasweta Devi’s school principal appearance. The distinction belongs not just to the depth of their histories, but to the sensory nuances of their being. That this is very much a work of reportage by a poet and a novelist is clear enough. What remains unclear is 21 years later, how many people still feel Rajen’s stubborn attachment to this land. And who has the energy to undertake the journey Moraes and Srivatsa took in the early years of the century? Who has the stomach for so much punishment?
Saikat Majumdar is the author of four novels: Silverfish, The Firebird, The Scent of God, and The Middle Finger. @_saikatmajumdar