Screen Shot 2014-08-15 at 12.21.12

Uneasy Inhabitants

Photo

One night two summers ago, I was in a car speeding across the border into the eastern Indian state of Bihar. The unlit, pitch-black freeway didn’t deter traffic from barreling forward at breakneck speeds. In the inevitable accident, a young man was shredded by a truck. A politician showed up, but instead of taking charge, he distracted the police with laughter and gossip.

Preventable death or official callousness is not unique to Bihar, but this particular incident seemed, to me, typical. Bihar is a state that until recently took the troubles that bedevil all of India and amplified them to levels that were unbearable even by Indian standards. In Bihar, an accident was carnage and apathy was criminal neglect. Although matters have since improved, to survive, the poor still traffick their children and the rich still get out.

Few writers are better placed to examine this near-dystopian state of affairs than the novelist Amitava Kumar, a native son, although now a professor of English at Vassar College.

“A Matter of Rats” calls itself “a short biography of Patna,” the capital city of Bihar, but like Kumar’s other books, it is many (perhaps too many) things at once. A memoiristic essay that strives to reconcile his feelings for his hometown — despair on the one hand and concern on the other, for it is where his elderly parents still live. “There is no way to avoid it,” he admits. “When I step on Patna’s soil, I only want to see how much older my parents look.” It is an insider’s alternative to the scornful narratives of Patna made popular by Western writers, and which the author, with even greater scorn, calls “hysteria as travel writing.” It is also an adventure in pursuit of witnesses to stories both real and apocryphal — a 1967 visit by Marlon Brando, the rumor that Napoleon’s bed lies in a decrepit old Patna mansion. (There is a bed in Patna that belonged to a Napoleon, just not that Napoleon.)

It is, in all, an intimate and whimsical book, but one that truly shines when the author turns his gaze to the ordinary people who still live in Patna — the rat catchers of the lowly Musahar caste, the tutor who helps poor children crack the entrance tests to India’s exalted institutes of technology.

The chapter on the rat catchers is the book’s finest, skillfully evoking the circumstances of chaos, filth and absurdity in which even the city’s middle-class professionals are forced to live.

Patna’s vast number of rats, the author tells us in a marvelous bit of anthropomorphizing, appear like “stout ladies on tiny heels, on their way to the market.” Nurses at a city hospital play the radio at night in the hope of keeping the rats from nibbling their toes. The rats haven’t escaped the attention of a local bureaucrat. But instead of trying to get rid of them, he sets himself the loftier ambition of ending anti-rat prejudice. If middle-class people would only appreciate rats, he rationalizes, they would also appreciate the Musahars, who are condemned to catch the rats. A Musahar whom the author accompanies on a rat-catching expedition isn’t holding his breath for change. “High-minded abstractions weren’t among his pressing concerns,” Kumar tells us. “His worry was finding food for that day and the next.”

That food was rats.

A MATTER OF RATS

A Short Biography of Patna

By Amitava Kumar

116 pp. Duke University Press. $19.95.

Marx Complete Works #firestorm #firesale #Lawrence and Wishart

A writer is a productive labourer not in so far as he produces ideas, but in so far as he enriches the publisher who publishes his works, or if he is a wage-labourer for a capitalist.” 

Well, I had to post something on this because the debate on the accessibility of the texts is important and interesting, and the various statements in the links below are worth reading for what they say about publishing and history, both from the Lawrence and Wishart and from MIA sides.

[I’m amused that so far I’ve not seen anyone quote the obvious bit of Marx that applies, and which I’ve used above as banner quote – reader, please insert your own gender correction to the ancient pronouns (if we must get all scriptural about it – the quote is from Theories of Surplus Value – manuscripts of 1863-64, chapter 4, p303 in the Progress Press version)].

The possibility of actually turning a profit on any book nowadays, is of course also up for consideration.

Here from Hist Mat list:

As a consequence of Lawrence and Wishart’s decision to withdraw the Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW) material under L&W copyright from the Marxist Internet Archive (MIA) website, Marxist scholars and activists all over the world have

Following a first petition and Lawrence and Wishart’s response, in 24 hours 700 people signed the following petition, including many leading scholars.

They have asked Lawrence and Wishart to allow Marx’s and Engels’s writings to remain on the MIA website and in the public domain.

“We are very grateful for the work you have done, along with International Publishers and Progress Publishers, translating into English and publishing the MECW. This is an extremely valuable contribution to the workers movement and Marxist scholarship not only in the English-speaking world, but internationally.
MIA has made these works available for free on the web to an even wider public, and they have now become an essential tool for thousands of Marxist scholars and activists around the world.

We fully appreciate the efforts and difficulties that running a small independent publishing house entails. But allowing free access to the MECW on the MIA website does not hinder sales. On the contrary, the publicity it provides increases them, and we would support any attempt to further improve this aspect.

But over and above any commercial considerations, there is a crucial matter of principle at play here. Having been available freely online for ten years, the MECW have become an essential part of the shared knowledge and resources of the international workers movement. We cannot take a step backward.

There is also the real danger that the laudable contribution that Lawrence & Wishart has made in the past would be tarnished. This decision would only damage its reputation without bringing any significant economic advantage.

That’s why we call upon you to reconsider this decision and reach an accommodation which keeps these essential resources in the public domain, where they belong.”

To support this petition, link: http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/lawrence-and-wishart-allow-marx-s-and-engels-s-writings-to-remain-in-the-public-domain?utm_medium=email&utm_source=notification&utm_campaign=new_petition_recruit#share

To read Lawrence and Wishart’s response to the first petition, see: http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/collected_works_statement.html

To read the statement of the Marxist Internet Archive collective, see: http://marxists.org/admin/legal/lw-response.html

 

Panto Terror reviewed (sandwich)

Screen shot 2013-11-25 at 16.10.41A brief review from Mark Perryman (Philosophy Football) on Socialist Unity where I am sandwiched between words on Arun Kundnani’s book (which I read and think is really good) and Andrew Hussey’s book (which I’ve not yet read):

“Arun Kundnani’s ‘The Muslims are Coming!’ links together the experience of Islamophobia, the framing of extremism/fundamentalism and the ongoing global impact of the west’s so-called ‘War on Terror’. Here the left is grappling with subjects it is more at ease with understanding, though the depth to which it is transformed via that process remains in question. An insight into what that transformation might look like is provided by John Hutnyk’s ‘Pantomime Terror‘ which imaginatively records how popular culture has been affected by a post 9/11 world and on occasion has offered signs of resisting the reactionary, racist, consequences of that process. The urgent necessity for this kind of engagement is established brilliantly by Andrew Hussey’s new book ‘The French Intifada’.”

I regret the reviewers have not noted the critiques of Zizek, Badiou and Buck-Morss in mine, or the importance of Spivak and Adorno to my argument, or the coda on Wagner, but still very good to have. See here. Thanks Mark.