Midnight’s Grandchildren

The Romantics by Pankaj Mishra and The Blue Bedspread by Raj Kamal Jha
Review by Gaiutra Bahadur
Austin American-Statesman

Critics have coupled Pankaj Mishra and Raj Kamal Jha in their encomiums. And why not? After all, both are men of letters in their 30s who made their novelistic debuts this year, at a time when there is more buzz about Indians writing in English than a Calcutta ceiling fan generates in the summertime.

Both publish in a market created in the West in 1981 by Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” — an epic evocation of India that won the Booker Prize, England’s Pulitzer, and spawned many imitators. But Mishra and Jha are not among them. Even if Rushdie’s success made theirs possible, they subvert his trademark style.

Theirs is not your father’s Great Indian Novel. Meet Midnight’s Grandchildren, as critics have dubbed a crop of young writers including Jha, the executive editor of India’s largest daily newspaper, and Mishra, a star editor at Harper Collins/India. They write with an elegant economy rooted in realism — a departure from Rushdie’s ballooning, fantastical, crowded narratives.

But that is perhaps where the symmetries end.

Reading Mishra’s “The Romantics,” a novel obsessed with the idea of religious retreat, is itself like a stay at an ashram — a sanctuary for ascetics, Hinduism’s version of a monastery for lay people.

Mishra’s book, set in the holy city of Benares along the Ganges, chronicles the inner life of an upper-caste intellectual named Samar, who wants to do nothing but read. His one flirtation with the messy realities of a life beyond text or spectatorship, a love affair with a Frenchwoman named Catherine, ends badly. Hurt, he runs away to teach at a school in the Himalayas for seven years. His rhythms there are orderly and alone, and he is the secular paraphrase of a holy man.

It could be a mark of Mishra’s subtlety, but “The Romantics” has the same disquietingly palpable sense of detachment as its narrator does. Its disinterest runs so deep, in fact, that it’s difficult to feel for any of the characters or their losses.

Jha’s “The Blue Bedspread,” in contrast, whispers like a father standing tenderly above a cradle in the middle of the night. It is intimate.

A narrator who withholds his name (“why waste time, it doesn’t matter in this city of twelve million names,” he says) sits down to write a family history for his dead sister’s baby, who sleeps in the next room, waiting to be claimed in the morning by adoptive parents.

So the story uncoils over one Calcutta night, as the clock ticks. It contains terrible secrets: incest, rape, domestic violence. But it also holds beauty, partly because of the way it is told. Jha weaves together a series of remembered snapshots through sections titled “Mother,” “Father,” “Sister” and “Brother.” Although the narrator is anonymous, and the characters also bear no names beyond their generic family roles, the book is rich in details foreshortened by memory: An albino cockroach hanging from a window. Baby footprints on red bathroom tiles. Streetlamps that gleam like Sister’s hair. Mother in a mothy Kashmiri shawl, watching from a balcony as snow falls like cotton sliding down the face of a mirror. Brother lying on a carpet with words growing and growing inside him until they fill his lungs.

These images recur throughout like visual refrains in a poem. Each carries emotion compactly in every cinematic flash, leading to the overpowering conclusion and lingering long after the last word of this haunting little book.


For Both Parties, Race in East Texas is Vital

Outcome Could Shape Congressional Politics
By Gaiutra Bahadur
Austin American-Statesman (Texas)

Polk County in rural East Texas is a place where hosannas electrify the airwaves, churches anchor the main town at a rate of six per square mile and the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt once reigned almost as supreme as God.

It is also a key battleground in a race that gives the Democrats a chance to reclaim a 17-county state Senate district — lost in 1994 to Drew Nixon, the GOP incumbent tainted by his arrest in an Austin prostitution sting.

The outcome of the race could alter the shape of Texas and even U.S. congressional politics for the next decade. The party that controls the state Senate, where Republicans now have a one-seat edge, will also control the drawing of electoral boundaries early next year, based on the Census Bureau’s account of the state’s growth.

Not convinced of the near cosmic scale of the race for partisan maneuvering? Just look at the campaign finance reports of the two contenders — Silsbee lawyer David Fisher, the Democrat, and state Rep. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, a rancher and businessman. It reads like a who’s who list of Texas politics, past and present: Contributors to the two campaigns include Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, Land Commissioner David Dewhurst, former Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, former U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson, former Gov. Ann Richards and a slew of state legislators.

Each candidate reports raising more than $1 million since last fall, a record amount for a state Senate race. In the first half of this year, Staples collected $484,248.70, and Fisher raised $648,111.30.

Campaign coffers aside, the contest promises to be a hard-fought one. Changes in the past decade have made this meandering stretch of Bible Belt near the Louisiana border less of a stronghold for the Yellow Dog Democrat — a party loyalist who would vote for any Democrat, even a yellow dog, over a Republican.

Polk County, a bellwether for the district where both candidates stumped last week, once might have been an easy victory for the Democrats, but today the picture is more complicated.

Outsiders — mainly Yankee retirees, drawn by a forested landscape fringed by lakes, and mainly Republicans — have moved in, causing the county to grow 41 percent since 1990. And the inheritors of the land, the descendants of Depression-era farmers saved from ruin by Roosevelt’s New Deal, are also less and less inheritors of their forefathers’ politics.

Muddling matters even more, the race pits two people who consider every voter game, to the point of blurring party lines. Staples, who in 1995 was the first Republican elected from his House district , reaches for the mantle of the working man’s candidate. And while Fisher probably would not match his rival’s 100 percent imprimatur from the Christian Coalition, he is socially conservative.

Hopes to be first

No Republican has held a local office in Polk County since Reconstruction, but Bob Willis, a former Democratic tax collector who joined the GOP in January to run for county commissioner, hopes to be the first.

“I didn’t feel like I was leaving the Democratic Party,” he said, using words long associated with Ronald Reagan. “I felt like it had already left me.”

The defection would have been unimaginable in the time of his great-grandfather, the county’s first district clerk who also ran the post office and dry goods store in Livingston, the government seat. Or in the era of his grandad, when Roosevelt brought electricity to outlying farms, subsidized the price of cotton and timber and built roads so those crops could be taken to market.

Until the mid-1980s, the Democratic Party “was the only bus ride there was,” as Willis puts it. “We had no organized Republican Party, period. No precinct elections. No precinct conventions.”

How did this corner of rural Texas — 12 percent African American and 5 percent Hispanic, mainly blue collar, with a median rent of $218 a month — begin to move from Roosevelt to Reagan, or in some cases from Roosevelt to Goldwater?

“The Republican Party now seems to represent the working class better from the East Texas perspective than the Democratic Party does,” Willis said. “The party’s values closer fit mine.”

He echoes a feeling of alienation voiced by some East Texans, based on their passion for small government, their devout Christianity and their distrust of policies they say favor minorities.

Lloyd Stephens, the son of working-class Democrats, a gospel musician and a barber in Livingston, associates the party of his parents with special interest groups, such as advocates of multiculturalism. That — and the Democrats’ stance on school prayer — has driven him away.

“My ancestors came to this country and became Americans,” he said. “We ought not to have all these ethnic clans. That’s what’s happening in Europe.”

He and his colleague Becky Miller, the daughter of migrant farm workers from Mexico who comes from a long line of Southern Baptist preachers, don’t talk politics in the barbershop for fear of losing customers. Polk County is still, in their eyes, Yellow Dog Democrat country as much as it is God’s country.

“It’s been ordained, sanctified and anointed that way, and that’s the way it is,” Miller said.

But she added that high taxes for social welfare programs could push Democratic loyalists over the edge.

“If it keeps going the way it’s going, if they keep giving everything away. . . . The working people are sick and tired of paying for the lazies. We’ve become beasts of burden.”

Julie Bergman, a 40-year-old businesswoman who runs nine communication towers in Polk County, has also strayed from her family’s Democratic roots, primarily because she is against abortion rights. But like many other Texas voters, Bergman splits her vote between parties, depending on the candidate. “I’m not going to vote straight down the ticket,” she said. “I want to know the person.”

That independence springs from a war within the soul of the Yellow Dog Democrat that is decades old, says Charles Elliott, a former East Texas State University political scientist who is running for state representative as a Democrat in a nearby district.

“Since the Civil Rights Act of 1965, some Democrats in the South have migrated en masse to the Republican Party,” through a populism based on race and religion, he said. “That same pattern has penetrated pretty deeply in East Texas.”

Club of retirees

But the decline of the Yellow Dog Democrat might have less of an impact locally than the rise of another group: the Escapees Inc., a national club of retirees who travel the country by trailer.

An RV camp that now serves as home base for about 9,000 of them sprouted near Lake Livingston in 1984. It accounts for more than 90 percent of the growth in Polk County, where the population ballooned from 30,687 in 1990 to 43,295 in 1999, according to the Texas State Data Center. And it is local Republican Chairman Benny Fogelman’s Shangri-La.

“All around the lake, there are lots of retired folks, and they vote conservatively,” he said.

Fogelman estimates that 70 percent of the escapees are Republicans.

They have become such an electoral force that last year local officials, arguing that most of the retirees call the county home for a scant few months of the year, petitioned the secretary of state’s office to disqualify their votes. Not only did it fail, but it might even have organized the retirees politically.

John Bracken, 73, a retired trucking company vice president from Ohio, became an accidental activist to fight the attempt. He compiled an e-mail list of sympathetic Republicans, a list that still exists. He became connected to the local Republican Party. The ties remain, so much so that he hand-delivered the red-and-white “Bob Willis for Commissioner” signs that have cropped up on lawns throughout the RV park.

“The local boys tried to take our voting power away from us,” he said. “They had the ballgame all to themselves. Up until the escapees, they had no opposition.”

Another outcrop of Republican support sprawls out from Houston, amid the cul-de-sacs of Montgomery County — the only county in the district with a growth rate, 52 percent, that outstrips the Livingston area’s. Many of its 87,000 newcomers are upper-income fiscal conservatives. Many live in the north, the half of the county that belongs to the district. And many helped elect Drew Nixon in 1996, although he lost in 15 counties.

But Democrats have not written off the retirees, the suburbanites or anyone else in the district.

“Losses in the past really woke (us) up,” said Livingston chiropractor Dennis Teal, a state party committeeman. “It was a message the people of East Texas sent to the Democratic Party, and it was heard by the Democratic Party. They wanted us to get back to addressing core issues in their lives, pocketbook issues” such as Social Security and pay raises for teachers and corrections officers.

Among retirees, the Democrats plan to highlight a Republican proposal to privatize Social Security and the need to protect the natural environment that first lured them to the area. “It’s amazing how fast they become environmentalists once they move here,” he said.

The numbers, party officials say, also show that Democrats still have a slight edge in East Texas, at least below Gov. George W. Bush’s coattails. In March, 8,000 more people in the district — 1,200 of them in Polk County — voted in the Democratic rather than in the GOP primary for state Senate.

Also — in the words of Gary Hanlon, who writes the “Sideline Observer” political column for The Tyler County Booster — “There’s a thin line between a conservative Democrat and a Republican, and (Fisher) straddles that thin line.”

A church deacon, Fisher opposes abortion, belongs to the National Rifle Association and favors school prayer, stances at odds with the image of a “Hillary Clinton-like carpetbagger” that the Staples campaign paints of him. “He wants to reflects the values found in the district, rather than the values that might be established by the party platform,” said Shaun Davis, the campaign’s political director.

© Austin American-Statesman (Texas). All rights reserved.

Articles Politics

For Both Parties, Race in East Texas is Vital

Outcome could shape congressional politics
By Gaiutra Bahadur
Austin American-Statesman (Texas)

Book Reviews

Black Girl in Paris

Black Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood
Review by Gaiutra Bahadur


Black Girl in Paris

Black Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood
Review by Gaiutra Bahadur

“Black Girl in Paris” is the story of a young woman’s pilgrimage to the city that nurtured her literary gods, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. Eden Daniel, the 26-year-old narrator, sets out from the American South to the French capital in search of love and language. She wants to be a writer and expects the metropolis that was muse to her creative forefathers to launch her in much the same way. In the first pages of the novel, she informs us that upon arriving in the Paris of 1924 in his early 20s, Langston Hughes had $7 in his pocket; that an equally youthful James Baldwin followed two decades later with $40 to his name; and that when she landed in Paris in 1986, there was $140 hidden between her sock and the sole of her shoe. “They dared to make a way when there was none and I want to be just like them,” she writes. “This is the place where it happened. Where it will happen again.”

The novel is at its best when it accentuates the contradictions Eden faces in Paris, the difference between the city’s romantic image as a promised land where “being black won’t hold me back” and “even the prisons … are beautiful” and its reality in 1986. That was a year of terrorist bombings, student demonstrations and the mass deportation of African immigrants.

At one point in Eden’s story, perhaps its most astute, she is strolling the square in front of the Church of the Sacre Coeur with her lover, Ving, a white musician from America, and Olu-Christophe, a Haitian exile who is seeking political asylum after fleeing the dictatorship of the Duvaliers. The setting, 100 steps above the city with a commanding view, captures all that is bewitching about Paris. Couples are huddled in the dark, candles burning from wine glasses and cigarette tips glowing. Artists are selling their paintings. Performers are singing, dancing, eating fire. And all this to the soundtrack of a Bob Dylan song.

Enter two policemen with their pistols poised at their hips. They demand to see passports. When Olu-Christophe has none to offer, they carry him off brusquely, shouting over their shoulders that they are taking him “a L’Afrique avec les autres singes” — to Africa with the other monkeys. “This was a bad night to be a black man without papers,” Ving observes.

The chapters of “Black Girl in Paris” each bear the name of one of the roles Eden assumes in Paris: Lover, Thief, English Teacher, Poet’s Helper. And most contain, quite literally, a how-to list on performing the part well. The narrative of Eden’s experience as an au pair, for instance, is broken by such admonitions as “Try not to lose the children” and “Don’t kill the dog.” The device draws attention away from the content of the story to its form, and for the most part it’s distracting rather than clever.

Shay Youngblood is a lyricist, the winner of a Pushcart Prize for fiction and a Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award, but there are pitfalls when writers decide to tell us the tale of their artistic awakening. We might not be as interested in the process of their finding a voice as we are in hearing it speak, especially if the way is as littered with clichéd bohemian characters as Eden Daniel’s is. What’s more, Eden’s blunt desire to emulate, to follow in the footsteps of greatness, gives her story an eager, somewhat breathless quality that makes her journey of discovery seem contrived.

Race is as much the backdrop for this book as Paris, and I couldn’t help thinking that Youngblood, whose prose has the rhythms and sensual detail of poetry, might have put her talents to better use by tackling this theme head-on. She might have skipped the account of Eden’s writerly, self-obsessed quest for a subject and gone straight to her subject instead.

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