Jaspreet Singh’s Helium (published by Bloomsbury in November 2013) is a brave, literary account of the darker side of ‘India Shining’. Falling somewhere between fiction, documentary and travelogue, Helium is a courageous novel that seeks unflinchingly to tell the story of the pogroms in which thousands of Sikhs in North India were murdered in just four days following the assassination of India’s then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31st 1984.
The protagonist, Raj, was a nineteen year old student on his way back from a class trip with Professor Singh, his mentor, an expert on chemical elements and the man who introduced him to Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table. But the unfortunate timing of the group’s arrival back at New Delhi train station is the 1st November 1984 and mobs have descended across Delhi to seek vengeance for the Prime Minister’s assassination. The chilling shouts across national radio and in the streets are for blood revenge. Professor Singh, with his distinctive Sikh appearance, is targeted by the mob who surround him, throw a tyre over him, douse him in petrol and set him alight. And so the story starts in the shadow of the now notorious statement by the new Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, that “when a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little.’
Forever scarred by his paralysis and what he later castigates as his own youthful cowardice in running away at the very moment that his mentor needed his help, the story takes place many years later when Raj, now an eminent rheologist at Cornell University, returns to India seeking answers to questions that have been brutally dismembered by an unspoken conspiracy of silence emanating not just from his parents, but from an entire nation.
“The state has tried to wipe away this dark memory…” says one of the characters late in the novel. “…When the parliament reconvened, the government never once mentioned the horrific carnage directly. When schools and colleges reopened, the headmasters and principals completely forgot to mention those four days the city had just witnessed. The state, like a true criminal, took further advantage of the carnage. The astonishing Congress Party spent millions on an ad campaign, which vilified the minorities. The subliminal message of that PR campaign was that the pogroms were ‘natural’, spontaneous, ‘legitimate’, ‘outbursts of anger’, ‘inevitable’, ‘logical’. An entire community with a deep sense of belonging to India and Indianness was constructed by the state as the ‘other’.”
Singh’s novel is angry, bruised with an unfurling sense of injustice brought about not only by the epic failures of the Indian justice system, through which not one member of the political, bureaucratic or judicial class has been convicted despite several judicial commissions and a plethora of evidence against key Cabinet Ministers who have retained power and status today, but also by the “ominous silences’ of “distinguished public intellectuals, liberal-secular writers and established academicians” as well as media complicity in the cover-up. “The National Archives in Delhi…and the Police archives had destroyed many files connected to the violence…The Doordarshan TV archives either destroyed the tapes connected to October/November ’84 or put them away in boxes that would do Stalin’s Russia proud.” Helium devastates any notion that the Congress Party were innocent bystanders in an unfortunate moment in Indian recent history. Make no mistake, this book represents a muscular challenge to the complacency of India’s ruling elite that continues to deny what took place in New Delhi in 1984 amounted to a state-sponsored genocide, or an attempted genocide of its minority Sikh population.
Strongly littered with references to Primo Levi and his Periodic Table, Singh asks the reader:“Why think of one genocide in terms of another? Why use a prism? It is impossible to compare and quantify suffering, I know. Why then? Because one story is better known and the other one completely unknown, completely distorted or filled with ominous silences”. The comparison with aspects of the Jewish Holocaust are sometimes laboured, occasionally clumsy, but the tone of the novel is set by Singh’s apparent conclusion that confrontation is now the only way to seek accountability.
When Raj returns to India, uncertain about his relationship with his father, he goes in search of Nelly, the beautiful wife of Professor Singh (and his one-time lover) whom he has not seen for 25 years. Much of the story is set in the swirling mists of the northern hill station of Shimla, to where had Nelly moved after the pogroms, as she tried to find a life that allowed her to reconcile her multiple losses. Here, in these pages, Singh’s lyrical sense of longing contrasts starkly with the bitter pill of memory that has annihilated the fondness which, one suspects, both he and his protagonist wants to feel towards their homeland. In Nelly’s Shimla, Singh describes the Chir pines, the “Himalayan oaks with serrated leaves and portions of the ageing seven hills around Shimla still covered with trees”. A sense of travelogue unfolds more gently, giving space to the reader from what is, in places, the sheer fury of history.
In places, the book seems to be written expressly for the familiar reader, for the emigrant who pines for the idiosynchrosies of the Punjabi language rather than explicitly aimed at the foreigner who wants to ‘exoticise’ India. Helium is as far from the India of Exotic Marigold Hotels as can be. This narrative is most sharply seen in the exploration of Raj’s marital breakdown with his estranged wife Claire, who clings to a romantic vision of India that she personifies in her husband and seeks to present to their children. For all Claire’s colourful images of Diwali candles and happy Gods, Raj remains silently swamped by memories of burning fires across Delhi. “For many in ’84, death began with rubber tyres…Sikhs were mere objects (of hatred) bonded to rubber tyres, offered to the gods…Agni, the god of fire, has two heads, three legs and seven tongues…”. Clara, Raj tells the reader, is the sort of person who would have told their children (had she been born in Nazi Germany) that the Jewish neighbours were really headed to some land of toys and candles.
Taken from Primo Levi’s poem, Buna, the question ‘With what kind of face would we confront each other?’ becomes one of the most haunting themes of the novel. How would Nelly confront those men who devastated her family, and how would Raj cope when he knew who those men were?
“’A father and son walk on corpses, burning carcasses. Stumble upon piles of hair, burnt rubber tyres, amputated limbs and ash. The son asks his father about those men, who returned home after setting bodies on fire, men who returned after rape. What did they tell their children and wives? Did the wives go to bed with them that night?’”
The most intensely moving section of the novel is told through the device of an interview with Nelly, which takes on the tone of a documentary. The scenes Nelly recalls the day after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, are spent with her close friend, Maribel, the wife of the Mexican High Commissioner, and they unfold with a ghoulish horror. As the women prepare their children for a fancy-dress celebration of Mexican Day of the Dead, the senseless destruction and devastation of the mobs that strike at the core of Nelly’s existence are hard to digest and incomprehensible to any rational human being. Herein lies the absurdity of any attempt to wipe out an ethnicity or a religious group. Every notion of being human is shattered in the depravity. Singh explores this with a gripping emotional force that rips away any preconception that such violence could have been spontaneous.
At times, perhaps, the story collapses under the weight of the historical burden it bears. Singh is determined to ensure that an alternative history of India is presented, replete with references to Bhopal, the caste system and colonialism. Sometimes, this results in the reader being swamped by too much information and India’s narrative, likely autobiographical, might be almost too much for the reader to absorb.
Helium’s literary influences are diverse with strands of Primo Levi running through the prose, and of course W G Sebald’s Vertigo, which presents the epigraph and essential tenor of the novel: How I wished during those sleepless house that I belonged to a different nation, or, better still, to none at all.”
A random character in the novel asks: “Why don’t you Sikhs forget what happened a long time ago?” The elderly man paused for a while and said: “For the same reason we Indians don’t forget British colonialism, the Amritsar massacre or Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi, Diwali and Dussehra. And you want me to forget something that happened as recently as 1984?”
“As long as you are alive, your story is alive”, Nelly’s supervisor tells her shortly after she has escaped 1984 with her life. Jaspreet Singh’s Helium is a powerful, poignant attempt to bring that story to life, and perhaps, in some way, to right the wrongs of a shameful historical amnesia.
Published by Bloomsbury
Hardback, 7 November 2013, £16.99
eBook, 6 August 2013, £14.99
A shorter version of this article was published in the Guardian (UK) on August 23rd 2013
Another morning, another news story of a woman being gang-raped in India’s cities. This time, a 22 year old photojournalist out doing her job, and accompanied by a male colleague in the early evening shooting photographs of Mumbai’s textile mills in one of the city’s mid-town increasingly hip neighbourhoods.
Despite verdicts due to be reached early next month in the case of the Delhi gang-rape last December, and new laws in place to tackle sexual violence, the stain of extraordinary violence plaguing India’s women is becoming a terrifying norm.
Changing the collective consciousness from the top and the bottom
Changes in the law, which include fast-tracking rape trials to beat India’s weary wheels of justice, are grossly inadequate. It’s the collective consciousness that needs to change. That requires both a top-down and a ground-up approach in which the root systemic causes of violence against women are examined honestly. Lamentably, India’s politicians have failed, either willingly or otherwise, to grasp or tackle what needs to be done to transform the collective consciousness on women’s rights.
Pushing the politicians
Delhi’s gang-rape, and the public response, shook the politicians out of their stupor. Such was the public outrage that the government immediately formed the Verma Commission to report back within surprisingly narrow terms of reference and within a bizarrely short period of thirty days, no doubt to assuage the public demand that ‘something must be done’. Haste is often the undoing of law-making and this was no different. Some tens of thousands of responses were delivered. The Commission, to its considerable credit, did a remarkably good job of broadening the terms of reference and considering the broader legal framework of equality and non-discrimination for women. It was the starting point of a new constitutional framework for India’s women, of whatever class, religion or social background. But political will to uplift the lot of women substantively was lacking. It was easier to let defence lawyers pronounce that ‘respectable women in India aren’t raped’, and gurus on television blame the women or deify the fairer sex . It was easier for the morality police to start a backlash against women, banning them from the street, or from bars, or requiring them to stay at home. This blaming-the-woman culture is not a peculiarly Indian phenomenon, mind, but India’s traditional ethos won out and the legislation rushed onto the books was sorely lacking.
Blaming the politicians
The government ignored Verma’s recommendations on police reform and the prosecution of security personnel charged with sexual assault to be dealt with under ordinary criminal laws. The government failed to criminalise marital rape. This in a country where women’s bodily integrity and dignity are frequently violated through dowry, forced marriage, domestic abuse and acid attacks. In so doing, the Indian government has failed to address the underlying malaise within the Indian police institution that allows the culture of violence against women to persist. The UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjo has lamented the loss of the golden opportunity presented to India to establish a full framework guaranteeing equality for women in line with the Commission’s recommendations.
The spectre of gender violence runs through Indian society
Even as India’s cities are seeing the boom of the middle classes and soaring education and wealth, the sexual violence is rearing its head beyond rural villages, and into the bosom of India’s commercial centres. India needs an approach that tackles a culture whose violent underbelly strikes women on all levels, far from the Gandhian ideals about which the politicians and religious powers like to fawn. This is a violence entrenched through the caste system, in which stories emerge routinely of so-called untouchable women being used like sexual serfs in India, or through religion, in which the deification of women offers respect only to those who fit with socially moulded norms centred on the home as hearth. This is a violence caused by the belief that a family’s honour lies in their women’s chastity or social conduct. This is a violence spilled by genocidal pogroms or army abuses that treat women as the spoils of war. Violence against women starts in India before they are even born, with levels of female foeticide the most damning sign of how little equality is granted to the girl child. 50% of the population, and in some states much less, deserve respect as human beings. India is far from being the only culture which denigrates its women, we see miserable examples of it everyday in the West ourselves, but each culture has to get to grips with the way in which it needs to resolve the problem.
A movement for change
Women’s activists are creating strong movements for change in the country, and taboo subjects are being brought out of the cold through fearless journalism, protest and movement. But it is not enough. Change is needed where institutional sexism is rife; at the heart of India’s police force.
Reforming the police force
Tragedy often has the power to bring about the public outcry which demands a government take action to control the excesses of the institutions at the top. In Britain, that tragedy was the 1993 racial murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence. The systemic failures within the police force led to the MacPherson Inquiry that coined the term “institutional racism”, seeking systemic changes in order to stamp out corrosive prejudice from the British police forces. In Los Angeles, the 1991 Rodney King affair is seen as responsible for widespread subsequent changes to policing practices, including more community policing, monitoring and changes to recruitment. Accountability lay at the heart of these changes. Neither force could be held up in a show and tell of perfect policing today, by any stretch of the imagination, but the changes required of them undoubtedly have changed national dialogue. The changes forced upon them by tragedy betraying impunity lying at the heart of each system have led to systemic changes in police forces whose coffee-break cultures were institutionally racist .
Lifting the lid on collective failings
India’s police forces needs a similar kick-start at transformation. Despite the news from Mumbai today that the police have arrested the five suspects already, a plethora of rapes reported in the Indian media this year have been rendered all the more astonishing by abject failures by the police. The prejudice against women or girls claiming sexual assault is so ingrained, the culture of destroying the woman if she continues to press charges so inherent in the system, and indeed in society, that only massive institutional changes within the Indian police force will begin to curb, change and improve the situation of women facing violence routinely. Change in Indian society and attitudes will only arrive when the enforcement mechanisms are challenged to become accountable themselves. And they will only become accountable once the national discourse on women begins to change substantively. The outcome in next month’s Delhi verdicts must be merely the beginning of collective reform. The lid has to be lifted on the silent myriad of failings that permit such a collective litany of abuses against the country’s women.
August 23rd 2013
Far from home and family, the wandering life of the restless nomad almost inevitably becomes vulnerable on those days that she gets ill. Sick as a street dog from strange and distant viruses, Downwards Dog takes on a whole new yogic meaning and it is easy to wonder about the choices that constantly ensure you are frequently far from home’s creature comforts.
I was reflecting on this conundrum earlier this week in Delhi when, fresh from 24 hours of precisely that street dog syndrome, my body was rather weakened by attack and in need precisely of the home comforts that usually make all resistance to planning an early return futile. The dishevelled, immunity-bashed traveller will begin to rose-tint the London bed, cushions and daytime television associated with sick days, but it’s the regression to childhood comfort foods that usually pre-empts the call to British Airways (who, in a pricey reversal of UK call centre etiquette, I now need to call directly in London instead of Bangalore). And it was in precisely those wistful moments when I might have begun to crave homebound imaginary wellness-aids that I realised here in Delhi, they were here all around me instead.
The most basic recovery tool in any Indian mother’s kitchen will be a simple, steaming bowl of lentils and rice, dal-chawal, whether in Punjab, Bradford or Melbourne. Here in Delhi, even far away from my own mother’s inevitably perfect dish, someone in the kitchen willingly rustled me up a bowl of their own motion, reasoning with my stubborn lack of appetite that “nothing will revive your health like a decent bowl of dal-chawal, replete with a chilled bowl of homemade yoghurt. Tick.
Then, of course, there’s the matter of replacing all kinds of salts and sugars. Forget the price of Whole Foods, I can have fresh coconut water to rehydrate the system more easily than buying a can of Coke (actually, I prefer Maaza, a viscous artifical mango juice that makes Fanta orange seem natural). Or giant bowls of glistening pomegranate seeds, peeled and ready to poke spoons into at any time of day or night for a superboost of antioxidants. None of that suspect pre-packaged prawn-pink-looking supermarket pomegranate that tastes mildly plastic (or is that also horse?). Nope, you know what you are getting when you bash the fruits with a rolling pin.Ruby red and bursting with vitality is the Delhi way out of doubt. The next box ticked too.
Once the appetite returns, it’s the cravings for junk food that start to kick in. Crisps, biscuits, the works. Walkers crisps dress themselves identically in Lays packaging here, substituting Gary Linkerer for a cricketing God or three and cheese and onion for Magic Masala; Haldirams gave me packaged bowlfuls of khatta meetha chewda, a sweet and salty Bombay mix. Tea, of course, is Taj Mahal or Tetley, take your pick, and just when I am beginning to think my recovery can’t be complete without Custard Creams, the local marketwallah produces them, in green cardamom flavour. Madam, Elaichi Special. Nothing quite competes with elaichi to make me feel calm and grounded. Blame that on a lifetime of my father, uncles and grandfather demanding ‘half a cup’ of hot cardamom tea.
It’s true that there is no place like home, but sometimes other places can force their way in without you even realising that memories were interchangeable. Borders have been crossed and traditions have been swapping. Desi childhood nostalgia, it turns out, can be delighted in Delhi. Never mind being sick as a dog, it turns out that a few days after being wiped out, I am now back to being stuffed like a tiger. I won’t be needing that early flight back to London after all. Home’s pleasures, in fact, can be created where a whole hot cup of tea and a cardamom-flavoured custard cream can be found. Home itself is the place where only a half cup will do.
February 23rd 2013.
Changing a collective consciousness can never be underestimated, especially when consciousness belongs to a national force designated to maintain law and order, which considers itself to be above the authority imposed by law and order. Such may be the prevailing ethos of any army, police or public office anywhere in the world.
The role of tragedy and public outcry
Usually, a general sense of public disgruntlement is not enough to force change upon such institutions, used to throwing around their weight and moulding a system to suit its own uses or ends. It takes a tragedy which brings about the public outcry that demands a government take action to control the excesses of the institution. In Britain, that tragedy was the 1993 murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence, in which five white suspects were arrested but not convicted in circumstances leading the police to be highly criticised on racial grounds. The systemic failures within the police force led to the so-called MacPherson Inquiry that coined the term “institutional racism”, seeking systemic change to boot such gnarled and rancid prejudice out of the British police forces. In Los Angeles, the 1991 Rodney King affair is seen as responsible for widespread changes to policing practices, including more community policing, monitoring and changes to recruitment In India, it has taken a brutal gang rape in the wealthy heart of the country’s capital to force politicians to stand up and take notice.
Such was the public outrage that the government immediately formed the Verma Commission, led by two retired justices and a senior advocate, to report back within surprisingly narrow terms of reference and within the astonishingly short period of thirty days, no doubt to assuage the public demand that ‘something must be done’. The Commission, to its considerable credit, broadened out the terms of reference and did a remarkably good job of considering the legal framework in which sexual offences legislative policy lies. It recommended, for example, that marital rape become a criminal offence, and sought to accommodate a wider, more modern legal framework considering the problems posed in modern day society rather than those left by the British on the old penal statute books.
Why the law is just not enough
But societal change, institutional change cannot be led by legislative measure alone. Whilst the power of anti-discrimination law on both social dialogue and acceptability ought not to be underestimated, the law means nothing without effective implementation. And whilst the Verma Commission sought to address implementation in terms of efficiency and due process, it failed to address the underlying malaise within the Indian police institution that allows sexual assault crimes against women in India to go effectively unheard and unpunished.
Macpherson and institutional racism in Britain
British policing remains far from perfect, particularly in relation to both stop and search procedures and in its retention and recruitment of ethnic minority police officers, critical to restoring and maintaining confidence within all sections of the British public. But, some fourteen years aftet the publication of the Macpherson report, the national dialogue has changed. Seventy major recommendations of the Report aimed critically (although not wholly) at police accountability, including measures to monitor and assess police forces nationally, including crucially new powers of appointment of police chief officers. Fundamental changes have been brought by the applicability of the “full force” of race relations legislation at police officers through a process of vicarious liability directed at their superior officers. Codes of practice were developed to properly report and record all racist incidents including the training of local liaison officers to underpin an anti-discriminatory culture within the police.
Change on the inside brings change on the outside
Neither the British nor the Los Angeles police are likely to stand up and say they have eliminated prejudice and discrimination within their forces. But the changes forced upon them by tragic circumstances have led to systemic changes in police forces whose coffee-break cultures were institutionally racist. India faces similar hurdles. The prejudice against women or families claiming sexual assault is so ingrained, the culture of destroying the woman if she continues to press charges so inherent in the system that only massive institutional changes within the Indian police force will begin to curb, change and improve the situation of women facing violence routinely. Only once the dialogue begins to change against women and police officers are held routinely accountable for their actions, or omissions as is often the case, will there be major change in India. The Verma Commission has rightly started to modernise the debate, even notwithstanding the failures in the government’s response in its recent Ordnance, but change in Indian society and attitudes will only come when the enforcement mechanisms are forced to become accountable themselves.
20th February 2013
Hari Kunzru’s new book, Of Gods and Men, played second fiddle to the excitement caused by his stirring reading, late in the day, of an excerpt of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, still banned in India and still causing controversy by the arrogance of clerics who are unlikely even to have read the text. Gods and Men, however, clearly became the theme of the first day of the festival. As Kunzru pointed out, those who doubt are never the ones who line up the unbelievers in their cause against a wall to shoot them, doubt being a pivotal theme of Rushdie’s works. The organisers felt compelled to try to stop the readings, both Kunzru’s and those which inevitably followed, arguing that arrest and imprisonment were unlikely but possible consequences as well as the potential closure of the Festival itself by those who have no doubt. Instead, a Gandhian spirit prevailed and as a slightly nervous Amitava Kumar declared, the salt must be plucked from the marshes. Draconian laws can seldom be undone without the courage of actions ‘to defy bigots’, and so Kunzru defied them, having to flee India early the next morning to avoid the legal wrath that may have followed.
Politics, thus, hovered right across the first day of these engaging literary debates. David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, raised eyebrows amongst a packed audience as he strayed surprisingly far from the theme appointed to his conversation, ‘The Disappointment of Obama’. Remnick, whilst clearly outlining his policy disagreement with many of Obama’s obvious failings on Guantanamo, Palestine and the environment, stressed that he did not feel let down by Obama, when compared with all the Presidents of his time. Obama, he said, had won the Nobel Prize just for not being George Bush. Predictable cheers from an audience draped across lime green seats below a blue and white block-printed Mughal tent.
But the all-knowing gods were hanging around these literary men and women all day, starting with a stirring rendition of the Sikh Gurbani from Madan Gopal Singh in a scholarly line up designed to exam the poetic vision of the Sikh Gurus. That spirituality also took on a political edge. Singh radically interprets the term ‘Bhav Khandana’ (Teri Aarti huye) as having a gendered identity, a female spirit or God, an idea derived from the Sanskrit roots of the term, which he says he regrets sardonically that no one else buys. Controversy was hanging around the fringes of Diggi Palace all day, it seems.
And so, to Mohammed Hanif, whose afternoon session felt like a soothing afternoon cup of tea, deflecting with humour some rather bizarre questions about his symbol as sex god in Pakistan, a country where one’s choice of God lets the law discriminate, often with violent repercussions, around you. Perhaps little wonder then that Hanif chose to write about the country’s beleaguered Christian community in Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, a human and amusing take on what he describes as a “humble little love story”.
Of Gods and Men, then. Jaipur, Day One.
20th January 2012.
The Jaipur Literature Festival is set to start tomorrow in the glittering light of winter sunshine and high expectations. But, as they say in India, there is something black floating in the lentils. In the heart of this kaleidoscopic celebration of the written word and ideas shared from across the planet, with the presence of authors such as Ben Okri, Tom Stoppard, AC Grayling and Fatima Bhutto, a familiar Indian figure of silence is trying to close in and steal the show.
The controversy over whether Salman Rushdie will or won’t attend the Festival has been causing a mild stir across front pages in India all week, since the Darul Uloom Deoband Islamic seminary pressured organizers into trying to withdraw their invitation to Rushdie. Although India’s intelligentsia is up in arms, the country’s media and politicians are silent, or worse, pandering to the myopia which threatens the plutocracy. This is old hat in a country that for decades has allowed a conspiracy of silence to cover up any serious debate about freedom of expression.
Grounded in censorship laws that stemmed from the British Empire, India’s artists and writers often have experienced a democracy more concerned with insult than ideas. Insult to right wing Hindu sentiment, created politically in the early 1990s, led to the retreat and eventual death in exile of MF Hussain, the great Indian artist who dared to paint images that inspired him. It mattered that he was Muslim, and that he sometimes chose to depict Hindu goddesses, never mind that it is precisely that cultural interchange of Islam and Hinduism that has created modern India. Nobody please mention the Kama Sutra. There should have been a national uproar that an artist of his standing was forced to seek refuge away from its democratic borders. Instead, there was mostly an embarrassed silence. Likewise, there should have been incredulity when charges of sedition were first postulated against author-activist Arundhati Roy for her comments on Kashmir that were allegedly anti-Indian. She was a national heroine when she won the Booker, but when she broke the conspiracy of silence on uncomfortable matters, she was moulded into a national pariah. The Indian author Siddhartha Deb also found himself in court last year when an injunction was slapped on a chapter of his book, The Beautiful and the Damned, without warning. Two weeks ago Balbir Krishnan, an artist from Uttar Pradesh, was attacked in Delhi, ostensibly because his artistic themes of homosexuality offended and ‘provoked’ religious sentiment. The attempts to lock Rushdie out of his motherland are just another illustration of what happens when the State allows the language of insult to dictate its law and policy. It is a dangerous basis for the ban which inevitably seems to follow these calls, and a serious blunt edge to the vibrancy with which democracy can flourish.
The consequences of this attempt to silence authors and artists goes far beyond whether an Islamic seminary doesn’t like The Satanic Verses, although it is doubtful anybody agitating against Rushdie has even read it, not least because it remains banned in India. If insult is the permission for provocation and violence, silence is the tool by which impunity prospers. The failures to bring justice against the perpetrators of mass violence in Gujarat, Punjab, Assam and Kashmir are the flipside of a democracy which likes to snuff out difficult questions before they are voiced. A failure to protect freedom of expression can in the end lead to a failure to protect the most basic human rights of all.
In a country that is so tolerant of eccentricity and diversity, intolerance should be tossed carelessly away, pushed back behind the shoulder of the law. It is high time for the nonsense of the fatwa to be decried. State silence in the face of alleged religious insult is a greater threat to democracy that the Satanic Verses could ever become. Come on India. Un-ban the book.
January 19th 2012, India
If the Basque city of Bilbao is a voluptuous art gallery, then its little neighbour San Sebastian is surely the sophisticated muse.
In this elegant seaside ville, where blazer-clad gentlemen sip beer from sherry glasses and their coiffured women-folk gulp local the local wine,Txakoli, from morning to night without so much as a hiccup, some of the greatest artistic splendours of the region can be found. Whilst it is true that Bilbao houses some of the world’s finest modern art at the Guggenheim (Richard Serra’s formidable, if nausea-inducing installation ’The Matter of Time’ at this sitting) and at its own impressive Museum of Fine Arts, the Basques are out to impress with their original creativity on the groaning counters of the tiny pinxto bars that surprise tourists at every corner.
Brits, for all the nineteenth century Gothic architecture across the city’s sandy beach that oddly reminisces Bournemouth, beware. This is not Ready Salted Crisps and Pint of Ale territory. Cross the fusion of Barcelona with the rich aesthetic of the French Riviera, and you might begin to tingle with the sensory overload which the Basque brain and mighty appetite have conspired to craft. A tourist is a mere victim to the inspired modern splendour of the pint-sized treats. We soon realised it would be insulting to resist Spain’s north-westerly temptation.
Take Zeruko(Calle Pescadería 10), just as an example. Sea urchins lie intriguingly sliced across a plate by the gilded gold artichokes, stuffed generously with foie. Baby elver eels fill a tequila glass like elfin strands of spaghetti, pierced with a yolk gelled with tapioca on a stick.
Piles of Serrano ham are draped across crusty, oiled bread and the wild mushrooms of the season are splashed artistically across a perfectly round fried quail’s egg. Mushrooms on toast will never taste the same again. Tiny splatters of morcilla (blood pudding) are coated with pistachios and jam, like an Arabic treat. Hot, griddled scallops are lined over fluffy bread rounds, and a steak sandwich arrives, freshly seared across caramelised mushroom, launched towards the burning anticipation of the worker from across the street who is grabbing a quick lunch. Dessert, the Bob Limon, is a Heston Blumenthal-esque creation of an air sponge, surrounded by a lemon mousse that resembled a fluffy egg, the yolk being fashioned by the orange skin of an apricot injected with a sweet jus that seeps out as you crack it. A homemade blackberry licorice rounds off the treat, and we walk onto the road, giddy with the excitement brewed in this den of culinary magic.
The path to walk off the feast was lined with fat anchovies buried under papaya at Bar Txepetxa, pumpkin-stuffed ravioli soaked in a rosemary foam and a creamy chanterelle risotto spoonful at Astoria 7, a cinema-fuelled hit of a hotel which also offered the most originally presented patatas bravas we have enjoyed, and groaning counters of gratinated scallops, roasted pepper and anchovy tarts and other bread-based treats at Bergara in the trendy, residential neighbourhood of Gros.
We still had no way of knowing, however, that A Fuego Negro (31 de Agosto 31) would reduce us to tears with their mini-Kobe beef burgers, their txitxarro sashimi and their mini-doner kebabs that brought shame to vans everywhere across Europe. We could not know that the bakaloo enkarboo would be roasted cod set across smoky pepper seeds, and that the friendliest service would ensue if we could say thank you in Basque, rather than Spanish (ezkarrikasko, if you are wondering) and we could not know that the off-season faded Belle Epoque glamour of a town that feels more French than Spanish could leave us longing for still more.
Luckily, then, Bilbao has the tuna and lamb skewers, and langostines wrapped in finely shredded potato curls at Panko (Marqués del Puerto 4), all chewed over in the packed company of a local crowd. Fortunately, for Bilbao, Las Cepas (a wine bar so recently opened on Juan De Ajuruaguerra that the paint was still wet) offered us the creamiest arroz negro (squid-ink risotto rice topped with the crunchy,crispy squid tentacles) and all the melt-in-the-mouth albondigas (meatballs) that its artistic visitors could flick a paintbrush at.
Dali, Goya and Picasso would be punch-drink proud.
November 25th 2011