Speech on the  occasion of the DSC South Asian Literature Festival, London – October 2010

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, I wrote an essay called ‘Salman Rushdie and the fictions of Third World Politics’, in which I argued that Magic Realism was the best way of dealing with South Asian politics since they were truly stranger than fiction. Those, if you remember, were days in which two generals ruled with rods of iron in Pakistan and Bangladesh, when the Americans were encouraging Al Qaeda to topple the godless Communists in Afghanistan, when the monarchy in Nepal introduced and withdrew democracy at will, when Sri Lanka had postponed elections through a brutal referendum in between attacks on Tamils that were encouraged if not perpetrated by elements in government. Bhutan was an absolute monarchy, the President of the Maldives had been going strong for a decade and a half and was to continue in power for as long again afterwards. Only India, after its brief flirtation with authoritarianism in the seventies, seemed safely democratic, but there Mrs Gandhi had just been assassinated by her own bodyguards.

Ironically enough, the only government – apart from the admittedly unsavoury Afghan communist regime – of which the West disapproved in those distant days was the Indian one, the only one that had in fact been selected by the people. In the dying days of the Cold War, when South Asia was – trust our luck – worse affected than ever before,  we had to cope with the Reagan/Thatcher doctrine of Our Bastards, which Lyndon Johnson and Henry Kissinger had used to pervert South East Asia and Africa – and indeed South America too – in earlier decades.

Much of this is forgotten now, in the new found zeal the West displays for democracy, and perhaps we should not be too harsh on those monsters of yesteryear. After all, as I was recently told, in criticism of a piece on my blog that drew attention to the disastrous carving up of the Middle East after the First World War, ‘The defeat of the Soviet Union was one of the great victories of the 20th century on a par with the defeat of Nazism and the Kaiser – nay greater if on a kill-ratio basis. It was worth the temporary alliance with the fundamentalists in Afghanistan, as the alliance was with Stalin to defeat Hitler. The unprecedented flourishing of democracy and liberalism that followed the fall of the Berlin wall would not have otherwise happened’.  The monsters too had their own ideals, and given the Euro-centric mindsets of those days, we should not be too indignant that they did not really look on people elsewhere as human in the same sense as themselves.

A crucial element in their game plan was the exaltation of individuals they thought they could rely on, certifiable nuts in Africa such as  Mobutu and Bokassa and initially Idi Amin, ostensibly more respectable characters in Asia such as the Shah of Iran and General Zia. In Sri Lanka they laid their bets on President Jayewardene, so that the Times declared that ‘Capitalist Tea tasted sweeter’, after he had bludgeoned his way through a referendum that postponed elections for six years.

A consequence of this was that you could not really write fiction about the conflicts in our part of the world, because to understand them you had to understand the individuals involved. Thus the very essence of ‘Shame’ is the conflict between Mr Bhutto and General Zia, just as Soyinka had his Emperor Boky in ‘Opera Wonyosi’  and Naipaul his Big Man in ‘The Bend in the River’. Instead of fiction then we had what has sometimes been termed ‘faction’, with or without magic. I think ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’, which gave us much enjoyment in Sri Lanka when Mohammed Hanif was in Sri Lanka for the Galle Festival, was an example of this which we could relate to, because of the similarities.

Any yet, my view is that that situation has now changed, in that the conflicts which we must now deal with are very different from those presided over by the larger than life characters who ran so many countries in the bad old days. I remember arguing twenty five years ago that the weakest element in ‘Midnight’s Children’ was the portrayal of Indira Gandhi, because the brilliance with which issues in recent Indian history was portrayed was compromised by the stress on her individual predilections in the description of the Emergency. Indian politics was larger than the characters who participated in it, unlike in the other countries of South Asia in that period.

My contention then is that all over South Asia now that change has occurred. To put it simply, we are all democrats now, even if some individuals still play dominant roles. At its simplest, their continuation in office depends on their responses to the people they govern, not to external circumstances and favours as occurred in the past. Benazir Bhutto might have been an exception, but after her tragic death there is no one in Pakistan with similar stature. In Sri Lanka, for very different reasons, Velupillai Prabhakaran would have to figure in his own persona in any creative account of the Tigers, but thankfully we no longer have to deal with him in reality. Afghanistan, I must grant, may provide a counter-example, and an account of its recent history may need portrayals of President Karzai as well as Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar, but that only serves to highlight the changes that have taken place elsewhere.

I should however add a cautionary note at this point. The exception to the rule may be the Western participants in our politics, since sometimes I sense that proconsular approaches have sprung up again in some quarters, following the end of the Cold War and what seemed the emergence of a unipolar world. Thus, just as the American ambassador was a central character when the mangoes exploded, we find that Western advisers are of crucial importance in Pakistan and Nepal, as well as in Afghanistan, and often their individual predilections contribute more to policy decisions than general principles. Thankfully we seem now to have escaped that fate in Sri Lanka, but if I were to go back to fiction to describe the last couple of years of our struggle against terror, I suspect the most significant individuals would be those diplomats who saw themselves as promoting regime change in accordance with their own peculiar ideals.

Let me end however on a lighter note, with a brief extract from ‘Days of Despair’, my novel about the Indo-Lankan Peace Accord of 1987, which I tried to tie in with regional politics. Rather crudely I wrote thus about the two generals whom we were trying to cultivate when we sought allies against India –

Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Presidents of Easthind and Westhind if not respectively, were both military men ….. taking their names and their backgrounds into consideration, it was easy to think of them as being identical. This was the image the world at large had of them, but it was quite misplaced. Though there was some similarity in their early careers and they had both come to power through coups and now faced challenges from the daughters of the civilian leaders they had disposed of, in appearance and in character as well as in other ways they differed considerably from each other.

One had a heavy clipped toothbrush moustache, the other’s curled up brilliantly at the ends; one was bald, the other had jet black hair smoothed back with brilliantine; one was a strict teetotaller, the other drank half a bottle of Chivas Regal on evenings when he was displaying restraint; one deflowered the occasional virgin by moonlight, the other had living in his official residence a troop of chunky non-commissioned officers with whom he jogged through the capital at dawn; one was a peasant’s son who had worked hard at school, the other had risen from the ranks of the aristocracy; one kept his predecessor’s daughter under strict house arrest, the other let his run free, and even invited her sometimes to tea; one was trying to create an atom bomb, the other was convinced he had found a friendly power that would drop one for him if required; one prayed five times a day wherever he was, the other only in public.

Interestingly enough, in the one case we still remember the impact of the General on history, in the other almost all is forgotten. I hope this heralds the fact that now our conflicts are about issues, not about individuals – which will I hope make them easier to solve, rather than when mangoes had to explode to provide solutions.