Telegraph Calcutta

What War Also Does

A meditation on the 21st anniversary of the Kargil conflict

Wars are lost and wars are won, but it is probably in the nature of wars to never end. They get seeded in memory, uniquely rigged and purposed — as vanity, and often vainglory, of victory, as twisting humiliation of defeat, as tenuous truce waiting to come asunder and settle what was left unsettled, a singularly human stain that refuses to wash, or only bleeds to all washing. What war did not beget another? What war did not begin to resemble the debris of lessons not learnt from the previous one?

Among modern-world reporters of war, Leo Tolstoy blazed a trail. In the mid-19th century, he travelled to the Crimea with the battery of his soldier brother Nikolai and began to write about what he saw; he would later join the infantry and fight on a front that is still alive with combat between Russian expansionism and Ukrainian resistance. His Crimea time would become The Sebastopol Sketches, a classic of war reportage. Tolstoy also ran raids against “rebel mountain tribesmen” — the Chechens — in the north Caucasus. He conjured from that stint a haunting novella called Hadji Murat, an allegory of empire and defiance, and valour and betrayal. Its sounds and setting have often reminded me of Kashmir. A century-and-a-half on, the Russians were still busy cutting the Chechens down. They pounded Grozny, the capital, to pulp, then resurrected it and put a neon-and-granite polish on it. They still haven’t put out the Chechen fires. Hadji Murat, a Chechen protagonist crafted by a Russian writer at the turn of the 19th century, lives on.

Tolstoy’s later work became a searing invective against war; it was not about glory, it was “chaotic, disorienting and humbling”. His critique became one of the reasons he wasn’t awarded the Nobel Prize — his work had “denied the right of both individuals and nations to self-defence”. It’s probably what war also does, it insists on its necessity to the human condition.

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2006, Essay, Tehelka

Orhan Pamuk: Prize and the Literary Pursuit

This piece was written at the close of 2006, the year of Pamuk’s Nobel Award.

A snow twist in Pamuk's Kars
A snow twist in Pamuk’s Kars

There is an eccentric paradox embedded somewhere in the business of writing. All writing is a function of solitude, a private ramble between writer and daguerreotype, at once alike and apart. Yet writing can seldom hope to achieve its station unless it is able to evoke from its isolations the utterly universal.  Aloofness and belonging are like atom and whole to writing, one doesn’t quite make sense without the other. We have no agreed answers on what makes writers out of people. Perhaps the search for contexts is one of them: Where do we fit in, where does anything? Writing is only minimally the physicality of it, it’s never about a set of words strung into grammatically correct sentences, it’s about the ideas they might, or might not, contain. Continue reading “Orhan Pamuk: Prize and the Literary Pursuit”