18 November 2008

Gouri Dange's 3 Zakia Mansion

Home truths

Gouri Dange’s books draw as much from her skills as a talented writer, as much from her profession as a family counselor

Gouri Dange’s views as a city-based counselor and a columnist writing on a variety of social and other issues have always been a much-valued one. Hence, one welcomed her foray into fiction writing with her debut novel, 3 Zakia Mansion earlier this year with her close friends Shabana Azmi and Tanvi Azmi releasing the book in Mumbai and Pune respectively.

By her own admission, 3 Zakia Mansion evoked drastic yet interesting responses.
The book recounts the journey of a young Muslim woman, Shaheen, leading a somewhat repressed life with her parents and hoping for a better future by way of marriage. But this is nothing short of a disaster, as Shaheen’s life takes a turn for the worse with a cowardly husband and an offensively dominating mother-in-law. There’s no real respite for Shaheen as her young daughter too briefly turns against her. But towards the end, life looks up, as Shaheen not only discovers new relationships, but herself too.

The middle portion of the book reads like a soap opera but Gouri says none of it is exaggerated. “There are people who are irredeemably horrible, so I presented them as black. I know people saw that portion as a saas-bahu drama but believe me, I was drawing from people I have met in real life. Almost 70 per cent of these are vexed relationships and the mother-in-law here is a symbol of someone who cannot see beyond her son.
But didn’t she fear reinforcing the ‘saas’ stereotype? “Not really, because I counter- balance it with Mrs Kher – Shaheen’s second encounter with a potential mother-in-law – who is initially appalled at the 12 year old age gap between her son, Manav and Shaheen but quickly comes around. Many people look at their families and wonder why they are so abnormal, but that's how most families are. Abnormal is the new normal,” she says.

With 3 Zakia Mansion and her next book, ABC of Parenting, Gouri draws aspects from her experience as a counselor. “My daughter (her neice whom she adopted) is 23 year old and married – so there weren’t many elements I could take from there. Of course there is a certain home-grown wisdom that you gather while parenting but most of it of course came from meeting real people and problems,” she says.

And fascinatingly, Gouri has infused several of her ideas in her first fictional work. “There were a couple of things that I absolutely wanted to include in the novel – one was the childhood element. As a child and a teenager, Shaheen is in shallow waters but with marriage, she’s thrown into the deep end. Overnight, her life takes a 180 degree turn. That was a construct I wanted in 3 Zakia Mansion. Anybody who gets into a new situation – whether marriage or migration-- only to run away from his/her present life is taking a huge risk. A lot of young women go into marriage as an escape from their reality and that’s nothing but jumping from the fire pan into the fire. Which is why I have always been an advocate of pre-martial counseling, only to be met with resistant parents who think ‘why let the couple think so much?’ That doesn't mean I was punishing my character (Shaheen) for using marriage as an escape route. In fact, I was literally throwing nice people in her way towards the end because she is defiant in her own way,” she says.

The other thing Gouri was sure she would be doing in her novel is of having Shaheen date a man much younger than her. “I see so many great relationships where there is a definite age difference. Two unlikely people can be so right for one another sometimes. In the West of course, this is a prevalent phenomena but I think we too in India must ‘loosen’ up to aspect like these. Why reject a good relationship over something like age?”

Gouri says she’s undecided about her next book but in all likelihood, it will either be a book of short stories or another fictional work.

22 September 2008

Review: Breathless In Bombay

Author: Murzban F Shroff
Pages: 306
Publishers: Picador India
Price: 295
Genre: Short stories (fiction)

Of magic and mayhem

Of late, one is getting more and more sensitized about how Mumbai – by far India’s most multicultural and economically vibrant cities—is slowly slipping into the abyss of bad governance, terror scare, crammed spaces, and heavy concretization…all of it which is steadily eating into the essence of this dream city. People living here rue the fact that many of the city’s authentic places are being sold off to builders who are constructing residential skyscrapers and shopping centers for the ever-bourgeoning class of the brand-flashing, mall hoppers.

Nishikanth Kamat made a poignant portrayal of it in his wonderful, Mumbai Meri Jaan and here again, writer Murzban draws to attention this utter hopelessness, a tragically increasing class-divide that is threatening to deconstruct everything that the city stands for – peaceful co-existence and the spirit of brotherhood. All of Murzban’s 14 stories draw to attention various aspects of the city. Dhobi Ghat and The House Of Mine refer to the problem of displacement where in old structures ---emblems of the city's sparkling authenticity --- are being sold off. There is a strain of regret and sadness in Murzban's narration, as he sees his city being stripped off its uniqueness and warmth and replaced by cold affluence and almost sickening homogeneity.

Class divide seems to be one of Murzban's overarching concern, as he highlights them in his chapters, Breathless in Bombay, The Great Divide, Busy Sunday, The Queen Guards Her Own. This disparity of income -wherein one sizeable class indulges in all kinds of obscene accesses while another grovels in squalor (the author takes the readers through some extremely poverty-ridden, crime-infested, morally depraved streets and lives). Busy Sunday is especially interesting because it brings to light the repercussions of this unsavory class divide and an all round atmosphere of distrust and fraudulence it promotes.

Not all stories deal with problems that are necessarily about Mumbai. For example, there's a highly charged story, Traffic about a live-in couple and the bitterness that seeps in after the scent of idealistic togetherness. Now, this is a story that could have happened anywhere but it nevertheless finds a resonance with the city's fast-paced life, where survival and self-advancement is the only mantra and human emotions are daily crushed under the weight of clinical practicality and opportunism.

The biggest reason to recommend this book is because it draws you in within no time. Murzban - with his ability for detailing -- manages to create a setting that grips you from the word go. It’s obvious the writer feels a great amount of sadness and angst at the city’s dismal state on various fronts but Murzban tackles it with a great compassion and understanding of human frailties. Also, he makes sure to create extremely well fleshed out characters, studying their motives with care and empathy.
Yes, not all stories end well. There could be a feeling that some of them have ended abruptly after starting off so well. But Murzban succeeds in acquainting readers with the colours, flavours and temperament of the city.
A well-mixed Bombay Bhel and some food for thought as well!
-Sandhya Iyer

05 August 2008

Salaam Memsaab

Author: Marjorie McCallum
Pages: 125
Genre: Autobiographical

English essence

Having greatly loved E M Forster’s A Passage To India, I was a bit curious to read about the Raj and the social scape that had emerged around that time. This was before the independence struggle had begun and a certain smugness had crept in the attitude of the British who believed the Indian soil was theirs –as long as they wished. The English community in India was growing, with families coming down to join the commanding officers. And between them, they constituted an affluent world far removed from the people and land they ruled--- almost a miniature England.

That’s the universe Marjorie McCallum, an English officer’s wife, inhabits in her breezy 100 odd page book where she offers readers a close look at their general lifestyle. She rarely goes beyond descriptions of her domestic life and like others of her club, is unquestionably happy to accept the political status quo.

She talks of how while their officer-husbands were at work, the ‘memsahibs’(as they were called) ran their sprawling houses with a large entourage of servants. Once it would be summer, the officers would start hunting for cozy yet affordable hotels in the hills for their wives. It would mostly be Masoori for her where she would stay for five-six months---hanging around with co-officers' wives at the markets or go for pleasure walks.

Unlike what one would imagine, the salaries paid to British officers (especially junior level ones) in India appears not to be exactly lucrative, considering young Marjorie and her husband are forced to make a few compromises while choosing her place of stay in the hills. But Marjorie comes across as a pleasant, optimistic woman who wants to make the best of her time in India and enjoy whatever privileges that are thrown her way. She is obviously delighted to have so much help around her house and describes their duties in great detail. She talks about the daily 'Chotta hazri' (early morning tea with biscuits) which she and her husband relish together, before the well-laid out breakfast that comes later.

Her only real distress arises when she falls sick with a stomach infection and her new born contracts it too. Also, the time when the Second World War breaks off seems like a distressing time for English families in India, with many being hastily packed off to England or South Africa by ships. Marjorie too is faced with the same predicament and prays to God when she survives the sea journey -which itself had turned into a war-zone around the time.

Barring that, her narration seems like a reiteration of the rosy lifestyle the British led in India.
She describes a special tour she and her husband bagged to the Kashmiri King’s palace and the scenic beauty they enjoyed. Later, when her husband gets transferred to Mumbai, she gets used to the hustle-bustle of a city in a prosperous locality, comprising Parsees and effluent Indians. She says she was tempted to befriend her Indian neighbours but resisted as ‘socialising with Indians was frowned upon by the English community’
Marjorie remembers her stay in India with great fondness and produces several pictures during her decade long stay. Some of the friendships she struck with the wives of officers continues till date, she says.
One only wishes the author had opted for an alternative title (this one sounds awfully snobbish) but one guesses she was particularly pleased about the regal lifestyle that India afforded her.

24 July 2008

Book Review: A Girl and A River

Author: Usha K R
Pages: 324
Published by: Penguin
Price: Rs 295

This River runs deep

It's been a while since I've read a book where the author displays such fine sway over her content and craft. Usha K R has been writing for more than a decade now (her last novel was The Chosen) and while she has always received rave reviews for her works, it is her latest book, A Girl And A River that has come in for some much-deserved critical attention. The author was the recipient of the Crossword Award recently, where she won in the Fiction category for the same book --- while William Darlymple received the award in the Non-fiction section.

On the surface (and as the book cover demonstrates), it is a straightforward story --- that of Setu and Kaveri's life -- a brother and sister duo brought up in pre independence Mysore and the unexpected turns their lives take. Nothing prepares you for the complex, ironic web of human relationships, emotions and the play of fate ---- influenced by circumstance as much as by character--- that the author so elegantly unravels.

Usha draws up an exhaustive social scape of the 1930 and '40s with meticulous detailing on every level, studding it with keenly fleshed out characters- their actions closely linked with the moral and social fibre of the time. So you have the patriarch, Mylaraiah -- running his prosperous household-- happy to be a beneficiary under the Britishers and hoping things will run as smoothly as they are. He’s surrounding by charismatic men like Narayana Rao and CG K Sir (the history teacher at school who writes anonymous letters in newspaper columns in support of the freedom struggle), who play a proactive role in getting rid of the British. Mylaraiah, if he feels a sense of inadequacy and guilt about supporting the English, quells these emotions by making donations to welfare projects (soft issues like Khadi and so on) undertaken by Narayana Rao. Mylaraiah’s teenage son, Setu is too overwhelmed by his father's aura to defy him and join any of the prevailing freedom struggle groups. He watches them from a distance - with a glint of envy.

Not surprisingly, the two women of the house –Mylaraiah’s wife Rukmani and their free-spirited daughter Kaveri grow up (since Rukmani too came to the house as a child-bride) finding the outside world with men like Narayana Rao and C G K’s son Shyam respectively irresistibly attractive. To their imaginative, idealistic minds, these were the men of real action, men who could change the course of history with their fiery speeches and ideals. These were local heroes who thought nothing of sacrificing their personal lives and comforts in the wake of the freedoms struggle.

The men of the house dismiss the rising nationalistic fervour in their women as something stemming from 'a vague notion of patriotism' and think it appropriate to nip such feelings in the bid.

Rukmani’s disillusionment comes when Narayana Rao marries off his 12 year old daughter, inspite of preaching against the practice of child marriage. To her mind, this is a breach of trust from the man she loved and respected. It causes her ill-health and she loses her vitality forever. However, the fate that befalls her daughter, Kaveri -- fed on stories of valour in novels-- is the more poignant one. Having lived in her own world of dashing heroes (and nearly found and lost one in Shyam), she is unable to bear the emptiness and drudgery of a loveless marriage - in some measure brought on by her own family.

The author explores all these threads using one common story - that of Setu's grown-up daughter (in the 1980s) trying to unravel the tragic mystery behind the woman who was not just her 'aunt' but something more too.
Usha K R - while recounting the story - gives a vivid picture of pre-independence South India -introducing characters like Dr King (an Englishwoman who treats patients in the town, riding from place to place on a bicycle) and her snobbish niece Ella. Then there other interesting ones like Rukmani’s flame-throwing, quick-witted cousin Shivaswami or Setu’s childhood friend Chapdi Kal.

It’s truly remarkable how Usha crafts this story, never hitting a wrong note once. Yet, for all its wonderful strengths, this is not the easiest of reads. Its language is impeccable but tends to get too wordy at various points. Also, the detailing can be a bit tiresome and heavy for those who want to get on with the story. This book could have easily been 25-30 pages short.
Also, the story keeps moving between two different time span and that can be confusing for the first time reader.

The book's true worth really unfolds with a second reading, if you ask me. The first time I found myself grappling to keep pace with the numerous characters and time-shifts. That's another thing--- this book seems to run at a stretch and it doesn't help that the words keep tumbling on each other. So while it's awe-inspiring to see the writer's command of her subject and language, I wished she’d allowed her narrative to breath easy at some points.
But again, to her credit, Usha constructs the story in a manner wherein some amount of tension pervades the entire story and the suspense is intact till the very end.
Finally, this is a riveting book, one that is dexterous and rich. More importantly, it respects its reader's intelligence by saying a lot and leaving a lot more unsaid.

-Sandhya Iyer

Interview Usha K R

You recently won the Vodafone Crossword Award 2007 for Best Work in English Fiction? Was the honour expected? The reviews to the book of course were very encouraging…

UKR: The book was shortlisted earlier this year for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2008. So I had a faint hope. But the short list for the Vodafone Crossword Award was very strong – it showed the sweep of the judges’ expectations. So the honour was unexpected.

You've been a writer for a while now. Would you say it's the first time that your work has won such an honour /visibility?

UKR: Whatever critical attention my novels have received so far – Sojourn in 1998. The Chosen in 2003 and now A Girl and a River has been positive, but the award has brought my work visibility that it did not have before.

You've written two books and other short stories prior to A Girl And A River. Can you tell us a little about your journey as a writer so far?

UKR: If I have to ‘read’ my work, I’d say the broad theme is the contradiction and the constant friction between character and circumstance. I seem to be exploring aspects of this theme almost without realizing it. My preference is for grounded storytelling with an intriguing but organic structure.

A Girl And A River is a complex, rich work of fiction on all counts and functions on various levels at the same time. Was there a single point on which you started the story, after which you weaved in other elements?

UKR: What first came to me with this book were the two children Setu and Kaveri in a 1930s setting – and I knew that I had to work their story along the lines of cocooned lives being torn apart by the tides of history and their own bewilderment in the face of change. This had to run parallel to the larger story of the nation, the country coping with independence.

The book's narrative style, going back and forth, and divided into two different time spans shifting from first person to third, is interesting. How did that choice come about? While it adds more depth to the story, it can be a little confusing to a first-timer….

UKR: You may find it strange but writers often conceive of the story and the structure simultaneously – one growing out of and feeding on the other. I knew that I had to have two distinct voices, not just to separate the chronology of the book but also to signal the different sensibilities and moods of the characters and the times. I also wanted to carry the reader along, inviting her to unravel the mystery along with me, and I feel it has worked.

The book has the backdrop of pre-independence South India…what kind of research went into the book and how much have you drawn from your own life-experiences?

UKR: I had to read quite a bit of local history but the spirit of the book comes from the experiences of many who had lived through those times – I have to thank them for the authentic feel of the book.

7)From the past few years, Indian lit in English has been dominated by diasporic authors. Do you see a problem of 'authenticity' when they write on India? Also, when too much of Indian writing is done by authors based abroad, it can create a skewed vision of things. Do you see it essential that Indian fiction in English must have more books written by authors based in the country itself?

UKR: The question of ‘authenticity’ arises when we are talking of straightforward, realistic accounts. Writers like Rushdie circumvent it with the mode they choose to write in. So long as the end product is convincing and has literary merit, it should not matter whether you live in India or abroad, whether you write in English or any other Indian language. The problem is that of visibility. Books by ‘Indian’ writers do not get noticed and reviewed as much. Which is why I was surprised when ‘Girl … ‘ won the Crossword award. We still look for some form of endorsement from the west.

20 July 2008

How 'Indian' is Indian Writing In English

How 'Indian' is Indian writing in English?
Are diasporic writers still its commanding masters or are desi counterparts finally finding a voice? Sandhya Iyer strikes a debate, only to discover that the literary scene is ridden in complexities

For a while now the 'outside', 'insider' debate has been raging across literary circles. For more than three decades now, diaspora writers --- born in India but settled abroad --- have dominated the literary firmament. They have undeniably been the 'face' of Indian Writing in English (IWE) and its most visible representatives. Clearly, we ought to celebrate the immense prestige that writers like Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amitav Ghosh, Chitra Divakaruni, Amartya Sen have brought to IWE. In some measure - inspite of the fact that writer Shashi Tharoor resides abraod, he ought to be included here. He has been an Indian 'official' after all.

It would be fair to say that the entire 'A' list of commercially successful writers function from the West. However, this has brought in its share of criticism on issues like authenticity and the idea of NRI authors selling Indian exotica to the West. "How can a writer sitting in the first world write about the third world?" native writers ask.

Back home, we've had commendable authors like Ramachandra Guha, Kiran Nagarkar, Shashi Deshpande, Usha K R, Ira Deshpande, Esther David, Upamanyu Chatterjee and so on. But, the success ratio remains tilted towards prize-winning NRI novelists --- with greater brand appeal and possibly snob value even. Save for a Arundhati Roy (The God Of Small Things), Khushwant Singh, to an extent Shobhaa De and now, Chetan Bhagat (Five Point Someone, One Night @ A Call Centre, The 3 Mistakes of My Life), no writer in India has really entered the collective consciousness where English writing in India goes.

However, writers and others in the know here believe that things are changing for the better and publishing houses are looking at tapping into the all-strong English-educated base in the country. So have 'midnight's children' finally come of age or is there still a long way to go?

The question of 'representation'
The common refrain is, why don't we see more writers like R K Narayan, Arun Kolatkar, Ruskin Bond, Mulk Raj Anand etc? All their writings being deeply rooted in their own culture instantly connected with readers. Post '70s, there came a new wave in IWE by way of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children that caught the world's attention. Rushdie revitalised and rejuvenated IWE.
Unfortunately, the publishing industry in India was hardly as robust as it is today (we've never been a serious market for English language books), which meant not too many desi writers could get noticed globally.
This naturally presented an unusual situation where it was left to our NRI writers to explain 'us' to the world. Doesn't that create a stilted vision?
"It is obvious that Indian writing in English is not 'representative'--- but this raises the question of whether it is even the function of writing to be 'representative'; one might say it is not --- there is a difference between writing and representative democracy. Perhaps the problem arises because of our insistence on using the term "Indian", and then complaining when various writers (be it Jhumpa Lahiri or Amit Chaudhuri or Rushdie) are insufficiently Indian. But "Indian" means many things, and it shouldn't surprise us that reality does not conform to our abstractions. An authenticity litmus test would be intolerable -- by that yardstick, Chekhov and Joyce might have failed Russian and Irish literature, respectively." says literary enthusiast and avid blogger Umair Ahmed Muhajir.
He believes that lack of English translations (except for small tokens) for regional literature is certainly distorting. "It's a world missed," he says.

Aspiring filmmaker and literature student Abhishek Bandekar believes writers -whether diasporic or India come with their own strengths and that needs to be recogonised. "Indian Writing in English(IWE) or Indian English Literature(IEL) is a troubled breed of literature. It has to grapple with concerns of authenticity and identity. But it’s an ironic struggle. The classification of IWE as post-colonial literature limits its scope; restricting authors(native or NRI) to recount merely that which is nostalgic or ‘imagined’(in as much as ‘imagined’ is that which is not ‘exoticised’). Even if one were to leave aside the whole native IWE vs NRI IWE argument for a moment, one is still confronted with the problem of ‘different’ truths. A Salman Rushdie is radically different from an RK Narayan. The former’s works while championing the hybrid of pidgin English nevertheless falls prey to cultural imperialism, in that it interprets the ‘past’, without ‘imagining’ the future. The latter’s works on the other hand, may employ 'standard english' but stays true to its cultural roots, in that the works require and expect cultural familiarity," he views.

Does location matter for 'authentic' literature?

Devyani Satzman, writer of the book Shooting Water and daughter of filmmaker Deepa Mehta, lives in Canada. She says, "Fundamentally, I think all perspectives and voices are valid. Ultimately, stories should introduce us to new worlds, and I'm not as concerned about where the writer resides as long as they do a good job taking us into that world."

Renowned poet Dilip Chitre says, "First of all, non-resident Indian describes two kinds of people: 1. Those who have migrated to other countries; and 2.Those whose parents were immigrants. Salman Rushdie belongs to the first category (but so do many physicians, surgeons, space scientists, managers, software engineers, teachers etc); and V S Naipaul to the second. He adds, "Just by living in India, nobody becomes a representative of Indian writing. If you are a good novelist, poet, playwright, or a poet the language you write in is secondary to your talent. Artistic authenticity is primary; nationality and/or mother-tongue culture are incidental."

However, Murzban Shroff, whose book Breathless In Bombay got rave reviews believes location is an important criteria for authenticity. Shroff stays in Mumbai and feels that enabled him to come up with a 'solidly researched book' "I wish people like Rushdie and others could base themselves in India and recount stories from here. That way, we'll have Indian content and Western craft and in my view that's the perfect balance," he says.

Are desi writers in India close to bringing about a change?

Many authors believe much has changed for the better where IWE is concerned for desi writers. Chetan Bhagat, who seldom gives up an opportunity to criticise the elitist club of NRI writers makes it clear that his target readers are only Indians. And the fact that he's one of the highest selling authors the country has led to several people from all walks of life picking up the pen.
Says Gouri Dange, who recently published her book 3 Zakia Mansion, "Honestly, I was daunted at the prospect of writing. Since I was simultaneously reading Rushdie's Shalimar, The Clown, I kept feeling my language was too seedha-saadha but then I soon got over it, thinking 'that exists but this can exist too."
Publishing opportunities have vastly grown in the last five-six years, says Janaki Vaswanath, owner of the bookstore twistntales and she believes it is a natural outcome of the country getting dominant on the world stage.

Sampurna Chattarji, a poet, fiction-writer and translator, adds another dimension to the discussion. This proliferation can have a flip side as well, she believes. "In the rush to compete for genre-slots especially, a lot of sub-standard work is getting published and that can only be detrimental to the growth of IWE in the truest sense of the writing going from strength to strength. What we need is perceptive editors and agents who will be able to identify and promote the best writing being done in India today. Unfortunately, IWE is still seen as a territory largely ruled by fiction, when the truth is that exciting new work is also being done by poets writing in English."

But not all are equally optimistic about the flowering of IWE here.
Murzban Shroff says the draft for his book met with a cold reaction when he submitted it to Indian publishers. On the other hand, international publishers were more than forthcoming.
He adds, "Even if Indian publishers were to give you an opportunity to write, they expect you to do your own marketing --- getting a star to launch your book and so on."
He also rules out writing predominantly for an Indian audience, observing that the market here is still to evolve.

Binoo K John, who recently wrote the witty Entry From The Backside Only, categorically believes that diaspora writers are still ruling the roost. "All of this year's major releases have all been from NRIs: Jhumpa Lahiri (who got a big award last month for Unaccustomed Earth), Chitra Divakarunni, Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie. Diasporic writings have their own place in literature and in IWE. One genre does not grow by stymieing the others. The two genres have parallel lives and why not? In fact diasporic writing has consistently scored over Indian writing (due to advantages of being in the first world)," he says.
Ultimately, one would have to submit to Dilip Chitre's view that only the future can take this story forward.
"The fact that English is a global language, with more speakers between Mumbai and Shanghai than in the entire United States, will sooner or later affect publishers' marketing strategies. The fate of writers may still be decided in London or New York; but the franchisees of publishing corporates operating in vast potential markets such as India will start betting on local talent," he believes.

19 July 2008

Past Perspective: An Area Of Darkness

An Area of Darkness

Author: V S Naipaul
Published in: 1964
Genre: Travelogue


V. S Naipaul has always been a controversial figure. Whether it is for his rude behaviour towards fellow writers at conferences or his show of support for India's Hindutva ring, Bharatiya Janata Party or his admission in his autobiography that his callousness killed his wife, this Trinidadian author has always been some sort of an enfant terrible of English literature. For all his genius, he also remains a vilified figure in India and not without reason. The Area of Darkness, when it was published in 1964, created an uproar among Indians and was intensely criticised for its unkind, deriding and supercilious view of India.

Naipaul's literature, much like his personality demonstrates a certain extremism -where there are few or no grey areas. And that is most evident in The Area of Darkness. (His subsequent work, India; A Million Mutinies Now was a far more objective and detailed read -in many ways, this is his best book, apart from A House For Mr Biswas). The book is about how Naipaul built a 'mythical' image about India staying in Trinidad (Naipaul's grandfather was from India and they re-located to West Indies - in a small British colony called Trinidad) and how his one-year visit to India shattered his childhood image of the country. The entire experience is a deeply personal one -- and Naipaul himself behaves like a rather fussy, ungenerous foreign-returned guy(he was just about 30 years old) who criticises the loss of his 'imagined world' without bothering to delve into the reasons for it. This was a plundered country that was struggling to fight its colonial past and tackle some enormous problems at hand.

From the moment he arrives in the country, he applies his own litmus test on it and decides it's a failed nation on every count. So to Naipaul, the weather is oppressive, the poverty is horrifying, people squat defecating all over the place, they serve food with unclean hands, they overcharge customers and what more, even their films don't offer a respite! Naipual has not one good thing to say about the country but doesn't show the slightest hesitation to indulge in gross overstatements and ridiculous generalisations with comments like 'Indians lack in courage...they have been known to go on picknicking on a bank while a stranger drowned' or that 'Indians defecate everywhere'
And this is a bit strange considering half the book is dedicated to his three-month long stay in a cozy, pampered House Boat in the picturesque Kashmir valley. Yet, Naipaul sees no beauty in the land!

Naipaul makes some very sound points when he talks of India being a country of symbolic, speech-making gestures. Whether it was the '60s or today, action is by way of symbols rather than concrete measures. He's also right to be irritated about Indians and their stubborn unwillingness to see what is obvious. They turn a blind eye to what is painful or disgusting and go about their business like nothing happened. This is important because not much has changed for in India in this respect. They continue to be escapists. Economically of course, the country has progressed by leaps and though I don't share all of Shobhaa De's exuberance on this, India is surging forward more confidently than it ever did.
It's difficult to take Naipaul's criticism seriously because most of it seems like an effort to deconstruct the notion of India. There's perverse cynicism at work and the author -while criticising the country's present-- makes no effort to understand its tumultuous recent past or look into its prospects. Hence, even as a piece of work, it remains a highly personal account which unjustly creates and reinforces colonial prejudices.

Two of his observations in particular are condescending and unjustifiable. Naipaul talks of how incongruous India's premier buildings appear in the face of its squalor and poverty. "It is building for the sake of building, creation for the sake of creation....In the North, the ruins (forts etc) speak of waste and failure and the very grandeur of the Mughal buildings is oppressive. Europe has its monuments of Sun-Kings, its Louvres and Versailles. But they are part of the development of a country's spirits."
In a display of unimaginable bad faith, he even suggests that the Taj Mahal could be transported slab by slab to United States and re-erected and it would seem wholly admirable. There, he implies that the edifice would serve a meaning. Here, he says, it is only a despot's monument with poverty around it.

Again, he talks of how the English language is the 'greatest incongruity of British rule' and has caused 'psychological damage' to the country through its continued official use. English, Naipaul should know was never thrust upon Indians. Other countries resisted it, Indians were attracted to it. Today, India constitutes one of the largest English speaking nations and this has had tremendous impact on its global appeal and economic progress. It's unfortunate that Naipaul chose not to see at all the fascinating side of India- its splendid diversity, it colour and cuisines, its incredible warmth and festivity - which today has made it one of the top most tourist destinations in the world.
The only aspect about India Naipaul seems to have really liked is its Railway system which he describes as 'too fine and complex' for a country like India. Phew!

21 June 2008

Review: Superstar India; From Incredible to Unstoppable

Author: Shobhaa De
Publishers: Penguin
Pages: 456
Price: 350
Published In: 2008 (April)

India wears Prada

One of the early lessons one learns in one's career as a feature writer is that no amount of style can compensate for substance. Clearly, there's no rule there, as De proves week after week in her saucy Sunday column for a leading newspaper. That she's a frisky personality, with a penchant for fame-throwing and interesting phrase-making ('careeristic bitch' -that's what she said in reference to Preity Zinta's role in KANK) --- not to forget an incorrigible contrarian streak -- make her a quick-fix masala writer.
Now, that's perfectly fine when she restricts herself to themes about backbiting friends in a kitty club (Starry Nights) or catty advice on how men should be 'handled' (Surviving Men) but writing a book on any aspect of India needs to be done with more understanding and insight.

De's new book draws a co-relation between the author and the country's age (60) and how India is evolving into a superpower. The book's title is ominously similar to BJP's 2004 election campaign, Shining India and we know how misplaced that idea turned out to be. Similarly Shobhaa De's notion of linking the country's prosperity with the spending patters of a miniscule population (Bentley cars, Fendi bags) is equally that of naive exuberance. De takes a view on everything from the prism of her own affluent lifestyle and that of her inner circle of friends and acquaintances ---- trips abroad, living in posh star hotels, visiting spas, shopping in Milan and Paris.

Now what I found funny was that De takes great pains to emphasize her own credentials as one from the upper crust -- 'The Ambanis live in their palatial residence--not far from where I stay' or talking about her globe-trotting with specific attention on the place of stay (either a five star or expensive clubs). There's also an awful lot of reference to various high-end brands ---everything from Cartier watches to Fendi bags to Gucci ---- stuff that is clearly out of reach for 99 per cent of India's population. To use this as a barometer for any kind of progress is in itself very skewed.

In slightly broader terms, De's view can be held in perspective. As she says, more Indians are traveling abroad; people are willing to spend for luxury items, the younger generation is financially better off. Most of it is a result of India's growing clout in the IT, BPO and entertainment industries. She also maybe right when she says that India once viewed as a third world country is today an attractive proposition for not just foreigners to invest, travel etc but also to NRIs --- who feel their own motherland has a lot to offer now. That India is evolving and growing is a sure sign, but the reason why not many are breaking into any kind of jubilation (De wonders why Indians are apologetic about their success...and feels we badly need our cheerleaders) is because there are several aspects that are still screaming for attention.
De keeps mentioning how this phenomenon in not just a Delhi-Mumbai niche. I would be prompted to think that it is and real progress entails development and prosperity for the country as a whole. The country is still reeling under concerns like traffic, poor infrastructure, inflation, corruption, hygiene. (Not that De completely turns a blind eye to the startling poverty and squalor...in the middle of her hi-tea with a certain country's ambassador or the other, she suddenly seems to feel that she isn't taking enough about the less privileged.)

With its limitations, the author makes a few valid points about urban lifestyle - about how junk food is eating into the health of urban kids, on how children in India are a spoilt lot - with parents taking most of the burden on themselves.

That apart, one very serious problem with this book is that it just keeps flitting from one topic to the other without making a point. Like she talks about our apathy towards the State and how our leaders are taking advantage of this attitude and then without any cue, talks about a conversation she had with her chauffeur in Singapore and how he extolled Mahatma Gandhi and pointed towards the hardships in his own country. There are innumerable instances of this kind and as a reader it's frustrating when you see topic after topic thrown up without any point being made. Like she says about Mayawati, 'She is the future of India, it isn't an attractive face, but it's an unforgettable one?' and leaves you to guess what she meant.

More annoyingly, the fact that the book is so low on any kind of research makes it difficult to attach any credibility to many of De's off-hand statements. Like she talks about America losing ground, "For America to regain its lost glory much more will have to be done than pulling out of Iraq with its tail between its legs. The world has no forgotten the mess in Vietnam. Well, that has got salvaged over a period of thirty years. But to most America-watchers, the current imbroglio is not going to be that easy to resolve. The slide has begun"
It takes some courage to call what happened in Vietnam just a 'mess'

Like all other De writings, it's an easy read, though it's a bit of an irritant to see her pepper her sentences with Hindi words like, 'Goli Maro to the skeptics' or 'Our attitude to sex is very ajeeb' If this is the turn Indian English is taking, it’s distressing.

In the end, it's a book that doesn't add up to much at all. The tone is too elitist and and too narrow in its assumptions. It's very much like a drawing room discussion where nothing's verifyable and anything goes.

26 May 2008

Book review: Three Mistakes Of My Life

Author: Chetan Bhagat
Price: Rs 95
Publishers: Rupa
Published in 2008

The best selling feature of a Chetan Bhagat book is its readability. In a world where one is constantly striving to find time, it truly matters when you can actually finish reading a book within a couple of hours. Also, when he isn't getting too filmy and over-the-top, Chetan actually manages to hold a story well enough. That was evident with both Five Point Someone and One Night At A Call Centre. The former especially works as an excellent satire on the education system I thought.

Chetan's third book, the just-launched Three Mistakes Of My Life starts off in the same effective manner as his earlier two books, but unlike the other two, this one starts to appear too far-fetched towards the middle and then just irrevocably falls apart in the end.

The story recounts the life of three youths, Omi, Ishaan and Govind trying to make a life staying in small-town Gujarat. Given Govind's business acumen and Ishaan's love for cricket, the youngsters decide to open a shop that sells cricket goods. Omi's family helps them to get a rented place outside a temple, and soon enough the place is a hit with the locals. Chetan's biggest strength as a writer is his ability to create interesting settings and situations.

Moving on, Ishan takes a great liking to one of the local Muslim boys, Ali with a magical ability to smash the ball for a six each time. Living with the regret of making it himself, Ishan decides to train the 12-year old. Strangely, the lad himself is least interested in cricket but Ishan and his friends take it upon themselves to not only train him for free, but even endure great pains to take him all the way to Sydney at the suggestion of one of the Australian players. There, Ali is offered a contract on the condition that he become an Australian national only to have the 12-year-old spout dramatic lines such as, 'Does that mean I cannot play for India?! Then I don't want it!' and walk away.

This is where the novel begins to disintegrate and goes on to become embarrasingly over-the-top and melodramatic. As long as the author only incorporates the Gujarat earthquake and how it brings down the hopes of one of the novel's lead character, Govind -- Chetan's attempt at infusing a natural disaster with the personal is acceptable. But it's hardly likely that both the Godhra episode and the following riots would again have a direct bearing on these very characters.

The last few chapters especially go out of hand. One knows Chetan's a big fan of Bollywood and believes that much like a Hindi film that must have action in the end, a novel too must have its share of blood and gore to make it wholesome enough. First of all, Bollywood itself is moving away from formulaic fares so Chetan's jumped in a bit late here. Secondly, there is no emotional resonance or reasoning to any of the violence that takes place in the temple, with the Hindus trying to attack Ali with Ishan and others trying to save him.
It's never clear why these youths are fussing over Ali so much. There's only one explanation given - that he's gifted. Why would anyone in their right mind take him all the way to Australia or give up their life (yes, one of the youngsters dies trying to protect the boy!) to preserve his talent. None of their sympathies for him are based on the fact that he's a Muslim, nor do they save him out of any moral obligation apart from the fact that he is a potential cricketing great! Chetan's intentions are honourable but his notions of nationalism and patriotism are just too naive and simplistic.

In between, there's a love story thrown in between Govind and Ishan's sister, only to have Omi spout cheesy lines like, 'You can't hit on your friend's sister, that's an unwritten rule' etc.

Honesty, I wanted to like this book. It begins well, it’s setting is nice and it truly attempts to give the reader a slice of small-town India. Too bad, the book goes nowhere with it.

-Sandhya Iyer

Interview with Chetan Bhagat

“I can’t say much about Salman Rushdie, I'm more like Salman Khan," quips Chetan Bhagat, who was at Big Bazaar yesterday for the launch of his third book, Three Mistakes Of My Life.

The author’s earlier books,--- Five Point Someone and One Night At the Call Centre--have both been record best-sellers, making him a cult figure of sorts among youngsters. The critics of course haven’t warmed up to him calling his writing everything from 'fluke' to 'naive'. But Chetan couldn't care less. He says, "I want my books to reach anyone who has a moderate understanding of English. Even Hindi medium students can grasp the language in my books."

More importantly, the author is determined to pull down Indian writing in English from its high horse --one that he says reeks of elitism, he says-- and make it relatable to the educated middle-class. Which is one of the reasons Chetan decided to hold his book launch at a place like Big Bazaar, he tells us. "I could have done this event in any five-star hotel but really, that is not what I'm looking at. When my friends heard, I was releasing my book at Big Bazaar, they wondered if I was mad. But this is the real India, so why shouldn't I do it here?"

The unwillingness to accept Chetan into the literary fold also stems from the fact that Indian writing in English has always been very ‘concentrated’ in more ways than one. This is quite unlike, say America where all kinds of fiction –whether for mass consumption or otherwise find a place. In that sense, the Indian literary scene is more of a snoot club, he feels. “You know, the interesting thing is that they don’t know how to deal with me. I’ve studied at elitist institutions like IIT and IIM, so in a way, they know I have all the credentials to boast. Honestly, I find their snootiness sick. For some people, the British never left and nor did colonialism,” he says spewing venom at his detractors.

In one final assault, he says about Indian writers in English “I think we wasted 30-40 years…just chasing awards. That's the truth but when Chetan says it he gets slammed for it. These writers only target the West…they have no interest in appealing to the Indian audiences.”
Finally, about his just-released book, Three Mistakes Of My Life –the story does appear to go a bit over-the-top but Chetan says he didn’t want it any other way. “Firstly, I’m not a perfectionist. Secondly, I needed a dramatic ending. I cannot create a lame narrative when I’m taking about events in Gujarat. It’s over-the-top because the events themselves were over-the-top,” he says emphatically.

Given the growing appeal of his books among youngsters, Bollywood is taking to Chetan like never before. While his One Night At A Call Centre is being adapted into a film called Hello directed by Atul Agnihotri, his Five Point Someone is being made into an Aamir Khan starrer, Idiots, which is to be directed by Raju Hirani and produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra.
Says Chetan, "Raju (Hirani) was my first introduction to Bollywood. If it weren’t for him, I probably wouldn't have made any inroads here. He had read my first book and had loved it. When I met him, he asked me to remain quiet for some time and just listen to the praise he had meant to heap on me. (laughs)."

But would Aamir Khan look convincing as a student? He's playing the dare-devil character of Ryan, right? "Yes, he's playing Ryan. I think Aamir is Aamir, he can play anything convincingly. Agar hum chalis ke hain, toh lagtein hain, Aamir nahin lagta. In any case, I believe the story is being approached a bit differently. It has a lot of flashbacks, so the story starts from where the book ends."

In general, does Chetan insist that his story is not tampered with much? The young author shakes his head, saying, "No, I have no such conditions. They can interpret the story the way they like. See I think my book is like my daughter and a filmmaker is allowed to glamourises her. I don't mind if some light-make-up is applied to her, but I wouldn't like plastic surgeries to be done," he smiles.

08 April 2008

Interview: Devyani Saltzman

'I think it's important to never be too literal in an adaptation'

Devyani Saltzman is the wonderfully talented daughter of filmmaker Deepa Mehta who came into her own with her debut book, Shooting Water last year. Besides capturing the trying times that the cast and crew of Water faced shooting of the film in India, the book really is about Devyani's emotional re-connect not just with India and her mother but also herself.

1. Anyone who reads Shooting Water will know that you are no writer by accident. You are tremendously gifted. But your initiation into the field seems like one, considering you chose the subject of Water and the incidents surrounding it? Is it that you were looking for inspiration to take flight as a writer?

I had been writing since I was a little girl, mostly short stories and plays. Shooting Water became my first book because it was a story I was passionate about. I've always been drawn to literary non-fiction, and after the five-year journey of making the film, I realised that it was a story worthy of the medium.

2. What has been your formative influence as a writer and what sort of literature has inspired you? Are you an avid reader? If so, what do you enjoy reading?

I am an avid reader. Writing began with reading for me. Books that inspired me to write Shooting Water included New Zealand writer Janet Frame's autobiography An Angel at My Table, for it's emotional honesty. Philip Gourevitch's nonfiction account of the genocide in Rwanda, for giving difficult political situations a human scale and Alexandra Fuller's beautiful memoir Don't Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight, interweaving a white Zimbabwean girl's coming of age with the dawning of independence in Rhodesia.

3. For a book that explores so many aspects of human life, did you ever imagine that Shooting Water could be a limiting title? Because besides the obvious incidents and controversies you mention, I saw the book essentially as a journey of a young woman, her tumultous relationship with her mother, her inner urge to fight the demons of her past and reclaim her self-worth, her dejection at love...so many things. Also, considering that so many books are regularly being written on 'Making of a film', didn't you fear Shooting Water could be clubbed among them?

When I sat down to write the book I wrote three things in my notebook: Political, personal and cinematic. I always knew Shooting Water would be a balance of those three themes. My job was to weave them together. Also, I couldn't afford to worry about how someone might position a book by it's title. I spent my energy drawing the story I wished to tell, and hoping an adventurous reader would discover it for what it is on their own terms.

4. For the first time, your book reveals a side of your mother Deepa Mehta which the world had not known -- not just the fact that she was hassled due to the various controversies surrounding the film but also some of the intensely private moments from her life as a wife andmother. How comfortable were you doing that and similarly, was Deepa skeptical on that front?

The beautiful thing about writing the book was that both of my parents were very supportive of it. I am grateful for their strength dealing with the rawer elements of the narrative, but I think they knew that the book was more than just a personal tale, which helped balance it out. Also, my mom and I enjoy a great creative relationship. I'm her first reader for her scripts and she's my first reader for articles and manuscripts.

5. You mention Anurag Kashyap in your book quite a few times. Did he read Shooting Water and tell you what he thought of it? Also, what do make of him as a filmmaker?

I love Anurag. I think he's incredibly talented, and I really enjoy his company. I haven't had a chance to talk to him about the book, but to be honest, we are both far along on other projects and its imperative to let past projects go in order to continue creating.

6. Devyani, most writers today of Indian English are NRIs, every other novel talks about the Indian Diaspora (The Gifted, The Namesake). If not, it tracks the journey of an NRI in search of his/her roots (The Hungry Tide etc). Most Pakistani writers (Moshin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie) are also foreign-based. And even otherwise, there's this whole urge among writers to 'globalize' their stories, creating an artificial fluidity among nations. Do you suspect this alienates readers and creates a skewed vision of India? Also in the process of appealing to a wider readership, does it not offer an Indian experience from a 'specific' prism?

An essential and challenging question. Fundamentally, I think all perspectives and voices are valid. I would think a reader of The Namesake, or Shooting Water, would be aware that these books were written from an insider/outsider perspective on India. If that leads them to explore more writing from authors who are residents of the country, all the better. Ultimately, stories should introduce us to new worlds, and I'm not as concerned about where the writer resides as long as they do a good job taking us into that world.

5. Do you see the above as a natural consequence of more and more Indian writers in English based abroad or is it merely a marketing gimmick to widen the scope of readership? Films weave in NRI pleasing-moments to appeal to a wide segment of audiences there. Do you see books doing the same?

I see it as less of a marketing gimmick, than a reality of an increasingly mobile, globalised world.

6. Hindi cinema seems to have suddenly woken up to literary adaptations. The hitherto formulaic structure of Bollywood could be blamed for it. But internationally of course, literature has always inspired cinema. Now we have everything from Moth Smoke to The Japanese Wife to The Hundry Tide to One Night At a Call Centre being made into films. How do you personally view literary adaptations and what are the challenges one faces here?

I love literary adaptations. I think it can be wonderful when the vision of a book is extended into film. It's not to say they aren't tricky, but when done well an adaptation of a book into film can breath a whole new life into the original work. I just saw Into the Wild, Sean Penn's adaptation of Jon Krakauer's nonfiction book. I'm a big fan of the book and really enjoyed Penn's take on the subject. He interpretation of the story through imagery and casting choices only enhanced the original. I think it's important to never be too literal in an adaptation. It's more important to capture the essence of the story.

7. Lastly, one's dying to know what you're going to be writing next.

At the moment I'm working on my second book, a novel. It's a very new experience telling a fictional narrative, but I love the room it affords in drawing characters and situations. The book is quite rooted in a real political history - the idea of the Shanti Sena, or Gandhi's peace army - and that gives me a solid base from which to explore the characters' individual journeys.

05 April 2008

India in Slow Motion

Ground reality

Author: Mark Tully and Gillian Wright
Price: 450
Published In: 2001
Publishers: Penguin

Reading the first few pages of the book on Ram Janma Bhoomi felt like an extension of the reportage one watches on television all the time. So I set the book aside and did not return to it until very recently.


While flipping through it once again, a chapter on 'Creating Cyberabad' in the time of Chandrababu Naidu’s reign caught my attention.  Mark Tully had met the CM and also interviewed many of his critics and opposition ministers who believed Naidu's  much-hailed IT revolution was a sham and that unless he tackled problems at the ground-level, he would fail. That seems very prophetic now after his party was decimated in the ensuing elections.

There are two other chapters which were readable,  one on the carpet industry in Mirzapur and the child labour involved in it and another one on Nizammuddin and the Sufi saints.

Then there’s a chapter on Kashmir where Mark Tully interviews Farookh Abdulla, the flamboyant ex CM of the valley who Tully caught in an unusually irate mood. There’s another interesting chapter here on Water Harvesting projects taken on by some draught prone villages in Gujarat, driven by dynamic and innovative men.

One that I found particularly engaging was the piece on Tehelka’s expose of corruption in defence deals. Mully meets Joseph –Tehelka’s man who actually carried out the sting operation.

A ‘Tale Of Two Brothers’ that talks about V P Singh and his brother and 'Farmer's Reward' are mildly engaging but nothing exceptional.

In this journalistic endevour, Tully and his co-writer Gillian Wright are privy to English breakfasts at their European friend's house in Mirzapur and are generally taken care of by hospitable people,  too overwhelmed to have the ex BBC man among them.

Tully tackles the obvious themes on India but digs deep enough to give readers an in depth perspective. For example, most of us know about the farmer's plight in India but Tully goes a little further and looks into possible solutions.

Admirably, Tully is in no haste to make judgments and for most time, merely presents facts as a balanced observer. Of course when truth stares in the face, he does not hesitate from making a sharp comment. He’s particularly scathing in his criticism of the bureaucracy and corruption that are eating into the country’s progress and posing a hurdle in its development.

Mark Tully demonstrates genuine concern for a country that he's reported for more than 25 years and for most part, this is a fairly engaging read.

If the book is not terribly exciting,  it could be in part due to Tully's journalistic background.  The style for newspapers is usually sparse and impersonal, and when journalists turn writers, that pattern continues.

27 March 2008

Entry From Backside Only; hazaar fundas of Indian English

We are like this only!

Author: Binoo K John
Publishers: Penguin
Published in : 2007
Price: 95

There are perhaps several things to disagree with author and senior India Today journalist Binoo K John’s latest book, Entry From Backside Only – a succinct, self-assured book on the ‘hazaar fundas’ of Indian Enligh. For one, there are more presumptions than facts and also a tendency to hastily pin down factors and trends to sensationalist generalisations.

But the one thing you can happily agree is that there's never one dull or dispassionate moment here. Binoo's cheeky, charming take on Indian English is refreshing for the simple reason that he turns around an essentially academic theme and makes it entertaining for the average reader.
What is also appealing (some of course might call it verbal showmanship) is his deep love for the Queen’s language that enables him to articulate with a great panache and flair. Moreover, his generous sprinkling of savoury wit and irreverence makes this petite book a crisp read from the word go.

Sample these lines from the book’s jacket: “Backsides have a frontal position in Indian-English. In cluttered, crowded alleys there can be seen the notice “Entry from the backside”, a usage not exactly meant as a come-hither line to gays.’ From the early days of the Raj, the Indian version of English has been on a growth trajectory that has led to the evolution of what is, for all practical purposes, a language of its own. A hybrid form of English stalks the land, flaunting its illegitimacy, brashness and popularity. The rise of Indian-English runs parallel to tectonic changes in social aspirations. English, says the author, is the Porsche on the porch of the arriviste. There can be no social advancement without the glittering sword of English in your hands. This compendium is thus a journey through a sub-genre that has evolved against all odds....”

Binoo's book talks about how Indians overturn grammar and create phrases of their own --- mostly influenced from their mother-tongue.
But he largely concentrates on the fascination that Indians have for English and how the mongrel form of the language evolved so rapidly. Here there are several suppositions. For one, Binoo feels the educated class were largely influenced by national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru who wrote in English. Naturally, many aspired to be part of the national discourse and took to the language in the hope that what they wrote would reach a wider audience.
Another aspect the author looks at is how knowledge of English is considered as a 'social marker' in India; a determinant of one's economic status. He's right in that no other South Eastern countries or even European nations have taken to the Engligh as much as Indians.

Really, our deep fascination for the Queen's tongue---with its ingrained elitisim ----transcends considerations of the country's colonial past. Obviously, English wouldn't have come to us without the Britishers but it stayed here and thrived only because Indians found English and everything it stands for, quite irresistable.

There are chapters here that are entirely devoted to letters that citizens wrote in the post-independence period -- in mostly bombastic language that tried to imitate the British. Once the point is established, it seems tedious to go through all these similar sounding letters.
The last two couple of chapters are especially a drag, as it's clear that the author has clearly run out of mattter. There are pages and pages devoted to Arundhati Roy's The God Of Small Things, a book which impressed Binoo greatly. Then there's this totally inane chapter on Bollywood and its usage of English words that doesn't make any point whatsoever.

What keeps this going is Binoo's interesting style of writing, even if you know that some of his beliefs are misplaced.
My biggest beef with this book is that the author for most time can't decide if it wishes to deride users of Indian English or affectionately patronise them. Which is why, you are confused as to what he really expects and what he is pitting Indian English against?
Yet, for all its weaknesses, this is a refreshing addition to the non-fiction shelf which takes a serious topic and gives it a funny twist. The book is already a best seller (it's agressive pricing at 95 rupees helps of course) and it's nice to see something written on the English language, which undeniably is the most precious jewel we stole from the British.

13 March 2008

The Japanese Wife

Author: Kunal Basu
Price: 395
Publisher: Harper Collins


From the moment Aparna Sen announced that she would be making a literary adaptation of Kunal Basu’s The Japanese Wife, one saw an immense curiosity for the book. Not unexpectedly, copies of it were instantly lapped up at literary fests and now when it has finally hit book stores, business remains brisk as ever.
Now, firstly, this is a disappointment for people expecting to read a full-fledged novel on The Japanese Wife because it's a book of 13 short stories. The theme that runs here is that of unexpected, inscrutable love and situations brought on by quirks of destiny. This is of course an interesting premise to base ones stories upon, only that most of them are so isolated, so out-of-the-ordinary and so never-landish in describtion and characters that none of them emotionally engage you. Most of them have strange titles and names –The Pearlfisher, The Last Dalang, Lenin’s Café, Long Live Imelda Marcos and stranger stories, situated in different continents - there's a certain Babel like quality here but just that none of the stories seem wholesome enough.

Some of them start off showing some promise but turn unclear, unexciting and plain tedious after a couple of pages. Given that most stories here are themselves so bizarre, it’s no surprise that the attempted ironic twists fall flat on more than one occasion.

The only story to recommend here is the title one –The Japanese Wife, which is truly admirable.

It talks about a Maths teacher Snehamoy Chakrabarti, who through a series of letters befriends a Japanese girl, Miyage and even marries her without seeing her. Neither of them consider it consequential to meet and it’s a proposal that is merely kept hanging in balance. Snehmoy lives with his ageing aunt and carries on his wholly epistolary relationship for more than 20 years feeling mostly content to have a wife who he can share his feelings with, without actually having to take on the pressures that come with marriage. Now, it’s easy to read this as escapism but the bond of love he feels for his Japanese wife is real. The village is enchanted with the colourful kites and other gift packets she sends him by post.
Meanwhile, Snehamoy’s house has an unexpected guest – the same girl who he was supposed to have married, now widowed with a son. Physical proximity with her leads him to develop some feelings but he quickly restrains himself knowing he’s married.

The story has an unexpected twist but this is one that rings true inspite of it being a rather peculiar love story. That the bonds of love transcend every conceivable boundary and matters of heart follow a rhyme and rhythm of their own is an intensely poignant theme. Also, there's a certain lyrical, surrual beauty to the story here.
Wish one could say the same for all the others.

18 February 2008

The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone

A pocketful of India

Author: Shashi Tharoor
Pages: 380
Publishers: Penguin
Price: 495

This book by former under-secretary general of the United Nations and prolific author Shashi Tharoor is a compilation of several of his essays and columns that he wrote in the last decade or so (Tharoor writes for a number of national and international newspapers.)

I, for one, had not read much of him, save for a column here or there. So for me personally, this was an enormously enriching experience with its wealth of knowledge and keen insight on a variety of subjects. It helps that Tharoor is such a P G Wodehouse fan because his writing invariably sparkles with wit and flamboyance. In addition, there's such ease and elegance to Tharoor's writing that anyone with the slightest ardour for the English language will take to his style immediately.

Tharoor demonstrates how intensely protective he is about his roots - and that goes beyond his feelings for India alone. He extols the virtues and spirit of Hinduism and the sense of plurality that it propagates. He adds how fundamentalism that divides people on the basis of religious and other identities, is in itself, against the principle of Hinduism.
He says, "No one identity can ever triumph in India; both the country’s chronic plurality and the logic of the electoral market place make this impossible. India is never truer to itself than while celebrating its own diversity."
Tharoor displays his love for his native land-Kerala, pointing at how the place has shed many of its Labour Union problems --one of its biggest banes in its route to development --- and is being viewed as a hotshot destination by investors. Tharoor constantly points towards the pristine beauty of the land (that attracts foreign investors against over-populated and polluted places like Bangalore or Mumbai) and the fact that it's the only State whose demographics comes closest to that of the US, in terms of education and sex ratio.

The interesting part of Tharoor's writing is that there is not only much insight to be found here, there's also a clear stand that he presents at the end of every essay.

The only places where he stumbles is in his assessment of the Hindi film industry. It’s clear that Tharoor's understanding of the Mumbai film industry is limited and his perception narrow. It's especially difficult to digest what he says about the Big B of Bollywood, " To appreciate Amitabh Bachchan, you have to confuse action with acting and prefer height to depth"
That apart, there's much to reflect and take home from this book. An exceptional guide in the understanding of India and its myriad moods.

12 February 2008

Interview with Shashi Tharoor

A Riot of words 

In an exclusive interview, diplomat and writer Shashi Tharoor talks to Sandhya Iyer on what it means to be passionate about books and literature

When one gets a private audience with a man who the whole world pays to listen, it is a unique privilege to get him to talk just on books. But that’s exactly what we did, and Shashi Tharoor, the strikingly handsome former under-secretary general of United Nations and prolific writer/columnist, fell for the suggestion without much persuasion. “It is great when newspapers promote a book page, especially because space for these things are drastically reducing,” he says, as we meet up with him at Mahindra United World College of India, where he had come at the behest of good friend and Harward batchmate, Anand Mahindra.

The latter gave an eloquent account of the days he spent with Tharoor. “My first impression of him was that of a distinguished-looking young man in a navy-blue woolen jacket, staring at a notice board with great gravitas---as if all of the world’s troubles rested on his shoulders,” Mahindra said to an amused audience. “He was always ahead at studies and I consoled myself that he was just a prematurely grown kid and would end up aging faster, but as you see, he’s only grown younger,” he said to packed hall of students, faculty and press. Mahindra later recounted to a rapturous audience how as a charismatic young man, Shashi's canvassing message at one of his campus election rallies was a pithy ‘Shashi Tharoor, Jeetega Zaroor’.

And winner he has been. Tharoor had an illustrious career with the UN, having spend 29 years in diplomatic service and coming a close second in the race for UN Secretary General.
He is also a prolific writer and a highly regarded columnist. He has so far penned four works in fiction(Riot, Show Business) and five in non-fiction (Nehru, Bookless in Baghdad).
Growing up in the 60s and 70s in Indian cities like Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai, Tharoor has made US his home with his wife Christa. Bristling with wit and wonderful insight, each of his books displays his great pride in being an Indian.
So what is his preferred genre within the scope of what he writes? “Fiction, naturally," he says, "because it gives one the satisfaction of creating another world. But truth is that non-fiction is equally special given its interruptible nature. Even battling busy schedules, one can keep going back to it and pick up the threads. That’s not the case with fiction. Here, you need a space inside your head where you create another world inhabited by different characters and episodes,” he adds. However, the aspect to note here is that Tharoor’s fictional work is also anchored in the real world, so that margin isn’t too pronounced.

As for his childhood literary influences and his eclectic taste in books, he says, “I've always been a voracious reader and my range extends from P. G Wodehouse to Gabriel García Márquez. I haven’t been too great on English classics though. I've always been impatient with them. Their concerns seem so remote. But I've read quite a bit of Charles Dickens. Jane Austen? Nothing apart from Pride And Prejudice, though I can see why she’s extolled to the extent that she is.”

Yet, no great work of literature must be excluded from a scholar’s reading list, believes Tharoor. “I may not have followed every great author or read all their books but I do feel it’s important to know where they were coming from, what their background was. That’s crucial because what they published had an influence on subsequent works and writers. Ultimately, what does a ‘novel’ mean? It means doing something new. So as I said, one needs to have a sense of what has been there before. A well-read person will know the realms of the possible that have already been explored by earlier writers.”

Given his bustling social life and wide interests, does it allow him the leisure of re-visiting some of his favourite books? Much like most of us who carry the guilt of leaving most of the books on our shelves unread, Tharoor too says it was only thanks to a very bad flue recently that he managed to read up Vikram Chandra’s monumental work, Sacred Games. “I always carry books with me but it’s still always a challenge to find time to read,” he says.

Tharoor selects his top 5 books
1. The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru; a profound vision of what has made India and Nehru
2. One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez ; extraordinary, magical reinvention of the Latin-American experience.
3. The Heavy Weather by P. G Wodehouse: One of the great masterpieces, among the many others he’s written.
4. The Saga of Khassak by OV Vijayan: This was originally a Malayalam novel that invented magic realism 20 years before Gabriel García Márquez attempted it.
5. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milind Kundera: A moving, evocative experience of East –European history.

02 February 2008

Book Review: The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte

Author: Daphne du Maurier

Who really wrote Wuthering Heights?

The popular belief of course is that Emily Bronte wrote this 19th century classic but if one scratches the surface, one will discover there’s an altogether different story here.

While the three Bronte sisters, Emily, Anne and Charlott met with great literary success with Wuthering Heigths, Agnes Grey and Jane Eyre, biographers suggest that it was actually their genius brother Branwell Bronte who was behind it all.
So why did he alone perish in anonymity? It’s a sad story of a man whose fertile mind and high flights of fancy were never allowed to take wings in the real world. As a child, Branwell was the leader among his sisters. If he cried, they cried. He laughed, they laughed. They followed him everywhere; delighted by the fantastical characters he created and awed by his brilliance. Branwell’s ‘infernal’ world was full of kings, queens, ghosts and worriers. He liked blood and gore in his stories and almost convinced himself and his sisters that such a world actually existed.

Many believe that Heathcliff was his own creation, which Emily developed further. One can’t deny that Emily wrote Wuthering Heigths but the ideas, characters and inspiration behind the story was indeed Branwell’s.
Till the age of 19, hopes were still riding very high on this whiz kid. Everyone knew that great things awaited him and Branwell was almost certain to make a great name for himself. This is one of the reasons why their aunt didn’t deem it necessary to leave any money for him in her death will. So confident was she of her nephew’s prospects that she divided her money among the three girls instead. Ironically, he needed the money most at a later stage.

Branwell was rejected at a premium painting school that came as a shock. After that, there were a series of disappointments. Wordsworth to whom he sent a selection of his poems for his opinion gave him no reply. Several publishers rejected his work and slowly disappointment started to set in. He was 23 and nothing was working for him still. Not that the young man was not trying but there was no reassurance that was coming forth from the literary world.
In his late twenties, a slow resignation started to creep into his poems. A particularly poignant line was
‘I lost the race I never ran’

The sisters were tiring of him, though they did bail him out at several points. They were sympathetic but couldn’t understand why he was living the life of a wastrel.
Charlott, who published Jane Eyre under a pseudonym, met with great success. Emily’s Wuthering Heights got some critical acclaim but overall, it was considered a far-fetched, weird sort of story when it was first published. Later of course, it won its rightful place in literary history.
The sisters preferred not to tell their brother about the success of Jane Eyre. As Charlotte said later after his death, “We could not tell him of our efforts for fear of causing him too deep a pang of remorse for his own time misspent and talents misapplied. Now he will never knew…”

But the truth was different. Branwell knew about these novels. How could he not? Especially when most of it consisted of his own thoughts and ideas?
He too preferred to stay quiet, not letting them draw any happiness from the fact that he already knew it.
At 31, he was still languishing after the failures of a couple of jobs.
He said in one of his letters, “I know I also had stuff enough in me to make popular stories, but the failure of the Academy plan ruined me. I was felled, like a tree in the forest, by a sudden and strong wind, to rise no more. I simply degraded me in my own eyes and broke my heart,” --- source Daphine du Mauriers’ biography on Branwell.

A few days later, he died suddenly.

Many feel Branwell’s trouble started when he couldn’t differentiate between childhood fantasy and adulthood but personally I think fate too acted brutally towards this affectionate, sensitive and brilliant man.

31 January 2008

Interview: Sonja Chandrachud

Taking fancy to fantasy

Sonja Chandrachud, whose new book on the wizard world –The Potion of Eternity, released in Pune recently says how J K Rowling’s Harry Potter has opened doors for several other fantasy writers.

“One of the best things that emerged out of the success of J K Rowling's Harry Potter is that it has allowed several writers with similar interest and capabilities to explorer the genre of fantasy,” says Sonja Chandrachud, whose book, The Potion of Eternity – ‘a hilarious haunting adventure’ as she calls it, released and made it to all leading book stores recently.
Having traveled to several parts of the world, Sonja says she didn’t feel the need to ‘Indianize’ her story. “These names and places just came to my head and they seemed right, so I went ahead with it,” she says, adding that she was looking at a certain universal appeal for the book.

The story line is a rather simple, one that is filled with powerful scorcerers, yogis, vampires and witches. In that sense, anyone who is familiar with The Lord of The Rings or Harry Potter won’t feel timid to go along with this little escapade. So what’s it about? The Wizard Organisation Worldwide(WOM) finds its magic potion –one that promises eternity to the children of wizards- contaminated. Count Drunkula Von D’eth is entrusted with the potion and he goes underground with his large crazy family to conoct the Antidote and brew a fresh lot the Potion. But things aren’t easy, considering he’s up against some serious black magic and an enemy right in his house, all trying to pinch the potion from him. On the home front, things are worse, what with him having to contend with his hot-headed Indian tantrika wife and her sharp-tongued, revolting mother-in-law.

Within the genre of fantasy, this isn’t a terribly novel plot and neither do the Count’s enemies comes across as defined but it still has its strengths. For one, this is a wonderfully racy book, a quick read. Secondly, the author succeeds a great deal in creating interesting characters like the well -meaning but harried Count, his loyal but irascible Indian wife, Sinistra, who walks out on him angrily when she cannot cope up with the pressures of his job and handling her Twins. The most inspired bit of characterisation here is that of her mother-in-law Hag. “All the characters that you see in the book are inspired from my own life. I have twins in real life and even the mother-in-law’s character is hunderd per cent real,” she says laughing.

Coming back to her choice of genre, she says, “I have always been drawn to the genre of fantasy and let me say that it has always existed even before Harry Potter. J K Rowland herself was inspired by Eva Ibbotson’s book, Secret of Platform 13. Eva also wrote WhichWitch, a story about a Whizard looking out for the right witch to marry. Then there have been writers like Rold Dahl who have also dabbled in the genre. Indian itself is a treasure trove of these kind of stories,” she says.

Fortunately for her, publishers Penguin liked her manuscript when she approached them. “You have to play it by their rules –wherein you cannot call them once you submit your manuscript, they will get in touch if they like it. But things worked out well for me. No changes were suggested at all and the book has been marketed quite well as you can see,” she says.
But for the average person, looking to get their book published, she agrees it’s still a struggle in India. “We have no literary agents here, so it’s always difficult. My husband was there to support me, so I could go ahead and work on a story. But in any case, eventually, I do see myself turning my writing into a full-fledged career,” she says.

In fact, Sonja has already started work on the second part of what looks like a series now.
Based in Pune, the author had a rather interesting book reading session, preceded by a dramatised performance of the story at Crosswords recently. The interest that the event elicited clears shows how interest in the world of wizards is at an all time high among children.