20 November 2010

Chetan's next book in Diwali 2011

Chetan Bhagat who lent his support for the recently held literary fest in Mumbai-Pune announces his next book, besides talking about the mass market and the
3 Idiots controversy

As India's bestselling writer walks towards the venue for Literary Live! on the final day of the event at Lavasa, a township on the outskirts of Pune, we see a slim and trim Chetan. The author had mentioned last year that being a youth icon he couldn't afford to be unfit, and he seems to have duly worked on that. "Have I really lose weight," he asks the journos present, as we walk towards the greenroom before he can begin his eagerly awaited session.

This IIT-IIM graduate, featured by Time magazine as one of the most influential people in the field of books, has been significantly responsible for the rise of the mass fiction market in India. Chetan understands his contribution in getting young India to read, and thereby facilitating such literary events to get a receptive audience. "Otherwise literary festivals so far were only about writers discussing their works among themselves. That's not a convention. You need readers to participate," he says.

The success of his bestsellers, Five Point Someone, One Night @ A Call Centre, among others, were mainly responsible for opening the floodgates for the mass fiction market. However, this has also led to cheap imitations where a lot of trashy writing gets published. While one ought to be happy about the genre of Indian Writing In English finally expanding across segments and being more inclusive than ever, but without adequate filtration, isn't there a fear that it could bring down the overall standard of IWE? Chetan agrees that the market is getting flooded with all kinds of books, but he's not too worried. "Finally only the quality books will get sold, the others will dissapear," he says.

Earlier this year, Chetan took on the makers of 3 Idiots over credit issues, and got the better share of public sympathy and support. He's happy that the incident proved to be a watershed one, with Bollywood getting more conscious about giving due credit to its writers. "So many people within the industry called me and said they supported me. You can't cheat people in today's times. Whether it's a politician or anyone, if you are in the wrong, you will get caught and have to go!" he says.
Yet, Chetan wants to put the incident behind him and concentrate on other things. "Yes, my 5th book will come out next Diwali," he says, not willing to give away anything more on it.
Here's wishing him all the luck!

17 November 2010

The Kite Runner on stage

The stage adaptation of The Kite Runner that was presented by a New York-based theatre group proved too loud and mocking to capture the essence of Khaled Hosseni's celebrated story about friendship and betrayal

The idea of using popular literature as material for stage seems like a win-win situation. For a majority of those who aren't into reading, a theatrical adaptation of a book gives them easy access to a story that is worth knowing about. Similary, for theatre groups, the exercise is a worthwhile one, since there is always a ready audience waiting to see on stage a story they're already familiar with.

That has been the idea for New York-based theatre group, Literature To Live, and its 89 year old founder Wynn Handman, who started the institution 48 years ago. In the last 15 years or so, the group has been focussing on literature-based theatre in their 'Voices worth hearing' programme and have adapted about 15 books for the stage. The intention, says Chris Snock - teacher and organiser at the institute, is to get those who aren't big readers interested in literature. "A lot of our stage activities are for New York city school kids," he says. And Khaled Hosseni's bestselling novel, The Kite Runner was an obvious choice in this regard. This novel about life in Aghanistan and a tragic tale of love and betrayal, brutality and redemption has been a massive hit all around the world, and to US especially, after 9/11 and Taliban, it opened up a window to this part of the world. Says Chris, "Americans realised that Afghanistan has had a rich culture that dates back to 550 BC, which has been way longer than the five years of Taliban rule they know about."

At the start of the presentation, Chris was especially heartened that many in the audiences had read Hosseni's novel.
The performance was introduced as a particularly challenging one, where one single actor would be bringing to life the novel, enacting 10 different characters. The adaptation limited itself to the first half of the novel, about the childhood friendship between Amir and Hasaan, their ironic fates and the one act of betrayal that changes their lives. This is really the pivot in a novel that starts to get progressively melodramatic and contrived. But NYC-based actor Sohrab Wadia hits a rather discordant note as he attempts to bring the novel alive. For starters, Sohrab's exaggerated body language, tonal quality and overall presence just don't belong by a long stretch to the Afghan world. There's so much of the accented, yuppie New Yorker in him as an actor, that he never truly inhabits Hosseni's world. Also for some inexplicable reason, the writers and Sohrab together treat all the characters with half-mocking jollity which doesn't fit well with some of the emotional scenes. The script is relentlessly verbose, but Sohrab has great felicity with the language and has no trouble mouthing all the lines at one go. While he's not really able to enact Amir or Hassan satisfactorily, he's more convincing as Amir's father and in some of the other older parts.

The audience of course seemed satisfied with the performance, but when we asked Snock about the selection of actor, he admitted there were limitations. "We do the best we can in finding actors who can carry the spirit of the book. I do agree that Sohrab's own personality pervades heavily on the stage, but we've not had a problem with that whenever we've preformed in America. Perhaps, since the novel belongs to to the Asian world, the audience here will have a sharper eye about these nuances," he noted.

Sohrab, while talking to the audiences noted how he their intention was to be minimalistic and hence no props or lights were used. "Our founder Wynn Handman would not even let me use my hands too much and wanted me to keep it in my pockets, so as that audiences could be completely focused on the emotions," he said.

Undoubtedly, the stage can be a great vehicle to bring great literature to audience, to even enhance and illuminate the experience of the written word. Contrarily, it can also prove ineffectual or even injurious to the original work. Let's hope the good overrules the bad in this wonderful bridging of mediums.

16 November 2010

Literature Live! - the new lit fest in Mumbai

Following on the footsteps of the Jaipur lit fest, journalist-columnist Anil Dharker organised a four day event, called Literature Live in Mumbai that saw a decent turn out. The event didn't see the big players, but the fest is a great beginning towards wooing young Indian readers and infusing energy into the literary world as a whole

Bachi Karkaria, Anuvab Pal and Anil Dharker

For a long time, literary events have been indentified as elusive clubs, with only writers and a known circle of wine clinking literati participating in it. The reading public for Indian Writing in English and the Queen's language in general has always been a fairly niche one, making the prospect of literary conventions not entirely viable. However, things appear to be changing in the last decade or so, with the rise of the Indian mass market, and consequently the opening up of the desi publishing industry.
The Jaipur literary fest, held in the winter of January every year, started out tentatively, but has come into its own and is now attracting heavy-weight writers from all around the globe. It is within this context that Anil Dharker conceived and conceptualised Literary Live!, a four day lit event that was held in NCPA -Mumbai and Lavasa, Pune. "I always felt the city (Mumbai) needed a literary fest. We have a film festival (MAMI), we have various theatre festivals. What we lacked was a literary fest. We have a Marathi lit fest, but Mumbai is too cosmopolitan a city for it not to have a festival in English writing. The idea was to bring in national and international players and have them interact with our people and expose them to our readership," he says.
Prominent members of the local literati who took part in the event included poet Keki Daruwala, journalist and novelist Manu Joseph, poet and novelist Eunice D’Souza, writer Amish Tripathi and blogger Anupam Mukerji, popularly known as Fake IPL Player. There was also best-selling writer Chetan Bhagat, columnist Bachi Karkaria and screen-writer Anuvab Pal, who were part of the Pune sessions. A New York based theatre group presented a stage adaptation of Khaled Hoseni's The Kite Runner, performed by actor Sohrab Wadia. UK-based Matthew Sharp's unique story-telling on the cello also riveted audiences. The topics for discussion ranged from 'E-literature – here today, gone tomorrow' as well as thoughts on evolving cities and the future ahead for Mumbai. Here in Pune, Bachi Karkarai and Anuvab Pal spoke on aspects of Humour and kept the audiences in splits throughout. Bachi observed how many have asked her that her allusions and puns are difficult to follow and why she doesn't make it simple so everyone can understand. “I have thought about. But the joy it gives me when someone comes up to me and says they understood a particular reference or allusion, is tremendous. I want to keep the qualitative edge in my writing, even if the band of people reading my articles may be small,” she observed.

Anuvab Pal with Chetan Bhagat

The idea of the festival seemed not to keep it limited strictly to books and authors but to broadbase and bead together pieces of theatre and music into this literary necklace. A fair bit of social commentary was also part of the mix. This perhaps works well to initiate youngsters and first-timers into such a programme.
The big names in the literary world couldn't make it, but Dharker is happy that the first steps have been taken. Finding finances to put together a literature fest, a field that is largely viewed as too academic and elitist, was expectedly not very easy. "I would have loved to have V S Naipaul and Amitav Ghosh, but for all that money is required. The Jaipur festival too had a slow start, but in six years, it's grown. I began by forming a team. But when the finances weren't coming, I almost gave up on the project 2-3 times. But there is an obstinate streak in me which I didn't know existed until now, 'he smiles, adding, "Then some of the organisations we had approached for sponsorship agreed, and slowly things started to roll. Now, I don't see an issue with budgets in the coming years. Many cities and institutions have approached us to hold literary fests of these kind. So the foundation has been laid."

But Dharker doesn't want this to be a one off event, rather a movement that carries on year long. It would be interesting to see how literary conscious India gets in the time to come and that will ultimate determine the future of these fests.

11 November 2010

Barack Obama - Dreams from My Father

First Published in 1995
Pages: 442
Genre: Memoir

It was when Barack Obama became the first Black President of the Harvard New Review, a legal periodical in the 90s, that he took his first step towards a possible career in politics. There was a burst of publicity around the event, and a publisher offered him an advance to pen down a book on his life. The excitement was mostly to do with 'America's hunger for any optimistic sign from the racial front'. "...a morsel of proof that, after all, some progress has been made' - Obama notes in his introduction to the book which was re-published during his Presidential run for the General elections.

Obama was merely 33 years old when he wrote the book, a heartfelt memoir about a bright, young boy and his difficult initiation into a fractured world. Born as a black American, with a white mother, the young Barack is uncomfortable about confronting questions about his mixed identity.  To his sense of justice and fairness, the whole system of segregating people on the basis of skin colour is inexplicable and confusing. He is in denial about it for a long time, and cannot believe his identity as a Black American should prove to be an impediment in any way. When he sees instances of racism, both implicit and explicit, Obama grows pale and uneasy. All around him, he sees the other Blacks resigned to their fate, assured that nothing really will change for them and that they are all doomed to fail.

Though more privileged than the average Blacks, he still struggles with his identity - not knowing where he really belongs. It is at this point that Obama takes up work as a community man in poor black colonies. His decision is as much an evidence of his idealism, as much as a certain faith that change will always come to those willing to work towards it. Along with this dynamism, Obama also starts seeing within this task the complex fabric of a racist society and its disconcerting truths. Obama admits about being disturbed and in denial about his Black roots, seeing all that it implied. But he ultimately makes that difficult journey to Kenya -his father's home - to reconnect and uncover for himself the other half of his identity. The exercise is humbling and emotional for Obama, but he does get the closure he seeks.

The book is divided into three parts - one, about his 'Origins', then 'Chicago' which is about the work he carried out as a community man and 'Kenya' - where he visits his black relatives after his father's death.

The parts where Obama talks about his parents, his mother's second marriage to an Indonesian student, Loco and their relocation to Indonesia are all extremely engaging and the author displays a refreshing candour in these parts. Obama's descriptions reveal his warm affection for his mother, grandparents and step-father Loco, even if he doesn't shy away to mention their quirks and difficult traits. Family tensions, awkward growing up years,  all find a place in this memoir.
As he steps into adulthood, the questions of race, identity, and his future preoccupy his mind. For most part, he comes across as a loner, quite self-contained, not given to exaggerated emotions. Which is why when Barack finally cries over his father's grave or talks emotionally about his mother, you know the feeling is a deeply felt one.  But when he writes about other characters (friends, colleagues and relatives), there is a mild condescension in his tone sometimes, though Obama always avoids pointed criticism.

The book comes alive when Obama talks about his family. The portions in the middle where he describes his grassroots work are however quite tedious to read with many long-winding episodes and forgettable characters.  Even with the benefit of hindsight -where we know what Obama become - these parts are extremely dull and I ended up skipping many pages.

On racism, rather than specifically blaming the Whites, Obama chooses to view the situation as a human tragedy, where a community - after years of subjugation and abuse - had lost belief in its ability to make any real difference. Obama is at his most eloquent and effective as he describes the tortured minds of the Blacks, their desperation to escape from the quagmire of poverty, and their mixed feelings about those among them, like Obama, rising in the ranks.

 The book is sincere, but if this weren't written by Barack Obama, it might not have amounted to as much. There's nothing terribly new in the book and even as a coming-of-age story, there are only sporadic episodes that truly capture your attention. Obama, of course, has the skill of a writer. The book is painfully arid in parts, but overall Obama has the gift of narration and his sense for drama is revealed in the manner in which he crafts the story about his father, keeping the mystery around him till the end, leading to a powerful climax.

And of course, the book demonstrates most of the qualities one has come to associate with the President - graceful, eloquent with a generosity of perception but also somewhat emotionally detached.

-Sandhya Iyer