19 September 2012

The Big Book Shelf - Sunil Sethi

Author: Sunil Sethi
Pages: 240
Publishers: Penguin
Price: 350

With the opening up of the publishing industry in the country and the rapid flowering of desi writing in English, the interest around books and authors has but naturally intensified. The Jaipur literature fest that has ballooned into a hugely successful event in its last six years further underlines this feeling of enthusiasm and intellectual leaning among the modern, literate Indian.

In such a context journalist-presenter Sunil Sethi's effort to compile a book of some of his best interviews with present-day, renowned authors is timely and useful. Sethi is a familiar face on television with his show Just Books on NDTV.  In his eloquently written introduction he reveals how he had ample doubts about the viability of the show when the idea was first suggested. He wondered whether a half hour show on books would be sustainable given how much of a visual medium television is. Also writers as a breed can be shy and elusive. But Sethi's fears proved unfounded and the show caught on. Over the last few years many illustrious authors have appeared on it. And it is some of these rare interviews that find a place in Sethi's elegantly penned book. The purpose, he says, was to document these conversations and for that reason, and many others, this is a completely valid exercise.

Sethi chooses 30 of his best interviews with internationally acclaimed authors where facets of their craft and motivations are revealed. More than anything they open up a window into the world of these thinking, imaginative people. To say they are the ultimate representatives of the larger corpus of literature being produced currently in India or other countries may not be accurate but their lives and work are clearly a source of education and inspiration to readers and aspiring writers alike.

What is revealing through these interviews is of course a well-established fact. That opportunities of education and travel are central to the evolution of a writer. Most of the authors covered are second generation Indians who belonged to fairly affluent families and studied and travelled around the world. So from Vikram Seth to Salman Rushdie to Amitav Ghosh to Suketu Mehta to Anita and Kiran Desai - all spent a considerable time away from their countries, which enabled them to have richer experiences and exposure.

The same holds true for Pakistani novelists - Mohsin Hamid, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Nadeem Aslam. Most of them were academically brilliant and blessed with an imaginative, fertile mind. But it's also true that being part of different worlds provided them with larger perspectives and a greater facility with the English language. Importantly, this problem of being caught between two worlds (moving from their third world motherland to the first world) - fed their creative impulse - and they were naturally drawn to themes such as exile, identity and belonging in their writings. Today with such massive changes coming about in India in the last one decade - where it is economically more empowered and global travel/education has become a trend - the complexion of Indian writing in English has understandably changed and a variety of literature is coming to the fore.

Yet, what is revealed through the worlds of non-fiction writers like William Dalrymple, Patrick French, Ramachandra Guha and Paul Theroux is their intense passion for history, research, academics and travel. Dalrymple was a student-backpacker who took off to Northern China for his book In Xanadu. He briefly passed through India and those memories lingered. And thus began his invigorating journey into Delhi, along with his artist-wife Olivia, out of which City of Djinns was both. More journeys followed, and then came the grand centre-piece of his work - While Mughals and The Last Mughal. What comes through in Dalrymple is his infectious energy and peseverance, as he goes through delving into his subjects with a genial mix of curiosity and affection.

Ramachandra Guha's intitiation into being a writer is equally interesting. His studies in anthropology prompted a research on political activist Verrier Elwin. He proved to be such a potent influence on Guha that the latter decided to write a full-fledged biography of Elwin. "I discovered the joys of working amongst forgotten, buried and dusty documents," he says. That stoked such a strong interest in academic non-fiction that Guha since then has produced some extremely valuable books on politics, leaders and sports. The author of books such as The Picador Book Of Cricket (2001) and India After Gandhi (2007) also gives a complete perspective on non-fiction writing. He sees tremendous scope for non-fiction in the coming years.  So far, he says, the writing of Indian history has been inward-looking and self-referential and paid no attention to literary elegance to reach out to a wider audience. Patrick French calls Indian biographies 'self congratulatory and flattering portraits' "There's no point in researching and writing in stilted sociological prose. And there's no point in just writing fun stories without deep research," says Guha.
The author/columnist also stresses that non-fiction involves artisty too. "The hisorian is a researcher who digs deep in the archives and gets good material, but he is also an artist and a writer who constucts his story in an appealing, intersting, evocative and accessible way," he says.

- Ramchandra Guha

Again, each of these writers was greatly drawn to the world of letters, and were heavily into reading since childhood. For authors like Bapsi Sidhwa and Ved Mehta, it was their physical handicap that provided the creative impulse for writing. Sidhwa was struck with polio at the age of two and could not be sent to school for long. She says it was her feeling of intense loneliness that made her seek refuge in books. An unhappy marriage followed and there was separation from her children. It was only after her second marriage that the Pakistani author could actually start writing. She poured out her emotions into her stories and found a sense of inner liberation. She says she wouldn't have turned writer at all if her life would have been a normal one. "Had I lived in a milieu where I could have had boyfriends, gone to dances and had fun, I don't think I would have written. because at certain times in my life, I was going through period of great despair, anguish in a way, it eased me into writing, Writing took me out of a very severe debilitating twitch I used to have," says the writer of books like Ice Candy Man (made into the Aamir Khan starrer Earth 1947) and Water - both by Deepa Mehta, among others. Ved Mehta used his blindness to feed his imagination and write books.

Almost unanimously, each of the writers have had a deep engagement with the socio-political world around them. South African novelist and nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer was an early champion of the anti-apartheid crusade. Many of her novels were banned for long periods, as they dealt with intense political and sexual relations between black and white people. The same holds true for Mahasweta Devi who broke from domestic confines and got fascinated with the life of Rani Jhansi. She produced a book. That in turn took her to the hinterlands, and her various journeys made her conscious of the suffering of marginalised communities. In her fiction, non-fiction and poetry, Mahasweta Devi has relentlessly taken up their issues. Similarly, Guha, Amartya Sen, Khushwant Singh, Mark Tully, Gunter Grass, Patrick Fench - all in various measures been the wellspring of modern intellectual thought.

Another aspect that aspiring writers might take heart from is that writing is not always a spontaneous art. It is arduous and requires a great deal of discipline and dedication. Khushwant Singh talks about how he has never missed a deadline for an article ever. "I get up at 4 am...It's regulated by a stop-watch. I have also learnt how to be ill-mannered. People don't drop in. I don't see them without an appointment,a nd when i invite them it's strictly between 7 and 8. I can be very rude to anyone who stays even a minute after 8," says the journalist/columnist/writer.
Upamanyu Chatterjee (English August, Weight Loss) who balances a high-profile civil service job and his calling as a writer, sets himself a certain number of words a day, or how to resolve an idea or problem in a plot as his target everyday. Kiran Desai 'retreated into a world of almost monastic discipline' for seven years to produce her Booker winner, The Inheritance of Loss.

(Upamanyu Chatterjee)

Others writers included in the book are each unique for what they represent. There's Jaaved Akhtar, Chetan Bhagat, Jeffrey Archer, Imberto Eco, Alexander Mc Call Smith, Ken Follett.

The interviews focus on certain specific books that the authors were writing or had written when the interview was taken, so there's some detailed and illuminating talk on that. Vikram Seth speaks at some length about Two Lives, Suketu Mehta on Maximum City, Dalrymple on Nine Lives and Paul Theroux and Patrick French about their controvercial biographies on V S Naipaul.

Not so long ago, it was only established NRI names who got published in India. But today, with the floodgates opening up, anyone with some writing talent could give a shot at bringing out a book. Naturally, Sethi's book provides valuable cues to aspirants. "Reading, my dear, is the only training for a writer from a young age," says Nadine Gordimer. Theroux's tip is, "Go away. Yes. Leave home, leave your parents and all the comfortable things that hold you back..."

- Nadine Gordimer

Sethi himself is an erudite interviewer with striking introductions for each author. His forward for Dalrymple indicates his own excellent narrative abilties as a writer. By an unexpected chance Seth was acquainted with the British author when he first came to Delhi. Dalrymple didn't have a place to stay and Sethi lent him the barsati in his family house. Recollecting those days Sethi writes about the author who has gone on to make India his second home. "Even then, he was an electrifying presence. Thumping the table over an impromptu dinner, he would pose questions like, 'Do you realise the deposits of history that lie unrecorded, here, in Delhi? or 'Why have stories of this great magical beast called India that has lain on the globe for millennia not been told as they should be? Questions I had to answer after a long day's work. What I remember most of those evenings is our 3 year old daughter becoming hysterical with delight at this large, pink person 'banging on'. She would dissolve into paroxyms of giggles and refuse to go to bed." Now when as I simultaneously read City Of Djinns, that same exuberance and indomitable drive gleam through the pages.
When books are written on books, it's a healthy sign which indicates that there is a growing interest in the subject. One hopes Sunil Sethi's book is a harbinger of that movement.

The Secret Lives Of Somerset Maugham

 Author: Selina Hastings Pages: 550 Published in: 2010

Not a rollicking read, but Selina Hastings' biography on Maugham is balanced, credible and engaging enough

Given that Maugham reveals so much of himself in his works and has given such a vivid description of his childhood, his views on art, love, marriage, life and sundry things, there's only so much more that a biography on him can reveal.

Selina Hastings' work therefore has nothing drastically new to say. But the book picks up with her description of Maugham's stunning professional ascent as a playwright after several years of struggle. She throws light on each of his works, the circumstances surrounding them and the public and critical response they elicited. Selina describes the plot line of most of Maugham's major works with a brief analysis and is spot on most of the time. None of her reading is particularly brillaint or insightful, but it is clearly from someone who has enjoyed studying Maugham.

She of course focusses amply on the author's private life which is what stayed under covers. Most of this is revealed through the letters that Maugham wrote, some of them being to his male lovers. The author, the biography says, distroyed all his private correspondences and even urged his friends to do the same. But his friends were no fools and opportunistically preserved the letters knowing they would fetch them handsome returns. Maugham was a biosexual, and appears to have had many affairs but thankfully Selina maintains a balance, never going overboard with salacious personal information. This despite the title of the book suggesting otherwise. This naturally lends the biography more credibility and if nothing more, it is an excellent chronicle of his life and work.

Her authorial voice is fluid and elegant but also a wee bit too restrained, so that at times the biography tends to drag.  Yet, Selina has one admirable quality. Much like Maugham, Selina is able to see things from multiple persepectives and understands the compulsions under which characters act.  Though Maugham disliked his wife, Syrie, and hated acknowledging her, terming his marriage as a very insignificant detail in his life, Selina is able to view Syrie's predicament and takes an empathetic view of her situation.
 Maugham who enters the marriage  never fully convinced about it soon realises his mistake. He becomes eager than ever to take up long travels with his male companion, Gerald, staying away from home for extended periods. Syrie by now is in love with Maugham and feels despondent and lonely. This results in ugly, loud scenes that unsettles and infuriates the author. The marriage ends in spite of resistance from Syrie and Maugham till the end resents having to shell out big amounts in allimony. This despite the fact that he was otherwise quite generous with money throughout his life. They have a girl child, Lisa and though Maugham is fond of her, he is never particularly close. Selina also suggets that the author might have preferred to have a son. Selina similarly also gives a rounded perspective of the two men in Maugham's life, Gerald Hastings and Alan Searle.

One recurrent theme in the book is of Maugham's increasing wealth and him moving into bigger and lavish homes. Though he belonged to reasonaly well-off parents he was left with very little money when they died. For many years Maugham was forced to live frugally. He was a novelist but money only trickled in at this point. Then almost overnight his career as a playwright took off and Maugham was famous. The cheques flowed with many added zeroes now. Maugham posessed shrewd wisdom with respect to his craft,  and knew best how to satisfy an audience. His set-up was light and entertaining that appealed to the masses, and yet there was a cetain complexity, a dark core he provided to his characters and themes (extra-martial affairs...)so that the thoughful man in the audience too had something to chew on  This meant that Maugham wasn't producing any high art, but he wasn't selling his soul either. What he wrote was perfectly acceptable entertainment. Today the author is remembered for his novels and short stories which is where Maugham's heart always was and he wrote them with unfliching honesty and passion. But it was his plays that brought him his millions.

As money poured in, the author was able to fully devote his time to travel, leisure and writing. Having made so much wealth on the dint of his genuis, Maugham was not only an inspiration for everyone around, he weilded a rare creative and personal power leading life entirely on his own terms.
Maugham of course had an active personal life but that never seems to have interfeared with his writing career which he 'ruthlessly protected.'   He liked stimulating company and sex but his daily schedule where he spent most of his morning hours writing was never disrupted till the end. He entertained guests, enjoyed tea times and dinner but promptly went to bed at a fixed time. It is this discipline to his craft that is inspiring about Maugham's life.

His passion for places and people, combined with his need to be productive and relevant at all times is what prompted him to take up assignments as a British secret agent during World War 1 & 2. Maugham soaked himself in the thrill of new experiences as it was all finally material for writing. He hated dullness and constantly sought change.

What do you take home about Maugham after reading Hastings' biography? For someone with such deep insight into human behaviour and a pragmatic, clever grasp of life,  Maugham's success was expected and most deserved.
His marriage was miscalculated and this was a bitter irony for someone who was so curiously fascinated by marriage and wrote about all kinds of complexities in relationships. But he also believed that it was almost always tipped to fail, only with a slim chance of escaping that fate. Even with that knowledge his marriage was a disaster. The important moral here is that all of us, no matter how intelligent or shrewd are prone to misjudge and make mistakes.

Did his own soured marriage impact his writing? Hard to say because Maugham's stories depicting the doomed nature of love and marriage, like Mrs Craddock, Liza Of Lambath, Merry-Go-Round,   including many of his plays were written before he tied the knot. It is very likely that some of his feelings to do with his vexing marriage may have found an expression in his stories. Selina attempts to draw constant parallels and a few examples do seem to mirror Maugham's thoughts on his marriage. But nothing very substantial.

A gifted story-teller who could enthrall his listeners even as a child, he was clearly born to write. Beyond his complex relationships and conflicted sexuality, Maugham's life essentially speaks of great persevearance, discipline and drive. His constant travel and reading ensured he had a wealth of experience and wisdom from which he drew upon to create unforgettable stories.