Thursday, May 25, 2006

The BS column: Banned in India (Part One)

(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, May 23, 2006; part two next week)

For a state often accused of knee-jerk censorship, the number of books banned in India is surprisingly small—one reason why The Da Vinci Code isn’t likely to be stopped at Customs, despite the recent hysteria over the film. In the first of this two-part series, we take a brief look at the history of banned books in India.

The 1930s: Almost exactly 70 years since Katherine Mayo’s Mother India was placed on the list of banned books, the import of this “drain-inspector’s report” is still prohibited. More typical of books that incurred the disapproval of the State in pre-Independence India was Arthur Miles’ Land of the Lingam, a salacious “history” of sexuality in Eastern lands. Max Wylie’s Hindu Heaven was an intemperate expose of mission conditions in India, and was banned in 1934. Perhaps the most puzzling ban was the one placed on Frank Richards’ Old Soldier Sahib, an account of this veteran soldier’s pre-war army service in India. Richards was a friend of Robert Graves; his memoir of the Great War was never banned in India, and indeed, did extremely well. Old Soldier Sahib appears to have ruffled military feathers for its candid portrayal of life in the ranks.

The 1940s: Moki Singh’s Mysterious India and Bernard Stern’s Scented Garden are fairly representative. Scented Garden was considered too sexually explicit (versions can still be found at pavement bookstalls, providing competition to the Kama Sutra). Mysterious India offered the usual stereotypes, some of them at least moderately offensive. The 1940s also saw early bannings of pamphlets containing material that was considered inflammatory to one or the other religion and politically seditious literature. In 1946, for example, the Customs notifications prohibited any reproduction of an issue of the journal Britannia and Eve, containing an article entitled Codijah the First and Devoted Wife of Mahomet, on the grounds that this might be offensive to the followers of Islam. Pamphlets offering a “neutral opinion” of Kashmir were also banned, on the grounds that these opinions were not as neutral as they seemed.

The 1950s: In the aftermath of Partition, the first bans on specific books from across the border came into force—Agha Babar’s play Cease-Fire, and a treatise on Somnath called Marka-e-Somnath, the newspaper Hamara Kashmir were typical of the Urdu writings from Pakistan that were put on the banned list. One of the oddities of this period was a book about a Saurashtrian freedom fighter, written by Kaluwank Ravatwank and published from Karachi—Bhupat Singh crops up with alarming regularity on the banned list. The ban on Robert W Taylor’s trashy and semi-pornographic Dark Urge went almost unnoticed.

But in 1955, Aubrey Menen’s Rama Retold was placed on the prohibited list—marking one of the earliest significant “literary bans” in India—for Menen’s irreverent, iconoclastic attitude to the scriptures. (Books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover routinely found their way onto the banned list, but surprisingly few literary works have actually been banned by the central government—most bans on specific works of literature have been implemented by state governments.) In 1959, Alexander Campbell’s Heart of India was also banned.

The 1960s: Aubrey Menen continued, apparently, to offend the sensibilities of the Indian state—his Ramayana was one of the first novels to be banned in the 1960s. (I never figured out whether the ban on Menen had been officially lifted or not, but the effect lingered—we read him in college with a faint sense of enjoying illicit pleasures, which did his work no harm.) In 1962, Stanley Wolpert’s Nine Hours to Rama was banned for its insinuations about the poor security around Mahatma Gandhi and how that may have aided his assassins. The erotic offender of this decade was Allen Edwards’ somewhat overwrought history of sexuality in India, The Jewel in the Lotus. But the real change in the sixties can be seen in the periodicals that appeared on the banned list. In addition to “incendiary” and “anti-national” journals from Pakistan, there was a spate of Tamil journals published in Ceylon, and magazines preaching revolution and sedition from France to Portugal to Rangoon (the famous Lushai Weekly), that were banned in India.

By the end of the sixties, a few magazines and books from China were also on the contraband list. In the next three decades, the list of banned books would increasingly read like a list of the deepest fears of the Indian body politic—and while fewer books were permanently banned, there was a corresponding rise in temporary bans, and in bans by individual Indian states. We’ll take a look at that next week.

Stacked: The summer reading special (with Jai Arjun Singh)

(Carried in the Business Standard weekend section, May 2006, this was put together by Jai and me; he did most of the fiction, I did most of the non-fiction and children's books, and we traded as much information as we could.)

A recently-divorced Booker prizewinner writes a novel about a recently-divorced painter, and now Susan Carey—Peter Carey's ex-wife—is complaining about his use of the term "alimony whore". An author finds a photograph of himself as a baby taken with the Boston Strangler, who was then the family carpenter—and Sebastian Junger has a true crime story to investigate. A new, much-hyped British Asian novelist ensures that the word "oolti" will enter the OED; in India, a domestic worker finds the words to tell her own story, her way.

Welcome to the summer reading special, where everything from balloonships and weird words to Matisse, Hindi film vamps and the young James Bond has a place. We've tried to make this comprehensive, while sticking to books that are easily available; in order to offer as wide a selection as possible, we may have left out some really good stuff. Only one category is deliberately omitted, and that's self-help books, on the basis that they won't do you any good unless you're motivated enough to locate them all on your own. Otherwise, dive in.


Lazy summers often demand non-intensive reading, the kind where you pick up a book and look through it for a few minutes (perhaps while sipping a tall cool drink) before preparing for your afternoon siesta. The short-story format is perfect for this sort of thing, and Picador has just the right idea with its new series of pocket-sized books called, aptly enough, Picador Shots.

In the UK these books, priced at £1 each, will be made available at convenience stores, pubs, corner shops and so on. No such culture exists in India (“We tried Mother Dairy but they turned us down,” quips Picador India’s Shruti Debi) so you’ll have to trek to regular bookstores for them; they’ll be priced somewhere around Rs 50 each. The pocket-books include short stories by some of the most exciting contemporary writers around — among them Bret Easton Ellis, Colm Toibin, Tim Winton, one of Australia’s most popular authors, and Nell Freudenberger.

These featherweight books will be easy on the elbow but if you’re looking for a slightly more substantial collection of stories you should consider Haruki Murakami’s latest, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (Random House). The Japanese master’s writing is an acquired taste, but once you’re hooked you won’t be able to put his books down until you’ve seen them all the way through. A typical description of a Murakami story might read: “A talking frog saves Tokyo from an impending earthquake,” but the stories — with their seamless merging of the real and the surreal — and their startling perspectives on the everyday things we take for granted, really need to be experienced firsthand rather than through jacket blurbs.

I Allan Sealy’s Red (Picador India, Rs 495) is experimental in a different way—this deftly told tale of Matisse, a gang of thieves in Dehra Dun, art, love and cyberspace is one of Sealy’s most masterful novels yet. He plays around with form, inserting poems and turning the text into a kind of poetry, writing the book in themed chapters from A to Z; but it’s remarkable how smoothly Red reads.

At an age when most writers stop bothering to dust off their typewriters/ computers, it’s remarkable how prolific, and how brilliant, Philip Roth has been. His last few books, including Sabbath’s Theatre, American Pastoral and The Plot Against America, all written after he turned 60, have sealed his place among America’s most provocative, powerful writers. His latest, a novella titled Everyman (Houghton Mifflin), is a typical Roth-ian meditation on physical deterioration and mortality. Be warned, this may be a light book (it’s a novella) but it isn’t light reading.

Growing old is also the subject of Abha Dawesar’s That Summer in Paris (Random House, Rs 295), the story of Prem Rustum, an ageing Indian novelist looking back on his muses and his lost loves. In the seeming straightforwardness of its narrative, David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green (Sceptre, £10.99) represents a change of pace for the brilliant young writer whose last novel, the Booker-nominated Cloud Atlas, told six different stories in different voices. In comparison, Black Swan Green is a straightforward Bildungsroman, the story of a year in the life of a boy named Jason Taylor, growing up in a small Worcestershire village in 1982. But this book isn’t just a breather; it’s a top-quality work in its own right, a stunningly effective account of how strange and terrifying the world can be for a sensitive adolescent.

Another much-anticipated novel about adolescent fantasies colliding with hard realities, and the effect that childhood has on adulthood, is Curtis Sittenfeld’s The Man of My Dreams (Picador) in which Hannah Gavener ponders life’s big and small questions from the age of 14 till a decade and a half later. It sounds like a tried and tested formula, but this book has already received hearty recommendations from the likes of Alice Munro.

Monica Ali’s debut novel Brick Lane drew mixed responses when it was published three years ago. Though Ali’s feel for character and nuance, and the general quality of her writing, were never really in doubt, her treatment of London’s Bangladeshi community was considered by many to be stereotyped. In her new book Alentejo Blue (Random House), Ali shifts gears; the setting this time is the small Portuguese village of Mamarrosa.

Gautam Malkani, who’s been called “the new Monica Ali” and “the new Zadie Smith”, turns out to be neither as polished as the first nor anywhere near as intellectually invigorating as the second. His Londonstani (4th Estate, £7.99) follows four boys in a fledgling Hounslow gang who’re grappling with the big problems — the purity of Asian identity, growing up, and how to pull “fit” women by successful “chirpsing”. The voice, delivered in a bruising mix of street slang (“innit”, “oolti”), SMS speak and rap rhythms, is persistently annoying, and under the fancy wrapping, the story’s basically conventional Boy’s Own stuff updated for this generation—think Nick Hornby with an Asian accent.

Manju Kapur’s Home (Random House, Rs 395) is at the opposite end of the spectrum: this apparently straightforward story of three generations of a Karol Bagh sari shop family is actually a deeply subversive indictment of the Indian family. It’s a much easier read than Kiran Nagarkar’s ambitious, impressive but unwieldy God’s Little Soldier (HarperCollins, Rs 595), a challenging tale that juxtaposes a fundamentalist whose roots are perversely middle-class with a remixed version of the life of Kabir. Say what you like about The Da Vinci Code, but it did give a new lease of life to the historical mystery. The latest, Jason Goodwin’s The Janissary Tree (Faber & Faber), is set in Istanbul during the declining years of the Ottoman Empire and has an unusual detective figure: the eunuch Yashim Togalu, who sets about trying to solve barbaric murders and jewel thefts.

Two-time Booker winner Peter Carey's new novel Theft: A Love Story (Knopf) might sound like one of those bizarrely subtitled Bollywood movies, but this book, about the adventures of a painter and his “damaged 220 lb brother”, promises to be a lot more entertaining. The story explores themes of artistic fraud that were also dealt with in Carey’s last novel My Life as a Fake.

And finally, keep an eye out for Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise (Knopf), translated by Sandra Smith. Nemirovsky was sent to Auschwitz a few months after she completed Suite Francaise; the manuscript was found in a suitcase recently — six decades after she died in the camps. She had planned the Suite in six parts, but lived to write only two: Storm in July and Dolce. Don’t miss this one.


Almost as bad as the success of The Da Vinci Code was the proliferation of spin-off books that sprang up in its fell wake. One of the few worth reading is John L Allen's Opus Dei (Penguin India, POUNDS 4.50), Allen was given unlimited access to the religious organization that inspired part of the Code , and does his best to separate the conspiracy theories from the reality. Not quite as intense as Jon Krakauer's fierce expose of the Mormons, this is still going to rock several boats.

Experienced bartenders ban three subjects of conversation to prevent brawls: politics, sex and religion. If you believe the experts, you'll have to add the weather to that list. In The Weather Makers (Allen Lane, POUNDS 6), Tim Flannery travels across continents and time to make his point: "We are now the weather makers, and the future of biodiversity and civilization hangs on our actions."

In The Revenge of Gaia (Penguin Books, POUNDS 11), the author of the original Gaia hypothesis, James Lovelock, makes large and urgent claims: "I speak as a planetary physician whose patient, the living Earth, complains of fever…" Neither Lovelock nor Flannery blindly advocate the usual alternative solutions; indeed, some of their suggestions are deeply controversial. Both see India, China and similar countries as key, since we're in a position to make fundamental environmental choices that will affect the rest of the world.

If that's too much to deal with at the height of Indian summer, take our next non-fiction pick for a hike. Pradip Krishen's Trees of Delhi: A Field Guide (Dorling Kindersely, Rs 799) begs to be used as a walking companion not just by citizens of Delhi, but by anyone who lives in similar areas, from Jaipur to Bhopal. The illustrations are fabulous, and Krishen's Leaf Keys make identifying trees reassuringly easy. His enthusiasm is infectious, whether he's telling you where to find the only Badhara Bush tree in Delhi (in the Qutb minar compound), or which tree produced the macassar oil that launched a thousand crocheted anti-macassars!

Amir Mir's The True Face of Jehadis: Inside Pakistan's Network of Terror (Roli Books, Rs 395) is an intelligent attempt to map the entangled networks and messy history of the jehadis, more useful for the layperson than the specialist. It's interesting to read this alongside Mark Bowden's Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War With Militant Islam (Atlantic Monthly Press, $ 26). Bowden, who wrote Black Hawk Down in 1999, has gone back to 1979, when 66 Americans were held hostage for well over a year in Teheran. Far more conventional is General V P Malik's Kargil: From Surprise to Victory (HarperCollins, Rs 595), a detailed analysis of the war from his perspective—competent enough, but don't expect a film version with Barkha Dutt playing herself! And far more disappointing is P V Narasimha Rao's posthumously released Ayodhya (Viking, Rs 395), which adds little to our knowledge of 1992 or our respect for the late prime minister.

If these four books rest on established categories—jehadi/ patriot/ terrorist, the Islamic versus the Western world, patriotism and nationhood--Amartya Sen's Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (Penguin/ Allen Lane, Rs 295) asks us to question categories and analyse our allegiances. In his view of the world, no one is an island: we are "singularized" by ourselves or by other people at the cost of losing several, often contrasting, aspects of ourselves. He explores and explodes stereotypes, Muslim, Hindu, Western, with trademark acuity and wit.

I tried and failed to imagine a hypothetical dialogue between Professor Sen and Chairman Mao, after reading excerpts from Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's incendiary biography, Mao: The Unknown Story (Jonathan Cape, Rs 1088). In their version, Mao comes across as a pitiless sadist driven by the power of the absolute, uncaring of the cost others would have to pay for his vision—the classic "singularized" man, if you like. The book has already caused controversy in China, but Halliday's research and his wife Jung Chang's passion make a potent combination.

Mushirul Hasan's The Nehrus: Personal Histories (Roli Books, Rs 1295) is an ambitious history of one of India's most fascinating clans. Even Hasan can't add too much to their exhaustively chronicled lives, but his perspective and the more personal family photographs raise this book well above the average. Yashodhara Dalmia's Amrita Sher-gil: A Life (Viking, Rs 695) and Ina Puri's In Black & White (Viking, Rs 425) use contrasting approaches to reveal the lives of two Indian artists.

Dalmia's attempt to provide a complete biography of Sher-gil is hampered by the lack of available material—the book really comes to life with Sher-gil's letters. Ina Puri offers an insider's account of Manjit Bawa's life, focusing more on the artist than the art, with a profusion of anecdotes but little in the way of comprehensive background information.

Then there's A Life Less Ordinary (Zubaan/ Penguin, Rs 195), by Baby Halder, translated by Urvashi Butalia. Baby Halder was married and had children when she was in her teens; she broke a cycle of abuse by coming to Delhi, where she became a domestic worker. Encouraged by her employer, a professor at JNU, reaching back for writing skills almost forgotten, Baby Halder found the internal resources to write the story of her life. Honest, uncompromising and poignant, this is a remarkable book.

Aside from the usual academic tomes and management mantras, this summer sees new work from Amiya Bagchi (Perilous Passage: Mankind and the Global Ascendancy of Capital, OUP India, ) and a collection of Andre Beteille's short writings (Ideology and Social Science, Penguin, Rs 250). Seetha's The Backroom Brigade (Penguin India, Rs 495) takes a close and analytical look at the BPO phenomenon, while Satyajit Das' Traders, Guns and Money (FT Prentice Hall) offers cautionary tales from the "form of madness" called "the markets". But my favourite economist of the moment has to be Tim Hartford, perhaps because of his interests, which he discloses on page 231 of The Undercover Economist (Little, Brown, POUNDS 5.99): "You will have gathered by now that I am a big fan of both coffee and beer." By this time, he's led us through the intricacies of Starbucks' pricing mechanisms, the truth about perfect markets and externalities charges, in language that even your humble reviewer can understand—I rest my case.

The remarkable thing about Jerry Pinto's Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb (Penguin India, Rs 250), is not that he never met the queen of the cabaret floor, but that he clearly didn't need to. This biography explores Helen the vamp, the refugee, the foreigner, the woman of every teenage boy's dreams, with wit, humour and genuine insight. Fellow Bollywood explorer Connie Hudson displays as much scholarship as Pinto in her book, Enchantment of the Mind: Manmohan Desai's Films (Roli Books, Rs 395), but if you ask who had more fun, it's no contest: Pinto wins hands down.

"My principal skill in putting these stories together has been a lack of imagination; I could never have thought up the people in them." And with that, Sanjay Suri takes us on a fascinating tour of Indians in England. Brideless in Wembley (Viking, Rs 495) takes us from the immigrants working in the textile mills of England to the Garba-dating circuits of closed communities, from the Southhall Singhs to the ubiquitous Patels, and explodes many stereotypes along the way.

Sebastian Junger's A Death in Belmont (W W Norton, $15) takes on far darker material. Junger, the author of A Perfect Storm , was just a baby when Bessie Goldberg was murdered in his twon, apparently by an African-American man with a bad track record. Just two days before the murder, a carpenter called Al DeSalvo finished work in the Junger house—he later became notorious as the Boston Strangler, the man who murdered at least eight women. Junger asks a difficult, and very controversial, question: could justice have miscarried? Might DeSalvo, and not Roy Smith, have murdered Bessie Goldberg?

Next up is a clutch of books about writers and the writing life. Charles J Shields' Mockingbird (Henry Holt and Co), expected in India by midsummer, is the first biography of the reclusive Harper Lee. He explores her friendship with Truman Capote and tries to find out why she never wrote anything after To Kill A Mockingbird . Dominic Dromgoole, who currently runs the Globe Theatre, writes of his obsession—and every reader, actor and theatre-goers' obsession—with Shakespeare in Will and Me (Allen Lane, POUNDS 18).

Gay Talese, who helped midwife the New Journalism in America, takes a seat at Elaine's and examines A Writer's Life (Knopf, $26) in a slightly wistful biography. Joan Didion analyses grief, death and tragedy with a surgeon's meticulousness in The Year of Magical Thinking (4th Estate, POUNDS 6.99). But don't miss Amos Oz' A Tale of Love and Darkness (Vintage, POUNDS 4.75). Inheritor of a promised, and compromised, land in Israel, Oz finds his way to writing through his father's library and the eldritch tales of his mother, who committed suicide when he was just twelve-and-a-half.

This is brilliant writing, but suicide, depression and death are perhaps the wrong notes on which to end a summer reading special. Instead, I urge you to discover The Meaning of Tingo (Penguin Books, POUNDS 7), along with Adam Jacot de Boinod, collector of "extraordinary words from around the world". We will recognize the aviador (Spanish, a government employee who shows up only on payday) immediately; laud the Urlaubsmuffel (German, person who is against taking vacations); and whatever our attitudes to work, give thanks that we are not koshatniks (Russian, dealers in stolen cats).

When this palls, spend some time with the world's worst, most incorrigible dog, whose thieving, skiving and begging are lovingly documented in the irresistible Marley & Me (William Morrow, $10). If you own a pet, a child or even just a spouse, you need to read this book.


Eragon, Narnia reissues, Lemony Snicket, Pokemon… everything in children's fiction seems to come with a trademark and a special boxed set, but there are still a few exceptions. OUP has just released The Oxford Illustrated Children's Tagore , edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri, with everything from the cards in Taasher Desh to the curious menagerie from Abol Tabol . And Puffin offers the very useful Puffin Good Reading Guide for Children (Puffin, Rs 195).

8+: Meera Uberoi reworks the old tales, in Lord Ganesha's Feast of Laughter (Puffin, Rs 160), where the elephant god baffles Kubera with his appetite at a feast, invents the tabla and swallows Vishnu, Brahma and Lakshmi. In Swagata Deb's The Amazing Adventures of Little (Rupa & Co, Rs 95) the heroine visits a land where time goes backwards, solves mysteries, and discovers what furniture does when it's left alone at night. And in Moin and the Monster (Penguin India, Rs 155), Anushka Ravishankar introduces an utterly delightful monster who sings off-key and complicates Moin's life at school.

10+: Eoin Colfer is just out with Half-Moon Investigations (Miramax Books, POUNDS 5.95). At 12, Fletcher Moon is a detective with his first case—who stole the lock of hair off a pop-star's head that April Devereux bought off e-Bay?

12+: Cornelia Funke is back; in Inkspell (Chicken House, $13), Meggie must deal with the problems of stories—reading them, writing them and of course, being in them. Payal Dhar tries her hand at a fantasy series—in instalment one, A Shadow in Eternity (Penguin India, Rs 295), Maya has to adjust to a world of Seekers, magical training and dark menace. Megan Whalen Hunter offers more of Eugenides' adventures in The Queen of Attolia (HarperCollins, $5.25), where our hero the thief must steal a man, a queen—and peace.
With Blood Fever (Puffin, POUNDS 6.99), the second book in the young James Bond series, Charles Higson makes his claim to have timeshare rights in 007 alongside Ian Fleming as James has a nasty brush with Count Ugo Carnifex and the evil (but pulchritudinous) Countess Jana. Carl Hiaasen's Flush (Knopf, $12) is his second book for kids. The villain is Dusty Muleman, who's polluting Florida's lakes by, well, flushing human waste into them. Hiaasen chucks in the works—pirates, ailing turtles and two intrepid kids, Noah and Abbey Underwood—and has a blast while he's at it. This one's for the kids; and the grown-ups too.

Book review: Londonstani

(Carried in The Indian Express, May 2006)

Gautam Malkani
Fourth Estate, London
UK Price POUNDS 11.99, 343 pages

This is supposed to be The One: an "electrifying debut", a searing look at masculinity, the Asian scene and the new tribes of London, topped off with the huge advance (POUNDS 300,000) without which no self-respecting first-time novelist today would get into the game.

Get past the patois the book's written in—a blend of Asian street slang, txt spk and gangsta rap lyrics (think imitation Irvine Welsh with an updated Peter Sellers accent), and Londonstani is a smooth ride. Gautam Malkani takes you from the first line--"Serve him right he got his muthafuckin face fuck'd, shudn't be callin me a Paki, innit"--to the last word--"Shukriya"—without too many speed bumps.

The narrator of Londonstani is Jas, who combines the attributes of class wimp and class nerd in one. He's saved by an instinct that tells him to shut up about the books he furtively enjoys reading, and by his honorary membership in an Asian gang, where the other three rudeboys are easily defined. Hardjit's muscles abet his obsession with racial purity; Amit has a domineering mother who's trying to wreck his brother Arun's engagement; and all you need to know about
Ravi is contained in two lines of dialogue: "I jus mouthin off cos I got me a high sex drive, dat's all, man. I can't help it if I is a wild fuckin beast."

With three of them having failed their A-levels, their lives move in a predictable groove from fights to flash cars to fit women, until they get pulled into a complicated scam involving mobile phones that takes the rudeboys to a higher level of gangsterhood than they're really capable of handling.

I'm not going to give away the rest of the plot, except to say that there's a twist in the tail, delivered right at the end that's supposed to land as hard as one of Hardjit's punches. It works, forcing you to go back to the novel and read it again—which might have been Malkani's biggest mistake.

Londonstani comes apart on second reading like a cheap clockwork toy, revealing that its closest literary cousins are more Tanuja Desai Hidier and Nick Hornby than Irvine Welsh and company. Two key plot points involve an Indian family imploding around a marriage where the groom's mother feels "disrespected" by the lack of brownnosing by the bride's family and the perils of a relationship with a Muslim girl whose three brothers would carry out the Hounslow equivalent of an honour killing if she went out with someone from another religion.

There are pages and pages of (very useful) shopping advice for men: this covers clothes, bling, mobile phones and cars (from the ones that resemble piranha fish to the ones that resemble Beyonce and Snoop Dogg). There's a nicely done primer on how to get into
London's hippest clubs and restaurants and what to do once you're there. And behind all the gandah lines and the overuse of fuck as a punctuation mark until it makes you want to oolti, I was delighted to discover that this was, at heart, a story with several morals. If you want the Porsche and the posh flat with the latest Bang & Olufsen system, plus the company of soni kudhis, do your A levels, apply to
Cambridge, get an MBA. And if at the end of this you've turned into a corporate gangster in an Armani suit whose most terrifying weapon of choice is his ability to deliver long and tedious lectures on the complex workings of the black market and VAT rebates, get back to the basics: love your mom and dad, don't disrespect your family.

Forget the stuff about Londonstani being a brilliantly subversive work and showcasing an "authentic", raw, original voice; don't even get into the debate over whether it's the politics of race or gender that lie at the heart of this book. Gautam Malkani's real achievement is that this cheerfully mongrel novel is the product of a successful mating between the contemporary clean-cut Bollywood family film and Hornby-style Lad Lit, with an Asian Dub track playing somewhere in the background. That’s what happens when you go chasing after the Great White Whales of literature; you find Moby Dick Lit instead.

The BS column: SAPs and WIMPs

(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, May 7, 2006)

Along with every other reader in the world caught between publishing hype and authorial reality, I think it's time we had a stock exchange for authors. Call it the Writers Index of Marketing Performance (WIMP).

WIMP would take these factors into consideration: the amount of hype generated before the publication of the New Original Volume of Entertaining Literature (the NOVEL, for short), plus the size of the advance, along with a weightage for special factors, which would cover the author's age, pulchritude, ethnicity, awards won and general blurbability.

This would be balanced against not just book sales and media coverage generated, but also against a special reader's index measuring any Feelings of Extreme Disappointment Upon Perusal. To put it simply: the more Fed-Up the reader, the more the writer will have Wimped out.

Many reviewers already use an early version of WIMP--the Sardonic Critical Exercise of Protective Trashing and Intuitive Caution—and some have been accessing their inner SCEPTIC for years. If you're sceptic-trained, you would know exactly how to read the twin tales of Kaavya Viswanathan and Gautam Malkani; I firmly believe that WIMP would allow ordinary readers to come up with their own evaluations.

With access to WIMP, for instance, you could scan the database for young, first-time authors who received large advances and/ or huge doses of publishing hype in order to make sense of the career paths of both Kaavya Viswanathan and Gautam Malkani.

Kaavya's story is simple: a young teenager, approached by a book-packaging company and shepherded by a respectable literary agent, writes a first novel with considerable assistance. Her lack of previous publishing experience, her youth, charm and brightness ensures that she could, marketed properly, be the chicklit product category leader of the year.

Unfortunately, Kaavya performs the equivalent of Google theft on a term paper, and rips off material from her reading list. What happens next is a massive market correction: the volume of condemnation and opinion about Kaavya's plagiarism in the media is almost exactly equivalent to the volume of fawning media reports before the scandal.

Gautam Malkani's case is far more WIMP-worthy. Malkani is a thirty-year-old financial expert whose first novel, Londonstani , sold for POUNDS 300,000, and has received very mixed reviews. I suspect the problem here is really product mis-labelling: Malkani has been marketed as the brand-new literary Asian voice, when he's really doing the classic Boy's Own story (Chicklit's equivalent, sometimes rudely known as Dick Lit), to an Asian Dub soundtrack.

What would his WIMP ratings be? The positive case studies first. In 1997, we heard about a young, 21-year-old genius who had sold her first novel on the strength of just 80 pages for roughly POUNDS 250,000. Zadie Smith lived in a media spotlight for the next decade; White Teeth did brilliantly, her second novel, The Autograph Man , was faintly damned, but she silenced most of her critics with last year's On Beauty .

In 2002, Hari Kunzru picked up POUNDS 1.25 m for The Impressionist . Like Smith, Kunzru survived the instinctive scepticism of several sections of the media, and pulled off a mesmerising second novel with Transmission a few years later. But he indicated just how high the stakes get for anointed authors when he said in an interview that The Impressionist had sold 100,000 copies, but there was still a lot to prove.

If you looked only at similar case studies, the unwary reader would conclude that Malkani might struggle with the rigours of punishing book tours, tons of badwill sent his way by less lucky writers and the odd negative review, but still emerge with a flourishing writing career.

That would be taking into account only half the data, though. Think of Bidisha, who wrote Seahorses at the precocious age of 16, in 1998. Her advance for the book was a relatively modest POUNDS 15,000, but her youth guaranteed huge waves of publicity. Seahorses did only modestly, though, and while Bidisha has stayed in the market—she has published three more novels since then—her career has been strictly average since that early burst of publicity.

Or think of Amy Jenkins, even though her publishers try very hard not to. Jenkins had the classic fairy tale story: she wrote a book proposal in 48 hours, and picked up a POUNDS 600,000 contract for her first novel, Honey Moon . The general reviewers' consensus can be summed up by the critic who wrote of the book that it "makes Bridget
Jones read like Tacitus"; the book tanked at the cash registers, too.

On balance, Malkani has an even chance at becoming the latest in the increasingly rare line-up of Successful Authorial Products: it's not easy, but it's far better to be a SAP than to WIMP out.

The BS column: John Kenneth Galbraith, novelist

(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, May 2, 2006, the week Galbraith died)

"For some seventy years my working life has been concerned with economics, along with not infrequent departures to public and political service that had an economic aspect and one tour in journalism," wrote the late John Kenneth Galbraith in one of his last works, The Economics of Innocent Fraud .

He was in his nineties, a long way from the days when he had been famous for his unabashed championship of liberal economics. Disciples still genuflected at his name, and in India, his ambassadorship was still remembered fondly, but he was often seen as a force from the past.

Better-informed minds than mine will be able to place Galbraith's importance, who died this week at the age of 97, more accurately in the pages of history. For ordinary readers like me, Galbraith's works were memorable because he was one of the first, and one of the few, economists who wrote for a general audience. The Affluent Society became a catchphrase; we have assimilated Galbraith's thesis so thoroughly that we can barely remember how pathbreaking his insights were.

Perhaps it's because he was such a comfortably prolific writer—Indophiles might remember in particular his book on Indian painting and his affable Introduction to India -- that it's easy to forget that Galbraith also wrote three novels. He is possibly the only economist to have had a novel reviewed by Gore Vidal in the New York Times Book Review !

This was in 1963; The McLandress Dimension came out under the name of Mark Epernay, a pseudonym Galbraith employed when he wrote spoof articles for Esquire . In his review, Vidal, who clearly enjoyed the book explained: "[This is] a 'book' consisting of seven magazine articles, each based on a single joke. For instance, the McLandress Coefficient 'is the arithmetic mean or average of the intervals of time during which a subject's thoughts remain centered on some substantive phenomenon other than his own personality.' That's all there is to it. We learn that Miss Elizabeth Taylor can think about something other than herself for three minutes (theater people have low coefficients). …At twenty-nine minutes, the President's coefficient is relatively high. … Richard Nixon's three seconds is unusually low. Professor Galbraith clocks himself in at one minute fifteen seconds which seems fair. But then what is one to make of: 'both Mr. Arthur Miller and Mr. Tennessee Williams have a rating of thirty-five minutes. Mr. Gore Vidal, by contrast, has a rating of twelve and a half minutes?'"
In 1968, Galbraith published The Triumph , which did well enough to land on several bestseller lists. The plot was nicely devious: the US government is secretly supporting the son of a Latin American dictator whose aim is to prevent the establishment of a democratic government in his country. It's only when he succeeds, backed by the blessings of the US, that it's revealed that the young dictator-in-the-wings is really a communist after all. Galbraith was no John Le Carre, and his characters remain unmemorable, but The Triumph had enough of his trademark asides to make you smile—especially if you're reading it today, in the light of what we know about the Iraq war, East Timor and other areas of the world which have kept the Americans busy.
Economics and politics prevented the professor from returning to more literary pursuits until 1990, when he published A Tenured Professor --this still stands on its own merits as a darkly funny campus novel, to my mind. The novel's protagonist, Professor Montgomery Marvin, is the inventor of the Index of Irrational Expectations, or IRAT. IRAT , which allows him to profit from the wrongheaded optimism of the market through comfortable statistical means. Marvin and his wife use their well-gotten gains for altruistic, liberal purposes, while Galbraith gets in his digs at everyone from the Wall Street raiders to Ronald Reagan to Camrbidge's intellectuals: "No one has ever been known to repeat what he or she has heard at a party, only what he or she has said."
It would be a pity to remember the economist and forget the novelist: how could we, living in Delhi, do without his Sociometric Institute, which assigned a "prestige horizon" to everyone that allowed for comfortable seating according to exact social rank at any sort of gathering whatsoever? Galbraith never explicitly said that he took his literary ambitions seriously, but he left a hint in the original author's blurb for A Tenured Professor . It left out all his other credits—that impressive roll of publications, awards, the ambassadorship, the honorary professorships—and identified him only as John Kenneth Galbraith, author of two previous works of fiction.

The BS columns: The Kaavya affair

(The first column was written the day before news of the Kaavya plagiarism scandal broke, and was carried the day after...)

The really interesting thing about Kaavya Viswanathan's novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life , has absolutely nothing to do with the book itself. The story of Opal Mehta, serious American teenage nerd with a one-point agenda—Get Into Harvard—is sweetly and funnily told.

Opal's Harvard interview goes off the rails when her interviewer asks her: "So, what do you do for fun?" She drops the ball, forcing the Mehta parents to switch track from HOWGIH (How Opal Will Get Into Harvard) to HOWGAL (How Opal Will Get A Life). Kaavya Viswanathan understands teenagers, which might be because she was one herself not so long ago—she is now in Harvard, preparing for a career on Wall Street.

It's a book I was perfectly happy to pick up, and just as happy to put down: until the warm-hearted, fun-filled film version is released, I won't have to think of Opal Mehta again, though it was nice knowing her while it lasted. But what puzzled me was How Kaavya Viswanathan Got Agent, Got Advance and Got the Big Hype Machine rolling.

In her interviews, Viswanathan comes across as a bright, interesting, self-assured young woman who lucked into the kind of book deal many older and more literary authors can still only dream about. But she and her interviewers actually have very little to say: the story is self-explanatory, there are few deeper meanings you can dig around for, and Viswanathan's own life is pleasantly ordinary. The interviews can only celebrate her success; we reviewers can only be pleased that Opal Mehta is kind of cute, kind of fun, the book kind of a good read.

The puzzling thing is that there are several authors writing for the same market who have produced work at least as good as Opal Mehta --Anjali Bannerji with Maya Running , for example—who haven't cracked the same deal. Kaavya Viswanathan is, at the very least, a competent writer: but she is also very much a product of today's market, a contemporary success story where the key elements are packaging and media managing, and where the book itself is just the content.

This is usually the point at which a reviewer is supposed to snort, paw the ground and tear into the bad, bad marketing machine that treats literature like burgers: all bestsellers have the same basic formula, tweaked a little bit for local palates. And I do understand Amit Chaudhuri's impatience with the Indian literary world for treating books as success stories, yet another mark of the India Shining brand conquering the world, the author as the son-in-law who's done so well.

But for the first time in publishing history, as several commentators have been pointing out recently, it has actually become possible for anyone to be a writer. There is no formula for great literary fiction, which is a bit of a problem; but then the market for literary fiction is a niche market, a boutique market, so the mainstream reader doesn't have to worry her head over that particular issue. It is often seen as a bad thing that more and more novels are being produced—I use that word deliberately—today; that creative writing courses allow anyone with a smidgeon of talent access to a wider market, once they've polished their skills; that any reasonably bright person can hammer out a book in six months and have a decent shot at being published.

The obvious argument against applying the laws of the marketplace to literature is that sales are far more important in publishing terms than quality. If you look at what's been resold to India as the great Indian novel in recent years, if you look at the world's bestseller lists, it's hard to disagree that publishing is no longer about looking at the literary qualities of a book.

But there's another way of looking at this: for the first time in the history of writing and publishing, it is possible for everyone to be, or contemplate being, an author. In the initial stages of this exercise in democracy, books will almost by definition be written for the moment; a lot of what "succeeds" will be only average; a lot of books will be written by many for a very few readers. Give it time, though, and if novel-writing becomes as much a pastime or occupation as music lessons once were, we could end up with strange and compelling new stories. I'm willing to applaud the Kaavya Viswanathans of this world while we wait to see exactly what the new democracy will bring—a wave of well-written trash, or something rather more lasting, more durable.

(...which meant interrupting a vacation in order to write an update, which Business Standard kindly published in the same week.)

This should really be called "How Kaavya Viswanathan Got Caught, Got Nailed and Ruined This Columnist's Vacation". Yesterday's column referred to the young sophomore's book deal for How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got A Life , but came out just before accusations of plagiarism were made against Kaavya Viswanathan. Many thanks to all of you who wrote in with links and comments, and generally forced certain idling columnists back from the beaches of Goa.

The story broke when The Harvard Crimson cited a dozen-odd passages from Opal Mehta that seemed strikingly similar to passages found in two of author Megan McCafferty's books, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings . McCafferty is an odd choice for a plagiarist: her books came out in the last six years, and she's a fairly well-known author in the teen market.

Here's a sample of what The Crimson found, and there was passage after passage like this one:

"From page 213 of McCafferty's first novel: "Marcus then leaned across me to open the passenger-side door. He was invading my personal space, as I had learned in Psych class, and I instinctively sank back into the seat. That just made him move in closer. I was practically one with the leather at this point, and unless I hopped into the backseat, there was nowhere else for me to go."

From page 175 of Viswanathan's novel: "Sean stood up and stepped toward me, ostensibly to show me the book. He was definitely invading my personal space, as I had learned in a Human Evolution class last summer, and I instinctively backed up till my legs hit the chair I had been sitting in. That just made him move in closer, until the grommets in the leather embossed the backs of my knees, and he finally tilted the book toward me.""

The New York Times says that the similarities are more extensive than even The Crimson indicated—they counted 29 passages to the Crimson's dozen. Kaavya's defence is that she did it, but she didn't know she was doing it—the classic unconscious plagiarism plea. She was "very surprised and upset" to learn about the similarities; she "wasn't aware of how much" she may have "internalized Ms McCafferty's words". There is much scope for irony here: when it was revealed, before the scandal broke, that Kaavya Viswanathan's original debut novel had been massaged into shape by editors as well as something called a "book packaging company", her editor asserted staunchly that the writing of Opal was "1,000 per cent" Kaavya's work. Make that somewhere around 900 per cent.

What makes Kaavya's plagiarism, unconscious or not, such a burning issue that the Malaysian Star, the People's Daily of China and the New Guinea Gazette would all consider it front-page news? This is a book from a genre not especially known for its originality—boy meets girl plays out against the battlefield of SAT scores, teen friendships and fashion bloomers.

It's a first novel that was massaged and pummeled into shape—again, long before the plagiarism storm broke, Kaavya's editors were comfortable admitting that Opal Mehta needed more work and more "inputs" than most manuscripts, though they gave her credit for an "original" idea. Given that one of Megan McCafferty's novels is about a young girl trying to get into Columbia, and that Kaavya Viswanathan's novel is about a young brown girl trying to get into Harvard, the only thing original about Opal Mehta lies in the fact that it features an Asian protagonist. In other words, we may not have known how much of Opal Mehta had been borrowed, accidentally or not, from another published writer; but we did have a fair idea of the many processes that went into the manufacture of this book, complete with the advance, the hype, the deal.

Years ago, I remember reading Elizabeth Goudge's The Rosemary Tree alongside the late Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen's Crane's Morning with shock, and dismay. Aikath-Gyaltsen was a minor but fine literary talent; she plagiarized her entire second novel from Goudge's work; and reading those paragraphs, I felt my heart sink in genuine, terrible sadness.

Looking at the similarities between Megan McCafferty's work and Kaavya Viswanathan's work was like reading a sobering checklist, nothing more: this may be snobbish, but I cannot care as much about moderately well-written teen stories as I do about fiction that is genuinely original. Genuine acts of plagiarism force us to see things we would rather not see, like the despair and hubris of a talented mind spiraling into its own darkness. In the brand-new world of publishing as it stands today, even plagiarism has become a simulacrum, a pale imitation of the real thing.

Spam, spam, beautiful spam

(I don't usually post my Time Out columns about cyberspace--they go out of date too fast--but this one on spam was kind of fun to write. Carried in Time Out, Mumbai, April 2006)

Dr Mariam Abacha, look what you went and did. Though the infamous Nigerian '419' scam wasn't the first rip-off scheme to go viral on the Internet, it was one of the more tenacious scams—and it provided a blueprint of sorts for future scammers and spammers.

The Nigerian scam was simple: emails arrived from people purporting to be the wives of politicos (that was "Mariam Abacha"'s USP), retired generals, aides to unseated dictators and the like. The pitch was the same: they had access to bank accounts containing untold wealth that they would gladly share with you if you would help them get the money out.

As with the Lottery Scam ("Congratulations! You have won a million gazillion dollars by doing absolutely nothing at all!") and its more recent variants, such as the Publishing Scam ("We will pay you a zillion trillion dollars if you help us edit two short stories"), the story is unimportant: the aim is to get the sucker at the end to cough up his or her bank account numbers and other personal financial information.

The scary thing about online scams isn't just how many people fell for them—the Nigerian scam briefly turned deadly, when a few people who'd been ripped off decided to go to Nigeria to investigate and were bumped off. It's that the Lottery Letters, the Nigerian Scam and the Psychic's Emails became the template for spammers. Every pitch that landed in our mailboxes after 1998 had the same feel to it, whether the spammer was selling university diplomas, time-share resorts, horny Asian babes or entire pharmacopeias of drugs guaranteed to improve your sex life.

By end-2005, spam blocking filters had improved, forcing spam into more and more creative alleys. The discovery that randomly generated phrases would usually get through firewalls and filters led to oddly beautiful spam: imagine fragments of poetry emerging in random order from the brain of a brilliant and disturbed alcoholic. In 2006, spam is moving towards the creative use of images and voices. And there's a slow shift in attitudes to spam: while we still see it as the biggest nuisance on the Net, a small group of enthusiasts are beginning to see the creative possibilities in spam.

Spam poetry has been around as long as spam itself: purists insist that to qualify, poems cannot simply be about spam, but must use lines from genuine spam. (To get your spam, assuming you're not satisfied with what's coming through the usual channels, try The Incredible Spam Museum or The Spam Letters.) Spam Radio offers a nonstop feed of spam, with particularly choice selections being The Toilet Seat and The Polite Nigerian.

And now spam provides the building blocks for art. At Spamgraffiti, exhibits use randomly generated lines from specific spam to create an oddly beautiful, if slightly limited, pastiche of scrolling lines in different colours. Key phrases leap out from this spam quilt in a way that becomes more than a little menacing after you've done three exhibits or more. Elsewhere, digital photographer Adam Harvey has been making waves with a far more ambitious exhibition: he digitally maps the subject lines of spam emails into huge pornographic forms, using porn sites as his inspiration. What he's emerged with is more art than titillation, grotesque and beautiful at the same time. I can see how this might be the wave of the future, with artists spurning offline junk in favour of virtual trash for their palettes.

Go visit:

Adam Harvey's SAVE AS mixes porn sites, digital photography and spam email subject headers to spectacular effect.

Spamgraffiti: Freefloating lines of spam are used in a series of oddly beautiful collages.

Spamradio: You've seen enough of the Nigerians, the Viagra peddlers, the lottery holders: now listen to them.

SatireWire's pathbreaking Poetry Spam contest from 2001, featuring the classic 'Enlarge Your Boss'

Spam Letters and Spam Museum: can't get enough spam? Go here.

The BS column: Muriel Spark

(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, April 18, 2006)

In 1953, eight years before The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was published, Muriel Spark typed up her curriculum vitae; these two paragraphs will give you a flavour of the whole.

"1947-1949: edited "Poetry Review" and changed the policy, rather too abruptly, to include younger "modern" poets who had previously been anathemised by the journal. This caused a fuss… but otherwise the job was fun while it lasted.
Took up full-time literary work. First publisher went bankrupt. Second publisher also went bankrupt. Lived on tinned soup, and did fine on it, until I found a third publisher, who was solvent, to take on the books. Have rather gone off soup since."

Those were the soup years, the coffee-and-Dexedrine years. Muriel Spark never romanticized that period of her life, nor did she ever embellish it: the life of a starving artist was grim and dreary, and she had far too clear a vision not to recognize the dullness that went hand-in-hand with poverty. Some of her experiences came through in The Girls of Slender Means , a novel that succeeded so well in being amusing about the trials of hostel life for young girls that its essential harshness could escape the careless reader. In later years, when she built her massive personal archives from not just letters and manuscripts, but every conceivable scrap of paper—bus tickets, concert programmes, household bills—it was hard not to wonder whether that obsession for saving everything stemmed from that early experience of having so little.

Graham Greene sent her money, on condition that she would neither thank him nor pray for him. At a time when she suffered delusions, and hallucinations, and increasing self-doubt, a priest gave her shelter, and through his offices she returned to faith. In religion she found freedom, a release from doubt; she found religion as a ship finds safe harbour, and she gave something of that to Sandy in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie .

That book, her sixth novel, towers in the public imagination over the rest of her oeuvre. I can understand why it has such a hold on us. Through the small enclave of a convent school in Edinburgh, Muriel Spark took us mercilessly into the mysteries of childhood and the betrayals of middle age, examining wars, doubt, passion, friendship and obsession along the way. Many readers forget, or never knew, that Muriel Spark was primarily a poet—that is how she came to writing, and her poems accompanied her prose throughout her life. It is hard to read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and not see the poet's hand in those lines.

If I have a caveat about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie , it is simply that it overshadows the rest of Muriel Spark's work, and what the work itself had to say about writing. Her first novel, The Comforters (1957), featured a young girl who is herself writing a first novel, and who is not pleased when an omniscient narrator puts her into a first novel, typing out her life from above, so to speak. Her last novel, Finishing School (2004), took a long, hard look at the contemporary cult of the writer: it pitted a writing teacher at the College Sunrise against a teenage wunderkind whose first novel seemed set for success.

"Rowland took off his reading glasses to stare at his creative-writing class, whose parents' money was being thus spent: two boys and three girls around 16 to 17 years of age, some more, some a little less. "So," he said, "you must just write, when you set your scene, 'the other side of the lake was hidden in mist'. Or if you want to exercise imagination, on a day like today, you can write, 'The other side of the lake was just visible.' But as you are setting the scene, don't make any emphasis as yet. It's too soon, for instance, for you to write, 'The other side of the lake was hidden in the fucking mist.' That will come later. You are setting your scene. You don't want to make a point as yet."

The Finishing School is regarded as a slight novel, a relatively minor Spark. But Muriel Spark's work has a way of illuminating the unexpected, with different novels, short stories and poems being "rediscovered" by each generation. Twenty years ago, it was The Girls of Slender Means ; today, Miss Brodie rules. It might be too early to dismiss The Finishing School , though; when they finally write the farcical history of literature in the 21st century, Muriel Spark may well turn out to have the last word on the subject.

The BS column: The Kitab festival

(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, April 10, 2006)

The first day of the Kitab festival, a group of students hover uneasily outside the Stein auditorium. "We don't have passes…" one of them says uncertainly. "You don't need passes. Just come on in," they're told.

By this Sunday, the last day of the festival that brought together Indian and British writers, publishers, magazine editors, journalists, politicians and the odd film star, word had gone around. Kitab, like the annual Katha festival and a handful of other literary conclaves, actually meant it when it claimed to be "for everyone".

Four years ago, at the same venue—Delhi's Habitat Centre—a very different festival of letters had taken place. It was a sarkari festival, put together with a lot of hard work and good intentions, and it brought together an astonishingly wide range of Indian writers from "home" and the diaspora. At least a score of India's languages were represented, including English.

At the much smaller Kitab fest, I missed many writers—Pico Iyer, Amitav Ghosh, Shrilal Shukla, Kiran Nagarkar, U R Ananthamurthy, Sitanshu Yashchandra, M T Vasudevan Nair, Paul Zachariah, Githa Hariharan, Vikram Seth, V S Naipaul, Ved Mehta, Khushwant Singh, to name a handful. And I missed the buzz of that festival, too, with its multiple events being held simultaneously.

But Kitab had the three ingredients that the ICCR festival lacked, and these three were key. It made conversations happen. It allowed editors, journalists and publishers from outside India to meet their counterparts here, and perhaps get a slightly wider picture of the shifts taking place in publishing. And it was a festival that threw open its doors; unlike the ICCR festival, which was deeply unwilling to allow authors and readers to meet outside an invisible cordon sanitaire.

The conversations at Kitab had a way of carrying on long after the official sessions had ended. On the first day, William Dalrymple introduced his forthcoming series of books on the last four of the Mughal emperors, and read a section from the Bahadur Shah Zafar book, The Last Mughal .

It captured the shift, over just two decades, in interactions between the Indians and the British in India: what had been, in his view, a close and complex relationship moved in twenty years to a state where the "natives" and the Raj led separate lives. He mentioned the wealth of untapped material in India, the archives of unread manuscripts, untranslated documents; on a panel two days later, he would speak eloquently of the need for Indian writers to use that rich source material to write more non-fiction, more biographies.

The same day, two speakers referred back to Dalrymple's lecture, speaking of the need to keep conversations between countries, peoples and hemispheres alive—and the growing need to ensure that these were not just one-way. On a panel featuring Claire Short, Rory Stewart and M J Akbar, it was tempting to analyse the American invasion of Iraq as an example of a failed, one-way conversation between two countries. Much later, C P Surendran pointed out that it wasn't the will or the impulse to write non-fiction that was missing: if Indian publishers could afford to pay authors million dollar advances, he noted sardonically, the diaspora writers would move back home.

At a morning reading on Sunday, Amit Chaudhuri offered his tongue-in-cheek vision of the writer and the writer's double: the writer is the person responsible for the work, and he has nothing to do with his double, who's the one who goes out and writes papers, makes public speeches--and attends literary festivals. That afternoon, Rana Dasgupta offered another view of the writer, speaking of an encounter with an Indian journalist who was disappointed at Rana's size. "I expected you to be bigger," he told the author several times during the interview. It was the first time, said Dasgupta, that he had been confronted with a vision of the writer not just as a successful figure, but as one who must be physically robust, muscular: a vision of big men, writing big books.

By Sunday, the Habitat Centre had become, quite casually, a hub where people from the trade and authors and ordinary readers hung out. I missed a few things: more bookstalls, perhaps a space for the little magazines; I missed many, many people who should have been there. But for three days, Kitab had brought together disparate people and disparate themes. The discussions ranged from the Iraq war to Muslims in the media, from snake charmers and call centres to, self-referentially, the running of festivals. The writers may have ranged in size from small, slight or compact to lanky, large and big: the conversations, however, were suitably muscular.

Review: Red, by I Allan Sealy

(Written for India Today, April 2006)

Irwin Allan Sealy
Picador India
Rs 495, 344 pages

Byline: Nilanjana S Roy

Black and white should never have been allowed into a book called Red , but there it is: a black-and-white reproduction of Matisse's The Painter's Family , serving as introduction to Irwin Allan Sealy's dazzling new novel.

It is not a happy painting. The painter is absent, represented only by a bust of himself ("Serf"); the wife, in a corner, and the boys are in the background. The central figure is of Matisse's daughter—her mother was his mistress, not his wife—who exudes a nervous, violent energy. Families are complicated, hydra-headed creatures, Matisse seems to be saying; do you really want to look deeply into the nature of the beast?

All this information, naturally, is cribbed directly from Red , and it serves as an indication of the strengths and weaknesses of this formidable and thoroughly entertaining book.

Red is an abecedary: a book arranged in the form of an alphabet. You start with Aline—a woman so in love with Matisse that she will rip his canvases apart (only she knows if it's a genuine Matisse or a clever reproduction that's being dismembered) in order to see how he reached his colours—and move to Zach, a musician for whom the world in all its colours, is audible, a shifting soundscape. Almost exactly in between is the Narrator, who lives in a town called—this will sound familiar—Dariya Dun: "In the middle station of life, middle class, middling build… A foothills man, neither plainsman nor Montagnard."

Aline and Zach meet at The Hermitage, one worshipping at the feet of Matisse—bourgeois painter, but a revolutionary in a tie all the same; one ready to genuflect at the altar of Aline. The chance encounter leads them to Dariya Dun, where N is a friend of Zach's. Here, like live wires finally corralled in the same space, they make connections, shoot off sparks, create electricity and danger.

The Dun is in transition, the quiet valley transformed by better electricity connections, cybercafes that now allow the wonder of paintings downloaded pixel by pixel, in sleazy, worn-out booths where the previous occupant has been surfing porn. Zach and Aline are not the only art-lovers in town: there is a gang of Blackshorts, small-time thieves who worship a snake goddess and take the rites of crime every bit as seriously as art connoisseurs take line and colour. They're led by Gilgitan, an artist twice over—a master criminal, and an amateur but instinctively talented painter of trucks, signs and tiles.

The Narrator grapples with his own problems—a meeting with a daughter he hasn't seen for years, who brings the same energy and disruption into his life as Matisse's illegitimate daughter must have brought into his. Zach moves in steady rhythm between the music that absorbs him to the exclusion of all else and the women who capture him completely, if only for a brief moment in between compositions. Aline, foreigner to the Dun, to the unspoken barriers of caste and class, is the one who makes the most direct connections. She sees little difference in essence between the sophisticated musician who travels the world and Gilgitan, the raw, untaught painter who romances a pig-girl (in one of the few unconvincing sections of Red ) and falls in love with a paintbox.

Sealy tackles huge questions here: how do you recognize good art from bad, what makes us canonize Art with a capital A and dismiss other kinds of art in lower case, can an artist, a dealer in visions from elsewhere, inhabit the real world? Red may seem daunting, but it is also one of Sealy's richest, most comfortably experimental books yet.

He romps through the alphabet, never forgetting the other meaning of abecedary—a primer, the first principle or rudiment of anything—but allowing himself the freedom to include the following: his own poems, a brief explication of the uses of spray paint in lovemaking, imaginary books (The Nagatarangini, the Annals of the Black Codpiece Society), elaborate games with fonts, misleading definitions.

Red may frighten off readers unwilling to follow the labyrinth that leads from Matisse to the deadly repercussions of the Blackshorts' thefts, but for those willing to stay the course, this might be Sealy's finest novel yet. It's a pity Red is available only in old-fashioned book form: in an ideal, hypertext-friendly world, this is the kind of book you'd want only two keyboard commands for: Press Enter, Play Game.

The BS column: Sherlocks of the Third World

(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, April 3, 2006)

They make an odd assortment, the first fictional detectives to emerge at the turn of the nineteenth century. There was Edgar Allan Poe's C Auguste Dupin, an intuitive thinker with a highly mathematical mind, who made his bones in Murder in the Rue Morgue in 1841.

Twenty years later, Mary Elizabeth Braddon introduced a villainous orphan, a helpless heiress and a mute detective in Trail of the Serpent . Mr Peters, her detective, was the world's first disabled sleuth—he communicated through sign language. Braddon's early but melodramatic detective novel was overshadowed by Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone , which came out seven years after Trail of the Serpent . By 1887, a violinist and cocaine addict had solved his first case in A Study in Scarlet . Over two decades later, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective stories starring Sherlock Holmes were world-famous when G K Chesterton introduced a small, dumpy, intellectual priest called Father Brown.

Today's detectives are just as quirky; but the location has shifted, with interesting consequences. Kalpana Swaminathan delivered excellent Goan Gothic last year with an atmospheric murder mystery called Bougainvillea House . This year, she's back with the first of a new crime series.

The Page 3 Murders stars a 63-year-old woman who reads Hans Gross' Criminal Psychology by way of light entertainment, and is called L R—Last Resort—Lalli by the police. When we meet her, Lalli's fresh from tracing a missing wife—"she was found in a truckload of fruit, evenly distributed in convenient bits between layers of alphonso mangoes, ripening on her way to export". The Page 3 Murders mixes a Cluedo-style whodunit delightfully with Page 3 gossip, set at a house party in a seaside villa near Bombay. Lalli's next appearance, according to Roli Books, will be in The Gardener's Song , due out in 2007, and I'm seriously considering junking my Inspector Ghotes to make way for Last Resort Lalli.

Swaminathan's detective, like Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano, rings clever changes on old stereotypes. If Lalli is India's answer to Miss Marple and the once captivating, now increasingly tedious Precious Ramotswe, Camilleri's cynical Italian inspector borrows from a venerable ancestry of police detectives up against the system. Montalbano appeared most memorably in Camilleri's The Terracotta Dog ; in Excursion to Tindari , he is up against the frustrating bureaucracy of Italy's police department (one of the few countries in the world that can match India red tape for red tape) and, more perilously, against Sicily's rising New Mafia.

Both Lalli and Montalbano provide a refreshing break from the First World forensic specialists and hardbitten cops who make up the backbone of crime fiction today. But perhaps the most interesting detectives emerging today come out of the intersection of history, geography and crime fiction.

The star of Jason Goodwin's The Janissary Tree is Yashim, eunuch in the court of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in 1830s Istanbul. He serves as historical guide, deconstructing the meaning of the harem and uncovering the bloody history of the Janissary corps who were once the military backbone of the Empire. He also stumbles across a corpse in a cauldron, discovers a deeply unpleasant use for steam baths, and for those curious about the exact nature of eunuch sexuality, offers an instructive glimpse at the difference between the completely castrated and the merely freelance.

His contemporary counterparts are many, but the two who made the most impact on me come from nearby countries. Two years ago, Colin Cotterill introduced an elderly Laotian sleuth in Dr Siri Paiboun ("reluctant national coroner, confused psychic, disheartened communist") in The Coroner's Lunch . In Thirty-Three Teeth , Paiboun deals with the death of the wife of a party leader and the discovery of the tortured corpses of Vietnamese soldiers, not to mention the intricate complications of party politics played Laos style.

Like Cotterill, Eliot Pattison uses the framework of the detective novel to bring the politics of another region into focus—his Skull Mantra is set in Tibet, and his sleuth is a senior Chinese official called Shan Tao Yun who was imprisoned as a traitor to the Chinese state. Shan Tao Yun, who spends his days breaking rocks alongside Buddhist monks and other local dissidents as part of the People's 404th Construction Crew, is called in by the head of the prison camp to help solve the murder of a Chinese official.

The early detectives saw murder as a crime against god, a breach in the sanctity of the world. For their contemporary counterparts, murder and other crimes are an excuse to speak about the forgotten histories and neglected places of the world. You might call it the rise of the subaltern sleuth.

The BS column: Indian writing

(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, March 28, 2006)

Just before the Hutch Crosswords award ceremony began, Krishna Sobti nudged me. "See how the conversations are going?" she asked.

Urvashi Butalia, a judge for the English Non-Fiction prize, was immersed in a discussion with two of the translators. Ira Pande, whose Diddi was a non-fiction nominee, had just finished talking to Sobti, both of them comfortably switching between Hindi and English. Suketu Mehta (whose Maximum City won the non-fiction prize) was in the centre of a group that also included Rana Dasgupta, with Cyrus Mistry a step away. Just behind them was Kiran Nagarkar, whose fictional versions of Bombay were being discussed elsewhere by a group of Marathi and Hindi writers.

"This is the way it should be among writers," Sobti told me, "with no division among the languages, no pitting of English against the rest, or Gujarati versus Bengali, or Hindi versus Marathi. We have so few common platforms." Then the ceremony started, and welistened to Salman Rushdie make his acceptance speech for Shalimar the Clown (winner of the English fiction prize this year) over a crackly cellphone connection. He was in Italy; "I walked into a plate-glass door when I heard the news," he said, sounding pleased with himself.

This year, I was a judge in the English fiction category—our nominees were V S Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Siddhartha Deb, Rana Dasgupta, Cyrus Mistry and Shauna Singh Baldwin. Rana now lives in Delhi, after spending his life in other places; Rushdie and Naipaul often return to India but live elsewhere; Deb, who grew up in Calcutta and the North-East, now lives in New York; Baldwin, who grew up in Delhi, now lives in Canada; Mistry, who studied in Bombay, lives elsewhere too.

I arrived at this list of places only now; when we were judging the actual books themselves, where each writer lived was so irrelevant that it was never discussed. But as the Hutch Crossword prize grows up, it will need to address the Kim> problem.

The Kim problem is simple: is Kipling's book an Indian novel? It's set in India; the lama and Hurree Babu are uncompromisingly Indian characters, the language shifts from British English to Babu English (which Kipling often lampoons) to philosophical dialectic (which he doesn't); and Kimball O'Hara is caught halfway between the East and West. Kipling shouldn't be defined as an Indian writer; but Kim might qualify as an "Indian" book. Given that the Hutch Crossword is there to honour the best of Indian writing, in English fiction and non-fiction and in translation from other Indian languages, what puts the "Indian" in "Indian writing"?

Last year, the Crossword rules stipulated that the author must be an Indian passport-holder. This ruled out Hari Kunzru and Jhumpa Lahiri—fair enough, one defines himself as British, one as American—but it also, unfortunately, ruled out Anita Desai. The rules would disqualify a book like Gregory Roberts' Shantaram --no one disagrees that this is a classic Bombay book, but its author is indisputably Australian, not Indian.

When the rules are relaxed to allow authors who would define themselves as Indian, regardless of what passport they hold, to be eligible for a prize like the Crossword, the complaint is that this unfairly benefits "diaspora authors", or authors from "elsewhere". But "elsewhere" is a tricky place. Amitav Ghosh lives half his life in New York, Suketu Mehta increasingly lives all his life out of a suitcase. They're still Indian writers to me, as are writers like Baldwin or Dasgupta, Rushdie or Deb or Mistry, regardless of where they happen to live. I don't think these writers should be penalized because of where their work has taken them.

"You're going to have to define this clearly," Rana Dasgupta said when we discussed the matter privately. He brought up the example of William Dalrymple: would Dalrymple be eligible for an "Indian" prize? Technically, no: William doesn't see himself as "Indian", nor does he hold an Indian passport.

But if you look at Dalrymple's life and work, I would find it impossible to sustain the argument against him. He lives in India for the most part of the year. We may argue about whether or not he's "Indian"—or even wants to be--but he is, beyond argument, a Dilliwala. His last book and his forthcoming set of novels about the Mughal Empire all explore the history of this country. I'm sure the Crossword will eventually work its way through the tricky maze of definitions; but I'm very glad not to be the one, on next year's panel, who has to explain to all our Almost-Indian writers why they don't qualify!

The Backspace Boys: Outlook City

(This was just a squibble for Outlook City.)

Except for the fact that I often find myself at the receiving end of it, I wouldn't waste my time with the whole Bombay-versus-Delhi argument.

Nude Elly has the publishers, a Gulab Jamun says sweetly. Yes, but Bumbay has all the poets, a Vada-Pau retorts. William Dalrymple suggested that Delhi might be the City of Djinns (not to mention tonics); Bombay was the Maximum City, Suketu Mehta returned. Bombay, courtesy Vikram Chandra, got Love and Longing; Delhi, courtesy Nayantara Sahgal's acute eye for its drawing room politics, merely had a Situation in it.

Any suggestion that Delhi might have a sprinkling of talented writers is promptly scotched by references to the Great Bombay novel, written by everyone from Salman Rushdie to Vikram Chandra, Mistrys Rohinton and Cyrus, Kiran Nagarkar, even Ashok Banker and Jaideep Verma. Delhi, despite one-off attempts (Khushwant Singh, Sahgal, Krishna Sobti), still has some catching up to do. The Bombay novel has been thoroughly explored; the Delhi navel only cursorily gazed at.

So, down in Bombay for the Hutch Crossword awards, I was throwing in the towel. I would genuflect before Bombay's writers, listen respectfully to Bombay conversations, relearn Bombay's streets courtesy Saleem Sinai and Gustad Noble and Ravan and Eddie.

At first it went according to plan. I revisited bookshops that a Bombay writer, Jerry Pinto, had spent an entire day taking me round many years ago. Kiran Nagarkar and Naresh Fernandes demonstrated, at a concert of Algerian music, that tough guys do dance.

Then Suketu Mehta took a bunch of us to the Janata Bar. Suketu had just won the first Crossword non-fiction prize for Maximum City. He wanted to celebrate at the small permit room in Bandra with its rabbit warren of rooms that was emblematic of all the bars and bar girls who had starred in a key section of the book.

As Suketu and his entourage left the awards dinner, there was a slight sense of déjà vu. The writers we were saying our farewells to included Krishna Sobti, Ira Pande, Mishi Saran—Delhi imports; the gorgeous young thing whom the boys were trying to persuade to join us was a Delhi import, and half the author population at the Janata Bar were Delhi imports. I gave up on trying to do the Bombay scene—what was the point when it was so, well, Delhi?

But there is one way to get Bombay and Delhi to bury their differences. On a similar evening at a bar in Delhi, we came up with the perfect marketing plan for Indian Writers Inc. There, before us, was the surrealist of the keyboard, musical and computer (he was pretty good), the Stones-meets-Bangla-rock vocalist (ditto), the gravel-and-cigarette voiced streetfighting man whose prose was as syncopated as his sense of rhythm, the moody poet of the bass guitar.

Add Uncle Salman, who must have picked up something from his good friends U2, and Nagarkar, with maybe Suketu on the maracas, and we've got a Bombay-Delhi combo that would rock any joint in town. Call them the Backspace Boys, organise a bunch of groupies (would the Booker Hookers be too extreme, the Cross Birds too demure?) and step back from the mike.

Profile: I Allan Sealy

(Carried in The Hindu, April 2006; I loved driving down to Dehradun for the day to do this interview, and perhaps some of that comes through.)

Like most fans of his work, I assume I know Allan Sealy: through the five previous books, through the readings he's done over the years, the occasional journalistic writings that my generation of students used to discuss late into the night, from the interviews and book signings. Allan has his fair share of the usual paraphernalia of a writer's life, especially when that writer comes from a generation so often analysed and written about: the same generation as Amitav Ghosh, Rukun Advani, Mukul Kesavan, Shashi Tharoor and company.

It's only now, breathing in the crisp air of this afternoon in Dehradun, standing in the garden of his house—"look for blue gates and trees, lots of trees"—that it strikes me: I have never seen Allan Sealy in his own element. This man moves with exuberance around the garden as he shows off the trees he planted ten years ago. ("Brazilian coral bean (scarlet), Mexican silk cotton (pink and yellow), Chinese golden shower (dread dominatrix)", as his narrator names them slyly in Red , Sealy's most recent book).

He talks of broadband connections—will they deliver him from the agony of crawling speeds on the Net, the tyranny of Dilawar Singh, the local linesman? And of his hatred of phones: we spend six serene minutes eating an excellent lunch cooked by Allan and his wife—steamed vegetables, a fish bake, strawberries and jaggery and cream—ignoring the shrill summons of the baleful instrument on the side table.

We exchange poetry, a Borges collection for Craig Raine, and Allan discusses his early infatuation with painting, his wary infatuation with Delhi ("a good lover but a bad wife"), his lasting love for Dehradun, which appears in Red lightly camouflaged as Dariya Dun. The difference between the quiet man I've seen in Delhi, the one who says he would like to return to Doon because his garden is coming up and that's much more important than longwinded seminar questions, and this confident, open writer is startling.

His other books are explained in chronological order as a journey ( From Yukon to Yucatan ), a chronicle (the vast and capacious Trotter-Nama ), a fable ( Hero ), a calendar ( Everest Hotel ) and an illusion ( The Brainfever Bird ).

But Red carries no colon, no explanation. It starts with Aline, a woman we meet in a museum who sees the world through colour, and ends with Zach, a musician who understands the world as sound. Their stories are connected by N, the narrator, a writer who lives in the foothills of the Himalayas. Presiding over their lives is Matisse ("he's the patron saint of my book"), whose The Red Room and The Painter's Family tower over the novel. The alphabet offers the reader a kind of guide, taking us from A for A line (see also Appendix) to Z, for Zaccheus,, Zipphone, Z-zzz and Zom. Artists rule the book: Aline paints, Zach serves his music, N writes, and a gang of Blackshorts in the Dariya Dun valley, unable to enter the world of museums or music ateliers, make a fine art of thieving and creating truck paintings.

"In The Brainfever Bird , I tried to do something that probably doesn't come naturally to me: narrative! It's a terrible confession, in a conventional sense, because a novelist is supposed to tell stories," says Allan. "But I don't think that's a novelist's sole or even primary duty. With Red , I just gave in to my notion that you should go off: I've always done that, from The Trotter-nama onwards." Each chapter of Red plays on a different letter of the alphabet. "It keeps you on the straight and narrow, but it also allows you to branch off. You should be able to jump in at any point. I love that bitty approach."

The inspiration for Red is right behind me, in the glorious, singing, bright red paint that covers the shelves of a tiny pantry. Allan explains how the drawing room used to open into a doorless bathroom: his mother had intended to use the space as a schoolroom for small children, and the absence of the door was deliberate. The bathroom gained a door, the kitchen a small pantry, and we acquired a new Allan Sealy novel—all through happenstance.

"I was painting this—the shelves, the alcove," says Allan, reaching for his copy of Red to explain. "It's in the poem, it's in the poem, that's where it is." And he reads from the poem on page 248: "Red came to me this way, no lie/ With the astounding rightness of a black swan's beak…" He went off to Hurla hardware, the shop I had passed earlier on the road, and found a litre of Signal Red. "One red they carried in acrylic and only one/ not my dodgy haemoglobin red mercurochrome or port/ not scarlet crimson not poppy not opticalmouse red not glorypea/ nothing on the fancy shade card but/ stopgo red."

It turned out to be a close cousin of the red Matisse was famous for. At the time he wrote Red , Sealy had visited The Hermitage, spending hours in front of The Red Room and The Painter's Family , carrying back as a souvenir the cups in Petersburg blue from which we're drinking fresh-brewed coffee. "There are more Matisses probably under that roof than in the rest of the world put together," he says.

Sealy saw a parallel between what had happened in Matisse's family life and his own—the surface peace interrupted by quiet schisms, the family dealing with the artist's disappearance into a world where no one else can follow. He was fascinated by Matisse's apparent conformity, the turbulence lurking under the beauty of those colours. "He's such a revolutionary painter; he wears a tie, he's bourgeois, and he's a revolutionary, and then you begin to wonder: maybe revolutionaries do wear ties."

"I love colour," says Allan. It's the only superfluous statement he'll make; that love shows all through the house, in the aqua of his study, the monkish yellow of the tiles in the kitchen, the red cafetiere on the table, the weatherworn brick of the garden wall complemented by the brilliant green of the creepers. "If you write about what you love, you're likely to be able to pull it off, providing you have certain basic skills."

The conversation turns to practical matters. Like book sales: "If you're a writer who doesn't sell, the smallest blip of a sale makes you ecstatic." Sealy is uncompromising: "Part of me thinks, what's the point of writing if you're only going to write for twelve bright readers. But with every book, maybe one per cent you think of the reader, ninety nine you're thinking of yourself, what you want to say." Of the publishing industry today: "Thank god for the way it's set up, successful writers bail out the unsuccessful ones who're willing to do what they want even if they lose their readers. A hundred years ago, there would have been no room for someone like me." And the name on the cover of Red : Irwin Allan Sealy, the full name instead of the initial 'I' for the first time. "I've been told it's not Indian enough, that the kind of English reader who would look for 'Indian writing' would put my books down. So this is my response. Fuck you. This is who I am, it's also my father's name, it's also a tribute to him."

"It took me till my thirties to give myself permission to see myself as a writer. You're measuring yourself against the best; it takes time to be able to say to yourself, I could do that—I could do better than that. Even in your twenties, you know that life is short, you know that you're never going to read everything you want to read. So you're always sifting. You're trying to get at the very best from the very beginning. If you're actually looking at yourself as a writer, you're looking at all the possible books you could ever write, even if you don't live to write them."

I ask about his characters, the way they have of popping up from one book to another. Eugene Trotter from The Trotter-nama makes a brief appearance in Red ; so does Bisht from The Everest Hotel . He grins. "It's nice to keep in touch with the guys—or girls—from the past. When they look at you, it's an accusing look: it says, you have abandoned me. Bringing them back is a way of saying, I have not."

I can almost see them; Trotter, and his father, serving nimbu-pani at a Daryaganj hotel in Brainfever Bird , Bisht, now at home in the thana of Dehradun, other ghosts from Sealy's pages. In this house, where Sealy is so very clearly at home, they've taken possession of quiet nooks and corners. "I'm very happy," he says. "I don't know why. It's a kind of lunacy." He has plans for the house; more colours to be brought in, walls to be bashed in to make room for windows. More trees planned, to hide his neighbours' houses from view: "It's nice to just blot out that house, THAT house, that one: Tree! Tree! Tree!" He has taken possession: "In a way, what you're taking possession of is not the place but yourself, and that's a source of strength."

The sadness that usually descends on him once a book is finished is in abeyance; he's been thinking of other projects. A novel about a family of engineers, some sane, some crazy. A serious history of Dehradun and the Valley, perhaps a travelogue. A long poem, marking a shift towards poetry, towards condensation. Red is the first book he's written on the computer, instead of in longhand, and Sealy thinks that perhaps the medium encourages compression, just as the pen encourages longwinded, Trollope-length narratives, Dickensian digressions.

"The process of writing a book gets you to a higher, greater intensity than almost anything I can think of," he had said earlier. "Your world for the duration of that book, the writing of it, is truly other. There's no way of describing it to anybody who, even anybody you live with. It's a good feeling, the equivalent of the chemical high. Writers are addicted to that other world in the way that a drunk is to his booze."

Now, as we say our farewells, I ask if he's moved beyond the need to question himself. Irwin Allan Sealy laughs. "A writer has constant self-doubt. There is only that interplay between total despair and complete self-confidence. There's nothing else. Really. There's nothing else. Probably both at the same time." And then he goes back to more important things: the trees need pruning, watering, the civet cats are illegally occupying the verandah chairs, his garden needs attention.


(Carried in The Indian Express, March 2006)

Brunch skeptics belong to the Bourdain faction or the Seinfeld faction. The first will quote chef Anthony Bourdain's essay at you with grim satisfaction: "[It's] a dumping ground for the odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday nights or for the scraps generated in the normal course of business."
I belong to the second group--like Jeannie in Seinfeld , we're puzzled by the only portmanteau meal on the menu: "So what's the deal with brunch…i f it's a combination of breakfast and lunch, how come there's no lupper or no linner?"
Never mind if no one understands it, everyone's doing it anyway. And while it's marketed as the most decadent meal of the day (obligatory jazz band, sparkling wine, caviare sprinkled like dhania over everything), what it's become is the most fiercely competitive meal of the moment.
In Delhi , The Taipan's venerable dimsum brunch trolley has been challenged by the exotic offerings at threesixty (also at The Oberoi) and The Hotel Nikko's mystic east-meets New Orleans spread on Sundays. The Claridges has a fabulous Sunday spread; Tonino in Gurgaon makes sure that the punters in the suburbs get their pasta fix and sparkling wine; and Olive in Mehrauli just pulled out a brand new brunch menu that plays around with the baguette-and-cheese routine. (Most of these charge between Rs 900 and Rs 2,000 per head, but places like Q'ba and Vasant Continental's Eggspectations offer cheaper variations.)
In Bombay , Zenzi and Basilico offer serious competition to Indigo's signature Sunday brunch, while the Taj and the Hyatt do their best to keep up. And while coffee and idlis haven't been forsaken in Madras, I'm told by a foodie friend that places like The Cedars and restaurants at The Park and The Taj have successfully introduced decadence to the city.
With the distinction between brunch and lunch becoming thinner than Mallika Sherawat's spaghetti straps, a writer friend, let's call him the Dillitante, and I head off to Olive one Sunday to see if they still do brunch the New Orleans way. And they do, if you're willing to overlook the absence of crullers, mimosas and heavily hungover musicians.
I like the Taipan's selection of dimsums and threesixty's premier coffees, but brunch should feel like a picnic. It's the one meal you should eat outdoors if you can. This is probably where places like Claridges, Tonino and Olive score over the equally fine food at the Nikko or the Oberoi.
The Dillitante and I are both veterans of brunch in friends' homes and brunch as the dismal meal it was circa Delhi in the 1980s. (Salads wilting in shrill marinades, limp shrimp, indigestible mousses that were, back then, often spelt mouse and tasted the same way, warm juice and wine which offered menace instead of sparkle.) But we arrive at Olive just as brunch is kicking off; the white gravel in the courtyard looks shampooed; the jazz band is warming up with Stardust, These Foolish Things and other standards. The waiters are the attentive-not-adhesive kind, there's fresh-baked baguettes and fresh fruit, and the Dillitante looks around with surprised approval. This might be because of the size of the wine glasses into which generous quantities of Chilean red and Californian white are now being poured, but it's also the ambience.
Olive turns out to be the perfect place for ambience for the most basic of reasons: you do brunch for the atmosphere more than the food. We've arrived the week after a restaurant review that trashed Olive's menu brought Olive loyalists out with banners of support, but my previous experiences with the place have lined me up alongside the food critic rather than the True Believers.
Given that, both the Dillitante and I concede that Olive's done itself proud. The spread includes the usual mousses, dips, salads and starters (do not go near the parma ham wrapped around banana or the broccoli-and-cashew pate, but the babaghanoush, a clever salmon seviche and a very fresh prawn salad compensate). Then there's the live pasta station, which seems to be replacing the eggs-to-order counter at brunches everywhere. And the live grill, with fabulous jumbo prawns in a simple lemon-parsley-butter marinade and good tenderloin; and the fresh oysters.
Three hours later, we've wiped the cheese board clean, given the food a curt nod of approval and the all-important Ambience an enthusiastic thumbs-up. The jazz and the wine were equally smooth, the Dillitante pronounces. Yesh, I say, having overdone both ever so slightly. We exit stage left, having contemplated stealing the baguettes at the next table, conscious of leaving finer, better human beings than we were before. I'm willing to concede that brunch rules, for the moment; now the next thing is going to be locating the meal Homer Simpson claimed to have invented—the meal between breakfast and brunch.

The BS column: Kiran Nagarkar

(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, March 14, 2006)

For years before I met Kiran Nagarkar, I'd been hearing about him from other Indian writers. They spoke of him with deep pride and affection; his books were discussed with every shade of emotion from envy and disapproval to passionate, almost devout fervour. There is no such thing as a neutral position on Kiran Nagarkar; something in the man and his writing demands a reaction.

I knew of Kiran Nagarkar's long friendship with the poet Arun Kolatkar, of his battles with the Marathi establishment, his terrifying bursts of ill health, his refusal to compromise with his critics, whether they came from the censor board, the Shiv Sena, society's moral guardians or the literary establishment.

I was expecting arrogance, perhaps even brashness; not the tall, slightly stooping man who spoke in a soft, clear voice and seemed oddly fragile, until his underlying (and wonderfully warped) sense of humour broke through. There was tremendous confidence; Nagarkar knew just how powerful his work was, but there was little room for arrogance.

He spoke of the chawl in Bombay where he had grown up, not to establish his credentials as one of the urban poor, but to establish the validity of the background he had used in books like Seven Sixes are Forty Three and Ravan and Eddie . He spoke, as he had before and as he would be asked to do almost endlessly, of the narrow minds of the language police. He didn't see why Marathi should be his only mother tongue, or why choosing to write in another language should be seen as a betrayal instead of an expansion of a writer's horizons. In a country like India, with its multiplicity of tongues, he didn't see why every writer shouldn't have two, three, four languages to play around with.

This was in the late nineties, a time when it seemed that Nagarkar might be entering one of the more productive phases of a writer's life. Cuckold had been anointed; Ravan and Eddie was doing well; Nagarkar would fulfil an old ambition to be an actor by essaying the role of a paedophile priest on film; and even Bedtime Story , his long-beleagured play, was emerging from the shadows of censorship. Bedtime Story had a Nazi war criminal retelling four stories from the Mahabharata and demanded more of its audience than most Indian plays had, asking them for accountability, asking them to recognize that "whatever happens, wherever in the world, someone has to pay". Several groups had tried and failed to stage the play; the Shiv Sena had picketed rehearsals and forced a ban on Bedtime Story ; the censor board demanded cuts that would have eviscerated the guts and heart of the play. The first performance of Bedtime Story finally happened 17 years after it had been written.

It seemed like a good decade for him. But over the next nine years, Nagarkar wrote nothing, to the dismay of his legions of readers. Cuckold went in and out of print; some of us experienced a kind of secondhand bitterness when we realized that this writer, one of India's most original and unapologetic voices, was barely recognized outside his country.

Nagarkar's silence will finally lift this month with the publication of God's Little Soldier (HarperCollins). This is ostensibly a novel about terrorism; its protagonist is a man called Zia Khan who becomes one of "God's little guerrillas", a man driven by a complex set of beliefs into acts of violence. Some of his massacres are successful, some, like an attempted assassination of Salman Rushdie, fail. His brother, Amanat, is rescued by doubt, but nothing about either man's life is black-and-white. And as usual, Nagarkar's skill lies in the details; the gun Zia means to use for one of his jobs is hidden under books-- The Heart of the Matter and Don Quixote .

If this was all God's Little Soldier had to offer—an unflinching exploration of the psyche of a man engaged in the cold, profitable business of terror—it would be enough. But Nagarkar also offers a vision of the writer as the ultimate assassin, the ultimate fundamentalist. Or perhaps, he suggests, the writer is the only saviour in a world that has abused and twisted language, and that is engaged in cutting off its own tongue; perhaps what the terrorist wants to protest is the silence that he has been forced to inhabit.

After that nine-year-long absence, it's better than I could have imagined to see Kiran Nagarkar back where he belongs: centrestage, relishing the controversies and the arguments that will rise in the wake of this uncomfortably sharp novel.
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