Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Book review: Alentejo Blue

(Carried in India Today, June 2006)

Alentejo Blue
Monica Ali
POUNDS 10.99, 299 pages

Monica Ali's celebrated first novel was a troubling work—in a classic review in Biblio , Alice Albinia described walking around down the real Brick Lane in London and noting the complexities that never made it to the fictional Brick Lane .

The problem with her fictional world was not that it was inauthentic, to use one of the most annoying terms in the post-colonial dictionary, but that it was deeply unconvincing. Despite this, Brick Lane announced the arrival of an accomplished writer; Ali's prose was so beautifully crafted that the novel rarely felt like the work of a first-timer.

Her second novel, Alentejo Blue , moves away from the contentious territory of Brick Lane to Mamarossa, an imaginary corner of the Alentejo in Portugal . Instead of the intense portraits of two or three main characters she offered in Brick Lane , Ali has a much wider canvas here. Café owners, earthy peasants, English tourists, expatriates in voluntary exile—all of them drift through the pages of the book in the same way as they drift through life in the Alentejo.

The inhabitants of Mamarossa share certain things: discontentment, apathy, an inability to move their lives forward, and an irritating tendency to speak and think in beautifully literary, inescapably banal platitudes. Vasco contemplates eating cake for three interminable pages while nursing the pain of losing his wife years ago, Joao contemplates the longevity of cork trees while holding on to the body of his one-time lover after Ruiz has committed suicide, Teresa contemplates losing her virginity before she does the unthinkable and leaves Mamarossa. Everyone waits for the mysterious Marco to show up, which is like waiting for Godot, only far less exciting—and when Marco does make an entry, he is not what he seems to be.

Ali hits all the marks in the manner of an expert pianist doing scales: this five-finger exercise in dutiful prose only briefly flashes into life with the story of an alcoholic expat writer. The collision between Stanton and the hilariously dysfunctional Potts family could have provided this rambling novel with some narrative force, but after introducing the only characters of substantial interest into Alentejo Blue , Ali yanks them offstage. The rest of the book is as desultory as the sex between Stanton and Chrissie.

The best use of Alentejo Blue might be as a manual for a creative writing class, since Ali covers all the bases from Landscape 101 to The Art of the Internal Monologue and How To Insert Historical Fact Into Fiction with élan, if not enthusiasm. It's the neat, schematic structure of the novel that lets Alentejo Blue down. And it's the insistence on making much of the small details of life and turning them into moments saturated with literary significance that makes reading this novel an exercise in quiet desperation.

This reviewer reached that point with great rapidity thanks to Vasco and his cake: after three pages of limpid prose on the empty hole inside that makes him want to eat "the small landslide of pastry" balanced against the remorse a fat man like him will surely feel at giving into his baser appetites, she found herself mentally pleading with the man: "Eat the cake, Vasco! Eat the cake and move on so that we can too. Please, just eat the goddamn cake." I think he finally did, but thanks to Ali's fondness for the ambiguous ending, I'm still not completely sure.

Speaking Volumes: Sense and Sensuality

(This column was carried in the Business Standard on June 13, 2006)

Just a decade ago, food memoirs and histories were as exotic as the cheeses and chocolates kind friends would bring back from "phoren". Now that even Manchegos, Reblochons and a growing selection of gourmet chocolates are available if you know where to look, the food book section's beginning to catch up.

Shopping for good food writing is still an exercise in frustration. Mainstream culinary writers such as Claudia Roden, Escoffier, Julia Child, Elizabeth David and Delia Smith are easily available, but MFK Fisher is impossible to source. The second volume of Ruth Reichl's memoirs, Comfort Me With Apples , has been around for a while now, but the first, Tender at the Bone , has to be specially ordered, and so does the third instalment, the recently published Garlic and Sapphires . Madhur Jaffrey's Climbing the Mango Trees is in stores, and Chitrita Banerji's food memoirs have just been reissued, but Sudha Koul's Tiger Ladies is hard to find.

Despite these obstacles, it's possible to spend an entire week, as I did, immersed in the amateur foodie's version of satisfying armchair travel. For company, I had Julie Powell, Gael Greene, Ruth Reichl, Anthony Bourdain, and just to balance the gluttony, Michael Pollan and Peter Singer.

Julie Powell's Julie and Julia is an act of homage to the legendary Julia Child (note: Julia Child's My Life in France wasn't available in India at the time of writing this column--it's in now, so go get your copy.) Julie Powell was depressed at being a secretary instead of an actress; her apartment in Queens was a dump, and as thirty approached, she was approaching breakdown levels. So she decided to cook her way through Julia Child's Mastering The Art of French Cooking in a year: as the subtitle says, "365 days, 524 recipes, 1 tiny apartment kitchen". She blogged the results--often hilarious, often touching—and discovered that this was much more than a crazy experiment. "I thought I was using the Book to learn to cook French food, but really I was learning to sniff out the secret doors of possibility." Julia Child may not have been amused, but Julie and Julia is a quirky coming-to-adulthood story, and is probably one of the most enjoyable fan letters ever.

As restaurant critics, Gael Greene and Ruth Reichl are probably among the most powerful in the business, even though their personal styles are starkly different. Garlic and Sapphires chronicles Reichl's "adventures in deception": as the New York Times restaurant critic, she was one of the most famous faces in America. But her belief that the only honest review is an anonymous one drove her to adopt several disguises. She reviewed Le Cirque as "Molly Hollis", retired schoolteacher from Birmingham, contrasting the treatment that Ruth Reichl received in her own person with the dismissive approach the staff used with "Molly".

Reichl is fascinated by the politics of what people eat. In America, she told Salon: "If you're a poor person you're pretty much relegated to overprocessed junk, factory animals and pesticide-laden vegetables." Greene is much more a diva of sensuality, whose chronicle of appetites culinary and sexual in Insatiable leave little space for remorse over the "meat is murder" argument, especially if the meat in question is foie gras. Insatiable is classic food porn--Greene sandwiches reminiscences of meals at Tour d'Argent and Le Bernardin between accounts of her flings with Elvis, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, star chefs and a young, demanding male porn star.

It's instructive to read Anthony Bourdain's Nasty Bits , a collection of short pieces and his impressive rants about "vegetarian Nazis", alongside Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and Peter Singer and Jim Mason's The Ethics of What we Eat . Bourdain's determination to taste everything that could possibly be put on a plate makes him the implacable enemy of high-minded vegetarians. He also captures the irritation the ordinary diner feels, caught between the need to eat ethically and annoyance at lectures from vegan puritans.

It takes Peter Singer, the guru of the animal liberation movement, to offer a more balanced view. In The Ethics of What We Eat , Singer looks at the cost—moral, political and social—of what's on our plate, and comes up with suggestions that might surprise meat warriors like Bourdain. Singer's approach is similar to Michael Pollan—they both make their arguments by examining a few different kinds of meals and eating styles, from fast food to vegan to the omnivore in between. After the feasts presented by Bourdain, Reichl and company, it is up to Pollan and Singer to suggest that ethics will become just as important a part of our food choices as taste. Like palate-cleansing sorbets between courses, nothing goes better with sumptuous, sensual celebrations of eating than these two cerebral, thoughtprovoking books.

Book review: The Women in Cages

(Carried in Outlook, June 2006)

The Women in Cages: Collected Stories
Vilas Sarang
Penguin India
Rs 275, 283 pages

Imagine that contemporary Indian writing is situated on an over-active seismic zone, where regular eruptions of frenetic energy occur on a barren plain crisscrossed by faultlines.

One of these faultlines is amnesia; we forget our best writers for decades at a stretch. Like G V Desani, they slip into oblivion for a generation, only to be "rediscovered" by the next. Another faultline is language: the "authentic" writer working in an Indian language is ceaselessly pitted against the impostor working in English, a language fit only for export. A third is form: the novel rules, with poetry and the short story relegated to the rear.

Vilas Sarang's work is built across all three faultlines. This intense, blackly comic and subversive writer has been "discovered" for his poetry, criticism and his short fiction on average once a decade from the 1970s onwards. The respect for his work remains constant, even as his books shuttle in and out of print.

Sarang was 16 before he read his first full-length book in English. He wrote his first "mature" story in English, and has shifted easily between Marathi and English ever since. To him, bilingualism is natural, and necessary: "My conscious mind may function in English, but my unconscious is rooted in Marathi… To write first in Marathi, then re-do the text in English, is thus a means of reconciling the two halves of my divided psyche." Arvind Krishna Mehrotra comments, "Sham Lal asked if one can write in 'two separate languages without developing a split personality', and Sarang shows not only that one can, but that the condition of being 'split' is what keeps literature in good shape."

Nothing illustrates Sarang's devotion to the idea that the short story is the "guerrilla warrior" of fiction better than the work collected for the first time in The Women in Cages.

In 'The City by the Sea', Bombay's people beg, shit, fornicate, suffer and find tenuous redemption, with the ghosts of Camus and Cortazar standing guard over Sarang's prose. A man desecrates a funeral pyre by warming his hands over it in an attempt to ward off the winter chill; during the Ganesha festival, the clay statues of the god come to life and run away, returning to immerse themselves in the sea only when the crowds have gone.

In 'Libido Zones', the women (and men) in cages find different ways to live behind the bars of prostitution; one woman sprouts vaginas like peacock eyes all over her body, briefly increasing her worth to customers. In a haunting story in 'The Shadow of the Gulag', after a series of coups, the final coup is carried out by the people of the slum who have naturally evolved after years of deprivation into "skeletons without undergoing death". Skeletons require nothing, which makes them incorruptible rulers: "the Regime of the Skeletons", the state astrologer predicts, will last forever.

Not every story is perfect, especially the ones that skate close to science fiction—Sarang's vision of the everyday has such a touch of strange that it needs no assistance from futuristic worlds. It's the stories where human lives stray plausibly, but irrevocably, into surrealist territory, while remaining touchingly human, where Sarang is at his most powerful. The Women in Cages is long overdue. Perhaps we can now acknowledge the genius of this unjustly neglected writer, a man who shares the same space as Kolatkar and Nagarkar while invoking the spirits of Rabelais, Celine and Kafka.

The BS column: Ravi Dayal

(Carried in 'Speaking Volumes', the Business Standard, in June 2006, this was written a day after the death of publisher Ravi Dayal.)

In the week before he died, Ravi Dayal looked after his cats, sent off royalty cheques, decided he would learn how to use digital cameras in order to enhance his book covers, and drank his usual quota of whisky. Wen he spoke to long-term friends Rukun Advani and Anuradha Roy just before he went into hospital for cancer surgery, he mentioned that he would much prefer not to have memorial meetings, should he happen to die.

Ravi Dayal, Publisher: that legend began in 1988 with the publication of Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines , Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan and a book by Ranga Rao. Dayal remembered the writing of The Shadow Lines by an untried author very well—Ghosh shaved off half his facial hair in order to ensure that he stayed home, writing, in his inhospitable, summer-unfriendly barsati, rather than yield to the fleshpots of Delhi in the late eighties. Ranga Rao's works were re-translated in new editions by Penguin and Katha after Ravi Dayal, Publisher, had shone a spotlight on this man's inimitable talent. And while Ravi Dayal may have been the son-in-law of Khushwant Singh, it was the literary merits of A Train to Pakistan that persuaded him to republish it when that work was languishing in a sadly debased paperback edition.

Over the next two decades, Ravi Dayal, Publisher, formed an elegant presence beside the crude multinational seductions of other imprints. In an essay for Seminar , he wrote about the sudden burgeoning of publishers in Delhi: "Initially it was Ansari Road in Daryaganj that hosted the publishing renaissance…but matching the expansion of the city further south…publishing too is no longer concentrated along the rim of the Old City. Penguin are now in Panchsheel, OUP on Jaisingh Road, IndiaInk in New Rajendra Nagar, Permanent Black in Patparganj and Ravi Dayal in a back-room facing a garden and a pomegranate tree in Sujan Singh Park."

Over the next few decades, Ravi Dayal would be responsible for publishing most of Anitav Ghosh, several volumes on Delhi, assorted poetry, including that of Agha Shahid Ali, and an eclectic selection of literary fiction. I met him for an initially soulless interview, that ghoulishly regained its soul when we discovered that the magazine's photographer had been detained by a road accident.

We spent a self-indulgent hour discussing Isaiah Berlin and Margaret Atwood, Javier Marias and Vijay Tendulkar, Vilas Sarang and Lampedusa. When I complimented him on the unnatural orderliness of his book cupboards, Ravi confessed that his books had been farmed out—some to his daughter's house, some to his home at Ranikhet—allowing him to retain this semblance of organized purity.

I don't know how "Ravi Dayal, Publisher" would have fared in a harsher publishing climate. But in an era where publishing successes were counted in print runs of a thousand or so, there was room enough for his broad, eclectic, but deeply discerning, vision. "Indian publishing still has room for the bestsellers that sell in the 2 or 3 thousands," he told me a bare two months before he died, "that allows me room enough to shoehorn my people."

"My people." That included the likes of Amitav Ghosh and Mukul Kesavan, of long-time colleague Rukun Advani, whose first—and to date only—novel Beethoven Among the Cows -- was published by Ravi Dayal. It also included a clutch of historians, and linguists, and literary theorists, and poets, and naturalists, all of whom preferred to trust their books to Ravi Dayal, Publisher, rather than look for more mainstream imprints.

In the end, Ravi Dayal stood for something. At its most banal, it was good paper, good design, great proofreading—if there was such a thing as the perfect book, Ravi would help you get to it. But there was something more. A promise of integrity, made by a man whose innings at OUP (he joined Oxford in 1971) included the publication of the Subaltern Studies series, and Jim Corbett's books. He turned down so many of the people whom, in Delhi's lexicon, he could have "accommodated". Ram Guha recounts the anecdote of how OUP for year after year was denied corporate status at the India International Centre while other publishing houses made the cut. The rumour went that Ravi Dayal had refused the manuscripts of the entire board of IIC trustees, and the rumour went on to say that given the choice, Ravi Dayal would prefer no membership for OUP rather than membership on compromised terms.

I think of his bidis, and his love for Isaiah Berlin and Lampedusa, and our last conversation, on Vijay Tendulkar, and I know just how much I'll miss Ravi Dayal. There was only one of him; there won't be another for a while to come.

Shapeshifter: Jeet Thayil

(This profile of Jeet Thayil, with a focus on the anthology of Indian poetry in English that he's currently editing, was carried in The Hindu, in June 2006)

The house in which we're meeting is bare, the boxes of books still unpacked, two lonely chairs anchoring the emptiness of the room. Jeet Thayil and his wife will settle in soon, but this empty space is the perfect place to have a conversation about Indian poetry.

Fulcrum is an elegant little poetry magazine published from "a room in Boston", already seen as one of the most significant of its kind. Fulcrum Number Four contains two sections—Poetry and Truth, and a special section on Indian Poetry in English, which was guest edited by Thayil. It's an astounding collection—56 poets, from places as far apart as Fiji, New York, Bombay, Sheffield, Coorg, Berkeley, Bangalore, all, as Thayil says, connected only by language, English. The few omissions are significant, and regrettable--Imtiaz Dharker, Agha Shahid Ali, A K Ramanujan--all unavailable for copyright reasons.

The usual suspects are here, from Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolatkar, Eunice de Souza, Dom Moraes to Kamala Das, Ranjit Hoskote and Dilip Chitre. There are poets who aren't as well-known in India as they should be, from Aimee Nezhukumatathil to Mukta Sambrani and R Parthasarathy. And there are a handful of "lost poets, the ones we forgot about": Gopal Honnalgere, Srinivas Rayaprol, Lawrence Bantelman.

"I think one very fine way to tell the development of a society is how it treats its poets, its gay people, and its women," says Jeet. "And in those three areas, we really are backward. I believe that two generations from today, there may be value placed on all of this. Young people today read poetry, they buy books, they read poetry on the Internet. The Internet has taken poetry out of that academic conversation, which has to happen if poetry's going to live. Say "poetry" and there were a lot of people who were turned off already, who had forgotten that a poetry reading is just a man or a woman speaking to you. Poetry needs to resonate with you if it's going to live. It's human speech, and it's the most beautiful speech, it's elevated in a way we can't have in our normal lives; it contains the best of us."

What Jeet's trying to do with Indian poetry in English is an archaeologist's job: to recover what was lost, to take scattered shards and isolated schools of poets and fit them together in a pattern. It was Fulcrum's editor, Philip Nikolayev, who first broached the idea of a special issue of Indian poetry. It took Jeet nine months of concentrated work to put it together, and a revised version of this anthology, with sensitive portraits of several poets by photographer Madhu Kapparath, will be published by Penguin India later this year in 60 Indian Poets: 1952-2007. It's one of the most ambitious, and most significant, anthologies of Indian poetry to emerge in recent times.

"I don't know why Indian poetry has been so clannish, so fragmented," says Jeet. Previous poetry anthologies have collected remarkable work, but have often, in his opinion, been bogged down by the need to categorise. "We've seen slivers of Indian poetry, tiny parts of the whole—women poets, the younger poets, post-Independence poets, diaspora poets; different 'versions' of Indian poetry. It's so fragmented, so clannish, and it's only when you put it all together that you realize Indian poetry is an enormous thing. It can compare with the best in the world—with Latin American poetry, with European poetry."

Amit Chaudhuri commented, after reading Fulcrum, that India's poets were actually producing better work than India's fiction writers; an observation that Pankaj Mishra had made almost a year ago. "Interesting that two novelists should say that the poetry's better than the fiction," Jeet says. In the introduction, he looks at the problems that poets face in India: "Unlike Indian novelists, poets receive no advances; their books are usually out of print; even the best-known of them have trouble finding publishers and are virtually unknown outside India….That they continue to produce original work is nothing short of remarkable."

When he began work, Jeet had the usual suspects on his list. He found a great many more courtesy the legendary Adil Jussawala. "In Adil's apartment in Bombay, the manuscripts, the photocopies and the books have displaced the human beings. Adil gave me a couple of feet worth of books—it took me months to go through it. And there were all these guys whose work had been forgotten. Like Lawrence Bantelman, who wrote five books, went to Canada and vanished. It's like a Rimbaud story, nobody knows whether he's alive or dead."

Both anthologies pay homage to the dead—as Jeet points out, we lost nine poets between 1993 and 2004: A K Ramanujan, Srinivas Rayaprol, G S Sharat Chandra, Agha Shahid Ali, Gopal Honnalgere, Reetika Vazairani, Nissim Ezekiel, Dom Moraes and Arun Kolatkar. In 'Dirge', Vijay Nambisan writes:

"The poets die like flies…
How well they wrote, those friends now fettered, how the Indo-Anglian tongue
Allowed them to be lovely-lettered, their lives lived when the world was young…"

That reference to the "Indo-Anglian tongue" reminds us both that the debate over English is never going to go away. Jeet sees no reason why poets who write in English should be seen as somehow less Indian or less authentic than their counterparts, but he acknowledges that the argument refuses to die. I like Arundhati Subramaniam's tart perspective in 'To the Welsh Critic Who Doesn't Find Me Identifiably Indian':
"This business about language,
how much of it is mine,
how much yours,
…how much from the salon,
how much from the slum,
how I say verisimilitude,
how I say Brihadaranyaka,
how I say vaazhapazham--
it's all yours to measure, the pathology of my breath…"

For Jeet, the return to India has coincided with one of the most productive phases of his life. He spent his early years in Hong Kong, and became a poet in his twenties after coming to Bombay to do a BA. Dom, Nissim, Adil, Eunice and a dozen other poets eventually became friends and colleagues, but it was a rough apprenticeship. There was no space for poetry; he remembers that period as a time of isolation. He published a few collections of poetry over the next two decades, did an MFA in America, shifted to New York, and came back to Delhi after 9/11 to find his feet in a city newly hospitable, experimenting with tenuous new energies and conversations.

In addition to the anthology, Jeet has completed work on a book of new poems, his first collection after English: Poems, is putting together a special issue for the Journal of Postcolonial Writing, and has finished a work of non-fiction. "It's called An Alien of Extraordinary Ability," he says of the last, "which was the category under which I was approved for a green card, it's for writers, professors, film-makers. The book's about a man who comes back to India after many years away, newly sober, and he sees the country and himself as if for the first time."

Thayil was, he says, an alcoholic (like many of the Bombay poets) and an addict for almost two decades: "I spent most of that time sitting in bars, getting very drunk, talking about writers and writing. And never writing. It was a colossal waste. In two years I've done more than I did in twenty years. I feel very fortunate that I got a second chance." These days, he says as we make our farewells, the only addictions he has are poetry, and coffee. "Coffee's much easier to get than heroin."

The BS column: Banned books in India: 1970s-2006

(Published in the Business Standard, May 30, 2006)

The 1970s: Politics, and what the state often saw as the misrepresentation of either India’s policies or its leaders, triggered most book bans in this decade. Former MI5 operative Greville Wynne upset MI5 and the Indian government when he published his memoirs, The Man From Moscow .

It was increasingly books that “misrepresented” India that were targeted. Desmond Steward’s Early Islam and Michael Edwards Nehru: A Political Biography were both banned in 1975 for what the government considered grievous factual errors, as were Charles Bettelheim’s India Independent and Alan Lawrence’s China’s Foreign Relations Since 1949. Lourenco de Sadvandor’s incendiary, and sadly ill-researched, Who Killed Gandhi was banned in 1979, while the ban on Arthur Koestler’s scathing (but hardly well-informed) view of Eastern religion, The Lotus and the Robot , was carried over from the late ‘60s.

The 1980s: The early part of the decade appeared to be remarkably free of bans, but this was because broader, all-encompassing rules had now been framed. Any book that misrepresented India’s borders was confiscated by Customs and released only after the offending frontiers had been manually “corrected”.

In 1983, Morarji Desai obtained a temporary ban on Seymour Hersh’s The Price of Power: Kissinger and Nixon in the White House , which described Desai as a “star performer” for the CIA. The ban was eventually lifted, but by that time public interest in the book was on the wane. And Morarji Desai—who was then 93—gained much sympathy when Kissinger stepped up to testify on his behalf, stating unequivocally that Desai was no CIA spy.

But the most significant ban in the 1980s was the 1988 ban on Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses . Many writers saw this ban as shameful, and also saw that this might set a dangerous precedent. Rushdie himself was “hurt” and “humiliated”; India, his country of birth, was the first country in the world to ban the book.

The 1990s: Outright bans became increasingly rare, even as books faced different, sometimes sharper, challenges. Arundhati Roy’s Booker-winning The God of Small Things was challenged, but mercifully never banned, on grounds of obscenity.

Relatively few books were banned by the Central government--Hamish McDonald’s Polyester Prince , a life of Dhirubhai Ambani, banned in 1998, was a rare exception. Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh was temporarily banned after Bal Thackeray objected to a character in the book who bore a striking resemblance to the Hindutva leader. The Supreme Court overturned that ban in short order, though, and the book is now freely available.

2000-2006: In the last few years, the courts are no longer the main theatre where decisions about banning plays, film or art are carried out: instead, various groups, religious or political, have found direct action, vandalism or aggressive threats more effective. Literature has, by that yardstick, been slightly luckier, though James Laine and Taslima Nasreen might not agree. Laine’s life of Shivaji sparked off a virulent attack in January 2004 on the Bhandarkar Institute in Pune, and subsequently, the professor was threatened, and his book was banned in Maharashtra. (His publishers, OUP, withdrew the book before the state ban was enforced, but that gesture of appeasement didn’t satisfy Laine’s antagonists.)

Technically, the Central Government is not at fault; it is the state of Maharashtra, not the Centre, that has banned Laine’s book, but the effect has been identical—the book is no longer easily available in India, and the controversy has long since overshadowed Laine’s original scholarship. Taslima Nasreen’s autobiography was similarly banned by the West Bengal state government in 2003, but the ban was lifted by the High Court in 2004, and her books are freely available.

The one book that is officially on the banned list in this decade has an interesting history. The True Furqan: the 21st century Quran was banned in 2005 by the Indian government. The book has apparently been written by an evangelical Christian group, challenges the Koran, and attempts to proselytize Muslims. A rumour spread that the US government was trying to impose “a new American Koran” on Muslims, and gained such currency that USINFO issued a formal disclaimer to the effect that these claims were false.

The practice of banning books was once an expression of British paternalism towards their Indian subjects: erotica was supposed to be harmful for the natives, as were books that discussed the possibility of independent rule for Indians. I can only hope that we have reached a point of maturity where we can debate, not ban, books we disagree with—let’s see what the next few decades bring.
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