Thursday, October 12, 2006

Book review: The Inheritance of Loss

(This came out in India Today in January 2006; forgot to post it at the time, but given Kiran Desai's Booker win, this seems like a good moment to catch up.)

The Inheritance of Loss
Kiran Desai
Viking,
Rs 495, 336 pages



With Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard , Kiran Desai announced herself as an author in possession of the literary equivalent of perfect pitch. Anita Desai's daughter had a talent all her own, a set of skills too large for the slight but charming tale of an ordinary wastrel turned accidental godman. All she needed was the right story; and in the seven years in between Hullabaloo and The Inheritance of Loss , she's found it in an unlikely conjunction of places.

It's the season of mists in Kalimpong, where Sai's story starts in a crumbling house called Cho Oyu that reeks of loneliness and abandoned memories of perfection fuelled by a long-lost wealth. As Sai, her grandfather the retired judge and the cook watch, the first signs of conflict overtake the quiet rhythms of their lives. A band of young boys, unconvincing in their uniforms of "universal guerrilla fashion", break into Cho Oyu in search of the judge's rusting guns, demanding a reluctant tea-and-pakora hospitality, departing with "only items necessary for the movement", a list that includes Pond's Cold Cream.

Sai is an orphan, her parents unlikely casualties of an accident in Russia involving crates of nesting babushka dolls and a Moscow bus, her "dumpling love" for her Nepali tutor, Gyan, the only false note in her narrative, played deliberately but not very effectively for laughs. At Cho Oyu, Sai and the cook are the only still points in a landscape where every person is defined by the journeys they've made.

Sai is, above all, a reader: "Books were making her restless. She was beginning to read, faster, more, until she was inside the narrative and the narrative inside her, the pages going by so fast, her heart in her chest—she couldn't stop." The cook, it emerges, is a natural-born storyteller, inventor of a wonderful, perfect life in America for his immigrant son, Biju, creator of a magnificent, haveli-born past and a passionately loving marriage for the judge (who in truth, had neither).

The three of them, the cook, the judge and the young girl, are hapless, unwilling witnesses to the identity struggle playing out in the hills as the GNLF and other parties claim a land, a language and a respect that have all been denied the Nepali immigrants turned settlers. The rituals of Lola's marmalade on toast and the tunes from Uncle Potty's gramophone player, Father Booty's cheese-making dairies and Noni's library books are disrupted by bandhs and food shortages, killings and property takeovers. Gently but relentlessly, and with only an occasional excess of liberal guilt, Desai puts us in the position of the settler who knows the language of privilege better than the local tongue, whose crime is to love the landscape and the mountains passionately while retaining the distance of the outsider.

Sai's tale is beautifully balanced by Biju's journey into territory just as uncharted and exotic for this cook's son from the Himalayas as the journeys of Englishmen and Scotsmen into the hills of Kalimpong were in a previous generation. Biju's New York is the backstairs, underground, precarious and rambunctious universe of the Third World cooks and busboys who staff first-class, first-world restaurants.

Desai captures his particular brand of loneliness and bewilderment with rare empathy: "Biju put a padding of newspapers down his shirt…and sometimes he took the scallion pancakes and inserted them below the paper, inspired by the memory of an uncle who used to go out to the fields in winter with his lunchtime parathas down his vest… Once, on his bicycle, he began to weep from the cold, and the weeping unpicked a deeper vein of grief…" He finds a sense of community among these strugglers and stragglers, their Holy Grail the elusive Green Card; discovers the older immigrant's shame at rejecting the endless waves of new immigrants, the Tribes, coming from home, and the impossibility of helping all of them.

Between these two richly imagined narratives, Desai interrogates our ideas of entitlement and belonging, unpicks the identities of immigrant and settler. She does it all with a style and humour only occasionally marred by a heavyhanded playfulness that shows up in too many capital letters, too many italics—unnecessary embellishments for a writer of her calibre. But The Inheritance of Loss , a delightfully original book, justifies every cliché in the reviewer's repertoire: it is that rare thing, a triumph of the storyteller's art, nuanced. It is even, I concede, worthy of the most-overworked term in the reviewer's lexicon: luminous.

Monday, October 09, 2006

In the Flesh

(This essay on meat was written for Seminar's Culinary Crossings issue--some lovely pieces in there.)



Here is a partial list of animals I have eaten over the last three decades.

Goat (legs, stomach, brain, sweetbreads, kidney, liver, yes; eyes and head, never); cow (usually in the form of steaks, but also the tail in soups, the tongue, the parts inside—liver, kidneys, even heart, brain, intestines, but of the head only a small portion of a calf’s head, to be sociable), the feet in a glutinous soup somewhat like nihari; pig (the legs, roasted, the cheeks, the flesh in diverse forms, from pork chops to sausages, the blood in black pudding, the stomach and several organs in the form of haggis, the liver, deliciously, in a sorpotel); rabbit, twice or thrice, liking and repelled by its strong tang and dark, earthy taste; snake, if I am to believe the lady who fed me this rich, musty stew at a street stall in Kuala Lumpur, but I fear she was lying and it was only, after all, chicken; deer, presumably an illegally hunted specimen, in my youth at the home of a friend whose family was gun-happy and uncaring of the country’s laws; ants, in a spicy, fiery chutney, crickets, fried. This list is heavy on feet, innards and offal, but low on eyeballs and faces.

Fish (the back, the stomach, the tail, always when available, caviare or humble but equally welcome fish roe, and in loyalty to my Bengali heritage, if reluctantly, the head, often—all of it, in fact); prawns, oysters, mussels, lobsters, crabs, with and without the shells, always with relish; baby jellyfish, sea urchins and the like, on occasion, but never sea horse. I don’t know if anyone actually eats sea horses; dried sea horse is used in some alternative medicine therapies, but I found no recipes for sea horse entrees on the Net. Snails, which should show up once in the meat section for their slight resemblance to marrow and once here for the oysterish texture, I’ve eaten whenever I can get them, their taste enhanced by those tiny, doll’s house forks you use to extract the flesh.

Chickens, entire, and severally: the feet in Malaysian and Chinese soup, the beak, once and never again, the comb of a rooster, once and ditto, the breast and legs and wings, too often to count; ostrich, as steaks, three or four times, as eggs, three or four times; duck, often, in tired orange sauce and equally tired Peking duck pancake specials, once, memorably, after a shoot, in curries and sandwiches, the taste of it robust, gamey, but marred by the memory of the dying light in the shot bird’s eyes; goose and turkey at Calcutta Christmases, often but not of late, once in Canada, once in the US; pheasant, once, an unpleasant experience for an Indian unused to the practice of hanging meat until it turns ripe, gamey, rotted to our senses; partridge, several times; tiny birds whose name I have forgotten but that were served whole on toast—it would be nice to speculate that these were ortolans, but they were probably just snipe; quail, often, despite those fidgety bones; frogs, legs of (I suppose these belong with the fish, but everyone insists that frogs’ legs taste of chicken, so they’re here), a few times, without either pleasure or repulsion.

Here is a partial list of animals I have never eaten and that I would be reluctant to taste: dogs (especially puppies), horses, cats (especially kittens), guinea pigs, budgerigars, humans (perhaps one might make an exception for babies, the kind that cry at high volume), monkeys, chimpanzees, apes and orangutans, elephants, owls, nightingales, whales and dolphins, ibexes, penguins (and especially puffins, with their comically sweet faces), lizards, from the ordinary house-and-garden variety to iguanas and monitor lizards, (though crocodile steak I might eat) white mice, vultures, hoopoes, ocelots, lynxes, foxes and wolves, albatrosses, jaguars, panthers, tigers (and cubs), lions, sharks, duck-billed platypuses, kingfishers, hummingbirds and sparrows.

These lists. How arbitrary they are, how illogical in their implicit acceptance of what I will allow into my body and what I will forbid.






* * *



For 31 of my 34 years, I have been the perfect omnivore, the harassed hostess’s best friend—I will eat anything. (Almost anything—see lists—but then, very few Indians serve hummingbird, orangutans, puffins or iguanas to their guests; I have seldom been tested on my taboos.) My strongest dislikes are vegetable, not animal—stewed tomatoes, waterlogged bhindi, frozen American corn—and these were relatively few.

Of all the members of the animal kingdom, it was the mosquito that did me in. Like many Indians, and like the stereotypical army colonels of the British Raj, I have an admirable malarial tendency—the year I turned 31, I had my 30th bout of malaria, a source of perverse pride for me. I emerged from episode number 30 in the longrunning Malaria and Me soap opera, thinner, marginally more prone to the very Victorian complaint of fatigue—and with a changed palate.

It took me a while to realize that I couldn’t stomach meat any more. For the sake of my family, emphatically carnivorous, I hid this bizarre side-effect, politely attempting to eat the fried chicken, the mutton curries, the lightly steamed fish in mustard, the robust home-made kababs that were staples of my mother’s table. For the sake of my husband and a host of cheerfully flesh-eating friends, I continued to cook meat and fish long after both had turned to ashes on my palate. I went to great lengths to conceal this inadvertent vegetarianism at first, and I waited, patiently, for my palate to cease its apostasy. I found I could eat a little bit of flesh—fish, fowl, animal—through an effort of will, though I would throw up afterwards; for some reason, my appetite for prawns remained unaffected.

India is an easy country for a vegetarian. The European or American table holds meat in pride of place, vegetables as adjuncts, and it shows in the number of meat substitutes available for vegetarians—poor imitations made in soy protein or wheat gluten. The Far Eastern table gives fruits and vegetables the respect they deserve, but is unconcerned with vegan purity. Fish sauce will lace Thai meals, Japanese “vegetable” dishes will often contain a smidgeon of pork or fish for flavouring, the light stocks that Chinese vegetables are often simmered in are usually prepared from fish or meat bases. Here, we place rice and dal, or rotis and dal, at the heart of the meal. Even the classic Bengali non-vegetarian feast will have a strong line-up of vegetable fries and mashes, vegetable stews, vegetable chutneys. To stay away from meat is easy in the practical sense—it’s only on the social front that drifting towards meatlessness creates problems.

So, I became an equal opportunity offender.

My carnivore friends saw the shift towards meatlessness as apostasy, even betrayal; many of them mentioned one of the world’s most prominent vegetarians, A Hitler, as the classic counter-example to that other prominent vegetarian, M Gandhi. The good or evil that men do may be interred with their bones, they implied, but it certainly wasn’t to be inferred in the flesh they abstained from.

Carnivores attempted cunningly to turn me back to the path of flesh, offering Lucknow’s tundey kababs, tender cuts of lamb cooked Chettinad style, fragrant biryanis richly layered with beef, pabda maach cooked with whole black cumin, Goan pomfret fried in aromatic spice pastes—in extremis, they would smuggle homemade chicken stock into the daal and declare an underhanded victory.

Vegetarians were annoyed by me, as true believers are by the half-hearted convert. Some were tolerant; they saw dietary preferences as a private, very personal choice, and if they disapproved of what was on your plate, that disapproval rarely took the form of interference, or moral judgement. Others had arrived at intolerance after years of fighting for animal rights or having to defend their own dislike of meat, which didn’t make their righteousness any more palatable.

In the first few months of turning away from meat, I faced a battery of Purity Tests. So I didn’t eat meat? How about eggs, cheese, milk? (Eggs and milk I can take or leave, but anyone who takes my Gorgonzola or Reblochon away from me will die, I promise.) Did I understand that prawns suffer (yes, but I don’t like prawns as creatures, so I don’t care), that fish die in agonies (yes, and I like fish as creatures, so I do care), do I wear fur (no), silk (yes), use leather (if I can’t find another option), use products that weren’t tested on animals (as far as possible, no), campaign against slaughterhouses (no), support chicken battery farming (no), use insecticide (yes, though it’s a homemade herbal concoction)?

I accepted my own inconsistencies, and found them mildly fascinating, as fascinating as the question of what dead flesh I would eat and what I would eschew. But after a while, every passionate vegetarian argument, every finetuned query, began to sound like the tired chorus of a worn-out song: Was I pure enough, good enough, clean enough? Was I pure or tainted, righteous or sainted? Was I slightly pure, mostly pure, potentially pure?

Malaria had made me a reluctant semi-herbivore; a bone-headed stubbornness now made me a reluctant semi-carnivore. Over the months, what had started as a disease of the palate, an inexplicable turning away from flesh, mellowed into the realization that given a choice, I preferred fruit and vegetables, the nectarine over the neck of lamb, the cauliflower-and-turnip pickle over the calf’s-feet-jelly, even, heresy of heresies, tofu over trout. Even so, I ate just enough meat—a kabab a month, a bit of maacher jhol every two months, a bite of sausage at six month intervals—to permanently disqualify me from the ranks of the pure-in-spirit vegetarian. It was childish, and from a personal point of view, distasteful: much as I missed the memory of enjoying meat, when it was present in the flesh, my stomach, my tongue, my gustatory soul rebelled.

I follow and often endorse the moral argument for not eating meat—what cow, or goat, or chicken, or flapping, oxygen-starved fish, comes willingly to the butcher’s knife, and what right do we have to take another creature’s life to satisfy our own appetites? But this, on its own, would not stop me from eating meat—when it’s been a contest between my conscience and my palate, the palate has won, every time. I understand the ecological arguments—the grain and grass it takes to feed sheep, cows and goats would feed far more people if we were all vegetarian. But that would not stop me, either. Most of us who eat meat do so for the simplest of reasons: we like the way it tastes. My body gave up on flesh, not my heart, mind or memory. Unlike Gandhi, I sensed no goats bleating in my stomach, pleading to be restored to life.

What do you do when the rebellion against flesh comes from deep within your own flesh? To have this choice at all is a luxury in India, where so many people live on the edge of starvation, where a single green chilli can be the highlight of a meal. I have always had this choice, though, and all I can do is examine its implications.

My inheritance was the secular kitchen, where forbidden food like pork and beef, and food off-limits to widows, such as onions, garlic and fish had equal space on the table with a yogi’s pavitra diet—honey, yogurt, bitter gourd, seasonal fruits. Given the insistent inclusiveness of this heritage, something I shared with only a thin layer of Indians, I felt that before I gave up meat entirely, or returned to its complex pleasures, I needed to look more closely at the nature of meat itself.






* * *






Smell, sound, sight: three memories


Smell. Ahmedabad, 2004:

Two years after the riots that tore Gujarat apart, I’m here to do an innocuous, tourist story on the state’s ancient and very beautiful step wells. I have not yet named my turning away from meat, merely registered it. The city is normal. The riot survivors have been tidied away, banished from memory, exiled from most of Ahmedabad’s busy, commercial streets. Navaratri is in full flow, and at night, the rhythms of the dandiya drive the city into motion.

The second morning in Ahmedabad, I’m up at dawn to see one of the oldest stepwells in the city. The bats are disturbed when I negotiate the steps downwards, and they flutter among the delicate stone carvings on walls like the black exhalations of sleepy ghosts. In the half-light of morning, this place is incredibly beautiful; I sit at the very bottom of the well for a long time, listening to the sounds of the azaan from the nearby mosque drift slowly downwards, breathing in the mossy air. And then I ask the driver whether he would take me to Gulbarga, the small, middle-class cluster of flats where Ehsan Jafri and a score of other Muslims were burnt alive or hacked to death as the riots raged across Ahmedabad.

To this day, I have no idea why I wanted to go there—I am no activist, just a book reviewer who does travel stories too, definitely not the kind of reporter who takes wars, riots, morgues and corpses in her stride. Perhaps this was just self-indulgent disaster tourism; but in a city that has embraced amnesia so effectively, I found myself wanting to pay tribute, if in the smallest of ways, to bear witness to what happened here.

Hardware shops are strung out in a line in front of the narrow alley that leads to the Gulbarga society. Many of them are open for business, and they look at me incuriously: they have seen too many riot tourists to care, there are no TV cameras accompanying us.

Gulbarga is approached through that narrow alley, boxed in by other societies and flats on three sides. There are no birds, no cats, no stray dogs, no humans here. The houses are small but must once have been cheerful; they were painted in different colours, lilac, apple green, bright blue.

The ground beneath my feet is spongy, and black, and still littered with glass, with shards of pottery from ceramic planters, with splinters of wood from cane chairs, fragments of paper from schoolbooks and magazines, with shreds of fabric. If there are other, more human remains here, they are not visible: if there was blood or bone or hair, it has been removed, or it’s hidden under that thick sticky coat of black, kerosene-soaked mud that I will later track into the halls of the heritage hotel where I’m staying.

It would be so easy to say that Gulbarga stinks of death, and pain, and fear. The windows of most of these homes are smashed; a broken swing hangs suspended from a chain outdoors and a black stain, denser than the rest of the tarry mud, spreads out under it. The people who lived here had no way out once the mobs came; nowhere to find shelter except in these fragile houses, and they were dragged out of there and set on fire, or beaten to pulp, some had their limbs hacked off their torsos before they died, some were burned alive, and none of that shows in the remains of Gulbarga.

The truth is that it does not smell of terror at all or of sadness. It smells of a havan; the scorched patches of oil-soaked earth are familiar to anyone who has attended that ancient Hindu rite of prayer and fire. It smells of the crematorium, yes, but it also smells the way a barbecue at a party smells the next day, ashes and the departed ghost scents of roast meat.

It is very silent here, so silent that I am first irritated when a gasping, snorting sound breaks the unnatural peace of the colony. And then I turn to see my taxi driver, the young Hindu boy who told me yesterday how the “Mohammedans” were ruining the city, is in tears, he can’t hold back his sobs, he crumbles handfuls of black, greasy earth between his fingers and he cries like a child, in great gasps. There is nothing to say; I sit there, looking at the dark brown fingers of soot on a pale pink kitchen wall, looking at the money plant still growing in a shattered Jaipur pottery planter, looking at the exercise book where there is nothing written after the words ‘A Picnic’.

Ahmedabad has incredibly delicate vegetarian food, and for the next few days, I try all the local specialties, from undhyo to patra to dapka kadhi, and behind every thali I can smell the charred, oil-soaked earth stink of Gulbarga. Then one day, several months later, I wake up to an absence, a smell that is no longer there. Gulbarga has left my olfactory memory, and will not return until I write these paragraphs, this sentence.

Sound. Kumaon Hills, 1998.

We arrive at the army cantonment up in the Kumaon Hills after a long drive, touted as a Himalayan Rally, through some of the loveliest landscapes in India. It is Durga Puja, and I have been silently missing the rituals, bustle and of course food, of this quintessentially Bengali festival. “We have arranged something special for you,” says the Colonel to our tired troupe. “A proper regimental puja.”

We shower with lukewarm, slightly muddy water; the women officers and I change into saris, salwar kameezes, the men into clean shirts, pressed trousers. Far off, a goat bleats, then another, widening into a chorus.

The “temple” is located inside a large tent, and we watch the priest go about the arti, those tiny flickering flames and the scent of camphor bringing a small whiff of comfort to the travelworn, the road-weary. Then we’re ushered outside, into a field. It is already dark, and all the stars are out, a light breeze plays up and down the hills. Even to an agnostic like me, the evening prayers have brought peace.

One of the women, the young wife of a young Captain, stirs uneasily. She is listening to the bleating of a goat, not so far-off any more. The goat—properly a kid—trots in eagerly, escorted in by two soldiers with very young faces and very old eyes. It bleats; off in the distance, other goats answer. It is very interested in the wooden structure—two poles decorated with garlands of leaves and flowers, and it tries to eat some of the flowers, as a burly man in uniform tests the blade of a long, curving knife, crouched down beside the kid.

It is only when the soldiers pull on the rope around its thin neck and force its head down onto the crescent-shaped piece of wood connecting the two poles that the kid starts to protest. It bleats, and the answering, distant bleats are more frantic. It bleats again, and again, wriggling, kicking its legs out. The burly man stands up and swings the blade easily, testing it, splitting a green coconut in two with no effort. The kid has been subdued, but its eyes are rolling and it piddles uncontrollably; I am close enough to see the froth forming at the side of its mouth. It bleats yet again, an animal, human cry, and the bleat is cut in two, severed as swiftly as its head by the blade as the burly man, having taken his stance, brings the knife down cleanly. In the distance, the other goats bleat continuously; the kid’s head bounces twice and lies still.


The young wife of the young Captain has fainted. She is a vegetarian, and she has never seen an animal sacrifice before. She eats no meat that night, but the rest of us do. The meat is warm, tender, steaming. I eat with pleasure, and my conscience is untroubled. But many years later, when my husband and I have shifted to Nizamuddin, where goats are still bought and kept in people’s gardens and homes before the ritual sacrifice on Bakrid, I hear the happy bleats of the goats, especially the young ones, and I think of the goat we met that night in Kumaon.

Sight: INA market, Old Delhi meat market, Sarojini Nagar Market, 2006:

I know these markets, I know the butcher’s shops, I have been coming to these blood-steeped alleys from the age of five, or six, accompanying my mother or my grandfather on ritual shopping expeditions. But one of the first lessons you learn as a flesh-eater who also buys and cooks meat is the art of selective vision.

We do not live at a distance from our meat, as you might in other countries; a few malls and supermarkets now offer neatly packaged frozen or fresh cuts, meal-sized portions that have none of the slaughterhouse feel about them, but this is still relatively uncommon. Most of us buy meat and fish in the flesh, up close near the blood and guts.

You learn very quickly not to look too closely at certain things. The gutters, running with blood, feathers, scraps of flesh, wattles and combs, fish scales, the plucked whiskers of prawns. The bucket of guts, gills and intestines at the fishmonger’s, the bucket of skin, feathers and innards at the chicken shop. You learn to look for certain things; redness in some cuts of meat, shading to voluptuous dark maroon in other cuts from other animals. You look for bright red gills and a firm skin in fish, but you ignore the occasionally flapping lips of a fish so fresh it still misses the water. You look for greyness in shellfish, which is bad; but in some specimens, an oceanic greeny-greyness indicates flavour. You look carefully at the leg of goat or lamb the butcher slaps down on his block, to check that the flesh is firm; you look closely at liver and kidneys, rejecting wrinkled and deformed organs; but it would be a mistake to look too closely at the butcher’s block, where years of hacking and chopping have blended the grain of the meat so thoroughly with the grain of the wood that the surface mixes animal, vegetable and mineral in one inextricable mass.

The meat market in Old Delhi is the wholesale market, and it has no time for niceties; the meat arrives often on the hoof, and while it isn’t slaughtered on the premises, it can come in so fresh that warm steam from the blood that poured out of the carcass still rises from the flanks, the legs, the chest of the dismembered animal. Three boys, apprentice butchers, squat and chat as they casually stick their hands up the rectums of goats and flick out the shit. Great masses of flies rise and settle, rise and settle, first on the blood of the carcass, then on the gleaming piles of black goat pellets. One of the alleyways is given over to heads—sheeps and goats, chiefly, some with their tongues neatly severed and tucked into the gaping mouths, and eyeballs lightly loosened from the socket. The morning I go, there are no horse’s heads on sale, though the butchers confirm that a few occasionally can be found—they are uncomfortable discussing who might buy a horse’s head, and what finished dish might be made from it, and they say it is not a frequently sought after item. It is, however, remarkably cheap.

I hope that if I look long enough at these corpses, the transformation of the living into the dead into dinner, I might experience a life-changing revulsion, be free of my ambiguity about meat and flesh, blood and bone, my reluctance to commit to one or another side of the vegetarian debate. A revelation would be wonderful, but even revulsion would be useful in this personal exploration of the sins of the flesh.

And so I look. At INA market, I notice for the first time how neatly the haunches of goat hang from the shop lintels, how cleanly the inverted hooks pass through the tendons, just above the trotters, how carefully the liver, sweetbreads, heart and kidneys of each animal has been inserted into the half-carcass so that you can inspect it for health, for the consistency and clarity of the fat, before you buy.

I notice how the fishmonger reserves his respect for the pickiest customers, the ones who understand that the best fish was breathing up to a minute ago, who will buy the small, unregarded, tasty fish with those deadly, hair-thin bones. If you lift the gills of carp at the right angle, you might spark an involuntary exhalation, a final, if illusory, sigh.

No fashion designer has yet claimed inspiration from the meat markets, but no fashion designer could improve on the beauty of the colour scheme—the gunmetal, silver gleam of fish brought into shining relief by the vivid reds, maroons and scarlet of blood and guts.

And I notice—have I been blind all my life?—how the worst position of all, if you’re a chicken destined for the table, is to be in the third row, the fourth or the fifth row, the bottom rows of the coop. The ones in the first row have just as little space, but their feathers are white shading to cream. They shit on the chickens below and the chickens below shit on the chickens underneath and in the constant jostling of chickens for living space, every now and then the dried shit on the feathers of the chickens above cascades down like dirty whitewash onto the chickens on the lower rungs.

I see all this, and my mind makes the automatic transition of all cooks everywhere in the world: I think of earthy dak bungalow curries and the aroma of chicken country captain, of chicken breasts tenderly braised with mushrooms, of spicy mutton curries fiery with red chillies, spiked with malt vinegar, of subtle fish coconut curries, of crisp-fried fish fillets with shallot. This is a strictly fleshly pleasure, the knowledge that you can take the stink and the mess of the marketplace and transform that into food that will fill the belly and make the soul hum with happiness.

One of the coops is placed on a bench; at the same level, there’s a tray of chicken feet. The butcher’s assistant adds two more feet to the tray from a freshly slaughtered bird; as he turns back, he jostles the tray a bit, bumping it closer to the coop. On the second level, getting shat on, but not so badly off as its counterparts on level three, a bird pokes its beak through the wires and discovers that it can peck at the chicken feet. It is a briefly disorienting sight, it looks like a Disney cartoon gone noir, as though the chicken is snacking on its own dismembered claws.

I have to step aside because a fresh bunch of goat carcasses is coming in; I watch as the butcher slams each haunch onto those hooks, and I wonder whether I would feel more horror if, say, those were skinned puppies being prepared for display, upside-down babies being skewered through their delicate, tiny feet. Perhaps, but what if I lived in a society where it was the custom to eat every third baby, to usefully dispose of the puppies in every litter that couldn’t be adopted? Revulsion wears off very, very quickly, as anyone who spends time in a meat market will know—it’s a question of what you’re used to.

I buy meat that I will cook, but not eat, making me an accessory to the crime in the eyes of all those good people who believe for very valid reasons that meat is murder. I could stop eating meat for the rest of my life, starting today, and still not atone for the sins committed during half a lifetime of meat-eating; I could be a vegetarian and still visit terrible harm on other people.

I have come to no useful conclusion about flesh; I know its pleasures, even if I increasingly abjure them. I know the vulnerability of the flesh, how easily it is penetrated by knife, skewer, fork. I know how close that dividing line is, between living and dead. I know that this ambiguity about flesh cuts deep and cuts close, too close to the bone.

The BS Column: Out of Egypt

(Published in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, September 5, 2006)

Naguib Mahfouz, who died last week at the age of 94, would have found much to satirise at his own funeral. Reuters reported that Egypt's most acclaimed author was given full state honours—his coffin was draped in a flag, borne in a horse-drawn carriage past a military guard of honour while the President and Prime Minister paid their last respects.

But the ordinary people whose lives Mahfouz had documented in works like The Cairo Trilogy were excluded from the funeral for reasons of security. The report quoted Amal, one of Mahfouz's many loyal readers: "He doesn't want a state funeral… Did he write for the flag? Did he write for the horses? He wrote for the poor. We should walk in his funeral."

All through his life, the people of Egypt and the state made their distinct claims on Mahfouz. The state often won, initially; the people always won, in the end. He worked for most of his life as a bureaucrat. Ironically, one of the key posts held by the man credited with helping Arab authors to speak and write freely was Director of Censorship in the Bureau of Art. His criticism of the Nasser government was veiled in allegories and fables; yet he could be outspoken, making no secret of his sympathy for Palestine or his distaste for those Islamists who suppressed women's rights and free thought.

Mahfouz's career would have been startlingly different if he had stuck to his original ideals as a writer. His early novels uncovered the history of Egypt and the medieval Arab world layer by layer—he planned a series of 40 novels in this vein that would pay homage to the rich heritage he shared with his people.

As one of his critics commented, the present had a way of breaking into the past, and the more Mahfouz delved into Egypt's ancient history, the more the contemporary reality he saw before him demanded its own set of stories. His massive work, The Cairo Trilogy , written over a 12-year period, is a vivid rendering of life in the ordinary neighbourhoods of Cairo—each book is named after a different locality. It towers over the rest of his work, perhaps unfairly.

He was often found at the Qasr-al-Nisa café, enjoying the often heated conversations between the young writers of the time. And he was most at home, as our prime minister Manmohan Singh discovered when he met Mahfouz some years ago, walking the streets of Cairo—he refused to buy a car, preferring to know his city at a more intimate level.

When he received the Nobel Prize in 1988, Mahfouz said in his speech that he realised he was unknown to the Western world: "I am the son of two civilizations that at a certain age in history have formed a happy marriage. The first of these, seven thousand years old, is the Pharaonic civilization; the second, one thousand four hundred years old, is the Islamic one." This sense of belonging allowed him to feel free to criticise religion and Islam, which he did most notably in the 1959 Children of the Alley , where God and the Prophet featured as characters, and Mahfouz aired his scepticism about organised religion.

In 1989, after Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses came out, a fundamentalist declared: "Had we killed Naguib Mahfouz , Salman Rushdie would not have appeared." Mahfouz, quite bravely, spoke out against Khomeini's brand of intellectual terrorism. He also made it clear that while he upheld Rushdie's right to his opinions, he did not support Rushdie's views on Islam. It was an unusually nuanced position in a period of implacable certainties. Mahfouz suffered for his views: in 1994, he was stabbed in the neck by a young fundamentalist.

The attack severed the nerve that controlled his writer's hand, and since he wrote only in longhand, it would take till 1999 before he could write again. He bore this with patience; for nine decades, an eye problem had forced him to stop writing every summer: "Each year I must live for three months as a man who is not a writer." Now the man who defined himself as a writer first had to accept a much longer silence. Once he was able he returned to writing, without much fuss.

Many will remember Mahfouz by his novels of the city, some will turn to his historical work, and a few to his allegories. The finest epitaph for him might be what he said to The Paris Review in an interview: "At my age it is unseemly to be pessimistic. When you are young you can declare there is no hope for mankind, but when you are older, you learn to avoid encouraging people to hate the world."

The BS column: The long silence of Gunter Grass

(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, August 22, 2006)

"Why only now?" he says, this person not to be confused with me. Well, because Mother's incessant nagging...Because I wanted to cry the way I did at the time, when the cry spread across the water, but couldn't anymore...Because for the true story...hardly more than three lines...Because only now...The words still don't come easily.

That was how Gunter Grass began his 2005 novel, Crabwalk . His narrator was tired, exhausted by the words he produced for a living. Only a naïve reader would confuse the character with Grass himself, but all through last week, the question everyone asked came from Crabwalk : "Why only now?"

In an interview given shortly before the release of his autobiography, Peeling The Onion , Grass said he had lied about his wartime service. The German writer has always maintained that he had been drafted in 1944 to serve in an anti-aircraft auxiliary unit. Now he admitted that he had served at 17 in the tank division of the dreaded Waffen SS, the fighting arm of the elite force responsible for the Nazi regime's worst crimes. He spent his year in the SS on training exercises.
"Enough excuses. Still I refused for decades to utter the word SS and admit that I wore that double symbol. After the war, with growing shame, I wanted to keep silent about what I accepted in the stupid pride of my younger years," Grass said.

His confession has led to furious debate. How could we trust an author who had lied about such a crucial fact? How should we read him now?

Those of us who came to a new understanding of Germany and the Second World War through Grass's great Danzig trilogy cannot help but be disappointed. But should we now see his contentious, implacable, disturbing body of work as irredeemably suspect?

To pillory Grass would be to do exactly what Grass has asked us all his life not to do, which is to forget history. Gunter Grass never knew a Germany outside the Nazi regime. He was 12 when the Second World War began, which was also when he realized he wanted to be an artist. At 13, he won a short story contest—his first published story ran in the Hitler youth magazine, Hilf mit! (Lend a Hand).

In his Nobel acceptance speech, Grass spoke of how his mother's favourite cousin, a worker at the Polish post office in Danzig, was executed when the postal workers resisted the SS-Heimwehr at the start of the war. Grass's family never spoke of the cousin again.

"He became a non-person. Yet he must have lived on in me through the years when at fifteen I donned a uniform, at sixteen I learned what fear was, at seventeen I landed in an American POW camp, at eighteen I worked in the black market, studied to be a stone-mason…and wrote and drew, drew and wrote..."

Grass signed up for the draft as a 16-year-old, never thinking of the consequences. That was an act of will; and yet it should tell us a great deal about Nazi Germany that Grass saw no way out of being drafted into the same service that had been responsible for the death of his uncle. By 1944, the SS had broken down. No one has argued that Grass was personally responsible for any atrocities. At the time, he knew nothing of the Holocaust. "But while I didn't know of these specific crimes, I did know I was part of a system that had planned, organised and carried out the destruction of millions of people…Something - - all too easily called complicity - - has remained until today. I will certainly have to continue living with it during my remaining years."

He found his voice in the decades that followed the war, and he found his conscience. In his words, Grass turned to "narration as a form of survival as well as a form of art". Why did it take him so long to tell the truth? Perhaps he never found the right moment, and when would that moment have been—just after the war, when the confession would have killed his hopes of writing? Just after winning the Nobel, when the indignation would have been stronger?

Perhaps he never found the courage. As a reader, I could wish that he had been braver, but I am not Grass, I have not lived for years with the burden of this secret shame. Now, in the twilight of his life; he has unburdened himself, to our horror, and to his relief. It does not change his work, though it forces us to read his books with greater knowledge, a sadder understanding.

The Delhi reading list

(This was for the Outlook Delhi guide--very truncated list of books, fiction and non-fiction, on Dilli.)

City of Djinns: William Dalrymple (Penguin)

First published in 1993, William Dalrymple's exuberant account of a year in Delhi wears its age lightly. As the writer and his wife meet eunuchs, gently sozzled taxi drivers, nostalgic Anglo-Indians and the mandatory batty landlord, Delhi's exasperations and comforts become theirs to claim. Running parallel to the personal story of the Dalrymples is the crisp account of historical Delhi, from the first city of the British Empire to the heart of Mughal rule to Indraprastha. Necessary reading for the outsider; pure entertainment for the insider.

The Delhi Omnibus (Percival Spear, Narayani Gupta, R E Frykenberg) (OUP)

If you have room for only one reader about the city, this is it. Percival Spear's two books were published between 1945-1950, but still offer an authoritative account of the history of Delhi, and of the city's ups and downs in the twilight of the Mughal Empire. Narayani Gupta's account of Delhi covers the last years of the Mughals, examines Delhi's role in the 1857 uprising, and looks at the city after Independence. The essays collated and edited by R E Frykenberg cover personalities as disparate as Nizamuddin Auliya and Herbert Baker, and look at Delhi's architecture, population and cultural growth.

The Oxford India Mirza Ghalib (Editor, Ralph Russell; OUP)

Ghalib came to Delhi from Agra around 1810, as a newly married man aged thirteen, wrote prolifically if rarely lucratively, sparred with his rival Zauq at Bahadur Shah Zafar's court, and survived the savage upheavals of 1857, dying in 1869 in poverty. Ralph Russell's reader is perhaps the most comprehensive introduction to Ghalib's life, times and work, blending scholarship with lighter anecdotes about Ghalib's famous love of mangoes. If Russell's voluminous tome is too daunting, try Gulzar's slim 221-page life of Ghalib (Rupa & Co), which explores Ghalib's Delhi in detail, from the world of the courts to the crowded Old Delhi mohalla the poet lived in.

Rich Like Us: Nayantara Sahgal (HarperCollins)

Published in 1985, Rich Like Us was Sahgal's blistering analysis of the Emergency imposed by her first cousin, Indira Gandhi. Several of Sahgal's novels have explored the politics of newly independent India, and readers might want to read Rich Like Us alongside A Situation in New Delhi . Sonali, a young, idealistic civil servant, is made to suffer for objecting to the establishment of a new soft-drink factory; the deal exposes much of the ruthless corruption of the Emergency regime. Rose is an Englishwoman here to be part of a family that doesn't want her; when she stumbles across too much information, her stepson, a government minister, seeks to have her removed. Sahgal was scathing about the involvement of the elite, from bureaucrats to lawyers to politicians, in the cruelty and oppressiveness of the Emergency, and she made her points in style.

Delhi: Khushwant Singh (Penguin)

The grand old sardar of Indian literature is something of an icon in Delhi, and his fondness for Scotch, scholarship and gossip is legendary. "I return to Delhi as I return to my mistress Bhagmati when I have had my fill of whoring in foreign lands," begins Delhi: A Novel . This bawdy, lubricious, ambitious work fell short of his early novels-- I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale and Train to Pakistan , but it's still fun to read. The narrator is an ageing journalist attempting to cover 700 years of Delhi's history with help from courtesans, eunuchs and the odd foreign lady archaeologist, but as he warns, this often reads like "The Fucking Man's Guide to Delhi".

The Brainfever Bird: I Allan Sealy (Picador)

Brain Fever Bird shifts between St Petersburg and Delhi, and I don't know about the citizens of St Petersburg , but the citizens of Delhi have rarely been the recipients of such a wonderful love letter. The story, a tangled tale of biological warfare, puppetry and plague, pales before Sealy's descriptions of the city, from the "shrunken, much-molested stream"of the Yamuna to the grimy alleys of the Old City, where Razia's ancient story may still be played out through a puppet show, to Dilli, its brashness softened by the "pear-coloured light". "Of all loves city love comes slowest. Compare country love: quick, hot, easy. Or the sudden deep love of a woman." In a later novel, Sealy would write of Delhi that it was a wonderful mistress but a bad wife; but this book commemorated his affair to remember with the city.

Dil-O-Daanish: Krishna Sobti (Katha Books)

Translated into The Heart Has Its Reasons , this award-winning novel follows the fortunes of a joint family in the Chandni Chowk of the early 19th century. Sobti knows the twists and turns of relationships in a large Indian family as well as she knows the twisting, crowded, lively alleyways of Old Delhi.

The Last Mushaira of Delhi: Farhatullah Beg



Farhatullah Beg's quirky The Last Mushaira of Delhi is hard to find, but worth the search. Farhatullah used the true account of one of the last great gatherings of poets in Delhi, in the time of Bahadur Shah Zafar, as the backdrop, weaving fictionalised tales of the great masters of the couplet and the ghazal into the picture. The title is sometimes translated as "The Last Candle", referring to the practice of setting a lighted candle before the poet whose turn it is to recite.



Twilight in Delhi: Ahmed Ali (New Directions Press; Norton Books)



Ahmed Ali's classic account of the living city walled off and rendered a pale shadow of itself when Delhi became New Delhi was written in 1940. He follows the tribulations of Mir Nihal, a nobleman living in Old Delhi whose childhood memories of 1857 revive when the British begin to replace the Mughals as the rulers of the city, and when their "New Delhi" gradually leaches Old Delhi of its colour and power. Through shifting relationships, descriptions of kite battles in the skies, tales of courtesans and a poignant account of the slaughter of a pigeon fancier's beloved birds, Ali captures a Delhi that no longer survives except in memory. Anita Desai fans might see a resemblance between Mir Nihal, condemned to see his world crumble around him, and Nur, the ageing Urdu poet of In Custody, who has also found a final refuge in the lanes of Old Delhi even as he loses language, poetry and the past.



Trees of Delhi: Pradeep Krishen (Dorling Kindersley)



There are many reasons to hoard your copy of Trees in Delhi: the beautiful drawings, the intelligent leaf guide that allows even neophytes to identify unusual and common varieties of trees, the dollops of linguistic and cultural history that lace the descriptions of trees. The best reason of all is that this book, almost a decade in the making, allows you to rediscover the city, its avenues, monuments and small pockets of peace, in the company of an enthusiastic and passionately knowledgeable guide.



Altu-Faltu: Ranjit Lal (IndiaInk)



If Delhi is the city of politicians, migrants, khandaani families and artists, it is also home to monkeys—often more entertaining and better-behaved than any of the above. Ranjit Lal's delightful saga romps through the deserted monuments of old Tughlaqabad and the greenery of the Ridge as you follow the adventures of Altu-Faltu, the insidious Suna Hai and a bunch of simians struggling to establish who will be primates inter pares.

The BS Column: Independence Day

(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, August 15, 2006)

As we celebrate Independence Day, it is worth remembering that the great literary works from that time concern Partition and mourning, not Independence and celebration. Here are four extraordinary works that go deep into the heart of Partition.

Saadat Hasan Manto, Collected Short Stories : Manto lived in Bombay at the time of Partition, and had a nervous breakdown in its aftermath. The violence he had witnessed was remembered in his stories in precise, unflinching detail; what was more serious for the writer was that his sense of identity had been brutally reshuffled. He was Manto, the Muslim, suddenly, for people who had known him for years as Saadat, the writer. Manto moved back to Lahore, where he wrote his perfect stories, often in one swift draft, in between tending to the serious business of being a full-time alcoholic.

The man who captured the psychic agony of Partition more completely than any other writer is claimed by both India and Pakistan, fittingly. Today, his story 'Toba Tek Singh' is an iconic classic; to Manto, it was natural to set the drama of Partition in a lunatic asylum, and have its main protagonist inhabiting the no-man's-land of insanity rather than make an impossible choice between the two countries he could claim. There are other stories, stories only Manto could tell, like the chilling 'Thanda Gosht' (Cold Meat), where a man stabbed for his suspected infidelity by his lover confesses that he has indeed been unfaithful—in the heat of the riots, with a corpse.

Khushwant Singh, Train to Pakistan : Published nine years after Partition, Train to Pakistan introduced a young, sensitive writer called Khushwant Singh. Singh set his story in the small Punjab village of Mano Majra, where the rhythms of daily life are set by the trains that rattle by at regular hours.

Then one day, a ghost train arrives at the village station. No one gets off; the villagers can make nothing of the train until they are asked to collect wood and kerosene, for no apparent reason.

"A soft breeze began to blow towards the village. It brought the smell of burning kerosene, then of wood. And then—a faint acrid smell of searing flesh.'

'The village was stilled in a deathly silence. No one asked anyone else what the odour was. They all knew. They had known it all the time. The answer was implicit in the fact that the train had come from Pakistan.' Khushwant Singh has since become the Grand Old Man of Indian letters, and is famous for his bestsellers; but he never wrote anything to equal that early novel. This year, Roli Books released a new edition of Train to Pakistan with Margaret Bourke-White's unrelenting, agonizing photographs of the year of Partition.

(N.B. Also read Somini Sengupta's piece on the new edition of Train to Pakistan.)


Rahi Masoom Reza, A Village Divided : In 1966, Rahi Masoom Reza published Adha Gaon, perhaps the novel that was closest to his heart. The novel is divided into ten chapters, mirroring the ten days of Moharram, and set in a lightly fictionalized version of the village of Gangauli, where Reza grew up.

Reza offers an insight into the world of a largely Shia Muslim village in India, which survives World War Two, is heavily scarred by Partition, but limps into Independence with the rest of India. The life of the village and the relationships between the various characters are disrupted by Partition in the same way that Reza interrupts the flow of the story to insert an 'Introduction' on page 272. "I, Saiyid Masson Reza Abidi… am deeply worried. I am constantly asking myself where I belong—Azamgarh or Ghazipur?" says the narrator. He knows only Gangauli, in Ghazipur; he will not let anyone have the right to tell him to leave for elsewhere, and because he must lay claim to a concept called 'home', he interrupts the story, with an Introduction.

Kamleshwar, Partitions : In May 1990, Kamleshwar began work on Kitne Pakistan , an ambitious attempt to understand Partition through allegory and realism. Hope, tragedy and suffering have equal roles in the India of 1947, as Buta Singh and Zainab find and lose each other, separated by refugee camps, religion, national policies and ultimately, death. But Partition is only another defendant in a long-running trial, where an anonymous adeeb, a man of literature, presides over the testimony from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Nazi Germany, East Timor, the Aztec civilization and mythological Greece. From Toba Tek Singh to Babur, Ignatius Loyola to the Ganga (present as a witness), Qurrutulain Hyder to Mountbatten and Ravana, a cast of thousands wades through blood towards a tenuous peace in this extraordinary novel.

The Decline of the Book Review

(Carried in The Hindu, August 27, 2006.)


"The book review is a form that is capable of being used to address nearly any kind of issue, and any kind of question … The most intense issues are addressed in books. And book reviewing can be a way of bringing critical perspectives to bear on the most intense political issues."

Robert Silvers, in an interview, speaking of the early years of the New York Review of Books.


"In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be 'This book is worthless', while the truth about the reviewer's own reaction would probably be 'This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to.' But the public will not pay to read that kind of thing. Why should they? They want some kind of guide to the books they are asked to read, and they want some kind of evaluation. But as soon as values are mentioned, standards collapse. For if one says — and nearly every reviewer says this kind of thing at least once a week — that King Lear is a good play and The Four Just Men is a good thriller, what meaning is there in the word 'good'?"

George Orwell, Confessions of a Book Reviewer

If you had to locate the book review as an art form, it would be found somewhere between these two extreme, though equally accurate, perspectives.

When I began in the trade, stumbling into reviewing over ten years ago, Silvers' view of the book review may not have always prevailed, but it was the one we all aspired to: we wanted to start the really big conversations, we wanted to read the best writers on the most searing ideas of our time.

The books pages in Indian newspapers of that time—roughly 10 to 15 years ago—were not perfect, but they did not exist, as they do today, in a moral and critical vacuum. This seems an old-fashioned, quaint idea now. Then, it was taken for granted that a decent newspaper had to have a respectable set of pages on literature and the arts. In the major papers, the book review section occupied the space between the editorial pages, and the arts supplement; it was the connective tissue between the two.

The great flaws of that age were stylistic: many reviewers adopted a self-conscious, verbose, slightly pompous voice, as though High Literature could only be approached with a matching, and tedious, High Seriousness. But it was assumed that books, and the ideas they spread like viruses, were important; crucially, it was assumed that the average newspaper reader wanted this conversation, this engagement, and that it was the job of the newspaper to provide this.

In the introduction to a compilation of reviews from the New York Times, Charles McGrath writes, "In the beginning, the Times offered unsigned, often stuffy, "notices" and "appreciations"; gradually, bylines… began to appear and so, eventually, did true criticism, informed and reliable and aimed at a discerning general audience. In a way, the Book Review grew up, and became more sophisticated, just as the American readership did."

In 1959, when Elizabeth Hardwick wrote an influential essay on 'The Decline of Book Reviewing' for Harper's Magazine, the NYTBR was one of several newspapers that suffered from the sins she described so scathingly: "In America, now...a genius may indeed go to his grave unread, but he will hardly have gone to it unpraised. Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns. Everyone is found to have 'filled a need,' and is to be 'thanked' for something and to be excused for 'minor faults in an otherwise excellent work.'" (I wince as I read this, recognizing so many of my own and my colleagues' faults today.)

By the end of the 1960s, though, the NYTBR section had matured—as had book reviewing itself. The New York Review of Books set the tone for criticism, demanding a passionate engagement from authors, insisting that writers had a special view of the world and that their opinions were of importance if we ever wanted to understand our times.

Of course, no book review section of any longevity has been exempt from criticism. Harry Levin wrote of the redoubtable Times Literary Supplement , "During the 1920s, the TLS took a dim view of much that was brilliantly going on." Over the next two decades, the TLS came to a better understanding of the new modernism that had taken literature by the scruff of its neck and shaken it up.

These literary magazines and book review sections had three things in common: talented, often brilliant editors, space and the time to mature and change over a period of decades. They have their troubles; the NYT and the NYRB have both been flayed in recent years for ignoring fiction in favour of non-fiction, Salon sounded an alarm call in 2001 about the 'Incredible Shrinking Book Review' section, and authors like Jonathan Franzen speak of the disappointment they feel at the intellectual poverty of the contemporary book review. He was depressed, after the literary "success" of his novel The Twentieth City , at the failure of his "culturally engaged novel to engage with the culture. I'd intended to provoke; what I got instead was sixty reviews in a vacuum."

In India, the decline of the book review is especially frustrating because it's happened just as the publishing industry has started providing more—more books, selling in more numbers, covering more subjects, more professional translations, more new writers. I can only assume that the bright boys who run newspaper marketing departments read nothing these days, not even publishing industry reports.

But ten years ago, the physical space for the book review began to shrink, and it continues to suffer from anorexia. The intellectual space for any sort of engaged discussion on the living culture around us shrank in tandem, as the review went down from 1,500 words— such profligate largesse , I think now—to 1,000, then 600, then 400.

Last week, I found myself finishing a blurb for a friend's book—a resigned, workmanlike chore—and turning, almost immediately, to the resigned, workmanlike writing of the review of an "important" book. The blurb was 300 words; the review exactly 200 words.

To write a "review" at this length or even at 500 words is an exercise in parody; you can barely summarise the plot, let alone say anything of any significance about the book, the author, the genre. This is obvious; what is less obvious is that the emphasis on brevity and speed has lost us many of our best reviewers. There was a time when you could turn to the book review sections and read Rajmohan Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha, Mukul Kesavan, Shashi Deshpande and a score of others. Today, even the ghetto of the book review has no room for our best writers. There are exceptions; The Calcutta Telegraph will serialize 3,000-word exercises in literary criticism on the edit page, the Hindu Literary Review still survives, a few books page editors struggle to encourage quality on their pages. But by and large, we're told to be thankful that we have space, any space at all—we have not vanished, like the arts pages, the music pages, the sections on design, or dance, or theatre.

Why does the Indian book review survive at all? It has no room for translation, poetry or non-political non-fiction—three areas of substantial excitement in the last few years. It offers no space for the writers, scores of them, who have found their voices and their feet, who are in the process of exploring brave new worlds. It offers only the palest feuds, incestuous, gossip-ridden affairs, in lieu of genuine literary controversy—invective and accusations, usually true, of nepotism replacing the clash of argument against argument.

Amit Chaudhuri had a partial answer in a piece he wrote for The New Statesman: "The Indian writer in English must be co-opted into this narrative of success and record growth; anything else, during this watershed, is looked upon with anxiety. The writer mustn't cause anxiety; in our family romance, he's the son-in-law - someone we can be proud of, can depend on, who is, above all, a safe investment." The book pages have become extensions of Page 3, and as with the luxury goods in the fungal growth of shopping malls, the writer's worth is measured by his or her brand name, his or her bhaav in the international literary stockmarket. Today's book reviewers are called upon to chart that success, to make the simplest of all calculations: is this book worth buying, at a price tag of Rs 495, or can I make a better investment?

It doesn't have to be this way. We have the reviewers, especially among the younger generation of writers. We are beginning to have the books, as the publishing industry grows up; if you include translations, we already do have more than enough to review. We have the writers, emerging from the small towns, returning from the world's capitals; we have the conversations, the ideas, the passion, the will to look beyond the success story of India shining and mine the real narratives underneath. We have the editors who would, given half a chance, make the books pages more than a report card, more than a record of the private and necessarily furtive pleasures of reading.

We have all of this. And we choose to keep it corralled safely offstage, leaving the reader uncontaminated by ideas, untouched by the alternative reality that writing can offer to the official stories of India. Perhaps in the next decade we'll get around to asking why; perhaps we might even change; and perhaps that's too much to ask.

Book Review: Sacred Games

Sacred Games
Vikram Chandra
Penguin Books India
Rs 650, 900 pages



"You wanna talk rules? You wanna talk all that old-school bullshit? Then remember this rule: I am the m***f**-f*** one who calls the shots!" Tony Soprano Sr, in the hit TV series The Sopranos.

"If anything in this life is certain; if history has taught us anything, it's that you can kill anyone." Michael Corleone, in The Godfather Part II.

Five pages into Vikram Chandra's brick-sized opus, detective Sartaj Singh offers his own contribution to the Hall of Fame where tough-guy quotations are stored: "Love," he says softly, "is a murdering g****."

The first victim of passion in Sacred Games , mourned in this suitably filmi line, is a white Pomeranian who screams in her "little lap-dog voice" all five floors down to her death. Fluffy is the first in a series of memorable corpses: murdering and murdered dons, a wheelchair-bound gang member, a policeman who becomes collateral damage, a slickly efficient "model co-ordinator" turned procurer. Some tell their stories while they're still alive; others, like Sartaj Singh's alter ego, the "Hindu don" Ganesh Gaitonde, speak from beyond the grave.

The Sartaj of Sacred Games is older and more worn than the dapper, impassioned inspector whom we met first in Chandra's second book, Love and Longing in Bombay . The sardar is divorced; deprived of the cushion of his ex-wife's money, he has bent his principles and accepts bribes. He knows his way around the system, but despite the cynicism, he retains some of his old fire, some of his essential faith in justice. His colleague, Katekar, is a Bombay man to his bones, queueing up with but slightly apart from the other residents of his chawl for the bathroom in the morning. And Gaitonde may rule the underbelly of this mad city, but he has the village in his bones. The woman who becomes Gaitonde's friend and confessor, Jojo Mascarenhas, has the quintessential Bombay story of struggle, corruption and success behind her.

The narrative, shared between Sartaj and Gaitonde, is broad enough to encompass a Partition tale and a contemporary thriller involving nefarious plots and nuclear bombs. Chandra made it clear from his first novel, the remarkable Red Earth and Pouring Rain , that he was not a fan of minimalism. Like every Bollywood fan, he has a respect for the slow unspooling of the three-hour-long epic; his closest literary contemporary might be that other master of darkness and ambiguity, James Ellroy. Chandra and Ellroy write with the dirt of the underworld embedded in their fingernails; they prefer the loose, open-ended, character-packed story to the taut, pared-down drama. This can get tedious: a sub-plot concerning a wheeler-dealer godman is so interminable that it almost derails the story, and the intricate games played by Sartaj's bosses can be hard to follow.

But it's the relationship between don and policeman, two depressive cynics with a secret belief in innocence, that gives Sacred Games its energy. As with Gregory Roberts' Shantaram and Suketu Mehta's Maximum City , the detail rings true, from the small hissing noise that blood makes as it runs out of a bullet hole in someone's skull to the superstitions of tough ganglords. Mehta and Chandra researched their respective books around the same time, though the friendship didn't survive the writing. It is remarkable how closely paired Maximum City and Sacred Games are, how both books share a fascination with the extreme. Suketu's non-fiction often has the quality of fiction, while Chandra's fiction runs smoothly on the rails of fact, and both are massive books, struggling to contain the essence of Bombay between the covers.

It would be easy to suggest that Sacred Games could have been edited down, but that wouldn't have suited Chandra's narrative style. To him, it's all essential, from the mechanics of how to set fire to a slum, to the finer details of how a top film star might set about editing her body into bestseller status, to the Marxist visionary from Patna who becomes a warrior in a dirtier revolution. They all jostle for space along with Sartaj and Gaitonde in the world's most psychotic, most hypnotic, most schizophrenic city.

At its worst, Sacred Games reminds you of every Hindi film you've ever seen about the underworld, blending hard realism with maudlin sentimentality. At its best, this novel is a love letter to Bombay, scripted by a policeman and a gangster who have nothing in common but the remains of a once-shining faith. Either way, it's worth the nine hundred pages.[ends]

The censor's @ yr URL

(I don't normally post my Time Out cybercolumn, which is written by and large for an offline, not online, audience, but this one probably deserves to be here. It was written at the height of the Indian Internet censorship controversy.)


Dr Gulshan Rai is not in the office.



On a normal day, I wouldn't need to contact the executive director of CERT, the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team. But this hasn't been a normal day, or even a normal weekend.



If you live in Saudi Arabia, you find out about a banned site by accessing a government website that provides a list of bans and invites citizens to ask for bans on specific sites to be imposed—or removed. If you live in China, you wake up to find you can't access Google, or Wiki, or your favourite blogger, and you know the site is now behind the notorious Great Firewall of China.



But I live in one of the world's largest democracies, where I discover on a Friday that I can't access blogspot, a popular hosting service for blogs. Bloggers can still post using blogspot's mother service, Blogger.com, which has not been banned. But I can't read my favourite blogs, whether they're from India or elsewhere, unless I use one of the many ways in which you can bypass a ban. (See sidebar.) Popular bloggers Mridula, Dina Mehta, Desipundit and Neha Viswanathan post about this, and Neha has a running update on her site, Within and Without. A Blogger's Collective Against Censorship is soon up and running.



I try Dr Gulshan Rai, but it's a weekend and he's not in office.



Until late on Monday, the Indian government does not confirm a ban, offer a list of sites that have been blocked, or offer reasons for the block. By now, most Indian service providers have blocked all sites on Blogspot, Typepad and Geocities. Blogspot and Typepad are blog hosting services; Geocities is a popular home page service. This cuts Net users off from the global streams of information available at these domains. By afternoon, we know that a directive has been issued, but the list of blocked sites remains confidential. Dr Gulshan Rai is in a meeting; he will be unavailable all day.



By the time you read this, the ban may have been lifted. Most of us think the government's intention was to block specific sites, but that out of incompetence or overzealousness, they shut down entire domains. This is like closing down a library because one book in it might be banned. Experienced Net users are reading our favourite blogs anyway on RSS feeds or through anonymizer services. It's the trend I worry about, and that I would like to discuss with Dr Gulshan Rai, who happens to be out of the office.



A government that is worried about the spread of free speech, terrorist activity, separatist groups, gossip about politicians, and most of all, its own lack of control over all of this, might be tempted to turn censor. A Blogspot ban is relatively minor—it only affects about 40,000 Indians directly (and many more readers). A Google or Yahoo! ban would affect millions.



This is my government. I'm fond of it, I pay the taxes it asks for, and that go towards the salary of the CERT executive director, among other government servants, but I have a right to ask that it be accountable to its citizens. If there is a ban on specific sites, tell us what these sites are, and explain why they need to be banned. Dr Gulshan Rai has the information I need, but he happens to be in a conference. It's a pity we never got to talk: I'm sure he would have had interesting things to say.

The BS Column: Terrorist Tales

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

Long before 9/11 unleashed a flood of novels about terror into a paranoid world, Don DeLilo spoke of the challenge before the writer: "Isolation, solitude, secret plotting. A novel is a secret a writer may keep for years before he lets it out of his room. Writers in hiding, writers in prison. .. For most writers in the West of course…the cells we live in are strictly personal constructions."

"Let's change the room slightly and imagine another kind of apartness. The outsider who builds a plot around his desperation. A self-watcher, a lonely young man, living in a fiction he hasn't bothered to put down on paper. But this doesn't mean he is unorganized, he organizes everything. This is how he keeps from disappearing. His head is filled with dangerous secrets, and he may finally devise a way to come out of his room. He invents a false name, orders a gun though the mail, then looks around for someone famous he can shoot."

DeLilo had no way of knowing how compelling the figure of the terrorist, the underworld outlaw, the renegade gunman or even the war correspondent would become in this decade. One of the first, fractured but brilliant reactions to 9/11 came from a man with terrible expertise in war, terror and inhumanity. Art Spiegelman's Maus was a searing, unforgettable portrait of Nazi Germany, seen through the eyes of mice (the Jews), pigs (the Polish) and cats (the Germans). In his graphic novel, In the Shadow of No Towers , Spiegelman drew frame after frame of an image that haunted him—"one that… still remains burned onto the inside of my eyelids several years later… the image of the looming north tower's glowing bones just before it vaporized."

To speak of the victims of terrorism is much easier than describing the agents of terror, as Don DeLilo hinted. His words came back to me when I read two starkly different novels—Kiran Nagarkar's ambitious God's Little Soldier and John Updike's Terrorist . Nagarkar's protagonist, Zia, is frighteningly plausible in his struggles with faith, his insistence on the reassuring fanaticism of absolute belief.
He reminded me of Hanif Kureishi's protagonist in the short story, 'My Son the Fanatic'. The problem that Zia and Kureishi's young fanatic posed was identical: they were part of the ordinary, superficially enlightened world, so how could they have been infected with the deadly virus of implacable belief? Nagarkar attempts to answer that question by turning Zia into a superhero, a mathematical genius who can survive training in Afghanistan and play the part a Catholic priest. The more powerful Zia becomes, the less plausible he is as a character.

Nagarkar did a better job than Updike. In a scathing review of John Updike's Terrorist , Michiko Kakutani writes: "Unfortunately, the would-be terrorist in this novel turns out to be a completely unbelievable individual: more robot than human being and such a cliché that the reader cannot help suspecting that Mr. Updike found the idea of such a person so incomprehensible that he at some point abandoned any earnest attempt to depict his inner life and settled instead for giving us a static, one-dimensional stereotype."

Mohsin Hamid's second novel promises to be far more nuanced. The author of Moth Smoke has been working for several years on The Reluctant Fundamentalist . Hamid's protagonist is a young Muslim banker working in New York at the time of 9/11; when the world changes, the way he's seen also changes, and he must decide whether he can continue to live in New York or whether he must go back to Lahore. It should be interesting to read this alongside Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games , which juxtaposes the story of a cynical Bombay cop and a Bombay hitman against the background of the underworld. Despite their very different themes, Hamid and Chandra share a fascination for complex, multilayered characters, and for the ways in which power and prejudice work, wherever they are found.

If fictions of terror have a future, though, it might just be with the graphic novel. Check out Anthony Lappe and Dan Goldman's Shooting War , which has a cult following online. The year is 2011, the war in Iraq is into its eighth year, and America is inured to repeated terrorist attacks. Anti-corporate blogger Jimmy Burns has his NYC apartment blown to bits in a bomb attack, records the footage and is promptly recruited by a TV company, Global News ("Your home for 24-hour-terror coverage!") to cover the situation in Iraq. The story becomes increasingly complex, the satire more savage, but one character sums it up: "It's prime time holy war."

The BS column: Raja Rao (obituary)

(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, July 11, 2006. This elicited one of the most hair-raising emails I have received in a while: "Dear Mr (sic) Roy: [Long paragraph about importance of Raja Rao and/ or importance of spirituality in daily life, plus lament about the irreligiosity of the Modern Man. And then:] I agreed one hundred per cent with your observation that sainthood is an incontinent thing. Regards and blessings, Mr X."
Sainthood is an
incontinent thing? I sweated buckets of sweat wondering whether that was really what I'd written before checking the online, paper and Word doc version for reassurance.
It was only a few days later that I thought about saints, and the fact that they achieve the halo at a ripe old age, and wondered whether perhaps Mr X might not have had the right phrase after all.)



"Sainthood is an inconvenient thing," Raja Rao wrote of Mahatma Gandhi. The essay was published in The Meaning of India in 1996, but Raja Rao's meditations on sainthood were of much older vintage. The saint, to him, was a man who "would be perfect"; the politician was a man who "would make the world wholesome, whole".

Raja Rao understood saints and sainthood perhaps better than he understood politicians and politicking, and he would have been amused, if puzzled, at the canonisation that will inevitably follow his death at the age of 98 this Saturday in Texas.

His first novel, Kanthapura , remains one of the most perfect classics of Indian literature. His later works, from The Serpent and the Rope to The Chessmaster and his Moves and The Cat and Shakespeare were critically acclaimed, though none of them achieved the iconic status of Kanthapura .

Kanthapura was published in 1938, when Raja Rao was just 30. Today's college students in India might not understand the impact Kanthapura had on students of a decade-and-a-half ago, when the "Eng" in Eng Lit was taken very seriously. The curriculum was devoted to Dryden and Chaucer and Shakespeare: no Faulkner, no Proust, no Garcia Marquez, and certainly no Indian writers were allowed to pollute those literary waters. Few colleges would have dreamed of placing Mulk Raj Anand or Salman Rushdie alongside the Silver Poets or E M Forster.

Reading Kanthapura in college was a liberating experience. It was the key to our own world, and to a wider world. The fierce discussions sparked off by Raja Rao's novel of a village whose slow life-cycles are savagely interrupted by revolution led us inevitably to Manohar Malgaonkar, Bankimchandra, O V Vijayan. And Kanthapura also let us claim the work of Chinua Achebe and Naguib Mahfouz.

Today, when debates over the importance of "location" and "audience" overwhelm the actual work of writers, it is worth remembering that the work seen as one of the most quintessentially Indian in the IWE canon was written in a French chateau. Raja Rao had written in Kannada and then experimented with French before settling into English.

"The telling has not been easy. One has to convey in a language that is not one's own the spirit that is one's own… English is the language of our intellectual make-up—like Sanskrit or Persian was before—but not of our emotional make-up… We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians. We have grown to look at the large world as part of us."

That prescription, from the Foreword to Kanthapura , was written in 1937 and holds true for Indian writers even today. The voice of Achakka, the old woman who narrates Kanthapura's story, is still fresh, seventy years after Raja Rao created her. In Rao's words, the story "may have been told of an evening, when as the dusk falls…stretching her bedding on the verandah", a grandmother might tell a newcomer the sad tale of her village.

In 1945, Raja Rao wrote to his friend E M Forster, "I have abandoned literature for good—and gone over to metaphysics. I am not a writer any more…." Forster responded in kind: "You have, you say, abandoned literature for metaphysical inquiry. I have abandoned literature for nothing at all. So please let us meet."

Raja Rao became a student and teacher of philosophy, but continued to write. David Iglehart, a former student, runs the Raja Rao Publication Project: Rao has left behind four unpublished novels, short stories, essays, poetry in French and correspondence with Indira Gandhi, Octavio Paz, and Andre Malraux. Iglehart has also edited Rao's The Daughter of the Mountain , the second volume of his trilogy based on The Chessmaster and His Moves, to be published soon. He was an active writer, Iglehart reminds us, not someone who should be stifled beneath the camphor of sainthood.

In 1969, Czeslaw Milosz wrote a poem to Raja Rao: "Raja, I wish I knew/ The cause of that malady./ For years I could not accept/ the place I was in./ I felt I should be somewhere else…" it begins. "I hear you saying that liberation is possible/ and that Socratic wisdom is identical with your guru's./"…Milosz continues, and ends with: "No help, Raja, my part is agony, / struggle, abjection, self-love, and self-hate, / prayer for the Kingdom/ and reading Pascal."

Raja Rao's path was very different from Milosz's, much less wracked by pain and doubt. But here at last is an image of Raja Rao that might stand for the author as well as the man: not a saint, not an icon, but the priest in his confessional, listening in silence, offering understanding, and absolution.

Fishballs at five am

(Carried in Outlook Traveller's August issue, I think. Thoroughly enjoyed writing this one. More than I enjoyed the breakfast itself, frankly.)


It's six am, Tiretta Bazaar, Calcutta, and we're doing the Chinese breakfast on Bentinck Street the right way. Which is to stay up all night arguing and laughing, maroing adda until someone says, Hey, it's morning, who wants breakfast?



The wrong way to do this is to wake up at 5 am in order to make a special trip to one of Calcutta's most venerable food attractions. That's the tourist method, and it guarantees disappointment. There may have been a time when breakfast in Chinatown was a mindblowing culinary experience, but that time is long past.



The first time I went there, I didn't get it. Calcutta is famous for its Chinese food. The community was among the first group of migrants to settle in the malarial swamp of Sutanuti and Kalighat, way back in 1780. Cal Chinese has a bit of mainland, a touch of the original Cantonese, the subtlety and strength of the original flavours married to Bengali ingredients and cooking styles. Those who can stand the stink swear by the food at Tangra, where you get great Chinese food in the middle of Calcutta's most pungent tannery. Those who have sensitive noses could pretty much throw a stone anywhere on Calcutta's streets and still find a decent Chinese restaurant or noodle shack.



But the famous Bentinck Street breakfast was simultaneously alien, and on a smaller scale than I had anticipated. We got there early: the vendors were just setting up when we turned into Tiretta Bazaar. They were serving strictly home-style, no-concessions-to-the-stupid-gaijin-palate food to a smattering of customers; by seven am, most of the food would have sold out.



There were light soups—just basic broths with a few greens and the odd chicken foot stirred in. There were heavier, spicier broths, including one where the twin hammers of Szchezwan chillies and pickled garlic drowned out the fishballs: we called it Krakatoa soup because it carved out an instant lava-filled crater in your stomach. There was steamed pao, soft Chinese bread with a variety of fillings: minced pork, fish innards, a complex vegetable mix that turned out to be the trimmings from herbs and Chinese greens mixed with fungus, sweet plum stuffing.



One gentleman served spicy Chinese sausage with what tasted like slimy scrambled eggs and turned out to be fresh pig brains cooked with blood and white stock: definitely an unusual take on sausages and fried eggs. Noodles appeared only in soups—the women explained that no one but a barbarian would eat noodles for breakfast. Unless the noodles were cold, in which case they qualified as civilised food.



You could buy ready-to-fry prawn chips, dried greens, blocks of soup stock, strings of fat purple sausages and homemade soya sauce. Sometimes, a conversation, a story, would come free with the purchase. That was always worth it. More than the Armenians or the Anglo-Indians, the Chinese had remained slightly outside mainstream Calcutta. Chinatown was once a sprawling, self-sufficient area where blue Mao suits outnumbered saris and dhotis, but over the years the Chinese presence in Calcutta had dwindled. The younger generation left first, for Australia or the US, and now their parents were migrating too. Most of the women with their stockpots and woks were there to earn a few extra bucks. Some, like Mrs Hu, had a different reason. "My grandmother's recipe," she said of the fishball soup. She was here because her mother had been here for years, at this street corner, selling soup at six am. "To share our food," she said. "To remind us what real Chinese food is."



On subsequent visits, there were fewer locals stepping up for breakfast, never a good sign. Steamed and fried momos replaced the pau-sellers, the eel man packed up for want of business, the soups lost their complexity and gained cornflour.



But then the food had never been the point of the Chinese breakfast, even for the most nostalgic old-timers. With some exceptions, like the woman whose old-fashioned flower soup sold out in ten minutes flat, most offered basic and sometimes barely passible home cooking. I had eaten better meals in the Gangtok bazaar, and even the most ordinary hawker centres in Malaysia or Singapore would effortlessly outdo the Bentinck Street crowd, in taste and variety.



In a food-obsessed city like Calcutta, most of us tacitly acknowledged that you didn't do breakfast at Bentinck Street for the culinary experience. The atmosphere was never picturesque. The "stalls" are basic; some vendors need nothing more than a gnarled wooden stool and a large cooking pot. Tiretta Bazaar's seediness does not translate into exotic local colour any which way you look at it. But the price is a draw, especially for students: you could, and still can, eat yourself sick and have change coming back from a hundred bucks.



For every generation that grows up in Calcutta, doing the Bentinck Street breakfast is a rite of passage. Perhaps we're hopeless romantics, looking for "authentic" Chinese. Though I don't know what that means for a cuisine that changes drastically from one region to another in the home country, and that has spent two hundred years in bastardized, often wonderfully inventive form, in India.



Perhaps we're paying tribute to a community that has been so much part of Calcutta, and so rarely celebrated: there are fewer accounts of the Chinese than there are of any of the other communities who once made Calcutta a cosmopolitan city. Perhaps we're honouring a tradition the Chinese brought back from the bustling markets of the Far East, where the best food was roadside food. Perhaps we're just cookpot voyeurs, hoping to find a small sliver of family histories mixed in with the shredded ginger. Or perhaps it's just that when you've been up all night, you need to stroll over and see the moon over Bentinck Street.

Zadie, I Hardly Knew You

(Carried in The Hindu, July 2006. This was an interesting piece to write; I have never met Zadie Smith, and it was very strange, recognising how much in the way of personal detail you end up knowing about even the most reticent writers in the media age. And how little of that detail makes a difference--if an author comes up with something as good as On Beauty, you really couldn't give a damn if she can outdance Fred and Ginger combined or if she has two left feet.)

Zadie Smith sings jazz and used to tap dance. Zadie Smith went to
King's College, Cambridge. Zadie Smith's real name was Sadie Smith,
but she changed it long before she became famous with White
Teeth , earning a record POUNDS 250,000 advance for the first novel
she wrote at the age of 21.

Zadie Smith doesn't like references to her beauty, even though Google
Images carries over 3,600 pictures of the author at various stages.
Zadie Smith's marriage to fellow writer Nick Laird is as perfect as
her acknowledgement to him in her third, Orange Prize-winning novel,
On Beauty : "I thank my husband, whose poetry I steal to make my
prose look pretty. …This book is dedicated to him, as is my life."

Like many readers, I'm an unwilling player of Trivial Pursuit, the
Zadie Smith Edition. We know too much about her, and none of what we
know is of much consequence. We know that her name is a cliché: one
year, it's Monica Ali who's the "new Zadie Smith", the next it's Ali
Smith who's the "new Zadie Smith", and meanwhile the old Zadie Smith
is still very much with us.

Few authors have had a baptism like hers, or lived out early adulthood
under such an insistent media glare. White Teeth , published in
2000, was the work of a young, bright mind discovering history for
the sake of her generation. A generous blurb by Salman Rushdie, the
gust of publicity over the large advance and the rush of interest in
the "multicultural" novel sent it to the top of the charts. Zadie
Smith grew up like like celebrity child film stars, a
paparazzi-haunted writer whose prose was dissected on the books pages
just as her changing taste in clothes was analysed on the fashion
pages.

It was easy to forget that she was young, and White Teeth ,
inevitably, disappointed. A survey by The Bookseller
encapsulated the contradictory reaction to White Teeth : it was
one of the books most often picked up by reading groups, and it was
one of the books that reading groups most often expressed
disappointment with.

Meanwhile, Smith was on the successful writer's rollercoaster, doing
the autograph softshoe shuffle, the book tour quickstep, the litfest
rap, the interview samba, and if she missed a beat, everyone noticed.
If she seemed tired or snappy, people complained about her aloofness,
her refusal to play the part.

Zadie Smith may have been a media creation, but her talent was
unmistakeable—and she rapidly outgrew the book that had made her
famous. Asked how she felt about White Teeth , "I wrote like a
script editor for The Simpsons who'd briefly joined a religious cult
and then discovered Foucault." She meant it. Later, on yet another
book tour—they were blurring in Smith's mind now—she wrote: "Any
original thought the writer ever had – every pretty black mark she
ever made on a piece of white paper – is replaced by the endlessly
reoccurring phenomena of the writer's own name rising up at them in
embossed font on the front of a book they have come to despise."

The response to her second novel, The Autograph Man , was
critical. It was about Alex, who becomes a collector of autographs in
the wake of his father's death, and few things convey the dour,
schematic flavour of this novel more than the helpful questions Random
House offers on its website for the benefit of reading groups.

Sample: "Alex grows hysterical observing autograph collectors at the
convention in New York. "As if the world could be saved this way! As
if impermanence were not the golden rule! And can I get Death's
autograph, too? Have you got a plastic sheath for that, Mr. Autograph
Man?" [p. 207]. What function does collecting and selling autographs
serve for Alex?"

Sample: "In what ways can the novel, as a whole, be read as a critique
of modern western culture? How do the characters, in the way they live
their lives, exemplify this critique?"

If The Autograph Man , written just two years after White
Teeth was published, reflected anything, it was Smith's own
disillusionment. The novel exuded tiredness and disaffection, which
didn't make it an easy read.

On Beauty took her four years to write. During that time, Zadie
Smith matured as a writer who was also a sensitive reader and critic,
as her classic essay on Kafka and the novel demonstrated. On
Beauty reworked E M Forster's Howard's End through the
stories of the Belseys and the Kipps. Part university novel, part a
hilarious dissection of a strong marriage torn apart by two affairs,
one played out as tragedy, one as farce, On Beauty's greatest
strengths were the strengths of Howard's End . Some saw it as too
slight—amusing but ultimately banal. Even so, it made it to the Booker
shortlist, and won the Orange Prize. With works by Hilary Mantel and
Ali Smith on that shortlist, it was hard to argue that On Beauty
had won for any reason other than merit.

In On Beauty , there's a passage about Claire, a poet and mentor
to younger would-be writers: "Claire felt very tired. She was a poet.
How had she ever ended up here, in one of these institutions… where
one must make an argument for everything, even an argument for wanting
to write about a chestnut tree?"

This has been Zadie Smith's predicament. Everything she's written
about is placed under the microscope, everything she says is over a
live microphone. To judge a writer by the two books written before she
even reached the age of 25 is absurd. Smith's talent has never been in
doubt, but in many ways, her pilgrim's progress as an author begins
with On Beauty , not with White Teeth . Zadie Smith, the
oldest new kid on the block, is finally beginning to come into her
own.

The BS column: Noor, fact and fiction

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

Once you've seen it, you cannot to forget the crematorium at Dachau,
the concentration camp where thousands of people were slaughtered by
the Nazis during World War Two. I saw it five decades after the war
had ended. Time had done nothing to obliterate the horror of a place
where everything from the cramped quarters to the furnaces had been
designed to inflict suffering and death on people with an inhuman
efficiency.

At that time, the legend of Noor Inayat Khan had been forgotten; the
Indians who visited Dachau usually missed the plaque to her memory: "A
la memoire de Noor Inayat Khan, 1914-1944; Madeleine dans La
Resistance, Fusillee a Dachau; Operatrice Radio du Reseau Buckmaster,
Croix de Guerre 1939-1945, George Cross." After Shrabani Basu's
well-researched Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan
(Lotus/ Roli Books), I suspect most Indian visitors to Dachau will
pause to honour the shy, dreamy girl whose extraordinary life ended in
this terrible place.

Over the years her story has been told by authors who lacked the
facts, or who saw in Noor a wonderfully exotic figure, an Indian
princess turned Mata Hari. Laurent Joffin wrote a trashy romance,
The Forgotten Princess , in which Noor appeared as a smouldering,
sensuous and not terribly bright spy.

One of the few books that set down the truth about Noor was written by
a friend and associate, Jean Overton Fuller, though even Fuller was
hampered by a lack of information. Last year, Shauna Singh Baldwin
fictionalized Noor Inayat Khan's life in The Tiger Claw . Her
account was not inaccurate, but anyone who reads Baldwin's book and
then turns to Basu's non-fiction account will realize that Noor's life
didn't need fictional embellishment. The most satisfying parts of
Baldwin's novel were the ones that drew on real life—Noor's training
as a wireless operator, the dangers of trying to evade discovery by
the Germans, her capture just a few weeks before she was due to return
to Britain, the cruel end in Dachau.

Basu's book is far more interesting than The Tiger Claw . In
order to tell the whole story of Noor Inayat Khan's life, Basu waited
until 2003, when the archive that held the personal files of SOE
agents was finally opened. She went to the Sufi Headquarters in The
Hague and to Dachau, visited Inayat Khan's tomb in Delhi and spoke to
members of the Special Forces Club. Her research is extensive, and
makes up for the slightly bland style.

Noor Inayat Khan was born on New Year's Day in Moscow in 1914, to the
musician and Sufi preacher Hazrat Inayat Khan and his American wife,
Ora Ray Baker. Hazrat Inayat Khan was descended from Tipu Sultan's
family and had peformed at concerts of Indian music in America, Paris
and Moscow. Noor grew up in London and in the small village of
Tremblaye, outside Paris. She was a creative child who loved listening
to her father's lectures on Sufism, wrote sentimental poems and played
the harp and the piano. As a young adult, she studied child
psychology, translated the Jataka Tales into English and contributed
stories to the children's page of the Sunday Figaro. She was quite
beautiful; petite, doe-eyed, with small, near-perfect features: little
about her suggested a future spy.

In 1940, she and her brother Vilayat decided to go to England and join
the war effort. Noor joined the SOE as a wireless operator: it was a
humble job, but a dangerous one, and some of her trainers feared that
she was not bright enough, or that she would crack under pressure.
Selwyn Jepson, who recruited her, didn't share their fears—he felt
instinctively that she was right for the job.

Noor was sent into France in June 1943, working as a radio operator
under the code name 'Madeleine'. Prosper, the group she joined had
been under surveillance by the Germans for a while, though, and her
colleagues were arrested within a few days of her arrival in Paris:
most of them were executed or died in concentration camps. Noor became
the last radio operator in France; for several months, she managed to
make her transmissions while dodging the Germans. In October, her luck
ran out: she was captured and imprisoned. During the next few months,
she was interrogated several times; she was shackled and had either
potato peel or cabbage soup to eat, but she didn't crack. She was
transferred to Dachau in September 1944.

On the night of 12th September, Noor was brutally beaten and tortured before she and three other women were shot and sent to the crematorium. Seven months later, Dachau was liberated.
 
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