Friday, August 31, 2007

'Biafra, we hail thee'

(Published in the Business Standard, June 12, 2007)

On Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s website , a button invites readers to ‘Tell Your Biafra Story’. That apparently ordinary link tells an extraordinary story. Chimamanda, whose book Half of a Yellow Sun won the Orange Prize for fiction recently, is the best-known of a small but growing group of “African writers” who are challenging the stereotype of what it means, as one of them sardonically put it, to “write in African”.

“Girls I had seen struggle at the water pump and hit each other with plastic buckets, girls who had cut holes in each other’s bras as they hung out to dry, now held hands and sang,” Chimamanda writes. “Instead of ‘Nigeria, we hail thee,’ they sang, ‘Biafra, we hail thee.’ I joined them, singing, clapping, talking. We did not mention the massacres, the way Igbos had been hunted house to house, pulled from where they crouched in trees, by bright-eyed people screaming Jihad, screaming Nyamiri, nyamiri.”

There are currently 56 stories up in the ‘Tell Your Biafra Story’ section. Ugwueze Alozie shares memories of being a 7-year-old during the war: “Hunger and sickness killed so many children… After the war, the Nigerian soldiers seized our sisters for wives…” Chiedu Ezeneah offers Chimamanda a sonnet. Shirin writes about the death of a secretary called Hyacinth, and the impact it made on her as a schoolgirl.

The people who share their memories with Chimamanda may not share her talent, the way she balances terror against the banal, blood and gore against small epiphanies, war against the ordinary rhythms of life. But Chimamanda believes that their voices and their stories are important, even crucial. These are the stories that CNN and the BBC don’t cover. She believes that part of her work as a writer is to create a space where those who are normally invisible can be seen, and heard.

In her first book, Purple Hibiscus, she gave herself the freedom to disturb both sets of readers—African readers, by speaking openly about subjects not considered fit for public discussion (massacres, girlfriends), and Western readers, by not conforming to the rigid stereotypes that African writers are forced to wear like crinolines.

Many Indian writers would feel a sense of déjà vu if they read some of the comments on Chimamanda’s website from readers asking her to present a better picture of Nigeria to the world, or not to rake up old troubles. And many Indian writers would smile wryly if they read what Hillary Mantel, a fine writer and critic herself, had to say about Chimamanda Adichie’s work: “There is no wilful exoticism: no playing to the gallery of Western expectation.”

Mantel accepts tacitly that exoticism is what the world has come to expect from a certain kind of African writing. The African novel was supposed to be all about vivid colours and vastness, wars and bloodshed, and the ideal African novel would, of course, be written by a white man. Mantel also gestures at the fact that many young writers in Africa—as in India—do end up “playing to the gallery of Western expectation”, if for no other reason than that the main readers for their books are in the West.

What I love about Chimamanda Adichie’s work is that it moves away from all expectations. As a young student, she was once told by a professor that her story about middle-class Africans felt inauthentic to him—this was not his vision of Africa. Sometimes, Western readers have expressed their sense of dislocation at her evocation of an Africa where Africans might employ houseboys, or listen to jazz, or treasure beautiful old furniture. To Indians, the world Chimamanda writes about—often a middle-class world where students in their sneakers switch comfortably between Hollywood films and old Igbo legends—is, on the other hand, very familiar.

One of my favourite small moments in Adichie's writing is the part, in an early story, where the narrator’s family has to leave their house behind, abandoning leather-bound books, old china, a woman’s lavender wig specially imported from Paris. They leave in “Papa’s Peugeot”.

Chimamanda writes, “Papa stopped the car often to wipe the dust off the windscreen, and he drove at a crawl, because of the crowds. Women with babies tied to their backs, pulling at toddlers, carrying pots on their heads. Men pulling goats and bicycles, carrying wood boxes and yams. Children, so many children. The dust swirled all around, like a translucent brown blanket. An exodus clothed in dusty hope. It took a while before it struck me that, like these people, we were now refugees.”

This is what makes the work of this young writer—she has not yet turned 30—so special; the fact that she can offer both the view from the Peugeot and the view from ground level, with equal assurance.

1984 and the end of privacy

(Published in the Business Standard, June 5, 2007)

In the late 1940s, George Orwell battled sickness almost constantly, often spending months on end in the hospital. Illness, for him, was a curious creative trigger: he did some of his best work in the worst physical health.

By 1947, he was writing to his literary agent: “"I have been vy unwell & intend to stay in bed for some weeks & try & get right again...I have finished the rough draft of my novel, so I ought to get the book done by abt May or June… I can't work in my present state - constant high temperature etc'."

It was worth the wait; reading Orwell’s manuscript, his publisher Warburg, of the legendary firm Secker & Warburg, said bluntly: “This is the most terrifying book I have ever read.”

According to a survey conducted this week, the public believes that it is this book, a work published in 1948 about 1984, that most clearly defines the 20th century.
1984 was an instant success in the post-world war decades; the enthusiasm for the book peaked, as you would guess, in the year 1984. The novel remains one of the most haunting works of 20th century writing. It is accepted as a classic work of science fiction, prophetic in Orwell’s notions of ‘Big Brother’, Newspeak and Doublethink.

Reading it today as ‘the Definitive Novel of the 20th Century’ is a curious experience. My memories of the book centre around Winston’s resentment of Big Brother. Most readers of 1984 will recollect Winston’s brief, despairing grab at freedom through a forbidden love affair, and his eventual betrayal of the woman he loves. Many more will know the phrase ‘Big Brother is watching you’, especially in the age of reality television where this has been taken all too literally, and in the 21st century, everyone over the age of 12 can identify the shifty, glib, meaningless phrases of Newspeak without difficulty.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” the first paragraph of 1984 begins. “Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him. The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats.”

Orwell wasn’t describing a future world here, but the reality of post-war England. It was a grimy place, where the lifts didn’t work, where a “fruity voice” on the broadcasting service would read out a list of figures that had something to do with pig-iron production, where the houses were mean and ramshackle.

This is the point where, in Chapter One, Orwell made the first connection that would place 1984 in the category of the brilliant rather than the merely brilliantly effective. The most prized object in Winston’s apartment is “a peculiarly beautiful book”, with leaves of “smooth creamy paper, yellowed with age”. You can still hear the wistful longing of the deprived post-war writer in that description, hungering for notebooks that were short in supply by 1947, when Orwell was hard at work on his novel. But there was more. Winston intends to keep a diary in his precious notebook—in a world where keeping a diary is a subversive act, and where “even with nothing written in it”, the notebook is “a compromising possession”.

This is where Orwell had come to grips with the real dilemma of the 20th century. Many of the other books on the list of definitive 20th century novels cover one or another aspect of the last hundred years. J D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye has gained notoriety as the preferred reading of the stalkers and lone, mad gunslingers of our world, but it remains one of the best analyses of the dissociation and loneliness endemic to the 20th century. Anne Frank’s Diary, the reflections of a young Jewish girl coming of age in hiding in Nazi Germany, only to die in the concentration camps, is one of the classic, and most moving, documents of the 20th century.

But no other writer captures Orwell’s sense of what is really precious, and threatened, in the 20th century—the idea of privacy. Orwell understood more than most, and earlier than all of us, how the information age would play out. He understood that personal privacy, the right to our own secret beliefs, would be the first to be sacrificed on the altar of expediency. In the 1940s, it was easy to see how this century would be dingy, grimy, even ugly. It was harder to see how relentless the chatter and roar of the information age would be. Or to visualize a world where personal privacy and the ancient right to the self counted for nothing.
Orwell saw this before almost any of the other great writers of his time did, and for that reason alone, 1984 deserves to stand as the iconic work of the 20th century.

100 % Sparkly New Writing

(Published in the Business Standard, May 7, 2007)

One of the most touching love stories of our times has to be the one between the publishing industry and debutant authors. It isn’t, admittedly, easy on the debutant authors, who can find themselves loved, cherished, seduced and then cast aside on the remainder heap as the industry rushes off in pursuit of the next hot young writer, but it is, as the blurbs have it, A True Heartwarming Love Story.

Editors love debut writers because they come with no history—read no negative sales record or YouTube video clips of the time they barfed on a Nobel Prize winner—and are therefore acceptable to both the marketing and the publicity department. Marketing and publicity departments love debut writers because they rarely read the fine print in contracts. Literary agents love debut writers because a Fresh New Discovery is worth its weight in gold, in terms of the other writers and editors who will then flock to the agent and not argue overmuch over mere trifles like percentage points when it comes to the agent’s cut.

Readers seldom love debut writers, and with good reason. Every literary season brings along a clutch of writers whom you’re supposed to have read. And it’s increasingly hard to tell whether you should read “the new Nabokov” or “the new Rushdie” or even “the new J K Rowlings”. If you add the plethora of helpful forced marriages to this—“the O C meets James Joyce”, “a cross between Jane Eyre and Jane Goodall” etc—it’s hard for the honest reader not to suspect that the really talented, brilliant debut writer is a mythical beast.

This summer, though, four previously unpublished writers restored my faith in the mirage of the truly good debut writer. Five if you count Ambarish Satwik, whose new novel Perineum is a splendidly ribald exploration of “the nether parts of Empire”—for once, the blurb that calls this an “original and brilliant debut” is spot on.

The other four, like Satwik, take established genres and break the mould, which is what makes reading them so much fun.

Yiyun Li learned English for the first time only six years before she wrote a collection of short stories called A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. In the title story, Mr Shi, the father of a young Chinese-American woman, accuses his daughter of talking over the phone with “immodesty”, of laughing “like a prostitute”.

“…We talk in English and it’s easier. I don’t talk well in Chinese,” the young woman replies. “… Baba, if you grew up in a language that you never used to express your feelings, it would be easier to take up another language and talk in that language. It makes you a new person.”

Perhaps the most haunting of Yiyun Li’s characters is a young man hired as an impersonator for the close resemblance he bears to the dictator of that time, but all her characters break down the wall between the old, romantic China and the country of today’s headlines.

Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a much gentler novel. Torday is a fisherman himself, and that knowledge and love of the sport of angling comes through in this whimsical book about a UK government-sponsored project to get salmon running through the waters of Yemen. The project has unexpected, even dark, consequences, but Torday’s kindly vision draws us beyond the expected parodies into trickier spaces.

Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics may be the most consistently incorrectly-shelved book in history since Hunter Thomson made it to the Wildlife section in a few Indian bookstores. It’s a knowing, sassy, irreverent take on the death-onna-campus novel, and is redeemed from an overdose of uber-coolness by the character of its narrator, Blue van Meer. In blurbspeak, cross The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, with its portrait of an obsessive and compelling teacher, with a riveting new-age mystery, add in noir humour, and you have one of the most enjoyable reads of 2007. It brings you all the joys of watching mindless TV soaps from a position of superiority, where you can joke about the silly plot twists and turns while referencing Aeschylus.

Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts initially feels like a mashup of all the clever “missing memory” movies and a literary thriller, until you realize that this debut author is deeply, and obsessively, in love with the trashy B-grade film, Jaws. Hall throws in every David Foster Wallace device ever invented—the clever text-within-text references, the shark created out of lines of type, the throwaway literary allusions. But at its heart, this is a beautifully imagined remake of the film that made us worry about whether we would ever get in, or out, of the water, without hearing that mind-numbing da-da-da-da-da theme. Hall’s bet, in between a moving elegy to love, loss and moving on, is we won’t, and I’m with him.

In Conversation with Kiran Desai: Part I

(Published in the IIC Quarterly, June 2007)

Kiran Desai, interviewed by Ira Pande and NSR.

Kiran Desai’s first brush with fame came in 1997, when Salman Rushdie included the young writer in his controversial anthology of Indian writing, Mirrorwork. Rushdie described her first novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, as “lush and intensely imagined”. Kiran, who has lived in Chandigarh, Delhi and New York, spent the next nine years in America earning a living, working on her second novel and occasionally traveling with her mother, eminent writer Anita Desai. Inheritance of Loss moves between the crumbling world of the hill station of Kalimpong at a time of insurgency and the underground world of New York’s immigrant workers. The novel was critically acclaimed and won the Booker Prize in 2006. In this freeflowing conversation in Delhi, Kiran Desai discussed her writing, “enormously fat” books, immigrant New York and language with Ira Pande and Nilanjana S Roy.

Ira Pande: I’m impressed by how you managed to sustain the feeling for this book over such a long period of time—nine years.

Kiran Desai: We writers get competitive about this—how long did it take Mohsin (Hamid) to write his book? Many years… Nadeem Aslam took eleven years.

IP: More, I thought, and he shut himself in a room…

KD: He took eleven years, I took seven. It wasn’t hard to sustain the feeling for the book, not hard at all. It was hard to finish, to put a stop to it, to go the other way from writing in every direction—that was easy, the difficult thing was realizing that to make a book, I had to do the opposite process and start throwing out bits. I cut a lot from the book.

Nilanjana Roy: I heard you threw out about eight chapters?

KD: It wasn’t even eight chapters, it was 1,500 pages, and 800 pages, and 350 pages of it…

IP: People have started to complain about the doorstopper book from India, because everyone’s writing these enormously fat books. Sometimes I feel it would work better if there was more editorial intervention, because as a writer, few could do what you did—chuck out whole bits on your own.

KD: It is hard, because there are so many angles, you can go on forever, turning something around, going into another character, another angle of the whole thing. You have to realize you can’t just go on forever, but there is a trend towards big books all over the world. Look at American books—the new (Thomas) Pynchon, (Dave) Eggers..

NR: In a way it was a pity you didn’t do this, just to correct the gender imbalance.

KD: It is a gender thing! My mother (the writer Anita Desai) was saying this, how young men are encouraged to write really, really big books, and women are often made to cut that down, almost as if it is a gender thing, that women write smaller, slimmer books and men write big, ambitious books. And the men are being accused of—what is the phrase?—hysterical realism. Which is funny, that’s an amusing gender argument, where men are accused of being hysterical and women are being curbed and careful.

I sometimes think it’s just the process of writing. We work on a computer, it’s easy to keep everything, to research, add more and more. I bet if computers weren’t around, a lot of men would write smaller books. Someone said that with Dave Egger it’s really obvious—all those additions and all those footnotes that he can only do because he can play on the computer. But Salman (Rushdie) was saying, I realize we should write shorter books because we get paid the same amount! (Laughs)

IP: Can I ask you about The Inheritance of Loss? Did the title suggest the book, or did the book suggest the title?

KD: The title came right at the end. I’m still not sure it completely fits. A lot of people didn’t like it—I’ve been told it sounds like a self-help manual, someone said, you should just call it The Loss of Inheritance, and that would make much more sense.

I was struggling to come up with something because it’s a book of so many different parts. I thought of all the typical ones: The Judge of Kalimpong—sounds vaguely like colonial literature, The House of Cho Oyu, and then this came up.

NR: It struck me how much loneliness and isolation there is in the book. Biju, the cook’s son in America, Sai, cut off from a normal childhood, the judge alone in England, where you almost feel sorry for him, despite his harshness later… Was that taken from family history?

KD: Not quite that close, but the judge’s story was certainly taken from hearing about the experiences of people going to England. There is often an attempt to cover up what actually happens when you go abroad. For all immigrants, the story that you create at the end is the story you can live with and that you like to tell. It’s not what actually happened. Immigration is like the act of translation, the possibilities of dishonesty are so big, so immense. It’s a place where you can embroider any kind of story, and I think most people do. You also want to go there saying that you haven’t come struggling like other immigrants might have, you’ve come from a position of dignity, it’s also an attempt to create your past, I think, in a different way. You have to make up a story about that as well.

The loneliness is immense. You’re plucked from everything you know, your entire community, you’re telling lies to everybody, immigrants are telling lies to other immigrants. I think people find themselves in really lonely places. When I think of myself, I grew up speaking English and being brought up, in a way, to leave successfully. That’s what my father said, sadly, to one of his friends: “What we did in our generation, we made good immigrants.” He was also brought up to be a good immigrant and he chose not to be one.

NR: You left at 14, when you were studying at a convent in Delhi, are there echoes of that school in the convent you described in your book?

KD: Oh god, it was awful. I got a note from one of the nuns, I almost fell off my chair, I was so scared (laughs) The fear was immediately there. It was so awful, I wonder whether other people’s experiences were so bad.

IP: The fact that all of us did go to these Catholic convents also opened up for us the possibility of looking at another identity for ourselves. I remember leading two completely dissimilar lives. I came from a very traditional, conservative family, puja was part of my day, but I also went and did Angelus and Benediction and all the rest. It made me a better Hindu after I was exposed to Catholicism. I began to understand and respect what we had much more. What was your convent experience like?

KD: I think of dislocation. We went first to Kalimpong, briefly, went back to Loreto, briefly, went to England for a year, and went to the states, and at a really bad time—it was 13 or 14, that age for me. But when I look back at that convent education, I hope they’re not bringing up children in that same way, because every bit of art is stamped out. Wanting to write, or paint, that side of things.

NR: How did you get that back?

KD: It took a long time. I saw reading as an escape from this world. Writing came later, at a much happier and freer time. It was encouraged, it was considered a legitimate activity. I am really lucky for that brief bit of space.

IP: In India you lived in Delhi and in Kalimpong; which cities do you remember best?

KD: I lived in Chandigarh as well, and Bombay for a while, and then Delhi. I lived in Delhi the longest. And now there’s totally new things I love about Delhi, I come back, I go to my father’s house, climb up on to the rooftop. And it’s lovely. The sun sets by the idgah, and we listen to Abida Parveen singing Khusro. Those are the best, those are the good bits of Delhi for me.

IP: And the bad bits?

KD: The bad bits? For me it was the memories of Loreto Convent, now it’s just a completely different relationship with Delhi. I love Bombay, I have very happy memories of Bombay. If you grow up in Bombay, if you spend part of your childhood in Bombay, you get deeply attached to it. It’s true of everybodyI know who’s grown up in that city. And I always envied Bombay writers –they seemed to have that emotional depth of attachment to Bombay that seems to power all their writing forever! And it’s a glamorous city, the whole package, the Mafia and Bollywood, and crime on that glamorous scale. For a long while, Delhi writers felt slightly bad, we only had monuments.

NR: How about New York? So many of you seem to be colonizing New York now.

KD: There’s such a huge number of Indian writers living in New York, and few write about it. Suketu is one of the first to venture into New York, and he really should do it; I think he was 14 when he went there, so he has childhood memories of growing up. Akhil Sharma may be writing about it, New Jersey.. so it is shifting.

NR: Are you uncomfortable with labels such as “diaspora writer”, or “immigrant writer”?

KD: You know, you go down those roads and inevitably end up in a place that’s senseless after a bit. I always hope that I’ll hear some writer talking about these issues in a really clever way so that I can copy what they say, but nobody has. I haven’t heard anyone really manage to undo these knots. You stop talking about literature all together, and you start talking about class and immigration, and end up with a debate that’s about much bigger arguments. You can’t escape labels as a writer…

NR: Inheritance would have been a lot less rich if you hadn’t had that split perspective, the New York immigrant underworld on one hand, the crumbling houses of privilege in Kalimpong on the other…

KD: It’s a completely half-and-half book.

NR: How did you start the process of looking at the immigrant population in New York?

KD: It wasn’t hard to find those stories. Those stories are as easily available as they are here. It’s the same people on both sides of the world; the woman who cleans your house in India, those stories come into your house every single day. It’s the same in New York. The characters are made up of people I know, in bits and pieces—like the Zanzibarian community, I couldn’t have made that up. People who worked in a little bakery near where I used to live; all the stories of the rats are really based on what happened. There’s always a mixture, journalists always ask you how much is fact and how much fiction, but it’s always a mixture.

IP: You’ve spoken a lot about your mother’s presence and her support for you and her general aura, and it is visible. Shashi Deshpande (the writer) said she sometimes felt a sense of déjà vu reading you, that it could be Anita in a younger voice. Quite apart from the mother-daughter relationship that you share, which is obviously very close, were you influenced by her style of writing? Her way of looking at India, because she’s also had several dislocations, and she’s tread almost the same ground, except that it was in another time and in another way.

KD: I was conscious of that, the realization that what we were living through was something that she had lived through and that her parents had lived through. She grew up in an India that was very different from the India of a lot of the people around her, because she had a German mother and her father was a refugee from Bangladesh and had very little family in India as well. So she grew up in a very strange little community, I think, somewhat dislocated, on her own.

So was my father, because his parents left Gujarat ages ago, my grandfather went on this long journey to England, spent the rest of his life in Allahabad and never saw his relatives. There was hardly any communication with them. And that was a whole process, of breaking what we think of as being so deeply Indian, these bonds of community and family and religion.

On my father’s side it was ambition to be part of the ruling class, but it was also part of the idea of a secular India, which was really new. He was breaking all of this and gaining a wider idea of India, he was also losing something very old, that had gone back as far as anyone could remember. It’s a process that happened within India as well as within the community of people who had left, who had always been leaving and returning.

NR: Do your mother and you travel a lot together?

KD: Yes, we did, still do… When we left India, it was just the two of us. I was the youngest child, so I was taken along. We both went through that whole immigrant thing together. She had spent her entire life in India at that point, and all of a sudden, in her late forties, I think, she had to learn how to teach. She was out of the whole cozy world of being a middle-class Indian woman, and suddenly she had to make a living, learn how to drive in different countries, get her pension, all the rest of it, it must have been very difficult.

IP: Was it visible for you then?

KD: No, it’s only now I realize how difficult it must have been. She kept it from me, kept all the worry for me. I certainly must have been influenced by her, her writing…

(contd in next post)

In Conversation with Kiran Desai: Part II

(Published in the IIC Quarterly, June 2007)

Kiran Desai: Interviewed by Ira Pande and NSR.

(Continued from previous post)

Ira Pande: You said somewhere that as you enter that house, your mother’s house, you feel as if you’re in the presence of a writer.

Kiran Desai: It is strange to go into her house in New York because she lives very much in and among her books, and sometimes it feels like a house of real exile. A lot of immigrants like the thought of being exiled, because it’s so much more romantic, so much more elegant than being an immigrant. A lot of people who are immigrants will call themselves exiles…

But the word has a deeper meaning. People who are immigrants do feel that they’re exiled in many ways, even if the decision to leave has been their own. I go into her house and it does feel like the house of an exile, sometimes I walk into it and it’s like looking at those old Russian photographs of Osip Mandelstam’s house. How strange that my mother’s house should remind me of, you know, looking at photographs of a Russian poet’s house! But it has that atmosphere.

IP: And how do you feel when you come to India and enter your father’s house, what kind of change is that?

KD: I’m struck by how much at ease he is, in his own life. I was very conscious when writing this book that I’ve given up that complete ease. You never have it as an immigrant, when you pretend to fit in and you may even feel comfortable, but that kind of ease in your skin and in your house and in your language is missing.

I think as an immigrant your language is curbed, it becomes much more formal, in terms of communicating you have to hold it to a much more basic grammar in order to get your point across. The eccentricity of language goes, unless you really insist on centering yourself within the Indian community. You can’t keep the humour. It’s a really sad loss, and I could see a lot of the writers in Jaipur who had come from elsewhere, I saw it very much in Salman Rushdie, an incredible happiness in talking.

IP: I hadn’t thought of it this way, but a lot of the immigrant writers lack the ability to be irreverent in the way you can if you live here. We curse India all the time but when the same thing is said by somebody who lives abroad we get very defensive.

KD: This brings back vivid memories of growing up in India and having the foreign relatives arrive. And then after they’d left, we used to laugh at them...

Nilanjana S Roy: Was that what got you into trouble, when people in Nepal and Kalimpong objected to the way they were reflected in your novel?

KD: It was really unexpected, that bit of anger, I hadn’t expected it. And it only happened after the Booker, at first there was no bad response at all, only a good response. You try to write about characters in particular; suddenly you realize that you’re seen as representing a people. That’s always just terrible.

Your whole desire is to talk about what one human being might be going through against all these big forces, against what’s happening in the world. You’re writing in a world of complete imbalance, you aren’t trying to represent an entire people. It was just a muddy time, nobody there really knew what was going on in the early stages of the GNLF struggle.

Barkha Dutt (of NDTV) asked me during the Jaipur Festival, well, what is this mixture of sweet and threatening, I didn’t put it together in my head at the time, on stage. But of course that’s the whole argument against colonial literature, that you’re seeing the “natives” as being simultaneously sweet and naïve, but also as a threat. And my attempt at that moment was to describe what I saw when I was there.

Part of being Indian, or having a childhood in India, is that there will be a moment in your life when you will see normal life slide into violence, and you will hear the sound of a riot, and you will grow up hearing the sound of people screaming for their lives, and you will see fires burning. And you see all the boys in the market, and they’re suddenly out on the streets pulling people out of their cars and setting them on fire, and then it’s all over, and then they’re back in the market. I don’t know how you get your mind around it and your heart around it, you can’t.

NR: You were very ruthless in the book, when you pointed out that it’s not enough to be innocuous, harmless in the way that a lot of people who lived in and around Cho Oyu were. You said there was culpability, said it very clearly.

KD: That society is one I belong to, those two old Bengali sisters…

IP: I remember that lovely scene where the two sisters have their garden slowly being colonized by squatters.

KD: That scene was not made up, that scene of having to go and talk to the pradhan, where he said, I have to look after my people and who are you to have this land anyway—that was based on real life. There was sudden awareness then for us. You realize you were living in a complete fantasy, on this hillside where it’s madly beautiful, and you think you can have it, but you can’t have it. There are other people whose claim on it is much deeper.

NR: Will the Booker eventually free you up a bit?

KD: It’s such a strange prize, it has an effect on my life, but a prize doesn’t make you feel any different, really, it’s just a bizarre thing that’s happened. I’m not used to getting any prizes, I didn’t get any prizes in Loreto Convent!

IP: But there’s both sides to it; thankfully now you can afford to write.

KD: Yes, I can afford to write. It was hard. It was so hard, I didn’t mind that it was so hard, I don’t think you do mind if you’re writing, it doesn’t matter if you’re poor, but yes, I had no money at all, and I had to make a living and feed myself (starts laughing again) which is sad, but true! I lived in a smaller room, and then a smaller room, and then with more and more room mates, and more and more people, and finally in the end, it was really hard to work.

IP: Thankfully that’s behind you now, but the equally frightening thing is that now having got the Booker, your next book is going to be that much harder to write?

KD: In India, it seems more important than anywhere! It’s very strange, the whole prizegiving world is very strange. Publishers say it’s so useful, it brings attention to books, but it’s really scary, the focus is on three books, or four books, the rest get lost.

IP: Is there another book which one could look forward to?

KD: Not yet, I haven’t begun yet, even reading is hard for me right now.

NR: It’s strange, in terms of your writing career, this is just your second book, so you should be given the tolerance due to a writer who’s just starting to find her way.

KD: I feel as if I’ve got a long way to go. This book was an attempt to be direct and honest about a particular process, but I forgot to play. If you read Italo Calvino or someone like that, you realize that to lose that side of being a writer because it isn’t the right political moment is very tragic. I wouldn’t want to lose that imaginative ability for the sake of a literary trend.

IP: Kiran, thank you for being with us, and for your time.

The invisible Indian library

(Published in the Business Standard, May 1st, 2007, Speaking Volumes)

Imagine an Indian public library that attracts scholars from all over the world, a gigantic complex of three buildings containing over nine million volumes, Indian and foreign.

Most of these are accessible to travellers, visiting scholars and anyone willing to take up residence on the campus. The buildings have been beautifully designed, lotus ponds are scattered around the grounds, and if you're up early, you can see the mists rising from the ninth story of the largest of the library buildings.

The newest technologies in the publishing industry find their way here, and are fiercely discussed by experts in the field. For a small fee, students can access copies of rare books, kept away from the main stacks, and for no fee at all, anyone can come and listen to some of the world's greatest thinkers, writers and intellectuals engage in debate. The two requirements for membership are curiosity and scholarship.

No such library exists in 21st century India. There are some excellent libraries—the National Archives, the Parliament library, libraries at the IITs and at various universities across the country—but these are not open to the public. The few public libraries, including the National Library at Calcutta, suffer from a lack of funds, and in some cases from a deep suspicion of the public who are supposed to be the proprietors of such a library.

Between 635 and 640 AD, though, the Chinese traveller Xuanzang, or Hieun Tsang, was one of the many pilgrims who made the journey to the "richly adorned towers" of Dharmaganj, the legendary library at Nalanda University. There were at least three separate libraries: Ratnasagara, Ratnadadhi and Ratnaranjaka. Academicians and students came from Persia, Turkey, Japan, Korea and Tibet, as well as China, to live and work at Nalanda.

Rare books were placed in wooden chests—possibly camphor chests, to better preserve the volumes—but the main collections, on Buddhist thought, mathematics, grammar, medicine and literature, were accessible on open wooden shelves. Students who wanted individual copies could approach the human equivalent of the Xerox machine—monks who, for a small fee, would make exact copies of manuscripts. The collection at Nalanda included works in Chinese, too, but Xuanzang was interested, like other pilgrims, in copying and translating texts that he would then take back to China, many years later. He was fascinated by the difference in technologies; China's Imperial Library was experimenting with paper, and used wood and silk as writing surfaces. India's libraries leaned towards palm-leaf manuscripts.

Both libraries were well aware of the importance of preservation and of the fragility of their collections. A few years before Xuanzang left China on his travels, the Imperial Library had suffered a terrible loss when the collection was being transferred to another location by boat and there was an accident on the waters. In India, librarians had requested that new buildings of stone be made to guard against fire; the local bureaucracy, wanted them to compromise on bricks, which were much cheaper.

In 1193, Bakhtiyar Khalji invaded India and sacked Nalanda. He paid special attention to the library; it was razed to the ground, and he instructed his soldiers to use manuscripts as kindling for their cooking fires. The university—and to a great extent, Indian scholarship in that age—never recovered.

Creating and running an institution like Nalanda wasn't cheap. It required, according to some accounts, "the revenues of 100 villages"—a sum not so far removed in scale from the bequests of $2.4 million and $5.2 million made respectively by Samuel J Tilden and Andrew Carnegie to establish what would become the legendary New York Public Library.

For most of us born and brought up in India, it is hard to imagine what the loss of Nalanda means because we have no contemporary equivalent of the public library. You cannot miss a space, an institution and an experience that you have never encountered. But when I meet writers or students who have lived elsewhere, one of the things they miss, almost viscerally, is the experience of living in cities where a public library is a necessity, an organic part of most people's lives. We make do with small equivalents: the excellent but limited British Council and USIS libraries, private lending and circulating libraries that would fit into a tiny corner of Ratnasagar and that still seem huge to us, libraries like the fascinating Marwari libraries that preserve the culture of a particular community.

It would take a lot of dedication—and the revenues of more than a hundred villages today—to create proper public libraries, accessible to all, across India. But the difference it would make in our daily lives is incalculable. We're very good at constructing malls; it seems that every city and small town now has its own shopping paradises. How hard would it be for a nation of mall-builders to construct a few good public libraries alongside?

What fresh elf is this?

(Published in the Business Standard, April 23, 2007)

Legions of diehard Tolkien fans may feed me to a balrog for saying this. But the chief emotion The Children of Hurin evokes in me is relief that this is the last of the offerings we’re likely to get from the overflowing tray of Tolkien out-takes.

The first draft of The Children of Hurin was written almost exactly 99 years ago. Versions of the story of Hurin and his children, Turin and Nienor, appear in The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales. It took JRR Tolkien’s son, Christopher Tolkien over thirty years to piece together a complete version of this tale from the mass of Middle Earth material his father created over the decades. Any fan of Middle Earth should be out there cheering at the thought that, 34 years after Tolkien’s death, his last work should finally be available.

The problem is not, as some Tolkien fanatics have erroneously suggested, that The Children of Hurin owes too much to Christopher Tolkien’s hand and too little to JRR’s imagination.

The rest of us embraced Middle Earth, its orcs and its sniveling evil warlords in their towers, the songs of the elves and the myths of the ents, at various stages of our lives. Christopher Tolkien grew up in Middle Earth; listening at the Eagle and Child pub as his father told parts of The Lord of the Rings to C S Lewis, insisting that his father had forgotten that Bilbo had a blue, not a green waistcoat in the first draft of The Hobbit. He spent a great part of his life taking care of his father’s legacy. The unkind said he was an accomplished raider of JRR Tolkien’s wastebaskets; the kind saw him as a loyal and loving caretaker.

Christopher Tolkien’s proprietorial concern for his father’s work occasionally drew him into misunderstandings. In one memorable encounter with a blogger who wrote a rude post about him, Tolkien’s lawyer found it necessary to correct several misconceptions. Christopher Tolkien, his lawyer clarified, did not control rights in The Hobbit, did not disown his own son Simon, was neither a lunatic nor “out of control” and did not employ a wild boar to guard his house.

The Children of Hurin is not Christopher Tolkien’s work, however; the most he has done is to add small “bridging” scenes. This means that diehard Tolkien fans, and I’m referring not to amateur Hobbit-enthusiasts, but the ones who’ve slogged through every volume in the Middle Earth encyclopaedia, must accept that it was JRR who was responsible for the uninspiring first paragraph of Children of Hurin:

“Hador Goldenhead was a lord of the Edain and well-beloved by the Eldar. He dwelt while his days lasted under the lordship of Fingolfin, who gave to him wide lands in that region of Hithlum which was called Dor-lomin. His daughter Gloredhel wedded Haldir son of Halmir, lord of the Men of Brethil; and at the same feast his son Galdor the Tall wedded Hareth, the daughter of Halmir.”

Once I’d woken up from the pleasant slumber into which this paragraph had inexorably led me, I did try to give The Children of Hurin a chance. It speaks of a much younger Middle Earth than we see in The Lord of the Rings, and that was mildly interesting. Morgoth, Turin’s insidious enemy, seemed familiar, definitely a precursor to the evil but faintly risible wizards who would emerge later in Tolkien’s world. But Turin’s doom seemed like a pale echo of Boromir’s sad end in The Lord of the Rings--a hero brought down by destiny and character in equal measure.

Too much of Children of Hurin sounds like a dress rehearsal for Tolkien’s later and more famous works. This is not the fault of either Tolkien pere or fils; JRR Tolkien’s universe stays real to us in great measure because of the painstaking care with which he built it up. He created languages for Middle Earth, and poetry in the ancient tongues; he drew up sagas for men, dwarves and elves alike, and created histories so rich that years later, Christopher Tolkien would draw his maps of Middle Earth effortlessly.

The Children of Hurin represents a necessary stage in that evolution, and will no doubt gladden the hearts of those Tolkien fans who speak in Elvish easier than in English. It is a passable addition to the already bulging Tolkien oeuvre, and if it doesn’t offer an embarrassment of riches, it is at least not an embarrassment.

But for philistine readers like me, who couldn’t care less if it was Bilbur the Unworthy who wed Gallimaufry the Luminous or Balbo the Unsteady who wed Gallowglass the Limber, to think of this as the last of Tolkien’s work is a disappointment. I want my hobbits back, please.

Kurt Vonnegut: Farewell, Hello

(Published in the Business Standard, April 16, 2007)

“Please, please, please. Nobody else die!” That was the first line of the tribute Kurt Vonnegut wrote when his friend, the poet Allen Ginsburg, died.

Vonnegut never intended to outlast his fellow hell-raisers, from Ginsburg to William Burroughs to Joseph Heller, but he did, until he took a fall down his stairs a few weeks ago and went, reasonably quietly, in his eighties. A thousand obituary writers and bloggers dusted off Vonnegut’s catchphrase, the one that became the refrain of the cult novel Slaughterhouse Five. So it goes, Kurt, they said. So it goes.

Vonnegut could have, but didn’t, to his astonishment and everyone else’s, died at several points of his often embattled life. There was the time in 2000 when his house caught fire, and he survived potential death by smoke inhalation. It would have been a “shapely” death, he said later.

In 1984, he used alcohol and pills to try and kill himself, but survived the attempted suicide. He often joked about how he botched the job, but suicides littered his life. His mother committed suicide when he was in his early twenties. So did some of his friends: “Suicide is the punctuation mark at the end of many artistic careers,” he said once. And in one of his more off-the-wall pieces, Vonnegut wrote about the “final” conversation he had with his fictional creation, Kilgore Trout.

“Trout committed suicide by drinking Drano at midnight on October 15 in Cohoes, New York, after a female psychic using tarot cards predicted that the environmental calamity George W. Bush would once again be elected president…,” Vonnegut added in a helpful editorial note.

Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse Five in 1969, 24 years after he had been an unwilling witness to the firebombing of Dresden, on February 13, 1945. Vonnegut was a prisoner-of-war, imprisoned beneath the city; when he and his fellow prisoners came out, they found no city left. They buried corpses for the next week.

Billy Pilgrim, the hapless protagonist of Slaughterhouse Five, was also a survivor of Dresden in Vonnegut’s version, a man “unstuck in time”. Kidnapped by Tralfamadorians, exhibited with a movie star called Montana Wildhack, Billy’s time trouble helps him understand the key to surviving being human—if all moments in time are unpredictable, then no one moment is more important than another, not even the moment of death. When he is assassinated, by a raving lunatic, Billy’s final words are: “Farewell, hello, farewell, hello.”

There could be no better survival manual for the twentieth century than Slaughterhouse Five. Generations of college students instinctively gravitate to the book, and those adults bright enough to recognize that the endless drudgery of life—the bills, the taxes, the kids, the job—is not what we were solely meant for hold on to Pilgrim’s progress as though it were some kind of talisman.

Vonnegut shambled through his own life with the aid of his fictional alter-ego, Kilgore Trout. In Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut, who had done his share of churning out stories to pay the bills, described Trout: “Trout's employer and co-workers had no idea that he was a writer. No reputable publisher had ever heard of him, for that matter, even though he had written one hundred and seventeen novels and two thousand short stories by the time he met Dwayne…. He thus got in touch with a firm called World Classics Library, which published hard-core pornography in Los Angeles, California. They used his stories, which usually didn't even have women in them, to give bulk to books and magazines of salacious pictures.”

Trout’s masterpieces included such works as ‘The Barring-gaffner of Bagnialto, or This Year's Masterpiece’, ‘ Gilgongo!’ and ‘Oh Say Can You Smell’. Many years after Kilgore Trout had found a faithful following, fans were surprised to find Venus on the Half-Shell, a novel written by Kilgore Trout. Some speculated that this was one of Vonnegut’s japes, but the novel was the work of fellow science fiction writer Philip Jose Farmer. Vonnegut wasn’t amused; he asked Farmer not to continue with the ‘Kilgore Trout’ series. “I understand he was really burned up about my decision. I heard he had made more money in that one 'Kilgore Trout year' than he had ever made before -- in case you're too polite to ask, I didn't get any of the money,'' Vonnegut said in an interview.

By the end of his life, the creativity was drying up. Timequake, one of Vonnegut’s last published works, was nothing like Slaughterhouse Five, or Player Piano or the short stories in collections like Welcome to the Monkey House. But Vonnegut had given us enough. “I want to stay as close on the edge as I can without going over,” he made Finnerty say in Player Piano. “Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center. Big, undreamed-of things—the people on the edge see them first.”

Literary orgies

(Published in the Business Standard, April 9, 2007, Speaking Volumes)

It is a lowering thought, but until last week, I had spent over a decade in Delhi without receiving a single invitation to a literary orgy. There have been, admittedly, literary evenings where authors, critics and editors have variously been carved up as the main course, but those were inadvertent.

So when Ritu Dalmia, proprietor of the iconic Italian restaurant Diva in Delhi, suggested that I might want to drop in at an evening of readings and gourmand indulgence based on Isabel Allende’s Aphrodite, I accepted with alacrity. The only problem was the lack of orgy-appropriate clothes—the wardrobe of a literary hack-turned editor doesn’t run to velvet gowns or black leather outfits as a rule, but when I got there, it was a relief to discover that other guests had dressed for the literary, rather than the orgy, part of the evening too.

Allende’s book concentrates on the sensual rather than the exotic. “We do not offer any supernatural potions, for this is a practical book and we know how difficult it is to find paws of koala, eye of salamander, and urine of virgin—three species on the endangered list.” Instead, she (and Ritu) focus on more easily accessible, and distinctly more palatable, pleasures.

Several of us are invited to read for our supper—short selections from Aphrodite selected by Ritu follow the presentation of different courses. The first is a platter of little amusements for the palate—stuffed prunes wrapped in bacon, prawns, figs. There is bread, and one of Ritu’s guests reads out: “The raw dough swelled with secret sighs, moved softly, pulsed like a woman’s body in the surrender of love…”

Somewhere between the porcini mushroom soup (the recipe suggests that truffle oil, dabbed behind the ears, is an excellent perfume) and the Empress’s Omelet (including eggs, smoked salmon and beluga caviar), I relax into the food, and the book. I have often thought of Allende’s gentle reminder to the chef who sees the cooking of omelets as an invitation to show off his skills: “These gyrations are pure exhibitionism, because when you make an omelet, as when you make love, affection counts for more than technique.”

By the end of the meal, which includes saffron prawns, duck in peach sauce, a wickedly sensuous chocolate mousse, most of us will go home feeling pampered, soothed rather than aroused. This, given the august professions of some of Ritu’s guests is probably a good thing, or perhaps it’s just that she was careful to omit Panchita’s Soup for Orgies (designed to feed 10 bacchants).

But when I get back home and pick up Allende’s Aphrodite again, I discover that it is very different from my memories of it. It is not about aphrodisiacs, though it is about eroticism; it is, however, about creativity, abundance and celebration. In the middle of a week that has more than the usual share of trials and sadness, being at this reading and rediscovering Aphrodite through Ritu’s cooking is balm for the soul.

Allende began to write Aphrodite three years after her daughter, Paula, died tragically young, years “filled with the sensation that the world had lost its colour”... she writes. “When my dreams about food began, I knew that I was reaching the end of a long tunnel of mourning and finally coming out the other end, into the light, with a tremendous desire to eat and cuddle once again.”

The day after the feast at Diva, I hear that Michael Dibdin has died at the age of 60. Some of my friends read his detective stories, featuring the battered Aurelio Zen as chief protagonist, for the crime. Some of us, though, read Dibdin and followed Aurelio Zen across Italy strictly for the food. Only a careful crime writer, and a serious foodie, would have noted that a Parmesan cheese knife, as opposed to the ordinary kind, makes an excellent murder weapon. In The Long Finish, solving murders is almost secondary to preventing a dark plot from destabilizing the Piemontese wine industry.

It was thanks to Aurelio Zen, for instance, that I discovered that the finest orange juice is obtained by putting blood oranges-hard to find in India, sadly—through a brass juicer to extract the pulp. Or that the best way to eat baklava, usually too sticky and too sweet for my taste, is for breakfast, chased down with a double espresso. Or how to comport yourself during a pub-crawl in Iceland.

There are some who disapprove of mixing crime and cooking, or who think Allende’s sort of food-and-sex writing is overdone. I’m not of their company. Murder and orgies are both far more palatable on a full stomach.

Fifty Nifty Years: The Cat in the Hat

(Published in the Business Standard, April 2nd, 2007)

How is that The Cat in the Hat is not out in the cold, though it’s fifty years old? It’s been translated into Yiddish for the benefit of some kiddish, and you can read it in Spanish and see that goldfish vanish.

At the Latin high table, it’s available as Cattus Petasatus, also known as the matus to the same translator’s look at another Dr Seuss book. (He did Green Eggs and Ham, starring Seuss’s SamIAm, as Virent Ova! Viret Perna!, for the beginner Latin learner.) Sadly, there’s no Sindhi, translation yet, nor Hindi, though Indian children might well fall under Seuss’ spell.

Theodore Geisel, who was the real voice of the man whom we know as plain Dr Seuss, began his career drawing cartoons for the adult, but it was when he wrote for children that he spawned a new cult.

Geisel was a good listener; he listened a lot, to the rhymes his mother made up about selling pies, hot (Henrietta Seuss Geisel, an excellent baker, was also a nifty verse-maker). He listened to ships, and wrote a book to their beat, the famous To Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street. But though by this time he was a well-liked shamus, he was nothing close to being famous.

Then in 1954 John Hersey wrote to complain about those boring books starring Dick and Jane. Of course kids didn’t read, their books were too bland; perhaps Disney (or Geisel?) should take this matter in hand? Besides most authors used too many words without thinking; children should be able to read pages without blinking. Geisel’s publisher was a bright sort of chap and after much thought he wrote a word map. It didn’t have words by the yard, oh no; after his work, he had only 400 words to show. But these were the key words, the ones that would matter to children used to listening to normal chat and patter. “Dr Seuss,” he asked, “Do you think you could twist a book out of the 400 words on this list?”

Dr Seuss figured he could do maybe even better; he cut that list down, letter by letter. Of those 400 words, he thought he could fix a mighty fine story using just 236. He took a year, with a map and a doodle, until he thought he had his “stroodle-less stroodle”. But he was stuck on one thing, and that was line one; he couldn’t do the story until line one was done. One day, by which time he knew his word-list pat, he saw the first two words: “cat” and “hat”. Would that cat be on a mat wearing a hat? Or would it be a bat on a hat under a cat? “I’ve got it!” he thought with much glee—“A cat in the hat sounds good to me!” His 236 words, used in different combinations, were enough to please kids—and adults—of all nations.

Now that cat was no sweet little furball or placid old tabby; when the cat in the hat came in, there’d be chaos and all the adults got crabby. The cat, and his friends, Thing One and Thing Two, were very good examples of what not to do. They turned the house upside down and inside out; they scared everyone, and made the goldfish shout. But the kids loved it, bad-behaved cat or not; in fact, they loved it, they loved it a lot.

Art Spiegelman, a cartoonist, had drawn the famous Maus, so he knew something about cats in hats or in the house. “This cat looks familiar, in fact—why damn, if it isn’t a lot like the poster of Uncle Sam.” It may or may not have been that, but Uncle and Cat do have the same kind of hat.

As children bought books and clamoured for more, Dr Seuss found publishers lining up at his door. He wrote One Fish Two Fish, he wrote Hop on Pop: Dr Seuss was the best, for always and ever on top. He loved writing, but he was beginning to think—was 236 words a waste of ink? He settled on fifty, which sounded pretty nifty. That’s all he could cram into Green Eggs and Ham, but we loved the words and the plot, we loved Seuss a lot. And that’s why fifty years on, though Theodore Geisel’s gone, children still rejoice when you read them Dr Seuss. “It’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how”—he knew, and thanks to him, we still have fun now.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Beyond hijab and terrorism

(Published in the Business Standard, March 27, 2007)

"How many girls born in Digfeer Hospital in Mogadishu in November 1969 are even alive today? And how many have a real voice?"

Ayaan Hirsi Ali knows the answer to her own rhetorical question. In Infidel, she sets down the story of her remarkable life, making no apologies. Her father was a noted warlord, member of a clan of Somali desert nomads. Ayaan Hirsi Ali lived for much of her life under the codes that governed “proper behaviour”—she suffered female genital circumcision (more accurately called female genital mutilation) as a young girl, and was brought up in a culture she describes as “brutal, bigoted, fixated on controlling women, and harsh in war.”

She escaped from her family en route to a forced marriage that had been planned for her in Canada, and made up a story convincing enough to gain asylum in Holland. The headscarf came off; she found salvation through education, became a Dutch member of Parliament, and in 2004, helped Dutch film-maker Theo Van Gogh make a film about Muslim women.

Theo Van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim fundamentalist, and as the spotlight focused on Hirsi Ali, questions were raised about her “refugee” status. She is now in America, and Infidel is one of the most widely discussed biographies of recent times. Hirsi Ali believes that her faith must be rescued, that Islam is in need of a radical transformation. And she believes in a higher cause than even faith, as she said in a trenchant essay just after the controversy over cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, “I am here to defend the right to offend.”

The figure that has emerged most strongly in contemporary fiction about Islam is the figure of the terrorist, usually male, often apparently cosmopolitan, drawn to a warped version of the true faith by circumstances. This is the figure you see in John Updike’s Terrorist, in Kiran Nagarkar’s God’s Little Soldier, in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Of the three, Hamid offers the best imagined and most sensitive portrait. He tackles similar questions to the ones Hanif Kureishi raised a generation ago in My Son the Fanatic: how can someone brought up in an age of reason betray himself?

This is an important subject, but the figure of the young Islamic man turned terrorist is also becoming a 21st century cliché. Ayaan Hirsi Ali belongs to a small group of writers who use fiction or non-fiction to move into different, if equally crucial, areas of debate.

A few years ago, some of us began reading an independent website called Muslim Wake-up because it included the voices of some of the most original writers of our time. There was Mohja Kahf, writing a Scheherazade-cycle of stories about Sex and the Umma. Michael Muhammad Knight’s The Taqwacores introduced the then-fictional genre of Muslim punk rock—the book went cult, and inspired actual Muslim punk rockers subsequently.

And there was Asra Q Nomani, a journalist interested in exploring faith from the inside. In Standing Alone in Mecca, Nomani shares with Hirsi Ali the belief that Islam must be transformed from the inside, but she has a more nuanced, and scholarly, understanding of her faith. Nomani was in Pakistan with her friend Danny Pearl days before he was kidnapped and killed; she and Marianne Pearl went through their pregnancies together, Nomani in the early stages, Marianne in her final months.

Nomani made the pilgrimage to Mecca as a believer who was also an unwed mother. She found Saudi Arabia rigid, but also willing to accord women respect as pilgrims on the Hajj. It was in apparently free America that her battle against conservative Islam actually began, when she questioned why women in mosques were not allowed equal space in their institutions of faith.

“The Muslim world was galvanized to protect the rights of women to wear scarves on their heads,” she writes, “but I was left standing alone in my mosque in Morgantown… Men could feel noble, protecting our right to wear a cloth over our hair, but they went silent when it came time to protect our right to speak.”

She faced down imams who declared that “America must submit to Islam, not Islam submit to America,” death threats, the disapproval of the community and a virtual inquisition by the chiefly male elders of her own mosque in Morgantown. Nomani has won some early battles, but like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Muhammad Knight and Mohja Kahf, she is still in the thick of the war for what all of them see as the true soul of their religion. Her book ends with the last word of Islamic prayer: “Ameen (please accept).”

The two most common contemporary stereotypes of Islam are the apostate and the terrorist. In their own ways, these writers ask us to please accept that so much more lies in between.

Publishing in India

(Published in Le Monde, March 2007)

Just over a century after Gutenberg invented movable type, a Jesuit ship stopped off the port of Goa on the Indian coast for provisions. Among its human cargo was a printer; listed on the bill was a printing press intended for Abyssinia. The Portuguese priests of Goa hijacked both press and printer, and set about printing Bibles and missionary tracts.

This was in 1556, and if it hadn’t been for opposition from the existing guilds of calligraphers as well as the missionaries’ reluctance to share what was then state-of-the-art technology, the history of Indian publishing would have been very different. As it happened, printing and publishing never really took off.

As late as 1868, printing presses were so rare that the Oriya writer Fakir Mohan Senapati could describe the excitement caused by the arrival of the first printing press in the state of Orissa (it was brought in by ship and bullock cart). “We joyfully announced that printing would begin. Half of the shops in Motiganj were closed on this auspicious day… The street outside was full of people, and the traffic came to a stop. People from afar kept coming…as if it was as exciting as the Car Festival. Zemindars (landlords) came in palanquins from remote villages to see our press…”

Neither Senapati nor the Jesuit fathers of Goa would recognize the Indian publishing scene today. “80,000 books in 22 Indian languages including English,” boasts 60 Years of Book Publishing in (independent) India, released at last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair where India was the guest country.
In New Delhi, the Indian capital and the heart of English language publishing, books—many of them pirated copies of bestsellers—are peddled at red lights alongside cheap plastic toys. It’s a distinct if dubious sign of the growing appetite for books among the middle class. A few decades ago, most of Delhi’s publishers were clustered in the crowded roads of Old Delhi, near the monuments where mushairas—gatherings of poets—provided popular entertainment for courtiers and commoners alike.
Now publishing houses can be found all over the city, the geographical distribution reflecting the diversity and challenges that face English language publishers in India. Ravi Singh, CEO of Penguin India—one of the largest and most respected trade publishers in the country—thinks there’s a significant shift in Indian reading habits.

“There’s greater plurality and much less literary snobbery than there used to be ten years ago,” he says, pointing to the explosion of narrative non-fiction. Books like Suketu Mehta’s biography of Bombay, Maximum City, Rahul Bhattacharya’s cricketing odysssey, Pundits from Pakistan or Rajmohan Gandhi’s new look at Mahatma Gandhi, Mohandas, reflect the growing interest of Indians in the obsessions of their own country.

Sayoni Basu, chief editor at Scholastic, a children’s book imprint, confirms this: “Today, all novels do not have to be the great Indian novel, dealing with great abstract issues of existence, anxiety, caste and religion. It is okay to write fiction about silly things, funny things--and to write romance and detective novels.”
While HarperCollins, Penguin and, in academic publishing, Oxford University Press have been in India for a while now, there’s also been growing interest from other foreign publishers. Random House has just set up an office in India, Simon & Schuster is testing the waters and several other publishers have plans for the Indian market.

Urvashi Butalia, a publishing veteran and founder of a key feminist press, now runs Zubaan, a feminist publishing house. She offers her perspective: “Barely had Indian publishers begun to make their mark, after an initial situation of being dominated by the big four or five (OUP, Longman Green, Macmillan, Blackie and Son) that the political setup changed and foreign houses are coming in. So one challenge is from the competition that these houses can offer, and the other is to fight the still persistent, even though somewhat residual, sense of 'foreign is better'.”

Local publishing houses like Roli Books, who have a fine line in coffee table books, and the venerable Rupa & Co, do well, though, and it isn’t always easy for foreign publishing houses to deal with the quirky conditions in the Indian market.

“It’s silly season in English-language Indian publishing,” says Penguin’s Ravi Singh. “The whole world and its aunt want to set up publishing outfits in India. But things will settle down in a couple of years and you’ll find that good, sensible publishers, whether ‘indigenous’ or aligned to international publishing houses, will continue to thrive.” Anita Roy, a leading editor with Zubaan, thinks that the market is big enough: “India is still an area of great 'book hunger'--there is a lot of room for growth for everyone.”

For publishers in the 21 languages other than English, though, the sense of being ignored by the English-speaking Indian and the rest of the world is strong. Dina M Malhotra, editor of 60 Years of Book Publishing in India, writes of the need to ensure that “the roots of Indian culture are not inundated by the Western influence”.
And the frustration that many publishers prevented by language barriers from being serious players in the global market feel is evident. Malhotra points out that the largest number of books in India are published in Hindi, the national language, not English, and that Bengali, Malayalam, Gujarati, Tamil and Telegu all have strong local markets, but are invisible to the Western reader.

But the biggest question is one that is familiar to European readers: in a country the size of India, with at least 22 vibrant languages, how do you find your readers? And how do you introduce readers familiar with one language to literature written in an unfamiliar tongue, even if they share a common history?

A bestseller in Bengal or Gujarat might sell 60,000 copies on average in India, but has no readers outside the subcontinent or indeed home state. English language publishers grapple with the fact that while bestsellers can run to 50,000 copy print runs, average numbers are abysmally low—print runs of 1,000 or 2,000 copies are the norm.

“In a country of a billion plus people it should be possible to sell at least a million copies of a book. Why is it that we manage to sell only a thousand?” asks Zubaan’s Urvashi Butalia.

In India, where President Kalaam’s poetry sells in bushels at the local cigarette shop, where the dazzling exploits of the dashing Inspector Vinod sell briskly in the Hindi pulp fiction market, and where railway station bookshops in the South sell Malayalam classics alongside Jane Eyre to readers hungry for both, that’s a million-dollar question.

Author: rewind, please?

(Published in the Business Standard, March 5, 2007)

A few days after the Kitab festival for writers ended in Bombay, I'm catching up on the gossip. Most of it is about who ended up getting the bad hotel room with the leaky bathroom and who ended up in bed in the bad hotel room with the leaky bathroom and the complaining writer, that kind of serious literary conversation.

I'm struck, though, by the number of writers who have either festival ennui or festival enthusiasm. The ones who have festival ennui are usually the ones who have just released a new book and have been doing the rounds of Hay-on-Wye, Hay-in-Cartagena, the new Galle literary festival ("great parties", is the general verdict), Jaipur, Melbourne, Toronto

They have the air of seasoned explorers, emerging from the rain forest of literature with advice about how to avoid media pythons, the malarial interview (where you speak in a kind of delirium that lasts until you see what you've said the next morning in the paper) and other hazards of the festival life. The festival enthusiasts are the ones who're comfortable leading the life of rockstars on a long world tour, sans the groupies and the psychedelic drugs.India's a newbie on the festival circuit, still at the stage where we do our best to adapt the famous Indian Seminar style to the new party-till-you-drop literary subculture. "I'm appearing on a panel at a literary festival about whether panels at literary festivals are a waste of time," said one bright young critic. "It's all very meta."

I felt bad for missing Kitab in Bombay and the far more heavyweight Women's Writing Conference, running in parallel in Delhi with authors from Gloria Steinem to Esther David, Kamila Shamsie and Taslima Nasreen in attendance. But over the next few days, as friends filled me in on what had happened, it felt as though I'd been there despite myself.

Where I'd been, instead, was online, pondering the virtues of the virtual author tour. Thanks to sites like YouTube, and the video-sharing community, Second Life, a "virtual world" built by "real people", and festival sites like Hay that offer free podcasts, readers worried that they might miss out on the writing world have alternatives. Unless, like me, they download not too wisely but too well.

It started innocently enough. I dropped by Second Life, lured by the prospect of attending a cyber poetry reading. It took me a while to figure out the right avatar—suitably nerdy, slightly ink-stained, but equipped with far more tattoos than your columnist has in her real life. I found a seat beside a Spock avatar and a mermaid-fey whose name involved Moonbeams, which should have served as enough warning.

The problem with cyber poetry readings isn't the atmosphere, which is actually more fun than the usual bookstore-gallery-auditorium space; it's the quality of the cyber-poetry, which is just as depressingly amateur as in our real, humdrum world. I left in a hurry, and headed off to the Hay site to listen to David Bodanis read from his book on Voltaire's hot love affair, which was much more fun.

It wasn't long before I was hooked. The real world was all about illness and yet another "Whither The Indian Novel" session. Online, though, there was Richard Dawkins reading from The God Delusion, cleverly shot so that I felt as though I was right there, part of an audience composed equally of atheists who love Dawkins and god-fearing Dawkins-haters waiting for a bolt of lightning to strike him down. Or there was "warrior woman" Maxine Hong Kingston doing a duet book reading with a Gulf War veteran.

I showed up—virtually—at the Dodge Poetry Festival to join an audience of hundreds in a tent listening to Taha Muhammad Ali reading his poem, 'Revenge'. I listened to Salman Rushdie reading at the Jaipur Festival from The Satanic Verses with a strong sense of deja vu before it occurred to me that I had actually been there, done that. So far, few authors have figured out that they can now avoid airports and hotel rooms if they create an avatar and get it to do the hard work, but sooner or later, they will.

The problem with hosting your own virtual literary festival is simple: avoid opening too many tabs at the same time. I spent a dizzying half-an-hour torn between the lures of the American poet Charles Bukowski, graphic novelist Neil Gaiman reading one of his poems for a change, an interview with Stephen King, or Toni Morrison speaking on 9/11.

And then enlightenment dawned. Unlike Kitab or Edinburgh, Hay-on-Wye or Jaipur, virtual readings have a singular advantage—you get to pause, rewind or fast-forward your authors at will. If only we could do this in real life.

Sham Lal's century of reading

(Published in the Business Standard, February 27, 2007)

For a certain generation of writers, thinkers and intellectuals, Sham Lal was not a man, but an institution. For another, younger and more fashionable set of "intellectuals", Sham Lal was a half-remembered name, his integrity almost old-fashioned in a time when it was normal to change one's opinions as casually, and as frequently, as you changed your clothes.

Sham Lal, who died on Saturday at the age of 94, was not to be found on Page 3 or among the rent-a-quote intellectuals who make their names on television shows. He had been the editor of The Times of India in an era when the measure of a newspaper lay in the quality of its writing and reportage, rather than the quality of its marketing campaigns. He was one of the founder-editors of Biblio, the literary magazine that functions as an oasis of intelligence in a desert of fatuity, and many of us looked forward to the essays he wrote for The Telegraph well into his nineties.

I was a junior dogsbody at Biblio when I was taken to Sham Lal's house to meet the editor. Like many other first-time visitors, it seemed to my dazed eyes that the house was constructed of books. Bookshelves reached from floor to ceiling in every room, their contents neatly ordered, spanning several centuries of human thought and creativity. He had original issues of The Paris Review, Criterion, and of defunct but once-great Indian literary magazines, vast collections of poetry and drama, and what appeared to be every important work ever published in the fields of history, criticism and the humanities. It was one of the best private libraries I had ever seen, and being there was like being inside a particularly well-stocked, curious and disciplined mind. Sham Lal himself was lying on a couch, reading Isaiah Berlin while columns of books rose up from the floor to spill over couch, keeping him company.

He was not a hoarder of knowledge. The book-lined house in Delhi's Gulmohar Park functioned as a superior literary saloon for many years, with some of the greatest and most interesting figures of the age, from Octavio Paz to Bipan Chandra, dropping in to spend time with Sham Lal.

I am often saddened, and sorry, when I meet younger writers or colleagues in journalism who don't know of Sham Lal, even when I know this amnesia is not their fault. They have missed out on so much. Most of his writing retains its freshness, clarity and incisiveness, and he wore his erudition lightly. His intellectual engagement with the world stemmed from an enormous respect for ideas, beliefs and the language that provided the building blocks for argument: "At a time when political rag chewing, hack writing, mass media banalities and high pressure sales talk do as much to corrupt the language as industrial wastes to pollute air and water, it is the poet's job to preserve the integrity of the written word." This may have been the poet's credo, but it was also Sham Lal's own.

I still remember his piece on Kafka and Thomas Mann, which begins: "For long, I have had the uneasy feeling that the doctrine of karma takes us straight into Franz Kafka's world. For, when most religions which had their birth in this country seek release—whatever the name by which they call it—from the cycle of rebirths, and explain away all that the individual suffers as a consequence of his or her deeds in a previous life about which he or she knows nothing, the story is not very different from what the Czech writer tells in The Trial." Sham Lal drew his philosophies from the world he was born in, and reached out with equal assurance to the wider world of Beckett and Kafka, Sartre and Berlin while columns of books rose up from the floor to spill over couch, keeping him company. Some writers escaped him: he found Jack Kerouac's world of dharma bums vapid, he recognised Ezra Pound's insanity, but not his genius.

There is a term that has fallen into disuse these days, when hyperbole has turned every writer inexorably into a genius producer of masterpieces and every reviewer into a critic of searing insight and intelligence. It used to be honourable to be considered a man of letters—it stood for someone who was deeply engaged with the life of the mind. If you look at the index to A Hundred Encounters, a collection of Sham Lal's writing, you gain some sense of the generous breadth of his world. It begins with Adorno and Akhmatova, moves through Baudelaire, the Bible and the Bhagwad Gita and traverses via Vishnu, Vidal, Van Gogh and Vyasa to, finally, Andrei Zhadnov. If one generation of thinkers had every reason to remember Sham Lal, the next generation has every reason not to forget him.

Hanif Kureishi

(For Time Out, Mumbai, February 2007)

When Hanif Kureishi visited Calcutta briefly in the late 1980s, we thought we knew all about him. My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, his two early films, were cult classics. His best work—The Black Album, The Buddha of Suburbia, Intimacy, My Son the Fanatic, The Body--was still ahead of him. But more than the work, we worshipped the man.

He was a smaller, slighter figure than we had expected: confronted with an audience of giggling, awed schoolgirls, he disappointed us by being more polite than profane. But he exuded rebelliousness, and a kind of glamour. He spoke of being called a "Paki", of race riots, and for the first time, many of us sensed a darker, more divisive world lying outside the placid borders of our own quiet, apolitical lives.

He spoke of knowing from his teens onward that he wanted to be a writer, of making films, and possibilities we hadn't admitted to ourselves began to open up for us. Asked by a greatly daring classmate what he thought about homosexuality, which was still seen in our Calcutta in Victorian terms, as the love that did not dare speak its name, he said insouciantly: "It's just two people in love, innit?" We gasped. And I sometimes wondered, years later when that generation of women allowed themselves a previously unthinkable freedom of choice, whether Kureishi's black-clad figure had much to do with this.

How many boundaries has Kureishi's work crossed? He experimented with drugs, explored his sexuality and wrote freely about the results. He explored what it meant to be a "Paki" in London; in later years, curious about his lack of faith, he spent time in London's mosques, exploring Islam, belief, fanaticism and belonging. He spared nothing, not even himself. When his marriage failed and he walked out on his wife and two sons, he wrote the controversial Intimacy, about a man whose marriage had failed and who walked out on his family. Unusually for a rebel, he found themes beyond rebelliousness, turning to the body, to relationships, to the ordinary conundrums of people's lives.

"In the end there is only one subject for an artist," he wrote in Something Given. "What is the nature of human experience? What is it to be alive, suffer and feel? What is it to love or need another person? To what extent can we know anyone else? Or ourselves? In other words, what it is to be a human being. These are questions that can never be answered satisfactorily but they have to be put again and again by each generation and by each person. The writer trades in dissatisfaction.."

Million Authors = One Good Book?

(Published in the Business Standard, February 13, 2007)

It's been two weeks since Penguin launched A Million Penguins, an experiment with a Wiki novel ("can a community write a novel? Let's find out…") and I, for one, am hooked.

Not by the novel, which has reached six chapters, boasts of characters called The Da Vinci Cod, Gestalt, Big Benji, Data Walrus and Alice) and loses and finds the plot several times a day. It isn't clear how many contributors/ authors there are at any given time, but the Million Penguins team is struggling to manage 100 edits an hour. "The main problem I have is that every time I go back to the website it's changed, a bit like my girlfriend's mind," Jon, an editor for the project, writes on the official blog

Some writers, like The Revisionist, seem almost ready to quit: "A once keen member of the initiative. Now, disillusioned... and unable to spell." The quality of the writing is underwhelming. This is the (current) first paragraph: "It was still dark when Mark got out of bed. He had packed his bag the night before and laid out his clothes so it only took him a few minutes to get ready. He had been planning the fishing trip for over a month and now that it had begun, his excitement was palpable. He rubbed his hands together briskly, trying to warm up. He felt lucky, he thought, maybe this would be the trip! Maybe this time he would finally catch the Da Vinci Cod!"

Most editors, if they received this in paper manuscript form, would send it straight back to the slush pile, and barring a few flashes of accidental genius here and there, the novel is an incoherent, plotless ramble, a showcase for juvenile humour and flamboyantly bad writing.

But was A Million Penguins created in order to prove that a million writers, collaborating on a wiki-novel, could produce a masterpiece of deathless prose? I don't think so. Instead, it's tapping into two quintessentially 21st century trends: the rise of social networking, and the emergence of the unpublished author as a figure in his/ her own right.

On the main Penguin Wiki novel site "authors" sound like tired firefighters. The novel has been vandalised repeatedly; the editors have had to remove porn additions in Chinese and gently dissuade those who want one character to prevail over all the rest. Given the opportunity to create a no-holds-barred, make-up-your-own-rules novel, most of those who enjoy the writing part of the exercise are now pleading for more rules, more constraints.

If, like me, you've been struggling to keep up with the bewildering and constant changes on the Wiki novel, you might want to ask Penguin: "Fundamentally, what's your point?" The wiki-novel stretches even the best editors and moderators. There is just a chance that Penguin might find a few talented authors, though they would have an equally high chance of locating talent in the print slush pile. When it works brilliantly as an exercise in democracy, with every author allowed an equal say, it works abysmally as an exercise in writing. There might be, conceivably, a market for the printed wiki-novel—people might buy it out of curiosity, collaborators might buy it out of a sense of ownership.

But it's unlikely that the wiki-novel will have any real readership. When it works brilliantly as an exercise in democracy, with every author allowed an equal say, it works abysmally as an exercise in writing. Alex Bunker, one of the contributors to the wiki-novel, came closest to identifying the real point of the project: "Individual story elements, like genes are changed around within stories, deleted, added, mutated, but on a larger scale these develop around competing lines which can not coexist. …We see an ecosystem of story ideas developing. It really is quite fascinating." As many 21st century artists and writers have argued, the process is the point—especially if you're directly involved in the project.

So much for the reader; what of the author? In the ongoing debate over whether books are dead, the handwringing over nosediving readership figures, we've missed a simple point. The 21st century may not be the age of books or the age of readers, but it's definitely the age of the author. Jon picked up on this when he noted that there are "a lot more people writing books than are writing publishable books", but he didn't go far enough.

Of course many fledgling writers want the whole caboodle—the big advance, the prize nominations, the litfest gravy train. But most of them will settle for having a readership, regardless of whether they're published or not. As I discovered recently while judging a flash fiction contest, bad writing is ubiquitous. It's true of the wiki-novel itself, and in both cases, I expected the avalanche of bad writing that the unwary reader is subjected to by these experiments.

What I hadn't expected to discover is that for a certain kind of writer, it's not the quality of the writing that counts—it's that they're having fun doing it, and they're glad to have permission to do it for a readership, however small or bizarre. Meet the 21st century's greatest invention: the author who can't write, can't get published, but has an audience anyway.

The Other Side of Sidney

Published in the Business Standard, February 05, 2007)

At the age of 17, depressed at his growing collection of rejection slips, certain that he would never become a writer, Sidney Sheldon tried to commit suicide. His father walked in on him just before he took a combination of sleeping pills and bourbon whisky, and quietly talked him out of it.

If Mr Schechtel—Sheldon changed his surname during his Hollywood years, to make it more “saleable”—had been less persuasive, the literary world may not have missed out on much. Sidney Sheldon, who died this week, would have been the first to agree that his prose was readable rather than deathless, that his bestsellers were written to keep readers rather than critics up all night. But an entire generation of Indians brought up in more repressive times would have had much more trouble figuring out the birds and bees without “Sidney ke kitab”.

We read his books furtively; copies were passed from hand-to-hand and fell open obligingly at the saucy bits. This was in a relatively innocent age when the Indian taste in bestsellers ran to Alistair Maclean (who never wrote about sex because he felt it slowed down the action), James Hadley Chase (who should have been called Chaste because the well-endowed babe on the book cover was about as exciting as it got) and Desmond Bagley.

Pulp fiction, barring Nick Carter’s risibly lurid concoctions, was remarkably clean in those days. Sidney Sheldon’s books, from The Other Side of Midnight to The Windmills of the Gods, seem almost sweetly old-fashioned to contemporary eyes. But they were greatly prized for the steamy bits in that time, though today any self-respecting Mills & Boon is anatomically more explicit—and more accurate!—than Sheldon’s harmless page-turners. He had quite a following among women readers in Calcutta for a strange reason—many assumed that “Sidney” was a woman, and treated him/ her as a superior romance writer.

The interesting thing about Sidney Sheldon is that he represented a generation of popular fiction writers who have endured. This is disconcerting for the highbrow reader, who knows that one of the ways in which you recognize a “classic” is if the book lasts over several generations. If that is true, then a case must be made for a kind of alternate, mass-market “classic”, and this, to many, would devalue an already debased word.

The original “bestsellers” make a reassuring list for those readers who believe in literary value and in the idea that quality writing will make a place for itself in the world. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for example, is a classic of medieval literature—but it was also a runaway bestseller in its day. The first printed book to be accounted bestseller status was Thomas a Kempis’ De Imitatione Christi, a rousing, controversial and deeply scholarly work. Most bestsellers in medieval Europe would fit into a modern-day “spirituality” imprint: Martin Luther’s Sermons were hugely popular, as were the lives of the saints, collections of sermons, and editions of separate books of the Bible, conveniently packaged for the reader who wanted only to read, say, Psalms or the Apocrypha.

An early indication that the nature of the bestseller might shift over time came in 1532 with the great Italian romantic epic, Orlando Furioso. That prepared the way for slightly later popular successes, such as Tristram Shandy--an early example of the cult novel—or Richardson’s three-volume novels. The American publishing world initially displayed a reassuring popular appetite for what was seen as quality literary fiction—James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne were the top sellers of their day, for instance.

But there was a fairly rapid shift towards the bestseller as we know it today. A typical early success was The Lamplighter, a domestic novel written by Maria Cummins. It was a sentimental, melodramatic account of a maltreated orphan who is rescued, only to have her faith tested across the rest of an apparently interminable book. The prose was slushy when it wasn’t saccharine, but the book sold 20,000 copies in less than a month.

The Lamplighter reassures readers who believe that quality will ultimately win the day. Twenty years after its publication, it was on its way to oblivion, and few remember it today. But if you look at the bestseller lists for the 20th century, some names have remained steady sellers for close to four or five decades: Wilbur Smith, Frederick Forsyth, early Robert Ludlum, early Sidney Sheldon. In all these cases, the storylines and plots seem dated, what was once shocking is now mildly quaint. But the books still sell, and if they don’t die over the next few decades, we may have to redefine what we mean by a “classic”.
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