Saturday, March 27, 2010

Speaking Volumes: Under construction-the great Delhi novel

(Published in the Business Standard, March 22, 2010)

Drawing a literary map of Bombay, or Calcutta, is a relatively straightforward exercise: writers fall into neat categories, and time periods, and claim their neighbourhoods easily.

But as a recent collection of writings on Delhi indicates, this is the original Trickster City. In most of its centuries, Delhi has hosted more writers than it has nurtured them: the capital has been the resting place, the halt between stages of a writer’s career rather than the inspiration for great writing. Foreign correspondents and old Asia hands pass through Dilli on their way to Ayodhya or Kashmir or Maoist Chattisgarh. After the last mushaira in Bahadur Shah Zafar’s time, Delhi has housed poets, but there has been no great outpouring of Delhi poetry—nothing to match Bombay’s line-up of Nissim Ezekiel, Dom Moraes, Arun Kolatkar, Adil Jussawala and Jeet Thayil.

At Penguin’s Spring Fever festival, a final session was dedicated to the Trickster City. That’s also the title of a collection of writings, translated from Bahurupiya Shahar, which illustrates one of the big problems of writing about this city. Literary Delhi is usually either South Delhi or Old Dilli, with the party palaces, bleak concrete jungles and constantly resettled slums of North Delhi unchronicled, until now.

For some of us, listening to William Dalrymple and Mahmood Farooqui brought in a sense of déjà vu. Dalrymple was at the threshold of his career as a flamboyant historian when he wrote City of Djinns in 1994, and as he said, the city he captured in that book doesn’t exist any more. Mahmood Farooqui began his dastangoi performances several years ago, as a kind of literary curiosity, a revival of the storytelling traditions of the past: his book on Delhi in 1857 will soon be out. For Dilliwallas, much as we celebrate the achievements of Dalrymple or Farooqui, watching them in performances that have become familiar over a decade is a reminder of how few Delhi writers, and great Delhi novels, there have been.

Part of this is what might be called the Great Washington Novel conundrum: there are great writers from Washington, but no iconic fiction to match the great New York novels. Nayantara Sahgal chronicled political Delhi in novels like Rich Like Us and A Situation in New Delhi, but it is hard to pull off truly great writing about administrative capitals—it’s like pulling off the great oil novel, as Amitav Ghosh once remarked. It is theoretically possible, but it doesn’t happen that often.

Among younger writers, there’s been something of a shift. An earlier collection of short stories, Delhi Noir, had a rocking premise—capturing the underbelly of a city that has only a thin barrier of gated communities dividing its pleasant surface from its extreme darkness. But its version of Delhi was closer to flabby paunch than dark underbelly; Trickster City with its blend of rough-hewn, unstylised writing and sharp, acute observations offers a much more disturbing take on Dilli.

Aatish Taseer and Mridula Koshy have both produced debut works of fiction that take you into the complexities of Delhi: instead of the seven (or thirteen) cities of its historical past, today’s Delhi offers seven (or more) cities co-existing uneasily with one another. And novelist Rana Dasgupta is working on a non-fiction narrative about the city—it’s hard to capture a city that is constantly reinventing itself, a city always Under Construction, but Dasgupta has the skills and vision to pull it off.

The classic, iconic Delhi novel was evoked by Dalrymple in his reading—Ahmad Ali never published another book after Twilight in Delhi, and was an unhappy exile who felt himself neglected in Lahore. But he refused to come back to Delhi, because his city—the city of his past, and the city of his imagination—no longer existed for him. He didn’t want to see what it had become.

In the Delhi of the 1980s, bahurupiyas could still be found in the Old City. A bahurupiya is, literally, a person of many faces, an inhabitant of many avatars. Most bahurupiyas stuck to imitating the gods and goddesses—more money in that—but sometimes, they also commented, behind their shifting masks, on the political scandals and struggles of the day. In the Delhi of 2010, there are few practicing bahurupiyas left, but few images capture this city better. It’s a trickster city, a shapeshifter, occupying many versions of itself at any given point of time—and it may finally be finding its chroniclers.

Speaking Volumes: @famouswriter

(Published in the Business Standard, March 15, 2010)

If you track Facebook, Twitter and the arcane world of author sites, you’ll find more ghosts there than in the average cemetery. The hulks of sites circa the early 2000s, with their unlovely designs and basic, TimesNewRoman fonts, speak of books that have long since tumbled off the bestseller lists.

Closer to our time, Facebook is littered with invitations to book launches, book discussion groups, about-the-author sites—most of them have the lifespan of fireflies. Authors come and go on Twitter, the social media site where you post your life in 140-character “tweets”. Some leave Twitter after being tweetburned—being indiscreet on the Internet is like getting drunk at a book launch, embarrassing fodder for the gossips—or discover that it takes more than a random weekly update to draw in fans.

In the previous generation of writers, the big filter was the media. If you worked your interviews well, gave good soundbytes and made the correct literary festival appearances, that was enough. For the generation of writers working today, the ones who learn to manage their online presence have an edge over their peers. Most authors do the basics: get the website up, start a blog, get onto one of the big social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter. But learning how to survive on the Internet is a different matter—here’s a look at three different approaches.

Margaret Atwood: Like Salman Rushdie and a few other writers who grew up long before the Net did, Atwood remained a fascinated observer of life online for a while. Back in 2006, Atwood invented the LongPen: a device that allows authors to sign books in faraway locations using a stylus and the Internet.

In 2009, she became one of the first authors of her generation to join the likes of Harlan Coben and Neil Gaiman on Twitter. With over 30,000 followers, her Twitter feed is both popular and eminently useful. She will send greetings to “Delhi students” after one tweets her, link to book readings and chat with readers about everything from her book The Edible Woman to Twestivals (Twitter festivals). Atwood seems to have found the perfect balance between tweeting and sticking to her extremely busy writer’s schedule.

Richard Dawkins: Like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, Richard Dawkins was an early Netevangelist. His site, RichardDawkins.Net, operates like a cross between a blog and a forum, and for years was a wonderful space in which to follow the Darwin debates, or the clashing of swords between atheists and true believers. Very recently, Dawkins hit the headlines when he announced that he now needed to take over comments moderation from the previous forum moderator, after receiving increasingly abusive responses. (One comment referred to him as a “"a suppurating rat’s rectum inside a dead skunk”.)

His decision kicked off a brief storm and accusations of censorship, but that outcry is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of free speech—and the nature of the Internet. Most of the good blogs and forums are moderated, to keep out Spam, and also to keep out Internet trolls—abusive, often anonymous, commentators who are often responsible for the degeneration of a good argument into an exchange of insults.

Most serious Netizens take the view that their forum, blog or website is an extension of their homes: you’re welcome to join in the discussion, but if you’re abusive, expect to be kicked out. As blogger Great Bong (Arnab Ray) put it at the launch of his book, May I Heb Your Attention Pliss, “Don’t take a dump in my drawing room.” Dawkins hopes that comments moderation will allow for a healthier and less pointlessly vicious exchange of views, and since he has one of the great science writing forums, we’ll watch that space with interest.

Laila Lalami: In the online literary world, Lalami became famous as the blogger Moorish Girl long before she started her career as a young and promising writer. Her blog demonstrates the best way to use a blog to further your work: instead of seeing it as an advertisement for the book (“yet another great review for my work!! How cool is that!!!”), blog for fun, share your passions, and share your life. Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman does this to great effect on his blog, sharing work, his relationship with his cats, and the secrets of bee-keeping with thousands of fans.

What’s lovely about Moorish Girl as a blog is that it’s kept pace with Lalami’s growth as a writer. As her writing schedule demands more time, her posts have focused less on literary links, and more on the writing life—it’s a fascinating way to chart the emergence and growth of a writer, and it keeps her fans loyal.

Three different approaches, on three different forums—Twitter, a discussion board and a blog—but at the heart of them is something elementally simple. Dawkins, Atwood and Lalami—the century’s greatest science writer, one of our literary mavens, and a rising novelist—really like the Net, and feel at home online. It’s the only way to build a genuine fan-base on the web.

Speaking Volumes: Mieville's Rules

(Published in the Business Standard, March 8, 2010)

Most readers hoard the memories of books that were turning points in their lives—the brief, fleeting crushes that left little lasting imprint, the ones that dented your heart, and the ones that rampaged like tsunamis through your tidily ordered universe.

China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station was one of these. It was light years away from sword-and-sorcery, wizards-and-orcs fantasy. His imaginary metropolis, New Crobuzon, is corrupt and filled with wonders; his monsters draw from mythology but also from the stuff of urban nightmare. Like Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, Perdido Street Station changed the rules of epic fantasy, sealing Mieville’s reputation as one of the great modern mythmakers.

For the fanboys—and fanwomen—who showed up for each leg of Mieville’s India tour, it’s not just his fiction that’s a draw, impressive as his oeuvre of genre-bending novels from King Rat to The City & The City have been. Mieville teaches writing, and has some of the sharpest and most acute views on craft, genre and the changing shape of fantasy and SF today—and is outspoken about his Leftist political views.

The epigraph to The City & The City cites, among the “countless writers” he’s indebted to, Raymond Chandler, Franz Kafka, Alfred Kubin, Jan Morris, and Bruno Schulz. One of the greats of crime noir, a master of existentialist literary writing, a surrealist illustrator, a travel maven and a Polish critic and writer—there are no literary ghettos in Mieville’s mind. Here’s a look at some of the literary debates of the day, via Mieville.

On the war between genre fiction and “literary” fiction:
“There was a war. We won. But almost nobody noticed,” Mieville commented at one reading. He’s right on both counts. Fantasy and SF are too easily—and too often—dismissed by lazy readers, though both genres have a heritage stretching back to the earliest forms of mythology and myth-making in human literature.

Last year, veteran SF writer Kim Stanley Robinson sparked a debate when he argued that present-day SF was increasingly sophisticated and far more “about now” than most literary novels. Robinson’s take on the blindness of a literary prize like the Booker attracted frankly ignorant reactions, as when critic and Booker judge John Mullan said he “was not aware of science fiction”. Mullan continued with the classic, offensive stereotype of SF readers and writers, “It is in a special room in book shops, bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other.”

This, as writers like Mieville and on the fantasy side, George RR Martin, know, has never prevented SF and fantasy from having a vast, engaged and often fiercely bright readership—but as Mieville points out, nobody on the “literary” side noticed.

On the difference between genre and literary writing: “We lost the war when they stole the adjective ‘literary’,” Mieville commented at another reading. This is true: “literary” has become shorthand either as a kind of stamp of approval and a seal of lasting worth, or, in the last decade, as a kind of putdown of pretentiousness, in much the same way “academic” briefly became shorthand for “jargonized”. But the underlying assumption is that a work classified as SF or fantasy cannot possibly be literary, despite the presence of stylists like Gaiman, Martin and Mieville himself.

On literary fiction usurping genre territory:
In a now-classic interview in The Believer, Mieville spoke of the Atwood manouevre, referring to writers who “write things that are clearly weird or in the fantastic tradition and then bend over backwards to try to distance themselves from genre”.

For a literary reader who has no exposure to genre writing, the post-apocalypse world in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or Margaret Atwood’s excursions into dystopias, or Ian McEwan’s referencing of neurology and physics, are startlingly new. For many genre readers, these writers are rehashing old tropes—sometimes, as in McCarthy’s case, very well, but often, as in Atwood’s case, reinventing the wheel. But as Mieville and others have also commented, it’s an uneven playing field—the best of literary fiction is almost always compared to the worst of genre fiction. Perhaps one way out would be to have a no-holds barred Best of the Best competition—and I suspect literary fiction would lose.

On the many rules of writing:
Mieville’s basic point is that most of the “rules”, barring the grammar tips, don’t work. Lush, rich writing is different from overwrought prose; and terse, laconic prose is not necessarily better than either. I’ll leave you with his comment on the often-repeated commandment to keep your prose spare and precise: “Spare. Is the English language running out of words? Do we have a word shortage?” As long as he’s around, not a chance.

Speaking Volumes: Draupadi's literary chastity

(Published in the Business Standard, March 1, 2010)

As a bunch of ruffians disrupted the Sahitya Akademi award ceremony earlier this month in protest against Yarlagadda Lakshmi Prasad’s novel, Draupadi, I realized that it’s hard to defend the right of bad writing to exist. YL Prasad wrote his novel in Telegu five years ago; it became a popular success, but within the Akademi, there has been heated debate over its literary merits.

The men who threw shoes and other objects at the author and threatened a dharna outside the Akademi if the award wasn’t withdrawn weren’t concerned with questions of literary merit—their protests concerned the question of Draupadi’s literary chastity, which is another matter.

The two figures in the Mahabharata guaranteed to exercise a writer’s imagination would have to be Karna and Draupadi. Karna is Arjuna’s dark shadow—deprived of his birthright, cast into war against his true brothers, his dazzling skills counterbalanced by his resentments.

Draupadi is complex, her story not easily reduced to the simple “good and faithful wife” narrative that dogs Sita, the heroine of the Ramayana. She has wit and intelligence; married to five brothers, she struggles to overcome her partiality for Arjuna; she has the resilience needed to withstand years in exile and the independence needed to fight for her own rights when Yudhishtira gambles her away in the game of dice.

Representations of Draupadi in Indian literature have sometimes been controversial, but often rewarding. In Pratibha Ray’s classic Yajnaseni, Draupadi comes through as a woman of fierce independence, struggling to balance her passions against her dharma. In various versions of the epic in oral traditions across India, Draupadi is cast as something of an early feminist, ready and able to speak her mind, matching wits with Krishna. In a short story by Mahasweta Debi, a tribal woman called Dopdi Mejhen endures a modern-day form of vastraharan—rape by local armed forces—and emerges with a kind of strength still intact. In Chitra Banerji Divakaruni’s Palace of Illusions, Draupadi comes through as a romantic heroine.

One of the most insidious forms of censorship is an insistence on a rigid, simplistic narrative. To those who would see Draupadi as an upright, helpless woman forced into marriage with five brothers, versions such as the one by Pratibha Ray retelling are unwelcome, and have attracted controversy in the past. But Ray’s version, or the tribal Bhil version of Draupadi, are literary creations in their own right, easy to defend.

Yarlagadda Lakshmi Prasad’s Telegu novel, Draupadi, is not an easy book to defend. It is poorly written, transliterating the Telegu Mahabharata almost section for section in some chapters, and poorly conceived: his focus is almost exclusively on the nature of Draupadi’s relationship with her Pandava husbands and with Krishna. In his novel, Draupadi is a caricature, all flashing eyes and heaving bosom as the author describes her first night with each of her husbands. This is the material of pulp rather than literary fiction.

There are two separate questions at work here, though. Does YL Prasad’s book deserve the Sahitya Akademi award for literature? Many critics in the Telegu sphere believe that it doesn’t—this is a prurient, unimaginative novel that adds little to the many retellings of the Mahabharata. As for the sexual detail, the descriptions of Draupadi’s beauty in the Mahabharata and of how her form and her eyes stir up obsession and lust in each of her husbands is written with far more evocative splendour in that ancient epic.

But does YL Prasad deserve to be censored for undertaking to write about Draupadi’s marriage, or trying to reimagine the passionate woman behind the rigid stereotypes of the dutiful wife we’re offered today? Absolutely not; one of the beautiful features of the two great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, is how they’ve lent themselves to local versions across the centuries in the oral and written tradition in India. There are “feminist” Ramayanas where an angry Sita upbraids her husband for sending her into exile; and there are versions of the Mahabharata that have speculated on the relationships between Draupadi and Krishna, or Draupadi and Karna.

The worst that can be said about YL Prasad’s Draupadi is that it’s a prurient potboiler that fails to analyse the complexities of Draupadi’s marital and emotional life. And I would have much more sympathy for the protestors at the Sahitya Akademi if all their exertions, including “jumping over the dais” according to one report, had been intended as a literary protest. (Think of how entertaining the Indian literary scene would be if jumping across the dais became the accepted method of demonstrating one’s critical disagreement.) Instead, their protests and threats stem from the belief that there is only one way to write about and depict Draupadi—or any of the great figures of Indian mythology and history.

YL Prasad’s way of reimagining Draupadi is a bad way; but let’s not forget that he’s entitled to his own brand of mediocrity. We need better versions of Draupadi, not one fixed, piously pallid, acceptable story.

Speaking Volumes: Plagiarism: the mashup defence

(Published in the Business Standard, February 23; my apologies for the late post, haven't had time to update this blog for a while.)

The case of the estate of Adrian Jacobs versus JK Rowling is swiftly summarized: the late Jacobs wrote about wizards and wizard school before Rowling did, therefore she plagiarized him.

And the case of Helen Hegemann, the 17-year-old German literary sensation accused of plagiarizing material from creative artist Airen’s Strobo is just as swiftly summarized: there is no such thing as originality, Hegemann said, only authenticity.

Somewhere in between these two extremes, our definition of plagiarism as a literary crime will have to change.

Adrian Jacobs published The Adventures of Willy the Wizard: No 1 Livid Land in 1987, apparently through a vanity press. The author died in 1997. Jacobs’ estate didn’t file their plagiarism case earlier for technical reasons; now his lawyers charge that Rowling stole various ideas from Willy the Wizards, most notably for her book Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Rowling calls the charges “laughable” and rejected the plagiarism charges fiercely. But as one of the world’s most successful authors, she is also inured to being at the receiving end of plagiarism charges.

A brief look at the excerpts from Willy the Wizard are enough to establish the vast, yawning gap between Jacobs imagination and writing skills, and Rowling’s far more intricate technique. Here is Jacobs in one of the contested passages—his lawyers allege that Rowling stole the idea of wizards playing chess on wizard trains from him:

“Willy had been on Cloud 84 which was for Wizard Chess Players.

These were pullman-like trains made of see-through platinum, and inside the trains were chess rooms. Willie was handicapped 18. There were Wizard Chess Masters who were virtually unbeatable. Willie had made a daring move.”

The Jacobs case is based on a simple, naïve assumption: content matters more than style. Unfortunately, there are only eight original plotlines in the world, if you believe Aristotle, and with literary fiction, what really counts is what you do with your material. In journalism and in narrative non-fiction, plot—and sources—are key, which is why we have the tradition of footnotes, attributing quotes and giving credit to those who come up with original ideas and analysis. The rules change with fiction: Jacobs no doubt honestly believed that he was the only author in the world to come up with the idea of wizard colleges and wizard transport. (Terry Pratchett invented the Unseen University for wizards before Jacobs, and Jill Murphy came up with Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches back in the 1970s, to name only two of Jacobs’ predecessors.)

If you followed the principle in Jacobs lawsuit to its logical extreme—the first person to write about an idea has absolute moral copyright over it—Stephen King would have been unable to write horror novels, because MR James had preceded him, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings would effectively have been ruled plagiarism from the Norse sagas. The Jacobs lawsuit will continue, but it is highly likely that Rowling will be able to prove the originality of her work.

Hegemann’s case is strikingly different. Her novel, Axolotl Roadkill, has been critically acclaimed despite the plagiarism charges. Viewed dispassionately, Hegemann has done exactly the same as another teen wunderkind, Kaavya Viswanathan. Some years ago, Kaavya’s runaway success, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed…, was withdrawn from the market after it was proved that the author had borrowed plotlines, characters and fragments of dialogue from several different sources.

Hegemann has never denied incorporating work from other authors into her novel; her defence is that attribution is unimportant, because she’s remixed the material in a way that makes it her own. She, and several commentators in Germany, don’t see this as a case of plagiarism so much as a case of lack of attribution: Hegemann said recently that she should have acknowledged her sources.

In the Jacobs-Rowling case, the battle is over what constitutes originality—and Hegemann’s generation, brought up in the mash-up culture, will inevitably challenge the sanctity of authorship. If literature can have several versions—and multiple authors, just as a web page is a constantly updating version of itself, then the yardstick will shift to the quality of the mashup, as you evaluate the author as remix artist. Airen, the author of the stolen work, was reported to be less than indignant about the theft and more concerned with attribution—and perhaps that’s where the legal issues will eventually rest.

It’s an intriguing and disturbing shift: a generation used to viewing the written word as so much raw material already has trouble understanding the need for attribution. Hegemann understands this better than most of us in the over-30 generation: this isn’t about the death of authorship, but about the death of originality.
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