Wednesday, December 30, 2009

An Incomplete And Biased List Of My Favourite Books (So Far) Of 2009, Including Some That Were Published In 2008

Bookshops shut down, publishers saw more red ink than black and Sarah Palin outsold everyone else. No, it hasn’t been a good year for books – but then, you could say that about pretty much everything and everyone else this year, including Tiger Woods. As for me, I spent too much time at work, in traffic, on Twitter and worrying whether I could afford to buy a house in Bombay (I can’t) to be able to read as much as I’d have liked.

With those caveats in place, here’s the selection, in no particular order.

Geoff Dyer’s Death in Venice, Jeff in Varanasi was striking for its two-part structure, flaneur-like musings and part-droll, part-meditative insights. I haven’t read Dyer before, but this novel makes me even more determined to seek out his other work, especially Yoga for People Who Can’t be Bothered To Do It.

Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence was less experimental than some of his earlier work, but more than made up for it in its depiction of obsessive, quirky love and rendering of Istanbul’s domes, alleyways and modes of thought. The word ‘evocative’, so often over-used in book reviews (mea culpa, mea maxima culpa), comes to mind. So does the word ‘masterful’.

Also noteworthy was Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger: a decaying Georgian mansion, fraying class relations in post-WW II Britain and things that go bump in the night, all in one riveting package.

Then, there was J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime. If his earlier Diary of a Bad Year subverted fictional conventions with its parallel-track footnotes, this one goes a step further by taking as its subject one John Coetzee who – or may not – be the author himself. Unsettling, intriguing and, given its aims, very readable.

The universal acclaim for Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall left me slightly skeptical, but upon reading it, there’s no question that the praise and the prize were very well-deserved. The charged present tense, compelling string of incidents and marvellous detail were expertly handled. I must confess though that on more than one occasion I was assailed by the feeling that a better knowledge of British history on my part would have helped.

Among Indians writing in English, Madhulika Liddle’s The Englishman’s Cameo -- a Mughal murder mystery set in 15th century Shahjahanabad featuring the intrepid Muzaffar Jang -- was deft and charming. More please.

To turn to short stories, Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms Other Wonders, in its unsentimental depiction of the landless and the feudal elite in Pakistan, was pitch-perfect and moving. Palash Krishna Mehrotra's Eunuch Park was also impressive, with its cool urbane voice serving as a counterpoint to the pathos of the material. Two other lovely short story collections that came my way in paperback in 2009 were Amy Hempel’s The Dog of the Marriage and the handsome Faber edition of Lorrie Moore’s Collected Stories. (Which reminds me – heard of a bookshop in Mumbai that stocks her A Gate at the Stairs yet? Thought not. Amazon it is, then.)

In non-fiction, Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History managed to be both magisterial and puckish, full of unorthodox readings that either had one slapping one’s forehead for not thinking of them oneself, or – more often – simply reading on in slack-jawed awe.

Zadie Smith’s essay collection, Changing My Mind was also notable for the felicity of her prose and the sparkle of her opinions. To read her on Kafka, on Forster and on Nabokov is to come away with a renewed appreciation of those authors, and as for would-be writers out there, I’d urge you to read her ‘A Crafty Business’. (Though strictly speaking, it’s not a ‘new’ book in the sense that most of these pieces have been published earlier.)

Since I didn’t feel that new work by Toibin, Banville and Trevor – so commendable in so many ways – was among their best and therefore merited inclusion here, I shall now turn to another admirable Irish product, a dram of Jameson’s. With the hope that 2010 affords more hours available to spend with a book, an e-reader or – should it ever materialise – Apple’s netbook.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Top Ten Indian Genes

India maps human genomeThe Hindustan Times, December 9.

Allegedly, a hush-hush document prepared by scientists at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research states that among the thousands of genes they have scanned, ten are especially active among Indians in urban areas. Here, for the first time, are leaked extracts from this paper.

H-ONK. Causes itching of the thumb, which can only be relieved by vigorous and incessant blowing of horn while driving.

G-RAFT. A mutant version of the above that also makes the palm of the hand itch, leading to several under-the-table dealings.

PTH-OO. Brings about salivation, leading to excessive expectoration. (Note: This gene is only activated in public areas.)

SIX-SIXES. Activated at the sight of a plank of willow meeting a leather orb, automatically bringing the carrier to his or her feet.

O-GLE. Believed to control eye-function, causing the gene carrier to stare fixedly at others on the road without any provocation whatsoever.

WTF. A dual-action gene that affects perceptions of the colour white: carriers are drawn towards white skin while at the same time being repelled by white money.

FR-Y. This modifies digestive patterns, making the carrier partial to any form of food that has been dipped in oil before cooking.

F-LASH. Dubbed ‘the flashy gene’ by scientists, this compels carriers to indulge in lavishness when it comes to weddings. Typical manifestations are gaudy jewellery, ornate backdrops and thirty-two course buffets.

TICK-TOCK. This gene affects perceptions of time, leading carriers to believe that it is infinitely elastic. (Scientists are attempting to prove the hypothesis that Einstein carried a version of this gene as well.)

OS-TRICH Especially prevalent among those who run for office, this brings about the belief that shouting in Parliament or on TV shows will cause problems to vanish

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Turning Moments Into Mementoes

This appeared in today's The Sunday Express.


In his Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk writes that the defining characteristic of the city and its inhabitants can be captured by the Turkish word huzun: a type of deep, melancholic nostalgia, a “state of mind that is ultimately as life affirming as it is negating”. His fat, satisfying new novel, The Museum of Innocence, is suffused with just such a feeling.

The book starts with a bang: in the dusty bedroom of a hitherto-uninhabited house in mid-Seventies Istanbul, the upper-class, 30-year-old Kemal is making ecstatic love to Fusun, a “poor distant relative”. In retrospect, Kemal, the narrator, says that this “was the happiest moment of my life”. Shortly after, this heir to the fortunes of a thriving distribution and export firm breezily tells us that he’s engaged to another woman, Sibel, an alliance more in keeping with his social standing.

Kemal’s attraction towards the 18-year-old student and shopgirl deepens and grows, and he finds himself helpless in the face of his desire. The initial relationship lasts for barely a month-and-a-half, but after it, he’s racked with anguish, driven to break off his engagement and then spends nine years trying to win Fusun back. It’s an obsession that brings to mind Florentino’s passion for Fermina in Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. The fixated Kemal is often caddish and duplicitous, but earns a degree of empathy with his fanatical quest.

He also lovingly details another fixation: that of collecting objects to fill his “museum of innocence”, each one enshrining a memory associated with his beloved. An ear-ring, a doll, a piece of wallpaper, a hotel key, a bell, restaurant menus, photographs, an ashtray, hair clips, a paperweight and much more -- these, like Proust's madeleine, are his gateways to the past. In them he finds the intersection of “desire, touch and love”. They “preserve the colours, textures, images and delights as they were more faithfully, in fact, than can those who accompanied us through these moments”. At a structural level, it is this that holds the book together with its succession of short chapters.

Kemal’s fascination for populating his museum is matched by Pamuk’s for delineating life in Istanbul. He contrasts social strata through a succession of details and observations, and the large cast includes people from Kemal’s extended family, friends and business associates, as well as Fusun’s circle of film aspirants. Like the narrator, Pamuk too comes across as “the anthropologist of my own experience”.

The city, then, with its inhabitants and landscapes lives and breathes in the book and time and again, Pamuk’s love for it comes through: “There was beauty to behold in the world…the summer night was cooled by the north wind blowing off the Bosphorus, rustling the leaves of the plane trees in the courtyard of the Tesvikiye Mosque, and causing them to whisper in that lovely soft way I remembered from childhood; and at nightfall the swallows were screeching as they swooped over the dome of the mosque and the rooftops of the 1930s apartment buildings.” Also woven into the narrative are historical incidents from the years in which it is set, such as when the waters of the Bosphorus were aflame because of an oil spill caused by colliding Greek and Romanian freighters.

As with his earlier work, there’s a tug-of-war between tradition and modernity. Here, much of this is expressed in Turkish society’s attitude towards its women: Should they remain virgins until wedlock? Should they work as shopgirls? Should they appear in beauty contests? How short should their skirts be?

Ironically enough, despite all that we’re told about Fusun, she remains a cipher – much like Humbert’s Lolita. Kemal himself confesses in a moment of rare candour: “I never paused to wonder what might be going on in the mind of the woman with whom I was madly in love, and what her dreams might be; I only fantasized about her.” In this sense, Fusun is as much of an object as any other in his collection.

There is much sensuality in the book, with many passages carrying an affecting erotic charge. There’s also a playful spirit that occasionally shines through, such as when a certain “Orhan Pamuk” puts in an appearance at the narrator’s engagement as “the chain-smoking, twenty-three-year old Orhan, nothing special about him beyond his propensity to act nervous and impatient, affecting a mocking smile”. Pamuk re-appears towards the end, this time as a full-blown novelist, giving the book a self-referential twist.

It must be said that because of some heavy-handed foreshadowing, the denouement can be seen approaching from a distance. And the middle section, detailing Kemal’s visits to Fusun and his attempts to set up a film production business, sags a bit. Despite the lucid translation, one does come across the occasional clunky cliché: the “sexual beast” threatens to “rear its head” and the narrator “drank like a fish”. These pale against the overall scheme; Pamuk’s care with the narrative is otherwise evident in the doublings and oppositions he sets up: engagement party and funeral procession; narrator and novelist; the affairs of father and son; backstreet haunts and high-society soirees; Coca Cola and a local substitute. Above all, there’s a fascinated Turkey succumbing to the charms of a seductive Europe, with concomitant effects on its movies, fashions, food and more.

The Museum of Innocence is a compelling tale of remembrance of things past aided by objects present. It is saturated by visions of Istanbul, its squares, marketplaces, avenues, boulevards, backstreets and views of the Bosphorus. There is beauty to be found in these pages. And truth. And love.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Low Interest Rate

This appeared in the latest issue of Tehelka.


The problem with polemical novels is that they’re more polemical than novel. Barring exceptions such as Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, novelists who come to the keyboard with a well-defined agenda in mind produce work long on argument and short on characterisation. These are precisely the issues that bedevil Kota Neelima’s Death of a Moneylender.

The theme here is the predicament of the Indian farmer and of how the rest of us – particularly the noble men and woman of the Fourth Estate – misrepresent their plight and pander to vested interests. The author’s knowledge of the subjects she writes about is never in doubt; it’s the turgid story-telling and over-wrought prose style that make the novel a disappointment.

Death of a Moneylender deals with the change in the mindset of Falak, a talented, cynical journalist dispatched to the village of Bapat in south India to cover the death of Desraj, a moneylender found hanging from a lamp-post. Conventional wisdom dictates that he was the victim of a disgruntled villager, but as Falak probes deeper, he finds that Desraj was a moneylender with a difference: he actually cared about the plight of farmers, helping them with not only soft loans but also progressive means of farming.

Almost from the start we’re exposed to the novel’s flaws. There’s too much telling and too little showing, and reams of stilted dialogue. (An example of the latter: “The rapidly decreasing agricultural land in this country cannot support a rapidly increasing population solely dependent on it”.)

Neelima attempts to thicken the plot as well as flesh out Falak’s character by having him dip into a copy of the Rig Veda from time to time, and by providing him with a former girlfriend, the idealistic Vani. Both devices, however, are too convenient and heavy-handed – Vani, especially, is too much of a stock figure too make much impact.

As the narrative progresses, the only point of interest remains the circumstances surrounding Desraj’s death, which, it has to be said, are resolved quite satisfactorily. As for the rest, characters ranging from sympathetic police officers, photographers, other moneylenders and virtuous farmers appear and disappear, but not without imparting pearls of wisdom on the state of farmers, the hollowness of current agricultural practices and how the nation is letting down its sons of soil.

In his controversial On Moral Fiction, novelist and writing teacher John Gardener wrote, “True art…clarifies life, establishes models of human action, cast nets toward the future, carefully judges our right and wrong directions, celebrates and mourns”. Death of a Moneylender tries to do all of these things, with its aims falling far short of its grasp. The sincerity of intention is not to be denied, and much of the information to be found here could make for a forceful piece of non-fiction. But a compelling novel, this is not.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Fun Of The Shudder

This appeared in The Hindustan Times on Saturday


M.R. James, doyen of the English ghost story, once summed up his art by saying that the most valuable ingredients were the atmosphere and the well-managed crescendo. He continued, “Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.”

That, more or less, is the manner in which Sarah Waters progresses her fifth novel, The Little Stranger, with a little help along the way from another James – the one who wrote The Turn of the Screw.

This, then, is an enjoyably eerie and well-constructed novel designed to bring about the sensation that Edith Wharton called “the fun of the shudder”. It is, however, more than just a device to send an ice-cube down the spine: it also examines shifting class distinctions in England during the period immediately after World War Two.

The tale begins in 1949 when Dr Faraday, a physician in rural Warwickshire, is summoned to the aid of a young maid working in Hundreds Hall, a Georgian mansion owned by the Ayres family for generations. Dr Faraday’s own mother used to work there as a maid, and the doctor was once vouchsafed a glimpse of its gorgeous interiors when, as a boy, he was smuggled inside after a fete on the grounds.

Now, however, the establishment has gone to seed and the surviving members of the Ayres family – Mrs. Ayres, her son Roderick and daughter Caroline – struggle to keep it, and themselves, afloat. The doctor becomes a regular visitor to Hundreds Hall, at first to treat Roderick for his war injuries and then because of a growing closeness to Caroline.

Waters carefully delineates the ruined interiors of the once-exquisite mansion; fittingly so, as it’s a protagonist in its own right. Soon, the gloomy corridors, decrepit rooms and dilapidated fittings play host to inexplicable scorch marks, bell-ringing, scribbling on walls, fires and things that go bump on foggy winter nights. Brideshead Revisited, this is not.

Dr Faraday, being a man of science, tries to assure the Ayres family that there are rational explanations for these occurrences, but it’s when they become more frequent – and much more malign – that they test the weaknesses of each one of the hall’s inhabitants.

As with Waters’ earlier work, The Little Stranger is painstakingly plotted and paced; yet, the twists and turns never feel contrived and straitjacketed. In large part, this is due to the first-person narration of Dr Faraday and the growing realisation that this conservative, repressed country doctor’s account isn’t quite reliable.

The novel is rendered more satisfying by Waters’ depiction of the people and surroundings during the historical period in which the novel is based, including her treatment of class in a changing Britain. At one point, Dr Faraday unburdens himself to a colleague: “It's as if -- well, as if something's slowly sucking the life out of the whole family”. The fellow doctor replies: “It's called a Labour government.”

All too often, the denouement of a ghost story suffers by overplaying its hand. Here, however, Waters’ touch remains as assured as ever, with the result that even after the last page is read, the miasmic goings-on at The Hundreds remain a palpable presence. Pick it up, and you’ll leave the lights on.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Footnotes: The Future Of Fiction

Pity the poor writer of fiction. Every published sentence is now zealously scrutinised for the possibility of insult, injury or offence.

Happily, there is a solution, and it's not spelt B-A-N.

It's time to use the device beloved of David Foster Wallace as a means of mollifying those who feel that the author's only purpose is to hurt their tender feelings.

As an example of how this would work in practice, here are the opening paragraphs of three books that were themselves proscribed not all that long ago.

Lolita, Curtailed

Lolita, light[1] of my life, fire of my loins. My sin[2], my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock[3]. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child[4]. In a princedom[5] by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style[6].

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns[7].

[1] The word “light” is not meant to denigrate the efforts of electricity companies who cannot provide continuous power.
[2] This is not an appeal to readers to commit an offence.
[3] The author recommends that both socks be kept on; should anyone slip, he is not liable for resultant injuries.
[4] Children, be they girls or boys, deserve education.
[5] This word is not to be found in the dictionary. No aspersions are to be cast on the capabilities of those who have compiled one.
[6] The innocent are also known for exemplary prose styles.
[7] No flower is without one of these; hence caution is advised.

Ulysses, Halted

Stately, plump[1] Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a razor[2] and a mirror lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

- Introibo ad altare Dei[3].

Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs[4] and called up coarsely:

- Come up, Kinch. Come up you fearful jesuit[5].

[1] The author recognises that there are different body types and each one is worthy of respect.
[2] Rash use of this item has been known to result in grievous injury.
[3] A part of the Latin Mass, and used for representational purposes only. There is no intention to forcibly or otherwise convert those of a different religious persuasion.
[4] These should be taken one at a time, and slowly.
[5] Not all Jesuits are fearful. Some are excellent chaps

Lady Chatterley's Lover, Reprimanded

Ours is essentially a tragic age[1], so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future[2]: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen[3].

This was more or less Constance Chatterley’s position. The war had brought the roof down over her head[4]. And she had realized that one must live and learn.

She married Clifford Chatterley in 1917[5], when he was home for a month on leave. They had a month’s honeymoon. Then he went back to Flanders: to be shipped over to England again six months later, more or less in bits[6]. Constance, his wife, was then twenty-three years old, and he was twenty-nine.

[1] Not all ages are tragic. It depends upon the historian.
[2] This expression is not meant to censure the excellent work of municipal corporations who do so much to keep our thoroughfares tidy.
[3] The author has never personally experienced a falling sky. The expression is used metaphorically.
[4] See footnote 3, above.
[5] The author is in sympathy with those who enter into same-sex marriages and this observation is not meant to look down upon such alliances.
[6] Although this is not to be construed as an anti-war sentiment, the author wishes in his personal capacity that we all would give peace a chance.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Too Long For A Short Story, Too Short For A Novel

This appeared in The Times of India sometime in 2005. I can't locate it online, and can't even locate the hard copy that must be, even as you read this, causing indigestion in resentful silverfish. I thought I'd post it now since things seem to be getting a bit slow around here. Normal service will resume soon.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s latest volume of fiction isn’t a novel. Nor is it a collection of short stories. Instead, in Memories of My Melancholy Whores, the 77-year-old Nobel laureate turns again to the novella: the literary hybrid that, as publishers say, is too long to be a short story, yet too short to be a novel. Marquez’s latest is, unfortunately, not the best example of the novella’s powers. Though characteristically lyrical and detailed, it’s slighter than his earlier work, including his former novellas, Leaf Storm, Chronicle of a Death Foretold and No-one Writes to the Colonel.

When fashioned correctly, the novella is a perfectly-cut little jewel, emitting a radiance and sparkle far beyond its size. Haunting tales, sorrowful love stories and insightful first-person sagas: they’ve all been captured with its confines. Testimony to which are Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, to name just a few.

The form itself has a long history, being especially beloved of the Germans. Some trace its origins to Giovanni Boccaccio’s capacious The Decameron, written in the 14th century and comprising 100 novellas narrated by ten garrulous folk fleeing from Florence to escape an outbreak of the plague.

Brevity is the soul of the novella. Though word-length is an unreliable yardstick for defining such a protean mode, there’s broad agreement that a novella weighs in at between 20,000 to 50,000 words – with the novel being anything in excess of that amount. Stephen King, who’s written many a novella himself, has called it “an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic”. The normally courteous Mr King was, of course, referring to the difficulties of selling a novella in the commercial publishing world, as it doesn’t fit the typical length requirements of either magazine or book editors. Even Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus, for example, was clubbed with four other short stories when published, to make it worth the while of the paying public.

However, at least one publisher, the US-based Melville House, has turned this atypical length into a virtue. They recently issued the attractively-designed and well-received ‘The Art of the Novella’ series, a list that includes such impressive examples as Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener and Gustave Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, among others.

Writers of genre fiction have always found the novella’s span perfect for their needs. Consider the detective novel, from Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles to Michael Chabon’s recent Holmes tribute, The Final Solution. Or take the sci-fi and fantasy realm, from H.G. Well’s The War of the Worlds to any Hugo or Nebula nominee. The manageable length also makes it ideal for fledgling writers looking to step out of the domain of sketches and short stories, as Steve Martin did with 2001’s bittersweet Shopgirl. It’s attractive, too, for writers taking a break between writing the “loose baggy monsters” that so many conventional novels often degenerate into. Don deLillo, for instance, followed up 1997’s gargantuan Underworld with his 2001 novella, The Body Artist. Which may not have been easier to read, but at least it was lighter to hold.

These advantages notwithstanding, it’s undeniable that most authors, agents and publishers seem enamoured of the mammoth-advance generating novel, rather than a shorter work. What, then, of the novella’s future? Interestingly, today’s authors seem to be using it in the same way as Boccaccio did centuries ago: by fashioning interlinked narratives that are thematically connected. What are Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days, or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, after all, but a series of novellas? Going back just a few decades, one finds Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters and V.S. Naipaul’s A Flag on the Island employing the same technique.

This, then, seems to be one of the “new” forms that novelists are gravitating towards. Novellas enable them to capture diverse geographies and points of view in a single work, in order to make sense of a world that, more than ever, is unified and fragmented at the same time.

So much for writers. For today’s readers with limited reserves of time and patience, there’s one unbeatable advantage the stand-alone novella offers. Happily, you can devour it whole in one sitting itself.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Tales Of Two Cities

This was written a few months ago for a newspaper supplement that stubbornly refused to materialise.

Geoff Dyer

Is Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi one novel or two novellas? The separate parts of Geoff Dyer’s new work seem unconnected, but reflection reveals that there are enough links – both of incident and theme – to loosely bind them together. Besides, V.S. Naipaul essayed a similar structure decades ago with In a Free State, his stories of strangers in strange lands.

The first part of the novel introduces us to Jeffrey Atman, a 40-plus disgruntled journalist travelling to Venice to cover the Biennale, the much-anticipated art festival. Jeff mingles with bitchy, Bellini-drinking crowds, analyses exhibits and starts a passionate affair with Laura Freeman, a curator from Los Angeles. After scenes of sex, drugs and decadence, and some tips of the hat to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Jeff stares out into Venetian waters, hoping for an epiphany.

The second part, narrated in the first person, again features a disaffected journalist nearing middle age – Jeff, or one of his avatars – who arrives in Varanasi on a magazine assignment. Here, the pace is not frenetic as before; there are many descriptive passages, some very well done, some akin to written-up journal notes of a first-time trip with ghats, pyres, filth, festivals and colours. The narrator allows the sacred city to seep under his skin and cancels his return journey, passing time through interactions with other visitors, long walks, boat journeys and dips in the Ganga. Thus, he attempts to find a mantra for the rest of his life.

The yoking together of two cities defined by bodies of water is ingenious, and Dyer’s prose is mellifluous, blending barbed comments and insights. The book’s flaneur-like progress may not be to everyone’s taste, but the moods it conjures up – from the rajasic to the sattvic – are well worth the price of admission.

Madam, I'm Adam

This appeared in Saturday's DNA.

Bernard Beckett

We’re well into the third millennium of recorded history. The world has shrunk into an island-state called the Republic, whose inhabitants live in peace and harmony. This Republic is controlled by a shadowy group, the Academy, with complete responsibility for its perpetuation. Those seeking to join the Academy have to undergo a gruelling four-hour long interview – and it is for such an interview that Anaximander, a bright young girl, arrives. This is the world and the opening of Bernard Beckett’s young adult novel, Genesis.

The entire novel revolves around the interview, with Anaximander recounting, for her interviewers’ benefit, the life of the charismatic, rebellious Adam Forde, who played a seminal role in the early days of the Republic. Adam’s life and actions are a matter of public record; yet, could there be parts that are open to interpretation?

The narrative, then, moves back and forth between the girl’s statements and feelings during the interview, and the man’s progress from being a border guard to someone who brushes up against the apparatus of the state and comes to terms with the power of artificial intelligence.

Beckett’s prose is crisp and economical; yet, because this is a novel packed with many ideas and arguments about human consciousness, the narrative tends to get drowned in argument. Moments of drama are followed by pages of debate, and though the discussions are relevant to the novel, they do tend to overpower it. (Which is also why a narrative strand such as Adam’s saving of a woman called – inevitably – Eve is left unexplored.) There’s more than one twist to this tale, however, including one right at the end, which somewhat mitigates this criticism.

However deftly handled, Genesis doesn’t quite make the cut in terms of innovative science fiction. Beckett’s heart is more in the explication of ideas relating to memes, the interplay between the animate and the inanimate and what makes us distinctive as a species, among other things. Even so, the novel should provide nutritious food for thought for those weaned on a steady diet of Terminator movies.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Lush Prose, Bleak Vision

This appeared in the latest issue of Tehelka

RUPTURE Sampurna Chattarji

Pick up a debut novel from the Indian fiction section of your local bookstore, and chances are you’ll find a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale told in plain, simple English. It’s a relief, then, to find that Sampurna Chattarji’s Rupture is anything but that. For a start, this novel is intricately layered, not confining itself to a specific character, background or mode. The language, too, is coiled and charged – as befits, one supposes, a poet writing in prose.

It turns out that these very qualities make Rupture initially daunting since, on the face of it, the narrative follows nine characters in five cities over 24 hours. However, there are pleasures awaiting those who persist with the book. Chattarji probes the actions and psyche of a cast of introspective misfits across social strata and, at her best, throws a searing light upon the inner feelings triggered by the pressures of the outside world. This is narration in slow motion, kept buoyant by the richness of the prose.

We’re introduced to the insular, film-crazy Partho, exiled to Kanpur; the clairvoyant Tennyson, diviner of lost things, suddenly summoned to Mumbai; the indolent Nazrul on the verge of leaving Baruipur for Germany; and the lonely, wandering Biswajit, staying with his daughter in Mumbai but incessantly looking backwards to his native Kolkata.. Not to mention the others waiting on the margins for their chance to step forward and let us hear their voices. Above them all is the disturbed, dreaming Jonaki who creates and then tries to contain the rest within the crucible of her imagination.

Some of these characters find themselves linked in ways they could not have conceived of; others plough a parallel furrow. The rupture is threefold: it exists in the narrative, in the psyche of the characters and in the blood-dark catastrophe their world is hurtling towards.

To be sure, there are dangers in such an approach, and Chattarji doesn’t entirely sidestep them. Page after page of solipsistic musing can be wearying, more so when many of the characters share the same alienated qualities. Haunted by the past, they make their way through the world responding to questions of existence with answers of the imagination. As one of them ponders, if the past is something self-created by our own memories, we should rearrange and embroider instead of bemoaning it.

To break away from such a register, Chattarji also includes a section of lengthy journal excerpts, which don’t quite work: the entries themselves seem jejune, allied to coincidences in the diarist’s relationships. The mock-mythic tone that Chattarji essays later on -- as with descriptions of Tennyson’s past – is pulled off more successfully.

This unevenness apart, the novel is suffused by a bleakness of vision that sometimes rests uneasily with the lushness of prose. Reading Rupture is not always a pleasant experience, but that’s the price to pay when the attempt is -- as Kafka said -- to fashion a novel that serves as an ax for the frozen sea inside us all.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Nostalgist's Map Of Pakistan

This appeared in today's The Sunday Express


At the heart of Ali Sethi's debut novel is a tale of transgressive love in which the protagonist tries to help his cousin to win over the boy of her fantasies. On this slender peg Sethi hangs a series of portraits of people's lives over the years, centring on Lahore in the Eighties and Nineties. Though the author's skill in observation and ability to delineate a large cast of characters is evident, The Wish Maker is too much of a loose, baggy monster to be entirely satisfying.

The novel opens with the young Zaki Shirazi returning from a Massachusetts college to his Lahore home for the wedding of his cousin, Samar Api, a close childhood friend and ally. From here it moves back and forth in time to fill in the blanks in the lives of Zaki, Samar and their families and friends.

We learn of the journeys of the independent women whom Zaki has grown up with: these are, among others, his feisty mother, editor of a progressive Pakistani publication; his doughty grandmother, who’s lived through Partition and the travails of Pakistan; the spirited Nargis, his mother’s friend and an activist lawyer; and the pious Naseem, their household help. As is the case with many recent works by novelists from Pakistan writing in English, the country’s politics is very much part of the backdrop. Episodes such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s hanging, martial law, Benazir Bhutto’s dismissal and laws relating to the status of women are enacted offstage, and provoke animated debate and activism especially among Zaki’s mother and colleagues.

Details and anecdotes abound throughout, in step with a succession of effective set pieces. Sethi’s prose is full of quick, glancing observations even though the occasional choppiness of style becomes, after a while, more of an affectation than anything else.

It becomes clear soon enough that The Wish Maker is a nostalgist’s map of Pakistan. The book encompasses childhood pursuits and misdemeanours, the setting up of an independent magazine during a conservative time, the reaction of a family to the arrival of a satellite dish, sojourns at the house of uncles and aunts, the influence of Bollywood on impressionable minds, the schedule of a school that Zaki attends and a great deal more. Then again, there are other episodes, such as an account of a vacation in Spain or Zaki’s time in his American college, that – however ably narrated –seem merely tacked on and do little to expand the novel’s ambit.

The Wish Maker doesn’t restrict itself to portraying an upper middle class lifestyle; the cast of characters is carefully chosen to touch upon various shades, from the feudalism of the provinces to the upward striving of the middle class to the decadence and cynicism of the affluent. This all-encompassing approach may seem like a strength because of the ambitious, almost Tolstoyan, breadth of vision, but in this case turns out to be a weakness due to the dispersed and scattered centre of gravity that ensues.

Another quality that drains the novel of vitality is that Zaki, as a protagonist, is more acted upon than willing to act. Indeed, we have little sense of him as an independent agent, as his growing years are almost wholly defined by his relationships. Since many sections of the novel are told from his first-person point of view, the inevitable outcome of this submissiveness is a degree of narrative languor. Samar Api, the wish maker of the title, is a much more engaging character, and it’s a pity she isn’t present for a larger part of the novel.

Like the improvised time capsule that Zaki and his schoolmate bury in his backyard, The Wish Maker is chock-full of bits and pieces that are redolent of life in Pakistan. Had Sethi’s talent had been matched by greater control over his material, the novel would have been the more compelling for it.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Grilled Fish

This appeared in today's DNA.


At a time when some people are still getting over the fact that men and monkeys swing from the same family tree comes this work by Neil Shubin, asserting that many characteristics we think of as distinctively human are actually shared by fish, among other creatures. Clearly, Your Inner Fish is not to be read while dining at Mahesh Lunch Home.

It was the unearthing of a 350 million-year-old fossilized fish, an intermediate between land and water organisms, that’s the starting point of this book. For Shubin, paleontologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, such ancient fish bones are more valuable than gold, which is why he spent years with his team turning over rocks in the snowy wastes of the Canadian Arctic, braving polar bears and ice storms. The abovementioned sea creature, dubbed Tiktaalik after an Inuit term for freshwater fish, had flippers to enable it to move on land and from a study of its skeleton, Shubin finds fascinating Darwinian connections with the way human beings themselves have evolved.

Be it a frog, bat, lizard or human, the deep similarities between bodies shows that they’re all variations on a theme, he writes. “Most of the major bones that humans use to walk, throw or grasp appeared in animals ten to millions of hundreds of years before.” The development of teeth, for example, initially used to bite, led to structures designed to protect - and the same developmental forces led to the creation of feathers, mammary glands and hair. In another instance, a segmented skeletal structure leads him to point out developmental similarities between the head of a shark and that of a human being (all human beings, not just real estate developers).

Shubin also illustrates how the shared genetic code of all living organisms reinforces his variations-on-a-theme thesis. We may not look much like sea anemones and jellyfish, but the recipe that builds us is a more intricate version of the one that builds them. Along the way, he points out the links between a mammalian ear and a shark's jaw, as well as the varying roles and development of visual and olfactory organs. Should you be so inclined, he even tells you how to extract DNA in your kitchen, using the simplest of equipment.

Shubin is clearly passionate about his subject, enthusiastic about communicating his theories, and possesses the ability to clarify abstruse concepts. All of which makes Your Inner Fish illuminating and interesting, aided by the occasional personal anecdote, from haggling with antique fossil dealers in China to visits with his son to New York’s Museum of Natural History. It ought to be said, however, that on occasion the level of simplification appears to be too much: perhaps this springs from the desire to communicate to as broad a readership as possible.

The point of it all, which is what Shubin sums up with, is that there’s a universal biological law: every living thing on the planet has parents - more specifically, parental genetic information – and therefore, all of us are modified descendants of those that came before. This, among other things, throws light on how our evolutionary past causes problems when it comes to our current lifestyle, from hiccups to hernias (the former, by the way, is derived from gill breathing in tadpoles).

The British biologist J.B.S. Haldane, who pointed out the evolutionary significance of Vishnu’s avatars from fish onwards, once said, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose”. In identifying the links that bind us all together, Neil Shubin goes some way in making the living universe less mysterious.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Not So Striking

This appeared in today's Hindustan Times.

THE STRIKE Anand Mahadevan

Ah, the joys of coming of age in an Indian city in the Eighties. It was a time before easy Internet access, before malls and multiplexes, before the democratisation of airline travel and before the opening up of the economy. Instead, one developed a taste for kitsch at decaying single-screen theatres, implored relatives visiting from overseas to bring back the latest releases, discussed procreation in hushed tones, and prepared for long-distance train travel at the start of every summer holiday. It is with these ingredients that Anand Mahadevan fashions his winsome but structurally odd debut novel, The Strike.

In brisk, efficient prose, Mahadevan takes us into the world and extended family of Hari, a Nagpur-based pre-teen whose family is from south India. Through a series of vignettes, we learn of his experiments with eating fried fish at a neighbour’s house – something his devoutly vegetarian family would shudder at – his interactions with the same neighbour’s daughter as well as a classmate, a family journey to Benares with his grandmother’s ashes, his antics during Holi and his nascent erotic stirrings while at the movies, among other activities.

About halfway through, the novel moves away from this episodic pattern and segues into an account of another train journey that Hari and his mother undertake, this time to Chennai. This is the heart of the book and Mahadevan is at his most evocative here, touching upon aspects familiar to anyone who’s undertaken a similar trip: the food, the porters, a variety of chatty, inquisitive co-passengers, the stench of the toilets, the passing scenery and the hubbub of stations on the way. Hari’s fascination with two others on the train, a eunuch and an aspiring film star, leads to a private sexual awakening -- and later, to a series of mishaps when the train is halted near Ennore by protestors calling for a strike because of the death of their beloved hero MGR. It’s as though the piece of fish that Hari earlier consumed with so much gusto continues to blight his life with negative karmic ramifications.

At this point, Mahadevan again switches register; the novel moves away from a recounting of Hari’s actions and impressions, to dwell on those dealing with the fallout of the train mishap, among them his grandparents, railway officials , disgruntled factory workers and none other than Jayalalitha, in a cameo appearance. Though a chastened Hari does re-enter the scene later, the novel’s interrupted emotional momentum never gets back on track.

Mahadevan takes care to weave in markers of the era – the Indian Peace Keeping Force, the Bhopal gas tragedy and the vagaries of south Indian politics, for example – but since the book was first published in Canada a few years ago, he also takes pains to explain their meaning and significance to readers of that country, either though dialogue or narrative exposition. This, combined with structural inconsistencies, makes The Strike engaging but not very striking.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Rediscovery Of India

This appeared in the latest issue of Biblio.


Pity the poor travel writer. Long gone are the days when all that was needed to gather material for a new book was to stick a pin into an atlas to find an unexplored corner of the world, and then return with tales of how they do things differently there. This Eurocentric model has been replaced by tales of heroism and endurance – the north face of the Eiger, anyone? – or inventive means of structuring the journey, be it circumnavigating London or following in the footsteps of legendary travellers of yesteryear. It helps, of course, if you can simply make the reader chuckle (as Bill Bryson will tell you).

The plot thickens if the traveller visits a place that he’s linked to by history: then, even a first-time visit is shot through by ancestral anecdotes and childhood memories of where one’s parents and grandparents came from. The one book that springs to mind in this regard is, of course, V.S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness, a map of the writer’s disillusionment with the country of his forebears.

Like Naipaul, M.G. Vassanji can trace his ancestry back to India, and to specific locations within the country. His A Place Within is a response to and record of voyages around the subcontinent. Unlike Naipaul’s book, it isn’t an account of a single, extended journey, but a montage of incidents culled from his many visits to the country, the first one being in 1993. That’s fifteen years’ worth of material, and organizing these into a tightly-knit narrative poses a challenge that Vassanji isn’t always up to.

The self-described “Indo-African Canadian writer” has said of his first novel, The Gunny Sack, that it was a novelistic organization of “memories, oral histories, and myths”; A Place Within is comprised of much the same elements.

Vassanji’s is a less caustic eye than Naipaul’s, and India’s poor infrastructure, dirt and difficulty for the foreign visitor draw no more than pained sighs and sometimes, bemused wonderment at the state of affairs. In this manner, he meets the taxi strikes, delayed trains and indifferent accommodation that he’s sometimes had to face. Clearly, he has tried to immerse himself in the country, not just view it through a pane of glass, as his accounts of train travel, treks to pilgrimage spots on foot, eating with hands and – on at least one occasion -- cleaning teeth with charcoal powder will testify.

It may well be his scientific background, but Vassanji’s approach to the places he visits is to dig deep into their histories in an effort to link them to the present. Such recounting of the past, coupled with his personal sojourns in the present, then, is Vassanji’s attempt to understand the influences that have created him, in cultural, geographical and historical terms. As he writes: “When I was a boy in colonial Africa, history began and ended with the arrival in Zanzibar and Mombasa of my grandparents or great-grandparents from Gujarat. Beyond that, nothing else mattered, all was myth, and there was only the present. After a few years in North America, I came upon the realization that ever-present, which had been mine, my story had itself begun to drift away towards the neglected and spurned stories oif my forebears, and I stood at the threshold of becoming a man without history, rootless. And so origins and history became and obsession, both a curse and a thrilling call.”

Thus, for instance, there are long sections on the growth and decay of Delhi’s legendary seven cities, interspersed with accounts of his own ramblings though the city. Nothing, it seems, escapes his courtly, genteel attention, from flashy new developments to legendary eateries of old Delhi to the tomb of Raziya Sultan to the house of Kamala Nehru, to mention but a few. Take this wide-eyed snapshot of the walled city, for instance: “On our way, busy meat shops; sweetmeats, salty namkeens frying; fresh-baked breads and cakes on display; a sidewalk book vendor eating meat curry with chapatti opposite the Jama Masjid; a perfume seller calling out, rubbing samples on people’s backs; boys playing alley cricket; cycle rickshaws, horses, mules, cows; burqa-covered women walking stifflt, proudly on the street; busy shopkeepers, idle shopkeepers, a bevy of women gathered outside a shop to inspect a heap of material. I’ve never seen so many veiled women in India before.”

In many ways, Vassanji’s trips to Gujarat are the heart of this book, for it is here that he comes closest to an understanding of his “in-between life”. There’s a painstaking and almost dogged recital of the area’s history, touching upon Baroda, Ahmedabad, Champaner and more. And since Vassanji’s first trip here was in 1993, to a country still reeling in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid destruction, the taint of communalism is much on his mind: “I always cringe at the terms ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’; they are so final, so unequivocal. So exclusive. For ‘Hindu’ – itself derived not from the name of a founder, as ‘Chriatian’ is, or a philosophy or attitude (of submission) as ‘Muslim’ is, but from a geographical marker, the river Indus – I often substitute ‘Indian’, for India’s primary identity is rooted in its ancient history and culture, which preceded these religious divisions. I imagined India as my ancestral homeland; to witness, upon my arrival, its divisions running so deep was profoundly unsettling.”

He visits and analyses cities and towns, stopping at formerly riot-hit areas, shrines, monuments and ruins: “In North America, we treasure the past, strive to preserve it; but perhaps there is not much of it anyway. Here, there is a glut, enough to be neglected or selective”. He places emphasis on religious syncretism and dwells on sites relevant to his community, the Ismaili Khojas -- in particular in Junagadh and Jamnagar, for it is from here that his grandparents migrated to East Africa. At one shrine in the village of Pirana, he discovers the roots of the ginans (hymns) familiar to him from his childhood; however, “there was no Kunta Kinte moment; I did not come looking for one. If there ever was one close to it, it was when I first stepped on Indian soil, undertook that quick tour of the country that began with a train ride, the Puri Express.”

The urge to capture all his impressions in one volume, however, lets Vassanji down in terms of structure. He often gives in to the temptation of appending extracts and fragments of memories drawn from his trips over the years. The intention, that of encompassing all of his experiences, may be laudable but the book’s focus becomes diffused.

Vassanji also spent some months at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla, writing parts of what was to become The Assassin’s Song – the first of his novels to be based in India -- and he speaks with warmth of the hill station and its sights and sounds. In particular, there’s an affectionate remembrance of his meetings with Bhisham Sahni and his wife, as well as details of his treks to the Hanuman and Tara Devi temples. There’s also a recounting of briefer visits to Bombay and Calcutta, and his meetings with Mulk Raj Anand and Asghar Ali Engineer, among others.

Naipaul’s book ended in Kashmir; towards the end of A Place Within, Vassanji takes us to Kerala. Here, he examines the origins of the Moplahs, visits litterateurs -- Basheer, T.S. Pillai – and towns such as Calicut and Trivandrum, in each case assiduously and inevitably providing historical anecdotes. Then, he pushes on south to India's tip, Kanyakumari, where Swami Vivekananda’s memorial is more peaceful and awe-inspiring than the other temples in the vicinity. And then he segues into a brief account of a short visit to Dharamshala -- once again succumbing to the impulse to move away from a central spine and provide as comprehensive an account of his journeys to India as possible. At one point in A Place Within, referring to Ibn Batuta, Vassanji calls the Moroccan scholar’s travel memoir “intimate, expansive, unpretentious”. Much the same can be said of Vassanji’s book itself.