Saturday, January 05, 2013

the historical novel, an incomplete inquiry


#1 The Game of Kings, Dorothy Dunnett

I [finally!] read Bring Up The Bodies at the end of December, which put me in mind, as historical novels often do, of Dorothy Dunnett. One of the things I found interesting about Hilary Mantel's rapturous reception in the critical press is that so many people, including I think Larissa McFarquhar in a long and careful New Yorker profile, credited her with rehabilitating the historical novel by removing it from the sphere of bosom-heaving, Walter-Scotian romance and bringing it back [let us crudely paraphrase] to the hard, thankless task of realism.

The great thing about Mantel's Cromwell books so far, of course, is it isn't particularly important that their realism is mimetic, and it probably isn't. It is enough that Mantel creates an atmosphere and a character in which we can reasonably reconsider Cromwell not simply as the man who looks like a murderer in his Holbein portrait, but the man who, upon being shown his portrait by "Hans," has the wit and softness to say, "Christ, I look like a murderer," [following which Gregory, his son, who is basically Mantel's charming and completely unsubtle ploy to win sympathy for Thomas Cromwell, Tender Single Dad, artlessly says, "Didn't you know?" We are then free to extrapolate that Cromwell wants to ruffle Greg's hair but probably doesn't because although he is a common person like you and me he needs to look appropriately detached and scheming even while wondering a) whether the daisies he planted on his wife's grave will come up okay in the spring b) what Cardinal Wolsey is doing in heaven, where all the awesome misunderstood people are and c) okay, fine, how to get France and Spain to annihilate each other so that he can swoop in at the right moment and spite-buy Italy from the Pope, LOL BYE BITCH].

The Cromwell books turn on a deep, writerly interest in individuals. Without having read her other historical novels or knowing very much about her motivations I am inclined to say that her subversion of history [of the Man for All Seasons variety] in this cycle is contingent on her playful interest in subverting a character we think we know. The pleasure of these books is in Mantel's surprising us with his sheer quality, the richness of his is-ness. Does this also encompass a review of English history? Well, why not. Maybe we can see Mantel as re-reading in Tudor history the noble beginnings of enlightened modernity -- through Cromwell's particular, nation-of-shopkeepers genius -- in this, the UK's age of aristocratic self-interest. But why give the novels an ideological burden before their time? The fun of Mantel's novels is in their people, and in the person of Cromwell, who, while he has a set of ethics that we are constantly deftly being reminded of, has ideas that bend and expand with each new set of data brought in by births, deaths, marriages and love affairs.

"In the siècles de foi you would be irresistible," said Lymond generously. “But I have arrived in the age of reason."


History and nation-building are very much the stakes that Dorothy Dunnett raises in The Lymond Chronicles, a series of novels as different from Mantel's Cromwell books as Scotland is from England. Reading Dunnett brings you face to face with the obverse of the questions that arise with Mantel. What can the historical romance do? Where does romanticism confront realism in the novel, and can it successfully speak to the constituencies of both? How can a supposedly individualist and pragmatic form like the novel serve the tenets of nationalism, with which its own life in the modern West roughly corresponds?

Many historical romances do, I suppose, occasion these questions, but I'm not sure many of them do it with the kind of literary audacity and verve that Dunnett does. Her rococo style, her quotations, her scholarship! Her female characters! Her action scenes! In The Game of Kings we come across a plethora of people we are encouraged to fall in love with, all of whom are in direct or indirect opposition to the hero. It is 1547, and Francis Crawford of Lymond has outraged every meek and proper sentiment for five years previous. A condemned traitor turned galley slave turned brigand, he slips back into Scotland five years after he ignominously caused the disaster of the battle of Solway Moss, and plays an elaborate and deadly game to discover a secret that might get him back into the good graces of his family and country -- if they haven't murdered him first. Yes -- that's right. Ex-galley slave. He doesn't do things by halves, because OF REASONS.

After I first read the Lymond Chronicles in 2008 I went back to re-read them in bits and pieces, both in love and, increasingly, in irritation. It took me a year to read the whole series borrowing the books out of order from the British Library, which meant that I was both more eager to devour the books as they arrived to me, and less able to see them as parts of a whole. There is an obvious arc through the six novels -- the swashbuckling fictional hero gets an exhaustingly fun Bildungsroman, and England and Scotland move, together with their close cousin France, towards Renaissance modernity, at least as English students such as I understand it.

But there is something more, esoteric, idealistic and yoked to the grandest ideas. The fates of all are linked. Our hero is a thoroughly modern man, and it is his job to bring Scotland, and Europe, kicking and screaming, into the modern world. He thinks five steps ahead of everyone else, including his worthy foes and his almost equally worthy friends; he is endlessly resourceful, matchless in his versatility, and thoroughly unanswerable. So what is this Florentine hero doing, working for the Scotland of the baby Queen Mary, which has the unique distinction of being both loopily unstable and desperately dull?

Dunnett's idea was to create a glorious romance that existed at the interstices of that reality. Without changing any of the key historical events in Europe, she brings Lymond and friends to play a great game in which they lead, and are led, to the future, sometimes in collusion with historical figures -- many of whom, from Bloody Mary to Roxelana, Juan de Homedes to Mary Queen of Scots, Dunnett brings to life with an almost sadistic glee -- and sometimes through a self-conscious, mystical interrogation of destiny. Dunnett used her unapologetically fabulous construction to write about patriotism as well as internationalism. Her resolutely singular hero subsumes himself time and again to the task of preserving, rather than transforming, a community and a nation.

I found myself enjoying this shrewd interplay of fantasy and reality as a comment on the way we view the Renaissance, and the first modern men of Anglophone Europe [Philip Sidney doesn't make it into the books, although his parents, Henry and Mary Sidney, enjoy a pair of favourable cameos], and I wanted to throw this line of inquiry out into the wild in my first book blog of the year, whether I carry out a re-read of Lymond, or stop with The Game of Kings. It is more annoying and more hilarious than it was the last time I read it. Its intricate plotting is as charming as ever, although I can't personally keep all of Scotland's protagonists and antagonists straight in the way I could with the close attention of a first reading. Its deadly chain of personal vendettas, which Dunnett both pokes fun at and plays heart-stoppingly serious games with, always give me a reason to root for the other side, as with Achilles and the Trojans. And its hero who can simply never let anyone else have the last word tests the novel -- and the novel form -- to its limits. I know he has his fans the world over, and that lots of people read the books for him, so all I will say at this early stage, is: SHUT UP, LYMOND. To you, I say hello, and happy new year.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

where are the greeks among you?

Draw your lots and enter.

It's been a small year in many ways. It's been a year of bylines and second dates, brief meetings with old friends and a slow accumulation of new ones. For the first time this year more people asked me, "When are you writing a book?" than "When are you getting married?," a fact that becomes almost totally irrelevant when you count the number of days I spent at literature festivals versus the number of days I spent at my ancestral home in Kerala.

I have provided no proof of life here in spite of the fact that I am not writing a book. I'm not sure if I don't want to write a book at all, or whether I'm deathly afraid of what it's going to be about. In either case, the complementary truth is that this year I have really enjoyed being a journalist. If I had updated this blog at all, it is too likely that I would have been re-posting something I had written for the paper.

In case anyone is still reading this, let's write it off. I'll add them to the archive at some point. In their place, here is a short round-up of the things that went into the making of 2011.

Books
As with 2010, I read a lot, both on and off the job, although perhaps not as much as last year. Looking through those book blog entries from '10, I find myself missing the excitement of spontaneous and informal criticism. I've reviewed some books in the paper this year, (mostly) plugging in for when I couldn't find a real critic for the books pages. So much of that writing has been a learning process that I completely forgot the joy of keeping a book journal for the fun of it. It will be quite impossible for me to write such a thing AND continue to review in print, so I'm afraid there are no New Year's resolutions to be made there.

My favourite book published this year was probably Aman Sethi's A Free Man (link to my review). Aman did something that needed doing, in as much as any situation really needs a book written about it, and he did it brilliantly. I've thought a lot about long-form journalism and the trade-offs of fact and narrative. Aman's book created an emotional truth with a journalism of fact that was both pyrotechnic and intensely personal; these are two things I usually dislike in newspapers, but am growing to trust in longer stories. My favourite fiction was probably Hanan al-Shaykh's One Thousand and One Nights, a transcreation to adore and cherish.

The book I read this year that had the greatest impact on me was Neera Adarkar and Meena Menon's One Hundred Years, One Hundred Voices, which was published in 2005 and thankfully hasn't gone out of print yet, in spite of humanity's general unworthiness. Adarkar produced my other favourite book of 2011, an anthology of multidisciplinary writing about chawls called Galleries of Life: The Chawls of Mumbai. One Hundred Years is a collection of oral histories from the workers, residents, artists and politicians of Bombay's mill district, by two writers who have worked closely with political and social movements in the area for years. It is careful, scrupulous and utterly absorbing. Parts of it are devastating and moving. And almost all of it (apparently closely translated and brilliantly introduced by none other than Rajnarayan Chandavarkar) is in the voice of the people who made it happen.

The worst book I read this year was probably Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot. (I reviewed it but honestly can't be bothered). The author I read most was either Susan Elizabeth Phillips, who writes very good contemporary romance novels, usually involving golfers, or Loretta Chase, who writes brilliant Regency romances, which always involve the aristocracy: I offer my close attention to their work in spite of these repellent aspects as evidence of their genius.

Two books I read almost simultaneously were beautiful spins on classic European literature. Ursula Le Guin's Lavinia (2006, I think) is a novel about the woman who marries Aeneas in the final books of the Virgil, and has no speaking lines at all. Le Guin conducts a magnificent feminist rescue, a powerful meta-narrative to the Aeneid, and a mesmerising portrait of Italy before Rome. AS Byatt's The End of the Gods was a short, strange retelling of Norse myth that was in its own quiet way, almost as dazzling as Hanan al-Shaykh's book.

The two books I wanted to read most this year are Dave Zirin's The John Carlos Story and Jonathan Wilson's Brian Clough biography. I guess we'll talk about them next year.

Film
I will remember this year as the one in which I watched almost nothing except for action movies from Hong Kong. I could happily give up every other kind of film for the rest of my life, with the exception of Amar Akbar Anthony. I watched so much Chinese cinema that when I finally started to watch something else (the first season of the HBO series Rome, which I'd always meant to get around to) it took me a little while to adjust to all the white people. One of the things I want to do in 2012 is start to keep a movie log, which will allow me to reflect and marvel on everything I see at more length. This probably means I will have to rewatch all the Donnie Yen films I saw this year which, oh, okay, I won't COMPLAIN.

The worst film I watched this year was Rockstar, which was also in a weird, disturbing way, the most unforgettable.

Music
I listened to a lot of Hindi film music this year. There's a story there that will probably be out sometime early next year. The greatest soundtrack, without peer for me, was indubitably Rockstar, which was opaque on first listen and then resounded with meaning after the film was out. One of the few successes of the film was Imtiaz Ali's use of the music, and everything came together -- the situational nature of each song, the reason Rahman chose Mohit Chauhan to be the voice of the lead character, the background score. I kiss his hands and the hem of his robe. It's not his greatest work but it may be the best-used of any of his music in Hindi cinema in the last eight or nine years.

I went to NH7, briefly. For five beautiful hours it was like being a fish who had been thrown back into the water. I listened to a lot of old Hindi film music, maybe not co-incidentally in the year of the deaths of Shammi Kapoor and Dev Anand, and began towards the end to rediscover the recordings of the Buena Vista Social Club. (A lot of this was the effect of reading Alma Guillermoprieto's painful but riveting memoir of her year teaching dance in Havana, Dancing with Cuba. I recommend the book.)

Cricket and football
The 'no time' effect was most impactful here. I shunned cricket after the World Cup for obvious reasons, but football has always been a more demanding interest. I wrote fitfully (VERY fitfully) at The Run of Play, my favourite website in the world. In spite of a busy year for Brian (among other things, his writing for Grantland has been excellent), he's been a great editor, and RoP will be a big reason to stay awake for the Euros.

In spite of this low-density year, some exciting things have happened. I wrote a cover story for the paper about the Mohun Bagan victory of 1911, which was a big deal for me. I participated in this podcast by New Books in Sports, (a big discovery for me -- seriously, look at that gloriousness) where I spoke to academic and broadcaster extraordinaire Bruce Berglund about favourite sports books*, and later discovered that I was followed, on the final tape, by Robert Lipsyte. (Brian: "Just another afternoon in the world.")

One of my RoP posts featured on Quickish's year end list of best sportswriting. And excitingly, Tom Dunmore has just put out a first anthology of pieces from the landmark Pitch Invasion website that he runs, and one of my World Cup blog posts from last year is in it! You can buy it in e- and paper formats, so have a look and think of someone to whom you want to gift a copy or fifteen. The Very Best of Pitch Invasion.


I wrote this a day after the World Cup victory.

* - I picked Beyond a Boundary and King of the World.


City
It's been a difficult year, and a sobering one. People are used to articulating extremes of optimism and pessimism about their cities, but neither have been appropriate to daily life in my hometown, for me. This year has been full of quieter reckonings with past and future. My interest is not in systemic narratives or predictions of the future: maybe that's because there seem to be so few people who can do those well, so there are few examples to follow. It has been a year of learning to wait, to think before asking questions, and -- perhaps this is a failure -- to refrain from answers.

So what have I been doing in Bombay? Commuting and writing, mostly. And how closely linked the two are: as the writer Teju Cole just said at the Goa literature festival, public transportation is the book of the city. Certainly. Over the year, trains, buses and footpaths have explained some things to me, and mystified some others. For the first time, I wrote regularly about life here: about Urdu newspapers and salt pans, safety for women, Mehboob Studios, the Opera House and the NCPA, Pali Hill and Lalbaug. A shoutout here to Abhijit Bhatlekar, my colleague who's taken many of the A+ photographs that have gone with some of the stories, and possibly my favourite city photographer MS Gopal, who runs Mumbai Paused and graciously agreed to take pictures for some of the others.

We had a briefer summer than usual, and a long and torrential monsoon, which I found delightful. I don't mind having given up winter for it. There is something very comforting about rain in Bombay, as long as you don't break a limb trying to evade it.

We also had a bombing on July 13. It's difficult to write about this in a public forum without inviting conversation -- which I don't want -- but I want to write about it because I hate the paralysis of muteness. Thinking about July 13 and days like it has the power to trigger an oppressively personal grief. I understand why people mock us for feeling bad about one day out of the year when we remember what it feels like to be relatively powerless. I understand the acceptance of that mockery as fairer payback than compassion, out of guilt. I understand that there is a way to dissolve mockery, too: to be honest about tragedy, to see more than just one of its dimensions, to be honest about the fact that a public history can be deeply private, and to ask for respect for its private dimensions. I understand that demanding visibility for grief is a symptom of guilt, and that it is good and human to acknowledge public grief when it is someone else's.

But that's not very comforting.

There are stories for these occasions. I wrote one the week after the attack. But to be totally honest, I don't see how journalism has the tools to tell these stories adequately. I don't think the coping mechanisms of fact -- of keeping records, of repeatedly asking 'How do you feel?', of listening patiently for the moment when the thread of a story emerges from a witness' testimony -- are sufficient. There are threads that it is not possible to grasp. And if journalism can't do it, how can literature? How can we impose the authority of a story on something that should not be one?

Days like this are an overloaded fuse. They explode in your eye. Isn't that what the bombers want? Doesn't that mean they win? Have they stopped winning if we stop remembering all the other tragedies that make up this one?

I feel like this is a question that I refuse to answer on every other day of the year, absorbed in the effort of moving away, out of the ambit of this terrible thing. On days like this there is nothing -- not even the sense of shame that there are other people who have to live with their bombing days, every day. Humility is for the Lalbaug day, the Borivali day, the Dadar footbridge day and the Mankhurd day and the 7:57 Churchgate fast day, when everything around you looks like an act of repair -- a patched-up neighbourhood, a patched-up set of limbs, a face or a story with its cracks papered over, when you see bravery and emptiness and think, if everyone else can, then I can too.

Those are the days of the year when you remember that you have work here. Maybe those are the days that I keep trying to roll over the bombing days, like a speed bump in a road that will eventually wear down. They say time heals. I suppose the bombing days are the days when you remember that you cannot outrun it. Not even in the 7.57.

My honest love and respect to those who lost people and property on July 13, and to those for whom every day has been, or will be, a kind of July 13.

Death
Of the raft of legendary old men who have been taken off to Valhalla (along with the few sacred and righteous old women, who were famous before famous women were invented, I guess) I will miss Ustad Sultan Khan the most. I wrote a very short note about him here.

The other person who meant the world to me was Christopher Logue. I will quote from his War Music.

King Agamemnon calls:

'Silent and still for Hector of the soaring war-cry,
The irreplaceable Trojan.'

Then hands removed his shield, his spear,
And all Greece saw his massive frame, historical
In his own time, a giant on the sand. Who said:

'Greek King: I speak for Ilium.
We have not burned you in your ships.
You have not taken Troy. Ten years have passed.

Therefore I say that we declare a truce,
And, having sworn before the depths of Heaven to keep our word,
Here, in God's name, between our multitudes,
I will fight any one of you to death.
And if I die,' (this said within an inch of where he will)
'My corpse belongs to Troy and to Andromache;
My body-bronze to him who takes my life;
And to you all, Helen, your property, who was no prisoner,
with her gold.

And if I live: my victim's plate shall hang
Between the columns of Apollo's porch on our Acropolis,
But you may bear his body to the coast
And crown it with a shaft before you sail
Home in your ships to your beloved land
With nothing more than what you brought to mine.

Pick your best man. Commit yourselves to him.
Be sure that I am big enough to kill him,
And that I cannot wait to see him die.
Then in their turn, faring from world to world across our sea,
Passengers who come after us will remark:
"That shaft was raised for one as brave and strong
As any man who came to fight at Troy,
Saving its Prince, Hector,
Superb on earth until our earth grows cold,
Who slaughtered him." Now who will that Greek be?'



Poetry
Thanks to Logue's death and a novel set during the Trojan War which I reviewed in October, I've tentatively started to re-read classical translations. I say tentatively because, like the books of Penelope Fitzgerald and the films of Wong Kar-wai, it is impossible for me to start a good translation of the Iliad without exposing myself to serious emotional upheaval. I'm currently (very slowly) reading Robert Fagles' translation of the Aeneid, which is a better than any translation of the Aeneid I've read before.

I also finally acquired Agha Shahid Ali's translations of Faiz, The Rebel's Silhouette, and read it from end to end. It as been a hundred years since Faiz was born and ten since Shahid passed away, but they both speak from these pages in living voices. In a different way, so does does Arun Kolatkar in the Collected Poems, edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. Kolatkar is a surefire cure for sentimentality and a massive igniter of literary doubt. His poetry gets better and better every year.

2012
We've just come out with a 'Slow Down' issue, so in keeping with the spirit I would like to sit down and make this next year a year of projects. I'm thinking: movie blog, or; Indian Blogger Looking At Jet Li Films. I'm thinking a year of re-reads. I already know one big re-read I'm going to effect, and hopefully that will be in the newspapers by and by, but as a personal project, I'm considering a Shakespeare re-read. The compelling reason both for and against this is that there is never a bad time to re-read Shakespeare. I'm thinking of doing more with music: writing more, attending more concerts, and maybe going back to learning. I would also like to write more about sports, and more stories in the MMR beyond the island city.

And justice for all.

And a worldwide theatrical release for The Grandmasters.


I'm on Twitter and Tumblr, same as always, so you know, hey girl. Have a happy new year.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

the serrador express* rides again

Hi friends. I did some reading this week, much to my own surprise. They comprised three Mills and Boon novels, one of which is the first written by an Indian novelist. The other two are set in Russia and a small town in Wyoming, USA respectively.

I know. There is really no polite reason for women like me to read novels we like to mock. Everyone knows romance novels are not written for radical feminazis like myself who want to smash heteronormative ideas of male-female relationships / are not written for secret tools of the patriarchy like myself who will take a Pulitzer-Prize-winning work of history about dead white men** far more seriously than I would a genre romance / are not written for strong, confident women with rich fulfilling inner personal and professional lives like myself / are not written for shallow emotionally unavailable young girls who have no romance in their lives like myself.

But I will advance my non-professional, non-serious opinion nonetheless, because I am not a hater - at least not today morning - and as I intend no malice, I have no problem with being gratuitous.

The Love Asana, by Milan Vohra

Milan Vohra is the first Indian author to write a M&B novel. After I interviewed her, I heard from a couple of people who said that they remembered seeing at least one Indian name on a M&B cover before. Maybe M&B India were undertaking a devilish and disingenuous publicity stunt. But I think what they meant is that Vohra is the first Indian author to write a M&B novel about Indian characters in an Indian city.

...I know, right? Apprehension. Maybe this is how Italians and Greeks feel all the time when they see their countries as the backdrop to trashy English-language romance novels. Or maybe not. Usually, stuff like The Greek Billionaire's Secret Virgin Bride Who Wanted To Be A Nun But Ended Up Singing In A Nightclub And Exploited By Her Wicked Stepbrother For Money But Has Never Given In To Temptation Before Except With A Greek Billionaire ie YOU and The Italian Mafia Boss' Lovechild from His Dead Sister's Innocent Best Friend Who Is Beautiful But Doesn't Know It And Has Very Lofty Morals About Stuff Like Murder But Somehow She Just Melts In Your Arms Even Though You Are In A Dodgy And Offensively Stereotypical Job Because No One Has Touched The Core Of Her Flower-Like Being Except For An Italian Mafia Boss ie YOU is just about interchangeable non-Italian, non-Greek English-speaking girls being swept away by lazy Mediterranean stereotypes, and written by non-Italian, non-Greek English speaking authors. So most Italians and Greeks will probably not read these books and go away and read Homer and Dante instead. Or trashy Italian and Greek romance novels about mysterious English gentlemen with mansions on the Yorkshire moors in which they keep their first wives chained away up in the attic. Wait. What did I just do there?

Anyway. The Love Asana. The Love Asana is set in New Delhi. It is about the Greek Indian billionaire Vivan Parasher, who has returned home having built some sort of design empire in the US. The important thing is that he is hot. He is tall and built like a god (presumably a Greek one. Or an Italian one, like Paolo Maldini.) and has spiky dark hair and another sexy arrow of hair that runs down to the line of the towel he wraps around himself after a bath. And he is eyeball-meltingly successful, like I said, and his design empire company is now coming out with a line of yoga clothing, that they will retail around the world for fun and profit.

Pari Chand is a yoga instructor. SURPRAIZ, LADIES.

Pari's elder brother, Deepak, owns an advertising agency which really badly wants Vivan's company account to revive its failing fortunes. Vivan also wants to give this account to Deepak. Why? Because Vivan once had a sister, Sonia, who had a love affair with Deepak. Who then dumped Sonia. Who then died heartbroken. While Vivan was away building his design empire. So Vivan wants revenge.

I know what you are asking yourselves. If you were a multibillionaire with a dead sister who wanted to get revenge on her ex-boyfriend wouldn't you, like, put a horse's head in his bed or something? Or is that only okay if you are an Italian mafia boss who is capable of touching an innocent girl's flower-like core? Do you think Don Corleone ever did that? At any rate, why would you give this creeper ex your company's lucrative advertising account? Maybe you inhaled something very bad in America and now you have gaps in your cognitive processes?

Duh, no. Naturally, it's a Trojan horse. Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Especially Greek billionaires. And especially if you have a young sister upon whom he can extend his revenge by -- marrying her halfway through the book! And then taking her to his luxurious bungalow in Lutyens' Delhi, entering into mutually thrilling carnal knowledge with, falling in love with and having a child with, in that socially desirable order. That burned you, didn't it? I mean, to be on the safe side you better back off Greeks altogether. And Indians. Especially Indian billionaires like Vivan Parasher.

I actually really liked this book, in spite of it causing me to renew my commitment to admiring Gandhian austerity in men. Vohra has a confident, breezy authorial voice and not even the M&B rulebook can totally dampen it. It's a meatier chick lit novel trying to fit into the narrow space afforded it by the M&B format, and you know what? By those standards, it worked. I didn't really care about the dude, but who reads M&Bs for the dudes anyway? I read on wanting to know what was going to happen to Pari.

And I really liked that Vohra paid as much attention to supporting female characters as possible - a stepmother with whom Pari can build a healthy relationship, friends and family who talk and act like interesting, real women - and tried to give Pari herself some real problems other than getting married to an Indian billionaire she doesn't want.

Bottomline: if Vohra wrote another novel, I would read it. The percentage of bad-to-good in fluffy Indian novels is about the same as it is in English publishing everywhere, I think, but Vohra flies upwards, like the sparks in that line in the Bible. She's closer to Anuja Chauhan (who is an author you MUST read if you like fluffy novels and Indian novels and frivolity in general) than to Chetan Bhagat (who is an author you must read only if you plan to subsequently go to America and inhale something very bad there that will leave gaps in your cognitive processes). We need that.


Prince Voronov's Virgin, by Lynn Raye Harris

As I said earlier and tweeted about fifty-three times, I was reading about Walter Benjamin's experience of urban alienation and the collapse of privacy in revolution-era Moscow in Molotov's Magic Lantern, gripped and enchanted by the way the author Rachel Polonsky teased histories out from books and the long-dead men who collected them, of the architecture of Moscow's streets and the cold mazes of the Gulag. Tears sprang to my eyes in the middle of a crowded train, as I read:

Shalamov, who learned in the gulag that a graphite pencile was 'a greater miracle than a diamond,' associated ink with the evil powers of the state. 'What kind of ink is used to sign death sentences? No death sentence has ever been signed simply in pencil.'


It was from this delicate examination of Russian history that I dove straight into Prince Voronov's Virgin, much like you swan-dive into the deep end of a swimming pool. Which is dry.

It was irresistible. There was a mysterious Prince Voronov in it. I am a fiercely republican person, but after you have just read a few elegantly-turned accounts of Stalin's henchmen betraying each other to torture and firing squads you feel a sort of reactionary warmth for aristocracy creeping into your extremities, like one of the later stages of frostbite. So for the sake of perestroika I was quite prepared to like Prince Voronov.

Unglamorous (obviously) American secretary Paige Barnes is wandering alone about the Red Square at night. Suddenly, hooligans appear (obviously). Paige runs from them, and bumps into a mysterious and powerful and handsome man who realises that she needs help. He saves her from the hooligans! He does this by holding her up against a shop window that borders the square and pretending to have sex with her. Paige finds this sexy and terrifying but mostly sexy. So she goes back to his apartment with him - but not to have proper sex that does not involve shop windows. She goes so that the mysterious Alexei can tell her how gorgeous she is and how much she deserves to be loved and so that he can, unbeknowst to her, steal away vital company information from her. Because he hates her American boss. Because her boss is the son of the man who once condemned Alexei's younger sister to death by refusing money for her cancer treatment. Obviously.

No, Alexei does not have a fabric design empire in America.

Anyway stuff happens and blah blah U R TEH PRINCE VORONOV :O :O :O and blah blah palace with beautiful paintings and a troika ride in the winter and GUYS WE SHOULD SAVE MONEY AND GO TO RUSSIA FOR THE 2018 WORLD CUP and then they have amazing beautiful moving passionate sex because Paige deserves to be loved and Alexei is a sleek, virile animal with a sexy arrow of dark hair that disappears into his perfectly tailored trousers and Paige is a virgin who did not know that she was a virgin: obviously the most romantic thing to happen to a girl and a boy.

Then they go to sleep, and there is a problem with the condom and after Alexei has crushed Paige's company to powder (obviously Russian billionaires are much better clued in to this whole revenge thing than Indian ones. Maybe Odysseus was secretly a Russian.) everything is all blah blah sadness blah blah new job blah blah never want to see him again blah blah I have been having jetlag for six weeks now I should really stop throwing up in the mornings and blah blah my sassy black friend makes me get a pregnancy test which is OH NO! BUT I LOVE THIS BABY ANYWAY BECAUSE I'M A GIRL AND THAT'S WHAT GIRLS DO! positive.

So obviously, because preserving the royal line is all-important to Alexei, he marries Paige as soon as he gets wind of goings-on. He spirits her back to his piazza outside Moscow, showering her with jewels and deportment lessons and freezing politeness because he has a lot of feelings. I think all of Leo Tolstoy's novels would have been A MILLION TIMES BETTER if men had had condoms in those days and they managed to impregnate ladies in spite of them.

The notion that billionaires could crush poor single mothers in custody battles or open a Wikipedia page on how royal bloodlines in European history really worked is far too gauche to apply here.

So Paige becomes Princess Voronova! And then runs off with Marat Safin the minute she manages to sell the family diamonds and get some money in a Swiss bank account.

Well, not really. But I suppose Marat Safin is a busy man. So Paige and Alexei fall in love with each other instead, and each of them has a big empty space in their lives that they teach the other to fill, and it's pretty much exactly the opposite of a George Eliot novel, which is how novels by lady novelists should really should be.

Bottomline: You should read it. It has a revenge subplot and a secret baby. If you don't like revenge subplots and secret babies you should read it for Hollywood!Russia. If you don't like Hollywood!Russia then you should read it for Marat Safin. He's not in it but you can mentally Photoshop him into it, like all those Sarah Palin macros in which Putin rears his head.


The Sheriff's Secret Wife, by Christyne Butler


I was very sure this was going to contain the most net WTF-ery of all three, because it is called The Sheriff's Secret Wife, and secret wives are even less George-Eliot-like than secret babies. It starts out in Las Vegas. It has drunken shenanigans. If you took out the sheriff it could be an episode from Friends in its declining years.

But I was wrong. This in spite of the fact that the book's protagonist is called Racy. Racy is from Destiny, Wyoming, not Muvattupuzha, Kerala. She is in Las Vegas for a bartending competition, as she is a bartender, and a very good one. She wins the competition and subsequently quite a lot of poker bets and gets amnesia-inducingly drunk and wakes up the morning after wearing nothing but a wedding ring and a naked virile animal with a sexy arrow of dark hair down his stomach.

But he is not a tall dark stranger. He is Gage Steele, sheriff of Destiny, Wyoming!

Why was he in Las Vegas when he should have been back home being sheriff? IDK. Why did he agree to marry her while drunk? IDK. Why is he such a hot piece of ass? IDK but I am guessing that with a name like 'Gage,' you need some sort of advantage in life.

They get divorced. But there is something wrong with the divorce papers so they aren't really divorced. They have to find a way to be properly divorced, while ensuring that no one in Destiny knows about the fact that they are getting divorced because they were married in the first place.

Now I don't personally know a lot of divorced people but from everything I have heard, if you are looking for smouldering romance and soul-enthralling passion the odds that you will experience it with the same person from whom you are attempting to disentangle yourself through a bureaucratic procedure are very long.

But that's what literature is for. So Racy and Gage set out to find another lawyer. In the meanwhile, Gage has to keep the town safe, because he's the sheriff and that's what he wears cowboy boots and a Stetson for. Racy has to think about her long-term plan to buy over the bar she works, deal with her two elder brothers who have just been released from prison, and a friend's upcoming wedding. They can't bake cakes with rainbow sprinkles just because they have a lot of feelings for each other.

...so you see it's not really ridiculous enough.

It's really not! See, I got the strange feeling that the author actually applied a bit of long-term thought to what would happen to her characters and her location. It's a town full of heterosexual neurotypical attractive white people, which I imagine is very Hollywood!Rural USA, but it's a long way away from setting a novel in a wintry palace in Russia. And Racy has stuff going on in her life. She's not looking for male validation. She's not a pawn in a revenge plot. She's just a sort of heroine who wants to do stuff that lots of ambitious, conservative women want to do, like finish college and own a bar and be respected and respectable. She likes her place of work and she's made serious mistakes in her life - not of the 'I care too much about other people!' variety, but the 'I fucked up and now I have two bad marriages in my past' sort. And most endearingly, she is interested in people besides herself and her virile sexy arrow-of-stomach-hair secret cowboy husband. I don't even know if that can be honestly said of many characters even in non-cowgirl fiction. Because the author just sort of assumes that her female protagonist is in most ways equal to her male protagonist, she doesn't even get to make a big deal out of it. They just fall out and get along and fall out and get along until happily-ever-after comes by, by which time it is actually possible to think of them as two human beings who might have a mutually assured future.

One of the book's problems is that it is obviously written as part of an internal M&B series, so there are several parallel romance sub-plots that are either unresolved or overdetermined. Apart from that also, of course, you're totally right to guess that there is plenty of melodrama and rather a ton of overfamiliar plot points. But let me be frank - these are practically the only reasons I read books.

Bottomline: Worked. But as someone whose only previous cultural exposure to sheriffs is a song called I Shot The Sheriff, I know I have very high credulity when it comes to cowboy romance and cowboy adventure and cowgirl ladies. Maybe this is why I enjoyed it? Or is it because reading three M&B in a day can condition the mind into acceptance very successfully?


* - to know more about the title of this post, see here.

** - simulreading Liaquat Ahamed's Lords of Finance.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

my no good very bad jaipur literature festival

TUESDAY NIGHT. 1900 HRS. JAIPUR AIRPORT

ROSWITHA: * checks in for flight an hour and a half ahead of time*
ROSWITHA: * settles in to wait the long wait of the righteous and the once-bitten twice-shy *

FLASHBACK. THURSDAY NIGHT. 1930 HRS. MUMBAI AIRPORT.

ROSWITHA: I'M A JOURNALIST. YOU HAVE TO LET ME ON THAT FLIGHT.
AIRLINE OFFICIAL: * thinks Roswitha is a gigantic failure, but smiles politely *
AIRLINE OFFICIAL: I'm so sorry, the pilot's already signed off on the sheet for this flight.
AIRLINE OFFICIAL: I'm also sorry that every other Bombay-Jaipur flight until Sunday is booked.
AIRLINE OFFICIAL: I'm also sorry for your face.
AIRLINE OFFICIAL: * doesn't actually say this *

ROSWITHA: I CAN'T MISS THIS STORY.
ROSWITHA: Also, didn't we go to school together?
AIRLINE OFFICIAL: ....
AIRLINE OFFICIAL: Oh dear.
AIRLINE OFFICIAL: Still can't get you on that flight though.
ROSWITHA: I am loving the drama of this reunion, old school friend. Don’t mind if I weep a lot.

FRIDAY MORNING. 0300 HRS. HOME.

ROSWITHA: * shaves several weeks off life in sleepless anxiety *
ROSWITHA: * goes to airport, takes flight to Delhi *
ROSWITHA: * goes to Delhi, undertakes four hour drive to Jaipur *

FRIDAY AFTERNOON. 1300 HRS. JAIPUR LITERATURE FESTIVAL.

ROSWITHA: As Samwise says to Shelob in her lair: CHALLENGE ACCEPTED.
ROSWITHA: EÄRENDIL!

JAIPUR LITERATURE FESTIVAL: * CROWDS *

FRIDAY NIGHT 2300 HRS. ON THE BUS TO HOTEL.

ROSWITHA: * is quietly sick *
ROSWITHA: * INTO BACKPACK *
ROSWITHA: STILL WINNING THIS.
ROSWITHA: * weeps *


SATURDAY:

ROSWITHA: * gets ten minutes to talk to Junot Diaz, has same reaction to him as 47239847543975 others at festival *
ROSWITHA: * is saying * Junot, can you talk a little about how you approach writing a short story? How does that differ from how you see a novel?
ROSWITHA: * is thinking * I WANT TO BE WITH U 4EVA JUNOT.

JAIPUR LITERATURE FESTIVAL: * CROWDS *


SUNDAY:

ROSWITHA: * eats lunch *
VIKRAM SETH: * comes by to eat lunch at same table *
ROSWITHA: * is thinking * THE VERY PERSON I WANTED TO MARRY WHEN I WAS TWELVE YEARS OLD!
ROSWITHA: EÄRENDIL

ROSWITHA: H-hi.
VIKRAM SETH: Oh god no.
VIKRAM SETH: * doesn’t actually say this *
VIKRAM SETH: * smiles * Hi there.

JAIPUR LITERATURE FESTIVAL: * CROWDS *

REDACTED: * hushed whisper * I am never writing another book.
ROSWITHA: I know. You’re going to have to come back here if you do.
ROSWITHA: With all the crowds.
REDACTED: I AM NEVER COMING BACK HERE.

JAIPUR LITERATURE FESTIVAL: * CROWDS *


MONDAY:

ROSWITHA: * has the same reaction to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as 47239847543975 others at festival *
ROSWITHA: * chanting with the CROWDS * I WANT TO BE WITH U 4EVA CHIMAMANDA.

CROWDS: * JAIPUR LITERATURE FESTIVAL *


TUESDAY

ROSWITHA: * is beginning to hear Enya play in the background as Mount Doom approaches *
ROSWITHA: * is about to interview tremendously respected Basharat Peer *
ROSWITHA: * under breath * I WANT TO BE WITH U 4EVA BASHARAT.

BASHARAT PEER: * senses the force from afar - probably *
BASHARAT PEER: * cancels interview *

ROSWITHA: OIC.
ROSWITHA: Well, whatever.
ROSWITHA: I was going to go and hang out with Martin Amis anyway.
ROSWITHA: * does not actually hang out with Martin Amis. *

AND SO, TUESDAY NIGHT. 2100 HRS.

AIRLINE: * announces departure for Mumbai *
ROSWITHA: * approaches boarding gate *
SECURITY GUARD: Your boarding pass please.
ROSWITHA: * has lost boarding pass *
ROSWITHA: ....I've lost my boarding pass.

TUESDAY NIGHT. 2125 HRS.

ROSWITHA: * running towards plane *
ROSWITHA: THE EAGLES ARE COMING
ROSWITHA: WAIT FOR ME
AIRPLANE: * waits *
180 PASSENGERS ALREADY ON BOARD WAITING TO LEAVE: * glare *
ROSWITHA: EAGLES.

WEDNESDAY MORNING. 0015 HRS. HOME.

ROSWITHA: The scar has not troubled me for nineteen years. All is well.
ROSWITHA: Or something.
ROSWITHA: * goes to bed *


Anyway. I got some work done in spite of these several and self-inflicted sorrows. You can read my opening-day report here, my closing-day report here, and several blogs I posted here. More forthcoming presently.

I also met a great many wonderful people, some old friends, some new, some well-met in meatspace and some never before. I say to you that you are beautiful. It may be that only a few days are left ere darkness falls upon our world, and when it comes I hope to face it steadily; but it would ease my heart, if while the Sun yet shines, I could see you still. For you and I have both passed under the wings of the Shadow, and the same hand drew us back.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

metro mundanities, random classics

Versions of these short reviews appeared in Mint Lounge on January 8, 2011.

A brief and irritable note on the following:

The Premier Murder League, Geeta Sundar
With or Without You, Partha Sarathi Basu
Close Call in Kashmir, Bharat Wahkhlu



Penguin’s Metro Reads series is tagged with the line, ‘Every life has a story.’ Truth this may be, but justification it is not. In much the way commercial Hindi cinema serves up fanciful stories about improbable situations by disclaiming it as what ‘the public’ demands, the Metro Reads books dish up a slop of genre conventions – romance, suspense, action – in familiar Indian locations. There the implicit claim of the Metro Reads tagline, that these books are about people whose stories may not be otherwise heard, begins and ends.

And like their Bollywood counterparts, the novels are guilty of a host of narrative sins. In Wakhlu’s military-academic thriller about terror and a secret treasure in Aishmuqam, Kashmir, there are pleasant stretches of potted history in which readers are told – sometimes through clumsy expositionary dialogue – about Kashmir’s dazzling syncretic past and the Mughal intrigues that shaped it significantly. These chunks of information play out in a plot where an academic and a CBI bureaucrat attempt to outwit an unprincipled professor to a possible treasure, while in a related sub-plot, a beautiful young scientist attempts to escape her terrorist kidnappers (and with good reason. An Afghan mercenary who cannot ‘help noticing that she was well proportioned and full of youthful promise’ is hardly salubrious company).

If Close Call in Kashmir transplants Dan Brown to the subcontinent, then Partha Sarathi Basu’s With or Without You travels a much shorter distance, by taking the MBA-hero genre of Indian writing in English to its one true home, Gurgaon. Its cavalier attitude to workplace sexual harassment may be easily ignored by some readers. But how many will delight in page after page devoted to the minutiae of advertising agency politics? Great literature has been created out of plots in which there is seemingly little at stake, but With or Without You is more successful in mapping malls with coffee shops than the inner lives of its characters.

Geeta Sundar’s The Premier Murder League is probably the pulpiest of the three, with a delicious plot involving political murder and cricketing corruption, but even as it delves into different strands of public life – cop protagonists, cricket board shenanigans, middle-class crimes of passion – it ends up being about none of these in particular. Sundar’s book has more shape than the other two, but it is also prone to more bizarre narrative revelations that can throw readers out of the plot. Early on, police visiting the scene of a murder say to one another, ‘Lovely, isn’t it? …It seems unlikely that any crime could have been committed here.’

This sort of banality makes free through the pages of all three novels to such a degree that one is forced to wonder: do Penguin’s editors believe that readers on the Metro are somehow less demanding, or more easily pleased, than their stationary counterparts? This commuter feels bound to point out that even a distracted train traveler can generally tell the difference between easy reading and easy writing. By conflating the first and second, Metro Reads’ small, well-produced volumes come perilously close to being objects of annoyance. Like FM radio in written form, they make you want to change the channel.



Random Classics: Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay's Durgeshnandini and Rabindranath Tagore's Three Women


Random House’s new series of translations opens its account with two beautifully-produced Bangla-to-English works. Translator and series editor for Bengali, Arunava Sinha, presents Anglophone readers with Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Durgeshnandini (The Chieftain’s Daughter), often remembered as the first novel ever written in an Indian language. Bankim adopted a high Romanticism familiar to readers of Walter Scott in his fervent, epic historical story of love and war in Mughal-administered Bengal. Modern readers may delight in Bankim’s playful elegance as much as the chance to read a cornerstone of modern Indian literature.

Sinha’s confident, unobtrusive translations not only shed light on Bankim but also succeed in one of Indian writing’s most fraught endeavours, translating Rabindranath Tagore. Three Women groups together three famous Tagore novellas, The Broken Nest (Nashtaneer), Two Sisters (Dui Bon) and The Arbour (Malancha). Each is a poignant consideration of women stifled and complicit in their deeply gendered societies, and together they recreate a powerful sense of Tagore’s artistry and his humanism.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

art in mumbai

Unbelievable but true. Below, two brief notes on ongoing shows in Mumbai. Versions of these appeared in Mint Lounge on January 8, 2011.




Ranbir Kaleka's Sweet Unease

Sweet Unease, Ranbir Kaleka’s first solo show in Mumbai, may lead viewers to wonder why it took so long to bring the extraordinary vision of this Patiala-born artist to this city. Bringing together new works with a retrospective of major Kaleka works over the last decade, the show offers a comprehensive look into his fascinating, unsettling trans-media art.

Ranjit Hoskote describes Kaleka’s work as imbued with ‘epic disquiet.’ It is a sense that remains consistent through the themes and concerns of each of his painting/video projection installations. Phantasms rise from tables and walk through eerie, intimate hallways (Fables from the House of Ibaan); history plays out along a railway line through a strange, half-alienating play on a film montage (Not From Here); birth, growth and death become the thematical underpinnings to a montage about a bird (Man With Cockerel). The ethereal effect of Kaleka’s use of media rests on strong structural and emotional patterns in each work; engaging with each installation can effortlessly take up hours at a time, and it’s not hard to imagine the works entrancing casual viewers just as intensely as they do serious critics.

Kaleka’s work sometimes evokes a joyous sense of the fantastical. As a man with a hammer pounds on the wall opposite which he is projected, to have a white horse manifest before him (Cul-de-sac in Taxila), it’s hard not to feel a spontaneous delight. But it is the multilayered, long-drawn out sophistication of the narratives of each of Kaleka’s installations that complicates them, even more than their conceptualism.

In fusing video art with painting, Kaleka’s work finds its most spectacular idiom. In works like The Kettle, repeated viewings can draw viewers in to a nuanced contemplation of time and its illusory effects. The intimate familiarity of a street scene is always present; it is as though Kaleka opens a window through which stories come pouring through. The centerpiece of this effect is perhaps the marvelous, extended Sweet Unease itself. As its characters provoke orientation and disorientation in their endless, ghost story of a dance, it is impossible not be torn away with an ineffable sense of the world made strange.

Ranbir Kaleka’s Sweet Unease shows at Volte, Mumbai, until February 15.


Sudhir Patwardhan's Family Fictions

Sudhir Patwardhan’s new works, which go on display in his show, Family Fictions, suggest a new direction for this veteran observer of the intersection between the social and the personal. His charcoal sketches and drawings demonstrate a bold, intimate engagement with people. In his paintings, sis gaze remains trained on urban life, as it has in many of his earlier realizations of Mumbai’s public scenes. But this time, it trains itself inward as he paints playful, poignant scenes of life inside apartment houses. Full Circle (acrylic on canvas) arranges old and young members of a family in a tableau of the ages of the man. Yet, the narrative it suggests is warmer and more personal than an abstract engagement with ageing and death. In the tightly composed, shadowed space of the city apartment, the painting creates a moving comment on the environment it invokes.

The theme of enclosure repeats itself through several of the paintings in this show. At the center of many of Patwardhan’s works is a window in an apartment wall, that cuts out of the enclosure of the observer’s room to show other enclosed spaces. Buildings, verandahs, and even streets become bound spaces in these works, poised on the edge of cosy suburban comfort and a quiet claustrophobia. In this, as his other work, Patwardhan affects a compassionate seriousness.

His playfulness illumines the eponymous Family Fiction, a work that interrogates fictionality by assembling a motley cast of characters and settings in its space. Uma Thurman from the film Pulp Fiction co-exists with a middle-aged Indian woman sitting by a bookshelf; a silhouetted gunman draws the eye to the figure of a nude, fleeing the edges of the canvas. The effect is delightful.

Sudhir Patwardhan’s Family Fictions, showing at Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai, from January 8-January 27.

man of the hours

The soundtrack of 127 Hours is the best proof yet that Rahman can push the envelope for Hollywood as successfully as he does for Indian cinema.


A version of this review appeared in Mint Lounge on Jan 8, 2011.



British director Danny Boyle’s last film, Slumdog Millionaire, had an A R Rahman score that sounded like Hollywood’s idea of Bollywood, but their latest match-up for 127 Hours eliminates that awkward sense of cultural crossover. 127 Hours is an unconventional Hollywood action picture, about a man trapped alone in a canyon trying to free himself, and its music is unconventional action movie music, too.

Listen, for example, to the overarching theme on the soundtrack’s Liberation triad of songs: quick-burning pieces for guitar, building up to the regimented violence of a strings-and-electronica crescendo. These are typical ingredients for blockbuster music, but in Rahman’s hands the refrain becomes flexible, bouncing from frantic to to contemplative to an uneasy euphoria. Each of the three tracks feed back to each other in earthy loops that suggest the heat and dust of the film’s landscape, a distorted mirror of the Wild West.

Interspersed with these and other Rahman compositions are selections that span an audacious range of genres, from Bill Withers’ classic Lovely Day and a Chopin nocturne to some stunning synthpop (Free Blood’s Never Hear Surf Music Again, Plastic Bertrand’s Ca Plane Pour Moi) and Sigur Rós’ epic Festival.

They may be distinct from each other, but threaded through with Rahman’s original score, they are an intriguing ensemble. Rahman’s Indian film music integrates complex, sometimes unlikely elements into his infectious brand of cinema pop; for years now, his music has been about getting listeners to re-evaluate the unfamiliar or the ignored – unusual playback voices, once-moribund genres of film music like the bhajan and qawwali, multilingual hip-hop, Chitra’s voice on a bhangra song.

Here, as with some of his Bollywood work, he produces a score bursting with international influences. The results are perhaps at their most artless on tracks like the instrumental R.I.P, and his ethereal, much-discussed duet with Dido, If I Rise, which also uses the voices of Mumbai’s Gleehive Children’s Choir.

But artless is not Rahman’s best mode, and on others, the effect is more layered. The somber orchestral Canyon would fit right in on any Steven Spielberg-John Williams soundtrack, but the crystal clear solo guitar on Touch of the Sun is a minimalist miracle. And who other than Rahman would create something called Acid Darbari, in ambient flute-and-chime tones that recall his gorgeous Rehna Tu (Delhi-6), to play in the background of a story about a hiker trapped in a Utah canyon?

None of this may strike the hammer blow of Trent Reznor’s thunderous rearrangement of Grieg’s In The Hall of the Mountain King for The Social Network, which has probably already power-chorded itself into an Oscar nomination, but 127 Hours holds its own. Its lack of Bollywood exotica may not earn it as many plaudits as Slumdog Millionaire, but it is a much better expression of Rahman’s range than the earlier soundtrack. It may not come as a surprise to Indians who already knew and loved him as a global composer; for others, the effects will be heady.

looking forward to jaipur 2011

A version of this story appeared in Mint Lounge on Jan 8, 2011

“About fourteen,” is William Dalrymple’s amused census of attendance at the first Jaipur Literature Festival in 2006. Then a small part of the Jaipur Virasat Foundation’s larger cultural programme called the Jaipur Festival, it ran on volunteer enthusiasm and love. “Our first international guest was Hari Kunzru,” Dalrymple, the festival’s co-director, remembered in his opening remarks last year. “We caught hold of him because he was en route to New Zealand to meet his girlfriend at the time.”

The number of people who heard Dalrymple’s address last year was nowhere close to fourteen. Over five days of the Jaipur ‘litfest,’ as it’s fondly abbreviated by fans, about 35,000 people flocked to the small, exquisite environs of the Diggi Palace Hotel. This year, Dalrymple says, attendance seems set to rise further. “The weather forecast predicts it’ll be colder than usual,” he offers. “So it probably won’t be a completely unmanageable number. Maybe about 50,000.”

How did a boutique literary conference, barely five years old, become what is now acknowledged to be the biggest festival of its kind in the Asia-Pacific? And how did it happen in Jaipur, a city whose tourist delights are generally considered more about forts and elephants than intellectual ferment?

Taking a look at the names the festival has drawn in the last five years may be a clue. From Wole Soyinka to Orhan Pamuk (who visits again this year), Steve Coll to Tina Brown, and Vikram Seth to Vikram Chandra, the collective roll-call is practically a who’s who of literary celebrity.

This year, Seth and Pamuk will return, along with some notable first-timers: JM Coetzee, Junot Diaz, Martin Amis and Irvine Welsh. To call them headliners in a festival noted for its egalitarianism – they will have to wait in the same lunch queues as their audience – may be inaccurate. Others making their appearance at the festival for the first time include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Leila Aboulela, Ahdaf Soueif, and Etgar Keret.

And the festival’s offer of equal facetime for Indian regional language (or bhasha) writers is cause for some of the biggest hits at the festival itself. They may not be the primary reason for attendees from New York or Mumbai to fly in, but they are a reason to stay: where else would you see Malayalam novelist K Satchidandan shoot the breeze with Gulzar?

“Jaipur is a cosmopolitan city, so there’s a great local response to other Indian languages, too,” says Namita Gokhale, the festival’s co-director. “Its large Bangla population turned up in full force to the Bengali readings we did two years ago.” Last year, their organized readings in Sindhi were, she affirms, packed to the rafters.

For Ram Pratap Singh, scion of the royal inhabitants of Diggi and the current owner of the estate that includes the Diggi Palace Hotel, it had much to do with public-spiritedness. “We’ve worked over the years, starting with INTAC and Rajiv Gandhi, and have a long association with John and Faith Singh (of the Virasat Foundation). As one of Jaipur’s oldest families, we take an interest in our city.” And so Diggi House (the hotel, with its 70-odd rooms, forms about a quarter of the property), elegant, centrally located, fit for kings and international celebrity writers alike, became the focal point of a tide in the affairs of Jaipur.

“It’s great weather, great food, lots of thinking, reading people – everyone who comes here is on common ground,” explains Ritu Singh, who owns the popular Flow Café on the palace grounds. “Flow’s a bit slow for the rest of the year in comparison,” she laughs. But for those five days in January, her martini shakers start at 9 in the morning and stay until 4am. Singh says friends bus themselves in to help, waiting tables, mixing drinks, mingling with guests.

That informal camaraderie still forms the bulwark of the Jaipur experience. While over 200 people have been working for the last four months to prepare Diggi Palace for the festival, Ram Pratap Singh says that the key to the experience is still how laidback and unobtrusive its infrastructure is. “We’ve had Salman Rushdie here, and managed to allay the government’s fears about security.” Gun-toting guards are not their style.

“There’s nothing sarkari about it,” Dalrymple agrees. “It’s a product of the best sort of amateur love and enthusiasm, rather than greed, or a governmental sense of duty. “We’re fortunate that Namita’s enthisuasms and mine complement each other, and cover a wide range.”

And so the festival does. This year, it expands to cover other parts of the Diggi estate – including the royal stables. (Another change: unlike past years, these will not be occupied by their equine tenants this year. Past attendees will remember the distinct fragrance of horse, wafting through the fest’s baithak area while panelists talk about Soviet history and the art of criticism). On the festival’s various stages, just under 200 writers will discuss their preoccupations, themselves and each other in front of rapt audiences.

Why do they flock here? Bill Cinton famously called the pre-eminent Hay-on-Wye festival ‘A Woodstock of the mind’. By contrast, says Dalrymple, Jaipur is more about the feel of a gigantic Indian wedding. “The music and dance performances in the evenings just add to the feeling. Look, it’s late January. In the rest of the world, that’s miserable,” he laughs. “Jaipur is not a hard sell.”

“Jaipur has been a great way for new, unpublished writers to get a sense of what the public part of the job--speaking, engaging in debates--might entail, as well as for new writers to get a sense of the publishing scene in general,” says critic and writer Nilanjana Roy. Still, the best experiences at literary festivals happen to readers, she says, or writers who like engaging with their vast public.

What about publishers, who, as Roy says, go to Jaipur will full schedules chalked up? “It's a good platform for the writers they already have on their list, and it offers a chance to listen to, read and assess writers, especially those from outside Delhi,” she explains.

”But unlike Frankfurt, this is not a trade fair, where the focus is on signing contracts and making rights deals. It's probably the wrong time and place to try and get them to read your unpublished manuscript.”



Informal translation
Namita Gokhale, co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, on the Indianness of an international festival. Excerpts from a conversation:


How do you balance the festival’s Indian aspects with its international profile?
International response has been gratifying, but it’s a primarily Indian fest for us. Writers appreciate the chance to be a part of a diverse programme, to interact with people from all over the world.

One of the things we do is create a dialogue between Indian English and Indian bhasha languages, where often there’s been a degree of resentment at not being treated the same way.

The earlier tendency was to look for acknowledgment from the UK or US – now here are equal stages on which new voices can find a public as well as presence.

You can see, for example, writing about Dalit literature, which didn’t get a lot of attention before.


How does the festival construct dialogue between Indian writers across languages?
Indians are a bilingual people: speaking in multiple languages is not a problem for us. At the festival, too, you can see we’re still working out our own bilingual challenges.

We recognize that translation is not just a physical act but also subtext; there has to be humility on both sides, there can’t be a dominant bias.

Last year, two days before the festival we did a ‘Translating Bharat’ workshop, which had fabulous outreach. This year, the session ‘Translating Classics’ will be very much a part of this.


Do international publishers respond to writing in regional languages?
French, Spanish, and Italian publishers look for a completely different register from what English-language publishers do. At Jaipur, we form a literary community which manages to make space for all these people, some of whom come every year. You have book lovers, academics, students for whom to encounter these writers is a big deal. It’s a group that feels a sense of involvement and ownership. There’s a vitality to it. This fest isn’t about linen suits.

The fest itself is an act of informal translation – not physical, or textual, but a multilingual act. As someone said to me, “The Jaipur lit fest is like installation art” – very temporary installations that lead to future acts of translation.


A South Asian Pulitzer

The DSC South Asian literature Prize, which will be given out for the first time at the festival, anticipates a watershed in South Asian publishing. The prize will award US$ 50,000 to one winning work of fiction by a writer writing about South Asia and its diasporas. Intriguingly, eligibility rules have no nationality requirement.

Nilanjana Roy, who is part of this year’s jury, says, “It's difficult and challenging to define the South Asian novel, but it's more fun than having to go through author's passports to see if they qualify.”

The Prize, which is open to translations, instantly broadens the range of subcontinental writing that achieves international attention. Its administrators may well see the DSC prize as the subcontinent’s equivalent of the American Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award for fiction.

“If the DSC can get two things right--a consistently high standard of judging, and a consistently fair and wide selection of books from South Asia--this has the potential,” Roy says.


This year’s DSC Prize shortlist:


Amit Chaudhuri: The Immortals
Musharraf Ali Farooqi: The Story of a Widow
Tania James: The Atlas of Unknowns
Manju Kapur: The Immigrant
Neel Mukherjee: A Life Apart
HM Naqvi: Home Boy

Friday, December 31, 2010

a year in reading, 2010, part one-ish.

In no particular order, here are some of my favourite disquisitions of the year. The political biases in this highly biased list should be unsurprising. So also some of the writers, many of whom have been beloved and admired for some time, and many of whom wrote more than one great piece this year. In the case of Tony Judt, for example, I picked a singularly brilliant interview he gave, instead of one of the many spectacular essays he composed for the NYRB and elsewhere, or the NY Magazine piece that profiled him beautifully.

Things missing from this list include, Kasparov excepted, reviews of single books or films (and if you're thinking of that Zadie Smith essay on The Social Network, let me assure you it is on my list of least favourite essays this year). Profiles of people: otherwise it would be all Obama and Berlusconi and Shashi Tharoor.

Also interviews other than Tony Judt's; listicles other than Common Roman Polanski Defenses Refuted (which drifted back to the top of my consciousness in the wake of the corrupted debate over Julian Assange's rape accusation); writing from publications with which I am or have been formally associated (The Run of Play did not, for example, contract my labour in signatures of blood before accepting my blog posts, nor, as an all-round and upfront gratis Portal of Fun, are they dragging their feet on payments - you know who you are, you weasels). A couple of exceptions to this rule are mentioned at the end of this post.

Also great shorter writing, including several Tumblelogs; great rants; great fanfiction involving one or more characters from the DC Comics Universe; great photography, great YouTube videos, and so on.

Also missing is any writing about Mumbai, which deserves its own post.

If this list overrepresents some publications, it is because I enjoyed and was moved by their contents disproportionately. This in spite of not being able to afford a subscription to LRB yet, which is quite an achievement on their part, in every sense.



Recap: Reads of the Year, 2010

Susie Linfield, Living With The Enemy
Guernica
On the living limits of reconciliation as a political ideal.


Rahul Bhattacharya, Cricket, Tennis, the Loss of Immersion
Cricinfo
As the nature of broadcasts change, so does the narrative of a game.


Amanda Hess, Common Roman Polanski Defenses, Refuted
Washington City Paper
How to talk to people who defend Roman Polanski's crime.


Ross McKibbin, Time to Repent
London Review of Books
Britain's new political settlement, and where the fuck Labour went.


Garry Kasparov, The Chess Master and the Computer
New York Review of Books
Can the computer change the way a very human game is played? Not unless it can change the way a very human game is thought.

Daisy Rockwell as Lapata, The Reluctant Feudalist
Chapati Mystery
Can what is said of Sadat Hasan Manto also be said of Daniyal Mueenuddin? A literary investigation.


Dibussi Tande, Undermining African Intellectual and Artistic Rights; Shakira, Zangalewa and the World Cup Anthem
Scribbles from the Den
A brief history of the double standard of artistic property for African artists.


Alma Guillermoprieto, The Murderers of Mexico
New York Review of Books
War as theatre.

Corey Robin, Garbage and Gravitas
The Nation
The life and legacy of Ayn Rand.


Basharat Peer, Tear Gas Over Batamaloo
The National Interest
What is at play, and what at stake, in Kashmir this year.


Brian Phillips, Pelé as a Comedian
The Run of Play
Perhaps David Foster Wallace's notion of the delight we take in sport as religious experience undermines itself.


Aaron Bady, Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy
Zunguzungu
Why does Assange do what he does?


Amitava Kumar, Birth of a Salesman
Guernica
In the War on Terror, an FBI informant's doppelganger is the terrorist suspect.


Mohammed Hanif, Pakistan flood victims 'have no concept of terrorism'
BBC Online


They belong to that forgotten part of humanity that has quietly tilled the land for centuries, the small farmers, the peasants, the farmhands, generations of people who are born and work and die on the same small piece of land.

And this time there are 20 million of them.


Kristina Božič in conversation with Tony Judt, The Way Things Are and How They Might Be
London Review of Books
Tony Judt, magnificent on social democracy, Europe, America and much else.


Charlie LeDuff, What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones?
Mother Jones

People my mother's age like to tell me about Detroit's good old days of soda fountains and shopping markets and lazy Saturday night drives. But the fact is Detroit and its suburbs were dying 40 years ago. The whole country knew it, and the whole country laughed. A bunch of lazy, uneducated blue-collar incompetents. The Rust Belt. Forget about it.



Mukul Kesavan, Is Murali the greatest spinner ever?
Cricinfo
What Muttiah Muralitharan has meant to cricket, to Sri Lanka, and to sport.


Rafia Zakaria, Muslim Grrrls
Guernica
A lawyer investigates how Sharia and feminism go hand-in-hand.


Jacqueline Rose, 'J'accuse;' Dreyfus in our times
London Review of Books
Possibly my favourite this year. Justice is an infinite affair.


Some more stuff I liked:

Kamila Shamsie's Pop Idols on a generation of Pakistani pop music in Granta's Pakistan issue;
Umair Muhajir's Reflections on masala cinema and Dabanng at his blog, Qalandar;
Mihir Sharma's Calcutta is the city of second chances after the Park Street fire earlier this year, in The Indian Express;
P Sainath's The Colour of Water on two continuous years of drought in Vidarbha, in India Together;
Nathaniel Popper's A Conscious Pariah on Raul Hillberg and Hannah Arendt, in The Nation;
Nilanjana Roy's Getting Around Your City; A User's Guide for Women, at her blog Akhond of Swat and elsewhere;

and several others.


Finally, to some writers and journalists whom I drop everything to read, every time they write: Samar Halarnkar; Kuzhali Manickavel; Andrew Guest; Alan Jacobs;
Shoma Chaudhury; Chandrahas Choudhury;
Manan Ahmed; Lilia M Schwarcz; Ingrid D Rowland; cheers and thank you all. May your wordcounts ever increase.


Happy new year.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

a mature response to the end of the year

While I gather up my courage for a 'Year in Reading' post, a Q&A meme in which I was tagged months ago by Aisha. All answers calibrated to reflect reading/re-reading between January-December this year.


1. Favourite childhood book?

Anne of Green Gables, by LM Montgomery.


2. What are you reading right now?

Freedarko's The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History and Madhusree Mukherjee's Churchill's Secret War.


3. Bad book habit?

Refusing to revere books like a good Hindu, the cornerstone of childhood Dussehra observances and longstanding family fights about reading while otherwise occupied (in eating, or lying in bed, or grating coconut, for example; I was on the losing side of all these quarrels). Respecting books as wealth is one thing, but respecting them as wisdom is quite another.


4. Do you have an e-reader?

I will next year, if I can decide between impoverishment via Kindle, or impoverishment via subscriptions to expensive American magazines.


5. Do you prefer to read one book at a time or several at once?

One at a time, although it rarely works out that way.


6. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?

This year, particularly so, thanks to Book Munch. I read much more seriously.


7. Least favorite book you read this year (so far)?

Sarita Mandanna's Tiger Hill.


8. Favorite book you’ve read this year?

In non-fiction, probably Gyan Prakash's Mumbai Fables (my Mint story on the book) and Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy. Mumbai Fables is an intriguing look at Bombay as a palimpsest of narratives; Demick's book is a reconstruction of social life in the city of Chongjin, North Korea, based on the testimonies of refugees.


My favourite fiction this year was not a new release but Khalid Hasan's gigantic book of Manto translations, Bitter Fruit. A great opportunity to rediscover many things.


9. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?

Never.


10. What is your reading comfort zone?

Middle-class.


11. Can you read on the bus?

No.


12. Favorite place to read?

The train.


13. What is your policy on book lending?

Be generous; have a good memory.


14. Do you ever dog-ear books?

Yes, this is useful practice when reviewing.


15. Do you ever write in the margins of your books?

No; I usually read on the move.


16. Not even with text books?

That's what five-subject notebooks are for.


17. What is your favorite language to read in?

English.


18. What makes you love a book?

Compassion.


19. What will inspire you to recommend a book?

Delight. Ref. introducing Brian to The Count of Monte Cristo.


20. Favorite genre?

Overwrought.


21. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did?)

Not a genre; graphic literature.


22. Favorite biography?

This year, it was Ram Guha's mostly-out-of-print biog of Verrier Elwin, Savaging the Civilised - a very fond and readable, but rigorous look at a key figure in independent India. I believe Guha is putting out a new edition soon, with an introduction that triangulates Elwin's studies with the political-economic crisis in tribal districts in Central India, which is exciting. The old one can still be found in a collection of Guha's early work called The Ramachandra Guha Omnibus, if anyone wants to read it.


23. Have you ever read a self-help book?

No.


24. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?

Weirdly, I'd say Roberto Saviano's Gomorrah. The book clearly complicates the romantic notion of risking life and limb to get a story. It also complicates the relationship between narrative and reportage. But at a time when the only major alternative to the embedded journalist seems to be the foreign gonzo/undercover figure, Saviano manages to forward the question of how to write about being victimised, and being complicit, in a war in your own home. I don't think I've read a more high-stakes book this year.


In fiction, as always, Penelope Fitzgerald remains an idol.


25. Favorite reading snack?

Dal-chawal.


26. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.

Not exactly hype; I was disappointed to discover that I just wasn't into Roberto Bolano. I feel like everyone else is reading The Quibbler and I'm stuck with The Daily Prophet.


7. How often do you agree with critics about a book?

Not often with US/UK critics about American/British books, a little more often with desi critics about desi ones.


28. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?

More cavalier as a blogger than as a newspaper reviewer. Same goes for glowers, though.


29. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you chose?

I don't know, I like translations quite a lot. Probably Italian for the newspapers.


30. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?

I don't think I've ever read an intimidating book in my life.


31. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?

Very high degree of trepidation on being confronted with Mark Twain's Autobiography.


32. Favorite Poet?

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, as translated by Agha Shahid Ali.


33. Favorite fictional character?

Zlatan Ibrahimovic.


34. Favorite fictional villain?

I have a very good answer. It is Dmitri Belikov, the nice-guy-turned-bloodthirsty-vampire in Richelle Mead's glorious/atrocious Vampire Academy series. I just know you can change him, Rose!


35. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation?

Oh no, I did not have a vacation this year. Usually big fat ones.


36. The longest I’ve gone without reading

I've finished reading maybe four books this month, which is the year's low point.


37. Name a book that you could/would not finish?

I've been stuck on page 3 of Eshkol Nevo's Homesick for maybe six months now, for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with this unexceptionable book.


38. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?

Writing.


39. Favorite film adaptation of a novel?

n/a for this year.


40. Most disappointing film adaptation?

also n/a. I didn't even see the new Harry Potter film.


41. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?

Not even going there.


42. How often do you skim a book before reading it?

I skip to the end, but not otherwise.


43. What would cause you to stop reading a book half-way through?

Deadlines.


44. Do you like to keep your books organized?

I also like my football team to win all the time.


45. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?

Do you give a chair away once you've sat in it?


46. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?

Several.


47. Name a book that made you angry

Oh god, Raffles. Also the early parts of John Stuart Mill's Autobiography which essentially describe what a gigantic creep James Mill was and it's all you can do to stop yourself from flailing through space-time to give poor lamb JS a hug.


48. A book you didn’t expect to like but did?

The Leopard. Marvellous, moving, possibly timeless dead white male literature.


49. A book that you expected to like but didn’t?

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest. I mean, seriously? And in a lesser way, Naomi Novik's Tongues of Serpents, the newest in a series I've otherwise really liked.


50. Favorite guilt-free, pleasure reading?

Jane Austen.