Sunday, March 28, 2010

march memoir madness: kaifi, obama, crisp, seth, mill

I plus parental/grandparental units spent most of this month scrambling to shift house, so book blogging became a secondary concern. Presenting an ungainly post of fly-by thoughts on all the memoir reading I've done this March [and I have no idea how, it just happened]. I hope to write more on at least a couple of these again, so maybe next time I will also be able to offer quotes, after my books have emerged like Venus from the bottom of the cardboard boxes.

#25 Kaifi and I, Shaukat Kaifi, trans. Nasreen Rehman

Imagine being married to a brilliant poet who is also handsome, also famous, also a poor and dedicated Communist who lives on a commune in Andheri, where he has one room to share with you. He makes almost no money writing his amazing poetry and spends most of his time on work for the Party, among labourers [his sympathies perfectly expressed in the immortal 'Makaan' - Sab utho, main bhi uthoon, tum bhi utho, tum bhi utho. Everyone awake: I will rise, so must you, and so must you] and in slums. You, a beauty and a wit who has spurned the elegant cosiness of your traditional upbringing in Hyderabad, have to tear up saris to make curtains, yearn quietly for doilies, and put up, not only with the city that Bombay was in the 1950s, but with being poor in the Bombay of the 1950s. You have plenty of backbone, and you have a husband who wrote the words, Uth meri jaan, mere saath hi chalna hain tujhe - arise, my love, you must walk with me today. Annoyingly paternalistic to read today? Yes, at least for me. But beautiful, nonetheless. Shaukat Kaifi, wife of Kaifi Azmi [and mother of cinema's leading lights Shabana and Baba Azmi] writes that when she heard those famous lines she was convinced that they had to be for her: that she and none other would have the right to walk beside Kaifi. She was correct. Their whirlwind courtship and romance [I have three words for you: letters. in. blood.] led to a marriage of over fifty years, and a lifelong engagement with politics, literature, and for Shaukat, acting in the theatre and the cinema, both of which had a flourishing relationship with the Progressive movement's Urdu writers that continued well into the '60s and beyond. Her touching love story with Kaifi Azmi is at the centre of this memoir, but it is also a very personal, often surprising record of some of the most radical currents of newly independent India; in Urdu writing, in Islam - particularly among Muslim women - and in the theatre of Bombay. The translation is a just and apparently scrupulous effort, although the translations of the poetry do seem to sacrifice rhythm for faithfulness. All in all, a pressing reminder to self that the resolution to learn to read Urdu must no longer be put off.

#26 Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama

I am so weary of admiring Barack Obama's BRAAAIIIINS I have no way to express it. His story is of course an eminently tellable one in broad strokes: parents! Hawaii! Indonesia! Chicago! Kenya! but it is what he does at the micro-level that is astounding. It would have been easy to write the emotional equivalent of an adventure story, I think, and for a writer of his gifts that might have been a deeply impressive read, for all we know. But this memoir is shaped by the hands of Obama the rationalist, with his matter-of-fact eloquence and his immense capacity for analysis. As much as an act of self-creation, this book is also an act of self-dissection, as it were, and the two seemingly opposed acts are bound up in each other. I can see why complaints of glibness have carried right over into critique of his presidential persona. It is rather obviously an elided, highly selective piece of writing, but that goes to serve the grand narrative of ideas that this book is about. It seems to me to be perfectly honest to that trajectory: highlighting, primarily, his experience of race and space, and then that of constructing masculinity.

The last section of the book, where he travels to Kenya to meet his father's family, is easily the most visceral of all the episodes he describes. Intensity of thought here yields some ground to intensity of feeling, and yes, alright, I cried like a nut at the obvious points. But I think my favourite section of this book is his work as a community organiser in Chicago. I think the book's significant triumph is its chronicle of the frustrations, the continually changing priorities, and the constant inspiration derived from the people, rather than the ideas that you work for. The nature of professional activism probably differs from place to place, but I think everyone interested in communities, particularly urban communities, ought to read this. It is an emotional but unsentimental description of what life on the margins can be like, and what it means to accept its truths in order to reverse them. Kaifi Azmi once told his daughter: You must accept that change may not come in your lifetime, but continue to work for it nonetheless. Obama's work subordinates this broader truth to the struggle for an achievable, quantifiable change, even if it is diminished and imperfect. A lesson well-learned on the whole, I suppose.

#27 The Naked Civil Servant, Quentin Crisp

I found this gloriously funny and often exquisite book very hard to read. Crisp's humour is Wildean in its arch frivolity and piquancy. It is perfectly possible for victims of gay-bashing to be flippant about it, and I suppose it is possible to laugh at the flippancy; I could not. Crisp's life, almost coeval with the twentieth century [he was born in 1908] was by no means easy. Born into bourgeois Englishness, never willing [or per his memoir, able] to repress his sexuality, the repercussions were constant. Crisp was pulled out of taxis and beaten, shunned by employers, rejected by the War Office for being a pervert, and subjected to countless other acts of violence and humiliation, large and small. Crisp lays the drollery on thick, and every other line is a witticism that sends himself or someone else up. But the book is not simply about mocking pain, nor is it satirical [as a friend once tells Crisp, there's never anything satirical in his work, because there's no anger]. It is a very sharp look at the inner life as well as the material condition of a certain section of London and English society over the early years of the 1900s. It is also about how both the self and a group can create and sustain an identity in the face of violent hatred. Crisp the writer would no doubt disavow the romance and sentimentality of such an idea, writing as he does from a perpetual standpoint of disengagement from the broader currents, but that hardly makes his book apolitical.

#28 Two Lives, Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth is quite demonstrably a brilliant writer. His language is musical, his subjects are fascinating, his sentiments are meet and his compassion for his characters something of a byword. I think The Golden Gate is a fantastic book and From Heaven Lake a simply lovely one. I didn't like An Equal Music, but while I have never read past the first 20 pages of A Suitable Boy [the commuter's hands are perpetually tied to the small book] I hope to do so whenever I am next unemployed, or succumb to the Kindle, or something. But since he has hopped from genre to genre with such overall success it might suggest that he would do to biography, a noble but hardly transcendental art, what spring does to the cherry trees.

He doesn't quite. Two Lives is not the work of Seth the lyricist extraordinaire but that of Seth the Ph.D candidate, and while all the tremendous good taste of language and sentiment shine through, it is a biography that goes, perhaps in keeping with the lives of his subjects, in stops and starts. It is the story of his great-uncle Shanti Behari Seth and Shanti's German wife, Henny Caro. Their long, cosy married life in England succeeded a long friendship, begun when Shanti, an Indian student of dentistry, became the Caros' lodger in 1930s Berlin. Shanti was then still a British subject, and unable to practice dentistry, moreover, under the Aryan laws of Nazi Germany. At the outbreak of war, he joined the British Army in Sudan as an officer, and had an extremely eventful career that ended with his losing his right arm on the battlefield of Monte Cassino, Italy, in 1943. The Caros - mother Ella, and daughters Lola and Helga [or Henny] - were Jewish. Henny fled Berlin just before the war began, finding shelter with friends in England. By the end of the war, she had lost most of her friends in Germany, but her family suffered the worst fate. Ella, she was to discover, died in Theresienstadt, and Lola in Buchenwald.

The story of the Caros, told largely through letters and Seth's recounting of his research into the matter, is exceptionally humanising of the unthinkable tragedy. The Caros' gentile friends also went through the crucible, and not all of them passed the test. Their letters tell a bleak story for the ones who stood up for what was right. But it is leavened, as Henny herself seems to assure herself and them, by the human decencies of friendship and loyalty - decencies that are anything but common. Henny's most steadfast friend, of course, turns out to be Shanti himself. A man who made several very long journeys to come to his unexceptionable dental practice in middle-class London, with a circle of friends who came over for dinners and bridge parties, who claimed never to have known racism in his life, and who made such a dependable husband and friend for Henny, Shanti's inner life is somewhat obscured by the absence of any copious or introspective correspondence, although it is much better documented on the whole than Henny's: distraught after her death in the late '80s, he destroyed most of her photographs and papers, and never touched her post-War correspondence. Perhaps it was also less easily recorded. Seth does a marvellous job piecing together a framework for the criss-crossing of their lives during the tumultous war decades, after which their marriage, which comes at a leisurely pace in 1951, in the absence of any tempestuous romance, is a bit anti-climactic. How Seth himself comes to know these members of his family, and how he relates to them over the years, becomes a lovely, complex thread in the narrative: the Caro-Seths never have children, and various surrogates come into their lives in complicated, not always benign ways. But after Henny's death from cancer, Shanti's own life and the threads of the book devolve into a minor cacophony: emotional turbulence clashes with the frustrations of old age, and with the distasteful if always interesting matter of wills and legacies. Here Seth's desire to take the story to its end somewhere well after Shanti's death dulls its impact considerably. I am no censor of private stories, but I do wonder why Seth felt a more circumspect end to the book might have sacrificed its honesty.

#29 Autobiography, John Stuart Mill [re-read]

Oh, John Stuart Mill. Every time I read this book I can barely think through the first two chapters except to be appalled at the superdickery of James Mill, Famous Victorian Philosopher and crazycakes economist, and little JS' father. He put JS to studying Greek at age 2 and mathematics at age 3. Yes, readers of the scintillating The Last Samurai will know how well this can be accomplished in fiction. But Mill was no Sybilla to JS' Ludo. He was an asshole with a temper who ensured that baby J, when he was finally allowed to interact with the outside world, was 'at least a quarter century ahead' of his peers, a brilliant analytical thinker and polymath who had accomplished more by the age of 20 than most academics ever do, but at what price tender modern pinkos like me can only shudder to imagine. Little Mill is extremely gracious to him, though, because amazingly he turns out to be a very nice guy - and another Famous Victorian Philosopher who is not only much less of a dick than other FVPs, but also very relevant to liberal thinkers today. He turns out to have a terrifically involved intellectual life, great friendships with other FVPs [to say nothing of people like Thomas Carlyle] and a love story with Harriet Taylor that is just waiting for Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly to find the right Hollywood script. [What? They acted as the Darwins! The Mill-Taylors were even cooler!] I am by no means familiar with all or even most of Mill's work, so all that detailed stuff in between about the Reviews and his work on Logic is barely of academic interest to me: but he is endlessly articulate on the subject of the life of the mind and the liberty of the individual - of every individual, including slaves in Jamaica and women everywhere, not just privileged white men - and since his mind was such a gigantic one the Autobiography is nothing short of a marvel.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

daniyal mueenuddin: in other rooms, other wonders

#24 In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Daniyal Mueenuddin

I began this book with extremely high expectations, given all the reviews and prizes, and ended it with all of them met because this really is an unusually good book. The writing does justice to its form - the short story - as well as to its own scope. You come away after it feeling like it has satisfied some vital enquiry into the human character, and into writing itself. It's the sort of feeling you get when you read the great psychological writers of the nineteenth century, like James or Chekhov; writers who have shaped the way you read interiority as well as the material condition.

The book is a set of eight short stories, revolving around the life and estate of Pakistani landowner K K Harouni. Harouni himself appears only as a supporting character: the stories are about his servants, retainers, family members, and his circle of friends among the upper classes of Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. The classes are connected intimately but never fluidly: their resources to grapple with the crises of life - births, deaths, scandal - may vary but at the core they retain a similar sort of corruption and clarity. These layers unspool with gentleness and a certain amount of tender impassivity in the lives of several astonishingly well-realised characters.

But impassivity is also brutal, and the beautiful trick in many of these stories is the way Mueenuddin draws them to a close. In Nawabdin Electrician, we examine the life and milieu of the title character over a hypnotically well-controlled and evocative narrative, until we are led in the last four pages to see what happens to Nawabdin when an armed thief attempts to rob him of his motorcycle. It is a stunning conclusion. The next story, Saleema, is almost one of my favourites, with its complicated love story between the maid Saleema and KK Harouni's valet, the old man Rafik, until something happens at the end to make your blood curdle - something so inevitable, but so little foreshadowed in the narrative, that its occurrence is astounding. The last story, A Spoiled Man, also makes use of the same device, of bringing the story around to an end that seems inevitable but never drives or bullies the story.

To find a style so free of mannerism, of cleverness and of sentimentality is a wonder. My favourite story is Provide, Provide, about Harouni's corrupt estate manager Jaglani, and his relationship with the seemingly helpless Zainab, who turns up as his maidservant, but whom he eventually marries in secret. Marriage and sex are the prime movers of the relationships between men and women in this book, but Mueenuddin is successful - again - at describing manipulation and disingenuity without becoming manipulative himself. His female characters are as human and vivid as the male. They are not the bearers of illusion: agency, mobility, freedom, these things are even more limited for them then they are to their lovers and husbands. Even ones who exist outside the landscape, like an American girlfriend, eventually succumb or are lost in some way. Here the grand impassivity of Mueenuddin's narration touches on something dreadfully uneasy without comment. There are no easy lives in this book, no simple gifts of redemption. The women suffer for this the most - again, as they do in the great European novels of the late nineteenth century - and their deaths, or the facts of their survival, are always subordinate to thir weaknesses of thought and action. Mueenuddin has an enormous capacity to describe their ambitions and desperations, and his female characters are in many ways much more sympathetic than the men. Perhaps this is necessarily because within these stories, they are always more isolated. In such a stiflingly patriarchal world, the old maxim about individualism as the preserve of the male and community being a female creation is turned on its head. What country, what network of power, what circle of friends could Zainab or Husna [the young mistress of K K Harouni] possibly belong to? What is destiny in the face of fate?

I've touched on the stories that deal with the less-privileged characters of the world of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders because I liked them the most: while the achievements of stories like Lily, about the courtship and marriage of two lonely young people from the swish set, are varied and impressive [although the one set in Paris, with the American girlfriend, is the only story with sections of writing that are almost, almost pedestrian], I found them less moving. In fact, I wonder if part of the power of this book is because its stories are set in a country and society relatively unexplored in English-language fiction. What are the odds that I would have shut the book or flung it against a wall if Lily was set in England or the US, or India? High. In Other Rooms... would go on a bonfire of the vanities, alright. But a book's worth as the proverbial mirror to society can only rank alongside a judgment of its own integrity, and In Other Rooms... is tremendously truthful to itself. It is superb.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

meme: if you see this post a poem in your blog

I vaccillated between Kaifi Azmi's Makaan and this, but this has an Agha Shahid Ali translation.

Mujhse pehli si mohabbat mere mehboob na maang
Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Maine samjha tha ke tu hai to darakhshaan hai hayyaat
Tera gham hai to sham-e-dahar ka jhagra kya hai
Teri soorat se hai aalam mein baharon ko sabaat
Teri aankhon ke siwa dunya mein rakha kya hai

To jo mil jaye to taqdeer nigoon ho jaye
Yun na tha maine faqat chaha tha yun ho jaye
Aur bhi dukh hain zamane mein mohabbat ke siwa
Rahatein aur bhi hain wasl ki raahat ke siwa

Angeenat sadiyon ke taariq bahimanaa talism
Resham-o-atlas-o-kamKhwaab mein bunwaye hue
Jaa-ba-jaa biktey hue koochaa-o-bazaar mein jism
Khaak mein litharey hue, khoon mein nehlaaye hue

Jism nikaley hue amraaz ke tannuuron se
Peep behti hui jaltey hue naasuuron se
Laut jaati hai udhar ko bhi nazar kya ki jiye
Ab bhi dilkash hai tera husn mager kya ki jiye

Aur bhi dukh hain mohabbat ke dukh ke siwa
Rahatein aur bhi hain wasl ki raahat ke siwa

Mujhse pehli si mohabbat mere mehboob na maang.

Mujhse pehli si mohabbat / Don't Ask Me For That Love Again
Faiz Ahmed Faiz
translated by Agha Shahid Ali

That which then was ours, my love,
don’t ask me for that love again.
The world then was gold, burnished with light –
and only because of you. That’s what I had believed.
How could one weep for sorrows other than yours?
How could one have any sorrow but the one you gave?
So what were these protests, these rumors of injustice?
A glimpse of your face was evidence of springtime.
The sky, wherever I looked, was nothing but your eyes.
If You’d fall into my arms, Fate would be helpless.

All this I’d thought, all this I’d believed.
But there were other sorrows, comforts other than love.
The rich had cast their spell on history:
dark centuries had been embroidered on brocades and silks.
Bitter threads began to unravel before me
as I went into alleys and in open markets
saw bodies plastered with ash, bathed in blood.
I saw them sold and bought, again and again.
This too deserves attention. I can’t help but look back
when I return from those alleys – what should one do?
And you still are so ravishing – what should I do?
There are other sorrows in this world,
comforts other than love.
Don’t ask me, my love, for that love again.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

china mieville: the city and the city

Teal deer warning.

#23 The City and the City, China Miéville

Now this is how you defeat [many] expectations. What a thrillingly confounding read this was. After a point of time I just threw up my hands and said to the book, okay then, bring it. It brought it.

Orhan Pamuk once said [I paraphrase] that a novel is an essentially liberal tool because its point is to tell us about people who are not like us. Now arguably, you could say that since a novel’s further point, by and large, is to tell you that people who are not like you are in fact in their own way just like you, the novel is a tool of The Man, soothing the ineffable fears of the chaise-longue-occupying, page-turning class.

The City and the City junks these oppositions quite markedly. I’m afraid soothing is in abeyance here. At every level we are dealing with an alienation from and a resistance to the familiar – a classic diagnosis of the malaise of the city. And the city. Beszel and Ul Qoma are two alter-cities [if I have that correct] that occupy the same set of spaces. They are divided by a bizarre, alarming and shadowy border, one that requires the people of each city to divide themselves from each other totally. They ‘unsee’ each other’s surroundings and each other, even if they are on the same street or the same apartment block. To violate this cardinal rule is to invoke the fearsome powers of Breach, the omnipotent security force responsible for keeping borders intact. The protocol for citizens is as elaborate as a Google algorithm […one of the elaborate ones, anyway]; the rules for tourists and businesspeople are almost worse. When a murdered corpse turns up in Beszel, the journey to find the criminal takes the Besz policeman Tyador Borlú on a dangerous journey in which he has to negotiate the geography and the politics of both cities.

The Beszel and Ul Qoma borders are not exactly inimical as understood in our world. They are not the borders across which bombs are lobbed and walls are built [to be broken] and star-crossed love stories conducted. The culture of resistance exists, but in an apparently desultory way. The separation here is seemingly absolute and on equal terms – there is no easy analogy to be drawn to the relationship between, citizens and a slave class, or the occupiers and the occupied, or the trauma of what ought never to have been divided. In a city like Bombay it may seem impossible to really 'unsee' anything at any time, but this is a fallacy. In fact, the invisibility we are constantly enforcing in over-pressured cities is that of our relationships with each other. We unsee the other variables in our equations of power. Beszel and Ul Qoma are caught up in the same arithmetic, but in ways that the narrative leaves ambiguous. It leaves a lot ambiguous.

Since my interest in the book was first sparked by its relationship with Raymond Chandler, I have to address its debt to Chandler. This is marked in the novel’s atmospherics, its protagonist’s, uhm, project of distancing, its intense awareness of place [and how it plays with that conceit to astounding effect]. In spirit, it is less obvious. Philip Marlowe’s coolness is a slightly fey charade: he is a ferociously sentimental character, a dogged romantic and a bit of an ideologue. He is much more rooted in his city and his place in it, though, than Borlú, who is a cop.

And Marlowe’s Los Angeles is a warm, almost tropical city. Reading a Marlowe book is still a wholly sensual experience of the living organism, bright lights, bars, cars and all. There’s something much more austere going on in Beszel and Ul Qoma – the atmosphere, particularly once the plot hurtles into thriller-mode where gun battles and life-savings are rife, is a bit more Cold War Le Carré than anything, I thought? And I find it particularly striking that both of them are city-states, and the laws that bind them and drive the plot of the novel forward are not the porous and symbiotic rules of cities, but the more absolute laws of nations.

Is there something reactionary to the constant movement of The City and the City against the grain? I would not say so. It’s not a dogmatic book in the way intensely self-aware writing can sometimes be, nor is it simply a funhouse mirror held up to its own influences. It is subverting. I am still unconvinced on some aspects of that subversion, though. For example, on the first page of the book we see a naked dead woman who is thought to be a prostitute. Later we discover that the naked dead woman is not a prostitute. Point taken. But she is still a naked dead woman. Sadly there are very few ways you can neutralise this image in art, let alone subvert it. Similarly, my discomfort over the cultural signifiers of Ul Qoma was sustained throughout the novel. Textually it starts off as and remains the Other – where is all the badass Qussim Dhatt fanfic, anyway? Its markers are, to borrow a word from the Wall Street Journal, ‘Islamist.’ Broadly, of course, totally broadly. Now, a writer is always free to alienate the markers of an ‘othered’ culture and incorporate it in their work, even in service of commenting on or criticising the othering. But with the noblest of intentions and legerdemain to burn, it is still, in this case, appropriation. Or am I wrong to think so?

I haven’t yet seen the new Chandan Arora film Striker, but one of its reviewers quoted a line of dialogue from it: Us waqt humko yeh maloom nahin tha, ki Bombay ko jitna dekho, roz thoda aur dikhta hai. We did not then know that no matter how long you look at Bombay, every day you see a little more of it.

I found this rather profound in the context of a film about the ‘93 riots. For a city where collective memory has no public value, it is a warning and a verdict. It acknowledges the smallness of our lives in a big city, the ease of assuming the role of the ignored, and of ignorance: it indicates how actors in a conflict can be complicit in a fire that we did not start. To me The City and the City is a great take on that; a complex and skilfully navigated elaboration of our capacity to see, and see more, and see less. I think I’ll read it again in a year’s time and see if it ends differently.

And now I am a bit in need of a ‘the soothing will see you now’ book. I have this one on colonial plunder in 18th century India lined up next. That should bring it sufficiently.

Monday, March 08, 2010

sidin vadukut: dork

#22 Dork: The Incredible Adventures of Robin 'Einstein' Verghese, Sidin Vadukut

I liked this novel in spite of myself. However badly that speaks of my character, I think it at least rescues my taste in some measure. What won me over to Dork is that it's not a novel about a bumbling young chap who discovers himself [that category of novels is called, in my mind, 'Wank.'] Through the story, the young chap remains an unreconstituted bumbler, and that's putting it kindly. Robin Verghese is a hopeful young egoist with a diary, a job at Mumbai's Dufresne Partners, and reality-defying naivete. We follow his diary, Mole-style, as he swashbuckles his way through one promotion cycle at his frankly lamex0rz firm, makes long-running attempts to get the girl, and takes the odd opportunity to save the day.

Robin is not an idiot savant. He's just an idiot. And the great thing about Dork is that it isn't really just lampooning the little guy, of course - it's the whole culture. Robin's world is so painfully familiar to anyone who's been a corporate minion that it should come with warning labels for reproductions of soulless Taj parties and desperate usage of PowerPoint. But there's nothing bitter or angry about this book. Its prime provocations are goofy, not satirical. Robin is a type of character very familiar to Indian readers - the product of an elite school, dealing not just with the vagaries of the world outside, but also with the chaos within. He's also a LOLarious send-up that type.

I enjoyed it. And I'm going to take the rare opportunity to infuse this post with some hard-hitting journalism. I had the privilege of speaking to the author just before the Mumbai launch of this book. Below I reproduce the short Q&A that appeared [version thereof] in the March issue of Verve Magazine.

How do you make consulting interesting?
By not writing too much about it. It’s easy to poke fun at the stereotypes, and it serves as a rich backdrop, but the book is about its characters. The diary format helps; you can pick and choose details, skip over days of the boring stuff, and still stay true to the format. I didn't have to write a magnum opus.

But parts of this book were so reminiscent of Tolstoy.
Don't make me kill myself.

Sorry. Who is Dork’s ideal reader?
There was a focus of sorts when I was talking about it to my publishers. I thought it would speak best to young readers, between 25 and 35, MBAs fresh out of school. But my major concern was really to do justice to my own mental image of Robin Verghese. I’ve been amazed at how different people have taken different things from the story, though – for many people, it’s worked as a great slice-of-life in a metro, for others it’s about a lifestyle.

How easy is it to sustain humour (a mainstay of your kvlt blog, Domain Maximus) at novel-length?
It’s very difficult. There are several transitions that you have to make carefully: sustaining a line of humour for that span, and writing fiction itself, is a challenge. But the genre of humour, of the jokes, is carried forward from Domain Maximus to the book - the general sense is the same. I did take a lot of shortcuts to help myself. The diary format, for example, bridges a gap with the blog format.

What sort of writing inspires you?
My own favourites are writers like William Dalrymple, Bill Bryson, Martin Cruz Smith and so on. Dork in particular had a number of inspirations. I worked with the sensibility of The Office TV series, which really opens up everything in the office space to be laughed at. Sue Townsend is another. And Craig Brown, Molly Evans, and the brilliant office culture columnist Lucy Kellaway.

What can we look forward to in the further adventures of Robin Verghese?
Robin will not reform. He will remain a dork, and the comedy of errors will continue. The repercussions so far have been small – I want him to arrive at a point where he’s able to create international diplomatic incidents.


Saturday, March 06, 2010

surendra mohan pathak and barbara trapido

#20 Daylight Robbery, Surendra Mohan Pathak, trans. from Hindi by Sudarshan Purohit

These new Blaft translations of the ultra-mega-super-hit Surendra Mohan Pathak crime novels put me in a bit of a bind. Did I want them because they have lurid pulp covers, fabulously illustrated by Ramesh Ram of Shelle Studios [by Mustajab Ahmed Siddiqui (Shelle Studios) - I thank Blaft for the correction]? Is it their appeal the appeal of kitsch? Was I genuinely interested in vintage Hindi crime fiction, or was I just being an annoying hipster? I will have a lifetime to ponder these things since I am already in possession of both The 65 Lakh Heist, and Daylight Robbery. I will also buy the next one when it comes out, because it turns out that hipster or no, I am genuinely interested in vintage Hindi crime fiction.

My formative years were the very early '90s, when '80s cinema entered its heyday. I want to know if there was a Raymond Chandler flying off the shelves of the Higginbothamses and the Wheeler and Cos. of the dusty railway bookstalls of The Real India at the same time that Sunny Deol and Feroze Khan [and Vinod Khanna, and other men with a propensity to leave their shirts unbuttoned to the navel as they stalked about ravines with rifles on their shoulders] were entertaining us stationary toffs in the cinema halls. Vimal, the hero of Daylight Robbery, could have been played on screen by any of these guys -- maybe not Vinod Khanna, who was perhaps always a little too urbane, or Feroze Khan, who just couldnt act, bless him. But definitely Sunny Deol [we will discuss the relative merits of Sunny Deol's acting v/s Feroze Khan's acting in a later post dedicated to the mullet in Bollywood]. Vimal of the thousand names and disguises is a tragic action anti-hero. He could never be played by Amitabh Bachchan, who would fail as a man so seemingly unable to control the larger narrative of his life. Vimal lives in a world surrounded by evil. He is repeatedly roped into committing armed robbery, extortion, GBH and even murder by crooks who have his number and are putting the screws on him to make use of his extraordinary talents. Worse: beautiful and desperate women are throwing themselves at him. Tainted money is hoarding itself in the trunk of his stolen car. Vimal, who only entered a life of crime because his faithless wife tricked him into jail on trumped-up criminal charges in the first place, just wants a break, damnit! Time for an NHRC intervention!

So no, this isn't exactly Khachaturian-endorsing, society-in-chaos wiseass territory. This is Aluminium-Age, dying-gasps-of-the-planned-economy-era Bollywood territory. It is melancholic, but only in the sense that it deals coolly with the inner turmoil of Vimal, or the grasping, unhappy [and very sexy] Shailaja. There's an odd fatalism about Vimal and his attempts to escape the grip of a criminal life, an escape that you sense he never quite expects to achieve. Like a bird on the wire, as Leonard Cohen would say.

The pulp aspects of the book are almost one hundred percent goodness. For all that the portrayal of the beautiful/desperate woman was ultimately a turnoff for me, there was plenty to admire. Pathak has a brisk but very visual style, and a gift for atmosphere. Characters are drawn with cutting efficiency, and they play well with and off each other. An early sequence when the main players in the heist sit around a card table to induce a man to co-operate with their scheme is probably the most delicious part of the whole book - you watch with bated breath as a textbook confidence trick that is executed unhurriedly and mercilessly. That's real call-up-the-author stuff.

And it is a dashing, action-walla book; the thrills and chills set-pieces are pulled off exquisitely. Pathak recreates familiar action scenes with an intense, snappy vigour. Reading them is like watching a toe-curling sequence out of a Manmohan Desai film [and I really have no higher compliment to bestow on any art, as anyone who knows how I feel about Amar Akbar Anthony can confirm]. Oh, yeah. Getaway cars! Jumping on trains! Robbing a salary van in broad daylight! I love the translation here - it never falters or grows awkward, and the English that it produces is perfectly readable anywhere in the Anglophone world, while remaining distinctly desi. Perhaps best of all for me, it makes me want to read Pathak in the original. I will. I'll stop off at the Wheeler and Co. next to the ticket counter at Churchgate next week and ask for one.

#21 Brother of the More Famous Jack, Barbara Trapido [re-read]

I've flogged this book so often that I have nothing new to add. To recap: I am always seduced by Trapido's gentle, self-mocking tone. She sends up a female poseur and a particularly female manner of disavowal even as she enters fully and joyfully into the spirit of posing and disavowing through her central character, the clever and timid Katherine Browne. In one of Trapido's later books, an undergraduate student writes a paper on Shakespeare's comedies in which she says, 'The Tragedies are Tragedies and the Comedies are Tragedies. The Comedies are a better sort of tragedy because they make us laugh and because the characters stay alive. Survival is admirable.' This is the spirit in which Katherine's character begins her story [in a charming, half-flippant, half-arrogant voice] and takes it forward. She does this among other things, by playing with a very old chestnut: the love triangle. It is also an odd bildungsroman; it meanders with Katherine as she picks her way through philosophy, love affairs, families and life at home and abroad, but it is intimately concerned with the fulfillment she finds with other people - ultimately with the lovable, irritating brother of the more famous Jack. Trapido writes heady, anti-naturalistic dialogue and a completely literary prose, but she does it lightly and sweetly. It sends everything up in a way that could make you almost miss the sadness. It's a comedy, alright.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

paul smith on shakespeare

Paul Smith, director of the British Council and Cultural Counsellor to the British Embassy in Cairo, was in Mumbai earlier this year to deliver the 12th annual Vasant J Sheth Memorial Lecture, an annual event to honour the memory of Vasant J. Sheth, founder of The Great Eastern Shipping Company. Smith's lecture was called Full Fathom Five: Shakespeare’s Old Seas and New Worlds. I asked him three questions via email about his subject.

For many readers, Shakespeare's most emphatic engagement with the ocean and the brave new worlds that lay across it comes in The Tempest. Could you tell us about a couple of other instances in his oeuvre - perhaps lesser-read - that we might hear about in your lecture?

You’re right to pick out The Tempest, resolutely a culmination of his life’s dramatic offering, and the play in which transition by sea is key to what the drama explores. And, yes, The Tempest is the Shakespeare play which is most conscious of the ‘newfoundlands’ across the oceans which beckoned a different future from the Mediterranean past. To the European, the Mediterranean was a sea encircled by human cultures and habitations. But the Atlantic beckoned of ‘a world elsewhere’, in accordance with the burgeoning human spirit. Other ‘last plays of Shakespeare – particularly Pericles and The Winter’s Tale – share The Tempest’s use of the sea as the locus of exploration and self-discovery and, indeed, of birth, death and redemption.

I shall also talk about the plays in which new life has to begin at the shoreline, particularly following the metaphorical calamity of shipwreck in, for example Twelfth Night or The Comedy of Errors. And we’ll touch on plays where war is fought across the waters –Antony and Cleopatra, say, or Troilus and Cressida­­ - and where commerce, including the commerce of human relations - is determined by the sea’s implacability, most notably The Merchant of Venice.

Would you say Shakespeare's engagement with Europe's changing worldview affected the audiences of his own time - other writers or thinkers, perhaps?

Shakespeare’s period of writing coincided with Britain’s earliest mercantile adventurism – the disgraces of early colonialism were to peak in later decades. But there is a clear psychological and metaphysical sense of expansionism and unbounded limit as the Renaissance human spirit recognises its capacity to conceive and control greater territories of the mind and spirit as well as terra firma. Terra incognita begins to beckon and seduce where it was, to the Medieval mind, frighteningly out of bounds. The great dramatist of excessively expansionist vision and ambition is Shakespeare’s exact contemporary Marlowe –stretching the bounds of knowledge in Dr Faustus, of ‘infinite riches’ in The Jew of Malta and of land and imperial power in Tamburlaine. But, in every play of Shakespeare, the dominant pulse is the realisation that each drama is creating its own uniquely real new world.

Britain's maritime history is also, in one sense, its colonial history. How much of a sense of the momentuousness of what was to come do we get from Shakespeare?

It was all yet to come, but Shakespeare’s psychology clearly premeditated it. He is compelled by the means by which people exert control over each other – be it an Iago over Othello, his daughters over Lear, Shylock over Anthony and then Portia over Shylock. And his geographical vistas are wide. Shakespeare was a country boy from the centre of an island nation and we have no evidence whatsoever that he even saw the sea let alone crossed it. But the majority of his plays are set in distant lands and, in some plays – Anthony and Cleopatra for example – the boundaries of his play find synonymity with the boundaries of the known world. ‘All the world’ – the beckoning expanding world of renaissance Europe - really does become ‘a stage’ in the Shakespeare canon.

[A version of this appeared in Verve Magazine's January issue.]

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

on the jaipur literature festival 2010

[I wrote this for the March issue of Verve Magazine, which is out now on stands. Please assure yourself of a copy, Mum. A direct consequence of this piece is that I have eschewed the first-person plural forever.]

Paper Trails

‘What’s that?’ we are asked when we inform a native of Jaipur of our primary reason to touch down in this storied city. ‘A literacy festival?’ We perish the thought. What does reading and writing have to do with education? At any rate, we have come to the Jaipur Literature Festival not in search of enlightenment, but satisfaction. We want drama. We want action. And we want it to come straight out of a book.

To the traditionalist, using a phrase like ‘The Greatest Literary Show On Earth’ to promote a literature festival may seem a little bit like saying ‘The Biggest Birthday Party On The Planet’ to describe Christmas. It infuses an appallingly cheerful vigour into something that ought to be the rarefied, quasi-spiritual experience of communing with great minds and ideas. Alas for the traditionalist, there is truth in advertising. The Jaipur Literature Festival is unapologetically, vividly, a show. Rumour has it that this was not always the case. Festival co-director William Dalrymple reminds us in his opening address of their major coup in 2006, when ‘we invited our first international guest, Hari Kunzru, who was passing through India on his way to visit his girlfriend in New Zealand.’ The festival organisers have always emphasised its unique charm as a space where readers can, free of cost and compunction, rub shoulders with the great and good of the writerly world. It becomes a sort of Disneyland for readers, inviting the literary tourists and the thrill-seekers who might hope to sit next to Salman Rushdie at a Kiran Desai reading, or steal the last gulab jamun ahead of Vikram Seth in the lunch line.

In fact, the appeal lies in its genteelly Woodstockian mood. It’s in the existence of a place where writers are treated like rock stars. ‘Vikram Chandra breathed on me!’ ‘Alexander McCall Smith autographed my book!’ ‘Hanif Kureishi was rude to me!’ Whether or not you think writers merit this sort of treatment, or whether the truly serious Ideal Reader is also capable of being a crazy fan, is not actually relevant in the context of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Those who have been here since its modest beginnings at a reading in Jaipur University may find it losing its quiet, homespun vibe (as indeed, more than one plaintive veteran was heard to say).

Its true triumph this year was its ability to remain fresh and free of stuffiness. This cannot be an easy task when your schedule is bursting at the seams with Nobel Laureates, Harvard professors, newspaper editors and celebrity polemicists – and that’s saving the presence of the novelists. This is part of the genius of the festival. The one-hour sessions, the glorious January weather, the informal but tightly-organised discussion areas; all of these are calculated to take one so far into the realm of ideas and no further. We have no statistical data on how many casual attendees ran away from the Diggi Palace, tempted by the Chance Pe Dance and Veer movie posters splashed across the entrance to the venue, but we were glued to our seats practically the whole time.

The festival’s opening, like the crystal ball of a mediocre fortune-teller, was lost in a haze of mist. The skies were clear and the nagaras were sounding in sunny Jaipur, but the festival’s major locus was Delhi, from where festival catalogues were being printed, audiences were being transported, and practically every speaker, Indian or international, was being offloaded – and which had been choked up by fog. Coming from Mumbai, where winter is something that happens to other people, we had travelled through the effects of the inclement North Indian winter and were already reeling from nights huddled under razaais and layers of woollen clothing when the news came that several of the speakers scheduled for Day One, including keynote speaker Girish Karnad, were at various stages in the process of arrival: some in a terminal at a Delhi airport, some in airplanes seeking a landing at a Delhi airport in vain, others stuck on the Delhi-Jaipur road, memorably described by Tunku Varadarajan as ‘your own personal Gulag’ in conversation with Anne Applebaum about her book, Gulag: A History. The festival, chugging along on time and re-organising sessions with a zest and creativity, turned up unexpected treats: the very first session on the front lawns was a hastily patched-up but delightful conversation between novelists Chandrahas Choudhury and Vikram Chandra, on the subject of Chandra’s opus Sacred Games. We like that Chandra’s self-consciously literary concerns have never come in the way of his central concern with the meat-and-potatoes of a good novel: his work has generally been a thoroughly satisfying confluence of idea and sentiment. As a speaker, he strives for the same effect, achieving clarity and perspective with a humourous, gently professorial air. Choudhury’s focus on the novel’s literary qualities just about balanced out the audience’s curiosity about the juicy bits of Chandra’s gangland research. We grew conscious of being in a local minority when Chandra illustrated one of his answers with a hypothetical love story ‘between Rakesh and Maria,’ and we were the only ones laughing in the audience (For those who don’t follow the adventures of the Mumbai police in their dailies, the city’s commissioner of police is named Rakesh Maria).

The fiction writers did not hold sway on the first day, though: that honour went to the poets and lyricists who held court in the eyeball-witheringly yellow and very pretty confines of the Durbar Hall, overflowing this year with schoolgirls in blazers and the flower of Indian publishing alike. An afternoon of Pavan Varma and Gulzar in conversation was followed closely by Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar waxing eloquent on the subject of the poet Kaifi Azmi and Shabana’s mother Shaukat Kaifi’s memoirs. On an audience perfectly capable of slipping back and forth between spoken English, Hindi and Urdu with aplomb, the effects were electrifying. It was a note that struck with abiding sweetness through the festival again and again. It threaded through the multiple panels at which Gulzar and Akhtar made their presence felt, either on stage or among the audience. It came most fully into its own at one of the standout evening performances of the week, a brilliant and moving tribute to the great Faiz Ahmed Faiz on the third day, anchored by the poet’s eloquent daughter, Salima Hashmi, and burnished by Akhtar’s warm, hilarious anecdote of making friends with his hero on one of the great man’s tours of Mumbai. To recount it in print would rob it of its sparkle – let us tell you only that there was ticketless travel, reckless alcoholic courage, and a deep conversation about the Urdu script involved.

Gulzar and Akhtar’s presence and thumping popular successes at the festival seemed to broaden its scope, but not merely in the poets’ capacity as Hindi cinema’s stalwarts (Rahul Bose represented the more glamorous fringes of the Bollywood-literary partnership fully enough). Their enduring influence on the way a Hindi-language nation thinks, speaks and perhaps dreams, represents live literature in a way that the purer, narrower channels of book publishing do not. This idea extended to many of the Indian-language panels on what is known, in festival parlance, as bhasha literature. With poetry, drama, protest writing, short stories, non-fiction and novels all finding representation in one way or the other on these polyglot, multidisciplinary panels, both the writing and its meta sprang to life.

The abundance contrasted with the more intensive English forums, where you could pick a broad scheme and follow its thread from panel to panel, sometimes through all five days of the festival. For those interested in political journalism alone, the festival offered practically a highlight reel through its five days: from the political biographer Kai Bird, to old Cairo hand Max Rodenbeck, to Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower and most recently in the news for his stellar narrative reportage from Gaza in The New Yorker – you could catch an unprecedented mingling of the star rosters of Foreign Affairs, The New York Review of Books and global newspapers of record, often on the same panel. The polemical thinker Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s unpublicised talk on doctrinaire Islam’s incompatibility with the modern world left audiences offended and thoughtful. Her own dogmas aside, we think there is a lesson for the liberal establishment in the fact that Hirsi Ali had to fly down in secret, stay at her hotel under an assumed name and had almost no English-language daily report her views without heavy censoring.

Neoconservative historian Niall Ferguson horrified us by turning out to be an incredibly charming and engaging speaker; we applaud the festival organisers for having the sense of humour to fly in an academic whose most famous work is an emphatic argument in favour of the positive aspects of the British Empire. (Ferguson’s talks at the festival largely confined themselves to some of the less explosive areas of his expertise, such as economics, which justly few people who come to attend a Literary Show would pretend to know anything about, and his home country Scotland, whose tradition of satirical humour rivals that of its near neighbour Ireland.) Perhaps the only other speaker to make an equal impression on the straight women present was young Ali Sethi, whose sprawling debut novel The Wish Maker, written in the finest subcontinental tradition of tragicomic, navel-gazing sprawl, did not prepare us for his eloquence, erudition, and one of the finest ghazal-singing voices (he presented a moving recital of some of Faiz’ most famous poems at the evening performance) we have heard of late.

Travel writing also received its fair share of the spotlight, with the presence of the sublimely funny Geoff Dyer, followed around everywhere by fans and journalists like the slacker-lit god he is. Dyer’s is an awesome intellect, but one that chooses an ironic simplicity over seriousness and complication when he is called into conversation. ‘I’m not very good at plot,’ he offered, as a reason for his books’ sublime preoccupation with place on a panel called ‘Visible Cities.’ ‘The only plot that occurs to me is boy-meets-girl.’ The enduring popularity of the theme was indicated by the overflowing numbers at the Baithak tent who came to chat with Lonely Planet’s Tony Wheeler. Who knew that India’s first psychedelic disco, The Fertilised Egg, was run in the basement of the Ram Bagh Palace in the happy haze of the late 1960s? Wheeler, who could very well have encountered it in his initial backpacking trips across the subcontinent, did not, but the information came from another quarter, as it did repeatedly through other sessions: it was offered by super-mod William Dalrymple, who kept conversations up throughout the fest with personalities ranging from Wheeler to the Tibetan poet, Tenzin Tsundue, to Steve Coll, to Alexander McCall Smith. Dalrymple’s assumption of the position of co-conversationalist, rather than mere questioner or moderator, was largely a boon to the audience. With the confidence of a television anchor (which he has been) and the focused curiosity of the historian (which he continues to be), he succeeded in drawing out his panellists as well as the audience, to foster some of the festival’s most delightful sessions. If there were festival-goers who might have preferred to hear other authors speak wholly uninterrupted by Dalrymple’s own wealth of anecdotes and opinions, we didn’t hear the murmurs.

Alas, murmurs abounded in other sessions where moderators were less successful in charming their listeners or their distinguished interviewees. Time and again we spoke with delegates and guests who felt that speakers’ potential was often inversely proportionate to their moderators’ ability to draw them out. Often this seemed to be a matter of circumstance, rather than capability: the witty, polished Rachel Holmes appeared to be operating in a vacuum as she attempted to carry the conversation on literary adaptation with three of the most accomplished and eagerly-awaited speakers at the festival: the novelists Hanif Kureishi and Roddy Doyle and director Stephen Frears. Doyle, who in his previous sessions established himself as perhaps the nicest writer alive – a kindly, ultra-hip high-school teacher to Chandra’s genial professor – recounted to us the story of Zanjeer, which he had watched on the flight over, and remarked on how miserable the story might have been had it come out of Ireland. Kureishi’s final session, a one-on-one with the writer Amitava Kumar, whose acquaintance with both the author and his works was extensive enough to warrant just the right mix of comfort and provocation, proved to be delightful – at least for those of us who were sitting far enough away to enjoy Kureishi’s magnificent grumpiness. At a festival where good humour and earnestness infected speakers from session to session (and quite rightly), Kureishi’s laconic, sarcastic public face put even the extraordinarily reverent audience on the back foot. We at Verve celebrate the corrosiveness of bad temper in small doses: to be fair, our and Kureishi’s darkest doubts about his appearance in a Literary Show were realised when an elderly gent in the audience stood up to ask him, in all seriousness, if he had been circumcised. ‘No one’s been this interested in my genitals in a long time,’ said Kureishi after a pause during which his cast-iron frown almost – for a second – wavered into a smile. ‘What a country.’

But the Great Moderator Question is ultimately a circumstantial one, and has no serious implications for the festival’s future. A more pernicious tendency on the schedule this year was the urge, like an anxious tourist, to over-pack: the full-to-bursting, shifting rosters of speakers for high-visibility sessions. A potential cracker of a debate on the Internet and books, filmed for TV and moderated by Barkha Dutt, was packed with big names, from Gulzar to Tina Brown, and ended up achieving nothing. In spite of the brilliance of individual speakers like Zubaan Books publisher Urvashi Butalia and moderator Shoma Chaudhury, a panel on publishing in the next decade paddled in the shallows and gave up before it could ever tread water. These are exciting, complex issues; at a festival where even potentially inflammatory texts were discussed with poise and aplomb, they deserved better.

We hope to see future editions of the festival cave in less to the over-packing urge: if there’s one thing Jaipur no longer needs, after all, it is gimmicks to capture an audience. Practically the whole world seems to be watching, certainly the whole country. If many of them were looking just for a peek into the swinging Tina Brown dinner do (‘Darling, Delhi was empty on the evening of Tina’s party,’ reports a friend) – well, who doesn’t love a good soirée after all that emotional wrangling about Naxalism over tea? On a more serious note, if there is a part of Jaipur’s own population that isn’t quite sure what all the fuss about a ‘literacy festival’ is, there is also a substantial and growing number for whom the festival has transformed the city calendar. As during a gripping Test match, the weekend and evening sessions were packed with the local gentry. This is excellent. In spite of its milling with exceptionally diverse audiences, in some of whose hands guidebooks vie with the new Andrew O’Hagan, the festival actively resists becoming a tourist attraction in a city filled with tourist attractions. For Jaipur’s increasingly ‘glocal’ identity, one that seeks to be as fulfilling for its citizens as it is for visitors, there could hardly be a brighter indicator. For readers and writers and, yes, drama-seekers in the field of Indian publishing, the future looked as rosy as the Old City.

Monday, March 01, 2010

cape to victory

Written after a whirlwind pro-trip to South Africa. This appears in Verve Magazine's March 2010 issue.

Cape Town has its meditative aspects. You can walk through its fabulous botanical gardens virtually undisturbed by the sound of human voices. You can hike up Signal Hill talking quietly of J M Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer. You can spend hours savouring your kingklip à la mode as you linger over a bottle or six of superb South African wine. It makes it almost difficult to imagine that over the summer, it's going to feel like the fist of a crazy god will smash figuratively through this rarefied air and unleash the dogs of what Orwell called 'war minus the shooting.' It's the football World Cup, and it's going to get Cape Town's hair down and hips swinging – something, once you get past the Coetzee and the Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2001, that it is in fact exceedingly good at doing.

We cricket fans are a step ahead of the rest of the world in some respects. We already know what it feels like to follow the last heart-stopping minutes of a game as the moon rises over Johannesburg. We've cried as our side crumbles against the backdrop of the timeless cloudbank over Table Mountain. We've kept our fingers crossed as the silvery, changeable light of a South African winter plays over the faces of our boys in the middle.

Apply that, if you will, to a different sport, and something an order of magnitude larger. Standing at the edge of the town square in Cape Town on a bright, bracing winter's morning with your back to the Castle of Good Hope, it's easy to look across the stately cobbled expanse in front of you and imagine what it will be like in June and July 2010. The heritage lampposts will be requisitioned as support beams; the facades of establishments great and good that hem the square in on three sides will be all but hidden by rows of projector panels. The quiet hum of business district traffic will be an unheard buzz under the songs and shouts and tears imploding through it with the force of a million small hurricanes. It will accommodate an impossible number of human beings, certainly more than the cantonments of occupying forces ever dreamt it would, when it served as a drilling square for the Dutch and then the British armies. South Africa will be playing host to the World Cup in those chilly winter months (even the biggest summer tournament on the planet can't escape the vagaries of the hemispheric calendar reversal). What dreams may come, what drama unfold, no one knows, except this: that it will be big and emotional and diverse. Football always is.

And so, you learn, is South Africa. Touch down in Cape Town and you find yourself overwhelmed at every step. If it isn’t the shimmering crescent of Table Bay with its pure shoreline and clear waters, it’s the sight of Table Mountain, that jagged, ancient behemoth of a rock around which this elegant city orients itself. Walk down to the picturesque V&A Waterfront from your elegant hotel – the exquisite Table Bay hotel still has a plaque over its sea-facing entrance that announces reserved right of entry to those inappropriately dressed – and find a crowd of tony malls and cafés perched on the edge of a decidedly commercial waterfront. Music and colour call to you from every corner. And everywhere there are layers of history written into earth and stone. Such beauty is not for the faint of heart. Like Paolo Rossi's hat-trick against Brazil in 1980, you can't quite believe your eyes. Like the art of a classic Number Ten, the more you know about it, the more it awes and moves you.

Cape Town is one of the major venues for the World Cup – the shimmering new Green Park Stadium will be a semi-final venue, second only to Jo'burg, which hosts the final – but edges out other cities in the country with sheer charm. The greenery and Indian-influenced vibrancy of Durban, the pumped-up metropolitan whirl of Jo'burg, the small and quiet stateliness of Port Elizabeth notwithstanding, you inevitably circle back to Cape Town as the epitome of the urban experience in southern Africa, perhaps because South Africa's modern history really did begin here.

The thread of familiarity that runs through most of the world’s colonial cities is evident in the graceful European architecture of the city’s business and political districts. The city centre itself occupies the sliver of reclaimed land between the mountain and Table Bay – the fort, you discover, was built on what was originally the coastline. Cape Town's colonial history began in 1652, as a trading outpost of the Dutch East India Company. With maritime trade came Dutch settlers and Huguenots fleeing persecution in Catholic France, indentured labour from Madagascar and Javanese slaves from the Dutch colonies in Indonesia who originated the Cape Malay and Cape Coloured cultures that grew out of here. Indian slaves and settlers, soon to be part of the mix of peoples who now give the Rainbow Nation its moniker, stirred in their own contributions into the melting pot that Cape Town now represents. It stands, today as always, as South Africa's First City of culture and a sort of hyper-microcosm of the whirlwind of historic and cultural change that have gone into the making of modern South Africa.

It's evident in everything Capetonians do. Walk into any artefact or design store and you will be confronted not just with masks and fake assegai, the usual samples of the 'African souvenir' but with a truly funky DIY aesthetic that celebrates the continent's spirit of innovation. Whether it's working radios made out of wire and Coke cans, or accessories that do something unique with traditional African motifs, originality is everywhere – and it's of the first order of cool. One ubiquitous style motif, you’ll notice, is the face of US President Obama, present in painting, decals, prints and sketches on every design must-have. (“But we want a scarf with Nelson Mandela on it!” we exclaim, shallow as puddles. “Also a bag, a t-shirt and possibly a set of kerchiefs?” We’re told gently that our hero’s face is no longer free to copy, since he is retired, while Obama’s public office makes his image fair game for playful reproduction. We love it.) Step out of any of the exciting stores around Green Market Street into the bylanes of street bazaars where you can haggle for anything from elephant hair bracelets to exquisite malachite jewellery. It applies to food, too. The working-class Cape Malay cooking that was once called 'South Africa's home food,' with its experimental mix of Eastern spices on Western bases, is now haute cuisine the world over, and where better to sample koeksisters (a sort of pastrified gulab jamun) and Cape Malay biriyani than the bright Bo-Kaap district, the traditional heart of Cape Malay culture?

As in India, diversity is as much a political issue as a cultural one. South Africa achieves it in spades, which is one of the reason it delights travellers looking to experience an authentic, living history. From the silent reminders of the empty roads above District Six, to the statue of Cecil Rhodes outside Groote Schuur - Rhodes' grand residence that now serves as a pied-à-terre for South Africa's head of state - it's worthwhile to stop and think about the legacy of pain and resistance – one that came full circle from Gandhi to Mandela in the late twentieth century. Cape Town, always vital to military and mercantile empires, was once the pivot of the world, as important psychologically as it is strategically. While the British and the Boers fought each other all those years ago, their colonisation wreaked havoc on the African nations whose land they came to occupy, and the Castle of Good Hope today flies six flags on its battlements, as a reminder of each of the forces who governed South Africa through its history, including the current flag of the Republic.

It is a flag you will see flying high and proud through the country as the world tunes in this summer (or winter). Its colours are blazoned across the décor of Johannesburg's airport, touched up a couple of years ago in Cup-anticipation. Across the country, you will see it on cars, newspapers, touristy knick-knacks, and jerseys. At its best, sport makes nationalism fun, and South Africans, by and large, make truly excellent sports fans. Their ability to churn out consistently talented and lovable sportspersons (we give you two words: Jonty. Rhodes.) is matched by their endless enthusiasm for games people play. It will be hard not to share it even if you can't typically tell a football from a golf ball. And if you really aren't an enthusiast, coming to South Africa might help you reconsider. The epic sexiness of those baggy green rugby jerseys – we make no mention of the torsos filling them – must be seen to be believed.

The World Cup is a chance for travellers and football fans alike to see South Africa at large, and Cape Town in particular, at its finest. Ever since the world football federation (FIFA) drew the Rainbow Nation’s bid to host the big daddy of all sporting events – sorry, International Olympic Committee, we can but report the truth – the world has been anxious to get a look in at the newest face of a very old country. The roads will be wider, the spirits higher. World Cups always throw up the defining images of their era, and the new decade will truly begin at South Africa’s tournament this winter (or summer). Hearts will stop, tears will fall, and fingers will be crossed as never before. In Cape Town’s main square on those magical evenings, the grander emotions will be on full display against the very grandest of backdrops. Feel it. It will be South Africa at its most infectious.

A few of our favourite Capetonian things

Shine Shine: Tracy Rushmere's airy studio in Bo Kaap houses the products of her hip, contemporary take of African commemorative cloths. Out of her definitive aesthetic come bags, cushion covers, t-shirts and more. If you buy one thing in Cape Town, we suggest it comes from Shine Shine. (
African Image: A collection of authentic African art and artefacts from all over Africa. Find anything from Zulu beadwork, Ashanti cloths and Baule figures, as well as edgy, urban street-craft and postmodern design. (
Monkeybiz: A non-profit that co-ordinates the production of exquisite traditional beadwork from some of South Africa's most underprivileged women, Monkeybiz sells unique, one-off products made of beads: dolls, magnets, animal figurines and more. (
Afro Tea: The Afro brand is almost hypnotically cool, and their antioxidant loose-leaf teas in fabulous blends drive us crazy. If we weren't addicted to their Cape Town blend, we'd still recommend anything by Afro for the amazingly pretty packaging. Afro also do coffee. Puzzlingly, the only Afro Café we can find is in Salzburg, Austria. (
Chocolats Marionnettes: Handmade artisan chocolate in uniquely African flavours. Dark Karoo Mint and Limpopo Lime. Milk Cape Malay Spice. Dark Red Hot Chilli. Pink Peppercorn. White Egoli Flake. Reeling yet? Eat it, believe it. (

pop, six, squish, uhuh.

#19 Imperium, Robert Harris

Nice. An slick, legal-thriller-paced novel about the early career of Cicero, told through the eyes of his secretary, Tiro [whose invention of Latin shorthand not only stands him in good stead historically, but also forms an important plot point]. Republican realpolitik is the true hero of this book. There isn't a page without a a speech, a conspiracy, horse-trading, the threat of a political emergency - totally OhNoTheyDidnt! (Ancient Rome). The pages seethe with the characters and circumstances of those obscure fellows: Julius Caesar, Pompey, Crassus, Cato, Catilina and others. The drippy thing is that Harris does more justice to the sketches of these supporting characters than he does to his top man Cicero. I'm afraid the writing stands at such a distance from insight or speculation about the character of Cicero that at times it seems pointless to read bits of his thrilling speeches in a novel when we could very well have taken a hit off that pipe by -- reading a book of his thrilling speeches. We end up knowing everything about his Wikipedia article and nothing about his LiveJournal, so to speak.

The saving grace is that Wikipedia articles involving Cicero are generally highly entertaining, since the man could talk a bit. Even so, fair warning: even Wikipedia historians will find the infodump in the first 50 pages tiring ["Of the six hundred men who then constituted the senate, only eight could be elected praetor - to preside over the courts - and only two of these could go on to achieve the supreme imperium of the consulship." Groan. Even Ridley Scott didn't do that]. So I don't know how primary text fans [of whom I am not one] will stand it. But let this not deter you -- it is still an engaging read, because it picks up steam quite admirably. Harris is a veritable artist of the gripping political intrigue. I'm thoroughly impressed with his skill at sustaining reader interest in events and outcomes that were spoilered for us two thousand years ago. In spite of its lack of psychological depth the book actually does a fabulous job sustaining an internal rhythm, with excitement building around Cicero's cases, his elections, and the changes in his own political positions. Most writers would despair of bringing it all together to fit so well. A-grade light reading, all in all. I will definitely be reading the recently-released Conspirata if I get a chance and a free day.