Sunday, December 30, 2007

Books 2007

This was written for Mail Today, the India Today group's new New Delhi newspaper. Sadly, an errant sub-editor hacked off the last two paragraphs. Here it is, in full.

To begin with, three memorable books that were published in 2006, but that I read only in 2007. The first, Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, a luminous and moving novel which showed us characters caught in the crossfire of the Biafran conflict without being polemical about it. The second, former New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer’s Overthrow, a non-fiction account of American intervention in overseas regimes in the last century, from Hawaii to Iraq, a timely reminder of how the world’s superpower has meddled, often with calamitous results, in the affairs of those that pursue goals not to its liking. Finally, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road rose above the rest for its spare yet Biblical use of language to convey a bleak, austere vision.

The discovery of the year was, of course, Chilean author Roberto Bolano. Natasha Wimmer’s translation of his polyphonic, audacious The Savage Detectives and Chris Andrews’ rendition of some of his earlier short stories, Last Evenings on Earth, were felicitous. (One awaits his to-be-released masterpiece, 2066, in 2008.)

From the sub-continental diaspora, the voices that stood out were Nalini Jones’ sensitive short story debut, What You Call Winter, Mohsin Hamid’s brave and well-structured The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Boston-based surgeon Atul Gawande’s further musings on his profession, Better.

From India, Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi was readable, magisterial and even-handed, and William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal was a poignant retelling of the days of 1857. One hopes that these are harbingers of more such books on Indian history.

To turn to racier subjects, John Banville writing as Benjamin Black produced a fine thriller in Christine Falls, a novel steeped in the atmosphere of 1950s Dublin and swirling with moral ambiguity. Another thriller that made a political point without sacrificing an iota of entertainment was Robert Harris’ The Ghost, clearly born out of the author’s disagreement with Tony Blair over Britain’s support for the Iraq War.

Considering that so many of us spend so much time at work, it’s a wonder there aren’t more novels about office life. Joshua Ferris’ debut novel, Then We Came To The End, filled the gap admirably. Dealing with the goings-on at a beleaguered Chicago-based advertising agency, it was witty and incisive. Ferris makes pitch-perfect use of the first-person plural throughout – the last time I came across this technique was in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides.

And in the last month of the year, I spent much time poring over a work devoted to the avant garde movement in the arts, Peter Gay’s Modernism: The Lure of Heresy. Though not distinguished by bold new pronouncements or radical reassessments, it’s an engaging, broad overview of the artists and works that defined the period, from Baudelaire to Warhol. Very stimulating: a reminder that though we may find many good works of art nowadays, we don’t come across any great ones.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Ford Fiesta

This appeared in the lastest issue of TimeOut Mumbai.


Funny things, anthologies. Their titles tend towards the definitive: The Oxford Book of This, The Penguin Book of That, The Vintage Book of Whatever. Yet, inevitably, every anthology exhibits individual tastes; it’s the nature of the beast. So it is with The New Granta Book of the American Short Story edited by Richard Ford, a follow-up to his 1992 The Granta Book of the American Short Story. This volume contains new tales by 14 authors from the former book, as well as those by a later generation. Evidently, then, it isn’t intended to replace, but be a foil for, the earlier compilation.

Some of Ford’s choices are clearly unusual. John Cheever’s ‘Reunion’ and Raymond Carver’s ‘Errand’ – fine-tuned narratives though they may be -- are hardly representative of those authors’ works. The so-called experimental writing of the Seventies is represented by just one story, Donald Barthelme’s ‘Me and Miss Mandible’, with Robert Coover getting the axe. And while it’s gratifying to see Richard Yates included once more, it’s disheartening to note that Bernard Malamud isn’t.

For the rest, Ford’s selection is generous, not favouring modes or movements. There are the formal verities of Eudora Welty; the colloquial corrosiveness of Grace Paley; the loopy poignancy of George Saunders; and the gritty revelations of Z.Z. Packer, among more than 40 others. Interestingly, many of the authors featured here have only one collection of short stories published so far – including Jhumpa Lahiri, Nell Freudenberger, Nathan Englander and Adam Haslett.

Ford’s introduction, which is nothing less than a full-blown exaltation of the short story writer’s art – mentioning Chekhov as a prime exemplar, naturellement -- states that one of the fundamental traits of the short story is that of audacity, a bold exercise of the writer’s authority. Well, the narratives in this hefty volume certainly live up to that description. Modesty be damned: the anthologist should have included one of his own stories as well.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Zuckerman Unmanned

Looks like my New Year's resolution has to be to post more regularly. Meanwhile, here's a review that appeared in the December 29th issue of Tehelka.

EXIT GHOST Philip Roth

One of the pleasures of reading Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost is that of elegiac resonance. Roth has stated that this is to be the last book featuring Nathan Zuckerman, his alter ego – or “alter brain”, as he once put it – and from its pages arises the whiff of Zuckerman’s past exploits, as well as reverberations of the author’s other work.

Ever since – and perhaps because of -- the conservative Jewish community’s outrage at his short story ‘Defender of the Faith’, which continued with Goodbye Columbus and erupted with Portnoy’s Complaint, one of Roth’s concerns has been to explore the connections between a writer’s work and his life in unshackled prose, leaving behind the Jamesian methods of Letting Go or When She Was Good. And one of the best illustrations of this teasing interplay between fiction and reality is in the character of Nathan Zuckerman.

Though Zuckerman first featured in the early sections of My Life as a Man in 1974, he only appeared as a full-blown character with 1979’s The Ghost Writer. Here, as an apprentice novelist, he sets off to meet his idol, the reclusive E.I. Lonoff (thought to be inspired by Bernard Malamud). In Lonoff’s house, Zuckerman loses himself in fantasies of marrying Amy Bellette, another guest, believing her to be Anne Frank, who has escaped the Nazis to live incognito in the United States. On such audacious conceits has Roth built his career.

Over the years, Zuckerman appeared in seven other novels, sometimes as a protagonist (Zuckerman Unbound, The Counterlife) and sometimes as a receptacle of the tales of others (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist). We last encountered him in 2000’s The Human Stain, when he had become a Lonoff-like recluse himself, an author in his 60s living in New England and recovering from prostate cancer.

In Exit Ghost the 71-year-old Zuckerman leaves his retreat in the Berkshires and travels to New York after 11 years for the treatment of incontinence brought about by prostate surgery. From the beginning, he makes his disruption with the modern world clear: “I don’t go to dinner parties, I don’t go to movies, I don’t watch television, I don’t own a cell phone or a VCR or a DVD player or a computer. I continue to live in the Age of the Typewriter and have no idea what the World Wide Web is”.

In New York, Roth’s Rip Van Winkle encounters a ghost from his past, none other than Amy Bellette, now 75 and recovering from a brain tumor (an echo of The Anatomy Lesson, in which Zuckerman’s mother suffers from a similar ailment). After spotting a classified advertisement issued by a couple on the Upper West Side wanting to exchange residences for a year, he decides to take up their offer: they are Jamie Logan and Billy Davidoff, fledgling writers themselves, who want to leave the city in the aftermath of 9/11. He’s also plagued by freelance journalist Richard Kliman, writing a biography of E.I. Lonoff after supposedly unearthing a dark secret from his past.

In one final attempt to grasp life’s possibilities, Zuckerman finds himself hopelessly drawn to the 30-year-old Jamie; wanting to re-establish contact with Amy; and needing to put a stop to Richard’s investigations. This bleakly comic and painfully tragic tale of Zuckerman unmanned is leavened by extracts from his writing, comprising flirtatious conversations with Jamie. Unfortunately, this merely resembles a watered-down version of Roth’s earlier Deception.

The theme of mortality and waning powers is strong here, as in the spare Everyman; in addition, there are observations on the work of Eliot, Conrad and Hemingway, among others, buttressing the ideas Roth raises about the truth of art versus the intrusiveness of life.

Understandably, Roth’s sentences have lost some of that trademark Celine-like edge, and some sections of the novel are digressive – such as Billy’s account of Jamie’s upbringing or the details of George Plimpton’s career and funeral. But though Exit Ghost doesn’t quite compare with the earlier Zuckerman novels, there’s still enough vigour in this swan song to render it compelling.

Good night, Nathan. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Chain Letter Wickedness

This appeared in the latest issue of TimeOut Mumbai.

RING Koji Suzuki

Most stories of the supernatural are, in essence, simple morality tales: grievous wrong has been committed and, over time, people pay the price for this until restitution of some sort has been made. Koji Suzuki’s Ring is no exception. It was first published in Japan in 1991, translated into English more than a decade later and now re-issued because of the success of the Japanese and Hollywood films that it inspired.

For those who haven’t seen the celluloid versions, Ring deals with the travails of Asakawa, a journalist with Tokyo’s Daily News, who starts to probe the mysterious deaths of four teenagers at the same time on the same day. His investigations lead him to a resort cabin where he watches a video cassette of impressionistic scenes which ends with the dire pronouncement: “Those who view these images are fated to die at this exact moment one week from now”. Asakawa’s rising panic now competes with the need to solve the conundrum. In this, he’s joined by his cynical, amoral friend Ryuji, who may just have a skeleton or two in his own cupboard.

The writing is cool and fast-paced – though sometimes clunky and with a few annoying Americanisms thrown in – thus acting as a fitting foil to the occasional gruesomeness of the subject matter. The series of revelations that lead to the denouement reveal a plot of fiendish ingenuity, involving the basic premise of a chain letter taken to a wicked extreme. In case that wasn’t enough, paranormal phenomena, rapes and a mutating virus play leading roles, too, making it all a tad more portentous than necessary.

As for whether it all ends in tears or smiles, this reviewer is, alas, in no position to offer enlightenment. You see, the book ends with the terse announcement that the saga continues in Suzuki’s next book, Spiral. Which, no doubt, leads on to the last in the trilogy, Loop. They ought to have printed some sort of warning on the cover itself.

A Spirited Thriller

THE GHOST Robert Harris

Alternative history scenarios have been at the heart of many of Robert Harris’ intelligent thrillers, from Fatherland to Enigma. Taking a break from his proposed trilogy of books on ancient Rome – of which I thoroughly enjoyed Imperium – he now delivers The Ghost, a book clearly inspired by the author’s falling out with Tony Blair over Britain’s support for the Iraq war.

This isn’t a conventional ghost story, as the title may lead you to believe: it concerns itself with the predicament of an unnamed ghostwriter called upon to collaborate on the memoirs of Adam Lang, former British Prime Minister. The earlier ghostwriter, the former Press Secretary, was found drowned in mysterious circumstances. The writer travels from London to Martha’s Vineyard to meet the former PM and some other members of his entourage, including his wife and personal assistant.

As it happens, Lang is accused of aiding and abetting the capture and torture of suspected terrorists in Pakistan, an imbroglio that the narrator gets sucked into; further, in attempting to unearth ghosts from Lang’s past, he stumbles upon puzzling inconsistencies that may just be the clichéd tip of a political iceberg.

The voice is just right: acerbic and world-weary, but not above being shaken by the occasional revelation. Though the first part of the book is clearly more robust, it’s well-paced, with deft twists and foreshadowing, including a sting in the tail that one really ought to have seen coming, but didn’t. Ah, there’s nothing like a good thriller.

Worth your while? Yes: make sure you don’t have to awaken early, for it may well keep you up till the wee hours.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007


Am away for two weeks, with only intermittent e-mail access. Sadly -- and unusually -- I won't be able to carry too many books with me, but reviews will resume in the last week of November -- including Ann Patchett's Run, Nathan Englander's The Ministry of Special Cases, Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine and Robert Harris' The Ghost.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Love And Longing In Mumbai


Another one of those debut collections of sensitively-written short stories by a half-Indian-half-American writer. So far, so ho-hum. But what makes Nalini Jones’ book unusual is her material: not the psyche of confused second-generation immigrants, but the human condition of the Catholic community in a suburb of Mumbai (called Santa Clara in the book, but obviously Bandra). It’s a subject rich with possibilities, and Jones does it full justice in these intertwined tales.

Subject apart, what’s also noteworthy is the author’s prose: in sentences that are affecting, patterned and skilled, she adroitly intermingles past and present as well as shuffles points of view. In many cases, the facts on which the story’s impact rests are embedded in matter-of-fact statements, but resonate throughout.

In these quiet, restrained tales of vulnerability and adaptation, housewives travel on secret assignments to find information on children to adopt; a young girl comes of age; a middle-aged bachelor ruminates on roads not taken; a mother obsesses over her son’s progress in a seminary; a professor handling changes in the world around him glimpses his deceased father on a bicycle. Many of the stories talk of migrants returning home, and of the impact this has on them and the ones they have left behind. And every now and again we glimpse old villas and habitations being torn down by avaricious builders to make way for high-rises, an abiding metaphor.

Worth your while? Definitely. This is an impressive achievement.

My Name Is Red, Blue, Green And White

You'll find this in the latest issue of TimeOut Mumbai.


It was Salman Rushdie who pointed out that the Bosphorus, which Orhan Pamuk’s writing room overlooks, can be said to both separate and unite Europe and Asia. It is on this fault line that Pamuk’s work is born, something made abundantly clear by Other Colours, a collection of “ideas, images and fragments of life”.

This, however, is not a cohesive rainbow but a Pollock-like splatter. There’s been an attempt to shape it into an autobiographical sequence by the author, with selections from short essays, newspaper columns, speeches and interviews over the years -- one of the first pieces, for example, is on his father’s death, and the last one is of his relationship with his father and his writing.

Unfortunately, the first section is the least impressive, drawn primarily from short sketches originally written for Okuz, a Turkish magazine. Here, there are ephemeral meditations on spring afternoons, on giving up smoking, on wristwatches, on staring outside one’s window at seagulls and wholly unselfconscious accounts of his time with Ruya, his daughter. These, however, are leavened by evocative observations on the city of his birth: its earthquakes, fires and ruins, barbershops, street food and ferries on the Bosphorus – some of which now read like trial runs for his later book on Istanbul.

The more notable pieces in the next segment deal with the pleasures of immersing oneself in books. In reviews and literary analyses, Pamuk speaks of an affinity towards Dostoevsky for “his familiarity with European thought and his anger against it, his equal and opposite desires to belong to Europe and to shun it”. In another essay, speaking of Mario Vargas Llosa, Pamuk comments on his “lively innocence”; it is a trait that the latter, too, can be described as possessing.

In later sections, Pamuk displays his constant fascination with “otherness” in the context of European identity. In the allegorical essay ‘No Entry’, a sign on a door leads to a meditation on xenophobia, and elsewhere, he states: “For people like me, who live uncertainly on the edge of Europe with only our books to keep us company, Europe has figured always as a dream, a vision of what is to come; an apparition at times desired and at times feared; a goal to achieve or a danger”. (Interestingly, he asserts in a later essay that an understanding of the “other”, the “stranger” and “the enemy” is a central concern of the art of the novel.

His take on a post-9/11 world is nuanced: rather than the tenets of Islam or financial deprivation, what makes people of developing countries sympathise with terrorists is the “crushing humiliation” they have felt for years. In another well-measured piece written just before Pamuk went on trial for the crime of “denigrating Turkishness”, he points to this as the prime cause.

The section on the writing of his books is rich fodder for Pamuk enthusiasts, comprising reassessments, selections from interviews as well as, memorably, an essay on the trips he took to the city of Kars to get the background of Snow just right. However, the new short story included here, ‘To Look Out The Window’, reads suspiciously like straightforward autobiographical material, dealing as it does with errant fathers, fractious older brothers, and memories of Istanbul in the Fifties.

The crown jewel of this collection, though, is Pamuk’s Nobel lecture, ‘My Father’s Suitcase’, which in many ways sums up recurrent themes: his turning from art to literature, his love of Istanbul, the hours he spends writing, the competing lures of East and West and his warm though troubled relationship with his father. It’s a speech that is both moving and revealing, with a tone of unforced -- and because of that, appealing – sentimentality.

Throughout, Pamuk makes clear his undiluted love for reading and writing, his fascination for painting the world with words: “For thirty years, I’ve spent an average of ten hours a day alone in a room, sitting at my desk”. Which brings to mind Kafka’s aphorism: “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked…” By remaining at his table, Pamuk has become the foremost among those who unmask today’s world.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Life Stories

A lightly edited version of a review that appeared in today's Hindustan Times.


One of the characters in this collection of stories asserts that art comes from life stories: “That’s what art is, he said, the story of life in all its particularity”. This, it seems clear, was the aesthetic credo of Chilean novelist and poet Roberto Bolano, the most ebullient among the so-called post-boom crop of Latin American writers. His polyphonic novels – such as The Savage Detectives or 2066 -- feature peripatetic protagonists encountering a dizzying variety of characters, mainly failed litterateurs in exile filling their melancholy lives with literary debate, philosophical speculation and unhappy relationships.

Last Evenings on Earth comprises stories drawn from two of his earlier books and now felicitously translated by Chris Andrews. Many of the tales here turn on the ambiguous relationship between a younger and an older writer. In ‘Sensini’, a 60-year-old Argentine novelist in exile in Mexico corresponds with a 28-year-old fledgling author, offering sly tips on how to enter and win provincial literary competitions. In ‘Enrique Martin’, the narrator, named Arturo Belano (a stand-in for Bolano, as in his novels) tries to make sense of the eccentric behaviour of a senior magazine editor and science fiction fan. And in ‘A Literary Adventure’ and its later echo, ‘Days of 1978’, younger narrators both simply named “B” share uneasy love-hate relationships over the years with more experienced and successful writers. Such Oedipal fancies are carried to their extreme in ‘Dance Card’, the most playfully inventive story here, in which Bolano presents 69 reasons for poets to dance with Pablo Neruda – or not.

Other tales simply capture the messy ups and downs of life. In ‘Anne Moore’s Life’, set in the United States and Mexico, a young American woman goes through a string of failed relationships across cities over the years. The narrative contains a multitude of detail and incident – but is consciously without an overt defining moment to give it shape.

Some of the tales radiate eccentricity, with the best example being the one that gives the collection its name. It deals with a vacation that the narrator takes with his father to Acapulco, a trip that slowly takes on the quality of a dream that turns threatening without ever clearly spelling out the reason why.

No, these aren't your garden-variety, conventionally-fashioned short stories that sit primly in the corner hoping to attract attention; these, instead, are sprawling, rambunctious narratives spilling over with the raw material of life and demanding, in all their organic and apparent artlessness, to be paid attention to.

Worth your while? Yes: this volume is the perfect introduction to Bolano's art.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Song Sung Blue

This appeared in the September-October issue of Biblio.


In his much-debated 1961 essay 'Writing American Fiction', Philip Roth argued that “the American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe and then make credible much of American reality…The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist”.

Consider now the spate of so-called 9/11 novels, from Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to DeLillo’s Falling Man. None of these can be said to particularly successful as novels: it’s as if the effort to be topical has enervated the imagination.

When it comes to writing from the subcontinent, the dark cloud of communal violence is fast becoming our version of 9/11. In recent times, there was Raj Kamal Jha’s Fireproof, David Davidar’s The Solitude of Emperors and now, M.G. Vassanji’s The Assassin's Song. Though Vassanji was born in Kenya, grew up in Tanzania and has been a resident of Canada since 1978, this, his sixth novel, is set primarily set in India. How successful is he in delineating the impact of communal tensions on everyday life?

The Assassin’s Song features another one of those introverted, out-of-place narrators whose alienation from his surroundings spurs on the narrative. It is the story of Karsan, first son of the guardian of Pirbaag in Gujarat, the interdenominational shrine of Sufi Nur Fazal, known as the Wanderer. Now ensconced in a room at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Shimla, Karsan narrates the tale of how his life has come full circle. He recalls his childhood days, his early friends and relationship with his brother and parents; having to bear the load of knowing that he is to be the next keeper of the shrine; and his escape to Harvard and attempt to establish a family life overseas, away from the weight of history.

Though all else falls away, the sufi’s songs stay with him. What also remains is the question he is compelled to ask himself: “Do we always end up where we really belong?”

Interwoven into this narrative is the tale of Nur Fazl himself, of how he came to Gujarat from Central Asia in medieval times, his reception in the royal court, his wanderings and dalliances, leading to the establishment of his shrine. The contrast between the Sufi’s all-inclusive message and contemporary, polarized times is clear.

Vassanji’s is a quiet, unshowy voice with the ability to rise, on occasion, to a muted lyricism: “The past was told to me always accompanied by song; and now, when memory falters and the pictures in the mind fade and tear and all seems lost, it is the song that prevails”. This is embellished by the infrequent, judicious use of metaphor: the sufi’s songs are “as precious as pearls”; Karsan stands “silent as a shadow”; and a library’s oversized volumes lie flat on their sides “like basking reptiles”. Moreover, the sections that deal with the sufi’s ascendance are texturally dissimilar to those that involve Karsan’s experiences. Which is apt, as the former partakes of myth and legend, while the latter is essentially a personal exploration.

Of course, in the background to all of this, like a refrain waiting to announce itself, is the spectre of communal violence, something that’s touched upon in the Sufi’s interactions with the Indian people, in the character of Pradhan Shastri, in historical conflicts with Pakistan and in the other religious shrines that Karsan and his family visit in his boyhood. All of this comes to a head with the 2002 riots in Gujarat, which will have a pulverizing effect on Karsan’s ancestral home, causing him to reflect even more cogently on his inheritance of loss.

The futility of such hatred apart, another theme in The Assassin’s Song is that of the burden of being the first-born and the weight of expectations this throws up. This is seen in Karsan’s relationship with his intransigent father, as well as in his dealings with his brother, who adopts the name Mansoor and is suspected of dallying with militants from across the border. A passage late in the book perhaps could be said to sum up its aim: “…I have resolved to remember, construct a shrine of my own…a bookish shrine of songs and stories. This is my prayer, if you will, this is my fist in the air, my anger so unlike [my brother’s]; it is my responsibility, my duty to my father and all the people who relied on us as the sufi’s representatives and whose stories are intertwined with ours”.

It must be said, however, that the quality of writing grows noticeably flabby as the book progresses. It is as though the author is using up his richest material to begin with, and then improvising as he realizes that he’s running out of steam. Thus, for example, when it comes to Karsan’s boyhood, there are etched portraits of his schooldays and interactions with his associates: the truckdriver Raja Singh, the schoolteacher Mr David, Pradhan Shastri, head of the local mock-RSS league, Shilpa, a shrine volunteer and Karsan’s “voluptuous torment”. These evocations fade away once Karsan reaches America: in contrast, we find here fewer scenes and more summaries, fewer portraits and more over-simplified character sketches.

In particular, a short essay on communal violence late in the book comes across as all too polemical: “That the most ghastly violence imaginable, perpetrated on women and children, could occur in the state of Gandhi makes one wonder too how aberrant was the Mahatma; was he real after all?” Here, and elsewhere in the book, the humanism is conventional, a form of sentimental realism.

In fact, the contrast between this and the sections dealing Karsan’s boyhood and relationship with his father lead one to wonder if the novel would have been more successful had Vassanji steered clear of the topic of contemporary communal violence. As Roth would have said, the extravagance – and horror -- of reality still trumps novelistic invention.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Long Division

This appeared in the latest issue of TimeOut Mumbai.

DIVISADERO Michael Ondaatje

At one point in Michael Ondaatje’s lyrical but frustrating new novel, a character visits a nightclub called “the Stendhal”. This is described as “a small city of moods”, comprising various rooms, each of which is devoted to a different activity. Which isn’t a bad way of looking at Dividasero as a whole: in one room is potted biography, in another, incidents of love and violence; in yet another, there is tenderness and isolation. The question is, does all this come together to make a cohesive whole?

The novel tells of the fates of Claire and Anna, brought up in a settlement near Sacramento, and of their hired hand, Cooper. Following an illicit love affair that ends in an act of brutal violence, the three go their separate ways. Claire winds up working for a law firm in San Francisco, Cooper becomes a cardsharp who flirts with dangerous company and Anna obsessively researches the life of the French writer Lucien Segura. Years later, Claire and Cooper cross each other’s paths again, while Anna, in France, drifts into a relationship with the guitar-playing Rafael, who knew Segura when he was a boy. At this point – about two-thirds of the way through the book – Ondaatje segues into an account of Segura’s own life, patched together by Anna: his boyhood, family relationships, writing career and experiences in the Great War.

Readers of Ondaatje’s previous novels have come to expect temporal, spatial and points of view shifts, and so it is here as well. His prose, as ever, is atmospheric and poetic, even though the aphorisms don’t always work. Take this one: “The past is always carried into the present by small things. So a lily is bent by the weight of permanence.” Sounds impressive, but what on earth does it mean?

The novel takes its title from a San Francisco street that, as Ondaatje points out, could either come from the Spanish word for ‘division’ or ‘to gaze at something from a distance’. It’s ironic, then -- however carefully crafted, with its villanelle-like repetition and circling – that Dividasero is too divided and inconclusive to be called successful

Monday, October 15, 2007

No So Fine A Specimen

Apologies for the absence. Work apart, have been busy completing reviews of Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero, Orhan Pamuk's Other Colours and M.G. Vassanji's The Assassin's Song; and at present working on Philip Roth's Exit Ghost, Roberto Bolano's Last Evenings on Earth and Ronnie Govender's Black Chin, White Chin. Will post them as and when the publications carry the reviews. Meanwhile, here's an edited version of an earlier review, one that appeared in The Times of India at a time when they actually had a books page.

SPECIMEN DAYS Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days is in much the same structural vein as The Hours -- only this time, the presiding deity is Walt Whitman. (The title, in fact, is taken from Whitman’s own collection of writings on the American Civil War.) However, while The Hours was evocative and unified, Specimen Days comes across as decidedly more tentative.

Each of the novel’s sections deals with the interaction between a young boy, a man and a woman. The first describes the travails of an Irish-American youth in a sinister, industrialising Manhattan of the last century; the second mimics a noir thriller, delineating a black woman detective’s attempt to curb a posse of suicide bombers in the near future; and the third is sci-fi schmaltz, dealing with the efforts of a semi-human personality to rise above his programming.

In each section, one of the characters is compelled by the urge to quote Whitmanesque stanzas, while the poet himself makes an appearance in the first part: “Here was his grey-white cascade of beard, here his broad-brimmed hat and the kerchief knotted at his neck”.

Though Cunningham’s prose is lustrous and lyrical, his attempts to bend alien genres to his needs in the last two sections don’t quite come off. That his characters are so divergent in attitude and circumstance is another reason that the novel doesn’t cohere. Cunningham’s theme -- the need for spontaneous human connection unaffected by outward circumstance -- thus isn’t established in a unified manner.

Worth your while? Though not as fine a specimen as one would have liked, it is, nevertheless, an attempt to seek an experimental manner of singing the body electric. In this age of creative conformity, that itself is no mean feat.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Short Cuts

From the non-fiction shelf...


Words used to describe Naipaul's work in the jacket copy of this book: "Astonishing", "rich", "extraordinary", "compassionate", "rich", elegant", "gentleness", "humour".

Words Naipaul uses to describe the work of other writers in this book: "Unwieldy", "ponderous", "overstated", "over-written", "shallow", "minor", "vain and mad".

'Nuff said.

HEAT Bill Buford

With some books, you know you’re in good hands from the beginning, and so it is here with ex-Granta editor and current New Yorker staffer Bill Buford’s account of his two-year immersion in the kitchens of the chefs he admires – primarily Mario Batali, “the most recognized chef in the city with more chefs than any other city in the world”. We’re witness to Buford’s education and humiliation in the kitchen as he learns of the intricacies of pasta; and his later stints in Italy, dealing with the dissection of pigs and cows. Memorable episodes involve his discovery of short ribs, his time at the grill station and the pitfalls of making pizza. At times, though, the sheer weight of detail becomes exhausting, as well as the mini-biographies of almost everyone Buford encounters. Yet, it’s great fun and you don’t have to be a gourmet – or a gourmand – to savour this account of the masochists, screamers and dysfunctional geniuses of food preparation.


Towards the end of the 1991 Gulf War, Jason Burke and a friend arrived in Iraq to fight for the Kurds. They were all of 21 – ah, the headiness of youth. Surviving skirmishes and a kidnap attempt, Burke went on to become a respected foreign correspondent and in this book, he tells tales of his experiences and encounters in the Islamic world, from Kabul to Islamabad to Baghdad to Basra and more. This is leavened by Burke’s attempts to show that Islamic fundamentalism has complex causes and comes in more guises than can be explained by a simple demonizing of al-Qaeda’s leadership. His keen reportorial sensibility is mediated by analytic ability, such as when he scrutinises the many public images of Saddam Hussain and points out what they mean. Well-written, engaging and more than occasionally enlightening, though clearly falling between the two stools of memoir and polemic.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Discreet Charm Of The White Goatee

Again, nothing to do with books; perhaps just the result of indigestion. This appeared in today's Hindustan Times.

Opinion is divided when it comes to facial hair, with one side belonging to the Remove-The-Fungus camp and the other swearing allegiance to the Too-Cool-To-Shave faction.

In recent times, however, a new breed has emerged: that of Men in White Goatees. Amitabh Bachchan is, of course, the most famous exponent of such a goatee, but its advocates include people such as Subhash Chandra, V.S. Naipaul and, till recently, His Maharashtraness, Bal Thackeray.

A diverse lot, but speculatively speaking, the one thing they all desire is to project youthfulness and experience at the same time. A quality that, no doubt, assists the public image of a veteran actor, a Nobel Prize-winning author, a politician and a businessman seeking to queer the BCCI’s pitch.

The hirsute mode of expression they’ve chosen is well suited to promote this image. The goatee itself, whether straggly or barbered, stands for a certain Jack Sparrow rakishness and what in the Sixties would have been called hipster cool. Its colour, white, signifies experience and – in the refusal to use hair dye – an acknowledgement of age. A simple white moustache would be too louche, too old-fashioned; a full white beard, too spiritual and Tolstoyan (perhaps that’s why Mr Thackeray has one today). But the discreet charm of ther white goatee? Perfect.

Tufts of facial hair themselves come in various styles – from the soul patch to the chin beard – but the classical Van Dyck version with its attendant variations, is the one that’s been the most popular over the years. And not just in jet black, but salt-and-pepper and white as well. Interestingly enough, examples of the latter variety can be prominently found among those representing the spirit of those erstwhile Cold War foes, the USSR and the US.

No aged, self-respecting Wild West backwoodsman was spotted without his straggling, pasty goatee and the illustrated version of the soul of America, Uncle Sam, would be unrecognizable without one. Photographs of Vladimir Lenin always show him with a goatee, whether a youthful black or a later grey (which could well have been a response to baldness, a stratagem in use till today), and Nikolai Bulganin was almost as well-known for the natty strip of grizzled hair adorning his chin as for his premiership.

While the American and Russian pioneers may have had their own sartorial imperatives, the fabled Indian respect for age combined with an younger target audience make the white goatee a faultless symbol to convey youthful flair and hard-won experience at one and the same time. Look at me, it says proudly, I’m distinguished and mature and hey, I’m one of you guys, too. Perhaps Salman Khan will grow one now.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Son Of The Father Of History

This appeared in today's Hindustan Times.


It was during an interview with Bill Buford in 1987 that Ryszard Kapuściński defined his style of writing: “I feel sometimes that I am working in a completely new field of literature, in an area that is both unoccupied and unexplored….I sometimes call it literature by foot.”

This urge to create his own brand of literature took Kapuściński to Russia, Africa, Latin America and South Africa, among other places, resulting in not just reports for the Polish Press Agency – for whom he once was the only foreign correspondent – but books that enlighten with felicity. The most well-known, of course, being The Emperor, on the decline of Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie and Shah of Shahs, on the fall of Iran’s Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Now, in his last book, the posthumous Travels with Herodotus, Kapuściński takes us back to his first fumbling forays from his native Poland to India, China and Africa in the 1950s. Unlike the debonair overseas reporter of Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, Kapuściński had to contend with unfamiliar languages, scarce resources and the need to be sure he had a way to dispatch his reports.

Throughout most of his travels, Kapuściński tells us, he had a faithful companion: a copy of Herodotus’ The Histories, the reading of which became an obsession, a distraction and a consolation. Travels with Herodotus, then, isn’t merely a nostalgic excursion: it also acknowledges the influence of and pays homage to the 5th century Greek historian known as “the father of history”.

Herodotus’ The Histories was a key text in furthering knowledge of the ancient Persians and Greeks and the conflicts between them. Kapuściński writes that one of Herodotus’ motivations in travelling and writing was that he was distrustful of memory, wanting to place on record the exploits of kings and countries before they were forgotten. (Which brings to mind Milan Kundera’s famous comment: “The struggle of man against tyranny is the struggle of memory against forgetting”.)

However detailed his imaginative recreation of Herodotus’ scenes – and it must be said that some of the exegeses do come across as overdone -- what remains in mind are the vignettes from Kapuściński’s early career: his untutored impressions of Delhi and Benaras, his attempts to pierce the inscrutability of his Chinese hosts and, notably, his account of watching Louis Armstrong in concert in Khartoum in 1960. Other such episodes include his trip to the ruined yet majestic city of Persepolis and smoking hashish on an escarpment overlooking the Nile.

Herotodus has, for years now, been accused of exaggeration and rumour. His fan, in this book, doesn’t directly address or rebut these charges, but does take pains to point out that, given the age in which he wrote The Histories, there was absolute reliance on the spoken word, its interpretation and on people’s memories.

Kapuściński’s efforts to create connections between his times and those of his mentor are sometimes laboured, but his enthusiasm for Herotodus is infectious, matched only by his hunger to explore and explain. It is this spirit that pervades this public chronicle of a private passion.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Passages To India

This appeared in the September 21 issue of TimeOut Mumbai.


In The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux remarked that though he went in search of trains, he found passengers. In his latest, The Elephanta Suite – three interlinked novellas based in India – we find passengers dealing with the consequences of arriving in a country quite unlike the one they have left behind.

These are Americans who have come to India for various reasons. In ‘Monkey Hill’, Audie and Beth try to find serenity in a spa near Rishikesh but are drawn into illicit liaisons; in ‘The Gateway of India’, Dwight, a corporate lawyer tying up outsourcing contracts in Mumbai, finds himself paying for lascivious relationships with salon workers; and in ‘The Elephant God’, Alice, a backpacker, seeks solace at the Sai Baba ashram near Bangalore, only to become the target of undesirable attention from an employee at a BPO centre where she teaches American diction.

Sex, spirituality and unexpected events, then, are the common threads here – E.M. Forster alert! -- with more than an undercurrent of seediness. Throughout, there is a sense of menace, of things falling apart, as the unwary visitors find that they have created circumstances that will lead to unsavoury results.

Theroux is very good at foreshadowing events, in creating atmosphere and in intimating hints of foreboding. The simians in ‘Monkey Hill’ are a palpable menace, as is the town’s restlessness after a mosque’s destruction. Rats scurry in the by-lanes behind the Taj hotel in ‘The Gateway of India’ and a musth-stricken pachyderm has to be tethered in ‘The Elephant God’. The contrast between cloistered, peaceful spaces and the unsavoury multitudes outside is repeatedly drawn.

In addition, there is a density of detail, be it when it comes to crowded streets, train and bus journeys, life in an ashram or living in a Mumbai hotel. Trains, suites, spas, ashrams: clearly, Theroux’s experience of India seems to be that of a short sojourner and as such, the things that bedevil his characters are the things that travellers initially recoil from: the inquisitive, teeming masses, the squalor of the surroundings and the neediness of the general public. This, as the author warns, is “India with the gilt scraped off, hungry India, the India of struggle, India at odds with itself”.

It’s quite gratuitous, then, for him to take swipes at Indians writing in English: “Where were the big fruitful families from these novels, where were the jokes, the love affairs, the lavish marriage ceremonies, the solemn pieties, the virtuous peasants, the environmentalists, the musicians, the magic, the plausible young men? They all seemed concocted to her now…” And again: “The novels described a tidier India, full of ambitions, not the India of pleading beggars or weirdly comic salesmen, or people so pompous they were like parodies.” At such times, one can sense Theroux’s own thoughts overriding the consciousness of his characters.

The characters themselves are well-fleshed out if a bit too self-aware but, however compelling their predicaments, one can’t escape the feeling that they’re too firmly caught in the vice-like grip of plot. The ending, for instance, of the first novella comes across as forced and that of the third, too neat.

Most of the Indians who feature aren’t very likeable. They have hidden agendas (such as Mr Shah, Dwight’s Indian counterpart), are avaricious (such as the snobbish socialite whom Dwight encounters), are hypocritical (such as Prithi and Priyanka, Alice’s ashram colleagues) or are openly lecherous (such as Amitabh, Alice’s pursuer). Along the way, Theroux also pokes fun at so-called Indian ways of speech: “deek” for “teak” and “eshrine” for “shrine”, for example, and, of course, “What is your good name?”

Though Theroux warns against making generalisations about the country, he can’t resist slipping in a few pronouncements himself. “India was the proof that you could not do anything here that hadn’t been done before,” goes one, and later: “From a distance, India was splendour; up close, misery”. This is his India: it’s not everyone’s. In Cambridge economist Joan Robinson’s words, “Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true”.

Don’t expect the refined interactions of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Merchant-Ivory scripts or the genteel nuances of her own novels and short stories in these passages to India. Theroux’s India is bestial and hostile, and as such, The Elephanta Suite, despite its craft, is too jaundiced and circumscribed to be palatable.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Animal Planet


Put A Clockwork Orange’s Alex, Midnight’s Children’s Saleem and The True History of the Kelly Gang’s Ned into a blender, toss in plenty of obscenities and add some small-town Indian flavour along with fragments of French. That’s what Animal, the narrator of Indra Sinha’s new novel, sounds like, and it is a voice that is distinctive and gripping.

Animal lives in Khaufpur, a fictionalised Bhopal, and has to walk on all fours as his spine has been malformed because of the leaking gas of the “Kampani”. Among his friends are Pandit Somraj, sometime classical singer with now-ruined lungs, his daughter Nisha, whom Animal covets, Ma Franci, the half-crazed French nun, and Zafar, devout activist. The voyeuristic, scabrous Animal, beset by libidinous impulses, tells of the blighted lives of Khaufpur, of the “people of the Apokalis”, in particular of what happens when the American Dr Elli Barber arrives to set up a free clinic. Is she to be trusted, and will Zafar’s dreams of securing justice for the afflicted come true?

It is entirely to Sinha’s credit that no part of this novel sounds polemical, despite the subject matter: there’s a strong narrative drive unhindered by proselytising from beginning to end. In addition, the city of Khaufpur is also brought compellingly to life. Yes, the prose tends to become overheated on more than one occasion; yes, some of the characterisation is skimpy; and yes, the ending is a bit of a cop-out, but it’s the voice, with its antics, revelations and acrobatics, that sustains the novel and stays with you after it’s done.

Worth your while? Certainly, but be warned that this is no teddy bear’s picnic you’re going to read about.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Boredom Of Readers


This is a liberal polemic emphasising the need for watchfulness at a time when communal forces are seeking to tear the country apart, either for personal gain or due to a misguided sense of patriotism.

It’s interspersed with pithy essays that dwell on the achievements of three Indian ‘emperors’, people who devoted most of their lives to encouraging values not antithetical to the idea of India: Ashoka, Akbar and Gandhi.

For those who thought this was a novel, there are also some characters and a plot of sorts.

Which means that David Davidar’s second novel suffers from the same faults as his first: a need to preach, reams of background material and consequently, a weak-kneed narrative.

Vijay, the main character, arrives in Mumbai from a small town to take up a job in a liberal publication. He’s caught up in the horrific riots of 1992-3 and, to recover, goes to Meham, a town near the Nilgiris. Here, he stumbles across a plot to take over a local shrine known as the Tower of God.

Davidar presents two characters representing opposing forces; Noah, the town’s intelligent, irreverent ne’er-do-well, and Rajan, a communal Mumbai tycoon with a murky past. Vijay is caught between the two and eventually has to report on the outcome of their clash.

Some sections are well-done, no doubt: the initial portion dealing with the environment of Vijay’s home town, the description of his drive to Meham or the occasional metaphor such as “gravestones like weathered molars”. But Davidar’s didacticism soon becomes tendentious, leaving everything else by the wayside. His heart’s in the right place; it’s a pity it’s not in the novel.

Worth your while? In the acknowledgements, Davidar mentions books that were of help during his writing, such as Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian or Abraham Eraly’s The Last Spring. Read those instead.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Not Enough Buzz

This appeared, in a slightly edited form, in the September 7 issue of TimeOut Mumbai.

MOSQUITO Roma Tearne

“Life in this paradise, he felt, was exactly as the beautiful mosquito that lived here, composed in equal parts of loveliness and deadliness.” Those are the thoughts of Theo, one of the protagonists of Mosquito, Roma Tearne’s debut novel that delineates the impact of Sri Lanka’s “loveliness and deadliness” during the late 1990s.

Theo, a successful novelist in his forties, has returned from London to the torn island of his birth after the demise of his Italian wife. Settling in a backwater near Colombo to work on his next novel, he encounters Nulani, an incipient artist in her teens. They strike up an unlikely friendship, one that deepens into love. Meanwhile, ethnic violence simmers below the surface like magma, erupting to the surface to incinerate bonds. Despite their careful plans, Theo and Nulani are sundered, and re-uniting seems a distant dream. It’s a face-off between the quest for power and the quest for love.

Tearne has a painterly eye, and many of her descriptions are evocative and well done. The action of the sea upon the shore, the effect of sunlight on an interior and the subject-matter of Nulani’s canvases, among others, are strikingly portrayed. Such prose, coupled with a fast-moving narrative, renders Mosquito appealing.

Unfortunately, there are puzzling flaws, too. Some characters, whom the author has taken pains to build up, are all-too conveniently disposed of halfway through, while others come to the fore only later. The plot itself, vigorous though it is, progresses through a series of zigzags that, after a while, stretch plausibility. And though Tearne is even-handed when it comes to the conflict, her central characters share an idealistic worldview that borders on the naïve.

Like many of her contemporary Sri Lankans writing in English – such as Michael Ondaatje and Romesh Gunesekera – Tearne has a poised, poetic sensibility that is pained by the violence that has racked their homeland. If only this was enough to make up for her novel’s inconsistencies.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Street Fighting Years


Hari Kunzru is like Vikram Seth in that each one of his novels is quite different from the other. His latest, My Revolutions, is that rara avis in today’s skies: a political novel. It details the life of Michael Frame, a.k.a. Chris Carver, facing the spectre of his 50th birthday. His wife Miranda, an incipient Anita Roddick, is becoming too marketing-oriented for comfort and it’s when Michael catches sight of a person he recalls as Anna, as well as bumps into Miles, another character from his past, that he decides to flee from his life in provincial England.

You see, Michael wasn’t always a working-in-a-used-bookstore kind of guy: in his earlier avatar in the late 60s, he belonged to a radical group in London – a fictional counterpart of the Angry Brigade, as they were known. The activities of Michael’s cohorts become too extreme for his liking, and he flees to Asia, ultimately finding refuge in a Thai Buddhist monastery. There’s just no place for a street fighting man, as the Stones asserted. Years later, he comes face-to-face with the consequences of his past and the manipulations of the present.

The revolutions of the title are spatial and temporal as well as political. Michael circles between locations as well as his past and present and the structure of the novel mirrors this, oscillating between the clever and the vertiginous.

The first-person voice is nicely judged: sometimes bemused, sometimes naïve, sometimes angry and sometimes just tired. Kunzru paints a vivid picture of the youthful protestors – the debates, the violence, the rallies, the sexual standards, the living conditions -- and though he isn’t artless enough to spell it out, there’s a clear parallel to be drawn between extremism then and now.

Worth your while? On balance, yes. It’s intelligent and accomplished, even though it tends to compress too much into too little, and the narrative runs out of steam towards the end.

Shelf Life Over Second Life

Not a review, but another idle meditation, the slightly edited version of which appeared in today's Hindustan Times.

One of the prime characteristic of human beings is not that they’re the only animals who blush – or need to – but that all of them yearn to step out of their own skin to inhabit other worlds. Fortunately, there is a piece of technology that enables them to do this. One that lets them take on new identities, explore new places and role-play with other beings. Millions have made use of it already; millions more are doing it right now.

Second Life? Nah. It’s called a book.

Without the benefit of broadband, and in this life itself, you can experience the fate of the Russian nobility during the Napoleonic Wars; inhabit a deserted island where a human footprint alerts you to the presence of others; and venture across Middle-earth to retrieve the Ring of Power. And these, mind you, are just three worlds out of thousands and thousands.

Once between the covers, traveling back and forth in time is simple: you can teleport yourself to a collapsing Galactic Empire or fly to Victorian London to become the sidekick of a pipe-smoking private detective. With such incomparable richness of invention, what else can Second Life be but a poor second?

Ah, but what about one of the key characteristics of this much-touted virtual world – that its content is user-generated? It’s the Resident Avatars who create Second Life’s environment, after all, unlike in a book where the author lays down the line. Well, conducting a simple experiment called re-reading should be enough to convince you that the version of the book you create in your mind is subject to change, depending on your circumstances when reading it. (Besides, as Anne Fadiman says in the introduction to Re-readings: “[T]he reader who plucks a book from her shelf only once is as deprived as the listener who, after attending a single performance of a Beethoven symphony, never hears it again.”)

In his The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt points out that one of the reasons for that genre’s ascendance in the 18th century was the desire of members of newly-literate middle-class to understand their place in the changing world around them. Till today, there’s no better way of doing this than reading, be it a novel or non-fiction that attempts to explain the workings of the quark, the cosmos, or the minds that ordered the invasion of Iraq.

Need a more pragmatic reason? Well here’s the portentous American critic Harold Bloom: "Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness”. We hear you, Harry. You are not alone.

The ability to generate empathy by viewing the world through others’ eyes; the capability to make you understand why the world is as it is today; and the power to create worlds in time and space in which you can lose yourself again and again. Give me shelf life over Second Life any day.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Meeting Great Expectations

MISTER PIP Lloyd Jones

The words “deceptively simple” are such a reviewing cliché; yet, they’re the ones that irresistibly come to mind when reading New Zealander Lloyd Jones’ haunting Mister Pip.

The novel features the unshowy, first-person voice of Matilda, inhabitant of an island in Papua New Guinea, telling of the events that befell her and her fellow-islanders in the early 1990s. The island’s school has been shut because of a war between the “rebels” and the “redskins”, when Mr. Watt, the sole white inhabitant, decides to re-open it to teach the children the one thing he knows well: Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. How the children, and their parents, react to this text, and what happens when the conflict overtakes them, make up the rest of the book.

This, then, is a testament to how reading can be transformative and to the power of an unleashed imagination. The winsome nature of the first part of the book gives way to several harrowing moments; what makes these all the more affecting is the quiet, non-dramatic manner in which Jones conveys the twists and turns. Indeed, parts of Mister Pip come across with the hushed power of a piece of folklore.

The ending, however, is a bit stretched: much of the book’s power wanes once Matilda leaves the island. Nevertheless, this is a fine novel, one that's graceful and poignant.

Worth your while? Certainly. If any of the above has made you think that this is a pretentious, literary work, it’s not. It’s, um, deceptively simple.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Growing Pains

Partly because it's late at night and partly because there's a lot else to do, I'm leaving this review unedited. It appeared in Tehelka's issue of 1 September 2007.

GIFTED Nikita Lalwani

Ah, adolescence. A time when the need to fit in is matched only by the urge to break away. When one looks at the standards of the previous generation and finds them sadly lacking. Novels featuring this stage mirror such angst, naturally, with a classic example being J.D. Salinger’s iconic The Catcher in the Rye, in which an embattled Holden Caulfield rages against the ‘phoniness’ of adult life, among other things. Others follow similar templates, such as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar or Russell Banks’ Rule of the Bone.

A clear parallel can be drawn with immigrant fiction, most of which deals with the bewildered offspring of first-generation immigrants in a strange land, navigating the Scylla of the modern world and the Charybdis of the one left behind. It’s an in-between world, to borrow from the title of one of M.G. Vassanji’s novels.

The narrative engine of both types of books, then, is fuelled by the behaviour of the protagonists in conforming or cutting loose, with most reaching an uneasy compromise. It may not be the best of both worlds, but it’s the best they can do.

In Gifted, her debut novel, Nikita Lalwani deftly conflates these two genres to create a charming coming-of-age saga. This is the story of the precocious Rumi Vasi from ten to fifteen, detailing her parents’ ambitions for her and her struggle to find a life she is comfortable with.

A large part of the novel progresses though overlapping episodes – structurally akin to David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green – that take us into the cloistered 1980s world of the Vasis, immigrants from India who have settled in Wales. By choosing to tell the story in third person – instead of a first-person Rumi narrative, which must have been tempting – Lalwani attains a degree of objectivity and distance from her material, allowing her for the most part to manipulate points of view for a more nuanced portrait.

Mahesh, Rumi’s father, is a principled, pedantic and parsimonious lecturer who lives with his family in Cardiff. As Rumi displays a marked penchant for mathematics from an early age, Mahesh decides to strictly supervise her regime in the hope that she will get into Oxford as a young prodigy, another Shakuntala Devi. Her mother Shreene – lively yet lonely, and given to melodramatic gestures -- goes along with Mahesh’s iron schedule and is additionally concerned with whether her children will grow up without being “corrupted” by the West.

We chart Rumi’s growing years through a series of vignettes, some amusing and some moving, notably a trip to watch Attenborough’s Gandhi, two visits to India, Rumi’s crushes at school and her obsession with devouring cumin seeds. Much of this is very well done, including glimpses into Rumi’s mathematical bent applied to day-to-day life. Here she is, for example, evaluating the probability of walking home with the most fancied boy in her class: “Well, it was probably a 2 in 7 chance. Or maybe 3 in 14, otherwise known as 3 over 14. If you though about it, 1 over 14 would be point 0714 so 3 times that came to point 2142. She frowned. Hadn’t realized it was that small, she thought”.

Partly because of her abilities and partly because of Mahesh’s rigid routine, Rumi does indeed make it to Oxford. Here, she finally gets some breathing space and begins a brief liaison with Fareed, a 20-year-old student whom she meets at the Asian Society’s ‘Jazz and Samosa Evening’. The reverberations of this encounter make Rumi’s disenchantment burst into full flower (with a supporting role played by the lyrics of Bob Dylan).

This rebellion leads to dramatic consequences and, without giving too much away, it ought to be said that the finale is a tad inelegant. The best endings are those that are inevitable yet unexpected; and Gifted’s closing is more unexpected than anything else. To prefigure this, the author also tars Mahesh and Shreene with too black a brush, which is a little less than objective.

This quibble apart, Gifted is a pleasure to read. The prose is as crisp and clear-eyed as it is tender and evocative, and the beleaguered adolescent’s predicament is portrayed with compassion and insight. It marks the arrival of a talent that’s definitely, er, gifted.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Not So Sunny

Will be posting a review of Roma Tearne's Mosquito shortly; meanwhile, thought I'd resurrect an earlier review of a book by another Sri Lankan author. The unedited version appeared in a TimeOut Mumbai issue of April last year.

THE MATCH Romesh Gunesekera

Meet the ironically-named Sunny Fernando, protagonist of Romesh Gunesekera’s new novel, yet another alienated, disaffected hero trying to find his place in the world

Gunesekera shows us Sunny’s plight at different ages, in different situations: first, as a Sri Lankan teenager in Manila developing a hopeless crush; then studying in England, drifting from one discipline and attraction to another; later, in Sri Lanka again to discover his roots; and also as a career photographer and a married man, with wife and child in tow.

All along, Sunny doesn’t quite fit in, at odds with the world and what’s expected of him: “It could have been a play, Sunny thought, in which he had forgotten all his lines.” Finally, his dilemma is sought to be resolved in the closing section, when he witnesses an India-Sri Lanka cricket match at the Oval -- a structural echo of an earlier match in Manila -- in the process arriving at a truce between his needs and responsibilities. The “match”, then, refers not just to cricket, but also to the fit between Sunny’s abilities and the world’s demands.

For the most part, Gunesekera’s prose is cool and elegant, and he pays careful attention to even minor characters. The problem, however, is that the book has an oddly unmoored quality to it, as though Sunny’s rootlessness had infected the whole. Protagonists are expected to demonstrate energy, whether turned outward or in, and Sunny’s listlessness simply fails to grip.

Worth your while? A character from one of the tales in James Joyce’s Dubliners was memorably described as living “at a distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glasses.” Unfortunately, that’s something you could also say about The Match as a whole.

Friday, August 17, 2007

To Be Posted Soon, Or Whenever The Reviews Are Published, Whichever Comes First

Nikita Lalwani's Gifted (deft, charming evocation of a precocious adolescent's coming of age in Cardiff and Oxford, with echoes of David Mitchell's Black Swan Green); Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union (crime noir meets the alternative history saga of a Jewish homeland in Alaska, which is pulled off with brio); and Roma Tearne's Mosquito (written with a painterly eye for the backwaters of Sri Lanka, but with inconsistent plot and characterisation, alas).

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Doubting Thomases

A longer post this time, a joint review of two books, which appeared in the August 10 issue of TimeOut Mumbai.

GOD IS NOT GREAT Christopher Hitchens
THE GOD DELUSION Richard Dawkins

In the beginning was the Word. And many faiths lay claim to it, referring to a Divine Being and the scriptures revealed by Him to the devout. And lo, after centuries of prayers and bloodshed, there appeared many works that claimed God never existed in the first place and religion was not divine but man-made and foolish.

Of these, Sam Harris’ 2004 The End of Faith attained notoriety for its uncompromising stance and savaging of Islamic moderates. Philosopher Daniel Dennett joined the fray with Breaking the Spell and now, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and incendiary journalist Christopher Hitchens throw their hats into the atheist ring with The God Delusion and God is Not Great, respectively.

It’s not that doubt hasn’t come to the fore earlier: Nietzsche famously announced the Almighty’s demise in the 19th century, Bertrand Russell told us why he was not a Christian in 1927 and one of Time magazine’s most controversial cover stories, questioning if God was dead, appeared in 1966. More recently, Woody Allen claimed that not only was Nietzsche correct, it was also hard to get a plumber on weekends.

The recent spate of books on the subject can, however, be put down to the calamitous events of 9/11 and the continuing aftershocks, making people reflect more cogently on faith, fundamentalism and fanaticism. Given the zeitgeist, a healthy dose of cold water is certainly called for.

Hitchens is, as always, entertaining and provocative. He minces no words: the sentence “religion poisons everything” tolls throughout his book like a warning bell. God is Not Great is informed by his own experiences as a reporter, specifically addressing at one point the violence that religion has wrought in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Bethlehem, Baghdad and Belgrade.

With finely-calibrated indignation that’s often mordantly funny and sometimes slips into rage, he details organised religion’s abnormal attitudes to diet, medicine, women and childbirth. He takes on other sitting ducks, specifically the “intelligent design” argument as well as the composition of the Old and New Testaments as well as the Koran. (Dawkins, too, trains his sights on such low-hanging fruit: “The only difference between The DaVinci Code and the gospels is that the gospels are ancient fiction while The DaVinci Code is modern fiction.”)

Those inspired by religion fare no better at Hitchens’ hands: he revisits his anti-beatification arguments against Mother Teresa and is rude about Mahatma Gandhi as well as the Dalai Lama, mocking the latter’s habit of hobnobbing with movie stars. (Though he makes no mention of the Dalai Lama’s willingness to engage in debate with scientists and rationalists.)

This is also a deeply personal book: he chooses, for example, to answer the question of whether religion makes you a better human being by citing instances from the life of one of his favourite authors (Waugh), by recounting a debate he witnessed between A.J. Ayer and a man of the cloth, and by recalling the atrocities in Uganda, which he visited in 2005.

Overall, though, Hitchens focuses more on the effects and practice of religion than its roots or necessity. “What hath Man wrought?” he seems to ask, without going into the journalist’s “Why?”

Dawkins is no less aggressive or exasperated. His stated aim is to champion the cause of atheism because it indicates a “healthy mind”. (He even proposes that atheists ought to be known as “the brights” – a proposal Hitchens finds annoying.)

While Hitchens pooh-poohs Buddhism by pointing out the role of the clergy in fomenting violence in Sri Lanka and quoting esoteric Zen passages, Dawkins refuses to engage with it, stating that Buddhism, along with Confucianism, is more of an ethical system and philosophy than a religion.

His efforts are, however, more systematic than Hitchens, rebutting arguments for the existence of God, starting from Aquinas’ five proofs, and rubbishing others, be they ontological, scriptural or personal.

Dawkins’ God is the principle of Darwinism, which he refers to time and again, specifically to invalidate the “intelligent design” argument: “…organised complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without any deliberate guidance.”

Why, then, has religious belief persisted though the ages? Dawkins suggests that religion is no more than a ‘meme’, the cultural equivalent of a gene, replicating itself by transfer from mind to mind. As for feelings of morality and altruism that religion is supposed to provoke, it’s Darwin to the rescue again: these are, says Dawkins, no more than the advantages of kinship and reciprocation in propagating the species.

Both Dawkins and Hitchens are particularly harsh on the ill-effects of organised religion when it comes to children. Such indoctrination and brainwashing, according to them, are alarmingly pernicious, and there’s certainly much food for thought in that.

In closing, Hitchens calls for a new Enlightenment, a celebration of the arts and scientific enquiry where there is no need for God. For Dawkins, it’s the lighthouse of science, above all, that should guide us.

Given mankind’s compulsive need to hug a creed – be it the ancient faiths, Osho, Scientology or merely the Art of Living – will such an age ever arrive?

God knows.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

One Good Book

ONE GOOD TURN Kate Atkinson

I haven’t read too many detective/mystery novels of late, alas, because I’ve been chasing after what they call “literary fiction”, but Kate Atkinson’s new novel was a splendid way of combining the two. Which isn’t surprising, come to think of it, because she’s done the same with her earlier Case Histories.

One Good Turn begins with an incident of road rage in Edinburgh at the start of the Fringe Festival and then moves on from character to character, teasing out the concatenation of circumstances that links them together. Among others, there’s retired police investigator Jackson Brodie (from Case Histories), pondering over his relationship with his actress-companion; the retiring mystery novelist haunted by the spectre of his past; the wife of a real-estate racketeer seeking a new start; and the police officer agonising over the right way to bring up her teenage child. Oh, and there’s more than one body, of course.

Structurally inventive, with prose that’s droll and incisive, One Good Turn takes its time in revealing hidden connections: “boxes within boxes, dolls within dolls, worlds within worlds”. (Russian dolls are, in fact, significant in more ways than one.) Yes, there are more than a few convenient coincidences, and the constantly shifting points of view won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s all very skillfully done, with a nasty little twist in the tale.

Worth your while? Clever, well-written crime fiction. Bring on the rain.

Monday, August 6, 2007

More Hyper Than Hip


Last year’s much-acclaimed debut novel – which I finally got around to reading – turns out to be over-inflated, in more ways than one. Author Marisha Pessl displays remarkable verve and inventiveness in both prose style and structure, but ultimately this is a book that’s too taken in by its own cleverness to leave a lasting impact.

Structured as a curriculum that reads like a sampling of Western literature’s greatest hits -- with hand-drawn visual aids to boot -- and stuffed with pop-cultural and textual allusions, Special Topics in Calamity Physics is the tale of the precocious and gullible 16-year-old Blue Van Meer, who arrives with her peripatetic father, a professor, at a North Carolina school. Here, she encounters the charismatic and enigmatic Heather Schneider, a teacher who takes under her wing a group of trendy students who call themselves the Bluebloods. Heather dies in mysterious circumstances, and the book is an extended reminiscence of Blue’s period in the school and the discoveries she makes about those close to her.

There’s more than just a nod to Nabokov and to his Lolita here – road trips though small-town America, erudite references, teenage antics, butterflies – but the look-at-me style and length militate against the undoubted ingenuity with which the material is presented. Donna Tartt meets David Foster Wallace? Hardly.

Worth your while? Not all 500+ pages of it.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Slick Gothic

THE KEEP Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan’s Look At Me was inventive and well-written; with her next, The Keep, she ratchets up her craft to deliver a tale of secrets and lies. Much of the relish in reading this novel comes from the way she subverts and plays with genre: Gothic fantasy for the most part, but also prison memoir.

The novel primarily deals with the relationship between cousins Danny and Howard: Danny’s been one of those responsible for playing a cruel practical joke on Howard when they were young and now, years later, he journeys to a remote European castle to help a reinvented Howard fructify his plans to set up a luxury hotel there.

The castle is satisfyingly spooky: Danny deals with an ancient baroness, a murky pool and hidden corridors and tunnels. Just as you begin to wonder how much of his predicament is dream and how much reality, Egan turns the screws on you: Danny’s tale is actually being told by Ray, a convict in a prison writing class, and we now intercut between the Gothic narrative and Ray’s life in prison.

It’s all very cleverly done, and Egan keeps you turning the pages to find out what happens next. One concern, however, is that Danny’s story is much more absorbing than Ray’s, making the denouement a tad less than satisfying. Yet, for the most part, The Keep explores questions of identity, connection and reinvention with refreshing brio.

Worth your while? Yes, if you’re a Gothic novel fan, and yes, if you think that literary fiction can’t provide a gripping tale.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Latter-day Godivas

(In another departure from the Ennobling World of Literature, here's a piece of mine that appeared in the Mumbai edition of today's Hindustan Times. (Will be putting up more book reviews soon!)

From PETA activists worldwide to protestors in Manipur to, most recently, a harassed housewife in Rajkot, appearing disrobed in public appears to be a potent weapon for aggrieved women today.

All of them owe more than they realise to the first person who supposedly employed this form of protest: the Anglo-Saxon noblewoman Lady Godiva, who rode naked on a horse through the streets of Coventry in the 11th century to make her husband repeal the harsh taxes he had imposed on the local populace. Fortunately, the man in question did indeed abolish the levies and we have no reason to believe that Lady Godiva ever again said that she had nothing to wear.

The Lady Godiva myth has many versions: some say her long, lustrous hair covered her completely; some assert that she was actually wearing a sleeveless shift; and some spoilsports maintain that all she did was to ride without her jewellery. (In passing, the expression ‘Peeping Tom’ is derived from here, too, referring to a lascivious tailor who had the temerity to stare at the lady, while others modestly kept their eyes lowered and windows shut. How unlike today’s media.)

Though the legend is unsupported by historical record, Lady Godiva’s fable refuses to die. Paintings and tapestries in Europe commemorate her ride; musicians from the Velvet Underground to Boney M have made use of her in lyrics; there’s an asteroid named after her; and, of course, she has a namesake, however mystifying, in the famous Belgian chocolate company.

Latter-day Godivas haven’t yet taken on inequitable tax regimes – one wishes they would – though it’s interesting to note that intentional or accidental exposure by celebrities, from Janet Jackson to Mallika Sherawat, leads to growls of protest at the state of our morals, but when it comes to the woman on the street, a state of undress serves as a weapon to provoke those in positions of power. Why bother with black armbands, besloganed T-shirts and angry badges when doing away with all forms of attire can make your point much more effectively?

That such stripped-down protests are primarily employed by women says a lot about the as-yet unbalanced equation between the sexes, from before Lady Godiva’s time till today. Men seem to prefer self-immolation, the effects of which are less easily reversible. Perhaps this is something one ought to be grateful for: the daily spectacle of hairy potbellies on TV would really be too much to bear. (Recall, if you will, Shiv Sena activists in baggy underwear protesting against Dilip Kumar’s support of Deepa Mehta’s Fire.)

If, however, this is a trend that catches on, one can only imagine the gloom that will descend upon the world of clothiers, outfitters and fashion designers. Times will be hard when nudity is the new black.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Lunar Module


First published in 2004 and re-released in paperback this year to cash in on the renewed interest in East-meets-West narratives, Sorrows of the Moon is Iqbal Ahmed's first book, a non-fiction account of his 'discovery' of London.

The bulk of the book comprises stories of down-at-heel immigrants in London, be they from the Indian subcontinent or Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, Ahmed gets no points for his prose style: his metronomically unvarying sentences are wearisome in large doses, and his paragraphing, too, can be erratic. Get over this faux-naif approach, and there's much to move you here, such as the stories of Anwar in his Brick Lane workshop, Kasim in his Charing Cross kiosk or the depressed, jilted Isabel.

It must be pointed out, however, that at other times, Ahmed can be quite one-sided, such as in his portrayals of the irascible Gujarati postmistress or the drivers of London's Black Cabs.

The tales are shot through with Ahmed's personal impressions of London, his wide-eyed awe and more than occasional disappointment at the people, sights and sounds, as one living in London after a boyhood in Srinagar.

Worth your while? Only if you happen to have a specific interest in the subject; otherwise, check out Sukhdev Sandhu's compendium, London Calling, for other immigrant tales.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Manhattan Maladies

The demands of work have kept me away from this blog for a while; in a feeble attempt to set the balance right, I'm posting an edited version of a review that appeared in The Times of India in November 2006. Normal service will resume soon.


Way back when Woody Allen was shooting films on the streets of his favourite city, he called attention to a distinctive Manhattan malady: his characters were obsessively self-conscious, analysing and dissecting their lives ad infinitum. It’s a trait shared by the characters in Claire Messud’s new novel, The Emperor’s Children. This is a comedy of manners that shows up the vanities and petty preoccupations of New York’s chatterati in the months leading up to, and a little after, the destruction of the Twin Towers.

It’s about three friends: Danielle, a TV producer looking for a break; Julius, a talented reviewer searching for the right break; and Marina, thwarted in her attempts to complete a manuscript on the sociological implications of children’s clothing.

Setting events into motion is the trio’s relationship with two others: Murray Thwaite, Marina’s father, a man of letters with feet of clay; and Ludovic Seeley, who arrives in town to set up a magazine to fuel a cultural revolution. Into the lives of these people lands the “plump, fumbling, bibliophilic” Frederick, Murray’s nephew, an idealistic and naïve Emerson-reading youth, desperate to carve out a career free of the strictures of traditional education. Frederick becomes the novel’s moral centre of gravity: the book pivots on his actions, leading each character to re-evaluate his or her life.

Messud’s touch is light; even though her sentences are often Jamesian in their complexity, her elegant and particular prose never loses its ironic tone. The desire for vapid achievement that she satirises is satisfyingly familiar. However, it must be added that an unfortunate side-effect of her characters’ self-absorption is that it makes the novel overpoweringly insular.

Worth your while? There’s no denying that Messud’s skills are poised and precise, and that this is among the better 9/11-themed novels -- but page after page of navel-gazing can be a bit too suffocating.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Nigerian Rhapsody

An edited version of a review that appeared in the July 13 issue of TimeOut Mumbai.

HALF OF A YELLOW SUN Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is a luminous work that first unfolds against the backdrop of a newly-independent Nigeria in the early Sixties, and then against the tragic struggle for Biafra some years later. (The title, in fact, is an allusion to the emblem on the short-lived Biafran flag.)

Such subject matter could lend itself to a heart-on-sleeve polemic; it is a measure of Adichie’s talent that she doesn’t let this happen, focusing instead on the destinies of characters from different backgrounds caught up in and transformed by the conflict. In particular, they are Ugwu, the bright teenage houseboy from a remote village; Odenigbo, the principled but deluded professor in whose house Ugwu is employed; the gentle, urbane Olanna and the inscrutable, sharp Kainene, non-identical twins, the former living with Odenigbo and the latter with Richard, a British journalist who finds a new home in Nigeria.

Adichie is skilled at defining her characters, and even the ones with smaller parts are economically but memorably etched. Her prose is limpid – never overwritten or pretentious, it is a pane of glass through which we glimpse the dilemmas and actions of people involved in a civil war that is anything but civil.

Though her sympathies clearly belong to the oppressed, the author is clear-eyed about the conflict. She shows us the pride and traditions of the tragic Igbo people, but also depicts their self-deluding optimism about the future and the many desperate measures they take towards the end of the war. There are lighter moments, too, as well as observations that reveal the pleasures and pitfalls of human relationships.

The narrative ends with an extract from a book in progress, as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart does. Both an echo and inversion of Achebe’s ending, this is a comment on who is entitled to write Africa’s history, and a symbolic call to remember, learn from and consecrate the conflict. In fulfilling these aims, this novel of love and war succeeds with élan.

Worth your while? If you're under the delusion that the novel is a dying form, this is your wake-up call.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Knocking On Woody

An edited version of a review that appeared in today's Hindustan Times


Woody Allen’s first collection of pieces in over 25 years shows that when it comes to prose, he continues to display the impish inventiveness and sense of the absurd that animated some of his earlier films such as Bananas or the under-rated Love and Death.

If one were able to step into the pages of Mere Anarchy in the manner of the nebbish professor in ‘The Kugelmass Episode’, one would find oneself in a universe populated by rapacious Hollywood producers, private eyes on the trail of precious truffles, New Age gurus, envious hacks and Manhattan nannies writing tell-all memoirs.

Here, there are satires on Russian novelists and the New Journalism; spoofs of rags-to-riches screenplays; parodies of existentialist philosophy; riffs on newspaper headlines, one of them inspired by a report on Veerappan’s kidnapping of actor Raj Kumar; and. examinations of quantum physics that pose the questions: “How does gravity work? And if it were to cease suddenly, would certain restaurants still require a jacket?”

All of which means that Allen covers much familiar ground, and also hasn’t stepped out too far from the shadow of S.J. Perelman, one of his self-confessed influences. Though some of the subjects are contemporary – custom-made prayers for sale on eBay, for example – Allen brings to them a distinctive but somewhat dated Yiddish sensibility that occasionally comes across as more quaint than droll.

Worth your while? Admittedly, none of the pieces (most of which first appeared in The New Yorker) are in the league of ‘The Kugelmass Episode’ or earlier gems such as ‘The Whore of Mensa’. Nevertheless, Mere Anarchy will definitely please fans of the man who once said: "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying."

Friday, June 29, 2007

Red Hot Chile Writing

An edited version of a review that appeared in the June 29 issue of TimeOut Mumbai.

Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

Among the so-called ‘post-boom’ generation of Latin American writers, it’s the Chilean Roberto Bolano who’s the most manic, so evident from the just-released English translation of The Savage Detectives. This is the story of two young poets, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, founders of the “visceral realist movement”, who leave Mexico City to hunt for another elusive poet, Cesárea Tinajero. Despite a desert showdown, they stay on the run, even after two decades. Their search may have been rendered hopeless, but their fires remain unquenched.

What makes The Savage Detectives impressive is not the tale but the telling. Bolano’s sentences: are elongated and dramatic, dancing between action and thought with ease. The novel is structurally innovative, too: it opens with the part-profane, part-innocent diary entries of the teenage Juan Garcia Madero, and we’re introduced to Belano and Lima through his eyes. Then follows a long segment told in a multitude of voices containing memories of meetings with the poets over the years: a chorus of journalists, stowaways, architects, lovers, employers and more, from Central America, Europe, Israel, and Africa. Finally, we return to Madero to discover the outcome of the poets’ journey.

Worth your while? This is a sometimes dense, largely polyphonic work about doomed quests, youthful exuberance and the passion for poetry. It demands to be wrestled with till the end to make it yield its pleasures.

Song Of The Last Resort

An edited version of a review that appeared in the June 29 issue of TimeOut Mumbai.

THE GARDENER’S SONG Kalpana Swaminathan

It’s time to be re-introduced to the 63-year-old Lalli (earlier involved in The Page 3 Murders), a retired police detective known to Mumbai’s men in khaki as L.R. (“Last Resort”).

This time, it’s to do with the murder of the aggravating Mr Rao, who lives in the same building as Lalli and her niece. As Rao is universally considered to be a meddlesome pest, all of the residents are suspect. Lalli’s niece tracks and recalls their prior movements, and it’s left to her razor-sharp aunt to fill in the blanks and apprehend the criminal.

The inhabitants of a building as a microcosm of society: it’s a device that’s been used before, two examples being Manil Suri’s The Death of Vishnu and Vikram Kapadia’s play, Black with Equal. What sets this apart is that Swaminathan structures it around a Lewis Carroll poem: she ingeniously takes absurd scenes – bears with no heads, a banker’s clerk, a bar of mottled soap – and transposes them into the quotidian lives of suburban Mumbai residents, markers in the mystery to be solved.

Swaminathan’s prose is almost Narayanesque, skewering pomposity with glee. Which makes up for a small complaint: Lalli doesn’t seem to do all that much, apart from making gnomic utterances, looking incisive and then, of course, masterfully making sense of the imbroglio. She should be dispatched forthwith to investigate the Curious Case of Bob Woolmer.

Worth your while? Yes, if you’re looking for a delightfully non-taxing way to spend time at home while it pours outside.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Out Of Place, Again


To an audience weaned on the immigrant fictions of Jhumpa Lahiri, Tanuja Hidier and Bharati Mukherjee, among others, Rishi Reddi’s debut short story collection will be welcome. These are yet more tales of square pegs in round holes, of the friction of fitting in.

Primarily drawn from the Indian American community of Massachusetts, most of Rishi Reddi’s characters face the double bind of detaching themselves from the way things used to be in their homeland, and coming to terms with the fact that their compatriots have made better adjustments to the American way of life. There’s the irascible, retired judge of ‘Justice Shiva Ram Murthy’, the lonely, compassionate housewife of ‘Lakshmi and the Librarian’ and the dreamy, unemployed Shankar of the title story, for example. Apart from an interesting use of the unreliable narrator in the first tale, Reddi also proves adept in creating connections between the outside world and the inner lives of her characters – the bonsai trees, melting snows and injured birds are evocative symbols.

There’s no denying that hers is a perceptive new voice, but the themes of her stories – arranged marriages, strained disaporic family ties, the strangeness of India after living abroad -- suffer from overexposure. A pity, given the author’s evident devotion to her characters and craft.

Worth your while? Well-written and well-crafted, but will bring about an acute sense of déjà vu because of all the other recent immigrant sagas, in film or print.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Good Doctor


With Complications, Boston-based surgeon and New Yorker writer Atul Gawande joined the ranks of Doctors Who Can Write. (Speaking of which, whatever happened to Abraham Verghese?)

In his next work, Better, Gawande continues his Montaigne-like ruminations on his profession. The essays here are centred on the theme of improving medical performance, and the book is structured around the three ways to do this: diligence, doing right and ingenuity.

In prose that’s limpid and affecting, Gawande walks us through subjects close to his heart, from the importance of hand-washing to medical malpractice lawsuits to doctors’ earnings. As before, his accounts of the patients and medical practitioners he’s encountered are riveting. Especially interesting are essays on how the C-section is becoming the norm for childbirth, on treatments for cystic fibrosis and on his visits to India, where he finds surgeons getting the better of trying conditions.

You don’t have to be a doctor to take his conclusion to heart: "[Performing] better is possible. It does not take genius. It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all it takes a willingness to try.”

Worth your while? Definitely, even if accounts of illnesses appearing out of the blue cause acute hypochondria.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Not Midnight's Children

While I'm waiting for the reviews of the books mentioned in the last post to be published so I can post them here, here's a little diversion from this blog's stated theme that appeared in today's Mumbai edition of The Hindustan Times.

An association of people who were not born at midnight today issued a statement deploring the British Queen’s decision to confer a knighthood upon author Salman Rushdie.

“Rushdie has discriminated against all of us,” said the President of the association. “His novel Midnight’s Children is a deliberate and wilful act of provocation that has hurt the feelings of those who were born at other times of the day.”

All copies of Rushdie’s novel, the statement said, ought to be pulped and the remains mixed with glue to create papier-mâché toys for the children of the association’s members. This, said the statement, will help soothe sentiments.

“Rushdie himself was not born at midnight,” said one of the members at a press conference called to announce the protest. “He is full of self-hate and has crossed over to the other side to belittle all of us. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the only reason he wrote the novel was to poke fun at people born during the day”. Cutting a large chocolate cake, he went on, “I myself was born at 4.15 p.m. and as a matter of fact today is my birthday, so all of you can leave your presents in the large box beside the exit”.

The association plans to carry their protest to the streets soon, with a 24-hour sit-in in front of the Rajabai Clock Tower in Mumbai. “After all, what is midnight?” said another member. “We do not work at midnight. The economy does not grow. It is daytime that is more important. By honouring Rushdie, the Queen has insulted the more productive hours of the day.”

It is learnt that the London chapter of the association plans to march to the observatory at Greenwich to carry out a similar protest. There, they will also issue a proclamation calling for the dropping of the letter ‘w’ from the spelling of Greenwich, thus making is easier to pronounce for everyone. “We are nothing if not democratic,” said the leader of the London chapter.

The official astrologer of the association has selected 9.15 a.m. as the most propitious hour to begin the rally. “This is only the first step,” he said, consulting his almanac. “Next, we will call for a total ban upon the midnight hour as well. It should cease to exist. This will also solve the traffic problem, as everyone can get to work an hour earlier.”

There is no official reaction yet from the knighted author or the Queen, although unconfirmed reports suggest that the Lady Rushdie has indefinitely postponed the shooting of her new TV series, Midnight’s Snacks.