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.