Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Few To Look Forward To In 2009

To begin with, Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow (the writer who once said his subject was men now takes a look at feminism) and Robert Harris’ Conspirata (the third in his Roman trilogy) both of which were to be released in late 2008, but were inexplicably delayed.

Also among the heavy hitters are Philip Roth’s The Humbling (like Ol’ Man River, he jes’ keeps rollin’ on); Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, in which a private eye creeps “out of a marijuana haze to watch the end of an era as free love slips away and paranoia creeps in with the LA fog.”; Margaret Atwood’s God’s Gardeners, another one of her dystopian epics; and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, a “story cycle” dealing with love, music and death

One hopes that Monica Ali is over her sophomore slump with her third novel, In The Kitchen – a tale of events in a London hotel, which may well turn out to have forebears as unlikely as Sankar’s Chowringhee, Robert Altman’s Gosford Park and Henry Green’s Loving.

Closer to the subcontinent, there’s Daniyal Mueenuddin's much-heralded debut, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, with some already likening him to no less a personage than Turgenev (the title story is here); William Dalrymple’s non-fiction account of the remnants of pre-codified religious practices in India (an interview on the subject is here); Amit Chaudhuri’s The Immortals, a tale of the criss-crossing paths of three Indian musicians; and Abraham Verghese’s first novel, Cutting for Stone, spanning decades and set in India, Ethiopia and New York.

Then, there’s Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger, a ghost story set in rural Warwickshire in the late 1940s, and Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, which takes place a few years later, with a young immigrant from Ireland trying to forge a new life for herself in New York.

Finally, here’s hoping that the publishing industry finds a way to get back on its feet in the coming year, and that Landmark’s Mumbai branch re-opens so that the city can once again have at least one decent bookstore in which the above titles will be available.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Art Of Dying

This appeared in today's DNA.


“I’m not afraid of dying,” Woody Allen once remarked, “I just don’t want to be there when it happens”. It’s a sentiment that would arouse a wry smile from the 62-year-old Julian Barnes, whose non-fiction narrative, Nothing to be Frightened Of, is a fine-tuned meditation on mortality and confronting the Grim Reaper.

“I don’t believe in God, but I miss him,” is how he begins, going on to clarify that at a time when Christianity in Europe has largely been reduced to ritual, he misses “the underlying sense of purpose and belief when confronted with religious art” – be it Mozart’s Requiem, Giotto’s paintings or Donatello’s sculptures.

The bulk of the book, though, is a series of deliberations on death and the human response to it. What saves this from terminal grimness or sentiment is that Barnes is never less than clear-sighted, his prose is skillfully elegant, and that there’s more than a touch of puckishness to the proceedings. Defining himself as one who fears death and has no faith, he speaks of his inexplicable night-terrors, with his motivation, quoting Shostakovich, being that “we have to make the fear [of death] familiar, and one way is to write about it”.

Though he clarifies that this is not his autobiography, there’s much here about his childhood, his parents, and of his reactions to their inevitable ageing and demise. His brother, the philosopher Jonathan Barnes, is also a continual presence, with the author spending much time recreating run-ins and debating finer points of philosophical musings on death. Clearly, there’s more than a bit of sibling rivalry that’s continued over the years.

Barnes quotes incessantly from others on the subject, invoking the words of writers and musicians from Stravinsky to Stendhal. In particular, he derives inspiration from 19th century French writer Jules Renard, who once wrote, “I don’t know if God exists, but it would be better for his reputation if He didn’t”.

Renard’s mode of writing was “compression, annotation, pointillism”, and this is something that Barnes has clearly taken to heart, for his writing is epigrammatic and quotable. “Religion tends to authoritarianism as capitalism tends to monopoly,” he writes in context of his loss of faith; and then, speaking of his craft, he asserts, “Doctors, priests and novelists conspire to present human life as a story progressing towards a meaningful conclusion”. Towards the end, he muses on memory, imagination and truth and his relationship to them as a novelist, coming up with another bon mot: “A novelist is something who remembers nothing yet records and manipulates different versions of what he doesn’t remember”.

Structurally, Nothing to be Frightened Of progresses by means of circularity and repetition and it must be admitted that there are times when this approach becomes much too discursive. Overall, though, the words that Barnes uses to describe the writing of Alphonse Daudet could well be applied to his book, too: “The exact glance, the exact word, the refusal either to aggrandize or to trivialize death – exhilarating”.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Wok The Talk

This appeared in the latest issue of TimeOut Mumbai.

BALTI BRITAIN Ziauddin Sardar

Ziauddin Sardar has tirelessly advocated the need to reinvent the ways we look at Islam. In Balti Britain, he takes “a journey through the British Asian experience”, uncovering layers of identity connected to history, geography and family. A worthwhile endeavour at a time when there’s a hardening of attitudes towards multiculturalism, even among supposed liberals from Andrew Anthony to Martin Amis. Unfortunately, despite the debunking of historical myths and heartfelt asides, Balti Britain is narrower in scope than it should have been.

Sardar asserts that the histories of Britain and India are more tangled than commonly understood and therefore, British Asians are an integral part of Britain. He visits, among other places, Leicester, poster city of multiculturalism; is caught up in a race riot in Oldham; and in Birmingham’s ‘Balti triangle’ – where restaurants lay claim to have invented the karahi-style cuisine -- discovers a metaphor for tradition repackaged to fit the West.

However, Sardar largely speaks to his own kind: Muslim academics and writers. Their voices need to be heard, but they’re hardly representative of British Asians. Mentions of bhangra and Goodness Gracious Me notwithstanding, the second-generation from Pakistan dominates. This is justified by Sardar’s stating that his report could not be “an objective exercise”. Thus, he writes – at times movingly -- about his Hackney schooldays, his arranged marriage, the birth of his children and the discovery that his grandfather fought in the British Army.

Sardar also demystifies various versions of Islam, reminding us not to tar all those of the faith with the same brush. There is much polemic, too, on the need to re-engage with multiculturalism, especially on the part of the “dominant culture”. But given its limited focus, the addition of the word ‘My’ before Balti Britain would have helped.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

2008's 10

Birds do it, bees do it; even educated fleas do it. Let’s do it: let’s talk of the best books of 2008.

First, a moment to fight once more the temptation to include novels published in 2007 that I read only this year. (Top of the list being Junot Diaz’s not-so-brief but oh-so-wondrous Great American-Dominican Novel, and also including those by J.M. Coetzee, Michael Chabon, Hari Kunzru, Nathan Englander – as well the uncommonly charming Alan Bennett.)

In the interests of full disclosure one ought to also point out that Roberto Bolano’s 2666 does not feature here – not because of any anti-Latin American sentiment or the feeling that Bolanomania has got out of hand, but because of the prosaic reason that I haven’t read it as yet.

So. Now vee may perhaps to begin, as Alexander Portnoy was advised.

In fiction, Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole, a manic and charged tale of an eccentric father’s relationship with his no-less eccentric son was marvellously subversive and comic. At the opposite pole in terms of effect, but as irresistible, was Joseph O’Neill’s elegant Netherland, which tells, in wonderfully-etched sentences, a post 9/11 story of, among other things, immigrants playing cricket in New York.

At least two collections of short stories stood out: Jhumpa Lahiri’s melancholic tales in Unaccustomed Earth, which explored once again the lives of Bengalis in America with uncommon grace and feeling; and Nalini Jones’ debut collection, What You Call Winter, nuanced yet precise stories dealing with the residents of a Mumbai suburb coming to terms with time’s passage.

It was, yet again, a strong year for non-fiction. (When isn’t it?) Alice Albinia’s Empires of the Indus, part-history and part-travel, was a heartfelt and enlightening journey to the source of the river from which India takes its name. Patrick French’s The World is What It Is showed us a warts-and-all V.S. Naipaul with an admirable evenness of tone. Julian Barnes told us of how he, as a sometime atheist and current agnostic, deals with death in the graceful and aphoristic Nothing to be Frightened Of. And British Asian journalist Sathnam Sanghera’s touching If You Don’t Know Me By Know delved into a family history of schizophrenia with self-deprecating humour and compassion without ever being overwrought.

Rounding off this selection is the short How Fiction Works, another informed broadside by critic James Wood on the ways in which the realistic mode continues to be pre-eminent among novelists: even those who disagree can’t deny the closeness of Wood's reading, the connections he teases out or the ardour of his prose.

Bringing up the rear is a book published in 1961, but back in the limelight because of the just-released film version. Focus your attention once again on Richard Yates’ carefully-crafted Revolutionary Road, that affecting and troubling novel of marital discord symbolising the souring of the American Dream.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Mumbai Pages

This is from today's The Sunday Express.

He spent his last years with stray cats in a seedy lane in Mumbai, a stone’s throw from Nariman House and the Taj. Had he witnessed the recent terrorist attacks, he would have shaken his head and spoken sorrowfully about his Jewish upbringing in Germany and the depredations of the Nazis.

However, Hugo Baumgartner walked the byways of Colaba only in our imagination. He is, of course, the protagonist of Anita Desai’s 1988 Baumgartner’s Bombay, just one of the works of fiction in English in which the city plays a role.

Of the authors who have written about Mumbai, it’s Salman Rushdie who’s the most lyrical. Saleem Sinai of Midnight’s Children grows up in the privileged enclave of Breach Candy, and characters from The Ground Beneath Her Feet and The Moor’s Last Sigh share similar backgrounds. The author once remarked that the Bombay of the late Fifties and early Sixties felt “like a kind of enchanted zone…a wonderful, exciting, vibrant city to grow up in. And I fell in love with it then and forever.

Much water has flowed down the Mithi River since then, and Catherine of Braganza’s bequest has changed irrevocably There’s been a corresponding fictional shift, from a south Mumbai existence to the middle-class centre and the suburbs, notwithstanding Shobha De’s frequent forays into the lives of the cocktail-sipping class.

The hero of Ardashir Vakil’s nostalgia-filled 1998 Beach Boy, for example, though equally privileged, indulges in his adolescent passions from his parents’ Juhu bungalow. Rohinton Mistry’s characters live in crumbling apartment blocks in central Mumbai, afflicted by fatalism while national events from the 1971 Pakistan War to the Emergency cast long shadows. Manil Suri’s mythological-themed though dreary The Death of Vishnu and his later The Age of Shiva depict a middle-class milieu in which people trapped in the pettiness of the present dream of a better future. Further down the scale, Kiran Nagarkar’s boisterous Ravan and Eddie spring from the teeming chawls.

Notwithstanding the preferences of Vakil’s hero, tinsel town glitter doesn’t feature too often in Mumbai fiction. Two contrived early-Nineties novels, I. Allan Sealy’s Hero and Shashi Tharoor’s Show Business, tried valiantly to marry Bollywood and politics. More recently, the protagonist of Amitava Kumar’s Home Products arrives in Mumbai with the aim of writing a film script, an unfulfilled ambition.

The city’s other visible symbol, its slums, plays a major part in Vikas Swarup’s Q&A -- inventive, though with a whiff of the potboiler about it -- and in Gregory David Roberts’ swaggering Shantaram.  The latter dwells on that popular Mumbai pastime, engaging in underworld activities, and this is also at the core of Vikram Chandra’s mammoth Sacred Games, which can lay claim to being The Great Mumbai Novel. It encompasses not just the underworld but the city’s distinctive patois, cuisine, neighbourhoods and more while narrating the cat-and-mouse game between don Ganesh Gaitonde and Inspector Sartaj Singh, a character from Chandra’s earlier, heartfelt Love and Longing in Bombay.

It turns out that one doesn’t need first-hand knowledge of the city to successfully write about it. (Which may come as a surprise to Amit Chaudhuri, whose essays often dwell on his Mumbai childhood, and to Suketu Mehta, whose Maximum City is a non-fiction counterpart to Sacred Games.) Take the case of H.R.F. Keating, whose A Perfect Murder, the first of a series of detective novels featuring intrepid Mumbai police inspector Ganesh Ghote, appeared in 1964. Keating himself appeared in Mumbai for the first time a full decade after he made the city the backdrop to his novels.

With the new crop of writers, the city again assumes different forms. Murzban Shroff’s Breathless in Bombay revolves around those perched on the lower rungs of the social ladder: washermen, horse-and-carriage drivers, pimps and others. Nalini Jones’ nuanced yet precise stories in What You Call Winter delineate people coming to grips with time’s passage in the suburb of “Santa Clara”, a stand-in for Bandra. And Altaf Tyrewala’s No God in Sight ingeniously links the tales of those affected by an earlier Mumbai tragedy, the blasts and subsequent riots of 1992-93.

The recent onslaught on the city has been ineptly referred to as “India’s 9/11”. Well, one of the fallouts of the attack on the Twin Towers was the spate of “9/11 novels”, from the unexceptional (Updike’s Terrorist) to the overwrought (Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) to the elegant (O’Neill’s Netherland). It remains to be seen whether November 26th will yield such fruit, but a pointer can be found in a post on India Uncut by blogger and debutant novelist Amit Varma: “This book was written in a Bombay before these attacks; it will come out in a Bombay after these attacks, and it somehow feels… that it will be inadequate.” Ironically, Rushdie found himself in the same corner when he chronicled the life of New York, his adopted city, in the below-par Fury. The publication date of that book: one week before September 11, 2001.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Girl, Interrupted

This appeared in yesterday's DNA.


The nationalistic fervour that preceded India’s partition isn’t a subject that one encounters often in English Indian fiction. R.K. Narayan’s Waiting for the Mahatma is, in fact, about the only title that comes readily to mind -- Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan dwelled more on the trauma of Partition itself. Now, there’s Bangalore-based Usha K.R.’s third novel, A Girl and a River, mainly set in a town in the princely state of Mysore in the 1930s, in which the actions and principles of Gandhi and Subhash Chandra Bose have a central influence on her characters.

This is a twin-track narrative that moves back and forth between the past and the near-present, in which the events of half a century ago and their impact on a single family are sought to be unravelled and understood. The girl of the title, and the river after which she is named, is Kaveri, daughter of Mylariah, the town’s lawyer, landowner and municipal councillor. Others who are a part of Kaveri’s growing years include her brother Setu and mother Rukmini.

The national cross-currents of that era as reflected in Kaveri’s town -- heady nationalism, incipient rebellion and conservative Anglophilia -- are brought to life through period detail, with an accent on the music, movies and books of the time. However, the author falls into the standard trap when it comes to historical fiction: there are excessive amounts of dialogue and exposition simply to establish context.

In time, Kaveri comes under the spell of Shyam, a well-meaning but reckless young rabble-rouser, and it is this attachment, along with the reactions of those close to the couple, that will lead to tragic consequences. The reverberations will be felt by Setu’s daughter, the unnamed narrator of the second tale set in the late 1980s, who attempts to find reasons for her parents’ joylessness and occasionally curious behaviour.

Though the prose throughout is more efficient than evocative, the author does ample justice to Kaveri’s character as she transforms from a bookish and impressionable young girl to a headstrong teenager. Also effective is the portrayal of the restrictions faced and courage displayed by the other two main female characters, Kaveri’s mother Rukmini, and the narrator in the present time. The men, however, fare less well; in particular, Setu’s animosity to Shyam isn’t ever fully explained.

More problematic is the switching between the 1930s and the 1980s, a device resorted to in order to show how past actions create ripples that spread through the decades. Quite simply, the predicament of Setu’s daughter, however well-portrayed, has much less impact than the events of Kaveri’s life. It thus emerges as no more than a frame, one that ought to have been more slender and less decorative.

Despite these weaknesses, A Girl and a River is a novel of scope and vitality. Its treatment of a fractious time in India’s past and the effects of the period on the central characters display a sensitivity and seriousness that’s more than occasionally pleasing.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Murder, He Wrote

This appeared in yesterday's The Sunday Express.


Move over, Frederick Forsyth. With The Bikini Murders, Farrukh Dhondy abandons his genteel Poona Company and Bombay Duck persona to produce a novel dealing with a half-Vietnamese, half-Indian serial killer, one who preys on tourists in South-east Asia, spends time in Tihar Jail before masterminding an escape, is apprehended in Goa and who, after serving his sentence, moves to France.

No cigar, then, for guessing that this is yet another recreation of the life of Charles Sobhraj – called Johnson Thhat in the novel. Dhondy begins with Thhat being apprehended in Kathmandu, largely due to the efforts of a retired inspector; the novel then moves into a racy first-person “confession”. Much of the narrative is based on the available facts of Sobhraj’s life, but there’s a new character or two, such as Ravina, Thhat’s accomplice in Thailand, and Chandrika, the intelligence officer who keeps an eye on him.

Dhondy’s prose is casual and brisk in its depiction of amorality, dealing with surfaces and not venturing within. At one point, he airily has Thhat speak of existential themes, linking his account with those of others such as Camus and Gide – and gilding the lily by going on to speak of the Gita’s maya. If this, indeed, is what the novel sets out to do, it’s implausible, not to mention ill-conceived.

Towards the end, The Bikini Murders places Thhat at the periphery of recent events, from the Kandahar hijack to 9/11 to Daniel Pearl to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. There are so many twists, turns and reversals by this point that one is reminded of a juggler with too many balls in the air desperately trying to keep his balance. Given that the novel’s jacket is a monument to garishness, you can judge this book by its cover.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wedding Wows

This is from the latest TimeOut Mumbai.

LOVE MARRIAGE V.V. Ganeshananthan

Some authors find their subjects in the ways in which marriages are contracted in the subcontinent. Yet others speak of political events and their impact on personal lives. In her debut novel, V.V. Ganeshananthan attempts a cocktail of both, with results that are often pleasing and sometimes disorienting.

The novel is narrated by Yalini, unmarried daughter of Sri Lankan immigrants in suburban America. Yalini and her parents move to Toronto to meet an ailing uncle and his daughter, who is soon to enter into an arranged marriage. However, this isn’t the story of Yalini alone; she tells us of the lives, loves and losses of her parents, maternal and paternal uncles and aunts, grandparents and cousins, much of which is set in Sri Lanka, but also in America, Germany, Australia, France and Canada. The point is driven home towards the end: “Reverse a family tree and branches of blood are whittled down to one person. I am composed of all the men and women who came before me. I am the result of many marriages”.

Yalini, we’re told more than once, was born in July 1983 – known to Sri Lankans as “Black July”, when systematic violence broke out against the Tamil community. Stray incidents of violence, mainly political, mark the narrative, each one an axe hacking at the family tree, but unable to destroy it.

There’s an attractive cadence to Ganeshananthan’s prose, undercut by her overdone tic of capitalizing Important Words -- among them Love and Heart. The fluency of the narrative is also marred by the fragmentary, episodic manner in which the stories are related and the sheer number of lives touched upon. Nevertheless, this investigation of roots is held together by an appealing sensibility that, on many occasions, makes up for its weaknesses.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

No Country For Young Women

This appeared in the latest Tehelka


To attempt a novel about an adulterous relationship in this day and age is to set oneself a formidable task. The history of the novel is, after all, studded with memorable heroines who have indulged in illicit liaisons: Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina and Isabel Archer, to name a few. Yet, this is the terrain that Shashi Deshpande sets out to explore in her ninth novel, In the Country of Deceit. Despite the singular flavour of a small town in south India in which it is set, the signposts are all too familiar.

This is the story of the single, 26-year-old Devayani living in the town of Rajnur, in a refurbished house that used to belong to her parents. (Symbolism alert.) She’s a bookish, innocuous English tutor, and her existence is a staid one, enlivened by meetings with her immediate family. One evening, at a dinner hosted by Rani, former Hindi movie heart-throb and new friend on the block, she meets the married, 40-something Ashok, the town’s district police superintendent. The affair between the two, initiated by the man in uniform, follows the predictable pattern of private trysts and secret agonising before the consequences catch up with them.

There’s an appealing artlessness to Devayani’s character, and to her discovery of the relationship’s passionate highs and lows. Since the novel is largely a first-person account of the affair, some amount of solipsism is inevitable, with much self-examination happening in the wee hours. To offset this, the author introduces letters from Devayani’s aunt, cousin and others – dismayingly enough, though, most of the letter-writers use a similar tone of voice.

The subplots deal with laying claims on others’ lives, either metaphorically or heavy-handedly. For example, there’s a property dispute in which Devayani is embroiled, involving lawyers and letters; and then there’s also the unstable back-story of Rani, whose circle Devayani becomes part of when helping her to script a comeback film. These, however, seem attached Lego-like to the spine of the novel – that is, the adulterous relationship -- and as such, serve to partition the plot, not thicken it

The book’s progress is stately for the most part, with Deshpande taking her time to advance the mood and milieu. Nevertheless, there are moments that jar. For example, Ashok falls for Devayani at their first meeting itself and after modest hesitation, Devayani matches his ardour. The foundation of their relationship thus seems less organic and more based on the need to progress the plot. Additionally, details of Ashok’s wife and daughter, which would have added more dynamic tension, are thin on the ground.

In the Country of Deceit, then, is not without a certain modest appeal. Clearly, among its strengths is the evocation of place and of the network of family relationships. Alas, when it comes to dealing with love and its discontents, as is the case with so many other such works, the road to banality is paved with good intentions.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Suzy Wong Doesn't Live Here Anymore

This appeared in the Sept-Oct issue of Biblio.


Hong Kong is an outcome of the law of unintended consequences. This once-humble trading port fell into the hands of the British in 1842 as one of the fallouts of the First Opium War, and then served as an entrepot of their empire in the east before, of course, being handed back to the Chinese People’s Republic in 1997.

Commerce and commingling, then, have been part of this settlement on the Pearl River delta from the start, and continue to shape its growth. The mash-up of mainland Chinese, Caucasian, South-east Asian and “Hong Kong Chinese” cultures lends to the city a distinctive, frenetic sensibility. You can see it on the faces of passengers on the Star Ferry criss-crossing the harbour; in the meretricious neon signs on Nathan Road; in the gyrations of Canto-pop stars on music channels; on the flashy boutiques in Causeway Bay; and in the packed skyscraper elevators carrying employees towards their offices in Central.

It’s Hong Kong’s film-makers who have been the most visibly inspired by this feverish ethos of one of the world’s most thickly-populated places – with John Woo and Wong Kar Wai being two obvious examples. Local writers have had a harder time of it: their thunder has been stolen by writers from mainland China, either in English or in translation, with those such as Ha Jin and Gao Xingjian, for example, gaining readers across the world.

The character of the city itself seems ill-suited to the creation of literature, with financial indices being more willingly pored over than novels. In addition, the multi-ethnic nature of the region, with its diverse languages, makes it daunting for one voice to represent the particolored jigsaw city of the present. Long gone are the comfortable certainties that gave Dickens, Proust and Joyce the confidence to create fictional and complete versions of London, Paris and Dublin, respectively.

As the peripatetic Indonesian-Chinese author Xu Xi, who claims kinship with the community of Hongkongers, wrote in an introduction to an anthology of Hong Kong writing, “We in Hong Kong exist in such a perpetually tense present of frenzy that the idea of ‘racing’ to tell any kind of Hong Kong story, especially in English, seems like an unnecessary effort. It isn’t profitable, which our culture instinctively abhors, and does not seem to suit the international buyer’s market that prefers the musings of those who write ‘real’ English, an added burden indeed for the hapless writer.”

It is to the conundrum of a writer’s existence in Hong Kong that Xu Xi returns in Evanescent Isles: from my City Village, a slim volume of loosely-linked essays that speaks of her growing years, her struggles to be a writer and her perception of the city’s volatile character. In this context, however, the use of the word ‘evanescent’ is perplexing, with its associations of being fleeting and not always perceptible. As Xu Xi’s essays show, the reality is that the city is an all-too-solid though chameleonic jumble.

Of the origins of these musings, she writes: “…I began wandering through my life in this, my birth city. It seemed at first an aimless journey though memory, supplemented by present-day conversations about Hong Kong, provoked by the stimuli offered by the city’s writing, art, performances, photography, films, as well as by the minutiae of day-to-day living.” The rest of the book is true to this observation, with passages inspired by her walks and journeys through the city and the memories they provoke, her meetings with friends and relatives and her eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations on board buses and trams.

It’s clearly a city that is close to her heart; in one passage, she reflects on its inevitable “glocalisation”: “[A]s I meander from Sai Wan Ho at the eastern side of Hong Kong island to Mei Foo Sun Cheun in northwest Kowloon peninsula, or from Siu Hong in the far west of the New Territories, [I find] there is a 7-11 or K-Mart convenience store in every district, a Giordano or Bossini clothing retail outlet in every shopping mall, a Wing Wah or St Honore cake shop in every MTR or KCR station. You need never leave your district to experience a Hong Kong that is much like the one an hour’s journey away, even on the small outlying islands of Peng Chau, Lamma or Cheung Chau.”

With a structure like that, chronology is the first thing to be tossed out of the way, and in these pages, she ranges from past to present to near-present with sometimes-confusing agility. For this writer, “chronological exactitude is an unnecessary hobgoblin in the telling of tales”. Thus, she ranges over her family background, from rich to shabby-genteel, her relationship with parents, her teen obsession with American culture, one she never entirely grew out of, her memories of the teacher who awoke in her a love for literature, her first forays into writing, her two divorces, her experiences staying alone in Hong Kong, and more.

Though there is much sincerity in the depiction of this struggle to come to terms with what the city of Hong Kong means to her, there are also many occasions when a generalizing naiveté comes to the fore. “All we humans can do is touch each other a moment and move on, across this strange globe of ours, trusting in dreams and desire, placing faith in the fiction that shapes our lives,” she says at one point, and then in another: “Literature is a passion that must somehow find a voice”. No argument there.

In one of the more light-hearted essays, she attempts to provide a glossary of Hong Kong English, in the manner of Ambrose Bierce’s dictionary for 19th century America. Unfortunately, Xu Xi’s version is less funny, if as acerbic. “Freedom of speech” is defined here, for example, as “What the local media claims it has”, and “Tiananmen” is “a large public square in Beijing where the Olympic torch will blaze and which was the site of some historical incidents, we forget what”.

She is also scathing about questions of identity, with the contrasting pulls of the colonial past and the “one-country-two-systems” of the present day. In an unwitting echo of Amartya Sen’s more polished line of reasoning in The Argumentative Indian, she writes: “How hypocritical, this nationalized concern over identity! There is an archaic definition of the word to mean an ‘individual or real existence’. How refreshing to think that identity could be linked instead to the idea of existence. I exist in this space called Hong Kong from which I consequently derive an identity. Of course, if I happen to be Cantonese or Shanghainese or some other kind of Chinese, or perhaps not even ethnically Chinese at all, but if I happen to exist here, this space will certainly lay some claim on me. To limit identity to a political or national construct, or to demand that it be a choice certifying loyalty to the nation seems unbearably sad. Identity emerges from who we feel we are, who we have evolved to become over time, and is larger than mere nationality or political bias.”

It was of first century Rome that Juvenal famously commented that “everything now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses”. All these centuries later, Xu Xi’s comments on her city’s “Disney democracy” remind us of just how little has changed: “[It] was good enough because even when the economy tanked, bird flu invaded, S.A.R.S. terrorized and little changes insinuated their way into the world…life was and still is about fun, fun, fun.”

This, of course, can also be read as a reprise of her earlier observations on the comparative lack of works of literary merit. In another essay, Xu Xi cites three reasons for the absence of a thriving literary culture: it doesn’t pay the bills; it won’t change anything; and, importantly, “our parents won’t let us”. Asian values, anyone?

Though her criticism is clearly born out of affection, there does seem to be grounds for hope. Such seeds are to be found in literary magazines such as The Asia Literary Review, in the efforts of local publishing houses, in seminars, classes and publications by the Hong Kong academy, and, of course, in events such as the prestigious Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival that seems to attract more writers from across the world every year.

It could well be, on the other hand, that the future of writing in Hong Kong lies more in the newsroom than in the ivory tower. On the horizon could appear an Eastern version of Tom Wolfe’s brand of new journalism, an exuberant, vivid style of social realism capturing voices and attitudes across the archipelago and demonstrating that the city is no longer is the world of Suzy Wongs, noble houses and honourable schoolboys, and never quite was.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Travel Travail

The is from today's The Sunday Express.


Paul Theroux doesn’t think highly of travel writers. Their occupation is “one of the laziest ways on earth of passing the time…an elaborate bumming evasion.” They’re fond of “jumping to conclusions, and so most travel books are superfluous.” He’s even more scathing about those who retrace the footsteps of other writers: “opportunistic punks” indulging in a “glib debunking effort for a shallower, younger, impressionable writer”.

Having got that off his chest, he justifies his return to the terrain he wrote about in The Great Railway Bazaar. “Curiosity” and “dreams” are among his compelling reasons. And so, 33 years after he embarked on that expedition at the age of 33, Theroux boards the 12.09 to Paris from Waterloo to find out what’s changed and what hasn’t.

The actions of politicians and warlords meant that returning to Iran and Afghanistan was out; instead, he travels through Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. City squares, streets and bylanes, bars, massage parlours and other dives are the places that he primarily talks about, apart of course from his train journeys, the stations, food and passengers.

Serendipity and the ability to not too take oneself too seriously, those essential companions of the interesting traveller, are largely absent here. Even though it’s clear he hasn’t planned every detail, most of his accounts have the same ring to them. He likes places that haven’t changed all that much, among them Amritsar and Myanmar (the country not the government). He’s scornful about Singapore, heaping pages of criticism on its authoritarianism. He’s illuminating about how the totalitarian regimes of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have turned the lives of citizens into a low farce. And his Vietnam sojourn – among the most moving in the book – reveals that the spirited Vietnamese bear no ill-will towards America; they just want to get on with their lives.

Theroux, of course, has many novels to his credit, and seeks out other writers too. He dines with Orhan Pamuk in enchanting Istanbul, modestly confessing that “he reminded me of myself"; finds Elif Shafak “so beautiful [that] writing seemed irrelevant”; visits an absent-minded Arthur C. Clarke in Colombo; strolls around Tokyo and visits a porn emporium with Haruki Murakami; and gossips about writing, the strangeness of Japan and V.S. Naipaul with Pico Iyer in Kyoto and Nara.

In India, he discovers fresh confidence and optimism – nothing unusual in that – and finds that “everyone talked about the new India but the old India was never very far away”. Nothing revelatory in that either. His trip to the country is full of the contrasts between growth and grime, from the slums of Dharavi to the BPOs of Bangalore. Though he doesn’t break new ground, one sympathises with his reason to move on: an aversion to the “colossal agglomeration of elbowing and contending Indians.”

Towards the end, he experiences an epiphany. “What’s the big difference between then and now? …The greatest difference was in me”. In contrast to his younger self, the 66-year-old Theroux is more comfortable in his own skin, at ease with writing and traveling, with a home he looks forward to returning to. Alas, his conclusion is that the world is shrinking into “a ball of bungled desolation” and if there is hope, it is only to be found in the kindness of strangers. They say travel broadens the mind; perhaps too much travel simply makes it tetchy.

Friday, October 3, 2008

A Situation In New Delhi

This appeared in the latest TimeOut Mumbai.

Tim Parks

With Dreams of Rivers and Seas, Tim Parks takes his novelistic gaze away from decadent Europe and brings us a story of overseas visitors in India. Fortunately, it’s one that’s far more nuanced and complex than Paul Theroux’s recent The Elephanta Suite.

The central -- though absent -- presence here is that of Albert James, a discipline-crossing anthropologist, loosely based on Gregory Bateson. Albert dies of prostate cancer while in New Delhi and, following a phone call from his wife, Helen, their son John arrives from London for the funeral. Also in the mix is journalist Paul Roberts, long-time admirer of Albert, who hopes to persuade Helen to assent to his plan of writing a biography of her late husband. The pas de troix that now ensues is complicated a while later with the arrival of John’s girlfriend, Elaine.

The plot arises organically out of John’s tortured thoughts, Helen’s helpless bravado and Paul’s self-serving curiosity. Parks has a keen eye for Delhi’s crowds, traffic and chaos, efficiently delineating his characters’ complex responses to them. He spins a spider’s web of ideas to do with the commonalities and differences in the ways which we interact and, as such, the novel also deals with more modern modes of communication such as text messages and e-mail.

Grace, despair, patterns of relationships, the inability to recognise one’s ambitions and the strength to endure are what fill these pages. Dreams of Rivers and Seas is at times dense, at times unnecessarily drawn out, at times unnerving – and always absorbing.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Rat Race

This appeared in yesterday's DNA.


It was the 18th century philosopher Joseph Priestley who once said, “Like its politicians and its wars, society has the teenagers it deserves.” Well, anyone observing the teenagers of mofussil Bihar in the Seventies would know exactly what sort of society they were a part of: hidebound, repressed, anarchic and casually violent. This, then, is the subject of Avijit Ghosh’s debut novel, Bandicoots in the Moonlight.

The book tells of the exploits of young teenager Anirban Das, who appears to be a thinly-disguised stand-in for the author himself. Anirban’s father, a police officer in charge of containing the Naxalites in the area, is transferred from Wilsonganj to Ganeshnagar and it is in this latter town that Anirban attends the ironically-named Holy Child School. Here, we encounter Anirban’s friends: landlord’s sons, school bullies, overage pupils, incipient politicians and more. Others introduced into the narrative are his father’s driver as well as some colourful neighbourhood characters.

The structure of the novel is episodic, with each chapter describing a separate incident. And though the town of Ganeshnagar is fictional, the milieu is all too real. Ghosh speaks of the pleasures and passions of street cricket; of listening to Binaca Geet Mala on the radio; of surreptitiously scanning outré film magazines; of discovering and devouring pornographic publications; of attending ramshackle movie halls to watch the latest releases; of devising ingenious ways to cheat during school exams; and of finding willing and unwilling prospects to expend one’s libido on. On a more sombre note, he writes of the teenagers’ awakening to caste affiliations, of honour killings, of female infanticide and of the palpable presence of the Naxalites and their depredations.

The prose style is breezy, unassuming and cheerfully amoral, with the unfortunate inclusion of solecisms such as “booby” in place of “busty” and “lusty” instead of “lustful”. One would think that much of the material would lend itself to a satirical or even a trenchant tone; instead, Ghosh indulges in nostalgic asides as well as banal generalisations such as: “What you don’t know, you don’t crave,” and “Sometimes, we enjoy overestimating dread”. The author’s attempt, then, is simply to impose a structure on and relive Anirban’s wonder years.

The ending seems to be not of a piece with the rest, unexpectedly detailing Anirban’s present circumstances and introducing a character or two at the very last minute for inexplicable reasons. As such, the novel on many occasions resembles nothing more than a collection of diary entries, making the whole unpretentious and pleasant, but also unremarkable.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Enter Ghost

This is from the latest issue of Tehelka


The central characters of Everyman and Exit Ghost, Philip Roth’s two previous books, were both in their seventies and all too aware of their waning mortality. Those yearning for the feisty Roth of old may well perk up to find that the protagonist of his new novel, Indignation, is a 19-year-old college student. However, Roth reveals soon enough that the narrator has died an untimely death; this, then, is a recollection from the afterlife. He could well have called it Enter Ghost.

Indignation – the emotion, not the book – has of course fuelled Roth’s 29-novel career, with most of his work railing against sanctimony, hypocrisy and the smugness of the established order. Indeed, echoes of earlier books resound in the pages of this one: from the condition of the young narrator of Goodbye Columbus to the masturbatory high jinks of Portnoy’s Complaint to the Celine-like rants of Sabbath’s Theatre to the self-serving claustrophobia of campus life in The Human Stain -- among others. If Indignation, despite its strengths, isn’t as stirring a work, it’s because the writing comes across as whimsical and even odd in places. Not to mention the structure, which tends to totter.

The novel is set in the early Fifties, the time of America’s Korean War. This isn’t an alternative-history scenario as in The Plot Against America, but rooted in the reality of the time. It relates the tale of Marcus Messner, who escapes from his overprotective father’s butcher shop in Newark, New Jersey, to study at a college in Winesburg, Ohio. (Winesburg, that site of stunted American emotion in Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 novel.) Marcus is, as he modestly puts it, a “prudent, responsible, diligent, hardworking A student,” and soon finds himself standing out because of his Jewishness and being at odds with the “constricting rectitude”, compulsory chapel attendance and arrogance of his room-mates.

Marcus’ indignation at the state of affairs peaks during an interview with the college dean, during which he’s moved to quote from large sections of Russell’s ‘Why I Am Not A Christian’. Matters reach a head with the insurrection of a section of the male students who conduct an enthusiastic ‘panty raid’ during a snowstorm, creating an atmosphere that will lead to Marcus’ expulsion. (As should be clear by now, the book has more light-hearted moments than the grim Everyman and elegiac Exit Ghost.)

“All that is solid melts into air” was how the Communist manifesto described the contradictions of capitalism; in Indignation, all that is solid melts into liquid. The novel is full of human stains: the blood in a butcher’s shop as well as in the trenches of war; the vomit spewed by the queasy protagonist as a stand-in for bile when interrogated by the college dean; and, of course, the semen swallowed by Olivia, Marcus’ neurotic almost-girlfriend and fellow student, as well as ejaculated by the high-spirited undergraduates.

Those who look for it will probably find a connection between America’s war then and America’s war now, although Indignation doesn’t belabour the issue. The point driven home instead is that Marcus’ controlling father was right all along: in life, “the tiniest misstep can have tragic consequences”. Leaving poor Marcus “replete with frustration, buffeted by the merciless encounter between the no-longers and the not-yets,” as Roth wrote of Nathan Zuckerman in his alter ego’s swan song.

There’s no gainsaying, however, that Indignation doesn’t feel complete as a novel; there’s a definite sketchiness about some parts, while others seem forced. Despite this, there are powerful passages: the descriptions of working in a butcher’s shop and bartending in a local inn, or the college president’s holier-than-thou oration, for example. It’s these, coupled with Roth’s intermittently vigorous sentences, that see the book through to the finish line.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Mapping Desire

This is from today's Hindustan Times.


Is writing a form of archaeology? The metaphor is a seductive one, bringing to mind the excavation of buried moments, the enshrining of past activity and the assigning of a structure to the movement of memory. Such activities do, in fact, play an important role in Anuradha Roy’s debut novel, An Atlas of Impossible Longing. There are other fitting tropes in the book, too: the mining of the earth’s seams and the reclaiming of ancestral houses, for instance.

The novel is a triple-decker, with the first part introducing us to Amulya and his wife Kananbala who move to the hamlet of Sonagarh near Calcutta at the turn of the last century. As the years pass, their mansion is witness to family tragedies, from Kananbala’s mental deterioration to the collapse of their son Nirmal’s marriage. The action of the second part, based in the same location, takes place 11 years later. We learn of Nirmal’s fate and of his daughter Bakul’s association with orphaned tribal Mukunda, in the context of relationships with other family members. Part three segues into a first-person narration by Mukunda, speaking of his life in Calcutta and elsewhere, of his struggle to make something of himself, and of his meeting Bakul once again so that both can reclaim their lives.

Clearly, one thing the author isn’t short of is ambition: the chronological and point of view shifts apart, the novel covers roughly the first fifty years of the 20th century (historical events resound offstage like muffled echoes) and there are quite a few characters and locales whose development she pays close attention to.

Roy’s prose is atmospheric and attuned to nuance, and while there’s always the danger of such writing becoming nothing more than a warm bath of generalisations, she steers clear of this by her attention to detail and by making the action progress through powerful scenes. Thus, river water seeps into the crevices of an old mansion, the feeling of a sari on a mannequin is both unusual and tempting; Bakul rips apart some of Nirmal’s books in frenzy; a building contractor’s hands are studded with rings; and Mukunda struggles with the chaos of Calcutta’s streets.

In its delineation of flowers, skies, rain and their emotionally-charged effect on human beings, the prose is almost Lawrentian. There are other literary resonances to be found here, two obvious examples being the Mrs Rochester-like state of Kananbala and the Miss Havisham-like battiness of the family’s Anglo-Indian neighbour.

Though much of the plot satisfyingly emerges from the interactions between characters, the childhood ties between Mukunda and Bakul come across as insubstantial, which robs their later relationship of impact. In addition, events speed up towards the end through some all-too convenient coincidences. Such reservations apart, An Atlas of Impossible Longing is a well-etched map of a world in which the past has to be dealt with before the present can be set free.