Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Write Stuff

This appeared in today's Hindustan Times. As it turns out, in the gap between writing and publication, I actually managed to read -- and even review -- some of the books mentioned below.

Some decades ago, Alvin Toffler coined the expression “information overload” to refer to the state of having too much data to go through in order to remain up-to-date. Well, given the line-up of new book releases over the next month, I’m suffering from the literary equivalent

The problem is that so many of the releases belong to the you-must-read-this category. In fiction, there’s Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth (despite the suspicion that this is another attempt at mining an exhausted seam of immigrant alienation); Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence; Hanif Kureishi’s Something to Tell You; and short story collections such as Tobias Wolff’s Our Story Begins and debuts such as Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. In non-fiction, there’s Julian Barnes’ Nothing to Be Frightened Of and Sathnam Sangera’s If You Don’t Know Me by Now.

What makes it worse is that all these follow on the heels of so many books acquired but yet lying unread, glaring accusingly from the bookshelves: among them Charles Allen’s Kipling Sahib; Junot Diaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Nathan Englander’s The Ministry of Special Cases. All of them hugged to one’s bosom the moment they were spotted, as books to be read right away. And don’t even remind me of the piles of books purchased much, much earlier, with spines still uncracked.

Such logorrhea is most unfair on the part of the authors concerned. Their respective Muses may well be perched on their shoulders urging them on, but surely all of them ought to get together to ration their offerings? “Sorry Salman, you had a book out two years ago, it’s my turn now.” “But Hanif, this is topical, it can’t wait.” “Both of you get in line, my debut is the fresh new voice the world is waiting for!” “Shut up Aravind, my tale of growing up in a dysfunctional family is the one that will bring succour to millions.”

Lest such exchanges degenerate into hair-pulling and ear-biting, I propose an organisation that follows the OPEC model of laying down quotas for oil supply – call it the Organisation of Literature Writing Countries -- which could allocate the number of titles published every quarter. Publishers and literary agents attempting to break the embargo could be blacklisted and exiled to the Polynesian Islands, a place where no-one has been spotted putting pen to paper since recorded history.

Of course, it’ll be a while before the literary authorities take note of this suggestion and even longer before they act on it. Meanwhile, the only recourse for the hapless is to pick up French professor Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read and follow his instructions. In case any of you out there do this, could you tell me what the book contains? Of course, I haven’t read it yet.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Epic Illusion

A slightly edited version of this appeared in Sunday's DNA.

THE PALACE OF ILLUSIONS Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

In The Palace of Illusions, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni sets aside her usual brand of exotic realism and attempts to show us the world of the Mahabharata though Draupadi’s eyes. Which brings to mind other feminist retellings of mythological epics, such as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, which narrated Arthurian legends from the point of view of Morgan Le Fay, Guinevere and others and, more recently, Margaret Atwood’s slim The Penelopiad, which retold The Odyssey from the point of view of the distressed Penelope. The success or otherwise of such attempts is clearly to be measured in terms of how they make us re-evaluate the previous work.

Here, the mode of expression is in the first person -- the challenge, then, is to work with the limitations of such a viewpoint to recast the omniscience of the original. Unfortunately, Banerjee side-steps this by having her Draupadi become the recipient of the stories of others, be they the Pandavas, her nursemaid, sundry bards, her brother Dhrishtadyumna and more. This seems like a cop-out: the uniqueness of a woman’s point of view is diluted and what remains is another potted version of the epic. In addition, many of the characters appear unchanged: Duryodhan is always vengeful and wicked, Krishna is always playfully divine, and so on.

Banerjee does introduce touches of her own, principally Draupadi’s unconsummated yearning for Karna, which she uses as a device to set some of the events in motion (although anthropologist Irawati Karve points out that this notion is to be found in some later Jain puranas). Banerjee also has Draupadi in an adversarial relationship with mother-in-law Kunti, and setting up courts after the Kurukshetra War to hear bereaved women’s issues. Her account of Draupadi’s outrage and subsequent acceptance when told that she is to marry all five Pandavas, as well as her implacable determination that her husbands fight the Kauravas to the finish are occasionally insightful -- but equally, there are parts that are unconvincing, such as the Freudian analysis of her husbands: “Your childhood hunger is the one that never leaves you. No matter how famous or powerful they became, my husbands would always long to be cherished”.

If it’s stimulating insights into the Mahabharata you need, there’s still nothing better than Iravati Karve’s Yuganta; if it’s a clear-cut encapsulation you’re looking for, brush the dust off the Rajagopalachari version.


This appeared in the May 16 issue of TimeOut Mumbai.


In the title story of Lavanya Sankaran’s The Red Carpet, a Bangalore-based chauffeur is bemused by, then comes to terms with, his mistress’ Westernised ways. Aravind Adiga’s debut novel, The White Tiger, can be read as that story’s evil twin. Here, we have the character of Balram Halwai who, brought up in a woebegone Indian village, works his way up to become a chauffeur in Gurgaon and then, following an act of premeditated, brutal violence against his employer, emerges as a successful Bangalore entrepreneur.

The novel is in the form of seven letters written by Balram to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, on the eve of the latter’s trip to Bangalore. These letters – the voice alternates between the cocksure and the breathless -- are both confession and life-story. Balram dwells on the circumstances that have fashioned him as well as holds forth on the state of the country. Satire is the dominant mode, and sacred cows are pilloried with irreverence. Much of this is extremely readable; for the most past, Adiga doesn’t let polemic come in the way of plot.

However, full-on satire is a two-edged sword: when used to show up systemic ills, it can also expose the lack of a solution on the part of the satirist. (That's why it's most effective in shorter works, or in sections of longer ones – ask Jonathan Swift.) The White Tiger is certainly a timely counterpoint to those glowing reports touting India's incipient superpower status, but has few antidotes to offer apart from the bromide of bringing the marginalised into the mainstream. It’s further weakened by taking on too many targets: politicians, elections, the police, city planners, the foibles of the wealthy, pollution, and more. Many satires suffer from being toothless; The White Tiger has too many fangs.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

New Grub Street


Early on in Keith Gessen’s debut novel, one of the characters visits his ex-girlfriend being treated for depression in a sanatorium. The institution, he thinks, would be better off being called a “slackertorium”: “a place for overworked urbanites to feel pleasantly melancholic”. That isn’t a bad way to describe the world of All the Sad Young Literary Men, even though the main characters display a marked aversion to overwork.

Here, Gessen – one of the editors of the literary journal n+1 -- tells the intertwined tales of three young men from America’s east coast: Sam, Mark and Keith, all with literary aspirations. The period is primarily the late Nineties, and when they aren’t busy expressing alarm over Bush’s re-election, they’re working as temps, obsessing over girlfriends past and present, Googling themselves, getting close to intellectuals they hero-worship and working on dissertations involving, variously, Abraham Lincoln and minor facets of the Russian Revolution. (Startlingly, one of them even visits the occupied West Bank.)

All of which is pleasant enough and not without a certain whimsical appeal. However, the occasional inclusion of photographs, charts and bullet-pointed prose make it too twee and, after a while, the goings-on of a bunch of guys who don’t seem to want anything in particular become lacklustre.

Worth your while? A bit too self-indulgent to be satisfying. Try the other n+1 editor Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision instead.

Too Much To Tell

This appeared in today's The Sunday Express.


Hanif Kureishi’s sixth novel is a long, sometimes engaging and more than occasionally satirical work that explores London life in the era of Thatcher, refracted through the prism of the present. Here, Kureishi returns to the territory of his first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, and his first script, My Beautiful Launderette, as well as explores the effect of ageing on the passions (found in some of his later work such as The Body). As such, Something to Tell You embraces, in the author’s words, “psychoanalysis, pop, race, Islamic fundamentalism, love, the vagaries of middle-age desire and regret”.

The story is told by Jamal Khan, middle-aged psychoanalyst and unabashed Freudian, who ranges freely over his present and past. The characters in Jamal’s orbit include his friend Henry, a film and theatre director of some repute; his sister Miriam, with whom Henry starts a liaison; his estranged wife Josephine, who lives with their son, Rafi; his boyhood companions Valentin and Wolf; and the love of his life, Ajita, whom he meets as a philosophy student in a London university.

Kureishi’s manner of presenting these characters reminds one of Virginia Woolf’s diary entries while composing Mrs Dalloway. She writes of trying to dig out “beautiful caves behind my characters”, caves that “shall connect and come to daylight at the present moment”. Though Kureishi’s ambitions are obviously dissimilar, he digs deep caves behind his characters too, and makes sure that we see far back into each one. Unfortunately, this frequently makes the novel a criss-crossing web of desires without a central presence. It’s far more taut and interesting when Jamal takes centre-stage, such as in the account of his trip to Pakistan with Miriam.

Kureishi is, of course, too skilled a raconteur to simply present us with great slabs of character interaction. The engine of the plot is a hot-headed escapade involving Jamal, Valentin and Wolf, with unfortunate consequences for Ajita’s family. How this is resolved is the climax that Something to Tell You moves towards.

The novel teems with activity and incident, most of them drawn from the swinging London of the Seventies: Rolling Stones concerts, soirees attended by Angela Carter and visits to Derek Jarman’s place after nights at the Groucho Club. Such is the territory that Kureishi finds most resonant, and it is effectively mined here, much of it for comic effect. Here’s a Soho party in the London of the present, for example: “Expensive dogs sniffed the guests’ crotches….Be-ringed queens from the East End mingled with upper class young men in priceless suits, pop stars, painters, Labour Party researchers and…a couple of black Premiership footballers – one in a white fur coat – who stirred more excitement than the pop stars.” Fans of Kureishi’s earlier work will be quick to spot another character that turns up in this party -- Omar, from My Beautiful Launderette, now transformed into the somewhat unpleasant Lord Ali, a media magnate with strong opinions.

Towards the end, the novel’s farcical side becomes broader, with Kureishi focusing on the metropolis’ seamier attractions: expensive hookers and underground clubs catering to every perversion, for instance. The 7/7 bombings also feature, with characters offering opinions on how this will affect lives. These attempts to be all-embracing make the going a trifle tedious. Had this cocktail been composed of fewer ingredients, it would have been more potent.