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.