Friday, October 29, 2010

Dancing In The Dark

Suketu Mehta, in his 2004 non-fiction chronicle, Maximum City, writes that for him, Mumbai’s dance bars represented “the intersection of everything that makes the city fascinating: money, sex, love, death and show business”. It’s when you get closer, much closer, that you see the grime under the glitter, the tarnish beneath the tinsel. This is what Sonia Faleiro shows us in Beautiful Thing, her exploration of the subculture of Mumbai’s dance bars.

It’s a book that’s taken five years to research and write, involving, among other things, interviews with bar owners, customers, waiters, sex workers, hijras, brothel madams, gangsters, policemen, NGO workers and of course the dancers and their families. Such preparatory labour is worn lightly; this is a readable, riveting piece of work.

Faleiro’s technique – as is also the case with the best writers of narrative non-fiction – is not to render her subjects in an impersonal, fly-on-the-wall manner. She strikes up friendships with and reacts to the drama in the lives of the people she writes about, witnessing their ups and downs at first hand. She is, then, a character in her own right throughout this work, sharing joys and sorrows, lending a helping hand and keeping tabs when necessary.

Beautiful Thing primarily tells the story of Leela, who, as the book opens, is a bar dancer in an establishment called Night Lovers on Mira Road. Through repeated meetings, Faleiro weaves for us her story: teenage abuse, an uncaring parent, arrival in Mumbai from Meerut, finding a haven of sorts – not to mention the ability to earn money – in a dance bar, and her relationships with the men in the life, not least of which is one Shetty, owner of Night Lovers. “Leela was a free spirit,” writes Faleiro. “She lived by her own moral code, she followed no religious text…she was clearly no saint. But her flaws made her human; even her inconsistencies were beguiling.”

We’re also told of Priya, Leela’s closest friend, who shares a similar background and fate. Both hold on to their shaky sense of identity by shopping, drinking, relationships and trying to wrap men besotted by them around their fingers. In another trait they have in common with the bar dancer Monalisa whom Suketu Mehta wrote about, they sometimes resort to cutting themselves in a futile attempt to create self-worth.

Faleiro’s task is to make Leela and Priya’s milieu come alive and she does so expertly, walking the line between the hard-bitten and the na├»ve, in a manner that is unsentimental yet caring. Tales of the bar dancers' lovers, incipient pimps, gangsters and others in their ken are also narrated, showing us their points of view to round out the stories of Leela and Priya. In this manner, Faleiro delineates “the truth about a world that fascinated me, intimidated me, and as I came to know it better, left me feeling frustrated and helpless.”

Pulling no punches, she records the coarse language, sexual politics and status markers of their world. One example of the last aspect is the hierarchy of ladies of the night: at the bottom, those who work in ’silent bars’ for hand-jobs; above them, women in brothels; then, the ‘call girls’; and at the top, the bar dancers, “because selling sex was not their primary occupation”.

Two set pieces, in particular, are remarkable: a visit to Kamathipura, the city’s red-light district to attend a celebration of hijras; and a trip to the shrine of Haji Malang with Leela, rendering her awestruck with its chaotic sights and sounds.

The first part of the book is set in January 2005, when there were about 1,500 dance bars in the city, and tells of what, in retrospect, must have seemed a halcyon time for the bar dancers. The second section, set in September of the same year, is grimmer, detailing their fates after the short-sighted governmental decision to shut down the bars without examining the consequences or providing suitable alternatives to the affected. Inevitably, Leela and Priya spiral into petty prostitution, forced sex, penury and desperation.

These, then, are characters that come to life for us on the page, evoking pity and terror. Ultimately, as one observer puts it, “It's always the same with these girls - a horror film!”  (No, not Chandni Bar.) More starkly, and more to the point, their fates are revealed in the words of another character: “We can pretend all we want, but ultimately the world sees us, why, our parents see us, as pieces of meat they can buy and sell, meat they can consume, meat they can throw away when it starts to stink”.

Joseph Conrad once famously wrote of his fiction, "My task, which I am trying to achieve, is by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel -- it is, before all, to make you see." That task is exactly what Sonia Faleiro has admirably executed.

Psst. Sar! You Are Wanting Book To Read?

Confessions of an Indian book pirate: the next instalment of my Yahoo India column.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Pak Pack

This appeared in today's The Indian Express


Taken as a whole, Granta’s Pakistan-themed issue has  a packaged, carefully-assembled tone to it. Feudal attitudes? Check. Kashmir? Check. The wild NWFP? Check. Karachi cosmopolitanism? Check. Fundamentalism? Check. This imparts to it something of a neat, sanitized air. Taken individually, however, there is much to savour because of the considerable strengths of contemporary Pakistani writing in English. 

Two of the fiction narratives that stand out are Mohsin Hamid’s short, chilling A Beheading – possibly inspired by Daniel Pearl, and which could be said to complement Hanif Kureishi’s earlier Weddings and Beheadings – and Mohammed Hanif’s Butt and Bhatti, a sardonic, dark account of the love that a pistol-packing policeman feels for a more grounded medical assistant. Also haunting, if a tad over-determined, is an extract from 79-year-old Jamil Ahmad’s forthcoming debut novel, The Wandering Falcon, about forbidden love and its consequences that’s set on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In passing, it’s a pity there’s nothing here by H.M. Naqvi, author of the excellent Home Boy. (And the disappointment one feels upon realizing that Daniyal Mueennuddin has contributed not a short story but a poem is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the poem itself reveals its linkages and emotional affect upon a few readings.)

What gives the collection its necessary spine are the pieces of non-fiction. Intezar Hussain speaks of negotiating an atmosphere of heightened religiosity and “unthinking nationalism” during the Zia regime, putting one in mind of Salman Rushdie’s personal recollections in Shame. Another fascinating piece that overlaps the same period is Kamila Shamsie’s Pop Idols, on Pakistani pop music, the emergence of the country’s Sufi rock, the experience of listening to bands such as Vital Signs and Junoon, and what Islamisation has done to some of the country’s most promising musicians.

Two Western journalists also have pieces here, one dealing with the past, the other with the present, each one again serving as a counterweight. Pulitzer Prize-winning Jane Perlez of The New York Times writes on Mohammed Ali Jinnah, mixing facts that are well-known with others that aren’t, bringing his secular credentials to the fore. And Guardian correspondent Declan Walsh travels among the Pashtun in north-west Pakistan to find “roasting hospitality, smouldering pride, cold and clinical revenge”. Then, there’s Basharat Peer’s piece on Kashmir which, like his Curfewed Night, is passionate, informed and mixes the personal and the political to telling effect.

A delightful change of tone comes in the form of Sarfraz Manzoor’s White Girls, detailing his hopeless infatuations over the years, his parents' admonitions to stay away from 'white girls' and of how he finally met the woman he was to marry. Clearly, the author of Greetings from Bury Park hasn’t lost his touch.

In his brief introduction to the pieces of art curated by Green Cardamom and featured in this volume, Hari Kunzru writes of “a particular urgency that exists as much in the desire to trace small, personal actions…as in overtly political gestures…” It is just such an urgency that animates the best pieces in this collection.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Novels At Work

My Yahoo India column on fiction that deals with, in Alain de Botton's words, "the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty, and horror of the workplace".

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Gentle Madness

This appeared in Sunday's DNA.

THE GROANING SHELF Pradeep Sebastian

There are debates aplenty over the talents of authors, the superiority of one genre over another and the worth of awards. But when it comes to actual books themselves, all bibliophiles have the same issues. Among them, the problems of storage, the unread piles, the frustration of not getting the title one wants and the sheer joy in the tactile sensation of holding a book in one’s hands. As Louis Szathmary once said, “You want to possess the books, you want to own them, you want to hold them. Perhaps you even hope that you will read them”.

Pradeep Sebastian has been writing about these subjects and more for years; his The Groaning Shelf is a collection of journalistic sketches that have earlier appeared in The Hindu, The Deccan Herald and elsewhere. These trace, as he puts it, a lapsed reader’s journey from “bibliophile to bibliojournalist to bibliographer”.

This, then, is a book about books. It’s about shelves, libraries, borrowing and lending, first editions, and the pleasures of browsing and collecting. Clearly, Sebastian is walking in the footsteps of others who have touched upon similar themes over the years, from Walter Benjamin to Borges to Manguel to Fadiman and more, some of whom he aptly quotes to buttress his views.

Some of the best pieces here are those that deal with Indian themes, such as the meditation on Amar Chitra Katha or the decline of the hole-in-the-wall lending library. Another noteworthy piece is on how books and bookstores have featured in Hollywood over the years. There are delightful personal accounts, such as his obsessive quest to track down Ira Levin in New York, or the time he spends in antiquarian bookstores. It’s also not without a pang that one reads about his impressions of Lotus House Books, the Bandra bookshop that is still missed.

Another section deals with writers who have afforded him pleasure, such as Pico Iyer, Michael Dirda and Jasper fforde. On occasion, he quotes from his correspondence with them, nowhere more tellingly than when he mentions a letter sent to him by Nicholas Basbanes: “Because books still matter regardless of where the technology is taking us, it is worthwhile, I think, to have as many champions for them as we can muster”. However, Sebastian is no neo-Luddite: there are also well-judged pieces on the e-book versus the printed word, as well as his experiences in tracking down rare editions online.

At times, though, one feels that the volume, like an overcrowded bookshelf, suffers from excess. Some pieces deal with books and writing only tangentially, such as the one on celebrities and their privacy, For all that, Sebastian wears his learning lightly: these riffs are written in a style that is affectless but never artless. When it comes to charting the gentle madness of bibliomania, he is always entertaining, well-informed company.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Reading America

This appeared in today's DNA.

DRIVING HOME Jonathan Raban

Though Jonathan Raban had been writing literary criticism and travelogues since the late Sixties, it was with Hunting Mister Heartbreak in 1991 that he really came into his own. This was his personal discovery of America, coinciding with his move from London to Seattle in 1990 at the not-so-young age of 47. As he writes, he moved for “casual and disreputable reasons”: “I met someone…the usual story”.

It was a move that had the felicitous side-effect of making him find subjects that re-animated his writing, mainly the lives and landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. Since then, he’s produced many more impressive works, notably the travelogues Bad Land and Passage to Juneau; and the novels Waxwings and Surveillance.

His Driving Home is a scrapbook of an Englishman in America, a collection of journalism from 1993 to 2009 that earlier appeared in Granta, Vogue,The New Republic, The Independent, among many other British and American publications. It’s arranged in strict chronological order, which immediately poses a problem to the reader going through it from front to back – book assessments follow travel pieces that follow author profiles that follow meditations on the state of America. (More than once, this reviewer was tempted by the heretical notion of ripping out all the pages from the volume and re-arranging them thematically.) It’s a ragbag then, albeit one loosely held together by the theme of displacement.

In his marvelous introduction Raban talks of the time he first learned to read as a child, and years later, reading on the job as an apprentice bus conductor. Here, he writes of his discovery of literary critic William Empson and his determination to model his style on the man best-known for Seven Types of Ambiguity. Indeed, piece after piece in Driving Home is testament to the hard work that Raban puts into his writing, from Empsonian close analysis to teasing out biographical details and their implications. Of Driving Home, he says: “The pieces that follow are readings – most of them readings of American landscape, literature and politics, along with some backward glances to England that may betray a lurking nostalgia for a society more settled in shape, more instinctively known, than the one I live in now,”

Many of the pieces are analyses of others who have lived in or explored the Pacific Northwest – among them the travelers Lewis and Clarke, novelist Bernard Malamud and poet Theodore Roethke. Another influence, Robert Lowell, is mentioned often. There is much, too, on the nature of travel, especially by sea: “I love the subtlety and richness of all the variations on the theme of society and solitude that can be experienced when travelling by sea”

Inevitably, American politics creeps in, too, with reportage on Obama’s presidential campaign, election night and his inaugural speech. One of the pieces on the theme of how a government uses technology to monitor the words and deeds of its citizens is clearly the inspiration for his novel, Surveillance. Along the way, there are gems such as: “One might see Guantanamo as the Bush administration’s most audacious attempt at nation-building: a tiny offshore state, run, like any totalitarian regime, by an all-powerful president, the military, and the intelligence services”

Of his initial move to Seattle, he writes, “I was a newcomer in a city of newcomers, where the corner grocer came from Seoul, the landlord from Horta in the Azores, the woman at the supermarket checkout from Los Angeles, the neighbor from Kansas City, the mailman from South Dakota”. This ability to think of oneself as a stranger in a strange land, and depict the familiarity and contradictions that result, has served Raban well through his writing career.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Among The Believers

This appeared in today's Mint Lounge


“Africa has no future”. That is how V.S. Naipaul ended a 1979 interview with Elizabeth Hardwick in the New York Times Book Review. This was just after the appearance of A Bend in the River, his novel set in Africa -- a continent to which he wasn’t a stranger, living in Uganda as writer-in-residence at Makarere University in 1966. Then again, he visited the Ivory Coast in the early eighties, fruit of which was the non-fiction account, The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro. It’s here that one finds the first glimmer of the theme that runs through his new work, The Masque of Africa. Despite his bleak pronouncements on the continent, Naipaul clearly feels impelled to return every so often; this journey may well be his last.

He revisits Uganda and the Ivory Coast, and travels to Ghana, Nigeria, Gabon and South Africa, seeking what remains of primordial African belief: “the older world of magic”, and how it has changed, or not, with the advent of Christianity, Islam and the “modern” way of doing things. He seeks out the grass-thatched palaces of Africa’s original rulers, visits shrines and other reliquaries, meets soothsayers, shamans and witch-doctors, and speaks to those whose lives have been altered by initiation rites. He finds common themes: “Doubles, astral journeys, the fragility and yet the enduringness of ritual, the idea of energy, the wonder of the forest”.

For Naipaul, clear-sightedness has always been the writer’s supreme virtue. Here, however, his view of things is coloured by the past. At the book’s start, he recalls visiting a British-laid botanical garden at the edge of Lake Victoria and adds: “Sometimes (a reminder of the wildness by which we were surrounded, but from which we were protected) the ground of the Garden was flooded in parts by water from the Lake seeping through”. This, then, could be a metaphor for what follows: fear of intrinsic chaos overcoming external order.

He sees dirt and garbage everywhere. On a single page, describing his arrival at Kano, a city to the north of Nigeria, one comes across the words ‘dust’ and ‘dirt’ twice, and ‘garbage’ thrice. The word ‘garbage’ appears thrice on the very next page itself. In addition, he makes much of the supposed African tendency to eat dogs and cats, as well as much of their wildlife. That some of the heartless methods of disposing of felines appear to be the merest hearsay doesn’t seem to bother him. Time and again he obsesses over the amount of money he will have to spend on guides, interpreters, witchdoctors and the like -- although this obsession does yield a fresh insight on one occasion: “…it is strange that rituals which would once have seemed necessary and vital, serving what was divine, beyond money, have to be disregarded when there is no money.”

There are powerful passages, such as the description of an initiation at Libreville, and his marshalling of detail is as acute. Not everyone, for example, would be able to describe a soothsayer’s attire as a “white gown that came out grey in a wash from the local water”. Equally, though, there are other times when his precision and command of the language seem to falter, such as when the local legend of an Ivory Coast chieftain’s rise to power is repeated twice for no reason, or when Unilever is quaintly referred to as “the multinational firm of Lever's” and then, just a few pages later, as “the international firm of Lever's”.

In the closing section, on South Africa, he says, “I expected that a big struggle would have created bigger people, people whose magical practices might point the way ahead to something profounder”. As before, he’s disappointed. Here, “race ran as deep as religion elsewhere”: hardly a new observation. Here, too, he segues into a brief account of Gandhi’s doings in South Africa, which seem out of place as they have no connection to the stated theme of the book.

Throughout, Naipaul is frank about his limitations because of the age at which he is travelling. (At one time, his legs give way while venturing to a witch-doctor’s village; a wheelbarrow appears as a vehicle, and this, understandably, does not suffice.) While one can admire such intrepidity, there are other statements that shock: “It was hard to arrive at a human understanding of the pigmies, to see them as individuals. Perhaps they weren't”. Pronouncements like these remind one of Vivian Gornick’s observation that though much of his writing is strong and original, “the lack of tenderness wears on the nerves”. It is this absence of empathy, in the end, that creates a distance between him and his material.