Sunday, January 1, 2012

15 Literary Predictions For 2012

This appeared in today's DNA.

The jury's out on whether the Mayan prophecy of the world ending in 2012 will come to pass. If we're still standing this time next year, here are fifteen predictions related to books and publishing that we’ll have to endure.

1 Passions will run high with the discovery of a manuscript in Steig Larsson's study entitled The Girl Who Served My Coffee Cold. It will later be discovered that this is not an unpublished novel, but a long rant against a tardy waitress at a nearby cafe.

2 Shops known as "bookstores" will start to stock seasonal vegetables, readymade garments and sports goods, apart from DVDs, CDs, video games, watches, jewellery and stationery. As this will leave no space for books, they will be available by special request only.

3 The spate of books and articles on Steve Jobs will cease once people realise that many of those writing about him were simply repeating the same thing. Matters will come to a head once it is discovered that a much-linked-to blog post titled "My Recollections of Jobs" simply consists of the words "Stay hungry, stay foolish" typed over and over again.

4 After the furore over the proscribing of A.K. Ramanujan's essay on the Ramayana by Delhi University, members of the varsity's Physics Department will seek to stop the study of quantum physics, claiming that "some German fellow called Heisenberg" was out to promote uncertainty across the nation.

5 Shah Rukh Khan's 37-kg "opus" will cause bookshelves and coffee tables across the nation to splinter and collapse under its weight. The MNS will subsequently stage a series of protests in front of furniture showrooms, claiming that this has offended the sensibilities of those carpenters who are not SRK fans.

6 Adam Mansbach, author of the sleeper hit, Go The F*ck to Sleep, will repeat his success with Who Gives A Sh*t, a potty-training manual.

7 Salman Rushdie's memoir of the fatwa years will attract controversy, as detractors will claim that there's nothing whatsoever in the book to cause offence to any community, and the author is thus depriving people of a chance to protest. Rushdie will claim that this is untrue and as proof, he will protest against Pankaj Mishra's review in Outlook.

8 Amitav Ghosh will ridicule reports claiming that the third volume of his Ibis trilogy, after Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke, will be titled Stream of Consciousness.

9 Zombie and vampire mash-ups will gain popularity in India too, with works such as A Suitable Werewolf and The Three Banshees of My Life. However, V.S. Naipaul will haughtily turn down requests to publish A House For Mr Nosferatu and India: A Million Monsters Now. Subsequently, Paul Theroux will write another memoir accusing Naipaul of racism towards the undead.

10 The Man Booker judges will cause consternation when they include Rujuta Dawekar's Women and the Weight Loss Tamasha on their longlist. The title will subsequently be withdrawn when it's pointed out that it's not a work of fiction. "But it was so readable!" one of the judges will be heard to comment.

11 Chetan Bhagat will once again feature on bestseller lists with his non-fiction work, The Grammatical Mistakes of My Life. Here, he will claim that he's never written in English, but a local Indian dialect instead; therefore, criticism of his poor handling of the language is misplaced. Translators will be summoned to render all his previous work into English.

12 Street food vendors will stay off Indian roads to protest against the declining sales of newspapers and magazines. When lauded for their attempts to promote reading, the president of the vendors' association will say: "Reading-shmeading. We only want to make sure there's no shortage of plates and wrappers."

13 Amazon will introduce a sleeker version of the Kindle Fire, to be named the Kindle Lighter. After disappointing sales, this will unkindly be dubbed, "the Dwindle".

14 Literary festivals will be organised every weekend, with the latest addition being that of the Nallasopara Panchayat's Write Stuff Carnival. ("Books! Celebrities! Candy Floss!") Organisers of such festivals will soon run out of authors, and will therefore introduce public readings from shopping lists, classroom notes and telephone directories. The number of such soirees will decline once the government, waking up to their popularity, imposes a 55% tax on all literary activity.

15 British betting agent Ladbrokes will claim that one Hans Castorp from Hamburg is the frontrunner for the literature Nobel. Wikileaks will reveal that Castorp is actually a fictional character from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and in an attempt to salvage its reputation, a Ladbrokes spokesperson will scoff, "You mean the other laureates were real people?"

Lost In The Middle Kingdom

This appeared in yesterday's The Hindustan Times


Novels, like human beings, sag in the middle. Between the set-up and the denouement falls the shadow, as Eliot would have phrased it.  Some novels, in fact, never quite recover from this tapering off of tension as they progress. It is into this category, alas, that one must place Kunal Basu’s The Yellow Emperor’s Cure.

Earlier this year, both David Mitchell and Amitav Ghosh published novels based in earlier centuries where characters are changed by coming in contact with a walled-off Orient. In Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a young Dutch book-keeper falls in love in 18th century Japan; in Ghosh’s River of Smoke, the second in his Ibis trilogy, a bevy of characters, primarily an opium trader from Bombay, confront their destinies in 19th century Canton. Basu’s new novel, too, charts the fate of an European in late 19th century China – although it must be said that the author, better known for his moving short story, The Japanese Wife, has dealt with similar subjects almost from the start of his writing career, as evidenced by 2001’s The Opium Clerk.

The Yellow Emperor’s Cure deals with the travails of young Portuguese surgeon Dr Antonio Maria, possessed of “the most precious pair of hands in Lisbon”. In the words of his friends, he’s “rock steady with the scalpel, but a prize idiot when it comes to women”. The good doctor is shaken out of carousing at the Lisbon festa with the news that his beloved father has been stricken by the then-untreatable syphilis. He resolves to travel to China to find a cure for the “French Disease, Spanish Itch, German Rash or Polish Pox -- it was the same old curse Dom Columbus had brought home from Hispaniola along with gold and talking parrots”.

After a brief stint in Macau, Antonio ensconces himself at the summer palace of the Dowager Empress, adjacent to Peking. Here, he learns of the yin and yang of traditional Chinese medicine under the tutelage of the mysterious Dr Xu in a period when, as his friend tells him, "The grand libraries of Florence and Paris, London and Heidelberg, contain all that's known to mankind. We Europeans know as much as there is to know about the yellow race, more than they know about themselves!" Soon enough, in the time-honoured manner of Europeans before and after him, Antonio is quickly entranced by the enigmatic Fumi, Dr Xu’s assistant, a woman with a chequered past.

The doctor from the west has the misfortune to be in China at the time of the so-called Boxer Rebellion, the incipient nationalist uprising opposed to foreign influence.  The Boxers, one of the characters breathlessly asserts, are "...spirit soldiers, a ragtag bunch of bumpkins passing themselves off as god-sent saviours of China. There are eight million of them, or so they say, each capable of flying in air and spitting fire, immune to bullets and bombs”. The uprising will bring secrets to light and have defining consequences for Antonio and his compatriots.

Basu is adept in conveying locale, background and customs, be they of Lisbon’s bustling streets, the hubbub of Macau or the imperial courtyards and crowded marketplaces of Peking. There’s also a gallery of engaging, eccentric characters: Jesuit scholars, a pair of eunuchs, doctors, diplomats and merchants. After the novel’s brisk beginning, however, plot and character development become mired in thickets of cultural and historical detail (something that Mitchell and Ghosh also fell prey to). Moreover, especially when it comes to the Boxers, much is told and little is shown, rendering many episodes bloodless.

“A book is like a garden carried in your pocket”, goes the apocryphal Chinese proverb. The garden of The Yellow Emperor’s Cure is well-landscaped, with a defined entrance and exit; it’s the walkways within that are nebulous.