April 2013 Posts

“And what remains in the end: The memoirs of an unrepentant civil servant” Robin Gupta

“And what remains in the end: The memoirs of an unrepentant civil servant” Robin Gupta

Another memoir by an ex-civil servant. An account of thirty-six years of service in the Bengal and Punjab cadre, but mostly focused on events in Punjab. A memoir like this is useful to read since it records socio-historical and economic events that tend to be easily forgotten — at least in public memory. But to wade through this book you will have to ignore the “I, me. myself” tone that does get a tad annoying. In the introduction Robin Gupta says “I should confess at this stage that I have, in these memoirs, permitted myself an element of the writer’s licence to interpret and depict places, individuals and happenings.” Then he should have called it “bio-fic”, a term coined by David Lodge.

In his endorsement of the book, Khushwant Singh says, ” Robin Gupta …memoirs mirror the chiaroscuro of contemporary India as observed by a civil servant…[This book] is a literary milestone.” But in his recently published Khushwantanama says “it is tempting to write one’s life experiences. A first novel is very often autobiographical. However, non-fiction is a different ball game altogether. Memoirs of retired generals and civil servants rarely make for good reading. …What is permissible in a biography is not suitable for an autobiography.”

26 April 2013

Robin Gupta And what remains in the end: The memoirs of an unrepentant civil servant Rupa Publications India Pvt.Ltd. Pb. pp. 290. Rs. 350

Breaking up: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Divorced

Breaking up: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Divorced


Yesterday I received a call from a young woman.She has separated from her husband of only a few years. She has returned to her parents home with her two-year-old daughter. She quit her job last year. Now she has filed for maintenance from her husband.

She is a young girl whom I have not heard from in some years. I do recall hearing her out on many occasions about the pressures of getting married, being wooed by a man in the same industry as her, and then the wedding happened. She was happy. Slowly the pressures to have a baby began. She used to look miserable. When she finally conceived she was ecstatic. Then she had a girl.

Apparently “this” — the daughter– is the root cause of the misery at home. So the girl walked out.

In every story there are many stories. So I am merely reporting what I was told yesterday. It is not a pleasant situation to be in. Instead I did recommend Breaking up: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Divorced. It is NOT a book I would want to recommend for the simple reason it is wading into very unpleasant waters and the break up of a young family. But it is handy manual that through the anecdotes, case studies and stories presents different scenarios, different laws etc pertaining to divorce cases. The lawyers who have written it, Mrunalini Deshmukh and Fazaa Shroff-Garg are highly experienced. While browsing through the book, you get a fair idea of the rights both men and women can exercise. There is a fantastic article about this book in the 30 march 2013 issue of OPEN magazine: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/living/waiting-forever-to-break-free . Yet, the sobering fact that they reiterate is that 70-80% of the divorce cases ultimately get settled through mutual consent, given how long it can take to fight a court case in India.

My only concern is that the people who actually need to read this book, will they be able to absorb the information since they are bound to be emotionally agitated. Also it would truly help to have a website dedicated to this issue, linked to the book. A website that is only has a standalone page of relevant links to divorce cases, the broad category of laws relevant to divorces with a list of police updates + a short profile/interview with the authors. Nothing more. It would help in disseminating information. At the end of the page there could probably be a button leading to the page from where the book could be ordered online.

Mrunalini Deshmukh and Fazaa Shroff-Garg Breaking up: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Divorced Sde, Penguin Books India, 2012. Pb. Rs. 250.

20 April 2013

Khushwant Singh. Two books. Two publishing houses – Penguin and Aleph

Khushwant Singh. Two books. Two publishing houses – Penguin and Aleph


Khushwant Singh. Two books published in quick succession by two publishing houses. Both books have been written when, “according to traditional Hindu belief, in the fourth and final stage of life, sanyaas. …At ninety-eight, I count myself lucky that I still enjoy my single malt whiskey at seven every evening. I relish tasty food, and look forward to hearing the latest gossip and scandal. I tell people who drop in to see me, ‘If you have nothing nice to say about anyone, come and sit beside me.’ I retain my curiosity about the world around me; I enjoy the company of beautiful women; I take joy in poetry and literature, and in watching nature… I have slowed down considerably in the past year. I tire more easily, and have grown quite deaf. These days I often remove my hearing aid…and I find myself relishing the silence that deafness brings. As I sit enveloped in silence, I often look on my life, thinking about what has enriched it…My life has had its ups and downs, but I’ve lived it fully, and I think I have learnt its lessons.”

Khushwantnama is a collection of reflections. Honest, Straightforward. Crisp. Acerbic. Tongue-in-cheek. Ruthless. The essays range from being a “Dilliwala”, the importance of Gandhi, what religion means to Khushwant Singh ( ” It is not God who created us, but we who created God. I am an agnostic. However, one does not have to believe in God to concede that prayer has power.”), on writing, on watching nature, on poetry especially Urdu poetry and Ghalib. The essays I have read over and over again have to be on the business of writing, what it takes to be a writer and dealing with death.

In his reflections upon writing and dealing with publishers, Khushwant Singh does not mince any words. Having written many books, his experience was that he never had any trouble finding a good publisher. But now “the whole business resembles a whorehouse. Publishers can be compared to brothel keepers; literary agents to bharooahs (pimps) who find eligible girls and fix rates of payment; writers can be likened to women in the profession. Newcomers are naya maal ( virgins) who draw the biggest fees for being deflowered. Advance royalties being these days run up to Rs 50 lakh, sometimes even before a word of the projected work has been written. Advances offered to authors in India are often higher than those offered in America or England or in any other European country. But they are offered only for works in English, not for works in our regional languages.”

And his advice on what it takes to be a writer. “Along with hard work, read whatever you can– whether it’s the classics or fairy tales or even nonsense verse. Reading will make you capable of distinguishing between bad and good writing. There is no substitute for reading. This is also the only thing that expands your vocabulary.”

This has to be read along with The Freethinker’s Prayer Book a collection of quotes that he gathered from his reading and many visitors. He maintained many notebooks. The best of these have been published in this beautiful volume. Quite literally from the cover onwards with its Sanjhi artwork of the tree of life to the text within. It is a book that you will want to dip in often.

In Swahili there is a saying that when a person dies it is equivalent to the loss of a library. These books exemplify that it certainly holds true for Khushwant Singh. I have enjoyed reading these books and keep them on my writing desk. Buy these books as companion volumes.

Khushwant Singh Khushwantnama: The Lessons of my Life Viking, Penguin, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 190 Rs. 399

Khushwant Singh The Freethinker’s Prayer Book and some words to live by Aleph, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 190. Rs. 495

Navtej Sarna on the novel and short story

Navtej Sarna on the novel and short story

Navtej Sarna @ JLF 2013 “Novel is more of a theme, with byways and lanes. Whereas a short story is just that snapshot of life. ” Here is the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5-RFxx02S4

15 April 2013

Looking for anchors and script writers, TV News Channel

Looking for anchors and script writers, TV News Channel

A TV channel is looking for some young and talented people for the newsroom including some anchors and script writers. Those interested please send your resume to satishjacob@gmail.com

“The Other Side of the Table”, Madhumita Mukherjee

“The Other Side of the Table”, Madhumita Mukherjee

The Other Side of the Table is about the correspondence between Abhimanyu, neurosurgeon and Uma, studying to be a surgeon. It is spread over nearly a decade, from the early 1990s-1999. Abhimanyu is a Consultant with a hospital in London and Uma is in Calcutta. They share their thoughts, observations about their experiences, friends, family and naturally exchange notes about medicine.

Given that the correspondence is in the first person, there is an immediate connection with the writers. Also that these are letters in long hand, posted by snail mail, in an era before email, there is a languid and an old world charm to the letters. No broken sentences, thoughts and observations worked out completely, without any hurry. As Abhimanyu remarks ” we have been storytellers, chroniclers, witnesses of each other’s lives.” Abhimanyu share his tales about travels across the Europe with Uma, his loneliness in London but sheer determination to excel as a neurosurgeon and become a Consultant and later his misery at struggling with cancer. Uma shares her life through college, from college crushes to a bad marriage, at the same time very sure of becoming a surgeon, becoming “someone”, through the sexist remarks she faces at work and yet, excels.

This is a story that will evoke memories of similar literature (notably, Tumhari Amrita and 84, Charing Cross Road ) but The Other Side of the Table is most definitely in its own space. Except for the epistolary form of telling the story, it would be wrong to compare it with other books of a similar genre. Madhumita Mukherjee, a cancer survivor and a doctor herself, has told a difficult story gently and with sensitivity. It is a book worth reading.

14 April 2013

Madhumita Mukherjee The Other Side of the Table Fingerprint Publishing, New Delhi. Pb. pp. 248. Rs. 195 (eBook available)

Irshad Abdul Kadir, “Clifton Bridge”

Irshad Abdul Kadir, “Clifton Bridge”

I have just finished reading Clifton Bridge by Irshad Abdul Kadir. I loved it! I suspect it is years of engagement as a lawyer, observing people, listening to stories, imbibing them that have been used in writing these stories. The words are just enough, not more, not less. Even the social climbing, ambitious Punjabi mother, Shabnam is only heard on a couple of occasions, but the Punjabi-English intonation is perfect. ( ‘Tariq, you’re talking about, he’s having tuition for final paper,’ Shabana explained….) And later when she is screeching hysterically, “yes, yes” on behalf of her daughter, Farah, at the nikah, her crudity, her desperation at improving her social status by marrying her daughter into the governor’s family (even though her husband is obscenely rich) are exposed so well.

Obviously listening to many stories over the years as a lawyer, also being a civil rights activist and a theatre critic have helped coalesce many skills into writing these eleven stories. There is a sharpness in the etching, there is a sensitivity in telling the tale from the point of view of the main characters and yet, always the shocking realisation that reality is cruel, life and its circumstances are ephemeral. It does not matter if it the family is the poorest of the poor like that of Jumma, Rano and Peeru in the title story, “Clifton Bridge” or that of the feudal lord, Malik Aslam and his Begum, the steps that the men take “all necessary steps to preserve order”. For Jumma it is selling off Bilal to a known paedophile, lusting after and nearly raping his “daughter” Noori ( “a dusky, dark-haired childwoman ripening early in the season”) and having no qualms about selling of the youngest child, Zeebu’s kidney for a decent pile of money. Similarly, Malik Aslam allows his Begum to keep Chumpa, an orphan in their home, as a companion-cum-housekeeper to assist her “in the tedious functions expected of jagirdanis”. Also the Begum genuinely believes her husband when he “promised my father, we would continue living like your liberal ancestors in the Raj…and…and…give a wide berth to the sick segregated lifestyle being foisted on us.” So she is horrified many years later when he summarily dismisses Chumpa from their service for no fault of her own, save that he did not want their household name sullied by rumours of an attempted rape by his prospective son-in-law. Malik Aslam’s explanation for the dismissal of Chumpa — “For being in the wrong place at the wrong time…for disturbing the order of our lives.”

This is a collection of stories that shows the rich and poor in unexpected hues–sure the feudal lords exist, just as the corrupt bureaucrats are a reality too. So is the fact that a mujahid has a child by a Christian lover and a globetrotting professor tries to cope with cultural and ideological barriers. I liked the powerful women characters. It could be the co-wives of Daud, a man with a roving eye; Chumpa the maid of the “big house”, Meher, widow, who opts to live alone with three daughters or even Sultana who becomes a world renowned singer, after her marriage. I enjoyed reading these stories. They present Pakistan as more than just the typical image of the country—seen as a hotbed of civil unrest, corruption and conservative mindsets. I hope Irshad Abdul Kadir does well.

13 April 2013

Irshad Abdul Kadir Clifton Bridge HarperCollins India Original, Pb. Rs. 299.

My review in “Tehelka” of Zubaan’s “Of Mothers and Others” ( 11 April 2013)

My review in “Tehelka” of Zubaan’s “Of Mothers and Others” ( 11 April 2013)

My review of a new Zubaan title, published in Tehelka earlier today. The url is given below.

http://tehelka.com/mommie-dearest/ ( published online 11 April 2013)

This is a collection of essays, fiction and poetry published in support of Save the Children. The contributors are all women except for one — Jai Arjun Singh on the mother in cinema. Various aspects of motherhood are discussed — pregnancy, crankiness about mothering, time taken away from professional space and intellectual sustenance, adopting children, bereavement, becoming mothers to special children and on being motherless out of choice. Or being grandmothers, loving your grandchildren, smothering them with affection as the delightful Bulbul Sharma does to her brood of five. But when her grandchildren complain, “Why must you travel so much? All nanis should stay at home,” Bulbul argues that “the new generation of grandmothers work, travel and play golf. They attend board meetings and fight cases… but they are still grandmothers at heart.”

Being a mother never quite ends, even when children become adults. When they are babies, children consider their mothers as extensions of themselves. As Shashi Deshpande writes, “What really overwhelmed me was the way my entire life had been taken away from me by the baby and his needs. There was no space left for anything else.” Children can take over every minute of your life, but as Maya Angelou pointed out in a conversation with the BBC about her memoir, Mom & Me & Mom, mothering means learning to be patient with one’s offspring. Mothers are their children’s safety nets; they teach, nurture and love. This is not necessarily an inherent or ‘natural’ trait that women are born with. It is not inevitable that a maternal instinct is kindled the moment a mother sees her children, biological or adopted. The essay ‘Contests and Critiques in Surrogacy’ raises the pros and cons of the commercialisation of surrogacy, with its most immediate impact being on the family of the surrogate mother. She may opt to rent her womb as an economic necessity, but its emotional and social repercussions are still uncharted territory.

The most powerful essay has to be Manju Kapur’s, grieving for the loss of her 21- year-old daughter in a car accident 20 years ago. She had been helped by many to walk the “long, long road ah ead” till she experienced the “light again, a different light from the one they thought they would live in earlier, but light nonetheless”. Juxtapose this with Tishani Doshi’s poem, ‘The Day After the Death of My Imaginary Child’ and the pain experienced by Kapur is even more searing.

As always, Urvashi Butalia, when she writes, is very readable. Her essay on being childless (which has been widely shared on the Internet) dwells upon not having had a biological daughter. She comments upon the relationships other mother-daughter duos have, including that of her friend, Mona Ahmed, a hijra, and her adopted daughter, Ayesha. Once Ayesha and Urvashi talked “about her life, a young girl, brought up in a hijra household, the father (Mona) actually her mother, the grandmother (Chaman) referred to as ‘he’ by everyone but Dadi, grandmother, to Ayesha. ‘Can you imagine what it was like?’ she asks me. They gave me so much love, but a young girl growing up, she needs some things, she has questions to ask about herself, her body, who was I to ask? There was no other female, only these men/ women, these people of indeterminate sexuality. I was so alone. Perhaps motherhood can’t be learnt after all.”

This book has been making its presence felt, given its release at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January by Shabana Azmi. At the Delhi launch, actress Nandita Das released it while holding her son on her hip. After closing this book (which I read in one sitting), I thought that the contributors raised some very valid questions on the “naturalness” of motherhood and other popular social canards. What concerned me was that, except for Anita Roy, no one commented on the importance of nutrition and, by extension, the importance of the mother’s self-preservation. I say this advisedly, since late last year Zubaan co-published a book with Cequin, a Delhi-based NGO that, among its other efforts to aid the marginalised, runs nutrition camps to teach urban poor women to balance their diets within budget. Maybe a short comment could have been included from Cequin on the kinds of mothering that exist in the space they inhabit? Having said that, Of Mothers and Others is a fine, worthy read.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist

Of Mothers and Others:Stories, Essays and Poems, Ed by Jaishree Misra Zubaan. 285 pp; Rs 495

“Our moon has blood clots” Rahul Pandita

“Our moon has blood clots” Rahul Pandita

Read. Stunned. Disturbed. Worried.

Enough said.

Rahul Pandita Our Moon has Blood Clots: The Exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits Vintage Books, Random House India. Hb. pp. 260 Rs. 499. Published in association with the New India Foundation.

Walking with the Lions: Tales from a Diplomatic Past, K. Natwar Singh

Walking with the Lions: Tales from a Diplomatic Past, K. Natwar Singh

Yesterday the Hindu carried an extract from diplomat and retired politician K Natwar Singh’s latest publication on his meeting former UK prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. ( www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/thatcher-chandraswami-and-i/article4595546.ece ). It is a delight to read. Natwar Singh is a good storyteller. The book Walking with the Lions: Tales from a Diplomatic Past, has been published by HarperCollins India. I am looking forward to reading more from this book. (I hope it will live up to its expectation of being a good book.)

Natwar Singh has been writing for many years about his meetings with literary giants, in India and abroad. For instance this book ( Profiles and Letters by K. Natwar Singh; published by Sterling Publishers Private Limited, New Delhi, 1997) excerpt published in the Frontline in 1997 ( http://www.frontlineonnet.com/fl1425/14250850.htm ) is about his having met E. M. Forster and R. K. Narayan. Natwar Singh has written often about his meetings with writers, publishers etc, many of whom he was fortunate to meet on his travels and postings. So I am pleased that publishers have begun to anthologise Mr Natwar Singh’s writings.

K. Natwar Singh Walking with the Lions: Tales from a diplomatic past HarperCollins India Original. Pb. pp. 224. Rs. 299