June 2013 Posts

Meghna Pant, “Happy Birthday! And other stories”

Meghna Pant, “Happy Birthday! And other stories”

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Sitting in the mall day after day, like mannequins on public display, we have become objects of ridicule, especially in the easy black-or-white judgement of the young. We have to stay as invisible here as we do in our homes.

“Lemon and Chilli”

Happy Birthday is Meghna Pant’s second work of fiction in as many years. The first was a novel, One and a Half Wife. It was received very well — critically and commercially. With her collection of short stories she has strung together a series of vignettes dealing with the Indian middle class. They may be in Mumbai or non-resident Indians (NRIs) settled in America. They are competently told, but as Jeet Thayil says, the stories are “merciless”. The loneliness and despair that permeates through the stories is very depressing. ( My favourite is probably “Lemon and Chilli”.) Surprisingly despite these negative feelings it makes you want to read the next story and the next, till you reach the last page. Her sensitivity in describing the life of an elderly, retired person is devastatingly chilling, for it is so true. Some of these stories seem to have been inspired by events reported in the newspapers, like “Friends” and “Dented and Painted Women”, but Meghna Pant has most certainly made the stories her own by spinning intricate yarns.

I did like reading Happy Birthday! but to shirk off the overwhelming sense of sadness will take a while, merely because the stories are so well told and believable. But read you must. This is a new voice that will leave a stamp on Indian fiction in the years to come.

Meghna Pant, Happy Birthday! And other stories
Random House India, New Delhi, 2013. Pb. pp. 290 Rs. 299. An ebook also available.

Good Lit Versus Saleable Lit, PubSpeak, June 2013

Good Lit Versus Saleable Lit, PubSpeak, June 2013

PubSpeak, Jaya
( My column, “PubSpeak”, for June 2013 is on What constitutes good literature? It is published in BusinessWorld online. The link is: http://www.businessworld.in/en/storypage/-/bw/good-lit-versus-saleable-lit/r964342.37528/page/0 . It was uploaded on 29 June 2013. )

Good Lit Versus Saleable Lit

What is good literature? The fine, complex and well-crafted story that will survive over a period of time or is it literature that sells phenomenally well? The debate is on…

Some of my happiest childhood memories are sitting curled up in a chair and reading. I read and read. I bought books, I was gifted books, I inherited books. My brother and I browsed through encyclopaedias, books on art and museums, read fiction, non-fiction, and anything else in between. Call it by any name, but the pleasure of holding and reading a book was tremendous. In fact one of the canvases I painted was of my brother reading a Leslie Charteris “Saint” novel, borrowed from the library its red jacket visible while he lies on the bed absorbed in reading. We read voraciously. We read whatever came our way. I don’t recall anyone telling us that books were strictly by age or category. We liked a good story. Period.

Today it is different. In June 2013 award-winning German writer, translator and Publisher at Carl Hanser Verlag, Michael Krüger, said in Publishing Perspectives, the daily e-newsletter on publishing, “I only know there are good and interesting books, and bad ones. …Since book publishing became a mass-market business, the quality level is constantly sinking. But there are still very good books around, in every country! The problem is that people can’t get them because they are hiding.” Publishers are increasingly more careful about commissioning titles and work a great deal on the packaging and promotion of the books. Always with an eye on the market, reaching out to the regular customers and trying to connect with new readers. For instance titles for children are being classified according to age, to make it easier for customers to find authors.

New imprints are being launched especially for young adult literature (it is a booming market segment) – Inked (Penguin Books India), Red Turtle (Rupa Publications), Duckbill (Westland) and Scholastic Nova. The idea is to always have a pulse on the market. Some of the genres that are popular are commercial fiction, children’s literature, non-fiction, self-help, business and then there are new lists appearing – young adult/ tweens, cross-over titles, and speculative fiction.

Jaspreet Gill, a marketing executive who wandered into the industry a year ago, (and the publishing bug has bitten him) says “It is not an industry for the most part driven by Editorial (I thought it was), or the quality of content. The whole trade is driven by sales. The worth of a book is judged by how well it can be sold, or how much the author can spend and how well he can be utilised for marketing. This is also, with all due respect to them. They are smart salesmen, but that is all that they are, selling commodities, not presenting ideas, ideologies, and good literature. I sincerely believe that the reason for success of the authors of commercial fiction is not the quality of their content, but the price of the book, and visibility they are able to get at the retail stores. They are also clever marketers, and know how to sell their products to people.”

Somak Ghoshal, former literary fiction commissioning editor with Penguin Books, acquired some fine literature (Chitra Bannerji Divakurni, Anjan Sundaram, Neamat Imam and Shazaf Fatima Haider) says, “Commercial fiction sells. The print runs are staggering. The success of these titles allows the firm to acquire literature that in turn develops the brand of the firm. It is a symbiotic relationship.”

It raises the (eternal) question of what is good literature? What sells? And why? Does good literature equal saleable literature? Naveen Kishore, Publisher, Seagull Books, Kolkata (with offices in New York and London), offers an explanation “Like everything else, we need to question the ‘market’. After all, it cannot exist in a vacuum. To put it another way: without content — largely implying the labour of the author, the effort of the publisher and all the other players including the vital function that a translator plays — where would the market be? What would it ‘showcase’? What would it sell? And let us make no bones about the fact that ‘content’ is not simply and only about a certain swiftly ‘saleable’ kind of book. It is also about the arts and literature and culture and philosophy and thought that go into making us human. Again if we persist with our interpretation of what the market wants we will end up by not publishing 90 per cent of these subjects. What kind of a future will that be? It is in this context that the market has a responsibility and a proactive role to play. ‘It’ (the market) cannot be lazy about this and merely sit back and expect only the books that make the grade according to ‘its’ standards be accepted! The market has to learn to cater, feed, nurture tastes for literature that do not necessarily extend to the millions . . . always remembering that the first Kafka text only sold 800 copies! If the market had behaved as it does now we would never have had a Franz Kafka! It is in this context that I suggest that the market needs to find you.” Sterling Lord, literary agent to Jack Kerouac, Ken Casey, Gloria Steinem, and Berenstains reports in his memoir Lord of Publishing of Ted Geisel, editor, Random House who published the Berenstain bear stories that he insisted on the story being a page-turner. But it “wasn’t only the story that Ted focused on; he cared about the title page, the type, the paper, every phrase, every word, every rhyme, and every drawing.” The intervention of the editor created a book that would sell and launched a new author into the market. By March 2009, nearly fifty years after publication, The Berenstain Bears Go to School had sold 3,520,554 copies in North America alone.

Of course the notion of what constitutes “good” literature is subjective but it is obviously a challenge that plagues the industry worldwide. Is it literature that is fine, complex, well-crafted and tells a good story that will survive over a period of time or is it literature that sells phenomenally well and caters to the mass market? Can literary tastes even be defined? Eric Hobsbawm says it well in Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, “… much good new writing is published that would never pass the profit threshold set by the accountants, because of non-market decisions.” No one really knows. Is it the author that creates a market with their storytelling or does the market create an author? Publishing continues. New authors are discovered. New readers emerge. The cycle continues.

As I file this column, it is announced that Penguin Books India has signed a two-book deal worth an estimated Rs 1.25 crore (approx $210,700) with Ravi Subramanian, popularly referred to as the John Grisham of banking. This follows close on the heels of Amish Tripathi, of the Shiva trilogy fame, who has inked a deal worth Rs 5 crore (approx $843,000) with Westland for his next series.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist.

Ambai “Fish in a Dwindling Lake”, translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom

Ambai “Fish in a Dwindling Lake”, translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom

Fish in a dwindling lake

( This was a review commissioned last year, but never published. So I am uploading it today on my blog. 26 June 2013)

Fish in a Dwindling Lake is a collection of short stories written by well-known Tamil writer, Ambai. It consists of short stories and four long stories. Interestingly the short stories are merely titled as “Journey”, but the longer stories stick to the motif of the journey. The narrator is usually a universal “she”, who is never given a name, probably making it easier to discuss various positions and responsibilities of women. To bracket them as merely as a wife, mistress or a reliable widowed aunt would be doing injustice to the characters created. They do occupy these socially defined and recognized spaces, but Ambai’s strength as a storyteller shines when she is able to describe their lives or an incident or a conversation or a journey that they undertake, but in a manner that shows these strong women have the quiet ability to question and make their choices and be at peace with them. For Bimla in the title story, “Journeys had become the symbols of her life. Journeys with objectives, journeys without; meaningful journeys, journeys made of necessity; journeys which were planned, but never happened; journeys which broke all decisions; journeys which had become rituals.” The stories raise questions about human relationships, sexuality of a woman and the fact that there is nothing wrong in discussing it or being aware of it. In “Journey 5”, Gomati Ammal invites her childhood friend, now a renowned professor, to move in with her after she is widowed. They belonged to the same village near Tirunelveli, but belonged to different castes. Plus, her family was paying for his education. She pleaded with him when they were young to elope and get married, but he refused and married a classmate of hers. But once she was widowed and her children were settled abroad, she wrote to the professor, “I have lived all these years in accordance with your wish. Now at least let me be with you?” So they worked out a convenient arrangement where he visits her twice a month. “He is never asked at home, why and where he is going. Neither does she say anything when she sees me. After all she is a woman who studied with me, isn’t she? Isn’t she my friend?” Using the personal pronoun or naming the protagonist instantly distances the reader from the experiences of the character, although there is an instant recognition and empathy with her. But with a character in the third person it is possible to share minute details that usually remain confined to a woman’s domain, but strike a universal chord, as the pregnant girl in “Journey 4” says ironically, “only a wife knows what goes on inside a house”.

These stories were first published in Tamil by Kalachuvadu. The publisher, Kannan Sundaram says that the English edition has “translated and published all the stories in the Kalachuvadu edition in the same order of stories with the same title. The first story in the Kalachuvadu edition has not been included as it was included in another collection of Ambai stories in English earlier –In the Forest a Deer.” For the translator Lakshmi Holmstrom, “The current collection of eleven short stories translated from Tamil; it showcases Ambai’s technical skills at her mature best. Her style can be elegant, witty and lyrical by turns. … Some of her short stories work through ironic juxtaposition of incidents, or through repetition of images, as in poems. The longer stories, on the other hand, while still using the repeated symbol or motif, are intricately constructed, moving back and forth in time almost cinematically, interweaving different kind of texts and narratives.”

Ambai is the nom de plume of C. S. Lakshmi, a renowned feminist, who established SPARROW (Sound & Picture Archives for Research on Women). So it is probably possible for Ambai to jot down these varied instances in a woman’s life since she is immersed in these stories 24×7. In an email to me after the publication of this anthology, she said that for a storyteller “stories are all around one. We must just open ourselves to them.” Hence, the title story “Fish in a Dwindling Lake” is about Kumud, her relationship with her extended clan and friends. But it also works beautifully by tracking the life of Kumud, who quietly and steadily, as happens with women, adapt and survive since the instinct for self-preservation is extremely strong. So like the fish in a shrinking lake, she may have to struggle to survive but will always find sufficient oxygen to live. This is an anthology worth reading.

Ambai “Fish in a Dwindling Lake”, translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom. Penguin Books India, 2012. Pb, Rs. 250 pp. 150

Neil Gaiman, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”

Neil Gaiman, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”

Neil Gaiman

I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.

Adult stories never made sense, and they were to slow to start. They made me feel like there were secrets, masonic, mythic secrets, to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?
p.71-72

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Neil Gaiman’s latest offering. A delight for Gaiman devotees, and a treat for those who are yet to discover this fantabulous storyteller. He tells a story about a few days in the life of a seven-year-old boy, being recounted by the adult version, forty years later. Gaiman so casually pushes the limits of conventional storytelling. Visiting a farm, watching a garden patch with overgrown foliage or visiting a placid lake, will probably never be the same experience once you are done with this story!

It is worth remarking upon how Gaiman seems to write for a young reader just discovering fantasy and the magical world of literature, while at the same time giving an adult, a seasoned reader, the same pleasure of reveling in a good story. Gaiman retains a child-like, illogical wonder of the world around. His imagination is stupendous, combined with the wisdom of age and maturity makes the text so rich and memorable. At the same time he is able to weave in very pertinent issues of child abuse, death, adults “ganging” up against children, age, discussing family structures– the conventional and the unconventional.

Read. You will be disappointed that the story ends as quickly as it does.

Neil Gaiman The Ocean at the End of the Lane Headline Publishing Group, Hachette, London. Pb. pp. 250 Rs. 399
( An e-book and an audio book are also available. Price not mentioned.)

Abdourahman A. Waberi, “Passage of Tears”

Abdourahman A. Waberi, “Passage of Tears”

waberi passage of tears

So I read Passage of Tears. My introduction to Abdourahman A. Waberi. What a writer! I am not sure if he worked on the English translation, but after a long time I felt as if I was reading a novel, not a translated piece of literature. It was originally written in French and has been translated brilliantly by David Ball and Nicole Ball. It is a novel set in Djibouti, told by Djibril. He opts to live in Montreal, from the age of 18, but returns to the country of his birth, to prepare a report for an American economic intelligence firm. The story unfolds from there in two dimensions…one of the events happening to Djibril and the second, the life of Walter Benjamin that gets written instead of the testimony he has been asked to note down.

Waberi lulls you into expecting a straightforward novel. The beginning is classical, in it being an ordinary narrative, plotting, placing the framework etc. And then he slowly begins to spin a web around you of different narratives and experiences. And yet are they really? Before you know it, you are sucked into a frightening world where money reigns supreme, in the name of God (call Him by any name you will), relationships are ephemeral. Literature remains a constant. You discover it, you use it, you create it, but words depending on how you view them, they can be inspirational, they can convey stories and histories or they can be viewed as “agents of contamination”.

Waberi’s relationship with Walter Benjamin is extraordinary. How on earth does he vacillate in the narrative from a discovery, to a personal relationship, to being in awe and then coming closer to Walter Benjamin resulting in a conversation bordering on the confessional to that of a disciple with his God/mentor to writing a biography of the man? When Waberi realises some of the similarities in their lives, there is a perceptible calmness that infuses his jottings about “Ben”.

Fiction where the creative license blossoms from reality or a sharp understanding of it, retains a power that cannot be matched with any other. Waberi is such a brilliant writer. Sparing with his words but packs quite a punch. It is not surprising to discover that he was twice a jury member of the Ulysses award for reportage. Now he is due to publish a new novel early in 2014. A book worth buying.

Abdourahman A. Waberi, Passage of Tears Seagull Books 2011, Hb. pg. 200
English translation by David Ball and Nicole Ball.
Jacket design by Sunandini Banerjee

“Creative Writing in the Present Crisis” Jawaharlal Nehru, 1963

“Creative Writing in the Present Crisis” Jawaharlal Nehru, 1963

Best of Indian Literature 1957-2007

( As the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru would have been the patron of Sahitya Akademi. The following are extracts from a speech he delivered extempore at the awards for 1962. These are given to books of outstanding literary merit published in the Indian languages during the preceding years. This has been reproduced in the Best of Indian Literature 1957-2007, Vol 1 Book 1, published by the Sahitya Akademi. Editors are Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee and A. J. Thomas. They have edited four volumes of stories, essays, speeches published in the institute’s journal, Indian Literature for fifty years. Many of these have been translated into the English language. A pleasant surprise was to discover this wonderful speech by Nehru and another one by Aldous Huxley on “Literature and Modern Life”, delivered in 1961.)

“…Sahitya Akademi deals with all the languages of India and tries to encourage them and to bring about as much as possible, not a synthesis of them, but a mutual understanding and comprehension of them by translations from one language to another. ….

Really the growth of the Indian languages took place afresh about a hundred or hundred or twenty years ago. That period coincided with the introduction of printing, etc. in India and it was influenced naturally by ideas which had come to India through the English language mostly, through other languages too. The modern world gradually crept into India and that influenced our languages. And the modern literature in these languages is naturally much affected by the modern world, modern problems. That is as it should be. And so we find an interesting aspect of this questions, that, in a period when English was more or less the official language of India under the British Rule and was affecting large numbers of our people, the coming of English affected the Indian languages in a different way by indirectly encouraging them, because English happened to be the vehicle through which we came into contact with the new world. And, therefore, modern ideas, modern concepts began to enrich our languages through English or because of our knowledge of English, and our languages grew. I have no doubt they will grow. Even now they are strong and very effective languages and a large number of books are being published, books of merit. I have no doubt this will grow. But to think that a language is crushed or suppressed by another language, is not quite correct. It is enriched by another language. So also our languages will be enriched the more they get into touch with each other … .” ( p.319-320)

hOle Books, Duckbill Books

hOle Books, Duckbill Books

hOle books, off Facebook page

In April 2013, Duckbill Books launched a new chapter book series in India called hOle books. ( Duckbill books was launched in 2012. It has been established by Anushka Ravishankar and Sayoni Basu. Two names that are very well known in children and YA literature in India and worldwide.) There are four inaugural titles, with one seasoned author, Asha Nehemiah, and three new authors. Each book has a balance between text and illustration. Short chapters, with text laid out well enough for a new reader to understand the text. These books work well for reading out aloud or for a little child to trace their fingers on the text and read slowly and clearly. At the same time, without being tied down to too many technicalities, the stories do have a zany imaginative aspect to them. My particular favourite is Asha Nehemiah’s Trouble with Magic. It has magic, imagination, taking off from an extremely ordinary situation at home. Plus a lot of colourful descriptions in the text. I read out some of the stories to my three-year-old daughter, Sarah. She loved them. The black and white illustrations are simple with bold strokes. Easy to match with the text. In 99% of the cases it works well, except for p.36 of Meera Nair’s Maya Saves the Day. I would not have noticed the discrepancy in the illustration, if it were not for the fuss being made in the story about Maya throwing a tantrum and her mother remarking upon the cost of the t-shirt that she was wearing. In the illustration though she is wearing a frock. Minor detail, but literal minded tiddlers can get quite annoying with their questions about these lapses.

The branding of hOle Books is delightful with a big fat hole punched straight through the top right hand corner of every book. The moment Sarah spotted it, she was ecstatic. She immediately poked her finger through it and danced around the house singing, “its mine, its mine”. Hmm! Not sure if that is what meant to be done to books, but if it helps inculcate a love for books, for reading, beginning with the tactile sense, then I am all for it!

hOle Books, published by Duckbill Books, India. Distributed by Westland books. Here is their Facebook page. http://www.facebook.com/hOlebooks?fref=ts

Gouri Dange “More ABCs of Parenting”

Gouri Dange “More ABCs of Parenting”

Gouri Dange

There is a poem that I have pinned on my refrigerator. “Children Learn what they Live” by Dorothy Law Nolte. Here it is, copied from this link: http://www.blinn.edu/socialscience/LDThomas/Feldman/Handouts/0801hand.htm

If a child lives with criticism,
he learns to condemn.
If a child lives with hostility,
he learns to fight.
If a child lives with fear,
he learns to be apprehensive.
If a child lives with pity,
he learns to feel sorry for himself.
If a child lives with ridicule,
he learns to be shy.
If a child lives with jealousy,
he learns what envy is.
If a child lives with shame,
he learns to feel guilty.
If a child lives with encouragement,
he learns to be confident.
If a child lives with tolerance,
he learns to be patient.
If a child lives with praise,
he learns to be appreciative.
If a child lives with acceptance,
he learns to love.
If a child lives with approval,
he learns to like himself.
If a child lives with recognition,
he learns that it is good to have a goal.
If a child lives with sharing,
he learns about generosity.
If a child lives with honesty and fairness,
he learns what truth and justice are.
If a child lives with security,
he learns to have faith in himself and in those about him.
If a child lives with friendliness,
he learns that the world is a nice place in which to live.
If you live with serenity,
your child will live with peace of mind.

I was reminded of this poem while reading Gauri Dange’s More ABCs of Parenting. I liked reading it. There is sound advice, based on plenty of experience. Her book is like a handy Dr. Spock, but for an older age group of children. She discusses issues and challenges of child-rearing without ever talking down to the parent or making them feel guilty. She presents a reality and suggests ways in which the situation at home can be managed. It is a patient and sincere voice that comes through. But at times her exasperation with modern day parenting is expressed sharply as in her chapter on parents multi-tasking. For instance parents checking their emails, talking on the phone etc. Basically doing everything else while physically being around their children but ostensibly absent. Gauri Dange refers to it as “hollow communication”. A lovely phrase!

Gouri Dange is a writer and practising family counsellor based in Pune and Mumbai, India. She is a columnist and contributes regularly to articles in the papers and social media sites. Her blog is http://gouridange.blogspot.in/ and her email id is write2gourie@gmail.com .

The chapters in the book are short, precise and quick to read, but packed with information and insights. It helps to have an anecdote associated with every word discussed. May it be bullies, death, older parents, studying abroad etc. Each chapter is bracketed with a headnote about what to expect in the chapter, followed by a boxed note on do’s and dont’s. Very useful!

Dr Barnali Bhattacharya says it well in her foreword to the book, “Parenting is an art!” How true!

Gouri Dange More ABCs of Parenting Random House India, New Delhi, 2013. Pb. pp. 268 Rs. 199.

“Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century” Eric Hobsbawm

“Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century” Eric Hobsbawm

Fractured Times

Fractured Times is a series of lectures delivered by Eric Hobsbawm at the annual Salzburg Festival. Those published in this book, were written between 1964-2012. (He died on 1 Oct 2012.) This is a book of reflections, thoughts and comments about what happened to culture and society, especially after 1914, a society and a time that was never to return. These lectures document the tectonic shifts that occurred in the cultural fabric of society. The devastating impact that the two world wars had on society was fundamental. Hobsbawm’s basic premise is that the art and cultural fabric of a society are inextricably linked to politics. It is impossible to dissociate one from the other. ( “For enjoyment of art is not purely a private experience, but a social one, sometimes even a political one, especially in the case of planned public performances i purpose-built settings and theatres.”) So post-1914 the society (at least in Europe and UK) was transformed in that the women’s movements flourished ( ironically a country that had two powerful women on its throne, did not give its women citizen’s even the basic rights. The suffragettes had to demand it), the publishing of books developed into an industry with the establishment of some of the biggest trade publishers such as Allen Lane’s Penguin Books, the first oral history societies were founded in the late 1960s ( “Studies of historical memory are essentially not about the past, but about the retrospect to it of some subsequent present.”) and education. His views on the publishing industry are fascinating — “The book, revolutionised in the 1930s by Penguin and Gollancz, was almost certainly the most effective form of intellectual diffusion: not to the mass of the manual working class for whom the word ‘book’ still meant ‘magazine’, but to the old educated and the rapidly growing body of the aspiring and politically conscious self-educated.”. Or earlier in the book, he says “Even a good deal of literature, especially the classics, remains in print, and much good new writing is published that would never pass the profit threshold set by the accountants, because of non-market decisions.”

There are plenty of nuggets of wisdom that have been distilled and delivered in these lectures. Here is a man who thought, analysed and presented with confidence. Every single book of his is a treasure trove. The ease with which he presents history, complex ideas without their seeming to be so, and his analysis is always a delight to read. For instance his reflection upon how the fashion industry more or less predicts the trends for the following season accurately, but the book trade bumbles its way through. And yet both are heavily dependent upon markets that formed by subjectivity and at times irrational sensibilities. So why does one industry get it right over and over again and not the other? Hobsbawm’s comments on the relationship between the market and culture are sharp and precise. “From the point of view of the market, the only interesting culture is the product or service that makes money.” In his opinion, post-1970s the wealth available for nurturing the arts has grown explosively, all though it does come with a lot of provisos. But he also cautions the rapid transformation that the cyber-age has wrought. It is “so fast, so dramatic, and so unforseeable”. The chapter on “Why hold festivals in the twenty-first century?” has to be read. Hobsbawm is convinced that festivals are multiplying like rabbits. According to him, “festivals have become a firm component of the economically ever more important complex of the entertainment industry, and particularly of cultural tourism, which is rapidly expanding, at least in the prosperous societies of the so-called ‘developed’ world…there is a great deal of money to be made these days in the culture business.” For him “the genealogy of today’s festivals begins with the discovery of the stage as the cultural-political and social expression of a new elite that is self-assured and bourgeois, or rather recruited according to education and ability instead of birth.”

In a similar fashion “in the post-industrial age of information, the school — that is, secondary an tertiary education and beyond — is more decisive than every before, and forms, both nationally and worldwide, a unifying element, not only in technology, but also in the formation of classes….What is needed is a usable educational programme aimed at the community of educable youth, not only within a country or a cultural circle, but also worldwide. This guarantees, at least within a particular area of intellectual cultures, a certain universalism both of information and of cultural values, a sort of basic stock of things that an ‘educated person’ should know.”

Eric Hobsbawm was a thinker. As Julia Hobsbawm says about her father in the FT — “Food he could do without; ideas not.” ( Financial Times, April 2013. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/0dbd14de-a7c0-11e2-9fbe-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2VL2W2xf6 ) A man like him will be sorely missed. Fractured Times, his last book to be published is like the others before it, worth reading over and over again. Every time there is something new to be discovered in the lectures.

Eric Hobsbawm Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century Little, Brown, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, Hachette India, 2013. Hb. pg 320. Rs. 699

“Accidental India”, Shankkar Aiyar

“Accidental India”, Shankkar Aiyar

Accidental-India-cover-pdf_0

I read Accidental India last year. I enjoyed it since it visited parts of Indian history, linking it to the present. A narrative that can be done over and over again, to be in step with contemporary issues. The chapters were easy to read and accessible. I particularly liked the chapter on Verghese Kurien, father of the White Revolution who set up Operation Flood. (He passed away last year. This was his last interview.) A gentleman whom I met some years ago, but this chapter brings out the unwavering support Kurien had despite the blocks set up by politicians ( and academics). Kurien managed to negotiate this minefield and made his project a success. When he began the Amul story, at the time in India it was impossible to get fresh milk, butter and baby food. Stories of having to eat rancid butter, better still making white butter at home was the norm. Today pasteurized milk and the milk trains are taken for granted. This is an extraordinary story. One of the biggest success stories of post-Independence India. It needs to be told over and over again.

Shankkar Aiyar was with the Indian Express when he broke the news in July 1991 that “crates of gold were being furtively unloaded from the dull grey vans of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) into the loading bays of a heavy-bellied cargo aircraft. The country had only enough foreign exchange to pay for seven days of imports and had therefore secretly pledged 47 tons of gold from its reserves to the Bank of England to borrow $400 million to pay its creditors.” This low point in the history of India, let to the then finance minister, Manmohan Singh announcing the New Economic Policy. The author’s premise in this book is that it is a concatenation of events that resulted in the big success stories of post-Independent India. Curiously his chapter titles are borrowed from books that have been bestsellers worldwide — Das Kapital (nationalisation of banks); The Hunger Games ( the Kamraj Plan and the Green Revolution); the Milky Way (Operation Flood); the Da Vinci Code ( RTI Act and Aruna Roy’s Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan movement) etc.

My only reservation is with the title. It left me a little uncomfortable. It has a negative ring to it. It remindes me of what I used to hear many years ago, “Oh India. It is not worth it. We can never achieve anything. Look at what those abroad are doing.” It was only when I began to read vast amounts of our history, engage in research, speak to people etc that I realized we were not exactly so bad as a nation. We did good. Despite the rampant corruption and mistakes made, we also have had amazing visionaries steering it through. Seriously, sometimes when I read the Constitution of India or read the policies instituted at the time of Independence, I am stunned at the immense vision of those who conceived these documents. When I mentioned this to the author in an e-mail exchange, this is what he wrote:”The title has ruffled quite a few feathers but its my informed thought that India cannot blunder along with over one billion hopes waiting for fruction. My quarrel with the political leadership is not about what India could not do but what it could do but did not do.” (Reproduced with permission.)

Here is an interview between the author and publisher, David Davidar, Aleph Book Company. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTTXgqeynM0&feature=player_embedded

It is a book that I liked dipping into. Maybe it should be pitched at schools for their libraries too.

5 June 2013

Shankkar Aiyar Accidental India Aleph Book Company, An independent publishing firm promoted by Rupa Publications India, New Delhi, 2012. Hb. pp. 360 Rs. 695