October 2013 Posts

Masha Gessen ( from The Economic Times, 31 Oct 2013)

Masha Gessen ( from The Economic Times, 31 Oct 2013)

Masha Gessen, PutinLast year I read Masha Gessen’s book on Putin- The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. It was a powerful book and well written. I recommended it to friends but never wrote a review of it. In today’s The Economic Times Ullekh NP has written a column about Masha Gessen, her books, including her forthcoming one on the feminist punk group, Pussy Riot – Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot. Here is the original url to the article:  http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/news-by-industry/et-cetera/goodbye-to-vladimir-putins-russia/articleshow/24957553.cms but I am also c&p it below. )

Masha Gessen, who wrote a hard-hitting book on Putin and has another on Pussy Riot up her sleeve, now prepares to leave a homophobic Moscow

When several of his opponents began calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a “kleptomaniac” for allegedly looting the country’s wealth, writer and journalist Masha Gessen came up with an exotic term: “pleonexia”.

She didn’t find kleptomania — which refers to a pathological desire to possess things for which one has little use — apt enough to describe the characteristics of Russia’s most powerful man, she says. Pleonexia refers to an insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others.

“That is the right term,” says Gessen, who chronicled Putin’s rapid rise from a low-level KGB operative to the country’s president, in The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, published last year. When the book came out, well-wishers asked her to leave Russia — but she didn’t.

Don’t Want to Lose Kids

Gessen, who is now working on a book on the feminist punk band Pussy Riot, which captured world attention by protesting against Putin, confirms that now she has decided to leave Russia for good. It is not out of fear of retribution, but because Russian authorities are in the process of bringing in a law that could see same-sex couples lose custody of their children. She and her girlfriend will move to New York along with their children shortly.

“I don’t want to lose my children,” she says.

Gessen, author of books as stellar as Perfect Rigour: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century, a riveting account of how Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman solved the complex Poincare Conjecture, is now highly pessimistic about the future of the Russian economy.

After three years of crackdown on pro-democracy protests in the country — the past one year was the worst — Gessen says she has lost hope about the largest country in the world getting back on track anytime soon. “On all fronts, there is failure,” she says, about the system which persecutes journalists and others who run afoul of the government. Her book on Putin offers a chilling account of, among others, the killing of journalist Anna Politkovskayaand the death of journalist-turned-FSB officer Alexander Valterovich Litvinenko, both in 2006.

Pussy Riot vs Putin

Gessen — whose books and articles have dwelt at length on why entrepreneurs such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former chief of Russian oil giant Yukos, often end up in jail in Putin’s Russia — says that none of them was punished for their excesses or shady business deals but, instead, for standing up against Putin.

“Khodorkovsky will stay in jail until Putin is removed,” she says, adding that an economic upheaval is necessary to effect a change in Russia. She, however, doesn’t see Putin’s “military-political project” getting derailed in the short term.

The 46-year-old says that she often had to chase her “sources” for years. One of them was St Petersburg-based politician Marina Salye who fled to the countryside after she received threats. According to Gessen, a probe led by Salye almost unearthed Putin’s alleged corruption deals before he was thrust to the prime minister’s post by Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle in 1999.

Gessen argues that the arrest of Pussy Riot members for protesting against Putin last February marked the beginning of the most oppressive era of post-USSR Russia. After five members of the feminist punk group staged a “protest performance” in a Moscow church, three of them were charged with hooliganism and two among them — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina — were sent to jail for a two-year term. Gessen’s book on the band, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, will be out in February next year.

Ullekh NP

31 Oct 2013 

Guest Post: Valerie Laws, writer

Guest Post: Valerie Laws, writer

 

Valerie Laws and I are Facebook friends. We got chatting about publishing and literature. The result was she wrote a guest post for my blog and I did for her blogging collective — Authors Electric. Mine is on epublishing in India, to be published on 30 Oct 2013.) Valerie Mills

 

Hello, I’m Valerie Laws, a writer from the North East coast of England. I’ve had twelve books published (novels, poetry, drama, language…), twelve plays commissioned for stage and BBC Radio, and I create science-based audio-visual poetry installations for exhibitions worldwide. Some of these are electronic, one of them, QUANTUM SHEEP, made me world-infamous for spray-painting a new form of poetry onto live sheep, to celebrate quantum theory. I love new discoveries, hence I’ve been researching the brain with neuroscientists and the science of dying with pathologists as Writer in Residence, and I love learning new stuff.

 

Lately I feel like I’ve begun to discover new things about India, although I’ve still not been to your wonderful country (I’d love to, I perform my work all over the world). Thanks to the internet, I’ve discovered Indian News Media, and been entranced with the beautiful English much of it employs, which puts our tabloid press to shame. I’ve discovered, to my own shame for not being aware before, the extent to which English is spoken and written in India, and I’ve discovered Amazon.in, and all from my study chair! I think many people in the UK are still unaware of all this.

 

Now that Amazon India is fully online, we should be able to discover each others’ authors so much more easily, assuming we have Kindles or Kindle apps on our computers or phones. No more shipping or waiting, and no more being restricted to the classics or mega-best-sellers.

 

So this is a greeting from an English author. I write crime fiction, comedy fiction, poetry etc, and hope to find readers in India, as I hope to find new Indian authors to read in various genres. Since I have your attention (I hope), perhaps I can ask for comments or answers – are there many Indian readers who enjoy new British or US crime fiction? Are readers happy to read books with strong regional detail or even bits of dialect? I have two crime novels out, THE OPERATOR and THE ROTTING SPOT which are based where I live. I also have a comedy novel, LYDIA BENNET’S BLOG which is a parody of Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ from Lydia’s point of view, written in modern Teen language but set in Regency times. Do Indian teens use this language like US and UK teens do? I also write poems about pathology, death, sex and dating.

 

I am also a member of a blogging collective called Authors Electric, each of us blogs once a month (my blogs are on the first of every month) about epublishing and writing ebooks. We exchange information, stories and experiences. We are keen to get to know other parts of the world and their authors now the internet has made this so much easier. Is there a Young Adult or horror novel market in India for UK and US writers?

 

I’m delighted that Jaya has agreed to do a guest blog for us (October 30th), so do please visit us any day you like and follow authors’ links and blogs. I look forward to discovering some new writers of ebooks from India.

 

Follow me on Twitter @ValerieLaws or Facebook

 

See my Pinterest boards

 

Website (about to be refurbished) www.valerielaws.co.uk

 

David Davidar, Publisher, Aleph on “what makes a writer successful?”

David Davidar, Publisher, Aleph on “what makes a writer successful?”

This is an extract from an interview published in the Shillong Times, 20 Oct 2013.  Sambha Lamarr, creative director of Shillong CALM Festival, speaks to publisher-novelist David Davidar about all things literary. Read more at http://www.theshillongtimes.com/2013/10/20/ne-writers-need-to-hone-their-craft/#kKAv2fskFvAAJ5Zi.99 ) 

David Davidar

I think what is essential for writers is that it is critically important that you must always measure your own books against the greatest books ever written in your genre whether it is fiction or non-fiction. I have found in the course of my career, and I speak from the standpoint of someone who has published hundreds of books, that the greatest shortcoming I’ve found in a lot of the manuscripts I receive (and subsequently reject) is that writers have simply not invested enough time and effort in trying to make their manuscripts the best they can possibly be. They have either not revised enough or they have given up halfway or they have not researched enough or they leave it up to the editor to fix all the flaws in their work or they have not taken the trouble to compare their manuscript with the best books available in that particular subject area or they have not read enough on the subject or they think they are geniuses who are not in need of any training whatsoever as a result of which their efforts are usually pitiful. And so the only advice I can give is do your homework, figure out what you want to write about, work out your structure and your plot carefully in advance of beginning to write your book and then once you’ve written your book revise it two or three times, send it out to people whose judgement you trust and then revise it again once you’ve received the brutally honest comments of your referees and only then send it to a potential publisher.

26 Oct 2013

The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014 – longlist

The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014 – longlist

DSC Prize for Literature logo15 BOOKS MAKE IT TO THE DSC PRIZE 2014 LONGLIST

New Delhi, October 21, 2013: The longlist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014 was announced at the Goethe-Institut, Max Mueller Bhavan today, by noted Indian editor, writer and literary critic, Antara Dev Sen, who is chairing the jury panel for the prize. The final list of 15 chosen titles includes 3 works translated from Indian languages and comprises 4 debut novels along with the works of established writers. The longlist reflects a rich and healthy diversity of publishers across geographies including representation from the UK, US and Canada. With several acclaimed novels on the longlist, choosing the final winner for the 2014 edition of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature would be an interesting and challenging task for the jury panel.

There were over 65 entries for the coveted US $50,000 prize this year, from which the jury has compiled the longlist of 15 books that they feel best represents the eclectic and vibrant voice of the South Asian region. The jury panel comprises international luminaries from the world of literature and books- Antara Dev Sen, editor, writer and literary critic and chair of the DSC Prize jury, Arshia Sattar, an eminent Indian translator, writer and a teacher, Ameena Saiyid, the MD of Oxford University Press in Pakistan, Rosie Boycott, acclaimed British journalist and editor and Paul Yamazaki, a veteran bookseller and one of the most respected names in the book trade in the US.

The longlisted entries contending for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014 are:

  1. Anand: Book of Destruction (Translated by Chetana Sachidanandan; Penguin, India)
  2. Benyamin: Goat Days   (Translated by Joseph Koyippalli; Penguin, India)
  3. Cyrus Mistry: Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer (Aleph Book Company, India) 
  4. Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya: The Watch (Hogarth/ Random House, UK)   
  5. Manu Joseph: The Illicit Happiness of other people (John Murray, UK & Harper Collins India)
  6. Mohsin Hamid: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, India)
  7. Nadeem Aslam: The Blind Man’s Garden (Random House, India)  
  8. Nayomi Munaweera: Island of a Thousand Mirrors (Perera Hussein Publishing, Sri Lanka & Hachette India)
  9. Nilanjana Roy: The Wildings (Aleph Book Company, India)
  10. Philip Hensher: Scenes from Early Life (Faber & Faber, USA)  
  11. Ru Freeman: On Sal Mal Lane (Graywolf Press, USA)
  12. Sachin Kundalkar: Cobalt Blue (Translated by Jerry Pinto; Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, India)
  13. Shyam Selvadurai: The Hungry Ghosts (Double Day Publishing, Canada)
  14. Sonora Jha: Foreign (Vintage Books/Random House, India)
  15. Uzma Aslam Khan: Thinner Than Skin (Clockroot Books/Interlink Publishing, USA)

Speaking on the occasion, Antara Dev Sen, Chair of the jury commented “We are delighted to present the longlist for the DSC Prize 2014, which offers a wonderful variety of experiences from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and reflects much of the exhilarating and bewildering diversity that is the hallmark of South Asian fiction. The list includes celebrated, award-winning authors as well as powerful new voices, and I am particularly happy that it includes novels in translation from other Indian languages.

The novels range from the conventional to the experimental, from amazing tales sprawling across continents and generations to stories brilliantly detailed in a small, almost claustrophobic canvas. Several of these books are about violence – many about war, terrorism, conflict – underscoring what the contemporary South Asian experience is inescapably defined by. Many examine otherness – due to migration, caste or sexual identity, terror, alienation. Through extraordinary storytelling and sensitivity, these novels offer us a sense of history, a sense of loss and the invincibility of hope.” she added.

The jury will now deliberate on the longlist over the next month and the shortlist for the DSC Prize will be announced on Wednesday, November 20, 2013 at The London School of Economics in London. The winner will be subsequently declared at the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2014.

Eleanor Catton’s win celebrates the importance of literary craft and content

Eleanor Catton’s win celebrates the importance of literary craft and content

My article on the Man Booker Prize 2013 has been published today in the Op Ed page of the Hindu, 19 Oct 2013. Here is the link: http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-long-and-winding-road-to-the-booker/article5248697.ece?homepage=true . The article is published below.) 

The Luminaries

On October 15, 2013, the Man Booker Prize was awarded to Eleanor Catton for The Luminaries — a thriller spread over 800 pages with a variety of voices recounting and recreating details. It was a win that surprised many. Set in 1866 in a small town on New Zealand’s South Island, the story begins when a traveller and gold prospector, Scotsman Walter Moody, interrupts a meeting of 12 men at Hokitika’s Crown Hotel. These men are immigrants but locals now who gather in secrecy to solve crimes. The novel is about the mystery surrounding the death of Crosbie Wells and the stories told by those 12 men. The narrative architecture is based on the 12 signs of the zodiac and the seven planets; each chapter is half the length of its predecessor, adding pace and tension. Of the books shortlisted — Jim Crace’s Harvest, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, and Noviolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names — it was widely assumed that the battle for the winning post would be between Jim Crace and Colm Toibin.

The Luminaries is in the tradition of a good, well-told, 19th century English novel. It has a leisurely pace with the story slowly being told, bit by bit. Eleanor Catton has trained at the best creative writing schools and is an alumna of the prestigious University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But this novel is an example of original thinking and excellent craftsmanship that are not easily taught.

The chair of judges, Robert Macfarlane, described the book as a “dazzling work, luminous, vast.” It is, he said, “a book you sometimes feel lost in, fearing it to be ‘a big baggy monster’, but it turns out to be as tightly structured as an orrery.” It is true that the 19th century novels were serialised (for example Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope) and then put together as a book. Present day writers are taking advantage of virtual publishing to do something similar. The Kills by Richard House, long listed for the Man Booker Prize 2013, actually began life as four enhanced e-books that were then published as a single printed volume. But in the 21st century, to first publish in print such a thick book as The Luminaries takes extraordinary courage — a fact that did not go unnoticed even by Catton. In her acceptance speech she said, “… The Luminaries is and was from the very beginning, a publisher’s nightmare. […] I am extraordinarily fortunate to have found a home at these publishing houses and to […] have managed to strike an elegant balance between making art and making money.”

FOR MORE ENTRIES

At 28, Eleanor Catton is the youngest winner of the Booker. (Before her the prize went to Ben Okri who won it when he was 32 for The Famished Road.) Catton was born in Canada and raised in Christchurch, New Zealand. The Booker is Britain’s most prestigious literary prize, awarded annually to a novelist from Britain, Ireland or a Commonwealth country. The winner receives £50,000, or about $80,000. The winner is selected by the judging panel on the day of the ceremony. In September 2013, it was announced that from next year the prize will be open to all those publishing in English, across the world, a move that has not necessarily been received well by many writers. Jonathan Taylor, chairman of the foundation, wrote at the time: “Paradoxically it has not […] allowed full participation to all those writing literary fiction in English. It is rather as if the Chinese were excluded from the Olympic Games.”

It is a fortunate coincidence that in 2013, three of the high-profile international awards for literature have been won by women — all for very distinct kinds of writing. Lydia Davis won the fifth Man Booker International Prize 2013 for her short stories (the length of her stories vary from two sentences to a maximum of two to three pages) and the Nobel Prize for Literature 2013 to Alice Munro, for her short stories and Eleanor Catton, Man Booker Prize 2013, for a novel that has been described as a “doorstopper.” For the world of publishing, these achievements sets the seal of approval on craftsmanship. It is probably recognition of geographical boundaries disappearing in digital space, conversations happening in real time and emphasis being placed on good content. It’s not the form but the craft that matters. Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize win is a testament to the new world of publishing.

(Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist. E-mail:jayabhattacharjirose @gmail.com)

19 Oct 2013

Alice Munro and the short story, a comment

Alice Munro and the short story, a comment

MUNRO, from the NYT article, July 2013

‘I would really hope this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something you played around with until you got a novel.’

‘A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.’                      

– Alice Munro

Today it was announced that Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Shortly thereafter, Amandeep Sandhu, a writer too, put a comment on his Facebook wall

The times They Are A-changin’: earlier this year short story writer Lydia Davis won the Man Booker and today short story writer Alice Munro wins the Nobel. I like it that the short story is getting its much deserved place in the sun. Congratulations! 

A few questions: does this spell something for the longer narrative? Is this a consequence of the shortening attention span in this digital world? Does this change something in publishing? Answer, but more than that this is just stuff to ponder upon, nothing is right or wrong.

And this is what I wrote in response:

There are always politics at play when such an eminent award is announced. Alice Munro is a deserving candidate. But maybe the Nobel Prize’s focus on short stories could have been foretold by Lydia Davis winning the Booker International Prize 2013. I cannot help but draw parallels with the number of beauty queens who were discovered in India, soon after liberalisation — the spotlight was on new and emerging markets. Here too, the focus is on short stories. For a while now the number of short stories writers have been increasing rapidly, the online platforms that are accepting short story submissions are multiplying fast and the growing demand for good, reliable and quickly produced stories that can be easily converted into other formats — audio books, television serials, animation and short films or even available for auction for long films has firmly put the spotlight on the short form of literature, texts for electronic platforms etc. This is important since the classic reply most publishers trot out is that it is difficult to sell short story collections by debut authors ( Prajwal Parajuly is probably one of the rare exceptions having been most recently nominated for the Dylan Thomas prize). Yet, publishers in their scramble to attract and discover new voices, encourage short fiction submissions for annual anthologies that they would like to consider publishing. So hearty congratulations to Alice Munro and good luck to the many other short story writers. Finally Amandeep, I do not think that this award will really spell the demise of the long form of narrative. This year, after a long time, I cannot help but look at the thick spines of the new novels that have been recently published — The Luminaries, The Signature of All Things and The Kills to name some.

10 Oct 2013 

Roll of Honour, AMandeep Sandhu

The Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin

The Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin

The Testament of Mary, Colm ToibinAt a little over a 100 pages The Testament of Mary is the slimmest novel on the ManBooker Prize shortlist. In this novella Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, narrates in first person the events leading up to the crucifixion of her son. She recounts the story in her old age to two people, whom she refers to as “Guardians”, but were probably those who were recording the events marking the life of Jesus. These testaments were to be later compiled into a text. All though in the Bible the only four gospels are by men – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. No women.

The Testament of Mary is a novel that has been adapted from the play of the same name, written by Colm Toibin. It was nominated for a Tony Award Best Play,  Best Actress, Best Sound Design of a Play, and Best Lighting Design of a Play. Even two thousand years or so after the Bible was created and nearly seventy years after the Gnostic gospels were discovered ( in which there was a script by Mary Magdalene ) it is rare to find a woman’s testimony on the events surrounding Jesus Christ. ( Recently there have been attempts to create a feminist Bible as by the German evangelicals and the new version of the Bible being translated by the NIV Committee on Bible translation is gender sensitive too. ) So Colm Toibin’s attempt at writing this testimony is significant within theological traditions and literary fiction. To create a woman character who speaks at length, it is like a monologue, but remains an observer. The story works dramatically and it is not necessary to be familiar with the events in the Bible to understand or even appreciate this novella. Yet I was left wondering at when Mary witnesses the crucifixion of her son on the cross, she continues to recount the events in the first person, whereas if a woman ever tries to record a traumatic incident in her life, she is only able to do so in the third person. It is a dramatic shift that occurs. So it is curious that Colm Toibin retained the first person narrative even for this section–maybe it worked well on stage? ( Passages on p.76-77.)

Recently it was announced that  actor Meryl Streep would be doing the audio version — http://shelf-life.ew.com/2013/09/10/meryl-streep-testament-of-mary-audio-clip/ .This is a good example of literary fiction. It will be read and it will be discussed over time. But whether it wins the ManBookers Prize on 15 Oct 2013 remains to be seen.

Colm Toibin The Testament of Mary Viking, Penguin Books, London, 2012. Pb. pp. 108 Rs. 299

9 Oct 2013 

Prajwal Parajuly’s “The Gurkha’s Daughter” on the 2013 Dylan Thomas shortlist

Prajwal Parajuly’s “The Gurkha’s Daughter” on the 2013 Dylan Thomas shortlist

Prajwal Parajuly, Gurkha's daughter Breaking news! 

Prajwal Parajuly is on the shortlist for the 2013 Dylan Thomas Prize for literature. The Gurkha’s Daughter is his debut collection of short stories. At £30,000 it is one of the richest prizes for young writers. The competition is open to any published author in the English language under the age of 30, and this year’s shortlist is made up entirely of debut works. Chair of the judging panel, Peter Florence, said: “We had such a strong short list this year that we had to include a seventh title, as they are all contenders. ( More at: http://www.walesonline.co.uk/whats-on/shortlist-revealed-2013-dylan-thomas-6149225 )

Prajwal Parajuly is the only Asian to be on this shortlist. Next month in November, Quercus ( UK) and Penguin Books ( India) will be publishing his novel – Land where I flee.

 

7 Oct 2013 

 

Ayana Mathis, “Twelve Tribes of Hattie”

Ayana Mathis, “Twelve Tribes of Hattie”

Ayana Mathis, Twelve Tribes of HattieMy review of Ayana Mathis’s Twelve Tribes of Hattie has been published in the Hindu Literary Review. Online on 5 Oct 2013 and in print on 6 Oct 2013. Here is the link to the original url http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/historys-brood/article5200369.ece?homepage=true . It was titled “History’s Brood”. I am c&p the full text of the review below.) 

Hattie was stronger than Bell could ever be. She didn’t know how to tend to her children’s souls, but she fought to keep them alive and to keep herself alive. (p.217) … Fate had plucked Hattie out of Georgia to birth eleven children and establish them in the North, but she was only a child herself, utterly inadequate to the task she’d been given. (p.236)

The novel is about the “high yellow girl” Hattie Shepherd who began courting August when she was fifteen because he was a secret from her Mama and “because it thrilled her to go out with a country boy beneath her”.  They married when Hattie discovered she was pregnant with her twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee. Unfortunately it is 1925, before penicillin has been discovered and the infants succumb to pneumonia before they turn one. “Not a day went by that Hattie did not feel their absence in the world, the empty space where her children’s lives should have been.” The nine other children she goes on to have consider their mother to be cold and frosty, yet she finally learns to (according to Willie, the witch doctor) wrestle down her “restless soul”. Hattie’s tribe of twelve consists of her children and one grandchild in particular, Sala.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is fiction but set across sixty crucial years of North American history.  The story starts during Prohibition, slavery and racial segregation existed in Georgia to conclude in 1980, the year Ronald Reagan was elected President. Ayana Mathis sketches brilliantly the evangelical gatherings in the revival tents where Six delivers his first sermon, the blues-jazz music that Floyd plays, war in Vietnam that Franklin experiences firsthand, child sexual abuse that Billups keeps as a deep secret, Bell’s slide down the social ladder into deep poverty and her near brush with death due to consumption, and Cassie’s schizophrenia. Each chapter is told well. They are absorbing to read but what is disconcerting is that the stories remain like threads swirling around Hattie. This is where the Hagar myth that looms large in African-American literature resonates well. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, offered her Egyptian slave to her husband when she was barren. Hagar had Ishmael by Abraham. Later when Sarah had Isaiah, God promised Hagar that her son, Ishmael, would create a nation. Similarly Hattie’s children spread far and wide, across the nation and the social ladder to leave their mark.

It is not historical fiction but there are details in the novel that document history accurately – the revival tents for evangelical gatherings, discovery of Penicillin, the recognition that schizophrenia required medical treatment and not taking the patient to a religious gathering for the devil to be exorcised, the limitations of a witch doctor, the social acceptance of a black doctor as with Alice’s husband. Ayana Mathis is a powerful storyteller, ( the painful description of the dying twins or of Cassie’s schizophrenia or Bell’s tuberculosis slowly killing her) the chapters come together as a powerful novel and explains why Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club. Yet it is impossible to get away from the feeling that this is a brilliant product of a creative writing course. The sketches, the accuracy to detail, creation of atmosphere are powerful but the random use of minor character or even the sporadic appearance of the siblings does not make much sense.

Ayana Mathis, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie Knopf Publishing House, Random House, Great Britain, 2013. Pb. Pp. 245 Rs. 550

5 Oct 2013 

“The Lowland”, Jhumpa Lahiri

“The Lowland”, Jhumpa Lahiri

The LowlandThe most ordinary details of his life which would have made no impression on a girl from Calcutta, were what made him distinctive to her.
( p.76) 

Subhash and Udayan, brothers, a little over a year apart are academically very bright students who join Presidency College and Jadavpur respectively. Everyone, in the neighbourhood and their parents, are delighted. Subhash later goes to USA for his Ph.D. Udayan joins the Naxal movement. Hardly surprising given that this is Calcutta of the late 1960s. Lowland is about the brothers who were extremely close but their lives charted a course diametrically opposite to each other. Subhash has the predictable, straightforward, middle class life whereas Udayan a naxal is killed in a police encounter.

The Lowland was released with a tremendous amount of hype. The unveiling of the book cover ( at least in India) was done dramatically with press releases and social media chatter. The anticipation of reading a new novel by Jhumpa Lahiri was nerve-wracking. (Ever since her debut collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, I have admired her writing.) Before the book was released on 8 Sept 2013, there were the usual number of articles, interviews, and profiles of her. The extract published in the New Yorker on 10 Jun 2013 was promising. (http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2013/06/10/130610fi_fiction_lahiri) Her interview on 5 Sept 2013 in the New York Times stands out. ( http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/08/books/review/jhumpa-lahiri-by-the-book.html?pagewanted=all ) In it she refuted all claims of writing “immigrant fiction”. Her reply:

I don’t know what to make of the term “immigrant fiction.” Writers have always tended to write about the worlds they come from. And it just so happens that many writers originate from different parts of the world than the ones they end up living in, either by choice or by necessity or by circumstance, and therefore, write about those experiences. If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest? Native fiction? Puritan fiction? This distinction doesn’t agree with me. Given the history of the United States, all American fiction could be classified as immigrant fiction. Hawthorne writes about immigrants. So does Willa Cather. From the beginnings of literature, poets and writers have based their narratives on crossing borders, on wandering, on exile, on encounters beyond the familiar. The stranger is an archetype in epic poetry, in novels. The tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme.

Jhumpa Lahiri is always good in noting the particular. It requires a remarkable strength of observation, to detail and then recreate it in a different land. It could not be an easy task. Her detailing is restricted to the physical landscape, that is easily done, with a conscious practice of the art. it is conveying the atmosphere that takes discipline.

In The Lowland the story struggles to be heard between the vast passages of history lessons that the reader has to endure. It makes the novel very tedious to read. Probably it is due to the subject she has chosen — Naxalism. In the novel, her treatment of the movement is distant and unfresh neatened up in a story. For those familiar with the movement, in the 1960s, it was fairly simple in it being a peasant uprising launched by Charu Majumdar. (http://www.hindustantimes.com/News-Feed/NM2/History-of-Naxalism/Article1-6545.aspx). Today, the Indian newspapers are dominated by news emerging from  parts of India affected by naxals. In an email to me about naxalism in India, Sudeep Chakravarti of Red Sun fame, writes “The maoist rebellion in low to high intensity can now be said to exist in between 106 districts. this does not include areas where propaganda and recruitment are on but as yet there is no conflict (for example, several indian cities, Haryana, Punjab). Numbers too are down. It is today a relatively more weakened force than, say, in 2006. but it’s a phase. the movement is nowhere near dead. I expect to take new shapes and strategies — in many ways that is already happening.”

Lowland is on the shortlist for ManBooker Prize 2013 and longlist of the National Book Award 2013.  Jhumpa Lahiri’s talent has always been to tell a story, capturing the “thingyness of things”, but in Lowland she fails. One always lives in hope. At heart she is a good storyteller, but Lowland will not be her calling card as an author, that place is reserved firmly for Interpreter of Maladies. 

3 Oct 2013

Jhumpa Lahiri The Lowland Random House India, India, 2013. Hb. pp. 350