September 2014 Posts

Comeback heroes, 28 September 2014

Comeback heroes, 28 September 2014

( In today’s edition of the Hindu Magazine, I have an article on the resurrection of literary characters by contemporary novelists. The link was published digitally on 27 September 2014. Here is the link: http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/comeback-heroes/article6452453.ece . It was carried in print as the lead article of the magazine on Sunday, 28 September 2014. I am also c&p the article below.)

Sophie HannahWith the release of Sophie Hannah’s The Monogram Murders earlier this month, Hercule Poirot comes back to life. This new mystery introduces a new character, Inspector Catchpool, who uses the first-person narrative style, similar to that of Dr. Watson. The novel was announced in October 2013 at the Frankfurt Book Fair in the presence of Agatha Christie’s grandson. This is only one in a line of novels written by contemporary novelists resurrecting literary characters. Usually these are characters that have remained popular over time.

Such revivals have been a tradition from the early 20th century. There were several Holmes stories in the Sudden Book Covers
1910s and 1920s. But these were not very well known. Bulldog Drummond by Sapper was, perhaps, the first instance of a popular character being continued. The series was continued by Gerard Fairlie. Other bestseller series included Sudden (a series of westerns), which was continued after the author Oliver Strange’s death.

There are also lateral continuations — not with the characters as protagonists but spin-offs like P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley, Bulldog_Drummond_1st_edition_cover,_1920Charlie Higson’s Young Bond series, Gregory Maguire’s The Wicked Years series, Anthony Read’s Baker Street Boys series and Andrew Lane’s Young Sherlock Holmes series.Vintage’ Hogarth Shakespeare imprint will soon present retellings of the Bard’s works for contemporary readers by some of today’s best-known international writers. October 2015 willVintage Hogarth Shakespeare see the launch of Jeanette Winterson’s retelling of The Winter’s Tale and Howard Jacobson’s retelling of The Merchant of Venice will be out in February 2016, ahead of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in April 2016. The illustrious list includes Margaret Atwood (The Tempest), Tracy Chevalier (Othello), Gillian Flynn (Hamlet), Jo Nesbo (Macbeth) and Anne Tyler (The Taming of the Shrew). The series will be published in 12 languages across 18 territories.

There are many reasons why these new stories strike a chord with modern readers. First is, of course, nostalgia and familiarity. Given the huge fan base of these characters, the new books have a relatively ready market but sometimes they are reinvented to find a

(L-R) Danish Husain and Mahmood Farooqui

(L-R) Danish Husain and Mahmood Farooqui

new readership. Mahmood Farooqui of Dastangoi says, “I think it is a good tactic to take up texts that are already familiar to some in the audience. Listening to a story and reading one are very different experiences.”

India sells more traditional bestsellers, says Thomas Abraham, Managing Director, Solo_-_James_Bond_first_edition_coverHachette India. Like “Enid Blyton or Christie or Conan Doyle. So, yes, these will have a good market here. But the new revivals will sell much more in the west in year one at least because they are major literary events.” Caroline Newbury, VP, Marketing and Corporate Communications, Penguin Random House, points out that books like Solo and Jeeves and the Wedding Bells “have been successful across the globe, hitting bestseller lists in the U.K. and in places like Australia.”

Kushalrani Gulab, a voracious reader, cannot resist these new novels. She is “driven by curiosity and the very, very small hope that, by some miracle, my beloved character and her/his world might actually come back from the dead. So far, there has been no miracle.” A sentiment that blogger Sheila Kumar echoes. “Truth to tell, I approach these tribute/resurrections with both reserve and caution. Sebastian Faulks, Jeeves and the Wedding BellsComparisons, while they are admittedly odious, are also inevitable in cases like these!” But, as Abraham points out, “You dislike them generally after having read them, so you contribute to the market anyway.”

An article in the Publisher’s Weekly describes Sophie Hannah as having “channelled” one of literature’s greats. But Gulab’s passionate response to this is: “I find it very hard to imagine that another author can do just as good a job as the original author… (who) knows her/his own character best because she/he has honed it over the years… Another author, however, only knows the character by a list of characteristics; from the outside, as a reader does. Not from the inside as the original author does. Also, characters tend to exist in a certain milieu. So unless the new author makes the characters contemporary, she/he has got to recreate the world around the character as well. That’s very hard to do when you haven’t actually lived in that time period.” In fact, Sophie Hannah says she found the names — Catchpool, Brignell, Negus, Sippell and Ducane — for most of her cast from tombstones as they had a “classic, old-fashioned feel about them”.

Yet these “continuations” raise the tricky question of copyright. Last year, the Conan Doyle Estate was “horrified that the ‘public domain’ might create multiple personalities of Sherlock Holmes” (September 2013). But in December 2013, a judge in the U.S. ruled that “Sherlock Holmes is definitely in the public domain”. The first story is bound by the original term of copyright. A new version does not extend the character’s copyright term for the estate. But copyright and permission to carry on the characters are two different things. So, if an estate has the legal right to stop any use of the character after the story’s copyright expires, may be they can. But they can’t stop the printing of existing works, if they have gone out of copyright.

Abraham refers to the attitude of Peter O’Donnell, creator of the Modesty Blaise series. “O’ Donnell told me that he wouldn’t like the idea of Modesty being carried on by someone else especially after the disastrous film version. That was one reason why he killed them off in Cobra Trap.” Attitudes vary hugely from estate to estate. As Newbury points out, Solo’s copyright lies with Ian Fleming Publications Ltd., whereas Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is attributed to Sebastian Faulks.

According to Rich Stim, Attorney, on the legal website, NOLO, “fictional characters can be protected separately from their underlying works as derivative copyrights, provided that they are sufficiently unique and distinctive like, James Bond, Fred Flintstone, Hannibal Lecter, and Snoopy. In Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corp., Judge Learned Hand established the standard for character protection: “… the less developed the characters, the less they can be copyrighted; that is the penalty an author must bear for marking them too indistinctly.” Exploitation of fictional characters is a crucial source of revenue for entertainment and merchandising companies. Characters such as Superman and Mickey Mouse are the foundations of massive entertainment franchises and are commonly protected under both copyright and trademark law. Unfortunately the protection afforded to fictional characters sometimes clashes with the fair use right to comment upon or criticise those characters. ” ( http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/protecting-fictional-characters-under-copyright-law.html ) Moriarty

People will read the new versions, but if you ask them which character they want to see resurrected, the answer comes promptly: “none”. The truly worthy successor of a great mystery writer in the modern world, writing in English, in my humble opinion, is Anthony Horowitz. I am looking forward to his Moriarty to be released at the end of October.

Other literary revivals

James Bond: Colonel Sun by Kingsley Amis (as Robert Markham); Solo by William Boyd.

Sherlock Holmes: The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz and The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes by Jamyang Norbu, which also revived Hurree Babu from Rudyard Kipling’s Kim.

Bertie Wooster and Jeeves: Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks.

Jason Bourne: The Bourne Imperative by Eric van Lustbader.

Famous Five: Sarah Bosse wrote 21 new novels with Enid Blyton’s characters in German.

In India, Dastango Mahmood Farooqui has resurrected Alice in Wonderland as Dastan Alice Ki, and has plans to adapt Gopi Gyne Bagha Byne and The Little Prince.

Update

The article has been corrected to reflect the following changes: Kingsley Amis wrote the Bond novels under the pen name of Robert Markham and not George Markham as was printed earlier. Secondly, the Moriarty novel by Anthony Horowitz will be available at the end of October and not at the end of this week as mentioned earlier.

28 September 2014 

Guest post: Why “The Lives of Others” makes me afraid, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

Guest post: Why “The Lives of Others” makes me afraid, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

( While reading ManBooker shortlisted novel, Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others, I began to discuss it with Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. He is an avid reader. Initially he was happy with the novel, it was well written, but then there was this long silence from him. A few days ago, I got a message from him at 2am to say he was not very comfortable at the portrayal of Santhals in the book. He should know. It is his community. So I asked him to contribute a guest post for my blog. I am posting it as he sent it. )

 

Neel Mukherjee

When  I  first  saw  the  Indian  hardcover  edition  of  Neel  Mukherjee’s  second  novel,  The  Lives  of  Others,  at  a  book  store  in  Kolkata  in  June  2014,  I  was  struck  by  the  familiarity  of  the  contents  of  the  book.  Having  grown  up  and  lived  all  my  life  in  a  southern  corner  of  the  state  of  Jharkhand,  the  complexities  of  a  Bengali  joint  family  and  the  Naxalite  movement  were  familiar  issues.  However,  what  was  even  more  familiar – and  striking – was  the  map  at  the  beginning  of  the  novel;  for  inset  in  that  map  were  all  the  places  that  remind  me  of  home.  They  are  not  big  or  famous  places.  They  are  small,  district  towns  and  villages.  They  do  not  find  a  regular  mention  in  the  media  like  bigger  cities  like  Kolkata  or  Delhi  do.  An  incident  that  takes  place  in  these  places  has  to  be  very  big,  remarkable  in  every  way  to  have  people  talk  about  these  places.  Even  if  these  places  find  a  mention  in  the  front  pages  of  The  Telegraph  or  The  Statesman,  I  am  quite  sure  that  many  readers  won’t  remember  their  names  just  a  mere  24  hours  after  having  read  about  them.  Yet,  these  are  the  places  whose  names  I  have  been  hearing  ever  since  I  developed  the  ability  to  listen  to  and  understand  words  and  names;  maybe,  since  when  I  was  2  or  3  years  old.  I  am  31  now,  and  the  names  of  these  places  fill  me  with  a  desire  to  just  run  back  to  my  ancestral  village  or  my  hometown  at  the  first  given  opportunity.

I  can  vouch  for  the  actuality  of  three  places  in  that  inset:  Belpahari,  Binpur,  and  Jhargram.  I  am  not  too  sure  of  Gidighati  and  Majgeria.  Perhaps,  they,  too,  are  real.  Perhaps,  they  are  a  creation  of  the  author’s  imagination.  But  Belpahari,  Binpur  and  Jhargram  are  real.  They  exist.  There  is  another  place  mentioned  a  number  of  times  in  the  novel,  giving  that  place  a  certain  importance,  although  it  does  not  appear  in  the  map:  Gidhni.

The  name  of  my  village  is  Kishoripur.  It  is  the  village  of  my  ancestors;  the  place  where  my  father,  grandfather,  and  all  those  who  came  before  were  born  and  raised.  Kishoripur  is  a  village  in  Chakulia  block  of  East  Singbhum  district  of  Jharkhand,  a  mere  10  km  from  the  border  with  West  Bengal.  Both  Gidhni  and  Belpahari  are  some  10-15  km  from  Kishoripur,  in  two  different  directions—Gidhni,  towards  the  east;  Belpahari,  towards  the  north.  Jhargram  is  some  30-35  km  from  Kishoripur,  towards  the  east.  Binpur  is  some  20-25  km  from  Kishoripur,  towards  the  north-east.  I  remember  a  saying  I  have  grown  up  with.  Choluk  gaadi  Belpahari—Let  the  vehicle  go  to  Belpahari.  This  is  a  cry  of  excitement  that  village  people,  who,  in  earlier  times,  didn’t  usually  get  to  see  a  car  or  bus  or  other  automobile,  used  to  make  when  they  boarded  a  gaadi.  The  poetry  in  this  simple  cry  of  excitement  cannot  be  missed.  Gaadi  and  Belpahari  rhyme  with  one  another.  Somewhere  in  the  book,  Ghatshila  has  been  mentioned.  Ghatshila,  the  place  famous  for  its  copper  factory,  and  for  being  a  favourite  weekend  getaway  among  the  Bengalis  from  Kolkata,  is  the  place  where  my  parents  used  to  work  and  where  I  have  grown  up.  Ghatshila  is  my  hometown.  Belpahari,  Binpur,  and  Jhargram  were  the  reasons  that  drew  me – and,  ultimately,  made  me  read – The Lives of Others;  while  Gidhni  and  Ghatshila  filled  me  with  a  feeling  of  pride  that  the  places  I  am  so  familiar  with – one  of  those  being  my  hometown,  no  less – are  being  read  about  by  people  all  over  the  world.

As  I  progressed  with  the  novel  and  the  ups  and  downs  in  the  Ghoshes’  lives,  I  came  across  many  other  familiar  places,  like,  Bali,  Nalhati,  and  Memari.  I  am  working  with  the  government  of  Jharkhand  and  am  posted  in  Pakur.  Pakur  is  a  district  in  the  Santhal  Pargana  division  of  Jharkhand.  When  I  came  to  join  my  job  in  Pakur,  I  had  no  idea  about  the  route.  So  my  father  accompanied  me  and  we  came  from  Ghatshila  to  Pakur  by  road.  We  passed  through  four  districts  in  West  Bengal – Pashchim  Medinipur  (western  Medinipur,  mentioned  in  the  book),  Bankura,  Bardhaman,  and  Birbhum – before  we  entered  Jharkhand  again  and  reached  Pakur.  Nalhati  and  Memari  were  two  places  we  passed  through.  Now,  I  travel  from  Ghatshila  to  Pakur  by  train.  I  first  travel  from  Ghatshila  to  Howrah,  from  where  I  catch  the  train  to  Pakur.  Bali  and  Nalhati  are  two  stations  I  pass  through.  The  familiarity  provided  by  these  places  further  drew  me  into  The Lives of Others.  I  wasn’t  reading  the  book  because  I  wanted  to  know  what  happened  with  the  Ghoshes.  I  was  reading  The Lives of Others  because  it  was  so  familiar,  because  it  told  me  things  I  knew,  because  I  hoped to  find  another  familiar  point  in  one  of  its  pages,  because  it  seemed  to  speak  to  me.

I  wasn’t  disappointed.  The book threw up the names of other  familiar  places.  Jamshedpur,  Giridih,  Latehar,  Chhipodohar,  McCluskieganj.  I  had  goose  flesh  as  I  read  the  names  of  these  places  and  realised  that  many  like  me,  all  over  the  world,  were  reading  these  names.

Not  only  places,  The Lives of Others  was  familiar  also  with  regards  certain  terms  that  I  have  grown  up  with.  For  example,  munish.  Our  family  owns  land  in  our  village.  When  I  was  very  little,  my  grandfather  used  to  talk  about  letting  the  munish  farm  our  fields.  At  that  time,  I  understood  that  munish  meant  workers.  Men  who  work  in  the  fields.  As  I  grew  up,  I  learnt  that  munish  meant  the  sharecroppers  who  worked  our  fields  for  us.  This,  exactly,  is  the  meaning  The Lives of Others  gives  for  the  word  munish.

Then  there  were  the  familiar  Bengali  sayings.  “fourteen  forefathers”.  When  I  read  this  term  in  Chapter  18,  I,  despite  the  sad  and  fearful  context  of  this  chapter,  couldn’t  help  smiling.  That  is  because  I  have  heard  people  saying  the  original  term:  Choddo  gushti—and  also  the  comic  implications  of  this  term  when  it  is  said  in  anger.  Another  saying  was:  “a  case  of  the  sieve  saying  to  the  colander, “Why  do  you  have  so  many  holes  in  your  arse?””,  in  Chapter  10.  I  know  the  Bengali  of  this  one  too,  although  that  has  the  sieve  with  a  needle.  The  sieve  is  riddled  with  holes,  but  it  accuses  the  needle  of  having  a  hole!

The Lives of Others  was,  indeed,  speaking  to  me.  I  don’t  think  I  need  to  write  about  how  meticulous  this  book  is.  I  came  to  know  of  the  politics  in  West  Bengal,  as  well  as  about  the  processes  involved  in  the  manufacture  of  paper—this  shows  how  good  the  research,  the  work  on  the  background,  has  been.  Finally,  when  the  narrative  reached  the  villages  of  West  Medinipur,  and  Santhal  characters  entered  the  story,  I  found  myself  turning  the  pages  in  sheer  delight.  I  wanted  to  read  what  had  been  written  about  Santhals,  how  they  had  been  presented.

And  this  undid  everything.

Maybe  I  had  had  too  high  expectations  of  The Lives of Others.  Just  because  a  book  seemed  so  familiar,  and  was  well-researched  and  well-written,  I  had  felt  that  it  would  be  entirely  satisfactory.  I  was  wrong.  The  description  of  the  Santhals  in  The Lives of Others  is  anything  but  satisfactory.  At  the  most,  it  is  stereotypical,  one  dimensional,  and  whatever  the  author  has  written  about  Santhals  has  been  drawn  so  heavily  from  whatever  opinion  the  world,  in  general,  holds  about  Santhals – about  the  Adivasis,  in  fact – that  it  all  seems  like  a  cliché.

First,  there  is  this  violent  scene  in  Chapter  10—a  moneylender  called  Senapati  Nayek  being  hacked  to  death  with  tangi  (an  axe).  The  men  who  wielded  the  tangis  were  Dhiren,  a  young  man  from  Kolkata  who  has  turned  to  Naxalism,  and  Shankar  Soren,  a  Santhal  man  from  the  village  Majgeria.  Senapati  Nayek  was  hacked  twice,  and  it  has  not  been  mentioned  who  hacked  him,  whether  Dhiren  or  Shankar.  It  could  be  that  each  of  them  hacked  him  once.  It  could  also  be  that  either  Dhiren  or  Shankar  hacked  him  twice.  In  Dhiren’s  case,  it  could  be  understood  that  he  was  driven  by  his  Naxalite  ideal  to  kill  the  landlord.  He  had  something  to  prove.  In  Shankar’s  case,  he  only  had  his  poverty,  and  the  fact  that  Senapati  Nayek  was  cheating  him  out  of  what  he  produced  on  his  land.  The  novel  tells  us  that  Senapati  Nayek  cheated  Shankar  Soren,  that  Shankar  Soren  sought  revenge.  The  novel  does  not  tell  us  what  kind  of  person  Shankar  Soren  was.  He  could  have  been  a  good  man,  but  he  could  have  also  been  a  bad,  a  cruel  man.  For,  the  novel  tells  us  that  he  beat  his  wife.  He  beat  his  wife,  the  novel  informs  us,  out  of  frustration,  but  that  could  also  mean  that  Shankar  was  depressed,  that  there  was  something  going  on  in  his  mind.  The  novel  further  tells  us  that  Shankar  was  drawn  by  Dhiren  into  the  plot  to  kill  Senapati.  Shankar  agrees  to  it.  But,  sadly,  whatever  the  novel  tells  us  about  Shankar,  it  does  not  give  us  a  detailed  insight  into  his  back  story,  it  does  not  give  Shankar  a  redeeming  story.  Shankar,  here,  represents  the  Santhals,  and  what  we  come  to  know  about  Santhals  through  the  character  of  Shankar  is  that  Santhals  are  naïve,  helpless,  frustrated,  angry,  yield  easily  to  incitement,  and  violent—in  this  order.  I  don’t  understand  if  this  description  of  Santhals – through  the  character  of  Shankar – does  any  good  to  Santhals.  Chances  are  that  readers  who  are  not  familiar  with  Santhals  might  take  Santhals  to  be  fools  who  tend  to  lose  whatever  they  own  and  repent  for  it,  and  then  turn  to  violence  to  get  their  possessions  back.  Perhaps,  Santhals  might  be  seen  as  a  bunch  of  psychos.

Second,  there  is  this  scene  in  Chapter  15,  in  which  a  drunk  man  called  Ajit  tells  his  friend  Somnath:  “…I  find  these  tribal  people  really  innocent  and  pure.  Qualities  we  city-dwellers  have  lost.”  Fine,  this  could  be  true.  But  let  us  consider  the  scene  in  its  entirety.  Ajit  is  drunk.  How  much  weight  do  the  proclamations  of  a  drunk  man  hold?  Next,  there  is  one  more  friend,  Shekhar,  he  too  is  drunk,  who  adds:  “[The  tribals]  have  no  money,  no  jobs,  no  solid  houses,  yet  look  how  happy  they  are.  They  sing,  dance,  laugh  all  the  time,  drink  alcohol,  all  as  if  they  didn’t  have  a  single  care  in  the  world.”  Now,  isn’t  this  stereotyping?  It  has  been  taken  for  granted  that  tribals  “have  no  money,  no  jobs,  no  solid  houses”,  and  they  “sing,  dance,  laugh  all  the  time,  drink  alcohol”.  Even  if  it  is  assumed  that  it  is  the  voice  of  that  particular  character – and  not  the  voice  of  the  author  who  wrote  this  book – what  positive  thing  do  these  lines  hold  for  tribals?  A  reader  who  does  not  know  tribals  will  assume  that  all  tribals  do  are  “sing,  dance,  laugh  all  the  time,  drink  alcohol”.

Third,  and  this  really  irritated  me.  Chapter  15,  just  before  that  drunken  discussion  about  tribals.  Somnath,  who  is  a  complete  lecher,  is  attracted  to  a  young  Santhal woman  and  goes  to  ask  her  the  name  of  the  flower  she  has  put  in  her  hair.  The  woman  behaves  coquettishly,  and  asks  Somnath:  “Babu,  you  give  me  money  if  I  tell  you  the  name  of  the  flower?”  At  this  point,  I  can’t  help  noticing,  The Lives of Others  turns  into  Satyajit  Ray’s  film  adaptation  of  Sunil  Gangopadhyay’s  novel,  Aranyer  Din  Ratri.  The  young  Santhal  woman  could  very  well  be  Duli,  the  Santhal  woman  in  the  film  Aranyer  Din  Ratri,  played  by  Simi  Garewal;  while  Somnath  of  The Lives of Others  could  be  the  city-bred  Hari,  played  by  Samit  Bhanja  in  the  film  Aranyer  Din  Ratri.  In  fact,  there  is  a  scene  in  Aranyer  Din  Ratri,  set  in  a  small  rural  joint  selling  hooch,  in  which  a  drunk  Duli  comes  to  a  drunk  Hari  and  asks  him  to  give  her  money  to  buy  more  hooch.  “E  babu,  de  na.  Paisa  de  na”—Duli’s  lines  from  the  film  are  still  clear  in  my  mind,  not  because  I  liked  those  lines,  but  because,  being  a  Santhal,  I  found  those  lines  terribly  embarrassing,  and  the  character  of  Duli – played  by  Simi  Garewal – absolutely  unreal  and  a  caricature.  The  same  feeling  of  embarrassment  came  over  me  when  I  read  about  the  Santhal  woman  in  The Lives of Others  asking  for  money  from  a  city-bred  man.  Simi  Garewal  in  Aranyer  Din  Ratri  might  have  looked  very  glamorous  to  some  people,  but  I  cannot  forgive  Satyajit  Ray  for  making  a  complete  hash  of  a  Santhal  character.  Similarly,  I  cannot  forgive  Neel  Mukherjee  for  Aranyer  Din  Ratri-fication – or  Simi  Garewal-isation – of  a  Santhal  woman  in  his  novel.

Further,  in  the  same  chapter,  Somnath  has  successfully  seduced  that  Santhal  woman,  promising  to  buy  her  liquor,  and  was  leading  her  towards  the  forest  to,  apparently,  make  out  with  her.  This  is  what  has  been  written  in  the  novel:  “He  had  heard  that  these  promiscuous  tribal  women  had  insatiable  desires;  they  were  at  it  all  the  time,  with  whoever  approached  them”.  Promiscuous?  I  wonder  if  the  author  was  trying  to  count  the  qualities  of  tribal  women  or  just  generalizing  things.  If  a  woman  drinks  alcohol,  does  that  make  her  promiscuous?  Was  it  necessary  to  portray  “tribal  women”  as  “promiscuous”  and  with  “insatiable  desires”?  This,  together  with  lines  like,  “You  think  we  didn’t  see  you  unable  to  take  your  eyes  off  the  ripe  tits  of  these  Santhal  women?”,  “Ufff,  those  tits!  You’re  absolutely  correct,  Somu,  they’re  exactly  like  ripe  fruit.  The  only  thing  you  want  to  do  when  you  see  them  is  pluck  and  shove  into  your  mouth”,  and  “[Santhal  women]  fill  every  single  sense.  But  not  only  tits,  have  you  noticed  their  waists?  The  way  they  wind  that  cloth  around  themselves,  it  hardly  covers  anything,  leaves  nothing  really  to  imagination.  High-blood-pressure  stuff”  (all  lines  from  Chapter  15)  seem  to  only  further  the  Simi  Garewal-isation  of  Santhal  women.  Santhal  women  have  been  presented  as  objects  of  fantasy,  what  spoilt,  city-bred  men  desire.  While  there  might  be  some  truth  in  men  lusting  after  Santhal  women,  is  it  that  difficult  to  accept  Santhal  women  as  real  persons  and  not  merely  as  objects  lustful  men  fantasize  about?

Finally,  in  Chapter  3,  there  is  a  mention  of  “the  burial  grounds  of  the  Santhals”.  I  wonder,  what  burial  grounds?  I  am  a  Santhal.  I  know  that  we  Santhals  do  not  bury  our  dead.  We  cremate  them.  So  where  did  these  “burial  grounds  of  the  Santhals”  come  from?

The  “burial  grounds  of  the  Santhals”  part  did  put  me  off  a  bit.  But  it  was  still  quite  early  in  the  novel,  and  I  was  ready  to  overlook  this  error  because  I  had  started  falling  in  love  with  this  novel.  I  found  one  more  error:  “Gidhni  Junction”,  in  Chapter  2.  Gidhni  is  an  actual  place,  and  the  railway  station  at  Gidhni  is  not  a  junction.  If  one  travels  to  Gidhni  from  Howrah,  one  would  reach  Jhargram  first  and  then  Gidhni.  So  why  would  “the  railtrack  [become]  a  loop-line”  and  why  would  “the  train  [leave]  the  main  railway  line  and  [go]  over  the  cutting”?  If  one  travelling  from  Howrah  needed  to  get  down  at  Jhargram,  he  could  easily  get  down  at  Jhargram  without  needing  to  travel  all  the  way  to  Gidhni.  I  overlooked  “Gidhni  Junction”,  initially,  thinking  it  to  be  a  creative  freedom  the  author  took.  The  type  of  creative  freedom  that  Jhumpa  Lahiri  took  in  The  Namesake  when  she  made  the  young  Ashoke  Ganguly  travel  from  Howrah  to  Tatanagar  in  an  overnight  train  instead  of  in  one  of  the  many  trains  that  ran  during  the  daytime  so  that  the  overnight  train  could  have  an  accident  near  Dhalbhumgarh  and  Ashoke  Ganguly’s  life  be  changed  forever.  I  tried  overlooking  both  “Gidhni  Junction”  and  “the  burial  grounds  of  the  Santhals”.  But  what  else  was  written  about  Santhals  crushed  all  my  hopes  in  such  a  way  that  The Lives of Others,  a  book  I  had  found  so  familiar,  stopped  working  for  me.

I  am  happy  that  a  novel  which  has  a  few  Santhal  characters  is  being  received  so  well  all  over  the  world;  but  that  is  exactly  what  makes  me  afraid—that  readers  all  over  the  world  are  reading  about  Santhals  in  The Lives of Others.  Some  readers  might  even  believe  in  what  The Lives of Others  tells  them  about  Santhals,  and  this  does  not  make  me  happy  at  all,  because  the  actual  lives  of  the  Santhals  is  somewhat  different  from  what  The Lives of Others  tells  us.

25 September 2014

Neel Mukherjee The Lives of Others Random House India, London, 2014. Hb. pp. 514 Rs. 399

Hansda

 

 

 

 

 

 

HANSDA SOWVENDRA SHEKHAR is the author of the novel, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, published by Aleph Book Company. He is a Santhal, a native of Ghatsila subdivision of Jharkhand; and he is currently living in Pakur in the Santhal Pargana division of Jharkhand, where he is working as a medical officer with the government of Jharkhand. ( http://www.alephbookcompany.com/hansda-sowvendra-shekhar )

Naseeruddin Shah, “And Then One Day”

Naseeruddin Shah, “And Then One Day”

Naseeruddin ShahThe same year I watched a play for the first time, in the Sem concert hall. It was called Mr Fixit and has faded from my memory almost entirely but while watching it the only thing I wanted was to be up there with those people. When a long limousine, which I later discovered to be plywood cutout on wheels, came gliding on to the stage, I was back in the same universe of wonder where I had watched ‘that man’ dancing on that stage a hundred feet high. And I have since steadfastly believe that the only magic that happens in this world happens on the stage. Films take you captive, they feed you everything on a plate, the legerdemain they create transports you into a state where you may as well be dreaming, but theatre takes you into a world where your imagination is stimulated, your judgement is unimpaired, and thus your enjoyment heightened. It is only in the theatre that there can be this kind of exchange of energies between actor and audience. The finest definition of theatre that I have come across is ‘one actor-one audience’. Implying of course that any meaningful interaction between two people anywhere fits the definition of ideal theatre, with the same qualities needed of both participants as are required from them in an actual theatre. Theatre really is a one-on-one experience.” ( p.13-14) 

Renowned actor Naseeruddin Shah’s memoir, And Then One Day, is a fabulous example of what a memoir should be –an insight into the personal life of the man/memoirist combined with the vast understanding with their life/passion. A good memoir should not consist entirely of personal details and who said what to whom, where and when; given that it is about an individual who is admired and looked up to for the success they have achieved in their career, a reader wants to know more about the industry/niche the author represents. This is what Naseeruddin Shah does. This is a smartly written memoir which is not a necessarily sugar-coated description of success having come easily to the actor. He attempts to be as realistic in his telling with his love for theatre and films being apparent from childhood.

A life of performance is what he yearns for, knows it is hard work and is willing to do it. For instance after the disastrous workshop of Grotowski held in Poland, that Naseeruddin Shah fled from, made him realise “no one at all could in fact help, and whatever I wanted to learn I’d have to do on my own”. It is a love for films and theatre that seeps through the pages of the memoir, Naseeruddin Shah does not merely rattle off names of films he has seen, plays he has acted in or actors he has hobnobbed with, there is a reason why every person mentioned in the book is present. Whether it is Mr Kendal and his love for staging Shakespeare or Captain Hook in the animated Peter Pan, Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea, Jose Ferrer in I Accuse!,  Peter O’Toole in Becket or appreciating Shammi Kapoor and “Hindi cinema’s certified nutcase Mr Kishore Kumar” and Mehmood, “one of the most skilful actors I’ve ever seen, was not quite up there with Chaplin in terms of ability but much ahead in terms of self-love”. Every description and analysis is filled with a love and understanding of the profession, it is as if being in the world of cinema is like oxygen to Naseeruddin Shah.

Also as a good memoir should be the historical background of newly-independent India, the growth of Bollywood, the emergence of alternative cinema and changing tastes of the audiences is neatly woven through And Then One Day. This is a book which will continue to sell well beyond the immediate buzz of a beloved and admired actor having written his memoirs since it is a rich repository of information about the profession, the literature and theories around it, without being dull.

Of the many, many news stories, reviews, blog posts about the memoir, so far the best interaction has been between Barkha Dutt in conversation with Naseeruddin Shah, NDTV, 14 September 2014 ( Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai) – http://www.ndtv.com/video/player/we-the-people/watch-master-s-take-in-conversation-with-naseeruddin-shah/338122 . As of this week, the publishers, Penguin Books India have collaborated with the Hindustan Times to release a series of short films called “Naseer on Naseer”. The first one was released on 22 September 2014 – http://www.hindustantimes.com/audio-news-video/AV-Entertainment/Naseer-on-Naseer-How-and-why-I-became-an-actor/Article2-1266974.aspx . These short films echo the sentiments of the actor as recorded in his memoir – his love for acting and the stage.

“I wanted more, I could happily have stayed on that stage forever, and in a sense I have. Whether I’d done well or badly was of no consequence. As an imitation of Mr Kendal it wasn’t too far off the mark, but the real revelation for me was the charge of energy I felt that day, and have continued to feel whenever I am onstage. I found myself doing things I hadn’t planned and doing them with complete certainty and to the approval of the audience. It was as if another hand was guiding me. This feeling has stayed with me till today; and therefore, though I am grateful for compliments, I never take full responsibility for either my successes or failures but do try to make sure that they ‘theatre god’ does not turn his back on me. ” (p. 60-1) 

Naseeruddin Shah And Then One Day: A Memoir Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, Gurgaon, India, 2014. Hb. pp. 330 Rs 699

 

A. N. Wilson, “Victoria: A Life”

A. N. Wilson, “Victoria: A Life”

image002“…she kept a gimlet eye on foreign affairs and on domestic politics throughout, even at her lowest moments of despair. But the diurnal tedium of her life, which drove courtiers to distraction, is in itself a very remarkable fact. Apart from being the Queen, she had done so very little. It is one of the things which make her such a completely fascinating figure for a biographer, since she compels us to concentrate upon her, rather than upon her deeds. The tempting thing, when trying to make sense of any human life, whether famous or obscure, is to concentrate upon outward activities. Queen Victoria does not allow us to do that, since, apart from being an expert in watercolours and a fairly avid reader of popular fiction, she did not really ‘do’ anything: certainly not in the second half of her life. What a poet of her times once called ‘those years and years of world without event’ made up her drama. So, as well as her life being that of her own times, as must be the case of a monarch in her position, her life was also that of the inner woman, of whom — from the letters and the journals — we have a vivid sense.” 

(p.553 )

A. N. Wilson’s Queen Victoria: A Life, is the first authorised biography of the Queen. This has been written with permission granted to A. N. Wilson by Queen Elizabeth II to access documents, journals, letters, etc related to Queen Victoria. It is a detailed account of Queen Victoria, with a fine balance achieved between giving a personal history combined with the socio-political events of the time. With a historian, novelist and a fine scholar of the Victorian period such as A.N. Wilson writing this account, it is fascinating. For instance when discussing Queen Victoria’s journals, he says: “She began her journals, when aged thirteen, in the momentous year of the Reform Bill becoming law; she makes no allusion to it, any more than Jane Austen, in her novels, alluded to the Napoleonic Wars.” ( p.63)

Queen Victoria straddles a period in history that was a watershed moment for science, technology, social reform, literature, and politics. Her grandfather’s reign was synonymous with the loss of the colonies in America, but by the time she died in 1901, the British Empire was said to be so vast that the sun never set on it and had been crowned Empress of India. When the queen was attending her first Drawing Room, Charles Darwin was on board The Beagle, headed towards the Galapagos Islands. For her coronation, 28 June 1838, “the crowds were huge. Railways had brought an unprecedented numbers into the capital.” (p.86) During her reign, her husband, Prince Albert organised the Great Exhibition in London ( 1851). –“the largest the world had ever seen, as demonstration of industrial design and expertise”. A fabulous description of the planning involved and range of exhibits at the fair– exhibits from India, snowshoes from Canada, gas fittings, brass bedsteads, buttons, needles and agricultural machinery from a new English countryside, photography, iron works, statues and ceramics, steam engines, globes and clocks, French silks, a model of the Niagara Falls and a mass of zinc from America weighing 16,400 pounds, four decorated rooms from Vienna and a fountain which spurted eau-de-cologne… . “By the time the cheaper rates had been fixed only 200,000 people had attended, but the multitudes soon came – some 6 million visitors before the Exhibiton closed.” And a profit of £200,000 had been made.   ( A friend on Facebook told me when I posted this information as a status, her great grandmother went  from India by ship to attend it!)

For the first time there is insight on the Prince Consort, Prince Albert and the influence he wielded in court, over Victoria, in politics, science, and as a patron of the Arts. “When he was dead, Victoria found herself making lists of all the things Albert had been good at — his construction of the beautiful new dairy at Windsor, the laying out of the superb kitchen gardens, the brilliance at the piano, the musical compositions, the building up of the royal art collection, the Great Exhibition of 1851, the creation of the Royal Horticultural Garden, the Kensington Museums, the foundation of Wellington College… And there was all his political involvement, both in Germany and in Britain. This was not to mention his productive work as Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, his programmes of social housing in Kennington, his fascination with scientific discovery, and his wide reading in contemporary literature and in philosophy.” (p.218-9) Throughout the book there are details of Prince Albert’s meticulous planning, sharp political moves, his active participation in England and yet, for most of his life he was perceived as a foreigner, who had come from Germany just as the other two notable Germans now living in England — Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Prince Albert’s sense that the social and economic injustices of the industrial towns of ‘England’ would lead to communism, meanwhile were shared by two young German exiles who arrived in England during the same year — Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Perhaps the three Germans — Albert, Marx and Engels — were in a better position to get a perspective on the British Isles than some of its longer-standing inhabitants. ( p.146) 

Queen Victoria has been the longest serving monarch in England ( 63 years and 7 months), mother of nine children and grandmother of forty-two and matriarch of Royal Europe, through the marriages of her children.When an authorised biography of a queen has been commissioned during the reign of another monarch, it is impossible not to compare the life written about with the present queen and her experiences. The fact that such a book has been published, allowing personal accounts of the royal family to be made public, making a realistic portrait as far as possible, including references to the scandal-prone Prince Eddy, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, the queen’s grandson. For instance, A. N. Wilson writes, “There was never any firm evidence that Eddy was bisexual, let alone homosexual, but he was the sort of man to whom scandalous stories stuck like burrs. ( In 1962, upon no evidence whatsoever, it was even claimed that he was Jack the Ripper.)” (p.488) Reporting such incidents of indiscretion amongst the members of the Royal family would have previously been unheard of, more so in a commissioned project such as this. Yet the inclusion of these episodes is also a reflection of the transformation the British monarchy has had to experience in the current reign of Queen Elizabeth II.  Dwelling upon Queen Victoria’s relationship with John Brown and her Munshi, would probably not have been permissible earlier. But now ample space, well-documented and researched, has been allotted to the significant presence these men had in the queen’s life.

Entrusting a historian with the task of writing a biography implies that there is attention paid to historical details. For instance in the references to the uprising of 1857, A. N. Wilson in his description brings together various lines of thought about how the incident is perceived — a mutiny or an uprising or “as the first rumblings of Indian nationalism, or merely localized expressions of outrage”. (p.213). As for Queen Victoria read the accounts with mounting disgust. There are plenty of examples of such historical accuracy throughout the book — Crimean War, Africa, Afghanistan, etc. Sure there are moments of hagiographical genuflections towards Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. While describing the portrait made of the couple by Brocky when they were twenty-two years old and had already started to have children, A. N. Wilson says “Brocky …immortalizes a couple who are mythological progenitors, like Abraham, the father of many nations”. (p.100) It presents the life of a queen as an twenty-first century reader would expect — a history, personal anecdotes contextualized by socio-historical events, with a strong focus on the queen as a woman too. It scorches rumours for instance of Queen Victoria’s paternity and how she came to be a carrier of Haemophilia. It introduces the Victorian Era to a modern reader, but at the same time forms an informed backdrop to an account of a formidable woman, who was much more than the dumpy woman, usually portrayed in her widow’s garb of a black dress and the white cap.

This is a biography worth reading. It raises the bar of how biographies should be written, with plenty of detail, without making it turgid to read.

Update ( 16 Oct 2014) 

The manuscript was read by a representative of the palace and commented upon. And the publishers had to have their permission to use all of the material which is subject to Royal Copyright.

 

A. N. Wilson Victoria: A Life Atlantic Books, London, 2014. Hb. pp. 580. Rs. 999 ( Distributed by Penguin Books India) 

Sarah Waters, “The Paying Guests”

Sarah Waters, “The Paying Guests”

Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests“…men never do want women to do the things they want to do themselves, have you noticed?” 

( p.80)

The Paying Guests is Sarah Water’s sixth novel. It is about a middle class family, the Wrays — a mother and daughter, Frances— who have fallen upon hard times and are forced to taken in lodgers or as they would prefer to call them “paying guests”. Mrs Wray is pained when her daughter refers to themselves now as landladies. The story is set in the inter-war years, so the Wray household like many others around them have lost their two sons in the Great War, and soon after the war, Mr Wray passed away, leaving a mountain of bad debts. Mrs Wray continues to manage her life, a pale semblance of what she was used to but her young twenty-six-year old daughter has no qualms behaving like a char woman, if required, to maintain the house and manage expenses. All though Frances had begun to recognise “the look very well–she was bored to death with it, in fact–because she had seen it many times before: on the faces of neighbours, of tradesmen, and of her mother’s friends, all of whom had got themselves through the worst war in human history yet seemed unable for some reason to cope with the sight of a well-bred woman doing the work of a char.” ( p.25) The young couple who arrive are Lilian and Leonard Barber are obviously from a different social class ( “Len said you’d think them common”), but have the means to pay the weekly rent ( “fifty-eight shillings for two weeks”). Mr Barber is described as having a “clerkly neatness of him”. Mrs Barber on the other hand is “all warm colour and curve. How well she filled her own skin! She might have been poured generously into it, like treacle.”

The story moves at a leisurely trot. There is a very slow build up to the crux of the plot– the love affair between Lilian and Frances. But once there the novelist focuses upon these two character, shutting out all other interactions and references to the outside world, save for the occasional visits by the butcher boy, fishmonger, milkman and news headlines from The Times. Then suddenly the outside world is very present in the story, with a murder, police investigation, media reports, a courtroom drama as the story develops into a murder investigation with many unexpected twists and turns.

The Paying Guests is a wandering and an exploration of women’s lives, what it means to be a lesbian in 1922 when it was barely discussed or even acknowledged openly. The empowerment of women was happening in small ways, the Suffragete movement had happened, at the Wray house such as “Nelly, Mabel, or any other live-in servant since the munitions factory had finally lured them away in 1916”, Frances’s friend Christine was living in a building run by a society offering flats to working women — all very revolutionary for a society that was emerging from the prudish and conservative shadows of Victorian England and the socio-economic devastation wreaked by World War I. In a recent interview with The Independent, Sarah Waters acknowledges paying attention to women’s secret lives and history. ( The Independent, 6 September, 2014. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/sarah-waters-interview-i-pay-attention-to-womens-secret-history-and-lives-9715463.html ) In the same interview, Sarah Waters admits that writing about a lesbian relationship was a conscious decision since she “missed writing about love”.  This novel is a good example of historical fiction meticulously researched, another fact the author acknowledges. As the news about her new book filters through social media platforms, conversations are erupting on various platforms focused upon the well-written sex scenes that Sarah Waters is known for writing. In The Paying Guests she has apparently surpassed herself for creating scenes “electric with passion”. ( I use the word “apparently” advisedly, since this is the first book of Sarah Waters I have read.)

For period fiction written by contemporary authors to focus upon lesbian relationships, a murder mystery and engagement with the law is not new at all. Most notably Emma Donaghue’s novels especially Frog Music released earlier this year tackle similar issues raised in The Paying Guests. Ultimately it is the treatment of the story, the atmosphere created, the plot development and an understanding of the period where the writer’s strengths lie. While comparing these two novels — The Paying Guests and Frog Music — it is evident that the pace of storytelling and settings are very different, but The Paying Guests requires huge dollops of patience to read and appreciate.

Sarah Waters The Paying Guests Virago Press, London, 2014. (Distributed by Hachette India) Pb. pp. 580. Rs. 599

Karen Jay Fowler, ” We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves”

Karen Jay Fowler, ” We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves”

WAACBOLanguage is such an imprecise vehicle I sometimes wonder why we bother with it. 

( p.85, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves)

Karen Jay Fowler’s award-winning novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves , is about the Cooke family. It consists of the parents who are research psychologists and their three children — Lowell, Rosemary and Fern. A normal family except for a minor difference, Fern is a chimpanzee who has been brought up with Rosemary from infancy as twins. It is an experiment the parents conduct, funded by their university and it entailed having a “village” of grad students living with them at home to help. For the first five years of the girls lives, all is well. Then Rosemary is sent off to her grandparents, when she returns she discovers her sister is nowhere to be seen, her parents have moved into a new home, with no extra bedrooms and no grad students. Her brother too vanishes only to send postcards periodically and one brief visit, many years later. Rosemary begins telling this story when she is a college student and completes it when she is a kindergarten teacher for some years. The story spans over thirty years. As the narrator, Rosemary Cooke, says:

My brother and my sister have led extraordinary lives, but I wasn’t there, and I can’t tell you that part. I’ve stuck here to the part I can tell, the part that’s mine, and still everything I’ve said is all about them, a chalk outline around the space where they should have been. Three children, one story. (p. 304)

It is not surprising to discover that this novel has been shortlisted for the ManBooker Prize 2014. The story is a sensitive understanding of sibling relationships, loneliness of a woman and the ethics of scientific experiments–anthropomorphize a chimp and what are the human complications/repercussions of conducting such an experiment.  This is a story based primarily on Winthrop Kellogg’s work at Indiana University, but also of many others; most notably Jane Goodall’s work with the Gombe chimpanzees. Jane Godall, 1965In an interview with the Book Slut ( Oct 2013), the author says “I did hear from a daughter in the Kellogg family, I didn’t realize that there was another child. She was born about the time the experiment ended, so she has no memory of it herself, nor would her brother, who was only nineteen months old when the experiment ended. But she feels strongly that it completely deformed her family, that experiment that was so much briefer than the one I put in my book. She emailed me and said she realized I must have based this on her father’s work. One of the things she said that had happened to them, something I did not think about in my book and did not anticipate, was that they got hate mail and death threats from fundamentalists. …She wished to tell me how horrible it was to be part of the experiment, and what it did to her brother, what it did to her family. Although it’s not clear to me — to go back to my daughter’s original question — whether the damage to the family was done by the experiment itself or by having the kind of father who would do an experiment like this and who, therefore, was the kind of father who did other things as well; clearly, not a great father. It was a shock too, because I knew that the boy, Donald, who was involved in the experiment, had died quite some time ago. And I did not know there was another child. So I wrote about this family and it did not occur to me that any of them would be reading it.”

Karen Jay Fowler also refers to Keith and Catherine Hayes experiment at raising Viki ( a chimp) in the same manner as a human infant. “…Mr. Hayes said that the significant, the critical finding of their study, the finding everyone was choosing to ignore, was this: that language was the only way in which Viki differed much from a normal human child.” ( p.288) Karen Jay Fowler is known for her science fiction writing, her strong sense of storytelling. She has brought to the fore in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by telling an extraordinarily beautiful story, but also making one think ( as good scifi should do!) about experiments conducted on animals in the name of research and what does it mean for animal rights. Coincidentally, the August 2014 issue of the National Geographic has an essay where Jane Goodall celebrating her 80th year reflects on her career of getting to know unforgettable chimps. ( http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/gombe-chimpanzees/shah-rogers-photography ).

Read this book. Just as all good science fiction blurs the lines between reality and experimentation and continue to be influential such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451  and Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics, so will We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves — it will dominate conversations about literature, science, animal rights, literary fiction for many years to come.

Miscellaneous

An interview with Karen Jay Fowler, Book Slut, October 2013 ( http://www.bookslut.com/features/2013_10_020334.php )

Is your process for writing a novel dramatically different from writing a short story?

Yes, it is dramatically different. When I write a story I can keep the whole thing in my head. I usually pop backward from the climax so I know what I want the climax to be, how I want it to work, what I want the effect on the reader to be. It’s just a much more conscious kind of creation where I’m very aware of the reader, I’m very aware of what I think the readers experience is going to be and try to make it what I want. And then, of course, readers are obstreperous and go and have all kinds of experience that I did not intend, but I like that too.

With novels, I’m much more muddled, muddling my way through them. What I do like about novels is being able to spend that extended period of time with the characters. I get to know those characters in a much more deep and attached way. I’ve never missed one of the characters of my short stories when I finished the short story — I wish I were still thinking about her, I wish I were still making her up. But I do have that experience with a novel. I am very sad to say goodbye to Rosemary and Fern. I liked them both a lot.

In conversation with Karen Jay Fowler, The American Reader ( http://theamericanreader.com/an-interview-with-karen-joy-fowler/ )

Carmen Maria Machado: Your fiction tends to move between (for lack of a better word) genres. What do you find so compelling about the borderlands between fantasy, realism, historical fiction, and science fiction?

Karen Joy Fowler: I think I like places where the rules are still visible, but need not apply. I get a lot of energy from having conventions I can push against.

And I’ve long felt that reality is so strange that realism really isn’t up to the task of adequately presenting it. The world is a whole lot more horrible than I imagined as a child. But it is also considerably funnier. I try to make do with that.

I always say that I write history as it might have been reported in the National Enquirer. And I guess I’m more interested in the fact that someone believes he’s been abducted by aliens than I am in exploring actual alien plots and connivings. An interest in the abductees as opposed to the aliens seems to me to be a borderland concern.

Karen Jay Fowler We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves Serpent’s Tail, London, 2014. ( Distributed in India by Hachette India.) Pb. pp. 340. Rs. 499  

Aleksander Hemon, “The Book of My Lives”

Aleksander Hemon, “The Book of My Lives”


Aleksander HemonThe situation of immigration leads to a kind of self-othering as well. Displacement results in a tenuous relationship with the past, with the self that used to exist and operate in a different place, where the qualities that constituted us were in no need of negotiation. Immigration is an ontological crisis because you are forced to negotiate the conditions of your selfhood under perpetually changing existential circumstances. The displaced person strives for narrative stability– here is my story!–by way of systematic nostalgia. p.17
 
I first came across Aleksander Hemon when I read his moving (and painful) essay, “The Aquarium”, in the New Yorker. ( http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/06/13/the-aquarium, 13 June 2011) It was about the loss of his second daughter, an infant, from a brain tumour. Then I read a brilliant interview by John Freeman published in How to read a Novelist: Conversations with writers ( First published in the Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/feb/23/aleksandar-hemon, 23 February 2013 ). In it John Freeman observes that “Hemon has been widely praised for the unexpected images [ his] style creates, but it was not, he says, the hallmark of a writer trying to bridge here and there. It was deliberate, honed, and in some cases mapped out. ‘I wanted to write with intense sensory detail, to bring a heightened state.’ He is a sentence writer who counts beats as a poet does syllables.”

Aleksander Hemon was born in Sarajevo and has lived in Chicago since 1992. The Book of My Lives is his fourth book, but first nonfiction. It follows A Question for Bruno ( 2000), Nowhere Man ( 2002), The Lazarus Project ( 2008) and Love and ObstaclesThe Book of My Lives consists of 16 essays that were originally published elsewhere, such as The New YorkerGranta, and McSweeney’s. There were revised and edited for the memoir. The essays vary from time spent in Sarajevo, being with the family, eating his grandmother’s homecooked broth, to participating in a Nazi-themed birthday party for his younger sister and disappearing off to the family cabin on the mountain called Jahorina, twenty miles from Sarajevo, for weeks on end to read in solitude and peace. On one such visit, the American Cultural Centre called him to say he had been invited to America for a month. While he was there, the war broke out in Sarajevo and he could not return for many years. The second half of the book consists of essays documenting/coming to grips with the new life/experiences — of being an immigrant in America. 

The funny thing is that the need for collective self-legtimization fits snugly into the neoliberal fantasy of multiculturalism, which is nothing if not a dream of a lot of others living together, everybody happy to tolerate and learn. Differences are thus essentially required for the sense of belonging: as long as we know who we are and who we are not, we are as good as they are. In the multicultural world there are a lot of them, which out not to be a problem as long as they stay within their cultural confines, loyal to their roots. There is no hierarchy of cultures, except as measured by the level of tolerance, which, incidentally, keeps Western democracies high above everyone else. ….p.16
 

I read this book while travelling through Kashmir. In fact it took me a day to read, completely engrossed in it. It was a little surreal reading the essays while on holiday in Kashmir, especially those describing the conflict in Sarajevo, since the presence of the security forces, the freewheeling conversations with the locals about recovering from many years of conflict, or the tedious security checks at the airport are constant reminders of how fragile any society affected by conflict is. It is a memoir I would recommend strongly. A must.

Here are some links related to Aleksander Hemon that are worth exploring: Gary Shteyngart in conversation with Hemon http://chicagohumanities.org/events/2014/winter/little-failure-gary-shteyngart-aleksandar-hemon

Aleksander Hemon interviews Teju Cole, Bomb http://bombmagazine.org/article/10023/teju-cole

An interview in the Salon http://www.salon.com/2013/03/23/aleksandar_hemon_i_cannot_stand_that_whole_game_of_confession_i_have_nothing_to_confess_and_i_do_not_ask_for_redemption/

Q&A in the NYT http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/20/waiting-for-catastrophes-aleksandar-hemon-talks-about-the-book-of-my-lives/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

Review in The Economist http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21575736-essays-exile-writing-survive

Aleksander Hemon The Book of My Lives Picador, Oxford, 2013. Pb. pp. 250 Rs 450 
11 Sept 2014 

Literati: Diversity in books (6 September 2014)

Literati: Diversity in books (6 September 2014)

Jaya BhattacharjiMy monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 6 September 2014) and in print ( 7 September 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article6386263.ece. I am also c&p the text below.  The post from Malorie Blackman’s Facebook wall has been used with her permission. 

The 10-book challenge

There is a 10-book challenge circulating on Facebook. The idea is to put together ten books that have stayed with you as a reader. Reading the lists circulating on posts is an interesting exercise. There were the expected names such as Enid Blyton, P. G. Wodehouse, Jane Austen, William Golding, Graham Greene, Sue Townsend, Gerald Durrell, Ogden Nash, Ayn Rand, Henry Miller, Mary Stewart, L. M. Montgomery, Coetzee, Julian Barnes, J D Salinger, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, Charles Dickens, Seamus Heaney, Douglas Adams and Michael Ondaatje. Those from or of South Asian origin included familiar names such as  Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Upmanyu Chatterjee , Rokeya S. Hossain, Rohinton Mistry, Khaled Hosseini, Mohsin Hamid, Khushwant Singh, Amitav Ghosh,  Salman Rushdie, Jamil Ahmed, Arun Kolatkar, Kiran Nagarkar and Qurrulatain Hyder. In translation there were a handful, many repeated often–Sukumar Ray, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Haruku Murakami, Franz Kafka, Umberto Eco, Marjane Satrapi, Nikos Kazantzakis, Fyodr Dostoevsky, Orhan Pamuk, Mario Vargas Llosa, Leo Tolstoy, and Roberto Calasso.  Surprisingly Shakespeare, Valmiki’s Ramayana, The Bible, Hermann Hesse, Khalil Gibran, C. S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie, A. A. Milne, Hemingway, Neil Gaiman, Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix and Obelix series, Herge, Bill Watterson, J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, J. R. R. Tolkein, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, Paulo Coelho and J. M. Barrie were not mentioned as often as I expected them to be.  ( The names have not been listed in any particular order.) These catalogues are useful since they remind us of what makes “classic” literature. Yet there are deafening silences. I scoured lists from different regions, hoping to discover authors and books popular in those cultures—these could be in translation or different categories, titles that are rarely heard of overseas; it was not to be. Majority of the titles mentioned were of internationally established household names.

These games have their uses. Many authors are discovered through conversations. At the same time vast amounts of literature are not easily recalled. For instance, literature in other languages apart from English was rarely acknowledged and women writers continued to be in a minority. Children’s literature too was not often referred to all though many lists consisted of books read as children. Hence it is not surprising that there has been a call by many international writers to discuss diversity in books–a campaign started in May ( http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com/ ). The hashtag –#WeNeedDiverseBooks and #diversityinbooks—on Twitter is worth reading for examples from around the world, across genres, languages and regions. An unfortunate fallout of this campaign was the racial abuse Malorie Blackman, Children’s Laureate ( 2013-15) faced in UK. As she wrote in a Facebook post “I talked about diversity in literature walking hand in hand with inclusion. I talked about the books for our children being more diverse so that we see more stories featuring children/YA with disabilities, travellers, LGBT, protagonists of colour, diverse religions, classes and cultures. Not once did the phrase in the banner headline pass my lips because I don’t think in those terms.” This was misrepresented in a banner headline as “Children’s books have ‘too many white faces’”. Since then the news corporation responsible for this story has apologized to her on Twitter.

Discovering authors

Nury Vittachi, author and keynote speaker at the recently concluded JumpStart pointed out that three out of four people are Asian or African.  So to find the young adult title The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is a bestseller, selling more than 5.7 million copies, is curious. In fact it contributed to the success of Penguin Random House worldwide generating revenues of €1.5bn (£1.2bn) in the six months to June 2014. Surely there are other titles that have been equally well-received by readers, but not so prominent?

Discovering an author is a riddle, paradoxically not easily resolved even in the age of information. Altaf Tyrewala writes “How miserable it must be to want only what one wants. I don’t remember people being so disinterested in the unfamiliar. Folks these days seem annoyed when they encounter something that they haven’t already cross-checked, as if the perpetually connected sizzle of their web-wired lives precludes the possibility of anything still remaining unknown.” (“New and Second-hand”, Engglishhh: Fictional Dispatches from a Hyperreal Nation)

Last week while speaking in a panel discussion to celebrate “Kitaabnama: Books and Beyond” completing one year of programming on Doordarshan television, it struck me this series addresses many of these challenges that affect publishers—diversity, discoverability, and accessing new markets. Kitaabnama’s format of having a conversation in the first half, followed by an author reading in the second half, and allowing it to be multilingual, immediately opens a new world of literature to the viewers.

Today it is possible to discover books in many ways. For instance, Martin Amis’s new novel—The Zone of Interest–a holocaust comedy, set in fictional Auschwitz, failed to interest his regular German and French publishers and it may struggle to find readers overseas. Yet the buzz about it on the internet suggests otherwise. So discoverability and diversity in books is possibly easily overcome with multiple formats to disseminate information about books and access authors.

6 September 2014

Esther Freud “Mr Mac and Me”

Esther Freud “Mr Mac and Me”

Mr Mac and MeMac is working on a bright purple grape hyacinth. He has it laid out on a sheet of paper and is examining its tiny solid head. ‘No.’ he mutters to himself, ‘no.’

I’ve let myself in, but now I’m not sure whether to disturb him.

‘Hello.’ He looks up and catches me at the door, and he tells me that never has he spent a morning with a flower and known less about it when he was through. ‘Look,’ he lays it out. And together we peer at the dense purple blocks of it, solid as wax above its stalk of blazing green. 

(p.195, Mr Mac and Me)

Thomas Magg, the crippled twelve-year-old son of the Blue Anchor owner, lives on the coast of Suffolk. A little before First World War breaks, Tom befriends a new visitor to their village, who it turns out is the renowned architect, Charles Rennie Macintosh. The two develop a  cordial relationship, primarily focused upon their common love for painting. Thomas or Tom as he is often referred enjoys doodling ships and boats in the margins of his notebooks, much to the exasperation of his school teacher. Whereas Mr Macintosh or Mr Mac as Tom calls him exquisitely paints water colours of the local wild flowers. ( In fact the cover of Esther Freud’s novel uses a detail from a beautiful 1915 water colour and pencil drawing Charles Macintosh made of Fritillaria.) Soon the two men “bond” over their love for painting and are able to share the silence of working together in peace. ( “There’s a thick, warm silence as we work. I’ve sense that silence, when I used to watch them, but now that I’m inside it, it’s as solid as a coat.” ) At times, Mrs Margaret Macdonald, an accomplished painter herself specialising in the technique of Gosse, joins her husband in Suffolk. ( Her most famous Gesso work was a set of panels, larger than doors, commissioned by a private collector and called The Seven Princesses. ) They are from Glasgow where along with Margaret’s sister, Frances and her husband, Herbert MacNair, they were known as The Four. Mr Mac was also responsible for designing the new Glasgow School of Art, commissioned in 1897 by the School Director, Francis Newberry. (His descriptions of the project are a pleasure to read in the crm-pansynovel.) With the Great War breaking life in Suffolk is also affected. Soldiers come and stay, refugees arrive, and locals living near to the sea move to safer places  inland and with the turmoil suspicion falls upon Mr Mac. The locals, goaded by Mr Gory, a newcomer himself, rapidly come to believe that Mr Mac is a spy since he moves around with his binoculars or spyglass observing the coastline. Before the war is over, Mr Mac is arrested and Thomas leaves Suffolk to travel the world.

Mr Mac and Me is a stunningly beautiful novel. All fiction is ultimately a labour of love, butMargaret Macintosh, Seven Princesses this is infused with love and beauty on every page. Every description is magnificent such as of the child observing Mr Mac paint — “I smile because he’s painted the river as if it is his own”. The descriptions of the wild flowers, even of the sweet william blooms on Tom’s mother’s table in the pub add a dash of colour, it is as if you can almost get the gentle and sweet fragrance of the wild flowers. While reading I kept wondering if some of these observations about watching a painter at work stemmed from Esther Freud’s own experience of seeing her father Lucien Freud at work. An answer was to be had in an interview she gave to the Guardian. She says “It’s funny, I didn’t even think about that until my publisher pointed out that the book describes how an artist works through the eyes of a child. And that was exactly my experience with my father; I slowly came to understand the artistic process through watching him paint. I’d have these little realisations like: oh, it’s going to take years! Or, as it says about Mackintosh in the book, that he was showing the insides of something – he hadn’t just abandoned it halfway through. I enjoyed trying to follow his thought process.”  ( 31 august 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/31/esther-freud-author-interview-mr-mac-and-me  )

Sadly the buildings of Glasgow School of Art that Charles Rennie Macintosh designed were severely damaged in a fire on 23 May 2014. In fact, Esther Freud “heard the news on the last day of checking the proofs. The timing did feel extraordinary. I felt so connected to him and so aware that he had had enough bad luck already.”

Mr Mac and Me is a pleasure to read. It has the knack of drawing  you in to the early twentieth century world of Suffolk without seeming like historical fiction, yet it leaves a warm glow of discovering a new world, creating a new space in one’s mind and introducing the reader to a significant designer of the post-Impressionist and Art Nouveau movement in Great Britain.  There is a lovely article published on 16 August 2014 in the Guardian describing how Esther Freud came to write this novel: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/16/esther-freud-houses-ghosts-inspired-new-book .

Please buy it! You won’t be sorry. This is a book for keeps.

Esther Freud Mr Mac and Me Bloomsbury India, 2014. Pb. pp. 300 Rs. 499

“Price Fighters” ( The Hindu, 31 Aug 2014)

“Price Fighters” ( The Hindu, 31 Aug 2014)

( The Hindu asked me to write a short piece about the ongoing price war between Amazon and Hachette. It was published on 31 August 2014. Here is the link: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-sundaymagazine/price-fighters/article6365601.ece . I am c&p a longer version of the article published. ) 

Cartoon accompanying the Hindu article On August 10, 2014, Authors United wrote an open letter decrying Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ pressure tactics on Hachette to lower ebook prices. The letter — written by thriller writer, Douglas Preston and placed as a two-page ad, costing $ 104,000, and signed by well-known names such as James Patterson, Stephen King, David Baldacci, Kamila Shamsie, Philip Pullman, Donna Tartt, Ann Patchett, Malcolm Gladwell, Paul Auster and Barbara Kingsolver —states, “As writers — most of us not published by Hachette — we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want. It is not right for Amazon to single out a group of authors, who are not involved in the dispute, for selective retaliation.” The writers printed Bezos’ e-mail id and asked authors to write to him directly.

This letter came after months of a public spat between publisher Hachette and online retailer Amazon. No one is privy to the details but it is widely speculated that the fight is about the pricing of books, especially e-books. Authors began to feel the effect of these business negotiations once Amazon stopped processing sales of their books or became extremely slow in fulfilling orders. It even removed an option to pre-order  The Silkworm , by J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith, prompting the author to respond on Twitter where she encouraged her three million followers to order  The Silkworm from high street stores and independent booksellers. Ironical given that Amazon’s motto is customer satisfaction.

 Amazon defended its actions through a letter released on its website, Readers United (http://www.readersunited.com/), and circulated it to self-published authors using their Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform. In it, the company said that for a “healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.” Amazon is asking for all e-books to be priced at $9.99 or less. Misquoting George Orwell’s ironic comment on the popularity of new format of paperbacks in the 1930s, Amazon wrote that even Orwell had suggested collusion among publishers. It released the e-mail id of Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch, asking readers to write to him directly to make books affordable since it is good for book culture.

 Pietsch replied to all those who wrote to him stating clearly, “Hachette sets prices for our books entirely on our own, not in collusion with anyone… More than 80 per cent of the e-books we publish are priced at $9.99 or lower. Those few priced higher — most at $11.99 and $12.99 — are less than half the price of their print versions. Those higher priced e-books will have lower prices soon, when the paperback version is published. … Unlike retailers, publishers invest heavily in individual books, often for years, before we see any revenue. We invest in advances against royalties, editing, design, production, marketing, warehousing, shipping, piracy protection, and more. We recoup these costs from sales of all the versions of the book that we publish — hardcover, paperback, large print, audio, and e-book. While e-books do not have the $2-$3 costs of manufacturing, warehousing, and shipping that print books have, their selling price carries a share of all our investments in the book.”

Amazon’s shareholders are getting tetchy with the massive losses the company has posted once again. For the current quarter, Amazon forecast that the losses would only grow. It expects a healthy rise in revenue but an operating loss of as much as $810 million, compared with a loss of $25 million in the third quarter of 2013. Losses increased as the firm spent heavily in a bid to expand its business with its first smartphone, the Fire Phone. Bob Kohn has pointed out the monopsony power of Amazon, which has a current market share of 65% of all online book units, digital and print, is not just theoretical; it’s real and formidable. When a company has dominant market power and sells goods for below marginal cost, it is engaging in predatory pricing, a violation of federal antitrust laws.”  There have been articles in USA for the government to enforce the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936, the law prohibits a retailer from wielding its mere size to bully suppliers for discounts. But as Colbert’s experiment of promoting debut author Edan Lepucki’s novel California showed that if readers want, they can procure a book from anywhere. His discussion about it, stemming from his anger for Amazon’s monopolistic practices, propelled California to becoming an NYT bestseller.

In India, commercially-successful author Ashwin Sanghi, drawing parallels between the music industry of 2002 and publishing of today, says, “Books are at an inflection point in 2014; a bit like music was in 2002. Music producers were accustomed to selling CDs whereas Apple wanted to sell singles at 99 cents. The face-off between Amazon and publishers/authors is similar. Publishers wish to charge prices that the industry is accustomed to while Amazon wishes to charge prices that customers will like, thus inducing more customers to buy on Amazon. I think the time has come for Jeff Bezos to sit across the table with publishers. There is no alternative.”

Another author, Rahul Saini writes “I have never supported the idea of monopoly and that is what Amazon is clearly trying to do here. Looking at the argument Amazon is making, it does make sense — buyers are always driven by low prices and heavy discounts (the Indian book market is a perfect example) but I firmly believe that the retailer does not own any right to dictate the pricing of a book. It has to be a mutual consent between the author and the publisher.”

 Popular author Ravinder Singh has his own take. “A publisher has the right to decide the cost of its books (in any format).  If the retailer really wants to bring down the price of the book, he can discount on his margins and should be free to do so. To decide the price tag of a book is a publisher’s (and not retailer’s) prerogative. Having said that, knowingly delaying shipment of titles of a particular publisher (and their authors’) just because it is not accepting the demand, leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth — readers, authors and publishers. Amazon may be right about the price-demand elasticity of the e-book and in saying that it can certainly bring more readership and thereby more money (offsetting the drop in price). But Hachette has all the right to decline it, even if it means letting go off money. As far as authors are concerned, they would not like to see one particular entity in the entire chain (that has accumulated huge powers), be it a publisher or a retailer, to decide their fate. They want to reach out to as many readers as possible, on time and make the royalties that they deserve.”

 Writing in the Guardian, Kamila Shamsie says, “All writers should be deeply concerned by the strong-arm tactics Amazon is using in its contractual dispute with Hachette — similar to tactics used in 2008 with Bloomsbury titles.  Writers want their books to reach readers; and we want to be able to earn a living from our work. It’s a great irony that the world’s largest bookseller is prepared to trample over both those wants in order to gain a business advantage even while claiming to stand up for readers and writers.

Others disagree. Major names in self-publishing including Barry Eisler and Hugh Howey petitioned Hachette asking the publisher to “work on a resolution that keeps e-book prices reasonable and pays authors a fair wage”. This has gathered over 7,600 signatures.

 Publishing is not like selling biscuits or furniture. It isn’t a question of taste and preference but an exercise in social philosophy. Amazon is primarily a tech-company whose dominance in the book industry is unprecedented. There may be some similarities with what happened in the music industry 10 years ago but publishing thrives on editorial tastes, which requires human intervention, not a series of algorithms promoting and recommending books. The book industry relies upon editors who know the business of “discovering” authors and converting them into household names. This public outrage against the ongoing battle between Amazon and Hachette proves that books are important to the cultural dimension of society.

1 September 2014