May 2015 Posts

Stephen Hawking, “My Brief History”

Hawking( Stephen Hawking’s memoir  A Brief History is a slim volume, expensively produced, lavishly illustrated and a pure delight to read. Based upon this was the Oscar-winning film, The Theory of Everything, where the lead actor Eddie Redmayne won the Best Male Actor Award 2014.  I am reproducing an extract from the book.)

Since a Brief History of Time, I have written other books to explain science to the wider public: Black Holes and Baby Universes, The Universe in a Nutshell, and The Grand Design. I think it is important that people have a basic understanding of science so that they can make informed decisions in an increasingly scientific and technological world. My daughter, Lucy, and I have also written a series of “George” books, which are scientifically based adventure stories for children, the adults of tomorrow. ( p.101)

I have had a full and satisfying life. I believe that disabled people should concentrate on things that their handicap doesn’t prevent them from doing and not regret those they can’t do. In my case, I have managed to do most things I wanted. I have travelled widely. I visited the Soviet Union seven times. The first time I went with a student party in which one member, a Baptist, wished to distribute Russian-language Bibles and asked us to smuggle them in. We managed this undetected, but by the time we were on our way out the authorities had discovered what we had done and detained us for a while. However, to charge us with smuggling Bibles would have caused an international incident and unfavourable publicity, so they let us go after a few hours. The other six visits were to see Russian scientists who at the time were not allowed to travel to the West. After the end of the Soviet Union in 1990, many of the best scientists left for the West, so I have not been to Russia since then. 

I have also visited Japan six times, China three times, and every continent, including Antarctica, with the exception of Australia. I have met the presidents of South Korea, China, India, Ireland, Chile, and the United States. I have lectured in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and in the White House. I have been under the sea in a submarine and up in a hot air balloon and a zero-gravity flight, and I’m booked to go into space with Virgin Galactic. 

My early work showed that Classical general relativity broke down at singularities in the Big Bang and black holes. My later work has shown how quantum theory can predict what happens at the beginning and end of time. It has been a glorious time to be alive and doing research in theoretical physics. I’m happy if I have added something to our understanding of the universe. 

(p.122-126)

Stephen Hawking My Brief History Bantam Press, London, 2013. Hb. pp.130 £ 12.99

27 May 2015

 

An anthology of writings on the Ganga: Goddess and River in History, Culture and Society

20150526_131129At a time when a law is expected to punish the polluters of river Ganga, an anthology of writings about the river is timely. An Anthology of Writings on the Ganga edited by Australians, Assa Doron, Richard Barz and Barbara Nelson is a collection of extracts from the epics — Mahabharata and the Ramayana; poetry and the Will and Testament of the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru; extracts giving a historical perspective such as by Jean Baptiste Tavernier, Iranian traveller Ahmad Behbahani to contemporary travel writers like Eric Newby, Raghubir Singh, Vijay Singh. The editors have even managed to make an eclectic selection giving a bird’s-eye view of how the river has caught the imagination of Indian fiction writers such as Manik Bandopadhyaya, Raja Rao, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth and interestingly enough translation of a scene from a Raj Kapoor’s Bollywood film – Ram Teri Ganga Maili. The collection concludes with a handful of specially commissioned academic essays on the Ganga on topics as varied as culture, religion, Hinduism and the river economy.

The Central Government of India has established the National Water Mission for the “conservation of water, minimizing wastage and ensuring its more equitable distribution both across and within States through integrated water resources development and management”. ( http://wrmin.nic.in/forms/list.aspx?lid=267) Apart from this there are two projects for river Ganga — Namami Gange project and National Mission for Clean Ganga.  According to a newspaper article published on 19 May 2015 (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/draft-law-to-curb-ganga-pollution-in-final-stages/article7219922.ece ) “the Rs. 20,000 crore Namami Gange project is spread over five years and covers 41 tributaries of Ganga. The National Mission for Clean Ganga that has been assigned the task of cleaning the river, is focussed on abatement of pollution and has designed its interventions around this. However, it is seeking partnerships and is tailoring its projects so that state governments, local municipalities and panchayats have a stake and take ownership of the projects for sustainability. To speed up the process of cleaning the river, the Mission has sought the participation of institutions, donors, overseas Indians, business and corporate houses to donate their might and money for projects or sponsoring projects to clean up the river . Already pilot projects have been launched in eight cities. The challenge is to set up a drainage system in thickly populated cities. The urgent need is to bring down lean season BOD levels in the river to 10 mg/litre/day, the Total Suspended Solid levels to 10 mg/litre/day and Total Faecal Coliform to 100 mg/litre/day. These levels run into over lakhs at present.

The Indo-Gangetic plain created by many years of sedimentation is the most fertile agricultural land in the subcontinent. The flat plains Gangastretch for miles till the horizon and are mostly covered in fields. So apart from the cultural and religious associations with the river the economic considerations are equally important for its preservation since India continues to be heavily dependent upon an agrarian economy — it is estimated to contribute at least fifty percent to the national economy. Given this scenario, it is handy to have an intelligently devised anthology tracing the history, cultural significance and contemporary views plus challenges on the maintenance of this river crucial to the socio-economic and cultural capital of India. The only quibble I have with this anthology is that when we have plenty of photographs of the river, including some iconic ones taken by Raghubir Singh, why was the book cover design inspired by Australian aboriginal art work?

Even so, read it.

Assa Doron, Richard Barz and Barbara Nelson An anthology of writings on the Ganga: Goddess and River in History, Culture, and Society Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2015. Hb. pp. 380 Rs 895

 

Press Release: SIMON & SCHUSTER UK TO PUBLISH STAN LEE GRAPHIC MEMOIR

Simon and Schuster Logo

SIMON & SCHUSTER UK TO PUBLISH STAN LEE GRAPHIC MEMOIR

May 21, 2015—POW! Entertainment’s Stan Lee, the legendary creator who helped spawn some of the world’s most popular comic book heroes – The Amazing Spider-Man™, The Fantastic Four™, The X-Men™, Iron Man™, The Incredible Hulk™, and many more – is teaming up with Simon & Schuster UK and Touchstone on his first-ever graphic memoir AMAZING FANTASTIC INCREDIBLE: A Marvelous Memoir, which will be published on October 6, 2015. A simultaneous audio edition will be published by Simon & Schuster Audio. S&S UK will also publish a deluxe slipcase ‎edition.

In this unique, richly illustrated book, Lee tells the story of his extraordinary life with the same inimitable energy and offbeat spirit that he brought to the world of comics. The full-colour graphic memoir will recount his life’s major flashpoints, from his hardscrabble upbringing in Washington Heights, New York to his rise as the lead writer and editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics during its most prolific era in the 1960s and 70s. From the very beginning, working with the great Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, to creating Spider-Man with Steve Ditko, to his most recent cameo in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” fans will read about every aspect of Lee’s remarkable career.  AMAZING FANTASTIC INCREDIBLE will be illustrated by celebrated comic book artist Colleen Doran, whom Stan Lee handpicked for this one-of-a-kind project.

“As Marvel just celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary, I thought maybe it’s time for a look at my life in the one form it has never been depicted, as a comic book…or if you prefer, a graphic memoir,” said Stan Lee. “It strikes me as a horrendous oversight that I haven’t done it before! If I didn’t know everything about my life already, I’d envy your voyage of discovery!”

Stan Lee is a man who needs no introduction. Nevertheless: having begun his career with wartime Timely Comics and staying the course throughout the Atlas era, Stan Lee made comic book history with Fantastic Four #1, harbinger of a bold new perspective in story writing that endures to this day. With some of the industry’s greatest artists, he introduced hero after hero in Incredible Hulk™, Iron Man™, Amazing Spider-Man™, X-Men™, and more, forming a shared universe for rival publishers to measure themselves against.

After nearly a lifetime of writing and editing, Lee is now involved in an array of new projects with his company POW! Entertainment. Based in Beverly Hills, POW! Entertainment has been amassing a library of new characters, some already set up at studios and networks, including an animated series, mobile game, the first young adult novel with illustrations of a trilogy with Disney, and a slate of Indian and Chinese films in development. POW! Entertainment also manages all licensing deals and has its own comic book convention, Comikaze, which drew more than 50,000 attendees at the Los Angeles Convention Center last year. Stan remains Marvel’s Chairman Emeritus and best-known public representative.

Iain MacGregor, Non-Fiction Publishing Director at S&S UK, bought UK & Commonwealth rights from Matthew Benjamin, Senior Editor at Touchstone S&S US, who acquired world rights from the Susan Crawford Literary Agency.

POW! Entertainment Inc. (OTCQB:POWN) is a multi-media entertainment company founded by noted comic book writer Stan Lee together with award-winning producer Gill Champion and the late intellectual property specialist Arthur Lieberman. POW!’s principals have extensive backgrounds in the creation and production of original intellectual properties, including some of the most successful entertainment franchises of all time.  POW! is utilizing Stan Lee’s historical background by perpetuating his legacy while creating and developing all new live-action films, television, digital games, merchandising, licensing and related ancillary markets, all of which contribute to global expansion.  POW! Partners with third parties and strategic alliances, including studios and networks, in the production and distribution of new POW! character franchises.  For more information, visit http://www.powentertainment.com/.

 

For more information, please contact Bharti Taneja, Manager – Marketing & Publicity

Bharti.taneja@simonandschuster.co.in

22 May 2015

“Mr Mojo: A biography of Jim Morrison” by Dylan Jones

Mr MojoMorrison was the sexiest bookworm to ever pick up a microphone, he was an inspired lyricist and one of the most celebrated pop icons of the sixties. But he was also a wilfully enigmatic, pretentious loud-mouth, a self-proclaimed poet who wore the mask of the drunk. He was the impotent alcoholic, the scarred idol. He was the King of Corn, the consummate showman, the petulant clown. He was too clever for his own good, and often too stupid to care. Masochist, emotional sadist, incurable romantic — Morrison was all of these things. But the T-shirts don’t have room for any of them, instead promoting only the image of the gaunt, all-conquering sex beast, the Crawling King Snake, the Killer on the Road, the Lord of the Dance, the Lizard King, Mr Mojo Risin’.

( p.164)

Jim Morrison belongs to the club of super-talented legendary musicians who died at 27. The others being Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and most recently, Amy Winehouse. In a short span he had made his mark as a musician, a stage performer and for a wild life offstage. There are no dearth of books on the man. From authorised biographies to unofficial accounts to fantastic picture books documenting Jim Morrison’s performances and his life. The classic image conjured up in one’s mind is of this tall, thin, lean singer wearing a black leather outfit, holding onto the microphone with both his hands and singing. His band members seem to be also expressionless and doing their work, but the music that they were producing was extraordinary and decades later continues to sound so fresh.

New generations continue to be fascinated by Jim Morrison. Many continue to make their pilgrimage to his grave in Paris’s Pere-Lachaise Patricia Kenneally and Jim Morrissoncemetery. New fans need to be acquainted with the music, style, origins and antics of this larger-than-life musician. Along with The Doors, Jim Morrison has been a huge influence on subsequent generations of musicians.  But producing older books for a new generation of readers does not always work, so to have a new biography written by award-winning and seasoned journalist, Dylan Jones makes ample sense. This new biography is a slim volume, a zippy and raw account of Jim Morrison’s life, his stage antics, including a long conversation with his former partner, Patricia Kennealy. She was a rock critic who as editor-in-chief of Jazz and Pop interviewed Jim Morrison in January 1969. Later Jim Morrison and she became lovers and “wed” on Midsummer’s Night 1970, at 10:30 pm. It was a Wicca wedding, a ceremony based on ‘white’ witchcraft. Kennealy was a practising member of a New York coven, and the ceremony was conducted by its founders, a high priest and priestess.  Jim Morrison too addressed her as “Patricia, my wife” but they were not “legally” wed. Yet after his death she changed her name to “Kennealy-Morrison”. For the first time Dylan Jones interviews her.

patricia_kennealy_morrison_2003_02_09Kennealy developed something of a reputation with the band and Morrison’s record company, and she had a reputation for being a practicing white witch, so for years after Morrison’s death no one would go near her. As no one had ever interviewed her before — they appeared to be too scared — I began looking  for her in New York. I spoke with Elektra Records, and with the thirty or so people I interviewed for this book, in London, New York and Los Angeles, but not only could none of them point me in the right direction, some advised me to steer clear of her completely. ‘She’s dangerous,’ I was told. ‘She’ll eat you alive.’ In the end it took me about forty minutes to track her down, simply by looking through the New York phone directory. And she was charm personified. 


(p.127) 

Mr Mojo is a biography for a new generation who are discovering a legendary musician for them for the first time. It is a fascinating account that there is no need for any pictures to be tipped into the book — there are none. It is a balanced profile of Jim Morrison contextualising it well, spanning a period from World War II when he was born in 1943, his father a Naval officer went off to the war to the wild sixties, his family cutting him off to his untimely death in Paris in 1970. It is a well-written book primarily because it is not hagiography, a trap many books about successful musicians fall into. This is a class apart.

Read it.

Dylan Jones Mr Mojo: A biography of Jim Morrison Bloomsbury, London, 2015. Pb. pp. 190 Rs 199

(Note: All images are off the Internet. I do not hold the copyright to any of these. If you do know who the rightful owner is, please let me know. I would gladly acknowledge them in this post. )

21 May 2015

Jon Ronson, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”

jon-ronson-publicly-shamed‘I’m writing a book about public shaming,’ I told Clive. ‘With citizen justice we’re bringing public shame back in a big way. …’

If ever there was a chilling book on the impact of social media platforms, then Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed tops the list. This book is about ordinary people who were publicly shamed through an ill-timed and foolish tweet or a Facebook post, which unfortunately went viral, resulting in the “shamed victim” losing their jobs and becoming a recluse. Jon Ronson began to write this book when his identity was hijacked by spambot. He managed to wrest his identity back only after having publicly shamed the team which had created the spambot, otherwise they were determined to keep the infomorph alive, asking Jon Ronson to “play along”. It was after this personal experience of having publicly shamed the creators of a robot version of himself did Jon Ronson realise the power of citizen justice and democratization of justice. But this incident made him decide “the next time a great modern shaming unfolded against some significant wrongdoer — the next time citizen justice prevailed in a dramatic and righteous way — I would leap into the middle of it. I’d investigate it close up and chronicle how efficient it was in righting wrongs.” ( p.10-11)

This is exactly what he did. He documented a range of people who had been publicly shamed — from bestselling authors like Jonah Lehrer ( who continues to be represented by literary agent Andrew Wylie) for making up stories about Bob Dylan; a politician who had concealed his sexual orientation was shamed into going public about it; Justine Sacco who sent a tweet with a racist overtone and a couple of young men attending a technology conference who posted a seemingly innocuous joke about a dongle but with sexist underpinnings. He tracked many cases, meeting many of those people involved. His findings are disconcerting. ( Jon Ronson, 12 February 2015 , NYT “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life”  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/how-one-stupid-tweet-ruined-justine-saccos-life.html?_r=0 )

Many people who posted messages online did it on an impulse, under the mistaken belief the messages would be read by only their circle of acquaintances, familiar with their personalities. Little realising whatever content is created online rarely disappears and stoked by the mysterious ways in which the Google algorithms work posts can go viral with very unexpected consequences.  A link to a page or a post is like a nod of respect. If the page linking to the particular page has a lot of links to it then the page counts for more votes. The internet particularly social media platforms are like an echo chamber where the number of “likes” approving a post can push it to a high PageRank. “The Google algorithm prejudges them as well liked.” As Jon Ronson discovered the Internet is not necessarily about the individual but about the big companies dominating data flows of the Internet. It made Ronson wonder if companies like Google made money from destruction of Justine Sacco?

Could a figure be calculated? And so I joined forces with a number-crunching researcher, Solvej Krause, and began writing to economists and analysts and online ad revenue people. 

Some things were known. In December 2013, the month of Justine’s annihilation, 12.2 billion Google searches took place – a figure that made me feel less worried about the possibility that people were sitting inside Google headquarters personally judging me. Google’s ad revenue for that month was $4.69 billion. Which meant they made an average of $0.38 for every search query. Every time we typed anything into Google: 38 cents to Google. Of those 12.2 billion searches that December, 1.2 million people were searching the name Justine Sacco. And so, if you average it out, Justine’s catastrophe instantaneously made Google $456,000. 

But it wouldn’t be accurate simply to multiply 1.2 million by $0.38. Some searches are worth far more to Google than others. Advertisers bid on ‘high yield’ search terms, like ‘Coldplay’ and ‘Jewellery’ and ‘Kenya vacations’. It’s quite possible that no advertiser ever linked their product to Justine’s name. But that wouldn’t mean Google made no money from her. Justine was the worldwide number-one trending topic on Twitter. Her story engrossed social media users more than any other that night. I think people who wouldn’t otherwise have gone onto Google did so specifically to hunt for her. She drew people in. And one they were there I’m sure at least a few of them decided to book a Kenya vacation or download a Coldplay album. 

I got an email from the economics researchers Jonathan Hersh. He’d come recommended by the people who make Freakonomics Radio on WYNC. Jonathan’s email said the same thing: “Something about this story resonated with them, so much so that they felt compelled to google her name. that means they’re engaged. If interest in Justine were sufficient to encourage users to stay online for more time than they would otherwise, this would have directly resulted in Google making more advertising revenue. Google has the informal corporate motto of “don’t be evil”, but they make money when anything happens online, even the bad stuff.’ 

In the absence of any better data from Google, he wrote, he could only ever offer a ‘back of the envelope’ calculation. But he thought it would be appropriately conservative — maybe a little too conservative — to estimate Justine’s worth, being a ‘low-value query’, at a quarter of the average. Which, if true, means Google made $120,000 from the destruction of Justine Sacco. 

Maybe that’s an accurate figure. Maybe Google made more, or possibly less. But one thing’s certain. Those of us who did the actual annihiliating? We got nothing. 

( p.263-4)

Given this disquieting discovery, it is not surprising companies such as reputation.com have been established. They offer a “strategic schedule for content creation and publication…create a natural-looking activity online…a lot of accumulated intelligence” with the purpose of creating a bland internet presence for a person, preferably moving the negative posts to pages beyond the first page.

While I write this blog post, noted filmmaker Anurag Kashyap has posted on his Facebook page a long note about  his latest Bollywood film, Bombay Velvet. Critics have not been kind about the film but as a Facebook post points out, “there is a bit of schadenfreude of bringing him down a peg or two. (a few of them have are his fanboys, by the way.)” Noted journalist, Poonam Saxena, says “the negative chorus around the film reminds me of a lynch mob.” There is a term for this — “virtual lynching”.

A simple fact easily forgotten when navigating one’s way through cyberspace is that usually an online identity is a real person. So the online activity on a person’s social media timeline is more often than not a direct projection of their real personality. Under the mistaken notion that the Internet is a place where anything can be said  people make the classic mistake of revealing more than they should, especially when speaking to strangers. Truth is that the same rules and etiquette that exist in real world must be observed online too. In fact to err on the side of caution would be preferable since nothing is ever lost on the internet. By strewing these careless digital breadcrumbs as many of the people shamed discovered to their horror get embedded in a vast and intricate “surveillance” network, i.e. the Internet. There will always be people who will not allow the shamed person to forget.

In fact the extract published in the New York Times earlier this year about Justine Sacco was shared by schools too to alert parents and students to the consequences of irresponsible and inappropriate behaviour online. This is a fabulously disquieting book meant to be read, discussed and shared.

Jon Ronson So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed Picador, London, 2015. Pb. pp.280 Rs 599

17 May 2015

 

 

 

James Wood and Tim Parks, two critics, two books

Tim ParksTwo prominent literary commentators and critics — James Wood and Tim Parks— have release books within months of each other. Both the books are compilations of previously delivered speeches and/or columns. James Wood’s The Nearest Thing To Life is a collection of Mandel lectures delivered in April 2013 at the Mandel Center for the Humanities, Brandeis University. It also contains a lecture delivered in February 2014 at the British Museum in a series run by the museum and the London Review of Books. Tim Parks Where I’m Reading From is a compilation of essays first published in the New York Review of Books.

Both the critics have chosen to write part-memoir, part-reflective essays but very germane James Woodto contemporary conversations about publishing, writing, reading and literary criticism. Since these were written over a short period of a time, published more or less immediately, these observations encapsulate a period in publishing history which would otherwise get lost in the deluge of information available online. To read these essays printed and bound as a book allows one the pleasure of absorbing the ideas at one’s pace. There is a range of issues they cover — reading, what constitutes good criticism, what is the hallmark of a good writer and critic, what constitutes disciplined reading, of literary prizes, storytelling and the notion of “home” that surfaces regularly among writers including these essayists, both of whom are Englishmen but reside in other countries — Tim Parks in Italy and James Wood in America. This eternal question about what constitutes “home” turns their attention on world literature. It is also fascinating to discover the strict Christian upbringing both the critics had which they consciously chose to move away from  — it requires tremendous grit and determination to transcend this — to read literature as acutely as they do, is astounding.

At a time when discussions about global literature, significance of translations, accessing new literature and cultures and cross-pollinations of literary traditions and techniques dominate, to have two prominent critics discuss world literature is significant. Tim Parks’s fearlessly exquisite essay, “The Dull New Global Novel” ( NYRB blog, 9 February 2010. http://bit.ly/1PnbidG)  and James Wood engaging essay in “Secular Homelessness” based on his impressive close reading of literature for the New Yorker ( Essay and podcast available at “On Not Going Home” LRB, Vol 36 No. 4, 20 February 2014. http://bit.ly/1PnbABm ). Reading literature especially fiction gives a literary critic formidable insight into socio-eco-political scenarios, raising questions, but connecting dots of daily life that would otherwise pass by us in a blur little realising their import. For instance the conversations about world literature and “tangle of feelings” as evident in world literature are closely aligned to issues about emigration/ immigration/ exile ( voluntary and otherwise), idea of home, the global village becoming a repository of many cultural influences  instead of being culturally homogeneous and undisturbed for many years, what are the politics of translations etc. Both critics, Tim Parks and James Wood, dwell at length on this as illustrated by a couple of extracts from the essays:

Tim Parks

What are the consequences for literature? From the moment an author perceives his ultimate audience as international rather than national, the nature of his writing is bound to change. In particular one notes a tendency to remove obstacles to international comprehension. Writing in the 1960’s, intensely engaged with his own culture and its complex politics, Hugo Claus apparently did not care that his novels would require a special effort on the reader’s and above all the translator’s part if they were to be understood outside his native Belgium. In sharp contrast, contemporary authors like the Norwegian Per Petterson, the Dutch Gerbrand Bakker, or the Italian Alessandro Baricco, offer us works that require no such knowledge or effort, nor offer the rewards that such effort will bring.

More importantly the language is kept simple. Kazuo Ishiguro has spoken of the importance of avoiding word play and allusion to make things easy for the translator. Scandinavian writers I know tell me they avoid character names that would be difficult for an English reader.

If culture-specific clutter and linguistic virtuosity have become impediments, other strategies are seen positively: the deployment of highly visible tropes immediately recognizable as “literary” and “imaginative,” analogous to the wearisome lingua franca of special effects in contemporary cinema, and the foregrounding of a political sensibility that places the author among those “working for world peace.” So the overstated fantasy devices of a Rushdie or a Pamuk always go hand in hand with a certain liberal position since, as Borges once remarked, most people have so little aesthetic sense they rely on other criteria to judge the works they read.

James Wood

What I have been describing, both in my own life and in the lives of others, is more like secular homelessness. It cannot claim the theological prestige of the transcendent. Perhaps it is not even homelessness; homelooseness (with an admixture of loss) might be the necessary (hideous) neologism: in which the ties that might bind one to Home have been loosened, perhaps happily, perhaps unhappily, perhaps permanently, perhaps only temporarily. Clearly, this secular homelessness overlaps, at times, with the more established categories of emigration, exile and postcolonial movement. Just as clearly, it diverges from them at times. Sebald, a German writer who lived most of his adult life in England (and who was thus perhaps an emigrant, certainly an immigrant, but not exactly an émigré, nor an exile), had an exquisite sense of the varieties of not-belonging. He came to Manchester, from Germany, in the mid-1960s, as a graduate student. He returned, briefly, to Switzerland, and then came back to England in 1970, to take a lectureship at the University of East Anglia. The pattern of his own emigration is one of secular homelessness or homelooseness. He had the economic freedom to return to West Germany; and once he was well known, in the mid-1990s, he could have worked almost anywhere he wanted to. 

Sebald seems to know the difference between homesickness and homelessness. If there is anguish, there is also discretion: how could my loss adequately compare with yours? Where exile is often marked by the absolutism of the separation, secular homelessness is marked by a certain provisionality, a structure of departure and return that may not end. This is a powerful motif in the work of Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian-American writer who came to the States from Sarajevo, in 1992, only to discover that the siege of his hometown prohibited his return. Hemon stayed in America, learned how to write a brilliant, Nabokovian English (a feat in some sense greater than Nabokov’s because achieved at a steroidal pace), and published his first book, The Question of Bruno, in 2000 (dedicated to his wife, and to Sarajevo). Once the Bosnian war was over, Hemon could, presumably, have returned to his native city. What had not been a choice became one; he decided to make himself into an American writer.

These books are a precious addition to my personal library.

Tim Parks Where I’m Reading From Harvill Secker, London, 2014. Hb. pp.250 Rs 599

James Wood The Nearest Thing To Life Jonathan Cape, London, 2015. Hb. pp. 140. Rs 599

15 May 2015 

 

Vikas Khanna – two books

In the past few months I have received two books related to Vikas Khanna, an award winning Michelin starred Indian chef. One is a picture book, The Magic Rolling Pin, and the second is Shaken & Stirred — a collection of 101 non-alcoholic blend recipes. In India he has also acquired a fantastic fan following among children ever since he was a judge on MasterChef Junior, India. He comes across as an affable and a pleasant presenter, whose warmth radiates from the television screen or in still photographs circulating on the Internet.

Vikas Khanna, DK, April 2015Shaken & Stirred is a collection of 101 recipes of cooling drinks. The book’s release has been timed well with the onset of summer in North India. Reading some of the recipes such as “Sassy Peach Karat”, “God’s Own Drink” made with lemongrass stalk and coconut milk, “Orange Pepper Samba”, “Rose Sunrise Refresher” and “Kokum Granita” makes you want to sip them immediately. The food photographs accompanying the recipes are outstanding. ( Indian publishing has come a long way from producing insipid pictures in recipe books. Instead the pictures in this particular DK book have a razzmatazz that is magical. Most of the photo credits go to Vikas Khanna.) But I have my reservations about many of these recipes. They seem exotic and many of the ingredients seem impossible to get locally or available at an exorbitant price. It is interesting that for a man hailing from Punjab, who learned his cooking from his grandmother, there is not a single recipe with mango given. At a time when chefs like Jamie Oliver make cooking seem so easy and are not averse to being influenced by flavours worldwide, I cannot help but feel that Vikas Khanna’s recipes are much like what the Indian authors of the diaspora are doing with literary fiction — their memories of their time spent in India are sharp but are being recreated with a panache using words, acceptable to an international palate. Vikas Khanna is doing something similar with cuisine.

Speaking of his grandmother, The Magic Rolling Pin, is a hagiographical picture book recounting Vikas Khanna’s childhood. The images areCrossword-InorbitMalad-VikasKhanna-TheMagicRollingPin-14Nov2014 computer created showing a happy young boy intrigued by the kitchen, his Biji bustling about cooking and later their involvement in the langars organised at the Golden Temple, Amritsar. But it is a complicated picture book since the reason for its publication does not seem to be the target audience, instead it is capitalising on the success of Vikas Khanna. As an idea it is worth considering, only if the book had been produced with care, focusing on the quality of illustrations, providing accurate information ( a reference to “golden clothes for Baisakhi” is accompanied by an illustration of the boy wearing red clothes) and being technically sound in laying of text involving repetition of words and using phonetics. There is far too much emphasis on the young boy in the illustrations making the text unidimensional, with little detail in the page layouts making it difficult for a child to get involved with the story, since a young reader clamours with comments like, “Show, show”; “Look, look” and “Did you not notice the detail before? I did!”. A good example of picture books that are technically sound and use bland computer illustrations are the Ladybird “Read it Yourself” series. Maybe these could have been emulated in the production and design of The Magic Rolling Pin, otherwise it is an excellent opportunity lost of introducing children to reading via an idol they admire.

Having said that, both books will remain with me for a long time since they are a good insight into Vikas Khanna, the chef, the humanitarian and restauranteur.

Vikas Khanna The Magic Rolling Pin Puffin Books, Delhi, India, 2014. Hb. pp.40 Rs 299

Vikas Khanna Shaken & Stirred: 101 non-alcoholic blends to lift your spirits DK, Penguin Random House, New Delhi, India. Hb. pp. 250 Rs 899

11 May 2015 

Marcos Giralt Torrente, “Paris”

parisNo word  can change the past, and no word is the right word if you say it when what it describes as the past and not the present. In the present, there are no words. Words come later, and then we use them in the same way, we can all describe things and give our opinions about is not ours, even though it never happened to us. We don’t need someone to spell out what he or she is telling us is the whole thing or only part of it, and our doubts will remain unassuaged. 

Paris p.337)

Marcos Giralt Torrente’s debut novel, Paris, won the XVII Premio Herralde de Novela prize in 1999 and the Spanish National Book Award in 2011. Fourteen years later it was translated from Spanish into English by Margaret Jull Costa and published by Hispabooks. It is about a young man who tries to recall his past and put together a narrative, for this he relies solely upon his own memory. At the same time observing acutely that “memory is a great temptation, and what could be easier than to highlight some memories at the expense of others and retrospectively draw up a synthesis adapted to what has endured rather than what actually happened?” ( p.69) He is trying to understand what happened when he was a young boy of nine and his father was whisked away by the police, release and subsequent disappearance from their life; his relationship with his mother and her’s with her sister, Aunt Delfina and the innumerable conversations he heard or was privy to. But he is most curious to know why his mother left him with Delfina and went off to Paris for eight months. He never discovered the reason or what she did there and now when he is trying to recall it is too late, his mother has dementia.

The novel meanders and explores but never gets dull. In fact the reader gets the feeling as if they are shadowing the narrator and being able to listen to all his thoughts and conversations clearly. It is an odd feeling of being in a space that is a peculiar blend of being immersed in a cinematic experience of watching the narrator talk, observe, reflect, reminisce and yet at the same time to read and absorb at leisure the events that unfold. There is nothing in the measured pace of storytelling that prepares you for the unconventional conclusion.

Paris was on the inaugural list of a new independent publishing house established in Madrid –Hispabooks. Founded in 2011 by editors, Gregorio Doval and Ana Perez Galvan, Hispabooks is a publishing house focusing on contemporary Spanish fiction in English-language translation, both in eBook and trade paperback format, targeting readers around the world who want to explore the best of today’s Spanish literature. ( www.hispabooks.com and an interview with the founders: http://bit.ly/1EnBdqc)

This is a fine book to have been published and worth reading. Hence I was a little disappointed when it did not make it to the shortlist of the Best Translated Book Award 2015 ( http://bit.ly/1EnBRnO) announced on 5 May 2015.

8 May 2015

Anuradha Roy, “Sleeping on Jupiter”

Anuradha RoyAfter I had finished reading Anuradha Roy’s third novel, Sleeping on Jupiter, I wrote her an email. With the author’s permission I am publishing an extract from our correspondence. 

Dear Anuradha,

I am stunned by your book on many accounts. Primarily because I did not expect this after the first two novels. You caught me off guard. It is a sobering lesson on respecting a writer’s evolution and not necessarily expecting the author to be predictable. Unfortunately given the way publishing is working these days, if an author has been successful with a certain style of writing, not necessarily formulaic, it is assumed the person will continue in a similar vein.

Claire Armitstead, books editor of the Guardian, talking about Sleeping on Jupiter with Anuradha Roy at Asia House, London, April 2015.

Claire Armitstead, books editor of the Guardian, talking about Sleeping on Jupiter with Anuradha Roy at Asia House, London, April 2015.

You took my breath away with this novel. I think it was the violence depicted in the story that rattled me. I know you are a brilliant novelist but I seriously did not expect this from you. It requires great deal of reserves to come up with such a story, detailing the violence, rape, brutality, lynching, hitting the dog etc. You have a wide range of depraved human behaviour depicted in the supposedly peaceful, religious, sleepy town of Jarmuli. It is probably not only the real and physical violence that is chilling but also the pain evident in the conversation of the three women pilgrims from Calcutta — typical women who are old friends feel they can get away by saying anything, sharing secrets, but are very barbed hurtful remarks; the son ( Suraj) not paying heed to his chattering mother, so taken off guard when he spots the elderly women in Jarmuli;  the violence that faithful experience such as the pilgrim rolling on the temple floor leaving bits of pink flesh on the stone; the sad, sad sub-plot of Badal and Raghu — it stung when

Raghu gave Badal a twisted smile and said, “So, that’s how things are, is it? You don’t say!” (p.201)

Even the experience of the girls at the ashram, the Guruji, the adoption process requires immense strength on your part to observe, assimilate and write as you have done. The power of your writing lies in its details. After I had finished reading the book, certain locations such as the layout of the ashram, the hotel room, the tea shack, the beach, the train compartment etc were crystal clear in my head. I kept thinking, this is exactly what Ibsen set out to achieve in 19C theatre, Anuradha has done it with words and the relationship an author develops with the reader. It is a feat not easily achieved. How did you do it? The only explanation I find lies in the tautness of your writing, not a single word out of place, yet it is the display of a master craftsman — the exquisiteness with which you find appropriate words; the sentences and paragraphs befit the emotion, setting, pace of novel and personality of characters; the structure of the novel too is fascinating — with the first five days of journey + being in Jarmuli being 2/3 of the novel, interspersed with the flashback technique and then rapidly you move to the eighteenth day. In a way I keep feeling the novel is like an Aristotlean tragedy ending in catharsis for Nomi. It holds true even for Suraj, Nomi, Toppo, Badal etc.

I like the way you said in an interview you can only write once it is clearly visual in your head. “…made up places make me feel free to wander and in my head I can see every bend and building in Jarmuli”. ( All though I have no idea why the interviewer was being polite when referring to the rape scenes “loss of innocence”. It makes your novel sound so Victorian which is far from the truth!)

The link between materialism, religion and exploitation is so real, to place it in a made up place does not in any way mitigate the shocking reality. Godmen and their ashrams are mushrooming all over India like a bad rash. Frighteningly being endorsed by powers that be. There was a time when one heard of Osho, Waco, Aum Shinrikyo etc as stray cases but now with religious fundamentalism on the rise and religion continuing to be an opiate of the masses, exploitation cannot be far behind. Hats off to you for not describing the “faith” Guruji ascribes to. Making him so “universal”, the character can be true to any ideology.

Given the wide variety of literature (printed and digital formats) being produced on women and violence, this particular novel shines. I am very glad you wrote it, however hard it may have been on you. It is a novel that has to be read at one go, otherwise the horror depicted will be so overwhelming it would be easier to abandon the book than persist in reading it.

There is a quiet strength and determination in your writing that is admirable. It is as if the ills evident in society are not being addressed sufficiently. Instead you have converted the pent up anger in you to constructively portray it in fiction. Hopefully this magnificently disturbing storytelling will have the desired effect.

Oh, this is a book I am going to recommend for a long time to come.

Thank you for writing it.

With warm wishes,

JAYA

7 May 2015 

Anuradha Roy Sleeping on Jupiter Hachette India, Gurgaon, India. Hb. pp.260 Rs 499

On travel writing and translations

Between WorldsIn recent months I have read two books of travel writing translated from Urdu and Bengali respectively. They were first written a century apart but the English translations were made available six months of each other. The two books are:

1. Yusuf Khan Kambalposh Between Worlds: The Travels of Yusuf Khan Kambalposh, translated and edited by Mushirul Hasan and Nishat Zaidi, published by Oxford University Press ( 2014). Original title: Tarikh-i-Yusufi (1837-38), first published by Naval Kishore Press ( 1898)

2. Syed Mujtaba Ali In a land far from home: A Bengali in Afghanistan translated by Nazes Afroz, published by Speaking Tiger ( 2015). Original title: Deshe Bidishe, first published in 1948

There is something fascinating about accessing the past through contemporary literature. Making translations of such texts available to a modern audience is a commendable effort since many such texts are tucked away in personal collections, archives, and libraries. Selecting an “appropriate” text for a 21-century reader is dependant on a variety of factors — not just on the book’s own merit. It is probably relevance of the text being translated. For instance, Between Worlds, is about thirty-three-year-old Yusuf Khan Kambalposh who decides to visit England. He had no patronage, was not dependent on anyone for financial support or for social contracts but made the journey on his own. He was in London to see Queen Victoria being coronated. All though he often wrote in Persian, this travelogue was written in Urdu, a fascinating choice given the time it was written in. But it also shows the impact the Delhi Vernacular Translation Society ( 1843) had in popularising the language among the masses of readers in North India. Most translations were made available in Urdu. It is also a significant travelogue since it is a rare perspective offered by an Indian and not necessarily from a Colonial perspective. It is also about Victorian England at a time when modern literature about Queen Victoria is gaining importance.

With In a land far from home there is a firsthand account of a non-Afghan, a Bengali traveller, having travelled so far North, living in land_far_from_home_coverAfghanistan, witnessing a tumultuous period of history. It is when the reformist King Amanullah tried to steer his country towards modernity by encouraging education for girls and giving them the choice of removing the burqa. Branded a ‘kafir’, Amanullah was overthrown by the bandit leader Bacha-e-Saqao. ( An extract from the book may be read on Caravan magazine’s website: http://www.caravanmagazine.in/vantage/why-bengali-traveller-was-flummoxed-afghani-hospitality . )

Both the translated texts are worth reading from an academic point of view. They are footnoted and with plenty of prefatory material. Fascinating for the old world they reveal especially when seen through the prism of contemporary socio-political-economic conditions in these regions. Otherwise not easy to read. Somehow I found a few travelogues written by women easier to read particularly a lovely one All the Roads are Open: the Afghan journey by Annermarie Schwarzenbach (translated by Isabel Fargo Cole). She too is in Afghanistan at the time of Amanullah’s reign but her account is easier to relate to, probably because these were meant as regular dispatches to various newspapers in Germany. ( http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/blog/of-women-travellers-and-writing/ )

Having said that the anecdote about the massacre of sunbathing turtles on the high seas to be later made into a feast of kebabs in Between Worlds is just the reason why one picks up travel books. To get a random detail that is not commonly heard of but will forever remain embedded in one’s brain as a piece of trivial but astounding information.

6 May 2015