June 2016 Posts

“Penguin on Wheels: Walking BookFairs and Penguin Books India”

WBF 2( I wrote an article for the amazing literary website Bookwitty.com on “Penguin on Wheels”. An initiative of Walking BookFairs and Penguin Books India. It was published on 28 June 2016. Here is the original url: https://www.bookwitty.com/text/penguin-on-wheels-walking-bookfairs-and-penguin-b/57725752acd0d076db037bf7 . I am also c&p the text below. ) 

Literature does not occur in a vacuum. It cannot be a monologue. It has to be a conversation, and new people, new readers, need to be brought into the conversation too.”

     -Neil Gaiman, Introduction, The View from the Cheap Seats ( 2016)

On the 16th of May 2016, Penguin Random House India circulated a press release about Penguin Books India’s one-year collaboration with Walking BookFairs (WBF) to launch “Penguin on Wheels”, a bookmobile that will travel through the eastern Indian state of Odisha promoting reading and writing.

This is not the first time Walking BookFairs has collaborated with a publishing house to promote reading. Their earlier “Read More, India” campaign saw Walking BookFairs supported by HarperCollins India, Pan MacMillan India, and Parragon Books India. Apart from these three publishers, WBF stocked books from various other publishers, including Tara Books, Speaking Tiger Books, Penguin, Duckbill, Karadi Tales, and Scholastic. “We got books delivered by our publishers on the road wherever we were displaying books.”

The concept of bookmobiles is not unusual in India, for some decades the state-funded publishing firm, National Book Trust, has maintained its own book vans. Yet it is the duo of Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray that has captured the public imagination.

Walking BookFairs was established two years ago while Satabdi Mishra was on a break from her job and Akshaya WBF 6Rautaray quit his publishing job to set up an independent “simple bookstore” in Bhubaneshwar. The shop, which they prefer to think of as a “book shack”, runs on solar power. It is a simple space with the bare necessities and a garden. They allow readers to browse through the bookshelves, offering a 20-30% discount on every purchase throughout the year.

WBF also doubles as a free library. They introduced the bookmobile in 2014, as part of an outreach programme that would see them travelling to promote reading in the state. Speaking to me by email, Satabdi said,

“There are no bookshops or libraries in many parts of India. There are thousands of people who have no access to books. We started WBF in 2014 because we wanted to take books to more people everywhere. We have been travelling inside our home state Odisha for the last two years with books. We found that most people do not consider reading books beyond textbooks important in India. We wanted people to understand that reading story books is more important than reading textbooks. We wanted to reach out to more people with books. We also wanted to inspire and encourage more people across the country to read books and come together to open more community libraries and bookshops.”

India is well known for stressing the importance of reading for academic purposes rather than reading for pleasure. In a country of 1.3 billion people, where 40% are below the age of 25 years old, and the publishing industry is estimated to be of $2.2 billion, there is potential for growth. Indeed,there has been healthy growth across genres, quite unlike most book markets in the world.

The WBF team has been keen to promote reading since it is an empowering activity. They began in the tribal district of Koraput, Odisha, where they carried books in backpacks and walked around villages. They displayed books in public spaces like bus stops and railways stations or spreading them out on pavements or under trees, whatever was convenient and accessible. “That works because people in smaller towns feel intimidated by big shops,” they say.

Apart from public book displays, they also visit schools, colleges, offices, educational institutions, and residential neighbourhoods. They soon discovered that children and adults were not familiar with books. Bookstores too seem only to be found in urban and semi-urban areas and are lacking in rural areas, but once easy access to books is created there is a demand. As Neil Gaiman says in the essay “Four Bookshops”, these bookshops “made me who I am”, but the travelling bookshop that came to his day boarding school was “the best, the most wonderful, the most magical because it was the most insubstantial”. (The View from the Cheap Seats)

Speaking again via email, Satabdi says that they’ve found, “Children’s books are always the most sought after. We have many interesting children’s storybooks and picture books with us. We found that in many places, not just children but also adults and young people enthusiastically pick up children’s books, browse through and read them. Beyond a couple of urban centres in India, big cities, there are no bookshops. Most bookshops that one comes across are shops selling textbooks, guide books or essay books. Many people were actually looking at real books for the first time at WBF.”

In India the year-on-year growth rate for children’s literature is estimated to be 100%. Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray stock 90% fiction. Rautaray says, “We believe in stories. I think, if you need to understand the world around you, if you need to understand science and history and sociology, you need to understand stories. I believe in a good book, a good story.”

The categories include literary fiction, classics, non-fiction, biographies, books on poetry, cinema, politics, history, economics, art visual imagery, young adult, picture books, children’s books, and regional literature from Odia and Hindi. The emphasis is on diversity, but they do not necessarily stock bestsellers or popular books like romance, textbooks, or academic books. That said, the Penguin on Wheels programme will dovetail beautifully with, “Read with Ravinder” another of the publisher’s reading promotion campaigns, spearheaded by successful commercial fiction author Ravinder Singh.

In December 2015, Satabdi and Akshay launched their “Read More, India” campaign (#ReadMoreIndia), which saw them take their custom-built book van, loaded with more than 4000 books across India. They covered 10,000kms, 20 states, in three months (from 15th Dec 2015 to 8th March 2016).

Over the course of the journey, they sold forty books a day, met thousands of people, and had a number of interesting experiences. One anecdote that gives an insight into the passion and trust that the young couple displays is of that of an elderly gentleman in Besant Road Beach road, Chennai. The older man was out for his daily jog and stopped to look at the books. He wanted to buy some books, but had left his wallet behind.

“We asked him to take the books and pay us later via cheque or bank transfer. He seemed surprised that we were letting him take the books without paying. He took the books and sent the money later with his driver. We want people to read more books. And if people cannot buy books, we want them to read books for free for as long as they want. People pay us in cash, in kind, sometimes they take books pay later, pay through credit/debit cards.”

The Penguin on Wheels campaign was launched because Penguin Books India had been following WBF’s activities and reached out to them. Earlier, they had collaborated for an author event in Odisha, but this new move is a focussed effort that will see the bookmobile travel within Odisha.

The books are curated by Akshay as Penguin Books India said graciously that “they [WBF] know best what their readers like more”. It will consist of approximately 1000 titles from the Penguin Random House stable. The collection will have books by celebrated authors, including Jhumpa Lahiri, John Green, Orhan Pamuk, Amitav Ghosh, Devdutt Pattanaik, Salman Rushdie, Ravinder Singh, Twinkle Khanna, Hussain Zaidi, Khushwant Singh, Roald Dahl, Ruskin Bond, and Emraan Hashmi.

Contests and author interactions will also be organised with the support or Penguin Random House. It will start with Ravinder Singh’s visit to Bhubaneshwar for the promotion of his newly launched book, Love that Feels Right. Satabdi Mishra adds, “We are happy to partner with PRH through the WBF ‘Penguin on Wheels’ that will spread the joy of reading around.”

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

28 June 2016

M. A. Orthofer’s “The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction”

My review of Michael Orthofer’s wonderful book The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction has been published in the award-winning website, Scroll, on 26 June 2016. Here is the link: http://scroll.in/article/810332/no-book-can-tell-you-about-all-books-but-this-one-comes-close . I am c&p the text below. 

The Complete Review website was established in 1999 by founder and managing editor Michael Orthofer. He has so far reviewed a staggering 3,760 books on that site. His goal is to read a book a day, but he averages about 260 a year. In a profile written for The New Yorker by novelist Karan Mahajan, Orthofer says, “A day in which I don’t read or write, I have trouble falling asleep.”

The Complete Review is a literary salon, gathering reviews and essays about books and literature from all over the world in a short, curated format. Orthofer launched the website after spending more than five months writing the code for it. His rationale for this website was to take advantage of the tremendous reach and connectivity of the internet. His manifesto is laid out in the book of his website:

Suddenly, book reviews from print publications, new online resources, and individual readers from across the world were just a link away. Beyond reviews, an enormous amount of literary coverage, in both local languages and English, has been made available, from traditional newspaper stories to discussions in online forums to blogs devoted to every imaginable facet of reading. Professional websites – publishers’ foreign rights pages, the sites of national organisations promoting local literature abroad such as the French Publishers’ Agency or the Finnish Literature Exchange, and the sites of international literature agencies – provide additional up-to-date information and insights into contemporary fiction from many nations. The Complete Review is designed to help connect readers to much of this information.

Literature nations

Ironically, though, this wide-ranging coverage, because it’s organised chronologically and minutely, does not offer a countrywise bird’s-eye view of the literary landscape. Hence The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction. It’s Orthofer’s attempt to provide an entry point as well as a foundation to help readers navigate the literatures of the world.

American readers, one might add, who live in a country where English is the super-dominant language of available books, and translated titles amount to the now legendary three per cent of all titles. One of Orthofer’s attempts in this extraordinary compendium of modern and contemporary fiction is to make these readers aware of what is being written right now in languages other than English.

Sensibly, therefore, Orthofer – who is an immigrant in the US of Austrian origin – has chosen to classify his encyclopaedic knowledge of literature geographically, with the books and authors arranged by nation and region. The sections are broadly divided into Europe; Sub-Saharan Africa; North Africa, Middle East, and Turkey; Asia; Oceania; Latin America and North America. “Because writers and their fiction move across many borders and languages, national origin, domicile, and language are only rudimentary categories by which to arrange writers,” he writes.

What is very obvious is that Orthofer’s intimate engagement with books has resulted in this crystal clear understanding of the manner in which literature may be mapped. His organisation underlines the close proximity between literature and socio-political factors, a link which is often denied by many.

Talking of books available across geographies makes this a reader’s guide for an English-speaking audience. Orthofer astutely observes that a major drawback of looking only at literature available in English is that it can distort the view of national literatures, as there are many languages from which only a limited number of texts have been translated. “Many nations’ fiction is highly evolved, but because only a tiny amount of it is available in English, it may seem underdeveloped,” he observes.

Orthofer admits that though he has tried to map literature mostly after 1945, there are historical gaps primarily due to some older literature being inaccessible in English. He also rues his inability to list all the translators of all the editions of world literature he has referred to, but he makes up for it by offering resource tools in the appendices.

The view from America

Obviously, the perspective on world literature is an American one. So his fascinating commentary on books and authors focusses on what he is accessible in the US. Despite this constraint, he is able to weave a magical literary web that impressively contextualises authors.

So, given this point of view, can Indian readers trust Orthofer’s pronouncement on the literatures of the world and his assessments of individual writers? One way of judging this is to examine his observations on Indian writers, with whom readers in the country are already familiar.

This is where Orthofer proves how perceptive his readings are. For instance, he says that Amitav Ghosh’s first novel The Circle of Reason embodies the restless ambition that has come to define his work. That Amit Chaudhuri’s fiction is evocative, focusing on expression rather than invention. That Arundhati Roy’s colourful The God of Small Things is undeniably affecting, but Roy has a few too many tricks up her sleeves. One cannot but agree.

What does Orthofer have to say about literature from India’s neighbours? He points out that Pakistan’s Uzma Aslam Khan paints broad portraits of life that are personal and family-oriented, but she also mixes political and social commentary into her fiction. Tahmima Anam from Bangladesh uses the experiences and attitudes of her characters to reflect on Bangladesh’s post-war transition, without reducing them to simplistic types.

Interesting insights

Of course, you might wonder at the rationale for inclusion or omission – but that will only occur to those already familiar with the literature of a region. Thus, while prominent authors of south Asian origin but living in the West, like Kamila Shamsie, Nadeem Aslam and Manjushree Thapa, are mentioned, Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni or the multiple-award-winning Akhil Sharma are not.

Orthofer’s insights make for rewarding reading. For instance, that the lack of translations from Ethiopia may be due to political factors such as never having being colonised or the long spell of dictatorial rule. He observes the rise of the cell-phone novel (keitai shosetsu) in Japan, the setbacks to Russian-language fiction after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the limited exposure to contemporary fiction written in other Indian languages. Orthofer also points out, perceptively, that Indian authors living outside India continue to situate their fiction in their homeland. In his survey of Arabic literature, Othofer focusses on the recent increase in fiction titles despite political censorship, an underdeveloped and fragmented market, and a small book-buying public.

The appendices are gloriously packed with information regarding translations into English and with supplemental resources. The latter includes lists of periodical and online resources, many of which are dedicated to cross-cultural exchange. He also lists publishers who have carved out niches for themselves with translations, among them AmazonCrossing, And Other Stories, Deep Vellum, Europa Editions, Hispabooks, Open Letter Books, Pushkin Press and Seagull Books.

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is that very rare thing: an extraordinarily detailed book where the information is easily accessed and understood. It is a splendid reference, a dependable guide, and a rich map of the world through its books.

M. A. Orthofer The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction Columbia University Press, New York, 2016. Pb. pp. 486  $27.95

26 June 2016

Neil Gaiman, “The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Non-Fiction”

Neil Gaiman is the superstar of storytellers and one of the leading influencers on social media with his strongly voiced opinons. He is incredibly generous while sharing his knowledge, he has bundles of energy, oozes with charisma and can pack quite a powerful punch while speaking his mind. He comes across as straightforward and can be blunt when he wants as in the essays — “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming: The Reading Agency Lecture, 2013” or “The PEN Awards and Charlie Hebdo ” ( 2015). He is charming in his hero-worship when he writes about meeting legends such as Fritz Leiber and magnanimous with his compliments such as on illustrator Charles Vess with whom he often collaborates. Gaiman is passionate about his love for reading, letting the imagination roar and creativity blossom as evident in the innumerable speeches he has delivered. One of them being “Good Comics and Tulips: A Speech”or after his visit to a Syrian refugee camp, Azraq refugee camp, Jordan — “So Many Ways to Die in Syria Now: May 2014”. Here is a typical Gaiman straight-from-the-heart observation:

I realise I have stopped thinking about political divides, about freedom fighters or terrorists, about dictators and armies. I am thinking only of the fragility of civilisation. The lives the refugees had were our lives: they owned corner shops and sold cars, they farmed or worked in factories or owned factories or sold insurance. None of them expected to be running for their lives, leaving everything they had because they had nothing to come back to, making smuggled border crossings, walking past the dismembered corpses of other people who had tried to make the crossing but had been caught or been betrayed. ( p.506) 

Most of the essays and speeches collected in this volume have gone viral on the Internet recently. They have developed a life of their own for the ideas they spawned. As Gaiman says in “Credo”, “I believe that it is difficult to kill an idea because ideas are invisible and contagious, and they move fast. He also firmly believes that “Literature does not occur in a vaccuum. It cannot be a monologue. It has to be a conversation, and new people, new readers, need to be brought into the conversation too.” The title essay refers to his appearance at the Oscar ceremony when the film adaptation of his book Coraline had been nominated and he walked the red carpet but was given a seat in one of the top balconies.

The articles included in this collection may over a period of time vanish from their original place of publication in cyberspace or disappear behind pay walls as business models of media websites evolve. This is an anthology that is must have that will constantly be read and re-read for its thought-provoking ideas, its analysis of the changing game of publishing, the relationship between writer and readers but most importantly it will be remembered for Gaiman’s fervour in infecting others with his passion for reading and allowing the imagination to run wild.

Buy it. Treasure it. Preserve it. Share it widely. Pass it on to the next generation.

Neil Gaiman The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Non-Fiction Headline Publishing Group, London, 2016. Pb. pp. 532 . Rs 599

Hachette India distributes it in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. 

19 June 2016

The Panama Papers ( June 2016 )

Panama Papers

‘The biggest leak in the history of data journalism’

                                                                                   Edward Snowden  

 

‘A triumph of journalism’

Bob Woodward on the Panama papers

Late one evening, investigative journalist Bastian Obermayer receives an anonymous message offering him access to secret data. Through encrypted channels, he then receives documents revealing how the president of Argentina has sequestered millions of dollars of state money for private use. This is just the beginning.
Obermayer and fellow Süddeutsche journalist Frederik Obermaier find themselves immersed in the secret world where complex networks of shell companies help the super-rich to hide their money. Faced with the contents of the largest data leak in history, they activate an international network of journalists to follow every possible line of enquiry. Operating in the strictest secrecy for over a year, they uncover cases involving European prime ministers and international dictators, emirs and kings, celebrities and aristocrats. The real-life thriller behind the story of the century, The Panama Papers is an intense, unputdownable account that proves, once and for all, that there exists a small elite living by a different set of rules and blows their secret world wide open.

Pre-order from here: http://amzn.to/1tw1oh6

ISBN: 9781786070470 

Price: INR 499

Format: C FORMAT

Page Extent: 384

The Panama papers represent the largest and most significant leak in history – this is the inside

story from the journalists who first received the data

For more details please contact:

Peter Modoli

Publicity Manager

Pan Macmillan India

 

peter.modoli@macmillan.co.in

www.panmacmillan.co.in

15 June 2016 

 

 

Siddharth Mukherjee “The Gene: An Intimate History”

( This blog post was picked up by the award-winning news website, Scroll. An edited version of this review was published by Scroll’s literary editor, Arunava Sinha, on Sunday, 19 June 2016. The original url is: http://scroll.in/article/809971/six-hundred-pages-that-will-tell-you-more-about-yourself-and-your-future-than-anything-else . )

The real magic was imagination.  

( p.148)

( L-R) Chiki Sarkar, Siddharth Mukherjee, Nirmala George and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

( L-R) Chiki Sarkar, Publisher, Juggernaut, Siddharth Mukherjee, Nirmala George, journalist and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, IIC, New Delhi, April 2014

Siddharth Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History is an extraordinarily riveting book. It is easy to forget you are reading a densely packed account of the gene. In 600+ pages Pulitzer prize writer Siddharth Mukherjee narrates the discovery of genes, evolution of genetics as a scientific discipline and the rapid strides this science has made in about a century. Consider this. The term “gene” coined by Mendel in the nineteenth century was all but lost for more than six decades only to be revived in early twentieth century and then became a common term. A few decades later it led to the coining of “genocide” in Nazi Germany. Half a century later the helical structure of DNA & RNA were discovered. Two decades later questions were being raised about the ethics of genetics and tinkering with genes. Yet recombinant genes were put to use in commercial production for insulin to a resounding success. By 2000, about a century from when the word “gene” was revived, the Human Genome project was announced. There is a phenomenal amount of technical information packed in the book with a few anecdotes, some personal, inserted judiciously into the narrative.

From the time of Pythagoras, Aeschylus and Plato who were convinced that the “likeness” of a human being passed on via the “mobile library” preserved in the semen to Aristotle who rejected this notion by astutely observing that children can inherit features from their mothers and grandmothers too. The Gene details over the centuries the manner in which people pondered over what carried information across generations without really understanding the mechanism or even having a name for it till Mendel and his pea experiment and Darwin’s theories. It was Mendel, a monk, who first used the term “gene” except it was lost for a few more decades till resurrected in the early twentieth century. This was a watershed moment in the history of genetics as suddenly there were a concatenation of events that led to a furious progress in understanding the gene mechanism. From coining the word, understanding the structure, the mechanism, the potential, exploiting applied genetics as was done by the Nazis to enable Rassenhygiene or “racial hygiene”, using this branch of “applied biology” to justify their policy of lebensunwertes Leben  or “lives unworthy of living” and justifying the establishment of extermination centres such as Hadamar and the Brandenburg State Welfare Institute. It was based on the premise that identity was fixed. Curiously enough another ideological position in existence at the same time in Soviet Russia viewed the principle of heredity as having its basis on complete pliability.  In both cases science was deliberately distorted to support state-sponsored mechanisms of “cleansing”. Rapid advancement in genetics led to discovery of recombinant DNA to create crucial medicines such as insulin and its commercial production by biotechnology industries,  the ability to clone as was done with Dolly the Sheep, to questions being raised about the ethics of genetics, to the establishment of the Human Genome Project. It has been a phenomenal few decades for curious and imaginative scientists trying to understand the principles of heredity, what makes it tick, what information gets passed on from generation to generation, what is gained and what is lost in evolution — always striving to push the boundaries to ask more and more questions.

To a lay reader The Gene is a brilliant historical overview but it also does a fantastic job of reinstating Rosalind Franklin as one of the four scientists responsible for discovering the helical structure of DNA. A fact that had been lost in history for some decades even when the Nobel Committee conferred the prize on Watson and Crick for discovering the helical structure. It is only recently that Rosalind Franklin’s name has been mentioned in the same breath as Watson and Crick. Siddharth Mukherjee lays down the facts of their experiments and analysis in such a way that it is evident the scientists were working simultaneously on the same subject, albeit not together.

I heard Siddharth Mukherjee deliver a public lecture two years ago when he came to India to receive the Padam Shri from the President of India.  At the time he was still working on the manuscript of The Gene and here is an account:  http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/siddharth-mukherjee-27-april-2014/ . In 2015 he gave a fascinating TED Talk followed by a brilliant exposition on the subject published as a TED Book by Simon & Schuster. Here is the link: http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/siddhartha-mukherjee-the-laws-of-medicine/

What began as an attempt to understand the reasons for “madness” that seems to exist in his family, Siddharth Mukherjee embarks upon an absorbing account of the “triggers” that are responsible for mapping information and carrying it from generation to generation. The Gene is phenomenal for the manner in which it weaves together the author’s precise scientific temper offering technical information against the backdrop of factually accurate and significant contemporary events of the time. Siddharth Mukherjee puts forth a magnificently rich historical narrative of the gene accessible even by an ordinary reader.

Siddharth Mukherjee The Gene: An Intimate History Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, London, 2016. Hb. pp. Rs 699 

14 June 2016 

 

Alec Ross “The Industries of the Future”

The day history is made in USA with Hillary Clinton becoming the Democratic Party’s Presidential nominee and endorsed by outgoing President of the USA, Barack Obama it is worth looking at Alec Ross’s book The Industries of the Future. Alec Ross served as Hillary Clinton’s senior advisor for innovation while she was Secretary of State. Before working for Clinton, Alec Ross had worked as the convenor for technology and media policy on the Obama campaign that beat her in the 2008 presidential primary.

Alec Ross’s The Industries of the Future is a fascinating account of how much innovation is taking place in the world,Alec Ross in geographical corners that are mostly hidden from media view. He discusses robotics, genomics, cyber security, digital technology and finance, blockchains and bitcoins, etc. This is the kind of book that will be a reference document now to understand innovations and will have a long shelflife for its historical value in contextualising and explaining innovations that will define twenty-first century. What comes across strongly is that Alex Ross does not view innovations as disruptive but with wide-eyed wonder at the business potential and positive socio-economic impact these measures will have in future. Today it may seem as if these innovations are nudging just the limits of that is plausible yet many of these practices/ predictions are slowly coming true in one’s lifetime. Much like the automatic sliding doors of Gene Roddenberry’s stories of the 1960s were considered to be innovative are now very common in modern life.

Here is a wonderful interview with Alex Ross by Jinoy Jose P in the Hindu Businessline : http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/the-future-world/article8544279.ece . It was published on 1 May 2016.

Alex Ross’s book is truly stupendous. Hilary Clinton will do well to have him return to her team. Meanwhile read it. Buy it.

Alex Ross Industries of the Future Simon & Schuster, London, 2016. Pb. pp. 310 Rs 599

10 June 2016 

 

Novoneel Chakraborty “The Stranger Trilogy”

Amazon homepage on 6 June 2016 shows Novoneel Chakraborty’s book being amongst the top 25 bestsellers.

Novoneel Chakraborty is a successful commercial fiction writer who is known for his psycho-sexual or romantic thrillers. He is now a screenwriter for television too. He began writing in 2008 but since then has had phenomenal success with his books. He obviously has a knack for knowing what the readers/market desire and caters to it exceptionally well. His books are selling extremely well as testified by Amazon India’s banner on their homepage in June 2016.

His “Stranger Trilogy” consists of

 Marry me, Stranger;

All yours, Stranger

and Forget me not, Stranger. These are being sold as a boxed set.

This trilogy has been creating a buzz for a while. The stories are written in first person by the protagonist Rivanah Bannerjee and have a lot of sex. The stories are ostensibly about the mysterious identity of a stalker who regularly sexually assaults Rivanah and she assumes its her boyfriend. The trilogy comes across as very uneven writing. The sex scenes are written very confidently and quite bold but always seem as if they are strongly influenced by international thrillers. It would not be so evident if it were not for the “bridges” between the sex scenes that is actually the narrative. It crawls like a typical contemporary Indian novel written in English which relies considerably on mundane conversation. There is little in terms of psychological thriller that makes these stories distinctly their own except for the mysterious identity of the stalker and reasons for stalking. A blue-blooded psychological thriller is packed with details, working in layers and the suspense building slowly and steadily sometimes even with multiple perspectives embroiling the reader into an emotional space that teeters between empathy and curiosity and horror. Unfortunately “The Stranger Trilogy” does not quite meet the mark.

It is also distressing to discover that a book written in the first person by a woman incorporates the male fantasy gaze “appreciating” if not at times fantasing about the sexual acts that would otherwise be seen as a rape. It is disturbing to have such literature being published and obviously rapidly finding a readership/market because somewhere it is catering to these bizarre fantasies. In terms of creative licenses every author has the freedom of expression to write on any subject they like and in any manner. But this? Given the current scenarios of the horrific rapes and stalkings that are constantly being documented in India. Who can forget the rape of the young girl in December 2013 or the recent one in Kerala of a Dalit girl in April 2016?  Alas these two young women did not survive the horrific assaults. In 1983 Sohaila Abdulali had written about her experience of being gang-raped in Bombay and the article was published in Manushi. Here is the link: http://bit.ly/1r9YCMH In the past few weeks two very powerful posts by rape survivors have gone viral on the internet. They are extremely moving for the manner in which these women have survived their assaults, had the immense courage to write about the experience even though it must have been very painful to recall details and put it down in words. The first is by Jessica Knoll whose debut Luckiest Girl Alive smashed all bestseller charts for its story. (Reese Witherspoon has optioned the film rights.) Weeks after the book was published Jessica Knoll wrote this article in Lenny Letter  for the first time acknowledging being gang-raped as a teenager. ( http://bit.ly/1UCLhGR ) On 4 June 2016, the rape victim of a Stanford swimmer read this letter out aloud in court after the rapist was sentenced to a mere six months in jail because a longer sentence would have “a severe impact on him,” according to a judge. The letter was published on Buzzfeed. (http://bzfd.it/213lAkL ) And who can forget the Steubenville High School rape case on the night of August 11, 2012, when a high-school girl, incapacitated by alcohol, was publicly and repeatedly sexually assaulted by her peers, several of whom documented the acts on social media. The news exploded on social media creating a cyber-storm across geographies with widespread condemnation.

These rape cases highlight the horror of the act and that sexual assaults are a serious crime. Cultural collateral such as book products are an integral part of a complex social ecosystem. Presuming such stories exist as standalone entities meant solely for entertaining is unacceptable. These acts may be the fantasy of many and products peddling such sexual fantasies sell well even in the book market but The Stranger Trilogy is irresponsible publishing especially by a reputed firm.

Novoneel Chakraborty The Stranger Trilogy Random House India, Gurgaon, 2015. Pb. pp. 250. Rs. 175 each. 

6 June 2016

 

 

Perumal Murugan “Pyre”

“…if we start this festival here with this impurity in our midst, we might incur the wrath of Goddess Mariyatha.”

Kumaresan, who had stayed quiet until then, suddenly lost his patience. ‘ I have married her,’ he snapped, barely concealing his irritation in his voice. ‘What is it that you want me to do now?’

‘Look here, Mapillai. Until we know which caste the girl is from, we are going to excommunicate your family. We won’t take donations for the temple from you, and you will not be welcome at the temple during the festival.’

( p. 132- 34)

Award-winning writer Perumal Murugan shot to fame with his novel, One Part Woman, translated from Tamil into English. Unfortunately it was the sort of fame he could have done without since he was unnecessarily persecuted by lumpen elements that took offence at his novel. He was forced to publicly announce that he would no longer be writing. Yet there was one more novel – Pyre. A slim one revisiting his pet themes — male protagonists, social structures, caste, rituals and ordinary and believable people. Pyre is about Kumaresan who leaves his village in search of work where he falls in love and elopes to marry his beautiful neighbour. Alas this marriage is not welcomed in his village instead they are ostracised. Curiously enough Perumal Murugan never mentions the castes explicitly. There are enough indications in the book that the bride, Saroja, is a Dalit or the caste formerly referred to as “untouchables”. A sad practice that continues to be prevalent in India.

Pyre or Pookkuzhi was first published in Tamil by Kalachuvadu Publications. On my behalf Kannan Sundaram, publisher, Kalachuvadu asked Perumal Murugan if in the original text he had ever mentioned the castes. He confirmed he had never done it. The English translation by Aniruddhan Vasudevan by a brief introduction that dwells upon the novel being about caste and the resilient force it is, the unusual reliance of Perumal Murugan on direct speech, the difficulties of translating Tamil dialects used extensively in the story such as Kongu and  Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s own habit as a translator to first draft a “very idiomatic translation”. But once again there are no references to this being a story involving a Dalit girl. So I posed a few questions to the translator.

  1. How true is the English translation of Pyre to the original Tamil? The English translation of ‘Pookkuzhi’ is very true to the original — nothing has been changed or consciously re-interpreted.
  2. How did you work on the translation? Only with the text or did you keep asking Perumal Murugan for assistance? I worked on the translation over several months. It took a lot of time mainly because my graduate school work grew more demanding. I did a first draft, in which I tried to keep the translation as close to the Tamil syntax as possible. So, necessarily, that would read quite a bit awkward in English. Perumal Murugan was, at the time of translating Pookkuzhi, caught in the middle of the tyranny whipped up around Madhorubagan. So I wanted to give him his space and approached Thoedore Bhaskaran for help with questions about Kongu Tamil. He was most kind. But at the later stage, I was able to consult Perumal Murugan.
  3. Did the author “tweak” the text for the English translation? In the Tamil edition does Murugan mention any of the castes? The English translation does not mention any but it is obvious that the caste angle is the basis of the anger in the story. PM didn’t tweak the text for English translation. ‘Pookkuzhi,’ in the Tamil original, does not have explicit caste names or place names. There are some recognizable markers and cues, but it does not take names. The caste angle gets foregrounded without explicitly naming castes. Through conversations, through references to people’s faith in caste hierarchy and practices, the novel manages to put caste and the difficulties of inter-caste marriage at the center.
  4. Is the “Tholur” mentioned in the novel in Kerala or Tamil Nadu? ‘Tholur’ mentioned in Pyre is, according to the plot of the novel, in Tamil Nadu. I don’t think it is an actual place, but a middle-sized town Perumal Murugan creates as a setting for Saroja and Kumaresan’s meeting and romance.
  5. Is Saroja a Dalit? Again, it is never explicitly mentioned, but the story itself and how she is perceived and treated point us in that direction.
  6. Why did you not include a more detailed introduction to the translation? I didn’t include a more detailed introduction, because I think there is an immediacy and accessibility to the narrative, and I didn’t want to stand in the way of it. I didn’t want to assume that the readers needed such a mediation besides the translation itself, which is, in itself, an act of mediation. I do hope I will soon be able to write about the process of translation itself and how it works for me. So far, despite the labour and the time involved, translating has been sort of a zen place for me.

Pyre is a novel that is not easy to provide a gist of except to say it is one of those books that will forever haunt one especially the dramatically chilling end. It is seminal reading. It is stories that like this that bring out the rich diversity of Indian literature.

Perumal Murugan Pyre ( Translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan ) Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India 2016. Hb. pp. 200 Rs 399.

6 June 2016

 

Max Porter “Grief is the thing with Feathers”

‘If your wife is a ghost, then she is not wailing in the cupboards and corners of this house, she is not mooching about bemoaning the loss of her motherhood or the bitter pain of watching you boys live without her.’

‘No?’

‘No. Trust me, I know a bit about ghosts.’

‘Go on.’

‘She’ll be way back, before you. She’ll be in the golden days of her childhood. Ghosts do not haunt, they regress. Just as when you need to go to sleep you think of trees or lawns, you are taking instant symbolic refuge in a ready-made iconography of early safety and satisfaction. That exact place is where ghosts go.’

I look at Crow. Tonight he is Polyphemus and has only one eye, a polished patent eight-ball.

‘Go on then. Tell me.’

We sit in silence and I realise I am grinning. 

I recognise some of it. I believe him. I absolutely blissfully believe him and it feels very familiar. 

‘Thank you Crow.’

  ‘All part of the service.’

  ‘Really. Thank you, Crow.’

  ‘You’re welcome. But please remember I am your Ted’s song-legend, Crow of the death-chill, plase. The God-eating, trash-licking, word-murdering, carcass-desecrating math-bomb motherfucker, and all that.’

  ‘He never called you a motherfucker.’

  ‘Lucky me.’

( p.68-70)

In 2015 a buzz began about a promising debut by Max Porter. He is an editor at Granta Books and was due to publish Grief is the Thing with Feathers a novel about an English widower and his two sons. It is a brilliant meditation on grief, loneliness,  death and Ted Hughes. It is a novel that is written from three perspectives — the dad, the sons and the crow. The latter is a psychic manifestation of the dad who also happens to be writing a book on the poet Ted Hughes called Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis but the symbolism of the bird works at multiple levels too. For instance the crow is associated with grief, intelligence, personal transformation, believed to be a spirit animal, a creature presumed to have mystical and magical powers, is a steady presence in folklore, mythology and to have personal insight. The Crow in Grief is the Thing with Feathers is no less. Surprisingly in this magical fable Max Porter with gentleness and supreme craftsmanship is able to weave in the mystical and modern with a personal tribute to a literary giant, Ted Hughes. It works splendidly not just in words but with a keen eye on the layout of text designed on each page seemingly in-step with the sentiment expressed. It won the International Dylan Thomas Prize 2016 where the judges commended it for its “imaginative prose”. The prize is for the best work of English-language literary fiction – poetry, drama or prose – by a writer of 39 or under, marking Thomas’s own death shortly after his 39th birthday.

According to the Bookseller, Granta where Max Porter works promoted him to editorial director of Granta and Portobello Books. Porter, who has published authors including Man Booker Prize-winning Eleanor Catton along with Han Kang, Tom Bullough, Caroline Lucas and Sarah Moss, will continue to acquire fiction and non-fiction for both lists. Sigrid Rausing, publisher of Granta, said: “I’m thrilled to announce Max Porter’s promotion. Max is a valued member of Granta’s editorial team – there is no part of publishing that he doesn’t do extremely well, and being a writer himself he understands the writing process from all angles.” Porter added: “I am delighted to be taking on this new role at Granta and Portobello. This is a remarkable team of people, dedicated to publishing outstanding books. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be here.” ( 31 May 2016 http://bit.ly/1su3hdE )

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is an exquisitely complex novel that is a must have.

Max Porter Grief is the Thing with Feathers Faber & Faber , London, 2015. Hb. pp. 115 Rs 799

6 June 2016