March 2017 Posts

Michael Chabon “Moonglow”

Apart from so-called hard science fiction, which he read ( as with The Magic Mountain) for its artful packaging of big ideas, my grandfather regarded most fiction as a “bunch of baloney.” He thought reading novels was a waste of time more profitably spent on nonfiction. ( p.248) 

Michael Chabon’s Moonglow is a story that is based on a series of conversations the narrator has with his dying grandfather. The nameless grandfather has bone cancer and is on a cocktail of drugs to keep him comfortable in his last days. As the narrator, Mike Chabon, says that he heard about 90% of his grandfather’s life in the last few days. It is quite a heady mix.

A small example.

By page 45 of the book the grandfather’s reminiscences have included his meeting with a “hermaphrodite”, blowing up a bridge during World War II, meeting the founder of CIA — Wild Bill Donovan, a walk-on part of Russian spy Alger Hiss, introducing the character of Wernher Von Braun — brains of the nuclear missile technology V2 and later known as father of space programme,  free love, Carmellite nuns in Lille, an unwed mother, a grandfather who had trained as a piano tuner and tried killing his boss, a rabbi who ultimately gave up religion to become a professional hustler. And this fantastical achronological landscape is only in the first few pages of this extraordinarily crafted story. There is more to come!

The “Author’s Note” in the preliminary pages of Moonglow are revelatory.

In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it. Wherever liberties have been taken with names, dates, places, events, and conversations, or with the identities, motivations, and interrelationships of family members and historical personages, the reader is assured that they have been taken with due abandon. 

In the Acknowledgements too Chabon mentions a list of names adding “if they existed, would have been instrumental to the completion of this work”.

Moonglow on the surface of it is a memoir of a dying man, his life as a businessman, his tender love for his wife even though she was mentally fragile and needed institutionalisation, his love for his stepdaughter whom he adored and who reciprocated it lovingly in his final days and his obsessive passion for the space mission. In fact his unit in the Jewish retirement home was unlike any other crammed with models of rockets everywhere such as the French Arianes, Japanese Mus, Chinese CZs, an Argentine Gamma Centauro.

The expanse of wall that carried from the living area to the dining area beyond, which in Sally’s unit was taken up by a large hutch full of china, which … in other units  was often occupied by family photo galleries or earth-toned batik prints of Israeli and biblical scenes, was here taken up by four glass shelves mounted on metal brackets from just above the terrazo floor to within fifteen inches of the ceiling. These held models of known Soviet launch vehicles, from the early R-7s that had put Sputniks aloft to the Proton. On another, relatively small shelf on the wall over the television was a collection of American rockets: the Atlas, the Aerobee, the Titan….It was all very impressive, but …not necessarily admirable. 

The grandfather also has absurd moments of a comic superhero who gets ready for a mission except it is to locate a python which may have eaten his neighbour’s cat.

In an interview with the Guardian Michael Chabon while discussing the art of creating a memoir comments:

…this blurring of fact and fiction goes way beyond a device; there is something unusually, provocatively committed about it, not least that Chabon constructs the narrative “to allow for the interpretation that the story I’m telling in Moonglow is the source of at least two or three of my other books”. Moonglow’s “Uncle Sammy” works for a cheap novelty company, which is exactly how his namesake in Kavalier & Clay got his start, “so the reader might wonder …

But why? “There are a lot of elements of my experience as a reader and as a writer that inclined me to try to push this fake memoir thing out there and see what it felt like to write a memoir knowing it was entirely invented,” Chabon says. “And one of those things is the prolonged, mounting feeling I’ve had as a novelist contemplating the rise of the memoir, of the literary memoir; and the kind of apotheosis of it, the apparent claim that literary memoir makes – that we seem to be willing, culturally, to grant it – to some greater truth, to some greater value, because of its supposed truthfulness.”

He has a specific example in mind: James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, the controversial memoir-that-wasn’t of addiction and recovery. “So he writes this novel, he can’t sell it, so he changes the word novel to memoir, sells it for a ton of money, it becomes an Oprah book, a huge bestseller. And it turns out that he made it all up, and there’s this big scandal and he has to apologise, on television. We’re so upset with him because he lied to us, right? I mean, it betrays a great naivety about memoirs and how true they are, which is to say, they are not true. They are works of fiction. They may be scrupulous attempts by the memoirist to be as truthful as possible, with no intent to deceive or defraud or get anything wrong at all; nonetheless, they’re works of fiction. Because that’s how memory works; memory is a tool of fictionalisation.”

Far more than by Frey’s actions, Chabon is offended that a piece of work pretending to be true was prized more highly than one proudly proclaiming its untruthfulness. “What annoyed me was that earlier part of the story where he went to 37 publishers with this thing and they all passed on it, and simply by changing the word novel, not changing a word of the text, just changing the word novel to memoir, suddenly it acquires value. Monetary value, cultural value. And that’s something they want. Same book! This one they want to publish. This one they don’t want to publish. Why? Because it’s true? We all know it’s not true. We ought to know it’s not true.”

Moonglow can be read at the superficial level for what it is purported to be — a memoir by a dying old man. But there is more — it can be read as a supreme example of literary experimentation at its finest by a master craftsman, Michael Chabon. While at the same time it is a sharply told chronicle of modern Jewish history. Chabon’s soft spot for Norse mythology is not too far too. His grandmother’s hallucinations involving the Skinless Horse is reminiscent of the nuckelavee (pronunciation: /nʌklɑːˈviː/) or nuckalavee is a horse-like demon from Orcadian mythology that combines equine and human elements. It has its origins in Norse mythology, and is the most horrible of all the demons of Scotland’s Northern Isles. In fact Michael Chabon records in the introduction to the beautiful new edition of D’Aulaires Book of Norse Myths ( published by NYRB) that what bound him forever to this book as a child was the “bright thread of silliness, of mockery and of self-mockery”. A technique that is employed well in Moonglow

It can be quite challenging to read a novel with an achronological structure but after the first few pages the fantastically imaginative storytelling grips one and it is impossible to put the book down. Moonglow is a book which will be talked about a great deal in 2017. Even though Michael Chabon is an award winning writer including having won the Pulitzer, Moonglow will catapult him into a different league of writers. It is bound to feature in many literary prize lists in the coming months. It’s preoccupation with the space programme is also timely given Stephen Hawking‘s acceptance of Richard Branson’s free ticket with Virgin Galactic.

Moonglow is a must read.

Michael Chabon Moonglow 4th Estate, an imprint of  Harper Collins Publishers, London, 2016. Pb. 

Women In Publishing: Championing The Written Word

BusinessWorld magazine as part of Women Day celebrations did a special issue on Women ( 20 March 2017). Sanjitha Rao Chaini asked some of the prominent women in women in Indian publishing to share their views on one book that has inspired them. I spoke about Chitra Banerjee Divakurni. 

If there is one sector that celebrates women and is run by women, then it has to be the publishing industry in India. A Ficci report says that the Indian publishing industry is among the top seven nations in the world. Sanjitha Rao Chaini asked some of the prominent women in Indian publishing to share their views on one book that has inspired them


URVASHI BUTALIA is a publisher and writer. She is co-founder of Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publisher, and is now director of Zubaan

If I were to pinpoint one book that has been important to me as a feminist and a feminist publisher, it is a two-volume edited edition of Women Writing in India 600 B.C. to the Present Day, (1991) edited by Susie Tharu and Ke Lalita published by Oxford University Press India. The book is a compilation of the writings of hundreds of women from across many different Indian languages. Apart from being a stunning resource for those of us whose lives are shaped by feminism, it is also a book that gives the lie to the widespread belief that women do not and did not write. It shows that right from the time of Buddhism, women had been producing wonderful literary works, many of which did not see the light of day because of the male domination and hold of knowledge and knowledge production. There are many varieties of writing in the books, many genres, poetry, fiction, essay, memoir, dialogue… and you can go back to it again and again.

PRIYA KAPOOR is Editorial Director, Roli Books, co-owner, CMYK

Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day is a book that has stayed with me since I read it for the first time over 20 years ago. The book was first published in 1980 and I first read it as a part of literature class in high school and have read it twice since. The book stayed with me because it is subtle, delicate and it lingers much after you have finished reading it — like a great book should. The book is about childhood, family, loss, nostalgia, separation and forgiveness — universal themes that travel very well. You can relate to the characters, their impulses, thought process and weaknesses.

Desai describes the book as her most autobiographical to date and her power of observation is evident in the way she describes people, nature, her setting — Delhi (Old and New). Even though the novel doesn’t have a plot, it holds your attention and made me want to revisit it to find hidden gems.

PRIYA DORASWAMY is Founder, Lotus Lane Literary
Arshia Sattar’s Lost Loves: Exploring Rama’s Anguish (Penguin, 2011), is one of my all-time favourite books. The book is permanently on my bedside table. Her luminous exploration of Sita and Rama, particularly their motivations, and actions as mortals which are utterly inspiring, devastating, tragic and yet beautiful, is what makes this book so special.

The essays which are very much relevant to the now, but also timeless, brings to the fore notions of free will, complexity in relationships, and the universality of the human condition. To quote Sattar from Lost Loves, “by relocating Rama and Sita in a literary…universe”, she has indeed made “their existential conflicts and resolutions newly accessible and inspiring”.

Sattar is a PhD in South Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago.

RADHIKA MENON is Publishing Director, Tulika Books
What comes to my mind is a non-fiction book on gender issues called Gender Talk: Big Hero, Size Zero by Tulika. This book tackles the gender issues head on and demystifies them. The tone is conversational so as not to intimidate the reader. Interestingly, this is a collaboration between three young women — two writers with Gender Studies backgrounds (Anusha Hariharan and Sowmya Rajendran), and an illustrator (Niveditha Subramaniam) — who maintain a balanced and humorous counter-dialogue between the text and the illustrations. With a clear and gentle approach, they uncover truths, untruths, semi-truths and myths using everyday examples as well as references to popular media, and explore what it means socially and culturally to belong to a certain gender. Gender Talk: Big Hero, Size Zero is a much needed non-fiction book not just for teens and young adults, but also for parents and teachers to initiate discussions and dialogue on difficult issues.

PREETI SHENOY is an author and artist. Her last book It’s All In The Planets (Westland) was published in 2016

I First discovered Anita Nair about 10 years ago when I read Ladies Coupe. I loved the writing and how Nair emphasised the way Indian women are treated in society, very realistically, without any sugar-coating. If I had to pick one work of contemporary fiction, by an Indian woman, I would choose Nair’s The Alphabet Soup For Lovers (HarperCollins India, 2015). The prose flows as easily as the recipes, which Komathi —a character in the book, a cook through whose eyes the story unfolds — conjures up. Each chapter is named after a South Indian dish, with Komathi learning the English alphabets by comparing them to the dishes she makes. The loveless marriage that Lena is trapped in, the film star who comes to stay over, the coffee estates where the book is set, all of it comes alive, and it transported me to a world where I was happy to be lost in. When it ended I was left longing for more, just like a well-cooked meal, and therein lies the triumph of the writer.

MANJIRI PRABHU is an author and an independent film-maker for TV. Her last book The Trail Of Four (Bloomsbury) was published in February
My favourite contemporary Indian woman author is Sudha Murty. She has played several roles in her life — she is a prolific bestseller author, a social worker and a philanthropist amongst other things. She wants women to believe in themselves and to unleash the enormous power in them to achieve their goals. I like her writing because I think it comes straight from the heart. Her stories are interesting with a simple but engrossing and emotional narrative and touch a core inside you. Because they are stories about you and me. About characters we can relate to. I feel that her life’s experiences reappear in the form of stories, as well as people who have influenced her in her life, like her grandparents. Writers like Sudha Murty will always remain important to us. Her books propagate much-needed values in an entertaining manner and make it easy for us to understand life, which nowadays seems to be getting more and more complicated.

Photographer: Ritesh Sharma

Photographer: Ritesh Sharma Location: Bread & More, NOIDA

JAYA BHATTACHARJI ROSE is an international publishing consultant and blogger
For me, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s books have always elegantly examined multi-cultural identities and what it means to be an Indian, an American or a desi (people from the Indian sub-continent or South Asia who live abroad). Her stories engage with the immigrant story specifically from the point of view of the woman. In Before We Visit The Goddess, young Tara epitomises the new generation of American-Indians, not ABCD (American Born Confused Desis) anymore but with a distinct identity of their own. The novel examines these many layers of cultures, interweaving the traditional and contemporary. It is also the first time men and women play an equal role in her story.

To her credit, Divakaruni never presents a utopian scenario focusing only on women and excluding any engagement with men and society. Instead she details the daily negotiations and choices women face that slowly help them develop into strong personalities. The popularity of her books is evident: The Palace of Illusions was among the top 3 bestsellers at the World Book Fair.


Divakaruni’s next book is going to be worth looking out, as it is about Sita.


This article was published in BW Businessworld issue dated ‘March 20, 2017’ with cover story titled ‘Most Influential Women 2017’

Censorship, state and formation of literature

A Stasi official observing the interrogation of the lover of an East German playwright whose loyalty to the state is questioned, in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others, 2006

An extract from the New York Review of Books review by Timothy Garton Ash of Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature by Robert Darnton” ( 23 October 2014)

I have only once met a censor on active duty. In the spring of 1989, my friends at the newly founded Polish opposition newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza let me take a cartoon up to the in-house censor at the printing house of the main Communist Party daily, on whose weary old presses Solidarity’s organ for the dismantlement of communism was now being produced. I knocked on the door, only to find a bored-looking woman in a floral dress, with a cigarette on her lip and a glass of tea at hand. She slowly scanned the cartoon and the article to which it related, as if to demonstrate that she could read, and then stamped her approval on the back of the cartoon.

My taskmistress showed few obvious signs of being an intellectual, but one of the leitmotifs of Robert Darnton’s new book is how intellectually sophisticated censors have often been. Drawing on original archival research, he offers three fine-grained, ethnographic (his word) studies of censors at work: in Bourbon France, British India, and Communist East Germany. In eighteenth-century France, the censors were not just writers manqués; many were writers themselves. They included men like F.-A. Paradis de Moncrif, a playwright, poet, and member of the Académie française. To be listed as a Censeur du Roi in the Almanach royal was a badge of honor. These royal censors initialed every page of a manuscript as they perused it, making helpful suggestions along the way, like a publisher’s editor. Their reports often read like literary reviews. One of them, M. Secousse, solicitously approved an anthology of legal texts that he himself had edited—thus giving a whole new meaning to the term “self-censorship.”

In British India, the censors—not formally so called—were scholars and gentlemen, either British members of the elite Indian Civil Service (the “heaven born”) or their learned Indian colleagues. Harinath De, a candidate for the post of imperial librarian in Calcutta in 1906,

had mastered Latin, Greek, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Sanskrit, Pali, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Oriya, Marathi and Guzerati, along with some Provençal, Portuguese, Romanian, Dutch, Danish, Anglo-Saxon, Old and Middle High German, and a smattering of Hebrew, Turkish and Chinese. He got the job.

Besides being a librarian, that job involved contributing summary reviews to an extraordinary printed catalog of every book published in the Raj from 1868 onward. It included more than 200,000 titles by 1905. Although given to describing anything with erotic content, including the hanky-panky of Hindu gods, as “filthy,” these literary monitors were often highly appreciative of the works under review, especially when the authors showed some virtuosity of style and depth of scholarship.

In the summer of 1990, Darnton, the lifelong historian of books and censorship, had the thrill of finally meeting two real-life censors. In East Berlin, the capital of the soon-to-be-history German Democratic Republic, he found Frau Horn and Herr Wesener, both holders of advanced degrees in German literature, eager to explain how they had struggled to defend their writers against oppressive, narrow-minded higher-ups in the Party, including an apparent dragon woman called Ursula Ragwitz. The censors even justified the already defunct Berlin Wall on the grounds that it had preserved the GDR as a Leseland, a land of readers and reading. Darnton then plunges with gusto into the Communist Party archives, to discover “how literature was managed at the highest levels of the GDR.”

He gives instances of harsh repression from all three places and times. Thus, an eighteenth-century chapter of English PEN could have taken up the case of Marie-Madeleine Bonafon, a princess’s chambermaid, who was walled up, first in the Bastille and then in a convent, for a total of thirteen and a half years. Her crime? To have written Tanastès, a book about the king’s love life, thinly disguised as a fairy tale. In 1759, major works of the Enlightenment, including Voltaire’s poem on natural religion and Diderot’s Pensées philosophiques, were “lacerated and burned by the public hangman at the foot of the great staircase of the Parlement” in Paris.

In British India, civilized tolerance of native literature turned to oppression in the early years of the twentieth century, as Indian nationalist protests grew following the partition of Bengal. A wandering minstrel called Mukanda Lal Das was sentenced to three years’ “rigorous imprisonment” for singing his subversive “White Rat Song,” with lyrics that come out in the official British translation like this:

Do you know, Deputy Babu, now your head is under the boots of the Feringhees, that they have ruined your caste and honor and carried away your riches cleverly?

In East Germany, Walter Janka suffered five years of solitary confinement for being too much involved with György Lukacs in 1956.

Yet such outright persecution is not Darnton’s main theme. As his subtitle suggests, what really interests him is “how states shaped literature.” They have generally done so, he argues, through processes of complex negotiation. In eighteenth-century France, censors made suggestions on grounds of taste and literary form; they also ensured that no well-placed aristocrats received unwelcome attention and that compliments to the king were sufficiently euphuistic. Different levels of authorization were available, from the full royal privilege to a “tacit permission.”

In East Germany, elaborate quadrilles were danced by censors, high-level apparatchiks, editors, and, not least, writers. The celebrated novelist Christa Wolf had sufficient clout to insist that a very exceptional ellipsis in square brackets be printed at seven points in her 1983 novel Kassandra, indicating censored passages. This of course sent readers scurrying to the West German edition, which visitors smuggled into the country. Having found the offending words, they typed them up on paper slips and gave these to friends for insertion at the correct place. Among its scattering of striking illustrations, Censors at Work reproduces one such ellipsis on the East German printed page and corresponding typewritten slip.

Klaus Höpcke, the deputy minister for publishing and the book trade (a state position, and therefore subordinated to higher Party authorities), seems to have spent almost as much time in the 1980s fending off the Party leaders above him as he did curbing the writers below. He received an official Party reprimand for allowing Volker Braun’s Hinze-Kunze-Roman, the scabrous story of an apparatchik and his chauffeur, to be published, albeit in a carefully “negotiated” form. Finally, in a flash of late defiance, Deputy Minister Höpcke even supported an East German PEN resolution protesting against the arrest of one Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1989.

Some celebrated writers do not emerge trailing clouds of glory from the cold-eyed files of censorship. Voltaire, that legendary champion of free speech, apparently tried to get the royal censors to suppress the works of his enemies. It was the censor-in-chief who, while he might not have agreed with what Voltaire’s enemies said, defended their right to say it.

The office of the East German Politburo member responsible for culture, Kurt Hager, “kept long lists of writers who sent in requests for visas, cars, better living conditions, and intervention to get their children into universities.” A plea by the writer Volker Braun to be allowed a subscription to the leading West German liberal weekly Die Zeit went all the way up to Hager, with a supportive letter from the deputy minister, who argued that this would provide Braun with materials for a novel satirizing capitalism. In the course of tough negotiations with senior cultural apparatchiks in the mid-1970s, Braun is even recorded as saying that Hager was “a kind of idol for him.” Can we credit him with irony? Perhaps. Writers who have never faced such pressures should not be too quick to judge. And yet one feels a distinct spasm of disgust.

17 March 2017 

“The Puffin Book of Hindu Gods and Goddesses”

The Puffin Book of Hindu Gods and Goddesses is a nifty introduction to the prominent gods of the Hindu pantheon. It is a peppy reference to the gods and goddesses one encounters often in Hindu mythology. These are the ones such as Vishwakarma, Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu, Saraswati, Parvati, Lakshmi, Ganeshea, Hanuman, Durga and Kali whom one hears of often. There is a neat catalogue with short descriptions of the prominent gods and their avatars such as Shakti/Sati ( Durga, Kali and Meenakshi); Vishnu ( Matsaya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Rama, Krishna, Balrama, Kalki, Jagannatha ); Shiva ( Rudra, Bhairava, Nataraja, Lingam)  and Ardhanareshwari ( Shiva + Shakti). In the opening pages describing the Vedic gods the authors — Neelima P. Aryan and Ameya Nagarajan — have tried drawing parallels between the gods of Hindu and Greek mythology. For instance, Akash with Zeus — both are considered to be the father of gods. Each description is accompanied by a full-page illustration created in bright colours by Priyankar Gupta that are charming but have done little to break out of the mould created by Anant Pai decades ago.

The Puffin Book of Hindu Gods and Goddesses is the kind of book which will forever be in demand. It is a beautifully produced four-colour book printed on good art paper allowing for rich reading experience in print. A good production will also ensure that despite being flipped through often the book will withstand any rough use. Creating a reasonably priced book as an in-house department product by the Puffin team will definitely ensure a steady stream of revenue for the firm — a classic formula used often by other firms as well. It is also a fine example of sharp commissioning that straddles the hyper-local and diaspora markets.

Having said that there are a few more examples of illustrated books on the Hindu gods and goddesses that have proven to be extremely popular — Bhakti Mathur, Pixar’s Sanjay Patel‘s series, a wonderful series of cut out board books for children by Om Books editorial team and splendid books on Hanuman and Krishna by
Mala Dayal and on Shiva by Subhadra Sen Gupta published by Red Turtle.

Now for some enterprising publishing firm to create books on gods and goddesses of other religions as well. Puffin India, Juggernaut and Om Books have opened the innings with collection of stories from the Quran and the Bible with their retellings. Goodword books creates phenomenal Islamic books for children. In the past Penguin India had also published a beautiful anthology of greatest stories ever told from various faiths edited by Sampurna Chattarji ( 2004). Maybe it is time to revive some of the backlist publications once more.

16 March 2017 

“Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores” by Bob Eckstein

To possess New York Times bestseller Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores is when you realise what it means to own treasure. It is a beautifully produced book with full-page watercolour illustrations of prominent bookstores around the world. Each painting  by illustrator, writer and cartoonist, Bob Eckstein. Every bookstore has a brief history on the opposite page along with a wonderful anecdote recounted by the owners/employees. So in the pages you encounter stories about David Bowie who helped do a book display before buying books for his daughter, Paul McCartney visiting a store late at night, a bookstore that displays books with the cover showing as it stocks autographed copies only, bookstores in barges or vintage van ( Tell a Story) or a bookstore tank ( Weapon of Mass Instruction). Bookstores establised by authors ( Ann Patchett’s Parnassus Books), families ( Eliot Book Bay Company), independent stores ( Giggles ), or the oldest continuously operating bookstore like Moravian Book Shop ( estd. 1732) or chains like Powell’s Books. There must be a second revised edition to this or preferably a website where pictures of bookstores are posted. Let it become a comprehensive catalogue across the world. The more one thinks about it the more one recalls bookstores that have not been included in this fine collection. 

It is a keeper. My seven-year-old daughter stroked the book when it arrived in wonderment and asked “Can we keep this ‘laptop-like’ book and not return it to any library?”

Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores: True Tales and Lost Moments from Book Buyers, Booksellers, and Book Lovers Clarkson Potter / Publishers, New York, 2016. Hb. US$22

16 march 2017 

Seagull Books ( 2017)

One of my favouritest independent publishers is Seagull Books. They have a magnificent stable of writers. They specialise in world literature making translations from across the world available in English. They have distinct lists too. For instance Africa, French, German, Swiss, Italian and India lists. Their lists on Art, Cinema, Conversations  , Culture Studies, Theatre and Performance Studies etc are equally delicious and worth exploring.  As for their Fiction list — it is stupendous! 

Seagull Books has been publishing exquisite books for some decades now. What is truly remarkable about their publishing programme is that they do accord equal respect to their readers worldwide. So it is immaterial where you may purchase a Seagull title but the quality of production will always be the same. Seagull Books have now signed a contract with Pan Macmillan India to make Seagull World Literature available in India.

The founder of Seagull Books, Naveen Kishore, believes in publishing what he wishes to as he told me in an interview ( 2013). In fact for his work he has been awarded the Goethe Medal. Every year the publishers produce a fine catalogue which is a collector’s item by itself for the author contributions and Sunandini Banerjee’s incredible designs. Take a look at the current Seagull catalogue ( order form). It is delicious!

16 March 2017 

Seagull World Literature: Note by Naveen Kishore

It has recently been announced that Seagull Books and Pan Macmillan India have entered into a partnernship to distribute Seagull World Literature in India. It is a fantastic announcement since this is a list which needs to be read widely. Here is a note from the founder of Seagull Books, Naveen Kishore. 
 

naveen in office

Let me begin with the impulse. After all that is what brought me to the world of books. And publishing. Impulse. And of coursetheimpulse. This one. The one that makes me write-talk to you and others. Others like ourselves. The ones that act out of a sense of community. The larger good. Not entirely out of a sense of the romantic. Though I confess it is a consideration. But also because it makes fine business sense to help the publishing environment I call ‘community’ flourish by giving it creative and persistent nourishment.
 
The retail in India is to put it simply gasping. For breath yes. But also for ideas. It is fairly bankrupt. Not only for lack of money. It lacks the vision to attempt something fresh. Different. Risky. Easier to moan about the flipkarts and the Amazons. They are visible enemies. But the enemy within. As in the retailing mentality that is totally bereft of passion is far more dangerous.
 
Thirty years ago it was different. Quite simply a few good men were importing the best of world literature and making it visible and available to all of us young adults. You name it and it was there. Even on the pavement stores of Calcutta one could and yes one did find Audre Lourde and Tillie Olsen.
 
Soon this would fade away. Primarily because people in publishing discovered other ways of crunching numbers. Profits replaced instinct. You know the rest.
 
Now the stores have very little choice. The books being imported are those that have either front list excitement and therefore short-lived or popular fiction that qualifies in polite parlance as pulp. The publishing that qualifies as ‘Indian’ is a bunch of multinationals based in India that are all scrambling for a certain kind of idea of India either in English or translated from other Indian languages. No. World. Literature.
 
I like taking risks that have a fifty fifty chance of paying off. This is one such impulse. Fiction Poetry Non-Fiction of a ‘popular kind’ somewhat like the early Pelicans Translated Literature Philosophy for the lay intelligent readers and Politics and History and Ethics.
 
Not slowly. Swiftly. In numbers. To create that good old fashioned ‘critical mass’ that presents itself like a corpus of thoughtful ideas as books. To offer a choice to booksellers on a scale that competes with the mass of self-same books that fill up our shelves.
 
The idea is to do at least 50 books a year. For the next three years. Scaling it to 100 maybe from year four.
 
Seagull World Literature presents a splendid and constantly growing list of must-read books from all corners of the globe—some originally in English, others in outstanding English translation from French, German, Italian, Spanish, Norwegian, Chinese and many other languages. Encompassing fiction, poetry, philosophy, art and literary criticism, and exquisitely produced in Seagull’s signature style, Seagull World Literature brings together a fascinating array of critically acclaimed writers, from Nobel Laureates to promising, young award winners.
A most enriching world of letters is now yours to explore.
16 March 2017 
 

“Indian Literature in English” by Dom Moraes

( Here are some extracts from an article published in the IIC Quarterly. It is based on a talk delivered  by Dom Moraes at the Centre on April 17, 1976. )

I recently met an exceptionally interesting man. He told me that he was a historian, and that he had a theory. According to the Hindu scriptures, he said, ancient India was full of winged machines in which the gods flew from place to place, showering the earth with blessings as they passed over it : I suppose this was the Vedic equivalent of a Presidential plane. Anyway, my historian said, as the gods flew around, paying state visits, they acquired a lot of knowledge from other countries, though I personally would have thought that if they were gods, they already knew it all. However, I do not want to be too carping a critic. My friend then told me that amidst the other titbits of information brought home in these divine aeroplanes was an English grammar. He was very serious about it. He said that that was the reason Indians today spoke such excellent English : they had been speaking it since the days of the Mahabharata. I would acccept this more readily if it were not a fact that in the days of Mahabharata, English as we know it did not exist. No. I think we must accept, however reluctantly, that English first came to India with the British.

What we must come to now is the fact that all colonial literature, written in the language of the colonist, is bound to be provincial. A kind of Indian literature in English started at the same time as a kind of literature started in the other colonies of Australia and Canada. It cannot be said that the literature produced by any of these three colonies was any better or any worse than the literature produced by others. Indeed, they all resemble each other to some extent. One of the facts about colonies, especially in the days when ship under sail from England to the outposts of Empire were, considered the quickest and most reliable carriers of news and mails—there was no alternative but pigeons—was that the colony was always some weeks or months behind the mother country in the receipt of pure news. This being the case, the colony was usually some years behind the mother country in the receipt of new literature. The lonely writers of Australia and Canada, and therefore of India, for those who chose to write in English, were always some years behind contemporary literary movements in England.

In the 1930s three Indian novelists, all of whom are still alive, emerged. These were Mulk Raj Anand, R. K. Narayan, and Raja Rao. Mulk Raj Anand is an old and dear friend of mine, yet to much of his writing, as writ ing in English, Yeat’s criticism applies. He writes as though he was trans lating from his native Punjabi into English, hence the recurrent phrases in his work which may sound ridiculous to the reader—for example—”He waved his head in silent assent,” or “O thou raper of thy mother ! Thou raper of thy sister !” Anand started to write his novels at a time when the English book market was (a) empty of exotica and (b) when the intellectuals in England were mainly leftists. He wrote of India, which made him exotic, especially since, unlike Kipling, still alive then, he was an Indian. He wrote of the deprived and poor from a Marxist standpoint, which made him popu lar with the intellectuals. But his work still demands respect, especially his latest work. R. K. Narayan was a very different figure. While Anand lived in England, Narayan never strayed far from his own Mysore. While Anand never seemed to have taken breath in pouring out his sentences, Narayan was a very careful novelist, with a perfect sense of time and place. The town he created, Malgudi, has a truth of its own, drawn from observation and sympathy. Narayan had no political bias, but an intense awareness of people and a sense of sympathy with their predicaments. Anand wrote of huge pre dicaments, Narayan of small ones. But a lot of novelists, like Forster—and Narayan is a sort of Indian Forster, dryly witty, though never cynical, always watchful, and able to construct wordlessly upon his words—have described huge events through small ones. Narayan is incidentally the first Indian writer in English to have shown himself to be a rider of that strange beast, a sense of humour. Mr. Khushwant Singh, the other day, described Narayan’s style as “too simple”. I think his style is very complex. Anyone who is able to be simple is far more likely to be complex than a person who  is striving to be complex in thought and style. This is my main criticism of Raja Rao, and perhaps this is why I find his books utterly unreadable. But an interesting common denominator between these three writers is that all of them achieved some reputation abroad, and that until they had achieved this reputation, they were uniformly without honour in their own country. Mulk Raj Anand lived abroad for a number of years, Raja Rao still lives abroad. R. K. Narayan has always lived in India, though since the 1950’s he has travelled a lot. Apart from the obvious differences between them as writers, there are differences between the degree of each one’s success. Narayan, for example, is probably the most successful in America : on the European continent, where they still entertain the myth of the mystical Oriental, Raja Rao is a coterie figure : Mulk Raj Anand is mainly read in Russia and the Eastern European countries, where the roubles pile up around each of his books. Yet for the normally literate reader of English in India, all three are the same. They are all equal in splendour, because they have made names for themselves abroad—abroad being a term that embraces Connecticut as well as Kiev, and assumes both to be the same. Since the war, of course, there has been a flood of Indian novelists who produce in English. They are all fairly competent and fairly unremarkable. The exception is G. V. Desani, who is a kind of freak. Desani in 1948 produced one book, All about Mr. H. Hatterr, which seems to me a prose master piece. T. S. Eliot was one of those who praised it when it first appeared, but it was then forgotten for more than 20 years.

Desani, like all the others I have mentioned, won a reputation for himself in England, and he was accepted in India because of this. One reason for this uncritical acceptance of English critical praise seems to me the complete absence of any Indian criticism of English writing. This in itself is due perhaps to the initial fact of Macaulay’s system of education. The English told one, in the textbooks, what should be read and what shouldn’t. Ours not to question why. Naturally, therefore, it appeared to college instructors and school teachers that if and when Indian writers received the imprimature of an English publisher and the praise of English critics, they were OK. This lasted for a while, and then the tide turned. As with Professor  Iyengar, so with most other Indian critics; every writer who was able to hobble as far as a printer’s shop and pay to be published was assured of a decent review, so as to enable the homegrown product to flourish.

This has led to a really dramatic fall of standards in Indian literature written in English.

…there have been others of promise, when they lived overseas, whose promise seems stifled when they come home. One of them is Adil Jussawalla. His first book, Land’s End seemed to me, and to many other poets in England, one of the most brilliant first books published since the war.

I have talked tonight about the fact that no proper criticism of Indian writing in English exists in India. There is no real literary magazine : there are no really professional critics. One reason, it seems to me, is that there are few really professional writers. Until quite recently, I lived purely on my earnings as a writer : in a sense I still do, since the function I perform for the United Nations is that of a professional writer. But very few writers in India have ever been professional in that sense—that is, that they exist and support their families on what their pens spit out and their typewriters cough up. Thus one has an enormous number of what could be called Sunday novelists and Sunday poets, and such writers deserve whatever criti cal appreciation is available : i.e. that of Sunday critics. Poets of potential like S. Santhi and Arvind Mehrotra have often spoken to me of the difficulty of obtaining proper criticism in India, and I would say this is one of the most gigantic drawbacks for any writer who works in English in India.

India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 2 (April 1976), pp. 143-156

16 March 2017 

“The Photographer” by Meike Zeirvogel

In the wagon there is no space to sit. There are air holes running along the top of the train’s sides. Everyone has turned their face upwards in the hope of catching a fresh breeze. The train jolts and shakes but there is no space to fall. The only thing that is shoved around at their feet is the metal bucket. Initially no one uses it – after all, the journey should only take a couple of hours – but then the train halts for ages in open fields. The doors remain closed in case it begins to move again. First the children use the bucket, afterwards the men and eventually the women too, peeing into it while standing. To begin with Trude is still trying to think of what they will do once they reach Berlin. And she hopes they will return soon: she doesn’t want Albert coming home to an empty place. But even these thoughts eventually stop and all she wants is for them just to endure the journey. Every now and again she quietly asks, ‘Mum?’ Agatha replies with a ‘Hm.’ Peter is standing between the two women, his cheek against his mother’s stomach. Trude feels him breathing. A couple of times she nearly dozes off, but then with a start she regains consciousness. ‘Mum?’ ‘Hm.’ And she feels the breathing of her son.

And so it was that Agatha, Trude and Peter became part of the 11 million Germans who were fleeing westward in the 75 winter of 1945. None of them knew where they were heading. But they all hoped to return home soon. Little did they know that the world was changing behind them and borders were being redrawn. Their homes now belonged to others and they were crossing into a foreign land.

Meike Zeirvogel’s latest novel The Photographer is on the surface of it about Albert, his wife Trude, their son Peter and his mother-in-law Agatha, a seamstress. It is a quietly told tale which opens in 1920 but most of the action is set during the second world war. It revolves around this tiny family which is managing to live peacefully despite the raging war when suddenly Albert is picked up by the police and whisked away. For a while his wife Trude is mystified at his arrest and cannot understand what the matter is till she realises after seeing her ransacked home they were after the hidden radio. Albert and Trude used it to listen to music and dance every night. But to possess a radio during the war was considered a serious offence and Albert is taken away. Agatha had always disapproved of Trude’s marriage to Albert so had conspired to tell the local police. For a long time Trude is unable to fathom who let on to their little secret till she deduces it was her mother.

The Photographer is a seemingly deceptive simple story but is also complicated for the many layers to it. The relationship between the mother and daughter is worse than any imprisonment. It is living with the horrible truth about the mother’s distaste for Albert with Trude caught between that is like a slow death. Ironically it is the wisdom of the mother ( and her savings) that leads Trude and Peter to safety. The saving grace in the hostile environment of the family is Peter who is loved by all the adults in their own way and for whom they will do anything. Meanwhile Peter too has to figure out a way of surviving particularly when his father returns home with his own archaic expectations of how a young boy should behave. Later while setting up a business that slowly begins to flourish Agatha persuades Trude to join her as a seamstress.

Like with any conflict the second world war too was disruptive especially for the family. If people were fortunate to survive they did so with many hidden scars and learned to exist with new arrangements to their established relationships. There were subtle shifts and these hard-to-define transformations that occurred in families is exactly the grey area which Meike Zeirvogel explores. The war torn landscape may be a useful backdrop to the story providing immediate explanations for changing family dynamics. But at another level the war and the changing borders can function as a metaphor for the fluid changes that are constantly happening within a family unit at any point of time — like a slow dance. As Albert discovered as a professional photographer “Taking photographs of families is pretty straightforward – they all look the same, want to look the same.” And yet it is not.

Curiously this slim book lingers in one’s imagination long after one is done with it.

Read it.

The Photographer is published by Salt Publishing, 2017. 

13 March 2017 

 

“The Book of Indian Dogs” by S. Theodore Bhaskaran

The Book of Indian Dogs by well-known naturalist and conservationist Theodore Bhaskaran is a testimony to the importance of preserving Indian breeds. Apparently in the eighteenth century a Frenchman travelling around the country recorded more than fifty distinct breeds. But now only a handful survive — Bakharwal, Himalayan mastiffs, Himalayan sheepdog, Jonangi, Kombai, Koochee, Sindhi, Pandikona, Patti, Lhasa Apso, Tibetan spaniel, Tibetan terrier, Alaknoori, Banjara, Caravan hounds, Chippiparais, Kaikadi, Kanni, Kurumalai, Mudhol, Pashmis, Rajapalayams, Rampur hounds and Vaghari hounds.

In The Book of Indian Dogs the author builds upon his vast experience as a dog-lover, owner, naturalist, conservationist and an active member of the Kennel Club of India ( KCI) to focus on the importance of preserving these indigenous breeds. These require active patronage from governments and individuals if these species have to survive. A major reason for their disappearance from public view is attributed to the import of breeds by the British during colonial rule and the subsequent apathy by successive governements in independent India. Apparently there have been attempts to revive indigenous breeds. For instance in 1981 at the Kolhapur Canine Dog show forty Caravan hounds were shown. By 1984 standards were established and at least ten breeds — including the Rampur hounds, Caravan hound, Rajapalayam and Himalayan mastiff — were accorded recognition in the country. And yet as late as 2014 the KCI had not as yet accepted the Jonangi, one of the pristine indigenous breeds, to be recognised. The challenges in according to recognition to Indian breeds exists despite it being proven as happened during the IPKF operations in Sri Lanka ( 1987-1990) when the dogs contracted tick fever leading to anaemia and needed transfusions that the Chippiparai dogs are safe and universal donors. A good way of preserving Indian breeds ( that are also considered to be a distant relative of the Australian dingoes) is by introducing them in the canine breeding programmes of the Indian Army. For now the two breeding centres managed by the Indian Army at Meerut and Tekanpur focus primarily on Alsatians and Labradors. The lineage of these dogs can still be traced back to families in Europe. As for their health management — it is another big challenge.

While reading the book I was reminded of some of the dogs we have had in the family. One of them was Jasper — a mix between a Tibetan mastiff and a cocker spaniel. He had a foul temper ( attributed to the mastiff blood) but was utterly indulgent and adorable towards my brother and I. We loved him dearly. Another one was the extraordinarily beautiful grey alsation Pasha. He had the most magnificent cowl. But it was with his arrival in the family that my grandparents bought their first desert cooler in 1970. Then we received a couple of narcotic sniffer dogs who had been trained at Tekanpur. They were siblings — Shiva and Sangha— named by their vets. Stupendous examples of yellow labradors whose lineage could be traced to Germany. Their grandparents had been brought to India by the vets at Tekanpur for the breeding programme. Though the sniffer did some tremendous work with the department they were attached to they were delicate creatures and needed a lot of caregiving. My father has also owned dogs brought in from the Meerut RVC particularly gun shy dogs who were being disposed off. Now my parents own desi dogs picked up off the streets apart from the many they look after in their colony. The foreign breeds have required a lot of care but remarkably enough one of the desis living at home — Chhoti — requires intensive caregiving and is a very delicate dog.

Theodore Bhaskaran’s well documented and passionate account of desi dogs is probably the first of its kind in the country. It gives a bird’s-eye view of the importance dogs have played in history to present times. Despite there being reservations about dogs amongst many Indians and that every half hour a person succumbs to rabies in India there is a great demand for dogs to be kept as pets. If these expectations are managed by introducing indigenous breeds it may help in their preservation.

The publishers Aleph too need to be commended for creating a niche and well-curated list of nature writings. These document as well as focus with urgency upon the work required to preserve different species. The Book of Indian Dogs is an essential part of this seminal list.

S. Theodore Bhaskaran The Book of Indian Dogs Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2017. Hb. pp. 120 Rs. 399