June 2017 Posts

“Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers On The Decision Not To Have Kids”

When I think of the people among whom I grew up, it’s as I were looking back not to fifty but more than a hundred years, to an era before modern beliefs in the sacredness of childhood and children’s rights had emerged, before childhood had come to be seen as a time of innocence deserving protection, the part of every person’s life that should be carefree and full of fun. 

Sigrid Nunez “The Most Important Thing”

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers On The Decision Not To Have Kids is a collection of essays edited by Meghan Daum. It is a fairly absorbing range of perspectives offered by a group of writers — predominantly women with the exception of Geoff Dyer and Tim Kreider— as to why they chose to remain childless. Everyone has their own set of reasons ranging from genuinely unable to bear children to a fierce sense of independence and their right to choose on how to live their life. Not a single writer included in this rather fabulous collection of essays feels guilty about the decision made/for them and in no way has it robbed them of any pleasure of having children of their own. Some of them confess that they love being the doting aunt/uncle and look forward to the time they spend with the youngsters in their circle of family and friends.

In every essay there is a gem or two worth sharing. Most often than not there is a searing perspective these essayists offer ranging from the fear and inability to raising kids well, sufficient financial security, loss of personal freedom, whether they will have the compassion and patience to nurture a child, no respite from the daily rigour of raising a family, the challenges of trying to have it all — family and profession or the inability to offer stability of putting down one’s roots in a place. It is quite fascinating to read how childless adults perceive parenting and family structures.

Here is an extract from an essay by Laura Kipnis that neatly encapsulates the history of motherhood and the stress of modern childhood.

I don’t believe in maternal instincts because as anyone who’s perused the literature on the subject knows, it’s an invented concept that arises at a particular point in history ( I’m speaking of Western history here) –circa the Industrial Revolution, just as the new industrial-era sexual division of labor was being negotiated, the one where men go to work and women stay home raising kids. ( Befoer that, pretty much everyone worked at home.) The new line was that such arrangements were handed down by nature. As family historians tell us, this is also when the romance of the child begins — ironically it was only when children’s actual economic value declined, because they were no longer necessary additions to the household labor force, that they became the priceless little treasures we know them as today. Once they started costing more to raise than they contributed to the household economy, there had to be some justification for having them, which is when the story that having children was a big emotionally fulfilling thing started taking hold. 

It also took a decline in infant-mortality rates for mothers to start regarding their offspring with much affection. When infant deaths were high ( in England before 1800 mortality rates were 15 to 30 percent in the first year of life), maternal attachment understandably ran low. As historian Lawrence Stone pointed out, giving a newborn child the same name as a dead sibling was a common practice; in other words, children were barely regarded as distinct individuals. They were also typically sent to wet nurses following birth — so much for the mother-child bond — and when economic circumstances were dire, farmed out to foundling hospitals or workhouses ( “little more than licensed death camps,” said Stone). But then childhood as such really didn’t exist, or at least it wasn’t a recognizable concept, as historian Philippe Aries documented; this, too, is a social invention. Children were viewed as small adults’ apprenticed out to work at age five. It was only as families began getting smaller — birthrates declined steeply in the ninenteenth century — that the emotional value of each child increased. Which is where we find the origin point for most of our current ideas about maternal fulfillment. 

All I’m saying is that what we’re calling biological instinct is a historical artifact — a culturally specific development, not a fact of nature. An invented instinct can feel entirely read (I’m sure it can feel profound), though before we get too sentimental, let’s not forget that human maternity has also had a fairly checkered history over the ages, including such maternal traditions as infanticide, child abandonment, cruelty, and abuse. 

…the real reason I’m agains the romance about maternal instincts is that what gets lost amid this fealty to nature is that nature hasn’t been  particularly kind to women, and I say we owe it no favors in return. If women have been “ensnared by nature” as Simone de Beauvoir ( no fan of maternity herself) put it, if it’s so far been our biological situation that we’re the ones stuck bearing the children, then there should be a lot more social recompense and reparations for this inequity than there are. The reason these have been slow in coming? Because women keep forgetting to demand them, so convinced are we that these social arrangements are the “natural” order of things. The willingness to call an inequitable situation “natural”  puts us on the royal path to being society’s chumps. 

Laura Kipnis “Maternal Instincts” ( p.33-35)

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed is definitely an anthology worth possessing.

Meghan Daum ( edited) Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers On The Decision Not To Have Kids Picador, New York, 2015. Pb. pp. 282 Rs 599 

29 June 2017 

David J. Garrow “Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama”

Pulitzer-prize winning biographer David J. Garrow spent nearly nine years researching and writing Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama. Garrow interviewed more than a 1000 people for the biography of Obama. It is a voluminous 1400 pages with nearly 300 pages of footnotes and bibliography.

Rising Star is true to its name as in excrutiating detail it documents minutely facts about Obama’s life , mostly before he became president of USA. It is a biography that is probably going to be referred to for many years to come for the extensive research put in but the veracity of its authencity will forever be questioned, as pointed out by the Guardian and the New York Times book reviews. Both the articles criticise Garrow for relying far too much on Obama’s ex-girlfriend Sheila Miyoshi Jager for information.

Richard Holmes in an article published in the NYRB, “A Quest for the Real Coleridge”( 18 Dec 2014,  )  explained the two principles that govern the methodology for the biographies he writes. According to him these are –the footsteps principle ( “the serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or traveled or dreamed. Not just the birthplace, or the blue-plaque place, but the temporary places, the passing places, the lost places, the dream places.”) and the two-sided notebook concept ( “It seemed to me that a serious research notebook must always have a form of “double accounting.” There should be a distinct, conscious divide between the objective and the subjective sides of the project. This meant keeping a double-entry record of all research as it progressed (or as frequently, digressed). Put schematically, there must be a right-hand side and a left-hand side to every notebook page spread.”).  Richard Holmes adds, “He [the biographer] must examine them as intelligently as possible, looking for clues, for the visible and the invisible, for the history, the geography, and the atmosphere. He must feel how they once were; must imagine what impact they might once have had. He must be alert to “unknown modes of being.” He must step back, step down, step inside.”

Garrow won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986).  But since the 1980s till today there has been a tectonic shift in how biographies are written. A good example is the beautifully written biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Unfortunately it seems Garrow with this particular biography of Obama has been unable to evolve from the stodgy 1980s style of writing biographies.  In Rising Star Garrow fails to do precisely what Richard Holmes delineated — “step back, step down, step inside”. Hence it is easier to read the book in morsels rather than from beginning to end. Rising Star is outdated and dull for modern readers who prefer zippy, well-written narratives that are nuanced with analysis. Though in an interview in Longreads Garrow says it is the  “self-creation” or living a life of
“re-invention” of an individual that fascinates him the most. Undoubetedly it is this mission that comes through clearly except making it very tedious to read.

The nine years spent by Garrow researching this book more or less coincide with the two terms Obama spent at the White House. The book itself was published within months of Obama demiting office indicating a slight haste to reach the market quickly. But given the wealth of information garnered Garrow would have done well if he had spent a little longer editing Rising Star and gaining an objective perspective on his subject. He probably would have had a timeless classic.

Despite it being a dreary read Rising Star will prove to be a seminal book in time to come. It will be the go-to biography of Obama for its meticulous documentation particularly the endnotes and extensive bibliography.

David J. Garrow Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama William Collins, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, London, 2017. Pb. pp.1460 Rs 799

28 June 2017

Marvel books

Marvel comics were launched in America in 1939. According to Wikipedia:

Martin Goodman, a pulp magazine publisher who had started with a Western pulp in 1933, was expanding into the emerging—and by then already highly popular—new medium of comic books. Launching his new line from his existing company’s offices at 330 West 42nd Street, New York City, he officially held the titles of editor, managing editor, and business manager, with Abraham Goodman officially listed as publisher.

Timely’s first publication, Marvel Comics #1 (cover dated Oct. 1939), included the first appearance of Carl Burgos’ android superhero the Human Torch, and the first appearances of Bill Everett’s anti-hero Namor the Sub-Mariner, among other features. The issue was a great success, with it and a second printing the following month selling, combined, nearly 900,000 copies. While its contents came from an outside packager, Funnies, Inc., Timely had its own staff in place by the following year. The company’s first true editor, writer-artist Joe Simon, teamed with emerging industry’s notable artist Jack Kirby to create one of the first patriotically themed superhero, Captain America, in Captain America Comics #1 (March 1941). It, too, proved a hit, with sales of nearly one million. Goodman formed Timely Comics, Inc., beginning with comics cover-dated April 1941 or Spring 1941.

While no other Timely character would achieve the success of these three characters, some notable heroes—many of which continue to appear in modern-day retcon appearances and flashbacks—include the Whizzer, Miss America, the Destroyer, the original Vision, and the Angel. Timely also published one of humor cartoonist Basil Wolverton’s best-known features, “Powerhouse Pepper”, as well as a line of children’s funny-animal comics featuring popular characters like Super Rabbit and the duo Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal.

Goodman hired his wife’s cousin,  Stanley Lieber, as a general office assistant in 1939.  When editor Simon left the company in late 1941,  Goodman made Lieber—by then writing pseudonymously as “Stan Lee”—interim editor of the comics line, a position Lee kept for decades except for three years during his military service in World War II. Lee wrote extensively for Timely, contributing to a number of different titles.

Goodman’s business strategy involved having his various magazines and comic books published by a number of corporations all operating out of the same office and with the same staff.  One of these shell companies through which Timely Comics was published was named Marvel Comics by at least Marvel Mystery Comics #55 (May 1944). As well, some comics’ covers, such as All Surprise Comics #12 (Winter 1946–47), were labeled “A Marvel Magazine” many years before Goodman would formally adopt the name in 1961. 

For nearly eight decades Marvel comics have survived despite financial turbulence, been at the cutting edge of testing new publishing models, experimented in mediums and continued telling stories with superheros that have gripped the imaginations of young and old alike. With the booming popularity of films many of the superheroes came alive on the screen — Iron Man, Superman, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Wolverine, Captain America, and Hulk to name a few.  On August 31, 2009, The Walt Disney Company announced a deal to acquire Marvel Comics’ parent corporation, Marvel Entertainment, for $4 billion. As of the start of September 2015, films based on Marvel’s properties represent the highest-grossing U.S. franchise, having grossed over $7.7 billion  as part of a worldwide gross of over $18 billion.

Marvel books published by Scholastic, Summer 2017

The last decade has seen the explosion of digital and print mediums and recently of the two experiences coming together. It helps in creating an immersion which is absolute for die-hard fans of the Marvel superheroes. Scholastic, a publishing firm specialising in children’s literature predating the formation of Marvel Comics, has been over the years releasing a range of print products to meet this demand. Take for instance the recently released film Guardians of the Galaxy 2  ( April 2017) where popular actors have done voiceovers for the characters. ( Vin Diesel is the voice for Baby Groot!) Scholastic to coincide with the film published a range of books around the Guardians of Galaxy characters. These include “the movie storybook”, a novel “inspired by the film”, colouring and activity book and a sticker activity book. What is absolutely incredible is how smoothly the publicity team has created a range of successful publishing collateral targetting different age groups of readers. Children are immediately drawn to the books and are kept happily entertained for hours. Along with this a revised hardback edition of Marvel Super Hero Encyclopedia was released. Even though it is priced slightly on the higher side for the local Indian market it has proved to be a bestseller, notching up healthy sales. ( This, despite parents and schools, advising children not to buy such “useless” books!) What is a particularly charming aspect of these stories is that though the super heros are gender-defined and their physical forms are some illustrator’s fantasy of the ideal body shape, the characters appeal is gender neutral. Thankfully, irrespective of the gender of the reader, all children ( and adults) gravitate towards the books. Here is a link posted on Facebook by Seale Ballenger, Publicity Director, Disney Publishing Worldwide ( 29 June 2014) of the legendary Stan Lee speaking about the importance of writing stories for younger readers:

Stan Lee talking about the importance of writing for young readers at ALA 2014

Posted by Seale Ballenger on Saturday, June 28, 2014

Frankly the fascination of these Marvel books is obvious and worth recommending. They keep children happily engaged and away from electronic babysitting while opening up an imaginative world away from their daily routines. It is like going down a worm hole on an adventure with bizarre characters.

27 June 2017 

Henry Marsh’s “Admissions”

The  brain cannot feel pain:  pain is a sensation created within the brain in response to  electrochemical signals to it from the nerve endings in the body. …Thought and feeling, and pain, are all physical processes going on within our brains. There is no reason why pain caused by injury to the body to which the brain is connected should be any more painful, or any more ‘real’, than pain generated by the brain itself without any external stimulus from the body…. The dualism of seeing  mind and  matter as separate entities is deeply ingrained in us, as is the belief in an immaterial #soul which will somehow outlive our bodies and brains.

Well-recognised brain surgeon Henry Marsh’s memoir Admissions is immensely readable while being thought provoking. It explores that fuzzy space which can put many an experienced medical professional whether to be true to their Hippocratic oath or let their patient slip away with dignity.

When a surgeon advises a patient that they should undergo surgery, he or she is implicitly saying that the risks of surgery are less than those of not having the operation. And yet nothing is certain in medicine and we have to balance one set of probabilities against another, and rarely, if ever, one certainty against another. This involves judgement as much as knowledge. 

The book also documents Henry Marsh’s experiences as a consultant surgeon in Nepal and Ukraine. Two countries where given the lack of medical facilities would result in patients arriving for consultation when it was far too late or were considered to be cases found only in textbook — an experience many doctors from the developed world remark upon about developing nations.

Henry Marsh’s  Admissions: Life in Brain Surgery was written after he retired from active surgery and was able to reflect upon his life’s achievements as well as explore the philosophical aspect of his actions as a brain surgeon. Many times it was like walking a tight rope, particularly in modern medical practice, where the costs and profits were constantly being factored into a new admission. It did not matter if the patient was critical or not. The costs incurred in treating a sick person were first calculated before moving ahead. This was a far cry from the days when he began practising as a surgeon. He never articulates it but there is a pall of gloom that hangs over the memoir especially when he ruefully shares his distress at the extraneous financial factors they have to take into account before getting to the actual work of treating a patient.

Admissions is a disquieting but an essential memoir that is impossible to finish reading for it leaves one much to think about and query life as never before.

Henry Marsh   Admissions: Life in Brain Surgery Weidenfeld & Nicolson, an imprint of Orion Publishing, Hachette India, 2017. Pb. pp. 272 Rs 599 

26 June 2017 

Haruki Murakami’s “Men Without Women”

The new collection of  short stories by Haruki Murakami, Men Without Women, is delightfully unpredictable and mesmerisingly insightful. The stories are inevitably from a male point of view. They are exploring, if not at times blurring the “socially defined” gendered roles between men and women such as relationships within a marriage or without, affairs, coming to terms with changing rules in modern society and yes, delving into those grey areas as suggested by the title. Fascinating stuff. This one sentence describing ffifty-two-year-old Tokai, single, immensely successful cosmetic surgeon, illustrates it well: “Like most people who enjoy cooking, when it comes to buying ingredients money is no object, so the dishes he prepares are always delicious.”

With Men Without Women Murakami pays tribute to two literary giants Of American literature — Ernest Hemingway from whom he has borrowed the title and to Raymond Carver for the style of storytelling as pointed out in Seattle Times. Another recurring element in the stories is Murakami’s love for music. It adds a rich layer while telling a great deal about the characters such as in the title story “Men Without Women”:

What I remember most about M is how much she loved elevator music. Percy Faith, Montovani, Raymond Lefevre, Frank Chacksfield, Francis Lai, 101 Strings, Paul Mauriat, Billy Vaughan. She had a kind of predestined affection for this — according to me– harmless music. The angelic strings, the swell of luscious woodwinds, the muted brass, the harp softly stroking your heart. The charming melody that never faltered, the harmonies like candy melting in your mouth, the justright echo effect in the recording. 

I usually listened to rock or blues when I drove. Derek and the Dominos, Otis Redding, The Doors. But M would never let me play any of that. She always carried a paper bag filled with a dozen or so cassettes of elevator music, which she’d play one after the other. We’d drive around aimlessly while she’d quietly hum along to Francis Lai’s “13 Jours en France.” Her lovely, sexy lips with a light trace of lipstick. Anyway, she must have owned ten thousand tapes. And she knew all there was to know about all the innocent music in the world. If there were an Elevator Music Museum, she could have been the head curator. 

Men Without Women is worth reading!

Haruki Murakami Men Without Women ( Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goosen) Harvill Secker, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 230

26 June 2017

Ravi Singh’s speech introducing Ruskin Bond, 20 June 2017

On 20 June 2017 Ruskin Bond’s autobiography Lone Fox Dancing was released at Taj Man Singh Hotel, New Delhi. He was in conversation with noted journalist Nalin Mehta. To introduce Ruskin Bond his long time editor and co-founder Speaking Tiger, Ravi Singh, read out a beautiful speech remembering their decades of association. With Ravi Singh permission the speech is published below. I am also including a short clip I made at the launch of Ruskin Bond talking about the noted Hindi writer Rakesh Mohan being his teacher at Bishop Cotton School, Simla and later Bond’s poor attempt at translating Tennyson’s poem “Charge of the Light Brigade” into Hindi. 

L-R: Ravi Singh, Ruskin Bond and Nalin Mehta

I remember my first meeting with Mr Bond. It was in 1995, shortly after I’d entered publishing, and I was both excited and nervous. I’d read his stories in school—‘The Kite Maker’, ‘A Face in the Dark’, ‘The Room of Many Colours’, ‘The Tiger in the Tunnel’—and I’d gone back to them many times: there was wonder and magic, of course, but they were also about unusual things—about losing and dying; children finding fellowship with elderly strangers; mutual, unspoken respect between people and animals; and some very subtle and scary ghosts. He was to me the equal of Chekhov, Tagore, Premchand or Dickens—like a benevolent but unreachable legend. By the time I met him, I had read many of his other works, including the intensely moving classic The Room on the Roof—and the memorable long stories A Flight of Pigeons, Time Stops at Shamli and Delhi Is Not Far.

So I wasn’t at all prepared for the understated, warm, witty and utterly approachable person who treated me as an equal and made me a friend. This happened so effortlessly, that it was only much later that I was surprised and grateful. It seemed entirely natural to have such an engaging and generous companion. And that is exactly whatRuskin Bond’s stories have done to millions over 60 years—to readers of all ages, and in big cities, small towns and little hamlets. Only the greatest writers can do that.

Lone Fox Dancing is the story of the making of this extraordinary storyteller and human being, who has never been afraid to be simple and entirely himself. The autobiography begins in Mussoorie in the 1930s, moves to Jamnagar, Dehradun, New Delhi, Jersey, London, and returns to Mussoorie. There’s mischief and adventure in it; there’s also loneliness, resilience, eccentricity, conviction, compassion—and above all, there’s friendship—with people, with birds and animals, with great trees and with little flowers growing out of broken concrete.

Read this book to see what’s been gained and lost in India since the 1930s and 40s—not in the halls of power but in the streets and mohallas, bazaars and cinema halls, jungles and railway stations. Read it to know how writers are made, beyond noise and glamour. Read it for the art of carrying on when you lose a beloved parent, when your work is rejected or under-appreciated, when someone you love doesn’t love you back, when people fail you or you fail them, when your earnings are paltry though your responsibilities are growing, or when winters get cold and miserable.Ruskin Bond has found there’s always reward if you persevere; there’s spring and birdsong after harsh winters, there’s beauty and there are friends in unexpected places, and a sense of humour—a good joke—and plain old optimism will sustain you through hard times and keep you grounded in good times.

Mr Bond’s long-awaited autobiography has everything we’ve cherished in his enduring stories and essays.

I really shouldn’t stand any longer between you and one of our finest, most entertaining and best-loved writers—except to say how delighted and privileged we are to have published his autobiography…

26 June 2017 

Paro Anand wins the Sahitya Akademi Puraskar for “Wild Child”

In 2010 well-known children’s writer Paro Anand and I began working on a collection of stories. I had commissioned the manuscript as a publishing consultant for Puffin India. It was a slow creative process which was hugely rewarding for the calibre of stories Paro Anand wrote. We worked at it patiently ignoring schedules focused on quality. Wild Child and Other Stories was published in December 2011. It sold in vast numbers. It was so popular that in 2015 Penguin India revised the edition. Paro Anand added a few more stories to the volume. It was rejacketed and relaunched with a new title — Like Smoke. The book in its various avatars has been in circulation for six years and continues to sell well.

Interestingly earlier this month Paro Anand wrote an article in The Indian Express ( 2 June 2017) on how at least two of her books, No Guns at My Son’s Funeral and Like Smoke , are being banned by schools in India.

She writes:

In recent months, these two books have been taken off reading lists. In one school, teachers decided that they were “inappropriate”; in another, parents apparently objected to their children being made to read such “improper” children’s books. The school authorities have withdrawn them.

This, after years of being taught to class nine and ten students. I am now being invited to talk in schools on the condition that I don’t bring up these titles under any circumstances. I am told that I should stick to some of my “safe” ones.

Is this happening out of fear? Is it the worry that, in these black and white times, a mob will find out about these books and come at the school, guns blazing? Is it a “better safe than sorry” thing? The “suppose something happens” factor? In a way, I can understand this — after all, young children are involved.

But, on the other hand, aren’t we robbing our young of open debate and critical thinking? Of late, we have been repeatedly giving in to a handful of people with easily hurt sentiments. But is our children’s curriculum to be decided by the mob? By khap panchayats? Are young people to stay forever within the safety of the lakshman rekha drawn by Cinderella? When the mob infantilises even adults with violent censorship — think Ramjas College — it’s no surprise that children’s literature is in the firing line, too. The only surprise is that it didn’t happen earlier.

Acknowledgements page of “Like Smoke” by Paro Anand

Being awarded the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Puraskar 2017 for Wild Child and Other Stories and her contribution to children’s literature is a validation of Paro Anand’s decades of work in this field. Here is an example of the fan mail she receives for the book. This letter came in a couple of weeks ago.

Hi.I don’t know if you remember me. I wanted to thank you. I was in class 8th when I first met you and i still am in awe of you to this day. It was a beautiful memory that I long to revisit. You were in my school for an author meet. …It was you, who made me realise that life is worth when you live for others. It was you who inspired me to become who I am. It’s been nearly 5 years. You autographed on my copy of wild child that you’d hope to get my autograph one day and trust me that was day I aimed to be the best so as in to prove my mettle and I gave my best to be the school’s literary president. I owe that badge to you, mam. The day you signed that book was such a proud moment for me. I went to my class with a big grin and all my peers were jealous. My parents were very proud of me. Not that I’ve never won anything before, but that day I won respect. I was more than a role model to my sibling, more than just an achiever to my parents. Your words filled my heart with optimism and hope. I’ve had quite a few lows in my life. But somehow your words flashed back this one time and I’ve been strong ever since. I really want to thank you. It is these little things that actually affect a person’s life and I, from that very day tried to be a person like you. You’ve helped me in a way I never thought of. Your words have always been heart wrenching yet so inspiring. Thank you, I’ll never forget how you appreciated my innocence back then and answered all my questions tirelessly. Thank you for that beautiful afternoon. Wild child will forever be my book and you shall always be a tender, loving yet fearless inspiration to me. Thank you for being a part of my childhood. This isn’t Shabir Karam… Haha this is ….. I’ll have my kids(if I ever do that is), tell them about fats or bela’s troubles or about pepper. Thank you, I guess it is never too late. 

Yours gratuitously, 
XYZ
As her commissioning editor for the book my joy at Paro Anand winning this award is indescribable. I am truly delighted our constructive energies and hard work resulted in her being recognised in this manner.
Congratulations Paro!
26 June 2017 

“Maps of Delhi” Pilar Maria Guerrieri

Maps of Delhi is a rich collection of historical maps after 1803 till the Master Plan of Delhi 2021. Pilar Maria Guerrieri as a doctoral student of architecture started scouring the National Archives of India and institutions for maps. Studying maps helped her understand the evolution of Delhi as a city while making it possible to “consider the link between empty spaces and built areas as well as the association between agricultural and non-agricultural land.  They distinguish public buildings, the disposition of plots, the types of housing, and the density of the urban fabric in addition to interpreting the structures innervating the territory, like watercourses, canals, routes, railroads, and roads, as also the order or constellation of the countryside and the correlation between villages and cities. Effectively and particularly in the illustration of Delhi, these maps delineate, more so demarcate and define, the spread of several urban settlements, planned or organically organised, and provide a pragmatic synopsis of how they are juxtaposed, concurrent or interlaced, with each other”.

In his Foreword to the book, well-known architect, A. G. Krishna Menon says the geneaology of Pilar Maria Guerrieri’s methodology can find its roots in the Italian acdemic tradition of understanding a city by studying its maps and drawings or the so-called “Italian school of planning typology’ which developed theoretical approaches based on analysing ancient cartography of cities as a foundation and core of their design interventions. “These pioneering initiatives established the Italian academic culture of physical planning, which becomes evident in the manner Guerrieri studied Delhi.”

Cartography is an exacting technique through which areas of territory are represented. Maps have always been extremely useful to governments, military commanders, engineers and increasingly civilians. Earlier they were largely representative but with increased knowledge and advanced measurement tools it became possible to create more and more accurate maps.

In the Indian sub-continent for centuries people have relied on the patwaris or the lowest level of state functionary in the revenue collection system to record land use. These individuals are to be found whereever there is habitation and in the older settlements the records stretch back decades, sometimes even centuries. Maps are a repository of a lot of sensitive information as well.

Today maps are used increasingly in real time particularly on digital devices using a complex network of satellites, an extensive network of cables and Internet connectivity. Fewer individuals rely on printed maps, less and less of which are being published too. It may be a convenient tool to access a map on a smartphone but over a period of time it will become evident that a significant way of recording history and land use will be lost forever. For now it is not very clear who is storing this information since there are multiple agencies and individuals recording it. In the future researchers like Guerrieri may find it challenging to seek the information they desire since data will be non-existent or available in formats that newer technologies may be unable to access. At least printed maps such as those included in Maps of Delhi remain available over time. While we are on maps of Delhi here is an interesting one commissioned by Raghu Karnad as editor, Time Out — Literary Map. It was designed by Akila Seshayee. 

Interestingly enough even to reproduce the few images for this article required new permission from the National Archives of India. Some of the maps though published in the book cannot be reproduced anywhere else for their sensitive nature and only one-time use has been granted for the book.

Maps of Delhi is a heavily illustrated book in four colour. A scrumptious production worth possessing for the lay reader or the specialist. It makes a wonderful companion to Mapping India also published by Niyogi Books.

 

 

 

 

The following images from the book are used with permission.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pilar Maria Guerrieri Maps of Delhi ( Foreword by A.G. Krishna Menon)  Niyogi Books, New Delhi, India, 2017. Hb. Rs. 4500 / £65 /$85 

18 June 2017 

 

 

Guest post: On Krishna Baldev Vaid

(Dr Shobhana Bhattacharji retired as professor of English Literature from Delhi University a few years ago. Her doctorate is in Lord Byron’s drama. She is fluent in English and Hindi. She reviewed Krishna Baldev Vaid’s novels when they were first published by Penguin India in the 1990s. Now the books have been rejacketed and reissued. Here is her review with a short introductory note.)

The translations of Krishna Baldev Vaid‘s two autobiographical novels were so different to each other that I read the Hindi versions to see whether the difference was in the originals. Till then, I had not read the original of a translated work I had to review on the principle that a translation is meant for a target audience and I tried to read it like an ideal target reader. Reading these novels in Hindi, however, taught me how much a translator, even if the translator is the author himself, can alter a novel. The Hindi title of Steps in Darkness is Uska Bachpan. The title of the second novel in Hindi, written 25 years later, was Guzra Hua Zamaana, which was also a famous Madhubala/Lata film song from the sad love story Shirin Farhad, filmed in 1956. It is Shirin’s final goodbye to her beloved Farhad as her ‘doli’ (bridal conveyance) leaves for her husband’s home. She begs Farhad not to accuse her of infidelity; her marriage to another man was not of her making. Vaid‘s novel is a searing farewell to his beloved pre-Partition India.

 I met Krishna Baldev Vaid for the first time soon after the review was published two decades ago — August 1996. He told me he had liked it very much. All these years later, I am still honoured and delighted that he did.
Dr. Shobhana Bhattacharji ( June 2017) 

These two novels, written a quarter of a century apart, centre around Beero, who lives in a small town in undivided Punjab. In the first novel, confused by the adult world, and suffocated by the poverty of his home, Beero is young enough to enjoy snuggling in his grandmother’s lap. His parents are embarrassed to beg the shopkeeper for goods they cannot pay for, so they send Beero, whose dignity is lacerated by this as it is by his torn shorts and having to fetch his father from the gambling den. He escapes into his dreams. The filth and stink of their slum assail the reader but Beero entertains himself with a hornets’ nest in the drain. He dreams of tying some hornets together by their legs and making a kite for himself. None of his dreams is fulfilled. There is no money to buy or make kites. His happiness in his grandmother’s stinking lap is free, but is taken away because his mother hates it.

His friends unwittingly remind him of his unhappiness. Aslam, for instance, has a happy home and a beautiful married sister, Hafeeza, whom Beero gets a crush on. Beero’s mother hates “Muslas” and warns her son against them, but Beero eats at Aslam’s home and becomes “half a Muslim,” as he says in the second novel in which he also recites the kalma. Beero’s own home is riven with misery. The parents have terrible fights over money, the father’s drinking, gambling, and friendship with a sardar, called “Miser” by Beero’s mother who suspects her husband–rightly, as it turns out in the second book–of sleeping with the Miser’s beautiful wife. The mother spits venom and turns everything into tense misery. Her rages dominate Beero’s life but not his understanding. There is a searing passage where a bored Beero, who wants to hear about kings and princesses, listens to what he considers his mother’s complicated repetitious story of her early married life:

O, it was hell. Your Granny used to starve me for days on end. She used to lock me up in the lumber-room; I wonder I didn’t die of fear. No one ever cared for me. Neglected, I used to cry all by myself all the twenty-four hours. Your father was even then addicted to loafing. He never came home from school. Your Granny is to blame for spoiling him. She was always reproachful toward me because I had no sense. What sense could I have at that age?. . . Girls of my age were still playing hide-and-seek in the lanes while I had to wash mounds of clothes. In winter my tiny hands were always numb. I had fever every night; my bones used to ache; and all I had to sleep in was a worn-out blanket. Oh, the long dark frightful winter nights I spent shivering and crying, silently, for at the slightest sound your Granny would get up and start cursing the day she married her son to me. . . .Very often just as I lay down late at night after a day’s drudgery I would be commanded to press your Granny’s legs. While doing that if I happened to doze off I was kicked and beaten. (49-50).

Stories weave a complex pattern through the novel. There is, for instance, the richly ironic echo of the Ramayan in Beero’s mother’s name, Janaki. Beero’s love for fairy stories is soon replaced with fantasies of a fight-free home. Once he actually makes a fantasy come true. Anticipating a storm if his mother comes out of the kitchen and sees a hated neighbour talking to Devi, Beero’s sister, he efficiently lies to both parties of the potential war and gets the neighbour out of the house. Beero has two aims: to comprehend the world and to make it a less anxious place. When the domestic violence gets out of hand, he tries to die, but even that escape is not permitted. We leave him looking into a mirror which he has broken.

The wonder of Steps in Darkness lies in its graceful intermingling of the child’s confusion with solid details of the place, its people and their relationships. Its power is in its language. When one responds in two languages to a book, one wonders how much of Tolstoy and others one has missed. Some translation, of course, is better than none, and some translations are better than others. In this one, for instance, the curses, especially the vivid “progeny of swine” or “progeny of a dog,” require less than a second to translate back into the original and with it come stomach-knotting memories of school in Punjab where either curse would result in furious battles. Because of such violent consequences, “kutte ka bachcha” means much more–at least, it did forty years ago–as an insult than “son of a bitch,” and one is grateful that the author did not use “son of a bitch” in his translation. There are few glitches. For instance, “loaves” for “chapatis” doesn’t work. “Loaves” would probably remind most middle-class readers of Britannia bread. For readers unfamiliar with chapatis, to speak of two or three loaves per person, even among the well off, would be unbelievable.

On the whole, however, the translation has a cultural flavour that the second book does not. Its English is smoother, less defamiliarized, but sometimes, as in “soul” of a singer’s voice (27), one is uncertain what the original might have been. (It is “soz”.) Occasionally, the translation  illuminates both versions, e.g. “gorilla” for “pehlwan.” Of course, not every reader will respond in two or, as these books require, three languages, but one misses the immediacy of Steps in Darkness.

There is a lot of mysteriousness in the novel. Why do Devi and her father weep at the end of the novel? What is Naresh’s relationship with his “mother”? Why is Aslam withdrawn after his sister leaves for Lahore? Some of the incomprehensibility is consistent with the child’s steps in darkness, but there should have been some way of making the reader know more than Beero.

The wonderful preface of Guzara Hua Zamana has been dropped in The Broken Mirror. In it, the character Beero talks of how the writer created an incomplete Beero in the first novel and then tried to flesh him out in later stories. Twenty-five years later, Beero tells him that he cannot escape another novel about Beero and that if the novelist is going to drag his feet over it, Beero himself will write it. At this point, he says, he fainted and when he recovered, the novel had been written.

In this first person narrative, Beero tries to piece together the images split by the shattered mirror of the end of the previous story but gives up the attempt because, as he says in passing, the partial stories he had written were lost in the Partition riots. The Broken Mirror is composed of his different worlds–Lanes, Bazaar, Lahore, and Borderlands. The English version does not have Beero’s caustic critique of the first novel. Other minor details that have been dropped also take away from a richness that Guzara Hua Zamana has. For instance, Allah Ditta’s incompetence is wonderfully conveyed in the casual comment that he must have murdered some Iranian doctor, stolen his degree, and set up practice here. No one believes this, of course, but the remark has a vigorous and delighted inventiveness which is characteristic of much Punjabi speech (and Bombay filmi dialogue).

Still, The Broken Mirror resolves much of the mysteriousness of Steps in Darkness. Although the publication details in this edition wrongly suggest that it was written nineteen years after Steps in Darkness, the style bears out that it is more than a sequel. The hesitation of the earlier novel which may have been the child’s as well as the author’s, and which resulted in withholding information from the reader, is replaced with a crisp narration of details. The powerful story of Beero’s adolescence and the unlooked for political freedom which incarcerates them in fear and Bakka’s barn does not need stylistic fancy footwork to impress the reader.

The most powerful aspect of The Broken Mirror is the building up of events towards Partition. Initially, the idea of separation remains in the background. Muslim, Sikh and Hindu friends hang out together. Then Aslam notices that the two Sikhs in their group have begun to talk strangely and advises Beero to be circumspect before them. Language and humour are the first casualties of this growing monster of hatred. Occasionally people mention the possibility of Pakistan. Then, with a mere change of tense, they talk of “when the riot occurs,” and Hindus begin to send their belongings to the “other” side. Finally, Pakistan is a reality. Communal positions harden, bewildering Beero even more than the adult world did in Steps in Darkness. In a magnificent few pages, Krishna Baldev Vaid narrates the activity of a Peace Committee meeting which has been called by the marginalized of the town: a Congress man, Keshav, In-Other-Words, and an aging prostitute who says she is like Gandhi because she does not discriminate against any community in her work. The unpredictable swings from hostility to brotherhood and back again are terrifying because they defy rationality, and because we have seen them again in the run-up to and aftermath of the breaking of the Babri Masjid. Then come the engulfing madness and killings of 1947.

Hiding in Bakka’s barn, Beero’s mind is a spate of words. Narrative breaks down just as everything else has. He struggles to understand events and himself. All he knows is that he lacks Keshav’s courage to die for a cause, and that he cannot kill anyone or blame any one side for being the prime mover of the violence. Eventually, in tearless bewilderment and with heads down, they go to the makeshift refugee camp in the school. There, beside an abandoned, bloodied baby girl, Beero finally cries.

With a book that achieves the nearly impossible business of hiding its craftsmanship, there is little one can do except break the unwritten code for reviewers and tell the story. But no retelling can capture the delicacy, intricacy, and strength of this extremely moving novel.

Krishna Baldev Vaid  Steps in Darkness (trans. from Hindi by the author); The Broken Mirror (trans. from Hindi by Charles Sparrows in collaboration with the author) New Delhi: Penguin India, rpt 2017, 1995 (first publd. New York, 1962); New Delhi: Penguin, rpt 2017, 1994 (first publd. In Hindi, 1981)

14 June 2017 

An Interview with Sam Miller on his Tribute to his Fathers

( I interviewed Sam Miller on his memoir Fathers for Bookwitty. It was published on 13 June 2017.)  

Veteran journalist Sam Miller was born and brought up in London but chose to spend the better part of his life in India. His father was the renowned literary journalist, Karl Miller, who co-founded the London Review of Books. His mother, Jane Miller, is a writer who has also worked as a publisher, translator and teacher. Miller joined the BBC World Service and was stationed as the BBC TV and radio correspondent in Delhi and then as Managing Editor, South Asia. His love for India runs deep as is evident in the many books he has published: Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity (2009), Blue Guide: India ( 2012) and a Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes (2014).

His elegant essay for Granta, “Gandhi the Londoner” makes for a compelling read. It was propelled in large part by Sam Miller’s curiosity about the years Gandhi spent in London upon his arrival in 1888, a period glossed over in Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning film. What comes through clearly is Sam Miller’s obsession to know more about the past, in particular that which is less remembered in the popular imagination, and to weed out historical inaccuracies that may have crept into modern retellings of this period in Gandhi’s life. It is this remarkable quality as a discerning writer and historian that comes together beautifully in Sam Miller’s recent memoir Fathers. In early 2014 Miller returned to his childhood home in London to spend time with his father, who was dying. Shortly after his death, Miller began to write about his father, investigating a family secret that he had been told about years ago, involving his parents and a close friend. With his mother’s help, his father’s documents, and interviews with people from the large circle of his parents’ friends, he put together a heart-warming memoir that explores childhood, marriage, and friendship, as well as exploring the personal relationship each of his parents had with their closest friend from Cambridge, Tony White.


Miller kindly answered questions for Bookwitty:

How many drafts did this memoir take? It flows smoothly as if it just wrote itself. There is almost magically ethereal quality to it.

It was the easiest thing I’ve ever written; it just came pouring out of me. There were one and a half drafts really. I’d written about half the book in conventional chapters, with long passages of prose. It felt a bit stodgy and linear to me, with all those ‘joining together’ sentences that often feel artificial. At the time, I was reading a French book called HHHH by Laurent Binet, and he uses short numbered chapters—and I tried it out, breaking up the text, inserting a few mini-chapters that enabled me jump more easily in time and place. I hope it allowed the text to flow more smoothly, more naturally—bringing it a little closer, in my view, to the way we talk and the way we think. I read my words out loud to myself as I write, and it is important that the text sounds right, as if I were writing for radio.

The elegant manner in which you write investigating your paternity also conveys the immense love you grew up with. Was Fathers emotionally tough to write?

It felt good for me, as if it were a kind of therapy, a way of releasing something that I’d half-buried. But it also was about dealing with grief, and a more specific sense of anger with myself for having not been there when my father died.

This story is as much yours as it is your parents’ and their close friend Tony White. How did you feel about your mother supporting you on this project? Would you have written this memoir if it had not been forthcoming?

I write anyway, not always for publication. So I think I would have written this tale, for myself at least. But my mother was always part of the story, and the telling of the story. I wouldn’t have published it without her support.

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Karl Miller and Tony White at a Christmas party, 1960

How closely involved was your mother with this manuscript? Were you required to make any critical changes in the drafts—sections you felt needed to stay and your mother thought otherwise or vice versa?

I would talk to her as I was writing, but only showed it to her in larger chunks. We did discuss minor changes, but nothing I would describe as critical. I know so much of the story through her anyway (and she is a writer too); that it has a strong Jane Miller imprint on it, though the final version is very much mine in style and content.

The forgiving nature of your father is an extraordinary quality to have just as the calm acceptance of your presence in the lives of the three adults: Karl and Jane Miller and Tony White. While writing Fathers did you ever wonder about the evolution of the institution of marriage? It seems to have been far more accommodating in your parents’ generation than it is today.

I don’t feel very well equipped to comment on the institution of marriage, but I do think that almost every couple’s relationships are pretty different from each other. And therefore simply following convention and ideas of normality are not a great basis for forming a relationship. I’m not quite sure that ‘forgiving’ is the right word here; I think my father’s response was more complicated than that and related to his own upbringing, and to his own ideas about the (un) importance of fidelity.

Does the crucial family secret your mother shared make you ever wonder about the popular debate about genetics vs environment being influencing factors in the growth of an individual?

Yes, I do. But I’ve not come up with any useful conclusions. I’ve been intrigued to notice the ways in which I am similar to Tony White, but these are not necessarily genetic. They could be learned, from what I know of Tony—and more indirectly and even subconsciously via my parents.

Many times in the memoir you allude to your father’s poems describing his friends bordering on the homoerotic or comment often on his close male friendships which, for his generation, seem nothing out of the ordinary. “Karl Miller struggled to reconcile close male friendship with the possibility or reality of homosexual love. My father was not, I think, a homophobe, but was sensitive to accusations that he might be.” Do you think it’s fair to your father and his generation to read in to their relationships what is a popular 21st century concept of homosexuality?

I’m not so sure that it was so different in the fifties; it was just talked about less. I would distinguish homoeroticism from homosexuality, as think my father would, and as I think Thomas Mann would have even before my father was born.

While writing this memoir were there any others you referred to as literary examples to emulate?

Not really. It was written for me, and then my mother. I was pleasantly surprised when the earliest other readers liked what I had written—I had been expecting them to suggest changes, particularly to the structure.

Of all the diverse genres you have published, travelogue, translation and memoir, which has been the most challenging and why?

I’ve written a history (A Strange Kind of Paradise) and a guidebook (Blue Guide India) as well! The guidebook was most exhausting. The history book involved the most research—and that was probably the most challenging—I wanted it to be interesting for people who think they aren’t interested in history. The publication (rather than the writing) of Fathers was quite a challenge – a nerve-racking experience. I was apprehensive about the response to what I had written. But the response has been largely positive.

Sam Miller Fathers Jonathan Cape, London, 2017. Hb. 

13 June 2017