Reviewing Posts

Pramod Kapoor’s “Gandhi: An Illustrated Biography”

Well known publisher Pramod Kapoor, founder, Roli Books, has published his first book as author — Gandhi: An Illustrated BiographyIt is a scrumptiously designed edition with plenty of photographs laid out throughout the book. More importantly it is lucidly written and immediately immerses the reader into the narrative. Writing biographies is not an easy nor an enviable task as the author is always trying to balance the narrative between being in the footsteps of their subject or stressing on only a few aspects leaving out large chunks of facts. Pramod Kapoor in his book Gandhi achieves the fine balance with panache. There is a grace with which he documents Gandhi’s life as well delves into uncomfortable subjects such as Gandhi’s sexuality, troubled relationship with his eldest son or even the vow he took of celibacy aged 37 and yet opted to sleep naked at night with young women including his beloved niece in his bed.  Historian Sunil Khilnani has endorsed the book saying ” Pramod Kapoor’s book is a personal and wonderfully intimate photographic journey through Gandhi’s life. Even those familiar with Gandhi’s story will disocver things with surprise, delight, and inform them in this moving book.”

As of 22 September 2017 the book will be released internationally with editions available in Russian, German, French, Italian, Dutch, UK, and USA. Here is a longish book trailer of 11 minutes but its time well spent watching it:

Pramod Kapoor Gandhi: An Illustrated Biography Lustre Press, Roli Books, New Delhi, 2016. Hb. pp 326

24 Sept 2017 

 

Of holy men like Rasputin

Douglas Smith’s Rasputin is a detailed and a fascinating biography of a holy man who was extremely close to Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra. It is a slow but satisfying to read for it describes Russia at the turn of the twentieth century, decline of the Russian empire, rise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks etc. Rasputin was also shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize 2017. Here is an excellent review of the book in The Guardian.

Of all the lines in the book it was a description of him in the opening pages which are gripping since it could be a description of any other holy man in a different time, nation and culture. Read on:

Pokrovskoe was the home of the most notorious Russian of the day, a man who in the spring of 1912 became the focus of a scandal that shook Nicholas’s reign like nothing before. Rumors had been circulating about him for years, but it was then that the tsar’s minists and the politicians of the State Duma, Russia’s legislative assembly, first dared to call him out by name and demand that the palace tell the country who precisely this man was and clarify his relationship to the throne. It was said that this man belonged to a bizarre religious sect that embraced the most wicked forms of sexual perversion, that he was a phony holy man who had duped the emperor and empress into embracing him as their spiritual leader, that he had taken over the Russian Orthodox Church and was bending it to his own immoral designs, that he was a filthy peasant who managed not only to worm his way into the palace, but through deceit and cunning was quickly becoming the true power behind the throne. This man, many were beginning to believe, presented a real danger to the church, to the monarchy, and even to Russia itself. This man was Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin. 

Even before his gruesome murder in a Petrograd cellar in the final days of 1916, Rasputin had become in the eyes of much of the world personification of evil. His wickedness was said to recognize no bounds, just like his sexual drive that could never be sated no matter how many women he took to his bed. A brutish, drunken satyr with the manners of a barnyard animal, Rasputin had the inborn cunning of the Russian peasant and knew how to play the simple man of God when in front of the tsar and tsarita. 

Douglas Smith Rasputin Macmillan, London, 2016. Pb. pp. Rs 599

11 Sept 2017 

“Lab Girl: A Story of trees, science and love” by Hope Jahren


My strongest memory of our garden is not how it smelled or even looked, but how it sounded. It might strike you as fantastic, but you really can hear plants growing in the Midwest. At its peak, sweet corn grows a whole inch every single day and as the layers of husk shift slightly to accommodate this expansion, you can hear it as a low continuous rustle if you stand inside the rows of a cornfield on a perfectly still August day. As we dug in our garden, I listened to the lazy buzzing of bees as they staggered drunkenly from flower to flower, the petty sniping chirps of the cardinals remarking upon our bird feeder, the scraping our trowels through the dirt, and the authoritative whistle of the factory, blown each day at noon. 

Award-winning scientist Hope Jahren’s memoir Lab Girl: A Story of trees, science and love is a poignant, almost lyrical tribute to her love for science and some special relationships. It is also a meditation on her absolutely passionate dedication to her subject, it shines through every word written with loving care as if she wants to share with mankind the precious magical secrets she has acquired from the Universe over the years. The last time I read such a beautiful piece of literature dwelling upon the intricate beauty of plants was Gerard Manley Hopkins essay on bluebells which he wrote as a Jesuit priest.  In the humble bluebell Hopkins saw the very glory of god. Hope Jahren has far more sophisticated tools at her disposal to understand and describe her plants unlike Hopkins who only had to rely on his naked eye. There is a great sense of peace which radiates through Lab Girl as if keeping herself occupied in her lab day in and day out even after the birth of her son keeps her centred and happy.

My lab is a place where my guilt over what I haven’t done is supplanted by all of the things that I am getting done. My uncalled parents, unpaid credit cards, unwashed dishes, and unshaved legs pale in compairson to the nobel breakthrough under pursuit. My lab is a place where I can be the child that I still am. It is the place where I play with my best friend. I can laugh in my lab and be ridiculous. I can work all night to analyze a rock that’s a hundred million years old, because I need to know what it’s made of before morning. All the baffling that arrived unwelcome with adulthood — tax returns and car insurance and Pap smears — none of them matter when I am in the lab. There is no phone and so it doesn’t hurt when someone doesn’t call me. The door is locked and I know everyone who has a key. Because the outside world cannot come into the lab, the lab has become the place where I can be the real me. 

My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe. 

A fact recognised by her colleague Bill and her husband Clint.

They let her be.

The combination of freedom and love is a potent one, and it made me more productive than ever.

Lab Girl  is a book that will stay with you for a long time after having read it.

Hope Jahren Lab Girl: A Story of trees, science and love  Fleet, Great Britain, London, 2017. Pb. Pp. 370

9 Sept 2017

The Erotic in the Indian Imagination

Amrita Narayanan has edited Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica , an anthology consisting of extracts from literature published in India over centuries. There are pieces from Rig Veda; the Tamil Sangam poets; Bhakti poets Antal and Mahadeviyakka, who describe women’s fantasies of men (whether human or godly); short stories by Kamala Das that have been out of print for decades; excerpts from the work of contemporary writers like Mridula Garg, Ginu Kamani, Tarun Tejpal, Deepti Kapoor, Sudhir Kakar et al. It is not as comprehensive in its survey as say the two volumes of Women Writing in India were and thus falls short of one’s expectations. Having said that Parrots of Desire is a start maybe to be added to later in a revised edition? 

Here is an extract from the opening pages of the well-written introduction published with permission. This section is “Erotic in the Indian Imagination”. 

To read centuries of voices writing on the erotic is to become keenly aware of a deep argument that exists in the geography of the subcontinent, an argument between literary romantics—who embrace the erotic for the gloss it adds to life—and religious traditionalists[1]—who caution against the erotic, for its disorderly nature and potential to cause chaos. While romantic and traditionalist voices are unanimous in their belief that the erotic holds an extraordinary power and attraction for human beings, each does something very different with that belief. Romantics are erotically positive: they believe life is made worthwhile by its erotic aspects, that the best life is one in which our understanding and awareness of the erotic are maximally enhanced. Traditionalists, on the other hand, are erotically anxious: they believe that a worthwhile life is one in which the four goals of life[2] are in balance; they do not favour the promotion of the erotic, worrying that if not tightly controlled, the erotic could undermine the other three goals of life. Aficionados of the romantic project used the arts as a vehicle of articulation; their literature, music, drama, even grammar, was thought to be imbued with the erotic and capable of enhancing our understanding of the erotic. Traditionalists used both religious writing and the social contract to articulate the dangers of the erotic, believing that the erotic must be kept on the sidelines, aside from its necessary use as a vehicle for reproduction. Romantics believe that coupling is a central life force, and they appreciate the energy that comes from all couplings, whether man-woman, woman-woman, men who identify as women (and are fantasizing about male gods), or (wo)men with God. Traditionalists believe in the notion of an ‘ideal couple’: heterosexually and monogamously married, with children and extended family in the foreground and a willingness and ability to keep the erotic in the background.

To further understand the argument between traditionalists and romantics, consider a brief history of the time that traditionalism and romanticism have held sway. The purview of this anthology begins about 1000 BCE in ancient India. For the first 800 years or so of this time period, that is, beginning with the Vedas, traditionalist sentiments prevail. During this time, the destabilizing dangers of the erotic are far better articulated in the literature than are its pleasures. From the Vedas onwards, traditionalist literature, which is largely in the form of religious texts, is squarely articulate on the need to manage the destablizing potential of the erotic. Beginning in 200 BCE, however, and continuing for several centuries, literary voices sang the glories of the erotic and their dedication to it—in Tamil, Sanskrit, and Maharashtrian Prakrit. From the second to the sixth century, an Indian literary-erotic-nature idiom was spelt out from Tamil Nadu to Maharashtra and up to Madhya Pradesh. Here the poets embraced the erotic along with its problems, accepting that though the erotic often brought anger, grief and shame, it was still worth embracing for its pleasures. During this medieval period emerged the Tamil Sangam poets and the Maharashtrian Prakrit Gatha Saptasati, the prose and poetry of Kalidasa and Bhartrihari, as well as the Kama Sutra itself. After this golden age of the Romantics, puritanism once again holds sway and the next major erotic work—at least the one that has survived—is the collection of romantic poems known as the Amarusataka, written in Sanskrit in the seventh or eighth century and attributed to King Amaru of Kashmir. From the eighth century onwards there is again a long period in which very few important works have survived, the next set being from the Bhakti poets who compose discontinuously from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries in praise of erotic love with God himself. The fact that Bhakti poets praise erotic love only in language that involves a deity suggests that this was considered the most elegant and refined expression of romanticism at that time. Alternatively, perhaps, the social climate—which by this time included both Hindu and Muslim puritans—did not support an articulation of a more explicit person-to-person erotic love. The taboos on self-expression of erotic love might have impinged particularly on women poets and the re-direction of this love to the divine might have spared them the censorship that might have otherwise been forthcoming. Another way of thinking about it is that, dispirited with the limitations of romantic love between humans, some of these poets were able to find a more elevated idiom with the gods.

Following the Bhakti period, the proliferation of the Urdu language and the culture of refinement associated with Islamic courtly love played an important pro-romantic influence; but as the Hindu and Muslim puritans were joined by the British puritans in the seventeenth century, one has the sense that romanticism was very much in the dark ages. Nevertheless, important works continued to emerge in a more scattered fashion. Amongst these individual works are those written by courtesans, such as the Telugu Radhika Santawanam (The Appeasement of Radhika) by Muddupalani, in the eighteenth century. Another is the erotic proponent of the Lucknow school of poetry, Qalandar Bakhsh Jur’at, known for his bawdy yet spiritual imaginings of women in sexual union. As the reader advances towards and past the twentieth century, individual writers offer an exploration of contemporary erotic problems alternating with the past. Contemporary Indian writers who match and build on the efforts of their ancestors write in, among other languages, English, Tamil and Malayalam, and continue to shed profound light on the erotic. In this anthology the contemporary writers I have chosen include those who have made a searing commentary on the relationship between kama and society: Perumal Murugan, Kamala Das; those whose reverential treatment of the erotic couple recalls the glorious medieval period: Pritish Nandy, K. Satchidanandan, Tarun Tejpal; writers like Manto and Ambai whose erotic-nostalgic writings make us feel lustful and tender at once; modern Bhakti poets like Arundhathi Subramaniam and Kala Krishnan Ramesh; and those who have treated in great depth the extraordinary conflicts that the erotic poses for an individual life: here found in the works of Mridula Garg, Deepti Kapoor and Ginu Kamani

[1]I chose the word traditionalist and not puritan because of the historical origins of puritanism that are not pertinent to India. However I thought it worth mentioning that the traditionalist argument is close in nature to the puritan argument. Here puritan is used in the sense of against pleasure, see for example, H. L. Mencken, who sardonically defined Puritanism as ‘the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy’.

[2]The four aims of life (purusharthas): artha (wealth), kama (desire), dharma (duty) and moksha (salvation from the cycle of life and death).

Amrita Narayanan ( ed.) Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2017. Hb. pp. 304 

8 Sept 2017 

Interview with Shikhandin

My interview with Shikhandin was published in Scroll on Sunday, 10 September 2017 as “‘The writer in me doesn’t have a gender, or is made up of all the genders’: Shikhandin“. 

Immoderate Men by Shikhandin is a remarkable collection of stories published by Speaking Tiger Books. These stories meander through the minds of men giving a perspective on daily life which would ordinarily be dismissed. For instance stories like  “Room Full of Presents”, “Salted Pinkies”, “Hijras on the Highway” and “Old Man Sitting on a South Kolkata Park Bench, Ruminating” if taken at face-value are regular stories with a mild twist. On the other hand these stories also dissect with finesse the preconceived notion of “What is masculinity?”  By delving into the mental makeup of the protagonists the author explores bewildering scenarios; thereby brilliantly subverting notions of patriarchical norms by blurring gender lines as often this confused state of mind is attributed to women and not men.

Here are edited excerpts of an interview with the author:

  1. How did these stories come about?

Mostly from the world around me, past and present. A couple are from dreams and visions. Some from newspaper articles, photographs, a conversation overheard, a person observed in a crowd, and so on. My stories usually come from life itself, whether dreamt or experienced or watched. “Room Full of Presents” came to me in a pre-dawn dream, all of it, more than a decade ago. I still remember waking from it, the sensations of the dream falling off me like water droplets as I sat up on my bed, trying to stay still, just feeling the story over me, around me. Dreams have their roots in reality, regardless of their form and shape. I was sure I had seen/met the characters somewhere, sometime. “Ahalya” came from a vision of a girl with cascading black hair running up a hill. I was half asleep, but I could see her clearly; the hill felt mysterious; this story crept up on me at first without any specific shape, smoky, yet tangible. Most of my stories run like little movies on a little screen before my eyes – that is my first sighting of the story. I write what I see and hear in that mental screen. This is how it has always been for me, even when I wrote press ads and ad films for a living, years ago.

  1. How long did it take to write these stories?

The stories in this collection, and others too, were written over a period of almost two decades. I love short stories (and novellas and novelettes), but everybody keeps saying there isn’t a market for them. So for many years I didn’t put together a manuscript of short stories, though I continued to submit and be published in journals, mostly abroad. The earliest story in this collection was written in 2002 and first published in an American Magazine the same year. Individual stories have their own pace. Some, like “Mail for Dadubhai,” was written in one sitting. Ditto for “Ducklings”, “The Vanishing Man” and “Black Prince”. They were edited/fine-tuned after what I call the resting/roosting period. In general, a single story may take me anything from one or two days to a week. I leave them alone after that for as long as it takes, before I revisit. Some may take longer, like “Salted Pinkies”. I was inhabiting the minds of young men, the kind who loiter in Calcutta’s cheap cafes. Even though I was confident of their language and mannerisms, I kept stopping to check, which was difficult because I no longer lived in Calcutta. At times I literally had to mentally transport myself to North Calcutta, walk the streets in my mind. Watching the boys and men all over again. The writing time, I would say, really depends on the story. There is a story that I have left incomplete for almost two decades, because I have imagined several alternative endings for it; one will rise up and push out the others I know. For me, it’s the story that dictates. I am merely the conduit.

  1. Are they pure figments of imagination or are borrowed heavily from life or inspired by events? (I ask because there is a tone to them that makes me feel as if there is a pinch of reality infused in the stories)

They are both and neither. Like dreams, our imaginings are also based on reality, grounded in the material world. Even a fantasy-scifi movie like Avatar, is at the end of the day, a story about thwarting colonial intrusion. If my stories are relatable, I have succeeded in writing a true one. By true I don’t mean factually correct or historically acceptable. Truth, as I see it, in fiction is about emotional sincerity, that kernel that makes you weep, laugh, sing or rage with or against the character or situation; the narrative that makes you walk through to the end, because it is probable, plausible, relatable, even when the world the story brings forth seems impossible or in the case of literary stories, unfamiliar and totally strange or even shocking. Having said all of the above, yes, there are stories that were inspired by something almost physical. Like “Ducklings” for instance, which is from a photograph I had seen in a newspaper. Avian flu was sweeping across Bengal and Orissa and also Bihar. It was around 2006 I think. There was this black and white photograph of a Bengali woman, weeping as she clutched ducklings, her pets, to her breast. The ducklings were looking innocently back at the camera/photographer. Having grown up with many animals and birds, and experienced the pain of loss, I am not ashamed to say that I wept for that woman, mourned her loss for days. And then I re-imagined her life.  “Old Man Sitting on a South Kolkata Park Bench, Ruminating” is inspired from an actual conversation, part of it, that I had heard while passing through a similar park in that city. A few old men were gossiping, about the young girls they had seen or knew, and their daughters-in-law. An incident in the story (kissing a baby boy in the crotch) was actually witnessed by me during my college days in the early eighties, and it is still practised. These traditional Bengali men didn’t/don’t think they were/are doing anything wrong. Saluting a baby boy like that is acceptable; displaying a boy baby is a matter of pride. I stitched that incident into my story. And I became an old man in my head when I wrote it.

  1. Curiously you chose to write about the world of men while inhabiting their minds. With this technique it is fascinating the multiple layers of reading it lends itself to. How did you train yourself to write in this manner?

For this I really must thank my rigorous advertising training. One of the exercises copywriting entailed was mentally switching places with the consumer. I discovered it works quite well for fiction when you are writing as someone else, seeing things from another’s perspective. My short experience with theatre also helps. That apart, since my childhood, I’ve had this tendency to feel things intensely- be inside the book I am reading or the music I am listening or the movie I am watching, the food I am cooking. Once my mother tore my drawing book into shreds because I hadn’t replied when she’d called me. I wasn’t ignoring her or being disrespectful, I actually hadn’t heard, but of course I wasn’t believed. Similar problems would crop up in school too. Be that as it may, it’s great fun becoming someone or something else even momentarily! Adventure and action, madness and mayhem all in the safety of your own mind. It helps that I am mostly by myself on any week day. I can laugh or cry without being seen as a lunatic! Right now, a part of my head is a dog, doing doggie things; two dogs actually in two totally different stories, so I had to apportion off my grey cells!

  1. Why use a nom de plume?

Actually in my case, it is not so much as a nom de plume, as acknowledging to myself and everyone, that the writer in me doesn’t have a gender or is made up of all the genders. I ought to have used Shikhandin right at the beginning, but felt shy about it; didn’t want to come across as pretentious. It’s hard enough replying “I write” when folks ask me what I do.

I could have picked up any other gender nonspecific name or initials. There are several versions to the Shikhandin narrative in the Mahabharata. The common thread running through all is that Shikhandin, who was princess Amba of Kashi, in a previous birth, through deep penance and austerities and after several rebirths and a Yaksha’s boon, became a male, Shikhandin, and succeeded in destroying the man (Bhishma) who was responsible for her humiliation and ruin in her first life. Whichever version you read, Shikhandin’s life is a fascinating story of grit, determination and resolve against all odds. For most people Shikhandin represents members of the LGBT community, or those who have rejected gender stereotypes. For me, Shikhandin represents a mind so strong that it can overcome physical boundaries and frailties. It doesn’t matter what you are born as, but who you can become.

I had heard about Shikhandin as a young child listening to tales from the epics. Later, while still in school, I read a bit. Shikhandin has been with me for decades. And because of Shikhandin I questioned male-female roles as dictated by society, and the kind of character and personality ascribed to each as acceptable. I wondered then, and still do, how gender specific are we in the purely intellectual or cerebral sense. How much of our gendered lives are in fact centuries of conditioning. I think it is nonsense that only women can understand women and likewise for men. Physical violence is not a male characteristic, just as daintiness is not a female thing. As a writer, I don’t want to belong to any specific place or slot. I don’t matter, the story does. At the time of writing, I should have the freedom to become whatever is necessary, whatever is required of me, for the story to unfurl as truly as it can.

  1. When did you gravitate from writing children’s stories to stories for adults?

It’s the other way round actually. I have been writing for adults ever since I can remember.  I wish I had started writing children’s stories earlier. That’s another regret, and hope I can make up for lost time now. I was afraid I wouldn’t be good enough. But the Children’s First Contest curated by Duckbill, Parag (an initiative of Tata Trust) and Vidya Sagar School has boosted my confidence . I enjoy reading children’s fiction a lot, even today, after my own children have grown up. And every time I have written a story or poem for children I’ve come away feeling so euphoric – the sheer joy of being a child is like an elixir. I enjoy listening to children’s patter too. Their sense of logic and observation astounds me. They also know more than many grownups about many things.

  1. Do you think there is any difference in your methodology while writing for children or adults?

Yes, certainly. There is a poem that I’d written and published several years ago, which I think can give you an idea about the kind of heart needed when writing for children:

WHAT THE CHILD DOES

When gossamer tufts come cascading down

From the silk-cotton tree’s bright scarlet crown

Who chases the tufts? Say who does?

The child does

When plump raven clouds thundering their refrain

Suddenly shed weight in vast feathers of rain

Who raises a fountain? Say who does?

The child does

When dew beads strung across blades of new grass

Glisten like rows and rows of glowing elfin glass

Who sees the rainbow? Say who does?

The child does

When within that pupa clinging to a tree

A butterfly softly struggles to be free

Who hears the cry? Say who does?

The child does

When deep down in winter’s icy waters

A timid sun’s shy white ray quivers

Who feels the arrow? Say who does?

The child does

Ah! Everywhere in this world, a new world unfolds

And unwraps and unfurls, expands and grows

Who stands in wonder, then? Say who does?

We do! We do! Yes. But first the child does!

  1. At times you hold yourself back from describing in greater detail the surroundings or situations. Why?

In short stories less is more – usually, because there are always exceptions to prove the rule! The best are those that without shouting, slip inside your head and start to niggle, urging you, the reader, to create possible endings and solutions, extend the surroundings or simply stay on with the story. I try to emulate that standard. I try.

Shikhandin Immoderate Men: Stories Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2017. Pb. pp. 190 Rs 299 

12 Sept 2017 

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s “Everybody Lies: What the Internet can really tell us about who we really are”

 I can’t pretend there isn’t a darkness in some of this data. If people consistently tell us what they think we want to hear, we will generally be told things that are more comforting than the truth. Digital truth serum, on average, will show us that the world is worse than we have thought. 

With the information age there is bound to be a explosion of data. For some years now it has been said that the amount of information uploaded on the Internet every day is equivalent to the amount created in history of all mankind. Some say it is approximately eight trillion gigabytes of data. This is a HUGE! Data scientists like Seth Stephens-Davidowitz make regular attempts to sift through this data to determine what picture it creates.

In Everybody Lies: What the Internet can really tell us about who we really are Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s basic premise is what is the truth. In his fascinating thesis-converted to-book he discusses how the data swirling on the internet  confirms and conforms to our expectations. We find and get what is comforting. The truth is there is much more than meets the eye. The truth exists on the Internet, it requires being alert to it and looking for it. He cites examples from the recently concluded American elections proving that President Trump’s victory was always in the making. He shows how the number of times the toxic word “nigger” and “nigger, jokes” were searched were in the very same places from where Trump won a resounding victory. It was merely a way of seeing. Traditional media missed it.

And Google searches presented a picture of America that was strikingly different from that post-racial utopia sketched out by the surveys. I remember when I first typed “nigger” into Google Trends. Call me naive. But given how toxic the word is, I fully expected this to be a  low-volume search. Boy, was I wrong. In the United States, the word “nigger” — or its plural, “niggers” — was included in roughly the same number of searches as the word “migraine(s),” “economist,” and “Lakers.” I wondered if searches for rap lyrics were skewing the results? Nope. The words used in rap songs is almost “nigga(s).” So what was the motivation of Americans searching for “nigger”? Frequently , they were looking for jokes mocking African-Americans. In fact, 20 percent of searches with the word “nigger” also included the word “jokes.” Other common searches included “stupid niggers” and “I hate niggers.” 

There were millions of these searches every year. A large number of Americans were, in the privacy of their own homes, making shocking racist inquiries. The more I researched, the more distrubing the information got. 

On Obama’s first election night, when most of the commentary focused on praise of Obama and acknowledgement of the historic nature of his election, roughly one in every hundred Google searches that included the word “Obama” also included “kkk” or “nigger(s).” Maybe that doesn’t sound so high, but think of the thousands of nonracists reasons to Google this young outsider with a charming family about to take over the world’s most powerful job. On election night, searches and signups for Stormfront, a white nationalist site with surprisingly high popularity in the United States, were more than ten times higher than normal. In some states, there were more searches for “nigger president” than “first black president.”

There was a darkness and hatred that was hidden from the traditional sources but was quite apparent in the searches that people made. 

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz tested his hypothesis in other spheres of Internet engagement as well such as economics, mental health and many other general searches. As an economist and former Google data scientist mines and analyses plenty of data to prove his basic premise and it is not pleasant. He uses a lot of statistical data to bolster his anecdotes. He confirms the Internet as being a minefield. It has all kinds of information but it is important to look for clues that will mirror reality as close as possible. The challenge lies in unearthing those clues. Is it feasible for everyone to do it?

Eerily Salman Rushdie who has published a new novel The Golden House told the Guardian that ” ‘A lot of what Trump unleashed was there anyway’ “. ( 2 Sept 2017)

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s Everybody Lies: What the Internet can really tell us about who we really are is unnerving while being undoubtedly an absorbing read.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s Everybody Lies: What the Internet can really tell us about who we really are Bloomsbury, London, 2017. Pb. Pp. 338 Rs 499

David Walliams’s “The World’s Worst Children 2”

My review-article of David Walliams’s The World’s Worst Children 2 was published in The Hindu Literary Review on 3 September 2017 titled “The boy who never did his homework“. I am c&p the text here as well: 

David Walliams’s The World’s Worst Children 2 is a fabulous collection of short stories about 10 obnoxious little brats. There is Cruel Clarissa, Harry who never ever did his homework, Competitive Colin, Trish the Troll, Spoiled Brad, Gruesome Griselda and others. The scrumptious book has been “illustratred in glorious colour” by Tony Ross. (The very Tony Ross, who, statistics show, is the most borrowed illustrator from U.K. libraries. In 2016, his books were borrowed more than 1 million times.) Walliams and Ross have been collaborating on books for children and young adults for quite a few years now.

Walliams is often considered to be the modern Roald Dahl. Incidentally, Walliams’s first book for children was illustrated by Quentin Blake, who is known for his illustrations of Roald Dahl’s books. Along with Ross, Walliams insists there be a picture on every page. The two books of the TheWorld’s Worst Children is sumptuously produced, with embossed lettering on the cover, gilt foil worked in to the design, and four-colour illustrations with a fascinating play of fonts throughout the text. Every page has the illustration carefully

placed in such a manner that it perfectly complements the text.

Climb a mountain

It works beautifully for young readers as well as for readers who require assisted learning. “It’s about hooking them in and not making reading seem like a chore,” Walliams says. “I think reading is important because not only do you miss out on great literature if you don’t do it, but also you miss out on finding out about new ideas and the opportunity to use your own imagination.”

Walliams is otherwise famous as a stand-up comedian. His comic talent has found its way into writing. His stories are often about children of the kind we encounter everyday — ordinary, privileged, gentle, horrendous. Without being patronising, but with humour, he writes about the world as the child sees it — a stark place, in black and white.

Even his caricatures make one chuckle with delight for they hold up a mirror to the child’s world, serving the dual purpose of telling a story while delivering a message. He compares the process of writing his manuscripts to that of climbing up a mountain. He perseveres despite the effort because, “I really like the simplicity of children’s literature. It’s a challenge because often you’ve got quite complex ideas you’ve got to put into very simple terms.”

Spoilt brats

This is apparent in his novels. For instance, in Billionaire Boya rich spoilt kid is also very lonely for he lacks a friend; Midnight Gang is about patients in a children’s hospital whose parents never visit them and who are left at the mercy of a harsh and unsympathetic matron; Mr Stink narrates the unlikely friendship between a lonely girl Chloe and the local stinky tramp Mr Stink, the only person who’s ever been nice to her. Gangsta Granny and Grandpa’s Great Escape are about grandparents and help create concern among children for the ailments and idiosyncrasies of old age. Controversy tails successful writers: some years ago, Anthony Horowitz had accused Walliams of creating “dumbed down books” for children.

But the criticism does not seem to be fair. Walliams’s stories are empathetic towards children: he has the knack of capturing the authoritarian and at times unreasonable voice of the adult. Hope exists in the form of a good soul lurking nearby, usually an adult who too has been marginalised by society.

To know what happens to the world’s worst children, read the book. A treat awaits!

David Walliams The World’s Worst Children 2 HarperCollins Children’s Books, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 300 

3 September 2017 

Cathy Rentzenbrink

Reading Cathy Rentzenbrink’s memoir The Last Act of Love and the companion to it A Manual for Heartache is a gut wrenching experience. The Last Act of Love was shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize 2016   for its an account of how Cathy Rentzenbrink’s younger brother Matt had a head injury and was for eight long years in a coma. The medical term for it is PVS or “permanent vegetative state” or as their mother says of Matt “living corpse”. Matt was a teenager in his prime when he met with an accident that left him in this horrific state. The Last Act of Love is a compassionate account of a sister trying to understand what her brother must be going through if he can feel anything. More importantly it is an account of how much of themselves caregivers have to give to ensure that a patient is cared for well.

Caregiving can be a thankless task since it is repititive with no breaks whatsoever. After a while the sympathetic circle of friends and relatives return to their lives but the immediate family of the patient is responsible for the daily courageous and relentless task of caregiving. At times it can become exceedingly lonely, stressful and mentally debilitating. For Cathy Rentzenbrick her escape mechanism was reading.

Reading was still my friend, though. I read continuously and compulsively, drowning out sounds of my own thoughts with the noise of other people’s stories. I no longer turned out the light before going to sleep — I had to read until the moment my eyes closed. There could be no gap for the demons to jump into. 

Most caregivers are caught in a cycle of maintaining systems that they forget to take care of themselves or share experiences about the roles they inhabit. These involve a bunch of questions about the quality of life the patient has to how effective are advancements in medical technology.

The Last Act of Love written  many years after her brother passed away takes its title from a phrase the author’s mother used in her sworn affidavit to the court seeking legal permission to discontinue nutrition and hydration given how poorly Matt was with a chest infection and recurring epileptic fits.

I have known for some time that there is nothing I can do for Matthew to enrich his life in any way. He needs to die. We had hoped it would happen with an infection and without the need to approach the court. But the sad irony is that his poor body, unable to do anything else, seems capable of fighting infection. So we are asking the court’s permission to cease nutrition and hydration so that Matthew can be released from his hopeless state. It is our last act of love for him. 

Writing The Last Act of Love may have been thereapeutic for Cathy Rentzenbrick but it certainly provides a much needed account of hope and a way of managing caregiving at home, many times the dilemma it presents. Sharing of stories is a relief for many in a similar situation but few have time to do so. Reading an account is possible.

Within months of the successful publishing of The Last Act of Love, Cathy Rentzenbrick wrote A Manual for Heartache which can be viewed as a sequel to her memoir but works very well as a manual for managing grief and loss. It is full of wisdom and gently with big dollops of kindness shares wisdom garnered over the years of caregiving for Matt.

 

Here are some invaluable excerpts from the book

On grief

What I now wish someone had told me is this: life will never be the same again. The old one is gone and you can’t have it back. What you might at some point be able to encourage yourself to do, and time will be an ally in this, is work out how to adjust to your new world. You can patch up your raggedy heart and start thinking and feeling your way towards how you want to live. That’s what I wish someone had told me and that’s what I want to tell you. I think I’m finally doing it.

On etiquette of bad news

It seems ridiculous that in the face of someone else’s misfortune we spend time worrying about our own behavious, but it’s only human and is particularly true when it comes to death and grief. I’m sure it was easier in Victorian times when there were prescribed rules, when society and the Church provided a framework. There was guidance on what to wear, how to communicate with people, how much time should elapse before everyone rejoined the business of life. Visible signs such as black crepe and mourning brooches made of jet acted as clues to the rest of the world. Like a version of the “Baby on Board” sign stuck in the back windscreen of a car, the blackness served as a warning that an individual needed to be treated kindly. All cultures have rituals around death and mourning but, in our increasingly secular society, it’s easy find ourselves unsure of what to do. 

….

I have come to see there is a beauty in simply being present for someone who is struggling wiht a heavy burden. The best thing you can offer is unlimited kindness. People to whom the worst has happened can be out-of-control sad and unable to obey the normal rules of life. It mught be all they can do to hold on. If they are mean or cruel or temporarily incapable of good manners, we need to suspend our expectations around them and give them space and compassion as they splinter and behave badly and say the wrong thing. If they are behaving perfectly and holding themselves together, then that’s OK, too. 

Reading both the books together is highly recommended. Share, share, share these books.

Update ( 5 Sept 2017)

The Guardian Longreads published a fascinating account of “How science found a way to help coma patients communicate“. It is worth reading!

Cathy Rentzenbrick The Last Act of Love Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2015. Pb. pp.248 Rs 450

Cathy Rentzenbrick A Manual for Heartache Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 150 Rs 499 

31 August 2017 

 

Interview: Kamila Shamsie on her Bold and Heart-Breaking New Novel, “Home Fire”

My interview with Man Booker Prize 2017 longlisted writer Kamila Shamsie has been published in Bookwitty on 29 August 2017. Here is

Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel Home Fire was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017 within days of its release. Home Fire explores the complicated relationship Isma has with her younger twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz. It is also a modern retelling of Antigone in which Isma, whose mother has died, works hard to raise her brother and sister. When they reach adulthood, Isma leaves for the US to study at university while her brother, Parvaiz, who has unfortunately become radicalised in Britain, leaves to join ISIS, following in the footsteps of their jihadist father. Aneeka, meanwhile, is torn between her love for her older sister and her twin. The idea of two sisters where one is conventional, bordering on timid but keeps the home fire burning while the other leaves home and enters the world of men with far reaching consequences has been encapsulated in myths and legends. There is Antigone and her sister Ismene from the Greek myth, and Mary and Martha in the New Testament. The Sophoclean chorus giving a background and a perspective on the “tricky” position British Muslims occupy is provided by the character of a Muslim MP and Home Secretary, Karamat Lone, and his son, Eamonn.

Following, are excerpts of an interview with Kamila Shamsie.

….

John McCormack’s song, Keep the home fires burning, was hugely popular during World War I, why did you choose as the title Home Fire and not Home Fires for your book?

Fire, not Fires, simply because there was both a TV series and another novel already out there with the name Home Fires. But actually, once I’d decided on ‘Fire’ I realized I preferred it because it moved away from the WWI song, and I didn’t want people assuming it was a First World War novel.

The title plays on the two meanings of Home Fire: it can mean welcome and warmth, as in ‘keep the home fires burning’ or it can mean a house on fire. I wanted both those meanings in there since this is a novel that has within it both intimacy/love and conflagration.

To read the full interview please visit Bookwitty.

30 August 2017 

Amitava Kumar’s “The Lovers”

My review of Amitava Kumar’s The Lovers was published in OPEN Magazine on 25 August 2017. Here is the original url titled “A Passage to America” . I am also c&p the text below. 

An immigrant finds his place of mind—like the author himself

The Lovers | Amitava Kumar | Aleph | 255 Pages | Rs 599

AMITAVA KUMAR’S The Lovers is about Kailash, born in Ara, Bihar, who moved to the US in 1990. At college he met his mentor Ehsaan Ali when Kailash enrolled in his ‘Colonial Encounters’ class. To earn a few extra dollars, Kailash worked in a university bookshop. Some of the women he met on campus became good friends, some his lovers. With every woman— Jennifer, Nina, Laura, Maya and Cai Yan—he learned a little more about himself as a man, a lover, a student, a reader and of his culture, whichever one it may be at a given moment. The Lovers works at multiple levels. Superficially the novel explores different shades of love— puppy love, sexual love and marital. At another level it is the platonic and nurturing love between teacher (Ehsaan Ali) and student (Kailash) that is the bedrock of the novel. Ever so slowly and gently, the promising student Kailash blossoms as a teaching assistant and later, writer. ‘The main questions now were about the fiction of the past, the idea I had of myself as a person, and what it meant for me to become a writer.’ The narrator relies heavily upon memory to plot his journey and define his identity—tough since ‘he had become a translated man, no longer able to connect completely with his past.’

The Lovers is an autobiographical novel documenting the trajectory of Kailash aka Kalashnikov or AK47 or AK from the burning plains of India to an intellectual in America, a path very similar to that of the author himself. Kailash may not be Stephen Dedalus but he certainly grows in confidence, wherein his tastes in literature are concerned. It is evident in the structure of the novel. Over the years, from being an Indian student unsure about the literary canon he grew up with, Kailash becomes familiar with examples of international literature such as Gramsci, Tagore, Wittgenstein, Hanif Kureishi, Luis Borges, Agnes Smedley, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Judith Butler, Virginia Woolf, Nazım Hikmet et al. Slowly he incorporates desi writers such as Ismat Chughtai too. He realises that the India he left in the 1990s has changed to become a new India which is disconcertingly unrecognisable and is now part of the global village.

The immigrant novel is in a category of literary fiction which straddles two cultures—the author’s land of birth and adopted country. In The Lovers, despite having had the privilege of getting an American citizenship, Kailash continues to feel lost in his adopted country. ‘My father had grown up in a hut. I knew in my heart that I was closer to a family of peasants than I was to a couple of intellectuals sitting in a restaurant in New York.’ He tries to fit in, but falters at times. Even world literature that exposes him to various cultures fails to help, and leaves him yearning for the holy grail of the ‘hybrid culture that groups of people scattered across the world, removed from their roots, have created in response to alienation and a kind of collective loneliness?’ This is unlike his adventurous friend Pushkin Krishnagrahi, a Brahmin from Gwalior, a member of the new India who was now at home anywhere in the world.

It is significant that The Lovers has been released in the 70th year of Independence for India and Pakistan. As with two lovers, there is an intensely passionate relationship between the two countries which has historically been hostile. In the novel the two countries are represented by its citizens —Ehsan Ali (Pakistan) and Kailash (India) who away from their countries do not harbour any ill feelings towards each other and live in harmony. Ehsan Ali is probably modelled upon the intellectual Eqbal Ahmed, a prominent anti-war activist.

The Lovers is extraordinary craftsmanship, charting the blossoming of a timid new immigrant into a confident writer.

25 August 2017