Bloomsbury Posts

Mohammed Hanif’s “Red Birds”

Nihilistic resistance is the worst kind of enemy; it was all the rage, we were taught in our Cultural Sensitivity 101.  Colonel Slatter had laid out the foundations: We used to have art for art’s sake; now we have war for the sake of war. No lands captured, no slaves taken, no mass rapes, fuck their oil wells, ignore their mineral deposits. You can outsource mass rape. War has been condensed to carpet-bombing followed by dry rations and craft classes for the refugees. People who had not left their little hamlets for centuries, goatherds who belived in nothing but grassy fields and folk music, women who had never walked beyond the village well, not they could all go and live in UN tents, eat exotic food donated by USAID and burp after drinking fizzy drinks. 

Mohammed Hanif’s third novel Red Birds is a brilliant political satire using primarily three narrators — Momo, a teenager who dreams of becoming a millionaire after having read Fortune 500; Ellie, a US fighter pilot who ejected out of his burning plane in to the desert and Mutt, Momo’s dog, who has been anthropomorphised by the novelist. The three sections of the book are the three locations where the story is set — the desert, the camp and the hangar. These are in a geographical location that is never very clear where it exists but many readers will recognise it to be an amalgamation of many conflict zones around the world. For the first two sections of the book the women characters of Mother Dear and Lady Flowerbody are present and contribute to the conversations but it is reported speech. Mother Dear is Momo’s mother and absolutely furious with her husband for having taken away their elder son, Bro Ali. Father Dear introduces Lady Flowerbody as his co-worker. Lady Flowerbody is the new Coordinating Officer for the Families Rehabilitation Programme who “works with the families affected by raids and is conducting a survey on post-conflict conflict resolution strategies that involve histories and folklore”. Whereas Lady Flowerbody claims she is writing her “PhD thesis on the Teenage Muslim Mind, their hopes, their desires; it might come out as a book called The Children of the Desert“. It is only in the third section of the novel, “In the Hangar”, that the women characters speak and when they do it is powerfully and lucidly.

If the story can be encapsulated in a nutshell it would be about the family in the refugee camp whose elder son went off to the hangar but never returned. Dear Father is suspected by his family of having sold off his elder son. Dear Mother who is mostly confined to the kitchen cooking is given to ranting but she is mostly “off stage”. The male characters — her husband and son, later to be joined by the pilot and a nomad-turned-doctor — mostly hear her out with the husband being the most dismissive of her angry monologues particularly when he cannot understand her obsessiveness with the lack of salt and her inability to cook a decent meal. Ellie is a participant and a spectator to this, more like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, but he has his own concerns to worry about. Ellie worries about his wife and his job.

Former Pakistan Air Force pilot-turned-journalist Mohammed Hanif scathing political satire Red Birds is reminiscent of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Apparently cadet Hanif discovered Joseph Heller’s classic Catch-22 in the Air Force Academy library. In an interview with BBC journalist Razia Iqbal in 2014, Hanif said he loved Heller’s novel and read it “at least 22 times”. He said he found the book funny but their lives were not unfunny. Hanif adds that Heller certainly changed Hanif’s outlook on the world he was living in.

Red Birds is a fine novel. The deadpan style of writing reveals the absurd situations of war zones. The absurdity of the scenarios are funny too. But it is chilling to realise that these absurd moments are plausible in a conflict zone. Take for instance Father Dear carting piles and piles of files, the nomad-turned-doctor who is called in to treat Mutt, the teenager Momo who learns to drive and steers while sitting on a pile of cushions or Mother Dear who is worried about the lack of salt ( which is actually not unfunny for many, especially women, who have lived in conflict zones).

Red Birds is a sharply satirical novel that cannot be ignored. It is bound to be on the literary prize lists in the coming year. Perhaps even win a prize or two. Read it!

To buy on Amazon India:

Hardback

Kindle

7 November 2018 

Book 14: 1-15 October 2018 / children’s literature and young adult literature

Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.

In today’s Book Post 14 included are some of the children’s literature and young adult titles I have received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.

Enjoy reading!

15 October 2018

Richard Charkin, Director, Bloomsbury’s address at IPA Congress, 11-13 Feb 2018, Delhi

From 11-13 February 2018 the 32nd International Publishers Association (IPA) Congress was held at Taj Palace Hotel, New Delhi. The International Publishers Association (IPA) is the world’s largest federation of national, regional and specialist publishers’ associations. Its membership comprises 70 organisations from 60 countries in Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe and the Americas. The congress was organised in Delhi along with the collaboration of the Federation of Indian Publishers ( FIP).

It was a wonderful congress with multiple panel discussions that fortunately ran in succession rather than in parallel and many fascinating conversations were to be had on the sidelines. It was a phenomenal gathering of publishers from around the world. The full programme can be accessed here.

On the first day of the congress the morning session included a Global Leaders Forum discussion led by the NITI Ayog CEO Amitabh Kant. The panelists included: Dr. Y. S. Chi, Elsevier, USA; Matt Kissner, John Wiley, USA and Richard Charkin, Bloomsbury. The panel discussion can be heard in the YouTube link given below. It was interesting to hear these global leaders of publishing, across different formats of publishing — academic and trade, share many similar concerns and talk about the growth of business.

Richard Charkin’s address ( heard from 1:33:30 mins in the link) was particularly pertinent, for here was a seasoned publisher sharing his experiences of many decades in the industry as well as offering great perspectives on how to deal with the future of this business. His mantra of “paying attention to authors” which is often tragically forgotten is worth paying heed to if the industry has to grow globally. Here is the edited version of my notes with inputs from Richard Charkin.

****

Speaking from my experience in general book publishing and academic and educational publishing particular issues affect English language markets. Predictions are a fools game! I shall focus on what will be my hope for the future.

  1. 1980-90s — all about book marketing. Leaders frequently came from sales end of business.
  2. ’00s/noughts – Focus on technology and logistics. “How else do we get better? Distribution? Growing size? Complexity of retailers? This resulted in the business people leading companies. We now have very few companies led by publishers.
  3. 2010s- Where are our profits? Returning to our roots — IPR, authorship, how well are we serving our authors?, how does it compare to the growth in self publishing?, What value can we add for the customer/author? ( “Our customer is the author, as well as and arguably more than the reader or retailer”)
  4. We get the responsibility of developing the authors by selling rights throughout the world.
    If only we could kick the habit of overpaying very successful authors. Thus we have created a system where established authors with large unearned advances authors are effectively being subisdised by the less successful. Without unearned advances we could perhaps pay a higher overall royalty rate. 
  5. Control wastage. Even if we halve costs the impact on our bottomlines would be substantial.
    Retailers would then become less than not diverse. Resist monopolistic control of some retailers. Editors would get back into leadership positions, which is really at the core of publishing roles. Also they would become more professional and understand the markets better they serve. Understanding role of the editor is understanding readers and authors. Also it would do away with the egocentric role it has become of late.
  6. We know what is “IQ” and later came “Emotional Intelligence” but I would like to emphasise on “Cultural Intelligence” which is the recognition of differences between old and young, rich and poor, one country and another, understanding boundaries globally and internationally with different cultures. We have a core, we need to recognise the bits around the edges.

We need to work together to build a global industry. Most importantly serve our authors.

13 July 2018 

Katherine Rundell “The Explorer”

Katherine Rundell’s The Explorer is about four children who crashed in the Amazon jungle. They do their best to figure out the jungle and how to survive till they come across a cranky explorer. He is as surprised as they are about each other’s existence in the jungle. Nevertheless he takes charge and rather gruffly guides them on what to eat and what not to eat in the jungle. It is he who ultimately helps the children leave the jungle and return home for which they are eternally grateful.

The Explorer as with the novels Katherine Rundell writes is inspired by a historical fact. It becomes the basis of her fiction for young adults. For this particular novel it was the British geographer and explorer Peter Fawcett who was an artillery officer “with an astonishingly tough constitution and enough moustache for three men.”

He spent much of his life in search of what he called the City of Z, a city he imagined as richly sophisticated and peppered with gold. 

In 1925, shortly after crossing the Upper Xingu, a south-eastern tributary river of the Amazon, he and his two companions disappeared. He was never heard from again. 

Katherine Rundell has an eye for incredible detail in the storytelling making the action and landscape come alive on every page while at the same time the scrumptious illustrations are a bonus. In The Explorer it is the tiny details of jungle life, the behaviour of sloths, what kind of beans are appropriate to eat or not, descriptions of the river bank and the foliage — all ring true and understandably so, given the amount of research Katherine Rundell puts in for every book.

There was so much to look at; so much that was strange; so much that was new and vast and so very palpably alive.

The trees dipped down their branches, laden with leaves broad enough to sew into trousers. He passed a tree with a vast termite nest, as big as a bathtub, growing around it. He gave it a wide berth. 

The greenness, which had seemed such a forbidding wall of colour, was not, up close, green at all, Fred thought. It was a thousand different colours; lime and emerald and moss and jade and a deep dark almost black green that made him think of sunken ships. 

Fred breathed in the smell. He’d been wrong to think it was thick, he thought; it was detailed. It was a tapestry of air. 

The story itself about the children coming together on this adventure is so beautifully done wherein the individual personalities remain distinct but ever so slightly as the story progresses they also bond as a team. It is a triumph in storytelling for young adults — they who are at the cusp of adulthood but not too far from childhood and love imaginative storytelling. Hence it is absolutely wonderful that The Explorer won the Costa Book Awards 2017.

Katherine Rundell The Explorer ( Illustrated by Hannah Horn) Bloomsbury, London, 2017. Pb. pp.

2 May 2018 

Richard Ford “Between Them”

I know he didn’t take pleasure in books — where he could’ve found what we all find if we don’t have faith: testimony that there is an alternate way to think about life, different from the ways we’re naturally equipped. Seeking imaginative alternatives would not have been his habit. 

Between Them by Pulitzer prize winning author Richard Ford is a warmly told elegy to his parents — Parker Ford and Edna Akins. The title “Between Them” can be misleading for it implies that Richard Ford was a disruption in his parent’s lives. Whereas the portraits he creates via the two essays written decades apart about his parents is of the warmth, love and laughter that existed in their home. His father was a salesman selling starch and had to be on the road every week, returning home for the weekend. His parents were very close to each other having fallen in love at a very young age, married soon thereaafter and always remained together. For years they travelled together on the road selling starch. Fifteen years later their son was born. With the birth of Richard his parents had to make a few adjustments to their lives particularly as his schooling began, the biggest change for the close couple was to live apart for five days of the week.

Yet as Richard Ford writes in this excerpt published in Granta:

As time went on, did I ever sense that something was wrong between them? No. It was my child’s outlook to think most things were right. And yet if life’s eternal drama is of events seeking a more perfect state, their life and mine was not that. My recalled feelings over that time – my little-boy life, in Jackson, on Congress, in my first years, in the forties and beginning fifties – are of a hectic, changing, provisional existence. They loved me, protected me. But the experience of life was of events, of things and people in motion, and of being often alone and to the side of things. Which did not make me sorry and does not now.

Richard Ford wrote the essay remembering his father fifty-five years after his death whereas the essay about his mother was written soon after she passed away in 1981. Yet he published the essays in 2017 arranging the later written essay about his father first and that about his mother second. A telling arrangement since his memories about his father come through as being crystal clear. It is a straightforward narrative about a young boy recollecting his relationship with a more or less absent father since he was on the road mostly and then to lose him entirely when Richard was merely sixteen. It helps the reader considerably to get a narrative about America of the 1930s and the undeniable achievement of Ford Sr. to hold a job through the Depression. The account of his mother with whom he seems to have had a  closer relationship is a bit fuzzier with the adult Richard Ford tweaking his boyhood memories vis-a-vis his mother.

These tenderly written essays are memorable for not only being a deeply personal account by Ford of his family but also for the meditative aspect — for making the reader too introspect on the idea of family, love, memories.

Richard Ford Between Them: Remembering my Parents Bloombsury Publishing, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 180 Rs. 499  

Of books tackling medical science

Of late there have been a deluge of books making exploring medical science accessible to the lay reader too. This recognition of making technical knowledge available to the public in manageable morsels is a remarkable feat.

Maylis de Kerangal’s  Mend the Living is a novel about a young man who goes into an irreversible coma after a car accident. His organs, including the heart, are to be harvested. Mend the Living is primarily about the heart being transplanted. It is a haunting book for sharing different perspectives of all those affected by the death of Simon Limbeau. It is not only his immediate family — his parents, younger sister and girlfriend, but also the medical personnel responsible for Simon and the patients who would be receiving his organs. It is an extraordinarily mesmerising story, almost poetic in its narration, which has been translated fluidly from French into English by Jessica Moore. Here is a fabulous interview of the author by the translator published in Bomb magazine who insists “I have a strong conviction: I consider the translator as a writer, an author. I always have the feeling of being a translator myself, translating French into another language, which is the French of my books. All this nomadism of texts, the movement from one language to another, I find it so stimulating and rich. I don’t want to say at all that books’ themes, subjects, and stories don’t interest me, but for me what comes first is how a book provokes an experience of the world via language. So all these foreign languages remind me of the fact that I feel like a translator myself, and that translators, in a way, are the authors of these books.” Mend the Living, a work of fiction, won the Wellcome Book Prize 2017 — a surprising choice given that most often it is awarded to non-fiction.

Poorna Bell’s memoir Chase the Rainbow  is a tribute to her husband who committed suicide. He was a journalist who was able to mask effectively his acute depression and heroin addiction from everyone including his bride! It was only some years after her wedding did Poorna discover the truth by which time they had not only lost their home but were deep in debt. Mental health issues plague many but it is rarely discussed openly for the social stigma attached to it. Slowly there is a perceptible shift in this discourse too as more and more people are sharing their experiences of grappling with mental health issues or with their loved ones. This is critical since the caregivers too need support. It always helps to share information and challenging moments with caregivers in a similar situation without being judged — something those on the outside inevitably do.

Another fashionable trend in narrative non-fiction is to write histories of a significant medical occurrence. In this case Speaking Tiger Books has published the doctors-cum-writers team Kalpish Ratna’s competently told The Secret Life of Zika Virus . 


Bloomsbury has published a former consumption patient and scientist Kathryn Loughreed’s packed-with-information account Catching Breath: The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis  

Many, many more have been published. Many are readable. Many are not. It is a fine balancing act between an overdose of specialist information and storytelling. The fact is ever since access to information using digital tools became so accessible there been a noticeable explosion of science-based texts in publishing worldwide and it is not a bad thing at all!

An article worth reading is by Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee in NYT “The Rules of the Doctor’s Heart“, published on 24 October 2017. It is about his experience as a senior resident at a hospital in Boston in the Cardiac Care Unit, a quasi I.C.U. where some of the most acutely ill patients were hospitalized. One of his patients was a fifty-two-year-old doctor and scientist who had been admitted to await a heart transplant. It is an incredible essay!

Maylis de Kerangal  Mend the Living ( Translated by Jessica Moore) Maclehose Press, 2017. Distributed by Hachette India 

Poorna Bell Chase the Rainbow Simon and Schuster India 

Kalpish Ratna The Secret Life of Zika Virus Speaking Tiger Books 

Kathryn Loughreed Catching Breath: The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis Bloomsbury 

6 Oct 2017 , updated on 30 Oct 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

Happy birthday J. K. Rowling and Harry Potter!

31 July 2017. It is J. K. Rowling’s birthday. So also Harry Potter as decided by J. K. Rowling. The Harry Potter books have been in existence for twenty years or the equivalent of one entire generation. The first time I heard of Harry Potter was when a friend based in Chicago wrote asking if I had read this marvellous fantasy book for children. At the time I had not but very soon a copy arrived from a England. Everyone in the family devoured it. At the time I was guest-editor of the special issue on children and young adult literature of a literary magazine. It was the first time that these issues were being put together. The history of modern publishing, particularly children’s literature, can be traced through the history of the seven volumes of Harry Potter.

When Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone ( US edition published by Scholastic) and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone ( UK edition published by Bloomsbury) was published J.K. Rowling was an unknown and struggling author. She was single mother writing the book, which she had plotted minutely, in cafes around Edinburgh. Despite her agent’s wise advice “you will never make money selling children’s books” her manuscript was circulated amongst publishers. Most publishers rejected the book. Then it arrived at a fairly recent independent press called Bloomsbury, London. Bloomsbury had been established in 1986 by four people, including legendary editor Liz Calder whose authors include Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Joanna Trollope and John Irving. As Liz Calder narrated in a conversation to me while conducting a master class the British Council, Delhi, she has always been interested in authors. The arrival of the first Harry Potter manuscript was an uneventful day. Till she discovered a group of people sitting around a table absorbed in reading the manuscript, sharing it by passing each page of the manuscript to their neighbour as if they were playing passing the parcel! Bloomsbury decided to publish the debut novel by an unknown author. She was offered $4,000 as an advance against royalties by Bloomsbury. The first print run was for 500 copies. Bloomsbury was also afraid that young boys won’t want to read a book by a woman, they suggested she use her initials. Joanne added her grandmother’s name, Kathleen, to her own, producing “J.K. Rowling.” Soon after it was published she attended her first Edinburgh Literary Festival where a special tent had been set up to promote the book but if stories are to be believed there were only a few people who wanted to meet the author. In USA Scholastic Books won the auction for the U.S. rights to the series, giving Rowling an advance over $100,000, a record for a foreign children’s book. This enabled her to quit her teaching job and devote her time to writing.

The first book went on to win many prizes and catapulted J. K. Rowling to fame. It influenced children’s reading habits tremendously. It became evident to publishers fairly soon that this was a market to be taken notice of. Yet by the time Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was published the print run had risen to 10,000 copies and the book was still only available in UK and slowly reached other countries. By the time Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was released Pottermania had begun to take root and the publishers were more than willing to ship review copies across the world. I got my copy directly from the London office albeit a few weeks after publication date. With the subsequent volumes ( Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) the fame of Rowling was sealed. She became a global phenomenon. By the time the seventh and last volume, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, was published she had sold millions of copies of her books. Her publisher, Bloomsbury, had become cash-rich and were able to offer handsome advances against royalties to other authors. In fact the seventh title was released simultaneously across the world and I received my copy of the book on publication day, 31 July 2007. (I reviewed it for Outlook magazine.) It is believed that Rowling has so far sold more than 400 million copies of her books worldwide.

This is what Sarah Odedina, now Editor-at-Large, Pushkin Children’s Books wrote in an email to me about publishing Rowling. At the time Sarah was Publisher of Bloomsbury Children’s Books 1997-2011.

I was there for publication of the first book all the way through to the last book.

It was an amazing thing to be part of and yes the in-house love for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was strong. Particularly led by the wonderful marketing and PR person Rosamund de la Hey who never ever missed an opportunity to let people know just how brilliant the book was and how talented the author was. We were ambitious for the book from the get-go and knew it had great potential to win prizes and sell well – but little could we imagine what that ended up meaning.

Publication of the first book passed fairly normally – like most other books – without anything huge happening but within a few weeks we knew it was different as we started to get letters from children saying how much they loved the book and how the had shared it with their friend and all sorts of reactions from them as readers to the characters and the plot and definitely asking for more. It was really later books in which publication day became a huge focus. At the beginning it was about getting the book out in the shops and seeing how quickly J K Rowling built a loving and loyal readership.

In 2012 Rowling launched Pottermore. It was an incredibly bold move into the world of digital publishing by offering ebook versions of the Potter series. At the time there were multiple ereaders and extensions. Rowling made Pottermore as a one-stop halt to purchase any format ( print or digital) and get extra Potter-related news too. Her first CEO was Charlie Redmayne, now the HarperCollins UK CEO, who for the first time brought the author/publisher in direct contact with the consumer/reader using digital technology innovatively. ( Eddie Redmayne who acted in the movie Fantastic Beasts  is Charlie Redmayne’s brother.) Rowling’s close watch on the film adaptations of her books to screen are legendary as well with accounts of detailed storyboard discussions happening at her home in Scotland. ( Here is a link to Jim Cornish, storyboard artist, talks about his work on the Harry Potter films. )

It is twenty years since Harry Potter and his friends came into existence. Bloomsbury is celebrating it with the release of special editions of the first book in the four house colours — Red, Blue, Green and Yellow. They are utterly splendiferous and a joy to behold! The impact of Pottermania on publishing worldwide is that the healthiest growth rate is amongst children’s and young adult literature, across genres.

31 July 2017 

 

Diksha Basu’s “The Windfall”

“How come Americans get called expats but if we move to America, we’re called immigrants?” Mrs Jha asked. 

Diksha Basu’s debut novel The Windfall is about Mr Jha and his family. He belongs to a middle class family and stayed in East Delhi. One fine day a website he had made was bought by an American company for $20 million. This windfall suddenly gave Mr Jha an opportunity to fulfil his ambitions. He moved to a bungalow in the wealthier and leafy neighbourhood of Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi, abandoning the crowded apartment complexes of Mayur Palli where it was possible to overhear conversations from a neighbour’s home. He was able to buy himself a snazzy Mercedes and indulged in buying all kinds of clothes. He had a wife and a son too. Mrs Jha has a small business of ordering clothes from craftspersons and supplying them to her clients in Delhi. But once her husband had the windfall she suspended her career to help make the transition to Gurgaon. Their son, Rupak, was studying for his MBA in Ithaca University but was faring so poorly at it. He very soon returned to India without completing his degree.

The Windfall is about these socio-economic transitions that the Jha family made except moving into a neighbourhood and a culture that was as alien to them as visiting a foreign land. There are details about their acquisitions such as sofa from Japan embedded with Swarovski crystals which must be displayed however uncomfortable it is to sit upon or buying a machine to shine his shoes as seen in five star hotels only to embarassingly find it is frowned upon in the new social class Mr Jha aspires to be a part of.  Yet as they discover despite trying hard to keep up with the expectations of their new neighbours these material gains do not put the Jhas at ease.

The Windfall is a readable, pleasantly told tale which starts off promisingly well for its nuanced understanding of economic relationships –many of which are starkly apparent in modern India. It is a fair start for Diksha Basu’s literary career but it is her second, probably her third book, which will be truly worth waiting for.

Diksha Basu The Windfall Bloomsbury, New Delhi, India, 2017. Pb. 

11 July 2017 

 

 

Ann Patchett’s “Commonwealth”


Bookseller and award-winning author, Ann Patchett’s seventh novel, Commonwealth is an extraordinarily beautiful ann-patchett-portraitode to daily life in America. It is about an ordinary American family. A family where the parents have separated and built their lives separately with other partners and children again. Families where the lives and secrets of the brood of half-brothers and sisters comes together as it would for any other family. And yet there are many more subtle layers to this magnificently elegant novel. The single working mother trying to manage a brood of children. The mother managing her step children and trying to figure them out. The dying parents and anxious eagerness to share stories and memories before they finally fade away with death. The unforgiving mining of other’s personal lives for stories such as the writer Leon Posen does with Franny Keating. Commonwealth is a pithy commentary on how life proceeds, how people engage, communities are formed and disappear, the prejudices that exist even deep-seated racist attitudes — how families simply exist. The powerful but unobtrusive authorial narrator brings together with an understated deftness of what could have been a complicated story involving so many characters but is not.

Ann Patchett gave a marvellous interview to online literary magazine Guernica where she discusses these aspects to the novel including the very tender portraits. ( https://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/when-ann-patchett-is-emperor/?platform=hootsuite ) But there is a particular section in the interview where Ann Patchett’s love for books, reading, bookselling and being a writer come together seamlessly are about recommending books:

“That’s important to me, to recommend books. These are the books that I genuinely love. I read books I hate all the time, and I don’t mention them or talk about them. This is my job, my livelihood: the health and the well-being of the publishing industry. We’re all responsible for this. The By the Book section in the front of the Times Book Review—I get irritated when I read those, and somebody will only recommend books by people who are dead, because it makes them look smart. You know, “I’m reading Aristotle.” Well, great, but you know what, that’s not helping. If what we want to do is promote reading and writing and publishing and making sure this is a business that keeps going—because it is a business! It’s not just an art—then we have to take responsibility. I get sort of crazy and frothy when I think about this. It really matters.”
Read Commonwealth. It is time spent enriched.
Ann Patchett Commonwealth Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2016. Pb. pp. Rs 499 
4 November 2016 
 
*Ann Patchett’s portrait is off the internet. If you are the (C) holder please let me know and I will acknowledge it.