Debut novel Posts

Play with Me

Play with Me

Ananth 1Today, Ananth Padmanabhan’s debut novel, Play with Me, goes on sale. It is a slim novel
about a successful photographer, Sid, in a boutique ad agency. He is focused on his job, till he meets Cara, who has applied to be an intern at the agency, specifically working with Sid. Cara has relocated to India from New York. Her father is an Indian diplomat and her Turkish mother is the Islamic Art Consultant at the Met. Cara and Sid have a rollicking affair. They are sexually obsessed with each other, but slowly the relationship evolves. Cara introduces her girlfriend, Rhea to Sid too. But Sid discovers he is falling in love with another women altogether–Nat. It does make for a complicated situation. Play with Me

In a recent interview, Ananth Padmanabhan said “One day, when we were discussing EL James [author of the notorious S&M fantasy novel Fifty Shades of Grey] and commissioning erotic fiction, Chiki [ Sarkar] said, ‘A, you have to write this’; R Sivapriya [Penguin’s managing editor] had seen my work and told her about it. I said I’d give it a shot. On my commute from Gurgaon to Delhi every day, I would think about what I would do,” says the publisher’s unlikely erotica debut, Ananth, senior vice-president of sales. “It’s very difficult to get it right.” He couldn’t have picked a better or more difficult place to try his hand at writing about pleasure; your average head of sales is both perfectly placed to understand his market and new to playing the role of author. ( Rajni George, “Between the sheets”, OPEN, 31 July
2014  http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/books/between-the-sheets ) 

Ananth Padmanabhan, is Vice-President, Sales, Penguin Random House India. He has been with the firm since 1997 when David Davidar, then Penguin publisher offered him a job. As an experienced book salesman, he has a sharp sense of what it requires for a book to sell. At the same time he has a keen eye for detail as his passion for photography shows. In fact, two years ago he held an
exhibition of his black and white photographs called ‘Calcutta Walking in the City’–each frame had a story to tell. He blends his professional and personal interests well in his debut novel, Play with me. The book may have been commissioned out of a need to look for the Indian middle-class English reader of Fifty Shades of Grey, but as is the wont with good debut novelists, they tell a story with a fresh voice, anchored in details that they are usually most comfortable with. Ananth’s love for photography makes Play with me work at many levels– erotic fiction with competent and nuanced storytelling.

AranyaniPlay with Me is one of the few books published by prominent Indian publishers that deals with the genre of erotic fiction. Some of the others are A Pleasant Kind of Heavy and Other Erotic Stories by Aranyani ( Aleph Book Company, http://alephbookcompany.com/pleasant-kind-heavy-and-other-erotic-stories ) and Blue: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Short Stories from Sri Lanka, edited by Ameena Hussein ( Tranquebar Press, Westland, http://www.westlandbooks.in/book_details.php?cat_id=4&book_id=304 ). Over  a year ago, Rupa Publications launched the Confession series of low-priced books written by ordinary folks, sometimes anonymously, of sexual encounters that they had experienced  in their daily lives. Apparently these were “true” accounts written by tutors, housewives, young office workers etc. Unfortunately I am unable to locate the link to these stories now.Blue

The publishing success of Fifty Shades of Grey also attracted Hindi publishers such as Mr Narendra Verma, Chairman, Diamond Books. In an interview to me last year he said, “…we translated Fifty Shades of Grey, but it has been a trying experience with this book. As this book is written in English, translating it into Hindi first was not an easy task. It was primarily because all the words could not be translated, nor were they appropriate to be published in Hindi. The main hurdle was to not offend the middle-class reader’s sentiments. The translated text had to be edited many times before it could be released for publishing. The translation was done in-house with one of our empanelled translators. The first volume was released into the market with a print-run of 5,000, and was soon sent in for a reprint. It has been priced at Rs. 175. We are not expecting sales as phenomenal as those in English.” ( p.55, Narendra Verma, “We publish one book everyday”, PrintWeek India Book Special 2013.)

Back cover of Play with meErotic fiction is a genre that is slowly developing a space in the mainstream Indian market. As I write this, there is talk of one more eagerly-awaited for book, a memoir. A collection of erotic short stories by women which has been slated for publication for a while now has been stalled due to legal hassles. So erotic fiction continues to be a niche book market but in India it needs to be handled sensitively if it needs to sell well. As Mary Anne Mohanraj, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois, Chicago told me, “good erotica should be held to the same standards as any other good fiction, but in addition, it should also set an erotic mood, much as horror sets a horrific mood.” Hence it is not surprise then that Ananth Padmanabhan’s Play with me is already being spoken of as a sleeper-hit.

Ananth Padmanbhan Play with me Penguin Books India, 2014. Pb. pp. 250. Rs. 250

7 August 2014 

Zia Haider Rahman, “In the Light of What We Know”

Zia Haider Rahman, “In the Light of What We Know”

( My review of Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel, In the Light of What we Know, has been published in the Hindu Literary Review on 6 July 2014. Here is the url: http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/two-worlds-apart/article6180418.ece . I am also c&p the text below.)

in the light of what we know - zia haider rahmanBefore 9/11, I was invisible, unsexed. How is it that after 9/11 suddenly I was noticed – not just noticed, but attractive, given the second look, sized up, even winked at? Was that the incidental effect of no longer being of a piece with the background of being noticed, or was it sicker than that? Was this person among us no longer the meek Indian, the meek Pakistani, the sepoy, but fully man? Before 9/11, I was hidden behind the wall of colonial guilt after having been emasculated by a history of subjugation. ( p.20)

Many people do know quite a lot about Bangladesh. They happen to be living in the region. I don’t think Indians and Pakistanis are quite ignorant about Bangladesh as the people you have in mind, and they make up a fifth of the world.

What about writing for a Western audience? I asked.

Bridging two cultures?

Why not?

How well will a book about modern India sell to a Western audience, a  non-fiction book about this shocking economic trend-bucking phenomenon, if it were written by an Indian?

You could write against that, with one foot in the East and the other in the West. ( p. 320-1)

In the Light of What We Know is about two male friends, an unnamed narrator and Zafar, who first met as students at Oxford. Zafar is of Bangladeshi origin and his family is not very well off; unlike the narrator is from an affluent Pakistani family whose parents are academics, equally comfortable with the intelligentsia, politicians and high Society of New York as they are in Cambridge. The two friends after graduation went on to become bankers, soon to go their separate ways and lose touch with each other. The book consists of a long, meandering conversation with the men exchanging notes about their past, their careers, their families and their experiences since they last met in New York, when they were colleagues with bright futures at a financial firm. This meeting takes place in London, September 2008. There are moments when the narrator supplements the information with extensive notes he has read in Zafar’s diaries. At times it seems to meander into digressions (also lengthy epigraphs and extensive footnotes) that are packed with discussions revolving around cartography and the quality of translations (“Both of them face the same problem, namely, that they cannot capture everything exactly and they have to give up some things in order to convey anything at all.”); about war, atrocities committed during conflicts, experiences of an insider ( irregular) dealings in trading derivatives with the bankers who were the brains of these operations becoming collateral damage,  discussions about philosophers such as Erich Fromm the Jewish German American philosopher, Western Classical music, science and mathematics such as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, a theorem of mathematical logic about the impossibility of proving certain truths.

There is a story, albeit a thin one. It is about the relationship between two friends, a Pakistani and a Bangladeshi, two nationalities, belonging to two different parts of society yet it is a sense of belonging to the Indian subcontinent that keeps them together. Otherwise they have very little in common. Urdu, spoken in Pakistan and by Zafar’s parents, is not the narrator’s “mother tongue” so they resort to using English. These young men are representative of their generation—a South Asian professional of the diaspora—a close attachment and understanding of their own history, but acquire the sophistication required to move with grace in different societies. Along the way these young men become intellectual jukeboxes with sufficient bytes of information and cultural titbits to be accepted in various pockets of the world. It is like being a participant of a cultural tsunami. They encounter people of other nationalities who are like them too—Arab Muslims, Wahabi, Sunni, Israeli and Russian, Pakistani Christians, Arab Christians, Palestinian Christians, Coptic Christians, Englishmen who were in the Burma War—who in all likelihood have an equally complicated mixed bag of religious, cultural and nationalistic considerations to think about.

Read In the Light of What We Know as a middle class reader of twenty-first century experimental literature. Have no expectations of it being a novel of the classical form—a structured, chronologically told, multi-layered story. It is not. It is probably a biography, but even the narrator is not quite sure what to term it—“current enterprise” or “present undertaking”. The Internet is creating a new kind of fiction where sections of a novel that would work very well as an independent digital long read are being embedded in the architecture of the printed story. Zia Haider Rahman’s first fiction is a sound example of South Asian literature becoming a global novel, not necessarily an immigrant novel. It is at the cusp of the Anglophone novel infused with the confidence and characteristic of South Asian literary fiction. It is unapologetic about its style and is best read like a stream of consciousness set in an absurd drama. The novel could have been reduced by at least 100 pages without any harm done, yet it is a forceful debut—definitely one of the new and promising writers of 2014.

6 July 2014 

Zia Haider Rahman In the Light of What We Know Picador India, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. Pp. 560 Rs. 599 

Neamat Imam, “The Black Coat”

Neamat Imam, “The Black Coat”

The_Black_Coat_a_novel_by_Neamat_ImamThe language of rebellion is simple whereas the language of governance is very intricate. ( p.148)

Neamat Imam’s debut novel The Black Coat is about newly independent Bangladesh in 1970s. It is set during Sheikh Mujib’s rule. It is a chilling tale about power, money, greed and survival. It is set against the backdrop of a new nation struggling to survive, a terrible famine that cripples the nation, the never ending stream of refugees to contend with and the lawlessness that exists even in the cities. Thieves break into homes to carry away a grain of rice, poor and old women steal clothes hung out to dry, and anything that can be sold is sold, anything to earn a few coins. The novel is about journalist Khaleeque Biswas who has lost his job capitalising on the talent of an uneducated young man, Nur Hussain, for mimicking the famous speech of the prime minister Sheikh Mujib delivered on 7 March 1971. Soon they are speaking at roadside corners, public spots and earning as well before the ruling party hires them to deliver the speech for political rallies organised during campaigning. It is a technique to evoke the patriotic sympathies of the citizens. The reference to the black coat in the title is the coat made famous by Sheikh Mujib.

It is a dark and horrifying tale. If the events mentioned were confined to history books then it may be easier to read. But it is not to be. There is poverty, lawlessness, social structures crumbling and the greed and manipulation of politicians. A cycle that is often repeated.

Neamat Imam is a Bangladeshi-Canadian writer. This is his debut novel. His book has been received with critical acclaim such as in this review http://www.outlookindia.com/article/Father-And-Sons-Or-The-Lie-Of-The-Land/285600 ( Indi Hazra, “Father And Sons, Or The Lie Of The Land”, Outlook Magazine, 3 June 2013). Yet the homepage of his website ( http://neamatimam.com/ ) has a distressing tale to recount. Read his post about seeking reviewers for his book ( “Wanted: Reviewers”).

Publishing is often referred to as an eco-system, a term borrowed from biology, an organic and evolving system, dependent upon the organisms that exist within it and their symbiotic relationship with each other. Similarly with politics and literature.  Literature and politics have always been inextricably linked. It is impossible to dissociate one from the other. Literature is created out of the times/environment it is written in. Black Coat is a book that must be read as an example of fine literature describing a politically turbulent time in Bangladesh’s history. It is taut, has a perspective to offer (whether you agree with it or not) and the words are used with care. Neamat Imam’s post on his homepage is testimony to how closely literature and politics are interlinked.

Read Black Coat

Neamat Imam The Black Coat Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 250. Rs. 499.

23 June 2014 

“The Scatter Here is Too Great” Bilal Tanweer

“The Scatter Here is Too Great” Bilal Tanweer

THe scatter here is too greatMy father was particularly fond of stories from the long epic fantasy, Tilism Hoshruba. In these stories about evil sorcerers and good tricksters, when a sorcerer was killed, his head would split open and a bird sprung out announcing the sorcerer’s name and the murderer’s name one by one. ‘In this city, a part of us dies each day, and a bird springs out of our open skulls each day announcing our death and the addresses of our murderers,’ he said to me once while were taking a walk on the beach, ‘but nobody listens. The air is thick with the chorus of these birds of death. Listen.’ 

My father imagined the world and each object as part of continuous stories. In his stories the universe answered his questions, the past was visible and the future illuminated. Things had reasons and they all connected. 

But unlike my father, when I looked back into the past, all I saw was pitch black darkness and heard unnamed voices trying to override each other in their attempts to reach me–and I felt indifferent to all of them. That’s when I concluded that my father’s way of imagining the universe was naive, simplistic, and wrong, just plain wrong. He was wrong about the world. The world and its stories did not continue or cohere. We were all just broken parts and so were our stories. True stories are fragments. Anything longer is a lie, a fabrication. 

Bilal TanweerBilal Tanweer’s debut novel, The Scatter Here is Too Great, is set in Karachi, Pakistan. It is a string of perspectives about a bomb blast at a station in the heart of the city. A situation not unfamiliar to this seaside town. It is the telling that is so special. The English used is so sophisticated and yet, remarkably, it seems to captures the cadences of Urdu, the language  that is spoken locally. While reading the novel you can hear it, without it disrupting or distracting the reader from the story. The details in the story, the gentle but powerful manner in which the characters are created, slowly and steadily, they leave a lasting impression. Notably the description of the breakdown nineteen-year-old Akbar is moving. He is the younger brother of the narrator, three days away from his wedding but was the ambulance driver at the scene of the bomb blast and was horrified by what he saw. The story comes together despite the chaos — in the city and in the lives that are turned topsy-turvy. It is as if the author is writing about the events in Karachi as an insider with an outsider’s perspective. He is an insider since he writes sensitively, with empathy, a bit of emotion and an understanding but has the detachment to write it as an outsider. No wonder it took him eight years to write this slim novel.

A novel worth reading.

Bilal Tanweer The Scatter Here is Too Great Random House India, Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 204 Rs. 350

 

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