fiction Posts

“The ARC” by Torey Henwood Hoen

“As we like to say,” Dr. Vidal continued, “Love is particular. You’re an individual — you’re not a ‘type’/ You deserve to be with someone who appreciates you for your idiosyncrasies, and vice versa. What it comes to love, we want you to believe that anything is possible.

Torey Henwood Hoen’s debut novel The ARC is about a dating agency of the same name ( Corvus imprint, Atlantic Books). The protagonist, Ursula Byrne, a successful architect, pays a hefty fee to subscribe to their services. Eighty percent of US$40,500 is to be paid upfront and twenty percent after eighteen months of the client having spent time with the partner they were introduced to via the dating app. Ursula is introduced to Rafael and they have an immediate connection. But it takes them a while to recognise that they are meant for each other, while being plagued by doubts about the dating agency. The ARC is a crackling mix of light romantic fiction with some literary fiction qualities and a magnificent dose of a strong, independent woman. Increasingly commercial fiction has stronger women characters who are phenomenal role models for their readers. It is a segment of readers that are probably less than thirty five years and are probably not as well versed with the intricacies of various women’s movements but are benefitting from the many freedoms won. Reading The ARC confirms this viewpoint that Ursula is very capable of standing her own in any kind of a corporate set up but her vulnerability is visible when she is alone at home with her adopted cat. The ARC has a very predictable ( but extremely satisfying) conclusion but it is probably exactly what we need to read in this neverending pandemic. It reminds us of the joy that can be experienced in simple acts such as finding the right person to love.

And when coincidentally, tweets like this pop up on Valentine’s Day when I was reading the book, you know that such books like The ARC will exist for a very long time. Dating apps, matchmakers, dating websites and matrimonial sites will never go out of fashion. Nor will literature based upon romance. Everyone wants to experience it at least once.

The ARC is enjoyable.

14 Feb 2022

“The Paris Bookseller” by Kerri Maher

22 Feb 2022 marks the centenary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The person responsible for publishing it was Sylvia Beach after the manuscript was rejected by umpteen publishers. Later, she relinquished the rights to Random House. But she was the key person who believed in the book.
Read about this extraordinary woman and the first twenty years of her famous bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, in The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher ( Hachette India). The novel is as interesting as the Afterword.

Here is a piece of history. Sylvia Beach interviewed three days before she passed away. She speaks about meeting James Joyce at a party and offers to publish Ulysses. ( “Publishing James Joyce’s “Ulysses” 1962, RTE Archives)

And here is an image of Sylvia Beach’s gravestone in Princeton. It was tweeted by Irish Times journalist, Fintan O’ Toole on 2 Feb 2022.

22 Feb 2022

“Blue Skinned Gods” by S. J. Sindhu

Blue Skinned Gods by  S J Sindhu is the memoir of a childgod, Kalki, who is blueskinned and thus perceived as an avatar of Vishnu. It is a coming-of-age novel that calls out the hypocrisy of religion, castesim and the shocking attitudes towards women that persist; while dissecting sharply other aspects of society, especially patriarchy and the manner in which it controls, constructs, imbues, destroys society and relationships. It is heartbreaking to see how the young Kalki is constantly looking at his Ayya for approval but it is not easily forthcoming.
Ultimately, religion is the opiate of the masses and this book delves deep into it. It is definitely a bildungsroman too as Kalki grows, develops and goes into adulthood. Sexuality too is like an electric undercurrent in the novel as Kalki experiments. There are moments when the much older Kalki reflects back upon his life, and much has happened. He has learned to break shackles and move ahead. He lives. He experiments. He travels — metaphorically and literally. It is a pretty sharply told story.

It is a novel that exoticises India in the same manner as Raghubir Singh did with his photographs many years ago. It presents an India to the world that they associate with India. It is a book that will appeal to foreigners as it checks many boxes regarding India especially wrt Hinduism, spirituality, a way of life etc. It is saleable.A vast number of these novels are emerging from overseas markets that offer a perspective on India. In many ways they sound dated as the writers are distanced — physically and in time — from India. Whereas the country is changing so rapidly that it is unkind to present India in a specific light. Even the protagonist, Kalki, who promises to be an interesting person as he learns to defy authority, ultimately feels very wooden. While it is essential for desi literature to expand its horizons and have more and more writers contributing to this space, perhaps it is equally prudent to have more engagements, like cross-pollination of experiences, between writers based in and writing out of India with those of the diaspora.

Ideally speaking, a panel discussion between S J Sindhu and Saikat Majumdar would be fascinating. Perhaps, it can be organised?

19 Jan 2022

Jonathan Franzen “Crossroads”

I have liked Jonathan Franzen’s writings ever since I began reading his essays in the National Geographic and some other random places. Also, my admiration for him rose immensely once I discovered he had mentored a writer like Nell Zink. I have never understood why he was detested since he does not seem to brook fools. This new novel of his – Crossroads ( HarperCollins India)– is very good simply because it is not pretentious. His historical details like in the off-the-cuff references to music, life, clothes, etc. He also makes it clear in the speech formulations, sometimes in the slang used. I have not marked any passages in the book but when I was reading it, I thought to myself, oh this is so outdated but fits with the age. The whole point of the novel seems to be to focus on this middle-class white Christian family, a pastor’s family, the Hilderbrandts. As Marion constantly reminds herself and everyone that she is a Pastor’s wife, so many of her skills such as remembering useless details about individuals is her strength, a quality that marks a pastor’s family as it is expected of you. Franzen chooses to share exactly what he wishes to. The NYRB review questions the historical fiction aspect of the novel. The examples the reviewer takes out to highlight the lack of historicity are exactly what caught my eye as clever acts by Franzen. The reviewer misses out completely all the references to music, the slow intermingling of the white and black congregations, the silent pacts that the white and black pastors have, understanding how their flock has to be managed, the Navajo community etc. While reading Crossroads, I kept thinking about The Cross and the Switchblade.

It requires extraordinary talent required to create the back stories of individuals. Marion may be the flimsiest and vaguest woman but hers is amongst the strongest portrayals in the book. It is brilliant. Her descent into a nervous breakdown is stupendous. The novel is so much about the white middle class crisis, a family saga, a Christian family, the huge hold of the church upon its congregation and the way life revolves around the church – the idea of community. Recent reviews have dismissed the party at the main pastor’s house in one line but it is a crucial part of the story. The guests were from different denominations and religions, there was even a rabbi, and the smattering of conversations one hears, is a pretty good analysis of faith and the questions it raises – the importance of religion in modern society. The manic-depressive junkie son, Perry Hildebrandt, brings this party to a halt with his statements about what it means to be good or not, especially in the eyes of these men, leaders of their flock.

Franzen is playing on the title of the Key to all Mythologies, a reference to Casaubon’s unfinished book in Middlemarch, and mocking modern readers for their high falutin, obnoxious takes on being woke about various issues esp. black and minority cultures. He is just sharing as is. Franzen is achieving two things:

  1. He is calling out all this pretentiousness of liberals today of genuflecting towards minorities and giving them their dues. With this story he is trying to say, look you choose to see what you chose but whites did culturally appropriate much of the black culture in their lives and called it their own, such as Cream’s Crossroads lifting Robert Johnson’s song, but then Crossroads is also the name of the Youth Fellowship in the church – confusion galore! So Franzen is really showing his exasperation.
  2. In the pandemic, literature about the pandemic and other anxieties are being much lauded, but by displaying the ordinariness of family and church life, he is making people rethink the value of family, community and simple pleasures. Although there is enough drama in each individual’s life to merit a book by itself.

Crossroads is more than just an American novel. It is an incredible master class in the art of writing good literary fiction. It is also a way of sharing memories, histories and incredibly delving into the microcosm of a family. Usually, family saga novels tend to focus on a single character and then all the other relatives pale into insignificance. Or family sagas take generations to play out, with the novelist devoting many pages to each generation. In this case, he has written over 600 pages to cover a very short period of time, giving everyone due weightage — and yet not. The varying lengths of each backstory for every individual is a testament to Franzen’s craftsmanship. He is not out to prove that he can do great literary writing. He is giving every character as much is their due. He is so right in saying that he puts down what he sees. Heavens this man is quite the observer and listener. Much of the time, I feel like screaming and saying, “Yes, yes, he got this so well!” The whole idea of creating a mythical town that is really in the suburbs of Chicago, but is a conservative Christian community is done so well. Franzen too spent time in a Church Youth Fellowship. Anyone who is even remotely familiar with church communities and their groups, may realise that these gatherings can get so claustrophobic and stifling and develop their own inner dynamics that then spill out in other parts of life. Franzen gets this really well — the power of the church, the idea of the spiritual and how much of it is really driven by mortal, base and materialistic desires. Also, how much of the outer world preoccupations do not make any dent on this small community. They seem to sail on as before till the cracks begin to develop. The outside world makes its presence felt only because Franzen makes it happen as an external force that is affecting the lives of the characters. Beginning with Clem Hildebrandt, the eldest son of the pastor. A privileged white male who has the option of pursuing University but chooses to give it up to join the Vietnam war. His sister who falls in love with a musician, Tanner, who too nurses an ambition to cut a commercially successful record, but is aware that it can only happen if he leaves this small town. Or even the pastor, the shepherd of the flock, who does all this good work but is bored of his wife and is eyeing the young widow, Frances. It is so complicated. So ordinary. So mundane. But Franzen does not make it so. And so much focus on Russ, the priest, and mocking him but also justifying the choices he makes is an interesting take on a man who is supposed to be a shepherd, a leader but is so out of touch with the youngsters. The idea of a community is very critical to Franzen. He mentioned it in one of his recent essays as an aside. He is keen to give to his community and does his best for it too. So, it is an ideal central to his thinking in this book too.

With the title Crossroads Franzen gives the reader multiple interpretations for the word. Beginning with the Cream album of the same name, that was actually a cover version of the blues musician Robert Johnson’s original composition to many of the characters in the book being at the moral crossroads of a situation to being at the crossroads of life. So many layers to the word. It is utterly fascinating. The crisis that Franzen depicts in the lives of these characters is no different to many other ordinary lives. It is no wonder that Crossroads has taken many people by surprise and is getting fantastic reviews everywhere because there is no pretension; it is up front and Franzen says it like he means.

Links to some reviews:
Guardian ; Slate ; The Bookseller ; https://www.avclub.com/jonathan-franzen-sticks-with-what-works-and-loses-what-1847751729 ; BBC ; https://www.vulture.com/article/interview-jonathan-franzen-crossroads.html?utm_source=tw

I look forward to Parts 2 & 3.

4 October 2021

“The Time Of The Peacock” by Siddharth Chowdhury

The Time Of The Peacock by Siddharth Chowdhury is fabulous. It is published by Aleph Book Company. Fiction that is thinly veiled account of contemporary Indian publishing is always very welcome. But a story/s like this that smartly begins like a “straightforward” story in English, slowly disappears into a fascinating literary rabbit hole of diverse landscapes and cultures and conversations that India has to offer. It requires extraordinary skill sets as a writer to put the spotlight on publishing as we know it today in India and then make mincemeat of it by upturning the smooth English narrative style by slipping into dialects. The plot is deftly contextualised within the disturbing socio-political landscape of India where the publishing world becomes an excuse to dip in and dip out of stories and socio-economic classes, thereby at times highlighting the narrowness of the books being published that at times fail to mirror their society. It is a story that is very reminiscent of Elif Batuman ‘s magnificent novel The Idiot, in which the author transformed not just the protagonist but the reader too with the astonishing storytelling, a combination of the plot and literary techniques that slowly developed, layer by layer, as the student in the novel acquired the requisite academic skills. Similarly with The Time of the Peacock, the reader is left emotionally drained but in a satisfying way. In all likelihood it will be a book that will be read, critically analysed, dissected and assume academic importance in the years to come.

Worth reading!

18 Feb 2021

“Kratu” by Samarpan

When I first heard about Kratu ( PanMacmillan India), I wanted to read it. I wanted to know what a Hindu monk, as the author describes himself, had to say about mortality, spiritual awakening and perhaps even about “moh-maya” that we are taught about in Hindi poetry. But it all came to a grinding halt when I read the book blurb. I have been unable to process the description of the book especially when it describes the protagonist of the novel “burdened by deathless memory”. I am so lost as to what it means. I was advised to read the book and understand what the author is conveying. But this phrase instead of making me curious has just left me baffled. Life is too short to read an entire book-length exposition on the subject when the blurb itself fails to communicate clearly. I am deeply disappointed.

I strongly urge those with a spiritual bent of mind or who are keen readers of MBS ( Mind, Body, Spirit) literature to pick this book up. They are probably the intended audience.

14 Jan 2021

“A Bit of Everything” – panel discussion, 11 Jan 2021

Debut novelist Sandeep Raina will be in conversation with literary stalwarts Anita Nair and Omair Ahmad on Monday, 11 Jan 2021 to discuss his novel A Bit of Everything. It is a conversation organised by Westland Books and India International Centre, New Delhi. The moderator will be Janani Ganesan. It should be interesting to hear the panelists as this is probably Anita’s first public appearance since she was appointed #UNHCR’s high profile supporter, to help create trust, awareness, and advocate about the situation of refugees in India. It could not be at a more relevant discussion since a significant proportion of Sandeep’s novel is about refugees, circumstances that make people leave their homes in search of “better” pastures, unexpected situations they find themselves in and attitudes of others towards refugees. Ultimately how does it affect the refugees themselves. So many questions are raised and need to be addressed. Omair too is known for his astonishingly powerful and award-winning novel Jimmy The Terrorist. Although writing ten years apart, Sandeep Raina and Omair Ahmad share much common ground in their literary creations on what affects them as writers, what exists as realities and how do ordinary folks negotiate these violent landscapes and learn to survive. They do it in their inimitable gentle, courteous and pleasant way but are equally passionate about how painful and senseless many of these events are.

Log in folks. Watch it.

Update: here is the link to the recording:

5 January 2021

Interview with Gitanjali Kolanad

Gitanjali Kolanad was involved in the practice, performance, and teaching of bharata natyam for close to forty years. Her short story collection Sleeping with Movie Stars, published by Penguin India, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Prize. She has written numerous articles on aspects of Indian dance for well-known Indian publications. She co-founded IMPACT, which teaches and promotes Indian martial art forms.

Girl Made of Gold is Gitanjali Kolanad’s debut novel, published by Juggernaut Books. It is historical fiction set in Thanjavur in the 1920s. It revolves around the mysterious disappearance of a young devadasi called Kanaka and, as if in her place, a statue of a woman in pure gold mysteriously appears in the temple to which she was to be dedicated. Many villagers assume tht Kanaka has turned into the girl made of gold. Others are determined to search for her. It is a novel that certainly leaves an impact. Even award-winning author Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni was moved to say ‘Girl Made of Gold is an exquisitely written novel, bejewlled with authentic cultural details and characters who take up permanent residence in the reader’s heart. This story of love, loss and discovery will keep you turning the pages until the astonishing end.’

Now the author is completing her second novel, set in Tanjore in the 1930s.

Q1. How long did it take to write Girl Made of Gold? Which was the initial idea in the plot that gripped you and developed into a story? 

The initial idea is exactly as I tell in my Afterword: I had a few friends visiting from the UK staying with me in my flat in Madras, so I’d invited VAK Ranga Rao to meet them. He’s a great raconteur, simply full of stories, especially given his multi-faceted life experience, born into a royal family, being a dancer, music critic, film afficionado, well-read, well-travelled. He told us all this story that a devadasi had told him: a girl of her own illustrious family had turned herself into a gold statue in order to escape the attentions of a man. That story raised so many questions – why didn’t she want the man to become her patron? What was so awful about him, or about her situation that she would want to escape from it by means of such a drastic step? And if you don’t believe in girls turning themselves into gold statues, then what really did happen to the young devadasi? That story, from the moment I heard it I knew it was going to occupy my thoughts for a long time. I remember that I actually felt a shiver down my spine.

Then I discovered that such stories of devadasis are in the stalapuranas of many temples – when a man takes a devadasi’s half-chewed paan into his mouth, he becomes a great poet; when a king has a devadasi’s long beautiful hair shaved off, it grows back overnight. Within that world, a devadasi turning into a gold statue is accepted.

Q2. How many drafts did you need to create before completion? 

Getting to even one full draft that I could hand to someone else to read was a long laborious process. Clearly, I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. By the time I actually completed my first draft, I’d been researching and writing bits and pieces of the novel for more than five years. But finally, I had managed to get the characters alive in my mind, and I could then record their actions and sentiments almost effortlessly. Or at least, with real enjoyment rather than struggle. So I didn’t need to completely rewrite many sections. The first draft felt like a huge achievement, to get the words onto the page so you can see what’s wrong, what needs editing, what needs to be filled out. It still took a year from the first draft to the finished version that is in print.

Q3. What is the writing schedule you follow? 

You have to remember that I didn’t know what I was doing when I started writing. I was a dancer. What does a dancer do? Well, we warm up, do some basic exercises, and that’s what I try to do as part of a daily practice. I write every day for no purpose whatsoever. I don’t care if it’s good, bad or indifferent, it’s just for the feel of my pen moving across the page. I have established rituals of practice that work for me, just as I did as a dancer. I write in long hand, the early stages are never on a computer. The pen has to be just right – black ink, fountain pen, cheap, so I don’t cry if I lose it, since I carry it with me everywhere. The paper has to be just right – squared paper in an A5-sized spiral notebook so it can fit in my bag. I can get very attached to a particular notebook and then if the company stops making it, it’s a tragedy – I worry that I’ll never be able to write again. It has happened to me several times over the years, so now when I find a good notebook I buy ten. No Moleskins or anything expensive – I have to feel that I can write pages and pages of the most utter nonsense without fear of wasting money.

Then, when there’s a germ of a story, I have to let myself be consumed by it, I need time with no fixed appointments of any kind. Then I’ll write intensely and with great focus for hours and hours, early in the morning, late at night, until the story is done. At some point I will feel it settle into a still vague but somewhat coherent shape. At that point I go on the computer and start transcribing my notes. After that all the writing is a process of rewriting, editing, word choice, much more analytical and conscious because the unconscious, creative work has already been done. During this second stage I go back to behaving like a human being, bathing, brushing my teeth, doing chores. I can drop into and out of this part of the process and go back to meeting the world’s demands.

Q4. Do you develop backstories for your characters? I ask as at times it seems as if you are very familiar with the characters, almost as if you are clear about their movement, their emotions, their inner thoughts. Much like you would expect a dancer to internalise a story in order to give it a strong expression. 

I don’t think of it as ‘back story’, because during the time when I’m writing in long hand, I have no idea whatsoever as to what will be useful and what not. So yes, there is a great deal that turns out to be back story, but it is at a much later stage of the writing process where decisions like that are made and I come to know what goes into the story and what remains in the notebook, what needs to be foregrounded and what is there simply to make the character real for me. It’s very true that it’s like bringing a padam to life in dance, thank you for noting that. I develop a feel for the nayika as young or mature, as quick to anger, or always calm, as the kind of woman who hides her tears, or one who weeps openly, by embodying her again and again in practice. That’s how I come to  know her very well, from the inside out, as it were. That’s the only method I know to make the facial expressions cohere into a nayika that has life on stage.

Q5. Devadasis occupy an unusual space in society. Social rules accord them respect and status while giving them social mobility as well. It is a complicated relationship but as you have shown in the novel, it also makes the devadasis very vulnerable. Why did you choose the devadasi storyline as the basis of your novel? 

I didn’t choose that storyline so much as it entered and planted itself in me. But I was fertile ground for that kind of seed, because the repertoire of bharata natyam that I’d been immersed in for so long, was the devadasi’s bodily experience. I’d already learned padams like the one which says, ‘Why should I be afraid of anyone’s gossiping/ with a great man like him as my lover?’ or ‘Where is the nose ring you promised me?’ or ‘That cunning woman has trapped him/he won’t come back to me’. The songs suggest a world of jealousy, illicit relationships and intrigue – what could be a better inspiration for a novel?

Q6. In Girl Made of Gold there is a lot of brutality, a murder and the violent patriarchal attitude of the men towards to their women. Was it hard to write these portions of the story? 

When I was working on the novel in London, newspaper stories about the rape and murder of the young girl, only eight years old, in Kashmir, were everywhere, and at unexpected moments, a sudden image of her suffering would come out of nowhere to blindside me, and I could do nothing but weep. What are verbal descriptions compared to real life cruelty? So yes, it is difficult to write of pain and violence, but at the same time, once it’s on the page, there is some semblance of relief. Those scenes of brutality in my novel are written from my own experience, or the experiences of women I spoke to. Which woman in India, or in any other country for that matter, has never been molested? I’d really like to meet her. I was molested when I studied dance in Madras, not as violently as in my novel, but it certainly gave me a point of entry into the scene. And when I went to Gokak to talk to the devadasi women there, they described with extreme frankness the horror of being forced as young girls to have sex with much older men. It’s no fun for the girl, I can tell you. And yet she would often fall in love with the man. I was always conscious that emotional truth is often messy and difficult and complicated.

Q7. Was it easy to transit from a being professional Bharatnatyam dancer to a novelist? What were the pros and cons?

I can’t regret being a bharatanatyam dancer, even though I never had much of a career. Being a dancer requires such discipline – what you eat, when you go to bed, how you sleep, all the care that is required – no high heeled shoes for example, no make-up daily, so that my skin could recover from the stage make-up. And since I wasn’t ever a well-known dancer, my performances were few and far apart, yet I still had to stay in practice, because the deterioration is so quick – miss two or three days and then take twice that long to get back to the same level. I was lucky: my two gurus Nana Kasar and Kalanidhi Narayan made the process of practicing the end in itself; they taught me to give up performance as a goal, and instead make daily practice an end in itself. This is a lesson I took with me into writing.

I felt very lucky to be a dancer when I saw the struggle my friend the painter Vasuddha Thozur had to store her work. A space had to be found to keep her beautiful paintings, while my work left no residue, stopped weighing on me the minute I was finished with it. I loved that feeling of not being tied down by what I’d already done.  And the masterpieces weren’t hung on the wall, they were within me – ragamalika varnum, a Jayadeva ashtapadi, a thillana in Mohana raga, they became part of my cellular structure. On the other hand, when I stopped dancing, I had nothing much to show for decades of work. A dance piece that no one was interested in when I first performed it, can’t find a more sympathetic audience in the next generation, as books sometimes do. So that’s the big difference – a book has a life separate from the writer, while the dance and the dancer are indivisible.

Q8. In a Bharatanatyam performance, the onus is upon the dancer to tell a story from multiple perspectives. In a riveting dance performance the multiple characters stand out. In some senses, it holds true for a novelist as well. What was your experience in writing the novel, telling a story using words as opposed to being a dancer telling a story using visual expressions and hands to emote? 

The experience of dancing is so immediate and flowing that is it is hard to describe exactly what’s happening in those moments of eyes, fingers, arms, legs, torso, moving in stylized ways. Not only that, an analytical approach to what’s going on can inhibit the process, and for me, the attempt has always been to silence that part of my consciousness that watches and comments, usually critically, on what I’m doing. That movement in and out of characters is an embodied melting of consciousness like a stream around rocks, and no surprise, the word for that state is ‘flow’. It’s very exciting but also risky, and what it means is that sometimes, it’s not going to be a riveting performance at all.

In my writing, I try to do the same thing, get into that state of flow, but with the advantage that once the words are on the page that critical faculty can be exercised to get rid of whatever isn’t working.

Q9. Did you at any time find that the characters were in control of the story rather than you or were you always sure how the plot would develop? 

It’s a strange kind of magic the way the characters take on a life of their own – many writers have made the phenomena central to their fiction, as in Jorge Luis Borges story ‘The Other’, where there is a confusion between the character and the author, or in Peter Carey’s novel, ‘My Life as a Fake’ where the character tries to kill his creator. Those are doppelganger stories, but the experience is the same even when the character is very different from the author. All of us who love reading know that feeling, otherwise why visit Baker St. to see where Sherlock Holmes lived? And if the characters in other people’s books can be so alive, then it’s no surprise that one’s own characters take on a life of their own and do exactly as they please. The plot develops out of their behaviour, and I have to wait for them to do something, and watch and listen, and write it down, rather than move them around like pawns on a chessboard, or puppets. That’s why it’s so time consuming! Characters are very stubborn and don’t take kindly to hints from the author, at least in my experience.

Q10. What were the challenges in writing historical fiction? What did the research for this novel entail? What are the examples of historical fiction that appeal to you? 

The challenge of historical fiction is to be true to as many facts as you can ferret out about the times you’re writing about, and it’s very difficult to figure out very simple things – like when did people in a small village in South India start having clocks on their walls, or watches on their wrists? How would people talk about time if there wasn’t a clock? Or when cars were introduced to India, how did they get gas? There were no petrol stations. I read about a rich man who’d sit in his car and have it pushed along the street by his servants. Try as I might, I couldn’t work that wonderful little detail into Girl Made of Gold. Maybe into the next one. Little things like that make it both treacherous and great fun to write about a time period that is outside one’s own experience.

I tried to read newspapers and magazines written in exactly the times I was writing about, as well as novelists who were contemporary then. I read the District Manuals for Tanjore, Puddukottai and the Madras Presidency for the relevant years, at the British Library, and I actually went to the District Collector’s Office in Tanjore, and they let me sit at a desk, while a clerk brought me boxes of papers which I could read, actual letters about the daily affairs – droughts, harvests, crimes, the weather. I lived in an agraharam near Tanjore, and spoke to old people who remembered the period. I could do research forever if I let myself, because there is endless information that can be unearthed.

I read ‘War and Peace’ when I was a student at Kalakshetra in the early 1970s, when there was literally nothing else to do and books from the Russian Cultural Centre were cheap; I skipped over the history at first, but then I’d have to go back and read those parts too, out of boredom with staring at the walls of my room in the hostel.The voice of the geisha Sayuri in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ held me in its thrall, I was completely transported into a different culture, values and time period that became vivid and real. I’m also an avid reader of the Judge Dee murder mysteries, set in the Tang dynasty, by Robert van Gulik. Hillary Mantel has made historical fiction newly popular, but the period, place and people she writes about are simply not of interest to me, so I haven’t read anything by her, though I’ve been very inspired by her fearlessness in going against prevailing versions of history.

Q11. A mesmerising aspect of your storytelling in the novel are the sentences. I had to put the book down many times as I kept getting the sense that you were trying to replicate a dance performance in the manner in which the words were strung. Did you play with the structure of the sentences consciously?

Thank you for saying that. Whenever I get stuck I use structure as a force to make something happen. So if everything on the page is tedious, I use the rhythms of the dance korvais as a constraint: That – dit – tha num – num – num – di. Afterwards, I don’t necessarily keep that pattern in the finished sentence, but at least it gets my pen moving, and maybe some of that rhythm has left a trace in the finished novel.

Also, the most famous analogy about the bharata natyam performance, the margam, is that it’s structured as a temple. Balasaraswathi said that alaripu is like entering the temple; by the time the padams are danced, one has reached the dark interior of the sanctum sanctorum. That mapping of dance onto temple stayed with me, and I brought it to mind while I wrote the novel, it was a potent image, so if some resonance of that has struck you, I’m very gratified.

Q12. Nowadays the trend is to get stories adapted to film but do you think Girl Made of Gold can be adapted into a dance performance? 

Can I confess that I would love to see the Netflix series of Girl Made of Gold? I can imagine a girl like the beautiful 14-year-old Aparna Sen in Satyjit Ray’s ‘Teen Kanya’ playing Kanaka. Someone, please, make this happen.

The dance performance would have a very different shape and purpose than the novel. For example, if it was done like a Kalakshetra dance drama l don’t think it would work. But of course there is a way to do it, concentrating on communicating not plot but emotion – so much of the emotion is drawn directly from the padams and javalis of the bharata natyam repertoire anyway. Let those songs tell the story of desire and its power, not in a linear narrative, but in a more impressionistic and multidisciplinary layered  story-telling. That’s probably how I would do it.

11 August 2020

“Publishing Pangs”,Economic Times, Sunday Edition, 5 July 2020

“Publishing Pangs”, Economic Times, Sunday Edition, 5 July 2020

On 24 March 2020 invoking the Disaster Management Act (2005) the first phase of the lockdown to manage the Covid-19 pandemic was announced. “Disaster Management” is considered to be a part of the Concurrent List under “social security and social insurance”. With the announcement all but the most essential economic activity halted nationwide. Only 4 hours’ notice was provided, insufficient time to plan operations.

Demand and supply existed but all cash cycles dried up — because bookstores were not operating. Brick-and-mortar stores had to close while online platforms focused on delivering only essential goods and books were not on the list. Priyanka Malhotra says “When Full Circle reopened in mid-May, there was a great demand for books. Mid-June, supply lines are still fragile, so getting more books regularly is uncertain. Well-stocked warehouses are outside city limits and are finding it difficult to service book orders to bookstores. We are mostly relying on existing stocks.”

In future, the #WFH culture will remain particularly for editors, curation of lists, smaller print runs, the significance of newsletters will increase, exploring subscription models for funding publishers in the absence of government subsidies and establishment of an exclusive online book retailing platform such as bookshop.org. Introducing paywalls for book events as the lockdown has proven customers are willing to pay for good content. Distributors and retailers will take less stock on consignment. Cost cutting measures will include slashing travel as a phone call is equally productive, advances to authors will fall, streamlining of operations with leaner teams especially sales teams as focused digital marketing is effective, With the redefining of schools and universities due to strict codes of physical distancing and cancellation of book fairs, publishers will have to explore new ways of customising, delivering and monetising content.

In such a scenario the importance of libraries will grow urgently. Libraries benefit local communities at an affordable price point. They are accessed by readers of all ages, abilities and socio-economic classes for independent scholarship, research and intellectual stimulation. The nation too benefits with a literate population ensuring skilled labour and a valuable contribution to the economy. By focusing upon libraries as the nodal centre of development in rehabilitation and reconstruction of a nation especially in the wake of a disaster, the government helps provide “social security and social insurance”. Libraries can be equipped without straining the limited resources available for reconstruction of a fragile society by all stakeholders collaborating. As a disaster management expert said to me, “Difficult to find a narrative for what we are going through”.

After a disaster, the society is fragile. It has limited resources available for rehabilitation and reconstruction. To emerge from this pandemic in working condition, it would advisable for publishers to use resources prudently. It is a brave new world. It calls for new ways of thinking.

Given this context, the Economic Times, Sunday Edition published the business feature I wrote on the effect of the pandemic on the publishing sector in India. Here is the original link on the Economic Times website.

***

As the first phase of the sudden lockdown to manage the Covid-19 pandemic was declared on March 24, the timing was particularly unfortunate for the books publishing industry. End-March is a critical time in the book publishing industry.

End-March is a critical time in the book year cycle. It is when accounts are settled between distributors, retailers and publishers, enabling businesses to commence the new financial year with requisite cash equity. Institutional and library sales are fulfilled. The demand for school textbooks is at its peak. But with the lockdown, there was a severe disruption in the production cycle — printing presses, paper mills, warehouses and bookshops stopped functioning. Nor were there online sales as books are not defined as essential commodities.

“Publishing in India is estimated to be worth $8 billion in annual revenues,” says Vikrant Mathur, director, Nielsen India. “Trade publishing has seen four months of near-zero sales which straightaway knocks one’s revenues off by at least 25-30%,” says Thomas Abraham, MD, Hachette India. 

Profit protection became key. Firms either reduced salaries or laid off employees, and unaffordable rentals forced closures of offices and bookshops. Arpita Das, founder of Yoda Press, says, “After three months of almost zero print sales, and low ebook sales, we decided to move out of our office space.”

In mid-May, bookshops and online portals resumed selling books. Bookstores delivered parcels using India Post, Zomato, and Swiggy. Sales of children’s books exceeded everyone’s expectations, averaging 30% more than pre-Covid sales. Shantanu Duttagupta, publisher, Scholastic India, says, “The ecosystem of children’s books and content comprises mainly of parents, educators and children. While print is traditionally preferred, it has to be recognised that content of any sort has to be format-agnostic. Whether it’s digital solutions for parents and children, helping educators through professional development or providing curated, age-appropriate books for children, being agile and nimble is key.”

Publishers announced curated digital content for schools engaged in remote learning. Scholastic Learn at Home, Collins Digital Home Learning, DK’s Stay Home Hub and StoryWeaver’s Readalong** were among such initiatives. Paywalls were introduced for creative writing workshops and were fully subscribed. Academic publishers noted an increase in inquiries from universities regarding bundle subscriptions.

To remain relevant with readers, there was an explosion of hashtags and promotions on the internet: #ReadInstead, #BraveNewWorld, #Reset, #MacmillanReadingSpace, #PenguinPicks, #KaroNaCharcha and #MissedCallDoKahaaniSuno. Book launches and lit fests went digital, with viewers across time zones. Brands like JLF ( Jaipur Literature Festival) got a viewership of over 700,000 worldwide*, while Rajpal & Sons got a viewership of over 300,000 — both hosted an equal number of events (50+) in the same time frame.

According to Meru Gokhale, publisher, Penguin Press, Penguin Random House India, “India’s reading consumption patterns during the lockdown consisted of ‘bucket list reads’ of classics, voluminous works and series fiction; self-help and mind-body-spirit lists.” Publishers launched frontlists (new and current titles) as ebooks , deeming that preferable to tying up cash in inventory. Interesting experiments by editors have involved crowd-sourcing new ebooks, usually kickstarted with an opening by a literary star. Vikas Rakheja, MD, Manjul Publishing, says, “We have seen a 300-400% growth in sales of our ebooks in April-June, over the same period last year, in both English and Indian regional languages, on Amazon Kindle and other online sales portals.” 

Chiki Sarkar, publisher, Juggernaut Books, says their titles saw greater time spent on ebooks during the lockdown. Audiobooks also sold. Yogesh Dashrath, country manager, Storytel India, says, “Globally there was doubling of intake. In India, it accelerated exposure to audiobooks.”

But India is firmly a print book market. So it will take some time for patterns to change. Kapil Kapoor, MD of Roli Books and owner of CMYK bookstore in Delhi, says, “In Unlock 1, we have not yet seen a significant spike in the demand for books. For now, sales figures hover around 40–50% of pre-Covid-19 days, largely driven by online sales — an accurate reflection of consumer preference of wanting home delivery and not venturing out to markets due to a fear factor, which is understandable.” A concern is book piracy will increase in direct proportion to economic stress in households.

As for lasting trends, work from home culture will continue, particularly for editors. Experimentation with curated lists, smaller print runs and subscription models will be seen. Some publishing firms, imprints, bookstores, retailers and distributors may go out of business. Increasingly, finance and legal will join sales departments to ensure “correct” decisions are made. Cost-cutting measures may include slashing travel, relying more on digital tools for efficiency, such as negotiating book rights online, employing leaner sales teams and expanding business horizons beyond the Anglo-American book market, without travelling. New platforms capitalising on professional expertise and fostering creative synergies have emerged on social media, like Publishers’ Exchange, an initiative by language publishers across India, Mother Tongue Twisters, Roli Pulse, Independent Bookshops Association of India and Publishers Without Borders. With the redefining of schools and universities, publishers will explore new ways of customising, delivering and monetising content. Could book events go behind a paywall? Perhaps libraries will regain significance?

As the industry negotiates this disruption, it’s clear that it will take a lot of ingenuity to emerge largely unscathed on the other side. Everyone is hoping for a happy ending to this particular saga.

* At the time of writing the article, this figure of 700,000+ held true for JLF. But on the day of publication of the article, the number has far exceeded one million.

** Storyweaver’s Readalong are multilingual audio-visual storybooks.

5 July 2020

In conversation with Tahar Ben Jelloun

On 30 June 2020, I was in conversation with the eminent and award-winning Franco-Moroccon author, Tahar Ben Jelloun. It was to celebrate the launch of Tamil translation of Le mariage de plaisir ( A Marriage of Pleasure). The book has been translated by S. A. Vengada Soupraya Nayagar and published by Thadagam Publications. Dr Christine Cornet, French Book Office, was the moderator. The digital book launch was organised by Oxford Bookstore and French Institute in India.

This was a unique experience. I had the privilege of participating in a book launch which involved three languages — English, French and Tamil. Tahar Ben Jelloun comes across as a gentleman who is a deep thinker and an “activist” with words. Reading him is a transformative experience. Something shifts within one internally. It was memorable!

To prepare for the launch, Dr Cornet and I exchanged a few emails with the author. Tahar Ben Jelloun is fluent in French but has a tenuous hold over English. Hence he prefers to communicate in French. Whereas I am only fluent in English. Dr Cornet is profficient is bilingual. All of us were determined to have a smooth digital book launch with minimal disruptions as far as possible. Tough call! So we decided that I would send across a few questions to the author to answer. Given that the Covid19 lockdown was on, it was impossible to get the English translations of the author’s books. Fortunately, I found ebooks that coudl be read on the Kindle. Thank heavens for digital formats! I read the novel and then drafted my questions in English. These were then translated into French by the French Institute of India. This document was forwarded via email to Tahar Ben Jelloun in Paris. He spent a few days working on the replies. Once the answers were received, these were translated into English for my benefit. It was eventually decided that given the timeframe, perhaps it would be best if we focused on only five questions for the book launch. So we went “prepared” for the launch but only to a certain degree. While we were recording the programme, something magical occurred and we discussed more than the selected five questions. In fact, at a point, Tahar Ben Jelloun very graciously opted to reply in English. We discovered not only our mutual love for Mozart and Jazz musicians such as Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane etc but that we play their music in the background while immersed deeply in our creative pursuits — painting and writing. Coincidentally the conversation was recorded on Ella Fitzgerald’s death anniversary, 17 June. How perfect is that?!

Born 1944 in Fez, Morocco, Tahar Ben Jelloun is an award-winning and internationally bestselling novelist, essayist, critic and poet. Regularly shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature, he has won the Prix Goncourt and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His work has also been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. He received the rank of Officier de la Légion d’honneur in 2008. Some of his works in English translation include About My Mother (Telegram), The Happy MarriageThis Blinding Absence of LightThe Sand Child and Racism Explained to My Daughter. He won the Goncourt Prize in 1987 for La Nuit sacrée. His most recent works published by Éditions Gallimard include Le Mariage de plaisir (2016) and La Punition (2018).

Q1. Why and when did you decide to become a writer? Did the internment at the age of 18 years old have anything to do with your decision? 

When I was a child, I didn’t dream of being a writer, but a filmmaker. At the same time, I wrote short stories, I illustrated them with drawings.

When I was sent to an army disciplinary camp in July 1966, I never thought I would get out. Everything was done to mistreat us and it gave us no hope of liberation. So, I clandestinely started writing poems with lots of metaphors so I wouldn’t be punished in case they were found. Nineteen months later, in January 1968, I was released and I had little papers in my pocket on which I had written poems. It was the poet Abdelatif Laabi who published them in the magazine Souffles that he had just created with some friends. He himself was thrown in jail a few years later, where stayed for 8 years!

This was my debut as a writer.

Q2. You learned classical Arabic while learning the Quran by heart and yet you choose to write books in French. Why?

Yes, I learned the Quran without understanding it. But my father changed my birth date so that I could join my older brother at the bilingual Franco-Moroccan school. That’s where I learned the French language and I started reading a lot of the classics and also a few novels of the time like The Stranger by Camus, The Words by Sartre or Froth on the Daydream by Boris Vian. But I preferred poetry above all else.

Q3. Your books have been translated into multiple languages. At last count it was 43. Now Tamil too. Is your writing sensibility affected knowing that readers across cultures will be reading your books? Or it does not matter? 

For a writer, being translated consolidates his legitimacy as a writer, he is recognized, it helps him to continue; to be more demanding with himself. It’s a source of pride, but you can’t rest on your laurels, you have to work, you have to pursue your writing with rigor. For me, each translated book is a victory against the current trend of young people reading less literature. It is true that they are solicited by easier and more attractive things.

Translation is a gift of friendship from an unknown language and culture. I am happy today to be read in Tamil, just as I was happy to be read by blind people thanks to an edition in Braille, just as I was happy and surprised to be translated into Esperanto, that language which is meant to be universal, but which remains limited to some 2000 readers.

Q4. Your preoccupation with the status of women is a recurring theme in your literature. Why? The two points of view presented by Foulane and Amina about their marriage is extraordinary. At one level it is the depiction of a marriage but it is incredible art, almost like a dance in slow motion.  Did you write The Happy Marriage in reaction to the Moudawana law passed in Morocco? If so, what was the reaction to the novel in Morocco? 

For me, as an observant child, everything started from the condition of the women in my family, my mother, my sister, my aunts, my cousins, etc., and then went on to the condition of the women in my family. I could not understand why the law ignored them, why one of my uncles had two wives officially and why both women accepted this situation. From childhood, I was interested in the status of women. Later, I had to fight for my mother to be treated better by my father, who didn’t see any harm in her staying at home to cook and clean. Then I discovered that it is all women in the Arab and Muslim world who live in unacceptable conditions. Wrestling has become essential for me. My first novel Harrouda is inspired by my mother and then by an old woman, a prostitute who came to beg in our neighborhood. It is a novel that denounced this condition of women not in a political and militant way, but with literature, with writing. The novel then became stronger than a social science essay. This struggle is not over. Things have changed in Morocco today; the Moudawana, that is to say the family code has changed, it has given some rights to women, but that is not enough. This change is due to the will of King Mohammed VI, a modern and progressive man.

In Morocco, people don’t read much. I never know how my books are received. In general, I tour high schools and universities and try to encourage young people to read. Let’s say my books are circulating, but illiteracy is a tragedy in Morocco where more than 35% of people cannot read and write, especially people from the countryside.

Q5. Have you tried to replicate the structure of Mozart’s Concerto for piano and orchestra No. 16 in D major, K 451? I read somewhere that you liked the composition very much. I felt that there were many similarities in your form for The Happy Marriage and K451. Something about the predictable opening of the story/concerto which develops smoothly, almost intoxicating, and then the last movement, a complete surprise, a triumph. Was this intentional? ( Aside: Here is a recording that you may have already heard. I play it often while working.   Barenboim & Argerich : Mozart Sonata for Two Pianos, K.448)

This similarity comes as a surprise to me. I love Mozart’s music, which I listen to a lot. But I never associated his music to this novel. I’m also a big jazz fan. I listen to jazz when I paint, but I need silence when I write. In any case, thank you for pointing out this link, which makes me proud.

Q6. Do you think fiction is a more powerful tool to communicate with readers about commenting upon society and suggesting reform rather than a straightforward narrative non-fiction? 

Yes, fiction has a more effective power for information or statistics. During the confinement here in Paris, it was Albert Camus’ The Plague that was most commissioned and read. TV was overwhelming us with often contradictory information. A novel allows the reader to identify with the main character. Literature and especially poetry will save the world. In the long term, especially in these times when cruel, stupid and inhuman leaders rule in many countries. Against their violence, against their vulgarity, we oppose poetry, music, art in general.

Q7. Do you think the function of an artist is to be provocative? 

An artist is not a petit bourgeois in his slippers. An artist is an agitator, an impediment to letting mediocrity and vulgarity spread. Some people make a system out of provocation, I am for provocation that awakens consciences, but not all the time in provocation. It is necessary to go beyond and to create, to give to see and to love. You don’t need to be sorted, but you don’t need to be provocative either. Beauty is a formidable weapon. Look at a painting by Turner or Picasso, Goya or Rembrandt, there is such strength, such beauty, that the man who looks at it comes out of it changed by so much emotion. Look at Giacometti’s sculptures, they’re enough on their own, no need for a sociological discourse on human distress, on stripping.

Q8. As a writer who has won many prestigious awards, what is it that you seek in promising young writers while judging their oeuvre for The Prix Goncourt?   

When I read the novels submitted for the Prix Goncourt, I look for a writing style above all, a style, a universe, an originality. That’s very rare. It’s always hard to find a great writer. You look, you read, and sometimes you get a surprise, an astonishment. And there, you get joy.

Q9. You are a remarkable educator wherein you are able to address children and adolescents about racism and terrorism: India is a young country, today what subject animates you and what message would you like to convey to Indian youth?

The subjects that motivate me revolve around the human condition, around the abandoned, around injustice. There is no literature that is kind, gentle and without drama; Happiness has no use for literature, but as Jean Genet said “behind every work there is a drama”. Literature disturbs, challenges certaines, clichés, prejudices. It makes a mess of a petty, hopeless order.  

To Indian youth, I say, don’t be seduced by appearance, by the fascination of social networks, by addiction to objects that reduce your will power and endanger your intelligence. We must use these means but not become slaves to them. To do this, read, read, read and read.

Q10. You are one of the most translated contemporary French-language authors in the world. In India, French is the second most taught foreign language, what is the future for the Francophonie?

France has long since abandoned the struggle for the Francophonie. The Presidents of the republic talk about it, at the same time they lower subsidies of the French institutes in the world. Today, French is defended by “foreigners”, by Africans, by Arabs, by lovers of this language all over the world. France does little or nothing to keep its language alive and lets English take more and more space.

Q11. What next? 

What more can I say? Poetry will save the world. Beauty will save the world. Audacity, creation, art in all its forms will give back to humanity its soul and its strength.

Here is the video recording of the session:

https://www.facebook.com/oxfordbookstoredotcom/videos/261569195105137

4 July 2020

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