Hamish Hamilton Posts

Arundhati Roy’s “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”

Award-winning writer and social activist Arundhati Roy’s second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is primarily about Anjum, a eunuch/hermaphrodite, and the relationships she forges over many decades. The story about Anjum is fascinating but the narrative is often interrupted by long expositions about modern India. The history lessons begin from the Emergency till present day after covering regions such as Kashmir, Chattisgarh, Gujarat etc. There are most certainly two narratives operating in this novel pulling it in different directions.  Laura Miller writing in The Slate ( 19 June 2017 ) refers to it as a “deeply rewarding work, if you can let the novel wash over you rather than try to force it into shape. ” Parul Sehgal writing in The Atlantic calls it a “fascinating mess”.  Ellen Battersby writing in the Irish Times ( 3 June 2017) refers to it as a “Rushdie-like concoction” but where “Roy prefers to overdescribe and overexplain”. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is most certainly written in the style popularised by Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children ( 1981). What is truly fascinating to realise is that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has been published in the seventieth year of India’s independence from the British and picks up from where Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children concluded.  Midnight’s Children discussed Partition and the creation of two nations — India and Pakistan and contemporary history before it was published in 1981. Ministry of Utmost Happiness begins its political history with a description of the imposition of Emergency ( 1975) by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and later the turbulent 1980s with rise of communalism, the political and civil strife in Punjab and Kashmir which led to the imposition of President’s Rule and reverberations of which are felt even now, pogroms in Gujarat to the Maoist turmoil in Chhatisgarh and more.

Creating a transgender person as a character is also an effective literary tool. Despite being acknowledged in Hinduism and Islam by their existence in the religious stories eunuchs remain on the margins of society while having the ability to flit in and out different socio-economic classes. Eunuchs like Anjum by being at the crossroads of socio-political activity are able to participate and/or witness significant contemporary events. Though there has always been a social stigma attached to that of being a hijra in South Asian cultures and they have been ostracised yet they are expected to attend major social events like births and weddings to bless the family.  It is a curious space the eunuchs inhabit in society and it exactly this vantage point which is exploited by Arundhati Roy to bring her two passions — activism and writing fiction — to comment upon India in 2017. The legitimacy of Anjum’s viewpoint on contemporary India is further strengthened by the Supreme Court of India’s landmark judgement in 2014 on declaring transgender people to be a “third gender”.

There has been some speculation that the character of Anjum is loosely based upon Mona Ahmed who was introduced to the world by well-known photographer Dayanita Singh. In fact Arundhati Roy acknowledges Dayanita Singh for the “idea”. If that is the case then feminist-publisher Urvashi Butalia who interviewed Mona for her book The Other Side of Silence also wrote a long piece about Mona in Granta (2011). Later Urvashi Butalia was  interviewed as well about her profile of Mona Ahmed.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness had an enviable global release with a publicity campaign that would be any author’s dream come true. There were reviews of the English version pouring in from all over the world. The social media was abuzz for weeks with comments about the book. People who were not voracious readers were reading the book and posting their comments online. The media blitzkrieg has been phenomenal and the author herself has over summer travelled in Europe and Canada to promote the book. The production quality too is rich and elegant with a gold filigreed embossed hardcover, an equally sumptious dust jacket using the image of a grave and ivory-cream pages that are heavy and delicious to turn. The manuscript it is rumoured sold for an extraordinary sum of money and a few translations are already planned but it is not easy to confirm this fact. At the end of the day Midnight’s Children and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness will go down in the annals of history as being pathbreaking examples of literary fiction that keep the spotlight on modern India displaying its ugly violent side co-existing with the incredibly syncretic and humane side. While it exists in this manner there is hope.

Read The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. It may not be to everyone’s liking but it will certainly be a book which will be much discussed for a long time to come.

Arundhati Roy The Ministry of Utmost Happiness Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House India, 2017. Hb. pp 450. Rs 599

Sarvat Hasin, “This Wide Night”

They lived across the road from me for fifteen years without us ever having a conversation, something that seems impossible to me now. I’d built up the Malik sisters in my head before I really knew them. The combination of being at a boys’ school and Dada’s dislike for other people meant that these were the only real girls I ever saw. From the window in my bedroom, you could look through the trees and into their garden. I learned valuable things about the girls: how Maria played cards every evening with her mother, or that Ayesha always read and Bina sewed, and that the littlest, Leila liked to draw.

Jimmy lives with his paternal grandfather who is a prosperous export businessman. He is alone and spends a lot of his time watching the Malik house. The Malik family consists of four sisters- Maria, Bina, Leila and Ayesha/Ash . Their father is “a navy captain, whose name was on the silver plaque outside their gate, spent most of his time away from home”.  Their mother Mehrunissa supervises the home and by all accounts is quite lenient in her daughters’ upbringing. It is never spelled out by Sarvat Hasin in her debut novel The Wide Night but there is a shift in dynamics from the freedoms available in a women-only home as compared to one in which there is a man’s presence. For instance when the Captain returns from the war – it is a challenging period of adjustment for both sexes:

How could her father come home to a place that did not feel like it belonged to him? The switch of energy during his visits, the house worked into a dark frenzy. It could only work in small bursts, the spikes of energy of reordered lives. There was no space for him in the larger sweep of their lives – how long could Ash keep wearing her dupatta over one shoulder and pinning back the tufts of her hair that escaped from their short nest. How many nights could Leila hold her tongue at the dinner table and bite it against her usual chatter of boys and money and pretty things. In her father’s presence she was washed out, a paler version of herself, hands folded in her lap and her voice only murmuring to ask for more roti, a glass of water. Even Bina was required to modify herself: fewer hours spent volunteering, and no more bringing her stitching into the living room to sit cross-legged on the carpet by her mother’s feet, listening to her stories with the soft brush of her hand against her hair. The sitting room would become a man’s world.

Mehrunissa is primarily responsible for the family and allows her daughters freedom such as reading.  whenever and whatever they desired. She does not subscribe to the belief that books and ideas were harmful for girls and that daughters were meant to be groomed for marriage. Jimmy describes the Malik home with fascination: “It was the first house I had ever been in with books in every room. Even in a room with no shelves, there were books under cups or hidden behind pots; Barbara Cartland novels tucked in the slots of the swings. Books in other houses were rare, precious thing, tucked out of reach or behind walls of glass, leather-bound and glossy. These tangible tattered things with dog-eared pages and tea stains were remarkable. I shifted my cup of tea on its coaster, knocking over a mystery novel that Mehrunissa kept beside her sewing.” Mehrunissa’s determined stand against social norms and even in the presence of her husband, in an overtly patriarchal society, is exemplified by refusing to slaughter goats for Eid: “Mehrunissa and her daughters were particularly sensitive about the slaughters. They never participated, had not done so even on the rare holidays when Captain Malik was home. On Eid, theirs was the only house with no goats or cows lined up outside—another thing among many that set them apart from everyone else he knew, another thing about them that people thought was strange.”

People called the Maliks “strange” because of it being primarily a female household living alone, happily, unheard of in an otherwise overtly patriarchal society. It was also odd that the father “permitted” the women to have their say as in the case of doing away with the practise of getting a sacrificial goat as it was an inhumane act.  But love runs deep as testified by the Captain while recounting to Jimmy the kindly advice he had received about the challenges his marriage may pose: “These things are meant to work better when the differences aren’t so big, your families should come from the same place, you should speak the same languages and pray the same way – you’ll have heard all this, I know. They’d even chosen a girl for me. I never told Mehrunissa that. Baat pake se pehle—I saw her. And that was it.”

 Their mother’s strong personality had a deep influence on the four daughters. They grew up with distinct identities. Maria who as a teacher’s assistant in the school mesmerised the boys: “The trick was not in her words, but the way she spoke them. She was not lightning but slow honey, womanliness pouring into the classroom, making us all sit up a little straighter.” Ayesha, the voracious reader who fantasised about her European trip with her aunt was the most level headed and practical of the sisters. For example, her unsentimental detached views on death is revelatory, “Death isn’t this big drama everybody makes it out to be… It’s – a person being there one minute, and not the next. It’s the passing of a second.” The laidback Bina’s “wishes were never for herself”. And finally Leila, who, “built her houses in gold. She wanted a rich husband, a studio of her own. I want a wardrobe the size of Marie Antoinette’s, she would say. Decadence was the only thing she took away from history lessons. She was a tiny Cleopatra, Nur Jehan, a queen in a miniature.” After Maria’s wedding “the house shrank without her, tightening around the family. There are some people who leave the room and you stop thinking about them right away. None of the Malik sisters were like that. Their absence took up room, a seat at the table.”

This Wide Night although a novel is structured like a three-act play with a shift in the voice from first person of Jimmy to the third of the authorial narrator in the second section and back to Jimmy. It is a curious literary technique to employ for it is not fully exploited by the author providing little insight such as in the sisters suicide pact.  Usually the narrator brings in a perspective giving the reader a little more information than the characters are aware of but nothing of that sort happens here.

Renowned writer and critic Muneeza Shamsie says in Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English ( OUP, Pakistan, 2017, p 601)  that in today’s globalised world the new generation of Pakistani writers have either “lived, or been educated in, Pakistan and the West, and often divided their time between the two. … As a result, the distinction between diaspora and non-diaspora began to blur too.” This underlying desire to be accepted globally as a new South Asian writer who is extremely familiar with Western canons of literature is evident in This Wide Night too for its adaptation of Little Women albeit in a desi setting. Pakistan-born now living in UK Sarvat Hasin wrote This Wide Night after enrolling in a creative writing workshop project wherein she transplanted the characters created in nineteenth century America into modern-day Karachi. So Amir, Maria’s husband, is a mujahir who lost his parents during Partition but he comes across as a flat character who, “seemed to just appear, a sum of all the stories people told about him” with little else being said about him. Whereas if a little bit of the socio-historical background was woven into the novel it would have made a significant difference to the quality of storytelling. This is illustrated further in the sanitised “literary” description of the 1971 War, a conflict zone: The way tensions rose in our house and in the city, the way the whole country seemed to teem with a dull thickening heat – the days before monsoon storms. By the time war broke out, we were almost relieved. It gave the feeling a name; something that couldn’t be quantified when it was just curfews and military men stationed outside schools or people sent back past the border. Contrast this with contemporary literature worldwide which creates a rich texture filled with details taking care to not culturally alienate the reader too much but at the same time retaining a strong regional character — acceptable traits of a global novel.

Sarvat Hasin is a writer with promise. This Wide Night is a commendable first effort.

 Sarvat Hasin This Wide Night Hamish Hamilton/ Penguin Random House India, 2016, 312 pp., Rs 499 (HB) 

 

A new Zadie Smith, a new set of difficulties in reading, a new pleasure


( My review of Zadie Smith’s new novel, Swing Time, has been published in Scroll today. Here is the original url: http://scroll.in/article/824448/a-new-zadie-smith-a-new-set-of-difficulties-in-reading-a-new-pleasure . I am also c&p the text below.)

 

The baby was surrounded by love. It’s a question of what love gives you the right to do.

Zadie Smith’s latest novel Swing Time is about two young girls, Tracey and a nameless narrator, who live in council housing of 1980s London. These young girls are of mixed parentage who have been born different shades of brown as a result. They are not exactly social misfits but are not entirely accepted by their classmates as is apparent when they get invited to Lily Bingham’s tenth birthday party. The two girls are completely out of their depth as are their mothers who are clueless on how to guide the youngsters.

Was it the kind of thing where you dropped your kid off? Or was she, as the mum, expected to come into the house? The invitation said a trip to the cinema – but who’d pay for this ticket? The guest or the house? Did you have to take a gift? What kind of gift were we getting? …It was as if the party was taking in some bewildering foreign land, rather than a three-minute walk away, in a house on the other side of the park.

Swing Time is narrated in first person bringing to the story an intimacy, a close involvement between the reader and narrator, which would otherwise be missing if it was narrated in third person. This intimate relationship between narrator and reader helps particularly if Swing Time is read as a bildungsroman. The firm childhood friendship of the narrator and Tracey seems to peter away in adulthood. Yet the narrator’s flashbacks focus inevitably on the time she spent growing up in Thatcherite London with Tracey, to a large extent informing her adult life — emphasising the quality of “shared history“, an important aspect of friendships to Zadie Smith.  (Friendships are a characteristic trait of her fiction.) Swing Time zips particularly once the billionaire singer, Aimee, hires the narrator as one of her personal assistants. The storytelling pace matches the heady life of the superstar who flits through her own life juggling various roles such as of being a mother, her performances, recording music, and charitable “good work” in Africa by sponsoring schools.

Amongst the early book reviews of the novel there is a common refrain that the story fails to match the potential of a writer like Zadie Smith, deteriorating into contrived, formulaic and predictable storytelling. Trying to read Swing Time in the traditional manner is an excruciating task. The sentences are structured in such an unpredictable manner – sometimes running on in a Jamesian style for pages on end in an uninterrupted paragraph. The swift shifts in tone from meditative introspection to commentary and sharp judgement by the narrator can be disconcerting. But if you shift the classical expectations of what the book should deliver to that of a novel written by an artist AND a mother — it suddenly transforms. It is more about an artist being a successful professional while managing her time as a mother too. Here is the narrator talking about her mother who puts herself through college while her daughter is still in school, later the mother becomes a prominent politician.

Oh, it’s very nice and rational and respectable to say that a woman has every right to life, to her ambitions, to her needs, and so on – it’s what I’ve always demanded myself –but as a child, no, the truth is it’s a war of attrition, rationality doesn’t come into it, not one bit, all you want from your mother is that she once and for all admit that she is your mother and only your mother, and that her battle with the rest of life is over. She has to lay down her arms and come to you. And if she doesn’t do it, then it’s really a war, and it was a war between my mother and me. Only as an adult did I come to truly admire her – especially in the last, painful years of her life – for all that she had done to claw some space in this world for herself. When I was young her refusal to submit to me confused and wounded me, especially as I felt none of the usual reasons of refusal applied. I was her only child and she had no job – not back then – and she hardly spoke to the rest of the family. As far as I was concerned, she had nothing but time. Yet still I couldn’t get her complete submission! My earliest sense of her was of a woman plotting an escape, from me, from the very role of motherhood.

There are portraits, references and pithy observations on mothering or the relationship between mothers and children. There are the mothers of the two girls – Tracey and narrator, the grandmothers in the family compound of African schoolteacher Hawa, the mothers of the African school children, Aimee and her children and Tracey and her brood. In some senses this novel too with its overdone cultural references especially of the recent past also becomes a record of events for Zadie Smith’s children’s generation.

In June 2013 Zadie Smith along with Jane Smiley objected to the suggestion made by journalist and author Lauren Sandler that they should restrict the size of their families if they want to avoid limiting their careers. Writing in the Guardian, Zadie Smith said, “”I have two children. Dickens had 10 – I think Tolstoy did, too. Did anyone for one moment worry that those men were becoming too fatherish to be writeresque? Does the fact that Heidi Julavits, Nikita Lalwani, Nicole Krauss, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vendela Vida, Curtis Sittenfeld, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison and so on and so forth (I could really go on all day with that list) have multiple children make them lesser writers?” said Smith. “Are four children a problem for the writer Michael Chabon – or just for his wife, the writer Ayelet Waldman?” Smith added that the real threat “to all women’s freedom is the issue of time, which is the same problem whether you are a writer, factory worker or nurse”. A sentiment echoed in Swing Time when she writes: “The fundamental skill of all mothers [is] the management of time”.

In the end the narrator learns to appreciate Tracey’s balancing act as a professional and a mother  — like a dance.

She was right above me, on her balcony, in a dressing gown and slippers, her hands in the air, turning, turning, her children around her, everybody dancing.

Swing Time is a mesmerising if at times a challenging read. It is the portrait of an artist AND a mother.

Zadie Smith Swing Time Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, Penguin Random House, London, 2016. Pb. Pp.454 Rs. 599

Siddharth Mukherjee “The Gene: An Intimate History”

( This blog post was picked up by the award-winning news website, Scroll. An edited version of this review was published by Scroll’s literary editor, Arunava Sinha, on Sunday, 19 June 2016. The original url is: http://scroll.in/article/809971/six-hundred-pages-that-will-tell-you-more-about-yourself-and-your-future-than-anything-else . )

The real magic was imagination.  

( p.148)

( L-R) Chiki Sarkar, Siddharth Mukherjee, Nirmala George and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

( L-R) Chiki Sarkar, Publisher, Juggernaut, Siddharth Mukherjee, Nirmala George, journalist and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, IIC, New Delhi, April 2014

Siddharth Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History is an extraordinarily riveting book. It is easy to forget you are reading a densely packed account of the gene. In 600+ pages Pulitzer prize writer Siddharth Mukherjee narrates the discovery of genes, evolution of genetics as a scientific discipline and the rapid strides this science has made in about a century. Consider this. The term “gene” coined by Mendel in the nineteenth century was all but lost for more than six decades only to be revived in early twentieth century and then became a common term. A few decades later it led to the coining of “genocide” in Nazi Germany. Half a century later the helical structure of DNA & RNA were discovered. Two decades later questions were being raised about the ethics of genetics and tinkering with genes. Yet recombinant genes were put to use in commercial production for insulin to a resounding success. By 2000, about a century from when the word “gene” was revived, the Human Genome project was announced. There is a phenomenal amount of technical information packed in the book with a few anecdotes, some personal, inserted judiciously into the narrative.

From the time of Pythagoras, Aeschylus and Plato who were convinced that the “likeness” of a human being passed on via the “mobile library” preserved in the semen to Aristotle who rejected this notion by astutely observing that children can inherit features from their mothers and grandmothers too. The Gene details over the centuries the manner in which people pondered over what carried information across generations without really understanding the mechanism or even having a name for it till Mendel and his pea experiment and Darwin’s theories. It was Mendel, a monk, who first used the term “gene” except it was lost for a few more decades till resurrected in the early twentieth century. This was a watershed moment in the history of genetics as suddenly there were a concatenation of events that led to a furious progress in understanding the gene mechanism. From coining the word, understanding the structure, the mechanism, the potential, exploiting applied genetics as was done by the Nazis to enable Rassenhygiene or “racial hygiene”, using this branch of “applied biology” to justify their policy of lebensunwertes Leben  or “lives unworthy of living” and justifying the establishment of extermination centres such as Hadamar and the Brandenburg State Welfare Institute. It was based on the premise that identity was fixed. Curiously enough another ideological position in existence at the same time in Soviet Russia viewed the principle of heredity as having its basis on complete pliability.  In both cases science was deliberately distorted to support state-sponsored mechanisms of “cleansing”. Rapid advancement in genetics led to discovery of recombinant DNA to create crucial medicines such as insulin and its commercial production by biotechnology industries,  the ability to clone as was done with Dolly the Sheep, to questions being raised about the ethics of genetics, to the establishment of the Human Genome Project. It has been a phenomenal few decades for curious and imaginative scientists trying to understand the principles of heredity, what makes it tick, what information gets passed on from generation to generation, what is gained and what is lost in evolution — always striving to push the boundaries to ask more and more questions.

To a lay reader The Gene is a brilliant historical overview but it also does a fantastic job of reinstating Rosalind Franklin as one of the four scientists responsible for discovering the helical structure of DNA. A fact that had been lost in history for some decades even when the Nobel Committee conferred the prize on Watson and Crick for discovering the helical structure. It is only recently that Rosalind Franklin’s name has been mentioned in the same breath as Watson and Crick. Siddharth Mukherjee lays down the facts of their experiments and analysis in such a way that it is evident the scientists were working simultaneously on the same subject, albeit not together.

I heard Siddharth Mukherjee deliver a public lecture two years ago when he came to India to receive the Padam Shri from the President of India.  At the time he was still working on the manuscript of The Gene and here is an account:  http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/siddharth-mukherjee-27-april-2014/ . In 2015 he gave a fascinating TED Talk followed by a brilliant exposition on the subject published as a TED Book by Simon & Schuster. Here is the link: http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/siddhartha-mukherjee-the-laws-of-medicine/

What began as an attempt to understand the reasons for “madness” that seems to exist in his family, Siddharth Mukherjee embarks upon an absorbing account of the “triggers” that are responsible for mapping information and carrying it from generation to generation. The Gene is phenomenal for the manner in which it weaves together the author’s precise scientific temper offering technical information against the backdrop of factually accurate and significant contemporary events of the time. Siddharth Mukherjee puts forth a magnificently rich historical narrative of the gene accessible even by an ordinary reader.

Siddharth Mukherjee The Gene: An Intimate History Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, London, 2016. Hb. pp. Rs 699 

14 June 2016 

 

Ali Akbar Natiq, “What will you give for this beauty?”

BeautyWhat will you give for this beauty? is Ali Akbar Natiq’s debut collection of short stories. It is set in the Punjab countryside with tales about ordinary people, ordinary lives, with preoccupations of marriage, love, impact of Partition, feuds, religious differences and discontent, gossip, courtesans, storytellers, liars and cheats etc. Yet how everyone overcomes odds to survive.

Ali Akbar Natiq began working as a mason, specializing in domes and minarets, to contribute to the family income while he read widely in Urdu and Arabic. Somehow the flavour of Urdu short stories seeps through this particular collection. Its description of the common people, of commonplace occurrences, an exaggerated and embellished style of storytelling with unexpected twists to the story. Through it all there is a constant recognition and respect that this is God’s world we inhabit. It is never clearly spelled out but exists. It is evident in the book title, which seems to be a play on the innumerable references in the Quran and the Old Testament where it is constantly reiterated that this world’s splendour has been created by God, its beauty exists everywhere even when God seems to provide one only with sorrow, ashes and despair. The stories have been translated mostly by Ali Madeeh Hashmi, but also by Awais Aftab and Mohammed Hanif.

What will you give for this beauty? is a fine collection.

Ali Akbar Natiq What Will You Give for this Beauty? Translated by Ali Madeeh Hashmi. Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, India, 2015. Hb. pp. 215. Rs. 399. 

Who will win the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature? (13 January 2015)

DSC shortlistAccording to the vision statement, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature celebrates the rich and varied world of literature of the South Asian region. Authors could belong to this region through birth or be of any ethnicity but the writing should pertain to the South Asian region in terms of content and theme. The prize brings South Asian writing to a new global audience through a celebration of the achievements of South Asian writers, and aims to raise awareness of South Asian culture around the world. This year the award will be announced on 22 January 2015, at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Diggi Palace, Jaipur.

The DSC Prize for South Asian Shortlist 2015 consists of:

1. Bilal Tanweer: The Scatter Here is Too Great (Vintage Books/Random House, India)
2 Jhumpa Lahiri: The Lowland (Vintage Books/Random House, India)
3. Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone (Bloomsbury, India)
4. Romesh Gunesekera: Noontide Toll (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, India)
5. Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: The Mirror of Beauty (Penguin Books, India)

( http://dscprize.com/global/updates/five-novels-make-shortlist-dsc-prize-2015.html )

The jury consists of Keki Daruwala (Chairperson), John Freeman, Maithree Wickramasinghe, Michael Worton and Razi Ahmed.

All the novels shortlisted for the award are unique. They put the spotlight on South Asian writing talent. From debut novelist ( Bilal Tanweer) to seasoned writers ( Jhumpa Lahiri, Romesh Gunesekera and Kamila Shamsie) and one in translation – Shamsur Rahman Faruqui, the shortlist is a good representation of the spectrum of contemporary South Asian literature in English. Three of the five novelists– Jhumpa Lahiri, Romesh Gunesekera and Kamila Shamsie–reside abroad, representing South Asian diaspora yet infusing their stories with a “foreign perspective”, a fascinating aspect of this shortlist. It probably hails the arrival of South Asian fiction on an international literary map. The three novels — The Lowland, Noontide Toll and A God in Every Stone are firmly set in South Asia but with the style and sophistication evident in international fiction, i.e. detailing a story in a very specific region and time, culturally distinct, yet making it familiar to the contemporary reader by dwelling upon subjects that are of immediate socio-political concern. For instance, The Lowland is ostensibly about the Naxalite movement in West Bengal, India and the displacement it causes in families; A God in Every Stone is about an archaeological dig in Peshawar in the period around World War I and Noontide Toll is about the violent civil unrest between the Sinhala and Tamils in Sri Lanka. Yet all three novels are infused with the writers’ preoccupation with war, the immediate impact it has on a society and the transformation it brings about over time. The literary techniques they use to discuss the ideas that dominate such conversations — a straightforward novel (The Lowland), a bunch of interlinked short stories narrated by a driver ( who is at ease in the Tamil and Sinhala quarters, although his identity is never revealed) and the yoking of historical fiction with creation of a myth as evident in Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone. All three novelists wear their research lightly, yet these novels fall into the category of eminently readable fiction, where every time the story is read something new is discovered.

Bilal Tanweer who won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2014 for his wonderful novel, The Scatter Here is Too Great. Set in Karachi, it is about the violence faced on a daily basis. (Obviously there is much more to the story too!) Whereas Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s novel The Mirror of Beauty, translated by him from Urdu into English is primarily about Begum Wazir Khanam with many other scrumptious details about lifestyles, craftspeople, and different parts of India. It is written in a slow, meandering style of old-fashioned historical fiction. The writer has tried to translocate the Urdu style of writing into the English version and he even “transcreated” the story for his English readers—all fascinating experiments in literary technique, so worth being mentioned on a prestigious literary prize shortlist.

Of all the five novels shortlisted for this award, my bet is on Kamila Shamsie winning the prize. Her novel has set the story in Peshawar in the early twentieth century. The preoccupations of the story are also those of present day AfPak, the commemoration of World War I, but also with the status of Muslims, the idea of war, with accurate historical details such as the presence of Indian soldiers in the Brighton hospital, the non-violent struggle for freedom in Peshawar and the massacre at Qissa Khwani Bazaar. But the true coup de grace is the original creation of Myth of Scylax — to be original in creating a myth, but placing it so effectively in the region to make it seem as if it is an age-old myth, passed on from generation to generation.

13 January 2015

 

Being MortalIf we shift as we age towards appreciating everyday pleasures and relationships rather than towards achieving, having, and getting, and if we find this more fulfilling, then why do we take so long to do it? Why do we wait until we’re told? The common view was that these lessons are hard to learn. Living is a kind of skill. The calm and wisdom of old age are achieved over time.  ( p.95)

…Three Plagues of nursing home existence: boredom, loneliness, and helplessness. (p.116)

Reading award-winning writer and practicing general surgeon Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal was such a cherished reading experience. His basic premise is that the conversation with people who are severely ill, with slim chances of recovery is one of the most difficult tasks a medical practitioner has. His insights into caregiving, an analysis of the US healthcare system, assisted living and an understanding of the Indian family social structure offering support similar to hospice care abroad are sharp. For instance something that is often noticed in practice, but rarely uttered is how many daughters look after their ageing parents. Yet the mantra in society, at least in India is, a son is important to have since he will care for you in your old age. Whereas Atul Gawande points out quite rightly too, “your chances of avoiding the nursing homes are directly related to the number of children you have, and, …having at least one daughter seems to be crucial to the amount of help you will receive.” I marked the book extensively and scribbled comments since it resonated with me. Having been a caregiver for my ailing grandfather, familiar with the excruciating conversations about enemas, maintained a funeral notebook where he had detailed the arrangements and been responsible for telling my surviving grandparents that their spouse had died, Being Mortal is a godsend. Atul Gawande’s perceptive observations about caregiving, mortality, longevity, quality of life as opposed to honouring the Hippocratic oath echo conversations heard often amongst caregivers. There is much, much more to read and discover in this book. Read it. Buy it.

Atul Gawande Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 282. Rs. 599 

12 Nov 2014 

Naseeruddin Shah, “And Then One Day”

Naseeruddin Shah, “And Then One Day”

Naseeruddin ShahThe same year I watched a play for the first time, in the Sem concert hall. It was called Mr Fixit and has faded from my memory almost entirely but while watching it the only thing I wanted was to be up there with those people. When a long limousine, which I later discovered to be plywood cutout on wheels, came gliding on to the stage, I was back in the same universe of wonder where I had watched ‘that man’ dancing on that stage a hundred feet high. And I have since steadfastly believe that the only magic that happens in this world happens on the stage. Films take you captive, they feed you everything on a plate, the legerdemain they create transports you into a state where you may as well be dreaming, but theatre takes you into a world where your imagination is stimulated, your judgement is unimpaired, and thus your enjoyment heightened. It is only in the theatre that there can be this kind of exchange of energies between actor and audience. The finest definition of theatre that I have come across is ‘one actor-one audience’. Implying of course that any meaningful interaction between two people anywhere fits the definition of ideal theatre, with the same qualities needed of both participants as are required from them in an actual theatre. Theatre really is a one-on-one experience.” ( p.13-14) 

Renowned actor Naseeruddin Shah’s memoir, And Then One Day, is a fabulous example of what a memoir should be –an insight into the personal life of the man/memoirist combined with the vast understanding with their life/passion. A good memoir should not consist entirely of personal details and who said what to whom, where and when; given that it is about an individual who is admired and looked up to for the success they have achieved in their career, a reader wants to know more about the industry/niche the author represents. This is what Naseeruddin Shah does. This is a smartly written memoir which is not a necessarily sugar-coated description of success having come easily to the actor. He attempts to be as realistic in his telling with his love for theatre and films being apparent from childhood.

A life of performance is what he yearns for, knows it is hard work and is willing to do it. For instance after the disastrous workshop of Grotowski held in Poland, that Naseeruddin Shah fled from, made him realise “no one at all could in fact help, and whatever I wanted to learn I’d have to do on my own”. It is a love for films and theatre that seeps through the pages of the memoir, Naseeruddin Shah does not merely rattle off names of films he has seen, plays he has acted in or actors he has hobnobbed with, there is a reason why every person mentioned in the book is present. Whether it is Mr Kendal and his love for staging Shakespeare or Captain Hook in the animated Peter Pan, Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea, Jose Ferrer in I Accuse!,  Peter O’Toole in Becket or appreciating Shammi Kapoor and “Hindi cinema’s certified nutcase Mr Kishore Kumar” and Mehmood, “one of the most skilful actors I’ve ever seen, was not quite up there with Chaplin in terms of ability but much ahead in terms of self-love”. Every description and analysis is filled with a love and understanding of the profession, it is as if being in the world of cinema is like oxygen to Naseeruddin Shah.

Also as a good memoir should be the historical background of newly-independent India, the growth of Bollywood, the emergence of alternative cinema and changing tastes of the audiences is neatly woven through And Then One Day. This is a book which will continue to sell well beyond the immediate buzz of a beloved and admired actor having written his memoirs since it is a rich repository of information about the profession, the literature and theories around it, without being dull.

Of the many, many news stories, reviews, blog posts about the memoir, so far the best interaction has been between Barkha Dutt in conversation with Naseeruddin Shah, NDTV, 14 September 2014 ( Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai) – http://www.ndtv.com/video/player/we-the-people/watch-master-s-take-in-conversation-with-naseeruddin-shah/338122 . As of this week, the publishers, Penguin Books India have collaborated with the Hindustan Times to release a series of short films called “Naseer on Naseer”. The first one was released on 22 September 2014 – http://www.hindustantimes.com/audio-news-video/AV-Entertainment/Naseer-on-Naseer-How-and-why-I-became-an-actor/Article2-1266974.aspx . These short films echo the sentiments of the actor as recorded in his memoir – his love for acting and the stage.

“I wanted more, I could happily have stayed on that stage forever, and in a sense I have. Whether I’d done well or badly was of no consequence. As an imitation of Mr Kendal it wasn’t too far off the mark, but the real revelation for me was the charge of energy I felt that day, and have continued to feel whenever I am onstage. I found myself doing things I hadn’t planned and doing them with complete certainty and to the approval of the audience. It was as if another hand was guiding me. This feeling has stayed with me till today; and therefore, though I am grateful for compliments, I never take full responsibility for either my successes or failures but do try to make sure that they ‘theatre god’ does not turn his back on me. ” (p. 60-1) 

Naseeruddin Shah And Then One Day: A Memoir Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, Gurgaon, India, 2014. Hb. pp. 330 Rs 699

 

Modern day travelogues

Modern day travelogues

Punjabi ParmesanTravel writing has always had a special place in literature. Readers have been fascinated by stories of other places, cultures, people. In the past it was understandable when there were text-heavy descriptions of people, dresses, cities, architecture, food, vegetation and terrain. But today? To read modern-day travelogues when it is the “image age”, the most popular news feeds on social media platforms are photographs. It is akin to being immersed in a National Geographic-like environment 24×7. There are websites such as Flickr, Pinterest, Mashable, Tumblr, and YouTube, wonderful repositories of images and movie clips uploaded by institutions, media firms and individuals. So to read three books — Pallavi Aiyar’s Punjabi Parmesan: Dispatches from Europe in Crisis, Rana Dasgupta’s Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi and Sam Miller’s A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes — was an intriguing experience. Except for Sam Miller’s book that is peppered with black and white images laid within the text, the other two books are straightforward narratives. I would deem them as travelogues written in the “classical tradition” of relying solely upon the narrator/author taking the reader along a personal journey through a country/city different to the land of their birth. They make for a sharp perspective, intelligent analysis and just a sufficient mish-mash of history with a commentary on current social, political and economic developments, without really becoming dry anthropological studies. The writing style in all three books is lucid and easy.

Pallavi Aiyar’s Punjabi Parmesan is a fascinating account of her travels through Europe from 2009 onward–at a time of economic gloom. It is part-memoir, part-journalism and part-analysis ( mostly economic) of what plagues Europe. It has anecdotes, plenty of statistics and footnotes, accounts of the meetings, conferences she was able to attend as journalist and have conversations with influential policy makers and politicians. After spending a few years in Beijing she moved to Brussels, so is able to draw astute observations about the decline in Europe. Having been a foreign correspondent for over a decade, reporting from China, Europe and South East Asia, mostly on business stories from the “frontline” of action, she has an insightful understanding of the depressing scenario in Europe. It is a book worth reading.

Rana Dasgupta, CapitalRana Dasgupta’s Capital is about Delhi, the capital of India. Delhi has been settled for centuries, but became the capital of British India in 1911. The first wave of migrants who formed the character of modern Delhi came soon after the country became Independent in 1947. Over the years Delhi grew but at a moderately slow pace. Twenty years after post-liberalisation ( 1991), Delhi transformed so rapidly that the old world, old rhythms and culture became quietly invisible. Delhi continued to be a melting pot of immigrants. It became a city synonymous with wealth, material goods, luxury and uncivil behaviour, bordering on crassness. It is a city of networking and networked individuals. Rana Dasgupta’s book is a meander through the city. He meets a lot of people — the nouveau riche, the first wave of migrant settlers post-1947, members of the old city families who bemoan the decline of tehzeeb in the city. Capital is a commentary on Delhi of the twenty-first century, a city that is unrecognisable to the many who have been born and brought up here. Rana Dasgupta moved to the city recently — over a decade ago–but this brings a clarity to his narrative that a Delhiwallah may or may not agree with. It certainly is a narrative that will resonate with many across the globe since this is the version many want to hear — the new vibrant India, Shining India, the India where the good days ( “acche din”) are apparent. There is “prosperity”, clean broad streets, everything and anything can be had at the right price here. It is a perspective. Unfortunately the complexity of Delhi, the layers it has, the co-existence of poor and rich, the stories that the middle classes have to share are impossible to encapsulate in a book of 400-odd pages. It is a readable book that captures a moment in the city’s long history. It will be remembered, discussed, critiqued, and will remain for a long time to come in the literature associated with Delhi. (The cover design by Aditya Pande is stupendous! )

Sam Miller A Strange Kind of Paradise by Sam Miller is a gentle walk through the history of India, mostly written as a memoir. William Dalrymple’s blurb for the book is apt —a “love letter to India”. When India was celebrating its fiftieth year of Independence there was a deluge of books and anthologies reflecting, discussing the history of India. To read Sam Miller’s book is to get a delightful and idiosyncratic understanding of this large landmass known as India, a puzzle few have been able to fathom. The author is not perturbed by doing a history of the things he truly likes about the country or that he has been intrigued by conversations he probably had. To his credit he has done the legwork as expected of a professional journalist and discovered people, regions, histories, spaces, cities for himself. For instance he states he is an “aficionado of cemetries and of tombs”, but discovered “many Indian are scared of cemetries — except when they house the tombs of ancient emperors and their consorts. They often find my desire to visit graveyards a little strange, as if I were a necrophile or had a perverse desire to disturb the ghosts of the dead.”( p.232) A fascinating observation since it is true — cemeteries are strangely peaceful oasis of calm. If you say that out aloud in India, people will look at you in a strange manner.

Anjan Sundaram, CongoModern-day travelogues are many, available in print and digital. Two recent examples stand out. Anjan Sundaram’s Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey into Congo about his time in the African country. Fabulous stuff! Very reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s writing ( especially his diaries) written in Africa. And the other is a recent essay that physicist and well-known speculative fiction writer, Vandana Singh wrote on her blog, “Alternate Visions: Some Musings on Diversity in SF” ( http://vandanasingh.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/alternate-visions-some-musings-on-diversity-in-sf/ ). It is a long and brilliant essay about her writing but also a though-provoking musing about diversity, different cultural experiences and writing — elements that are at the core of travel writing, have always been and continue to be.

6 July 2014 

Pallavi Aiyar Punjabi Parmesan: Dispatches from a Europe in Crisis Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 320 Rs. 599

Rana Dasgupta Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 460 Rs. 799

Sam Miller A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 430 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