New York Times Posts

Interview with journalist Snigdha Poonam on her award-winning book “Dreamers”

Snigdha Poonam is a journalist with The Hindustan Times (HT) in Delhi. Her work has appeared in Scroll, The Caravan, The Times of India, The New York Times, The Guardian, Granta and The Financial Times.  Her article ‘Lady Singham’s Mission Against Love‘ was runner-up in the Bodley Head / Financial Times Essay Prize, 2015. She won the 2017 Journalist of Change award of Bournemouth University for an investigation of student suicides that appeared on Huffington Post ( 1 June 2016). Dreamers is her first book. It won 2018’s Crossword Book Award (Jury) for nonfiction and was listed by various publications, including Financial Times and Hindu, as one of the best books of the year. It was also longlisted for the 2019 PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction ($10,000) announced by PEN America. ( Read an extract published in the literary magazine, Granta: “The Fixer”, 9 Feb 2015).

Dreamers is a collection of essays of reporting from India’s small towns. The people profiled in it are young and ambitious — representative of nearly 50% of India’s 1.3b population born after 1991. They are confident and want to make their dreams happen as soon as possible and not while away their entire lives boxed in by social indicators such as gender, caste, socio-eco class etc. For many of the individuals profiled in Dreamers these are mere notional barriers meant to be broken. They think for themselves rather than be intimidated by traditional rules of social engagement. As Snigdha says the same themes are repeated of “aspiration, self-improvement and anxiety about their place in the world”. The profiles range from that of a young milkman who became a teacher of conversational English and established a coaching centre to that of a young girl who decided to become a feisty student politician, making history with her election to the Allahabad University student council. These extraordinary profiles were written by Snigdha Poonam after shadowing her subjects over some years.

Snigdha Poonam’s trademark is longform reportage which mostly focuses on investigative stories of issues concerning young India. Stories that hurtle you into the heart of the issue, forever creating a sharply etched mental image for the reader of the places and people Snigdha visits and meets, respectively. Stories that she selects would in all likelihood be missed even when they make front page news like that of the little boy murdered in a school. The slightly different peg chosen by her is to follow the story of the bus conductor wrongly accused of the boy’s murder. A story that not only creates empathy for the impoverished family of the bus conductor but also offers an alternative way of looking at the horrific story that many were chattering about. She seeks stories that should be the hallmark of all journalists but only the brave engage in. Some of her astonishing stories that are available online are written hot on the trail of the predominantly young, aggressive, male Hindu pilgrims called Kanwariyas ( HT, 24 July 2017);  on the women journalists of Khabar Lahariya, rural India’s first feminist newspaper who speak up for women in a notoriously patriarchal belt  ( The Guardian, 30 March 2015), “How the fake-jobs industry scams Indians” ( co-authored with Samarth Bansal, HT, 21 Aug 2017), or on the horrendous clashes that take place over electricity and water in urban pockets ( HT, 30 May 2018).

Here are excerpts of an interview with Snigdha Poonam:

JBR: What prompted this book? Has it been translated?

SP: Starting in 2009-10, I had been writing a series of stories looking at non-urban young Indians’ efforts to adapt to a rapidly changing world. I wrote, for example, about commercial Hindi and Hinglish fiction (OPEN magazine, “The New Heroes of MBA Lit”, 17 Oct 2014), personality development classes ( New York Times, “Developing India’s Personality”, 5 July 2013), and online dating ( Caravan, “Casting the Net”, 1 March 2012). I found the same themes repeating: aspiration, self-improvement and anxiety about their place in the world. In 2014 this led to the idea for a book that would follow the lives of a set of people in small towns: what they want, how they are trying to get there, and what that means for their future and ours.

Dreamers hasn’t yet been translated. It’s out in the US and UK and awaiting publication in China.

JBR: How do you find your stories/subjects?

SP: Other than reading a range of newspapers — Hindi and English, regional and national– I keep an eye out for unusual things everywhere, from SMS spam to wall posters to advertisements nailed to trees.  I travel widely across the country for work and let people tell me stories outside of the reporting framework. I also spend a lot of time digging into the lives of strangers on the internet: on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok.

JBR: How many stories did you write/ follow in order to publish the few mentioned in Dreamers?

SP: I wrote at least ten profiles. Among those that didn’t make it to the final draft were the stories of an FM star in Ranchi, a crime reporter in Lucknow, and a wedding planner in Ahmedabad. I wanted to prioritise stories that showed the effect of time on the people and their actions, so only those made it into the book.

JBR: Has your writing style evolved after having published this book?

SP: Yes. I am far more receptive to details. I try more consistently to draw out the nuances in people’s characters, politics, and actions. I play much more with the material until I have the right narrative structure for a story.

JBR: What do you think are the qualities of a listener? I find it remarkable how you channel the stories with minimal judgement but then offer an opinion/perspective.

SP: I have no other real interest in life than other people, so I can listen to anyone who is telling me anything, and if you listen to people at such length, you are forced to acknowledge that they are more than just good or bad. People are genuinely complicated, with so many intersecting forces driving their views and actions, and the most interesting stories you can tell about them are in the space between the extremes.

JBR: How do you record your interviews?

SP: I no longer record interviews unless it’s more than one person talking to me. Taking notes keeps me more grounded in the moment.  I have a decent shorthand, and I flesh out the whole interaction – from what people said to what I observed – before that day is over.

JBR: Do you in any way feel or become responsible for the people you interview or does everyone move on?

SP: I am more attached to the people in Dreamers than those I meet for regular stories. I talk to them about all kinds of things going on in their lives, from wedding plans to job changes. They, too, ask me about what’s going on with me, my work and my family.  

As a journalist, it’s often not people you keep track of but the issue you wrote about. For example, because I wrote an investigative story about job scams, people write to me from across India about having paid someone money for a job they didn’t get. Every once in a while, I have to chase the police in their respective areas to take action.

JBR: Have you ever followed up on these stories?

SP: Not deliberately. I feel exhausted with the issues of young men and want to engage more with women in the upcoming projects.

JBR: Who is your ideal reader? Have any of your subjects in this book read Dreamers?

SP: My ideal reader is curious and patient.

Some of the people featured in Dreamers have read it. One of them presented a copy to a leading politician, another keeps up with its sale at his local bookshop.

24 February 2019

Michael Ondaatje’s “Warlight”

( On Sunday, 27 May 2018, the online news portal Scroll published my review of Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight. Here is the original link. )

You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a rewitnessing.

                                                                                                                         (p.114, Warlight) 

Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight is narrated by Nathaniel, first as a teenager and then the older twenty-nine year old, recounting events that occurred towards the end of the second world war. Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, are told in 1945 that their parents are relocating from London to Singapore, ostensibly for their father’s work with Unilever. The children are to be left in the care of two men “who may have been criminals”.

It is wartime. Existing rules of conduct do not seem to be relevant any more — “we had broken free, adapting to fewer rules, less order”.  Nathaniel writes “There are times these years later, as I write all this down, when I feel as if I do so by candlelight.”

The children continue to live in the house of their parents. It is an odd household, cobbled-together group, with “The Moth”, earlier a lodger, now their guardian. Drifting in and out are regulars like the Pimlico Darter, erstwhile boxer, now mixed up in the illegal world of greyhound racing, who has a string of girlfriends whom he brings over –“I like women smarter than me”. One of them is the inexplicably surprising choice of geographer and ethnographer Olive Lawrence, independent, self-sufficient, and who seems to exist “in a state of separateness from all the others”. Yet for the children once they were familiar with the ways of the Moth and the Darter — “they were to us wondrous doorways into the world”.

With the Moth and the Darter, Nathaniel and Rachel, learn about the flickering, shadowy parts of wartime London, which were carefully put down on a map by the teenager Nathaniel.  Each week Nathaniel would draw detailed maps radiating out to the rest of the world making sure of any new alteration — “I needed a safe zone”. Yet the changes on the streets are plotted on the maps meticulously by Nathaniel though perhaps not so obvious to an untrained eye but “differences did exist in two seemingly identical panels”. Nathaniel’s desire to search for a safe zone stretches beyond the war years to adulthood when he decides to investigate the truth about his mother.

Back to the odd guardians of these children. They introduce Nathaniel and Rachel to a wondrously luminous yet shadowy world that consisted of the jubilantly illegal profession of greyhound racing, travelling the waterways of London by night delivering dogs, working at hotels, the world of theatre and opera. This apart from the world that wafted in with the visitors to their house at night such as Mr. Florence the beekeeper, shy Arthur McCash the limerick teller, and Citronella the couturier. “The house felt more like a night zoo,” Nathaniel says, “with moles and jackdaws and shambling beasts who happened to be chess players, a gardener, a possible greyhound thief, a slow-moving opera singer.”

Part of the richness of the novel comes from tiny, accurate details, such as  of Rachel’s epileptic fits and the tenderness with which the Darter responds to them. He has learned his ‘medical’ knowledge by treating greyhounds or slipping a dog or two Luminal — a barbiturate used in the treatment of epilepsy — to make them drowsy before the start of a race. There are the details of the migrant staff at the Criterion where Nathaniel and the Moth are employed, the precision with which all of them work letting little slip of their true identities. For instance Mr. Harry Nkoma, a dishwasher at Sink One, a fabulous storyteller who spoke of the piano lessons he enjoyed with Mrs. Rafferty in the town of Ti Rocher, four thousand miles from Piccadilly Circus. It was a charming story heard till one day when “his educated hands riffling the keys in a sultry and wise way, so it was impossible not to be thereby amazed at the truth of what we had thought were his earlier fictions”.  For Nathaniel, strangers replace family life. He learns a lot from them but can also keep his distance from them. He enjoyed his time in these half-lit moments. As the New York Times literary critic Dwight Gardner says of the author “He’s a devotee of curious detail.” ( “A Mother Keeps Wartime Secrets in Michael Ondaatje’s New Novel” NYT, Dwight Gardner, 7 May 2018). This is not surprising. In September 2017, Ondaatje said of his writing process, “During those early stages of handwriting the novels, I sometimes need a few visual breaks along the way. I might stick in someone’s poem fragment, just a few lines, or perhaps a stray visual image of a party at Oxford where quite a few are drunk that I came across in a magazine. There might be perhaps some subliminal influence.” ( “Michael Ondaatje opens archive to reveal his writing methods“, Alison Flood, The Guardian, 25 Sept 2017)

Then there is the story of the mysterious mother, Rose or ‘Viola’ as some remember her. After their father left for Singapore the teenagers watched their mother prepare for her imminent departure too by meticulously packing a large trunk for life in the tropics. Long after their mother’s departure the children discover her packed trunk in their basement though they had said their good-byes to their mother. The mystery about their mother was put together like a patchwork quilt years later by Nathaniel when he was recruited to work in the Foreign Office archives. He hoped that ten years after his mother’s death he would glean more information about Rose but it was not very forthcoming. Instead quite by accident he meets an old acquaintance of his mother, Marsh Felon, in the corridors of the building. Marsh Felon was a rural boy who belonged to a family of roof thatchers. He was eight years older to Rose but they met when Felon and his family came to fix Rose’s family home in Suffolk. It is later that Nathaniel discovers that his mother was recruited by Marsh Felon, one of the best of British Intelligence, the “war-skilled gentry”.

In her 2007 introduction to In the Skin of a Lion, Anne Enright writes “Ondaatje is much praised for the way he “decentres” history” and later “He is the presiding genius of a kind of clear-eyed male fiction”. Both statements hold true a decade later with Warlight. As Hermione Lee in her New York Review of Books article says of Ondaatje, “He casts a magical spell, as he takes you into his half-lit world of war and love, death and loss, and the dark waterways of the past.” (NYRB, Hermione Lee, “The Mists of time”, 24 May 2018)

There are layers and layers of details about each character, descriptions of the topography, the immense numbers of landscapes that are documented or referred to via the various maps mentioned, all of which display the ugly underbelly of a broken society, a war torn community, a ragtag mix of individuals drifting through life till they find their anchor. It is not a story of the heroic soldier normally associated with war fiction, it is of the anti-hero like Felon, or of seemingly societal detritus like the Moth and Darter but who later it is found are Rose’s colleagues, so are leading double lives — commoners recruited to be spies during active war.  Ondaatje manages to etch all this in a lyrical novel, almost as if it is poetry in prose. Once again Anne Enright is spot on when she says “It makes me think you can progress through time like a poet. It makes me think you can do whatever the hell you like with time.”

In an interview to CBC Radio, Michael Ondaatje said “Warlight is not a war novel. ‘Warlight’ is an invented word. At one moment in the book, I describe the River Thames at night during the war. With all the arches of a bridge crossing the river, there is only one arch that can be used safely. There is a small, yellow light at the top of that arch — an important clue for those using the river at night. That small, lit thing gives you an unusual perception of a time and a place. I wanted to write a tone or a kind of light to suggest that time for those around before and after the war.” ( CBC Radio, “Why Michael Ondaatje thinks his latest book, Warlight, is more than a war novel”, 14 May 2018)

Warlight  is an exceptionally beautiful novel while exploring those fuzzy liminal edges of existence that become apparent during a conflict whether in the flicker of the small, yellow light or metaphorically speaking. It makes visible the “unknown brave old world”.

Michael Ondaatje Warlight Jonathan Cape, an imprint of Vintage, London, 2018. Pb. pp. 290 Rs 599 

Michael Ondaatje In the Skin of a Lion ( with an introduction by Anne Enright) Picador Classic, an imprint of PanMacmillan, London, 1988, rpt 2007. Pb. pp.260 Rs 399 

20 May 2018  

Svetlana Alexievich Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Translated by Bela Shayevich)

38077-vnmgcbvbbz-1469206831Second-Hand-Time_150_RGB-682x1024(My review of Nobel winner Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time was published in Scroll on 23 July 2016 with the title” Imagine the tragedy of abandoning Communism without knowing how to live with capitalism”. Here is the link: http://scroll.in/article/812306/imagine-the-tragedy-of-abandoning-communism-without-knowing-how-to-live-with-capitalism. I am c&p the text below too. )

Nobel Prize winner (2015) Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets explores what the aftermath of the fall of USSR meant for ordinary folks. Svetlana is a Belarusian journalist who was born in Ukraine, writes in Russian and lived in Paris for nearly 11 years before returning to Minsk to be with her daughter and granddaughter. According to the New York Times, “she had left to protest the regime of the Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and curtailed press freedom. She said she planned to remain in Minsk and hoped the Nobel would give her some protection and freedom to speak her mind.” Based on interviews carried out between 1991 and 2012, the book was published in Russian in 2013, with the first English edition coming out in 2016.

By the little people consists of a series of transcripts of interviews. Sometimes these are structured thoughts, sometimes ramblings and sometimes monologues. Rarely does Alexievich intrude with comments or even an introduction to the speaker. At most, a reference to the person or the memory being recorded will be acknowledged in the chapter heading, such as “On Romeo and Juliet…except their names were Margarita and Abulfaz”. No wonder Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen calls the 2015 Nobel Prize winner a “memory keeper”.

According to Bela Shayevich, the translator of Second-Hand Time, the book is “an update of 19th-century Russian literature for the 21st century.” People read Russian novels not for the happy endings, she added, but “because there is great catharsis in great pain and then something that is sublime.” Listing it as part of her Summer Reads 2016 in The Guardian, Marina Warner called it “a Greek tragic chorus of memories about the Soviet Union”.

The stories we hear add up to something close to a dystopia created by Communist indoctrination. Having subjected the former Soviet citizens to almost an artificial reality, the regime incapacitated them from understanding the transformation of their society after 1989, when Communism began to fade.

“My mother is not going to help raise my daughter…I won’t let her. If she had her way, my child would only watch Socialist cartoons because they’re ‘humane’. But when the cartoon is over, you have to go out on the street, into a completely different world.” As an ex-Army officer who had fought in Afghanistan told Alexievich, “It’s important to write it down while there are still people around who remember it…we’d work the night shift, unloading train cars, or as security guards. Laying asphalt. The people working alongside me were PhDs, doctors, surgeons. I even remember a pianist from the symphony. …socialism is alchemy.”

What also emerges tragically from these accounts is the fact that ordinary people did not even have the skills to survive in the post-Soviet landscape, after the disintegration of the USSR. They had been brought up to believe in dreams such as the motherland. This is a constant lament in the book – the inability of many people to understand basics, such as what is real money, how it operates, and the value of it. Many did not know how to earn a living in the new socio-economic system, and rapidly sank into poverty.

Distilled testimonies

In an interview to the Dalkey Archive Press when her book Voices from Chernobyl was published, Alexievich said she sees her work as witnessing. She repeated this in her interview to The Millions: “I’m interested in little people. The little, great people, is how I would put it, because suffering expands people. In my books these people tell their own, little histories, and big history is told along the way. We haven’t had time to comprehend what already has and is still happening to us, we just need to say it. To begin with, we must at least articulate what happened.”

In the opening chapter of Second-Hand Time, Alexievich writes of her intent to document the Communist collective memory, which recalls Pravda, Little Octoberists, parades, Solzhenitsyn, Komsomol, and allegiance to the motherland: “In writing, I’m piecing together the history of ‘domestic’, ‘interior’ socialism. As it existed in a person’s soul. I’ve always been drawn to this miniature expanse: one person, the individual. It’s where everything really happens…It never ceases to amaze me how interesting everyday life really is. There are endless number of human truths. History is concerned solely with the facts; emotions are outside of its realm of interest. In fact, it’s considered improper to admit feelings into history. But I look at the world as a writer and not a historian. I am fascinated by people.”

An insight into her fascinating methodology reveals a practice not uncommon amongst those who document oral histories. According to Alexievich, she “selects one out of five interviews, and that one makes it into the published book. For each person I record four tapes or more, making 100-150 printed pages, depending on the voice, timbre and the pace of the oral story, and then only about ten pages remain…”

So the seeming chaos of individual narratives has a strong underlying sense of structure, much like the ordered chaos of Darcy’s garden in Pride and Prejudice. These stream of consciousness testimonials are the common form of recording oral narratives, particularly of women survivors, of a traumatic experience. The form is a testament to the writer’s sensitivity as a listener, allowing the interviewee to speak openly and without fear. These are experiences that, Alexievich is quick to remind us, formed “a large part of our lives – more, even, than love. Thus, the Russian experience of suffering acquires particular value.”

“I grew up in a dissident family…in a dissident kitchen…My parents knew Andrei Sakharov, they distributed Samizdat. Along with them, I read Vassily Grossman, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Dovlatov, listened to Radio Liberty. In 1991, I was, of course, in front of the White House, in a human chain, prepared to sacrifice my life to prevent the return of Communism. Not a single one of my friends were Communists. For us, Communism was inextricably linked with the Terror, the Gulag. A cage. We thought it was dead. Gone forever. Twenty years have passed…I go into my son’s room, and what do I see but a copy of Marx’s Das Kapital on his desk, and Trotsky’s My Life on his bookshelf…I can’t believe my eyes! Is Marx making a comeback? Is this a nightmare? Am I awake or am I dreaming? My son studies at the university, he has a lot of friends, and I’ve started eavesdropping on their conversations. They drink tea in our kitchen and argue about The Communist Manifesto …Marxism is legal again, on trend, a brand. They wear T-shirts with pictures of Che Guevara and Lenin on them. [ Despairingly] Nothing has taken root. It was all for naught.”

The blurb on the dust jacket begins: “What if you could tell history through the countless voices of ordinary people who lived through it?” It is as if in one fell swoop the editors have negated the very existence of the discipline of subaltern history while using the very same idea. Maybe Alexievich’s preferred definition of “witness” would have been more appropriate.

Svetlana Alexievich Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Translated by Bela Shayevich) Juggernaut Books, New Delhi, 2016. Hb. Pp. 570. Rs 699

A paragraph that could not be included in the published article for reasons of length is reproduced below: 

In the case of Soviet society, in seven decades, they went from the Romanov era, Bolshevik Revolution, CommunismRussia-Putin-sworn-in-again ( Stalin et al) and then post-1989 hurtled completely unprepared into a capitalist economy society soon to be dominated by Putin. As Simon Sebag Montefiore says in his magnificently detailed and stupendously rich history of The Romanovs: 1613-1918 says: It is ironic that now, two centuries after the Romanovs finally agreed a law of succession, Russian presidents still effectively nominate their successors just as Peter the Great did.” ( pxx-xi). And yet Putin, the Russian president’s state symbol is the two-headed eagle that was of the Romanovs too. This direct linkage to the royal period of Russian history refuses to acknowledge the communist era except for the trifle detail of Putin having been an ex-KGB officer, the secret police of the Soviet Union.

Simon Sebag Montefiore The Romanovs: 1613-1918 Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2016. Hb. Pp. 746. Rs 1299 ( Distributed by Hachette India)

Musings: On the Westland and Amazon partnership in India ( 25 Feb 2016)

westland-332pxOn 11 February 2016 it was announced that Amazon had bought a 26% stake in Westland Publishers for $1.9 m or Rs9.5 crores. ( http://rtn.asia/t-t/17345/amazon-acquires-stake-in-tatas-publishing-unit-westland and Hindu Businessline http://m.thehindubusinessline.com/companies/amazon-picks-up-26-stake-in-tata-publishing-arm-westland-for-rs-95-cr/article8224355.ece ). Under the definitive agreements signed by Trent, Amazon.com NV Investment Holding LLC and Westland, Amazon will have a right to appoint a director on the Board of Westland and also have the option to acquire the remaining 74 per cent of shares at a later date. In a statement, Westland said the investment by Amazon will enable it to expand its international reach and scale their physical and digital book businesses.

With an estimated market segment of INR 10,000 crores, India ranks seventh in overall publishing and third after Amazonthe US and UK in English language publishing. According to a recent FICCI Publishing Sector Report, book publishing in India is growing at a compound annual growth rate of approximately 30 per cent.  With an estimated 600 million adult readers in the country and a growing young reader base (15-25 yrs) of 350 million, the readership in India is expected to continue growing.

This is a significant development in the Indian publishing industry.

Westland Books has a tremendous stable of commercially successful authors, a strategy they have been in investing in steadily in recent years. Some of these are: Amish Tripathi, Ashwin Sanghi, Ravi Subramanian, Preeti Shenoy, Anuja Chauhan, Rashmi Bansal, Rujuta Diwekar, Devdutt Pattanaik, Dheeraj Sinha, Kiran Doshi, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, Ashok Banker and Satyajit Das. Their books sell lakhs of units. ( 1 lakh = 100,000) Their pre-order sales are phenomenal too. These writers have a star power and a fan following that has been unprecedented in the publishing history of India but they are also expensive to retain. (See: 4 March 2013. http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/writer-amish-tripathi-wins-record-1-million-advance-for-south-asia-rights-515121  and 19 March 2015, http://scroll.in/article/714606/why-anuja-chauhan-moved-from-harpercollins-after-eight-years-and-three-bestsellers ) The immediate impact on the publishing firm has been to streamline operations, not just in terms of structural readjustments but also exploring alternative channels of revenue, while growing too. Westland is primarily an English-language publishing firm but has an Indian translations programme with its strategic partnership with Yatra Books. In fact in early February, the Oriya translation of Amish Tripathi’s book had been announced.

Amazon too has been in India for a while. It is better known for its online retail store and self-publishing programme, Kindle Direct Programme or KDP. (It has organised very popular KDP roadshows in India too, proving the Amazon brand is well-known locally.) By investing in an Indian publishing firm, Amazon firmly establishes itself into the literary landscape. Plus, evolving in this manner seems to be in keeping with Amazon’s highly successful Seattle-based publishing programme especially translations. In fact it is significant that press release quoted Sarah Jane Gunter, Director, Amazon Publishing and not Jeff Bezos or an Amazon India representative.

The rising significance of translations in publishing worldwide can no longer be ignored. In April 2015, the New York Times published an article Amazon’s translation programme AmazonCrossing as the most successful publishing programme, leaving even the biggest MNCs and specialist independent presses far, far behind. ( 29 April 2015 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/30/arts/international/who-is-the-biggest-publisher-of-foreign-literature-in-the-us.html?_r=0  and Alex Shephard in the New Republic on 19 Oct 2015,” How Amazon quietly became the largest publisher of translated literature” https://newrepublic.com/article/123150/americas-biggest-publisher-literature-translation-amazon  ) . According to Chad Post while doing the calculations for his annual translation database report in December 2015, he realised that AmazonCrossing had the maximum number of titles in the year. It was 75 titles which was three times more than the next publisher. He maintains the wonderful Three Percent blog on the University of Rochester website. ( 6 December 2015, “Translation Database Updates: AmazonCrossing is the Story”  http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=16182#fn14513631225664e866d0983 ) In fact, in Oct 2015, Amazon invested USD $10 m into AmazonCrossing as a commitment over the next five years to increase the number and diversity of its books in translation.

Westland stands to gain twofold – a significant minority provides good financial investment and they will be able to leverage the international area strategically particularly Indian diaspora book market. As an author said to me upon hearing of this announcement, “Now it may be possible for Indian authors to organise book tours abroad.” Whereas Amazon is able to leverage a significant portion of the 600m readership in India with plans to expand in the future. The Indian book market is showing a healthy growth rate across genres. The estimated valuation of Westland with this deal is Rs 38/40 crores – a substantial sum for an Indian publishing firm when its most valuable assets are its authors and backlist. Sarah Gunter too with her experience in children’s literacy programmes will provide expertise into a book market where the estimated readership between ages 15-25 is 350 million. Also, Amazon too, like others in the publishing industry, are exploring omni-channel retailing. Having opened their first brick-and-mortar store in Seattle recently, followed by San Diego and it is speculated that they have another 400 planned in USA, it comes as no surprise when Satabdi Mishra of Walking BookFairs posted on her Facebook wall on 2 February 2016, “Why are Amazon and Snapdeal calling a small independent ‘real’ bookshop for possible collaborations?” Another good reason to invest in a local book publishing programme?

“We are very excited about this investment from Amazon and what it means for Westland, our customers and authors,” said Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO of Westland. “Amazon’s roots are in books and they remain a major part of their business – this investment from a company with such deep experience in books, global reach and exciting digital platforms will help us take our Indian authors and their works globally.”

“We are delighted that our investment in Westland will help their authors reach a broader audience worldwide,” said Sarah Jane Gunter, Director of Amazon Publishing. “Our investment in Westland continues Amazon’s commitment to innovating and investing heavily on behalf of customers in India – it’s still very much Day One.”

Amazon too, like others in the publishing industry, are exploring omni-channel retailing. Having opened their first brick-and-mortar store in Seattle, followed by San Diego and it is speculated that they have another 400 planned in USA. Hence it comes as no surprise when Satabdi Mishra of Walking BookFairs posted on her Facebook wall on 2 February 2016, “Why are Amazon and Snapdeal calling a small independent ‘real’ bookshop for possible collaborations?”

So far it is a win-win scenario for Westland and Amazon.

25 February 2016

Paul Kalanithi – ” When Breath Becomes Air”

When breath becomes air“…I found myself increasingly often arguing that direct experience of life-and-death questions was essential to generating substantial moral opinions about them. Words began to feel as weightless as the breath that carried them. Stepping back, I realized that I was merely confirming what I already knew: I wanted that direct experience. It was only in practicing medicine that I could pursue a serious biological philosophy. Moral speculation was puny compared to moral action. ( p.43)

Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air is an account of his being17856882._SY540_ diagnosed with cancer, the birth of his daughter, rediscovering religion (though his parents were Christian and Hindu) and his death, as narrated in an epilogue by his wife, Lucy. It is a heartbreakingly beautiful book written with surgical precision and an objective insight that only a doctor can possess. It comes across throughout the book but is evident when Paul Kalanithi is recalling a terribly acute back spasm he had while at a railway station. As he lay on the hard wooden bench to manage the pain he was reciting the name of every single muscle that was paining.  In Jan 2014 he wrote an essay for the New York Times called, “How long have I got left?” ( http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/25/opinion/sunday/how-long-have-i-got-left.html ) and it went viral. Subsequently he wrote/interviewed for Stanford Medicine in Spring 2014 called, “Before I go” ( http://stanmed.stanford.edu/2015spring/before-i-go.html ).

Paul Kalanithi was a voracious reader when he was a child. His father and his elder brother were doctors but when Paul applied to university, his first preference were the literature and history courses. But before leaving his then girlfriend in Arizona encouraged him to read a “low brow” book that she had enjoyed instead of the “high culture” reading he was constantly immersed in. This brow book influenced Paul considerably. It talked about the importance of the mind and the brain. After finishing the book, he browsed through the courses being offered at Stanford and began to explore some of the biological science classes too. He turned out to be an exceptional student who would survive the 88-hour week and more, plus study and remained top of the class. Unfortunately cancer intervened in the eighteen months of his residency. This put immense pressure on his marriage to Lucy who was also at Stanford. But despite the hiccups, Lucy and Paul were together through the first phase of his treatment. At this point he did not require chemotherapy as the cancer began to respond to the oncologist’s treatment. So much so, Paul returned to work a few months later, although on a lighter schedule. Within days he had returned to his full workload of surgeries and was in the OT every day. Unfortunately soon the cancer returned. This time far more virulently. He read his own scans at the end of a long day at work. Here is a very moving excerpt from the book published in the New Yorker on 11 January 2016 where Paul recollects his last day at work — “My last day as a surgeon”.  (http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/my-last-day-as-a-surgeon )

Paul Kalanithi with CadyPaul left the manuscript incomplete on his computer. He requested his wife to complete it. Lucy Kalanithi has written a heartrendingly poignant essay as the epilogue to the book. Like her husband, Lucy too is a medical professional, but there is marked difference in their writing styles. Unlike her husband who brings in his love for literature with his passion for medicine to write crisply and objectively, Lucy writes gently, calmly, but the pain at losing her much beloved husband is unmistakable. She completes the book by describing his last day, holding his eight-month-old daughter for the last time, the funeral, the memorial service and his grave. ( I was weeping by the time I finished reading the essay.) On 6 January 2016, Lucy Kalanithi wrote in the New York Times, “My Marriage Didn’t End When I Became a Widow”. ( http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/01/06/my-marriage-didnt-end-when-i-became-a-widow/) It describes some of the memories she recounts in the epilogue.

When Breath Becomes Air would be better seen as having been written by husband and wife. The tragedy that befell such a young family where the couple had promising careers ahead of them can only be experienced by reading the book in one sitting, reading/hearing Paul at first and then closely followed by Lucy’s voice grieving at the loss of a much loved husband, companion, friend, father, son, brother and surgeon. His memorial service in Stanford was attended by his family, friends, colleagues and patients.

I have often wondered what it must be like for a doctor to realise they are ill and their mind analyses, evaluates every stage while they are sick. When Paul kept prompting his oncologist for some idea of the realistic time it would require him to recover, she kept evading his question. At one point in the book he has an epiphany when he realises it is sometimes best to stop being a doctor and looking after oneself but be treated by others, instead of second guessing their treatment.

When Breath Becomes Air  is a very moving book and should be read by everyone.

( The images used to accompany this article are from the Internet. I do not own the copyright to them at all. If anyone knows who owns them, please let me know and I will acknowledge the source.)

Paul Kalanithi When Breath Becomes Air ( Foreword by Abraham Verghese) The Bodley Head, an imprint of Vintage, Penguin Random House, London, 2016. Hb. pp. 230 £ 12.99

1 February 2016

A fistful of journalism: An interview with Deca collective

Deca( I interviewed some members of  the DECA collective. Founder-member, Sonia Faleiro facilitated the conversation via email. This was uploaded on the Hindu website on 11 April 2015 at: http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/a-fistful-of-journalism/article7088990.ece and a shorter version of it in print on 12 April 2015. I am also c&p the text below.) 

The members of Deca, a global journalism cooperative, share the reason for sharing it, and the future of web publishing. 

Deca is a global journalism cooperative that creates long-form stories about the world to read on mobile devices ( www.decastories.com and @decastories). It takes its cue from Magnum Photos, a member-owned cooperative that changed the rules of photojournalism in the 1950s. Magnum’s founders, including Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, took advantage of the technological shifts of the time — portable 35mm cameras and fast, cheap film processing —to strike out on their own, covering the stories they felt were most important. With journalism entering an era of dramatic change with tablets and smartphones replacing print books and newspapers, established journalists can now bring their stories directly to readers. These shifts — and agencies like Magnum — are Deca’s inspiration.

Deca’s members have authored acclaimed books and articles in magazines like Harper’sThe Atlantic,The New YorkerTimeScienceRolling StoneGQNational GeographicOutsideBloomberg Businessweek, and The New York Times Magazine. The members — who are based in Rome, London, Shanghai, Barcelona, Los Angeles, New York, Detroit, Seattle, Washington DC, UAE, Lebanon, and South Africa — include winners and finalists of prestigious awards like Pulitzer Prize, National Magazine Award, PEN Literary Award, Livingston Award, Whiting Writers’ Award, and Los Angeles Book Prize. Since Deca’s launch in mid-2014, five stories have been published. Sonia Faleiro’s 13 Men was No. 1 on Amazon India and was selected as a ‘Kindle Select 25’ (one of 25 best books in the Amazon Kindle storefront across all markets).

Once a month, Deca publishes a non-fiction story about the world, somewhere between a long article and a short book. Each piece is written by one member, edited by another, and approved by the rest. The eight founding members are Sonia Faleiro, Stephan Faris, McKenzie Funk, Vanessa M. Gezari, Marc Herman, Mara Hvistendahl, Delphine Schrank, and Tom Zoellner. Recently, Elizabeth Dickinson, Rania Abouzeid, and Richard Poplak became members too. In a freewheeling interview, Deca’s members talk about why they started Deca and the future of publishing on the web. Excerpts:

What prompted the creation of Deca?

Our inspiration — and proposed response to any coming changes — are one and the same. New technologies may be gutting the market for print journalism but they have a silver-ish lining: If journalists want to write directly for their readers, it’s now cheap and easy to pull off. No longer do the two sides need a magazine in order to find one another. Note that we also found inspiration in newer photo cooperatives like Noor and VII, which came about after a more recent sea change in photography: digital cameras. We wanted to tell the important stories of our times, to do so in detail, and for as wide a readership as possible. But we also wanted to maintain the standards we’ve become used to working for great traditional media. We wanted to be sure we’d be well edited, copy edited, and beautifully published. Deca does all of this along with providing us the support and security of working with a group of similarly idealistic but also very hard-working people.

Once you publish the long-form stories, what next?

Photo cooperatives have long functioned as a way to keep archival photos by its members from disappearing in the dust bin. It’s likewise possible that Deca could package and put out anthologies of its members’ work — stories sitting in our individual archives that are newly relevant today.

What are the rules that you foresee changing of making content available on smartphones?

A shocking proportion of people now read their news and books on their smartphones. It helps that screens keep on getting bigger, which is true of Amazon’s phone as well as the new iPhone, apparently. Stories can now live independently of their publications.

How will crowdsourcing work for this collective?

Kickstarter’s been a smashing success so far. But it will go on in some fashion via our website and a campaign on the new crowdsourcing platform Tugboat. Many publications are now using a slow-drip version of the NPR model: “If you like us, please support us.”

How will the collective work add new authors?

New authors will be added subject to a unanimous vote. We’re obviously looking to work with great writers. But we are a co-op so we also want to be sure that whoever we bring on board understands that this is about shared effort, responsibility, wins and losses. They must also be pretty easy to work with.

What is the selection process?

We publish only members’ work and have no plans to do otherwise. We do have plans to eventually translate members’ stories to other languages, however.

Will you develop this into a subscription model or will it remain as an offering of digital singles on KDP?

Yes. Subscribers are signing up now via Kickstarter. Our app is up and running and so is our subscription service. So basically we now sell singles on Amazon. We sell singles and subs through our app that people can download to their smartphones or digital devices. Readers can subscribe to Deca for $14.99, which buys them 10 stories (http://www.decastories.com/store/subscribe/). Readers can also buy singles from our website to read online (http://www.decastories.com/13men/)

Why did you opt for a Digital Restrictions Management (DRM model) when models such as Creative Commons are becoming popular?

Perhaps mainly because we’re a bunch of writers, not techies or business people, and funding our work via the DRM is the model we could most easily wrap our heads around. Creative Commons is great, but we’ve yet to understand how, if readers don’t pay, we can’t fund reporting trips, let alone pay ourselves. So we’ve started with a pay-to-read model and are crossing our fingers. The money for research has to come from somewhere. Readers supporting journalists directly — outside the framework of a magazine or a large media organisation — is also a trend. Even so, our subscription for a full year costs about the same as a single night out at the movies, and directly expresses your support for the continued existence of this kind of journalism.

Will you ever consider anthologising these e-singles in print? (Guernica announced in summer of 2014 it will be publishing an annual print-anthology.)

Absolutely considering. We’re still fond of print, even if we’re enabled by digital. And there may already be cases when you see Deca’s work in print: When new Deca stories come out, we aim to partner with magazines and publish excerpts therein. In fact, Of Ice and Men was on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. They published a whopping 9k word excerpt.

12 April 2015

Ian Caldwell, “The Fifth Gospel”

the-fifth-gospel-9781451694147_hrNever had I seen a book made that way. Like a prehistoric creature found living at the bottom of the sea, it bore only the faintest resemblance to its modern cousins. The manuscript’s cover was made with a sheet of skin hanging off like a satchel flap, designed to wrap around the pages again and again, to protect them. A leather tail dangled from it, beltlike, looping around the book to cinch it closed. 

I undid the straps as carefully as if I were arranging hairs on a baby’s head. Inside, the pages were gray and soft. Flowing letters were penned in long, smooth strokes with no rounded edges: Syriac. Beside them. inked right there on the page, was a Latin index written by some long-dead Vatican librarian. 

Formerly Book VIII among the Nitrian Syriac collection.

And then, very clearly:

Gospel Harmony of Tatian (Diatessaron).

A shudder went through me. Here in my hands was the creature invented by one of the giants of early Christianity. The canonical life of Jesus of Nazareth in a single book. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John fused together to form the super-gospel of the ancient Syrian church. 

( p.60-1)

Ian Caldwell’s second novel, The Fifth Gospel is a Vatican thriller which took more than a decade to write. The story revolves around the Vatican hosting an exhibition in the hope of earning some revenue. It promises to be an exciting one since it is about one of the oldest relics in Christianity — the Turin Shroud. It also involves the possibility of exhibiting the Diatessaron, discovered in the library. But a week before the exhibition is to open, the curator, Ugo Nogara, is found dead on the grounds of  Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer palace. The body is discovered by his friend the Roman Catholic priest Simon Andreou, who is soon joined by his younger brother, Father Alex Andreou, a Greek Catholic priest. Thus begins the murder investigation, implicating Father Simon Andreou. He is to be tried by a Vatican court. Meanwhile Father Alex Andreou is determined to get to the truth. Unfortunately there are moments when not only does he expose himself, but also his five-year-old son Peter, to danger, but the little fellow is made of  quite stern stuff. ( Father Alex Andreou being a Greek Catholic priest is allowed to marry unlike his brother who remains a celibate.)

The Fifth Gospel is a fascinating account of life within the Vatican, a murder mystery, duplicity of the Vatican, the complexity of theology, the fascination with relics, and of course, the importance of family — related by blood or the banding together of the priests to create a sense of family. It is a stunning book. The details of daily life at the Vatican and the intricate and rich backdrop to the plot are mesmerising to read about. The reading experience is enriched by the deft characterisation — many of them such as Simon, Peter, Alex, Uncle Lucio, his secretary Diego, and even minor characters such as Alex’s friend Swiss Guard Leo, Alex’s wife Mona and Alex’s childhood friend Gianni Nardi remain memorable. They exist with you even after the novel is finished.

The twelve years spent by Ian Caldwell in research and writing show in the details of the literary landscape and the court scenes all though the murder mystery plot is basic. Yet it does not make the story any less gripping. What makes it even more astounding is that Ian Caldwell has never visited the Vatican. As he says in the KLTA5 interview, he has a young family and it would have been impossible to leave them for long periods to do his research in Italy. He was required at home. So he did the next best thing. He interviewed, met, spoke and discussed  with many priests, canonists, professors, seminary instructors, Church lawyers, and prominent Catholic scholars who answered all his questions in detail “but sometimes spoke openly about their experiences at the Vatican”. (p.430) It is an interesting coincidence that within a week of this novel being released, and its focus on the acrimony and hostility that Christian relics can create within the church, the New York Times publishes an article on 4 April 2015, “Findings Reignite Debate on Claim of Jesus’ Bones”. It is about two ancient artifacts that have set off a fierce archaeological and theological debate. At the heart of the quarrel is an assortment of inscriptions that led some to suggest Jesus of Nazareth was married and fathered a child, and that the Resurrection could never have happened. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/05/world/middleeast/findings-reignite-debate-on-claim-of-jesus-bones.html?_r=0 ) Timely perhaps, blurring the lines between the worlds of reality and fiction.

Despite having a convenient and a satisfactory conclusion it is a novel worth spending time with. The Fifth Gospel may be written in a similar vein to a Dan Brown mystery, but it is far superior.

Buy it.

Some links worth browsing through:

A Q&A With Ian Caldwell, Author of March’s #1 Indie Next List Pick By Sydney Jarrard on Tuesday, Mar 03, 2015 http://www.bookweb.org/news/qa-ian-caldwell-author-march%E2%80%99s-1-indie-next-list-pick

KTLA5: New Book Reveals Vatican Life POSTED 9:24 AM, MARCH 26, 2015, BY NANCY CRUZ http://ktla.com/2015/03/26/new-book-reveals-vatican-life/

Ian Caldwell at the House of SpeakEasy on March 9, 2015, at New York’s City Winery. https://vimeo.com/122093010

7 March 2015

Ian Caldwell The Fifth Gospel Simon & Schuster, London, 2015. Pb. pp. 450 £12.99

 

Spirit Animals, Book 1: Wild Born

Spirit Animals, Book 1: Wild Born

Spirit Animals, Wild Born, Book 1“You got a true response through trickery,” she said. “What you did to use was a betrayal.”

Brandon Mull’s Spirit Animals is about four children– Conor, Abeke, Meilin and Rollan– born in Erdas. They are eleven-years-old when they are expected to drink the Nectar before witnesses, where it will be revealed if they have a spirit animal. Irrespective of class or gender, all children are eligible ( in fact must) drink the nectar. Whereupon Conor, Abeke, Meilin and Rollan are successful in calling Briggan the Wolf, patron beast of Eura; Uraza the leopard; Jhi the panda, who is on the Great Seal of Zhong; and Essix the Falcon respectively. Guided by the Greencloaks The children set off on a quest to tackle the dark forces that are determined to destroy the world of Erdas.

The concept of spirit animals is based on power animals. According to Wikipedia it is a broadly animistic and shamanic concept that has entered the English language from anthropology, ethnography and sociology. Power animals are common to shamanic practice in both Eurasia and the Americas. They are the helping or ministering spirit or familiar which empowers individuals and is essential for success in any venture undertaken.
In the shamanic worldview, most persons have power animals or tutelary spirits which empower and protect them from harm, like guardian spirits or angels in the Abrahamic traditions. In these traditions, the power animal may also lend the wisdom or attributes of its kind to those under its protection.

Brandon Mull may have borrowed this concept from Shamanism but the story is original. The world of Erdas is created very well. From page one, the reader is immersed in the story. The author is an American writer, a New York Times bestselling author, who firmly believes that “imagination can take you places”. Wild Born is the first of a series planned.

Brandon Mull Spirit Animals: Wild Born ( Book 1) Scholastic Inc., USA, 2013. Hb. pp. 200 Rs. 450

“The Lowland”, Jhumpa Lahiri

“The Lowland”, Jhumpa Lahiri

The LowlandThe most ordinary details of his life which would have made no impression on a girl from Calcutta, were what made him distinctive to her.
( p.76) 

Subhash and Udayan, brothers, a little over a year apart are academically very bright students who join Presidency College and Jadavpur respectively. Everyone, in the neighbourhood and their parents, are delighted. Subhash later goes to USA for his Ph.D. Udayan joins the Naxal movement. Hardly surprising given that this is Calcutta of the late 1960s. Lowland is about the brothers who were extremely close but their lives charted a course diametrically opposite to each other. Subhash has the predictable, straightforward, middle class life whereas Udayan a naxal is killed in a police encounter.

The Lowland was released with a tremendous amount of hype. The unveiling of the book cover ( at least in India) was done dramatically with press releases and social media chatter. The anticipation of reading a new novel by Jhumpa Lahiri was nerve-wracking. (Ever since her debut collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, I have admired her writing.) Before the book was released on 8 Sept 2013, there were the usual number of articles, interviews, and profiles of her. The extract published in the New Yorker on 10 Jun 2013 was promising. (http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2013/06/10/130610fi_fiction_lahiri) Her interview on 5 Sept 2013 in the New York Times stands out. ( http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/08/books/review/jhumpa-lahiri-by-the-book.html?pagewanted=all ) In it she refuted all claims of writing “immigrant fiction”. Her reply:

I don’t know what to make of the term “immigrant fiction.” Writers have always tended to write about the worlds they come from. And it just so happens that many writers originate from different parts of the world than the ones they end up living in, either by choice or by necessity or by circumstance, and therefore, write about those experiences. If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest? Native fiction? Puritan fiction? This distinction doesn’t agree with me. Given the history of the United States, all American fiction could be classified as immigrant fiction. Hawthorne writes about immigrants. So does Willa Cather. From the beginnings of literature, poets and writers have based their narratives on crossing borders, on wandering, on exile, on encounters beyond the familiar. The stranger is an archetype in epic poetry, in novels. The tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme.

Jhumpa Lahiri is always good in noting the particular. It requires a remarkable strength of observation, to detail and then recreate it in a different land. It could not be an easy task. Her detailing is restricted to the physical landscape, that is easily done, with a conscious practice of the art. it is conveying the atmosphere that takes discipline.

In The Lowland the story struggles to be heard between the vast passages of history lessons that the reader has to endure. It makes the novel very tedious to read. Probably it is due to the subject she has chosen — Naxalism. In the novel, her treatment of the movement is distant and unfresh neatened up in a story. For those familiar with the movement, in the 1960s, it was fairly simple in it being a peasant uprising launched by Charu Majumdar. (http://www.hindustantimes.com/News-Feed/NM2/History-of-Naxalism/Article1-6545.aspx). Today, the Indian newspapers are dominated by news emerging from  parts of India affected by naxals. In an email to me about naxalism in India, Sudeep Chakravarti of Red Sun fame, writes “The maoist rebellion in low to high intensity can now be said to exist in between 106 districts. this does not include areas where propaganda and recruitment are on but as yet there is no conflict (for example, several indian cities, Haryana, Punjab). Numbers too are down. It is today a relatively more weakened force than, say, in 2006. but it’s a phase. the movement is nowhere near dead. I expect to take new shapes and strategies — in many ways that is already happening.”

Lowland is on the shortlist for ManBooker Prize 2013 and longlist of the National Book Award 2013.  Jhumpa Lahiri’s talent has always been to tell a story, capturing the “thingyness of things”, but in Lowland she fails. One always lives in hope. At heart she is a good storyteller, but Lowland will not be her calling card as an author, that place is reserved firmly for Interpreter of Maladies. 

3 Oct 2013

Jhumpa Lahiri The Lowland Random House India, India, 2013. Hb. pp. 350