PanMacmillan Posts

Aravind Adiga “Amnesty”

A man without rights in this world is still entitled to love.

Award-winning author Aravind Adiga’s Amnesty is set in Sydney, Australia. It tells the story of an illegal immigrant, Dhananjaya Rajaratnam aka “Danny”, who came on a student visa four years earlier but stayed on. Now he earns a living as a cleaner. The action of the novel takes place in less than a day after he realises that one of his former clients, Radha Thomas, has been murdered in her apartment. He is in a pother wondering what to do. He had been on pretty good terms with Radha and knew her secrets quite well such as her long time affair with fellow-gambler, Dr. Prakash. In fact Danny has often accompanied the two on their gambling sprees but only as a companion. Danny was not a gambler. He was also a teetotaller. Two facts about their Cleaner that mystified Radha and Prakash and yet they invited him along.

Amnesty is about Danny in a fix. He is an illegal immigrant in Australia. A fact that many, even his girlfriend, are clueless about. But Danny has learned to survive in Sydney. His predicament on the day Radha Thomas is murdered stems from his quandary about telling the police about Radha and Prakash and coming to terms with the inevitable repurcussions of revealing his presence in the country. It is a horrendous situation to be in as he left Sri Lanka for better pastures given the civil strife. He is also ridden with guilt as his father had managed to collect the handsome sum of over $11,000 Australian dollars to pay for Danny’s education except that Danny chose to stay on as an illegal immigrant. There is so much rushing through Danny’s mind while living in the present. Having occupied this grey area of Australian society where he is visible and yet invisible enables him to observe much more than he lets on or will ever tell. As an immigrant of South Asian origin he is able to witness the incredibly well-defined social structures of society where the whites dominate and is evident in the layout of Sydney’s neighbourhoods. Given his profession as a cleaner, Danny is able to flit in and out of homes, even in the poshest neighbourhoods, and gets a sense of how much variation there is in the quality of living amongst different sections of society. It also fuels his aspirations of being a legal permanent Australian resident rather than return to Sri Lanka. The very thought of returning home is a depressing thought.

In Amnesty the first person narrative is delivered most often as short monologues. At first it is a fascinating literary technique to employ as it helps plunge the reader immediately into a very personal space — Danny’s mind. But with every passing minute it begins to rattle the reader as this flood of memories intermingled with the rapidly unfurling events of the day, is a heady emotional cocktail for it is relentless, unnerving, disconcerting and suffocating. It is as if Danny has neatly co-opted the reader into his quandary. It is disturbing for this is a situation unique to Danny and Danny alone. Unlike with literary fiction where much of the reading experience is completed by the reader’s engagement with the story, here it is a terrifying space to inhabit where the reader is privy to Danny’s every thought and action. Helpless in being unable to guide Danny is an unpleasant prospect for the reader but it is nothing compared to what Danny is undergoing where his internal moral compass strongly suggests he needs to reveal all that he knows to the police but it will inevitably mean deportation to him. It is this fickleness of life and to a certain degree what he construes as unfair that keeps him unsure about how to proceed. Amnesty stems from the Greek word, Amnesia, which is also a play on Danny’s convenient forgetfulness about the visa he used to enter Australia. Yet this one day is critical in his life for it unravels his grit and determination to stay on in the country as he battles his inner self for figuring out what is the right thing to do — share the information he has about the crime committed or not. Ironically it is an amnesty he strikes with himself before taking the decision he makes.

In a sense Amnesty can be construed as a literary recreation of the Stockholm Syndrome which is a psychological response of the captive to align with their captor during captivity. Danny is the illegal immigrant who fears deportation to Batticaloa, the distress in the homeland in his mind is far worse than skulking as a persona non grata in Sydney. The “captivity” of being an illegal alien in a foreign land is infinitely preferable to home. In fact Danny is constantly assessing people by their legal right to live in this city. But he is gripped with worry when confronted with the murder of Radha Thomas. And the drama plays out slowly like a Greek tragedy in the classical one day cycle to figure out what Danny will do. It is very much a modern novel with its global theme of the status of migrants. Literature is able to say much more bluntly that journalists are unable to do or are choosing not to do. Fiction is able to take deep dives into the personal and give a face to the tragedy. Migration stories in journalism present a story that can then be used to influence or change government policies. Literature like Adiga’s Amnesty, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West keep such uncomfortable conversations alive. They are relevant. They are also an assertion by the South Asian diaspora to use their position in the global literary landscape to be heard.

Adiga seems to subvert the Australian literary fiction canon which is very focussed upon its preoccupations by preferring to show the subaltern’s view of Sydney society — a perspective that is Adiga’s literary trademark. In this case, it is the perspective of the South Asian immigrant trying to find a foothold in Australian society while navigating all the tricky socio-economic spaces. Adiga gives a voice to the minority that is not easily visible in mainstream Australian literature; not to say that literature by the diaspora is not making waves in Australia. It is. There are moments in the novel that may alienate the reader for its minute description of Sydney’s streets. Detailing the local landscape does make the head spin but it also helps in aligning oneself with the confusion that must be prevailing in Danny’s mind. Definitely not easy to read but by having a writer of Adiga’s calibre and literary clout speak of these daily preoccupations in his latest novel will most certainly impact contemporary Australian literature. Wait and see.

7 March 2020

Tuesday Reads (Vol 5), 16 July 2019

Dear Reader,

Choosing a book or two to write about always throws me into a pother. The three mentioned in today’s post are not to be missed.

Writer and translator Shanta Gokhale’s autobiography One Foot on the Ground: A Life Told Through the Body is brilliant. Shanta Gokhale is known for her translations from Marathi into English but she is fluently bilingual in English and Marathi. One Foot on the Ground is an account of her childhood, her father’s insistence on sending her to England to complete her school and later University. She returned home to become a teacher and then later joined the PR team of Glaxo. Ultimately she became known for her work as a journalist/columnist, screenwriter, translator and writer. She quit her day job once her children were old enough. Most interestingly, as the subtitle indicates, this is an autobiography that documents the various stages of her life through memorable experiences pertaining to the body. From the first remembered instances of molestation by the cook, dental troubles, babies, cancer, glaucoma etc. Then there are those other quiet assertions of her identity and her self, like filing an affidavit in the court to use her maiden name while still married, allowing her ex-husband to share her apartment till he had found a place for himself ( which was not to be for some years!), revelling in the joy of having her own space, her own bed where she could stretch out and read/work, ultimately recognising that she “needed a room of her own to be the person I was”. The calm tenor and poise with which Shanta Gokhale discusses her life, her body, her responsibilities and her ambitions is delightful. One Foot on the Ground is like reading the testimony of a woman who lives her feminism and do so contentedly. ( Read an extract published in Scroll on 10 July 2019. )

The second book, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: A Novel is an extraordinary debut novel by award-winning queer Asian-American writer Ocean Vuong. Written in the first person by the narrator, Little Dog, it is a coming-of-age tale in America. It is about the boy, his Vietnam War veteran grandfather, his schizophrenic maternal grandmother and his mother who suffers from PTSD. It is a thinly veiled autobiographical account of Ocean Vuong’s life, of migrating to USA as a two-year-old refugee via a brief stay at a refugee camp in the Philippines. The precision of his writing, much as the fineness of description that is associated with poetry, is a remarkable transferance of creative talent into prose. The long beautifully crafted flowing sentences. In fact Ocean Vuong wondered in an interview if it was a comically futile effort. He had to contend with various multiplicities while also being very aware of the American lineage of biographies. Yet the agency as an artist is also very important to him. He adds that he was very inspired by the American idea that one can create a mythology for oneself.

Once at a writing conference, a white man asked me if destruction was necessary for art. His question was genuine. He leaned forward, his blue gaze twitching under his cap stitched gold with ‘Nam Vet 4 Life‘, the oxygen tank connected to his nose hissing beside him. I regarded him the way I do every white veteran from that war, thinking he could be my grandfather, and I said no. “No, sir, destruction is not necessary for art.” I said that, not because I was certain, but because I thought my saying it would help me believe it.

A coming-of-age novel that can be seen to exist firmly within the American tradition of literary biographies but at the same time is that of an Asian-American negotiating his adopted country. By writing this novel, Ocean has put together the best of literary traditions of his country of origin and his adopted country — the written word with the oral tradition and its folksy element. Thereby making it possible to speak of his schizophrenic grandmother and his mother who suffers from PTSD. There is plenty to unpack in this novel. It has many autobiographical elements which Ocean acknowledges in his various interviews but it has been announced as a novel. Ironically this is in the form of a long letter to his mother who is unable to read English. He states “the chance this letter finds you is slim — the very impossibility of your reading this is all that makes my telling it impossible.” At the same time Ocean Vuong rightly points out that “Conflict driven plot becomes its own protagonist” . Here is a wonderful profile of Ocean Vuong published in the Guardian. ( 9 June 2019).

The final book is another debut novel that has been considered by its publishers “the most coveted debut of 2019, an intoxicating story of art, obsession and possession”. Elizabeth Macneal’s The Doll Factory is set in Victorian London, at the time of the Great Exhibition and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Doll Factory is about the heroine Iris who aspires to be an artist while employed with her twin sister painting dolls faces. Iris soon finds herself a part of the PRB. She is hired as a model. It is a fine mix of nineteenth century preoccupation with details and twenty-first century preoccupations of modern storytelling while being very aware of concepts like male gaze. There are moments of pure gorgeousness in the book especially when the author is describing the Great Exhibition.

Elizabeth Macneal is a graduate of the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia where she was the Malcolm Bradbury Scholar, and The Doll Factory has won her the Caledonia Novel Award. It has been sold to 28 territories so far, while TV rights have already been snapped up. Alan Massie puts it well in The Scotsman review:

It’s accomplished; there’s nothing raw about it. Today’s young novelists have all been schooled in the making of a novel and they have usually submitted drafts of it to fellow students as well as teachers, and taken their suggestions and criticisms on board. Their novels are far less clumsy, far less raw, than first novels so often were a couple of generations ago. The Doll Factory is a perfect example.

In the acknowledgements Macneal thanks a long list of people for their help and encouragement. No doubt they have all been useful. Nevertheless, it’s fair to assume that only she is responsible for the novel’s charm. It is indeed charming. But is it about anything that matters? Perhaps we shall have to wait for a second or even a third novel before knowing whether the author’s evident ability can carry her beyond charm so that she deals with matters of significance, writing something which has the reader engaged in both feeling and thought.

The Doll Factory will undoubtedly be seen on longlists and all the noteworthy literary prizes meant for debut authors. Ultimately Elizabeth Macneal may win one of the big literary prizes for a later novel she writes, by which time she will have rid herself of all the creative writing school learnings and learned to be confident of her own voice. She will have learned to trust herself.

For now enjoy this wonderful Twitter thread by Elizabeth Macneal describing how the exquisite book cover was designed:

One Foot on the Ground, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and The Doll Factory are three unmissable books of 2019. They have the incredible quality to stay with the reader long after the books are over and done with.

Enjoy!

JAYA

16 July 2019

David Nott’s “War Doctor”

When I go to a war zone there’s a certain amount of my own equipment that I take with me. I take my own theatre scrubs and a gas mask, and I take my loupes, which are lenses with four-times magnification that help me perform intricate surgery on small blood vessels and flaps used in plastic surgery. I take a light source, a kind of headlamp, so that I continue to operate when the generators go down or the lights go off, and which also allow me to see deep into the crevices of a wound; and I take my Doppler machine, which allows me to hear the blood flow of the small distal vessels when the arteries do not have enough pressure to give a pulse. I carry it all around in a big, battered old suitcase.

David Notts is an NHS consultant surgeon specialising in general and vascular surgery. Since 1993 he has been taking two months unpaid leave every year from his job to volunteer his services in conflict zones mostly with Medicine San Frontieres (MSF). Over the years he has travelled to the most dangerous parts of the world where there is active conflict. He has worked in areas like Sarajevo, Kandahar, Chad, Gaza, Syria, Haiti, Libya, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Iraq. War Doctor is a memoir focussed primarily on his work as a surgeon in conflict zones though covers some disaster zones as well. He has performed the most complicated surgeries under the most incredible conditions such as with only one bag of blood, no lights, no staff in the operating theatre while the hospital was being bombed. He has witnessed the most horrific wounds perpetrated upon civilians in the name of fighting for a just cause to seeing the ghastly condition of patients in Syria who were being hit by snipers as a part of a game to see who could win a packet of cigarettes. Their choice of targets would vary from day to day. Some days it would be hitting the groins of passers by or another day the bellies of pregnant women. A bullet lodged in the skull of an in-vitro foetus is an unimaginably despicable act but David Nott has had to operate upon such unfortunate victims.

Though there has been no world war since 1945 but the continuously raging conflicts in different parts of the world especially since the 1990s has been relentless. There seems to be no respite with wars of various intensities erupting around the globe. In most cases the war zones Dr Nott has been to have been fiercely fought religious clashes resulting in chilling pogroms. The horrors described in every territory, in every conflict zone, in every nation are numbing. Over the years David Nott has learned to focus on healing and doing the best by his patients irrespective of religion or colour. Yet he has over the years also sensed the growing hostility towards a British/a white man working in the conflict zones while realising he is also exposing himself to the very real danger of being kidnapped and taken hostage, worse still being killed. Anything is possible. In these zones no known rules of civil or military conduct exist or are observed. What exists are enforcement of irrational and arbitrary orders by the two opposing sides of the conflict and this seems to hold true universally for all conflict zones.

David Nott became interested in helping people after he watching the film The Killing Fields about the Khmer Rouge and its pogroms in Cambodia.

What first inspired you to become a war doctor?
Two things. The first was Roland Joffé’s film The Killing Fields, which had a huge impact on me when I saw it as a trainee surgeon. There is a scene in a hospital in Phnom Penh, overrun with patients, where a surgeon has to deal with a shrapnel injury – I wanted to be that surgeon. The second big spur was watching news footage from Sarajevo back in 1993. There was this man on the television, looking desperately through the rubble for his daughter. Eventually he found her and took her to the hospital but there were no doctors there to help her. I thought, “Right, I’m off”.
( War doctor David Nott: ‘The adrenaline was overpowering’, The Guardian, 24 Feb 2019)

David Nott is a seasoned hand at performing surgeries under the most distressful conditions. It has undoubtedly had an impact on his psyche as the near-breakdown he had in the Syrian hospital when reviewing a case, or when a debriefing at the MSF office which should have normally taken 45 minutes took six hours, much of which was spent with him crying. Or when he famously was asked to lunch by the Queen to Buckingham Palace and was unable to speak:

My diminishing ability to cope was rather spectacularly exposed a week later, when I was invited to a private lunch with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. The contrast between those gilded walls and the ravaged streets of Aleppo began doing weird things to my head. I was sitting on the Queen’s left and she turned to me as dessert arrived. I tried to speak, but nothing would come out of my mouth. She asked me where had I come from. I suppose she was expecting me to say, “From Hammersmith,” or something like that, but I told her I had recently returned from Aleppo. “Oh,” she said. “And what was that like?”

My mind filled instantly with images of toxic dust, of crushed school desks, of bloodied and limbless children and of David Haines, Alan Henning and those other western aid workers whose lives had ended in the most appalling fashion. My bottom lip started to go and I wanted to burst into tears, but I held myself together. She looked at me quizzically and touched my hand. She then had a quiet word with one of the courtiers, who pointed to a silver box in front of her, which was full of biscuits. “These are for the dogs,” she said, breaking one of the biscuits in two and giving me half. Together, we fed the corgis. “There,” the Queen said. “That’s so much better than talking, isn’t it?” ( “David Nott: ‘They told me my chances of leaving Aleppo alive were 50/50‘” The Guardian, 24 Feb 2019)

War Doctor is an extraordinary memoir for it details the unforgiving violence that man can perpetrate on his own kind with absolutely no remorse. It does not seem to matter to the people leading the wars that innocent lives and entire cities are being destroyed. David Nott while stitching up patients, performing amputations, delivering babies, watching babies and adults die, visiting morgues that are piled high with bodies that the director of the hospital shows Nott in a matter-of-fact manner, or constantly being drenched in blood gushing out of wounds, collapsing on to the bed in a deep sleep only to wake up and put on shoes and the surgical gown that are caked in blood. After a while the gut-wrenching descriptions of the patients Nott operates upon seem to blur into one another except for the consistency of the massive trauma they have all experienced. The patients he operates upon range from civilians, military personnel to even mercenaries. Descriptions of entire families wiped out by bombs, children orphaned, little infants abandoned with gaping head wounds, teenagers bleeding uncontrollably due to shrapnel wounds, a little boy burning with heat with a possible diagnosis of malaria by Nott which is ignored by the local doctor who insists it is appendicitis and the next time Nott sees the boy with an incision in his abdomen but is in a black body bag parked in the doctor’s changing room for there is no where else to store it in the overflowing hospital! There are some success stories too. For instance when he argued on behalf of an infant to be evacuated to London if she had to survive but was denied permission by MSF, stripped of his credentials with the organisation and permitted to take the risk on his own. He did. The girl survived.

For most of these years spent in the conflict and disaster zones he has been a bachelor with only his parents to be concerned about. Once they too were gone Nott was lonely and was able to focus upon his work with his heart and soul. It was years later when at a fund raiser for Syria he met his future wife Eleanor, then an analyst at the Institute of Strategic Studies, did the enormity of his loneliness sink in. Most likely this manifested itself in his breakdown as for the first time in his life he finally had someone whom he loved dearly to return to in London.

Now he lives in London with his wife and two daughters. He has also established the David Nott Foundation. It is a UK registered charity which provides surgeons and medical professionals with the skills they need to provide relief and assistance in conflict and natural disaster zones around the world. As well as providing the best medical care, David Nott Foundation surgeons trains local healthcare professionals; leaving a legacy of education and improved health outcomes.

War Doctor is a firsthand account of the unnecessary manmade violence and chaos unleashed upon other humans in conflict zones. It is a sobering reminder of exactly how much irrational behaviour man is capable of. The devastating repurcussions on society, on families, on individuals, the wilful destruction of property and the enormous rehabilitation and reconstruction work required to rebuild civil sociey seems to be of no consequence to those who revel in war mongering and in all likelihood participate in it as well. This is a book that must be read by everyone, even those who believe that going to war, performing surgical strikes, are the only way to resolve disputes instead of finding resolutions through peace talks and exploring alternative soft diplomacy tactics such as civil engagement.

Read War Doctor. It will become a seminal part of contemporary conflict literature. It will probably in the coming year be nominated for a literary award or two.

26 February 2019

Oliver Sacks’s “The River of Consciousness”

Sometimes it is impossible to “review” a book except to say “Read it”. Oliver Sacks The River of Consciousness is a fine example of this.  It is a collection of his essays on diverse topics but with one objective — how does the brain work? How does it process? How does it affect memories? What is true and what is false? What is a figment of our imagination? What does science reveal? This is precisely the fundamental argument Siddharth Mukherjee makes in his Laws of Medicine TED talk. Irrespective of all the advancements in technology, it is the brain which remains the most important for the speed at which it analyses and processes information, constantly pushing known boundaries to discover new frontiers of knowledge that are so far unimaginable.

The River of Consciousness is a posthumous publication but in it is much food for thought. Whether it is discussing creative energies to how the brain works while analysing information as in the case of Charles Darwin or even how do children learn and process information are fascinating points to ponder upon. For instance Prof. Sacks says “Children have an elemental hunger for knowledge and understanding, for mental food and stimulation. They do not need to be told or ‘motivated’ to explore or play, for play, like all creative or proto-creative activities, is deeply pleasurable in itself.”

The River of Consciousness is an excellent book to possess and to return to often too.

To buy The River of Consciousness ( On Kindle ; Paperback ; Hardcover)

14 August 2018 

 

Cathy Rentzenbrink

Reading Cathy Rentzenbrink’s memoir The Last Act of Love and the companion to it A Manual for Heartache is a gut wrenching experience. The Last Act of Love was shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize 2016   for its an account of how Cathy Rentzenbrink’s younger brother Matt had a head injury and was for eight long years in a coma. The medical term for it is PVS or “permanent vegetative state” or as their mother says of Matt “living corpse”. Matt was a teenager in his prime when he met with an accident that left him in this horrific state. The Last Act of Love is a compassionate account of a sister trying to understand what her brother must be going through if he can feel anything. More importantly it is an account of how much of themselves caregivers have to give to ensure that a patient is cared for well.

Caregiving can be a thankless task since it is repititive with no breaks whatsoever. After a while the sympathetic circle of friends and relatives return to their lives but the immediate family of the patient is responsible for the daily courageous and relentless task of caregiving. At times it can become exceedingly lonely, stressful and mentally debilitating. For Cathy Rentzenbrick her escape mechanism was reading.

Reading was still my friend, though. I read continuously and compulsively, drowning out sounds of my own thoughts with the noise of other people’s stories. I no longer turned out the light before going to sleep — I had to read until the moment my eyes closed. There could be no gap for the demons to jump into. 

Most caregivers are caught in a cycle of maintaining systems that they forget to take care of themselves or share experiences about the roles they inhabit. These involve a bunch of questions about the quality of life the patient has to how effective are advancements in medical technology.

The Last Act of Love written  many years after her brother passed away takes its title from a phrase the author’s mother used in her sworn affidavit to the court seeking legal permission to discontinue nutrition and hydration given how poorly Matt was with a chest infection and recurring epileptic fits.

I have known for some time that there is nothing I can do for Matthew to enrich his life in any way. He needs to die. We had hoped it would happen with an infection and without the need to approach the court. But the sad irony is that his poor body, unable to do anything else, seems capable of fighting infection. So we are asking the court’s permission to cease nutrition and hydration so that Matthew can be released from his hopeless state. It is our last act of love for him. 

Writing The Last Act of Love may have been thereapeutic for Cathy Rentzenbrick but it certainly provides a much needed account of hope and a way of managing caregiving at home, many times the dilemma it presents. Sharing of stories is a relief for many in a similar situation but few have time to do so. Reading an account is possible.

Within months of the successful publishing of The Last Act of Love, Cathy Rentzenbrick wrote A Manual for Heartache which can be viewed as a sequel to her memoir but works very well as a manual for managing grief and loss. It is full of wisdom and gently with big dollops of kindness shares wisdom garnered over the years of caregiving for Matt.

 

Here are some invaluable excerpts from the book

On grief

What I now wish someone had told me is this: life will never be the same again. The old one is gone and you can’t have it back. What you might at some point be able to encourage yourself to do, and time will be an ally in this, is work out how to adjust to your new world. You can patch up your raggedy heart and start thinking and feeling your way towards how you want to live. That’s what I wish someone had told me and that’s what I want to tell you. I think I’m finally doing it.

On etiquette of bad news

It seems ridiculous that in the face of someone else’s misfortune we spend time worrying about our own behavious, but it’s only human and is particularly true when it comes to death and grief. I’m sure it was easier in Victorian times when there were prescribed rules, when society and the Church provided a framework. There was guidance on what to wear, how to communicate with people, how much time should elapse before everyone rejoined the business of life. Visible signs such as black crepe and mourning brooches made of jet acted as clues to the rest of the world. Like a version of the “Baby on Board” sign stuck in the back windscreen of a car, the blackness served as a warning that an individual needed to be treated kindly. All cultures have rituals around death and mourning but, in our increasingly secular society, it’s easy find ourselves unsure of what to do. 

….

I have come to see there is a beauty in simply being present for someone who is struggling wiht a heavy burden. The best thing you can offer is unlimited kindness. People to whom the worst has happened can be out-of-control sad and unable to obey the normal rules of life. It mught be all they can do to hold on. If they are mean or cruel or temporarily incapable of good manners, we need to suspend our expectations around them and give them space and compassion as they splinter and behave badly and say the wrong thing. If they are behaving perfectly and holding themselves together, then that’s OK, too. 

Reading both the books together is highly recommended. Share, share, share these books.

Update ( 5 Sept 2017)

The Guardian Longreads published a fascinating account of “How science found a way to help coma patients communicate“. It is worth reading!

Cathy Rentzenbrick The Last Act of Love Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2015. Pb. pp.248 Rs 450

Cathy Rentzenbrick A Manual for Heartache Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 150 Rs 499 

31 August 2017 

 

‘Writing is really an interruption of reading…’  Interview with Zia Haider Rahman

‘Writing is really an interruption of reading…’ Interview with Zia Haider Rahman

On 20 July 2014, The Hindu Literary Review carried an interview I had done with Zia Haider Rahman. A shortened version was published in print, a slightly longer version on the newspaper’s website ( http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/writing-is-really-an-interruption-of-reading/article6228449.ece ) and I reproduce below the complete and unedited version of the interview that the author sent and approved. The book is available in India with Picador India, PanMacmillan India. ISBN: 9789382616245

in the light of what we know - zia haider rahmanZia Haider Rahman’s novel, In the Light of What we Know, is a forceful debut. It is about two male friends, an unnamed narrator and Zafar, who first meet as students at Oxford. The book consists of a long, meandering conversation with the men exchanging notes about their past, their careers, their families and their experiences since they last met in New York, when they were colleagues with bright futures at a financial firm. This meeting takes place in London, September 2008.

Zia was born in rural Bangladesh but migrated to the United Kingdom before his sixth birthday and was raised in a derelict squat before moving to state housing. His father was a waiter; his mother a seamstress. Zia won a scholarship to read mathematics at Balliol College, Oxford, and completed graduate studies at Cambridge, Munich and Yale universities. After working as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs on Wall Street, he turned to practising as an international financial lawyer before moving to human rights work.

1. What was the gestation period for this manuscript? How long was the first draft? How much time did it take from manuscript to printed book?

Many of the ideas and images in this novel have been percolating for rather a long time; some of the governing themes have grown out of preoccupations that have been with me for the whole of my life. I imagine this must be true of many authors and must hold for even books subsequent to their first.

The first draft was about the same in length as the final one, as I recall. Before I began revising anything, my editor made some helpful suggestions conceding that those comments might actually increase the length of the novel by ten or so per cent. In the end, I decided to make a few small cuts here and there and so the word count did not change much between the first draft and what is there now in the printed book. I find that certain writing is not improved by tinkering or revising, particularly passages or scenes of strongly emotional content: the rawness is a vital part of the energy.

From final manuscript to printed book, it took about three to four months. I made life a little difficult for myself by choosing to keep the British English version and the American English version distinct; the punctuation as well as vocabulary, of course, is different. The US version, for instance, has adopted the serial comma, which most non-American readers would find inhibitive to fluent reading.

2. How many notebooks did you maintain to create this novel or was it written directly on the computer? When and where was the research done? Does it ever cease?

As a matter of routine, I have always kept notebooks, jotting down ideas and things of interest. I used to try to keep track of them. Once I’m through a dozen or so, I sit down and take a few hours to type them up. This refreshes my memory but also allows me to discard ultimately uninteresting material. But the real reason I do it is that an electronic document is easy to search through.

While writing the novel, my note-taking activity increased hugely. I was quite itinerant at the time, so it was vital to have something to hand in which to record thoughts as they arose, if I was waiting for a train or plane, or if I woke up with a thought that I wanted to record. But when I was properly drafting any text for the novel, I did this on the computer. I type very much faster than I write long hand.

The research was done in various places. Some of it was done on the internet, although the internet is really only helpful as a starting point and also to confirm some fact or other. At one point, I used the internet to watch what felt like every US congressional hearing on the financial crisis, which was considerably more than was necessary for the novel, but I found them inherently fascinating and full of drama. The libraries I used were principally the British Library in London, the New York Public Library and the library of a small town in upstate New York, near Yaddo (a foundation for writers,  artists and composers, where I wrote most of the novel). The last library is actually plugged into the wider library system of upstate New York and has very swift access to the many books within the system. It’s quite extraordinary, actually, with large sunlit rooms and many shelves of books, as libraries used to have, and has not been overrun by technology, multimedia and so on.

It’s no doubt possible to do more research than necessary. But if the activity of research is in itself rewarding then one is not so much doing research as merely indulging oneself in the pleasure of reading.

3. Who are the authors and writing styles/ traditions that have influenced you?

Everything I read leaves something and I can no more identify my literary influences than I can point to particular meals I’ve had that have been exceptionally nourishing. Over the years, many, many books and authors have had an emotional impact on me, although whether and how they might have influenced my writing is, in most cases, harder to see. To name a few that spring to mind: Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Marquez’s Hundred Years of Solitude, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, David Adams Richards’ Mercy Among the Children, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Sebald’s Austerlitz, many of Philip Roth’s novels and Coetzee’s, James Baldwin’s, and the list goes on and on, as one might expect of any author, because writing is really an interruption of reading and vice-versa.

4. You have a lot of epigraphs in the novel but they seem to be used in an unusual way. What is their purpose?

You’re right. There is something unusual about them. Ordinarily in novels, epigraphs are evidence of the writer peeking in from behind the curtain; here, the narrator has actively included them after retrieving them—or most of them—from Zafar’s notebooks, as he himself explains. There is also the fact that near the end of the book the epigraphs of a particular chapter are the venue for a disclosure: the epigraphs actually do a job of storytelling. Described in this way here—and not encountered in the course of reading—it might seem like the assignment of epigraphs to and by the narrator is a breach of a convention of the novel. After all, epigraphs typically stand above, aside, aloof. I have no aversion to breaches of convention, provided they are effective, but I’m not sure there is a breach here in any event. All that is happening is that the narrator is laying claim to real estate on the page ordinarily owned by the author.

5. At a time when it is easy to Google for information why did you introduce extensive footnotes in the text?

As you know, the narrator himself does precisely that—go to internet search engines in order to look things up. The narrator uses footnotes where he wants to elucidate something that Zafar says, without interrupting the flow of Zafar’s account. Having said that, there are also a couple of rather long footnotes, notably one likening map projections in cartography to the translation of poetry and another relating to the war of 1971, where one has the sense that the narrator simply doesn’t want to omit something that Zafar said or wrote and yet cannot justify to himself the inclusion of the material in the main body of text. The narrator, as one quickly gathers, is to a certain degree rather unreliable: he thinks he is smarter than he actually is, he has a rather undeveloped attitude to women, and, of course, he is fundamentally compromised by a certain set of circumstances which we cannot go into without issuing a spoiler warning. The footnotes—their presence, form and the kind of material they include—are an example of what emerges from the first person perspective here. In a third person narration, they might not have emerged in a necessary way.

6. How did your training in mathematics impact your manuscript drafts and plot structure?

Mathematics is fundamental to my outlook on very many things and in ways that I cannot easily measure. In my formative years it was everything to me, the single place of beauty in my life, and of breathtaking beauty at that. I still believe that pure mathematics is the most creative thing that our species does, though I am no longer a part of the mathematical project.

The mathematical tilt remains basic to my epistemological perspective, my insistence on reasons for a claim—reasons that that are capable of yielding to interrogation. Mathematics gave me that. Other experiences might have left me with the same outlook, as I expect other things do to other people. But my debt is to mathematics. Nothing in life can be relied upon in the way that a mathematical proof can. Nothing anyone ever says or does or tastes or feels will so much as perturb the trust we have in a mathematical truth. And though elsewhere in life we cannot achieve the same conviction, the presence of this standard in one realm ought to be regarded as a beacon illuminating the dark poverty in the quality of reasoning we seem to settle for in other aspects of our lives, in the political and social especially.

I am unsure how to begin to answer your question—or even if I can—since thinking mathematically, day-in and day-out for a long time and at a formative age means that its effects are marbled into my foundations.

7. The analogy between cartography and translation is a fascinating concept on the art of representation via illustrations and word. How do you view your novel in the light of this theory?

In the novel, the narrator relates Zafar’s observations on one underlying similarity between map projections and the translation of poetry. There are many ways to represent the curved surface of the planet on a piece of paper. And there are many ways to go about translating a poem in one language into another. In cartography, for instance, you might choose to preserve relative areas or relative subtended angles. In poetry, you might choose to preserve rhyme or meter. The list of things to consider is actually quite long in both cases. Both involve choices about what to preserve and what to let go. Moreover—and this is crucial—in both cases a decision to preserve one thing limits or even destroys the freedom to preserve others. In both cases, also, the underlying need that drives the enterprise is that without either a map or a translation nothing would be knowable; after all, you cannot give someone a miniature globe with all the details of the earth’s surface along with a powerful magnifying glass and tell her to use these to navigate her journey across New York, London or Delhi, any more than you can give her a poem by a Hungarian poet along with textbooks to learn Hungarian and expect her to be moved to tears—assuming she’s not a native Hungarian speaker, of course!

The similarity of the two enterprises speaks to the pervasiveness of an underlying point: in order to gain access to the world, we undertake an activity of representing it that necessarily involves destruction. We are forced to abandon any hope of seeing some things in order to see anything at all. Zafar’s perspective is bleak, on one level, but on another it could be read as epistemic humility, an acknowledgement of one of the kinds of constraints on our perception of the world and on our access to knowledge. There are several themes in the novel but its backbone is to do with the status and nature and limits of knowledge.

8. There are so many identities that you mention in your novel whether defined by religion, nationality or language. Even within one religion there are many sub-categories such as Wahhabi and Sunni Muslims; Coptic, Arabic and Pakistani Christians, Anglicans and Catholics. Would you say that In the Light of What we Know is exploring the concept of a “global or an immigrant” novel?

I remember walking into a famous independent bookshop in New York a few years ago and discovering that under fiction they had an “Asian writers” section, as well as other ethnically or regionally defined categories. This sort of arrangement is not uncommon. But it is impossible to criticize the bookshops themselves; the industry of bricks and mortar booksellers is under enormous strain, with outlets folding by the day, not to mention whole chains of stores. Bookshops are simply responding to customer demands and preferences; in an environment in which margins are being squeezed, there is little room to do anything but organize books in a way that caters to customer tastes and maximizes sales. Some are throwing in the towel and have transformed into cafés or gift shops in all but name; if they can flog you a book on your way out, that’s a bonus.

The geographic and cultural categories into which novels are placed, often by people, other than the author, assigning her an identity, is driven by a market that has become habituated to conceiving of literature in terms of these categories. The root of the problem is a word: novel. The novel is such an expansive menagerie, holding such varied beasts, that a taxonomy is inevitable because it is useful. But the expansiveness of the idea of a novel gives rise to all manner of problems. For instance, it means that two novels might be compared that are fundamentally incommensurable. The label novel is misleading. But the publishing industry needs it in order to widen the market for every book it promotes: You like novels? Well, here’s a novel. I suspect that your question has more to do with aspects of my own particular novel. But I think that the question is related to the business of book-selling. The publishing industry is slightly schizophrenic in a certain respect. Discussions about lofty ‘literature’ rarely include matters of publishing industry realities.  I understand this—in fact, a little part of me dies when I hear talk about the art of novels and the business of publishing in the same breath. But—to bring us to your question—it seems to me that the current taxonomies are not responsive to the changing world and our changing understanding of the world. What happens twelve time zones away has as much impact on us as something happening on our doorstep. The geographic, economic, and social scope of the particular world each of us inhabits is widening, the perceptual field broadening. To return to the taxonomy analogy, even biologists have been introducing new taxonomies of living things that reflect better understandings of relationships between organisms.

9. Post-9/11 there have been a number of novels tackling the issues of identity, cultural politics, and new geo-political orientations, with literary conversations dissecting the rise of the Muslim novelists. Yet In the Light of What we Know focuses on “conflicts” happening along various fault lines—in the world of finance, within marriages or on real battlefields. The frightening truth to emerge in your story is the sense of wrongs and injustices of history being repeated over and over again, going against the popular theory of one particular community being responsible for terrorism. Please comment.

Every general election anywhere seems to mark a turning point, we’re told. Or something is a landmark event. Every military surge is a new initiative that will turn back the tide. The consumption of news would fizzle out if it did not bear the sense that what is happening is new in the sense that it is bringing in change, is going to alter the way things are. We all like to plan—we can plan like no other animal—but our ability to plan goes hand in hand with an appetite to learn what’s new, what’s news, what might affect our plans. News media feeds this appetite endlessly and would do itself out of a living if its reports ran along the lines of, say: Such and such happened today and it’s terribly similar to what happened ten years ago and also to what happened forty years ago and everybody thought then that it was going to change everything but it didn’t.

There is hubris in regarding ours as the pivotal moment in history—a shocking hubris given that every age has thought this way—but it is vital to the sale of news to maintain this pretence. To see the repeated patterns may not actually make it easier to resolve the problems we now face—after all, the most common repeated pattern is one of failure—but I have wondered whether it would lead to a feeling of familiarity, which would have a calming effect, a sense that we are not at the edge of a precipice without parallel. Of course, this is a nightmare to those who rely on us feeling frightened all the time.

10. During the Global Summit to end Sexual Violence in Conflict, London (June 2014) the birangonas stories were not shared in the official programme; a silence that was marked by protests. Whereas in your novel there are many epigraphs drawing the reader’s attention to the Bangladeshi women raped during conflict. Please comment.

What is there to say that hasn’t been said already? Tahmima Anam, the distinguished Bangladeshi novelist, has written evocatively about the plight of the Birangonas. But one finds oneself still asking: who is listening? Every aspect of the suffering that these women have been through at the hands of Pakistani soldiers and Bangladeshi collaborators is stomach-churning. But it galls me to think that after rape and violence during the war many of them returned to communities that turned their backs on them.

11.  How would you define yourself? By the country of origin or domicile or a bit of both like Zafar who is perceived as “Anglo-Bangla”?

I am often asked where I’m from—in Europe, mainly because of my skin color, and in the US, mainly because of my British accent. I know that this is the case because in the US when I say that I was born in Bangladesh, nine times out of ten, an American probes further to get an explanation of the accent. But if, instead, I tell Americans that I grew up in the UK, there seem to be no further questions. I’m explaining this because nobody ever actually asks me to define myself; the question is invariably “Where are you from?” and behind that question there is a desire to have something specific resolved—why the skin color or accent? Nor do I myself ever stand in the mirror and ask: Zia, how do you define your identity? Identity, per se, has not been an issue I have felt a need to resolve. Does a lion need to know that it is called a lion?

That said, I have long sought a sense of belonging to a place, something lacking in my psyche. The insufficiency is not without its advantages, of course. I think it keeps one a little removed from things, which is a helpful vantage from which to observe. And this slight dislocation can make for interesting personal experiences. But the cost is brutal. Human beings need roots, perhaps not all humans, but I rather suspect it is the norm to attach to a piece of land, to the ground that will one day take us back.

12. You are represented by the legendary literary agent Andrew Wylie, a dream beginning for a debut author. How did this come to pass?

I was introduced to the agency by a mutual acquaintance. I have been lucky in many ways over the years beginning with the enormous good fortune of having access to healthcare and schooling and libraries and, at least after the first few years, to a decent meal every day, all the way through to the sheer luck of living in a place where university education did not require me or my family to bring resources of our own. If humanity cared enough about fairness, then luck of this kind would have no place in determining the fate of a child.

22 July 2014 

 

 

Extract from a letter I wrote to a friend about “Market Tales” by Jayant Kriplani

Extract from a letter I wrote to a friend about “Market Tales” by Jayant Kriplani

Feb 2013
Helloji,
I received a copy of Jayant Kriplani’s collection of short stories New Market Tales earlier this evening. I immediately picked it up to read and could not stop myself. ( I have a horrendous deadline looming large. But I kept saying one more story, one more story, till I reached the end!)
The stories are so unexpected. They are so in step with that twinkle in Jayant Kriplani the actor’s eyes. You can just imagine him watching and observing the world go by. I really liked the way he lapses into Bengali (without any apologies for doing so), reproduces the English pronounciations of the Bengalis and laughs at them but not in a cynical or mocking way, but like a happy delighted chuckle–as someone who completely understands where they are coming from, whether it is the bhadralok or the noveau riche trader or even the feisty activist daughter of the lingerie seller. (Gainjeewala sounds way better! ) Some of the stories are indescribably weird, for instance Harish or even Zack’s. I bet they will linger with me for a very long time to come. Even the curious wake that is held in anticipation of Mesho’s death kept me enthralled. These stories may be part truth, part fiction but they are powerful storytelling.
The cover illustration is so very reminiscent of Soviet-era publications. It is a crisp and smart cover, much in keeping with the tenor of the stories, but not really a lead in to the stories persay. The book trailer is lovely too. ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6wbYdW3SyQ )
This is a gem of a book. A wonderful recount of Calcutta in the 1960s and 1970s, but also its connection with Partition and the variety of communities, ideologies, people that you encounter in the iconic New Market. What comes through very clearly in the book is the sense of belonging to one family — New Market– irrespective of religion, beliefs, or trade. I really hope that this book travels far, beyond India. It must. It should.
Affly,
JAYA

Publication details: Pan Macmillan India, Picador India, Feb 2013. Pgs. 206 Pb. Rs 299