Penguin Books Posts

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

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

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

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

12 Nov 2014 

Modern day travelogues

Modern day travelogues

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

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

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

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

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

6 July 2014 

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

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

Sam Miller A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 430 Rs. 599 

Angarey and the Progressive Writers Movement

Angarey and the Progressive Writers Movement

Angarey, RupaThis year has been marked by the publication of Rakhshanda Jalil’s thesis by OUP – A Literary History of the Progressive Writer’s Movement in Urdu and two translations of Angarey, first published in 1932 only to be banned.  ( Here is a link to the introduction by Snehal Shangvi of the Penguin Books India edition, an extract published in Scroll.in on 15 June 2014: http://scroll.in/article/666833/why-fundamentalists-got-this-urdu-book-banned-when-it-appeared-in-1932/ ) The writers associated with this movement were people who wrote not necessarily for the joy of crafting great literature; they wrote because they saw, and were quick to seize, the great inescapable link between literature and socio-political change. Literature for them was a valuable tool in the cause of nation-building and social transformation. ( Jalil, p. xx) With the publication of Angarey the definition of forward-looking underwent a sea-change and the epithets of irreligious, godless, sacrilegious, even blasphemous, came to be used for a radical, new sort of writing. Many of these writers ( and their readers) were conversant with Western literary styles and English-language authors. It is also important to remember that the glory days of the PWM also spanned the most tumultous period of modern Indian history — Gandhi’s call to Satyagraha, India’s response to the rise of fascism, Nehru’s Muslim mass contact programme, Gandhi’s second civil disobedience movement, the Second World War and its impact on India, the Bengal famine, the rise of Telengana, tebhaga, and other movements, Independence, Partition, and the communal disturbances that scarred the nation. ( Jalil, p. xxviii) Some of the ideas that need to be mentioned regularly are that though Urdu literature was not being written by Muslims along, the great majority of nineteenth-century Urdu writers were indeed Muslims.

Here is a list of the major writers and poets associated with the Progressive Writers’ Movement ( as listed in Dr Jalil’s thesis, Annexure I)

Abdul Alim, Abdul Haq, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Ahmed Ali, Akhtar Husain Raipuri, Akhtarul Iman, Ale Ahmad Suroor, Ali Sardar Jafri, Asrarul Haq Majaz ( his nephew is the poet and lyricist, Javed Akhtar), Ehtesham Husain, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Fikr Taunsvi, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Hajra Begum, Hasrat Mohani, Hayatullah Ansari, Ibrahim Jalees, Ismat Chugtai, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Josh Maliabadi, K.M.Ashraf, Kaifi Azmi, Kanhaiyyalal Kapoor, Khawaja Ahmad Abbas, Krishan Chandar, Mahmuduzzafar Khan, Majnun Gorakhpuri, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Moin Ahsan Jazbi, Mulk Raj Anand, Mumtaz Husain, Mohammad Hasan, Niyaz Haider, Premchand, Qateel Shifai, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Rashid Jehan, Razia Sajjad Zaheer, Rifat Sarosh, Saadat Hasan Manto, Sagar Nizami, Sahir Ludhianvi, Sajjad Zaheer, Salam Machchlishahri, Sibte Hasan, Syed Muttalibi Faridabadi, Upnedranath Ashk, Wamiq Jaunpuri and Zaheer Kashmiri.

Both the translations published in April 2014 are readable. Fortunately these now exist and are readily available, a delightful Angaareybouquet of riches for readers. Yet there is a vast difference in the quality of translations, and would be of valuable to interest to translators and academics. The notes on translations by Snehal Shangvi, Khalid Alvi and Vibha S. Chauhan are worth reading.

These are books that will be treasured and should find a place in every library, institution and be read by many.

The only question that I wonder about is how much were these writers influenced by the Irish literary movement of the early twentieth century?

Rakhshanda Jalil A Literary History of the Progressive Writer’s Movement in Urdu Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 490. Rs. 1495

Angarey translated from the Urdu by Vibha S. Chauhan and Khalid Alvi. Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2014. Pb. pp. 105. Rs. 195

Angaarey translated by Snehal Shangvi. Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 170. Rs. 499

Literati – “A look at the world of books, publishing and writers” ( 2 June 2014)

Literati – “A look at the world of books, publishing and writers” ( 2 June 2014)

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 31 May 2014) and in print ( 1 June 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article6069748.ece?textsize=small&test=2 . I am also c&p the text below. 

In translation

I am reading a terrific cluster of books — Rakhshanda Jalil’s A Literary History of the Progressive Writer’s Movement in Urdu (OUP); A Rebel and her Cause: The life of Dr Rashid Jahan, (Women Unlimited); and two simultaneous publications of the English translation of Angaarey — nine stories and a play put together in Urdu by Sajjad Zahir in 1932 (Rupa Publications and Penguin Books). Angaarey includes contributions by PWM members such as Ahmed Ali, Rashid Jahan and Mahmuduzzafar. As Nadira Babbar, Sajjad Zahir’s daughter says in her introduction to the Rupa edition: “The young group of writers of Angaarey challenged not just social orthodoxy but also traditional literary narratives and techniques. In an attempt to represent the individual mind and its struggle, they ushered in the narrative technique known as the stream of consciousness which was then new to the contemporary literary scene and continues to be significant in literature even today. …they saw art as a means of social reform.” She says that her father did not consider the writing of Angaarey and the subsequent problems they faced as any kind of hardship or sacrifice; rather “it provided them with the opportunity of expressing truths simply felt and clearly articulated.” It is curious that at a time when publishers worry about the future of the industry, there are two translations of the same book from two different publishers.

Translations are a way to discover a new socio-cultural and literary landscape. Last month, the English translation of Joel Dicker’s debut novel The Harry Quebert Affair (MacLehose Press), which has created one of the biggest stirs in publishing, was released. A gripping thriller, originally in French, it has sold over two million copies in other languages. A look at some other notable translations published recently:

Mikhail Shashkin’s disturbing but very readable Maidenhair (Open Letter), translated from Russian by Marian Schwartz, about asylum-seekers in Switzerland.

Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Quesadillas (And Other Stories) translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey is about 1980s Mexico.

Roberto Bolano’s The Insufferable Gaucho (Picador), a collection of short stories, translated from Spanish by Chris Andrews.

There is a range of European writers to be discovered in English translation on the Seagull Books list, Indian regional language writers from Sahitya Akademi, NBT, Penguin Books India, OUP, HarperCollins, Zubaan, Hachette, Navayana, Stree Samya, and Yatra Books.

Oxford University Press’s Indian Writing programme and the Oxford Novellas series are broader in their scope including works translated from Dogri and Konkani and looking at scripts from Bhili and Tulu.

Translations allow writers of the original language to be comfortable in their own idiom, socio-political milieu without carrying the baggage of other literary discourses. Translated literature is of interest to scholars for its cultural and literary value and, as Mini Krishnan, Series Editor, Oxford Novellas, writes, “the distinctive way they carry the memories and histories of those who use them”. Making the rich content available is what takes precedence. Within this context, debates about the ethics of publishing a translation such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1926 prose translation of Beowulf (HarperCollins), 88 years later, seem to be largely ignored though Tolkein described it as being “hardly to my liking”.

***

Linguistic maps available at http://www.muturzikin.com/ show the vast number of languages that exist apart from English. In the seven states of northeast of India alone there are 42 documented languages. Reports such as http://w3techs.com/technologies/overview/content_language/ all indicate that content languages (all though with strong literary traditions) such as Hindi, Marathi, Sanskrit, Punjabi and even Irish are used by less than one per cent of websites. Google India estimates that the next 300 million users from India won’t use English. It isn’t surprising then to discover that Google announced the acquisition of Word Lens, an app which can translate a number of different languages in real time. For now users can translate between English and Portuguese, German, Italian, French, Russian, and Spanish. Indian languages may be underrepresented on the Internet but, with digital media support and the rapid acceptance of unicode, an encoding which supports Indic fonts, translations will become easier. Soon apps such as Word Lens may expand to include other languages, probably even circumventing the need of publishers to translate texts.

Sally Green, “Half Bad”

Sally Green, “Half Bad”

Half Bad, Sally Green“The great thing about hate is that it takes away everything else so that nothing else matters.” 
( p.196 Half Bad)

Sally Green’s debut novel, Half Bad is the first of a trilogy about a half-Black and half-White witch, Nathan Byrn, son of “you-know-who”. He has the surname of his mother’s husband, but his father is Marcus, the most feared black witch of all time.Half Bad is set in modern-day Great Britain where the witches co-exist with the people or Fains. They seem to live a normal life. As with most supernatural beings there is a rite of passage. For witches it is the Giving, at the age of seventeen they are given three gifts by an ancestor. They also have to drink the blood.

This is a young adult fantasy novel that is based on the premise that the world may be divided in to black and white, as in the case of witches, but in fact there are many grey areas. Even the White Witches are not as goody-goody and innocent as they have been made out to be over the centuries. The sinister and consistent persecution of Nathan by the Council of White Witches and the Hunters, leaves no doubt that white witches can also be cruel and vindictive.

This is a novel that surprisingly lives up to much of the pre-publicity hype. This story has to be consumed in one fell swoop. A debut novelist has to work hard for their manuscript to be accepted. In this case the story has been scripted sharply, it is pacy, there is violence ( even cannibalism) with horrific details but not for a moment does Sally Green lose her grasp of the storytelling. It is so clearly etched, almost cinematic. Film rights have already been sold to Fox 2000 with Karen Rosenfelt (Twilight, Percy Jackson, The Book Thief) producing it. The translation rights have been sold in 42 languages. The successful translation rights sales can be explained by the well-written story. It builds beautifully upon the fantastic landscape that is already set in the minds of young readers of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series.  The trailer for Half Bad is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UIcpalOypmo

Penguin Books has been proclaiming this to be the biggest debut of YA fiction for 2014. It probably is. Buying this book wont be a disappointment.

18 March 2014

Mahesh Dattani, “Me and my plays”

Mahesh Dattani, “Me and my plays”

Mahesh DattaniI didn’t have an audience, because I didn’t have a language. The kind of text-based theatre I wanted to do could not be possible without a language. …The relationship between a playwright and an actor is a complex one. Both rely on one another for their artistic fulfilment….

Mahesh Dattani’s introduction/essay in Me and My Plays is worth reading. It is a reflection and a comment about the evolution of contemporary theatre in India, especially of original English-language plays. He talks about how he fell in love with theatre, his attempts at acting, and discovering his talent for writing plays, his observations on theatre and acting. This is a slim volume consisting of two recent plays — “Why did I leave my Purdah?” and The Big Fat City” that are powerful to read even in print. I wonder what it would be like to watch the performances.

Last week on Facebook, another noted theatrewallah, Sudhanva Deshpande wrote about Ben Rivers talk on Playback Theatre. Playback Theatre is an interactive theatre approach used in over 60 countries as a tool for community building, trauma response and cultural activism. In a Playback event, audience members share personal stories, and watch as a team of actors and musicians transform these accounts into improvised theatre pieces. Playback Theatre responds to the fundamental human need to share one’s story and have it heard and honored. Ben Rivers is a British-Australian writer, educator and drama therapist specializing in the use of applied theatre for community mobilization and cultural activism.

I could not help but mull over the “playback theatre” technique that Mahesh Dattani has applied to these two plays. Theatre performances tend to be cathartic experiences if the audience is willing. The stories about Partition or about life in Bombay/Mumbai may be scripted for a certain cast of characters but they will rake up personal stories and thoughts by those witnessing a performance. It would be fascinating to hear a live conversation on theatre between Mahesh Dattani, Sudhanva Deshpande and Ben Rivers, much along the lines of this televised conversation of Peter O’Toole, Orson Welles, Huw Wheldon (the host) and veteran actor Ernest Milton discussing Hamlet http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smMa38CZCSU. One topic, renowned practitioners of the craft and much becomes evident through a good conversation.

Read Me and My Plays .

Mahesh Dattani Me and My Plays Penguin Books, Delhi, 2014. Pb. pp. 248. Rs. 246.

On translations in India, 2013. Published in DNA, 20 Dec 2013

On translations in India, 2013. Published in DNA, 20 Dec 2013

DNA, translations(My article on translations in 2013, trends and changes has been published this morning in DNA, 20 Dec 2013. I cannot find the link online but here is a clipping of it sent via email to me.  I am also c&p the text below. )

Cobalt Blue2013 was a positive year for publishing, certainly for translations that were visible. Translations were on the DSC Prize South Asian Literature 2014 shortlist that mainly focuses on general fiction in English, not in a separate category— Anand’s Book of Destruction (Translated from Malayalam by Chetana Sachidanandan) and Benyamin’s Goat Days (Translated from Malayalam by Joseph Koyippalli). Other translations that left an impression upon literary conversations of the year are — Shamsur Rahman’s The Mirror of Beauty ( translated from Urdu by the author); Habib Tanvir’s Memoir ( translated by Mahmood Farooqui); Sunanda Sankar’s A Life Long Ago ( translated from Bengali by Anchita Ghatak) and Sachin Kundalkar’s Cobalt Blue (translated from Marathi by Jerry Pinto); Ajay Navaria’s Unclaimed Terrain (Translated from Hindi by Laura Brueck); Uday Prakash’s The Walls of Delhi (translated from Hindi by Jason Grunebaum); Syed Rafiq Husain’s The Mirror of Wonders ( translated from Urdu by Saleem Kidwai); Malarvan’s War Journey: Diary of a Tamil Tiger ( translated by M Malathy); Mohinder Singh Sarna’s Savage Harvest: Stories of Partition ( translated from Punjabi by Navtej Sarna); Prabha Khaitan A Life Apart ( translated from Hindi by Ira Pande) and an anthology of New Urdu Writings: From India & Pakistan ( edited by Rakhshanda Jalil). In fact Penguin India’s best fiction title for the year was The Mirror of Beauty, according to Managing Editor, Sivapriya. She adds, “At Penguin we are developing a focused translations list that spans contemporary texts and modern classics and older classics.”

HarperCollins has an imprint dedicated to translations from Indian literature—Harper Perennial. Minakshi Thakur, Sr. Commissioning Editor says that “The translation market grew marginally in terms of value in 2013, but in terms of numbers it grew considerably. Harper did 10 translations as opposed to the 5 or 6 we were doing every year until 2012, from 2014 we’ll do about 12 titles every year.” Kannan Sundaram, Publisher, Kalachuvadu “Translations from Indian languages to English, from one Indian language to others and from world languages to Indian languages is definitely on the rise. Personally I have sold more translation rights and published more translations this year than before. Good Indian language authors are in demand like never before.” This assessment is corroborated by Aditi Maheshwari, Publisher, Vani Prakashan who says that “When we decided to do translations some twenty years ago, it was a very new phenomenon. We did translations from English to Hindi, Indian languages to Hindi and international languages to Hindi (without English as a medium).”

Another interesting aspect of translations too has successful publishing collaborations like that of making short fiction by Ayfer Tunc, Turkish writer and editor of Orhan Pamuk, The Aziz Bey Incident and other stories. It has been translated into Tamil and Hindi, but the English edition of this book is not available in India, all though it was released at the London Book Fair 2013. According to Thomas Abraham, CEO, Hachette, “the books sell well enough without being blockbusters —they were conceived with mid- range sales of 3k-5k like all translations are, and most of the time they tend to deliver that.”

The Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin

The Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin

The Testament of Mary, Colm ToibinAt a little over a 100 pages The Testament of Mary is the slimmest novel on the ManBooker Prize shortlist. In this novella Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, narrates in first person the events leading up to the crucifixion of her son. She recounts the story in her old age to two people, whom she refers to as “Guardians”, but were probably those who were recording the events marking the life of Jesus. These testaments were to be later compiled into a text. All though in the Bible the only four gospels are by men – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. No women.

The Testament of Mary is a novel that has been adapted from the play of the same name, written by Colm Toibin. It was nominated for a Tony Award Best Play,  Best Actress, Best Sound Design of a Play, and Best Lighting Design of a Play. Even two thousand years or so after the Bible was created and nearly seventy years after the Gnostic gospels were discovered ( in which there was a script by Mary Magdalene ) it is rare to find a woman’s testimony on the events surrounding Jesus Christ. ( Recently there have been attempts to create a feminist Bible as by the German evangelicals and the new version of the Bible being translated by the NIV Committee on Bible translation is gender sensitive too. ) So Colm Toibin’s attempt at writing this testimony is significant within theological traditions and literary fiction. To create a woman character who speaks at length, it is like a monologue, but remains an observer. The story works dramatically and it is not necessary to be familiar with the events in the Bible to understand or even appreciate this novella. Yet I was left wondering at when Mary witnesses the crucifixion of her son on the cross, she continues to recount the events in the first person, whereas if a woman ever tries to record a traumatic incident in her life, she is only able to do so in the third person. It is a dramatic shift that occurs. So it is curious that Colm Toibin retained the first person narrative even for this section–maybe it worked well on stage? ( Passages on p.76-77.)

Recently it was announced that  actor Meryl Streep would be doing the audio version — http://shelf-life.ew.com/2013/09/10/meryl-streep-testament-of-mary-audio-clip/ .This is a good example of literary fiction. It will be read and it will be discussed over time. But whether it wins the ManBookers Prize on 15 Oct 2013 remains to be seen.

Colm Toibin The Testament of Mary Viking, Penguin Books, London, 2012. Pb. pp. 108 Rs. 299

9 Oct 2013 

“Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century” Eric Hobsbawm

“Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century” Eric Hobsbawm

Fractured Times

Fractured Times is a series of lectures delivered by Eric Hobsbawm at the annual Salzburg Festival. Those published in this book, were written between 1964-2012. (He died on 1 Oct 2012.) This is a book of reflections, thoughts and comments about what happened to culture and society, especially after 1914, a society and a time that was never to return. These lectures document the tectonic shifts that occurred in the cultural fabric of society. The devastating impact that the two world wars had on society was fundamental. Hobsbawm’s basic premise is that the art and cultural fabric of a society are inextricably linked to politics. It is impossible to dissociate one from the other. ( “For enjoyment of art is not purely a private experience, but a social one, sometimes even a political one, especially in the case of planned public performances i purpose-built settings and theatres.”) So post-1914 the society (at least in Europe and UK) was transformed in that the women’s movements flourished ( ironically a country that had two powerful women on its throne, did not give its women citizen’s even the basic rights. The suffragettes had to demand it), the publishing of books developed into an industry with the establishment of some of the biggest trade publishers such as Allen Lane’s Penguin Books, the first oral history societies were founded in the late 1960s ( “Studies of historical memory are essentially not about the past, but about the retrospect to it of some subsequent present.”) and education. His views on the publishing industry are fascinating — “The book, revolutionised in the 1930s by Penguin and Gollancz, was almost certainly the most effective form of intellectual diffusion: not to the mass of the manual working class for whom the word ‘book’ still meant ‘magazine’, but to the old educated and the rapidly growing body of the aspiring and politically conscious self-educated.”. Or earlier in the book, he says “Even a good deal of literature, especially the classics, remains in print, and much good new writing is published that would never pass the profit threshold set by the accountants, because of non-market decisions.”

There are plenty of nuggets of wisdom that have been distilled and delivered in these lectures. Here is a man who thought, analysed and presented with confidence. Every single book of his is a treasure trove. The ease with which he presents history, complex ideas without their seeming to be so, and his analysis is always a delight to read. For instance his reflection upon how the fashion industry more or less predicts the trends for the following season accurately, but the book trade bumbles its way through. And yet both are heavily dependent upon markets that formed by subjectivity and at times irrational sensibilities. So why does one industry get it right over and over again and not the other? Hobsbawm’s comments on the relationship between the market and culture are sharp and precise. “From the point of view of the market, the only interesting culture is the product or service that makes money.” In his opinion, post-1970s the wealth available for nurturing the arts has grown explosively, all though it does come with a lot of provisos. But he also cautions the rapid transformation that the cyber-age has wrought. It is “so fast, so dramatic, and so unforseeable”. The chapter on “Why hold festivals in the twenty-first century?” has to be read. Hobsbawm is convinced that festivals are multiplying like rabbits. According to him, “festivals have become a firm component of the economically ever more important complex of the entertainment industry, and particularly of cultural tourism, which is rapidly expanding, at least in the prosperous societies of the so-called ‘developed’ world…there is a great deal of money to be made these days in the culture business.” For him “the genealogy of today’s festivals begins with the discovery of the stage as the cultural-political and social expression of a new elite that is self-assured and bourgeois, or rather recruited according to education and ability instead of birth.”

In a similar fashion “in the post-industrial age of information, the school — that is, secondary an tertiary education and beyond — is more decisive than every before, and forms, both nationally and worldwide, a unifying element, not only in technology, but also in the formation of classes….What is needed is a usable educational programme aimed at the community of educable youth, not only within a country or a cultural circle, but also worldwide. This guarantees, at least within a particular area of intellectual cultures, a certain universalism both of information and of cultural values, a sort of basic stock of things that an ‘educated person’ should know.”

Eric Hobsbawm was a thinker. As Julia Hobsbawm says about her father in the FT — “Food he could do without; ideas not.” ( Financial Times, April 2013. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/0dbd14de-a7c0-11e2-9fbe-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2VL2W2xf6 ) A man like him will be sorely missed. Fractured Times, his last book to be published is like the others before it, worth reading over and over again. Every time there is something new to be discovered in the lectures.

Eric Hobsbawm Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century Little, Brown, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, Hachette India, 2013. Hb. pg 320. Rs. 699

Lunch with FT: 52 Classic interviews

Lunch with FT: 52 Classic interviews

Lunch with FT: 52 Classic interviews published by the Financial Times and Penguin Books to celebrate 125 years of the paper. It consists of interviews with legendary people who have had lunch with the FT from 1994. Lunch with the FT was conceived by Max Wilkinson, editor of the Weekend FT. He thought the new interview format would provide a ‘ray of sunshine’ in the paper. The rules were straightforward. The guest/interview would choose the restaurant, and the FT would foot the bill. The interviews were conducted by the FT’s global network of columnists and correspondents.

The book consists of interviews with an international list of Who’s Who — Michael Caine, Angelina Jolie, Jeff Bezos, Mo Ibrahim, George Soros, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, Jennifer Paterson, Saif Gaddafi, Angela Merkel, Vaclav Havel, Jacques Attali, Imran Khan and James Watson to name a few. It is the kind of book you dip into, to learn about the human side of a person who happens to be influential in their sphere of work. We tend to put achievers on a pedestal but a freewheeling conversation over a good lunch can make a person reveal aspects of their personality that are otherwise well concealed under their professional demeanour. For instance the conversation with James Watson, the man who discovered DNA, has to be one of the most controversial ones. From the interview, I quote:

” From universal DNA fingerprinting to bizarre manipulations of animal DNA, Watson is prepared to endorse a range of uses for the technology that make make liberals blanch, ‘If everyone’s genetic fingerprint were taken,’ he observes, ‘it would take away from our liberty to commit crime.’
More controversial still, Watson argues that if technology permits it, women should be able to abort homosexual foetuses. ‘Most women want grandchildren and do not say with glee that their son is homosexual,’ he says.
This kind of full frontal assault on political correctness has got Watson into hot water in the past. IT is easy to see how his willingness to discuss the ethical vanishing point of genetics has sometimes obscured a genuinely humanitarian desire to limit human suffering.”

As the interviewer goes on to add, “Watson’s impatience to make genetics practical was heightened by the illness of his son, Rufus, who suffers from autism thought to be epilepsy of the thalamus. It was around the time of his son’s diagnosis in 1986 that Watson was installed as the chief cartographer in charge of mapping the human genome. On the subject of his son, who is now in hospital, the ever-effusive scientist starts to clam up. ‘I do not see the need for immortality. But I do have a sick son in hospital. If we knew enough science we could help him. Fame is irrelevant.’ ”

According to the editor, Lionel Barber some excellent interviews that failed to make the cut. These were Paulo Coelho talking about prostitutes and the Pope with fellow author A.N.Wilson or Roger Waters of Pink Floyd comparing himself to Shakespeare and Woody Guthrie — and ordering a piece of GBP75 piece of gravadlax. To the list I would also add the interview with Robert Silvers, editor, NYRB ( http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/091ba1b6-6576-11e2-a3db-00144feab49a.html#axzz2OfbxeZqs ) that was conducted in Jan 2013. Probably too late to be included in the commemorative volume.

For some more about these lunches read FT columnist Matthew Engel on the 18th anniversary of the lunch: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/930857a0-8d3d-11e1-8b49-00144feab49a.html#axzz2Ol2aaFE8 . In India, the only paper that I know of doing a similar series of interviews is the Hindu.

Verdict: I liked reading this book, probably one of those volumes that will remain in my personal library since it captures a moment in time well. As for instance the interview with a young Jeff Bezos or the conversation with Mo Ibrahim, soon after he had sold his telecom business and was on the verge of setting up the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, which awards a $5 million initial payment, and a $200,000 annual payment for life to African heads of state who deliver security, health, education and economic development to their constituents and democratically transfer power to their successors. My only grouse is that there is not a single date printed of when the interview was conducted or published.

2 April 2013