Venice Posts

Tuesday Reads ( Vol 3), 25 June 2019

Dear Reader,

I have just finished reading Amitav Ghosh’s magnificent novel Gun Island. It is about Dinanath Datta, a rare books seller whose life gets entangled with an ancient legend about the goddess of snakes, Manasa Devi. It is a fascinating story that begins in the Sunderbans to New York to Venice. Gun Island has a fantastic cast of characters but it is also a story very relevant to our times for its focus on the situation of migrants and climate change.

At the New Delhi book launch held on 13 June 2019, India Habitat Centre, Amitav Ghosh was in conversation with Raghu Karnad. It was a very special evening as it occurred two days after the untimely demise of the playwright, Girish Karnad. So the book launch morphed into this public memorial for Girish Karnad too. It began with the new Jnanpith winner Amitav Ghosh’s tribute to another Jnanpith winner Girish Karnad. The conversation began with Raghu Karnad, son of Girish Karnad, saying, “My father was a chronicler of Karnataka and of this country, I consider you to be a chronicler of this planet. Interconnecting the countless parts we are in the midst of but miss. They are forces of language, war, or even eco-system.” These opening remarks triggered off a fascinating conversation about “unlikely coincidences” and “meaningful resonances” that exist between space and time. Also what does it mean to try and rationalise events that defy rationalist thinking but at times it is impossible to do so. A significant proportion of Gun Island dwells upon the global migrant crisis. During the conversation Amitav Ghosh commented that “the central literary question is how do you talk about the slow violence that eats itself into peoples lives and never finds its way into newspapers? In the papers every day there are so many reports about violence but this slow violence does not get attention. We have learned to turn our eyes away from it. The issue is how do we find ourselves back to recognise the violence unfolding around us. Poetry is better able to respond to the catastrophe and cataclysm we see around us. Poetry does not have that commitment. Poetry has always responded to every natural event. You see it in Byron and in pre-modern Indian poetry which is not poetry for the sake of poetry — it is devotional. We have to find ourselves back to that…back to being able to talk about other things apart from us.”

Gun Island is an unputdownable book. It will sell well but more so because of the old fashioned word-of-mouth recommendations. At the book launch there were whispers overheard of Amitav Ghosh probably being a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature in the coming years. Who knows?! But for now it would be interesting to see if this book makes it to the shortlist of the more prominent literary prizes around the world like The Booker Prize. It is certainly a book that cannot be ignored!

Of all the books I read in the past week Gun Island was exceptional.

More anon,

JAYA

25 June 2019

Tribute to Gillon Aitken by Patrick French

( This tribute to the legendary literary agent, Gillon Aitken, was posted on 29 October 2016 on Patrick French’s Facebook page. I have reposted the text and accompanying photographs here with his permission. ) 

aitkenRemembering the much-loved Gillon Aitken, who died this week.
He was born in Calcutta in 1938 and sent to boarding school in Darjeeling aged three; he became a spy, a translator of Pushkin and the publisher of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. Forty years ago, he set up as a literary agent, based from home. I aitken-wiltshirewrote about him a bit in The World Is What It Is, describing him as ‘haughty and charming, commercially ruthless but apparently patrician, a lone wolf who relied only on himself.’ He was also clever, emotional and funny. For half a century, he was at the heart of the London publishing world. In Joseph gillon-aitken-and-v-s-naipaulAnton, Salman Rushdie describes being accosted by a reporter on his way out of a memorial service on the day of the Ayatollah’s fatwa. He asked for help:
‘Gillon leaned down toward the reporter from his immense height and said, firmly, aitken-3and in his grandest accent, “Fuck off.”‘
“You can’t talk to me like that,” said the man from the Telegraph. “I’ve been to public school.”
After that there was no more comedy.’
Here are four pictures of Gillon: in Tangiers (1980s); in Wiltshire with his wife Cari and the writer Francis Wyndham (1990s); in Venice; and in Rajasthan with VS Naipaul (2000s).
Rest in peace.

(C) Patrick French 

10 November 2016

Salil Tripathi, “Detours: Songs of the Open Road”

Detours( Noted London-based Indian journalist Salil Tripathi’s third book, Detours, is a collection of his column/essays on travel writing. This book is meant to be savoured. I was able to read one, maximum two, essays at a time. There was so much to absorb and appreciate in each essay in terms of the rich cultural experiences, the noises, colour, smells, details about the landscape, socio-political characteristics of the places he visits at that particular time with some history deftly blended in. Every single element seems to have his attention for detail. For instance, each chapter heading is carefully selected, it is appropriate for what follows in the essay but also resonates with the reader at many levels. It is rare to find such craftsmanship in a book today. Salil Tripathi has been a man of letters for some decades giving him immense practice in relying upon words to share, comment, dissect and analyse an experience but he does so without ever being dull. So reading Detours is infinitely pleasurable since not for a second does one miss the lack of photographs, sketches or any other form of illustration to support the travelogue. Just focus on the man and his words. This is armchair tourism at its finest!

I am posting an extract from the introduction reproduced with permission from the publishers.) 

As I started working on the essays, I looked back at the great travel writing I had read—Mark Twain, Eric Newby, Salil TripathiPaul Theroux, Ian Buruma, Pico Iyer, and William Dalrymple are among the writers through whose words I began to look at the world differently. I had also read many entertaining accounts, of an American or British writer abroad—like S J Perelman or George Mikes—and enjoyed the tragicomedy that followed. But getting off the beaten track and travelling on roads not taken to reach quieter places seemed so much more enticing. I also read many accounts of the outsider looking in at India, the western gaze trying to make sense of the mysterious east. Mine was an attempt to look at the world through Indian eyes—not as if it was an empire-striking-back, for that would be too presumptuous: how can anyone born in India claim to speak on behalf of a billion people? Rather, mine would be an attempt to look at the world through a sensibility that had been shaped by India and later tinged by other cultures.

I hadn’t left India until 1975 when I was still thirteen, on a tour organised by my school to Nepal. In 1979 I spent a few weeks in Scotland on a student exchange programme. In 1983 I went to the United States to study and returned home in 1986. I moved abroad in 1991, when I left for Singapore, and then in 1999, for England. Each journey affected in some way how I saw the world. My work—as a correspondent first, and later, as a researcher/advocate for human rights organisations—has taken me to fifty-five countries (including India). I’ve learned something new from each visit; I’ve made lasting friendships in many cities and towns around the world. It is impossible to write down each experience. This book attempts to reveal the world I have seen.

The book is divided into three parts: War & After, Words & Images, and Loss & Remembrance. The first section, War & After, deals with places that have been deeply affected by armed conflict or have had human rights challenges—Bogotá, Jakarta, Berlin, Yangon, Mostar, Phnom Penh, Cape Town and Johannesburg, Singapore, Lagos, and Istanbul. In the next section, Words & Images, I write about places that I have understood better because certain writers or artists have made those places more vivid: Bombay (now Mumbai), Amsterdam, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Nairobi and Naivasha, Arusha and Kilimanjaro, Granada, Valparaiso and Isla Negra, Kyoto, Srimongol and Shilaidaha, Shanghai, and New York. The third section, Loss & Remembrance, is the most personal; it is, in a sense, about Karuna Sirkar, my wife who died in 2006. I have written about the places I had travelled with her in the two decades we were together, or where I could feel her presence on later visits; or the places where I went with my sons Udayan and Ameya after her passing, as the three of us tried to pick ourselves up to understand the meaning of our shattering loss: Ludlow and Proctersville, Collioure, Geneva, Stockholm, Venice, Beachy Head, Ålesund and Oslo, and San Francisco.

Salil Tripathi Detours: Songs of the Open Road Tranquebar Press, an imprint of Westland Ltd., 2016. Hb. pp. 380. Rs. 695 

16 Feb 2016