This awful book, and it is awful, especially the spelling, will have a very bad influence on young minds. It will give children lots and lots of ideas about how to be even naughtier than they already are, and some of them are already EXTREMELY naughty. It is an outrage and I for one will be calling this book to be banned. Mr Wallybottom ( or whatever his stupid made-up name is) should be ashamed of himself.
( Introduction by Raj, a newsagent)
David Walliam’s The World’s Worst Children is hilarious! It is a collection of ten short stories about ten ghastly children. Brats who pick their noses like Peter Picker, Gruby Gertrude who has a gruby room, Miss Petula Perpetual-Motion who cannot sit still, Dribbling Drew who drools far too much or like Brian Wong, who was never ever wrong. But let me allow my six-year-old daughter comment upon it. She was ecstatic upon seeing the book and after reading a bit shot of a tiny ( and her first book review) to her grandmother via WhatsApp. Here it is:
Do you have the book called the world’s worst children? It’s very funny. If you have it read it. Nani. You will see a girl she fart’s a lot! She carries a trumpet with her but she doesn’t blow it with her mouth. Instead she does it with her bums because she doesn’t like to use her mouth. It’s easy to use her bum. And smell like potty comes out from her bums.
Sarah is thrilled this book has wacky illustrations such as of kids licking bowls of ice cream. “Just like me!” she squeals in excitement. Here is a snippet of a conversation I had with her:
“This book is for six”
“I am six!” I can read it!
Then suddenly sad.
“But when I grow up I want to read it again. Can I?”
And here is an audio clip of Sarah reading the book and cracking up with laughter.
The World’s Worst Children is a truly special book. A fantastic cross born of the literary lineage of Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake. The layouts are superb. The zany play of fonts and colour with each page designed meticulously. The full-of-light watercolour illustrations by Tony Ross support the text marvellously. It looks like a mad riot of colours and words but is very technically sophisticated. For the pure joy it creates in a young reader is unimaginable. David Walliams is a stand-up comedian but to get the tenor right for children by using words such as “stupid” easily in the text is marvellously liberating! Sarah gurgling with laughter said, “Mummy, ‘stupid’ is a bad word is it not?” and then lapsed into a fit of giggles. I watched my daughter read the lines slowly and blend the words hesitantly to graduate rapidly to reading at a comfortable pace.
The World’s Worst Children I would recommend heartily for everyone. It can easily work for leisure reading to being adopted by schools as supplementary readers.
David Walliams The World’s Worst Children ( Illustrated by Tony Ross) HarperCollins Children’s Books , London, 2016. Pb. pp.270 Rs 599
( My review of The Return has been published in the Scroll on 10 July 2016. The url is: http://scroll.in/article/811475/as-polls-near-number-of-cases-filed-against-opposition-leaders-in-goa-go-up )
I had never been anywhere so burdened with memories yet also so charged with possibilities for the future, positive and negative, and each just as potent and probable as the other.
Hisham Matar’s third book The Return is a memoir, unlike his previously award-winning novels. He is of Libyan origin, born in New York but now a British citizen living in London. His childhood has been spent in Nigeria, Egypt and the UK. He is the son of a prominent Libyan, Jaballa Matar, who was abducted by the Egyptian secret police and delivered to Muammar Gaddafi. Jaballa Matar vanished.
“He was taken to Abu Salim prison, in Tripoli, which was known as ‘The Last Stop’ – the place where the regime sent those it wanted to forget.” There were rare letters smuggled out of prison, which the family treasured. After a while even those stopped coming. Twenty-two years later, after the Arab Spring of 2011, Hisham Matar returned to Libya. He was accompanied by his mother Fawzia Tarbah and his wife Diana Matar.
The Return is about Matar’s homecoming, so to speak. It is also about his public campaign to put pressure on the Libyan government to provide information about his father’s whereabouts. As Matar says, he is “a very private man”, but he is “writing something way beyond my person”.
Jaballa Matar was a young Army officer under King Idris’s rule. He returned from London to Egypt full of hope when a young soldier named Gaddafi led a coup in Libya. Gaddafi’s dictatorial rule soon manifested itself. All those considered to be close to the previous government were sent out of the country on minor diplomatic missions. Jaballa Matar was sent to the United Nations, where he spent a few years before resigning and returning to Libya.
My father was one of the opposition’s most prominent figures. The organisation he belonged to had a training camp in Chad, south of the Libyan border, and several underground cells inside the country. Father’s career in the army, his short tenure as a diplomat, and the private means he had managed to procure in the mid 1970s, when he became a successful businessman – importing products as diverse as Mitsubishi vehicles and Converse sport shoes to the Middle East – made him a dangerous enemy.
Despite making his home outside Libya, Matara considers himself an exile.
I am often unnerved by exiles I meet who, like me, have found themselves living in London but who unlike me, have surrendered to the place and therefore exude the sort of resigned stability I lack. Naked adoption of native mannerisms or the local dialect — this has always seemed to me a kind of humiliation.
There is a calm pace to the text, almost matching the cadences of Hisham Matar’s serene voice. ( http://www.newyorker.com/podcast/out-loud/hisham-matar-and-david-remnick-on-returning-to-libya ) But the almost lyrical prose cannot mask the horror of the human right violations committed under Gaddafi, which Matar documents. These range from the barbaric torture of the prisoners and the massacre of more than 1200 inmates in Abu Salim prison to snippets of information about Matar’s father.
Matar’s uncle Hmad Khanfore, an aspiring playwright, was incarcerated in prison for 21 years. Upon his release he met his nephew to thank him for the campaign that assured his release. He also recounted the horrors of the massacre.
It began with a group of disobedient prisoners who started a scuffle and tried escaping by jumping the guards. There was firing and some prisoners and guards were killed. But the standoff continued, with water supply to the prisoners being cut off too. By sunset the guards were willing to negotiate with the representatives of the convicts. When they returned they were accompanied by the three senior most figures in the regime:
Abdullah Senussi, who was the intelligence chief and brother-in-law to Gaddafi; Abdullah Mansour, also in intelligence; and Khairi Khaled, the head of prisons and brother of Gaddafi’s first wife…Throughout these exchanges, Senussi was in regular contact with Gaddafi. His phone would ring and he would stand as straight as a reed and start whispering. His phone rang again now, and once more we watched him take a couple of steps away before answering, “Yes, Your Excellency. The situation is completely under control, Your Excellency. Absolutely, we will do exactly that. Rest assured.”
At dawn, before daybreak, the prisoners were matched into the big open courtyard where rows and rows of soldiers were standing, dressed for battle, with several of them poised in firing positions. The dead prisoners were dumped into rubbish bins and rest of the prisoners handcuffed – Israeli cuffs, their latest design. “A thin plastic wire that drew tighter with the slightest resistance. You felt the pain not so much around the wrists but inside the head.” Later, six courtyards were filled with the prisoners and the shooting began. Surprisingly, Matar’s uncle Hmad, his brother Ahmed, Uncle Mahmoud, Cousin Ali and a couple of others from the Ajdabiya Group, the opposition and from the 1990 case were spared. They “witnessed” the execution from their cells by hearing the sounds.
Of course, memory plays a role.
I am not sure if my recollections… are accurate or if they have been affected by my state at the time. Either way, this is how I remember it.
At this point in the text he is referring pointedly to his meeting with Gaddafi’s son and entourage in London to enquire about his father but it is an observation that holds true for the entire narrative. Despite lobbying with the British government to help extricate information from the Libyan government about his father Matar was unsuccessful in finding out whether his father was alive or dead. He had become so desperate that at the height of the campaign he wrote a letter to Gaddafi’s son, Seif el-Islam, detailing the known facts of his father’s case and asking them to clarify his fate.
I was a desperate man, willing to talk to the devil in order to find out if my father was alive or dead. That was how I was then; I am no longer like that now.
The Return is about the loss of a father. A masculine text in that sense. Perhaps has to be, since it is wholly preoccupied with Matar’s search for his father. This is echoed throughout the book, as he invokes other renowned literary texts that focus on the father-son relationship, such as the one between Odysseus and Telemachus.
But it is also evident in, for instance, the way Matar refers to his mother, who is a big pillar of support to him and his brother, as “Mother”. She is introduced by her name only two-thirds into the book, when it is mentioned by a grateful Libyan whose family had been provided shelter by the Matars.
And yet Matar does recognise and acknowledge the invaluable contribution women make to surviving in a conflict zone, especially with their insistence on information from the authorities about missing relatives. This is a common feature of gendered participation in conflict and post-conflict zones. And it happened in Libya too.
…from 2001 onwards, mothers and wives began to camp outside Abu Salim prison, holding framed photographs of their sons and husbands. Their grief was never acknowledged. They kept growing in number, until the moment when a young human rights lawyer decided to defy the wishes of the dictatorship and take up the case of the families. When in 2001 he was detained, they all marched to the Benghazi courthouse to demonstrate against his arrest.
The Return is a heartrendingly painful but dignified memoir. It is disconcertingly beautiful.
Hisham Matar The Return Penguin Random House UK, London, 2016. Pb. pp. 280. Rs 599
( I wrote an article for the amazing literary website Bookwitty.com on “Penguin on Wheels”. An initiative of Walking BookFairs and Penguin Books India. It was published on 28 June 2016. Here is the original url: https://www.bookwitty.com/text/penguin-on-wheels-walking-bookfairs-and-penguin-b/57725752acd0d076db037bf7 . I am also c&p the text below. )
Literature does not occur in a vacuum. It cannot be a monologue. It has to be a conversation, and new people, new readers, need to be brought into the conversation too.”
-Neil Gaiman, Introduction, The View from the Cheap Seats ( 2016)
On the 16th of May 2016, Penguin Random House India circulated a press release about Penguin Books India’s one-year collaboration with Walking BookFairs (WBF) to launch “Penguin on Wheels”, a bookmobile that will travel through the eastern Indian state of Odisha promoting reading and writing.
This is not the first time Walking BookFairs has collaborated with a publishing house to promote reading. Their earlier “Read More, India” campaign saw Walking BookFairs supported by HarperCollins India, Pan MacMillan India, and Parragon Books India. Apart from these three publishers, WBF stocked books from various other publishers, including Tara Books, Speaking Tiger Books, Penguin, Duckbill, Karadi Tales, and Scholastic. “We got books delivered by our publishers on the road wherever we were displaying books.”
The concept of bookmobiles is not unusual in India, for some decades the state-funded publishing firm, National Book Trust, has maintained its own book vans. Yet it is the duo of Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray that has captured the public imagination.
Walking BookFairs was established two years ago while Satabdi Mishra was on a break from her job and Akshaya Rautaray quit his publishing job to set up an independent “simple bookstore” in Bhubaneshwar. The shop, which they prefer to think of as a “book shack”, runs on solar power. It is a simple space with the bare necessities and a garden. They allow readers to browse through the bookshelves, offering a 20-30% discount on every purchase throughout the year.
WBF also doubles as a free library. They introduced the bookmobile in 2014, as part of an outreach programme that would see them travelling to promote reading in the state. Speaking to me by email, Satabdi said,
“There are no bookshops or libraries in many parts of India. There are thousands of people who have no access to books. We started WBF in 2014 because we wanted to take books to more people everywhere. We have been travelling inside our home state Odisha for the last two years with books. We found that most people do not consider reading books beyond textbooks important in India. We wanted people to understand that reading story books is more important than reading textbooks. We wanted to reach out to more people with books. We also wanted to inspire and encourage more people across the country to read books and come together to open more community libraries and bookshops.”
India is well known for stressing the importance of reading for academic purposes rather than reading for pleasure. In a country of 1.3 billion people, where 40% are below the age of 25 years old, and the publishing industry is estimated to be of $2.2 billion, there is potential for growth. Indeed,there has been healthy growth across genres, quite unlike most book markets in the world.
The WBF team has been keen to promote reading since it is an empowering activity. They began in the tribal district of Koraput, Odisha, where they carried books in backpacks and walked around villages. They displayed books in public spaces like bus stops and railways stations or spreading them out on pavements or under trees, whatever was convenient and accessible. “That works because people in smaller towns feel intimidated by big shops,” they say.
Apart from public book displays, they also visit schools, colleges, offices, educational institutions, and residential neighbourhoods. They soon discovered that children and adults were not familiar with books. Bookstores too seem only to be found in urban and semi-urban areas and are lacking in rural areas, but once easy access to books is created there is a demand. As Neil Gaiman says in the essay “Four Bookshops”, these bookshops “made me who I am”, but the travelling bookshop that came to his day boarding school was “the best, the most wonderful, the most magical because it was the most insubstantial”. (The View from the Cheap Seats)
Speaking again via email, Satabdi says that they’ve found, “Children’s books are always the most sought after. We have many interesting children’s storybooks and picture books with us. We found that in many places, not just children but also adults and young people enthusiastically pick up children’s books, browse through and read them. Beyond a couple of urban centres in India, big cities, there are no bookshops. Most bookshops that one comes across are shops selling textbooks, guide books or essay books. Many people were actually looking at real books for the first time at WBF.”
In India the year-on-year growth rate for children’s literature is estimated to be 100%. Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray stock 90% fiction. Rautaray says, “We believe in stories. I think, if you need to understand the world around you, if you need to understand science and history and sociology, you need to understand stories. I believe in a good book, a good story.”
The categories include literary fiction, classics, non-fiction, biographies, books on poetry, cinema, politics, history, economics, art visual imagery, young adult, picture books, children’s books, and regional literature from Odia and Hindi. The emphasis is on diversity, but they do not necessarily stock bestsellers or popular books like romance, textbooks, or academic books. That said, the Penguin on Wheels programme will dovetail beautifully with, “Read with Ravinder” another of the publisher’s reading promotion campaigns, spearheaded by successful commercial fiction author Ravinder Singh.
In December 2015, Satabdi and Akshay launched their “Read More, India” campaign (#ReadMoreIndia), which saw them take their custom-built book van, loaded with more than 4000 books across India. They covered 10,000kms, 20 states, in three months (from 15th Dec 2015 to 8th March 2016).
Over the course of the journey, they sold forty books a day, met thousands of people, and had a number of interesting experiences. One anecdote that gives an insight into the passion and trust that the young couple displays is of that of an elderly gentleman in Besant Road Beach road, Chennai. The older man was out for his daily jog and stopped to look at the books. He wanted to buy some books, but had left his wallet behind.
“We asked him to take the books and pay us later via cheque or bank transfer. He seemed surprised that we were letting him take the books without paying. He took the books and sent the money later with his driver. We want people to read more books. And if people cannot buy books, we want them to read books for free for as long as they want. People pay us in cash, in kind, sometimes they take books pay later, pay through credit/debit cards.”
The Penguin on Wheels campaign was launched because Penguin Books India had been following WBF’s activities and reached out to them. Earlier, they had collaborated for an author event in Odisha, but this new move is a focussed effort that will see the bookmobile travel within Odisha.
The books are curated by Akshay as Penguin Books India said graciously that “they [WBF] know best what their readers like more”. It will consist of approximately 1000 titles from the Penguin Random House stable. The collection will have books by celebrated authors, including Jhumpa Lahiri, John Green, Orhan Pamuk, Amitav Ghosh, Devdutt Pattanaik, Salman Rushdie, Ravinder Singh, Twinkle Khanna, Hussain Zaidi, Khushwant Singh, Roald Dahl, Ruskin Bond, and Emraan Hashmi.
Contests and author interactions will also be organised with the support or Penguin Random House. It will start with Ravinder Singh’s visit to Bhubaneshwar for the promotion of his newly launched book, Love that Feels Right. Satabdi Mishra adds, “We are happy to partner with PRH through the WBF ‘Penguin on Wheels’ that will spread the joy of reading around.”
My review of Michael Orthofer’s wonderful book The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction has been published in the award-winning website, Scroll, on 26 June 2016. Here is the link: http://scroll.in/article/810332/no-book-can-tell-you-about-all-books-but-this-one-comes-close . I am c&p the text below.
The Complete Reviewwebsite was established in 1999 by founder and managing editor Michael Orthofer. He has so far reviewed a staggering 3,760 books on that site. His goal is to read a book a day, but he averages about 260 a year. In a profile written for The New Yorker by novelist Karan Mahajan, Orthofer says, “A day in which I don’t read or write, I have trouble falling asleep.”
The Complete Review is a literary salon, gathering reviews and essays about books and literature from all over the world in a short, curated format. Orthofer launched the website after spending more than five months writing the code for it. His rationale for this website was to take advantage of the tremendous reach and connectivity of the internet. His manifesto is laid out in the book of his website:
Suddenly, book reviews from print publications, new online resources, and individual readers from across the world were just a link away. Beyond reviews, an enormous amount of literary coverage, in both local languages and English, has been made available, from traditional newspaper stories to discussions in online forums to blogs devoted to every imaginable facet of reading. Professional websites – publishers’ foreign rights pages, the sites of national organisations promoting local literature abroad such as the French Publishers’ Agency or the Finnish Literature Exchange, and the sites of international literature agencies – provide additional up-to-date information and insights into contemporary fiction from many nations. The Complete Review is designed to help connect readers to much of this information.
Ironically, though, this wide-ranging coverage, because it’s organised chronologically and minutely, does not offer a countrywise bird’s-eye view of the literary landscape. Hence The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction. It’s Orthofer’s attempt to provide an entry point as well as a foundation to help readers navigate the literatures of the world.
American readers, one might add, who live in a country where English is the super-dominant language of available books, and translated titles amount to the now legendary three per cent of all titles. One of Orthofer’s attempts in this extraordinary compendium of modern and contemporary fiction is to make these readers aware of what is being written right now in languages other than English.
Sensibly, therefore, Orthofer – who is an immigrant in the US of Austrian origin – has chosen to classify his encyclopaedic knowledge of literature geographically, with the books and authors arranged by nation and region. The sections are broadly divided into Europe; Sub-Saharan Africa; North Africa, Middle East, and Turkey; Asia; Oceania; Latin America and North America. “Because writers and their fiction move across many borders and languages, national origin, domicile, and language are only rudimentary categories by which to arrange writers,” he writes.
What is very obvious is that Orthofer’s intimate engagement with books has resulted in this crystal clear understanding of the manner in which literature may be mapped. His organisation underlines the close proximity between literature and socio-political factors, a link which is often denied by many.
Talking of books available across geographies makes this a reader’s guide for an English-speaking audience. Orthofer astutely observes that a major drawback of looking only at literature available in English is that it can distort the view of national literatures, as there are many languages from which only a limited number of texts have been translated. “Many nations’ fiction is highly evolved, but because only a tiny amount of it is available in English, it may seem underdeveloped,” he observes.
Orthofer admits that though he has tried to map literature mostly after 1945, there are historical gaps primarily due to some older literature being inaccessible in English. He also rues his inability to list all the translators of all the editions of world literature he has referred to, but he makes up for it by offering resource tools in the appendices.
The view from America
Obviously, the perspective on world literature is an American one. So his fascinating commentary on books and authors focusses on what he is accessible in the US. Despite this constraint, he is able to weave a magical literary web that impressively contextualises authors.
So, given this point of view, can Indian readers trust Orthofer’s pronouncement on the literatures of the world and his assessments of individual writers? One way of judging this is to examine his observations on Indian writers, with whom readers in the country are already familiar.
This is where Orthofer proves how perceptive his readings are. For instance, he says that Amitav Ghosh’s first novel The Circle of Reason embodies the restless ambition that has come to define his work. That Amit Chaudhuri’s fiction is evocative, focusing on expression rather than invention. That Arundhati Roy’s colourful The God of Small Things is undeniably affecting, but Roy has a few too many tricks up her sleeves. One cannot but agree.
What does Orthofer have to say about literature from India’s neighbours? He points out that Pakistan’s Uzma Aslam Khan paints broad portraits of life that are personal and family-oriented, but she also mixes political and social commentary into her fiction. Tahmima Anam from Bangladesh uses the experiences and attitudes of her characters to reflect on Bangladesh’s post-war transition, without reducing them to simplistic types.
Of course, you might wonder at the rationale for inclusion or omission – but that will only occur to those already familiar with the literature of a region. Thus, while prominent authors of south Asian origin but living in the West, like Kamila Shamsie, Nadeem Aslam and Manjushree Thapa, are mentioned, Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni or the multiple-award-winning Akhil Sharma are not.
Orthofer’s insights make for rewarding reading. For instance, that the lack of translations from Ethiopia may be due to political factors such as never having being colonised or the long spell of dictatorial rule. He observes the rise of the cell-phone novel (keitai shosetsu) in Japan, the setbacks to Russian-language fiction after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the limited exposure to contemporary fiction written in other Indian languages. Orthofer also points out, perceptively, that Indian authors living outside India continue to situate their fiction in their homeland. In his survey of Arabic literature, Othofer focusses on the recent increase in fiction titles despite political censorship, an underdeveloped and fragmented market, and a small book-buying public.
The appendices are gloriously packed with information regarding translations into English and with supplemental resources. The latter includes lists of periodical and online resources, many of which are dedicated to cross-cultural exchange. He also lists publishers who have carved out niches for themselves with translations, among them AmazonCrossing, And Other Stories, Deep Vellum, Europa Editions, Hispabooks, Open Letter Books, Pushkin Press and Seagull Books.
The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is that very rare thing: an extraordinarily detailed book where the information is easily accessed and understood. It is a splendid reference, a dependable guide, and a rich map of the world through its books.
M. A. Orthofer The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction Columbia University Press, New York, 2016. Pb. pp. 486 $27.95
Neil Gaiman is the superstar of storytellers and one of the leading influencers on social media with his strongly voiced opinons. He is incredibly generous while sharing his knowledge, he has bundles of energy, oozes with charisma and can pack quite a powerful punch while speaking his mind. He comes across as straightforward and can be blunt when he wants as in the essays — “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming: The Reading Agency Lecture, 2013” or “The PEN Awards and Charlie Hebdo ” ( 2015). He is charming in his hero-worship when he writes about meeting legends such as Fritz Leiber and magnanimous with his compliments such as on illustrator Charles Vess with whom he often collaborates. Gaiman is passionate about his love for reading, letting the imagination roar and creativity blossom as evident in the innumerable speeches he has delivered. One of them being “Good Comics and Tulips: A Speech”or after his visit to a Syrian refugee camp, Azraq refugee camp, Jordan — “So Many Ways to Die in Syria Now: May 2014”. Here is a typical Gaiman straight-from-the-heart observation:
I realise I have stopped thinking about political divides, about freedom fighters or terrorists, about dictators and armies. I am thinking only of the fragility of civilisation. The lives the refugees had were our lives: they owned corner shops and sold cars, they farmed or worked in factories or owned factories or sold insurance. None of them expected to be running for their lives, leaving everything they had because they had nothing to come back to, making smuggled border crossings, walking past the dismembered corpses of other people who had tried to make the crossing but had been caught or been betrayed. ( p.506)
Most of the essays and speeches collected in this volume have gone viral on the Internet recently. They have developed a life of their own for the ideas they spawned. As Gaiman says in “Credo”, “I believe that it is difficult to kill an idea because ideas are invisible and contagious, and they move fast. He also firmly believes that “Literature does not occur in a vaccuum. It cannot be a monologue. It has to be a conversation, and new people, new readers, need to be brought into the conversation too.” The title essay refers to his appearance at the Oscar ceremony when the film adaptation of his book Coraline had been nominated and he walked the red carpet but was given a seat in one of the top balconies.
The articles included in this collection may over a period of time vanish from their original place of publication in cyberspace or disappear behind pay walls as business models of media websites evolve. This is an anthology that is must have that will constantly be read and re-read for its thought-provoking ideas, its analysis of the changing game of publishing, the relationship between writer and readers but most importantly it will be remembered for Gaiman’s fervour in infecting others with his passion for reading and allowing the imagination to run wild.
Buy it. Treasure it. Preserve it. Share it widely. Pass it on to the next generation.
Neil Gaiman The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Non-Fiction Headline Publishing Group, London, 2016. Pb. pp. 532 . Rs 599
Hachette India distributes it in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
…while there may have been a many-shaped gulf between Julio and me on the parenting experience, the chasm separating male and female writers was of another order altogether. From the day that Ishaan was born to the day I am writing these words, I have worked in open-doored chaos, stealing sentences in between settling sibling spats, sneaking in edits while supervising homework, and forcing my mind to seek silence within my head, as a maelstorm of toddler tantrums and playful shrieking engulfed my body.
Award-winning foreign correspondent Pallavi Aiyar’s Babies and Bylines is a memoir about maintaining the tricky balance being a mother and having a professional identity. Babies and Bylines is an insightful account of what it means to bring up children while striving for some me-time too. Irrespective of how much of a feminist the parents are there is no escaping the hard fact that babies require their mothers more than their fathers especially when they are infants. It is simply not a gendered comment. But by living your feminism the family learns to give spaces to the mother. For instance when Pallavi lost her job and had to look after two children, her husband Julio, supported and encouraged her travel to research her fabulous book Punjabi Parmesan about the economic collapse across Europe.
It was Julio who encouraged me to feel liberated by the lay-off and go travelling on book research instead of lamenting my joblessness. Once again he proved that although he might not always have lived up to my parenting ideals, my husband was the best thing that had ever happened to my career. ( p.137)
Babies and Bylines is a personal story about parenting with Pallavi Aiyar and her globetrotting family. They have lived in Beijing, Brussels, Jakarta and are now en route to Tokyo. They are a blueblooded example of a mixed family since Julio is Spanish and Pallavi is Indian. It leads to some interesting experiences in the languages the children learn at home to the food they are used to eating.
We simply didn’t seem capable of ‘pure’. We were linguistic muggles. Nico’s first word was in Chinese, ge ge or older brother. We used a random mix of Hindi and Spanish terms thrown into English sentences. Pajama drawstrings were always ‘nada’, rinsing the mouth after brushing one’s teeth was ‘kulla’. But we often used Spanish for body parts. Cheeks, especially before they were about to be kissed, were mofletes. … breasts were tetas. We used the Indonesian macet for traffic jam.
More importantly the exposure to diverse cultures allows for Pallavi to learn and adapt rapidly to local parenting styles. It also makes spaces for Pallavi to compare and imbibe parenting advice but ultimately choosing what is suitable for her. Whether it is striking a balance between play dates and extra classes for the children to learn skills or being a hands-on mother ensuring the children eat well and observe hygienic practices for their own good but also for her own sanity and self-preservation. Nursing a sick child can take away many hours from a mother working from home. She also learned that having a nanny is immensely useful since it allows for the mother to have some time to herself yet as the children grow and begin to ask questions it is abundantly clear that a nanny is not optimal company for a four-year old. As Pallavi observes, “My four-year-old was beyond the stage when someone without multiple advanced university degrees could meet his needs.” His questions ranged from — “Why don’t numbers end?”, “What is beyond Pluto?”and “When shall I pass away?”
In Babies and Bylines Pallavi Aiyar effectively brings together various schools of thought on parenting starting from baby book Bibles such as What to Expect to American paediatrician Harvey Karp, online discussion forums to thought-provoking commentaries by Judith Shulevitz, Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter. Mixed into this were huge dollops of “wisdom” Pallavi Aiyar picked up from her extended circle of nannies, family and friends.
Micromanagement of family life is a full-time job. If a woman can find the space in it to create her own identity it stems from a passion for your work, desire to have an identity distinct from being a mummy and comes with a great deal of determination. Time takes on a different meaning once the children arrive. Every task is imbued with a sense of urgency so as to gather the few opportunities the day provides to find time for yourself. Having said that this compelling need for the mother to have her own space does not in any way undermine her overwhelming love for the brats. It is these constant tugs of war between being a mother and a professional which make life rich. At times it may be very taxing and physically exhausting to have it all. It means being pulled in different directions but it is also so satisfying that many women like Pallavi Aiyar would not want it any other way.
Babies and Bylines is a fantastically empowering modern-day Bible on parenting for both mothers and fathers.
A must read.
Pallavi Aiyar Babies and Bylines: Parenting on the Move HarperCollins Publishers India, Noida, 2016. Pb. pp. 222 Rs350
‘The biggest leak in the history of data journalism’
‘A triumph of journalism’
Bob Woodward on the Panama papers
Late one evening, investigative journalist Bastian Obermayer receives an anonymous message offering him access to secret data. Through encrypted channels, he then receives documents revealing how the president of Argentina has sequestered millions of dollars of state money for private use. This is just the beginning.
Obermayer and fellow Süddeutsche journalist Frederik Obermaier find themselves immersed in the secret world where complex networks of shell companies help the super-rich to hide their money. Faced with the contents of the largest data leak in history, they activate an international network of journalists to follow every possible line of enquiry. Operating in the strictest secrecy for over a year, they uncover cases involving European prime ministers and international dictators, emirs and kings, celebrities and aristocrats. The real-life thriller behind the story of the century, The Panama Papers is an intense, unputdownable account that proves, once and for all, that there exists a small elite living by a different set of rules and blows their secret world wide open.
Pre-order from here: http://amzn.to/1tw1oh6
Price: INR 499
Format: C FORMAT
Page Extent: 384
The Panama papers represent the largest and most significant leak in history – this is the inside
story from the journalists who first received the data
( This blog post was picked up by the award-winning news website, Scroll. An edited version of this review was published by Scroll’s literary editor, Arunava Sinha, on Sunday, 19 June 2016. The original url is: http://scroll.in/article/809971/six-hundred-pages-that-will-tell-you-more-about-yourself-and-your-future-than-anything-else . )
The real magic was imagination.
( L-R) Chiki Sarkar, Publisher, Juggernaut, Siddharth Mukherjee, Nirmala George, journalist and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, IIC, New Delhi, April 2014
Siddharth Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History is an extraordinarily riveting book. It is easy to forget you are reading a densely packed account of the gene. In 600+ pages Pulitzer prize writer Siddharth Mukherjee narrates the discovery of genes, evolution of genetics as a scientific discipline and the rapid strides this science has made in about a century. Consider this. The term “gene” coined by Mendel in the nineteenth century was all but lost for more than six decades only to be revived in early twentieth century and then became a common term. A few decades later it led to the coining of “genocide” in Nazi Germany. Half a century later the helical structure of DNA & RNA were discovered. Two decades later questions were being raised about the ethics of genetics and tinkering with genes. Yet recombinant genes were put to use in commercial production for insulin to a resounding success. By 2000, about a century from when the word “gene” was revived, the Human Genome project was announced. There is a phenomenal amount of technical information packed in the book with a few anecdotes, some personal, inserted judiciously into the narrative.
From the time of Pythagoras, Aeschylus and Plato who were convinced that the “likeness” of a human being passed on via the “mobile library” preserved in the semen to Aristotle who rejected this notion by astutely observing that children can inherit features from their mothers and grandmothers too. The Gene details over the centuries the manner in which people pondered over what carried information across generations without really understanding the mechanism or even having a name for it till Mendel and his pea experiment and Darwin’s theories. It was Mendel, a monk, who first used the term “gene” except it was lost for a few more decades till resurrected in the early twentieth century. This was a watershed moment in the history of genetics as suddenly there were a concatenation of events that led to a furious progress in understanding the gene mechanism. From coining the word, understanding the structure, the mechanism, the potential, exploiting applied genetics as was done by the Nazis to enable Rassenhygiene or “racial hygiene”, using this branch of “applied biology” to justify their policy of lebensunwertes Leben or “lives unworthy of living” and justifying the establishment of extermination centres such as Hadamar and the Brandenburg State Welfare Institute. It was based on the premise that identity was fixed. Curiously enough another ideological position in existence at the same time in Soviet Russia viewed the principle of heredity as having its basis on complete pliability. In both cases science was deliberately distorted to support state-sponsored mechanisms of “cleansing”. Rapid advancement in genetics led to discovery of recombinant DNA to create crucial medicines such as insulin and its commercial production by biotechnology industries, the ability to clone as was done with Dolly the Sheep, to questions being raised about the ethics of genetics, to the establishment of the Human Genome Project. It has been a phenomenal few decades for curious and imaginative scientists trying to understand the principles of heredity, what makes it tick, what information gets passed on from generation to generation, what is gained and what is lost in evolution — always striving to push the boundaries to ask more and more questions.
To a lay reader The Gene is a brilliant historical overview but it also does a fantastic job of reinstating Rosalind Franklin as one of the four scientists responsible for discovering the helical structure of DNA. A fact that had been lost in history for some decades even when the Nobel Committee conferred the prize on Watson and Crick for discovering the helical structure. It is only recently that Rosalind Franklin’s name has been mentioned in the same breath as Watson and Crick. Siddharth Mukherjee lays down the facts of their experiments and analysis in such a way that it is evident the scientists were working simultaneously on the same subject, albeit not together.
I heard Siddharth Mukherjee deliver a public lecture two years ago when he came to India to receive the Padam Shri from the President of India. At the time he was still working on the manuscript of The Gene and here is an account: https://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/siddharth-mukherjee-27-april-2014/ . In 2015 he gave a fascinating TED Talk followed by a brilliant exposition on the subject published as a TED Book by Simon & Schuster. Here is the link: https://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/siddhartha-mukherjee-the-laws-of-medicine/
What began as an attempt to understand the reasons for “madness” that seems to exist in his family, Siddharth Mukherjee embarks upon an absorbing account of the “triggers” that are responsible for mapping information and carrying it from generation to generation. The Gene is phenomenal for the manner in which it weaves together the author’s precise scientific temper offering technical information against the backdrop of factually accurate and significant contemporary events of the time. Siddharth Mukherjee puts forth a magnificently rich historical narrative of the gene accessible even by an ordinary reader.
Siddharth Mukherjee The Gene: An Intimate History Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, London, 2016. Hb. pp. Rs 699
The day history is made in USA with Hillary Clinton becoming the Democratic Party’s Presidential nominee and endorsed by outgoing President of the USA, Barack Obama it is worth looking at Alec Ross’s book The Industries of the Future. Alec Ross served as Hillary Clinton’s senior advisor for innovation while she was Secretary of State. Before working for Clinton, Alec Ross had worked as the convenor for technology and media policy on the Obama campaign that beat her in the 2008 presidential primary.
Alec Ross’s The Industries of the Future is a fascinating account of how much innovation is taking place in the world, in geographical corners that are mostly hidden from media view. He discusses robotics, genomics, cyber security, digital technology and finance, blockchains and bitcoins, etc. This is the kind of book that will be a reference document now to understand innovations and will have a long shelflife for its historical value in contextualising and explaining innovations that will define twenty-first century. What comes across strongly is that Alex Ross does not view innovations as disruptive but with wide-eyed wonder at the business potential and positive socio-economic impact these measures will have in future. Today it may seem as if these innovations are nudging just the limits of that is plausible yet many of these practices/ predictions are slowly coming true in one’s lifetime. Much like the automatic sliding doors of Gene Roddenberry’s stories of the 1960s were considered to be innovative are now very common in modern life.
Here is a wonderful interview with Alex Ross by Jinoy Jose P in the Hindu Businessline : http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/the-future-world/article8544279.ece . It was published on 1 May 2016.
Alex Ross’s book is truly stupendous. Hilary Clinton will do well to have him return to her team. Meanwhile read it. Buy it.
Alex Ross Industries of the Future Simon & Schuster, London, 2016. Pb. pp. 310 Rs 599
Amazon homepage on 6 June 2016 shows Novoneel Chakraborty’s book being amongst the top 25 bestsellers.
Novoneel Chakraborty is a successful commercial fiction writer who is known for his psycho-sexual or romantic thrillers. He is now a screenwriter for television too. He began writing in 2008 but since then has had phenomenal success with his books. He obviously has a knack for knowing what the readers/market desire and caters to it exceptionally well. His books are selling extremely well as testified by Amazon India’s banner on their homepage in June 2016.
His “Stranger Trilogy” consists of
Marry me, Stranger;
All yours, Stranger
and Forget me not, Stranger. Theseare being sold as a boxed set.
This trilogy has been creating a buzz for a while. The stories are written in first person by the protagonist Rivanah Bannerjee and have a lot of sex. The stories are ostensibly about the mysterious identity of a stalker who regularly sexually assaults Rivanah and she assumes its her boyfriend. The trilogy comes across as very uneven writing. The sex scenes are written very confidently and quite bold but always seem as if they are strongly influenced by international thrillers. It would not be so evident if it were not for the “bridges” between the sex scenes that is actually the narrative. It crawls like a typical contemporary Indian novel written in English which relies considerably on mundane conversation. There is little in terms of psychological thriller that makes these stories distinctly their own except for the mysterious identity of the stalker and reasons for stalking. A blue-blooded psychological thriller is packed with details, working in layers and the suspense building slowly and steadily sometimes even with multiple perspectives embroiling the reader into an emotional space that teeters between empathy and curiosity and horror. Unfortunately “The Stranger Trilogy” does not quite meet the mark.
It is also distressing to discover that a book written in the first person by a woman incorporates the male fantasy gaze “appreciating” if not at times fantasing about the sexual acts that would otherwise be seen as a rape. It is disturbing to have such literature being published and obviously rapidly finding a readership/market because somewhere it is catering to these bizarre fantasies. In terms of creative licenses every author has the freedom of expression to write on any subject they like and in any manner. But this? Given the current scenarios of the horrific rapes and stalkings that are constantly being documented in India. Who can forget the rape of the young girl in December 2013 or the recent one in Kerala of a Dalit girl in April 2016? Alas these two young women did not survive the horrific assaults. In 1983 Sohaila Abdulali had written about her experience of being gang-raped in Bombay and the article was published in Manushi. Here is the link: http://bit.ly/1r9YCMH In the past few weeks two very powerful posts by rape survivors have gone viral on the internet. They are extremely moving for the manner in which these women have survived their assaults, had the immense courage to write about the experience even though it must have been very painful to recall details and put it down in words. The first is by Jessica Knoll whose debut Luckiest Girl Alive smashed all bestseller charts for its story. (Reese Witherspoon has optioned the film rights.) Weeks after the book was published Jessica Knoll wrote this article in Lenny Letter for the first time acknowledging being gang-raped as a teenager. ( http://bit.ly/1UCLhGR ) On 4 June 2016, the rape victim of a Stanford swimmer read this letter out aloud in court after the rapist was sentenced to a mere six months in jail because a longer sentence would have “a severe impact on him,” according to a judge. The letter was published on Buzzfeed. (http://bzfd.it/213lAkL ) And who can forget the Steubenville High School rape case on the night of August 11, 2012, when a high-school girl, incapacitated by alcohol, was publicly and repeatedly sexually assaulted by her peers, several of whom documented the acts on social media. The news exploded on social media creating a cyber-storm across geographies with widespread condemnation.
These rape cases highlight the horror of the act and that sexual assaults are a serious crime. Cultural collateral such as book products are an integral part of a complex social ecosystem. Presuming such stories exist as standalone entities meant solely for entertaining is unacceptable. These acts may be the fantasy of many and products peddling such sexual fantasies sell well even in the book market but The Stranger Trilogy is irresponsible publishing especially by a reputed firm.
Novoneel Chakraborty The Stranger Trilogy Random House India, Gurgaon, 2015. Pb. pp. 250. Rs. 175 each.