Saturday, January 28, 2012

Some fiction by other publishers I enjoyed in 2011

Not all of them were published in 2011

The Good Muslim, Tahmima Anam

The story of Maya and her brother Sohail in the post-war Bangladesh. Maya is a doctor and a social worker of sorts – doing abortions and deliveries as the situation demands, while she contemplates her country’s travails along with her close friend’s she’s helpless to help. She is a woman with modern ideas, who decides to return home after war. Once at home she tries to reconcile herself with the transformation in her brother, Sohail – once close but now a stranger deeply immersed in religion; with her mother, and her city that’s no more recognizable. The book is poignant and poetic, yet doesn’t dip into sentimentality, which is its greatest strength.

The Wandering Falcon, Jamil Ahmed

I read The Good Muslim and The Wandering Falcon back-to-back. Two books about two Muslim nations, and yet so very different.

A book published after almost four decades of being written, this one’s in a class of its own. There is no ‘protagonist’ per se, but the tribes in Waziristan, Balochistan, and the Swat Valley; their stringent laws and customs. The remarkable fact is the tribes’ almost stoic acceptance of what their life is all about. Tor Baz, whose parents defy their society and elope in the beginning of he book, links the lives of the Wazirs, Mahsuds, and Afridis, as the book moves between Afghanistan and Pakistan and nebulous regions in between. He stays more often at the periphery than at the centre of the narrative. Perhaps it would be more enjoyable for those who don’t care too much for personal narratives but the macro-picture.

The Devotion of Suspect X, Keigo Higashino

It’s amazing how the best of books sometimes do not get their due. Very few Indian readers, in spite of having been fed upon detective fiction all their lives, have heard of this book! Well, if you haven’t read it already, you ought to. A Japanese divorcee, living with her daughter, is visited by her ex-husband, who first grovels in front of them, then turns violent, and is finally strangled by the mother and daughter. Enter Ishigami, the Math whiz next door, and Professor Yukawa (a brilliant physicist and police aide). The reader thinks: But the murder has already happened. And we’ve seen the murderer! What now? Just wait till you get to the end of the book. It’s a very different kind of crime fiction you’re going to read!

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes

This time’s Booker Prize winner, the book is part philosophy, and part (what I called in my last column) a ‘literary potboiler’. Tony Webster, a sixty-year-old retired man reconstructs his life, and, during the process, realizes there’s always a chasm between memory and actual event. The story revolves around Tony, his volatile love – Veronica, and his brilliant friend – Adrian. Adrian’s suicide changes the course of the novel. As Veronica’s mother, whom Tony met only once in his life, leaves him a bequest of five-hundred pounds, a letter, and a diary, his curiosity is kindled. Hence begins the seemingly simple, yet complex tale about a man trying to reconcile himself with his past and present.

Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami

No book could be so matter-of-fact and so moving, so intense and so un-sentimental, so poignant and so chilling – all at once. A true example of how one can use simple words and a simple style to tell the most brilliant story, and create the most vivid and memorable scenes. Toru Watanabe hears the Beatles track, and his mind goes into flashback – as a young student and his love affair with Naoko, a pretty Japanese girl, whose life and personality are fractured beyond repair in spite of his best efforts to save her. Besides the Japanese students’ movement, the book focuses on sexuality and the theme of loss, death, and darkness.

Ithaca, David Davidar

Part autobiographical? Perhaps. It’s difficult not to be when you’re writing about an industry you’ve been a fundamental part of for decades. And an industry you can write well and authoritatively about – that David does. For publishing professionals the world over, yes, the novel has appeal. There’s a great deal one can identify with and nod one’s head at. It’s a familiar world, and some parts of the book are absolutely hilarious. I’m not quite sure how a non-publishing professional would perceive it though. The story is about Zachary Thomas, an Anglo-Indian publisher of Litmus, an independent publishing house in Britain. He’s struggling to do what most independents in real life are always struggling to do. And yet, is it really just about that?

My Little Boat, Mariam Karim

For those interested in serious literature, this book is a treasure. It’s a women-centric novel, and focuses on issues such as fanaticism, communalism, and the idea of being a Muslim woman in today’s India, in an unequivocal, bold, modern style. Often it surprises the reader by offering the unexpected. The novel has been done in a creative, innovative style, both in terms of content and form, and much of the text is suffused with poetry. The narrative offers rich symbolism, deep philosophy, and layers of meaning.

A House in Ranikhet, Keki Daruwalla

I’d read Keki Daruwalla’s poetry earlier, and perhaps one of his short stories as a part of our school curriculum, but this collection of short stories was somewhat of a discovery. The prose is brilliant and poetic, of course, but the stories themselves come as a delightful surprise. They’re not the dark, depressing ones one comes across so often in Literature (or the kinds I’m guilty of writing myself), but cheerful and lively. His characters are people who would continue to prance and frolic in your mind much after you’ve finished reading the book! A must read.

Of course, if you didn’t check out our own titles, please do:

Rhythms of Darkness: Anjana Basu :

Thunder Demons: Dipika Mukherjee:

The Body in the Back Seat: Salil Desai:

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Whistling in the Dark: Writing Gender (Jaipur Literature Festival, gay fiction, queer theory)

[Published in All About Book Publishing, forthcoming issue]

So what was happening at the Jaipur Literature Festival before the gallant four distracted everybody with their readings from Rushdie’s Satanic Verses?

Raj Rao and Hoshang Merchant, JLF 2012

The festival really began with remarkable observations on shifting attitudes towards various genres today and, of course, discussions on the latest trends in writing and publishing (as usual) – one of them being perceptions and perspectives on writing gender (as usual), except that they weren’t talking feminism here (perhaps not so usual).

R Raj Rao (professor of English and Queer Theory at the University of Pune) and Hoshang Merchant (professor of Poetry and Surrealism at Hyderabad University), both recognised as leading writers of gay fiction in India, came together to discuss gay fiction, queer theory, and the business of being a writer, at Diggi Palace on 20th January 2012.

Interestingly, some significant points were thrown up by both the speakers during the session: that what used to be gay writing earlier is now queer literature; that there is a difference between queer and queer theory (studies challenging social constructs regarding sexual identity); that gay writers do not find the same place in the writing circles or the society as other writers.

Essentially, the term ‘gay’ was changed to ‘queer’ since ‘gay’ was considered restrictive and left out the three significant others – LBT. According to the speakers, over time, there’s been a shift in Literature reflecting these changes in trends. There has also been a de-centring of normativity (largely heteronormativity or the belief that heterosexuality is ‘normal’ while homosexuality is not). Queer theorists the world over have challenged those assumptions.

Given the current trends, and India’s own pride parade – a rather vibrant one at that post Section 377 repeal -- it was interesting that Raj Rao should say the gay movement and gay writing are moving in opposite directions – the former towards acceptance, the latter away from it.

Both the writers agreed that gay writers still do not find the same place in the society as other writers. Merchant said, ‘It’s difficult to be noticed when you’re on the margins. I’m a writer. Why am I a gay writer?’

Rao said, ‘The fact that you’re a writer is overlooked. We’re literary scholars.’ Yet, a dilemma does exist – to assert one’s identity while, at the same time, trying to meld into the conventional stream. It was obvious from his next sentence. ‘If I say that I aspire to be a mainstream writer, I’m denying I’m a gay writer, which is also not the case.’

Rao offered the example of Vikram Seth and said that, as a writer, one should try one’s hand at everything. His statement was immediately and vehemently opposed by Merchant who declared Seth as ‘an enemy in my camp’ because he believed/believes Seth shouldn’t be writing mainstream fiction. That was an interesting moment at the venue since a woman from the audience was up in arms immediately, and more comrade hydra heads would have popped up within seconds had the moderator not put an end to ‘comments’ from the audience and diverted attention right away.   

Regarding ‘self on the page versus self lived’, the authors confessed that it was difficult to say which was more authentic. ‘There’s no “authentic”. There’s been enough platinising. We’re also playing roles,’ said Merchant. ‘Genres are foisted upon the author.’

Addressing the same question, Rao brought back the issue of queer theory. He explained that that is precisely what it is about – insincerity, projection, and skirting the core issues.

Raj Rao and Hoshang Merchant, JLF 2012
Both writers also admitted that there has been a constant element of fear in their writerly lives. It is unsurprising in those who have lived under the cloud of Section 377 for several years, first grappling with their own sexuality, and then grappling with talking about it through the medium of their script. Merchant described sitting and weaving together a coherent text as an act of heroism. ‘When I started, there were no gay presses, so mainstream publishers had to take up my writing,’ he said. ‘My autobiography was more open … I was afraid to write.’

‘Whatever has to be said has to be said in the writing,’ said Rao. He mentioned that his first short story appeared in Debonair in 1986, when he was starting out his career, and the first question he faced from a friend was, ‘Aren’t you afraid?’

Merchant referred to himself a fascist homosexual and a high-class Parsi communist, with a laugh. He maintains that globalisation is blurring the lines between heterosexual and homosexual everywhere but in bed. He was categorical about the fact that he is what he is and will remain that way. 

It is good to see more writers speaking up in the same vein that we witnessed as publishers of Mahesh Natarajan’s Pink Sheep, a collection of short stories (gay fiction) published sometime ago. One of the reviewers wrote, ‘Pink Sheep may remind you a little of RK Narayan’s Malgudi, except that the protagonists are homosexual.’ It’s indeed not their extraordinariness but ordinariness that is striking in these works. Hopefully, these writers will not be left whistling in the dark in the times to come.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Of Gods and Men: The JLF story (Rushdie, Hari Kunzru, Amitava Kumar, Satanic Verses)

[Published in Book Link, Feb 2012 issue -- forthcoming]

Hari Kunzru, JLF 2012
 When Amitava Kumar began the session with Hari Kunzru at Durbar Hall packed to capacity on 20th January, he began with the declaration that they were going to start the discussion about gods and men, but slightly different kinds of god and different kinds of men.

The confirmation of Salman Rushdie’s cancelled visit to Jaipur had  had a predictable impact on all author-participants. Most of them were livid at the organizers’ ‘pusillanimity’ at allowing a handful of religious conservatives to get away with murder – almost literally. To express their solidarity with the victim, Amitava and Kunzru then began to read out certain lines from the Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s contentious book, unfortunately, still banned in India.

They had barely read out about four lines, and were commenting upon the beauty of Rushdie’s prose when the festival director, Sanjoy Roy, stepped in broke the trance – a trance created by those simple four lines of Rushdie’s exquisite prose that made no reference to religion.

Sitting in the front row, bang opposite the speakers when they started, my first thoughts were about what must be going through the minds of all the audience sitting in the same hall. While most had cheered the move with an ear-defying applause, there were some who’d come particularly for Kunzru and not Rushdie and weren’t happy about it. Regardless, the atmosphere was electric for those few moments. There was that unexpected excitement at being allowed a glimpse into what had so far been unfamiliar and forbidden, accompanied by various notches of tension at the same privilege. And, with Sanjoy Roy’s intervention at that juncture, the same performance suddenly somersaulted to low-voltage and did not pick up again for the rest of the session though both the brilliant authors sitting at the helm tried their best to recreate the magic. Sadly, they had to make their quick exits soon after, fearing arrest.

It would be pointless to deny, the organizers’ stance notwithstanding, that this year’s JLF has been revolving around the Rushdie sun. The forced cancellation of his visit perhaps lent more weight to words like dissent, censorship, absolute freedom of expression, strategic silence, oppression and, more importantly, ‘Talibanization of Literature’ and ‘cultural fundamentalism’ – topics mentioned, skimmed over, or chewed upon – in almost all the sessions across the venues or genres.

A session titled ‘Creativity, Censorship, and Dissent’ with participation from well-known writers such as Tahmima Anam, Siddharth Gigoo, Prasoon Joshi, Charu Nivedita, Cheran, moderated by Shoma Chaudhury of Tehelka, took up these very threads on day two of the festival. Ironically, the discussion threw up the interesting idea that in present-day India, there isn’t enough subversive or provocative writing happening. No boundaries being pushed; no power structures being questioned, even by serious writers. Authors have begun to play it safe. And, indeed, it may be true that ours has become a land of the Lotus Eaters – a worrying fact for those who still feel that Literature has a rationale and purpose to serve beyond entertainment.

In Rushdie’s case in particular, two issues have inadvertently, if inevitably, been fused together – hurting or offending sentiments of some members of a certain clan (by allowing a certain author to attend the festival), and ‘illegal activity’ as a form of protest (i.e., reading a couple of lines from his banned book).

With regard to the former, another question strikes me: What about the sentiments of the other party? Do they count for nothing? And, as far as the latter case in concerned, much has been said and written about censorship and book banning by all of us already.

Shoma had a significant observation to make – that the majority of the people so passionately supporting the ban of Satanic Verses haven’t even read the book, but then so haven’t the majority of the people opposing it.

And yet many amongst them would have liked to, but were never allowed an opportunity simply because someone else had already made the decision for them without ever bothering to consult them about the matter. What is that if not an arbitrary act? What is it if not a dictatorship of sorts that allows no voice to the other?

The intelligentsia was open to a face-to-face discussion/debate with the ‘hurt’ party. Most rued the fact that the offended party wasn’t willing to engage in one. It was a deliberate and obdurate opaqueness no one could penetrate, and the state government went along with them.

Amitava Kumar, Hari Kunzru: JLF 2012

At one point during the discussion, Tahmima Anam, whose novel, The Good Muslim appeared last year, condemned censorship. She said, ‘There is no Muslim community, but many Muslim communities.’ And, to elucidate her point, she mentioned a magazine in the UK called The Critical Muslim that has been started by one such community to discuss/debate/challenge differences in ideologies, views, and beliefs, by various intellectuals/philosophers/thinkers. 

Of late the issue of censorship has risen again and again in different contexts, whether it’s Rushdie's work or Taslima Nasreen’s, Lelyveld’s book on Gandhi, or Ramanujan’s essay.

Yes, Section 19 (1) (A) of the Indian Constitution allows freedom of speech, and then perhaps immediately qualifies it. It’s somewhat like being taught ‘the more the merrier’ while simultaneously being warned about what too many cooks do to the broth. As Cherian pointed out, the responsibility that accompanies freedom cannot be legislated or ‘constitutionalized’. In spite of modernization and paradigm shifts in modern thought, even today authors can either opt for ‘strategic silence’ and play it safe in their writings; choose to go into exile before they call a spade a spade; or simply articulate dissent when and where they are and risk getting killed.

It is shameful indeed that the world’s largest democracy cannot stand by its own people.

Friday, January 6, 2012

In Defence of the ‘Literary Potboiler'

[Published: column:]

While the literary circles in India were still shaking their heads over the recent tidal wave of low-quality fiction in India and the dumbing down of Indian Writing in English to ludicrous levels, lo and behold, publishing circles in the Western world decided to launch a rival to the Man Booker Prize, with the view that ‘Britain’s foremost literary award has dumbed down beyond recognition’, and that it has started putting ‘readability before artistic merit’.

So the concern turns global for those who lament the disappearance of serious literature as part of the changing trends in publishing, not just in India but the world over. But there are two aspects to this. The first is the wave of pulp fiction, especially by young writers, that is sans plot, sans structure or grammar, and available for a song. The second is what one could perhaps term as a ‘literary potboiler’ – well-written but direct rather than oblique/multi-layered/ridden with symbolism, fast-paced rather than meandering, and often linear rather than non.

While I agree that the former category is something lamentable, I have nothing against a ‘literary potboiler’. What could be better than a great story well told and accessible to all? The ALD defines literature as ‘pieces of writing that are valued as works of art, especially novels, plays, and poems’. One, ‘a work of art’ is subjective, to say the least. Two, it doesn’t necessarily have to be esoteric.

Mariam Karim, author of My Little Boat, who has strong views on the subject, says, ‘Literary criticism in IWE has not been developed at all as a discipline. Hardly any collections of critical essays are written. Most reviewers for newspapers and magazines have no background in methodology. They rarely have a developed philosophy of their own, or a reading wide enough to place books in literary contexts. Publishing has become primarily a commerce-driven industry. Erudition is much amiss among editors. The lines between bestsellers and literature have become blurred in IWE. Many authors apparently have "researchers” working for them, to create potboilers. Potboilers sell and can easily be construed as “literature", as discerning literary criticism is almost absent. Many potboilers are focused towards presenting an interesting picture of India to the West, to gain fame and fortune. “Literature” is not a consideration, not even for many writers.’

Agreed. But publishers are hardly the villains. Any business is driven by market forces, and publishers too have to earn their living – as many tend to forget. It is commendable that, in spite of the changing trends and the odds stacked against them, most mainstream publishers have not bent to the pressure and continue to produce high-quality literary writing.

Says Dipika Mukherjee, author of Thunder Demons, ‘I think readers invest their time and money expecting a certain amount of entertainment, and literature also fails when it is too solipsistic or ponderous and simply disengages the reader. Some books fail (for me) not because of "potboiler" issues but larger things. The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini) is a real page turner that keeps a reader engrossed, but at the end caves into a myopic immigrant narrative which sells migration as the panacea for societal evils. I have been deeply impressed with Ghosh's work, and The Hungry Tide is especially good, but The Sea of Poppies just belabours the pidgin voices. Peter Carey, a master literary ventriloquist, was able to carry off such literary ventroliquism in True History of the Kelly Gang, but also faltered a great deal in My Life as a Fake. Also, although The Sea of Poppies is more in the potboiler tradition than his other works, I would hesitate to put any of Ghosh's works in that category. His books tend to be well-researched and multi-layered.’

Serious writing is challenging – both for the writer and the reader. And yet, if it fails to hold the reader’s interest, indeed, what’s the point? In Mark Twin’s own words. ‘A classic is a book which people praise, and don’t read.’ It would be a facile comment if a writer said that it matters not if people don’t buy/read the book, for why does one wish to publish one’s work at all if not to sell and be read?

Perhaps a great story simply and cleverly told works better. What better example of such a rare and fantastic blend can I offer than Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, the winner of the Booker Prize, 2000? Can anyone deny it’s good literature? And, can anyone deny it’s (in a sense) a potboiler?

‘For me, whether a story moves fast or slow, whether it uses suspense or say nostalgia, is only a difference of mood and style, not a difference of depth,’ says Aditya Sudarshan, author of Show Me a Hero and A Nice Quiet Holiday. ‘Often a shallow story will cover up for its emptiness with thrills and shocks, but equally an accretion of detail and supposed subtlety can be ways of avoiding actual storytelling and communication. So I would never judge the literary worth of a book by the genre it belongs to. It all depends on the actual writing.’

Fair enough. And, simultaneously, the reader is just as responsible for what and how much a book offers him/her. As Georg C. Lichtenberg says, ‘A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it, an apostle is hardly likely to look out.’