“Books choose their authors; the act of creation is not entirely a rational and conscious one.”
Growing up in India in the eighties and early nineties, I remember that the literary columns of most newspapers and magazines would often focus on two names as the ‘big two’ in Indian writing in English – Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth. While Seth’s writing (his early poems, The Golden Gate, A Suitable Boy and From Heaven Lake) in gentle, formal prose is nostalgic both in terms of form and content and flows like a river, Rushdie’s rich voice with its many layers of allusions, inter-textuality and effervescent wordplay cascades through the pages like a waterfall, challenging and at times, tending to overpower the reader.
“It may be argued that the past is a country from which we have all emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity.”
― Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991
I started reading Rushdie with Imaginary Homelands, a fascinating collection of essays that include literary criticism of his contemporary writers (Gunter Grass, Marquez, Calvino, Vonnegut and Barnes among others), travelogues, memoir, reflections on the literary life, colonialism, racism, religion and empire, and his personal definition of what home means, and what it means to be an exile.
“The word ‘translation’ comes, etymologically, from the Latin for ‘bearing across’. Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained.”
― Imaginary Homelands
“He knew what he knew: that the real world was full of magic, so magical worlds could easily be real.”
― Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories
The meta-fictional fable Haroun and The Sea of Stories was my first introduction to his fiction – a book that remains one of my favourites to this day. It can be read at various levels, as a metaphysical fable about the power of fiction, as a political satire on the storyteller’s freedom of expression or simply as an entertaining young adult story based on the hero’s journey.
“I have always thought that these two ways of talking, one is the fantastic, the fable, the fairy tale, and the other being history, the scholarly study of what happened, I think they’re both amazing ways to understand human nature.”
I next read Midnight’s Children and was mesmerised by the book which won the Booker and the Booker of the Booker prizes. I remember the days passing like a delirious, gripping dream while I was reading this masterpiece of a novel. The pages turned as though by themselves, compelling me to keep watching as places and characters came alive through the words, and projected the story, scene by scene, sharply on my mind. The actual movie version which I saw last year left me underwhelmed. In spite of the character names and events, the film seemed to bear no trace of that magnificent novel.
“Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems – but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible.”
“A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it; or offer your own version in return.”
Shame, East, West, Shalimar the Clown and The Enchantress of Florence were good but nowhere as great, while Fury, The Ground Beneath Her Feet and The Moor’s Last Sigh were lesser literary siblings of the illustrious Midnight’s Children.
Luka and the Fire of Life was a beautifully written sequel to Haroun. However, Luka’s story did not quite touch the peaks scaled by his elder brother’s tale.
“There are places in the world where nothing ever happens, and Time stops moving altogether. There are those of us who go on being seventeen years old all our life, and never grow up. There are others who are miserable old wretches, maybe sixty or seventy years old, from the day they are born. We know that when we fall in love, Time ceases to exist, and we also know that Time can repeat itself, so that you can be stuck in one day for the whole of your life.”
Luke and The Fire of Life
I read Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights with a great deal of pleasure, a book which I am looking forward to re-read later this year along with The Golden House , and look forward to reading many more books from this master author, who remains at the top among the world’s greatest contemporary writers.
A book review that I wrote so many years ago, in what was almost another lifetime…was delighted to see it as the top review against the book in Amazon
Literature often transcends pre-set boundaries of category or genre. Prime examples include the chronicles of Alice and Gulliver originally conceived to satirise society and later metamorphosed into children’s classics, and more recently the popularity of the Harry Potter novels among adult readers. ‘Haroun and the sea of stories’ could be placed in a similar category. It can be read as a fairy tale or as a satire that addresses everyday problems, narrates social conditions and broaches political issues. Regarded by readers and critics alike as one of the master storytellers of the present day literary world, it is not surprising that Mr.Rushdie has conjured up a fantasy based on the world or rather the ocean of stories, named after the ancient Indian treatise Kathasaritsagar.
The protagonist Haroun Khalifa is a young boy who leads a happy middle-class life distinct from the rich, poor, `super-rich’ and `super-poor’ people inhabiting a nameless sad city. Haroun’s father Rashid Khalifa is a famous storyteller – the Shah of Blah with fabled oceans of notions, who often refers to the streams of story water he drinks to keep up the supply of wondrous tales that pour forth from within him. Haroun takes this as an eccentric statement by his father and soon discovers that the ocean of stories indeed exists and that only he could save it from total annihilation.
Haroun’s world is suddenly taken apart when his mother elopes with their neighbour Mr.Sengupta, a mean clerk who had forever questioned the significance of Rashid’s tales (‘What’s the use of stories that are not even true?’) and Rashid loses his gift to spin wondrous yarns. When Rashid is summoned by a politician to campaign through his stories in the Valley of K, the two decide to risk taking the trip which turns out to be both hilarious and fascinating.
On board a peacock-shaped houseboat on the ‘Dull Lake’, Haroun discovers to his surprise and horror that his father is going to cancel his subscription to the streams of the Story Ocean. After a squabble with the water genie Iff who has come to disconnect the story tap, Haroun manages to get a ride on the machine-hoopoe Butt to Kahani, the second moon of the earth that contains the ocean of stories.
Kahani also contains two diametrically opposite worlds, the land of Gup characterised by perpetual light inhabited by the Guppies who love to talk, and the land of Chup that is permanently dark and cold and is home to the Chupwallas who worship Bezaban, the prince of silence. The Guppies and the Chupwallas are mortal enemies, and when Haroun lands on Kahani, there is a terrible crisis looming on Gup – The cult master of Chup, Khattam-Shud has kidnapped the Guppie princess Batcheat intending to sacrifice her to Bezaban and worse, has started polluting the story-ocean to destroy it completely. Accompanied by Iff, Butt, Mali the floating gardener and a pair of loopy fishes called Goopy and Bagha, Haroun sets forth to save the ocean. The rest of the story deals with how he succeeds in this endeavour and is rewarded with a ‘synthesized’ happy ending courtesy P2C2E (Processes Too Complicated To be Explained).
The text sparkles with witticisms concealing thoughts, and thoughts that evoke spontaneous laughter. There is a lot of wordplay as can be expected from a Rushdie novel. The dialogues are characteristic of Mr. Rushdie’s works, with the characters speaking peculiar dialects of Indianised English – Oneeta Sengupta’s consoling words to the Khalifas, the conversation of Butt/Buttoo, the rhyming banter of Goopy and Bagha, the foolish babble of Prince Bolo, the songs of Mali and the petty quarrels between the mud-men and mud-women in Buttoo’s bus are sure to evoke laughter in even the most curmudgeonly reader. A beautiful passage describing the dance of the shadow warrior Mudra who speaks through gestures (Abhinaya) conveys that duality exists even in Kahani, and that creatures of silence and darkness could be as charming as the children of light and speech. So is the abstraction describing how emotions influence the atmosphere, with miserable thoughts causing the atmosphere to stink and brighter ones clearing out the smog. The ridiculous antics of silly Prince Bolo to save Princess Batcheat seem justifiable when he is described as being just like love – dashing, gallant and a little foolish.
Above all these, the main theme of the book is brought forth implicitly – That story-tellers cannot be silenced, and the ocean of stories would continue to surge with its many threads mixing and intermingling perpetually to generate fresh stories that would keep flowing. Looking a little deeper, it conveys that the magic of fiction has the power to soothe, restore, edify and sustain the harried, quotidian protagonists of everyday life.
A beautifully written review by Nimi Arora, which made me look at The Reengineers from a reader’s eyes. In these insightful lines which have captured the essence of my novel, I see that Chinmay now belongs to the world. Feeling delighted, blessed, humbled and grateful.
Link to the review on her website: http://www.nimiarora.com/2016/04/the-reengineers-indu-muralidharan-book-review.html
The Reengineers: A Review by Nimi Arora
Chinmay, Anu and Sabi are three friends who have no other friends. Except for books, that is.
The three friends are misfits in the society, even among their own family members.
“We are ugly ducklings of the same feather…”
Chinmay Narayan is the protaganist of The Reengineers.
On the first page itself, he tells that he had two goals – to top the class ten board exams, and to kill himself after the exams. In the very next sentence, he clarifies that by the next afternoon, his life and plans had changed.
A sensible, oversensitive boy with the insensible thought of suicide in him. He believes he doesn’t fit in.
As readers, we now have a notion of where this story would go, and probably end. It is the ‘how’ that keeps you hooked.
Despite the knowledge and reminders of the upcoming suicide, there is a relaxed, serene feel to the book.
The author plays with words to describe common emotions with an elan.
“…I waited, aching to find a sentence that would draw me in, that would free me from my mind for at least a while.”
The protagonist talks about Chennai. I have never been to Chennai, but even though I can’t relate to the reminiscences of the city per se, what radiates through the words is a warmth and pride for the city that surpasses time and changes. A feeling that is not limited to one city. It is the expression of ‘home’.
“The feeling of home still pervades my city, despite the impersonal the impersonal flyovers that now criss-cross above the old familiar roads, the acres of shining skyscrapers that buzz with the sounds of the software cities teeming within them, and the gleaming malls that may soon outnumber the tiny Ganesha shrines on each street…”
The three kids with their innocent, yet profound philosophical discussions are smarter than the rest, yet trying to fit in. Your heart breaks for them.
It is a coming of age book. It starts at a time when Chinmay did what his parents desired. He did not know he could choose different. Not while living anyway. So he had decided to end his life.
When the book ends, the life and its’ choices have changed drastically.
The moment of epiphany when he realised that he is a ‘seeker’.
The language of The Reengineers is rather poetic, dreamlike quality at times. You feel your sense being enveloped by the emotions of the characters whose life is about to be reengineered.
“Fourteen is the age when time first starts to make its presence felt. Time took on such a variety of hues in those days that even my frozen mind sometimes reflected the colours of the world around me, and I could feel my thoughts fluttering in the humid, salty breeze.”
The feelings of teenage infatuation…
“O for those days when these tired metaphors were teenagers too, when it was still possible to recite ‘Daffodils’ and feel thrilled as you gazed at the golden laburnum in bloom. Recognising clichés is a sign of aging. Sweet as the past may be, it best remains pressed within the pages of memory, savoured for a moment or two on quiet Sunday afternoons.”
Suddenly the vibe changes. There is mystery, tension, and danger in the air.
The world they enter seems to be a parallel to the world they live in.
As Chinmay learns and discovers, a lot of life lessons are find a pace in The Reengineers.
“It is curious how the weak-minded among us are wired like that, the way we turn subdued and silent when confronting real bullies and yet stand up almost aggressively to those who are genuinely kind to us.”
For me, the one major epiphanic moment is when he realises that he’s not a misfit. He is a seeker.
So true for so many of us, who go through life dissatisfied, not realising that to want to search for more does not make them abnormal. Irrespective of what others say.
“Everything has a reason, though it cannot always be deduced for we cannot see the full picture of a life at any point in time.”
The story of The Reengineers doesn’t rush from one event to the other. It relishes the emotions.
We know from the beginning that Chinmay wants to commit suicide and that he won’t do so. The how keeps you hooked. And it is to the author’s credit that she doesn’t disappoint in the process.
The path the story takes is not predictable.
I have lent this book to my nephew now, who is studying… well, engineering. I am going to insist that the rest of the kids (who are still in school) in the family read The Reengineers too. Nothing can explain what I feel about this book better than this fact.
I feel that it is a relevant book for everyone – students, corporate employees, spiritual aspirants… actually anyone who is looking for a more contented, confident life.
Review by Nimi Arora here: http://www.nimiarora.com/2016/04/the-reengineers-indu-muralidharan-book-review.html
Thank you for the overwhelming response to the give away. Announcing the next international give away, which is open till 15-Aug.
“A great Tamil poet, given to decadence and debauchery, once said that the story of his life could serve as an example to the youth on how one should
not live. Having lived, or rather, having sleepwalked for ten years through the desolate wastelands of depression, I survived to reach the other side. I believe that this validates my claim to write this book for you.”
― From The Reengineers
How does one determine the genre of a novel? When I finished writing The Reengineers, I mentally categorised it as Literary Fiction. Also, Metafiction which it is, naturally, as it explores the relationship between an author and the main character of his novel. Early readers and reviewers categorised it under Young Adult, Coming of Age, Magic Realism and Inspirational Fiction among others.
The Reengineers could be classified under Young Adult Fiction as it is the coming of age story of a fifteen year old boy, and as it was plotted based on the hero’s journey. It could be placed under Magic Realism for it is the story of a surreal adventure which, though it happens in a parallel universe, is firmly rooted in its own reality. It could also fit into the labels of Inspirational Fiction and Spiritual Fiction, as it talks about the hero’s self-empowerment and the triumph of free will over destiny.
On the Amazon website, The Reengineers is categorised under Literature & Fiction, Spiritual Fiction and Philosophical fiction, all of which sound good, though the book only contains a dollop of philosophy in Chapter 7. For some reason, it is also shown under History and Religion & Spirituality. My publishers say that these last two categories would be removed shortly. Applying this logic, it could also belong under the umbrella of Self-help as besides the theme of self-empowerment, it also contains an excerpt of a fictional self help-book narrated in the form of corporate fables within Chapter 5.
But if I were to choose a single, specific genre for The Reengineers, I believe that it would be the Coming of age novel with existential overtones. Novels I love in this genre include J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of being a wallflower, Ned Vizzini’s It’s kind of a funny story and the wonderful The Elegance of the hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. Each of these books have touched my heart with their wisdom, they have spoken to me in a way that I hope The Reengineers would speak to each reader.
This post contains mild spoilers about some of the books mentioned.
One type of metafiction is that in which the protagonist seeking to escape the real world, consciously imagines a world into being and lives within this fictional universe of their creation.The real and fictional worlds of the character overlap and blur. The existence of the character is rooted in two distinct and yet reconciled realities.
A prime example of this kind of novel is Atonement by Ian McEwan. As an imaginative fifteen year old. Briony Tallis witnesses an encounter between her sister and a young man which leads her to accuse the latter of a crime that he had never committed. She spends the rest of her life seeking redemption for her impulsive action that had unwittingly destroyed two young lives. Briony comes across as a typical unreliable narrator and we are never completely sure which parts of her narrative are real and which come from within her imagination, as she tries to expiate her sin over the next six decades by writing several alternative happy endings to the tragic love story.
The Poor Relation’s story by Charles Dickens from the collection Christmas Stories has a similar theme. At a Christmas dinner, the guests at the table take turns in telling stories. A timid elderly gentleman who admits that he lives off a small allowance from the host goes on to say that he lives in a comfortable home which he calls his castle. He mentions that though it appears to the world that he had been cheated by his clerk who ruined his business and jilted by the girl he loved, he did neverthless prosper in his trade and went on to marry his girlfriend. He narrates charming scenes of a contented family life, talks about his delight in hearing his wife play on the piano a beloved tune which still reminds him of their courtship and rejoices in his children and grandchildren who visit him often in his beautiful castle. Which he says as he finishes his story, is in the air.
Another example is the unnamed protagonist of The Sensualist by Ruskin Bond. A novella that is very different from Bond’s gentle stories of life in the hills, the sensualist is about the sexual desires of a rich young man who is seduced by his maid as a teenager and grows up into a hedonist, relentlessly seeking the pleasures of the flesh. One day he is trapped by a hill woman who holds him captive and drains him ruthlessly every night. When he escapes from her, he finds that he has become impotent and soon renounces the world. He retreats to a cave, where he continues to seek pleasure of the senses through his imagination.
Yet another example is the richly imagined story of Pi Patel in Yann Martel‘s Life of Pi, on how he survived a shipwreck with a royal bengal tiger for company, contrasted with the stark reality of the alternate version that he offers towards the end with an interesting hypothesis on the concept of God.
This kind of metafiction is then, about using fiction as a drug to ease the aches and pains inflicted by life. In each of the above stories, the protagonists are keenly aware of their failures, sorrows and personal trauma and seek solace in stories, creating for themselves an alternate version of reality that only they can see. They close their eyes to reality and choose to play make-believe through their lives, escaping through their imaginations into fictional worlds which they find far more fulfilling.
Coming soon! The Reengineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality
“Metafiction is a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. In proving a critique of their own methods of construction, such writings not only examine the fundamental structures of narrative fiction, they also explore the possible fictionality of the world outside the literary fictional text.”
Most articles of metafiction analyse the genre from a scholarly perspective. I write this from the perspective of a reader who loves books which have anything to do about books.
Metafiction is commonly associated with postmodern literature, but as wikipedia says it has been around since perhaps the beginning of the written word, with examples of books across various time periods such as Homer’s Odyssey, The Canterbury Tales and Don Quixote. The two great epics of Indian literature, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are wrapped in metafictional plots with the poets Valmiki and Vyasa who composed these works appearing within the respective stories as key characters. The collection Kathasaritsagar or the ocean of stories is likewise a labyrinth of fantastic tales within tales, all of which are supposed to be sourced from the ancient epic Brihatkatha which literally means ‘The Great Story’.
As a reader, I find it all the more interesting to read a novel with metafictional elements set in more recent times. Metafiction is more than a book or an author self consciously referring to themselves. In many books it brings out the attachment between the author and her work, a coming together of the art and the artist so deeply that they seem to be one single entity, which extends to the reader who opens the pages and finds themselves to be a part of this absolute union, an intense experience which goes beyond the illusion of the fictional universe.
Some of my favourite books in the genre include Loitering with Intent, Fahrenheit 451, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, 84 Charing Cross Road, The Name of The Rose, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, The Thirteenth Tale, Angel’s Game, The Help, The Neverending Story, Sophie’s World, Atonement, The Inkheart trilogy…and more. Sometimes I feel that this genre is the only one worth reading as it (usually) covers everything else.
In the next few weeks, I will write a series of posts analysing metafiction, on what it means to me as a reader, why I turned to it as a writer, and why I believe like many that metafiction is a way of understanding the nature of reality.
“I always hope the readers of my novels are of good quality. I wouldn’t like to think of anyone cheap reading my books.”
~ Muriel Spark, Loitering with Intent.
I was delighted to read about Muriel Spark’s new collection of essays ‘The Informed Air’. Spark is one of my favourite novelists of all time, and this is a review of my favourite book of hers.
“I was aware of a daemon inside me that rejoiced in seeing people as they were, and not only that, but more than ever as they were, and more, and more”, says Fleur Talbot, the fiesty heroine of Loitering with Intent – Muriel Spark’s semi-autobiographical gem of a novel. One of Fleur’s most delightful traits is how she views the people around her with amused detachment, analysing them as characters to be written in future books. And then, characters from her first novel start to come alive around her.
Lauded by many as one of the finest of Spark’s works and indeed one of the finest books ever, Loitering with Intent takes the reader on a pleasurable journey through London in 1949 through the recollections of Fleur who is writing her first novel at the time and is surviving on her job “on the grubby edge of the literary world,” as secretary to Sir Quentin’s Autobiographical Association. Sir Quentin’s group consists of an eccentric mix of snooty aristocrats who have led tediously plain lives, and Fleur amuses herself by embellishing their memoirs with spicy details as she types and tidies their manuscripts. All her thoughts and energy are focused around the manuscript of her novel Warrender Chase which she holds in higher regard than her part time job, employers, friends and boyfriends.
As the members of the autobiographical association begin to get depressed, hysterical and eventually killed, Fleur suspects that the snobbish Sir Quentin may have been blackmailing his flock, exerting his power over them not unlike the protagonist of her novel. When Quentin steals her manuscript in order to plagiarise from it, she finds herself drawn into the plot of her book. As she manages to retrieve her book from his clutches, she watches scenes from her book play out in real life even as she loiters happily around London all the while, rejoicing in her art and her life.
This is a quintessential work of metafiction, one in which the narrator as novelist is writing a book, creating a world of words which manifests around her as she had imagined it. Questions on the relationship between art and the artist, how art is created, the nature of faith, friendship and love are raised and explored through the effervescent narrative voice. The characters are remarkably sketched and memorable, from the manipulative Sir Quentin, his geriatric mother Lady Edwina (a ninety year old incontinent woman wearing pearl and chiffon, who makes for some wonderful comic scenes in her interactions with her son and with Fleur, with whom she strikes up an unlikely friendship), the assorted members of the autobiographical association who fall into Sir Quentin’s trap, the housekeeper Beryl Tims and Fleur’s ‘English rose’ friend Dottie, a weak woman who is easily led by Sir Quentin into supporting his malevolent plans.
Fleur Talbot remains to me one of the most likeable and strongest protagonists in literature, a woman after my own heart. She knows her place in the world as an artist, her priorities in life and is so much in tune with them that the minor frictions caused by interactions with lesser beings around her do not affect her as much as amuse her, as she quotes her beloved Benvenuto Cellini and ”by the grace of God, goes on her way rejoicing.”
Shades of Loitering… can be found in Curriculum Vitae, Spark’s autobiography that provides glimpses into her brilliant, enigmatic mind. I love the way she looks at the world and muses on it both critically and objectively without a scrap of superfluous sentiment. Spark sounds like a spirited woman who rejoiced in her life and her art, considered happiness to be a natural birthright and after all her struggles, actually found it.
Coming soon! The Reengineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality
“Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores”
~ Fahrenheit 451 By Ray Bradbury
Fahrenheit 451 is a brilliant book that works in many ways. A dystopian novel set in an imagined future where firemen burn libraries, the majority of people live in a vacuous state of mind that is kept going by mindless television soaps and the few who dare to read or think or question are branded rebels and forced to choose between conformance or annihilation. Suicide attempts are so common that support staff, rather than proper doctors are constantly on the move, reviving the people who try to kill themselves. The novel takes place in a short span of time over which the main character Guy Montag goes through a series of encounters – with a free-spirited girl Clarisse McClellan, the wise old Professor Faber and a group of fugitive intellectuals each of whom is a living version of a book. The narrative is excellent and keeps the reader on the edge, rooting for the unlikely hero as he evolves from a fireman who burns books for a living to one of the select group of people who are fighting to preserve the written word and pass it on to others.
And as much as it celebrates the written word, Fahrenheit 451 also stresses that books are but a means to an end, calling them one of the many ‘receptacles of magic in the universe’.
“No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.” (2.128, Fahrenheit 451)
What is truly remarkable about this book written more than fifty years ago are the chillingly accurate predictions that it makes about the future of the human race. Many of the things described in the book which were fantastic exaggerations when it was first published are now facts of life, such as the senseless soap operas that play incessantly on in the minds of the people, emptying their brains and gradually sucking out their ability to think creatively, rendering them passive robots. Such is Bradbury’s genius that the book even predicts the publication of a certain book which was in the news sometime back.
Montag’s boss Captain Beatty tells him that ‘Hamlet was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: ‘now at least you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors.’
And so we can:
“Ophelia just pulled a Virginia Woolf. Funeral is on the morrow.
Laertes is unhappy that I killed his father and sister. What a drama queen! Oh well, fight this evening.”
~ Twitterature by Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin
But even as he wrote these predictions with the wisdom of a seer, Bradbury also foresaw the solution in Fahrenheit 451 and said as much – as long as we have books, there is hope for the future.