Category: Books

A Belated Post for Independence Day

“I am convinced that everything has come down to us from the banks of the Ganges, – astronomy, astrology, metempsychosis, etc. It is very important to note that some 2,500 years ago at the least Pythagoras went from Samos to the Ganges to learn geometry…But he would certainly not have undertaken such a strange journey had the reputation of the Brahmins’ science not been long established in Europe.”
Voltaire

For a country which had a united, glorious and flourishing civilization for several millennia before it was enslaved for eight hundred years, seventy years of independence is not so much an anniversary of nationhood as a time to reflect on how far we have recovered from the many wounds inflicted on the nation by the invaders who not only enslaved its people and looted its treasures but also disfigured its historical places and distorted its history. Seventy years after independence, it is wonderful to see my country shining, prospering, and marching towards the place it once held at the helm of the world’s economy, culture, and education.

Glimpses of India in the Bard’s work portray the country as a prosperous land of gold and precious stones and pearls and sunshine, of proud people who worship the sun and beautiful veiled women, impressions that echo in the work of other writers and travellers to India through millennia…aberrations like Burnett’s racist slur in literature started only about a century ago, and now the pseudo-liberals continue their work, trying to portray the country in a poor light in both literature and the mass media.

Someone mentioned during a dinner conversation a while ago about how they thought that the concept of patriotism was outdated in present times. But I like the quiet pride that shines in my English, Irish, Kenyan and Canadian friends’ eyes as they talk about their countries. It mirrors my love for my own nation, coming as I do from a family of freedom fighters, with a great Uncle who once fought the British with his poetry. I wished I could tell the person who called patriotism outdated that everyone should have the freedom to love their country and to say so. It is only when we feel secure in the love of our own family that we tend to accept and respect others more easily, and adapt better to a united society. Breathes there the man with soul so dead, etc. as a good Scot once wrote.
Jai Hind!

A short related excerpt from The Reengineers.

Arun’s lecture on the last working day of class ten had revolved around his favourite topic: India.

‘How many of you respect the Indian national flag? The national anthem? How many of you actually stand up when it is sung?’

I raised my hand automatically, so did Sabi. Hearing furtive giggles, I turned around and found to my horror that in a class of forty students, only the two of us had our hands up. Anu was frantically gesturing to me to drop my hand. I did so, puzzled and hurt.
Arun did not look surprised. He continued, ‘Now this question would have evoked a totally different reaction in classrooms in countries such as the UK or Japan. They have an intrinsic sense of national pride that is lacking in India. Not surprising, as it has only been forty-four years since we got our independence.’
I looked down into my book, wishing I could hide within its pages. My love for my country had turned me into a bigger freak than I already was in the classroom.

What did it mean to love one’s country anyway?
Much like the farmers who enthusiastically cheered for Mother India when Jawaharlal Nehru addressed them but were dumbstruck when he asked them who exactly they thought Mother India was, I had no answer. To me, patriotism was the joy I experienced while reading the poems of Subramaniya Bharati, Uncle RK, and Rabindranath Tagore. It was my pride in singing the national anthem and saluting the tricolour unfurled in the school assembly on Monday mornings. It was the lump in my throat when I watched songs like ‘The fertile earth of my country that brings forth gold, diamonds and pearls’ and ‘I am a little soldier of the nation. Say with me, Jai Hind’ on TV. It was the anger and resentment I felt when my mother told me not to get too friendly with Anu as he was not a Brahmin or with Sabi as she was not ‘one of us’ but a north Indian.

Excerpt with permission from HarperCollins Publishers India from The Reengineers by Indu Muralidharan

Fiction as Panacea

Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. I repeat this to myself whenever I fall sick. Which is worse, a physical malady like a painfully sore throat or a bout of food poisoning that renders one unable to speak and function normally, or the darkness that descends upon the mind and shuts everything else out, rendering it cold and numb? It is easy to say that physical illness is easier to manage compared to clinical depression but when I fall sick, I find that unpleasant, long-forgotten memories tend to return to the mind, which then makes it susceptible once again to the chilling darkness. Somewhat like the sentiments that Rupert Brooke expresses in this poem on seasickness.

The damned ship lurched and slithered. Quiet and quick
My cold gorge rose; the long sea rolled; I knew
I must think hard of something, or be sick;
And could think hard of only one thing—you!
You, you alone could hold my fancy ever!
And with you memories come, sharp pain, and dole.
Now there’s a choice—heartache or tortured liver!
A sea-sick body, or a you-sick soul!

Do I forget you? Retchings twist and tie me,
Old meat, good meals, brown gobbets, up I throw.
Do I remember? Acrid return and slimy,
The sobs and slobber of a last years woe.
And still the sick ship rolls. ’Tis hard, I tell ye,
To choose ’twixt love and nausea, heart and belly.
Rupert Brooke, A Channel Passage

Out of the many ways to heal, literature is the best of all, perhaps; to write, and to read good fiction.

Reading Thomas Pynchon

I was delighted to come across this essay by Nick Ripatrazone in which he says that Pynchon is ‘difficult, dated, and frustrating’, with sentences that ‘are labyrinthine and recursive: full of noise. As his sentences become paragraphs, and his paragraphs span pages, the novel becomes a whirlwind of paranoia; a test of a reader’s endurance and patience.’ Having been eager to read The Crying of Lot 49 based on McHale’s critique of the book, I had nearly wept with frustration when I had to put it away, right next to Ulysses on a shelf of books that I mean to return to, someday.

http://www.themillions.com/2015/04/difficult-dated-frustrating-prophetic-teaching-thomas-pynchon.html

‘The Crying of Lot 49 makes students consider what happens when a work of art might not have any traditional secrets to reveal’, says Ripatrazone, adding that ‘Pynchon’s fiction is like a literary workout that forces them to build from the ground up as readers. When students read easier works of literature, they might become deluded into thinking that all language is employed in the service of clear communication. Pynchon’s paradoxes make them return to other, non-literary texts with a bit more skepticism and independent thinking.’

Yet another book on that shelf is the verse novel The Distance Between Us. As I look at the shelf, a pattern begins to emerge. Art created for its own sake, that rejoices in itself and somehow remains at a distance from the reader.

On Kindles

Somewhere I read that the word ‘kindle’ was used to refer to a group of kittens that were born together. In this context, the word ‘kindle’ is synonymous with ‘litter’, but the former sounds so much more pleasing and sweeter. Speaking of kindles, nearly ten years after I voted on Nathan Bransford’s blog that I would never switch to an e-reader and that ‘a paper book would have to be pried out of my cold, dead hands’ (or something to that effect), I got myself a Kindle for Christmas. The obvious advantages of an e-reader notwithstanding, I don’t find it very different from a real book. While there is something comforting about holding a physical book, picking it up, turning the pages, placing a bookmark in it and so on, in the end, a Kindle serves equally well. For the fictive dream is the same, whether it arises from the lines on paper or a screen.

On Superfluous Copy-editors

By “editor” I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor—which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”
Vladimir Nabokov

I enjoyed this article in which the author refers to copy-editors as “irritating, pusillanimous time-wasters. Primitive, mindless creatures whose instincts drive them, antlike, to make slavishly defined changes.”

http://www.chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2015/05/08/dumb-copy-editing-survives/

Two copy editors whom I worked with were all that and more – pathetic characters who tried to justify their work by mangling the prose beyond recognition and who took sadistic pleasure in making uncalled-for actual edits in the text, when all they had to do was simple proofreading for spelling and grammar. Thankfully my editor rejected everything done by the first, while the second still managed to inflict some damage to the prose in the process. Yet another lesson in publishing, to avoid superfluous over-editing by presumptuous copy-editors.

A Treasure Trove of Lectures

I was lucky to attend a poetry master class on TS Eliot by Professor Belinda Jack last year, in which we had to write a poem with a sentence from Eliot’s poetry.

I wrote this:

At the Old Bodleian
This is where I want to be – At the source of the longest river
Here, at this desk, in this library
Surrounded by doors to other worlds, where
Time takes on the colours of all seasons.
At my desk though, time has no colour – It ceases to be.

Soon afterwards, I stumbled upon a series of lectures given by the Professor for Gresham College. Listening to Professor Jack is a wonderful experience, it is almost like sitting in the blissful silence of the Bodleian.

Musings on Pulp vs. Literary Fiction

For a very long period of my life, I read just about everything that I could get my hands on. Even the idea of categorizing some kinds of books that I might rather not read came to me at the age of sixteen, when I moved from the vicinity of carefully chosen home and school libraries into the college hostel. With good intentions of focusing all my time on communication theories and microelectronics, I had refrained from taking any reading material other than my textbooks, and within a few short weeks had started to make surreptitious visits to the arts college library adjoining ours. There I read vast quantities of the classics and there I came across Tender Muse, a poetry collection by Russian poetesses, which – but that is another story.

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We were forbidden from borrowing the arts library books, and so on the long weekends in that little town which was surrounded by hills and bordered by misty pathways of coniferous trees, my eyes would seek and find random novels lying about the hostel, which I would seek to borrow from their owners who would always, generously share them. It was there the I was exposed for the first time to ‘commercial’ or ‘popular’ fiction. I read through novels and stories of Jeffrey Archer and wondered why so many swooned over the forgettable page-turners. Shocked by some of the graphic scenes, I threw up my dinner while reading Bloodline. A friend with a penchant for the classics lent me Gone with the Wind, which I enjoyed. But I was not able to get through more than the first five pages of a Mills & Boon novel, coloured paperbacks of which were scattered around the hostel like fallen spring flowers in the wind. The classmate who lent me the book was a connoisseur of the said romances. According to her, reading them cleared her mind and relaxed her. As I was rather prudish, she chose a novel for me from her large collection, a book which according to her was ‘very mild’, ‘no strong scenes’. But the first five pages of that novel were not only devoid of strong scenes, they did not appear to have scenes at all – just three stick figure stereotypes standing on the page, speaking atrocious dialogue. Whatever else it might have been, it was not literature. I returned the book and learned to ignore pulp romances as well as thrillers of most kinds, with the exception of standard science fiction and literary mysteries. My days of reading ‘everything I got my hands on’ were over.

Sometime later, I picked up a book from the British Library intrigued by the premise of a leprechaun switching the minds and bodies of a married couple. I regretted it from the first few paragraphs, on the very first page. The cardboard characters were more unimaginative that those found in a women’s magazine story, the descriptions were tedious, the scenes barely hanging together, the dialogue flat and uninspired. That was the British Library in a boring little coastal town where I was working at the time, and its collections were small but highly selected. It was surprising to find a book of such poor quality on its shelves. I skimmed through the pages and read the author’s note at the end on ‘why he chose to write this drivel’, which was the only statement that rang true in that book. It was the beginning of the realisation that I read fiction to find the truth within it.

Since then, I learnt to fastidiously avoid pulp of any kind, averting my eyes from the rather vulgar looking displays in bookstores and skipping whole sections in libraries, the exception being one ladlit paperback by the chap who unleashed a cottage industry of poorly written English novels in India. An ex-colleague in my previous office urged me to take a look, according to him it was ‘crap, but time-pass crap’. The book reminded me strongly of the first and only Mills & Boon that I had tried to read – with poorly conceived characters, badly written dialogue and a non-existent plot, there was nothing commendable in it but nothing that gave offense either, until I got to the last page and found that the climax bore more than a strong resemblance to that of Life of Pi. The plagiarism has been hinted upon in many other blogs, but it will most likely continue to go unnoticed as it has over these years as despite the millions of copies sold, no one takes these lowbrow novels seriously. For these are but the twenty-first-century versions of dime novels and penny dreadfuls – cheap reading material that is mass produced, consumed like fast food and forgotten soon afterwards, poorly written pulp fiction which is the polar opposite of good literature.

But is every book that calls itself literary fiction really worth reading? Though not exactly in the same league as the pulp paperbacks referenced above, I recently read a book that aspired to, and was categorised as literary fiction for a class on dramatization taught by the author. Despite the striking opening with the main character who wins a reality show and is thereafter lost in a jungle, and a promising premise of nostalgia for old England which is often interesting to readers of English literature across the world, the characters and narrative turned out to be flat and uninspiring. It comes as no surprise that Amazon mentions the book being out of print. This is one of the very few books that  I plan to give away as it was really not worth the time spent on it.

The Riders: A Literary Page-Turner

*spoiler alert – review may contain mild spoilers*

In the first few pages, The Riders by Tim Winton comes across as a simple story of a family migrating from Australia to Ireland. Scully, a young Australian is working hard to restore an ancient cottage in rural Ireland, transforming it into a home for his pregnant wife Jennifer and daughter Billie who are soon to join him. He strikes up a friendship with the postman Pete and through their conversations, it is revealed that Jennifer had made the impulsive decision to sell their home in Australia and relocate to this remote village. Jennifer emerges as an enigmatic figure through these conversations, an educated woman with artistic aspirations who flits across countries and art-forms in search of self-actualization. Scully is the loving husband who believes in her, supports her and follows her.

When the cottage is finally ready, Scully drives to the airport to receive his family and finds that his daughter has arrived alone, traumatised and unable to speak. Father and daughter soon set off on a journey across Europe in search of the absconding mother encountering scary dogs, would have been artists, old friends who sound like they are withholding information and strange women. All along, fresh insights are revealed in fleeting glimpses, subtle hints in the settings, reactions of minor characters and in between the lines of dialogue. Was Scully, whose thoughts project him as a calm, kind and positive man, really a good husband? What appear to be plot-holes – Why wouldn’t Scully report his wife as missing to the police? Why was Billie silent about what she knows about her mother?  The questions fall away as the novel moves towards its surreal conclusion.

The references to the myth of the wild hunt are unclear and open-ended like Scully’s journey in search of Jennifer. There is much inter-textuality in the narrative, with repeated references to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Billie thinks that her father is like Quasimodo and loves re-reading her old comic version of the novel, while her mother dismisses it as ‘that old thing’. The device of multiple narrators with the points of view shifting rapidly from Scully to Billie to the omniscient narrator to Pete to Irma to even an unknown voice that may or may not have been Jennifer’s, allows the reader to see just a little further into the minds of the flawed characters. Despite the harsh realism, the book is a gripping read and the open conclusion with a touch of fantasy is not unsatisfactory. This is another of those novels that fall into the rare genre of the literary page-turner.

The Writer in The Library

Just returned after listening to a very enjoyable meta discussion: Four writers in the British Library speaking about writing in the British Library. Tracy Chevalier, Romesh Gunesekera, Stef Penney and Charlotte Mendelson talked among other things, about favourite reading rooms (Rare Books or Hum-1?), Distractions (Cafe, Shop or Treasures) and the question of us vs. them – writers vs. non-writers, readers of fiction vs. others, etc. at various levels. The writers, especially Mendelson were effusive in their support of paper books against e-readers, a comforting sentiment to hear.

I was curious to know if a library setting had crept into their fiction. Except for Gunesekera who spoke about his short stories set in libraries including one called The Library as well as the incident of the burning of the Jaffna Public library, the others said no, they preferred to sit in the libraries, research and imagine themselves in other places where their novels are set. And then Chevalier mentioned her first novel which has a library in France in a period before the digital age, with a handsome librarian. The Virgin Blue is now on my TBR list. Having loved the way Chevalier brings the period settings alive in Burning Bright and Girl with a Pearl Earring, I am quite looking forward to reading about the old-fashioned library in the book. Mendelson recollected an Oxford library setting in one of her novels in which a creepy boy stalked his crush through library index cards, and rounded the discussion saying that ‘Oxford is essentially a large library’.

As I walked out, I remembered my first time visiting the British Library in London – I was so overcome that my mind went pleasantly blank for a while before a Farsi Couplet by Amir Khusro came to mind, a short poem which translates roughly to, ‘If there is a paradise on earth, It is here, it is here, it is here‘. It is.

Mini Review: A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

Over the past year, I have attended a series of lectures, seminars and interactive workshops on drama in my master’s course. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry was on the reading list of the most recent workshops and while reading it, I wished more than once that it had been recommended much earlier. The three-act play about an African-American family living in Chicago in the late fifties was so vividly written that reading it is as good as having watched it on the stage.

In the first scene, the readers are transported to the living room of a two room flat in Chicago, with ‘typical, undistinguished and tired’ furnishings, and they remain there like flies on the wall witnessing the characters live through an experience that changes their lives. It would not be fair to call the dramatis personae as characters for they come alive in each gesture, dialogue and action, from the matriarch Lena Younger to the child Travis. It would be simplistic to state that this is a play about racism – it addresses among other issues that of class, the struggle to rise above poverty, the question of national identity and what it means to an immigrant, the relevance of education and above all, what it means to be a man.

The play commences at a point when the Younger family is awaiting their father’s insurance money of ten thousand dollars. Lena’s children Walter and Beneatha have pinned their hopes on the amount towards securing their respective futures, but Lena has her own plans. From there onwards, the play moves at a rapid pace from scene to scene and as we follow their journey, we learn more about the characters – their dreams, desires, hope, fear and frustration. Like Vonnegut’s glass of water analogy, every character wants specific things. Lena wants her family to be comfortable and see her son as a man worthy of his late father. Walter wants to become a successful businessman, the kind for whom he currently works as a chauffeur. Ruth wants a happy marriage. Asagai wants Beneatha. Beneatha is torn between her need to become a doctor in Chicago and Asagai’s vision of an idyllic return to their African roots. George wants to have a good time. Travis wants fifty cents for school and like the rest of his family members, a more comfortable life. By the end of the play, the main protagonist Walter has transformed from a frustrated chauffeur who longs for a wealthy lifestyle into a stronger man who has started to look objectively at life and stands tall and proud of who he is.

Many scenes stand out in the play. Some of my favourites included the conversation between Beneatha and George – for all his wealth and education, George is revealed as a coarse character who wants a ‘simple girl’ for action more than discussing thoughts and who believes that education means to ‘read books—to learn facts—to get grades—to pass the course—to get a degree’, which has ‘nothing to do with thoughts.’ Lena owns the scenes in which she is present, whether it is admonishing Beneatha against blasphemy, declaring happily that she has bought a house for her family, tenderly handing over the rest of the money to Walter or stating proudly that ‘he had come into his manhood’ like ‘like a rainbow after the rain’.

During class, Professor also recommended the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris which is set in 1959 and 2009 and follows the story of the white couple from whom Lena purchases the house. And it seemed that this is how great literature lives on, passing the torch from one book to another, illuminating minds with fresher insights across the years.