Tagged: books

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.

file0001896083640.jpg

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.

AtoZChallenge# on Favourite Authors: Kingsley

“There is nothing more wonderful than a book. It may be a message to us from the dead, from human souls we never saw who lived perhaps thousands of miles away, and yet these little sheets of paper speak to us, arouse us, teach us, open our hearts and in turn open their hearts to us like brothers.”
Charles Kingsley

Kingsley is one of the writers whose words, by virtue of being in the primary school textbooks are among my earliest memories in life. This short poem which I studied as a six or seven year old, came back to me in college when I was asked to recite something impromptu. I still remember that day fifteen years ago, the bracing morning air in that Ooty garden, where we sat in a circle. Most of us were eighteen years old. It was early April and spring made the surroundings too seem to be as young as we all felt on that day. Yet I felt a strange twinge of melancholy as I recited,

“When all the world is young, lad,
And all the trees are green ;
And every goose a swan, lad,
And every lass a queen ;
Then hey for boot and horse, lad,
And round the world away ;
Young blood must have its course, lad,
And every dog his day.

When all the world is old, lad,
And all the trees are brown ;
And all the sport is stale, lad,
And all the wheels run down ;
Creep home, and take your place there,
The spent and maimed among :
God grant you find one face there,
You loved when all was young.”
From The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley

Recently I read The Water Babies and realised why the lines had been layered with sadness. For this poem is sung when the young chimney sweep Tom drowns in the river, thereby turning into a water baby. The song is an elegy that an old woman sings over his grave, “only the body of it: the soul of the song was the dear old woman’s sweet face, and sweet voice, and the sweet old air to which she sang; and that, alas! one cannot put on paper.” In spite of the implied fantasy of afterlife underwater, this was one sad fairy tale. The novel addresses the need for cleanliness – both physical as well as spiritual and takes a satirical look at class differences, child labour, and morality. The website interesting literature mentions how Kingsley coined the words “cuddly’ (in The Water-Babies) and ‘unrealistic’ (in a letter of 1865).

It was interesting to read that his novel Westward Ho! had been critiqued as being racist. When I read it as a child, it had come across as just another adventure story. But that might have been because my mindset as a child had been moulded by the books that I read during the time, which was to look at novels through the eyes of a young white man in the nineteenth century.

Certain authors permeate the reader’s consciousness, their books putting down roots in the reader’s mind to form strong, enduring influences. Then there are others whose words gently reach out to readers across time and space, like ripples across a lake which surface once in a while. To me, Charles Kingsley is of the second kind.

If you like literary fiction, you will love The Reengineers:
Click to Buy

My Guest Post on Overcoming Depression

A guest post I wrote on overcoming depression in the StayFoolish blog.

Link: https://stayfoolish2day.wordpress.com/2016/04/08/guest-blog-post-on-how-to-overcome-suicidal-behaviour-self-destruction-by-indu-muralidharan/

How to overcome suicidal behaviour & self-destruction?

This question is so deep that one could write a series of books to answer it, and still have much more left to say. Many people including artists, thinkers and scholars have suffered from this condition, and many have succumbed to it. Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, David Foster Wallace, Ned Vizzini are some names that come to mind – their books give us an idea of their struggle. Many have also survived the condition, and thrived afterwards in their personal and professional lives, a good example is J K Rowling; anyone who has been depressed can relate to the description of dementors – her metaphor for depression in the Harry Potter books.

Depression is not the same as sadness. To quote Barbara Kingsolver, “Sadness is more or less like a head cold- with patience, it passes. Depression is like cancer.” It is much more of a challenge to diagnose and manage, as depressed people may not show external symptoms of the disease.

A number of factors may trigger suicidal depression in an individual – it could happen in a short period as a response to a stressful or traumatic event, or build up as a result of spending many years in a debilitating environment. It could happen due to substance abuse or it could be the side effect of a medical condition such as hypothyroidism. Very often it is the high achievers in life, intelligent, creative and driven individuals who are affected by this condition. They may end up spending years without realising that something is wrong with their state of mind. Their professional expertise and inherent smartness might help them go about their everyday life and work, while they try to suppress the numbness within, unable to understand why they feel so.

In all cases, the first step to overcoming suicidal depression is to become aware of it, to understand that they have a condition that needs to be looked into, and which can be controlled. The next step would be to get help, to discuss the condition with close family and friends for support, and seek medical attention, preferably holistic natural treatments that get the mind, body and spirit back in balance.

Depression is a curious condition. Only the affected person can gauge what works for them, and what does not, and in spite of it being widely prevalent in present times, it is nearly impossible to make a generalisation.

But however bad it is, as someone who has been there, I would say that it is worth to keep going, for eventually you will get to the light at the end of the tunnel. First, let us look at basic strategies. Find out a reason, any reason, to hold on to life, when you are in the throes of deep depression and cannot see ahead. When I was depressed, besides the many books that sustained me, strangest things kept me holding on to life. At that time I was working in a place that I disliked intensely, I kept going on because I did not want to die in that godforsaken place. Then I had a rather unpleasant acquaintance in those days, a woman who loved and lived to gossip, who had not spared making jest of her best friend when he died. I imagined how she would react to the news of my death, how she would relish it like a juicy morsel over teatime conversation, eyes bright with malice, flashing her smug toothy smile. When I was really down and wanted out, the thought that I did not want to end up as a source of gossip to the likes of her, kept me alive. Later, I had fun immortalising her in the character of the mosquito woman in The Reengineers.

Once you become aware of the condition and are on the way to recovery, the most effective way out is to determine your major goals in life, whatever they are. Focusing on your goals, visualising them and working towards them is one of the most effective cures for depression, I say this again from personal experience.

Here is a short excerpt from ‘The Reengineers’ in this context, in which the author Siddharth advises his hero Chinmay on how to survive while depressed.

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

I found treasures in that library that sustained me through my dark days and, once, saved my life. The darkness had almost got me for good, one weekend. I drove to the library in a daze. Wandering uneasily between bookshelves, I pulled out a small book that caught my eye. Songs of the Bulbul by A. Chatterjee. It was a handsome book, dark blue and edged with shining gold. I had read rave reviews about it along with excerpts when I was a precocious ten-year-old in a Madras school. The book made me feel safe and warm as I held it, for it held the memories of a time when everything had been right in my world. When I now think of the moment I opened the book and turned to the first page, lo, my mind floods with light. For the next few days, the bulbul carried me on its wings, whispering to me though its songs that I was not alone in my sorrow.

There had been other books that affected me. I had shrunk back from the darkness that leapt out at me from the yellowing pages of The Driver’s Seat. Sylvia Plath’s poems terrified me so much that it was years after I was out of the bell jar before I dared to open it. Chatterjee, on the other hand, acknowledged the darkness and even made fun of it. It was apparent from his verse that he had been touched by depression. Yet, instead of allowing it to take over his life, he opened the windows and asked it to find its way out. Undaunted by depression, he sang odes to the simple pleasures of life: the breeze that carried with it the fragrance of the flowers of the night, a litter of fox cubs playing by a hill in the sunshine, a toast to the moon with a glass of red wine, a raga hummed under the breath, a prayer for Mozart, a passion for mangoes, the love shared with his lost lover for Rumi’s poetry. His gentle songs were irresistible concoctions of life, art, nature, love, laughter and a tinge of pain, verse which had the power of claiming the reader as its own. To read him was like having someone listen to you while walking by your side. For years I held on to A. Chatterjee’s poems as a lifeline. I even had a crush on him for a while.

But I digress. Here are a few quick tips to manage depression after office hours, when you do not have the succour of work to comfort your mind:

1) Read all that you can, including the online depression forums. Something that you read may just save your life.

2) Avoid hard-core philosophy. You might be tempted to seek answers in thick, dusty tomes that promise to elucidate the meaning of life. Some of them are thick enough to crack the mind.

3) Depression will stir you to burst into the poetry of suffering. Avoid trying to get it published unless your words are bright enough to shine through the darkness. There is enough pain in the world without you adding to it.

4) You may find yourself gravitating to amateur poetry groups full of people who are usually bursting with self-congratulation or angst. Avoid them, they will sap your energy.

5) Do not smoke, drink alcohol in excess or take drugs. Depression can tempt you to overindulge. The cigarettes almost killed me.

6) Exercise when you can, take long walks and consume chocolate in moderation.

7) Beware of ‘god men’ and ‘god women’. Even people who have not been depressed for a day in their lives get sucked into the seductive delusion of spirituality. If you must seek, seek by yourself, sitting in an armchair at your desk after office hours. For while Buddha saw the light, we do not know how many of his disciples did. If you must get guidance from a living guru, take it and move on. Gurus are no more than the teachers we had at school. You may find them when you need to learn, but you have to outgrow them in order to grow.

Here is a story about my tryst with a genuine guru during my last few months of depression.

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

To buy The Reengineers:
Amazon.com
Amazon.in

Art for its own sake: The Distance Between Us by Fiona Sampson

How relevant is art when it is indulged in for its own sake? The common sentiment is that books must be written for their own sake, without the writer having to look over their shoulder, without thinking about the invisible critic or reader. But what if the work of art thus created does not reach out to most readers? On the wide spectrum of all fiction, if one extreme corresponds to pulp novels, the modern equivalent of penny dreadfuls which serve no purpose other than a few short hours of distraction, experiments in high art must be at other end, which are too focused on their technique, style or concept that they are unable to transmit the author’s thoughts to the reader. I suspect Ulysses would fall in this range, while The Portrait of an artist as a young man moves further this side, reaching out to the reader and Dubliners would be still further, much more accessible. The Distance between us by Fiona Sampson is a close contender for the extreme range of high art.

Labelled as a verse novel, the book is more verse than novel. Little of the plot or characters comes through the seven chapters. The experimentation with language, the varied sequencing of words on the page, the changing syntax and the surreal images which come through each of the chapters gives the overall impression of a modern art painting. Art for its own sake that rejoices in being itself, irrespective of what, and whether, it communicates. The lines of verse fold within themselves, obscuring the meaning they hold within their layers, or dance to a music that the reader cannot comprehend. I tried reading this three times before I put it away, thinking that it would have been a rewarding experience had it been slightly more accessible, my thoughts echoing the book’s title – there is just too much of a distance between the book and the reader.

To buy The Reengineers:
Amazon.com
Amazon.in

At the Chennai Book Club

I had been to the Chennai book club meets at the Pasta Bar Veneto, Burkit Road earlier and enjoyed the intellectually charged discussions. It was a pleasure and a privilege to visit the event as an author for the first time, earlier this month and talk about The Reengineers.

It was a most enjoyable evening spent discussing modernism, surrealism, postmodernism, the relevance of genre to a reader and the significance of book covers among other things. I was especially delighted by a set of intelligent questions that a reader had for me.

He referred to a paragraph in The Reengineers (one of my favourites) which talks about a chain of writers inspiring each other across centuries, their words transcending time, space and even language. Thus Shelley inspired the Tamil poet Bharati to write under the name ‘Shelley-dasan’ (Shelley’s devotee), who in turn inspired the poet Bharati-dasan and so on. This gentleman wanted to know if I had a particular author whom I could relate to, as my inspiration.

While there is no single author whom I relate to completely, I told him about the four writers who have been my biggest inspirations – Nabokov, Salinger, Julian Barnes and my beloved Muriel Spark. I am a devotee of all of them, worshipping at multiple shrines of literature.

If you like literary fiction, you will love The Reengineers:
Click here to buy

First Readings: At The Albion Beatnik, Jericho

Last month I read from The Reengineers for the first time in public, to a most distinguished audience. More on that later. The day before, I had an interesting assignment to read a paragraph from an author who had inspired me the most at the Albion Beatnik bookshop.

Based on what I had heard and read about it, I had imagined a large bookstore like Starmark where hordes of people thronged in and out, and wandered into the separate cafe section which had gleaming chairs, deep carpets and soft background music, where poets and writers read.

It was nothing like that.

The Albion Beatnik is a small bookshop, which seems smaller than it really is, packed as it is from floor to ceiling with carefully chosen books. Small wooden tables and chairs are scattered around a colourful teacup rack, one side of which is fashioned roughly to look like a vertical pile of books, with more real books piled here and there around the place. The whole effect is rather warm and cosy, a place where one feels immediately at home – especially so after seeing the selection of books.

It was like being in a blissful dream, sitting huddled in groups around the little tables on that cold September evening, listening to a small group of like-minded people read or recite from the authors who meant the most to them. There was a hush as each person read, the kind of quietude that can only be found in a library or a bookstore. One reading was interrupted by one of our group leaning into a side rack, only to have a heap of books come crashing down – causing a smile to spread all around. It  made the place feel more authentic, and more likeable. The sound of books falling down was engulfed by the silence that surrounded the place even during the readings.

There was W.H.Auden, Italo Calvino, Cormac McCarthy, John Green and James Joyce among others. And there was Muriel Spark.

This is the excerpt that I read. Earlier I had practised to read the first page of the novel, but chose to read these lines a few minutes before the reading. The sentences resonate strongly with me, just as most of the other sentences in the book.

“While I recount what happened to me and what I did in 1949, it strikes me how much easier it is with characters in a novel than in real life. In a novel the author invents characters and arranges them in convenient order. Now that I come to write biographically I have to tell of whatever actually happened and whoever naturally turns up. The story of a life is a very informal party; there are no rules of precedence and hospitality, no invitations.

In a discourse on drama it was observed by someone famous that action is not merely fisticuffs, meaning of course that the dialogue and the sense are action, too. Similarly, the action of my life-story in 1949 included the work I was doting when I put my best brains into my Warrender Chase most nights and most of Saturdays. My Warrender Chase was action just as much as when I was arguing with Dottie over Leslie, persuading her not to get him with child, as she came round the next night to tell me she was determined to do. My Warrender Chase, shoved quickly out of sight when my visitors arrived, or lest the daily woman should clean it up when I left home in the morning for my job, took up the sweetest part of my mind and the rarest part of my imagination; it was like being in love and better.”
From Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

Book Review: The Exorcism of Satish Kumar MBA by Ramiah Ariya

It is difficult to categorise ‘The Exorcism of Satish Kumar MBA’ by Ramiah Ariya into any particular genre. The book starts off as typical corporate lad-lit fiction with a lowly software engineer trying to find out if he is next in the list of employees to be laid off, and swiftly picks up pace to metamorphose into a part satire, part science fiction and part paranormal thriller laced with office politics, international conspiracies, sorcerers with postgraduate degrees in neurology, mercenaries of a private equity giant, car chases along the traffic-clogged Chennai roads and a sequence of bizarre quests including a voyage into the underworld.

An unlikely protagonist, Arjun Palani is anything but a hero, even to his timid self. Having been fired three times previously, all he wants is to hold on to his job in BSD Technology which has started to lay off its employees in batches ever since the CEO disappeared. But when his friend Raj hacks into the company’s laying off list, Arjun is surprised to find that not only there are specific instructions not to terminate him, he has been singled out for the first time in his career for a special assignment.

The new project requires him to complete a series of strange tasks such as fetching cannabis and kidnapping a young woman descended from a warrior clan. Determined to keep his job, Arjun takes up one challenge after the other, noting that he is the only one to actually work while the management team members sit in a conference room and talk among themselves in worried tones, even as mysterious screams and crashing sounds issue forth periodically from the adjacent room which is kept locked. At some point, he realises that both he and the CEO were pawns in a game which itself was part of a much larger conspiracy linked to a software program that could affect the world, which then triggers his journey into the underworld and his adventures thereafter.

There are several things that I enjoyed about the book, most of all the humour which pervades almost every other page. Arjun Palani is a genuinely funny narrator. His philosophical reflections on life and the corporate world invoke laughter even as he goes through difficult and dangerous situations. There are several hilarious scenes such as the dosa shop for sad programmers where Arjun and his friends trick the rival company’s men into getting beaten up by worn out techies, Arjun’s crush on Malini and his jealousy when she prefers Raj over him and his description of the Technology Evangelist Muthiah’s motivational therapy classes.

The human bonding between programmers over technology comes out in the interaction between Raj, Legolas and Akram, which reminded me more than once of the geeks selflessly helping each other in Robin Sloan’s ‘Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour bookstore’. Raj comes across as a true friend, who saves Arjun’s life through his technical skills. He was my favourite character in the novel. The book takes the reader on a tour through the city of Chennai before the action moves to Ahi, the other world. Most of the characters are sketched out in detail, and come alive, even the long dead warrior chieftain Vellaya Thevan.

The second part of the book is somewhat surreal and a few loose ends are left open, presumably to the reader’s imagination, though this does not take away anything from the story. There are several though-provoking lines within the lighthearted prose which allows the book to be read at various levels – as a fast-paced, humorous thriller or a satire which ruminates on unpalatable realities in the corporate world.

Note: Ramiah is my colleague and I have also enjoyed reading his Tamil short stories on his blog http://ramsrants.blogspot.in/. I look forward to read his next book.

Book Review: Colour of Gold by Gita Aravamudan

I first met Gita Aravamudan at the Hindu Lit for Life in Chennai in 2011. As we waited for the inaugural session to begin, I started talking with the elegant lady seated on my right and was surprised and delighted to find that she was Gita Aravamudan, a name that was very familiar to me through her bylines in various magazines and newspapers. I especially remembered reading her articles in Aside, a fortnightly magazine that celebrated the Madras in which I grew up. Gita is an award winning author and journalist who has published important non fiction books such as Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide, Unbound: Indian Women @ Work as well as fiction. Over the years, I have been in touch with Gita over Facebook and literary festivals. It is a privilege to know a person like her. She is warm, friendly, gracious, a down to earth intellectual. My respect and regards for her have no way biased this review of her latest novel.

Set in the gold mines of Kolar which was once counted among the richest goldmines in the world, The Color of Gold flits back and forth between three different time periods in its narrative spanning a hundred years, and through the characters who live in each of these times weaves together a story that blends literary and historic fiction in the form of a cozy whodunnit mystery. Seen mainly through the eyes of three female protagonists – Shiela, Arati and Ponni who live in the sprawling house in KGF at different periods in time, the Colour of Gold is the story of a town which was once a charming haven and now a ghost of its past, stripped of the sheen of gold that had pervaded it once upon a time.

At the heart of the novel lies the town of KGF where gold was mined from ancient times dating back to the first millennium, which was an idyllic place in the 1950s with sprawling bungalows lines with trees and gardens and a close knit community that rejoiced in the colonial customs left behind in the town which once called itself ‘Little England’. The novel depicts how KGF changed over hundred years through the stories of the people who lived in the place – English officers who held court in KGF during the days of the British Raj, the Indian officers who took over the place after independence and the poor native miners who struggled to make a living under both of these even as they brought forth gold from the heart of the earth.

Between the history of the place that is narrated with a tinge of nostalgia lies the mystery of a genial Anglo Indian who is mysteriously killed soon after he receives a letter from a hundred year old Englishman, the romance between a young Indian woman Arati and an Anglo Indian which is taboo in the period and the passion of an Englishman for his Indian mistress Ponni who has borne him a white child with ‘a touch of the tar brush’. Descriptions of the ore being smelted into golden bricks which are then carried away to England, the claustrophobic atmosphere underground in which even longtime miners feel suffocated, the lure of the shining metal that leads mining expeditions to the their deaths beneath the glittering rocks, the vibrant Christmas balls celebrated in the town in the old English traditions and the changing attitudes to class and race differences across a century, all of these take the reader on a journey across KGF through the different time periods described in the book.

The plot goes from one story to the other without the reader losing interest and ties up the threads neatly in the end, with a twist worthy of classic murder mysteries. I loved the many references to gold in the narrative, such as the dead man being remembered as ‘a solid rock of gold’, Ponni bemoaning her fate of being stuck with Robert Flanagan like ‘a nugget of gold within a rock’, and so on.

The book is action-packed, with lyrical descriptions in places. It is both a gripping page turner as well as a lovely old photo-album with beautiful black and white pictures of a lost golden world.

If you like literary fiction, you will love The Reengineers:
Click here to buy

On Metafiction 1) All fiction is metafiction: Exploring 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.”
Patricia Waugh

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.

If you like literary fiction, you will love The Reengineers:
Click here to buy

The Goddess at Jaipur – When Aandal came to Mirabai’s Land

Notes from a literary session that I had the pleasure of attending at the Jaipur Literary Festival.

Translators provide a connection between the mortals and the Gods, transporting readers to literary heavens that are otherwise inaccessible to them, said the moderator as she introduced Arunava Sinha and Priya Sarukkai Chabria in the session ‘Translating the Classics’. Translation is a gift of love, she said quoting Sujit Mukherjee, for the translator has enjoyed the work of literature and want to make a gift of it to others.

How very true. Several times I have thanked God for the gift of so many beloved books that I could not have read otherwise. Direct Translation from one language to another is easier with the deluge of translation software on the internet. But how does one translate the many aspects of a poem or novel that cannot be communicated through words alone? Aspects like the dialect of a region, the nuances of life in a certain part of the world – the local legends and traditions, the likes and dislikes of the people, the sayings, the beliefs, the histories, the stories and the eccentricities to which only the people who live and speak the language can relate to. Communicating all this in addition to the emotions of the writer that has gone into creating the work of art cannot be an easy task at all.

Professor P Lal used the term transcreation, suggesting that the translator re-creates the work of art all over again. The session conveyed that both these translators did just that, they not only love the works that they translate, they also own them. They assimilate the essence of the work and then re-create it all over again in English.

Talking about translating The Chieftain’s Daughter by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Arunava Sinha mentioned that he had taken care to give a contemporary feel to the book. Bankim Chandra must not have considered that the book would become a classic for posterity, for he had been just twenty seven when he wrote it. It is very much a young man’s book with action, romance, heroism and drama, a book that could be read as a contemporary novel in just about any period of time. He elaborated a little about the practical difficulties in translating from Bangla which allegedly has as many as twenty different words to describe the moon in various contexts. The excerpt that he read out was crisp and concise and had a definite contemporary feel about it, considering that it was from a historical novel set in a totally different period.

The conversation went on, stating that classics were books that needed to be read as they are – neither worshipped as they were a few decades earlier, nor condemned as they are in present days when it has become fashionable to label ‘classic’ as a bad word.

‘Classic’ remains a good word to me. A book published a century or two ago does not become a classic on account of its age alone. A classic is a book for all ages that reaches out to the reader beyond time and space. Books that can be read again and again, that give new and varied insights into life and the world.

“I am in Aandaal’s thrall” said the poet Priya Sarukkai Chabria sharing her exhilaration in translating the poems of the eight century mystic saint Aandaal. Her commitment and enthusiasm towards the classics was evident from the fact that that she has learnt the ancient language Pali to read the Jataka tales. She had the audience enthralled for the next thirty minutes in which she described the beauty of the poetry of Aandaal and the challenges that she faced translating it.

Like most other girls in Chennai, I grew up listening to and singing the songs of Aandaal every year. Unlike Mirabai’s songs that are heard around the year, Aandaal’s poems are specifically sung in December – January which marks the Tamil month of Margazhi. But as beloved as Mira’s songs are, she remains a saint as does Mahadevi Akka while Aandaal alone is worshipped as a Goddess.

On visiting the Srirangam temple, I decided that Aandaal could not be blamed for falling in love with the Lord. One look at the exquisite countenance of the idol in the sanctum sanctorum and it is easy to understand why. Smiling marble Krishnas and Ramas, serene Buddhas, dashing Greek Gods – all of them are likely to pale in front of the bewitching smile of the Lord of Srirangam. Aandaal was not the only young girl to have lost her heart to the idol. There is the story of the princess of Delhi who died in the sanctum out of her love and longing for the idol. She is now enshrined as a Goddess consort in the sprawling Srirangam temple and goes by the name of Thulukka Naachiyaar, with chapattis being specially prepared for her prasad.

Perhaps as I grew up singing and listening to Aandal’s verses of love for her Lord in a spiritual context, I had never thought of her as a fifteen year old girl-poet. To me Aandal had always been an ageless being, a mystic saint, a veritable goddess. As Priya talked, for the first time I saw Aandaal as a teenager wandering around the woods of Srivilliputthur, singing in divine rapture and lighting up the countryside with her musical offerings of garlands of verse. I saw her for the first time as a human being, the adolescent Kothai who was besotted with her Hero – The Lord. Aandaal’s passionate poetry has several layers of meaning, said Priya as she went on to explain how a verse on ‘the monsoon clouds with pearls of rain falling from it’ can be interpreted as the ‘dark blue body of Vishnu jeweled with sweat’ at a corporeal level, and on a metaphysical level as ‘deep compacted space with spinning galaxies’, for the body of the Lord contains the Universe within it. She read out three different translations of the same verse, each one profound and beautiful.

The Durbar Hall became very quiet as she read out her translations from the Nacchiyaar Thirumozhi. As she read on, I could feel the presence of Aandaal in Mirabai’s land.

I had only expected to hear the authors speak at the Jaipur Literary Festival. It was wonderful to find that a Goddess was in attendance as well. And how befitting, for wasn’t it Aandaal’s poetry that consecrated her as Divine?

____________________________________________________________________________________

Coming soon! The Re-engineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality