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.
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.
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
In January I had the pleasure of attending the seminar ‘Telling Lives: Theory, Practice and Craft of Writing Biography‘ by Professor A.R.Venkatachalapathy which was part of the Hindu Lit for Life literary festival.
Handing out photocopies of the essay ‘Why South Asians don’t write good biographies, and why they should’ from the book The Last Liberal and Other Essays by Ramachandra Guha, Professor Chalapathy commenced the session with an interesting thought on why the art of biography is yet to mature in India. He suggested that the ancient concept of a soul evolving over several births might have lent the idea to would be Indian biographers that one life is not enough to record the complete story of an individual. He also put forward a theory that the Marxist influence in India might have made people less inclined to project the life history of one specific individual.
The lack of documented information needed to write biographies, the long periods of time that needs to be invested in research and interviewing people related to the subject and the comparatively low returns are some of the reasons which lead writers to prefer other modes of writing, he said and went on to elaborate that the available documentation may not present a true picture of the subject. Even a personal diary may have been self censored and provide a less than clear picture of the subject as a person. For a good biography always shows as much possible of the real person behind the public image.
Every generation wants to translate the classics rendering them with a contemporary flavour of the period. The Ramayana and The Mahabharata have been retold countless times in several flavours, with the threads of its stories being picked up and narrated from the varied perspectives of its many characters. Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted time and again, set in time periods very different from that of the bards, but retaining the complexity of his powerful characters. Similarly, the importance of an individual depends on the number of biographies that are written for them by each generation that follows, who wish to interpret their life story from where they are in time.
For while an autobiography is a person’s view of themselves, a biography is an overview of the person in a larger context with reference to their time, place and position in their respective field. It is not only the story of a specific individual, but a glimpse into the world in which they lived.
A good biography should be colourful, said Professor Chalapathy as he went on to explain what went into writing such a biography.
The first step is to choose the right person, preferably someone whom the biographer admires. This could be tricky, considering the Indian tradition of hagiography and celebrity worship. Poet-saints of ancient Tamil Nadu were literally idolised and even today one can see their images in old temples, relics of a time when they were considered no less than the divine in deference to their art. Very often, such a biographer who admires the subject ends up writing a glorified account of the subject’s life, deifying the subject in their enthusiasm and evoking a halo of words which effectively hides their humanity.This is only too evident in present times, as is evident in many current biographies of personalities in films, sports and politics – last week’s Hindu literary review had yet another article which discussed this with many examples.
It is not possible to record all the happenings in the subject’s life, nor analyse the motivations behind some of their actions such as say, extra marital affairs. Questioning the subject on sensitive issues may lead to offending them and even if it gets written and printed, it would be at the cost of offending the admirers of the subject, especially if the person happens to be a celebrated icon.
He mentioned how the biography of MS Subbulakshmi, MS: A Life in music by T.J.S George focused rather a lot on the appendix which consisted of a number of passionate letters written by the legendary musician to another musical maestro G.N. Balasubramaniam. Similarly the biography of the classical dancer Balasaraswati by Douglas M. Knight attracted a lot of attention due to a studio photograph of a very young Balasaraswati and MS Subbulakshmi, dressed daringly for the time in night suits and posing with cigars. The example drew immediate flak from some of the audience who said that the photograph disturbed the pure, saintly image that MS invokes in her admirers. Personally I loved that photograph which showed a glimpse of the girl behind the maestro and was testimony to the human side of musician who is hailed as divine by millions of her fans.
However, all these constraints can be quite enabling if the biographers are creative and professional, said Professor Chalapathy and cited the example of how Srinivasa Ramanujam’s biography The Man who knew infinity by Robert Kanigel was completed within three years from the time it was commissioned.
Some tips on writing a good biography:
- The biographer should be emotionally attached to the subject and this should reflect in the narrative.
- A biography should have a catchy title. An example is The Devadasi and The Saint by V.Sriram on the life of the dancer Bangalore Nagarathnamma.
- There are many ways a biography can be structured besides in a straightforward chronological manner – a subject’s life may be examined through social, political, psycho-analytical or intellectual views. An example is The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis, the curious history of a French peasant who lived in the sixteenth century which is narrated in the form of a detective story set in rural France of the period.
- Focus on interesting aspects of the subject’s life, bringing out the human element that is of utmost importance while telling a life story
- The biographer should ideally acquire some amount of competence in the area of expertise of the subject
- The biographer should evoke the subject’s thoughts and moods towards their work and life
- Get as many sources as possible to relate stories about the subject’s life
Answering my question about the relevance of a fictional biography as against a straightforward narrative composed only of facts and figures, Professor Chalapathy said that a fictional biography can even be stronger and get to the truth of the subject’s life through careful use of the biographer’s artistic liberties and evocative language. Examples include The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham which paints an intense view into the life of the post-impressionist artist Paul Gaugin and The Great Lover by Jill Dawson which very effectively brought out the confused, vulnerable side of Rupert Brooke even as it celebrated the young poet’s charisma and zest for life and art.
Professor Chalapathy interspersed the session with references to a number of biographies, especially those by and about Indians, an impressive though short list which was added to by the audience, a motley group which included renowned biographers, writers and artists.
Some of the recommended biographies discussed or named in the session:
1) Savaging the Civilized; Verrier Elwin, His Tribals, and India by Ramachandra Guha, about the life of the anthropologist who was called one of the most interesting Englishmen to have worked in India in the twentieth century
2) Kalam ka Sipahi, the celebrated Hindi novelist Premchand’s biography by his son Amrit Rai (The English Translation)
3) The biography of Chennai’s mayor V. Chakkarai Chettiar, which tells us as much about the biographer as the subject
4) The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide by Ayesha Jalal about the Pakistani writer Saadat Hasan Manto
5) His Majesty’s Opponent: Subhas Chandra Bose and India’s Struggle against Empire by Sugata Bose
6) A poet’s poet : life of Meenakshisundaram Pillai by U. V. Swaminathan Iyer.
7) A Princely Imposter? The Kumar Of Bhawal And The Secret History Of Indian Nationalism by Partha Chatterjee
8) Heart to Heart: Remembering Nainaji by Vidya Rao
9) An unheard melody: Annapurna Devi by Swapan Kumar Bondyopadhya
10) My Name is Gauhar Jaan by Vikram Sampath
11) The Music Room by Namita Devidayal, part memoir and part biography of the musician Dhondutai Kulkarni
12) Biographies by Rajmohan Gandhi (On Mahatma Gandhi, Rajaji, Sardar Patel among others)
13) The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama by Sanjay Subrahmanyam
14) C. V. Raman : A Biography by Uma Parameswaran
15) Voice of The Veena: S Balachander by Vikram Sampath
16) In an antique land by Amitav Ghosh
The session was interactive and energetic from the beginning to the end. I came away charged and inspired, with a long reading list and a strengthened conviction on my project of writing the life of a beloved musician between the lines of whose esoteric songs lie not one but many fascinating stories of a lost civilisation.
As this session was predominantly about Indian biographies, I have only listed the books about Indians or those set in India above. Quite a few other biographies with fascinating premises such as Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers by David Edmonds, John Eidinow, and Bobby Fischer were mentioned in between the session. Please feel free to share your favourite biographies set in India or otherwise in the comments section and I will add it to the list.
Will post further on my studies on writing biographies ( I am currently reading How to do biography: A Primer by Nigel Hamilton) and my experiences in collecting material and writing the book, as I go.
Coming soon! The Reengineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality
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
On November 12th, I suddenly remembered that it was exactly three years since the momentous Hay Festival. So grateful for the blessings of books and poetry and the vibrant, beautiful memories.
Last night your faded memory came to me
As in the wilderness spring comes quietly,
As, slowly, in the desert moves the breeze,
As to a sick man, without cause, comes peace
Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Translated by Vikram Seth
Coming soon! The Re-engineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality
One of the pleasures of attending a literary event is serendipitously meeting authors whom you have admired in the audience. Last month, I had gone to a talk by Devdutt Pattanaik at Apparao Gallery where I was delighted to find that I was sitting next to Ranjitha Ashok, the author of ‘Chennai Latte: A Madras Brew’ – a small treasure of a book filled with vignettes of the many faces, old and new, of the city that I love. This book was one of my comfort reads during the days when I was working in a nondescript little town, missing Madras terribly and trying to fill the hometown shaped hole in my life with books.
Listening to Devdutt Pattanaik’s talk was taking a glimpse into the days of the wise bards and minstrels of yore who communicated verbally to their audience. I have read many of Pattanaik’s books and articles. I have used some of his mythological – management tips in my team meetings with great success. I have enjoyed listening to his conversations at literary festivals. But it was a different experience listening to him talk face to face to the audience who stood informally around him, as he explained how myths help to understand the meaning of life and business using his esoteric paintings of the three goddesses – Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga on background of the gallery walls.
It was a presentation that reached out to the audience at various levels – I came away inspired as a reader, a writer, a corporate professional and a seeker.