Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Middle Stage's Books of 2011-12: Indian Literature

It would be hard for any reader now to keep up just with Indian novels, or books on Indian history, or Indian narrative non-fiction, let alone books from all these diverse fields. My list is no more than a small, very personal selection of the many high-quality new books published in India over the last two years.

To begin: novels. The two best Indian novels I read these past two years were Amitav Ghosh's River of Smoke, the second book of his ambitious and widescale Ibis trilogy, and Jhootha Sach, the Hindi writer Yashpal's massive magnum opus set on either side of the Partition years and in cities -- Lahore and Delhi -- either side of the border that Partition would make impermeable. Ghosh's protagonist in River of Smoke -- and the focaliser of much of the narration -- Bahram Mody, a character absent in The Sea of Poppies, is one of the most memorable characters in Indian fiction, and the Bombay and Canton settings of the book are exquisitely laid out even as the polyphonic narrative voices and linguistic play of The Sea of Poppies are carried over. I read the book over three days at a Portuguese deli in London, and they remain bright in my memory as three of the best reading days of my life.

Yashpal's novel, on the other hand, was first published in 1958; its size -- over a thousand pages -- perhaps prevented it from arriving earlier into Indian fiction in English. For its Tolstoyan sweep and density of detail, its realism with regard to human nature and its idealism about the power of human aspirations, and its magisterial overview of the religious cataclysms in the Indian subcontinent in the nineteen-forties, this novel seems to me a plausible contender for the greatest of all Indian novels. It is one of those books that one lives as much as reads. It is translated by Yashpal's son, Anand, and appeared in the Penguin Classics series -- to my mind the most diverse and exciting publishing list in all of Indian literature today. Longer pieces on Ghosh and Yashpal are here and here, and you should also read the translator Daisy Rockwell's essay on Jhootha Sach, "Night-Smudged Light". Among other Indian novels, UR Ananthamurthy's Bharathipura (Oxford University Press) deserves to be read by anybody interested in Indian fiction as an interrogation of the deep structures of Indian social life.

In non-fiction, the two books by Indian writers that I enjoyed most couldn't have been written in more different styles, or had as their subject more disparate personalities: respectively a bar dancer in Bombay and  an eighteenth-century Scottish natural philosopher. Sonia Faleiro's Beautiful Thing (Penguin/Grove), a book-length tracking of the rise, fall, and reinvention/suspension of Leela, a star of one of Bombay's dance bars, combined reportorial detachment and narrative empathy in just the right proportions. Faleiro's eye for detail is superior to almost any other Indian writer today, and her translations of Leela's talk into English initially appear patronising but only because they are so daring. Her work at the intersection of standard English and Indian English, or Indian English drawing on other languages, rivals the recent experiments in the same field by Ghosh and Vikram Chandra.

No human beings appear in the flesh in Kaushik Basu's Beyond The Invisible Hand: Groundwork for a New Economics (Princeton University Press and Penguin); there are only the intellectual ghosts of dead ones, particularly Adam Smith, whose ideas about the workings of markets and morality have been claimed and in many instances radically damaged by free-market thinkers of our time. But Basu has a wonderfully wry sense of humour, an eye for local examples for universal laws (such as the "ele bele phenomenon"), and an argumentative style so rigorous and yet unassuming -- consider the use of the word "groundwork" in his title -- that the three hundred or so pages of his book left me wanting much more. So I read it twice. The book is an elegant and unpartisan meditations on one of the great issues of our age: markets and their limits, and offers a roadway to rescuing free-market thinking from its more fanatical adherents. Chapter 1 of the book is here; you couldn't improve your brain more for an investment of Rs. 303. Basu's Twitter feed is consistently good reading too.

The scholar of religion Diana Eck's India: A Sacred Geography is a book that just can't be read without stopping -- only because so voluminous, rich, dense, and allusive -- and one which provides intellectual challenges and surprising connections from beginning to end. Its reading of Indian geography as a construct of the Hindu religious imagination before it was a secular cartographic map has a range that requires over five hundred pages to bring it out. “As arcane as lingas of light . . . and sacred rivers falling from heaven may seem to those who wish to get on with the real politics of today’s world,” Eck writes, “these very patterns of sanctification continue to anchor millions of people in the imagined landscape of their country.” a longer essay on her book is here.

I also found much to learn from about Bombay in Neera Adarkar's great anthology The Chawls of Mumbai: Galleries of Life (ImprintOne, longer essay here) and about the freedom struggle in Kashmir in Sanjay Kak's book Until My Freedom Has Come (longer essay here). Both these anthologies are primarily collections of essays by scholars and journalists, but neither Adarkar nor Kak are oblivious of the role of fiction in explaining the world and its dilemmas. The stories by the urban historian Prasad Shetty and the Kashmiri short-story writer Arif Ayaz Parrey are amongst the brightest lights in these books.

Short fiction. Anjum Hasan had already made a considerable reputation as a poet when she published her superb debut novel Lunatic In My Head in 2007, and last year she proved just as adept at the short-story form when she published her first collection, Difficult Pleasures (Penguin). Hasan brings a poet's startling perception and defamiliarizing eye to the observation of all her protagonists, as when the protagonist of "Banerjee and Banerjee", the economist Banerjee, is shown thinking -- entirely persuasively, if against the grain of the very story that is bringing him to life -- that "the crisscrossing of goods and services across the globe, created in hundreds of different environments and in response to countless human needs, is somehow a larger, better and more beautiful thing than any facts to do with individual lives."

Another poet, Janice Pariat, established herself as a major new narrative voice -- lyrical, elliptical, and empathetic -- with Boats On Land (Random House India).

Gogu Shyamala's Father May Be An Elephant And Mother Only A Small Basket, But...(Navayana), rooted in the stories of Telangana in Andhra Pradesh and translated by several hands from the Telugu, impressed not only for the economy of Shyamala's style and the directness of the narration, but also because they take writing about Dalit protagonists beyond an older narrative binary of exploitation and suffering, enlarged and emaciated selfhood. Credit should also go to the publisher in working up a uniform and lucent English style for Shymala from translations by different hands.

Two works of fiction which had the words "Love Stories" in their titles were Annie Zaidi's Love Stories: #1 to 14 (HarperCollins) and Rajesh Parameswaran's debut collection I Am An Executioner: Love Stories (Knopf). Zaidi's work, taking one of fiction's most complex objects of inquiry head-on, was closely observed, multifaceted, and clearly thought through as a unity. "The One That Badly Wanted", about a girl who falls in love with a dead man, was a particular delight. Some of Parameswaran's stories indulged too heavily in the narrative hijinks that are a staple of the restless short fiction of our time, but his story about love in an alternative universe, “On the Banks of Table River (Planet Lucina, Andromeda Galaxy, AD 2319)”, was the most beautiful thing I read this year.

My poetic instincts are less sound than my prose ones and therefore my pursuit of new work in verse in India less secure, but over the last year I've dipped repeatedly into the bucking, slangy versions of Kabir produced by the poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra in his ambitious Poems of Kabir (New York Review of Books/ Hachette) and the fourteenth-century Kashmiri mystic Lalded's exquisitely elliptical and jagged ruminations on life, god and human relationships rendered into English by Ranjit Hoskote in I, Lalded (Penguin). These are books that will speak to readers just as powerfully in a hundred years as they do now. Hoskote's magisterial introduction to Lalded is also the best single piece of critical writing to have come my way in the last two years.

Last: literary criticism and intellectual history. So much work in the West on the Indian novel focusses on the best Indian writers in English -- Rushdie, Ghosh, Naipaul, Seth -- that this bias seeps back into Indian literature and Indian bookshops. So it was great to see a completely convincing case being made for the Oriya novelist Fakir Mohan Senapati being not just a writer that Indians should read but one that readers around the world should read by the contributors of Colonialism, Modernity and Literature (Palgrave Macmillan/ Orient Longman), edited by Satya P. Mohanty, one of Senapati's translators. A conclave of Indian and American literary critics show that Senapati's riddling humour, circling and subversive point of view, and throughly original narrative technique make his novel Six Acres and a Third one of the greatest and most durable of Indian novels, one that, as the critic Himansu Mohapatra memorably writes, "reveals the causal joints of the world." All novelists desire to earn this compliment.

And finally, the intellectual historian DR Nagaraj, who passed away tragically early while still in his forties, left behind an astoundingly diverse body of work -- and a carefully sculpted point of view -- about Indian society, native traditions, Kannada epics and novels and literary criticism, communal violence, and the tension between Gandhian and Ambedkarite thought. Although sometimes prolix and orotund, Nagaraj's prose is also marked by fantastic metaphorical leaps and fine-grained reading of texts. The white heat of Listening to the Loom (Permanent Black), a posthumous collection of Nagaraj's essays put together by his student Prithvi Chandra Datta Shobhi, kept me up many nights in July. “If the methods and philosophical positions of present times are fit and useful to analyse the formulations of several kinds of pre-modern eras," writes Nagaraj, "the reverse should also be true.” His book is that pathway that runs back into the mists of time.

Happy reading in 2013!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Fiction and poetry in The Caravan for November

Here are my selections for fiction and poetry in The Caravan for November: the Bengali writer Narendranath Mitra's story "Ras", translated by Arunava Sinha, and four poems by Anupama Raju: "The Time-Eater", "On Borders", "The Memory Maker", and "Nightless Night". Here is a paragraph about "Ras":
Marriage and economics have never been independent of one another. The relationship between the two in the affairs of men and women is memorably dramatized in this story by Narendranath Mitra, one of Bengal’s greatest short-story writers. And the narrative time of the story and the arc of the romances within it are marked, too, by the cycle of the seasons in a rural economy, as seen through the life of the protagonist, Motalef, a tapper of palm-trees. The “ras” of Mitra’s story is not just the juice of the palm trees which give Motalef his livelihood, but also the “ras” of human passion, that longing to possess what is beautiful that maddens human beings and leads them to singe the lives of those around them. In order that he may accumulate the bride-price to marry for love, Motalef can see no other way out than to marry first for wealth; within this marriage, he enjoys a devotion and companionship that he later spurns for the lure of youth and beauty. Mitra’s story has an irresistible force and amplitude, but perhaps it is never more beautiful than in the long interlude between the two winters, or palm-tree seasons, covered by the events of the tale. Here, Motalef is seen pampering his pretty new wife and burning himself out over numerous unremunerative tasks, waiting for the next high season to come along and his labours to yield riches again through the transformation of palm-tree syrup into jaggery by his wife’s hand. Mitra fills his story with symbols and metaphors rooted in the world that it describes; when, in the closing scenes, Motalef comes to a realisation of how he has been trumped by his own scheming, the two pots of ras he takes on a final journey stand unforgettably for his defeat as they once stood for his triumph. “Ras” was memorably adapted to film by Sudhendu Roy in 1973 called Saudagar, starring Amitabh Bachchan, Nutan, and Padma Khanna. 
Arunava Sinha's translation of Mitra extends a vast oeuvre of translations from Bengali literature by Sinha in the last decade, including fiction by Sankar, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Bankimchandra Chatterji, Banaphool, Dibyendu Palit, Buddhadeva Bose, and Anita Agnihotri.

And here are some notes on Raju's poems:
The poems of Anupama Raju enact a world of metamorphoses and secrets, and their movement is continually toward a blurring and breaking down of walls and boundaries, whether physical or conceptual ones. In poems like ‘The Memory Maker’, every line throbs with the forces of shape-shifting; as soon as one transformation has been absorbed, we are catapulted into the space of another. One of her poems here is called ‘The Time-Eater’, and its most memorable image, coiled into the final pair of lines, is that of the human being and time feeding off one another before the stronger side wins the battle. But Raju’s taut, aphoristic style shows us how a poem, too, might be thought to be a kind of time-eater, working nimbly with syntax, rhythm and space to deliver concentrated effects in small shots of time.‘Nightless Night’ and ‘The Memory Maker’ are from ‘Une Ville Un Lieu Une Personne’, a poetry-photography collaboration between Raju and the French photographer Pascal Bernard.
The Fiction & Poetry page for The Caravan is here. If you'd like to submit original, unpublished work to The Caravan, (short stories no more than 5000 words long, or five or six poems) please email me at chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com.

Friday, October 19, 2012

On Mo Yan

Last week the Chinese novelist Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Here is an old post from 2005 on his work: "Lush Life in Mo Yan".

And here are some sentences from a review of his novel Change that I wrote in 2010: "Mo Yan loves to play off communism’s vision of order, selflessness, discipline and ideological unanimity against its almost inevitable worldly expression as hierarchy, chaos, corruption and greed. Communism, in a way, is the enabling fiction of his own fiction."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A month in South Korea at the Toji Foundation for Culture

For the last month I've had the pleasure of living and working in the small village of Hoechon in South Korea, about three hours from Seoul, at the Toji Foundation for Culture, a center for Korean and foreign artists set up by the great Korean novelist Pak Kyung-ni (1926-2008).

The center takes its name from Pak Kyung-ni's greatest work, a sixteen-volume novel sequence, written between the years 1969-1994, called Toji or Land. Every year it hosts residencies for a diverse group of Korean artists, and  an annual residency sponsored by Sangam House, the Inko Centre, India, and the Arts Council, Korea, makes it possible for an Indian writer to join them. Indian writers who've come to Toji before me include the fiction writer Mridula Koshy and the playwright Manav Kaul.

Here at Toji I've been working on my new novel, wandering around the countryside and making occasional trips to the nearest town, Wonju, reading some Korean literature, and eating, drinking, talking, and playing ping-pong with a band of very sociable Korean writers, filmmakers, musicians and painters. The Foundation is set down in an uncommonly beautiful scene, ringed by tall pine-covered mountains that change colour in the varying light of the day and become obscured by clouds when it rains. All around us are lush fields of wild sesame, chilli, and corn, as well as apple and persimmon trees, and sudden surges of white, pink and red cosmos flowers.

Dawn and dusk are especially beautiful, and as I walk on streets so empty that my passing often sets off an entire alarm-chorus of  village dogs, whose barks, echoing off the mountains, give an air of extreme criminality to my small trespasses. There's great pleasure to be had in the sight of these mountains, their undulating shape matched on the ground by the roofs, uptilted at the edges like birds' wings, native to Korean architecture. While I contemplate my material and work out its moments of emphasis and stillness, I hear in my mind's ear the captivating sound, at once familiar and strange, of the Korean instruments -- the stringed gayageum, the flute-like piri, and the booming changu drums -- that I heard on my first weekend here, when I was taken by my hosts in Seoul to an exquisite musical, Miso.

At weekend gatherings of the writers and artists on the program to drink the Korean liquors makkoli and soju, I have had to contribute my small repertoire of Oriya folk songs as a complement to their Korean ditties. Meanwhile, I've tried to develop a working Korean vocabulary word by word, with the English-speaking Korean writers having to serve as go-betweens for my more complex sentiments. Since what small merits there may be to my prose style are remote to my companions, my main stratagem for winning their respect has been my topspin forehand at the table-tennis table and my Korean pronunciation at the dinner table; in turn, they are patiently teaching me how to eat with chopsticks in the correct manner, at once direct and delicate.

Meanwhile, I've also been trying to read some Korean literature in English translation, about which I knew very little when I arrived: mainly the excellent translations of a number of Korean poets by Brother Anthony of Taize, among them some by the poet Kim Sa-in that I had the pleasure to publish in The Caravan earlier this year. Here I've also become acquainted with other translations by Kevin O'Rourke, a long-time student of Korean literature, Don Mee Choi, and Bruce Fulton. I've also been able to lay my hands on the three large volumes of Pak Kyung-ni's Land that are currently available in an English translation by Agnita Tennant. The novel is set between the years 1897 and 1945, and  is imagined on a scale that dwarfs most of the sprawling realist novels of the world whose narrative techniques it adapts: it runs to 25 volumes, and has over a hundred prominent characters. Tennant writes in her introduction:
Land has been acclaimed as the most powerful and important work in modern Korean literature. While it is the greatest national novel, it has at the same time a universal appeal as it deals with fundamental, borderless and timeless themes of humanity such as love, treachery, the gap between the rich and the poor, fate, and deep-rooted traditions facing the tide of change.
The novel begins in 1897 on a night of the calendar of great significance in Korea: Chuseok (literally "autumn night") a harvest festival held on the full moon day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar. The festival is one of joy, abundance, plenty to eat and drink, and the scenes that unfold before us are marked by this mood. But shortly afterwards, a dissenting note is inserted into the story by the narrator, who sees that times when joy is an obligation and man for a moment feels wealthy are precisely the times when old sorrows spring up most powerfully:
The Harvest Moon Festival of the eighth lunar month -- doesn't it have something of the translucent and frosty pathos of the finest hemp? How can a festival associated with the moon, which crosses the river of darkness like a shadow of death, be regarded as a symbol of abundance? As it hangs coolly over the ridge of the mountain the twigs of trees cast lacy shadows and a young widow clad in white silk walks the night road alone. Isn't the harvest moon of the eighth month perhaps a festival that celebrates the closing of a sorrowful life, revealing the art of renunciation to all living things, and especially to the poor. [...]
This is when they reflect on their many separations: elderly parents who perished in years of bad harvest, unable to keep alive on grass roots and bark; children in epidemics, left to die without medication, rolled up in a straw mat and buried in the nearby hills; a husband during the uprising dragged into the governor's house and beaten to a resentful death; and those many neighbours now asleep underneath the earth. The breeze plays gently on the strings of these sorrowful memories.
"Perhaps they are better off in the other world?"
My visits to Pak Kyung-ni's former residence in the nearby town of Wonju and to a museum that houses her manuscripts, books, and pictures from her life, as well as what I've been able to read here about what writing meant to her, left me with a sense of someone absolutely and enviably committed to literature, and who took great pleasure in work and in creation. In an essay written late in her life called "The Dangerous Power of the Material", she writes:
I think that being alive -- life -- is the most beautiful thing of all. And it is this thought now that is most dear to me. [...] It's not just human life -- flowers or animals, all that lives is beautiful. The reason why life is beautiful is because it is active. Isn't that what life is? That which acts? The world is full of material things. But all of these are passive. To be a thing is to be passive. To live is to be active.
I leave Toji this weekend -- incidentally the weekend of Chuseok -- to go back home to Delhi with many happy memories, and closer both to my own work and Korean life and literature.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Fiction & Poetry in The Caravan, August

Here are my selections for the Fiction & Poetry section of The Caravan for the month of August: Dilip Kumar's short story "A Clerk's Story", in a translation from Tamil by Padma Narayanan, and Martin Figura's  long poem "Talking".

Friday, August 03, 2012

Friday, July 20, 2012

On Andrey Platonov's "No-Arms"

This month, The Caravan publishes "No-Arms", a story by the Russian writer Andrey Platonov.


Platonov (1899-1951) is now considered by many to be the greatest Russian writer of the 20th century. Like Boris Pasternak and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the other, better-known names who might also be thought worthy of that title, Platonov was someone who for a time believed in the ideals of the Russian Revolution and the Communist Party before commencing a sceptical examination of the new reality it birthed, often by violence, in Russia. The individual and often mystifying emphases of his work and his utterly distinctive (and therefore unassimilable) style made it difficult for him to publish. Though Platonov published a number of great short stories during his lifetime, most of his longer works, along with his plays and screenplays, were published only long after his death. In his last years, he wrote a series of stories based on Russian folktales, infusing the material of these fairly well known stories with the spirit of his own metaphysics. 


In this tremendously powerful and wrenching story about a woman whose arms are cut off by her own brother, Platonov shows us both the ubiquity of human evil and the persistence of human grace in situations of extreme suffering. Although the story preserves the folktale’s clear distinctions between good and evil people, it is very complex in its understanding of guilt, redemption and justice. The recognition scene in which sundered lovers are reunited will remind Indian readers of a similar scene in Kalidasa’sShakuntalam, while the final act of violence (and the unforgettable image of a horse returning from the steppe) recalls Oedipus’s self-blinding when he finally perceives all the evil that has passed through him.

An interview with Platonov's main translator, Robert Chandler, is here.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

On JMG Le Clezio's Desert


A glimpse at the list of winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature in the last decade shows that the Swedish committee that adjudicates the prize is often willing to honour highly feted, widely read, and hotly tipped writers who for years have had “Nobel Prize” tagged to their names. VS Naipaul is one such case, and so are JM Coetzee, Orhan Pamuk and Mario Vargas Llosa.

But just as often the committee throws up a name that the vast majority of readers have never heard of, and to my mind this is the more interesting, exploratory side of its work. Who had heard of the Hungarian writer Imre Kertesz or the Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek before they won the award in 2002 and 2004 respectively? Who indeed, at least in the Anglophone world, could claim at the time of announcement to have read anything by the 2008 winner, the Frenchman Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio
What the committee is saying, in effect, is that great literature, always being the work of an individual mind, can come from all kinds of unlikely places. Prizes like the Nobel can be a way of equalizing the iniquities of the literary market and the entrenched power of certain languages and cultures in the world today.

Le Clézio (many of whose works are now available once again in English translation after being out of print for some three decades), is an especially difficult writer to slot because, in addition to the difficulty and often wilful obscurity of his work, there is the difficulty and obscurity of his biography. Although he was born in France, and writes in French, he also claims allegiance to Mauritius, where one side of his family comes from, and where he still lives part of the year. 

A restless wanderer from the days of his youth, he seems not to have needed a “home” for his work, not to have cultivated a relationship with a single place or culture as most novelists do. Indeed, his itinerancy – he has spent time in and written books set in Mauritius, France, Mexico, Panama, and Africa, a world writer if there ever was one – might seem to resemble that of Naipaul, except that he mostly writes fiction, and his work is much more sympathetic to the marginalised people and cultures who are his subjects than Naipaul, with his glowering eye, is.

Among the distinctive emphases of Le Clézio’s writing is his engagement with what he has called cultures “broken by the modern world” – all the tribes and peoples thrown out of joint by the encounter with colonialism, Western rationalism, and the power of the nation-state (a good parallel in an Indian context might be someone like Mahasweta Devi or Gopinath Mohanty, both of whom have written extensively about the problems of Indian tribals). This willingness to move across a boundary, to invert a dominant power relationship, and to imagine the life of the “other” sympathetically from within is best seen in Le Clézio’s work in his novel Desert (1980), one the central novels in his oeuvre and now translated into English for the first time by C. Dickson.

Set in Morocco and in France, and spanning a century in time, Desert is the story of a warrior tribe of the desert, called “the blue men”, and their flight from French occupying forces in the early part of the twentieth century. Le Clézio depicts a group of people ceaselessly making their way forward like ants in the vast, arid and spirit-breaking desert, seeking a place of refuge where they can consolidate their resources and turn once again towards the lost homeland. In counterpoint, Le Clézio also tells the story, set in the present day, of a girl from the same tribe, Lalla, who flees the desert to escape a marriage she does not want and arrives in France, a vulnerable immigrant.

A great traveller himself, Le Clézio here produces a very close and painstaking description of human beings on the move across a landscape. His attention to the constantly shifting and turning shapes of the universe – no other novelist spends as much time detailing the changing colours of the sky, or the particularities of the light – turns his story into a cosmic drama. Le Clézio is also one of those writers who work absolutely on their own terms. His book is slow-moving and often difficult going, but the writing is frequently beautiful and alert, as when he speaks of the wind that “draws the yellow grasses aside like a hand passing over them”, or hears “the faint swish of sand running down the grooves in the rocks” on a cliff. If you consider yourself an ambitious reader, there’s no reason to deny yourself an encounter with this very independent-minded and distinctive sensibility.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Susan Sontag and the stresses of reading


Books, the great American essayist and cultural critic Susan Sontag writes, “are a way of being fully human”. This is a point of view that this site is of course very sympathetic to. Without books, we are more likely to be without history, without memory, without imagination, without good language, without that kind of skepticism or doubt that stimulates reflection and an appreciation of complexity. Books expand inwardness: the experience of them, in a hyperkinetic age full of carefully plotted and speeded-up stimuli, is tantamount to a kind of meditation. Before there is a book, there must be a reader – a mind that has the space in it for the experience of extended connection with a book. 

“By books, I mean the conditions of reading that made possible literature and its soul effects,” Sontag writes in an essay, wondering if books will survive the assault of our “advertising-driven televisual reality”. Here, undoubtedly, is a combative and adversarial thinker with a very high-minded view of reading. But as the pieces in Sontag’s final collection of essays, WhereThe Stress Falls, demonstrate, the truly remarkable thing about Sontag (1933-2004) was not so much the gravity of her pronouncements as the range and catholicity of her interests. 

Where The Stress Falls contains essays on books, films, music, dance, art, photography, each one of them a felicitous combination of close interpretation of particular works and larger arguments about the history of the medium itself. This high view of multiple art-forms informs all of Sontag’s work, generating rapid cross-connections (“As the statue is entombed in he block of marble, the novel is inside your head. You try to liberate it.”) Like all the great critics, Sontag brought to her work a combination of perspicacity and personality: the erudition of a trained and subtle mind applying itself to a careful observation of its own highly individual reactions to art, and able to reproduce its journeys in lithe, allusive prose.

Among the forty or so essays collected here, surely the most widely circulated and discussed was Sontag’s essay from 1996, “A Century of Cinema”. For Sontag cinema was the greatest contribution of the twentieth century to the corpus of human art-forms, a form rooted first and foremost in a wonder “that reality can be transcribed with such magical immediacy”. There was something total about the cinematic experience. “Lovers of poetry or opera or dance  don’t think there is only poetry or opera or dance,” she writes. “But lovers of cinema could think there was only cinema.”

But much as Sontag’s essay was a reprisal and a stock-taking of where the movies had gone over a hundred years, there was also something deeply elegiac and pessimistic about it. For Sontag, the nineteen-sixties and seventies represented the peak of what she termed “cinephilia” – a highly informed, highly personal love of the movies held by a substantial number of aficionados committed not just to films but to film-watching in a darkened theatre, so that they might be overwhelmed “by the physical presence of the image”.

But over time this cine-system had been broken down, on the supply side, by the cynical formulae and simplifications of capitalist production, which had eliminated the tension between cinema as industry and cinema as art, and on the reception side, by the sheer proliferation of images in the modern world and the expansion of private home viewing. “The reduction of cinema to assaultive images,” Sontag writes, “and the unprincipled manipulation of images (faster and faster cutting) to be more attention-grabbing, have produced a disincarnated, lightweight cinema that doesn’t demand anyone’s full attention.”  These observations could profitably be applied to the story of Indian own popular cinema.

Perhaps the first skill of the good literary critic is knowing how to quote – that is, knowing how to supply the part that will rouse in the reader a need for the whole. Attention, in words, to a work of verbal art involves stepping back at times and letting the work speak for itself. This becomes especially important if the essay is an argument for the beauty of a novel or poem or play few have ever heard of, for then it is the excerpt that persuades as much as the analysis. Sontag was an especially adept practitioner of quoting, and there are wonderful passages here from the work of such masters as WG Sebald, Witold Gombrowicz, and Adam Zagajewski. Where The Stress Falls is not just eloquent invitation to the pleasures of reading, of watching, of inwardness, but itself an incarnation of some of these pleasures.

And here is a wonderful essay on Sontag – both admiring and mocking – by the writer Terry Castle: "Desperately Seeking Susan."

Sunday, June 03, 2012

On the poems of Joseph Furtado

One of the earliest, but least well-known, great Indian poets in English, Joseph Furtado (1872-1945) is now all but forgotten even in his native Goa. No edition of his poems is currently in print. This is a shame, because this self-professed “Goan fiddler”, who added cashew trees and tamarinds to the cornfields of English verse, could produce a beautifully weighted verbal music both melancholy and effervescent by turns. Furtado’s poetic subjects include landscape (“Land of palm and mango-tree/ Dear as life art thou to me.” he writes in one poem) and love, in which matter his speakers reveal a warmingly ecumenical taste (in one poem, the speaker professes a love for a mullah’s daughter; in another, he dreams of a lady who sits by his feet “And reads out stories/ Of Vedic glories”). 
But as poems like ‘The Secret’ reveal, the natural world was for Furtado heavy with human mysteries and silences; and his verse can be feminist, too, as when he sees women not just as objects of male desire but desiring subjects, in ‘The Neglected Wife’. Is the refrain of Furtado’s ‘Only Shy’ a pun on shayri, as Furtado suggests by his subtitle ‘An Urdu Song’? We shall never know for sure, but the best-known photograph of Furtado shows him late in life with a white beard even longer than Tagore’s—and as a creator of limpid verse effects he was in the same class. 
This month The Caravan publishes five poems by Furtado.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Arzee the Dwarf in German

Arzee the Dwarf is published in Germany this month by Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag in a translation by Kathrin Razum as Der kleine Konig von Bombay

A Youtube trailer for the book is here. I watched it several times as, what with all the other work I've had to do between 2009 and 2012, I'd almost forgotten the story.

It's also available as a German audiobook.

Send word to your German friends -- or use it to improve your German!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

On Rajesh Parameswaran's I Am An Executioner

This review appeared yesterday in the New York Times Book Review.

A compulsive and infectious narrative restlessness marks Rajesh Parameswaran’s first collection of short fiction, I Am an Executioner. Although tagged by the generic subtitle “Love Stories,” Parameswaran’s work demonstrates about the same relationship to traditional literary debuts as the insects in his strange and beautiful story “On the Banks of Table River (Planet Lucina, Andromeda Galaxy, AD 2319)” do to the earthlings who have colonized their planet.
Parameswaran prefers first-person narration to the more detached third person, but his storytellers are also wedded to a 21st-century experimentalism, continually uncaging themselves from realist fiction. From tigers and elephants to a man in a yellowing photograph and, most simply and touchingly, just a “being” in “On the Banks of Table River,” they form an unpredictable and often charming cavalcade, revealing both the particularity of what they perceive and the extent of what they misunderstand or simply miss. Raptly attentive to their own narratives, they gradually paint us into corners. We must peer around and above them before we can escape.
“The Agent does not try to understand what he is seeing,” we are told in the story called “Narrative of Agent 97-4702.” “That is a job for the Analyst.” Here a fiercely committed spy presents her report of a fairly ordinary surveillance operation, a report that begins to crackle when it becomes clear that she is also pursuing a chilling self-interrogation.
Parameswaran’s decision to avoid the convention of naming many of his characters and places serves to make the Agent, like other figures in this collection, powerfully allegorical. When the Agent eventually pleads guilty to “entertaining a mental state conducive to forming an intention to disclose protected information,” she plunges us into that nightmare world in which people need never be brought to trial because they have already tried and convicted themselves.
The companion to this story is “Demons,” in which a harassed wife is also seen entertaining a mental state. Having idly wished her annoying husband would just die, she suddenly finds him felled by a heart attack. In the aftermath, she’s consumed by the notion, common in India, that wishing harm on another may activate such harm.
Elsewhere, Parameswaran’s characters, humans and animals both, find themselves puzzled by love and power, devotion and detachment. The speaking tiger in “The Infamous Bengal Ming” finds its attempts to love a human being bloodily thwarted by its own brute strength. The executioner in the finely mysterious title story insists that his is just a job like any other, even while revealing, in his disheveled English, that his bewildering power makes him “wonder the universe.”
Parameswaran’s desire to ground his speakers’ voices in syntactical and cultural tics sometimes has the effect of turning an individual into a type, as when the executioner supplies the registers — but also the clichés — of Indian-accented English, reporting that “people always marvel how I am maintaining cheerful demeanors and positive outlooks.” 
At their best, though, Parameswaran’s stories combine narrative brio, ringing ­voices and beguilingly looped plots. In the hilarious yet pathetic “Four ­Rajeshes,” the narrator, a man called Rajesh, confesses to homosexual passion as a railway-station manager in an early-20th-century south Indian village even as he berates a present-day man called Rajesh, presumably the “real” author of the story, for making the whole thing up, inspired by nothing more than an old photograph. Thus realist revelation and postmodern speculation proceed in parallel, like the very railway tracks the primal Rajesh supervises. Despite their occasional contrivances, these are very much stories that make us “wonder the universe.”

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

On Yashpal's Jhootha Sach (This Is Not That Dawn)

This essay appeared last weekend in The National.


Any reader who has a feeling for the rigours and small miracles of novelistic composition is especially likely to be transported by the awesome narrative freedom and strength of the great long novels of world literature. Having broken through the walls of artistic and formal finitude over hundreds of pages of scene-setting, plot-threading and character tracking, such novels, or novel sequences – IB Singer’s The Family Moskat, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence – seem almost to write themselves, continuously unspooling and ramifying in the same way as life. Indeed, it seems a diminution of life to have to break with their company.

On one level, of course, the great long novels represent nothing more than an especially massy story – a map of human motion and connection on a grand scale. But is that all? Their size would be (and sometimes is) worth very little if we did not also take away from them the extended experience of mind, of an encounter with not just a world but a subtle, disembodied intelligence – the narrator – observing and occasionally annotating its ferment. To observe a story-world for weeks, even months, in concert with a novelistic narrator is to return to the world outside the book to find something strangely absent, or limited, or silent about it. Sometimes when we find ourselves missing the characters of a novel, what we are actually missing is the narrator.

This is the experience we take away from the Indian novelist Yashpal’s massive novel Jhootha Sach (literally The False Truth), first published in Hindi in two volumes in 1958 and 1960, and now translated into English for the first time as This Is Not That Dawn. The novel is over 1,100 pages long, but it is long only in an absolute sense, not relative to the dozens of characters it describes, the ideas it explores, and the narrative time (and indeed geographical space) it traverses.

Following a family from their roots in a gali, or lane, in the great city of Lahore (now in Pakistan) to a new life in the cities of north India over the 1940s and 1950s, Yashpal’s novel takes as its central, world-changing event the partition in 1947 of colonial India into the nation states of India and Pakistan. The bloodbath that resulted from this massive, uncontrolled two-way migration of peoples across the new boundaries of what was formerly undivided Punjab – Hindus streaming east into India from what had now become Pakistan, Muslims west into Pakistan in the fear that they would have no place in a new Indian nation state – took at least a million lives. Partition left a gash on the psyche of the Indian subcontinent that has never quite healed, and that inflames the politics of both countries, as well as Bangladesh, to this day.

The novel’s central characters are two siblings, Jaidev and Tara Puri, who live in a small, tightly knit Hindu community in a lane called Bhola Pandhe’s Gali in the old walled city of Lahore. Among the ways in which Yashpal’s novel links the lives and loves of its middle-class characters to the great churning in the public sphere of Lahore and Delhi in the 1940s is by setting them within the overlapping worlds of journalism, literature and education in Lahore (no other Indian novel is so much in love with the idea of the newspaper, and the newspaper’s power as a voice of reason in the public sphere). Puri is an idealistic young writer and journalist who has already served a prison sentence for the cause of the freedom movement. Tara is a college student excited by the intellectual freedom of the university – one that is not available in the world of the gali, with its family and gender hierarchies – but troubled by her engagement to a man she hardly knows.

In the novel’s opening movement, we see Puri (as he is called by the narrator) vexed by his inability to find a job and the social obstacles in the way of his marrying Kanak, the daughter of a prosperous publisher. Tara, meanwhile, feels that her world will come to an end if she is made to marry Somraj Sahni, her loutish fiance. But these problems pale into insignificance compared to the crisis that suddenly appears like a dark cloud over Lahore, as the British prepare to leave India. The Hindus of Bhola Pandhe Gali fear that Lahore might be ceded, as part of the two-nation theory that has gained currency in undivided India, to the new, primarily Muslim nation state of Pakistan.

“What if there’s a Pakistan or there’s a Hindustan? We’re Lahorites, neighbours of Doongi Gali,” declares one of the family’s optimistic friends. But as the book shows, this cosmopolitan vision of history and community has little chance against the drumroll of nationalism, and the combustible fear of the other lying just beneath the surface of the subcontinent’s social life.

Yet the novel also shows us that, at the time, Partition was not imagined to be a complete sealing-off of two geographically and culturally contiguous territories from each other, as turned out to be the case eventually. People left behind their homes, families, cities and countries imagining that they would soon be back once things had settled. But often they never returned, or returned to find that everything they owned had been taken.

The paradox most strikingly explored by the novel is that the very (allegedly foundational) categories of Hinduism and Islam that were the basis of Partition proved powerless, despite their scriptural emphasis on peace and justice, to stop the cataclysms of violence visited by each side upon the other. People of both sides looted, killed and raped, “all in the name of God”, as one character sorrowfully observes.

Repeatedly in This Is Not That Dawn, characters are shown jettisoning their private moral compasses because they are convinced that blood must be spilled to avenge the spilling of blood. Yashpal’s novel, on a scale equal to the complexity of the matter at hand, shows us how the question of justice is rarely contemplated by human beings in the abstract, or outside the pressures of time or frame of history – and that in a crisis, this tendency can prove to be mortal while continuing to believe itself moral. These conceptions of “comparative justice” are still doing the rounds of the subcontinent to this day, as during the gruesome religious riots in the state of Gujarat in 2002.

If This Is Not That Dawn is nevertheless a deeply pleasurable book, it is because it offers a world so vividly imagined that the quotidian acquires the same significance as the apocalyptic. The novel is steeped in meaningful details that reveal the networks and pressures of space, gender (“the afternoons in the galis belonged to the women ... If a male had to come back to the gali for some reason, he would clear his throat loudly to warn the women”), family and tradition in the small, hermetic world of Bhola Pandhe’s Gali in Lahore, and then out across the fields of city and nation.

As both Puri and Tara are thrust out into the world – Puri when he leaves Lahore in search of a job; Tara when she is abducted by a Muslim man after escaping from Sahni’s house on the night of her wedding – they are forced to bear the violence and derangement of Partition upon their bodies and then, finding themselves still alive, decide what to make of their battered selves. Although it appears for the longest time that Puri, with his idealism, his love of language, his political vision and his diligence, is the book’s hero, we see him gradually sinking, over a thousand pages, under the weight of his own worldly power in the new Indian republic and somewhat insecure masculinity – an unforgettable narrative arc. Revealingly, it is his involvement with the Indian National Congress that gradually leaches the idealism from Puri.

Instead, it is Tara, the apparently helpless, brutalised victim, who slowly gathers strength and makes an independent life for herself in the Indian capital, Delhi, watching out not just for herself but for other women in trouble. The storyline reveals not just Yashpal’s feminism – once she has a modicum of power and agency, Tara repeatedly resists any attempts to return her back to a normative world of female deference and duty – but also his emphasis on the individual’s right to dissent from the collective.

This Is Not That Dawn was written just a few years after the Indian constitution offered a new vision of rights, responsibilities and secular freedom to Indian citizens – a vision of a political order more egalitarian and enabling than any previously held in the history of the subcontinent. It might be thought to be the narrative and novelistic companion to that document, all the more compelling because its worldview is implied – parcelled out into the experiences and reflections of dozens of characters, and across the novelistic timespan of nearly two decades – and not spelt out from above.

Ten years into the life of the new nation, Yashpal sat down to compose an epic story, scrubbed free of nationalist cant, about the passion and tragedy that attended its birth. In doing so, he produced the first great novel about the ideals and implications of a new view of Indianness, a novel whose mingled vision of realism and idealism rings true to this day.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

On Diana Eck's India: A Sacred Geography and Akash Kapur's India Becoming

This review appears today in The Washington Post.


It’s most unusual to see geography as primarily a construct of the human imagination, but that is precisely what the scholar of Hinduism Diana Eck attempts in her massive new book, India: A Sacred Geography. Thousands of years before India was a nation-state (1947), a colony of Britain (the 18th century), or a cartographic vision on a map (1782), it was, in Eck’s view, conceived as a geographical unit in the hearts and minds of the faithful, and particularly in the religious imagination of Hinduism.
Pilgrims thought of India as the land of the seven great rivers, as a space marked by the benediction and caprice of the gods who resided in the great northern peaks of the Himalayas, as woven into unity by the great centers of pilgrimage, or dhams, in the north, south, east and west. Seeking the marks and manifestations of the sacred, they fashioned with their footprints a map of a vast subcontinent suffused with the presence of the gods and stories of their appearances in different incarnations.
Eck’s perspective has significant political implications. It arguably refutes the widely held notion that India was merely a confusion of diverse kingdoms, cultures and languages until it was politically integrated by the British Empire. Some scholars hold that the idea of Hinduism, too, is the modern tracing of a circle around a diversity of ancient religious beliefs never self-consciously systematized into a whole. This idea struggles to hold up against the layered evidence supplied by Eck’s book, the synthesis of three decades of work on the myths, rituals, cosmology and everyday life of Hinduism.
But the appeal of the book lies in the fact that its emphasis is not political, but aggregative and connective, making a forest out of a mass of trees. Eck offers an exceptionally rich account of how, throughout India, the cosmic is mapped onto the local in a tradition formed, revised and renewed over the centuries by thousands of discrete phenomena and often anonymous actors.
This map of myth, as it were, radiates a worldview very different from the assumptions of modern cartography. Cartography invests each place on a map with a name and an unassailable specificity. But sacral maps, Eck notes, are marked continuously by “patterns of duplication and condensation,” demonstrating an ability “to see a world in a grain of sand,” in William Blake’s unforgettable formulation. For instance, thousands of rivers and water bodies across the country are said to be linked to or fed by the holiest river of Hinduism, the Ganga. The Ganga is, depending on what lens one brings to it, both somewhere and everywhere.
“As arcane as lingas of light . . . and sacred rivers falling from heaven may seem to those who wish to get on with the real politics of today’s world,” Eck writes, “these very patterns of sanctification continue to anchor millions of people in the imagined landscape of their country.”
She devotes entire chapters to regional variations in the worship of the great generative god Shiva, the creator of the universe, or the myth of the Mother Goddess, who is consecrated and remembered in thousands of local incarnations as “the goddesses of earth and village, glade and river, hilltop and mountaintop.” In doing so Eck demonstrates how, just as novels are fully realized only in the minds of their readers, gods are made present in the world by the stories and footsteps of the faithful.
The two main currents of contemporary nonfiction about India might be said to be a broadbrush view animated by strong particulars (such as Patrick French’s recent India: A Portrait) and an attempt to fully realize a fascinating local world (such as two recent books about discrete realms in the megalopolis of Mumbai, Katherine Boo’s Behind The Beautiful Forevers and Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing). Eck’s book might be said to stand at the sangam, or junction (a site of great religious power in Hinduism), of these currents.
Its ideas reverberate forcefully, too, against other recent works about geography as informed by the human imagination, such as Rebecca Solnit’s book about San Francisco, Infinite City, or Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France. (Robb and Eck also resemble each other in never writing an uninteresting or flat sentence.) All these writers would be fundamentally in agreement with Eck’s assertion that “every story has a place and every place a story.”
Eck’s book is so dense with detail that one might think of its 500 pages as a distillation of a world. In Akash Kapur’s India Becoming,” on the other hand, an idea that might be written up in a few sentences is stretched out, through the conceit of an autobiographical narrative, into an entire book.
In 2003 Kapur returns, after many years in America, to India, the country of his childhood, and finds the sleepy, unmoving world of old dramatically refashioned by new energies — especially the energies of capital — and ambitions. Fascinated by “that sense of newness, of perpetual reinvention and forward momentum that I had felt when I first moved to America,” Kapur beds down in Auroville, a small south Indian town, to take stock of this dramatic historical moment.
He explores the new India through a variety of conversations with, among others, a landlord who sees the old feudal world falling away around him, a young gay man riding the wave of the IT revolution and an activist in Mumbai fighting for the rights of those who have been marginalized or dispossessed by ruthlessness of the new economy. The Hegelian triad of thesis, antithesis and synthesis slowly emerges from his narration, but only as cliche, reverse cliche and all-encompassing cliche.
Dazzled in the beginning by the rumbling of a society of a billion people (“India, I felt, had started to dream”), Kapur soon begins to feel disillusionment with the spectacle of rising crime, pollution and poverty, and a “culture of not caring.” Finally he decides that he has been too hasty in both his elation and his despair, and settles for the comfort of realizing that “the central fact . . . of modern India was change” and the mystification “ineluctably, if at times haltingly, a new world was rising.”
If this were a novel, one might surmise that the writer was deliberately setting the narrator up as a naif. Anyone who reads it as straight-up reportage, though, will probably find the banality and contrivance of this self-indulgent “journey” exasperating. It is not just that Kapur does not take any strong positions (“I welcomed the progress. But all the destruction seemed a heavy price to pay”). What is worse is that his language groans with superfluity (“It was evening, a time between night and day, and the lights of the city were starting to come on”) and lazy allusion (“India, the author Nirad Chaudhuri reportedly once wrote, is a nation of a million exceptions”).
If Eck’s book reveals the relevance of the local, the unfamiliar and the seemingly obscure to the deep structure of a civilization, Kapur’s proves conversely the great gulf between taking up a relevant subject and writing a relevant book.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Some thoughts on novels, especially Indian novels

Last weekend I gave my talk "Ten Ways In Which Novels Can Change My Life" in Panjim, Goa (and this Friday I'm giving it in Pune, details in the image below). The Navhind Times of Goa generously ran a long interview with me on the subject of novels that I reproduce here.
Life is not a novel. How does a piece of literature factor in the 'unpredictable' human streak?
Life is not a novel, but it is a story, and so is a novel. Both kinds of stories have a lot to give each other. Literature is interested in precisely what is unsystematic and unpredictable about human beings. But the next challenge is to find a way of portraying this unpredictability, persuasively.
There is the good, the bad and the ugly in literature. How would you classify literature into each of these categories and what according to you is the purpose of 'the ugly'?
To my mind there are two kinds of "ugly" in literature. There is that literature which tries to portray or understand or criticise all that is ugly about human nature, human institutions -- for example communal violence, violence in man-woman relations, the urge to think some human beings inferior to others. And of course there is some literature or art which is to my mind ugly in itself -- cynically or manipulatively written, perpetrating stereotypes of its own (for instance the stereotypes of Goans in Hindi movies), or full of other kinds of clichés of thought and language.

The present age has seen the emergence of Chick Lit in India. Is this devaluing literature?
I wouldn't say so. Literature has value not in an a priori kind of way (such as, for instance, money) but only in terms of what it achieves between the time the first sentence of the book begins and the last line ends. In this space, whether it is literary novels, science fiction, or Chick Lit, a work may do something tremendously interesting and original. Some of what we think of now as great novels by women writers were considered Chick Lit when they came out. More important than the genre in which a book is written is the mind of the writer writing it.

What does modern Indian literature reflect of these times in India?
I think modern Indian literature is tremendously interesting and diverse. It reflects a society that is changing very fast, interrogating (or trapped within) old ways of living and interrogating new ones. But it is the responsibility of the reader (and to my mind, also bookshops) to experience the full diversity of Indian literature by seeking (or displaying) literature in translation, books published by small presses, books by writers who are no longer alive to do publicity events for themselves! To make just a short list, I would say that if you were seriously interested in say, just the Indian novel today, you would have to have read at least one work each by Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Vikram Chandra, UR Ananthamurthy, Aravind Adiga, Kalpana Swaminathan, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Fakir Mohan Senapati, Qurratulain Hyder, Yashpal, Salma, Bankimchandra Chatterjee, Sankar, and Mahasweta Devi. From a list like this you would be able to piece together a tremendously interesting picture of modern India.

Compare Indian writing qualitatively (including use of language) vis-à-vis the early trio of Indian authors -- Mulk Raj Anand, R K Narayan and Raja Rao.
Narayan was of course a very original prose stylist, as was Raj Rao. I don't like Anand's work so much. Even so, I think contemporary writers are less self-conscious in their use of English today than many of their predecessors, and the best of them produce a more interesting sound that brings the rhythms of Indian life to English. I think older Indian writers tended to write more British "English" English. The work of my generation has a freer sound rooted in multiple influences across world literature.

Your take on regional literature.
As I said earlier (and as I demonstrate with the short list of necessary Indian novels I offered), one cannot think of any map of Indian literature, whether as a writer or as a reader, without thinking about Indian writing in translation. I would not call writing in translation "regional" any more than writing in English is "regional".

Hollywood and European cinema draws heavily from literature. Why do we not see this same trend in India besides the few odd incidences like Chetan Bhagat claiming that 3 Idiots was based on his Five Point Someone.
I think an older tradition of Hindi films did borrow stories heavily from Indian literature. I'm thinking, for instance, of one of my favourite Amitabh Bachchan films, Saudagar (1973), in which he plays the role of a trader of cane sugar. The film was based on a story called "Ras" by the Bengali writer Narendranath Mitra. Or Shyam Benegal's Suraj Ka Satvaan Ghoda, based on a novel by Dharamvir Bharati. As films have become more generic and more calculated, they have drifted away from literature, which is in its very spirit very individual and very specific. I don't know that there are that many serious readers in Hindi cinema any more - someone like Shyam Benegal or Ketan Mehta. But I do know that Mira Nair is currently making The Reluctant Fundamentalist from Mohsin Hamid's novel by the same name. I'd be very interested in seeing that because the book is a very interior one.

What aspect of human nature fascinates you the most and in which piece of literature according to you is this best showcased.
I guess of all human relationships, I'm most interested in man-woman ones. The subject of how one can love (and give oneself away to) someone else over a period of time while also keeping to an independent trajectory -- to be both committed and single, as it were -- is an eternal question for adult human beings. One could make a small survey of the pleasures and problems of romantic attachment, for example, by reading Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence, Yashpal's Jhootha Sach, Irene Nemirovsky's All Our Worldly Goods, and Aamer Hussein's recent novel The Cloud Messenger.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Literary Days at the Norwich Showcase

Some days of one's life one feels grateful for nothing more than the simple pleasure of being alive, and among people tuned not just to the same frequency (principally the wavelength answering to a love of language, jokes, and coffee), but also the same forms -- the old and new ones of literature, literary debate, production, and transmission.

I've been thinking these unoriginal, but nevertheless compelling, thoughts particularly strongly over the last four days as I attend, from morning to night, a set of readings and discussions in England at the Norwich Showcase, an event organised by the British Council. The festival brings together 40 of the best contemporary British writers working in a diversity of forms and languages (across fiction, poetry, drama, performance poetry, nature writing, translation) with a set of representatives from literary organizations, periodicals and festivals from Britain and around the world from Brazil to Uganda to Malaysia to Canada. I'm in Norwich to speak about contemporary Indian literature, and my own work as the Fiction & Poetry editor of The Caravan.

Very often the pleasures of a text are enhanced by the voice of the mind that composed them. Over the last four days I've heard verse by Hannah Lowe, several of them about her father, a professional gambler (a recording of which you can hear here; the texts of some of the poems are here), Tom Warner (here's his very funny and acute poem "Day Thirty-Two", about a survivor of an air crash on a desert island looking at life around him, and here are two others called "Magician" and "Under Natural History"), Kei Miller (who read his excellent "12 Notes For a Light Song of Light"), and Lavinia Greenlaw. If you'd like to listen to Miller and Warner reading one after the other, a podcast of their readings alongside the poet Emily Berry is here.

Yesterday I also enjoyed the writers Robert Macfarlane, whose work I admire greatly, and Adam Foulds talking about new directions in writing about landscape. Macfarlane spoke illuminatingly about the centrality in literature of "the connection of aesthetics to ethics -- the idea that if you learn to see the world differently you'll probably behave differently" and turned the idea into an image by describing it as "a fairly reliable two-stroke engine".

Later, the novelist Adam Thirlwell delivered a razor-sharp talk about the idea of translation not as a substitute for the original but rather a match for it, involving a number of subjective choices made by the individual translator that can never be worked up into a replicable theory or system. Here's is Thirlwell's essay "The Joyful Side of Translation". There was also an astonishing session of performance poetry last night by Luke Wright, who compressed dozens of verbal riffs, jabs, jests and grumbles into a quarter of an hour of pure energy -- a bit like a verbal equivalent of a surging and dipping run downfield by Gareth Bale, the left-winger of the most romantic football team on the planet, Tottenham Hotspur. (Wright cracked everyone up with his line "Some of my best women are friends".)

But there's also been a chance to learn about a host of strategies being employed in our shapeshifting literary world to bring new readers to literature, use new media in the service of literature, and link up the private and the social sides of literature. The marvellously funny and articulate writer Damian Barr is also the salonniere for the Shoreditch House Literary Salon, which hosts an evening, free to all, of readings and bookchat among writers selected by Barr in London every few weeks (the Facebook page for the Salon is here; I'm going to the next event, "Faith and Doubt", on Wednesday the 14th). This isn't your standard meet-the-celebrity event: no books are available for sale, and there are no signings either -- it's all about the written word and the conversation during and after.

The Ugandan writer Doreen Baingana spoke of her work setting up support networks for women writers with her group Femrite, and the writer Jorge Antonio Marques of Brazil (who has, among other things, written a book about the history of tattoos) described his efforts to set up a most unusual literary festival, Flupp, to be held in Rio de Janeiro later this year, to be held on a hilltop in a favela. Samantha Schnee spoke about the work she and her colleagues have done over the last decade publishing over a thousand writers from over a hundred countries in English translation in the marvellous webzine Words Without Borders. Recent issues include a special on the Arab Spring, and an older one focussed on Urdu fiction from India. (An old Middlestage review  from 2007 of a Words Without Borders anthology is here.)

And with that I'm off to shop, during our lunch break, at a little secondhand bookstore opposite the Norwich Cathedral, where all of today's events are being held against the background of the cathedral's steepling spire. My little jaunt there during the morning's coffee break has already yielded two quite rare books, which further intensifies my conviction that there's no university in the world quite as useful as a good secondhand bookshop.