30 May 2009

India on the 'write' path

From its elitist bearings, Indian Writing In English has successfully expanded in the last few years, not only adding great variety to its lists but creating a lucrative Indian mass fiction category as well

When best-selling author Chetan Bhagat saucily commented that he was determined to pull Indian Writing in English (IWE) from its high horse and bring it to the masses, one simply smiled.
IWE has been a niche affair for a long time; the bastion resting with expatriate writers- its only visible and known representatives. Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amitav Ghosh and Anita Desai… all came with undeniable literary merit and brought a great deal of credibility to the genre of IWE very early on.
Its appeal in India, however, remained restricted to the wine glass-clinking literati. This had to be disconcerting to an independent observer, firstly because it didn’t seem fitting that authors residing in the first world – no matter how good – should be the presiding literary masters of the third world. But more importantly, one was left baffled at how a ballooning English speaking class in India was bereft of a wider palette in the IWE segment.

The shift from the diaspora
The gap was so galling that one expected things to change sooner than later. The obvious question was why there isn’t a stronger presence of home-grown writers and why isn’t there enough variety to choose from in IWE? Is the publishing industry in India encouraging of desi English writers at all?
These were concerns one had until only a few years back, but since, the whole literary scene has seen a dramatic turnaround that has made the genre not only a fairly lucrative one but has given it a kind of ‘completeness’ it never had before. Like Crossword Prize winner for A Girl And A River, Usha KR says, “From graphic novels, gender lit, the young adult novel, thrillers, biographies and so on; the pre-eminence of ‘literary’ fiction is being challenged all round.”
Such variety bodes well for the genre and the industry as a whole. A special mention needs to be made about the ‘mid-brow’ mass Indian English fiction that most publishers admit “is where the numbers are.” Chetan Bhagat with his three best-selling books, Anurag Mathur with The Inscrutable Americans, The Zoya Factor by Anuja Chauhan, Manju Kapoor with Home and Difficult Daughters, and Abhijit Bhaduri’s Married But Available have sold in thousands. This has not only widened IWE in terms of what it stood for but has also enabled a welcome ‘democratization’ where more voices are being heard.
The non-fiction segment is getting equally strong with erudite academicians, politicians, corporate head honchos and scholars writing books. From Amartya Sen to Shashi Tharoor, Mukul Kesawan to Ramchandra Guha and recently Nandan Nilekani and Narayana Murthi, India truly has an enviable body of world-class writers in the English language.
Seeing a receptive audience, publishers are even translating classics in regional languages like Bengali, bringing a hitherto unexplored world to the fore.

What really changed for IWE?
So how and when did this change come about and what does this mean for a genre and industry that is seeing a healthy 10 per cent growth even in times of a global meltdown?
There are quite a few reasons that writers and publishers cite for the growth and expansion in the genre of IWE. The most important one is a change in the demographics over the last few years. “We forget how vastly the literacy rates have changed in the last two generations. We’ve gone from less than 30% literacy to less than 30% illiteracy, and a good bit of that is in English. So there is a larger potential audience, and the publishers and writers are now talking to a different demographic,” says author Omair Ahmad, writer of A Storyteller’s Tale.
The other important aspect is the attitude of the publication houses in the country, believed to prefer well-known authors to new ones. The aspiring desi writers were left to cool their heels for a long time. “So much so, that it started becoming easier for an Indian writer to find a publisher abroad than in India. There was a toffee-nosed ‘Raj’ attitude that many publishers here cultivated...until their foreign bosses themselves instructed them to look more seriously at the Indian market, which held such enormous potential,” says Janaki Visvanath, avid reader and book store owner of twistntales, Aundh.
The publishing houses may not agree with this assessment but the fact remains that tapping into the desi market was one of the key reasons why major international publishing houses strengthened their Indian divisions. Harper Collins started its functions in India in 2003 – at a time when the market was ripe for change. Lipika Bhushan, Marketing and Sales head at Harper Collins, says, “Until last year, we had about 75 IWE titles. We’ve already seen a jump of 38 titles this year till April, taking the tally to 108. I think the favourable attitude of the Indian readers has led to the change. More and more people are globe-trotting, but the more successful books in recent times are those set in India.”
One of the major reasons readers are gravitating towards IWE is because they find it relatable. These books delve into their collective consciousness.
With more desi Indian Writing in English coming to the fore, will the genre provide a more authentic Indian experience now? “I don’t think it is a question of ‘authenticity’ as recognition of the fact that people want to read stories set in their own milieu – the small town, the metropolis, the Indian family, an IIT or an IIM. They have the confidence to recognize that in today’s world the local can reflect the global,” says Usha KR.
It wasn’t before long that publishing houses smelled the coffee and realized they were sitting on a veritable gold mine.
An important reason for IWE getting visibility is the authors themselves getting savvy and aggressive in their promotional strategies. “It isn’t like earlier when the author would be living in a hill station and write books, oblivious to the world around him. Today’s authors conduct book launches in various cities, interact with their readers and talk about their works. All this helps them ‘connect’ with people and results in more copies being sold,” Janaki says.
The rise of the mass market for IWE
Most in the industry accede that Cheten Bhagat and Anurag Mathur turned the tide in broadening the appeal of IWE and making it commercially viable. “Certainly Chetan Bhagat is a very important name. Being a marketing person, he strategized the release of his books, the pricing and so on… and it bore dividends,” says Lipika.
Pricing is another aspect that has worked favourably for IWE. Says writer and columnist Gouri Dange, “Yes – a Chetan Bhagat at Rs 95 definitely makes a difference. People then don’t mind buying even an unknown writer, perhaps. I baulk at buying so many of my favourite western writers, as they cost no less than Rs 400!” she says. Naturally then, the bar has been raised for IWE. “At one point, a book that sold 3000 was considered a best seller, today that figure has gone to 15,000,” she Lipika.

Market and merit of IWE
The market is growing for sure, but most authors believe a career still cannot be made out of writing. Usha KR believes it may be premature to celebrate the coming of age of the exclusively desi market or that it is no longer necessary to be successful in the West. “What we are seeing today is just the beginning, the overture – the tempo is still to build up. I don’t think it is possible to make a living writing fiction exclusively, except for a few writers who are successful internationally and are the standard bearers of IWE,” she says.
Talking of merit, so far IWE has mostly had a western fixation, where a Man Booker winner automatically becomes a bestseller in India. With the genre growing, isn’t it essential to have our own critical bodies to assess our works than rely on the West? “While there is a great flurry of writing, we still have to go through the churn where the ‘good’ or the ‘long distance runners’ will be separated from the run of the mill. This is where our own critics and literary awards have a role to play in building credibility and establishing standards but that will take time as credibility has to be earned and the readers, the media and the market must come to have faith in the decisions of the critics and juries. The Western environment has managed this interplay very well, and in good faith too,” views Usha KR

Looking into the future

The future of IWE is tipped to have several interesting challenges ahead. Among the new trends that are expected are e-books and audio books. “What this means is that there will be more reading happening - the ultimate democratisation where you can hear a text even if you can't read it,” says Janaki.
For publishers, the challenge will be to tap into newer markers and sub-genres for IWE. Says Lipika, “Look at the childrens’ books, an area we have not explored at all. Why is it that there is such craze for Harry Potter and no Indian book for children? This is something we will be looking into. Besides that, I think our aim in the next few years will be to market our books in tier-2 cities like Chandigarh and Jaipur that carry enormous potential for growth,” she says.
Certainly it will be interesting days ahead for the publishing industry and IWE in particular.

“Any number of books get published in India in English, find a readership and sell reasonably. Reasonably, or modestly. But it’s important to admit that the bigger sellers among the literary titles tend to be those that have got published elsewhere also, and got attention in international spaces,” says author Geeta Hariharan, winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ prize for her book, The Thousand Faces of Night.

“Of late all I read is Indian writing in English. That’s where the most excitement is. It is young, vibrant and in spite of the fact that it speaks to maybe a small section of the 1billion population, it is writing affected by that billion, one way or the other, hence extremely important as a voice,” says reader, Raghu Kulkarni

“The Indian reader is still a toddler in many ways, so the mass market of Indian English fiction --- even if some of it may be “mid-brow”--- is a good enough beginning for this ever widening segment of readers. Edutainment is always the best way to attract any new audience. Slowly but surely, some of this readership might graduate to better stuff – reader and filmmaker Abhishek Bandekar

23 May 2009

Bombay London New York

Author: Amitava Kumar
Pages: 220
Price: 250
Year of Publishing: 2002
Publishers: Penguin

This was my first introduction to Amitava Kumar, and at the end, his book left me completely in awe of him as a writer. Such flair and finesse of language is a rarity.

What makes Bombay London New York (not a title I particularly fancied but I loved its gorgeous cornflower blue cover) unique is that it is a book about books. So plenty of references of Indian fiction in English get thrown in with some literary criticism to chew over, making this quite a bibliophile's delight. A small part of the pleasure was also to see the author referencing many of the books I'd read. Also it helped in identifying several authors and works I was not familiar with. So by the end of it, I made a mental note of at least half a dozen books that I might want to take up. In fact, I did read Hanif Kureishi's 'Intimacy' almost immediately, given how much Amitava seemed to have loved the book.

The author, both  by virtue of being a professor of English literature abroad and a well-known writer, is deeply passionate about books and sees a lot of the world through the prism of literature. The influence of books is especially felt when he describes his struggle to become a writer. In places where he talks about family and friends, the book takes on the form of a memoir and for me these are easily the most engaging parts. Whether it is his shame about growing up in India's most backward State, Bihar or his craving to experience a life abroad looking at the plush postcards his aunt sends him from US, or his struggle to write, there is a rare emotional power and beauty to these parts.

This is a stage in the young man's life when V S Naipaul and his books like A House For Mr Biswas and Finding The Centre have a deep influence on him. Both are relevant to Amitava at this stage of his life. While  'A House For Mr Biswas' is about a man's struggle to become a writer, the second one concerns Naipaul's dream to leave his village and make a life in London. Both offer great inspiration to the author and prove to be catalysts in his decision of going abroad.

Even though the autobiographical elements are the most interesting parts of the book, Amitava Kumar's real purpose here is to touch upon several significant larger socio-political issues. For example, the book starts on a rather heavy-duty note with the author taking a strong stand against the nuclear bomb testing under the Vajpayee government. He refers to Arundathi Roy's criticism of it in her essay, 'The End of Imagination' and how her writings had a definite impact, paving the way for activism through writing. It's obvious that Amitava Kumar believes in the greater power of writing, as his admiration for playwright Safdar Hashmi and his didacticism suggests. This is also one of the reasons that makes this book quite ambitious in scope.
The other theme that the author focuses on is the immigrant life. Since the author himself has been living abroad, he offers a perspective on both the personal and political side of things. He speaks about the Indian Diaspora who attempt to preserve an 'idea' of an India that no longer exists. "At least among first generation immigrants, India remains the space of wholesome purity."

Citing films like Taal and Pardes, he says, "The grand portrayal of NRI nostalgia is emplematized by the presentation of a single imagine: the desirable Indian woman as an icon of docility and traditional charm, one manufactured on celluloid as an updated image of the mythical Sita"

And this preservation of 'nostalgia', the author believes, is expressed by the diaspora through their support to the Right Wing parties. BJP gets its greatest support from this segment, he notes. "I am disturbed that the 'soft' emotion of nostalgia in the diaspora is turned into the 'hard' emotion of fundamentalism"

Some of these discussions are extremely insightful, even if I felt that the first 50 pages of the book are tediously essayist in nature.
The literary references find the deepest resonance when he talks about his own journey and experiences. There are various literary figures he discusses and how they impacted and shaped his personality. One of them is Hanif Kureishi, whose candid and liberal ideas on love and sex affected the author who himself was trying to make a connection with women. Kureishi's book, Intimacy - about an extra marital affact - made quite an impression on him.

Amitava Kumar doesn't use the opportunity to criticise any of his colleagues' works but he does show his irritation with Salman Rushdie's use of stereotypes when the latter describes small town India or rustic characters.  The author feels it is a mistake to see small towns as a sleepy, provincial place as part of one's nostalgia and 'idea' of a village. These places are rapidly changing, he observes, becoming more aggressive than ever and changing the equation of politics.
The other literary observation that caught my eye was when the author asks Hanif Kureishi to compare himself with V S Naipaul and the former says that he likes women and sex, an aspect that is always missing from Naipaul's writings. "Naipaul can't write about marriage," he observes.

The book's finest moments are when the author describes his own journey and the intimate moments he shares with people close to him. He has courage to bare his feelings, even embarrassing ones. Also, Amitava is too refined to be unduly harsh on anyone. Not even in his wry description of Laloo Prasad Yadav, whom he visits in Patna. This could also be because most of the times the author is in an insecure state, fighting his own demons.

The Epilogue for me was the high point in the book, where the author narrates his friendship with a couple in US, giving a glimpse into the immigrant life and their inability to disconnect from their past. The episode with his uncle and aunt is also very poignant.

Amitava Kumar's book is undoubtedly rich. His great fluency with the English language allows him to succeed with a theme that is difficult to pull off. Of course, not everything about the book is perfect. The first 50 pages are almost devoid of any literary connection, so it's difficult to  ascertain where the book is heading. The author flits from topic to topic - some even unrelated ones ---so it becomes frustrating to find the connection each time.
But the rest of the book flows well, with some particular episodes really standing out. My admiration for Amitava Kumar is mostly for his writing, which I think is marvellous.

-Sandhya Iyer

15 May 2009

Subhashitavali: An Anthology of Comic, Erotic and Other Verse

Translated in English by N. D Haksar
: Penguin
Year of Publication: 2007
Price: 200 Rs

Verses on marital sensuality

The common understanding has always been that Sanskrit literature is serious. For primarily that reason alone, Subhashitavali (quite a tongue twister this) is a standout work in the oeuvre of Sanskrit classical literature. In fact, this can be a showcase work to prove how the language has produced its share of fun and flippant verse.

So what is the book all about? Written over 2000 years ago, this consists of a unique compilation of epigrams (circlet of well-said verses) by Sanskrit scholars and poets, including some very famous ones like Kalidasa, Vyas Muni and Vaalmiki.

Though reputed in literary circles, Subhashitavali is hardly known to general readership and was never translated in English, until very recently by N. D Haksar – a well-known translator of Sanskrit classics.

While the book has a definite ‘heritage’ value attached to it, its easy, readable content is probably what has led to its English translation. Also, its rich compilation of erotic verses that must have been a tempting proposition for the publishers. While tackling a number of themes – from nature to morality to worldly truths (a la Bacon’s essays), quite obviously, it is the erotica that is its central highlight.

Warring lovers making up in bed seems to be the predominant theme here and the result is a touching yet titillating peek into marital sensuality.

“Lips with colour kissed away,
Eyes bereft of kohl, tresses straggling on the face;
But at dawn, contented,
Their glory is more
Than of the night before
When merely ornamented.”

There are other sage observations as under;
“In pain, look at the greater pain,
In pleasure, on some greater pleasure
To grief and joy not surrender—
Both are your foes in equal measure.”

While there’s no reason you cannot enjoy these translated verses, one can never dismiss the chance that some of the original’s essence may have been lost here. Also, while some verses are extremely enjoyable, there are many others that are pretty ordinary.

Sample this:
“Tell me truly, O my love
what is it you do to me:
to hear you is a real pleasure
to see you is pure ecstasy.”
“Though they hide the heart’s desire
To begin making love,
The couple understands each other
Just by fleeting glances.”

So what makes Subhashitavali worth a read? The very fact that these verses were written thousands of years ago, offering a timeless perspective into marital eroticism (with its sexual politics, concept of beauty and issues of morality) makes it readable enough.
Also amidst all the moral policing that one sees today, with self-interest groups using India’s cultural past to thrust their own agendas, this piece of work quite remarkably lends a perspective into the sexual sensibilities of the time.
From a purely literary point of view, this is a mixed bag. The verses range from the pious to the profane, the earnest to the cynical, the elegant to the crass and the lyrical to sententious.
But for most part, this is a welcome diversion from the regular stuff.

-Sandhya Iyer

14 May 2009

The Storyteller's Tale

Author: Omair Ahmad
Publishers: Penguin
Price: 225

Telling tales

On first glance, this is an easy book to like. It's all of 125 pages and we all like crisp, short reads, don't we. Also, this has to be one of the most elegant covers I've seen in a while, and prettily laid out text too.
Yet, this novel by journalist turned writer Omair Ahmad left me with mixed feeling. I liked the concept of the book, but I couldn't help feeling a bit non plussed at the end of it.

Set in the 18th century, the author recounts the tale of a weary, heart-broken storyteller who wants to escape from the misery of seeing his beloved city -Delhi - being plundered by Afghan Ahmad Shah Adbali. With pain in his heart and no one to talk to, he takes off to another place riding on a stolen horse. He finds himself before a casbah, where a Begam and her retinue of servants take him in. The begam's husband is away - probably looting Delhi, as the storyteller resentfully assumes. But he's enamoured by her looks and hence accepts the hospitality.

Soon there begins a game of wits between the begam and the storyteller, with each telling a story that mirrors their state of mind. The storyteller starts with a very dark story about a wolf and a boy. It's a tragic tale of mistrust resulting from unrequited love that leads to a violent end. The begam is startled by the cynicism of the tale and offers to recount another story of her own. Her story is about filial love that passes the test of time, in spite of the impossibility of their worlds.

The storyteller is thrilled. He's finally met his match - someone who he can talk to through stories. The storyteller's next story takes the begam's tale - a fable about two brothers, one rich and the other poor - and he infuses into it a part of his distraught world. The story brings out his angst at his city being destroyed, a beauty that can never be restored. He knows the tale is too close for comfort for the begam but he reasons, 'who else can one tell the truth to if not the one who you love'
The begam responds with a story of her own and their last few tales gently tether towards a kind of forbidden love, alluding to their own secret feelings. These two strangers make a connection, sharing their innermost thoughts, veiled in stories. The storyteller's tales convey pain and loss...and a desperate need to get things off his chest since he finds an intellegent and a sensitive listener in the begam. On the other hand, the begam's story touches on how love can transcend power equations, probably gently alluding to herself and the storyteller.

The whole 'story within a story' narrative is interesting, even if it's just a reworking of your fables in Panchatantra and Arabian Nights. But frankly, I found the stories a little tepid, and felt a certain 'disconnect' between the characters and the tales they narrate.

However, what this book ultimately testifies is the power of human imagination and expression in an atmosphere of terror and how it always manages to find an outlet in art.

A word about Ahmad's writing. It flows well and he keeps it very simple (almost sparse). For the kind of genre this is - a novella set in a period- it could have done with a little more ornate style of writing. I missed William Darlymple's eloquence here.
My final thoughts are that the book left me intrigued, even if I was not entirely entertained by it.

An alternative review from Abhishek Bandekar aka Abzee. A deeply insightful one at that!

You either have nothing, or you have your freedom’. That is the overriding theme of political journalist Omair Ahmad’s dark novella The Storyteller’s Tale. Fashioned as a fable-within-fables, the long and short of this short story is a sanguineous (in the blood-iest Spanish sense of the word) examination of that most written of human emotions- love. And while one may have certain reservations with some of his curiously bleak reading of the state of being in love (curious because the author wrote this, I’m told, while he was recovering from the end of an affair), one cannot dismiss them. In fact, in the opinion of this humble reader, Ahmad’s novella is one of the finest and terribly profound treatises on love, critiqued with the non-ornate aplomb of a Jacobean tragedy and the heartbreaking regret and acknowledgment of Edith Wharton’s The Age Of Innocence.
So, at a time just after Ahmad Shah Abdali’s men have plundered and destroyed Delhi, a storyteller sets out to a distant unknown. The city he once loved is not what he remembers it to be. The unknown spells freedom. Had Abdali’s men not invaded Delhi, the storyteller would’ve lived on there, in love with the city. Setting out thus, he can look back; ruefully and unexpectedly observe that during his days in Delhi, when he spoke of friendship and love and all those things, love was merely ‘a currency of exchange of looks and glances’. Now… he had nothing… or he had his freedom!
Freedom at once jeopardized when his eyes see the Begum of an isolated grand haveli- a haveli that was probably built from the wealth of the vestiges of many Delhis. And yet, the storyteller was in love, captured… in bondage. This is where Ahmad voices his first paradox of love- of it being something that you are scared of, yet reach for with open arms…giving your whole hearts. The Begum, in a beautiful allusion, becomes the mirage in the desert for our storyteller.
The storyteller is invited to stay at the haveli…and share a story. He starts out with a tale of unrecognized love, a story of two brothers- a wolf and a boy. To which the Begum responds with a story of her own- of a love between brothers that transcends death. And so begins a wonderful game of love, of recounting enlightening stories that overlap each other, revealing, as in a pantimento, all new layers beneath those that have already been bared. Ultimately, what is left is the sheer hopelessness of love and the hope that lives on in that hopelessness!
Even before he’s begun his first story, the storyteller feels that he must escape. While the Begum is out hunting, the storyteller contemplates running away before it’s too late. But he cannot. He’s zapped- unable to look away from the beauty that stands in front of him… like the stag which stands hesitatingly on one hoof as the Begum nocks an arrow to her bowstring. And just like that, the arrow had driven deep inside. The decision was made for the storyteller. It was written for the stag.
And yet, strangely, the Begum was unhappy. The joy of the hunt had given way to a sudden sadness. The stag that looked majestic, a vision of stately authority that she wished to conquer, was unrecognizable now. The vivacity had vanished, the primacy bested.
To the storyteller though, it was a joy to be bested… to be defeated. How traditionally odd the exchange of love is!
An exchange that is made known in its purest innocent state when the little kid in the first story generously gives his name Taka (meaning nameless), given to him by his mother for he was born out of a relationship undefined by love or lust and compounded by silence, to his wolf brother. The irony of course is that the mother fails to see the act as a harmless selfless one, that the ‘name’ is ‘nameless’…and instead allows within her to grow an emotion that is defined by love- the emotion of hate. The kid, very rightly, ‘free’ of this ‘knowledge’ is called Wara (meaning free). The transfer of the name becomes poignant, when the mother kills the wolf cub mistaking him to have harmed her ‘free’ son. The adopted cub never ‘belongs’… he remains ‘nameless’!
This story brings to the fore the anxiety of the storyteller, who like the woman of his story, has set away from the land he once knew… accepting that which is doled out to him. His freedom has been encroached by his new love- the Begum; an emotion that could trigger that other linked emotion, hate. Had the storyteller not chosen to stay and instead continued along into the unknown, he could either have had nothing (Taka)… or he could have had his freedom (Wara)!
The Begum sees through the coded wisdom of the storyteller’s tale- of the primal aspect of love in the story of the wolf and the boy. She chooses to respond by humanizing the primal emotion, almost as if trying to assuage the storyteller’s fear of being the stag. She knows she’ll need a different kind of an arrow- a story with words as her weapon. She too narrates story of two brothers, but both human yet separated by privilege. She subverts being human of the first story to a privilege of riches in her story. So the generous human child of the storyteller’s story is the son of an Amir named Aresh (meaning generous). And the adopted wolf, the son of a lowly woodcutter. But in the Begum’s story, the unprivileged is privileged by fate. So the son of the woodcutter, called Barab (meaning pillar), is fated to be known as a brave soldier who extends the boundaries of his kingdom and whose virtues are extolled by the people of the region. Aresh meanwhile is inescapably doomed to cause calumny to his family name. His generosity for all its worth is left unrecognized. Incongruously, Barab sees himself as a mere copy of Aresh, unable to come to terms with the bloodshed required of a soldier. Unlike the wolf of the storyteller’s tale, he realizes that his name is not his but that which has been generously given to him by Aresh.
The Begum, with her story, responds to the fears of the storyteller in the same coded wisdom as that of his story. She would like him to know that though she is privileged, it is she who is doomed to be defamed in this affair. The storyteller need not assume the ruthless role, for it would only be a mere copy of her. He should accept her generosity, else he might have his freedom… but also have nothing!
The Begum’s story had allayed the storyteller’s fear of being rejected. It had also trapped him, made him overjoyed that he was defeated, bested! And yet, he had to be the hunter again… to best her.
And so he begins with his subversion of the Begum’s tale. Of Aresh and Barab. We are told that Barab was intended to be named Taka by his mother. And Barab, despite not knowing this, senses the Taka within. So the unprivileged of the Begum’s story is also the nameless wolf. It is this acknowledgment of the Taka within that allows Barab to see the honour in Taka’s death when he’s told of Taka and Wara’s story. There’s honour in dying guiltless, in proving your love while it still exists.
In the storyteller’s tale, Barab had awarded honour to Taka’s death, but at the same time had trapped the others in guilt… guilty to harbouring hate born out of love. Even Wara wasn’t free. It was this realization which makes him connect with the Taka within and gives him the sobriquet of a Wolf in battle. But Barab knows that he must seek death while there’s still honour in it, while his love still exists.
The storyteller’s rejoinder had all but refused the Begum’s proposal of love. He couldn’t see her and her haveli (what it stood for), as separate from each other. She stood for destruction and he was unwilling to be destroyed in love. He had to escape, while his love still exists. He’d rather have nothing… and his freedom!
Omair Ahmad by way of his storyteller addresses the tragedy of being in love. Of how you wish to be only true in it, even if meant revealing your true self to the one you love. The storyteller, like the stag, had given no thought to his safety, and had fallen in love. And yet, it was this love, which had made him reveal his inner turmoil.
And the Begum… she wanted to grasp this love before it slipped away. Was she to blame? Could she have resisted pulling the bowstring?
So, in one final retorting story, the Begum makes a case for herself. The story, though of Aresh and Barab, chooses to talk of those who do not make stories, but are only a part of it. A story nevertheless, where the seed of sin– a relationship undefined by love or lust and compounded by silence –is resolved.
Omair Ahmad closes out the novella with a moving revelation that finally, it is in the unloving that love truly triumphs. Until then, love is merely conquest. As the wise maid Mehrunnisa says to the Begum, “Eating another’s heart hardens one’s own!” In The Storyteller’s Tale and the tales within them, Ahmad familiarizes us with the darker facets of being in love. And like the cities left behind in ruins by their invaders, you can either choose to sift through the memories and futilely try to hold on to something or accept the new journey along altered maps. You can either have nothing… or you can have your freedom!

Interview with Omair Ahmad

1) You mentioned somewhere that just before you wrote The Storyteller's Tale, you suffered a heart break in real life. If I may ask, did that in any way have a bearing on the subject you chose. Is Delhi and its destruction in any way a personification of those feelings? In any case, how did the theme come about?

I'd like to avoid the first part of this question, if I may. The setting of the story came about when I was doing a short research project about the poets of Delhi, from Amir Khusro in the 12th century to Daag Dehlvi in the 19th, and how they dealt with the realities of
their city. One of them, Mir Taqi Mir, left Delhi in pretty much the circumstances I describe in the beginning of the book, and it is his poetry that I've used. He was a fascinating figure, the only poet that Ghalib ever praised, and who had deep feelings about his city, as well as being a great poet on the theme of unrequited love. I had initially written the story without a historical context, simply beginning with a storyteller coming out of the wilderness and seeing a beautiful house. There were no side characters, and the politics came in only later when I contextualised it in 18th century India.

2) Mindless violence is a central point of the book and also a recurrent motif in all the stories. Does that aspect pertain to the period alone or were you conscious about the theme resonating with our current crisis --- with wars and human rights violation in Pakistan, India, Afganistan and now Sri Lanka.
Was that the point where you "became" the storyteller in the book in a more pronounced way?

Oh yes, I certainly wanted to highlight the theme of violence, and the fact that it is also a contemporary feature of our life even today. As I said I only contextualised it in South Asia later, but it's amazing that Ahmad Shah Abdali (or Ahmad baba) is considered the
founder of the modern Afghani state, while to us he is the personification of violence. These contradictions are still with us, and I think that humanity will always contain this seed of destruction.
Hard to say where I 'became' the storytller more, but I have worked on international politics and militancy for a major part of my life, and so violence is something that I've had to confront and think about.

3) While the stories allude to the deep pain that the storyteller feels on account of his beloved city burning, the narratives in between have both the lead characters (the begam and the storyteller) pleasuring the thought of having a new 'lover' in their lives. Their stories are meant to offer a hint into their inner feelings. But the choices of the characters in the stories are queer. One is about a wolf and a boy, the others are about two brothers. Did you wonder if this could make it difficult for the reader to draw a metaphorical association to the central characters?

I'm not sure that it was meant to be a conventional love story. And really I was only writing this for myself when I started out -- I didn't think about it geing published. So no I really didn't think about the audience, I was only exploring old ideas of pain in various fables, myths and stories I'd heard as a child.

4)What prompted you to use fables as stories?

Well I think that fables are very powerful. Sometimes there are ways of something very powerfully in a fable that we can't in any other way. Think of Karna's rejection by Kunti and his relations with the other Pandava brothers, in the Mahabharata and how powerful that idea is. I was powerfully moved by fables when I was a child, so when I sat down to write the first of these stories I retold a fable that had affected me in my own way.

5) Both the stories are about two brothers, one more privileged than the other. Can you elaborate on this motif? Also, while the stories seem to carry a definite political overtone, the private narration (by the begam and storyteller) seems to mitigate it somewhat, making it appear that it’s really about the matters of the heart. How were you approaching this as a writer?

Yes, a lot of the book is about privilege and power, and how that affects love. Whether it is power that is the overriding principle or love, and who pays the price? In the first the wolf is the weaker one, and pays the price, in the second the Amir's son is the powerful one and yet he pays the price, and so on. I'm not sure, by the way, whether we can divide the political and personal so easily. How we deal with power, in a relationship that has to do with love or with politics, is a constant.

6) If you can tell us about what you’re currently working on…

I'm currently working on a novel, "Jimmy the Terrorist" dealing with issues of alienation, radicalisation, religion and politics in eastern Uttar Pradesh from the 70s to the 90s. That, and a non-fiction book on Bhutan, partly a travelogue and historical narrative about the country emerging into the world and its push towards democracy.

-Sandhya Iyer

12 May 2009

Paulo Coelho’s The Winner Stands Alone

Glam - 'Sham'

Author: Paulo Coelho
Pages: 373
Price: 325
Publishers: Harper Collins

Personally, I’ve never been a fan of The Alchemist or its “life-altering profundity”
But yes, I do recogonise it as a hugely successful book, given that almost everyone out there who can read has read it (and much like with Chetan Bhagat’s bestsellers or Khalid Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, mass popularity of books in India is not something to be undermined given how precious little is read anyway).

The other Paulo book I've read is Eleven Minutes, which a friend gifted some years back. I don’t remember much of it except that I was riveted by the story initially. But quickly it spiralled downwards, and then just became a sorry excuse to peddle soft porn.
Unfortunately, Paulo’s latest, The Winner Stands Alone, turned out far worse than I expected. Given that his works are basically translated from Portuguese, one probably ought to give him a bit of a leeway but it’s still annoying how the story is narrated in present tense (but this is something you will probably get used to as the story progresses).

The bigger issue is that that the setting and story ring totally false. So what’s it about? A one line summary of the book would read as 'a gathering of the rich and famous at Cannes even as a multi millionaire serial killer is on the prowl to reclaim his wife'. And the glitzy backdrop of the festival offers Paulo an opportunity to ruminate on many of the superficialities that lurk beneath the surface glory and glamour. Sadly, Paulo’s narrative turns out just as synthetic as the world he wishes to critique.

The characters are predictable, namely, a small town girl - embittered by the experience back home is determined to become a model. Another one wants to be an actress and is anxious she might miss the bus, as she’s 25 already (judging from the two books I’ve read, one can’t be too pleased with the way Paulo portrays young women….in Eleven Minutes especially, I found a definite attempt on his part to titillate the reader). There's a filmmaker, who is trying to get her movie financed by a leading distributor.

These are some of the important characters but the major one is that of Igor, a rich businessmen who is at Cannes in search of his wife Ewa, who left him a couple of years back and is living with a hot shot fashion designer, Hamid Hussain. Each of the characters comes in contact with the other and their destinies collide in small and big ways. All this while, Igor is quietly going about his business of murdering at least four people in separate incidents.

As I mentioned, the story never really strikes you as authentic and the reason (among many) is because there is an awkward distance between the author and his subject. Paulo betrays a definite inadequacy in the understanding of his setting and characters, which is why a redundancy and tedium creeps in ever so often. Most of the players are stereotypes and the only character who could have probably held your interest is Igor but he’s portrayed as so cold, unidimensional and staid that you don’t look forward to any of his encounters with the other characters. In general too, there is not a single character you feel for. This is because they are just too typical, potrayed without any real nuance, depth or imagination.

The only way this quasi thriller could have been salvaged was if it was a quick fire read. But that’s not the case, as there’s a colossal amount of preaching that follows every character’s action. The language tends to be heavy and along with the rambling, it makes for an uneven, uneasy read.
The only positive perhaps is the structure of the narrative, which moves back and forth, tracking a character’s back story and so on – the sole mental exercise that the novel offers you.

With Paulo, you expect him to tell a story, pause and then throw up an existential quandary.
That’s exactly what he does here but sadly, this story cuts no ice so there’s not much pop spirituality to look forward to either.

The only one remotely interesting page I found was on Paulo’s assessment on what human beings consider ‘normal’. Most of what we do is governed by what is ‘acceptable’ rather than what we think is correct.
But barring that, not recommend at all. At least with Eleven Minutes, I felt I had entered a real world for some time but with this one, you get the feeling of being stranded with a clueless bystander.

Short interview with Paulo Coelho

Your latest book basically looks at the superfluous lives lead by the rich and famous….Is that the only overarching theme of the book that you were trying to explore and emphasize or are there other things that drew you towards this subject as well?

In this book I wanted to explore how dreams can be manipulated and how people get shattered in the process. I’m not condemning vanity – since all under the sun is vanity as Salomon said. What I am interested in is in how people allow themselves to be dispossessed of themselves. In our current society there are collective standards that are completely anonymous and yet many try to subscribe to them. Some people believe their happiness is conditioned by money, fame, beauty… How does that happen? This book arose from this central question.

Your central character, Igor ‘destroys worlds’ How exactly do you perceive this character?

When I started to write the book, I had no clue where it would lead me. Somehow the characters take their destiny from the hands of the creator. My main surprise with Igor is that he justifies his crimes in the name of love. This contradiction gradually unfolded page after page. In a way I was a spectator of my character: he had a will of his own and led me towards very dark places. I needed to follow him – in order to see how far we can go in our insanity. I’m a writer and it’s not because I write a novel that it means that I justify all the characters’ actions. There are no justifications for Igor’s murderous acts and I never pretended throughout the novel to “judge” any of the characters in their cravings, illusions, and achievements.

All your books have some philosophical insight to offer. Since you are looked upon as a ‘healer' of sorts by millions of readers, I'm curious to know if that is the role that you primarily assume while writing or choosing a theme - ie to send a message and influence.

With success, the dimensions change but the inner feeling of sharing my soul with others remains intact. I’m living the dream I had in my youth but I never look upon this dream as something that has an end. As long as I’m able to live, think and love, the spark will continue.

What’s coming up next? And what are the themes you would like to explore in the future?

I can’t say since I’m not currently writing. I don’t like to speculate about what I may or not write. It takes away the “momentum” when I actually sit down and start a story.

02 May 2009

Some thoughts on 'A Thousand Splendid Suns'

The Veil of Disenchantment

Author: Khaled Hosseini
Pages: 420
Publishers: Bloomsbury
Genre: Epic- drama
Price: 495

His stories still resemble the good old Bollywood film with the 'oh-so-it-was-him!' kind of twists, but here, fortunately there isn't that much  contrivance and the few that are there take nothing away from the central premise - ie the wretched state of women in Afghanistan and the inhuman nature of their existence.

Where The Kite Runner' story appeared more and more corny by the end, here Hosseini keeps his narrative more natural - capturing well the vulnerable state of his two spirited women protagonists. For better or worse, their fates are intertwined with the erratic and ever fluctuating socio-political situation in the country. It's poignant to see Marium and Laila being stifled under regimes like Taliban (that won't even allow them to step out of their house without a man to take them!) because both of them grow up as smart girls in relatively happy conditions. The author draws your attention to an erstwhile Afghanistan in the 60s, 70s and 80s where you had educated women who were doctors and lawyers. Having seen a better life in their childhood, both Marium and Laila are but naturally shocked by the cruel blow of fate that falls upon them in adulthood.

Marium is the illegitimate child of a rich father, and following the death of her mother marries a much older man, Rasheed. The latter is a prototype of a male chauvinist - perfectly happy with the status quo of a woman being treated subservient to a man. Which is why, he never quite criticises the gorilla army of the Taliban when they take over the country much later. He views their rigid, inhuman laws with ' a sort of forgiving bemusement' as Hosseini so fittingly describes. And yet, to the author’s credit, Rasheed never slips into being a caricature. In the initial stages of the marriage, he displays some tender fibres - even if he expects complete submission from his wife.
It is when Marium fails to deliver him a child after a douzen miscarrages that he unleashes his cruel male side, stinging her with sarcasm and crushing her spirit at every turn.

The Soviet invasion in the 80s incites a freedom struggle. Late towards the 90s, the Muhajadeens take over from them but it doesn't last, as different factions (based on caste and ideology) emerge, leading to a civil war. Families are destroyed, many of them flee to neighbouring countries like Iran and Pakistan..some even to US and UK. But the crisis mounts as many borders are sealed and refugee camps come up.

It is in this crossfire that Laila, the novel's second protagonist finds herself in. With her family dead and lover declared dead, she agrees to marry Rasheed who gives her a home. Marium and Laila are now step-wives sharing the same roof, each one living in sorrowful silence. In The Kite Runner, the novel's heartbreaking moments involve Amir and Hasan's childhood. In this novel, things are more tempered but still there are moments of great intensity that the author manages to build up. For example. Laila and her relationship with the crippled yet serenely sensuous Tariq comes closest to being one of the most touching parts of the novel.

The union of their souls - Marium and Laila-- coincides with the disintegration of Afghanistan into an abyss of religious fanaticism, propagated by the regime of the Taliban. It is amidst this chaos that both women form a bond and ultimately find their redemption.
Laila and Tariq return to Kabul (they settle in Pakistan in the meantime) after the US take over Afghanistan after 9/11 and the place starts to appear safer. This is obviously an autobiographical element - as Hosseini and his family had come visiting their homeland in 2003 to see how it had changed and if they could offer any help to its people.

What is commendable about the author's writing here is that even though the theme allows him to probably go all out and be emotionally manipulative in his treatment, he shows restraint - never losing focus of the bigger picture. Given Hosseini's present work as a US envoy for a UN refugee agency, you know his concerns are heart-felt and that clearly comes forth in the novel.

A Thousand Splendid Suns - in its theme of displacement, human suffering on account of wars and human rights violation ----is much like another favourite book of mine, Half Of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I like how both these books weave in a fictionalised dramatic story mirroring the real life human crisis around them.

The novel has an expansive, textured setting that he achieves once again and his skill as a writer - finding the exact words to describe something (great dialogues) or never letting his leads slip out of character- it all works well for the story. Importantly, he opens up an interesting window into a country and its people, telling stories with much passion and yes, readability.