Friday, August 31, 2007

Rant of an Unpublished Writer

I am in the mood to grouch, ouch! One question that was asked of a publisher during the “Kitab” festival in Bombay was whether the “looks” of an author is important in publishing him/her. And the answer was rather telling on the publishing successes that have made it to the top of the slush pile and failures that dot the publishing world like carrion in a war. Looks does matter. People look at the artistically modeled photograph on the blurb for the “celebrity factor” before buying a book, or, so it seems. The acid test to pass to be published seems to be: be a celebrity already, or, be good looking.

I refer to a recent conversation with a published author, and she said she received positive feedback for her book within three months and her book was published in six months. Now this author is attractive, has a nice smile and is young. What if an author isn’t any of these and still manages to write well?

What part does looks play in being published? Face it, ours is a very looks oriented culture, where looks (here I also mean the color of the skin, the arch of the eyebrows, the curve of the nose, and the shape of the lips) are everything. And a person who has looks takes on the conceit of good-looking people and develops a sort of aura around themselves.

It is this personal aura that the movie, publishing, sports and television world is trying to propagate, to bring viewers, and readers in. Let’s face it, it’s a characteristic that the managers, the book packagers are looking for, and actively promoting. But, can looks be equated to the success of a book? Isn’t the intellectual content and depth what makes a novel stand out? Or is it the way the author reclines and the way light kisses his/her hair in profile? I don’t know; I am confused.

Gone are the days when a writer had to prove his/her talents at the primary level by writing book reviews, short stories and poems and then graduate to bigger things like writing novels. The shape of the nose, lips, eyebrows, etc. was not that important so far as the writer could do what he ought to do, i.e., write well. Nowadays if raw talent is spotted then the minders take over and groom them for their day of reckoning. And then what happens? The writer becomes conceited and fails the real test of a writer: to keep at one’s art as a carpenter does with his carpentry and a mason does with his masonry, i.e., to write even when one is lost and uninspired.

To be published or not to be published doesn’t matter now, sadly, after so many rejections. The only down side is that I have lost faith in the process and the maxim, “Great nations and civilizations produce great books and produce and nurture authors to greatness.” The playing field isn’t level anymore, to use a cliché, and today not many novels that have been put through the get-famous-first-and-then-publish books would merit a second look. I have abandoned such books after the first few pages. They are unreadable. No wonder their authors don’t have the guts to attempt a second book, and resign to the tag of “one book wonders.”

As for “writers aspiring to greatness” I would counter, “Are there any writer in this category in the modern world?”

Monday, August 6, 2007

Suketu Mehta - Maximum City - Bombay Lost and Found

I read Suketu Mehta’s mostly melodramatic work “Maximum City” with a raised eyebrow, a drooping jaw, and a mouth, as if I had eaten bitter gourd. I was suggested this book by the late Shakti Bhatt when I had gone to meet her about my novel. This book had just been released to the accompaniment of a lot of hype and she said it is recommended reading. Since my reading list was long, I could only lay my hands on this book now.

Shakti had said when I met her that my novel would be acceptable if it was, more or less, similar to “Maximum City” and I had, on the exigency of the moment, said it is. And, now, regrettably I find it isn’t. Sorry, Shakti! The reason is: Maximum City is certainly elitist, as it is told by a diamond merchant’s son who has no empathy for the common Bombayite, however harried he is by the capriciousness of the city he had left in his boyhood. On the contrary, my novel is about the dregs, the common migrants to Bombay from the village, who will not even find a mention in Mehta’s oeuvre, except as someone to be laughed at and ridiculed.

So Mehta comes from the US of A and finds a lot of things not to his liking. He, for one, lives in the poshest areas of the city – Malabar Hill – and, even here, finds faults with what is considered a tony area where an average Bombayite can only dream of living. (It must be mentioned here that no area of Bombay can be considered “posh” as even in posh Malabar Hill one would find slum-like hutments infested by the poor, who are actually drivers, and menial servants of the rich.)

What I find so jarring is the consistent melodrama in the narrative. Most of the narrative consists of description of the loony fringe crowd. I know this crowd exists in every city; creatures of the night that live during the night and sleep during the day. So what happens when the son of a diamond trader slums with the loony crowd of Bombay? Of course, he gets treated like royalty.

That’s what is wrong with the book. It’s told from an elitist point of view, by a person who still hasn’t shed the skin of an American and hasn’t descended to the level of the common, job-holding, eking-a-living Bombayite who commutes daily by train. Only if he could descend from his high pedestal could Mehta have discovered the aspirations of the men and women on the gallis of Bombay. So the book is shamelessly written for a foreign audience, knowing fully well that if it sells in the west it will sell here too.

So, the voice Mehta employs is maudlin melodramatic with every sentence having the tinge of sadness, mixed with the rosy-tinted-glasses-view of nostalgia for something the author had left long ago in his distant childhood, of which he is happy to be rid of.

Most of the narrative is based in a dance bar called Sapphire. But who goes to dance bars? The fringe crowd, no less, the aspirants to fame in Bollywood Boulevard, the cross dressers (such as Manoj [a man who dresses as a woman], on whom a lot of pages are indulged), gangsters, and the loony fringe crowd referred above. Everything is narrated in such grotesqueness that one blanches at the repeated assaults of crassness on one’s senses. Are we thus, Mr. Mehta?

Another galling thing is how Mehta takes a swipe at the royalty of Bollywood itself, which honors him so much. Amitabh comes out in the pages of the book, not as iconic as one would have expected and even Vidhu Vinod Chopra isn’t shown in any kind soft-focus. Bachchan is referred thusly: “Bachchan tells us what effect our film should have on the audience. ‘You need to catch them by the crotch and shake them up’.” Mehta has seen and met them all. Even stars like Hritik and Shahrukh aren’t held in any awe by this son of a wealthy Non-resident Indian (NRI) diamond merchant.

That makes me wonder: If I had the chance, would I have written a better account? Why, here is a man who is lionized by the elite, the film stars, the directors, the school he studied in, and his relatives. Wherever he goes there’s adulation and praise, “he is a writer from the US of A” and because of this I guess the book fails to reach out to the aam admi, the common man on the Bombay streets. Or, so I think.

Consider his dalliance with Mona Lisa, a model and a Bollywood aspirant. He doesn’t mention if he has had an affair with her, but describes meetings with her in her flat, all alone and even in her bedroom. (Of course, he can’t divulge all the details, but then he should have kept that secret away from the book.) But if she is beautiful and he meets her in her bedroom, better be more honest to readers and reveal if he has had an affair with her, and not beat around the bush too much. Or, else keep it out of the book altogether, which the author hasn’t chosen to do, taking the reader into looping circles, to guess the extent of his feelings for Mona Lisa.

Vidu Vinod Chopra who heaps so much friendship and care on him is made to look ridiculous in the book. He looks like a manqué impresario of some kind. Naturally Chopra took offense against Mehta after the release of the book, but Mehta defended himself saying that he has the right, as a writer, to mention details of what transpired in private conversations with the Bollywood icons.

Anu Malik isn’t spared either. “He weeps and wails; he will not ask for a single paisa. The money is nothing compared to their friendship, he declares through his sobs.” The scene is when Malik calls Chopra to ask him to let him score the music for his forthcoming film. So this is how it is in Bollywood, is it Mr. Malik? I wonder if this is why you are so uncompromisingly harsh on participants in the talent show The Indian Idol. As an elder, you are probably preparing them for what is to follow, I guess.

The story of murderers, and rioters is another matter. Yes, indeed, Mehta should be admired for having the guts to meet them, risking his own life. Some of the men he has met and written about do not value life, and even his life could have been in jeopardy. Mehta is bold and perspicacious in this respect. Of course, he has a clearness of vision that can only come with having stayed away from Bombay for a few years. I, for one would have been scared shit to go into situations that he has been through for the book (this answers the question I posed in the beginning of this review, i.e., would I have been able to write a similar book?). In that respect this book is seminal.

The final chapters of the book deal with Ladhani’s taking of Diksha – the rich Jain diamond merchant’s renunciation of the world to atone for the sins he and his ancestors have committed in this sinful world. It isn’t clear if Mehta is questioning the beliefs of a certain religious section, or through it, portraying the quotidian aspects of Indian culture. He describes the functions that form a part of taking Diksha in great detail, as if the book were dealing solely in this religious custom. A diamond merchant who underpays his minions just throws away his wealth in the last few days of worldly life before taking total renunciation. Again the narrative voice is melodramatic and condescending in an elitist way. Sure, it may earn the author “oohs, and aahs, and is that so?” from a western audience, but would the Indian followers of the religion be as kind?

These chapters also speak poorly of the exploitative nature of Indian business owners. Ladhani’s types pay their workers a pittance in the process of accumulating their millions. But the accumulating of wealth also accumulates the feeling of guilt for having exploited the poor, which leads him to the ultimate sacrifice of the self – renunciation. Direct proof of this is recorded in the book, as the author mentions visiting a poor relation in Ahmedabad who works in such a diamond factory owned by the likes of Ladhani. This relation is dirt poor and lives a life of deprivation while working in one of the sweat shops owned by the equals of his rich relations.

I have had a brief association with the diamond industry as I covered it for a financial fortnightly. What I found inside the factories was abject, exploitative greed. In a factory I visited to interview the managing director, the young workers seemed so dispirited by the work in the repetitive diamond-polishing jobs that they squatted in a row outside the factory with their faces tightly ensconced in their folded hands, probably crying. The boys and girls looked like they should have been in college.

I am not questioning Mehta’s motives. But as a writer of Indian origin, especially one belonging to the well-off Diaspora, he has a responsibility toward his mother country, a responsibility and respect toward a city that has nurtured him in his boyhood which empathy is not displayed in the narrative of Maximum City. At least, I didn’t find it. In the ultimate analysis it is a quasi-sensational book written for the foreign audiences’ hunger for exotica.

However, it must be admitted that the strength of the book lies in Mehta’s perspicacity and boldness in giving the city of his childhood the portrayal it has lacked all this while. It is a chronicle of a city a boy had “lost” in his childhood which he “finds” again as a sophisticated adult living in an advanced country, and which leaves him baffled by its absolute crassness, when compared to the more orderly western world.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Essay: Hypocrisy, Schizophrenia and the Wired World

Schizophrenia, Hypocrisy and the Wired World

The wired world is floating on a web of falsehood. At call centers, they aren’t called their real names, but depersonalized “Lisa” and “Sue” who, one finds, are actually “Lakshmi” and “Shanti.” That’s unfair, that’s untruthful, that’s cheating. It seems the corporates are out to cheat and grab in the guise of improving productivity. The work they insource (my own term!), is usually grunge duties that would cost a lot to get done in their own back office. But that’s the way the world is being run, and it seems the purveyors of appeasement can't do a thing about it. And, believe me it is schizophrenic: the way identities are westernized; the way youth are trained to talk and behave in an alien manner, and persuaded into thinking that being westernized is better than being what they really are, i.e., desis.

I am a networker, and like networking. I posted something online and a miscreant came and posted negative feedback under cover of an assumed name – which according to the sultans of the web is acceptable, and an agreeable practice. He attacked me (my person) and writing (even my thought process) from behind a mask of an assumed internet identity. I read the post again recently and became somewhat upset. I don’t know why he can’t cast away anonymity and show his real name, and, of course, give his honest view, as a law-abiding, committed person should. I think people such as him are ashamed of themselves, the way they are. Well, the better alternative would have been to make truce with his own identity and go ahead with his life, instead of opting for the schizophrenia and hypocrisy of his double existence.

Recently a girl from Sierra Leone asked me to add her on a chat messenger. I did. The request is quite exigent. I don’t know who this person is; her profile page is blank, but I am lenient in such matters. It turned out that her late father, who was owner of a big gold mine, had left some gold dust in some bank and she wanted me to help her by transferring it in my name. Imagine! What the heck? Why should she want me of all the people, an Indian, so many seas and continents away, to do that? Maybe, because Indians are known to be such greedy suckers. See the absurdity of her request?

There is this cartoon that illustrates the hypocrisy that prevails on the net. It shows a shady looking man with an unshaven chin, bleary eyes, bald head, wearing a vest and pajamas typing on the computer “I am a blond bombshell, attractive, having voluptuous figure and horny as hell,” and on the other side there is the hag of a woman (with whom he is chatting), typing and grinning toothlessly, “I am a macho guy with bulging biceps, six-pack abs and looks like George Clooney.” That shows how hypocritical we have become, we denizens of the networked world.

The web is a web of falsehood as our online lives have also turned out to be. There are thousands of emails I receive from Alex, Joan, Linda who for all I know could be someone in China or Philippines who have names like “Han Li Chin” and “Sung Fu Fok.” They all have offers for plans to be millionaires overnight and also, pssst, sell cheap Viagra and Cialis.

And there are these lengthy emails from Ishmael Abidi from Congo who has been left a big fortune of million dollars by his wife who is a Congolese warlord’s stepdaughter's sister. He only needs $ 1000 from me to transfer the millions in my name. Hypocrite! Can I believe him? I click and send the offending mail to my “Trash” box without much thought. Sorry, Ishmael, I am no sucker for your offer of millions.

Come to think of it, none other than the doyen of the consumer movement in India was deluded by such an offer and gave his own and his organization’s money away to get his hands on the millions. Alas! If only they were true, and not falsehoods.

With the Internet the baser instincts of man seem to have magnified, no, multiplied. The Internet is flooded with sites that offer every debauchery known to man. From weird sex to cheap Viagra and Cialis, everything is available for your credit card number and name. And there are these greedy expatriate Indians who set up sweatshops in technology parks thinking they can be the next best thing to Infosys. It’s easy to spot them. The first thing they do is upload a website that says they offer everything in outsourcing from call centers (customer relationship management, or, CRM, according to them), supply chain management (Or, SCM) to medical transcription and even online secretarial services. The more the better. The more the hypocrisy the better it is!

And, then they go about promoting themselves. The idea is to give the appearance of size, “we are big” and all that. What they forget is to pay their programmers and content writers what they pay for babysitting their children back in the US. I know because when it comes to paying for the quality of programming and content on their websites they would say, “Well, take $ 500, or, leave it.” As for buying genuine software, they aren’t bothered. They know the stupid authorities in India will never catch them.

You can find thousands of websites of such companies cluttering the web with lousy stolen content, and bad programming. If the poor writer suggests that they write genuine content, his idea, and even his content is swatted down. And, yes, to impress they even put white papers on their sites. What white papers? They haven’t even begun operations and what white papers can they write? They have stolen these too! Shows their total bankruptcy of ideas. Also shows Indians everywhere are the same, unethical, immoral and compromised. It seems the anonymity of the net offers us the chance (not the choice) to be hypocritical and split personalities.

Whatever we knew as fair, equitable and moral aren’t anymore. The Internet, the wired and the connected world have seen to that. Today the shift has been towards how much you own, how much you can get paid for some skill that you have, and bargain hard to get the most you can. If you have none, such as the poor uneducated farmer, who has none of the skills of the wired world, then it’s better that you kill yourself as many are doing.

Is there hope? Is there a way out of this schizoid existence? I don’t know. I am in no position to answer that question.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Novel: Shalimar the Clown - Salman Rushdie

We are all familiar with the sad, sad story of Kashmir. In fact, let’s shed a collective tear for this beautiful land, that hasn’t seen a semblance of peace in the past many years. Paradise, it has been, still is, but no longer a haven of peace. There is the rumble of armoured vehicles, bombs, mines and bullets shot from the most modern killing weapons as proof. Death haunts the valley. It takes the power of Salman Rushdie’s pen to script a story of the rape of this land and the disillusionment of its people in the face of unending terror.

Rushdie writes a masterpiece of literary skill and an epic-proportion chronicle of all that has gone wrong with the state in which the spectre of terrorism has arisen. His prose brings the struggle between the protectors and the oppressed with such felicity that one is, truth be told, left dazed and amazed.

But that is not the Kashmir Shalimar the clown was born into. It was the Kashmir where the Muslim Bhand Pather performers and the Hindu wazza were friends and gently ribbed each other in the halcyon days of yore. Shalimar, the clowning member of the Bhand Pathers performing group is in love with Boonyi Kaul, daughter of the village wazza, or, head chef, who can cook up delicious Kashmiri meals, minimum thirty-six finger-licking delicacies.

Tragically Shalimar and Boonyi marry, and thereby begin their trials.

Panchigam, or, village of birds - where Rushdie’s novel is set - is heaven personified before terrorist insurgency and the army turn it into a virtual hell. Bhand Pathers do their acts which include “magic real” acts and tight rope walking by the clown – Shalimar. It is the place where the local Hindu – Pandit Pyarelal Kaul makes excellent cuisines with 36 dishes minimum to feed his friends that include his friend Abdullah Noman, the village chief and Shalimar’s father. All’s well in the small Kashmiri village and its inhabitants.

Into the valley comes a Rajput General Kachchwaha, the tortoise, who as representative of the Indian army is there to protect the inhabitants against militants personified by the Gegroo brothers who, goaded by the extremists across the border, become terrorists.

The army isn’t the bunch of angels they are presumed to be in this once peaceful paradise. That we know. Headed by a ruthless man, who remains a bachelor all his life, it is ruthless when it comes to putting down rebellion. There is no softness or mercy in their training manuals, and once unleashed their passions are immitigable.

General Kachchwaha instead of protecting the villagers turns his men into an evil force and unleashes a reign of terror only matched by the Gegroo brothers’ evil deeds. Who is the protector, who is the purveyor of terror, the line is thin, the division is indistinct.

Rushdie begins with Ambassador Max Ophuls’ death and then weaves a pastoral memory of Kashmir and develops a plot thicker than Swiss cheese. Yes, it has all the hallmark of the Rushdie genius, be it in the description of the French Resistance whence the “Grey Rat” rules the internecine labyrinths, or, the tragic life of the clown whose love life is doomed from the beginning. Yes, revenge is sweet, seems to be the major theme of the novel and it’s played out beautifully in the revenge of Shalimar and that of the shamed inhabitants of Panchigam.

Particularly noteworthy are the passages where the step father and step daughter: one a hardened terrorist and the other an athletic American youngster, are involved in a cat and mouse chase and a telepathic battle of wits across America. Some of the “magic realism” such as the clown walking away into thin air from across the prison, and the situation inside the US prison are well handled. Obviously, as with his previous novels, a lot of research has gone into the writing of this book.

Moreover, the novel is not only about unrequited love but also about the friendship of the Noman and Kaul families that is disrupted by terror. Kashmir even “Kashmiriyat” will never be the same again. Reading the novel one questions the very banality of using terror to bring social justice or even to bring about political settlement. The whole exercise seems futile; the very foundation on which the use of terror is built seems shaky. Hope someone sees sense in this message that the novel sends out.

It’s a sad novel in the sense of utter hopelessness of its characters. While Shalimar is tragedy personified Boonyi, the Kashmiri beauty, is even more so by her exploitation by the prurient US ambassador. Rushdie usually bases his characters and story on true incidents. This reviewer wonders on which story he based Boonyi’s ill-fated affair with a powerful US ambassador. Midnight’s Children was based in part on the famous Nanavati murder case, which occurred in Bombay. Old-timers would recollect how it shook the placid exterior of Bombay society in the fifties.

This reviewer wishes to draw here some parallels between Kashmir and Kalimpong as portrayed in the novels of Rushdie and Kiran Desai. These are places that are going through the same genre of problems. On the one hand there are ill-informed young cadres of terrorists trained by their harsh masters and on the other the mighty arm of the law that is sent to control them or to wipe them out using the force of guns.

The people, such as you and me, caught in the middle of this tussle bears the brunt of this tug of war, as is ably described by Rushdie in this novel, and by Desai in The Inheritance of Loss. This is the stuff we have heard happening in banana republics of less developed countries. Is this where we are headed? Is this the reality behind the empty rhetoric our leaders have foisted on us in the name of democracy?

Would definitely recommend the novel if only to know the reality of Kashmir, the customs of its people, and its myriad problems. After all the truth of Kashmir concerns us all, however insulated we may be.

Novel: An Iron Harvest - CP Surendran

Poet and columnist CP Surendran's debut novel "An Iron Harvest" is a living chronicle of how an industrially backward state took a leap into radical ideology of the industrial era (communism) to find itself slowly enmeshed in a seemingly unending class struggle.

Communism has been a by-product of the industrial age of systematic production, streamlined marketing and shrewed people management and its failure is in most parts because of the eclipsing of the industrial age by the information age. The information age is another deal. Here people work as if no clocks exists. But still, communism continues to thrive and prosper in an industrially backward state, Kerala, and has fanatical adherents there who believe that revolution is possible and that workers of the world can rule countries. CP Surendran's novel depicts such a group of people who is bent on carrying on with the idea of revolution.

Kerala is the first state in the world to elect a communist government by a democratic voting process in 1959. Almost half a century later, it is today (in 2007) ruled by a communist government though all over the world communist governments have failed. Communist Russia and China have embraced market realities and its communal ideologies have been washed away by capitalism. But Kerala still adheres to Marx and his teachings of dialectic materialism. The exploited labour force still believe that only a communist revolution can redeem their plight, and have a stranglehold over industrial enterprises across the state.

It is in such a revolution that John, ersatz Che Guevera, protagonist of Surendran's novel fights for his ideology, and believes he can achieve with this associates. He along with his band of men are killing evil landlords, attacking police stations, terrorizing the ruling class to bring about a revolution (remember Crasto and Che Guevara took over Cuba with just eighty men, they had the backing of the people).

They call themselves "Red Earth" and this breakaway group of leftists is led by Varkeychayan, who is an erstwhile communist leader. John's comrades are a motley group who use sickles, matchets, and crude country-made rifles to achieve revolution. But in what sense? Could a revolution in one state of India transform into a mass movement to take over a country such as India which has world's second largest army to protect it? They achieve in some measure to spread terror among the landed classes and the ruling elite.

Ironically the epoch is the emergency days of Indira Gandhi and Kerala's home minister Marar has deputed commissioner Raman to hunt down the radical revolutionaries. Raman is a bachelor given to lascivious thoughts, masturbates copiously, presumably because sex is unavailable in conservative Kerala. But he is shown by the author as ruthless and powerful, despite his puny appearance.

Abey, an innocent student in John's college is picked up by the police for questioning. He dies in the police lock up at Raman's behest as a result of the police's highhanded interrogation methods. His father Sebastian makes it life's mission to get justice for his dead son. He is helped in this mission by Nambiar, the Inspector General of police - a theatre aficionado, therefore an artist - who is at loggerheads with the ambitious Raman.

Surendran is at ease with his narration of the beautiful Kerala conuntryside, and its customs. What this author liked best about the book is that to a great extend Surendran has succeeded in capturing the Malayalis' aspirations, behavior and "mentality" with his words. All through the book a Malayali's innate cynicism, humour and wit is amply depicted.

The author's prose has poetic inclination right from the start. Examples: "The sky paled in slivers over the paddy fields and rivers and, in between them, the railway tracks bared themselves in the first light like bones of distance. A necklace of white birds flew past in the East." Who but a poet can write such elevating prose?

Raman's life and actions provide comic relief throughout the novel. His deviationist look at women and sex is told hilariously, especially his encounter with his subordinate Vijayan's wife. "Mrs. Vijayan spoke very fast, as if she had only one breath to speak and a great deal to tell," a very apt description of some fast-talking Malayalis I have seen and met. Raman is ruthlessly caricatured throughtout the novel. His discription of the excesses of the emergency as seen through Sebastian's eyes brings home the terror of those dark days.

I would have loved it if John's relationship with his love Janaki was explored a little more in detail and intimacy. All in all, a well-crafted, intricately woven novel that looks not only at the radicalisation of God's chosen state, but also provides a window through which to view Kerala and its people.

Surendran's novel is dark but with a purpose. He takes the reader on a new high with sharp observations and pointed irony. He tells the tale of a people caught in a time warp trying to exorcise the ghost of an ideology that has failed, and like obsessive love, compounds it by going even further in an unproductive attempt to revive the lost magic.

Novel: The Inheritance of Loss - Kiran Desai

Review of Kiran Desai's Booker-winning novel "The Inheritance of Loss"

Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss springs at you with the many-splendored colours of life in the North-Eastern part of India, Kalimpong to be exact. It is tragic, comic and a dark reminder of how insurgency, extremism is threatening to wreck this once-peaceful region of India. In fact, the threat of violence looms large throughout the novel, in the very words of characters that seem to have something lacking in them, just the feeling that their lives aren’t fulfilled.

Picturesque, but crumbling Chuo Oyu is the abode where young Sai is sent to after her parents’ death to live with her grandfather, the retired judge Bomanbhai Patel, who is living out the last phase of a life of a taciturn man who during his training in Civil Service in England didn’t speak to anyone for years and has painful memories of how he mistreated his wife to death, which he is trying to atone. He had sent his wife back home where his daughter was born. This daughter, a scientist, who never met her father lived all her life in hostels married Sai’s father, an orphan, who was also a scientist. The couple then go to work in Russia where Sai was born and both her parents die leaving her grandfather as the only caretaker and relation Sai has in the world.

Sai is being tutored by Gyan, in Chuo Oyu, who being a Ghurkha is sympathetic to the Ghurkha national Liberation Front (GNLF) which is violently demanding a separate homeland in this North-Eastern region. Gyan reports to his friends that the judge has two rifles in his house and one night they come and rob the house and humiliates him and his cook. The judge and the cook have a common bond that runs back to the days when the former was a district collector in a remote area where he went hunting for patridges and would write fake entries in his diary about the number of patridges he killed, whereas the truth was that he was a poor shot and killed none.

The situation in Kalimpong is shown to be getting worse as the militancy gains ground and the sisters Noni and Lola are coerced into harbouring terrorists in their house and they even come and poach on their property, building hutments over it. There are demonstrations where Khukri knives are brandished as the GNLF men demand a separate homeland. The irony of how they masquerade for what is according to them “a noble” cause, using insurgency and murder of innocents is brought out very well by the author.

Perhaps the most potent message that the novel conveys is of how a band of youth recruited by goons can threaten peace in a sleepy and peaceful haven and is only waking up to the new realities of life. These youth are inspired by re-runs of karate movies of Jackie Chan and the violent movies of Rambo. It’s a sad reflection of modern life. The novel’s principal comment, made lucidly clear, according to this writer, is how media can corrupt the youth and sow in them the ideals of violence and mayhem, manipulated by a few misguided individuals.

The cook’s son Biju is away in the US as an illegal immigrant, working in hotels run by shady Indian characters, being paid low, working all days of the month to chase his dream. But he finds that he hasn’t made any friends, and his relations are away in India. The idea of migration is well portrayed in these sections. Biju’s and Sai’s life become the leit motif of the novel with Sai being shielded from the childhood she hasn’t had neither in the convent nor in Chuo Oyu where she is a virtual prisoner and pines away for the love of the elusive Gyan, immersed in his poverty and ideals. There is a poignant section in the book when she goes in search of her absent lover and sees the depravity in which he lives.

Biju’s life is even more of that of a prisoner of his own conscience. Though he lives in New York he hasn’t the time to see the country, lives in poverty where he has to sleep in shifts, or on the floor of the hotel he works, and even has to serve beef which he detests. His friend the philandering Saeed Saeed is a colourful character from Zanzibar who is tormented by friends referred to him from his home country, as is Biju by his father the cook from India, who recommends to him stray wastrels who want to immigrate to the US from India. These “tribes” come to US for the first time and are desperate to make a living and like Biju is willing to undergo any torment to make ends meet. The novel truly depicts their sad lives.

The good father Booty who lives with Uncle Potty is found to be an illegal alien, though he has lived all his life in Kalimpong, trying to make it into the dairy capital of India. But he is thwarted by the ever present Amul brand of the original dairy capital of India – Anand. Father Booty is sent back to Switzerland for overstaying, and Kalimpong descends into mayhem with no food available, not even bread, and is overrun by terrorists and the military.

Much speculation has gone on in the media about the portrayal of Kalimpong, of how the denizen of the town hasn’t taken kindly to its portrayal by the author. But this writer feels that the novel has a valid point to make, of how an author can use artistic licence to make his/her point though it may be somewhat in the extreme. The author is primarily writing a work of fiction and not a factual account. It is a story of imaginary characters, though the settings may be real and the world he/she creates is unreal, and hints at his/her view of the truth.

She encapsulates the essence of Indian thought and thinking in this oeuvre of vivid colours of the literary spectrum. For example when the judge loses his dog and goes around asking if anyone has seen it, and the men whisper behind his back, “Sala, he is bothered about a dog, when people are dying here.” How typical.

A definite must read, even if only for Kiran Desai’s devastating wit, charming style, and the way she keeps the pace going. Desai is an author of the new breed who use multiple question marks “???” and multiple exclamation marks, “!!!” throughout the text. I think it jars and should have been avoided. The need is for subtlety and not overt exaggeration. What I also found jarring was the intimate description of the characters including some of the disconcertingly intimate habits of the judge and that of Gyan. Was the author following a stereotype here? Don’t now. However, given the Booker Award and all the salient points the novel makes, a not to be missed novel by a true artisan of the word.

Novel: The Namesake - Jhumpa Lahiri

I have just finished wading through “The Namesake” written by Jhumpa Lahiri. “Wading” is the word I use because, though Lahiri is an engaging writer, she fills her novel with too many details, over which I stumble, ponder, wonder (hmm, now why would she have had to say that?), genuflect, and then straighten myself. Her paragraphs are uniformly half a page and in that, too, these inconsequential details of everyday life, some cultural vestiges lie around like stumbling blocks.

I am constrained to mention this here because the flow is hampered, I lose track, and finishing the book was a great effort. I don’t like to be exhausted reading a book; I like to be entertained. I guess this applies to most writers of the Diaspora and, our own homegrown variety. We are so much anxious to impress with our knowledge and our articulation that we overdo it, consistently, constantly.

Now, I may be veering into the rant mode but this is something Lahiri does through this excellent novel. If you are through the first hundred pages, it becomes a little better. You can safely ignore the details and go ahead, come what may. But getting over the first hundred pages is the toughest part. When Lahiri describes each item in a house, or, a rented hotel room, you have no alternative but to sit up and cry, “Whoa! She is so perceptive, she gives me a complex.” Yes, she does, to all pretenders, such as I, who think they can write. But one also thinks, “There she goes, why would she include all that? Is it significant, a leit motif, for the rest of the story?” But disappointingly it isn’t.

It’s the story of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli. Ashoke is told to leave the country by a man he meets during a train journey. The train in which he is traveling is derailed in the night and the compartments are smashed and thrown off the rails. Ashoke is injured in the accident but has a providential escape because he happens to be clutching a novel written by Nikolai Gogol which he was reading at the time of the mishap. So, obviously, Nikolai Gogol has a prominent part to play in Ashoke’s survival and he names his first-born Gogol, probably to record his thanks to the Russian story teller.

He immigrates to the United States with Ashima, gets a job raises a family of two. Gogol and Sonia are the two children he raises the Indian, sorry, Bengali way, protectively, always apprehensive, always paranoid about security. The children are happy-go-lucky American kids and they do not know from where their parents’ fear comes from. (They do not know that the fear originates from India where anything left untended is summarily snatched away, or vandalized.)

But Gogol resents being named thus, and is not flattered by his Russian name, that too of a writer thought to be a maniacal genius. He militates against his father’s choice of nomenclature. He has his name changed to Nikhil but the original name sticks to him like a ghost from the past, and haunts him. The teaching of Gogol’s writings in school is a big embarrassment to him, and he cowers from any association with Gogol, the writer.

Ashoke and Ashima does a heroic job of raising a family, protecting a culture in an alien land, in which they are recently emigrated strangers. They have a very close-knit community of Bengali friends in the US and their interaction is restricted to this group who meet for weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and other social dos. The urge is very strong among migrants to maintain their cultural identity when they are in an alien land, and Ashoke and Ashima would like to pass on their Indian-ness to their children.

But the children are drawn towards the mainstream White culture. Gogol has affairs with white girls/women and nearly marries one much against the wishes of his parents. The Indian girl he marries eventually, through the persuasion of his mother Ashima jilts him for a Russian. Sonia marries a white man, and therefore Ashoke’s and Ashima’s dream of propagating the culture they have so assiduously cultivated in an alien land collapses. So, in that sense, the emigrant’s strict phobias seems trivial and unfounded.

The most poignant part of the novel is the sudden and unannounced death of Ashoke. Now, this is the best part of the novel. It is narrated in such deadpan prose that it rings so true, so authentic and life-like. Death is the most unexpected of visitors. The reader is shocked beyond disbelief, and can understand the emotional turmoil that Ashima, and her children Gogol and Sonia go through at this juncture. It is to Lahiri’s credit that she has handled this evolving drama pretty well.

Gogol falls in love with Moushumi, the girl his mother has picked for him, and who is trying to get over a broken engagement with her White boyfriend. They marry, and for sometime all is hunky dory. This section of the novel is well handled and the reader is shocked that Moushumi would go off with another man, a Russian professor, leaving poor Gogol. But that is life, and that is literature, so authentic as to be stupefying. Lahiri handles these passages really well, one is awed how naturally it happens, and how her story lends the incident so much life-like uncertainty. This is Lahiri at her best, delivering a deadly punch in the narrative when the reader least expects it. This is as shocking, or, was as shocking to me, as was Ashoke’s death.

The novel is a chiaroscuro of images, experiences, some sad, some elevating, all written in the author’s perspicacious style, with much detailing. Much as I had enjoyed “The Interpreter of Maladies” I relished this one that promises to be a watermark in the annals of literature produced by the Diaspora.

Novel - The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

There is a good novel in every man, or to be gender-specific in this case, woman. The author has put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and brought out the novel lurking inside her, and brought out a cathartic and thought-provoking book out of the placid exterior of a sleepy-looking village set in the backwaters of Kerala. And, in the process, the author has also made a social comment on the minuscule Syrian Christian community, whose ancestors are believed to have converted to Christianity as early as the first century, thereby becoming among the oldest Christians in the world. But, for long, this conservative community had its own inner rumblings of rebellion against its rigid laws that the book deals with in the persona of Ammu and her two children.

When Christianity came to Kerala like 'tea from a tea bag', Kottayam was the town chosen by Christians as their spiritual centre. Later, Anglican missionaries started work there, established colleges, schools, presses, and in course of time, the district became highly literate. Missionary schools spread literacy in remote villages and Syrian Christians became highly literate.

But despite their high literacy, Syrian Christians failed to come out of their self-imposed cocoon and remained bound by tradition and led an orthodox existence. Because of this, and due to a lack of opportunities in an industrially backward Kerala, Syrian Christians migrated to countries and states outside their own. It is not uncommon to find that in a single family all the children may be working different countries and the only occasion they meet each other is when they come on holiday to Kerala. A wide and diffused Diaspora of Syrian Christians exists throughout the world even in the remotest countries. They chose profession like teaching, nursing and technical jobs that are relatively easy to find and not hard to make a living with. Being hardworking and abstemious, worldly possessions and money is what is cherished, and what people are measured by in the community.

In the in-bred and tight-knit Syrian Christian community, where one is someday destined to marry one's own cousin, Mary Roy, the author's mother created waves when she won a landmark case claiming equal share in her parents' legacy. Appropriately the author dedicates the book to her 'For Mary Roy who grew me up'. In the Syrian Christian community, Mary Roy's victory came as a mild shock. Syrian Christian men had taken for granted that they are the sole inheritors of their parent's legacy, while women are given away in marriage with a dowry. In such a family, enquiring, sensitive twin siblings (Rahel and Estha) of a divorced mother (Ammu) would have been less than welcome, if not downright neglected. It is in such a family in Ayemenem, a small village in Kottayam district of Kerala that Rahel and Estha came to live. This forms the background of Roy's fictional work which according to her is autobiographical in 'emotional texture'.

The story is about the happenings in the Ayemenem house, of forbidden love, Estha's slow descent into depression, Ammu's death, Rahel's wandering aimlessly from convent to convent, to Delhi, to America and back to Ayemenem. Estha is returned to his Bengali father in Calcutta and is re-returned when the latter emigrates to Australia. The whole book is about a single episode, preparation for Rahel's cousin Sophie Mol's (uncle Chacko's daughter through marriage with an Englishwoman, Margaret Kochamma) visit to Ayemenem, and her eventual death by drowning. But the way the book is interwoven with Rahel's account after her return to Ayemenem and her recollection of the episode as an adult, the book takes on a different dimension and seems to span a whole lifetime.

In a community, closed, cloistered and xenophobic like that of the Syrian Christians, Rahel, born out of a love marriage, that too from an inter-community love marriage, sensitively feels the resentment that exists in Baby Kochamma. 'She (Baby Kochamma) subscribed wholeheartedly to the commonly held view that a married daughter had no position in her parents' home. As for a divorced daughter… as for a divorced daughter from a love marriage, well, words could not describe Baby Kochamma's outrage. As for a divorced daughter from an inter-community love marriage -- Baby Kochamma chose to remain quiveringly silent on the subject'.

Roy's book begins at the end with the funeral of Sophie Mol. Sophie Mol is doted upon by the family because she is half white. Margaret Kochamma's (Sophie Mol's mother's) second spouse Joe dies in an accident and she comes to visit her first husband Chacko, the Oxford educated uncle of Rahel and Estha. Chacko comes out from the book as obese, unkempt, but quite erudite and scholarly. Baby Kochamma, the grand aunt is an ex-nun disappointed in her love or an Irish Jesuit priest, Fr Mulligan, and writes 'I love you' notes to him in her diary every night. The Ayemenem house becomes a spouseless house with grand mother Mammachi, Baby Kochamma, Ammu and Chacko either man-less or woman-less. The tension in this milieu in which the story is set is palpable.

The author employs two different story lines to tell the story. One story line threads through the family's trip to Cochin to meet Sophie Mol (Mol meaning 'little girl' is a term of endearment for Syrian Chrisitians) at the airport, leading to Ammu feeling neglected and consummating her love for the 'untouchable' employee Velutha. The other story line follows Rahel's return from the US, a divorcee, reminiscing through adult eyes, on the happenings in Ayemenem house. When Ammu is found out, she is locked in a room and the children run away to their hideout in the history house on the other side of the river Meenachal. Velutha is falsely implicated for kidnapping the children, and dies in an encounter.

It was conservatism, deeply ingrained in the Syrian Christian psyche, that was responsible for Ammu's desperate act. She decides to get married not out of love, but the fear of not marrying at all. The claustrophobic confines of Syrian Christians society leaves no elbow room for those who break its rules. Much worse awaits those who break its love laws. So Ammu was looked down upon, ostracised and ridiculed. Nobody, not even her own mother and brother commiserated with her. No wonder, she found an outlet in rebellion, nothing unknown to Syrian Christian youth, who either meekly submit or rebel outrageously. Ammu rebelled and when she did, nobody could stop her, even the thought of her two children could not stop her. The book is also a severe indictment of the Syrian Christian orthodox way of life which forces its young members to rebel, where unwritten laws are ubiquitous and those who break them are damned.

Roy has a magical facility with the language, sharp observations, an incredible vocabulary and sensitive use of language. Her description of the happening at the Cochin airport, at Abilash Talkies where Estha is led into onanising a soft-drink seller leave distinct images in the mind. What she excels in is her description of the pristine beauty of Kerala's landscape, its rivers, houses, customs and prejudices. She uses colours interestingly to describe a feeling or mood, 'green heat', and the eventful climatic afternoon as 'blue cross-stitched afternoon' are some.

The keen observant eyes of the author is evident in the way she describes the Syrian Christian kiss (the way Kochu Maria the servant does it) which is a smelling or inhaling of the other person unlike the western peck or smooch, to which Margaret Kochamma asks, 'Do you do this to each other?' The author is also at home with Hindu traditional arts like Kathakali and weaves it into the story as she does Baby Kochamm's trenchant orthodox Christianity. Her caricature of the Marxist wannabe N K M Pillai is hilarious.

But critical praise apart, the book suffers in one respect, that is poor editing. There are many short verb-less sentences which could have been combined into one with commas or semi-colons. This may have been done for style and effect, but, is nonetheless, distracting. Sometimes she gets carried away 'Happy earthworms frolicked purple in the slush', and 'closed her face like a cupboard', are just a few. A good editor would have chopped off these lines as kitsch in an otherwise enjoyable book. Such passages make on sit up and notice, draws attention to the writer, not the story. This is what pulp Malayalam literature of two-rupee worth would contain, but does a talented writer have to resort to these forms of expression to draw attention to herself? Indiscriminate capitalising is also resorted to for worlds like 'Unsafe Edge' and 'Let Her Be'. Several Malayalam words are not italicised (mittom) which confuses a reader not familiar with the language. However, there are several innovative usage's like 'Ammu told her to stoppit and she stoppited'. There are several phrasal leit motifs running throughout the text that gives its continuity and a sense of irony. 'Spoiled Puff', and 'Fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo' to describe Estha and Rahel are some of them. No doubt, the author has created a new idiom with her style which will surely have many imitators, but these idioms should be used in a controlled way, so as not to swamp the reader with distractions.

'That a few hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes' says a passage from the book on the blurb. The few hours from the arrival of Sophie Mol and Margaret Kochamma, and Baby Kochamma and the others' infatuation with their fair grand daughter acts as a trigger and frustrates Ammu into behaving irrationally for her own and her children's sake. Velutha is described with ardour, the children worship him and he is the 'God of Small Things' because he is good with his hands and can fix and craft anything. The book is about forbidden love where 'love laws are broken', like that between Ammu and Velutha and Estha and Rahel.

The author is brilliant in her depiction of children, hearkening to the Booker prize-winner Roddy Doyle's 'Paddy Clark Ha! Ha! Ha!'. She has special sensitivity to their language, uses it as they do (Bar Nowl for barn owl) and the children reading backwards (eht for the). Their candidness, fears, frankness and outspokenness all come out in the chapters 'Abhilash Talkies' and 'Cochin Kangaroos'. The astounding originality of the work is evident to those who have grown up in such a milieu for whom Baby Kochamma, Pappachi, Mammachi, Chacko , Ammu, Rahel and Estha seem life-like and only too real. The author should be commended for maintaining her distance, and for being alternatively unsparing and indulgent to her characters.

Indian writers writing for western audiences have an intransigent urge to impress their readers with local exotica. In the process the narrative suffers, so does continuity. But Roy somehow manages to come out through all the maze of words with a credible story, movingly told. There is pathos, passion and genuine entertainment in the book. Throughout the book the author looks through the eyes of Rahel, her alter-ego, with wide-eyed wonderment and appreciative of the small things of life. It is full exotic smells, sights and experiences. Surely, there is not one but many more novels in her, though she says she is off writing for now.