15 June 2009

The Loudest Firecracker by Arun Krishnan

More style than substance

Here’s a book that fails to live up to its early promise.
I was impressed with Arun Krishnan’s craft, his relaxed style of writing and the premise on which his story begins. A young boy’s observations of his world, which has recently become a grim place because his family moved away from a glamorous lifestyle, are well told and captivating. This world soon becomes far grimmer. Unfortunately, at this point, which should have been the build-up to a middle and end of the same high quality, the book begins to fade out.
One of the book’s highlights is its strong commonsense message of the utter waste and pointlessness of communal violence and the vested interests of those who whip it up. Another is the charming stories the boy’s mother and then grandmother tell him. These could have been developed, even leading to the same ideas, themes and conclusion the author has chosen. Instead, however, they taper off and several pages of unrelated events are slid in, sitting incongruously with the earlier and far superior section.
This could have been a far more successful and enduring book – Arun Krishnan certainly has the talent, and I hope he will have the patience to take more time and trouble with his next one.

12 June 2009

Life is Perfect by Himani Dalmia

The other half, and all their pain

To read this book is a bit like eating ice cream while suffering terrible backache. At one level you're enjoying it, while at another you’re conscious that it’s not good for health, and all this while you're trying not to scream in agony.
My second and third-hand information (the back cover and other reviews) indicate that Himani Dalmia is not just a stunner to look at, she also holds a Masters in South Asian Literature from the
University of Oxford. And if that’s not enough, she’s a “scion” of the Dalmia family with all kinds of assets including substantial social and cultural capital.
With this background, the book seems autobiographical.
Mitali has it all (“life is perfect”) and through this she comes to term with her relationships – with her longsuffering mother; her suave but absent father who we come to dislike almost as much as feel sorry for him; her boyfriend, her music teacher and her cousin who died tragically the previous year.
What was it that made me feel unable to take all this seriously?
Books about niche, peculiar communities are often important ones. Books written in marginalized dialects are often received as stylish and attractive. Books that centre on issues that seem ridiculous or trivial to others can easily meet with great success.
The structure and plot of this book kept me turning the pages. The characters are not badly developed. Some of the themes the book deals with are thoughtful and engaging, and some of its observations perceptive and amusing. And yet, the aching back overwhelmingly overrode the sweet, cool sensation of the ice cream. Perhaps editing of a higher quality would have lessened the pain.

09 June 2009

I too had a love story by Ravinder Singh

This is LOVE? Really?
The last two books I read before I picked this one up were Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach and Saturday. On Chesil Beach is the story of a young couple set in the long-forgotten and usually-neglected period just before the 1960s began and birth control, rock-and-roll and other related revolutionary devices transformed our little planet, and Chesil Beach is the place in England where they spent their wedding night. Saturday spans one event-filled day in the life of a London neurosurgeon. Both these books, like this one, can also be called “love stories” but they are also literary masterpieces. To call Ian McEwan a “master storyteller” would be to use a cliché, so let me say instead that his words and sentences fill me with happiness; that the way he constructs his stories don’t just bind me to his books while I long to know what’s going to happen next, they are a great inspiration to me as a writer; and that his manner of strewing his work with analysis and insights in the most casual and unprepossessing way draws not just admiration but quite often even awe from me. With these two books still doing their quiet dance in my mind, it’s hard to describe the sheer plunge into aesthetic dismay I experienced as I started reading I Too Had A Love Story. Ploughing stoically along, I sought desperately for criteria against which I could recommend it and was finally able to conclude that it could be considered an important book as it documents a certain lifestyle and mindset at close quarters.

Since this is not a marginal lifestyle or mindset but a rather mainstream one – even if those in literary circles would prefer to ignore it as being worthy of nothing but scorn or perhaps a longsuffering tolerance, and often try to pretend doesn’t even exist – yes, it should be read and maybe preserved in a museum or prescribed in literary courses, with the particular commendation that it has been written by someone deep within that community who describes it here intimately, even as Anne Frank did her imprisonment and the times in which she lived, in her Diary. Further, this author has been artless enough to expose certain loutish aspects of behaviour and attitude of this community as well-established and normal – precisely those aspects which cause the so-called high-thinking ones to condescend to it. Here you have men who become enraged against their women when their breakfast is not served at the precise moment they demand it, and children who are nurtured to believe that one who wishes to establish affection with them must compulsorily bring chocolates on every visit. When taxi drivers refuse to drive into a flooded area, they are treated with wrath and offered bribes demanding that they do so.

Leaving the sneering, negative view aside, however, there is one rather lovely thing about people who live in this world, and that is their approach to romance. It’s sweet and pure, and they are able to savour it endlessly, much as those who consider themselves more sophisticated might savour a glass of mellow wine. This is rare in today’s world and anyone who can still do it is fortunate to be enjoying an endangered gift of humanity that is fast being replaced with a rude condom-in-my-wallet-just-in-case culture that is sweeping many good things away forever.

But then again the type of "love" presented in this book rather overwhelmingly comprises vigorous fluttering of the inept heart and the kind of baby talk for which I’m unable to select an appropriate adjective. To call it adolescent would be to ignore the cutting-edge biological discovery of hormones and sexual activity at puberty. To call it brain-damaged would be to insult a lot of people (judging by author Ravinder Singh’s blog) who truly believe that this is what real love is. I am intrigued to find so many who in this day and age continue to believe that “love” is just a titillation of the senses that you get for someone you have never met, and even after you meet her all you know is that she looks good and talks silly though she works for a software company too and is slogging away for her "CAT" (the common admission test to postgrad and fellow programs in management at various institutes in India) just like you are. In the world most of us live in, love encompasses a lot more than that, such as day-to-day adjustments, commitment to togetherness in spite of all kinds of obstacles, constant readjustment of goals to accommodate the aspirations of the other, and the never-ending striving towards compatibility in the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social and economic spheres. It’s a difficult and often messy matter. So when someone holds a woman he barely knows in his arms in platonic bliss and calls it the happiest hour of his life, you might smile fondly in sentimental indulgence – or you might slap your forehead and think, “Grow Up, Ravin. We feel for you, but your life lies ahead. You will find a real woman and you will find out what real love is. If you want to be a real author, go read some real books and find out how it works first.”

Apparently more than 10,000 people have read this book and it’s now touted as “a national bestseller” – perhaps through clever marketing and doubtless with the help of Infosys, for which Ravinder Singh works, and shaadi.com, through which he met his “love”. Narayan Murthy has wisely restricted his blurb to three well-chosen and accurate words describing this book, “Simple, honest and touching.” Anupam Mittal, founder and CEO of shaadi.com sticks his neck out a bit further and shows how little he knows when he says, “Only a person who has loved and lost, can pen such an emotional story.” Try Ian McEwan, Mr. Mittal.

04 June 2009

Griffin Prize shortlist readings in Toronto June 2009

I arrived in Toronto two days ago and on my first evening was already being treated to a literary event, the shortlist readings of the Griffin poetry prize.
Scott Griffin is a Canadian businessman and philanthropist, and he founded the Griffin poetry prize in 2000 with the purpose of promoting poetry. www.griffinpoetryprize.com.
Every year, the prize awards 50,000 Canadian dollars each to a poet resident in Canada, and a poet from any other country. The shortlisted poets were going to read from their work. The internationally-acclaimed writers Margaret Atwood, Robert Hass, Michael Ondaatje, Robin Robertson, David Young and Carolyn Forché who constitute the board of trustees were also present.
Sofas on the stage bore cushions appliquéd with a letter each, spelling out PO, ET, and RY. Large banners with the names and photos of the shortlisted poets formed a backdrop.
What surprised me most was the crowd. 800 people had come to listen, and the MacMillan Theatre, in one of the buildings of the University of Toronto, was House Full. The atmosphere was one of anticipation and enthusiasm – but you could tell we weren’t at a soccer match, because everyone was all dressed up.
Scott Griffin began the proceedings by saying that this would be an evening with some of the best poetry in the world, from some of the world’s best poets. He said that if you looked back down history, you saw that poetry tended to flourish in troubled times, and that recession appeared to have done it good, and bewailed the fact that poetry had disappeared from schools, cafes, and public events, saying, "It's our loss, of course." Then he added, "I'm preaching to the converted" and joked that he had "told the poets here on stage you are a kind audience."
The readings began, and each one was preceded by another writer introducing the poet. Poets and speakers alike were charismatic and witty, holding the audience rapt and making us laugh. I was surprised that most of the themes were taken from everyday life and the poems were quirky and humorous. There really wasn’t much of that stuff about revolution or even about moonlight – how times have changed!
Canadian poet Kevin Connolly was perspiring copiously and explained, “I always get really nervous when I read, so don’t worry about me”. Being shortlisted for the prize, he said, had “messed with my persecution complex”. His poems and the commentary he preceded them with made us laugh, especially the one about an old aunt of his with a goiter, which he had written after going home and having his mother tell him that in the old days “she was very popular with the boys”. “Why?” asks Kevin, and his mother gives him an odd look. So this poem is dedicated to his aunt who Put Out.
The poet C.D. Wright (she was announced yesterday as one of the winners of the prize) prefaced her reading by quoting the genius Canadian poet, novelist and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen who once said, "Poetry is the opiate of the poets." She smiled, then added: "Welcome to our den."
I was still a little jetlagged and annoyed to find myself jerking out of a doze a few times, as a result missing the occasional exquisite stanza.
The German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger was given a Lifetime Achievement Award – and a standing ovation to go with it. Then he also made everyone laugh by pointing out that a lifetime achievement award is a little awkward because none of us really knows how long our lifetime is going to be!
In his speech he observed that every bright child enjoys playing with words. Some people continue doing it in adulthood. These, he pointed out, are the poets.

02 June 2009

Hay Festival May 2009

I first visited the lovely Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye nearly ten years ago with my friend Amita who loves the place and takes all her friends there.
This year, my annual pilgrimage to London coincided with the dates of the Hay Festival, and we decided to spend two days there. Often described as the town of books, Hay has the ruins of a small castle on top of a hill, but its chief attraction is the small lanes filled with all kinds of bookshops. Some of these are “honesty” stores without attendants – where prices are marked, and customers can drop the money into a box left near the door and I remember going a little mad with all this bounty on display.
Originally called the Hay Festival of Literature, it is an annual event founded in 1987 and held in May or June in the picturesque little town of Hay which nestles in the idyllic Welsh countryside. It is a major event in the international literary calendar – said to be the biggest book event in Britain – and attracts around 80,000 visitors and some of the world’s top writers and personalities. Over the years participants at Hay have included Bill Clinton, Bill Bryson, William Dalrymple, Kiran Desai, Germaine Greer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Mark Tully, and Shashi Tharoor, to name just a few. As the Guardian puts it, “In two decades it has gone from a whim to a global event.” Bill Clinton called it the Woodstock of the Mind, and Henry Miller apparently thought it was some type of sandwich until he tried it and found it far more appetising.
To tell someone that you are attending an event of this hype is to impress them, and I did so shamelessly, preening with the sheer glamour of it. What a relief when the 2 days there turned out to be not just great fun but also a learning experience at many different levels.

One of my favourites was Sam Winston, a contemporary fine artist whose works explore language. At Hay, he was working on a collaborative word-art project. We watched, intrigued, as he invited festival visitors to contribute a favourite word. They could either give a real word, with a sentence explaining why they liked it, or an invented word, explaining what it meant. Some of the invented words were “wumper” (woolly jumper), “pregret” (to regret something before you do it), and “ice bream” (a cold fish). We remarked to Sam how smart the invented words were and he replied, “Well these are all literary people!” The invented words were hand-written onto a slip of paper, and the real favourite words were typed and printed out on a strip. Sam then pasted each of these onto two separate collages – one a skyline of tall buildings entitled “Towers of Fact”, and the other showing “Clouds of Fiction”. Trying to think of a favourite or invented word we soon realised how difficult it was – there were so many words to choose from, how could we pick one favourite one? What if people thought our word was silly, or not good enough in some way? But the inducement of a limited-edition canvas bag carrying an image of a Sam Winston creation was motivation, and we soon found ourselves contributing our words to this interesting project.
Before this, we had attended our first event at the Festival, a live studio programme in which Mariella Frostrup, the Sky Arts presenter, introduced the Hay Festival to the channel’s viewers around the world, and interviewed some of the participants. We were part of the studio audience, and it was interesting to watch a live anchor in action and see things from the other side of the television – with well-chosen words flowing freely and smartly. It was also interesting to be instructed on when to start clapping and when to stop for the camera!
Festival participants were not only authors, but comedians, musicians and media personalities. It was entertainment of the highest calibre, and there were visible efforts to make books and words the focus of most events.

The food critic Jay Rayner was here to promote his book – The Man Who Ate the World: In Search of the Perfect Dinner. Jay had travelled around the world eating at expensive restaurants and returned home to write this book.
Well known for his hilarious criticism which readers apparently enjoy more than his favourable reviews, his spontaneous wit made us laugh. In fact, many other programmes were also distinguished by high-quality humour – and not just from the participants but the audience too, with comments during the show as well as their questions at the end of it. One member of the audience had apparently eaten dinner at a local restaurant with Jay at an adjoining table. He wanted to know whether Jay had enjoyed the meal and how he rated the meal as a food critic. Luckily Jay had enjoyed it, and even said that this restaurant was probably trying for a Michelin rating. Up popped the next question, this time from the owner of the restaurant who happened to be in the audience too! With just the right touch of indignation, he wanted to know why anyone should assume that the opinion of a tyre company would be of any concern to him!
So although there were successful people from around the world attending, the feeling was one of a close-knit community. As a quote from the portal Wales Online puts it, “It’s basically the same festival but it’s just got bigger. It was always a circle of friends, and although the circle has got bigger, the essentially slightly chaotic informal character remains”.
This chaotic casualness was reflected in the artistically-created but carelessly-maintained entrance to the venue, and also in another event we attended, the premiere of a short film Still Life, made by The Rural Media Company as a collaborative community project in the nearby town of Bromyard, where this little film unit spent one year, identifying issues in the town, producing a script and making the film. The film was a sweet story about a girl whose parents had recently separated – and most actors and crew were picked from the local community. Many of the young actors were present at the premiere in Hay and the atmosphere was charged with their excitement. However, watching the movie, it was hard to understand why it should have taken a whole year to make!
At another venue, Jay Rayner interviewed Heston Blumenthal, a celebrity chef, author of several books and owner of The Fat Duck Restaurant (ranked No. 2 in a list of the world’s top restaurants – with the Bukhara Restaurant in Delhi at number 65 and the Wasabi Restaurant in Mumbai at number 70). Heston uses chemistry in the kitchen to highlight flavours and create intriguing dishes that taste and look distinctive – almost gimmicky though considered intriguing. These include Green Tea Mousse, Bacon & Egg Ice cream, Warm Chocolate Wine and even Snail Porridge. Heston clarified that he had not studied Chemistry but started working straight after school having fallen in love with French food as a boy after a meal at a restaurant in France.
The Hay Festival lasted ten days (21-31 May 2009) and featured over 500 events, including the children’s festival, Hay Fever. We were there for only two day, and as a result missed some of this year’s highlights, including events featuring Kamila Shamsie, Amit Chaudhuri, Monica Ali, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, David Crystal, Chris Patten, Alan Bennet (whose event was sold out several months before), Shazia Mirza and Amartya Sen.
On the first day the venue, a well-laid-out series of marquees in a field on the edge of Hay, had seemed open and relaxed - and we spotted many participants mingling with the visitors. The next day was bright and sunny and visitors poured in. It was the first day of the children's half-term break of ten days, and also of Hay Fever. Soon the site was filled with people lounging on the grass sunbathing, picnicking, reading and wandering around. It was glorious, but the crowd was as thick as you might find at rush hour in a commuter train station. We felt fortunate to have had the space to explore on the previous day and become familiar with the different stages, restaurants, bookstores with authors signing copies of their books, stalls and other settings of the festial, before the vibrant busy buzz began. The Hay Festival was a wonderful, stimulating experience, though the town of Hay-on-Wye (twinned with Timbuktu) is a special place right through the year.
The drive from London to Hay (around four hours) takes you past beautiful mountains and gorges, and the historic Tintern Abbey of which Bill Bryson once famously remarked had given rise to a poem by William Wordsworth entitled I Can Be Boring Outside the Lake District Too.
Bryson's remark that chlorophyll must be the principal industry of Britain was also validated by the dense, bright green of the trees and meadows along the way.
Wales is famous for its terrible weather - it can be grey and blustery, but Hay is always worthwhile. If on the other hand you are blessed with blue skies and a gentle sun, as we were, it feels like heaven and we left promising ourselves that we would soon be back.