23 June 2010

Moving On by Anand Vishwanadha

Poet on a motorbike
Anand Vishwanadha and I connected on facebook. He is a writer and a biker, we had a friend in common who was also a writer and biker (that would have made three of us except the only bike I would brave would be a bicycle with side wheels; it's a quarter century since I even dared to sit pillion) and I found his posts witty and cool. When I learned that he had published a book of poems I was intrigued and bought it online from www.eveninghour.com.
Anand’s poems made me smile – some for their wit, some for their depth. The themes were mostly elemental and filled with passion … the monsoons … rivers, lakes, hills, trees and cloudbursts the poet had allowed to enter his consciousness and emerge, transformed, as evocative words on paper … a word sketch of a day-wage labourer … the knowledge that one would have to learn history from a book rather than from a grandmother who had lived it … and many that dealt with a broken heart.
Here’s the one I liked the best, which I thought representative of the person I imagine Anand, whom I have never met, to be:

Three Soap Trees

The sun always rose
on the Pokhuri and rice fields
to set on the certainty
of the wooded hills and rice fields
as I watched from the centre of my world
from below my three soap trees.

My summers flew
flying kites from their shade
and learning to barter
raw mangoes for marbles.

Rains, I waded through
growing rice and reeds
releasing unsold, half-dead fish
into the Pokhuri and rice fields.

Winters, I catnapped and slept
or with friends picnicked
on lentils, fish and rice – cooked on
soap trees dropped twigs and leaves.

Then my childhood grew
into adult needs and a self
and I took a train out
into a world beyond my soap trees.

The sun rose
over a pool of sewage
and set beside
quarried and bleeding mounds
when I last saw
that world that was once mine.

For they had widened roads,
and built on the fields
when I was away.
It's their grown up world now;
my childhood is alien there.

Somewhere below that metalled road,
or all that concrete paving
unknown, unsung, uncried for – deadwood
lie my soap trees
without even an epitaph: did they just think,
children will find other places to play?

22 June 2010

Quarantine by Rahul Mehta

Gentle, sophisticated, even elegiac
When I started reading this collection of short stories, I wasn’t in a very receptive mood and remember thinking something on the lines of, “God, who wants to read this wannabe stuff? And I mean, how boring, what could a guy named Rahul Mehta possibly have to say! Why can’t people stop exploiting their minority advantage and just write something real? Will Random House stop the gimmicks please!” But the sour rumblings faded away and the next thing I remember thinking is, “Is it over already? I want more!”

What struck me most was Rahul Mehta’s story-telling craft. As I read, the stories absorbed me completely. There’s an unusual and impressive elegance in the way he constructs his sentences and the way he presents situations. I enjoyed the insights into the different cultures his characters inhabit – small-town America, various aspects of India and family relationships within the culture, and gay life.
The stories have a high emotional content but they are also very clever, with interesting observations and turns of phrase. One of the devices that struck me most was the way the author showed you someone’s point of view by using two other characters, one sympathetic and one antagonistic, so that you understand a lot about the person even when he or she hasn’t said a word and remains in the background all the while.
At a personal level, I have to say I empathized a lot with the Indian mother in the stories. She's hardworking and liberal
and yet seems to be missing the point a lot of the time.
For one who considers herself reasonably sophisticated, but constantly perplexed by the choices my own grownup children make
I tend to echo the longsuffering tendencies this woman displays in the book. Here's a wonderful (and much-publicized) excerpt which will show you what I mean:
Last week during one of our marathon telephone conversations my mother asked me which one of us, me or Frank, was the woman in our relationship.
"Neither of us, obviously," I said. "That's what makes us gay."
"Very funny," my mom said. "Someone on Oprah said that often gay couples have one person who plays the man and the other who plays the woman. So I was wondering which you were."
"Frank and I don't believe in hetero-normative gender roles," I told her.
I knew my mom didn't know what "hetero-normative" meant, so I figured she'd drop it.
"So who does the cooking and cleaning?" she asked.
I could have truthfully answered 'neither of us'. Instead I asked, "Is that what you think womanhood is, Mom, cooking and cleaning?"

I mailed Rahul with some questions that occurred to me while reading and which I think other readers would like answered too, and here are his answers.

Are you published in the US? Why India first, especially considering the “sensational” content? (Such a good book – I’m sure it wasn’t because you couldn’t find a publisher).

Quarantine is being published in the US and Canada in spring 2011. The main reason it was published in India first is because the collection wasn’t quite finished when an editor at Random House India stumbled across one of my short stories in a literary journal and got in touch with me. So the book was purchased in India before it was finished. I’m incredibly happy it worked out this way. Writing the book, I always wondered whether it would be something an Indian readership would respond to (I fervently hoped so). It felt really important to me that Indians would want to read it—I’ve made so many trips to India over the years and spent so much time trying to connect more deeply to my Indian heritage. So you can see why I am particularly thrilled that the book has been embraced by an Indian readership.

Why short story and not novel? I’d love to get into the details of these people’s lives :-)

Although these stories clearly have thematic and geographical overlap, they weren’t conceived of in conjunction with one another. Instead, they were very much individual stories written over the course of several years. Each grew organically and independently of one another. I LOVE short stories, both as a writer and as a reader. I love that, as a reader, you can sit down and after half an hour or forty-five minutes, you can have experienced a full narrative arc, a rich reading experience, a window into the lives of these characters. At their best, short stories have the economy and intensity of poems. When I was first beginning to write with some seriousness of purpose, so many of the books I loved most were short story collections. (Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, George Saunders’ Pastoralia, Amy Bloom’s Come to Me, and Andre Dubus’ Dancing After Hours come to mind.) I think it was only natural that my first book was a collection of short stories.

And why did you avoid first person? All the stories read like they’re about you. At least, they seem like about the same person?

Even though I often use the first-person “I” in my stories, and the narrators often share some superficial similarities to me (gay Indian-Americans having grown up in West Virginia), the characters are definitely not me. I was just in India promoting the book, and I can’t tell you how many people remarked, “Wow, you’re so different than I thought you would be based on the characters in your book.”
When writing, I tend to draw on this persona who is much, much darker than the person I am in my real life.

I read somewhere that you hadn’t mentioned your book to any of your relatives in India … surely they’ve found out now … and how did they react?

It’s true, I hadn’t mentioned the book to any of my relatives in India. I also hadn’t explicitly told any of them that I am gay. But a couple days before I was to give a reading in Mumbai, where most of my relatives live, I called them all up and invited them. I didn’t say anything about what the book was about, I just told them that I was coming to town and that I would be reading. Much to my surprise, most of my relatives showed up. In fact, it was interesting to me that it was mostly the relatives of my grandparents’ generation: basically, my parents’ aunts and uncles. I can’t tell you how amazing it felt to have them all there, sitting together in a row. It felt really special. Afterwards, we didn’t talk about the book or the reading per se. We simply spent time together, like always, as family. We ate a big, decadent meal.

The heroes in your stories all have an Indian background, with typically Indian features that they describe as a painful part of their lives but to which they don’t really relate. Is that what it was like for you? Or…?

I’m not sure the characters see their Indian-ness as “painful”; that seems like too strong a word to me. But I would agree that most of the characters don’t really relate to their Indian sides, they don’t quite understand it or fully appreciate it, and in that respect, that is something that typified my earlier experiences. When I was growing up—perhaps partly because I was living in a town and a region that was overwhelmingly white—I didn’t feel much connection to my Indian self. But that really changed as I grew older, particularly as I started to actively seek out stronger links to my Indian heritage and I started to make frequent visits to India. Now I feel both very connected and very proud of that aspect of my identity. In fact, in so many ways I consider myself much for “Indian” than my parents, even though they were the ones who were born and raised in India.

In your story “Yours”, an investment banker cousin smiles mischievously at Jagdish, the hero hinting something, and Jagdish replies, “I did NOT jack off in my parents’ Dodge Caravan” although (in truth) he had. I was wondering whether there’s an element of this in most of the stories.

If you are asking if there is an element of truth in most of the stories, I would answer, yes. But I would quickly add that I’m sure all fiction writers, if they were being honest, would answer that way. Where else do you draw from if not from your own thoughts, experiences, and observations? Even fiction writers who are writing these way-out narratives—say sci-fi or fantasy—their characters have to come from somewhere, usually from some aspect of the writers’ own experiences.

Please tell us what you're working on now and when we can expect to see it.

I’m working on a novel. It’s something I’ve been thinking about and playing around with for several years now. I’d rather not say too much about it (I prefer not to talk about work while it’s still in progress, it seems to stifle the creative process), but I will say that it is set in part in India. It’s tentatively scheduled to be published in 2014.

17 June 2010

Songs of blood and sword by Fatima Bhutto

Cool mind, clean hands, warm heart
This book was sent to me for review by Marie Claire, and you can click on this image to read what I wrote. The article also carries some questions I asked Fatima Bhutto along with her answers.
I enjoyed this book and learned from it. Though it is full of researched and documented facts and ideas, it is overwhelmingly emotional and filled with pain. It made me sad to think of these wonderful, smart people and the kind of suffering-filled lives they have lived. The Bhuttos are a landed family in Larkana with roots in Rajasthan. Fatima’s grandfather, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was executed in 1979 and three of his children were also killed: Fatima’s uncle Shahnawaz was murdered in 1985, her father Murtaza in 1996 and her aunt Benazir in 2007.
Fatima spent her early years with her father Mir Murtaza Bhutto. A sensitive and brilliant man who graduated from Harvard in the top fifteen percent of his class, his assassination was a searing tragedy and it is the central theme of this book.
Growing up in Afghanistan and then Syria, she studied in the UK and the USA. However, Fatima writes of a time when she was very young and fell ill. In a cranky mood, she had cried, “I want to go home!” even though she was in her own home. She meant that she wanted to go to Pakistan, where she’d never been, because that had always been “home” to her family.
To an Indian Fatima Bhutto’s book also highlights our essential similarity with Pakistanis – and our difference. We share language and environment – one simple representative example being the hybrid expression “double roti”. And yet, the same historical event is often viewed from very different perspectives. When writing, for example, of the Tashkent Accord, she does not mention what to us would be a critical association: the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri. And we could well react smugly at her observation that, “Karachi is often described as one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Home to somewhere between 16 and 18 million people, our city is overcrowded, underdeveloped and poor. Its police force, perpetually violent and corrupt, lends itself easily to crime and has a sinister reputation among citizens irrespective of their neighbourhoods,” without even thinking of the Indian cities that answer to this description too.
The part of the book that struck me most and I would like to preserve in my thoughts and actions is something that Fatima Bhutto did not write herself. It is a sentence from the diary of Ashiq Jatoi, one of the three others who was killed along with Fatima’s father, and was written on the day he died: “What happens to me doesn’t matter, what matters is how I behave when it is happening to me. Cool mind, clean hands, warm heart.”

15 June 2010

Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russel Rich

Staying ignorant in another language
Katherine Russel Rich survived cancer but then she lost a self-defining job of long standing. Of all the life choices this crossroads could have led her to, she picked the one that took her to India to learn Hindi. One of her objectives was to observe how the process of acquiring a second language, known to affect brain neurons, would change her as a person. This book tells the story and describes her experiences and observations in the context of the theory of language acquisition.
I tried reading Dreaming in Hindi aloud to my friend Gladys and found it exhausting. One reason was that the sentences are long and fanciful and often don’t make sense until you’ve stopped and examined them. Nowadays most people prefer a simple, straightforward and easily-understood style. There was certainly an element of poetry here – but far too much longwinded, self-indulgent expression for my taste.
Another reason both Gladys and I found this book tiring is because we felt it described a world we had never encountered and were constantly wondering whether in fact such a world did exist. The people seemed unreal and the situations ludicrous. We strongly felt that the author, despite her intention of immersing herself in something new and becoming different in the process, was describing India at a superficial level and in a rather precious, Lonely Planet sort of way, as one looking, self-absorbed, from the outside in.
One of the modules taught at the “institute” to which Katherine Russel Rich comes to learn Hindi is Sexual Harassment. She writes, “To the Indians, sexual harassment was a terrifying concept. Even its name, with its clacking, hissing sounds, was ominous. The idea behind it, actionable sexual attentions, was purely Western, and so no one understood precisely what it meant.”
Since sexual harassment is the most common or garden kind of street activity known to anyone who knows anything about the subcontinent, we found this observation strange. And when she said, “Just as South America is littered with antiquated cars, Hindi is strewn with words no one in America had used since Agatha Christie’s time, and for that alone I loved it,” we smote our foreheads in pity.
I’m sorry to say that about one fourth of the way into this book, we decided just to read a few bits from the middle and the end and then move on to another one next week. This means that you would be well justified in ignoring anything I’ve said here as superficial assessment.
Reading the last few pages, there were a fair number of missing links we had to address either by skipping because we couldn’t understand them, or by guessing what they referred to in context of what we knew. However, I’m glad we read the last bit because it has in it a valuable insight about how language works and how even someone who is an expert at a language may not understand two people who speak it because they belong to a different community and use it in a way only they can understand.

11 June 2010

Theodore Boone by John Grisham

Grisham Lite
“Why aren’t you eating?” his mother said, her chopsticks in midair.
“I am eating.”
“You seem preoccupied,” his father said. He used a fork.
“Yes, you do,” his mother agreed. “Something happen at the shelter?”
“No, just thinking about Julio and his family and how difficult it must be for them.”
“You’re such a sweet kid, Teddy.”
If you only knew, Theo thought.

Theodore Boone is thirteen years old and he knows more about the law than most lawyers in Strattenburg, a small city in the USA.
Like other books by John Grisham, this one is centred on suspenseful legal drama. The hero is a cute kid – a bit too cute, some might say. This book addresses a readership of both adults and children.
I've always felt that Grisham is an author that could be read by children. His language is straight, simple and clean, and he tends to avoid smut and graphic violence. And I’ve never missed a Grisham book, always hoping to catch some of the magic of the early ones which I enjoyed very much. To describe them, I would need to resort to clichés (“blockbuster”; “unputdownable”) – but I've been disappointed many times over in the last few years.

This book is a lot better than the last four or five. As a book for children, it covers various different family formats and also explains the basics of court procedure and etiquette as well as some common USA laws and their application. However, as a murder mystery it is a bit too tame and ends by rather craftily promising excitement in the sequel.

09 June 2010

Palpasa Cafe by Narayan Wagle

Pulitzer Cafe
When we first meet Drishya, the hero of this book, he’s a tourist, spending Christmas in Goa and on his way to Kerala to celebrate the New Year. A girl he sees on the beach is engrossed in a book – the book he wrote about his paintings.
This makes him sound sophisticated, and he is, but the way he becomes besotted with the girl, Palpasa (“like a bee to nectar”) and the way he is unable to express his feelings, reveal a simple and vulnerable person.
Back at home in Kathmandu, Drishya, Dai to his friends, receives a visitor to his art gallery one day. This is an old friend and student leader who had turned to violence and who now forces him to travel back to the village of his birth. The beauty is as he had left it, and birds wing on rhododendron blossoms as the snow on the hillside melts – but the trail is stained with blood. Drishya sees a cowherd who reminds him of his childhood: “He was still tending cattle, while I’d become a painter. We were separated by a span of two decades, but at his age I’d been no different from him. I spoke like him, I even looked like him. The only difference was that this boy’s mother didn’t drag him to school by his ears. A bomb had ripped his school apart. After that, forty of his classmates had been abducted and held for two days. The headmaster had been killed. The cowherd came every day to these forests littered with mines.”
Walking through the hills, Drishya stops at a lodge where he stays in a room with Manisha Koirala smiling down at him. From his rucksack he takes out a novel, The Bridges of Madison County, imagining Clint Eastwood as he reads about the character called Robert. Suddenly the lights go out, throwing the film stars on the wall into darkness. As the electricity comes on and then goes off again, he notices that the telephone lines are dead. Suddenly it seems as if the whole market has gone up in flames and a sound like hail pours onto the tin roof above. The attack had begun.
This book is beautifully written and tells the tragic story of modern day Nepal, weaving the fear, helplessness and trauma of the people Dai meets as he wanders, with his own romantic feelings and longing for Palpasa.
Author Naryan Wagle is a respected Nepali journalist and he makes brief cameo appearances at the start and end to give context to his story. The book also uses different forms – letters, poems, and long passages of dynamic, scintillating and lifelike conversation, which I particularly enjoyed.