30 July 2009

T’ta Professor by Manohar Shyam Joshi

The Village School Master
The hero of this book is a writer who goes to work in a primary school in a village in North India so
that he can continue following his literary ambitions and avoid family pressure to take up a government job. It’s just a few years after Independence. There he meets T’ta Professor who has a Dubbul MA but was usurped by an ordinary BA who was unfairly made Principal of the village school. T’ta Professor carries a notebook in which he writes the new words he learns, and looks them up in his dictionary. He asks our hero why he lies down and reads; why he reads a book in English wearing only pyjamas: “You must wear a coat-pant and tie,” he declares, “when you read English books; and sit properly at a desk. After all, Sanskrit scholars have to wear a freshly washed dhoti and sit on a wooden patla, don’t they?” Nearly half the book passes in this type of funny, flippant chatter and the writer, also a Joshi like the writer of this book (we never learn the rest of his name and it doesn’t say anywhere that they are not the same person), lives among the other teachers observing them rather patronisingly as prospective characters for his great literature. Engrossed in the flow of the story, it’s hard to tell when exactly Joshi enters a real relationship with T’ta Professor. Is it as they exchange confidences about their early sexual adventures? Perhaps not, because at this point Joshi is still looking at the “professor’s” confessions as material for plot and setting. But these confessions do make the two more equal as they gently expose the stark, poignant facts of the professor’s life. The turning point is subtle and the tone of the book changes, moving from breezy morning to sullen dusk. This is a Hindi book, very enjoyable and informative, and made available to an international audience in this excellent translation by Ira Pande.

28 July 2009

Embroideries by Marjane Sartrapi

Graphic as a genre rather than adjective
Based in Iran, this book represents, through a group of stereotypes, various facets of sexual repression and the feisty,
inventive or sad ways in which women deal with them. One woman doesn’t know anything about sex though she has 4 children. How did that happen? Well, her husband comes in to the room at night and puts off the light. Then “Bam! Bam! Bam!” (and the other women listening to her speak go “Ha! ha! ha!”) In fact, she was blessed with four daughters so she has never seen a penis. Another of the women waited for her husband to call her to America for decades – they had fallen in love as teenagers and he had left soon after – only to find nothing, worse than nothing, waiting for her. Another escapes from her bathroom window on her wedding night, yet another nicks her bridegroom's testicles with the blade that was supposed to draw her own blood to prove she was a virgin. A wide-eyed western woman wants to make use of ancient Iranian techniques to bring elasticity back to her vagina. There are more. The chatting, embroidering women span 3 generations and are full of fun. If I compare this book with the only two other graphic novels I’ve read, I’d guess that it would be popular primarily because it is written by the author of Persepolis. Palestine, written and drawn by the journalist Joe Sacco is a very artistic and vivid portrayal of the history and plight of the Palestinian people whose land was suddenly occupied. The illustrations are stunning and depict violence in a uniquely creative and effective way. Unfortunately this aspect of graphic novels are rather wasted on me since I tend to race ahead with the text and create my own mental images. Regular comic books don’t need any focus on the illustrations which are bland and repetitive. With this book, I had to keep reminding myself that I was missing good stuff and turning back to examine the intricate and beautiful drawings. The other one I read a few months ago was Private-Eye Anonymous by Tejas Modak. It’s an entertaining detective story, well written and well illustrated. In comparison, I found Embroideries more like a comic book than a graphic novel because it lacks a storyline and the characters are caricatures rather than real people. Comic books were one of the delights of my childhood. We had no television or computers. It sounds like the ice age but it wasn’t hundreds of years ago … it was just a combination of a particular geography with a particular level of technological development which made us more isolated and less exposed than other kids similar to us in other ways. Comic books taught us American idiom – I would have surely scored high on the TOEFL. They were barely tolerated by parents and teachers, but considered junk. Kids nowadays have many other choices of brightly-coloured and low-mental-stress activity and aren’t as devoted to comic books as we used to be. The first time few graphic novels I saw in shops, on the other hand, made me confused and dizzy and even gave me a little touch of vertigo. I think this is because I felt intimidated by their modernity and their popularity amongst smart youngsters – though I do admire the intense illustrations and the strong activist messages that many of them carry.

24 July 2009

Mutant Message Down Under by Marlo Morgan

Books are “karmic”
A friend lent me this book to read many years ago. I loved it. The story is hard to believe, but that wasn’t important . I found it fascinating but even more than that, enjoyed its many beautiful and important messages about life and how we can make it more fulfilling and enjoyable.
The author says she was invited to receive an award by an aboriginal tribe in Australia. Expecting to be given a plaque or trophy of some kind, she was bemused to find herself somehow being led off across the Outback on foot with them.
During the journey, she learned how to live simply and began to understand some basic facts about life that, in all her previous years, surrounded by the comforts of affluent western civilization, had been obscured by trivia. She learned something about physical endurance, and about the true priorities of existence. Her companions made her feel included, and unique, and wonderful – for the first time, she felt herself to be in a state of
unconditional acceptance.
I returned the book to my friend very reluctantly. I felt it had important messages, and I wanted to share it with others!
Imagine my surprise when I came across a few copies very unexpectedly a few months later while browsing in The Banana Bookshop at Covent Garden in London. They were marked at a wonderfully low price so I bought the lot and gave them away to friends. (Karmic, right?) Some of them thought it looked weird and shoved it back at me, and told me to stop trying to reform them. That didn’t make me love it (or them) any less.
Years later I discovered that this had been a controversial book. Apparently many Australians had been angry and objected to it because it had been a bestseller and had, they said, misrepresented Australian aboriginal culture.
I pulled out my old dog-eared copy and flipped through it . It never claimed to be an authority on Australian aboriginal culture. It merely told a story. Considering the size of Australia and the likely diversity of its aboriginal tribes, how could anyone say it was misrepresenting a culture when all the author had done was write about what she said were her personal experiences with them? The argument reminded me of the lack of logic and vehemence with which vested political interests in our country make art objects the focus of religious ire.
Nobody can ever prove that Marlo Morgan did or didn’t make this journey. And how does it matter whether she did or not? It would be the same as trying to prove or disprove that Dr. Brian L. Weiss (MD) had invented the entire Masters series – why can’t we just read, enjoy the story, and assimilate the inspiring and spiritually fulfilling messages of the Masters?
A sad ending: The Banana Bookshop seems to have succumbed to the recession and is no longer able to fulfill the beautiful karmic relationship we've shared and the many unexpected gifts it gave me over the years …

22 July 2009

Why I started writing this blog ... or How to Write a Book Review

Laurane Marchive is an intern at Sunday Mid-day. She is a French student and in Bombay for a few months, and is working towards two different degrees at the same time in France, one in political science, which will lead to a journalism master, and the second in modern literature. Click here to read something Laurane wrote about Bombay. Laurane interviewed me for research paper on “How to enter a literary career”. I sent her answers to the questions she asked, but it was the train of thought they set off in me that led me to create this blog ... thank you, Laurane! I’ve pasted our conversation here because it made me think about why and how I write book reviews.
What kind of formatio
n ( diplomas, professional experience) does one need to have to become a book reviewer?
I received my Master’s
degree in Pure Mathematics from Bombay University in 1982. After 3 years as a lecturer in undergraduate Mathematics at Ruparel College, Bombay, I had a baby and took a career break. During this time I started writing. My byline became ” quite prominent (no one was more surprised than I that what I wrote – mostly personal-experience humour – was fit for publication) and The Times of India offered me a job as a features editor in 1989, which I took up. I’ve just flipped through my records and find that my very first book review appeared on 28 April 1991, in a wonderful but short-lived newspaper of the Times group called The Independent. I remember very clearly how this happened: I saw the book lying on someone’s table and said, “Hey can I read that?” And he said, “Sure, review it for us. 1200 words.” Apparently it was all very ad hoc in those days (and no one does 1200-word reviews any more either). But I think it is still possible to become a book reviewer in this way. I don’t think any newspaper or magazine in India looks at your qualifications before they ask you to review books for them. After that, The Independent gave me books to review regularly. I think other journalists must have read some of these reviews or in some way had an idea that I could write a book review, because after that over the years I have received quite a lot of books to review. I think the general understanding is that if someone is an experienced reader, and capable of analyzing, comparing, and writing readable copy, they can be considered as a book reviewer. I think it also helps if the person is capable of meeting deadlines and responding to last-minute changes or requests.
Is it easy to become a book reviewer? Is it a struggle to make a living out of it?

It is probably not very easy to become a book reviewer for the reason that not many Indian publications give space to books. However, from what I know of the way papers are run, it is not difficult at all. But it is not possible to make a living out of writing book reviews unless one has an extremely humble lifestyle.
Is it your only job or are you also writing for other medias, newspapers, or maybe just other beats?
I write books on commission, and also occasional articles for other publications. I’m also a painter and my paintings of Bombay and commissions also contribute to my income: saazaggarwal.com From mid-1995 to early-2006 I worked in HR in a software company and I sometimes get HR process-related consulting assignments or assignments to conduct personal growth training programmes from other software companies (I have 2 training products of my own which I customize for client companies on request).
Do you think it is possible for someone who is not Indian to become a book reviewer in India? Is there an international market or does it remain something local?
Yes it’s possible. Indians writing in English is a comparatively new phenomenon and we have actually read more of international authors than Indian ones until very recently. At Sunday Mid-day most of our books are either based in India or written by Indians but if you go into any bookstore you’ll see many more international authors than Indian ones. The international market is much larger than the local one. But what our book stores get are the ones that our book distributors accept. When traveling abroad I still see many wonderful new books I’ve never heard of, and which we are never going to see in India because they will never be sold in this country.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to become a book reviewer? ...
Read a lot of books, try and read different genres, styles, classics, contemporary stuff.
... As you write your review, always keep in mind that the author has constructed the plot very deliberately, so try not to give away any surprises – that would be unfair to both author and reader. ... Try not to think that you know better than the author of the book or the reader of your review. According to me, readers find preening reviewers repulsive. ... Be as entertaining as you possibly can within the framework of the space the publication gives you. I don’t write intellectual reviews because I’m not an academic or an intellectual, just someone who loves books. I don’t have a background of having studied literature. I feel that for me, writing for the Sunday Mid-day, this background is a big advantage because most of my readers are also not academics or intellectuals. I think of my readers as people like me, who love to read, both for entertainment as well as for instruction. I try to give them what I would like a book reviewer to give me.

19 July 2009

Slumgirl Dreaming by Rubina Ali

The Star who Plays in the Gutter
There’s a rickshaw stand near where I live, and one of the guys, Sanjay, very sportingly posed for me reading this book. Unfortunately, the photo of Rubina playing in dirty water with her friends and a few other Oscar-winning ones were going to look better, and I’m going to have to step out and apologize to Sanjay that he’s not in the paper today.
Poor Rubina Ali – not only is she one talented Oscar-winning actress who would live in a slum if it hadn’t been knocked down, leaving her homeless, she’s been cheated of her due fees, lost her privacy, and now the book that tells her fascinating story has been badly written and produced in a slipshod, hurried way. Get a copy – they say she’s going to get part of the royalties though they didn’t specify what percentage – but don’t expect much.

17 July 2009

In the Valley of Mist by Justine Hardy

Psychiatric wards and the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Kashmir
Justine Hardy is English, and has been travelling to Kashmir ever since she was eleven years old. For the last 20 years she has been visiting there every year and sometimes several times a year. In the Valley of Mist is a documentary-style book which gives vignettes of her experiences and conversations through the years of the turmoil and conflict in the state. Her books, Goat - A story of Kashmir and Notting Hill, and the novel The Wonder Hill, are set in Kashmir. In Scoop-Wallah she writes about the year she spent as a reporter for The Indian Express in New Delhi.
In In the Valley of Mist one of the things she writes of is the psychiatric wards in the hospitals of Kashmir where helpless victims queue for attention with their loved ones who have been thrown off balance to various degrees by the violence and disruption to their lives.
I contacted Justine before I wrote this review for Sunday Mid-day and she told me
“I have been working in this field for many years, and am now lucky enough to be joined in this in Kashmir by some wonderful doctors and psychiatrists who want to help their people.” Some of these are therapists from the UK who Justine had met several years ago through their work in Bosnia, working with victims of the war there in the mid-1990s.
She added, “It has taken a while for the main clinic to be built in Srinagar at SMHS Hospital. The psychiatrist that I wrote about in the book, Dr Arshad Hussain, has been funded by the
Central Government to build a new psychiatric clinic at the hospital because the problem is so widespread in Kashmir as a result of twenty years of violence. A large percentage of the population is living with varying degrees of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, ranging in severity from low level depression to full mental and physical breakdown. As the clinic was taking longer to build as a result of last summer’s renewed violence over the Amarnath Shrine land, and then recent trouble over the deaths of the two young women in Shopian, we started taking health camps out to the rural areas earlier this year while the clinic was being finished.These are being done by local doctors, we are covering all the expenses, and I have raised money to bring the therapists from England and to cover their costs. They will be working at both the clinic and joining us at the health camps. The therapists and the local doctors are doing all this work voluntarily.”

14 July 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

An off-beat book club set in World War II
Next week, we will finish this book, on our fifth session with it. I’m reading it aloud to my friend
Gladys who can no longer read herself, and I’m enjoying the sound of her shaking with laughter just as much as I’m enjoying the story and the way it’s told. There have also been a few passages that brought a lump to my throat – in particular what happened to the children and how the adults dealt with it – and I’ve had to pause for a few seconds, quickly think of something deathly boring to stabilise my feelings and then start reading again, pretending everything’s okay. Of all the books we’ve read together since a year ago when we started spending Tuesday mornings together doing this, this one has been the one we’ve both enjoyed most. We’ve read it fastest, too – otherwise we’re always stopping to chat and rant about how the world could so easily be a better place if only we were running things – and we’ll both be sorry when it’s over. Gladys is already looking for another title and with her vast knowledge of books and her widespread book-lovers’ network, I’m confident she’ll pick another good one – the ones we’ve read together have invariably been better than the ones the publishers send me for review or the ones prominently displayed by the bookstore chains which I find hard to resist buying.
This book tells a little-known story of World War II, something we’ve long forgotten. Even if we ever had a concept of trenches, “Tommies”, food rationing, bombed-out churches in Europe, the concentration camps with all their dreadful brutality, the carnage at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the sheer manic delight of the Normandy landings – we certainly never knew what happened to Guernsey, one of the British Isles, which was occupied by the Germans and completely isolated from the rest of the world for five years. This grim story is told with so much humour that it is full of fun. Presenting it entirely through letters written by its various characters, the author has cleverly worked all kinds of details about the war into the book, including the slave Todt workers, the prostitutes imported to areas of command, and all kinds of fascinating specific details about war life and recovery.
The saddest thing I learnt about this book was that its author, Mary Ann Shaffer whose entire career had been spent in libraries, bookstores and publishing – in fact quite similar to Gladys’ own career – had written the book late in life and died before it appeared in print and became the
well-deserved success that it did.

12 July 2009

HOSHRUBA translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi

Who needs Harry Potter?

This book has a beautiful cover, but of course that shouldn’t be a reason to rush to pick it up. I loved Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s last book, The Story of a Widow, but that shouldn’t be a reason to grab it either – that one was a novel and this was actually written by someone else and only translated by Musharraf. Hoshruba is a series of stories filled with magic, romance, riches, enmity and passion. It’s a sequel to The Adventures of Amir Hamza – also translated from Urdu by Musharraf Ali Farooqi – and was written by the court storytellers of Lucknow in the nineteenth century, more than a thousand years after the original first enthralled audiences in the Middle East and Central Asia. This book has 447 pages, and there are 23 more volumes, all of which Musharraf intends to translate. The story of the creation of these epics is also fascinating, and well told in the introduction to the book which I did eventually get round to though I, like Musharraf, never read “introductions” first. If you enjoy fast-moving and well-written books filled with magic, romance, riches, enmity and passion, this one’s for you.
When I asked Musharraf how he expects this enormous body of work he is creating to influence the general global perception of the Islamic world, he replied, “Frankly, I find it discourteous to change anyone’s opinion of anything. My effort is aimed at readers worldwide who are unaware of this awesome fantastic story. I want to get the book into their hands. They will know what to do with it.”
When I mentioned that a colleague told me he’d gone through Hoshruba and thought it totally absurd though it might make a good special effects movie, Musharraf quipped, “Please give my love to your colleague. Everyone knows there is far more money in special effects movies than in translating classics. If your colleague’s hunch is right, I will be soon headed for the bank with a big gunny sack.”
You can read the rest of our conversation in the
17 July 2009 issue of Open Magazine at http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/books/adventures-of-musharraf-ali-farooqi. As for me – I’m waiting to get my hands on Between Clay and Dust, the new novel Musharraf Ali Farooqi is working on.