30 October 2009

The Great Indian Love Story by Ira Trivedi

A glimpse into Delhi's low life
Sometimes Pune station is genteel and welcoming. But 2 weeks ago when I visited to drop someone off, it was so teeming with travellers, and with such a long platform-ticket queue (the machine had vanished – stolen, perhaps?) that I entered without one. But when I went again a few days ago to receive her, assuming I’d have to push and shove again, it was saintly calm and I was way too early.
Staring at the book cart near the entrance, I saw this one and couldn’t resist buying it. What a promising, if ambitious, title! Eager to get started, I decided to find a good seat and start reading.

Pune station has as many indicators as clouds in a monsoon sky, but none of them work. Nobody I asked seemed to know when my train was due or on which platform it would arrive. Calculating the average of various guesses, I hiked up and down and found to my pleasant surprise that platform 2/3 had several rows of comfortable-looking empty seats. I sat down and started reading but that distinct and rather fruity railway-toilet smell began to haunt me. I moved to various seats up and down the platform but the smell followed me everywhere. It was a familiar feeling from the long and tedious train journeys of my childhood on wooden-slat berths and one-rupee chaya-coffee and the hot Kerala, Tamilnadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharshtra winds blasting through the compartments and occasionally aiding in sunstroke. So instead of making me vomit, I started feeling nostalgic. It was a bit like having an old and sweet but very annoying friend (or cousin) sitting behind you, trying to read over your shoulder.
However, that was not the reason I wasn’t very impressed with this book. I read more than half of it while waiting for a train (which mysteriously crept in and emptied itself out, unannounced, on a dark platform, while other trains’ arrivals and departures were being heralded in loud, continuous klaxon wails).
When I got home, I made sure I read to the end before I went to sleep because this is just not the kind of book I would give a second chance to. It is well written and paints a vivid picture of a certain section of Delhi society. These people are very wealthy, and they spend their money on large, ostentatious homes, and nightly parties where part of the entertainment is the abuse of expensive and mind-altering substances. However, bringing this alive briefly in your mind is the book’s only success. Otherwise, I could only see flaws. The plot is weak. Some of its links are entirely unconvincing. The narrator starts out as a character of the book – but then suddenly disappears, and ends up as a voice that abruptly winds up the story at the end.
I'm not complaining because this book is not great literature
– after all, it did help me pass a pleasant hour on the stinky railway platform – but because it does not even do justice to the simple and popular genre to which it belongs.
Ira Trivedi has used the device of getting various of her characters to tell the story, but this doesn’t make any of them more real to us and in fact opens the way for far too many loose ends.
Before I wrote this, I came across an internet article (inappropriately titled "Writer Ira Trivedi takes a look at Delhi’s high life") in which Ira Trivedi claims that her book is about “India trying to come to terms with western values”.
I feel sorry to admit that I don’t even agree with that. The book is about people who are simply following a lifestyle and a tradition that they have always done.
Over centuries they have been cruel and exploitative, whether as landlords or as administrators. Over centuries they have ill-treated and objectified their women, forcing them into subservience of every kind, and brutalizing and killing them when they pleased. They have always favoured intoxication over sobriety.
To me, many of the characters in the book were like pigs in a pen – snuffling and grunting and eating their own faeces. A book whose characters disgust you is not always a bad book – many wonderful books have completely disgusting characters who add colour and charm to the tale. But not this one.

Then, this book calls itself a love story.
Surely love means more than just a feeling you carry within yourself? Surely it’s inclusive of the other person or thing and involves your care, nurture, understanding and giving of focussed attention to the loved person or thing? So to me, The Great Indian Love Story was not about love.
It’s also not about India – only a tiny and horrid part of it.
And, sadly, there is absolutely nothing great about it at all.

29 October 2009

Happy 50th Birthday, Asterix!

Obelix in Mumbai
One morning, Getafix was out in the woods cutting mistletoe for his magic spells when a little sprite by the name of Inbox came to him with a message from a faraway land. It was an invitation from an indomitable fishing village across the seven seas.
Our doings had reached their ears and they had sent Inbox with the offer of an exchange of friendship. They had chosen us, of all the little fishing villages in the world, as their sister village and had invited me, Obelix, on an exchange visit. I would be the recipient of their warmest hospitality, and one of their inhabitants would later come back with me to Gaul to visit us.

Excited by the prospect of this new adventure, I packed a few little boars for the journey and a menhir or two as a souvenir for my hosts, and set off, Dogmatix tucked comfortably on my shoulder. Cacafonix tried to sing a farewell lament in my honour but Unhygenix the fishmonger sat on his head. I tried to wheedle a little pouch of magic potion out of Getafix to protect me on the way, but he refused. As you may know, I fell into the potion when I was a baby and its effects have been permanent. So I climbed aboard the Phoenician trading galley that had brought a supply of silks and spices to our village, and set off for Mumbai.
My host Outforasix and his family were very friendly and showed me around. Asterix and Vitalstatistix had warned me that the inhabitants of the indomitable fishing village of Mumbai were accustomed to strange forms of transport and cautioned me to be careful not to fall off any of their wagons. I assured them that I was quite safe since I’d been on the wagon ever since
the morning after our last banquet when I’d woken up with such a bad headache that I could only eat 6 boars for breakfast.
On the first morning, Outforasix said he would show me his office and we squeezed on to the 84 Ltd. Some of the other passengers called me “Jadiya” which, Outforasix told me, means “Handsome Prince”. I knew at once that I was going to enjoy my stay in this indomitable fishing village. These Mumbai people were jolly good fellows.
Outforasix introduced me to his friends Allergictovix, Chinesepunjabimix and Diplomainmechanix who travelled with him to Glasgow every day. I was a little confused by this because I seem to remember Getafix mentioning once that Glasgow was an old Caledonian town but I suppose this is an extension of the expression All Roads Lead To Home. Getafix always says that travel broadens the horizon, and I now saw for myself how right he was.

At one point I looked out of the window and saw some wild boar sniffing around a garbage skip. Naturally I tried to leap off the bus to get them, but a young man by the name of Broadspectrumantibiotix clutched tight to my overalls and since I hadn’t packed any clothes, and Outforasix’s daughters had promised to take me to a Dandiya Nite, I decided I’d better not climb off.
I wandered around on my own when Outforasix went to work and who do you think I met but our old friends the Pirates!
These guys, as you know, do get around a lot but I was really surprised to see big signs celebrating the Pirates of the Caribbean. I tried to push my way in to get them, and was really surprised that the ferocious Mumbai crowds simply pushed me right out again. I wish I’d brought a few Romans along, I would have loved to share them with these guys.
That evening I went to the Dandiya Nite with Outforasix’s daughters Veni, Vidhi, and Vissy. Their names made me feel strangely homesick because they reminded me of something, I’m not sure exactly what. We had a wonderful time dancing and a lot of people called me Jadiya here too. What nice hospitable people Mumbai has. Veni and her boyfriend Teachersbumlix even won a prize for the best dressed couple. Oops! I promised not to say anything about the boyfriend – don’t mention this to Outforasix, will you.

Dogmatix, meanwhile, was getting along famously with the neighbourhood dogs. He loitered around street corners with them and they sang loud songs till late at night, living the good Mumbai life.

It was now getting time for me to set out on the long journey home. I had made good friends with a dabbawalla, Palamburwillfix, who lived right near us. The first time we met I had tried to snatch away his dabbas and get at what was inside but he defended them brilliantly. When I later heard that the Mumbai dabbawallas are certified as six sigma, I wasn’t surprised at all. Anyway, he invited me to his home and we feasted on bheja fry and kulfi. When I got back home, the whole village was crowded round, waiting to hear my stories. They refused to believe some of what I told them, even when I gave them the recipes for the bheja fry and kulfi. Perhaps you find it difficult to believe me too but I promise it is the truth, Qasam É Dastaan – or, as we usually put it, QED.

28 October 2009

The Dog Who Came In From The Cold by Alexander McCall Smith

Coming in a little late, but …
Alexander McCall Smith is the author of more than sixty books on many different subjects. To have read just one is to have become a fan forever. I love the Ladies’ Detective series and rely on them completely for non-fattening comfort.
In the first Corduroy Mansions online novel series, the author wrote a chapter a day, starting in September 2008, and the series ran for 20 weeks in The Telegraph.
The second novel, The Dog Who Came In From The Cold, started on 21 September 2009 and you can read or download the audio or listen to it free here.
The project is apparently a collaboration between the Telegraph Media Group, Little Brown Group and Polygon, the fiction imprint of Birlinn Ltd.

As Corduroy Mansions is released online, readers have the opportunity to interact with each other and the author himself through online discussion boards, edited by the Daily Telegraph staff.
The concept for Corduroy Mansions is based on Charles Dickens’ episodic writing – Dickens apparently serialized his novels through journals in weekly or monthly installments in the 1800s. The first time Alexander McCall Smith used this model was in 2004 for his novel 44 Scotland Street in the newspaper The Scotsman.
Unfortunately the podcast for session one is no longer available but you can read a summary of book one here.

27 October 2009

Tinker.Solder.Tap by Amitabh Kumar and Bhagwati Prasad

Media affects our lives in many ways
Tinker.Solder.Tap is a graphic novel with graphics by Amitabh Kumar and text by Bhagwati Prasad. The book was funded by Sarai, and you can download it free here. Like most of the other graphic novels I’ve read, this one gives an accurate impression of a particular culture, and to me this was its most striking feature. I also found the graphics superb.
Since I’m a traditional and rather manic reader, I tend to rush ahead and concentrate more on the text than images but do realize that in a graphic novel the illustrations are often works of art and deserve focused attention, such as this one which depicts Mother India holding her arm up – balancing a video cassette on it.
Another clever one was the conceptualisation of a map transforming from blurry to integrated-circuit designry as the internal relationship of the character to these places changes. In a graphic novel, the language should be secondary and perform the function of sign posts.
Though there was a certain amount of economy applied here which I appreciate, it upset me that there was careless use of grammar, something which shows a lack of production standards and which I consider unforgivable.
Sarai says that the protagonists of Tinker.Solder.Tap bring alive the ways in which the relationship between life and the media has been re-scripted in the various neighbourhoods of our cities (here).
However, to me this book was more about how our struggles for survival in this country bring out the entrepreneur in us and give us the ability to nimbly adapt to new technology and put it promptly to commercial use.
When I started reading, I imagined the story to be based in a small town. Only after I had read two-thirds did I realize that the location was actually New Delhi! This brought the insight that our cities’ suburbs are identical in outlook and culture to our towns and villages. One of the most attractive things about this book is that it portrays life in these towns and suburbs, with their rituals and customs, very well.

26 October 2009

"Schumpeter" on The Three Habits of ...

... highly irritating management gurus
A few days ago I read this patronizing article in The Economist’s Schumpeter column (to know why the column is called “Schumpeter”, read here)
Now I’m silly enough to operate on the principle that if something works, why complain? I continue to feel that Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits – while they may have become clichéd from (well-deserved) overuse – can actually be used to make the world a better place.
Most people I know don’t do their jobs as well as they could (and should); don’t relate well with their families, don’t manage their finances or look after their health – etc. etc. So while I do empathise with the “Schumpeter” annoyance at this listing of habits, I also believe that a little attention to one’s actions would make one more effective (a la Covey), more happy, and generally improve the state of the world. On the other hand, mocking Covey and others like him might make readers of “Schumpeter” feel good for a short while, but isn’t going to actually improve anything for anyone.

In January 2009, I interviewed Stephen Covey for Sunday Mid-day amongst surroundings that I may or may not write about, squirming, in my memoirs at the age of 98.
For the time being, I will just say that it was a disappointing experience.
Only later did I realize that I had been expecting to hear amazing words of wisdom from The Great Guru Covey. But what he told me was stuff he’d always been saying and which I’d read and practiced (oh how virtuous I am) for 20 years.

So Stephen Covey rah rah rah, and if you can bear to read any more,
my Sunday Mid-day interview is right here.

24 October 2009

My Friend Sancho by Amit Varma

In conversation with Amit Varma yesterday evening
What surprised me most – overwhelmed me, in fact – was Amit Varma’s unassuming, completely down-to-earth manner. Even though this was his event and everyone was there to see and hear him, he was intent, in a relaxed sort of way, on blending into the crowd.
His novel My Friend Sancho was well received in India. One review says, "The mighty Bombay blogger Amit Varma’s first novel, My Friend Sancho, is a quick and entertaining summer read, which also manages to make some serious points along the way."
His blog India Uncut is one of the widest-read in the country with more than 40,000 regular readers, and in May 2009, it put Amit on the Business Week list of India’s 50 most powerful people.

Anyone in his early thirties with these formidable achievements already behind him could be excused for feeling just a little bit pleased with himself. To be honest, I do see little traces of smug self-satisfaction on his blog occasionally - and who can blame him? But this is why I was all the more surprised to see that in person, Amit’s entire persona says, “Hey I have no idea what you’re staring at, I’m just an ordinary guy.”
In Pune yesterday, a small crowd gathered at Landmark to hear him speak and read from his book.
I had interviewed him by phone and email when his book was launched in May 2009 (you can read that here), but this was the first time we were meeting.

We talked about Amit and the journey he followed to become a writer, and he said he had worked first in Advertising, then Television and later became a print journalist. His first major experience as a widely-read blogger was with Cloudburst Mumbai after the flood disaster in Bombay on 26 July 2005. Through this blog, people were able to locate and get news of loved ones who were stranded, and it became a huge success.
Amit said that he had always wanted to be a novelist and had actually tried to write a novel unsuccessfully years ago. But with My Friend Sancho, he started writing and knew that he had found the voice of the novel long before four major Indian publishers vied for the manuscript.

The polarization of Indians writing in English is well known: some write for western readers, interpreting and often exoticizing our culture; while others write, often with a defensive who-cares-about-THEM, India-is-the-greatest! tone, exclusively for a home readership. My Friend Sancho is one of the first in a new trend of writers who write for an Indian readership but can be read and enjoyed without stress by readers from other countries.

The event was well attended, and some of the well-known people present were Ajit Harisinghani, author of One Life to Live, the prolific children’s adventure novel writer Deepak Dalal, the financial literacy activist Dr. Anil Lamba, and the short-story writer Aruna Jethwani, short-story writer and former Principal of St. Mira’s College for Girls. After the event, many in the audience told me that they had been impressed by the way Amit expressed himself and his ideas. They also mentioned how much they had enjoyed the passages that he read out from his book – but this I already knew, having seen them rocking with laughter while he was reading.

From bullock-cart to Mercedes-Benz by Dr. P.N. Singh

Reinforcing the basics
Last week I received a mail from Dr. Singh in which he said, among other things, that this book was going into its fourth edition. I wasn’t surprised. It isn’t a racy bestseller and nor is it a work of literary genius. However, and despite not having been reviewed in any mainstream publication, it has turned out to be a popular and widely-read book. When writing in the second edition about the lack of reviews the book had received, Dr. Singh very kindly mentioned that, “Saaz Aggarwal had promised a review. She is a very sincere person. She must have tried her best. Her efforts did not produce any results.” (I will have to admit that he was quite correct on all counts.)
Dr. Singh and I have known and respected each other professionally for around 20 years. He was my first and most important HR guru. It was the articles he wrote for Ascent in the early 1990s when I had just launched this HR supplement for the Times of India that made me understand that good-quality Management is really rooted in common sense, a fact that was useful to me in the many long years that I myself worked as a manager.
He wrote (in simple language) of simple problems managers face every day, and the simple solutions that they could easily use to deal with them. I loved the fact that his consistent style was to reinforce the basics – the fundamental issues of existence that we so often forget when we enter the rat race and our lives become a continuous flurry of activity with no time or energy to stop and think whether we are really doing what we want to do or what is going to get us what we really want.
It is this basic skill, of focussing on the most important issues, that led Dr. Singh to set up a self-development centre which conducts a range of education and infrastructure project in his native villge of Ganj (Ganj, P.O. EKMA, Dist Saran, Bihar; details here).
In this book, he has written about his childhood, his education, his family, and each step of his career and how he went from a child for whom a ride in a bullock cart was a special treat to the hakim-hukum his grandfather knew he would be, and with a Mercedes Benz that he takes quite for granted.
Along with the facts he has also woven in his opinions about bureaucracy, the differences between working the public and private sector companies, some special impressions of “My Hero: Aditya Birla”, and his journey as an entrepreneur. There are also nugget-sized lessons on nearly every page, some of these HR gems, such as:

- When you find an employer too keen to recruit you, he will soon become too keen to get rid of you.
- Overemphasizing the importance of promotion is dysfunctional. Organizations should find other methods to motivate their employees.
- Don’t accept peanuts as a salary unless you are a monkey. Sack your employers at the earliest.
- One mistake does not justify another mistake.

- Being too close to a subordinate can be disastrous to a CEO.

Regarding the success of this book, I would attribute it at least partly to Dr. Singh’s formidable personal network. Its continuous sale despite lack of mainstream coverage is a testimony to the power of word-of-mouth as most-effective marketing tool.
In the preface Dr. P.N. Singh wrote, “This is the story of an ordinary Indian, who is neither an industrialist nor a political leader. If he were one, he would have got the book written by a ghost writer. Instead he had to write his story by putting his heart instead of ink in his pen.”
Now this, I feel, is entirely my loss – I’ve always admired Dr. Singh and regret the loss of professional opportunity in writing his story myself.

22 October 2009

Jejuri by Arun Kolatkar

Tourist, poet, pilgrim
As I read this book, I smiled with the words going round and creating images in my head, and I longed to get on that bus to Jejuri.
The one that is no more than a thought in the head of the priest (as he wonders whether there’ll be puran poli on his plate) when:

With a thud and a bump

the bus takes a pothole as it rattles past the priest

and paints his eyeballs blue

The bus goes around in a circle.

Stops inside the bus station and stands

purring softly in front of the priest.

A catgrin on its face

and a live, ready to eat pilgrim

held between its teeth.

I smiled again and sighed with pleasure when I read:


come off it

said Chaitanya to a stone

in stone language

wipe the red paint off your face
i don’t think the colour suits you

i mean what’s wrong
with being just a plain stone
i'll still bring you flowers

you like the flowers of zendu
don’t you
i like them too

Then I wasn’t smiling and my heart dipped low for the old woman:

She won’t let you go.
You know how old women are.

They stick to you like a burr.

You turn around and face her

with an air of finality.

You want to end the farce.
When you hear her say,

“What else can an old woman do

on hills as wretched as these?”

At Jejuri (where every other stone is god or his cousin) you will also meet a sheep dog (who had never told a lie in his life) the temple rat (who knows to jump away from the temple bell just before it swings into action) the reservoir built by the Peshwas (not a drop of water; nothing it it, except a hundred years of silt) cocks and hens in a field of jowar (seven jumping straight up to at least four times their height as five come down with grain in their beaks) while your brother who came along stands outside in the courtyard where no one will mind if he smokes, and you will soon find it terribly, terribly hard to find out when the next train is due.
You don’t have to go to Jejuri to feel the colour and the thick flowers (and the heat and the crowd of pious peasantry and their smell). They are all here in this book, a little mythology, a thousand-year old tradition, the reality of what you see today, a sociological commentary, and a word-painting that shows vistas, landscapes and people you wouldn’t see even if you actually went there yourself.

Truth, Love and a Little Malice by Khushwant Singh

A history book that’s fun to read
It seems the film Indian Summer which was going to tell us more about the great romance between Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten is not going to happen. Reading that reminded me of this book and something Khushwant Singh wrote about these alleged lovers during the time when he was Press Attache and PRO at the Indian High Commission in London:
"Senior members of the staff were ordered to be present at Heathrow airport to receive the Prime Minister. It was a cold winter night when the plane touched down.
“'What are all of you doing here at this unearthly hour?' he demanded, obviously expecting us to be present and pleased to note that we were discharging our duties.
"Menon asked me to introduce myself to the PM and ask him if he desired me to do anything. I did so only to be snubbed. 'What would I want of you at this hour? Go home and get some sleep.'

The next morning when I reached the office I saw a note from Menon lying on my table asking me to see him immediately. I took a quick glance at the headlines of the papers to see if anything had gone wrong. The Daily Herald carried a large photograph of Nehru with Lady Mountbatten in her négligé opening the door for him. The caption read “Lady Mountbatten’s Midnight Visitor”. It also informed its readers that Lord Mountbatten was not in London. Our PM’s liaison with Lady Edwina had assumed scandalous proportions."

I had read this book many years ago, and recently misquoted something I read in it – about newspapers in England reporting Bandit Nehru in London. In fact, this never actually happened. The headline was for a new weekly tabloid, India News, and was to go on a page devoted to Panditji’s visit and the importance of the Commonwealth Conference he had come to attend. Though Khushwant Singh and Jamal Kidwai, who were working on it together, corrected the word back to “pandit” a number of times, the final proofs were set by a new typesetter who had never heard of the word. In the end the issue was scrapped.
This well-known photo was shot by Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Anyone interested in Indian history should read Khushwant Singh. He’s funny, readable, completely irreverent, and his perspective is fabulous.

19 October 2009

Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour

Writing Lolita in Tehran
My friend Manohar sent me this message on facebook a short while ago: "Saaz: just read your book review of 'Censoring an Iranian Love Story' in OPEN magazine on board the Kingfisher flight from DEM to BOM....good stuff!"
Vain as ever, I logged on and located it right away (here) - and was delighted when Manohar asked for the link so he could post it on his facebook page.

I'd enjoyed the book very much and wish I'd had more time to savour it the way it deserves to be savoured. Besides mocking the concept of censorship, this book can be used by "creative" writers as a primer of instruction. There's quite a lot of theory here about literature and how to hold a reader's
attention ("From the late Henry James, may God rest his soul, I know that to heighten the dramatic energy of my story, I have to limit its perspective to either Dara or Sara.")
We also learn a little about Iran and some contributions of Iran to world heritage. The story of Shirin and Khoshrow is told, and crops up in this book in many different variations.
One of the interesting things I learned in this book but the Open review didn't have space for was that "in olden days and current times, when Iranian men search for a spouse, they search for a woman whose lips have never touched teeth and whose teeth have never touched lips. And when they seek a lover, they want someone with extensive experience in biting. Unfortunately, oftentimes either they don’t find her or they end up with her opposite …"

Another was a searing penetration of the nature of hypocrisy. The official Porfiry Petrovich (yes, an alias borrowed from the detective in charge of solving Raskolnikov’s murder) who works at The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance apparently has his own personal depths. "He looked into Sinbad’s eyes. Tears welled up, and he looked down. “You are right. No one can be completely sure … Hypocrisy has many faces and many shades … Throughout history, all the calamities that have befallen us Iranians have been because of this hypocrisy …"

Closest to home (for us in India) is that many arty Iranian films which receive golden awards from reputable film festivals around the world, tend to portray misery, poverty and despair in Iran.

12 October 2009

2 States by Chetan Bhagat

Stephen Covey and Jeffrey Archer rolled into one
I found the first 50 or so pages of this book slow and not very engrossing. That could be because they described a campus romance, something I’m too far removed from to really relate to. I’d begun to think that maybe Chetan Bhagat was losing his touch (instead of, to use the kind of expression that sometimes appears randomly in his books, sustaining his readability growth curve) when I suddenly realised that time had passed, I had nearly finished the book and, ignoring yells from family members to join them for dinner, was shrieking with loud inelegant laughter as Chetan Bhagat did the very best “going to Kashi” ever.
Many south Indian wedding ceremonies incorporate the going-to-Kashi ritual in which the groom tucks his umbrella and a copy of the Gita under his arm and leaves the pandal. The bride’s father is supposed to trot anxiously after him, begging him to come back and marry his daughter instead. So Chetan (who with his IIT-IIM background would naturally have an especially brilliant way of doing things) strolled outside and hopped into an auto and let it drive along for a few seconds and only stopped when his sober, intellectual father-in-law-to-be was racing behind them in all his wedding finery screaming, “Hey! Come back!” or something like that.
2 States
is a fun story about a Punjabi “boy” and a Tamilian “girl” who meet at IIM A and all that they do before they finally get married. What I liked most about it was that it brings out the pain and confusion inherent in a close encounter between people of different cultures very clearly, and that it uses humour and candour to do so. There’s a lot that one can learn here, and not just that marble flooring is to a Punjabi what a foreign degree is to a Tamilian.

Chetan Bhagat apparently had a tough time finding a publisher for his first book Five Point Someone, a story about life at IIT. It appeared in May 2004 and met with instant success, as did One Night @ the Call Centre the following year. In 2008 the 3 mistakes of my life apparently topped the sales figures of the previous two books. One Night is a well-researched story of the call centre life and a lovely tale that tries to make people understand their own priorities and motivations. 3 mistakes is based on his most ambitious theme to date, the Hindu-Muslim riots in Ahmedabad.
I wasn’t able to get through Five Point Someone, but I did enjoy the next two. Technically, I’m supposed to sneer at Chetan Bhagat’s books because they don’t have a literary quality, which they don’t.
The language is casual, which would have been fine by me if the editing and proofreading weren’t unforgivably sloppy. I like it that there's no forced Yo! cheeriness, and no purposely-stuffed-in Indian words as some writers do to show how cool they are. But why keep using the F word as if it's some kind of growth vitamin? Don't they teach you at IIT (or IIM) that using sexual expletives to express anger or frustration is bound to eventually ruin your sex life? And why would his editor allow the book to say that someone was "hitting upon" someone else, as if they were an idea, instead of just "hitting on" them which is all they were actually doing?
Then the main character, even when it’s not Chetan himself (as in the first and the fourth books) tends to be a clone of him, with predictable thoughts and responses. Many ideas - and even clothes, the heroine in more than one has an exquisite turquoise blue sari - are repeated.
Still, if you can read a book from one end to the other without stopping, lose yourself in the author’s world for a few hours and come out of it slightly different than you were before – Yeah Baby, and who am I to argue?

I also found that the books were unpretentious and with a strong social-activist flavour, which I admired though at times I found it rather half-baked. He writes about young people, and tries to introduce what he sees as forward ways of thinking, encouraging them to cast off the shackles of restrictive and sometimes primitive traditional ideas. Traditional middle-class Indians might find him a little too generous in the matter of premarital sex – two weeks after the first brush of hands, they’ve invariably gone ahead and Done It.
I guess that’s ok because it helps young people who are going ahead and Doing It in spite of all the restrictions they’ve been reared with to temper their guilt – but to my prissy sensibilities, there’s not enough talk in band-leader Bhagat’s books about condoms. If people start following these new rules in a country where abortions are as easy to come by as Aspirin (and dread of swine flu is apparently more consuming than reservations about HIV), there’s a lot of biological trauma on the way.
Then he goes and buys in to the primitive western concept that a man must go down on his knees to propose marriage to a woman, who has no say in the matter whatever, and has been waiting anxiously all the while for him to do so which I think is a terrible, terrible pity considering how much power he has to shape some decent values.

Chetan Bhagat's books have been wildly popular, and not only because they are all priced lower than Rs. 100. People are reading and enjoying them. After the second one, newspapers began to carry interviews of people across India who claimed that they had never read a book in their lives before but absolutely loved Chetan Bhagat and had sworn to read everything he ever wrote. You can read fan comments from some of these people on the official Chetan Bhagat website here. Even my husband Ajay, who in his spare time organizes volunteers to conduct road-safety campaigns in Pune, tells me that when he asks a hall full of undergrads whether they’ve heard of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, someone will almost always raise their hand and call out proudly, “Chetan Bhagat!” In short, here is an amazing never-seen-before national phenomenon.
At the Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2009, I saw Chetan Bhagat with the media and fans flocking around him. I saw him hanging out with his wife and twin infants (and their "maid"). I even saw him pleading, rather endearingly, with the cranky genius Vikram Seth for his autograph. And I felt sorry that the extraordinary sale of his books had been unable to protect his self esteem from the barbs of pompous reviewers. He came across in all these situations as defensive and a bit cocky, and the impression was perpetuated in other ways as well. This book opens with: “This may be the first time in the history of books, but here goes: Dedicated to my in-laws*
*which does not mean I am henpecked, under her thumb or not man enough.

The previous one was dedicated to his twin sons and the woman who produced them “with just a little help from me”. I found this invitation to the world at large to acknowledge his private moments with his wife distasteful and a little, excuse me, "Yawn".

Still, I have to say that, like Chetan Bhagat's hundreds of thousands of fans, I look forward to his next book and wonder what it will be about, which number will appear in its title, and what he'll be trying to convert us to or from as he keeps us engrossed and amused.

10 October 2009

Culture Shock! India by Gitanjali Kolanad

Welcome to the zoo. Please don't try to feed the animals.
About a year ago, I visited a home-sundries sale of a Swedish expat who was leaving Pune for good. I got some lovely brand-new Ikea pillows and pans at a terrific rate and, mighty pleased with myself, stood gazing at the book shelf. I picked up Cactus & Roses, the autobiography of S.L. Kirloskar, and My Life So Far by Jane Fonda – another 2 good bargains. (I’m always buying biographies, believing them to be Good For Me, but hardly ever get round to reading them.)
I was looking for more when I noticed the lady of the house trying to hide this one. Naturally I became curious and, before she could back away, twisted it out of her helpless grasp.
She was still shaking her head, saying, “No, no!” when I quickly put the money down and ran off with it triumphantly clutched under my arm. Swedish people are among the most civilized on our imperfect planet, and she did not give chase or alert the building security.
I was dying to know what this lovely lady had been trying to protect me from, and I soon found out:
Flipping through the book on the ride home, I noticed a little blurb in the middle of the book that stood out because it was printed in red, unlike the rest of the text which was black:
I attended a party in the company of an American woman who wore, with her stylish dress and hat, blue stockings. A guest not used to such sophistication said to me, in Hindi, “Poor woman. Does she have wooden legs?"
Gitanjali Kolanad was 16 when she first visited India with her father, and, “looking like an Indian girl and feeling like a Canadian teenager, India was an exotic foreign land to me.”
Here are a few tiny gems from her book:

  • The rule is to ask at least three people, and then take the majority decision. (When trying to locate an address)
  • Foreigners can even find celery at a neighbourhood market in New Delhi.
  • Quality Control is one of the most serious problems facing the Bullock Cart Economy.
  • It would be easier to drive in India without brakes than without a horn
She also quotes what she calls “the authoritative publication, People of India,” without giving its publisher or source, to declare here that the billion people of India speak “325 different languages and practice more than seven religions (sometimes two or more at the same time)”
In short, the entire book is based on the premise, “We know more than they do. We are smart; they are simple.”
It reminded me of the concept of “Orientalism” described by Edward Saïd, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and a founding figure in postcolonialism.

Broadly, the Western study of the “Orient” is a constellation of false assumptions underlying Western attitudes towards the East, for example that the West is rational whereas the East is irrational; the West has Science while the East has Religion; the West has the rule of law while the East has potentates, and so on.
In this kind of study, you define the other culture just so that you can feel good about what you have, and superior to the other because they are different. It gives you a justification to rule.

Every culture has a tendency to judge other cultures in this manner. The whole point of talking about culture shock is to know that it’s not going to be easy, first understand this basic premise, and only then try to interact or communicate or understand the other.
Cross-cultural studies have shown that intimate long-term relationships across cultures are almost invariably doomed to failure.

I have to admit that this book is an early edition, somewhat before India emerged as a global outsourcing base (and, even better, a world market.)

It’s a good book for someone who thinks they’re visiting a zoo (like Clare Jay below). Please don’t try to feed the animals.

08 October 2009

The Music Room by Namita Devidayal

A little girl and what her teacher taught her
This book is now just about two years old, and has so far sold 20,000 copies worldwide, of which 10 or 15 must go to my account – I loved it so much that I bought at least a dozen copies as presents for friends. It is a memoir, and its central character is Dhondutai, the inheritor of the riches of the Jaipur gharana, one of the most powerful schools of Hindustani classical music.
A few months after The Music Room was released, I wasn’t surprised to read that it was on the “Best Reads of 2007” list of Sonia Gandhi, Shyam Benegal and Ramachandra Guha.

In February 2008, a book discussion group I belong to in Pune read The Music Room and invited Namita Devidayal to answer questions. It was a lovely morning, we sipped coffee with little fingers outstretched, Namita played us some rare tracks of the complex genius Kesarbai Kerkar who features in the book, read out an excerpt, and even
sang a short raga for us in her beautiful baritone voice.
After the event we were supposed to have a quiet lunch together with a few friends but the media had got wind that the famous Namita Devidayal was in town and reporters from one newspaper and then the next and then the next kept her busy as we sullenly played with our food and waited for them to go away.
Now the thing is, Namita has been a dear friend for many years. When Sunday Mid-day asked me to review her book, I had a difficult choice to make. To have refused would have been to do my friend, and her wonderful book, the injustice of refusing them space in one of the few widely-read publications in India that has a books page. To write a review would be very difficult. Even though I knew I could look at the book objectively, it was also very important to me that the review be SEEN to be objective. So for every sentence I wrote, I stopped and asked myself whether I was fawning, or whether I was being needlessly nasty.
In the end, here’s the review which appeared on 4 November 2007, but before you read it, I must confess that what I enjoyed most was being able to call my dear friend Namita, one of the most warmhearted and generous people I know, a “ferocious professional” in public.

This is an autobiographical novel whose author was fortunate enough to be steeped, at once, in separate worlds that seldom intersect.
Born into a traditional upper-class business family, her mother was well known for her penetrating and humorous art rather than her ikebana or table linen.
At a young age, Namita was sent for music lessons to an area of Bombay that few of her compatriots would have dreamt existed, let alone experienced. When her rendition of a classical raga wins her a school music competition – by a wide margin, one would imagine, considering the years of rigorous training that preceded it – and was met with the taunt, “Heh heh, did you forget the words?” all she could do was to collude with the sniggering.

Soon she was travelling on her own by bus and train to the Mumbai heartland of one BHK flats with noisy steel cupboards and water-shortage, which might even have caused her peers to recoil from her with shuddering looks of alarm had they known. Most exotic and exclusive of her worlds is the one she chose as a backdrop for her debut novel, the world of Indian classical music.
Dhondutai, Namita’s teacher, had inherited the spectacular legacy of the Jaipur gharana and it was a fond dream that Namita would carry it forward into the next generation: “Give up your foolish studies and focus on something you are uniquely gifted with. Anyone can go out and get a BA. It is an insult to God to throw away a gifted voice,” she urges her. With her exposure to the different worlds, Namita already has a perspective that allows her to examine each one and objectively select or discard. Now Dhondutai inducts her into the great secrets of her art. But she teaches more than just music, even more than the rigour of backbreaking practice that holds no room for anything less than perfection. The simple act of making a cup of tea is unobtrusively turned into a lesson on the interconnectedness of all things, and a warning not to allow one’s ego to puff up at every small achievement. When introducing her to the relationship between melody and rhythm, she makes her conscious of the circular recurring rhythms of our own life: breathing, the diurnal routine, and the motions of the universe. Praising a student from England, Dhondutai observes, “It’s their work ethic and desire to succeed against all odds that we should take from the west. Instead, we take the worst – their dress habits and their music!” The secret of performing pure music, she later confides, is that when you are singing a particular raga, you have to train your mind to pretend it is the only raga you know.
Dhondutai’s unrelenting morality, her boundless faith in her gods, her superstitions and her skill at warding off their ill effects, her jealous guardianship of the sacred musical IPR that rests with her, all hold lessons of their own. But the book is also richly strewn with engaging historical facts, and stories about the great singers of yore, about kingdoms where their art was revered and cultivated or sometimes even colonised.
As compelling as any of these legends is the one of how Dhondutai, a young woman from an orthodox Brahmin family, came to acquire her wealth of knowledge from a very traditional family of Muslim men.

At Princeton, Namita’s learning crystallizes, and she tries to put into practice what was written thousands of years ago: “try your best and accept the rest”. She has now acquired for herself a double burden of heavyweight education. One is the unique gift of music in the tradition of the Jaipur gharana which traces itself all the way back to Haridas Swami, guru of Tansen himself, as lovingly tendered by Dhondutai, with all her deep spiritual wisdom in attendance. The other is the degree in political science from Princeton.

Finally choosing to follow neither path but to carve one out for herself, Namita has produced this book. It is thoroughly researched, with deft extrapolation of events from the lives of the great musicians of this gharana such as Kesarbai Kelkar. It is startlingly frank, with intimate events from Namita’s own life and random musings about the teachers. And the imagery is great fun, with a street display of hanging brassieres likened to filigreed stalagmites, and a placid tabla player who plays with his eyes shut likened to a sleeping turtle. Like its author, The Music Room professes an outwardly relaxed and amused demeanour that masks the ferocious professional within. You will want to read it through at one sitting. Enjoy it by all means, but don’t do it this injustice – you’ll miss all the wealth that you can absorb between the lines.

07 October 2009

Kama Kahanis - the new Indian Mills and Boon

Kissing and sighing in the good old days
I read these historical romances for Sunday Mid-day. One of them (Ghazal in the Moonlight) was quite decent but I think I might have outgrown the genre.
Here's what I wrote in the 4 Oct 2009 issue:

“His restless gaze settled on a bewitchingly beautiful girl, not older than seventeen. She was angelically exquisite, from her radiant honey-coloured skin to her dark eyes, rimmed with kohl and speaking a language all their own.”
I really can’t be a hypocrite and pronounce grandly that I object to books constructed with sentences like these. As a genre, such books are not literature – but they don’t pretend to be. When critics
complain that their plots are repeated, the language daft and the endings always happy, publishers will reply smugly that it’s the predictability and happy endings that draw the fans – and the language suits them just fine, too, thank you.
Looking fondly back to the days I myself blissfully employed books of this nature to relieve the tedium of Physics class, I could even claim quite placidly that they don’t really turn their readers into quivering neurotics by creating unrealistic expectations or lowering their self esteem.
So I won’t complain about sentences like “You scorn at everything we do” and the use of words like “wager”, or ask why we’re saying “bua” on one page and “paternal aunt” on the next – and say instead that if the purpose of the Kama Kahanis had been to teach their readers history, I’m afraid I’d have to be rude and point out that they’d failed rather badly.
The Zamindar’s Forbidden Love and Mistress to the Yuvraj both read like small-town one-set amateur productions with a few dubious historical elements randomly thrown in. Ghazal in the Moonlight does it a great deal better, actually transporting you to another time with much more visual imagery and absorbing detail. How accurate it is I can’t say – though I can fairly observe that Ghazal is so much more mature than the other two in terms of plot, language and romantic escalation that it’s unfair to even classify it as part of the same series.
In any case, the Kama Kahanis only use the historical background as a means to provide an added edge of romance, a device that was also useful considering the archaic language and concepts used in the books.

All three freely use words such as “quivering”, “impulsively” and “achingly” when referring to the girls, while the men bark with laughter, cock their heads and twitch their devilish mouths (the rogues). Because, though many things have changed, and the heroines here fight duels to win the bag of gold and walk jauntily past tigers to prove a haughty point, they continue to be virgins pure. The men on the other hand are still swashbuckling, experienced studs.
Most interesting is to observe how the romantic-novel formula works in an Indian context. While the publisher coins the catchy phrase “chaddi-ripper” to describe the books, the dress code is (exquisite) period costume of every hue and fabric. Interestingly, the men here are more aware of their own feelings than I remember them ever being. I’m not sure whether this is cultural or a function of the present.
Most hilarious and incongruous of all was the ending of Zamindar in which (unmarried) Madhu and Som have worked themselves up into a frenzy and are now on the verge of Doing It, not fretting in the least that the door is open and the young servant boy might walk in at any moment.