22 September 2010

The Temple-goers by Aatish Taseer

Oh no - not another one
DSC Limited, an Indian infrastructure-development company also promotes literature as one of its "key initiatives". DSC has been one of the principal sponsors of the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival in the five years over which the event has grown to become the largest and most spectacular literary event of its kind. The company has now instituted the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, with a prize money of USD 50,000 and the winner will be announced in Jaipur, at the annual festival, in January. A longlist of 16 books has been announced and I was quite astonished to see this one on it!
The Temple Goers just happens to be the only book I've ever reviewed for two different publications: Sunday Mid-day on 4 April 2010 and also the May 2010 issue of Marie Claire. Both times I did not like it. Though it's well written, the story is tedious and pointless.
I've pasted here what I said in Sunday Mid-day:
This is Aatish Taseer’s first novel. A year ago he wrote Stranger to History, an autobiographical account of his travels “through Islamic lands”. It was also a quest to find his father, a Pakistani businessman and politician he has never known and who, despite all his efforts, has never really acknowledged him. It was a well-written book, filled with vivid descriptions and keen insights; I enjoyed and recommended it, and was looking forward to this new one which was supposed to be different, and very funny.

When I started reading The Temple-Goers, however, I felt confused and after a few pages decided that I must have misunderstood and here was another memoir. It’s written in the first person; its hero is identical in tone and manner to the hero of the first one – and it was surely not a coincidence that even his name was Aatish Taseer! Could there possibly be two Aatish Taseers, both of whom have studied abroad, have high-profile single mothers and appear to be struggling endlessly with identical identity crises?
The first indication that yes, there possibly were, were the names of the places in this book. This New Delhi has suburbs called Sectorpur and Phasenagar and a nearby state called Jhatekebal. Hilarious? Hmmm. Later, there’s a bomb blast and the group that claims to have done it calls itself the Indian Musthavbin.
Even more lame, along comes a famous writer whose name coyly rhymes with a certain brilliant but unpopular Nobel laureate who apparently said about Stranger to History, “A subtle and poignant work by a young writer to watch.”
The looking-glass Aatish has a girlfriend, Sanyogita, privileged, talented, vulnerable, patient and forgiving, who calls him Baby (“Baby’s hard,” she said with laughter and surprise). Other characters are Aakash, a gym trainer, Megha, a businessman’s “healthy” daughter, and Chamunda, the Chief Minister of Jhaatkebaal who happens to be Sanyogita’s aunt and Aatish’s mother’s best friend. Half way through, I decided to stop wasting my time and not read any more. The book was meandering and I found it tedious. Did I really need to read a book written by a talented but self-indulgent young man who has travelled the world and commented on it with discernment and wit – but wants to do a “Welcome to the zoo and please don’t feed the animals” number on the country he grew up in? This book had been written for a specific reader, one who would enjoy from the outside, and in a supercilious way, a view of the community it was set within, and that reader was not me. But duty called and I soldiered on to the end and can now step back and comment wisely that this book does a good job of describing certain middle-class Indian values, in particular certain primitive attitudes towards the female body – but without acknowledging that they are the same primitive attitudes that prevail globally. It also touches on how Indian politics is steeped in crime – and shows clearly that the system is held securely in place by a conniving class to preserve its own advantage and position, all the while preening as superior and virtuous – sadly enough, the class to which you and I belong.

And now please read the Marie Claire thing, if only to see how hard I tried to make them both responsible, accurate reviews which did not plagiarize each other in any way ...
Aatish Taseer is still trying to get his father’s attention.
In his first book, Stranger to History, he wrote about his travels “through Islamic lands”, and about his search for his father, a Pakistani businessman and politician, who had abandoned him and his mother when he was a baby. Aatish tried to make out that he was an “Indian-Pakistani” though those who read the fine print found out that he was in fact only British.
In The Temple-Goers, the locale shifts but the quest continues. Though this is supposed to be a work of fiction, some characters are familiar from before. The hero himself is one Aatish Taseer, who by an amazing coincidence has a brave, longsuffering, high-profile mother. In a moment of mock annoyance, she makes a joke about the “fictional” Aatish, shaking her head and withholding a smile: “It’s the bad Pakistani blood. It’s from the father. I’ve done what I can to improve it, but still it remains.”
The temple-goers themselves are a crude lot – noisy, greedy, superstitious and none too clean. Aatish mingles with them and watches, judging through eyes that must please Papa. They are people in the grip of rapid change and their new opportunities bring them a new affluence and new choices. And the choices they make often show them as shallow and cunning. There’s also a streak of fanaticism in them that simmers below the surface and could – and later does – prove troublesome to one main character, not a temple-goer, who provides a counterpoint, representing grace, dignity and culture. He does not ask “prying Indian questions” about how much money Aatish earns or spends. On one occasion he foolishly dresses in his best, which clearly marks him out as different. This is a big mistake as it leads the temple-goers to make mincemeat of him. Even the leaders of the land are slimy, corrupt temple-goers.
It’s only by ignoring the wailing “Papa, please Papa, look at me Papa” undertone in this book that one can appreciate its literary merit. It is well written and strewn with insights into thought processes and relationships. Writes Aatish: “Because my mother had brought me up alone and our closeness was almost embarrassing since I was now technically a man, we played at being offhand with each other.” And so even after not seeing him for months, she gives him a brief hug, says he’s looking skinny, and falls into the arms of his girlfriend instead, doing what many of us might if we shared a similar pain because we have not the awareness to notice, or the skill to describe it so well.

The other books on the DSC longlist do look promising though:

Upamanyu Chatterjee: Way to Go (Penguin)
Amit Chaudhuri: The Immortals (Picador India)
Chandrahas Choudhury: Arzee the Dwarf (HarperCollins)
Musharraf Ali Farooqui: The Story of a Widow (Picador India)
Ru Freeman: A Disobedient Girl (Penguin/ Viking)
Anjum Hassan: Neti Neti (IndiaInk/Roli Books)
Tania James: Atlas of Unknowns (Pocket Books)
Manju Kapur: The Immigrant (Faber & Faber)
HM Naqvi: Home Boy (HarperCollins)
Salma: The Hour Past Midnight (Zubaan, translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom)
Sankar: The Middleman (Penguin, translated by Arunava Sinha)
Ali Sethi: The Wish Maker (Penguin)
Jaspreet Singh: Chef (Bloomsbury)
Daniyal Mueenuddin: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (Bloomsbury)
Neel Mukherjee: A Life Apart (Constable & Robinson)

Day Scholar by Siddharth Chowdhury

Growing up on Indian campus
As I leapt into Shokeen Niwas, the first thing I saw was a large pair of buttocks (one “that even Asha Parekh would be proud of”) and some associated revelry which only served to dull my enthusiasm.
Wearily anticipating endless pages of crude and raunchy (though doubtless very, ahem, hip stuff), I plodded on, my patience unexpectedly rewarded with prose of the highest quality. Sidhharth Chowdhury writes well, and this book was an absolute pleasure to read.
Now Day Scholar is not a story with a specific plot. Avoiding overworked labels like “coming-of-age novel”, let me just say that it ambles along and its pages of sharp, evocative description vividly bring alive Indian college and hostel life in the 1990s.
As I read, I thought, “This sounds familiar! Where have I read it before?” and racked my brains for a long while till I realised that it wasn’t something I’d read before.
No, I hadn’t read it in a book – I’d been there.
This was pretty much what Indian college and hostel life had been in the 1980s and even 1970s. The rooms were as grimy, the professors as villainously egoistical, the gangsters as ruthless and squalid, their molls as innocent, the young men as horny, the young women as sassy and adventurous, their parents as patiently mature – and each one as sweetly, heartrendingly ambitious as you could possibly bear. Listen to this:

For Jishnu da, like many other Bihari students in Delhi, whether in DU, Jamia or JNU, the white government Ambassador car with the red beacon light on top and all sirens blaring, was the ultimate achievement. To have that kind of power, which they perceived as invincible, the leisurely feudal ambience with five or six servants attending to all their demands and the unimaginable riches which came with the job, not to mention the dowry which would automatically catapult them into the 10-15 lakh category. It would in a single stroke change the “profiles” of many. Their family back home in Patna, Gaya, Ranchi, Bhagalpur, Darbhanga and other small towns in Bihar made great sacrifices for them while they studied sometimes fifteen hours a day to change their “profiles”.
Siddharth Chowdhury himself apparently studied at Delhi University from 1993 to 1998 so perhaps this book is a bit about what he saw and did there. Shokeen Niwas, incidentally, was once a private home and now a hostel for young men located near the University North Campus, and Hriday Thakur, who tells the story, is an aspiring writer.
Like English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee and The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, Day Scholar is a work of high literary quality which represents the seamy, un-exotic side of Indian life that some prefer to ignore and even disbelieve, dismissing these books as attention-getting exaggerations which just as many of us know they aren't.

16 September 2010

My Friend the Fanatic by Sadanand Dhume

I met Sadanand Dhume at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January this year and wondered vaguely why his name was so familiar. When I got home I found out – he was the author of one of the books I’d kept aside to read as soon as I got back.
Sadanand had struck me as an intelligent, thoughtful and courteous person, and his book echoed these attributes. Since then I've read some of his columns and found them relevant, stylish, and keenly perceptive of incongruity. Here's one. And here’s the review I wrote for the Sunday Mid-day issue of 31 Jan 2010.

Sadanand Dhume quit his job as foreign correspondent in Indonesia to write this book. In it, he seeks to find out how Indonesia, a society famous for its tolerance and where Islam was traditionally shot through with Hinduism, Buddhism, Animism and other pre-Islamic concepts, could begin to accept and adapt to Islamic fundamentalism.

“As a reporter, I was asking questions about the banking crisis, political devolution, separatist movements in Papua. These are important issues but to me the elephant in the room was a much larger one: what is the nature of Indonesian society going to be in the next ten or twenty years? I knew that in this country where 88 percent of the population is Muslim, it depended on the course that Indonesian Islam took. If indeed this was changing to a more fundamentalist view, the consequences to the country and the region would be immense.”
To find answers, Sadanand Dhume, an outsider and a non-Muslim, would need help to gain access and he was lucky to be introduced to Herry Nurdi, the editor of the Indonesian magazine Sabili, a fundamentalist mouthpiece with a circulation of about 500,000 copies per week.
Together they travelled across Indonesia and the book records what they saw – new regulation that demanded that women wear headscarves, Koran reading and memorising made compulsory, the sale of alcohol reduced, music and football frowned upon – but tolerated for practical reasons.
The book describes Indonesia well, and gives a sense of the incongruities thrown up during this period of transition of a country that wants Microsoft but not Madonna, and other preoccupations of the people and their sometimes confused but unrelenting conversion to the belief that the ideal society was the one in Medina during the Prophet Mohammed’s time. It is well written and full of information. While it’s partly a reporting of history and events and partly a memoir of the travels of two young men, the approach is entirely objective and impersonal and rather stylish. The title indicates a friendship, but the only emotions in this book are those that are clinically described.
And, though Sadanand Dhume claims that he is an atheist, he is still capable of sentiments that would do justice to the philosophy of any of the world’s religions. When his friend Herry asks what he will do after he finishes the book, he replies, “I’m not sure. I hope I can make a living from writing, but if I can’t I’ll work something out. Money’s not the most important thing to me. Something will work itself out. It always does.”

14 September 2010

Bala takes the plunge by Melvin Durai

Who says Indians have no sense of humour!
The last time I laughed aloud so many times while reading a book was about 15 years ago, with Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island.

Bala’s ambition was to direct Tamil movies. When he became famous, he would be awarded an OBE by the Queen. This would make him better than all his friends who were ordinary BEs, having mastered great literature of the nature of Thermodynamics Made Easy, Engineering Graphics Made Easy, Calculus Made Easy – and so on.

And Bala wondered why Appa had become a civil engineer. There was nothing remotely civil about him. If he made a film about Appa (who had once evocatively expounded: “I’m telling you, da, happiness can’t buy money”), he would have to call it The Uncivil Engineer.
But of course Bala became an engineer himself and then went off to America with an H1 – for Happy One – visa, following a path carved out by many before him, and this book is about his life there and the adventures he had while trying to find a suitable bride.
So it’s not just Indian families and aspirations that this book puts under a humorous spotlight, but also American lifestyle, culture and world-awareness, and usually all of these at the same time:

“Got any of his movies, Bala?” John asked. “I’d love to see one.”

“I’m sure Sanjay’s Rice and Spice Shop has about five hundred, John. I have a few Tamil movies, that’s all.”
“Tamil? What country is that?”
Linda shook her head. “You’re so clueless about the world, aren’t you, John? Tamil isn’t a country. It’s a religion. Just like Hindi.”
“Whom do Tamils worship?”
“We worship Rajnikanth. He’s an actor.”
“Really?” Linda asked. “Is he as cute as Share Rook Can?”

And Bala, trying to learn new ways and meet the right young women decided to join the Harrisburg Area Bikers Club. He shopped around for a good bike and got lucky on his fifth stop, finding one for only $60 at a yard sale. Bargaining the price down to $45 he realised that, though he hadn’t bought any tall buildings or casinos, he possessed the type of negotiating skills Donald Trump would envy.
At the Sociable Fun Ride, Bala managed to race out a pregnant woman but comes out behind a middle aged man who, he later realised, is wearing not just a knee brace – but an artificial leg coming out of it.
He looked at the man’s bike to make sure it didn’t have a motor of some sort. Perhaps it was jet-propelled. But everything looked normal, even the pedals. He felt like screaming at the man: “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know that you’re supposed to be disabled? It was crazy what many disabled people were doing these days – accomplishing so much in their lives and making able-bodied people look like total bums. Some were simply amazing. Bala had heard of a blind woman who had learned to play golf, a paraplegic woman who had learned to skydive, and a New York cabdriver with no hands who had learned to show other drivers his middle toe.

Then, hearing that President George W. Bush had a cat named India, Bala decided to name his dog America. It was a good way to honour his new country and confuse people all at the same time. When his neighbour Mr. Cherian complained about the dog’s incessant barking, Bala said, “What do you expect? This is America, not India.” When his neighbour on the other side, Mrs. Bunch, complained that a ripe tomato was missing from her garden and wondered where it had gone, Bala shook his head and said, “Only in America. Only in America.”

Flipping through this book looking for more funny bits, I can see that it’s carpeted with them and it’s hard to pick. Get the book and read it, and meanwhile, here is one of Melvin Durai's "humor" columns to keep you going.
There was one thing I did not care for about the book, though, and that was the cover design, which I found confusing. I got even more confused when I saw the other designs Kedarnath Gupta had offered which I thought were much better.

Finally I must say that I leaped into the story, as always, without reading any blurbs or supplementary text on the cover or about the author so it was only later that I realized that Melvin Durai, though he’s done India, Indians and Indian Americans perfectly in this book, actually grew up in Zambia, studied and worked in the USA and now lives, alas, in Canada.
Go ahead and make them laugh in Canada, Melvin – but do try and send us some scraps now and again …