31 March 2011

The Amazing Moustaches of Moochhander the Iron Man and Other Stories by Musharraf Ali Farooqi

Profundus and Snotbog arrive in India
My first reaction to this book was enjoyment – these four stories are well written and great fun. My second, however, was disappointment. With the name Moochander, I was expecting Pakistani stories. Yet these are clearly in the European tradition.
I mailed the author asking about this, and he wrote back (first kindly congratulating me on having won the match - it so happened that yesterday India won the semi-finals against Pakistan for the 2011 Cricket World Cup!) to say,
I wrote these stories for an international audience about eight years ago. I think children do not make distinction between stories as adults do. They are only interested in a good, fun story, regardless of which tradition it comes from.
In my childhood I read a lot of Urdu stories that were published for children, and later learned that some of them were adaptations of well known English language classics such as Oliver Twist, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and others.
I discovered English language children's fiction as an adult, and loved some of the stuff I read. I now feel that there should be more Urdu language story books available for children whose first language is Urdu but in the absence of good Urdu story books, adaptations from English language children's literature, or even direct translation of international children's literature will be more beneficial for the intellectual and creative development of children because it will expose them to new worlds through the magic of stories.
I have plans of publishing the stories in The Amazing Moustaches of Moochhander the Iron Man and Other Stories collection in Urdu translation. They have been translated already. The translator has adapted them for Urdu language which is perfectly fine with me.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi also told me that he wrote these books in a span of six months. His wife Michelle is the illustrator of this book and I found her illustrations attractive too – imagining what I might feel if I was looking at them and having the stories read to me as many children are bound to.
This particular illustration comes from the story Profundus and Madam Snotbog, great fun, scary, and very Brothers Grimm. I felt doubtful about how Indian parents might feel about a story centred around cute pigs! A bit hesitantly, I asked Musharraf how come, since this is really more of a western concept and rather alien in our part of the world where pigs are traditionally considered disgusting. He replied, deadpan,
As these stories were written for an international audience, I felt free to use any animals I could think of. And in the West you will find many toys and children's books in which pigs are indeed depicted as cute. I understand that in the subcontinent we have a different take on the animal.
He also sent me a link to an interview he gave Fiona Fernandez at Mid-day where he says:
Probably, the characters came to the mind first. In the case of Profundus, the idea for the grab-itty-scope came first, I think. Madame Snotbog was modelled on a dear aunt of mine although I am not half as clever as Profundus. However, I'm not above stealing pies and regularly overdose on sweets. There are a lot of autobiographical details here for future researchers, I'm afraid.
Madame Snotbog turned out exactly like my aunt. So I was very pleased with that, although it was uncanny because Michelle has not met her. And now I guess it's best that they don't meet.
Though I would much rather have had a book more culturally appropriate for Indian children, there was one thing I particularly admired here and that is its approach to inclusion. The Giant of the Bakery is not just an adventure story where young readers will enjoy reading about cakes and breads – it’s also about the struggle of an immigrant. And it gives an artless glimpse into the life of a differently abled person. Moochhander, too, is a poignant look at aging.

As a child, I would have loved and treasured this book, reading it or perhaps demanding to have it read to me, over and over again. My children would have done the same. As an adult, what intrigues me most is the versatility of the author.
I have never met Musharraf but have liked and admired him since 2009 when I first read his novel Story of a Widow. It impressed me with an elegant style that grips you as it takes you into people’s lives and leads you, unawares, straight into the heart of a culture. (I can't find a link to the review I wrote for my Sunday Mid-day column but if you like you can read it on Musharraf's website).
I was surprised to read Hoshruba a short while later, a translation of an Urdu epic spun out by
court storytellers in Lucknow in the nineteenth century, and to learn that Musharraf intended to translate the entire lot. And this was someone who, as a young man, had spent considerable time consuming books along with tea and omelettes at the canteen of NED University of Engineering and Technology in Karachi instead of attending lectures there till he realised that he was never going to be an engineer and might as well become a writer instead!
Hoshruba itself had a formidable 447 pages, and there were 23 volumes to go. Musharraf was going to be busy for many years, but he was kind enough to spend some time telling me about his journey as a writer.
So now, instead of asking Musharraf how and why these concepts (which would painlessly give children a broader emotional spectrum) wove their way into his book, I am going to guess that it was not done as a strategy but happened subconsciously. I suspect that Musharraf's writing falls into two categories, of which it is only the translating that taxes his left brain. His fiction, I would like to imagine, is simply a product of nothing but a joyful creative process, plucking stories out of thin air with no other intention than to create pleasure in the reader.

26 March 2011

Custody by Manju Kapur

Secret formula
The last book I took a day off for was Lost Symbol by Dan Brown – and only because I had a deadline. But every booklover knows the feeling of being drawn into a story and falling, helpless, into its clutches with such intensity that you resent every minute spent away from it and avoid every person or activity that draws your attention from it. As I’ve grown older and developed more restraint it happens less often so this book caught me unawares and I put everything aside, agog till I turned the last page.

This is Manju Kapur’s fourth novel and she has established a reputation for writing gripping stories that deal with the complicated relationships in Indian families. Custody is set in the late 1990s, a period that stands out as a time when India had suddenly begun racing to catch up with the rest of the world in technology and manufacturing capability; when it had been gleefully recognized as a lucrative world market – and when various forces had conjoined to sweep in swift social change too. The last two of these form the setting of this book. Some of its main themes are loneliness in marriage, the plight of children of separated parents, the breach between the realities of society and that of the law courts which are easily manipulated by the unscrupulous, and the wrenching agony of childlessness. As with Manju Kapur's other books, the background here is thick with the oppressive ideas that traditionally abound in Indian families: the necessity to put family obligations above personal happiness; parental manipulation equated with love; subjugation of a woman’s needs; rejection and pain not just from parents-in-law but also “children-in-law” – and more. Yes, this sounds like a grim place to be but I found the story and the way it is told simply irresistible.

One of the things I admire about Manju Kapur’s books is the authenticity of detail. It’s not just joint-family politics and delicate marital relationships that she excels at describing! So when her characters are corporate bosses, as some are here, the text will unobtrusively carry phrases such as “B and C towns”, “out-of-the-box thinking”, easy references to concepts of branding and an insider approach to HR. When they belong to an elite boarding school, the quality of the food, the old-students’ network, the psychological skill of housemasters are all described in a relaxed way, with casual but perfect accuracy.

Manju Kapur also has the skill to give us a detailed understanding of her characters without talking about them but just showing us, in her perceptive way, exactly who they are by the way behave. So the philandering wife is lovely to look at, but instead of feeling sympathy for her isolation I could only feel a condescending disgust for her shallowness and self-absorption – even without a single negative word of description. And even the characters towards whom I felt the author’s craft building an empathy in me turned out to be human heroes and heroines, revealing their weakness and vulnerability when pushed into the kind of corners Manju Kapur’s books abound with.

However, this is a book with a very strong narrator's voice and at times I found this to be sneering, which I did not like. And at times it was brusque and grammarless – but that I quite liked, finding it stylish and suitable to a fast-paced style.
For conversations between two people, the author has employed an idiom rather different from the idiom in which living people like these would, but more appropriate to a book that will doubtless have an international readership. However, there are occasions on which some of the characters – usually one of the old folks – will say something from a traditional Indian-English idiom that pointedly reminds you precisely who they are.
Some of the transitions in this book are just single words, sometimes briefly indicating the month or place and often using that meanwhile, back at the ranch device which English teachers tend to frown upon. It works well when you’re reading fast, gripped with the longing to know what happens next – but can a serious writer who wants to continue being taken seriously really do that? I’m not sure! Maybe it’s a very “today” thing to do – or maybe it only shows that this writer, having made her mark, now assumes that she can get away with being lazy and taking her readers for granted. I wish I knew.

Once I had escaped the clutches of the gripping story I began thinking about what had fascinated me so much and my first thought was that perhaps it was only the type of voyeurism that keeps people glued to saas bahu serials on TV. And since Manju Kapur is so accomplished at getting under the skin of her characters, I had obviously found a lot more to gape and ogle.
A second possibility was that all this lifelike churning had put me in mind of similar intense – if long-ago – experiences of my own with custody and nascent stepmotherhood which had served to transport me into an altered state of consciousness.

25 March 2011

One Little Finger by Malini Chib

A glamorous crusader

I saw Malini’s book at a friend’s place in Madras last month, read the first page, and was thoroughly captivated. And I was tickled by the title. I had met Malini in January 2009. She had told me about herself, and one of the things I remember her saying was that she has two separate Masters’ degrees and had typed both theses with just one little finger. So I knew what the title meant: it was a tribute to a certain very special finger, and quite characteristic of Malini’s wry sense of humour.

Malini has Cerebral Palsy. I enjoyed meeting her and found her to be an extremely emotional person – enthusiastic, independent, full of life, very good looking, a little impatient, and irrepressibly eager to try out new things. During the course of the day we spent together, her witty responses had me laughing a number of times. And she had a coy look on her face when her mother, Mithu Alur who founded Spastics Society of India, told me that Malini was presently working on her autobiography. Well – here it was, and I ordered a copy as soon as I got home.
One of the best things about this book is that it is the inside story of a struggle that many face – but very few are gifted with the ability to articulate. And Malini is not just telling us a personal story, she is also able to comment on the difficult situation she has faced all her life and conceptualize and analyze various facets of it. Not only that but she make jokes about it too. For instance, she tells us that as she was growing up, the world viewed disability through what is now known as the “medical model” which means that disabled people were considered as medical cases and isolated accordingly. The prevailing view, however, is the “social model” which applies a “rights-based approach” and considers disability as a social issue; that we are each dependent on others at some level – and that each of us must consider it a simple responsibility to include others of varying ability in our lives. But when her friend Varsha Hooja helps her onto a bus in London and a co-passenger gushes, “You are a wonderful person. God will bless you,” Malini and Varsha secretly laugh and define a new “medical charity model”: anyone helping the disabled will be blessed!

In this book, Malini tells us the story of her life, starting from her birth in Bombay to an educated family, privileged and well connected.

When her parents realize that their child has special needs which will not be satisfactorily met in India, they move to London. Over the years that follow, her life is divided between Bombay and London. Wherever she is, we observe that she has the intelligence to analyze her problems and look for solutions to them. When she joins college at St Xavier’s in Bombay, she agonizes:
Did I have my own personality? Was I just another disabled girl who needed things done for her? I knew that I was different and trapped in a dysfunctional body, but did others realise I had a spirit and a mind separate from this body? My body did not work like others, but did they realise that my mind was normal? Did they consider thinking that my desires were just the same as theirs?
When her classmates plan to go for a movie together, it doesn’t occur to them that Malini wants to go too. But instead of just sitting there feeling sore and left out, she invites herself along and soon enough they learn how to help her along and get used to involving her in their plans.
It struck me that by having the courage to maintain this approach, Malini has always been able to influence people around her towards inclusion, even before she became the activist that she now is. However, the environment was full of barriers. The classrooms at St Xavier’s had a raised strip at the doorway which made it a struggle for a wheelchair to cross. When she got a job at Bombay Times for a short period, the canteen was out of reach so she could never join her colleagues for a cup of coffee or lunch. In India, even toilets for people with disabilities were not accessible.

I liked Malini’s observations – for example her experience of the education system in India as one “which teaches students to be like sausage machines rather than thinkers of the future.”

At the special school she attended in Bombay, children were praised for no reason and not challenged or driven to learn and this proved to be a handicap too. She writes, “My writing was affected. I think one of the fundamental concerns for education for disabled people is the communication output.” This surprised me because it sounded like the most basic, simple common sense. Apparently not!

And she later comments, rather poetically, “To me, communication is like water, the essence of life. What could I do without fluent speech?”
Of her pain and isolation she philosophically remarks: “My experience is that most people cannot deal with other people’s trauma. One’s trauma is one’s own and should not be mentioned unnecessarily to others.”
As she got ready to bid goodbye to her parents as they set out for six weeks in India, leaving her in London, she writes,
Bye’, said dad as he kissed me, adding ‘this is what you wanted, so don’t cry’. Men do not understand why women cry.
A mixture of emotions passed through them. I was happy to be finally on my own, but sad that my mother and dad had left. We did so much together. We were more like friends.

Her struggle with inclusion and access reduces – though it does continue in different ways – in London where she has a series of happy stints. Here she experiences independence for the first time using technology to make her mobile and able to communicate with the world through different appliances. And at Berkeley, where she meets a large number of disabled people leading normal lives, it opens new worlds to her.

For Malini, a simple outing that most of us would take for granted becomes a grand expedition! We share her excitement and tremendous sense of achievement when she finally goes out all on her own for the first time. And we feel her joy when she travels with friends who enjoy her company. At Notre Dame in Paris, Malini is moved by the atmosphere and writes, “I felt a spiritual presence encircle me. I prayed, and thought about how lucky I had been in life.” And later, when she learns to give lectures using PowerPoint, she comments sardonically, “I absolutely abhor the sound of my monotonous voice. I wish I had a sexy, husky one with a clipped Oxonian accent, but I guess one cannot have everything in life.”

I found this book entertaining; I admired the writing style, enjoyed looking at the photographs and smiling at the humour. I was happy to have from this book the endorsement of the belief, implemented in my own life, that a professional attendant is more conducive to a life of independence and dignity than when the disabled person is cared for just by family members.
But there was something about this book that made me angry and that was its very large number of editing and proofreading mistakes. Malini, being disabled is deserving of more protection than people who have all their functions – and as a talented writer, her creative output deserves better housekeeping. On the very first page of her book she is delivered by a paediatrician! What a novelty! Then, mama is explained on page 29 as a term used for mother’s brother but mashi was used ten pages before and repeatedly through the book – but no one tells us what that means. Why do we have “Bakers” Street instead of Baker Street, “I regaled the incident” (instead of recounted); sooth instead of soothe; a sentence as meaningless as “pasta was considered to be a wholesome, student-friendly of meal”; any number of misplaced apostrophes as in “as other’s often tell me” and bumbling capital letters as in "university Bookshop"? Worse still, towards the end of the book, even the editing gets careless and leaves us with phrases like
As my mother and my aunt were getting older, mashi only suggested that I should have a separate carer
… she noticed a considerable amount of bags at the back of my chair.

This book is an excellent production, with good aesthetic values. It has a good story, a beautiful cover, and is well written. To be strewn with careless mistakes – I’ve listed here only a few that I noticed, and I wasn’t even looking – is inexcusable.

Many people would find Malini's book a source of hope and inspiration. But for me, the best thing about this book is what I learnt from it. For the majority of us who have little experience with disability – a situation resulting of course from that unfortunate “medical model” – Malini’s response to the different types of reactions she gets from the different types of people she meets shows us appropriate ways of behaving.

20 March 2011

Third Best by Arjun Rao

Lord of the Bogs
Arjun Rao is a schoolmaster at Doon. He himself studied at the Lawrence School, Lovedale. So Third Best is definitely an insider’s version. I was eager to read it because I did time at Lawrence too, and had heard that this book was set in the school.
My initial reaction was a slight distaste at the sex scenes in the first few pages.
Well – I left school a full 22 years before Arjun did, and doubtless the relentless march of technology (to avoid the word “civilisation”) had provoked, um, advances in other spheres of life too. Or perhaps the author had just, um, inserted them to attract young readers.

Now it’s not that they were offensively explicit – in fact they were in the remote background, coy as a schoolboy’s fantasies, and perhaps a book about boarding school life without the hint of preoccupation with sex would be a book without virtue.

Compared with Enid Blyton’s St Clare’s or Mallory Towers books, to which I will admit being devoted as a child – or even with the (yawn) Harry Potter books, this one must be singled out as more than just escapist fiction because it is so firmly rooted in reality and includes ugly facets of boarding school life too.

While my distaste at the hint of sexual freedom lingered, it was eventually overcome by the gripping, well-written stories in this book which I found very relevant and interesting.

Shore Mount is different from Lovedale in geography but I found it emotionally very similar.
The author has drawn on a variety of situations and characters appealing to a young person – a stay in London, a holiday with a friend at his royal home in Rajasthan, a peek into the life of the most privileged person in a boarding school (the headboy) including meals at the headmaster’s house (where they serve pasta, which in my days had not yet been invented) and, for one who has spent years in a dormitory, not just a room of one’s own but the most amazing and desirable living quarters – and more.
But these were peripherals.
The book also has teacher stereotypes – posturing, petty minded, superannuated, socially compromised and other varieties. One teacher even has the maturity to frankly advise his students, “Listen to me. These exams are among the most useless things that you will ever have to do in your life. They do not matter in the greater scheme of things. In five years you’ll laugh that you ever had to do them and that you were even worried about them. But the fact is that the only way to get into a decent college in this country is through those marks.”
There are excellent descriptions of traditions such as the school dances, ceremonial sports rituals such as awarding colours, “Founders” and more. Listen to this:
A colour was Shore Mount’s most prestigious acknowledgement of its sporting heroes. Traditionally, it was awarded to the best player of the year in each sport, decided by the captain of the team and the teacher who was responsible for managing the sport that year. The Headmaster had the power to overrule and even withdraw a particular award, but this had been done so rarely in the history of the school that no one sitting in the Memorial Hall that morning even knew that such a rule existed.
However, these, too, are just background.
The real meat of the story is the constructed world of a particular boarding school steeped in conventions that go back a hundred and fifty years and more.
There are dynastic families which spawn star athletes and great leaders and if you come from one of these – the weight of expectation on you is tremendous. When your father and grandfather were headboys – but the headmaster doesn’t consider you up to the mark – could that be considered trauma that might mark one for life?
We learn that it’s an idyllic world – but isolated, and cut off from modern technology as it always was and doubtless always will be.
And these young kids spin out speeches with articulate passion. Even an un-glamorous sports captain has it in him to say, while listing people to whom he’s grateful:
Nathaniel Gomez who taught us the reason why we play this game: “Not to win but to show everyone we’re the best”.
Because language, to these students, is more than just a medium of expression – it’s a field in which your craft must continue to grow and grow. It was always like that at Lovedale and I enjoyed the propensity for dramatic and sweeping statements in this book that I remember well from my schooldays: “If you don’t switch off the fucking lights, you’ll all see nothing but darkness for the rest of your lives”. (Though I must permit myself a token objection to the easy use of the f word – oh dear.)
There is also insight into an innate childhood response to recognition, evident when you are made a prefect:
No one at Shore Mount knew how it happened but one minute you were just like everyone else, trying to get away with breaking the rules, and the next minute you were standing up for the system. It was as if a switch had been turned on that morning at assembly.
And childhood frustration culminating in violence features here, neatly and easily. You can get caned for misdemeanour, and this can happen in public. But more likely you’ll get beaten up, hit with hockey sticks, your bones will break and perhaps your face will be scarred for life:
No one ever tells you that your butt cheeks should be left loose. Clench hard and you won’t be able to shit for weeks. That, and to ensure you hands are way out in front. You don’t want a broken wrist adding to your pain.
An especially vicious cruelty is administered to teachers’ children.

What I didn’t like about this book (besides the implication of sexual freedom I mean :-)) was the easy assumption that the boy hero had to be much better than his girl. She studies harder but he scores higher. And when some girls begin to cry after seeing their marks, “everyone backed away lest they be blamed for the situation, and this included Mr Baweja, who should have been impervious to tears by now considering that the girls practically wept every time they encountered shares and debentures in his Accounts class."
Now this little bit of stereotyping may well be grounded in reality – but as a smug older woman, and one originally repressed by the very community this book is based in, it’s my duty to object
while praising the accuracy of detail. On the other hand, I did like it that these boys too cry at times – and even hug each other – and when they pull back after a while they say, “oh man – this is so GAY!” and laugh.

This book did a good job of drawing out the essence of singular self-importance that a contrived world is bound to engender. The boys and girls in it came alive for me. I could see them, physical features, personality traits and all – and, like real children, they grew before my eyes. Not just in inches but in maturity too. I admired this. But what I liked best about this book is the strong values it showcases. Nirvan is strong and reliable; he knows right from wrong and has the courage to always stand up for what he believes, regardless of any kind of social pressure. And I particularly liked the strong focus on mentoring and appreciation of it that this book quietly but effectively brings its readers.

01 March 2011

On two feet and wings by Abbas Kazerooni

The diary of an unusually courageous child
I was reading another book, one which I had actually been waiting for for several months, when I received this one and happened to pick up and idly flip through it.
Before I knew it, the pages had flown by and when I realised, startled, that I was already on page 50 – well it was time to face the embarrassing reality that, despite any pretension, I’m nothing but a sucker for a fascinating story.

Abbas is nine years old and his family, once among the most prominent in Iran, has been a victim of the Ayatollahs. To save him from being recruited into the army – the age has been lowered to eight – his parents have no option but to take him out of the country.
A series of events leads to little Abbas finding himself living alone in a seedy hotel in Istanbul and proceeding to have a series of fascinating adventures. His goal is to get a British visa and go and live in safety in the very country that his great grandfather funded a guerrilla opposition against when the rulers of Persia would not fight them. Accordingly, this book has three sections which tell us, respectively, about Abbas's early life in Tehran, his struggle in Istanbul, and a little of what happens after he arrives in England.

When I mailed Abbas Kazerooni, the author, to ask him how much of this was actually his own story, he replied, “I would say about 70 to 80 percent. Obviously I have used a lot of artistic license but you would probably be surprised to know that some of the more shocking parts actually happened.”

When I read a book, I try my best to avoid preconceptions. This means not discussing it with anyone beforehand, not reading reviews or opinions, avoiding the publisher’s note and the text on the book jacket, or any supplementary text inside the book which usually tries to impress you with how wonderful the author is and what a great books this is. I’d really rather find out for myself. As I read, I also try my best to remain impervious to opinions formed by previous books by this author, or previous knowledge of the author’s reputation. In this particular case I had never heard of the book or author before, so it wasn’t difficult to form an objective opinion. I enjoyed the book very much and though there were many phrases and words that I felt could have been tweaked for a better flow, I was so engrossed that they didn’t upset me too much.

Going online, I now found that this book had been published in the US in 2008 under the title The Little Man and if you like you can read the first part of that book here
though I must say I found this version rather self indulgent compared to the casual style of the Indian edition.
I did feel that Indian readers would enjoy this book more than western ones who might tend to exoticise it more than we would. And when, for instance, a dog called Barfy turns up in the story, we would know it just meant Snowy rather than looking around for a vomit bag.

What I liked best about this book is that it can be read and enjoyed as much by children as by adults. After I finished, I had noticed that the book was dedicated to the loving memory of the author’s mother. Seeing this, and having observed the depth of feeling little Abbas repeatedly expressed for his estranged mother made me very curious to know the circumstances in which he had lost her. But when I asked, the author replied, “This will all be revealed in the sequel!”
Well I was longing to know what happened next, after the book got over, and find out exactly how poor Abbas went on to become someone who worked in successful theatre productions in the West End in London – and now lives in California where he has his own law firm and practices law when he's not writing semi-autobiographical novels – wow! But he would only say, to my dismayed impatience, “I do not want to give away too much and I will only tell you that the story gets more and more interesting and the protagonist is going endure a lot more!”
This of course brought back to me what a very intelligent and clear-thinking person the nine-year old Abbas had been, and I felt happy to think that he had done justice to that early promise.