31 May 2011

The Convert by Deborah Baker

A conversation with Deborah
Open magazine sent me this book to read, saying: “Since both of you write biographies, I thought you might connect!”
I read and enjoyed it very much, finding it an excellent combination of information and entertainment. While I read, I thought about how I might have gone about a similar task, and how I would feel now I held the book in my hands. I had a very interesting interaction with Deborah Baker and here's what I wrote for Open:

Deborah Baker is a biographer and columnist. Her first book, In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding was shortlisted for the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in Biography and her second, A Blue Hand: The Beats in India, also won critical acclaim. Like the other two, this book is also about an unusual person who lived on the fringe and proceeded to make a considerable impact on the world around her: Maryam Jameelah, who was born Margaret Marcus in 1934 to a family of Reformed Jews, converted to Islam, and went to live in Pakistan when she was 28 years old.
Starting with the fragmented records she found in nine boxes in the Manuscripts and Archives Division of The New York Public Library, Deborah Baker has established chronologies and, “teasing the colour of emotion from taciturn documents,” painted a vivid picture of this woman, the life she led, and the impact her writing had.
The Convert begins with a series of letters between Maryam and her host in Pakistan, Mawlana Sayyid Abul Ala Mawdudi. Promising adventure and excitement, they set the tone for what follows. Maryam arrives in Pakistan and settles down. However, less than fifty pages later, she is writing her letters from the Paagal Khanaah on Jail Road in central Lahore. I turned the pages agog, urgent questions arising in my mind – only to find each one answered in good time, as the book unfolded.
I had begun with a certain weariness about having to read a sneering treatise against someone’s personal choices, a feeling inspired by blurbs on the book jacket which spoke of “misfit” and “lunacy of conversion”. However, Deborah Baker was detached and objective in describing Maryam Jameelah as well as her own journey of discovery of Maryam’s life. This made me curious to know how she felt about having these judgemental phrases offered out of context to readers even before they started reading.
She explained,
Maryam referred to herself as a misfit on numerous occasions. Perhaps the quote you are referring to says more about Fatima Bhutto than Maryam Jameelah. Anyway, readers will undoubtedly have their own ideas. There are many different forms of lunacy in the book, the war in Iraq providing an excellent example.
True enough, there were other disturbing elements here unrelated to conversion. In December 1956, struggling to make sense of her life, Margaret Marcus complained of discrimination by her male rightwing professors at New York University – while her psychiatrist, Dr Harper, “only wants to talk about my virginity”. Her passion for the wronged Palestinians had her flinging a newspaper on the breakfast table where her parents sat drinking coffee, scattering silverware to the floor and shouting, “The Israelis are no better than the Nazis. They are doing everything the Nazis did! I hope the Egyptians defeat every last one of them.”
Then, the book touches on descriptions of psychiatric treatment in the US in the early 1960s: strapping the patient tightly in icy bandages for hours at a time on a table; insulin and electro shock therapies, lobotomy, tube feeding; psychiatrists who would not look patients in the eye; and hospital staff who survived the Third Reich only to be following the very practices they escaped from.
I asked Deborah Baker why these sensational matters had been tucked away and lay silent inside the pages of the book and she replied,
I constructed the book in such a way so that these developments would come as revelations. But while these were certainly painful and dramatic moments in Margaret Marcus' young life, I don't see them as sensational. The 1950s were a time when the pressure to conform, at least in America, was enormous; those who refused often found themselves in institutions. Allen Ginsberg, the subject of my last book, was institutionalized and endlessly psychoanalyzed. His mother had been lobotomized, his friends had had insulin shock therapies, or they medicated or drank themselves into stupors to evade the pain of their failure to find a recognizable place in a very rigid society.
My own work as low-profile historian and biographer has shown that the piecing together of facts is a long process during which one tends to move along by filling gaps with conjecture while proceeding to seek validation. So I asked Deborah Baker whether she had done this here, and she said,
Initially, all I had were Maryam's letters to her parents. These letters told the story of her journey to Pakistan, her arrival in Mawdudi's household, the warm welcome that his family provided her and her introduction to the work of the Jama'at I Islami. I found these letters completely absorbing and, as is often the case at the outset of a project, I didn't think to question their reliability. When I got to the letter that called into question everything Maryam had led me to believe I was stunned and rather impressed that I had been led so far down the garden path. I wanted to duplicate that experience for the reader. I wanted the reader to be carried along and come upon the same precipice. I didn't want to get to the end of my research, having answered all the major questions about Maryam Jameelah, write up the story from that all-knowing perspective and hand the reader a tidy package of facts. Hence the use of conjecture throughout the book.
Did Deborah Baker always have the qualities of the detective and writer of suspense thrillers – or was it Maryam’s story and the way it unfolded before her that had brought them out? Even the fact that Margaret had been on Compazine, an antipsychotic and tranquilizer, comes as a shock, discovered long after the Paagal Khanaah letters appear.
She told me,
It was partly in the way her story was revealed to me, the removal of one veil after another, but it was also the challenge of making the reader aware of his or her own expectations---those assumptions and stereotypes we all carry in our heads, whether hawked by Islamic ideologues about "The West" or Western ideologues about “Islam." I wanted to unsettle the reader's bearings on these grandiose subjects, just as Maryam has unsettled mine.
After spending years thinking about Maryam Jameelah and researching her life what were her feelings about her now? She had written that Maryam’s letters were “wildly chatty,” and that, “Perusing them, puzzling over them day after day, I soon began to think of Margaret Marcus, with both fondness and slight condescension, as Peggy.” Later, when she finally met Maryam, in the most dramatic moment of this book (which sadly can no longer be enjoyed as such by anyone who has read this article), she experienced a chilly detachment and wanted to be done with the whole thing. “In the course of writing the book, I had many mixed feelings about Maryam Jameelah,” she agreed, “and only now, with the book finished, are they beginning to settle down.”

An interesting aspect of my interaction with Deborah Baker was her initial reaction to my questions. She mistook them to reflect hostility and scepticism about the entire undertaking, and she replied in a surly and increasingly exasperated tone. I was taken aback at first, but it struck me that I was probably not as good as a communicator as I fancied myself. The truth was, even Deborah Baker had experienced a major transformation in her perception of her subject in the course of this project. After all, the ability to respond without emotion and refrain from jumping to conclusions is an essential skill of the historian.
In any case, this did nothing to lessen how impressed I was with the book. It documents historical information about the Qur’an, the Sunnah and Hadith: how they were formed and what they constitute, and Mawdudi’s contribution to them. Equally fascinating are the physical details of the story – for instance the eight months Maryam spent in Pattoki, a tiny provincial town with no telephones and few cars. The narrow lanes between houses were largely reserved for donkeys, water buffalo, and the odd pony cart. Residents walked from one end to the other via rooftops.
For all her fascinating history, we exit with the image of Maryam as simply an old woman alone in an untidy little room in Lahore with little more than her faith, her library, and letters from her grandchildren for comfort – perhaps waiting, now, in eager anticipation of her three copies of this book. We can only wonder how she will feel when she reads it, and what answers she will have for the searing questions Deborah Baker asks her at the end.

30 May 2011

Leela's Book by Alice Albinia

Fiction from Alice
If, for instance, I had read this book without knowing who had written it, I would be mocking its farfetched and giddy-headed plot. Inspired by a complicated story in the Mahabharata, it is strewn with ridiculously astonishing coincidences and overlaid with unlikely science fiction. I particularly disliked the bits where Lord Ganesha himself is the narrator and am frankly not sure whether this happened because of an insidious subliminal Brahmin prejudice at having a mlechha speak on his behalf (er His behalf) – or just annoyance at the mast-masaledar story being interrupted by boring mythological and egoistical asides.
However, I feel a loyalty to Alice Albinia. Her last book, Empires of the Indus, continues to be one of my best books ever and my interaction with her gave me the impression of an extremely smart, thoughtful, level-headed and sincere person.
With this bias, it’s only natural that I should admire the great effort and skill that went into weaving together all the intricate, authentic details and interesting theories that this very well written and engaging book has.
I’m also thinking about Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts and The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall, two books that show how well their authors, who lived in India during phases in their lives, “got it”. Alice Albinia got it just as well, better even, because there were times when I was reading when, if I had stopped to think about it, I would have been convinced that this had been written by an Indian journalist. The part, for example, where a respected rightwing crackpot is actually just a slimy little social climber. And then later when he responds to a moment’s impulse and commits a ghastly crime.
There are others.
On the other hand, though, an Indian journalist would know that Indian movies do not show bridegrooms carrying brides over a threshold – and perhaps also that the jury system was abolished in India circa 1960 after the dramatic Nanavati case.

For quite a while after I finished reading, I was thinking longingly of Urvashi, Raziya and other characters, missing them, wondering where they were and what they were doing now. So I suppose I did rather enjoy this book, even though the blurb on the cover "A wise and lovely novel", attributed to Amit Chaudhuri, had put me off terribly. Although “wise and lovely” could well be a good description of Alice Albinia herself, and possibly even of Amit Chaudhuri himself, I did think it ridiculous to use such inane and open-ended adjectives to describe this many-dimensioned book.

I had bought more than a dozen copies of Empires as presents for friends and family members because I'd enjoyed it so much. Leela's Book has powerful insights into Indian mythology and contemporary life in India. Still, I can't seem to think of anyone I want to get it for.

28 May 2011

Cocktail by Vikram Karve

Dahl in the Western Ghats
Vikram Karve is a well-known Pune-based blogger. His descriptions of food, in particular, are evocative and popular. But this wasn't why I bought this book. I bought it because we share an old school tie and I assumed – correctly, as it turned out – that it would be worth reading.
The stories are great fun and flow smoothly. Each one is based on a man-woman relationship, and they are widely varied and inventive. Many have a wicked little twist at the end, and that’s what gave me the Dahl feeling. If I do have a complaint about this book, it’s the editing slips which make the quality of language less than perfect. Also, the stories towards the end are more intense and better constructed and I would have placed them earlier in the book to get the reader impressed earlier on. Instead, the early stories are rather lightweight and in fact two of them have plot inadequacies that should have been repaired or the stories dropped from the collection.
I loved reading about people and situations in familiar places around Pune and Bombay and the next time I visit Vaishali, will certainly take a closer look at the dosa-eaters there and spend a little time wondering which of them Vikram Karve was writing about!
I think this book would make a good gift to people who enjoy light reading, and in particular who would enjoy fiction in these familiar settings, as I did.

27 May 2011

Serious Men by Manu Joseph

A video game country
I saved this book to read “later” for such a long time that it’s now nearly a year old. Partly it was because I’ve been a fan of Manu Joseph for many years, knew I would enjoy it, and delayed gratification while dealing stoically with a lot of other sad stuff. There was also a mild worry that it wouldn’t be as good as I expected. Happily, it turned out to be better.
Just because someone writes well doesn’t mean that they are going to produce a good novel. But Serious Men has more than just a writing style that keeps you entertained and marvelling. It has interesting characters and an engaging plot too, and as you move along and the feeling creeps up on you that something big is going to happen for sure, well, you just cannot stop reading till you find out exactly what. The biggest charm, for me, was its originality in every respect – a rare feature in any book.
One of the major themes of Serious Men is the caste divide in India – surprisingly alive and flourishing even in unlikely environments such as the cosmopolitan city of Mumbai and even the intellectually elevated environs of the exalted scientific Institute of Theory and Research. But it’s not just caste that sunders this country. Manhood has been sadly depleted and it’s only among the poor that men continue to be men – in the homes of the privileged they put on aprons and serve dinner to their guests! And free love, our protagonist Ayyan knows in his heart, is an enchanting place haunted by demented women. Here, every day men merely got away. And then, without warning, they were finished. (Ayyan is safe from such a catastrophe however. Luckily, he loves his wife.)
There’s further irony in the manner in which the biggest problems of life are juxtaposed: a neighbour has burned his wife to death; alien life has been found, dropping coolly in to Earth’s atmosphere. A gardener, who somehow did not look naked in just his underwear, stands watering the main lawn. As Arvind Acharya, Ayyan’s boss and big cheese at the Institute drives his wife Lavanya to a doctor’s appointment, taxis broke lanes and crossed his path, singing cyclists almost died under his tyres and gave him self-righteous glares before resuming their songs, buses were at his bumper and pedestrians stood in the middle of the road waiting to cross the other half, but Acharya’s blood pressure did not rise. “This country has become a video game,” he mutters. Lavanya’s most critical ailment, one which Acharya shared, was her towering height. When she was young, urchins would follow her down the streets of Madras shouting, “LIC, LIC!” invoking the fourteen-storeyed Life Insurance Corporation building, the tallest in the city.
My favourite moment in this book is when Ayyan, who has a clerical job, casually announces his IQ. Everything he has done so far, mystifying and sometimes quite revolting, begins to fall into place.
Serious Men was shortlisted for this year’s Wodehouse Prize – and when the prize was awarded three days ago, I was sorry that another book won. On the other hand, Serious Men may have moments of utmost hilarity, but it would be unfair to classify it as comic fiction. It’s a serious, wonderful book.

15 May 2011

The Life's Too Short Literary Review

Not a glimpse of home
By a coincidence, I was listening to Coke Studio – lying in bed, willing myself to recover from a mysterious affliction – while I read this book.
Coke Studio is a Pakistani television series that features live music performances. I enjoyed some of the tracks and was struck by the different global influences on indigenous Pakistani music, in particular the specific sounds and rhythms of 1970s Hindi film music and of course a major contribution from Sufi music too.

It provided the perfect setting for these stories which are also distinctively Pakistani with their own set of varied influences. Baby by Mehreen Ajaz, for instance, is about a couple on the verge of pregnancy: he’s twenty and she’s barely nineteen; both are new to sex, both clumsy and awkward. We never learn their names or where they live – but it’s a place with an Andy Warhol exhibit and you can buy pretzels, so probably nowhere near Pakistan. Settling Affairs by Rayika Choudri tells us what happens after Khalida Begum Sahib, who lived till the age of eighty-three, died. Her father was English, a businessman who met her mother in India, married and converted to Islam. She was twelve when they moved from Bangalore to London. At twenty-one she married an Indian and they moved from London to Salzburg at the time when Europe was recovering from the effects of the Second World War. So even though this story does afford peeks into various aspects of Pakistani life, there is a cosmopolitan feel to it. Ruth and Richard by Madiha Sattar is an unabashedly New York story – but this has penetrating glimpses into Pakistan too.
The winning entry, Lucky People by Sadaf Halai, has a traditional middle-class couple alongside a modern one, and could just as well have been set in India. The same could be said of my personal favourite, Mir Sahib’s Hairdo by Danish Islam, which does a great job of juxtaposing slapstick with sophisticated humour while exploring male vanity in a characteristically subcontinental environment. Still, I did feel that the stories in this book transported me to Pakistan – its cities, its countryside and villages. It introduced me to Pakistani people from every socio-economic background and with very varied values and schemes of existence.
As I do with every encounter with anything to do with Pakistan, I looked for echoes of home. One set of my ancestors came from Sindh, and Partition created in their descendants a community without any place they can call home. The awareness that there is indeed a region on this planet where Sindhi is spoken on the streets is one that creates strong and contrasting feelings in me. I’ve never found those echoes I’m looking for before, and, quite predictably, did not find them here either.
All the stories in this volume are exceptionally well written. They are the finalists of a writing competition across Pakistan held in March 2009 by the Zohra & ZZ Ahmed Foundation. There was no entry fee, and a prize of Rs 100,000 was offered for the winning story. The judges were Mohammed Hanif, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Kamila Shamsie. The book itself is artistically designed, and includes a collection of colour photographs depicting some incongruities of life in Pakistan, and a page of early notes from Mohsin Hamid’s Reluctant Fundamentalist, I suppose in his handwriting. There's a translation of Urdu pulp fiction, Challawa, by Mohammed Hanif, which I enjoyed immensely, and the first chapter of Musharraf Ali and Michelle Farooqi's forthcoming graphic novel Rabbit Rap. So in all, a good dose of glamour too.

14 May 2011

the folded earth by Anuradha Roy

Love, hunger and death in an idyllic location
My first feeling as I started reading this book was a rising admiration for the author’s skill as I got drawn into the story. My second was embarrassment, at the memory of having mistaken it after a cursory glance at the author’s name and the pointedly environmental feel of the cover, for yet another tome of screechy pseudo-development ranting by Arundhati Roy, which had caused me to relegate it to the “no thank you” heap for weeks.

This books is set in Ranikhet. The heroine is Maya, a young woman from Andhra Pradesh with a tragedy behind her. She starts a new life here and this is her story and the story of the people she becomes involved with. There’s the Diwan Sahib, her landlord, once Munim of the Nawab of Surajgarh until the princedom acceded to India after Independence – but not before the Diwan himself had been arrested by the Nawab for treason. There’s the lovely young milkmaid Charu with a poignant story of her own. Maya’s parents and her husband feature in the story too, though we never actually meet them. Maya herself, as Anuradha Roy said in answer to a question I asked, is:
A rich, educated man's daughter. She has had a good education herself; she is a highly intelligent, untraditional woman who is a reader of all kinds of books and is in the constant company of man who is learned and cosmopolitan and with whom one of the things she does daily is read the international pages of the newspaper.Maya's mind has a way of wandering and making strange connections. She gets distracted easily, she often doesn’t focus when people are speaking. She thinks a great deal about her past and about other people, and this creates a prismatic sense of time so that her life with her father and then her husband become part of the present time of the narrative.
With the Himalaya in the backdrop, one of the major background themes of this book is trekking and mountain tourism. Hill life is well described and the flavour of a cantonment town, its local politics and loutish politicians enticingly caricatured. By the time I finished it, I felt a bit as if I’d lived ten years in Ranikhet too, as Anuradha Roy told me she has.

The Folded Earth also has stories from the life of Jim Corbett, from the turbulent times soon after India’s Independence, something about the relationship between Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru, and a heart-wrenching twist at the end.

This book is beautifully written and its story both gripping and plausible. I admired the author’s choice of issues to use as background. One of the things that upset me, though, was a cameo appearance by Ramachandra Guha, a real person and a respected historian, without any disclaimer or acknowledgement.
When I asked Anuradha Roy, she replied,
Ram is an old friend and he is an author we have published at Permanent Black. In the novel, Ram Guha is another of the scholars who arrive to meet the Diwan, in this case a scholar genuinely worried about the safety of valuable documents. The novel throughout plays around quite a bit at blurring the lines between fact and fiction and this is another instance. People who know Ranikhet spot many more instances beyond even the Corbett and Mountbatten angles. Plus for me, it's a private joke, of which too there are plenty in the book. As a writer yourself, you know we are entitled to have some fun while writing!
Now the thing I like best about Ramachandra Guha, even more than the quality of his work, is the fact that instead of using all the attention he gets from the media to transform into a rockstar, he has applied his common sense and clarity of thought not just in his writing but also in his personal life and remained a relaxed, unpretentious person. So I suppose to be drawn by a peer as a fictionalised character alongside Jawaharlal Nehru is more than a joke, it’s a compliment.
I then asked Anuradha Roy whether she was often mistaken for Arundhati Roy and how she dealt with it, and she replied,
Yes, particularly foreigners often mistake me for Arundhati Roy. There is a whole review of my first book on Goodreads that reviews it as her second book. Imagine the fate of the novelist Elizabeth Taylor. And there was another novelist called Winston Churchill...