Archive for ‘Hindustan Times’

November 17, 2014

Meena Kandasamy, The Gypsy Goddess

(I was a bit nervous about the title of Kandasamy’s new book. “Gypsy” is a term with a huge and uncomfortable history, and I’m sometimes surprised by how many people who are otherwise careful about language will still throw this one around casually. I don’t think Kandasamy is using it casually, though; as I understand it within the book it’s a reference to the Narikuravar.)

I’ve only read scraps of Kandasamy’s poetry before; in the later stages of this book there’s a control over the prose that feels like it comes from poetry but that I haven’t seen before in the little of her work that I’ve read.

A version of this piece was in last week’s Hindustan Times.

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There’s so much about narrative, about the process of turning lives and events into story, that we take for granted. It’s easy to forget that books and narrative formats mold stories into particular shapes, that the truth, to whatever extent such a thing exists, is only available to us mediated through those shapes.

Yet this is a useful thing to remember, perhaps particularly so when we’re writing about real people and happenings. Meena Kandasamy’s The Gypsy Goddess is a novel about the (real) events of the Kilvenmani Massacre of 1968, but it’s also a novel about the process of narrating those events. The book is divided into four segments and in the first two, “Background” and “Breeding Ground” the author treats us to a range of ways of telling a tale. We are never allowed to forget that this is a story that is being told to us; Kandasamy (assuming the narrator and the author to be the same, as dangerous as that may be) will stop, restart, reflect on her narrative choices as she is making them, address her readers directly to inform them that they will not be getting what they expect. Occasionally she will parody the style of the propaganda from one side or the other of the conflict between the landlords and the exploited labourers. The Gypsy Goddess exists in a world of readers who watch viral internet videos (“Is there a single story? No. Of course, I’ve consulted Chimamanda on this too.”), who read widely, who have seen the impossibility of telling stories paraded before them in the past, and who know that it is not a new idea, and Kandasamy acknowledges this as well.

“How does this work of art seek to declare itself? It plagiarizes the most scathing criticism, it prides itself on its ability to disappoint. Why bother about the pain of accomplishing something and arriving somewhere, when failure has been made a flashy trophy in its own right?”

It’s a criticism that the book accepts as valid even if, by pre-empting it, it puts the reviewer in something of a double bind. This sort of self-referential, self-critical writing can become a closed circuit, too focused on its own mechanics to say anything about the world outside it. Which is fine, in some cases, but Kandasamy has chosen for her subject a story that does, for sound political and moral reasons, need to be told more often; and a story that deserves not to be crowded out of the book (and subsequently out of reviews like this one) by the literary pyrotechnics of the author. It’s in this unresolvable clash of writerly ideals, the reporter’s duty to bear witness versus the 21st century novelist’s need to re-examine the act of telling, that The Gypsy Goddess situates itself. Failure is inevitable.

Kandasamy does eventually come to the narrative that we (by this time, somewhat guiltily) crave; in the latter half of the book she tells it effectively and well. “Battleground” and “Burial Ground” form a powerful account of events, with lyrical writing saved from becoming treacly by being undercut with anger. And—this is where the earlier sections pay off—having dwelt so much on structure earlier, we are rarely in danger of losing the critical distance that the author has demanded of us.

A project like this one is never going to work; that is part of the point. Every criticism that the book has already made of itself is valid, and I’d add to that the complaint that a book that sets out failure as a goal renders itself invulnerable to any pointing out of flaws. But there’s something compelling about a political story (and that a story of a massacre) that refuses to sweep the reader up in its narrative. The Gypsy Goddess sets out to do the impossible and (naturally) does not succeed, but it’s the sort of ethical, ambitious failure that we need more of.

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May 29, 2014

Anita Nair, Idris: Keeper of the Light

Another book that I really wanted to be able to champion but ended up being very disappointed by. It’s about a jewel-eyed man named Idris, so I feel like I have exercised great restraint in not illustrating this post with a picture of Mr Elba as Heimdall.

I have a short review of the book in this past weekend’s edition of The Hindustan Times (and below).

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The most fascinating histories, to me, are the ones that situate India in a wider world, full of comings and goings and trade and shared knowledge and culture clashes long before most of the territories involved in these exchanges became part of one or the other European empire. Received history, having a lot of ground to cover, tends to skim over these stories; it’s left to those of us who love them either to do a lot of research or to look to historical fiction.

Anita Nair’s Idris: Keeper of the Light seems at first to offer exactly this kind of history. Idris Maymoon Samataar Guleed is a wanderer and trader from 17th Century Dikhil (in modern day Djibouti) who, on a visit to India, has a brief liason with a young woman. Twelve years later he returns to the country and by chance meets a boy he knows to be his son. Charged with distracting the boy from joining a group of assassins, Idris takes him instead on a journey across coastal India by land and by sea.

By far the best thing about the book is Idris’s developing relationship with his son Kandavar, treading carefully between truth and untruth in order to keep Kandavar and his mother safe. Kandavar is intended for the central character of Nair’s projected trilogy, though he’s rather sidelined here in favour of his father.

But for a book rooted in such a fascinating period, Idris makes little of its setting. Issues of caste and religion affect the relationships between characters, but in a rather perfunctory way. A narrator who is both a traveller and an outsider, Idris is able to drift from set piece to set piece (a kalari on the bank of the Nila, pearl fishing in Thoothukudi, the diamond mines in Golkonda) without any real engagement with the historical realities of place and time. There is much to be made of this moment in history, at the beginning of empire. For all the use the book makes of it, it’s unclear why this story needed to be set in this time and place at all.

Idris’ outsider-status isn’t merely due to his being a foreigner, and one of a different race. A multilingual scholar and amateur astrologer with a jewelled eye, as the book presents him, he alone is exempt from the religious and cultural prejudices of everyone he meets. The other characters all seem willing to accept the book’s assumption of his specialness—frequently when Idris is introduced to a new character the perspective shifts so that we can see said new character dwelling on how they are drawn to Idris’ obvious wisdom, beauty and nobility (and superior height).

Everything about Idris: Keeper of the Light makes it seem exactly the sort of thing one wants to see; beautifully produced (the maps drawn on the endpapers are particularly gorgeous), with its vision of a fascinating, cosmopolitan past. The book this could have been makes the book that it is even more of a disappointment.

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September 9, 2013

Were-lizard? (There lizard!)

Occasionally, non-Indian SFF fans ask me if India has an equivalent tradition to the werewolf– stories of humans turning into animals (or animals into humans). I’m no expert, and traditions of the supernatural differ wildly across the country, so I usually say something vague about human-snake transformations and leave it at that. But now there’s this.

This was the front page of this Sunday’s HT City, and was brought to my attention by Aadisht.

It appears to be advertising a show called Shapath: Super Cops vs Super Villains (Monday to Friday, 9pm). The caption, in case it’s not clear enough, reads: “Kya zeheriley chipkali-manav ke atank ko rok payenge supercops?”*

I’m assuming the answer is yes, but I really, really want to find out.

*(“Can the terror of the lizard-man be stopped by the supercops?” Or, why I am not a translator.)

August 18, 2013

Lavanya Sankaran, The Hope Factory

I did this short review for The Hindustan Times (on their website here). As is probably obvious, I wasn’t very impressed by Sankaran’s novel.

 

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Lavanya Sankaran’s The Hope Factory explores the intersecting lives of two people in Bangalore. Anand, a Mysore boy who now owns a successful factory, needs more land to expand the business but wants to acquire it in the most above-board way possible. Kamala, Anand’s domestic help, struggles to provide her intelligent son with the sort of future he deserves.

Despite the vast gulf between their situations, Anand and Kamala’s lives parallel each other in a number of ways. Both are proud of their exceptionally clever children, both face difficulties related to the rising cost of real estate in their shared city. The whole book is told from the perspectives of these two characters and as a result we’re given the impression that they are both kind, honest, proud and a little too good for the people around them. Kamala is unfailingly nice to the frequently unpleasant women with whom she works, and Anand is the patient husband and polite son-in-law to a selfish wife and her overbearing father.

The problem with this is that the book itself rarely challenges these perceptions. As a result neither the main characters nor most of those around them achieve any particular depth or complexity. Anand’s wife Vidya comes off the worst here. To Kamala she’s a spoiled and capricious employer. To Anand she’s a figure of contempt; we’re not allowed to believe that anything she does, from attending a music concert to taking an interest in social work, is done sincerely.

There’s something rather Dickensian about all of this; we know from the start who is good, who is bad, who is worthy of our sympathy and who of our mockery. Harry Chinappa, the controlling, blustering socialite, is bad. Anand’s property agent, who evinces a genuine love of the land is good. The corrupt politician’s henchman is bad. The widowed mother whose only interest in life is her son is good. And so forth. The book’s adherence to the narrative of honest man in corrupt world comes close at times to validating Anand’s father’s belief that People Like Us (a belief that, in context, seems to be as much about caste as anything else) are not cut out for such dirty undertakings as ‘business’.

Sankaran does partially salvage things with occasional flashes of irony, and a comic understanding of people in conversation. This is clearest in some of the interactions between Anand and his friends and co-workers. And Bangalore itself is evoked occasionally through cliché (its traffic, its Pink Floyd fans) but manages to feel like a real city, even if few of those in it are real people. The Hope Factory is, in the end, an effective book about a changing city; I only wish its characters didn’t feel so incidental to it.

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April 21, 2013

Mridula Koshy, Not Only The Things That Have Happened

A short review of Mridula Koshy’s first novel, published in The Hindustan Times this saturday.

 

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In one sense, the events of Mridula Koshy’s first novel take place over a period of less than two days. In another, they span over four decades. At the centre of the novel are Annakutty Verghese and the son she had out of wedlock, and whom she was convinced to give away. Divided into two halves, set (mostly) in Kerela and the American Midwest respectively, Not Only The Things That Have Happened tells the story of this separation and what it means to both mother and child.

Both learn to structure their lives around a single great absence. Annakutty never gives up the search for her son, tracing his outline on the sheets of her bed, his growing in the teenaged mannerisms of young boys she sees on the bus. She relives her time with him constantly through the stories she tells her niece Nina, and as the stories themselves change so does her understanding of her own loss. Meanwhile Madhu, now named Asa Gardener, struggles with his status as “a child without history”, something his adoptive parents specifically asked for. Asa doesn’t know where he comes from, has no language with which to understand the scraps he remembers, and for much of his young adulthood compensates for his lack of a real story by creating a series of fake histories of himself.

Both Annakutty and Asa, then, structure their lives around the possibility of things that have not happened. Annakutty will find her son, or at least will live on in him as her last message for him suggests. Asa will learn who he is.  Not Only The Things That Have Happened is a story about absence and memory and the telling of stories. While I describe it above as being roughly divided into two, memories don’t work that way; it leaps nimbly between times and styles and its characters’ points of view. The sheer quality of Koshy’s prose is probably the best reason to read her, and in the earlier sections in particular the book’s structure offers her a great deal of scope to play with style, as well as to weave in the cadences of colloquial Malayalam.

Koshy manages to touch upon the politics of adoption, language, exile, identity. Such a novel could easily have fallen into the trap of being dull and worthy. That is doesn’t is something of a triumph; this is a fantastic book.

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February 4, 2013

Suniti Namjoshi, The Fabulous Feminist

From Saturday’s Hindustan Times.

Incidentally, if anyone who reads this has a copy of The Mothers of Maya Diip that I could borrow I’d be very grateful. I’m a little horrified that there exists an Indian feminist spec-fic-ish novel that I had never heard of until this past month.

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For many readers of my generation Suniti Namjoshi is one of those writers more often seen cited than read. We’re vaguely aware of her importance in any late-20th century history of Indian writing in English, but the bulk of her work has been out of print and hard to access for a very long time.

Hopefully that will change with the publication of The Fabulous Feminist. This collection contains extensive extracts from Namjoshi’s fiction and poetry to date, from 1981’s Feminist Fables up to her recent, and as yet unpublished work.

Namjoshi’s works often take on and respond to already-existing narratives and are replete with allusion; Aesop, Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf are all invoked here. The fable may be a moral-centric form of storytelling, but in the fables that give the collection its name Namjoshi’s morals are complex and biting.

Another feature of Namjoshi’s work that is much in evidence here is a willingness to examine and even to gently mock her own background and identity politics and how they intersect with her feminism. The Conversations of Cow* is a satire on earnest lesbian feminists (Namjoshi confesses to being among their number) but also about being brown in a white-majority culture. Goja contains an honest exploration of class privilege and the question of how far it is possible for a writer in Namjoshi’s position to speak for or about working class women. Each section is prefaced by a short introduction by the writer, illuminating and littered with personal anecdotes.

But all of this brings up the question of editing. The Fabulous Feminist is subtitled “A Suniti Namjoshi Reader” but there’s no evidence of any editorial selection beyond that of Namjoshi herself. It is rather unusual for an author to edit a reader of her own work; to decide, effectively, which parts of a large body of work are the most significant. Some of these choices aren’t entirely felicitous, as when we get three chapters from the middle of her work of speculative fiction, The Mothers of Maya Diip. These longer books are ill-served by the editorial decision to extract from all of the author’s works.

Despite these occasional hiccups, though, The Fabulous Feminist is a joy to read. In an ideal world this book would trigger a Namjoshi revival and we could hope to see all of her work in print again; for now, this is a wonderful substitute.

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*Because I am lazy, the review I sent in, and which got published, had this as “Conversations of Cow”. Apologies.

January 20, 2013

Mayank Austen Soofi, Nobody Can Love You More

Here’s the thing: in the last couple of years we’ve had a few genuinely good non-fictional books (I’m thinking particularly of Aman Sethi’s A Free Man and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers) in which a person of relative privilege has written about a person or people of relatively less privilege without the results becoming cringeworthy. A big part of this is due to how the narrators of these books place themselves within the text; the ways in which they’re conscious of their position when they say what they say. BtBF is not about Boo, and A Free Man is not about Sethi, but we always know who they are, and what the text’s relationship with them is.

And then there’s Nobody Can Love You More: Life in Delhi’s Red Light District, for which I’ve just done a short review for The Hindustan Times. As I mention in the review I found it a bit baffling trying to work out what Soofi was doing with his own character here. Have we reached a point, culturally, when something that sounds naive and/or patronising can simply be assumed to be a purposeful, self-conscious decision on the part of the narrator? The “Soofi” of the book teeters constantly between empathetic observer and hopeless outsider. He shudders at the excess oil in the food he’s offered and turns down buttered toast because it has excessive butter (really?); twice he looks at the women to whom he’s talking and wonders why any man would pay to sleep with them; he insists on following them about taking notes while they’re soliciting customers (I’m sure that’s not making the business awkward at all); he presses women to talk about things about which they’re uncomfortable then interrupts them to lecture them on how to cook dal. In between we have sections in which he ponders upon the difference between his life in “posh Hauz Khas village” and that of his friends on GB Road. If this is unintentional it’s terrible; if intentional it’s badly structured.

Also, there’s the issue of audience, and the necessity of constantly translating Hindi to English. I’m not comfortable with the automatic assumption that any author who does this is automatically pitching his book toward a foreign audience (plenty of Indians don’t speak Hindi and that’s fine) but I’m also not sure why we need, for example, snatches of song lyrics that Soofi hears. Translating them does them, and the book, no favours; “Munni badnaam hui” really does not work in English.

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The myth of the completely objective observer is one that has been busted several times over and even the driest of non-fictional subjects can reveal to the reader much about the author. With a subject as socially fraught as prostitution this is even more the case. Mayank Austen Soofi’s Nobody Can Love You More is an account in words and photographs of life in Delhi’s red light district. Based on an acquaintance spanning a few years with the inhabitants of kotha number 300 on GB Road, Soofi’s book attempts to explore the lives of sex workers as well as their families and other acquaintances.

Since the book is not arranged chronologically it’s not clear how far the book’s tracing of Soofi’s own journey is intentional – or even whether there’s an element of self-consciousness in his portrayal of himself here. The “Soofi” here is sometimes prejudiced and often naïve; he is disgusted by the food he is offered, he ponders why people would pay to have sex with an elderly woman. He’s a little too willing to provide us with accounts of his social life.  At times we’re offered trite insights, such as the information that women who come to work here are more likely to arrive for the first time from the railway station than the metro station, or that there’s nothing at the nearest station to indicate that the red light district is nearby.

Despite all this the voices of some of these characters shine through—particularly those of Sushma, a sex worker who lives in number 300, and Omar and Osman, two children conflicted about their parents’ professions and their own religious beliefs.

“Her husband left her. I think he was not a good man. But he did not tell me much. And I didn’t ask her. Maybe he was a good man … who knows?” Thus Sushma discusses the circumstances of a former colleague. Sushma understands that people’s lives don’t always fit into easy narratives. In the book’s final chapter Soofi finally raises questions of narrative, of storytelling, of truth, but when he suggests that perhaps “it is fulfilling enough for a writer to get a sense of GB Road without stripping bare the lives of its people” it feels less like a disclaimer than a throwing up of hands in despair. Nobody Can Love You More may want to gesture toward the complexity and chaos of the human lives it documents, but it feels merely muddled and unsatisfactory.

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October 28, 2012

M. G. Vassanji, The Magic of Saida

A very short review of this appeared in Saturday’s Hindustan Times. I’d read and enjoyed Vassanji’s The In-Between World of Vikram Lall a few years ago, as well as some of his non-fiction so I was particularly disappointed with how inconsequential The Magic of Saida felt. It wasn’t a terrible book (at his worst Vassanji’s unlikely ever to be a bad writer), but I’ve read bad books that had some direction or purpose or something.

Here’s a version of the review, anyway.

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A publisher visiting a hospital in Dar es Salaam meets a recovering patient with a story to tell. This is Kamal Punja, a successful doctor from Canada who has returned to Tanzania to seek out his childhood friend and lover.

M.G. Vassanji is partially exploring his own roots with this latest work – he too is a resident of Canada with ties to India and Tanzania. The Magic of Saida sometimes treads dangerously close to being a book about immigrant identity. Martin Kigoma, the publisher to whom Kamal tells his story, muses that he “demonstrated how complicated a real life could be in our times, how painful the idea of belonging”. The young Kamal’s feeling of being torn between the two sides of his heritage, and the sense of disconnect that he later feels as an adult are all very well but they’re nothing we haven’t seen countless times before. It’s a tired genre and not one in which Vassanji (or, I suspect, anyone else) has much that is new to say.

Vassanji’s biggest strength here is the sheer vastness of his canvas. Into the histories of Saida and Kamal’s families is woven a much wider story of East Africa, its trade ties with India, the historical importance of Kilwa, and various anticolonialist movements and other major events of the twentieth century. There are some brilliant shifts in style here too – including an entire section in which the colonisation by German forces is given the form of a religious fable, and another in which the relationship between a poet and his brother is transformed into a version of the Cain and Abel story.

Yet none of this is enough to make up for the very real weaknesses of this book. Saida herself is something of a MacGuffin; while the search for her supposedly informs the whole plot, the truth is rather anti-climactic. She never appears as a person but is relegated to the status of mystical plot device. Kamal, who is swept along by other people’s decisions throughout, isn’t much of a character either.

Then there’s the publisher to whom this is all being told. Kigoma’s name is mentioned just once, at the beginning of the book, yet he shows more evidence of personality than either of its protagonists. Here his only function is to comment on how moving Kamal Punja’s story is. If only his enthusiasm could convince the reader; this is very far from Vassanji’s strongest work.

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