Tag Archive for 'Literature'

The teardrop of the subcontinent: A tour of the literature of Sri Lanka

Morgan Meis in Virginia Quarterly Review:

I am with Ayathurai Santhan in Jaffna, just off the southeastern tip of India, a spot of land in the Indian ocean that is sometimes described as the “teardrop” of the subcontinent: Sri Lanka. At the side of a modest grass field not far from a Hindu temple that sits above a pond choked with lilies, at evening time, the light in smears of pink and orange across a low sky with bats flying in from the east in leathery squadrons—and I mean large fruit bats the size of flying foxes—next to a group of boys playing a game of cricket with sticks and a homemade ball behind the community center that also serves as an impromptu fish market, surrounded by goats—scaling the sides of the palm-leaf fences to chew at whatever their mouths may find— and watched by three stray cows whose mooing erupts with startling urgency, as bicycles, three-wheelers, rumbling trucks, UN vehicles with darkened windows, and the occasional ox-cart creaks past on the narrow, poorly paved street, we are speaking about writing.

But before you can begin to understand Sri Lanka’s literature, you first must know a bit of its history. Sri Lanka is not the largest of islands nor is it the most important, though it does occupy a strategic-enough swath of earth and Southern Indian Ocean that it was colonized by Europeans three times. For roughly two thousand years before the Europeans arrived, Sri Lanka enjoyed a series of basically feudal kingdoms that ruled from different parts of the country, sporadic incursions from Southern India notwithstanding. More:

VS Naipaul finds no woman writer his literary match – not even Jane Austen

In The Guardian:

VS Naipaul, no stranger to literary spats and rows, has done it again. This time, the winner of the Nobel prize for literature has lashed out at female authors, saying there is no woman writer whom he considers his equal – and singling out Jane Austen for particular criticism.

In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the “greatest living writer of English prose”, was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: “I don’t think so.” Of Austen he said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.

He felt that women writers were “quite different”. He said: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.” More: Also read NPR

In Boston Globe: A house for Mr. Sexist

The 79-year-old curmudgeon and author of “A House for Mr. Biswas’’ mixed egotism with obtuseness, saying that no woman writer was his equal, and that he could infallibly spot feminine prose “within a paragraph or two’’ due to its “sentimentality’’ and its “narrow view of the world.’’ To make sure nobody was left thinking he disparaged only contemporary women writers, Naipaul scorned Jane Austen for her “sentimental sense of the world.’’ More:

Faiz for dummies

Wannabe fan Bilal Tanweer makes a determined attempt to crack Faiz Ahmed Faiz. In The Caravan:


STEP 1: Get yourself born into a middle-class family in Karachi where books are considered the least useful of all forms of pulped wood—including pulped wood itself. Ensure that your father, who used to read Jasoosi Digest until a few years ago, now reads only Aurad-o Waza’if (Book of Daily Devotions and Prayers). Ideally, your mother should be an expert on all kinds of waza’if, big and small.

STEP 2: To really get going, however, you need even more discouragement. Pick an inauspicious moment, such as right after your parents’ shouting match over your mother’s shopping habits. Ask your father with great trepidation if he has a book of Faiz’s verse. Hear him tell you flatly: “Beta yeh sha’iri to bhand, mirasiyo’n aur kanjaro’n ka kaam hai; tumhara iss se kya lena dena?” (“Son, poetry is for wags and pimps—what do you have to do with it?”) Please note that while saying this, he will have his gaze fixed on a handsome saas on TV conniving against her sexy bahu.

STEP 3: Now go to the nearest bookstore (which also sells cheap plastic toys and boardgames to keep the business on lubricated tracks) and ask the bookstore owner—a man most accurately described as a talking heap of flab piled on a chair, reeking of paan—if he has Faiz’s book of verse.

“Poetry?” he will ask, scowling (ignore this). He will then wipe the paan dribbling from the corner of his lips, cock up his chin to balance the red saliva floating inside his mouth and say, “Only schoolbooks here. And Islamic books. Oh, and cassettes too. What do you want?” Say uncomfortably, awkwardly: “Err… I’m looking for poetry.”

“This has nice poetry too.” He will try to sell you Junaid Jamshed’s new Naat album.

STEP 4: Go all the way to Urdu Bazaar and locate the book. Now you have it resting calmly in your hands. To be perfectly honest, you don’t feel good about this. The title reads something in difficult Urdu: Nuskha -baa’ye… Bye? Your Urdu is exhausted already. Perhaps it’s some Persian phrase. Or Arabic? Who knows. And how will you ever know? Feel desperate. Think about what made you like Faiz in the first place. And what does faiz even mean? Does it mean anything at all? Why are we all here? When is the next Big Bang? Help.

Feel stupid. Pause. Breathe. Listen to the car stereo outside playing ‘Jhalak Dikhlaja’ at full blast. You understand everything in the song. Your Urdu is not so bad after all. Feel better.

The price of the book is disturbing. You did not realise Urdu books could cost this much. The last you spent on Urdu books was eight annas for a slim and sleek booklet of Amar Ayyar’s adventures. This was over 12 years ago. And 600 rupees seems like too much money for any form of pulped wood.

Pause. Think about how many McChicken deals you are forgoing for this ‘something’ you might not understand anyway. Stare at the cover for clues and answers.

The salesman comes and stands so close that you can smell the odour of his sweat. He thinks you’re a lifter. Feel oppressed. Decide to buy it. While walking out of the bookstore, suppress all thoughts relating to money and value for money.

Repeat staring at the cover.


The Asian mind

Shamik Bag in Mint Lounge on the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore:

In the middle of the cricket World Cup, that concluded last month, a small newspaper report appeared amid the cricket clutter. This too was on cricket, but it mentioned Rabindranath Tagore in the headline: Odd bedfellows, it seemed, considering that the Nobel laureate had died over four decades before India’s first World Cup win at Lord’s in 1983. Tagore, the report went on to mention, was enjoying an unprecedented omnipresence in World Cup matches involving three countries.

While it is well known that the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh were composed by Tagore, every time the Sri Lankans took to the field, Tagore made a roundabout entry, having inspired the creation of the Sri Lankan national anthem, Sri Lanka Matha.

“Jana Gana Mana and the Sri Lankan national anthem are based on the same raga too,” explains Supriya Roy, who is curating an exhibition of photographs, text, poems and manuscripts titled Rabindranath Tagore: Pilgrimages to the East, which opens on Monday to coincide with Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary. A letter from Ananda Samarakoon, the composer of the Sri Lankan anthem, to Tagore is in the possession of the Tagore archives of Visva-Bharati University, Roy says.

In it, Samarakoon—a former student at Tagore’s Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan who was moved by Rabindrasangeet to create the modern Geeta Sahitya music style in Sri Lanka—expresses gratitude to Tagore and hopes the Sri Lankan song “pleases” him. More:


The Literary Raj

For all their posturing and weighty pretences, the Indian elite’s life of letters is still strangely beholden to the British. Hartosh Singh Bal in Open:

The British travelling to pre-Independence India were an extreme example. Younger sons with limited means of getting ahead in the UK, would land up in India and presume to lord over hundreds or thousands of Indians. The relation between the two countries has changed dramatically since, but the effects of journey remain.

There is still a vast expat community that enjoys some of the benefits of such travel from the West to India. In many professions, the journey does not offer much—a doctor or an engineer from the West would not overawe his counterpart here—but there remain professions where the advantages are enormous, especially those related to the written word, a reflection of the fact that English mediates our own social hierarchy.

This is most notably so in the case of a foreign correspondent. What would be a reasonable salary in London is outrageous in Delhi. A residence in Golf Links or a farmhouse in Mehrauli is perhaps not the best beginning to an Indian sojourn, especially when you add to this a lack of knowledge of a local language and easy access to the people who frequent the Niira Radia tapes, but it has its comforts.

The money, important as it is, is not the only factor determining the journey up the social hierarchy. Not all foreign correspondents are equal; there is a hierarchy even among them, which has much to do with our perception of the world. The importance of their country of origin is only one factor, a factor that would explain why those from the US matter but does nothing to explain the pre-eminence of British journalists long after their country has ceased to matter globally.

They remain inheritors of a Raj that still lingers. It even allows some of them to cap their tenure with an India book. Who else would have the temerity to sum up a continent after a two- or three-year stay confined mostly to Delhi? More:

Anjali Joseph: ‘Stop trying to label me!’

Born in Bombay, educated in Cambridge – and dismissive of tags of nationhood for her debut novel, Anjali Joseph makes a combative case for a better understanding of modern, fluid identity. In The Independent:

Back in 1985, when I was seven, my family moved to England from Bombay. My father was a research scientist. He was going to teach at Warwick University. In his first week, a colleague offered to take him to the cafeteria at the campus arts centre. There were sandwiches, salads, baked potatoes, and something else, which the colleague indicated: “Have you tried these? They’re called samosas. They’re rather good.”

When we moved, I had never been to England, or anywhere outside India except for a sabbatical year my father had taken at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh when I was a toddler. I was, however, confident about what England would entail. I had been reading. There would be a village, and a fat village policeman; I would have friends, five or seven of them, and a dog; my friends and I would sit in a garden shed, go on picnics, or sleep in gorse bushes, and feast on boiled eggs (which I hated) and delicious-sounding tongue sandwiches.

Some recalibration was required; I realised that England was no longer in the 1930s and, perhaps, even then, had not resembled life in the works of Enid Blyton, which I’d eagerly read from our local library in Bombay. More:

Oh s***!

India’s mass market for quickie English paperbacks is booming. Start with a horny male protagonist, describe everything from sunset to smut, don’t worry about about grammar. Amrita Dutta in The Indian Express:

There he is, in one of the early chapters of his debut novel Love, Life and Dream On: an IITian’s story of romance (Srishti Publishers, Rs 100), describing with bungling earnestness a character in love. “The girl gazed at Aniket for a moment and smiled. The small glance made Aniket reach cloud nine in a moment. He began to Dream. (Prof) Mr Banerjee kept on stressing the types of bonds and Aniket realised the formation of a new bond. Bond of LOVE.”

And you haven’t even met the man responsible for the most striking description of a sunset in the history of Indian writing in English.

“Evening breeze gusted across, and the intensity of natural light dwindled as sun took cover behind tall buildings”. That’s the work of Mandar Kokate, author of ‘Oh Shit, Not Again!’ (Expression Publication, Rs 150), a book set in Pune and written with the finesse of Amar Singh at a press conference. The protagonist of the book is “the flirt chap” Raj (“I’m Rajendra Jedhe, alias Raj”), an “Arts stream student” in Pune, with a glad eye and plenty of testosterone, the said combination inspiring the author to produce several passages of sleazy prose. So Raj flips through the pages of Debonair and thinks, “Hot women on the paper chilled my brain and body to rest them in peace.” Perhaps because Kokate is a civil engineer, ever so often he slips in words that would make the writer of The Civil Engineers Construction Manual proud: “His globular tummy was hanging cantilever to the hips”. He also does pathos: “Tears resumed their flow, I didn’t try to stop them and neither did they stop on their own”.

This novel about the antics of Raj and friends has sold around 40,000 copies since its publication in 2008. (By the modest standards of Indian publishing, 5,000 copies is the bestseller mark.) More:

The Hungry Poet

Over 300 books, films for Satyajit Ray, a friend of Allen Ginsberg. And, of course, poetry that has redefined love, rebellion and restlessness. Just how do you define Sunil Gangopadhyay? Jaideep Mazumdar in Open:

Sunil Gangopadhyay

Novelist, poet, inveterate traveller, ceaselessly seeking, questioning, holding up a mirror to society. Bengal’s most prominent contemporary litterateur Sunil Gangopadhyay personifies timelessness, in spirit and work. His writing, beginning with his first poem, Ekti Chithi (A Letter), in 1951, to his latest works, possesses a rare, eternal quality. A prolific writer with over 300 titles to his credit, his is a stunning oeuvre. Poetry, novels, short stories, travelogues, children’s literature, essays, there’s nothing he hasn’t done.

And he’s one of the few vernacular writers to find a wide audience in English. His novels, Sei Somoy (Those Days) and Prothom Alo (First Light), have been translated to English to great success. Recently, he was one of the few non-English writers (CS Lakshmi being the other) to contribute to AIDSsutra, an anthology brought out by Random House in 2008.

Yet, he remains warm, candid and down-to-earth. Gangopadhyay at 76 keeps an open house and receives scores of young fans every day.“Poetry is my first love. It was quite by chance that I got acclaim as a novelist,” Gangopadhyay tells Open one lazy Sunday morning at his modest apartment in south Kolkata. More:

Narayana Murthy’s new passion

Everyone’s favourite compassionate capitalist is not satisfied with the 100,000 jobs he’s already helped create. So he’s working hard to replicate another Silicon Valley success story. Priya Ramani in Mint-Lounge:

The last time N.R. Narayana Murthy took money from Sudha Murty in 1981, he founded Infosys Technologies and grew Rs10,000 to a $5.1 billion (around Rs22,742 crore) company. So it’s not difficult to understand why everyone’s talking about the Rs604.3 crore he raised with his wife’s help recently.

But if Murthy’s experiencing any performance anxiety about replicating that urban legend in his new adventure, Catamaran Ventures, it doesn’t show. When we meet at Infosys headquarters in Bangalore’s Electronics City, he’s dressed in a Larry King blue shirt, belt buckled exactly like my father (i.e. several inches higher than GQ recommends). His geek read, mathematician David Bodanis’ E=mc², lies on the table in front of him and though he gives me more time than I’ve asked for, he calmly lobs my volley of requests for any specific numbers (“data points” in his lingo).

Though Murthy’s big secret was unveiled only last November after the Infosys chairman and Sudha Murty sold a chunk of their shares worth Rs174.3 crore and Rs430 crore, respectively, he had been planning this move for one and a half years, or around the same time he met 28-year-old Arjun Ramegowda Narayan, an MIT graduate whose family migrated to Bangalore 200 years ago to sell flowers outside the Lalbagh Botanical Garden. “Ideas are stored at the back of your mind but they become concrete when you come across people who can give them shape,” says Murthy. More:

Murthy, wife gift Harvard $5.2 mn to publish Indian classics: In The Indian Express

Shootout at the Rocks

Ibn-e-Safi was one of the great Urdu pulp fiction novelists. Detective Imran is his most famous creation and the best-selling Imran series are Urdu cult classics. The Economic Times carries an excerpt from Shootout at the Rocks, translated into English for the first time by Bilal Tanweer.

The clock struck one and Imran got out of bed. He opened the door and came out of the room. Silence reigned everywhere, but not a single light had been turned off in any of the rooms in the bungalow.

He stepped out into the verandah and waited to hear any footsteps or sounds, and then he darted into the room where the colonel’s family was assembled. Except for Sophiya, everyone had a rifle next to themselves. Anwar and Arif looked extremely bored, Sophiya’s eyes were bloodshot due to lack of sleep, and the colonel was sitting on the sofa, still as a statue. He was not even blinking his eyes. Upon seeing Imran, he twitched.

‘What is it? Why have you come here?’ he thundered.

‘Something is bothering me,’ Imran replied.

‘What?’ said the colonel. His demeanour did not soften.

‘If you are troubled by a few unknown men, why don’t you inform the police?’

‘I know that the police cannot do anything.’ more:

William Dalrymple on Jaipur LitFest

From the Observer:

Each December and January my normal life dissolves in the face of a million emails generated by my favourite commitment of the year: helping direct the Jaipur Literature Festival, which kicks off at the end of this week in the capital of Rajasthan. Private Eye recently ran a cartoon showing two survivors of a shipwreck watching their liner sink from a desert island, shaded by a single, drooping palm tree. One says to the other: “Well, I suppose the first thing to do is to start a literary festival.” The cartoonist had a point: literary festivals now seem almost as globally contagious as swine flu.

But it certainly didn’t seem that way in 2004, when I moved my family back to India from London, and first discussed starting a literary festival in Jaipur. Then, as now, India appeared to be at the centre of the global literary hurricane: every year, it seemed another brilliant young Indian wunderkind would storm the bestseller list and run away with the Booker.

Wherever I appeared at literary festivals around the globe, all the usual celebrated Indian writers were there – everywhere, that is, except India. Arriving back in Delhi, I found to my surprise that one tended to meet far more of what the west regards as the A-list Indian writers in English at the literary festival of Hay-on-Wye, in the Welsh countryside, or Edinburgh or even Sydney, than one ever did in Bombay or Delhi. More:

Gay but not quite happy

Jawed Naqvi in Dawn:

AN apocryphal story told by the late Prof A.M. Khusro when he was vice chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University goes thus: in 1603 James VI of Scotland became England’s first Stuart monarch.

Within 10 days of arriving in London, he demanded that Shakespeare’s troupe come under his own patronage. So they were granted a royal patent and changed their names to the King’s Men, in honour of King James.

One day, waiting for The Merchant of Venice to begin, the king asked his senior aide to inquire into the inordinate delay in the show. ‘Sire,’ said the official after a visit to the green room. ‘Portia is being shaved.’ Good-looking boys played female roles in Shakespeare’s England. In India, upper-crust women in Maharashtra would, as recently as the early 20th century, choose their exotic nav-waari saris according to the fashion of the day.

The legendary Bal Gandharva, who depicted many famous female characters from Marathi stage plays, set the standards. Bal Gandharva is still deified as an essential cultural grooming in upper-crust homes. He was of course a handsome man who sang beautifully in the Natya Sangeet format of old Maharashtrian theatre. More:

Professor finds the art in both numbers and letters

Manil Suri, 48, is by day a professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. By night, he is a novelist, creating narratives set in his native India. From The New York Times:

Q. Have there been many mathematician-novelists?

A. Lewis Carroll. He was sort of a mathematician. There are other people who’ve done something similar. Apostolos Doxiadis wrote “Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture,” and he was a mathematician. There’s someone in Argentina who wrote a short novella on Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. So there’s a sprinkling of them. But it’s not like medicine, where there’s a tradition of literary doctors. Mathematics and literature, they seem divergent fields. In mathematics you have a lot of constraints, whereas in literature, you can make your story come out the way you’d like it to.

Q. Are there areas where math and writing converge?

A. Actually, there are a few. If you’re writing and plotting the path of your characters, you have to consider the different directions they might go. “If I move something there, what will happen with this other thing?” Or, “How will the characters interact, if they do this or that?”

In mathematics, in place of characters, you have variables or unknowns. If I’m trying to plot a theorem, I try to imagine these variables interacting with each other. The boundary of their interaction is the theorem.


The land where the hippy trail reaches a historic impasse

Adventurous travellers have found many things in Goa. Innocent escape was never one of them. Ian Jack in The Guardian, UK:

Fiona MacKeown was by no means the first parent of a large family to travel from a rambling home in rural western England, in the middle of a damp winter, and see what Goa had to offer by way of diversion. Evelyn Waugh had six children (a seventh died in infancy); Fiona MacKeown had nine (eight since February 15, when her 15-year-old daughter Scarlett Keeling was found dead on the beach at Anjuna). Waugh travelled from Piers Court, a Georgian mansion in Gloucestershire. MacKeown came from a huddle of caravans near Bideford, Devon, a home summarised as “a mountain of old tyres … empty beer bottles … and rubbish” by Wednesday’s Daily Mail. But the bigger difference is that Waugh left his children behind.

He came to Goa in December 1952. “The scenery [is] delicious … the people soft and friendly,” he wrote to his wife.


Pride and prejudice

From The Guardian, UK:


When, in October 2001, the telephone rang in VS Naipaul’s remote Wiltshire home, it was his wife who picked up, as usual. The writer himself never answers. Horace Engdahl, head of the Swedish Academy, was on the line with some long-awaited information. The Nobel prize committee had awarded its literature prize to ‘Mr Naipaul’. Could he, please, communicate this honour to the great writer? But no, the 98th Nobel literature laureate could not come to the phone. He was busy, writing, and did not wish to be disturbed.

Everyone agrees that VS Naipaul is fully alive to his own importance. A mirror to his work, his life is emblematic of an extraordinary half century, the postwar years. Let it not be said that he does not know this. ‘My story is a kind of cultural history,’ he remarks, in part of an overture to a long conversation. Nevertheless, he will not be reading Patrick French’s forthcoming authorised biography, The World Is What it Is. ‘I asked Patrick to do it, but I haven’t read a word,’ he emphasises, brushing past rumours of discord over the manuscript. ‘I don’t intend to read the book.’


A very civilised jungle

In The Spectator, Matthew d’Ancona describes his time in Mumbai:

A city where the children dash from car to car selling novels is the perfect place for a literary festival: on the way from the airport, snaking past shantytowns and catching my first glimpse of the Arabian Sea, I am offered The Kite Runner by street urchins knocking on the window of my taxi. It is a good location for another reason, which is that, like New York or Rome, Mumbai is a place one visits in literature and film many times before setting foot on the island city itself. In its crush of people, colour, sensuality, surrealism and politics, it is Midnight’s Children or a Bollywood double-bill suddenly made flesh.

I am here to talk about British politics and fiction, doing my best not to confuse the two. A few days before departure, I see the PM at No. 10 and mention my impending trip. True to form, the big clunking bibliomane reels off a list of books I should read before I go. In Mumbai, I unpack my suitcase and look out of the window to the Gateway of India, through which, in 1947, the last British troop left the Empire. A copy of Gordon’s top recommendation, Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi, sits reproachfully on the table, still pristine and unread.


A severe bend in the river

Does the greatly esteemed and cherished Nobel Prize provide the kiss of death for writers, VS Naipaul in particular? Ramachandra Guha, historian and author of India After Gandhi, in The Hindustan Times:

Like some other writers of my generation, I have a deeply ambivalent attitude towards the work of VS Naipaul. I was moved and charmed by his early stories of social life in the Caribbean. I admired the understated style of his non-fiction. I marvelled at his readiness to challenge the pieties of political correctness, as in his book, Among the Believers, a prescient analysis of the pathologies of Islamic fundamentalism. On the other hand, I was irritated by his ill-judged comments on Indian politics (as in his seeming endorsement of Hindu fundamentalism). And I was seriously put off by his vanity and pettiness, as in his disparaging remarks about his contemporaries and the simultaneous suggestion that he was the only living writer worth considering.

In the middle of last year I was asked to review Naipaul’s new book, A Writer’s People. I found it a disappointing and at times even obnoxious book. He could not, it seems, mention another writer without putting him down (thus Philip Larkin was dismissed as a “minor poet”, and Derek Walcott accused of insinuating himself into the good books of the Americans). The subliminal and at times open message of this silly little book was: Once there was Mahatma Gandhi, who transcended the boundaries of caste, religion, and nation to become a Universal Being. After him came VS Naipaul, who did likewise. In between lay a barren desert of under-achievement.


Road less travelled

In The Hindu, K. Srilata meets American travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux.


When I am travelling, I am going with the motive of bringing as much back as possible. For instance, two years ago when I was in Chennai, I did a continuous trip: Uzbekistan to Jodhpur, Jaipur, Delhi, Amritsar, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and then Tiruchi and Colombo. Every day I woke up and wrote my notes intending to find out something about where I am. That is different from what I am doing on this trip. I am doing a lot of talking, very little listening. If I am planning to write a travel book, it is a mission. The travel writing is deliberate. So is the information gathering. I am offering myself as a sacrifice to experience…


Grendel vs Caliban: Or why write for children?

Suniti Namjoshi in The Hindu.


I’ve just finished writing my 13th book for children. But for most of my writing life, I haven’t thought of myself as a children’s writer. And it has finally occurred to me to ask why there’s such a discrepancy between the images of children in my books for adults and my idea of the child in my books for children.