Reading has been on the wane for various reasons in the last 2-3 weeks – have been busy with a lot of things, including working on the type of feature story I’m not too good at: the type that requires scheduling and juggling multiple interviews, collecting a huge number of inputs, making sense of the scribblings in my notepad and creating a structured 3000-word article out of the mess. It can be a royal pain. During this time I’ve read more in bits and pieces than in a sustained, concentrated way. And because I’ve had to do a few snippety (250-300 word) reviews for different publications there’s been a lot of simultaneous-reading too. So here are some brief (by my standards) notes on some of the books encountered/enjoyed/thrown with great force:
Shooting Water: I approached Devyani Saltzman’s account of the personal and professional travails that accompanied the filming of Water, directed by her mother Deepa Mehta, with much raising of eyebrows. The book seemed all too conveniently timed, given that the film is just readying for release in India (having premiered in Canada recently). It was promoted as “a mother-daughter journey” and “a personal account”. Surely there had to be an element of contrivance behind such a project?
But as I sank into the book (fortified with that healthy dose of skepticism) it soon became obvious that this wasn’t something hurriedly put together as a marketing gimmick. Saltzman writes with genuine feeling and candour about her early life: about how, as an 11-year-old, she had to choose between her parents when they got divorced; and about the repercussions of that choice on her relationship with her mother. This is the heart of the story. While Shooting Water does narrate the long and tortuous history of Mehta’s film (including its initial scrapping in 2000 after agitations by the Hindu right-wing, death threats to Mehta and political intervention, and its subsequent revival years later), the moviemaking process is really the catalyst for the development of the relationship between Saltzman and Mehta, and for Saltzman’s growth as a person. It also lays the ground for the author’s discovery of her home country, which she hadn’t visited for many years.
This is an unusual structure: a personal story set against the background of a very public controversy that many of us have become familiar with over the past few years. To a large extent its success owes to Saltzman’s writing, which is poised and lucid. She records events matter-of-factly, doesn’t veer from the focus of the story and doesn’t resort to name-dropping for the sake of it: the likes of Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das (who were to play the film’s protagonists in its first avatar), and later John Abraham, Lisa Ray and Seema Biswas, feature alright, but they stay firmly in the sidelines. I got the feeling that Shooting Water would have been written, and written well, even if it hadn’t involved the making of a high-profile movie. (Whether it would have been published is of course another matter.)
Jaipur Nama: Gilles Tillotson says his latest is “intended less as a work of scholarship, more as an entertainment”. I thought Jaipur Nama was a good mix of both. It fulfils the requirements of a good history: its account of the growth of one of India’s most popular cities from the early 1700s (when it was founded by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II) onwards is well-researched and comprehensive. But it’s also a perceptively witty book that knows how to poke gentle fun at the many quirks of history. Tillotson has spent decades visiting and writing about India, so it would be churlish to refer to him as an outsider - he knows more about many aspects of our history and architecture than most Indians do. But his approach is a pleasingly irreverent one, especially in the descriptions of rituals, political infighting and court intrigues (don’t miss the ludicrous episode of the Pregnancy Committee, formed to confirm an heir to Jaipur’s throne in the early 1800s!). This makes Jaipur Nama more readable than many other treatises in its genre.
At his talk during the Jaipur Heritage Festival earlier this year, which I attended part of, Tillotson bemoaned the fact that myths often come to be accepted as truths. In this book he does what he can to question accepted wisdom (like the belief that Jaipur’s famous pink wash was only introduced in 1876 to celebrate the visit of the Prince of Wales) – even if, as he himself says, it’s futile. “Some things are too deeply entrenched in the popular imagination to ever be removed.” Jaipur Nama is a noteworthy new look at a city about which much has already been written - and entrenched in the imagination.
Ludmila’s Broken English: Couldn’t trudge past the first 40 pages of D B C Pierre’s latest, his follow-up to the Booker-winning Vernon God Little. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t up to concentrating very hard, but the writing was too convoluted for my liking. Story involves conjoined twins who are separated after 33 years being joined at the abdomen, and whose paths will eventually cross with that of a Russian girl trying to save her family from starvation. (Warning: that synopsis makes it sound more accessible than it actually is.) Maybe I’ll get back to it someday and discover it’s the great book I've been searching for all my life. But can’t deal with it right now.
Conversations with John Schlesinger: I can’t say I regretted reading this, but it was a bit of a disappointment– it slipped out of my mind faster than I would have liked. Schlesinger, the British director who made such films as Billy Liar, Darling, Midnight Cowboy, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Marathon Man and The Day of the Locust, is one of those artists it’s difficult to have a very strong opinion about. He had a solid body of work and there are certain things he was undeniably good at (directing actors, for instance, or working with writers to augment an existing script), but he can’t really be regarded as an auteur – as the sort of director who controlled all (or most) aspects of a production, or imposed his own unique vision on a film. But at the same time, you can’t call his movies workmanlike – there’s more to them than that.
This book is a collection of conversations between Schlesinger and his nephew, the writer Ian Buruma, and if you’ve seen any of Schlesinger’s films you’ll undoubtedly find parts of it interesting. Specific points of interest are the director’s recollections of his experience as a gay man in 1940s and 1950s England, and his musings on the differences between American and British acting styles (there is an extended discussion about the famous Dustin Hoffman-Laurence Olivier friction on the sets of Marathon Man).
(To be continued, or not)