Monday, October 01, 2007

On the reading table: Nalini Jameela, Pamuk, Tezuka, others

Given the choice I prefer not to simultaneously read a number of books, but have to do it these days because the things have been piling up at a faster rate than ever: some for review, others that arrived in the mail with no strings attached (but which are too enticing for me to toss onto The Ten-Foot-Tall Pile at the foot of the bed), and even a few that I’ve actually picked up from bookstores. Quick list of the ones I’ve got started on:

The Autobiography of a Sex Worker – Nalini Jameela
English translation of Jameela’s controversial Njan, Laingikatozhilaali, first published in Malayalam in 2005. The most notable thing about this book is the matter-of-factness of its tone - Jameela’s casual acceptance of sex as a service she provides to meet “men’s needs” has the effect of deglamorizing sex, turning it into something banal and quotidian (which means this is as far from erotic writing as it’s possible to get). The accent in “sex work” is firmly on “work”; prostitution is treated as a branch of domestic labour. (When the author is first advised to take it up to help support her children, she thinks of it as an agreement where moneyed men “use the woman, the same way the husband does” – tellingly, her first thoughts are that her deceased husband could never have spent so much money on her and that another man she knew earlier “used to give only paddy, two measures of grain, a few coconuts. I was struck with wonder when I tried to imagine a man who could give money”.)

Lots of moral ambiguity here, many glimpses of what lies beneath the seemingly respectable face of society. (Some good points made in this post by Manjula Padmanabhan – an author who herself has frequently plumbed the darkness that underlies many of our polite social facades.) Reading this book and its account of lives that follow very different codes from those we are accustomed to, one is repeatedly reminded that conventional morality (the sort that would regard sexual promiscuity as evidence of “bad character”) is usually a conceit that only privileged people can indulge in.

Other Colours: Essays and a Story – Orhan Pamuk
The Nobel Prize winner on “Living and Worrying”, “Books and Reading” and “Politics, Europe and Other Problems of Being Oneself”. Also, a short story and an interview by the Paris Review. So far I’ve read a few of the essays. From the first one, titled “The Implied Author”:
A writer who is as dependent on literature as I am can never be so superficial as to find happiness in the beauty of the books he has already written, nor can he congratulate himself on their number or what these books achieved. Literature does not allow such a writer to pretend to save the world; rather, it gives him a chance to save the day. And all days are difficult. Days are especially difficult when you don’t do any writing...Let me explain what I feel on a day when I’ve not written well, am unable to lose myself in a book. The world changes before my eyes; it becomes unbearable, abominable. Those who know me can see it happening, for I myself come to resemble the world I see around me.
Divisadero – Michael Ondaatje
Am rereading Ondaatje's The English Patient before taking this on. Found his prose a little difficult to get into when I read it the first time, but am still interested enough to give this an honest try.

Ode to Kirihito – Osamu Tezuka
Have heard a lot from graphic-novel buffs about this 800-page book by “the Godfather of Manga” (whose Buddha I wrote about in this post), so picked it up without a second thought when I saw it at the Gurgaon Landmark. Medical thriller about a disease that transforms people into dog-like creatures, and a young doctor’s investigations.

And well, there's the Dev Anand book, which I’m still reading with eye-popping glee. Many more quotable passages have been discovered, but I’ll spare you those for now. One observation though: the book should have carried a statutory warning for passive smokers. It’s full of descriptions of someone either holding a cigarette in a stylish manner or puffing smoke into someone else’s face or doing other cigarettey things. In a single page, about the young Dev’s first meeting with his idol Ashok Kumar, we have the following:
“He looked very authoritative, with his trademark cigarette in his hand.”

“He exhaled smoke in a fashion typically his, and laughed...”

“He put the cigarette again to his lips, puffed out smoke and smilingly said...”

Ashok Kumar, amused, stubbed out the cigarette in the ashtray. He took another cigarette out of the pack...

“Don’t embarrass me, Dadamoni. You just make a good actor out of me,” I said in all humility. Ashok Kumar puffed out smoke, very happy with me.
And a while later: “Guru Dutt let out the smoke in short measured puffs with a broad smile straight on my face. I inhaled it, for it smelt of a coming success.”

Given that Anand appears to have spent most of his early life inhaling second-hand nicotine, it's surprising that he's still around and writing books at age 84. There must be a twisted lesson in this somewhere.

P.S. Vintage Books has a thoughtfully produced series called Classic Twins, where an established literary classic is paired with a more modern work, based on a similarity of theme or ideas. Examples: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry; Dante’s Inferno and Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theatre; Fielding’s Tom Jones and Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers. Superb concept. I’ve bought two of the pairings – Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels/Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment/Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game.
(One of those instances of delicious serendipity: just a few days after buying the Dostoevsky/Highsmith, I saw an interview with Sriram Raghavan where he mentions that the protagonist of Johnny Gaddaar is inspired by Raskolnikov and Tom Ripley!)


  1. Hi,
    if you like Tezuka's buddha - do check out his Appolo's song. One thick volume. And a great graphic novel/manga.....

  2. headcase headbanger3:41 PM, October 01, 2007

    Jai, sorry to be off-topic, but has the Saket Landmark opened yet? I live in Noida...while Bookword in CP and Fact & Fiction in Priya are lovely bookstories, one can't really sit for hours with books. You can of course do that in Oxford bookstore in CP, but its selection really sucks!
    So, do you know when Landmark will open in Saket??

  3. Harini: thanks. That's available in bookstores here too. Will pick it up once I'm done with Kirihito.

    headcase headbanger: I've been wondering when it will open too - was told it's going to be twice as big as the Gurgaon branch! Since Hurree Babu now works for Landmark's publishing division, I'll check with him.

  4. this pairing the old and new together sounds like a very nice idea. Only thing is that Swift and Houellebecq one after the other will be too much perhaps, even for seasoned misanthropes.

  5. I love the Classic Twins idea - is there a complete list of pairings anywhere?

  6. Love the Classic Twins....and they are so much cheaper than other books (even as a pair!). Excellent investment.

    Oh and everyone is blogging about Pamuk. That makes me happy.

  7. Another Tezuka fan reporting. Add 'The Phoenix', 'Crime and Punishment' and 'Ludwig B' to your list.

    much joy!

  8. Aishwarya: Here. Most of the Twins are available at the Full Circle in Khan Market.

    Szerelem: Yes, Oliver Twist and Trainspotting are especially notable as a pairing choice. I'm not sure that it works out much cheaper though, at Rs 395. Consider that classics like Middlemarch, Oliver Twist etc can be found at most bookstores in the Rs 100-150 range.

    Blackmamba: thanks. Another "Crime and Punishment"? Good grief.

  9. Lovely idea, this twin thing. I will buy the Grimm and Carter combo if it ever comes here.

    I also loved the website design. Very smooth and good-looking.

  10. Is the book by Pamuk out in India yet?

  11. Aditya: I know. The books covers are elegant too, they look good when placed together - though I wish they had that lovely matte-like effect that some of my favourite Vintage publications do.

    Anirudh: Yes it's out, though the edition I've put up a cover pic of on this post is quite expensive. The one I have is the Faber and Faber softcopy, priced at Rs 495.

  12. am rather glad I read this post just before visiting landmark. I got my self a Henry James - Ian McEwan twin.

    Many thanks! Vintage ought to give you a cut for such publicity :)

  13. I dont get it. How can one read multiple books at one time?

    I have followed your blog for a while and am considerably impressed with your erudition and breadth of writing.

    But still it looks offlate as if you are writing about books for the sake of blogging then as a means of personal catharsis...

  14. Shyam: as I mentioned in the first line of the post, I don't think of this as the ideal situation myself - but there are times when there's no option, especially when one reads for a living (and when one has been as pressed for reading time as I have in the past 2-3 months). Admittedly, this isn't the sort of post that I feel too satisfied about personally (that is, writing sketchily about 4-5 books rather than about one in-depth), but I have done more detailed book-posts as well, in the recent past. Still, I'd appreciate if you could elaborate on the "off late you are writing about books for the sake of blogging" bit - do you get that impression from some of the earlier posts? And if so, which ones?

    P.S. "for the sake of blogging" and "personal catharsis" aren't the only two reasons to write about books. Sometimes it can simply be to put down some rough notes/thoughts that I can refer to later while writing a full review, or to tip blog-readers off about something (like the Nalini Jameela or the Vintage Twins) that I don't have time to write about in detail.

  15. Your recent post on 'Burma story' kinda of made me feel this way. I read a bit myself and i find it a trifle amusing when friends say that they are reading multiple books at the same time. So i guess it cumulatively added up when i saw my favorite blogger go this way albeit inadvertently.

    But let me state at the outset that along with Baradwaj's i check your blog quite often. I have read almost all your posts till now and some of them have truly enriched my perspective.


  16. ...has the effect of deglamorizing sex, turning it into something banal and quotidian

    Ooh Jai, just when I was congratulating myself on having found a witty and nuanced and imaginative reviewer (in other words, you), you go and blow it with the use of the word quotidian :-) Some time ago I, in an moment fuelled by idle rage, conducted a thoroughly unscientific and random search of the review pages of various Brit and Yankee newspapers. I found that this word, along with 'coruscating', 'searing', 'visceral' was used an unconscionable number of times. Buzz-words in the reviewer's war-chest? ;-)

  17. ...just when I was congratulating myself on having found a witty and nuanced and imaginative reviewer...

    Feanor: you flatter me! The buzzwords I often use ("remarkable" and "unsettling" among them) are much more banal and quotidian than "coruscating" and "searing". (I do use "visceral" a lot though.)

    Btw, you've used "idle rage", "random search" and "unconscionable" in your comment. Buzz-words in the commenter's war-chest?

    Shyam: cool. The Burma story observation is a good one - that's a book I wouldn't have voluntarily reviewed (said yes to it because I'd been saying no a lot to the publication in question and didn't want to carry the prima-donna thing too far), and it probably shows.