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.”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.”
“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.
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!)