Saturday, December 29, 2007

Year-end comments list 2007

(Or, an annual ritual where I save myself the trouble of writing a post by putting up a selection of comments from the year gone by. Previous editions here and here)

This year, I received lots of comments about my bad attitude towards things that many people hold sacred (including sacredness itself). Among them:

Festivals and children

Anonymous said…
hi jai " the grinch who stole diwali", let kids be kids ..this is what they do .. dont u remember lighting crackers? ...well i hope u also light some crackers and enjoy ..i am noticing that u have something against all hindu festivals and epics,so u keep making fun of them.its getting boring.

Just children

Anonymous said...
lets wait and see J.Wock when u have a kid .. i have a kid baby boy Dhruv and he is my life and more

(Question for the day: if “J.Wock” has a kid, will it be named “Baby Wock” or “Wee Wock”?)

Anonymous said...
hey a child is a blessing and BTW when u r old and grey its my child's taxes that will pay u'r pension and other govt freebies ..

Anonymous said...
carry on DD and J, in a world full of suicide bombers, religious fanatics and moral absolutism, the two of you are right up there with Mr. George W. Bush. Hey, if you're not with you, we're aganist you, right?

(All because I said I didn't like kids)

And the winning entry from this section:

Anonymous said...
dont worry abt my sex life .. my son is proof that its rocking ..

(Does this means you have "rocking" sex with your son? Or that you have sex after rocking him to sleep?)

Mythology (general theme: "Hinduism is the most tolerant religion, so how dare you make fun of it!")

Anonymous said...
why do some people find so much joy in denigrating the gods... the tale is not meant to be taken literally but rather figuratively

(the tale in question being the one where all the Gods do battle outside Parvati’s bathroom and Ganesha loses his head and gets a new one from a white elephant. Yes yes, I can see there’s lots of figurative significance there)

Anonymous said…
hi jai, i dont appreciate your pithy comments about the ramayana/ the mahabharata/ hinduism in general ... for u it is a story/work of literature whatever for us (i am referring to the majority of hindus/indians) it is a divine is sad to see some poeple in india turning away from our heritage while most indians in the west r turning to religion ..

Anonymous said…
hi, jai why do u brand all people who dont eat beef as RSS? i dont understand the logic of analysing the is not a historical document rather a treatise that teaches u how to live life ....

(How to live: eat vegetables, kill your cousins)


PSV said…
Poor post. In bad taste.
The idea about going to a wedding is to interact and mingle with people. If that is something too much for some people then itz better for them to eat the tandoori chicken they so much desire at home itself.

(Where’s the argument? Would I complain if the groom’s parents sent me a tub of tandoori chicken instead of a wedding invite?)

BV said…
btw the reason we dont serve meat on wedding day is because its a religious day .. well with u'r poor attitude and complaining hope no one invites u to any more weddings.

To prove to the above commenters that I had nothing against marriage generally, I went and got married around mid-year (though I didn’t inconvenience people by sending them invitation cards). Many posts about the perils of domesticity followed, some of which got thoughtful comments too.

Twilight fairy said...
Only crows come and dive in your water tanks? Lucky you! out here monkeys are a BIG menace….they gleefully take a dip in the holy tank leaving us practically without water for the next two days…

Anoop Saha said...
Congratulations for your marriage. Wish you a very happy wedded life. Having got married recently, I can totally empathize with your predicament.

(Talk about being ambivalent)

Lalbadshah said...
A 'rinch' is that thing with a small wheel to adjust the width of the hold. Something like a monster vernier caliper.

Amit Varma said...
I'm a huge fan of monster vernier calipers. Especially when they're hungry.

Harish Kumar said...
So...did you get lot of clocks as gifts in your reception? We got so many that we have one in the bathroom as well.

Loony said...
Let me know if you ever want to holiday in a place where they have built separate toilets for man and woman- but same room.
send me a note.

N! said...
the separate toilets bit: hmmm I don't know. What about cleaning them? I didn't get married to clean my own toilet!

(But then, who does? Of all the possible reasons to get married, “to clean my own toilet” must rank pretty low)

Scribbler said...
Oh... gee. you're getting married? man... serious? good luck with that. wish i knew you better to advise you otherwise. anyway. love the blog. keep writing (yea!)

ZZZZ said...
Everybody should get married, because Happiness is not everything in life.

Other categories:

The Agni Pariksha

Anonymous said…
Dear Jai,
I've been a long time reader of your blog. But let me tell you- your humourous pieces are pretty sad.
and the test of it comes if you can face up to this fact.

Torn between admiration for the blogger and concern about the rudeness of his posts

Priya said…
Brilliant post. But Ramayana is an epic and henceforth we may leave it as it is without questioning.

Stories Untold said…
Too good! Had a hearty laugh going thru this. Not sure whether I want to get into value judgement on the use/ misuse / overuse / abuse of such social networking sites ... I guess each one to their own agendas ... we can just let ppl be!

Neha said...
I enjoy your reading what you write enough to not hold a grudge against your tasteful and distasteful jokes.

Best achievement in a foreign language

Anonymous said…
Salut, ca va?
Il fallait absolument que je te fasse partager un plan pour gagner de l'argent, c'est génial, et super simple! Tu peux gagner plus de 2775 € par mois et tout ca grâce à 1€ seulement!
Ca te coûte rien d'essayer l'inscription est gratuite ;o)

Watching and reviewing movies

Anonymous said...
Clearly you pay more attention to the audience sitting next to you than to the film.

The New Me said...
when I read a piece about Katharine Hepburn and it contains factual errors I bristle. her life was an open book. She lead it courageously and honestly. So when someone makes an elementary research mistake like mentioning Parkinson's Disease which she did not have I find the rest of what they have to say a nit less than interesting. The following is a quote from her autobiography.

"Now to squash a rumor. No, I don't have Parkinson's. I inherited my shaking head from my grandfather Hepburn. I discovered that whisky helps stop the shaking. Problem is, if you're not careful, it stops the rest of you too. My head just shakes, but I promise you, it ain't gonna fall off!"

That took me about 30 seconds to find on the internet.

(The things you can find in 30 seconds on the Internet!)

Anonymous said...
NO SMOKING what a rubbish film ..waste of dollars $$$... anurag kashyap is going the RGV way totally irrelevant with the film audiences
only pseudo intellectuals will like his movies

Anonymous said...
Jai! You're big SRK fan? Thankfully, I join your gang. But I am really surprised not to see any hatemails here accusing you of being a gay. I don't know how many times I have been called a gay/bi for expressing my admiration for SRK's acting (at the Rediff message boards). There at Rediff, you can be straight only when you support all the misdeeds (farmer, tax etc.) of Amitabh. You are gay otherwise!!

(Dude, I feel your pain. But that's what you get for spending time on Rediff message boards)

New taglines for this blog

Chaila Bihari said...
Intelligent words about intelligent cinema. Shows why I keep coming back to Jabberwock

Renegade Eye said...
This blog has something for everyone; sports, books, film. politicc etc.

The tangential

Wimpy said...
totally unrelated comment but why was your face the chess puzzle of this weekend's business standard?

The envious

Anonymous said...
Wow you got so little to do

Anonymous said...
what fucking mediocrity!
with this kind of writing I'm amazed that you can afford a coffee at barista!

Book reviews, author interviews

Anonymous said...
Hey, shouldn't you be heading to a bookstore AT ONCE to post a hundred words on the Booker winner ASAP??? I thought that's what you bloggers do constantly -- rush to add your uninteresting two bits to that mass of language before other bloggers do. Don't worry about being anything but qualified to comment on the book (looking through your blog, I see it hasn't stopped you in the past). Go, at least 12 people desperately await your comments on Enright's novel. Rush. Chop Chop
PS: OOOOOOOOh, 'vagaries' -- a big word for someone from Delhi!!!

KishyCool said...
I really feel bad when bloggers like you misuse the blogs like this. I don't know why u need to write such a long interview of a fanatic, that too a Pakistani. More over, the interview is meaningless and very boring. God save the country from blogs. I really believe that blogspot should be blogged for ever.

And finally

Neha said...
Your comments sections often make me wonder if it were possible to fall in love with a commentor.
I guess, people have fallen in love during internet chats, and perhaps also by reading each others blogs. But if people were to fall in love by reading comments, I am quite sure it would be on your blog.

RAmen to that. As you can see, comment-love is all around me.

On a more sombre note, 2007 was quite a bad year (apart from the bright spark provided by these comments), but that mustn’t keep us from hoping 2008 will be better. So, to all readers of this blog: may the coming year be less terrible for you than the last was.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Baghdad Burning – the play

Annie Zaidi has a very nice review of Baghdad Burning, the National School of Drama play by the theatre group Aaranjan, based on Riverbend’s famous blog. I saw the play at the NSD a few days ago and was thinking of writing about it, but Annie has covered most bases. Like her, I enjoyed its episodic structure – the way it told many different stories quite economically. Also, the neatness of the set design and the simple but chilling touches: in one scene, as two characters discuss the piling up of Iraqi bodies after an American shelling (and the consequent difficulty in identifying relatives or friends), four performers clad in ghostly white glide across the back of the stage and position themselves one on top of the other – eventually making their exits one by one as the bodies remain unidentified.

A couple of the vignettes were extremely well done, notably the one at a bomb-devastated shelter that has turned into a tourist attraction (Nutan Surya is excellent here as an unbalanced old woman who lost all her children in the bombing and now shows visitors the “artistic designs” made by their bodies). And the scenes that had two different sets of characters occupying opposite ends of the stage (such as the one where a group of Iraqis watch with a mix of amusement and revulsion as the Americans install puppet governments and leaders) managed not to be jarring despite the overlapping dialogues. I agree that the “liberation” dance sequence was overlong, but the garishness was probably intentional. While I don’t care for kneejerk or simplistic anti-Americanism myself, the subject matter and perspective of this play would make it difficult to show American soldiers and politicians as anything other than crass, culture-insensitive bullies muscling their way into other people's lives. Besides, the play comes down equally hard on the local fundamentalists who deny women their freedom and identity, covering them up in shrouds, effectively turning them into living corpses. (On paper, some of these scenes would have been too didactic and in-your-face political for my taste, but the execution was very gripping. The atmospheric music and lighting helped.)

Incidentally Baghdad Burning was directed by Kirti Jain (a former director of the NSD), who writes a theatre column for the Business Standard Weekend; in her latest, she discusses the process of bringing the blog to the stage. (Usual warning: the BS website is problematic, so there’s a good chance this link won’t work in a few days.)

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

From the review bank: Exit Ghost

[Am putting up some recent reviews I’ve done, starting with this one, which appeared in print preceded by the unfortunate headline “Not consistently satisfying”. Apart from this not being the best summary of what I thought of Philip Roth’s latest, it’s also the sort of header which pretty much guarantees that no one apart from the reviewer’s mother will read the piece. And so to the blog, with the much more exciting headline "From the review bank"]

No one in contemporary American literature rages as magnificently, and as prolifically, as Philip Roth does. Over a long career, Roth has shone the master novelist’s light on, among many other things, adolescent sexuality; various aspects of the Jewish-American experience in the second half of the 20th century; the repercussions of the anti-Communist witch-hunt of the 1950s; American loss of innocence in Vietnam; how different the world could be if a single moment in history had turned out otherwise; and an author’s relationship with what he creates. In doing this, he has given us an line of unforgettable characters, examining them in meticulous detail (and in powerful, passionate prose) and yet retaining the detachment to observe that “life isn’t about getting people right, it’s about getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again”. He has engaged full-bloodedly with life; equally, he has stood back and played distanced observer.

The instrument for much of this raging and observing has been Nathan Zuckerman, who has narrated some of Roth’s finest books, including the masterful trilogy he wrote when he was well into his 60s: American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain. The line between author and creation is not always clear – like Roth himself, Zuckerman is a Jewish writer of serious literary fiction, born in 1933, and his existence has often supplied the pretext for Roth’s examination of the connections between writing and life.

These connections are central to the plot of Roth’s latest novel, the eloquently titled Exit Ghost, which is widely assumed to be Zuckerman’s swansong. The book is set in late 2004, around the time of the presidential election that sees George W Bush elected to power for a second term, sending liberals around the country into a spiral of despair. Zuckerman, who has been living in near-solitude in a mountain retreat for a decade, is in New York City for a medical procedure when a series of encounters deter him from returning to his self-imposed exile. After impulsively agreeing to swap homes with a young couple, Billy and Jamie, who are looking for a country retreat, he becomes smitten by the vibrant, intelligent Jamie. Around this time, he is contacted by a brash young wannabe-biographer claiming to know the "great secret" of the life of the late E I Lonoff, who was Zuckerman’s first literary hero (and a character in Roth’s 1979 novel The Ghost Writer) decades earlier. Fiercely resistant to what he sees as the exploitation of a dead writer’s personal life to provide a key to his work, Zuckerman finds himself “back in the drama, back in the turmoil, back into the turmoil of events...wanting to be with people again and have a fight again and have a woman again and feeling the pleasure of one’s power again”.

But is he up for the fight? Roth’s last book, the slim Everyman, dealt with awareness of approaching mortality and coming to terms with the disintegration of one’s body. Zuckerman’s physical condition in Exit Ghost furthers the theme. Having had his prostate removed, he is now suffering from incontinence and its attendant humiliations (“You smell like death!” shouts the young biographer in the heat of an argument. What could he know, Zuckerman reflects: “All I smelled of was urine”), in addition to being impotent. The terrors of old age have beset a man who was once so full of vitality.
As if incontinence weren’t indignity enough, one had then to be addressed like a churlish eight-year-old baulking at taking his cod liver oil. But that’s how it goes when an elderly patient refuses to resign himself to the inevitable travails and totter politely towards the grave: doctors and nurses have a child on their hands who must be soothed into soldiering on in behalf of his own lost cause.
Worst of all for a writer, he is losing his memory, so that he might wake up one morning with little recollection of the thought processes that led him to write something the previous night. All this adds urgency to this last stab at “being in the world...taking it on” and his quest to (as he sees it) prevent the desecration of Lonoff’s memory. It also makes his meeting with Lonoff’s former mistress Amy Bellette, a once-beautiful woman now ravaged by brain cancer, even more poignant, especially for the reader who recalls Nathan and Amy as they were – youthful, opinionated, looking ahead to a bright future – 50 years earlier, during the events related in The Ghost Writer.

If Exit Ghost isn’t a consistently engaging work, that’s partly because of the demands of its meta-fictional narrative. Roth demonstrates his protagonist’s waning powers through a series of embarrassingly trite exchanges that Zuckerman imagines between himself and Jamie, and while one gets the point, the fact remains that these passages take up considerable space in the Philip Roth novel that we are now reading. (They also raise a tricky question: who has authored the other sections of Exit Ghost, where the quality of the writing rivals that in the best Zuckerman-narrated books? Is the still-vital Roth ghost-writing these passages for a Zuckerman who is no longer equal to the task?)

But even a lesser Roth can be more provocative than the work of most other writers, and there’s much here to savour, starting with Zuckerman's terse and chilling reply to the question "What is it like to be seventy?" and the early passage where he reflects on the changes in New York City over the 11 years he’s been away – notably how everyone walking on the streets seems to be talking into a cell phone.
What had happened in these ten years for there suddenly to be so much to say – so much so pressing that it couldn’t wait to be said? ... That the immense loneliness of human beings should produce this boundless longing to be heard, and the accompanying disregard for being overheard – well, having lived largely in the era of the telephone booth, whose doors could be tightly pulled shut, I was impressed by the conspicuousness of it all...
Conceptually speaking, there’s nothing so remarkable about these thoughts – many of us have them at some time or the other, and a much lesser writer than Roth could handle them nearly as well – but what I liked was the sense they provide of how distanced Zuckerman has become from the world. This becomes even more pronounced in his observations about how scantily women dress these days, and it’s unsettling, because we don’t expect a writer like Nathan Zuckerman – a careful, empathetic chronicler of human strengths and weaknesses – to display such conservatism, to be so judgemental about and resistant to inevitable changes (even if they are changes we don't see as desirable, like people constantly talking on cellphones on the street). It’s another pointer to his deterioration, physical and mental, and it adds to this book’s epitaph-like quality.

I also enjoyed the essay-within-the-book, which denounces the laziness of “cultural journalism”(“tabloid gossip disguised as an interest in the arts”), and especially the final encounter between Zuckerman and his young nemesis Kliman, where we realise that Zuckerman’s objections stem at least partly from his recognition that Kliman isn’t so different from what he himself was as a young man (“a literary lunatic. Another one. Like me, like Lonoff, like all whose most violent passion is for a book”). We see here a feeble, confused old writer near the end of his days, reduced to questioning everything he thought he knew about literature and life. In that final argument, the case Kliman makes is at least as persuasive as anything Zuckerman can say.

Needless to say, much of this is bleak material, but Exit Ghost is a reminder that a book written by a great wordsmith can be uplifting even if the subject matter is unrelentingly dark. On this evidence, there are more good things to come. Nathan Zuckerman might be done and dusted, but Philip Roth, now 74 and still powering along, still has a few more ghosts to show to the door.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Anjum Hasan, Shillong and Lunatic in my Head

[A version of a piece I did for the Sunday Business Standard]
Shillong did that to people...preserved them in its Shillong-flavoured timelessness – the same rumours, the same jokes, the same gossip, the same petty jealousies. The scale of the town corresponded to the scale of people’s imaginations.
Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic in My Head begins on a typically overcast Shillong afternoon with a middle-aged schoolteacher named Firdaus Ansari walking along a wet street. Pine trees seem to drip slow tears, film posters turn to mush; a little later in this opening chapter, a precocious eight-year-old, Sophie Das, “stares past her own weeping reflection” in a window pane.

Such imagery recurs through this book, which is a portrait of life in a northeastern city as seen through three characters of different ages, all moulded in different ways by their setting. Teaching Hemingway in her class, Firdaus thinks of The Old Man and the Sea as a static work (“she failed to see any correspondence between the fussiness of the narrative and Santiago’s humdrum goal. It bothered her – how Hemingway’s language, instead of powering significant events, moving the wheel of the story forward, kept the story in the same place”), but this in a sense applies to her own life too: a dream of moving to Delhi died with her parents years earlier, and now she’s saddled with a thesis that seems fated never to get off the ground and a relationship that’s going nowhere.

Meanwhile Aman Moondy, a young dreamer obsessed with the early Pink Floyd (and convinced he has a psychic connection with Roger Waters), is studying for the Civil Services exam for a second time and waiting, with his small group of friends, “for something or someone to show them the way” – the way out of Shillong, that is. And little Sophie, though too young to make such concrete plans, chooses the world of the imagination (“she felt it was incumbent on her to lie, that the truth was often so shabby and unconvincing that she needed to embellish it merely to have something interesting to say”) over mundane reality. She is an adopted child, she decides one day, though there’s a problem with this idea: it means her new baby sister isn’t really related to her.

The stories of Firdaus, Aman and Sophie coalesce to form a dreamy, introspective book that probably won’t be to all tastes. I enjoyed Lunatic in my Head. Though it’s slow-moving at first, it acquires rhythm – and a lyrical intensity – as it proceeds, alternating not just between its protagonists but from one mood to the next (the section titles include “Courage”, “Sadness”, “Anger”, and so on), and leading up to a minor crescendo as the three paths very briefly converge. Though there are a couple of uninvolving subplots featuring peripheral characters, Firdaus, Aman, and Sophie in particular, are vividly realised people, and on the whole this is a very confident debut. It’s no surprise to learn that Hasan – who grew up in Shillong and now lives in Bangalore – has been writing for longer than most first-time novelists, with poems and essays published in several journals and anthologies. I did an email interview with her a few days ago.

The lives of the characters in Lunatic in My Head seem weighed down by the incessant rain and the mist. Do the elements play an integral part in shaping the characters of people in the region? I'm speaking partly of the dreamy indolence one sometimes associates with youngsters – which you bring out in the scenes with Aman and his friends.

Absolutely. In Shillong it’s almost always either rainy or wintery. The beauty of the landscape is somehow impenetrable. The rest of the country is far away. Things move slowly. Grand ambitions inevitably seem comic. People can be hugely lazy. I can’t remember what I did with my youth except wait for something to happen, write bad poetry and laugh. There was a lot that seemed funny, and I think now it may have been something to do with all these people from all over the country squashed together in a small place. They didn’t fit and they hadn’t noticed – like the English professor, Thakur, in my novel. Laughter was also a way to deal with one’s own awkwardness, the inescapable fact of one’s own alienness.

Your protagonists can be thought of as stages in a Shillong resident's life. Did you consciously identify with any of them?

Yes, they could be three perspectives on the same situation. It’s important that they remain largely ignorant of each other because their loneliness is crucial to their characters. I couldn’t really have identified with any of them when I was growing up because they suggested themselves to me only when I began thinking about what kind of novel I wanted to write. And I consciously did not want any of them to directly be “me” because I’m not that interesting to myself and I would have quickly become bored writing autobiography as fiction.

In an essay, you wrote: "You could live in Shillong for 25 years – loving its small-towns charms, chaffing constantly about not knowing your place in it – and spend the rest of your life fighting nostalgia." Can you elaborate? How different is it living in Bangalore?

I lived in Shillong till I was 26. It’s the place against which I judge every other place and every other place feels shockingly different! There is a scene in my novel when Firdaus is talking a walk on a lovely June morning and she finds herself longing for Shillong. She realises that she longs for Shillong even while she lives there and has lived there all her life. But of course writing about nostalgia is different from being nostalgic. Writing is a critical act. You’re in sympathy with and yet objective about many different points of view. That said, I’m fascinated by remembering as a form of unfulfilable desire.

We’re all supposed to be unsentimental and metropolitan nowadays – it’s provincial to be provincial. Yet to me R K Narayan, say, remains a great novelist because he embraces the local. I’m fascinated by the love of the local. Bangalore is very local too, in parts. But it’s easier to be anonymous here. I live in a very middle-class, very Kannadiga colony and my neighbours are a little curious, but I’m still not as self-conscious as I would be in Shillong.

To most people living in other parts of India, the north-east is an enigmatic place – out of the Indian mainstream in many ways. Has the region been under-represented in literature?

The northeast produces a huge number of writers. Assam has a literary tradition at least seven hundred years old connected with the Vaishnavite revival of the fifteenth century, which is comparable to the development of Bhakti literatures elsewhere in the country. In the late 19th century, the multilingual Khasi intellectual, Jeebon Roy, was translating the Ramayana into Khasi. So, culturally, there have always been connections with the “mainstream”. Today it’s through Bollywood and cable TV, which is a more one-sided and sterile kind of encounter, but influential nevertheless.

When I was growing up everyone seemed to be writing poetry and some of it was very good. About writing in the English language, put out by metropolitan publishers, and on the radar of the national media: that is growing too. Siddhartha Deb has internationally published two novels set in the northeast. Penguin has in the last couple of years published Mitra Phukan, Dhruba Hazarika, Mamang Dai, Temsula Ao. My own sister, Daisy Hasan, will shortly publish a novel set in Shillong.

You touch on the tensions between the tribals and the Dkhar (the Khasi word for non-tribals). What repercussions do these conflicts have for the future of the region?

It’s similar to communal conflict – news about which only underlines the fact that for the most part and for most of the time we are grudgingly tolerant of each other. In Shillong, though, there has been a huge flight of non-tribals out of the city because of the conflicts and the lack of opportunities. But it is still quite a mixed-population town. I think in India we find it hard to grasp the idea of cosmopolitanism and the fact that cities are by definition multicultural. Shillong was established as a modern town by the British in the mid-nineteenth century and people from all over the country started to flock to it from the very beginning. It has always been multicultural but it’s only recently that people have started to acknowledge the idea that someone not ethnically from Shillong can “belong” there. I think the self-image of Shillong is changing in a way that might reduce tension. It’s started to see itself from the outside, with a tourist’s eye.

I liked the bookending references to The Old Man and the Sea, especially the last sentence, where the girl stands up and “tells her indifferent classmates the story of the old man and the sea” – a story that Firdaus thinks of as staying in the same place. Was this meant to parallel the lives of your characters? Or am I going overboard with interpretation?

Well, perhaps it suggests the remoteness of literature as an institution. We’re used to thinking of fiction as something that plays a mirroring role, but what if someone is oppressed by the opposite effect that books can have, which is to alienate. Firdaus is alienated by Hemingway and Jane Austen and so on. I thought that was an interesting position for a teacher of English literature to be in. She finds her own immediate context stifling, and she finds the faraway books she teaches irrelevant. She has a hard life. So that small revenge on Hemingway [Firdaus concludes that “the old man was dotty. He was not meant to be taken seriously at all”] is apt, I think.

You've been writing poems for a long time now. How difficult was it to make the leap to a lengthy work of prose?

I think there’s a greater continuity between poetry and prose than is usually imagined. They are only forms after all – receptacles. Some people approach poetry as if they were encountering another life form, but if they came nearer they’d see that a poem doesn’t really bite.

If we take poetry to mean an appreciation of structure then poetry is always implicit in the novel. Like Orhan Pamuk says in Istanbul: “What is important for a painter is not a thing’s reality but its shape, and what is important for a novelist is not the course of events but their ordering, and what is important for a memoirist is not the factual accuracy of the account but its symmetry.”

Do you see yourself writing more novels soon, or would you rather stick to poetry?

I’m working on a novel about a grown-up Sophie Das in Bangalore. And writing a few lines of poetry on good days.

[Anjum Hasan illustration by Binay Sinha. And an earlier post on Siddhartha Deb's Surface here]

Friday, December 21, 2007

Quick rant about jaywalkers

Such are the many transgressions of vehicle-drivers on Delhi roads that we sometimes lose sight of the rule-flouting done by pedestrians. These are the people who are most at risk and you’d think they would know this - but no, they walk out into heavy traffic, arms extended, confident that passing drivers will do whatever needs to be done to extend their lives, and forgetting that when you're driving in Delhi, the killer instinct is much more potent than the saviour instinct. So it was good to see recent newspaper coverage about jaywalkers being randomly hauled up and fined for not heeding traffic signals. (Never mind that it was a one-day initiative, like most other public-safety measures, and that we will never hear about it again.)

This strikes a chord because one evening a few weeks ago I was driving from South Extension towards the Ashram flyover at a speed not exceeding 55 km/hr when a young boy sprang out from behind a bush on the divider, two metres in front of my car. That this boy still has all his limbs intact (and is no doubt using them to jaywalk about the city even as you read this) can be attributed to the following:

a) I slammed the brake as hard as I could (in the process jeopardizing my own safety since it was a busy road and there might have been another car racing along just behind me; thankfully there wasn’t),

b) The panic-stricken youngster slipped and skidded about in such a way (the movements are too convoluted to describe, just think of a drunken tap dancer on fast-forward) that most of his lower body (still attached to the upper half) ended up on the right side of the car rather than the front – thus saving his kneecaps from being mashed into fine powder,

c) Since most of his upper body was flailing about atop the bonnet, he might easily have fractured an arm at least, but he had some textbooks in his hand, which he reflexively thrust at the windshield in a much-too-literal rendition of the “Knowledge is Power” theme. The impact left the laminated glass on my side of the windshield bent inwards in a stylish concave design (it looked so cool
, like someone had fired a bullet at the car from a distance, that I briefly considered not getting it replaced; with winter smog around the corner, visibility wasn’t going to be a factor anyway).

The whole thing makes for a good dinner-table story now (especially when I exaggerate it to include the passing UFO that sucks the boy up after the incident and carries him away for a research project on Single Brain-Celled Humans), but that doesn’t detract from how badly it could have turned out. With just a little less luck, or one extra misstep, this kid would be dead (his family no doubt wailing to the newspapers the next day that he was an upstanding citizen who could never think of doing anything remotely irresponsible) and I would be asking the prison authorities for Wi-fi so I could write this post from my cell. It’s a scary thought, because who ever heard of Wi-fi in an Indian prison?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Attending a north Indian wedding (as a baraati)

(A step-by-step primer, based on personal experience)

Interpreting the wedding card: The wedding card will chattily describe the occasion as “a divine union of twin souls, blessed by your kind and benevolently auspicious presence”. This is merely a complicated way of saying “come to Paneer Tikka Haven”. (For reasons my tradition-resistant mind will never fathom, robust Punjabis, who on normal days sleep with large tubs of tandoori chicken next to their pillows, suddenly turn coyly vegetarian on their wedding day.) Treat this as a warning to eat properly before you leave the house. Carry snacks in your pockets if necessary.

Also keep a record (from weddings attended in the past) of the mean deviation between the time specified in wedding cards and the time at which the groom can actually be expected to reach the venue. Apply this to the present situation. Current research suggests that 8.30 PM on a card translates to roughly 10.30 PM in North Indian Wedding Time. So plan to reach the venue by that time. This way, Delhi traffic being what it is, you will reach at 11 PM.

Keeping yourself occupied: Entering the shamiana, you will see the following things in roughly this order:

– Six or seven groups of people, all from the bride’s family, glancing at their watches and looking bored

– Waiters drifting from table to table with paneer tikkas and samosas, glancing at their watches and looking bored

– Three stray cats sitting on the periphery of the lawn, complaining about the absence of tandoori chicken, glancing at their watches and looking bored

You now have to find ways to pass the time until someone you know arrives. One way is to do the disgruntled-loner thing – sip tomato soup, brood and wish you had gone to a nice warm indoor restaurant instead. Another, more entertaining way is to pretend to talk into your cellphone within earshot of the bride’s relatives: speak sentences like “Yes, it looks like the dowry won’t be enough after all" and "Don’t worry, we’ll let the groom out of the warehouse after all the negotiations have taken place."

But if the idea was to make a token appearance – to “show our face for a while and then leave”, as time-strapped yuppies like to say – you can exit after half an hour of waiting. Do remember to wave at one of the video cameras as proof that you were there.

A tip for the scrupulously punctual: if perchance you’re the very first to reach the venue, before even the bride’s family (believe me, this can happen), make sure to profit from it. Wait at the entrance with hands folded and pretend to incoming guests that you’re one of the hosts (at large north Indian weddings no one knows who’s who anyway). Pocket the shagun money and gifts and make a quick getaway.

Aftermath: At around 1 AM, you will receive an SMS from a friend: “Where ARE you? The baraatis have arrived. The horse is very nervous. It just crapped on the shoes of one of the dancing uncles.” Turns out you missed the best part of the union of twin souls.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Fred and Ginger in Swing Time

[A version of my film classics column for the New Sunday Express]

My favourite Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers routine is the wonderfully soulful dance sequence towards the end of Swing Time, one of their best films. The scene is set up by a series of misunderstandings of the sort that the Hollywood romantic comedy of the 1930s could toss off with both hands tied behind its back. “Lucky” Garnett (Astaire) has just discovered that his dance partner and true love Penny (Rogers) is going to marry someone else. He corners her on an empty stage, sings the stirring Jerome Kern composition “Never Gonna Dance”, and then gently persuades her into gliding about the floor with him; their movements gather urgency and passion, eventually growing into a full-fledged routine that ends with Rogers breathlessly pirouetting into – and out of – his arms. The sequence ends with her rushing out of the room as Astaire strikes a tragic, balletic pose. Fade to black.

And then we return to the film we were watching before this great scene began (billed in the poster above as "a glorious songburst of gayety and gladness"). In the final 10 minutes there is some slapstick comedy, some quick tying up of loose ends, a tidy reconciliation between the lovers, a final clinch. It’s a bit anti-climactic, really, because what a viewer will take away from Swing Time is not this neat happy ending but the mournful symphony that had preceded it – two star-crossed lovers, alone together for seemingly the last time. Nothing else in the film suggests that the tale of Lucky and Penny is a tragic love story (with those names, how could it be?), but the illusion is sustained for those few minutes.

To an extent, all the best Astaire-Rogers dance duets – the joyous ones and the sad ones – existed outside of, and transcended, the films they were in. Watching Swing Time again, I was reminded that in many ways they transcended the era as well. For sheer depth of feeling, “Never Gonna Dance” goes beyond almost anything else you’ll see in 1930s Hollywood, and I’m speaking as a huge fan of that period. This is performance art at its very best (and it was certainly treated as performance art: though it looks so spontaneous and unaffected onscreen, days of planning, rehearsing and retaking went into each of the Astaire-Rogers dance setpieces. Astaire was also particular about having them filmed in continuous takes).

Swing Time begins in classic screwball-comedy style, its two leads “meeting cute” when Lucky, a vaudeville performer, comes to New York to try and make the 25,000 dollars that will allow him to return to his hometown and marry his fiancée. Penny is a dance teacher with whom he (in this order) banters, trips about the stage, warbles, tap-dances, and falls in love. They are clearly meant for each other (they are Fred and Ginger, after all), but he’s an honourable guy, and what to do about the girl he has waiting back home? Also, what to do about the smarmy orchestra leader who has proposed to Lucky? Complications ensue.

Though Astaire and Rogers were both charismatic performers who were very good at light comedy (and, later in their careers, in dramatic roles too), such was the magic they created in their dances that it was difficult to work up much interest in the non-musical sequences in their films. Even so, Swing Time (along with Top Hat and, to an extent, Shall We Dance) is among the few films that hold up passably well even in the tone-deaf scenes. It would be a stretch to say it approaches the quality of the sophisticated comedies made by, say, Ernst Lubitsch, around the same time, but it has some sharp dialogues and engaging performances by Victor Moore and Helen Broderick (in supporting roles as Lucky and Penny’s middle-aged sidekicks).

It must be said that the film feels schizophrenic at times: the script and the performances make it very much a product of its period, but the dances are timeless; the predominant tone is light comedy, but the music is so elegiac. Often, an uneasy balance is struck between goofy humour and the lush romantic mood generated by Kern’s melodies, so that when Astaire serenades Rogers with the lovely song “The Way You Look Tonight”, the scene ends with him looking up from the piano to discover her looking down at him adoringly...and she has shampoo suds in her hair. Another song, “A Fine Romance”, which has Penny complaining about Lucky’s lack of ardour, combines a wistful melody and a beautiful, snowy setting with sarcastic lyrics (“We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes/But you’re as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes...You're calmer than the seals in the Arctic Ocean/At least they flap their fins to express emotion”). And even “Never Gonna Dance”, in the midst of its romantic hand-wringing, manages to sneak in a wry reference to Groucho and Harpo Marx.

Among the other highlights, my favourite is the brilliantly uninhibited dance duet that takes place when Penny is about to be fired and Lucky decides to show her boss how much she’s “taught” him (the very idea of Astaire being a clod with two left feet, “as awkward as a camel”, makes for fine comic material in its own right. “Nobody could teach you how to dance in a million years,” Penny tells Lucky at one point, possibly a reference to Astaire’s real-life reputation as an untrained genius). There’s also Astaire’s tap-dancing solo “Bojangles of Harlem”, which shows us the full breadth of the perfectionism he brought to his art, but also reminds us that his solo efforts (technically breathtaking as they were) usually lacked the warmth of his collaborations with Rogers, the satisfaction that comes with seeing two performers in complete harmony. In the list of the most graceful and enduring things cinema has given us, their partnership must stand near the very top.

P.S. YouTube can be so useful and so infuriating at the same time. Here’s a video of the full “Never Gonna Dance” routine, though a tiny box on a computer screen is hardly the place to watch this sequence for the first time. (As Norma Desmond said in Sunset Boulevard, “I’m still big, it’s the pictures that got small.”) And here’s another great dance, the “Cheek to Cheek” number from Top Hat.

And a nice, sardonic but affectionate review by Alan Vanneman on Bright Lights Film here.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Flying spaghetti atheists?

I blogged here about the clichéd answers given by minor (and major) celebrities in newspaper Q&As. Now Hindustan Times' Brunch asks Ishmeet Singh (winner of a contest called Voice of India) the question “You don’t believe in...?” and he replies:

"People who say there is no God."

A likely explanation is that the lad understood the question as “You don’t believe...?” rather than “You don’t believe in...?” But imagine the effect this had on me first thing in the morning. Getting abusive troll comments directed at one’s lack of belief is one thing. Having to smile indulgently as family members wave their hands about in front of little idols on festive occasions is manageable too. But to wake up on a day of leisure and discover that you might not exist at all? What a tough start to a Sunday.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Rishi Reddi's Karma & Other Stories

Many of us jaded readers reflexively do the old eye-roll when we hear about a new book that falls in the “Diaspora fiction” category – which means it’s about immigrant angst, dislocation, etc, themes that one imagines have been done to death already. But reading Rishi Reddi’s Karma & Other Stories reminded me that it’s unfair to think of all such writing as stereotypical or aimed at exoticisation – that each work should be judged on its own terms rather than hastily relegated into a category/genre and dismissed because that category is seen as saturated.

Karma & Other Stories is a collection of seven stories about Indians, originally from Hyderabad, now living in the US (mostly in Boston). The jacket description "a multigenerational tapestry...depicting members of an Indian American community struggling to balance the demands of tradition with the allure of Western life", doesn’t reflect how gently perceptive and absorbing these stories are. Each of them is either told in the first person or has a central character who is our point of entry into the narrative, and Reddi adeptly draws the reader into these lives. She does this not so much through lengthy descriptions or reflections but through conversations that are laced with pithy but subtly provocative observations – about the implications of a glance, for instance, or a hurtful remark. There is a real feel here for the interplay between people – the intense moment of anger that comes with a person's realisation that a close friend doesn't share exactly the same values and attitudes; the quiet reconciliation that follows shortly on the heels of an argument.

Occasionally, some of the stories clarify popular stereotypes about Indians living abroad, but in many cases they also overturn these stereotypes. The story "Lord Krishna", for instance, begins with 14-year-old Krishna Chander being seemingly hectored by an evangelical class-teacher who hands out a magazine illustration of Lord Krishna as one of many examples of the influence of Satan in modern popular culture. This might appear to set up the classic minority community-as-victim scenario, but as the story progresses we see a delicate power shift take place. When Krishna's irate father goes to complain to the school principal about the insult to their religious sentiments, Reddi casually drops in a sentence implying that Mr Chander is a man of some influence and that he can arm-twist the school into firing the teacher. The effect of this is that almost before the reader realises it, the traditional roles are reversed: now the teacher (whose insensitivity, as it happens, stemmed more from ignorance than malice) is cowering, while Krishna's father is the smug bully holding the aces. The scene is a reminder of changing power equations, a reminder that an Indian family in the US (even if it's one of only two Telugu-speaking families in a small Kansas town) doesn't have to be the underdog. Incidentally, the story is set in 1981, which also allows us to reflect how much more things might have changed since then.

In "Justice Shiva Ram Murthy", my favourite of these stories, the eponymous narrator is a 70-year-old former judge who has recently moved to Boston to live with his daughter. Justice Murthy's steady but over-formal, occasionally awkward voice reminds us that he probably learnt his English as a youngster in an India that was still permeated by the British colonial influence – and that, in a sense, he's twice removed from the American way of life and speech. His refusal to accept that his accent might not be immediately comprehensible to locals leads to an unfortunate misunderstanding in a fast-food joint, which becomes the plot Macguffin for what is really a pen-portrait of a very lonely old man. Reddi's achievement here lies in giving us a first-person narrative that shows us the many ways in which Murthy deludes himself – how his self-righteousness and inflexibility make it difficult for him to adjust to this new country – but also allows us to sympathise with him.

The motif of old people losing power over their lives after they move to an unfamiliar setting is also reflected in "Bangles", about Arundhati, an elderly widow living with her son and his family and feeling increasingly alienated by their lifestyles and attitudes. She briefly feels in control when she enters a temple – "this was her domain" – but even here she is destined to be disappointed. Incidentally, both "Justice Shiva Ram Murthy" and "Bangles" contain passages where the protagonists have a vision of their past – an idyllic childhood or youth, living in a world that they truly belonged to, in control of their own lives (in Arundhati’s case, this is likely a rose-tinted memory, for we never get the sense that she was ever independent of the men in her life – first her father and brothers, later her husband).

Reddi is equally insightful about the personal conflicts of younger people. In "The Validity of Love", two friends, Lata and Supriya, privately make fun of their conservative parents' attempts to find a suitable Indian groom for them, but their friendship is severely tested when Supriya conveniently "falls in love" with just such a boy. In "Devadasi", 16-year-old Uma thinks of herself as "an American, who does not care about the differences between Hindus and Muslims" but later realises (during a visit to India at the time of the 1992 Babri Masjid riots) that such distinctions can matter after all; by the story's end, she is confused enough about her identity to wonder how she could ever have imagined sleeping with an American boy.

The last two stories are also reminders of the small ways in which culture and tradition can insinuate itself into even the most liberal, cosmopolitan lives. But equally importantly, for nearly every character who is afflicted by cultural confusion, there is a counterpoint: Justice Murthy's recalcitrance is balanced by the pragmatism of his friend Manmohan, who has adjusted much better to life in the US. And in the title story "Karma", the frustration of the jobless Shankar Balareddy (who finds validation in a very unlikely job) is tempered by the support he gets from his sensible wife.

And this really is the point: that none of these stories amount to pat generalisations about a community of people. Yes, they all deal with Indians living and adjusting in the US; in fact, one can particularise this further and observe that they are mostly about members of a Telugu community in relatively less cosmopolitan places in the US (so much so that some characters recur from one story to the next; the effect is like being at a cosy fireside chat where a narrator is telling us anecdotes from the lives of people we've seen in our neighborhood). But one can also step back, look at the larger picture and observe that these are believable human beings, facing different types of conflicts and responding in different ways.

Reading Karma and Other Stories is a reminder that we live in a world where people travel more extensively than at any earlier point in human history, where an increasing number of people are moving out of their comfort zones and settling down in places that their grandparents, even parents, might have regarded with suspicion. Given all this, the very label "Diaspora fiction" can be a restrictive one, more exotic-sounding than it needs to be, and not indicative of how commonplace immigrant problems are in today's world. It’s like the recent comic strip in a daily newspaper, with two children standing by a globe, one of them pointing and saying, "that isn't the world, it's the Diaspora".

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Lab report

One of the things you didn’t know about this blog is that a sizable amount of its traffic comes from Google searches for “Labrador porn”. Almost every time I check Sitemeter, there’s someone searching with that phrase (or a variant such as “porn, Labrador”) and ending up at this post. And it’s never the same person, unless it’s someone who travels around the globe expressly for the thrill of Googling on computers located in different countries. Apparently the world is full of fans of lab-porn: they hail from Michigan, London, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore (where the searcher specified “golden Labrador porn”), Bolivia, Tokyo, Madras. This shows that for all our superficial differences of culture, religion, language and race, people everywhere are basically the same. It’s a heartwarming thought.

Sitemeter also provides information about how long a particular visitor spends on the blog, individual pages visited etc, and as you might expect, Labrador-porn seekers tend not to linger at Jabberwock once they realise that Google has misdirected them. Don’t get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that a person interested in videos of humping doggies might not also be interested in a 3000-word interview/profile of Anita Desai or a review of a 1922 documentary; the human mind can be a fascinatingly inclusive thing and many of us have a wide range of interests. But I would think it’s definitely unlikely that a person looking for humping doggies would at that particular point in time be willing to settle instead for an Anita Desai interview or a review of a 1922 documentary, for there’s something very urgent and purposeful about a porn search; it's meant to fulfill an immediate need. At the most, I’d think such a searcher would bookmark the blog, telling himself, “The passive narrator in Murakami’s fiction! Cool, I’ll come back to that after the dog show.”

Which is why I was pleasantly surprised to discover today, for the first time, a Labrador-porn Google searcher who actually lingered! Someone in Illinois who entered the blog at the “This Gun for Hire” post but who then – instead of shaking his fist at his screen and exiting in disgust as any self-respecting lover of lab-porn would do – proceeded to visit 13 more pages (including the Bougainvillea House review, which incidentally has a – non-sexual – mention of dogs) and eventually spent more than 30 minutes on the site. To this anonymous visitor, I would like to say: thanks for the patronage, and I hope your stay was worth the sacrifice.

Friday, December 07, 2007

A conversation with Anita Desai, and some notes on her work

[Statutory warning: long, bifurcated post – some thoughts on Anita Desai’s writing followed by a Q&A. Apologies in case there’s some overlapping between the two elements. I wrote it as a flowing piece - a profile-cum-interview - for Business Standard Weekend but since there isn’t a word-constraint here I prefer to spread it out and play with the format.]

Long before the publication of Midnight’s Children brought alive new possibilities for Indian writers wanting to express themselves in English, decades before Arundhati Roy’s Booker win, the advent of the big publishing houses, hefty advances, the elevation of the fashionable young writer to pop-celebrity status, and the occurrence, once highly improbable, of the words “author” and “glamorous” in the same sentence, there was Anita Desai – Anita Desai, contributing short stories to a literary magazine while still in college in the 1950s; writing diligently at her desk for a few hours each day; sending her manuscripts to England because Indian publishers at the time weren’t interested in contemporary fiction; juggling the unsocial writer’s life with some very social demands, such as those of raising four children.

Desai, who turned 70 earlier this year, has lived mainly in the US for the past two decades. She was in Delhi last week because the Sahitya Akademi has made her one of its lifetime fellows – and because Random House India has marked the occasion by reissuing three of her finest novels (Clear Light of Day, In Custody and Baumgartner’s Bombay) in elegant, minimalist new designs perfectly suited to the work of someone who continues to live by the discipline of the writing process itself, rather than by the stardust that sometimes sticks to the high-profile writer. (Eventually all of her books will be collected in this format, conceptualised by Random House India editor-in-chief Chiki Sarkar; the concept resembles the Library of America’s tradition of collecting the works of major American writers.)

Desai is only the third Indian writer in English to be honoured thus by the Sahitya Akademi – Mulk Raj Anand and R K Narayan were the others – and yet the very phrase "Indian writer in English", with its hint of the baggage that the acronym IWE often carries, sits uneasily on a lady who once said that her novels "aren't intended as a reflection of Indian society, politics or character – they are private attempts to seize on the raw material of life".

Her work bears this out. Though her concerns include the suppression and marginalisation of women, her approach is not a stridently feminist one (or especially directed at the treatment of women in conservative societies); if anything, it’s too underplayed for the tastes of some readers. It’s also part of a larger motif that can be seen in the three reissued books, that of the circumscribed life: people unable, or unwilling, to escape what many of us would think of as a trapped, claustrophobic existence, and who yet manage to find a measure of dignity even within those constraints. Clear Light of Day, which she has called the most autobiographical of her works, sets the lonely childhoods of two sisters, Bimla (Bim) and Tara, against their lives as adults – Tara having married a diplomat and moved to the US, thus escaping the family house where she had felt stifled, while Bim stayed behind, a custodian of old memories. In Custody has small-town lecturer Deven resigned to a humdrum existence until he gets the opportunity to interview one of his idols, a once-great Urdu poet now leading a shabby, parasitic life in an old Delhi house. And Baumgartner’s Bombay is about a perpetual outsider, a German Jew who escapes the Holocaust as a child and lives an unobtrusive, unremarkable life in India for decades.

Desai’s attention to detail, the carefulness of her descriptions and the fact that her fiction often deals with static lives means that her books have sometimes been accused of being static themselves (“pages go by and nothing happens” is a charge I’ve heard) by readers who are interested more in the progression of a plot than in the examination of minutiae. But this would be to overlook the mastery with which she draws us into an interior world, showing us the layers that can exist beneath a life that might not, on the surface, appear to be very significant. In her hands, characters like Bim, Deven and Baumgartner come to stand for a small, modest form of heroism that doesn’t get the press it deserves (see Q&A below).

In a perceptive introduction to the new edition of Baumgartner’s Bombay, Suketu Mehta calls it “a tribute to the also-rans of history”. The book is my favourite among Desai’s works and I love the final chapter, after Baumgartner’s death, which shows us his squalid little room as seen through other people’s eyes. To them, he was a useless old man whose life and death had no relevance to anyone, but to the reader – who has been closely involved with him through the book – he is a very important literary character. We’ve been privy to Hugo Baumgartner’s back-story, his crushed dreams, his quiet acceptance of his destiny, his love for his crippled stray cats (which, in the hands of a lesser writer, might have become a too-obvious symbol); we know about the cruel whimsicalities of history but for which he might have led a very different life in a different part of the world. We can’t dismiss him the way these people do.

There are many examples in Desai’s work of the use of a large number of carefully chosen words to make a scene more vivid, more alive. Turning randomly to a page in Clear Light of Day, here’s a description of Bim’s cat descending a tree as Bim looks on fondly:
She came slithering down the satiny bark, growling and grumbling with petulance and complaint at her undignified descent. Then she was in Bim’s arms...cuddled and cushioned and petted with such an extravagance of affection that Tara could not help raising her eyebrows in embarrassment and wonder.
Later on the same page, we have a corpulent, middle-aged character named Bakul sitting “flaccidly, flabbily” on a chair. A critic making a case for lucidity might argue that just one of those words could serve the purpose, but in Desai’s best work adjectives and adverbs (carefully chosen ones, of course) accumulate to make a picture even more immediate. At their best, her descriptions serve as a good counterpoint to George Orwell’s celebrated rules for writers; they show us that good writing doesn’t necessarily have to be spare and direct. Also, they sometimes convey the perspective of a particular character – a thoughtful character who is not a writer by profession and who doesn’t have to feel conscious about using too many words. Seen out of context, “...growling and grumbling with petulance and complaint at her undignified descent” may seem like over-writing, but consider how this word arrangement reflects Bim’s perspective of her beloved pet, apart from adding humour and affection to the scene.

A conversation

I met Desai for an interview at a small hotel in one of Delhi’s quieter colonies, Sunder Nagar. Despite her reputation for being reclusive, I was unprepared for how soft-spoken she is – and a little concerned that my tape recorder wouldn’t pick everything up.

You wrote once that your novels “aren’t intended as a reflection of Indian society, politics or character”. Are you resistant to the defining of writers primarily in terms of their background?

I think every writer dislikes being labeled, because once you’ve been put in a category you might even start to believe that that’s where you belong, and that can restrict your movements. It’s nice to know that you’re free to think and write as you wish. Whether you live here or abroad is of no consequence really – what is important is what you make of your experiences, which is what you present to the reader.

Besides, once you’re boxed into a category, you run the danger of becoming a spokesman for that particular box. But my writing just isn’t polemical in that sense, it’s an absolutely personal response to life.

The three books that have been reissued…were they your own choices? You once described Clear Light of Day as the most autobiographical of your novels.

No, this was a Random House selection – the next lot of three books will be chosen soon as well, we have to decide on those. Clear Light of Day was autobiographical primarily in terms of setting and period – it was set in old Delhi, where I grew up, and around the same time. The other element was the relationship between Bim and Tara and their siblings – that’s something I wanted to explore, based on my experiences while growing up. Not that this is exactly my own family, of course.

Bim is a fascinating character. As a child she announces that she wants to be a heroine, and though she remains confined to a small world, one can’t help but admire her personal choices.

Yes, Bimla was based on women I had known, in India – women who had lived their lives against all odds, made something of their lives. I wanted to celebrate that sort of life, which is heroic in my mind. Being an individual despite all the pressure – to bear it, to suffer it, and yet remain yourself – and without necessarily stepping out of the house or seeing the world, as a heroic figure would normally be expected to: this is a form of heroism too, and it doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

The same could be said for Baumgartner too.

Yes, and in his case he suffers through great political upheavals as well – both in Germany, just before the war, and later in India. That book contains my view of politics as this huge juggernaut that rides over ordinary citizens – either you’re crushed by it or somehow you manage to survive it. Very few of us have any say in it, it always feels like the power is in someone else’s hands. But Baumgartner manages to survive (a note of tenderness enters her voice) like some little matchstick bobbing along on a vast ocean. And finally, he drowns.

Which book is closest to your heart?

That’s a very difficult question to answer. The truth is, one finishes every book with the feeling that you’ve missed it somehow – that you haven’t done what you set out to do, that along the way it took a turn you hadn’t intended. But when I wrote Fire on the Mountain (1977), I had the feeling that I was controlling a style that was largely my own. Until then I had been writing in imitation of writers I admired, who had a huge influence on me.

Similarly, with In Custody, I felt I had broken out of that domestic circle I had been treading over and over again till I myself was feeling suffocated. And I felt that at last I was writing about the world that exists outside. These were moments of breakthrough. Also, the fact that the two central characters in In Custody were men. I wanted to write in the male voice – in fact, I had written the first draft without a single female character, but then thought that was unnatural! So I brought in Deven’s wife, and Nur’s women.

Who are strong characters in their own right.

Yes, but they are very peripheral, very marginal – at least in terms of how the men look at them.

I enjoyed the bittersweet humour in that book – Deven’s earnest but woefully unsuccessful attempts to capture Nur’s voice on his tape recorder; how he invariably ends up with something embarrassing, instead f something he’d want to preserve for posterity.

Yes, and though it’s all so frustrating for Deven, it’s possible for the reader to laugh at the situation too. I meant that bittersweet humour to be there – I certainly didn’t want the book to be an outright tragedy. It was meant to be the way life is, which is tragic-comic, with elements of the absurd.

I believe you started writing very early in life. What was the Indian literary scene like in the 1950s and 1960s? How easy was it to get published?

I started writing short stories when I was a child. When I was in college (in Delhi’s Miranda House) I contributed stories to magazines like “Thought” – a political and literary magazine of the time, which no longer exists – and later I started work on my first novel. I had certainly accepted the vocation of a writer before I married, and I continued it afterwards.

It was completely different back then – one felt entirely on one’s own. There was no literary community. We were all so separated by different languages and lives that it was a rare occasion when one might even brush against another writer. It was a very solitary occupation, unlike today when there is a community constantly in touch with each other.

The other thing is, there was no publishing outlet – Indian publishers of the time would do the safe thing, that is, publish textbooks or reprints. They never looked around or paid much attention to local, contemporary writers. I had no option but to send my manuscripts to England and I was lucky to find Peter Owen, a small publishing company with an interest in foreign writers and voices.

The literary scene changed absolutely with Midnight’s Children in 1981. Publishers realised that one could write in an Indian version of English and do it with great vitality. Rushdie’s success and voice encouraged a whole generation of younger writers, set them free. Then, from the late 1980s, with more publishers coming in, writers had an outlet. The huge commercial success of Arundhati Roy was another inspiring moment – that you could make this much money, that thought was dazzling, it was almost like getting a contract from Bollywood. You could actually have a life of fame and celebrity by writing a book!

You have a reputation for being very much the solitary writer, the sort of person Orhan Pamuk described in his Nobel speech - alone for hours at a desk. Yet you married early and brought up four children [including Kiran Desai, winner of last year's Man Booker Prize] in a society that has many expectations of women. How did you manage any privacy at all, let along find time to write your brand of intensely detailed literary fiction?

There were two ways I could do that. One was by keeping to a very strict discipline, knowing that I must write daily and must keep my writing in mind constantly – that I had to spend a few hours each morning at my desk, writing. Even today, a day when I don’t do that is a disturbed day, not quite a normal day for me. When the children went to school I would immediately settle down at my desk; when it was time for them to come home I would put everything away, but keep it in mind so that I could pick up where I’d left off.

The other thing that helped me as a writer perhaps was my personal reaction to the partly domestic, partly social life an Indian woman must lead – never feeling quite at ease with that sort of social life. I would, of course, go out and meet people, but there was a part of my mind which I was keeping separate. Because as a writer you have to have a private life – that’s where writing comes from.

A young Indian writer today has many authors to derive inspiration from. When you began writing, there wouldn’t have been as many. Who were your influences?

Mainly non-Indian writers, as you might have guessed. I read all the English classics – the Bronte sisters, Virginia Woolf, E M Forster. We didn’t really study the Indian writers – even Tagore wasn’t studied – we had to discover them on our own, later in life. As for contemporaries, I had a sense that I had no contemporaries! R K Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand were there, but from an earlier generation and I didn’t know them. The one contemporary I had, whose company I enjoyed and who was a tremendous influence on me, was Ruth Jhabvala – she was a neighbour of ours in old Delhi, living a life very similar to my own. She was married, with three daughters – in fact, I first saw her when she was wheeling a pram up and down the road! We became friends, I would go to her house, she lent me books, we discussed books and that was the closest I came to a literary life. She was a huge support – she never read anything I’d written, she didn’t read manuscripts, but it was very encouraging to know that here was someone else doing the same thing; that it was possible to be a writer!

When I spoke to Kiran last year, she mentioned that you aren’t part of the literary party scene at all. What are your feelings about the glamour that has crept into the literary life today?

Yes, I’ve now moved to a house on the outskirts of New York – it’s small village really, very secluded. Whenever Kiran needs to do some serious work, she comes out there. My life is totally different from hers, though even she is quite solitary compared to most of her contemporaries.

Things have changed enormously. Back when I started, we never had a clue that such a thing could happen at all – the glamour, the talk of big advances, etc, all of which sounds completely antithetical to the literary life. Of course, I don’t want to dismiss it altogether, because for the first time now Indian writers are able to live on their writing. It wasn’t possible at all earlier – royalties were absurdly low – but now publishers are willing to invest in authors, making it possible for them to live even while they are writing. So that’s not a bad thing. What’s unfortunate is when they win respect by suddenly having money and access to a better life, rather than by their actual writing.

Are you active online?

No, I don’t keep in touch with online developments. I’ve been watching Kiran and though she probably doesn’t use the Internet as much as most other young people, it still eats up a huge amount of her time. It’s a constant distraction, though at the same time I envy that you young people have everything at the click of a button.

Have you felt your writing style change with the passage of time?

As a writer, I’ve always enjoyed language – the use of language is what it’s all about. When I was younger, I enjoyed that power a lot more – my descriptions tended to be fuller and richer. In my later books like The Zigzag Way I’ve probably been more spare and sinewy, and I have been trying to – not cut out adjectives but to select with the greatest possible care. It may have something to do with the fact that I now read a great deal of poetry.

You’ve written children’s books, a movie screenplay (for Ismail Merchant’s film of In Custody), and numerous works of criticism. Is there any area of writing you regret not having tried?

(Smiling) One does what one can with one’s life. I’ve tried to make the fullest use of what I had, and I hope I’ve succeeded to an extent.

[Some earlier conversations with authors: Mohsin Hamid, Vikram Chandra, Rajorshi Chakraborty, Raj Kamal Jha, Kiran Nagarkar, Kiran Desai, Amitava Kumar]