Monday, January 19, 2009

Snippets: Shonku, Tagore, Daniyal, Kamila

Before heading off to Jaipur, a quick mention of some books I’ve been enjoying recently:

The Diary of a Space Traveller and Other Stories (Satyajit Ray) – 12 stories about the adventures of Ray’s most endearing character, the eccentric scientist Professor Shonku. The stories feature, among other things, a Mars expedition, an encounter with a Chinese hypnotist, a colour-changing sphere that turns out to be a tiny living planet that’s slipped out of orbit, reflections on what makes a robot truly lifelike, and trips to Egypt, Baghdad and Norway. Also such inventions as the Omniscope (a telescope, microscope and X-Ray all in one) and the Neospectroscope (used for summoning ghosts). One of the stories, “Corvus”, about a very intelligent crow, was translated into English by Ray himself; all the other translations are by Gopa Majumdar, and she does a fine job of conveying Ray’s gently intelligent, non-instructive style. I imagine this is superb comfort reading for Bengali readers who first experienced these tales as children, but it’s also an eye-opener for those of us who didn’t.

Nationalism (Rabindranath Tagore) – from Penguin’s Modern Classics series, the text of three lectures on nationalism and internationalism delivered by Tagore in Japan and the US in 1916-17. Ramachandra Guha’s elaborate Introduction is vital to a deeper understanding of this book, especially if you’re not too familiar with Tagore’s humanist views, his concerns about the very thin line between nationalism and xenophobia, and how his beliefs contrasted with Gandhi’s more insistent patriotism. Guha also comments on the sad undermining of Tagore’s status as one of the most important figures in the construction of modern India, a man who had a strong impact on the thinking of both Gandhi and Nehru. The style of the lectures
themselves is a little quaint in places, and they are (inevitably) repetitive, but they powerfully and movingly convey Tagore’s anxiety about the construction of narrow domestic walls everywhere in the world, and also carry a strong resonance for our own times.

(Note: Penguin Modern Classics also has a new edition of Tagore’s novel Gora, an ambitious work about the darker side of nationalist awakening, as seen through the eyes of a young orthodox Hindu struggling with questions of identity. The book’s cover is a lovely illustration by Tagore.)

Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders: this short-story collection is one of the most anticipated debuts of the year, and with good reason. I’ve read four of the stories in the collection so far (on the computer, on a PDF file, which is always difficult – otherwise I would have finished the book by now) and they provide fascinating glimpses of the many faces of contemporary Pakistan, including the complex social interactions in the feudal parts of the country and the lives of high-society types; almost essential reading, one might say, for anyone who tars the whole country with one brush. One of my favourite stories here is “About a Burning Girl”, a fine, succinct portrait of compromises and deal-making within the Pakistani judiciary. (More about this book and its author soon.)

Currently reading: Kamila Shamsie’s novel Burnt Shadows, an epic story that moves from Nagasaki in 1945 to Delhi in 1947, and eventually to present-day New York and Afghanistan via
1980s Pakistan. Very engrossing so far; an early chapter contains a short, chilling description of one woman’s experience of the Nagasaki bomb, but the prevalent mood of the next few chapters is that of a sprawling multi-generational saga, with the paths of several characters intersecting over the decades. Will finish it soon.

(Not sure if I’ll have time to blog about the festival in the next few days, but will try)


  1. Shonku is quite fantastic. Of course, written without going too deep into the sci-fi aspect of it and making them more kid-centric. What would be of immensely more interest to you are some of his short stories. They were released in batches of 12. I think there are five such editions. Wonder if they were ever translated.

  2. Have a nice time in Jaipur and keep us posted. BTW, when is your Agatha Christie piece coming in The Hindu ?