For a few months now I’ve been doing a books column made up of short, 200-300 word items (mini-reviews, observations about publishing trends and so on) for the new Sunday Guardian paper. Haven’t put up most of that material here because I’m used to having long, indepth stuff on Jabberwock (and regular readers of this blog will know I’ve never been a fan of the 200-word “review”, to put it mildly!). But short pieces can serve their own purpose and in any case it’s impossible to write a long review for every book I read; if I did, the volume of my reading would automatically be halved. So I’ll occasionally collect some of those pieces and put them up as “compilation” posts. Here’s one.
“The history of women in south Asian politics is beset with contradictions,” writes Manjima Bhattacharjya, editor of Sarpanch Sahib: Changing the Face of India, pointing out that while the region has had strong female prime ministers and presidents, the participation of women in grassroots politics has still been meagre. The book, sponsored by The Hunger Project, is a collection of encounters with brave women who are trying to make a difference; writers and journalists like Manju Kapur and Sonia Faleiro traveled to remote villages to speak with these ladies about their career as panchayat members, and the result is a sometimes depressing but often inspiring insight into how social change slowly, painfully comes about in even the most backward areas and societies. [Full disclosure: my wife Abhilasha was one of the contributors.]
The book launch of Sarpanch Sahib was one of the most poignant events of its kind I’ve seen. All seven of the lady politicians had traveled to Delhi, and since most of them didn’t understand English, the panel discussion was (somewhat awkwardly) bilingual. It was another reminder of how removed the world of mainstream publishing is from the distant reaches of this country. Right now this well-intentioned book is available only in English, which is a pity; I hope it gets translated into languages that its subjects can understand, and I also hope there’s a market for a follow-up.
Imagine how much better James Cameron’s grandly mushy film Titanic would have been if the Leonardo Dicaprio character Jack had secretly turned out to be...a scaly, monstrous alien with extra limbs sticking out of his back in the “King of the World” scene at the ship’s prow.
I can think of a few writers who would have spun a whole book around this idea, but the prolific Samit Basu is content to make it a throwaway sub-plot in his hugely entertaining Young Adults title for Scholastic, Terror on the Titanic. Billed as the first of the “Morningstar Agency Adventures”, this is the story of a young, jungle-reared Anglo-Indian, Nathaniel Brown (Nathu for short – he also happens to be the son of the man whose story Rudyard Kipling leeched for The Jungle Book), hired to track down a stolen jewel making its way across the Atlantic on the famous ship. Basu brings his trademark wit and expansive imagination to this unusual historical fantasy, and even manages to get in a few philosophical observations about what “aliens” really are and how they get treated by “regular” folk.
My mixed feelings about Twitterature, a Penguin title “written” by Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin, begin with the packaging. The book has a minimalist cover: no image, just the familiar Penguin orange and white colours that one normally associates with their austere “Classics” series. This is something of an inside joke, no doubt, for the cover blurb says “The classics are so last century” and the back-jacket includes the following tweets. From Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “WTF is Polonius doing behind the curtain???” And from John Milton’s Paradise Lost: “OH MY GOD I’M IN HELL.”
You get the idea - this is a collection of the world’s greatest literary works, retold Twitter style. From Alice in Wonderland (“At a tea-party with a crack-head hat man. He’s a schizoid”) to Frankenstein (“It’s alive! I’d better beat it over the head repeatedly with a fire extinguisher”) to Crime and Punishment (“Will try to keep the long, introspective monologues to a minimum”), you’ll find it all here. The question, as ever, is: do we really need to pay to read a collection of tweets, especially when equally funny material is readily available on the Net? When people routinely complain about blogs being turned into books, how do you justify this? Penguin should have started an official Twitter page for this idea, rather than publishing it.
One of the best “blogger” books of the last few months is Annie Zaidi’s Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales. I’ve known Zaidi for some time through her blog and have long admired her work as a journalist as well as the quality of her writing. Over the years, she has traveled to far-flung places across India, meeting and writing about people who have been victims of discrimination in one way or the other – people for whom constant hunger, injustice and helplessness is a way of life. Her best work has a humbling effect: it reminds me of how much I take for granted.
The most notable thing about her book is how adeptly it balances meaningful, informative reportage with personal experience – something that narrative non-fiction writing in India often struggles to do. (Tilt too far in one direction and you’re in danger of navel-gazing; go to the other extreme and you have a litany of facts and figures without any real sense of the human face behind it.) Zaidi writes about bandits in the Chambal, continuing casteism in the Punjab, and the impoverished weavers of Benares; about malnourished children, covert sex-selection methods, religious and communal identity; and she makes these subjects immediate and compelling. Known Turf is pleasingly free-flowing. Sure, there is an attempt at structure – it’s divided into sections that deal with specific subjects – but at the same time it makes place for the casual aside, the detour into personal anecdote...or even just a chapter-long reflection on the vital role that tea plays in the life of an itinerant reporter.