Thursday, October 28, 2004

Creating A Great Novel

Fiammetta Rocco, the literary editor of The Economist, was one of the judges in this year's Man Booker Prize. She has written an interesting essay on the process of the Prize in her magazine.

What interested me was the three points she mentioned. These three points are essential for good novel writing. They are courage, immense clarity of vision, and language.

Sample this: "In order to capture a reader, an author must first duel with them and force them to submit to the writer's vision. Nowhere is a writer's guile and weaponry more finely honed than in their choice of words and metaphor. Here, more even than in the ability to draw a character, more even than in the skill needed to shape a plot, is where the difference between good and great can be seen. It sometimes took Gustave Flaubert a week to write a paragraph that pleased him, and with good reason."

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Pirates of the Caribbean

I was astonished to hear that Gabriel Garcia Marquez's new novel in ten years has been pirated even before its official release!

García Márquez's new work, Memorias de Mis Putas Tristes, or Memories of My Melancholy Whores, will be published in Spanish on Wednesday, a week before the original launch date. All this because of pirates!

But actually, this is so flattering for a writer!

Garcia himself has talked about it in one of his interviews. Garcia, on his maiden trip to the US, found a pirated copy of one of his novels at a pavement bookstall. He said that that day he realized that he had arrived as a writer.

I don't know if Marquez will have the same view on piracy even today. At least his publishers won't appreciate this.

Asses, Man Booker Prize, BJs, and Lermontov

My friend Shakeel writes about asses in one of his latest posts. Like all men who have fire in their loins, he too loves watching asses. And so he is courteous--opens doors for ladies, walks a few steps behind them to take a good view of their backroom assests. Staircases and escalators are good places to watch asses at eye level, he says.

He says Chinese women don't have asses.
The Indians are generally over endowed in this department(I guess Shakeel had Punjabis in mind).
The Malays fall here and there.

For raunchier details, go read his blog (

Shakeel's discussion on asses reminded me of a passage in Rushdie's Fury. The novel is a flop but Professor Solanka is a damn interesting character. At one point, Solanka talks about Blow Jobs in the US and in UK. In the US, Bjs are integral to the act of congress, mostly pre-coital acts. In UK, it is the opposite. One, it is rare. Two, it is post-coital. In the UK, a bj is an expression of deeper intimacy. It is beyond coitus.

Didn't know this. Anyone to corroborate or contradict Rushdie on this?

In Singapore, there is a massage parlour in the vicinity of Geylang, the (in)famous red light district. Know what is it called? "BJ Massage Parlour." Can you get more suggestive?

Anyway, today the Man Booker Prize has been announced (or was it last night?). The winner is Alan Hollinghurst. He got it for his satire of the 1980s Tory government, The Line of Beauty. The novel also explores the gay scene in the 80s in UK. I am looking forward to read this novel which has been praised in no uncertain terms: "The search for love, sex and beauty is rarely so exquisitely done". Impressive!

I haven't read the Russian writer Lermontov but my interest was piqued in his work by an essay by Ravi Vyas. He discusses Lermontov's novel A Hero of Our Time. A passage about the novel says exactly what I too wrote in my first novel.

"At the age of 25 (as he is in the book) he has experienced all that life has to offer and found nothing that gives him more than a passing satisfaction or interest. He sees that life has let him down, failed to provide for him some cause that would be worthy of his superior powers."

I had expressed a similar view. My hero didn't find anything interesting in the world after 25. After walking on the earth for a qaurter of a century, all you get is repeats. Life becomes a burden, a bag of repeats and returns. There is no wonder left.

That is the tragedy of life after 25.

Vyas has made a nice character study. Pechorin, the hero of Lermontov's classic novel, A Hero of Our Time is that typical Russian character whose pursuit of an inner life in the ardent pursuit of knowledge for its own sake makes him a "superfluous man" — a man whose superior talents set him apart from the mediocre society but doomed to waste his life partly through lack of opportunity but because he lacks any real purpose or strength of will.

Pechorin, the hero, is a strong, silent man with a poetic soul who, either from shyness or a contempt for the herd, especially the aristocratic herd, assumes the mask of a snob and a bully. Unlike the classic type of "superfluous men" who opt out of society, Pechorin is a strong character at odds with the world. He is proud, ambitious, strong-willed but having found that life does not measure up to his expectation of it, he has grown embittered, cynical and bored. At the age of 25 (as he is in the book) he has experienced all that life has to offer and found nothing that gives him more than a passing satisfaction or interest. He sees that life has let him down, failed to provide for him some cause that would be worthy of his superior powers. So, he is reduced to dissipating his considerable energies to petty adventures. And he embarks on his adventures with no illusions that he was doing no more than a temporary escape from boredom.

The only comfort Pechorin has is his conviction of his own perfect knowledge and mastery over life. You could call it intellectual arrogance; he therefore despises emotions and prides himself on the supremacy of his intellect over his feelings. "The turmoil of life has left me with few ideas, but no feelings," he tells his friend, Dr. Werner and to prove it he rides roughshod over the feelings of other people. His total insensitivity for the comfort and happiness of other people is repeatedly demonstrated in the novel and his victims are lucky if they get off with a broken heart (as Vera and Princess Mary), the less fortunate (Bela and Grushniksky) pay with their lives.

The essay ends with these words:

Pechorin-type figures can be found everywhere, past, present and future. "This is how the hero of our time must be," Lermontov wrote. "He will be characterised either by decisive inaction, or else by futile inactivity." You can find them here if you look closely. Intellectuals, bureaucrats, politicians — the power elite who follow closely the grand conspiracy of Pechorin style: "Each side tells the other what the other wants to hear." So nothing happens.

Nothing happens. That's the truth.

Thursday, October 14, 2004


Moni sent me this piece on Friends. The writer's observations are honest, and I can see the pain of losing friends in her writing.

An image from Speilberg's "The Terminal" flashed across my mind. Victor (Tom Hanks) lost in the airport and without a manageable command of English tries to learn the language better. He compares the lines between a Lonely Planet Guide of New York in his native language and in English. He finds the word "Friends" and gets excited. One can see a still from the TV drama "Friends" on the page.

Friendship is so exciting. It fills us with an uncanny happiness. It makes our lives fulfilled in a manner otherwise impossible. Friendship offers us an individuality that is unique to us.

And yet, Friendship is so arduous to maintain these days. There are many factors that you can read in the article below. And we feel so helpless.

British writer Virginia Woolf once said: 'I have lost friends, some by death - others by sheer inability to cross the street.'

I also wrote a story on the loss of friends: Thank You, Friends (Crimsonfeet, Vol.2). Maybe you come across it sometime. If you do, do let me know what do you think about it.

Here are the excerpts from the article. Enjoy!

"SUNNY, one of my dearest friends at work, will leave The Straits Times next month for greener pastures. He is not my first friend from the office to say goodbye. Over the years, there have been a handful of colleagues who became friends. In recent times, at least three others have also left. When Sunny told me that he was leaving, I moaned: 'With you gone, I will have hardly any friends left in the office!'

Which set me thinking: At what point does an acquaintance or colleague become a friend?

If a friend is defined as someone I feel completely comfortable calling up at 3 am to bail me out of trouble - and Sunny will do so - then, alas, I don't have that many friends.

But then, maybe that's plenty. As someone once said, one friend in a lifetime is much, two are many, three are hardly possible. FRIENDSHIPS are different from relationships - and thank goodness for that.

You can be great chums with your partner, of course, but a relationship is so much more complex. It is not only about that enrapturing feeling called love, but - if you are unlucky - also a host of murky emotions like jealousy, resentment, anger, pain and despair. Friendship is simpler and fills you, mostly, with harmless Type B emotions - kindliness, fondness, warmth and cordiality. With a lover, you make demands and have expectations. But with a friend, you're cool. You don't really owe him anything, or have to explain much, because, ultimately, you demand nothing more from each other than pleasant company and an occasional listening ear.

Love, I read somewhere, is blind, but friendship closes its eyes. How true. THE older I get, the more I value friends. Yet, ironically, I find that it is now not only harder for me to maintain old friendships, but also to form new ones. When I was in school, friendships came naturally.

My friends and I moved in a pack - we ate, studied, gossiped and partied together. We exchanged secrets and gifts, sent cards and gave treats. Our friendships were firm, and sweet. Coming from an all-girls school, I didn't get to make male friends until I was in junior college. Initial shyness aside, I found that it was possible to have a platonic relationship with a guy, and that they made equally good friends. By the time I went to university, I was already attached, and had little time to make new friends, male or female. Then came working life. Through sheer proximity and the amount of time spent together, it was inevitable that some colleagues became more than co workers.

What is it that allows you to become friends with some people, and not others? Shared experience is one requisite, and the sharper it is, the better. For Sunny and I, it was our years spent pounding the same beat, politics. That X factor called 'chemistry' is another, and I suppose this explains how you can be firm friends with people who are very different from you. THE saddest thing about friendship is that it can die. It doesn't come with a lifelong guarantee.

Distance is one killer. Unless you are diligent in keeping in touch with a friend, being far away can drive a wedge in your relationship. Changes in circumstance is another. It has been said that a friend in power is a friend lost, and I have found this to be true. When a friend moves up in life, he will become too busy for you, while you don't want to risk rejection by trying to keep in contact with him.

Marriages have also caused friendships to fade as your spouse might not take to your friends. Then there are friendships that die because they have simply run their course. I had a close female friend whom I had known since we were both 17. About four years back, after 16 years of keeping in touch through the mail, long hours on the phone and giggly lunches, our friendship died. Just like that.

There was no quarrel, no disagreement, no underlying unhappiness or animosity or hurts. The plug was just pulled. The last time we saw each other was at lunch - in fact, it was to celebrate her birthday. We were our usual loud selves. After the meal, we gave our usual hug, said our usual cheery goodbyes and made our usual promise to meet again. We didn't call each other for weeks (which was normal, as we were both busy), then months (which began to feel a bit strange, but nothing to be alarmed about), then, yes, years (by then, it was too late to resuscitate the friendship). We did talk once, last year, when my father died and she called. I was grateful to hear from her and I know it took a lot for her to pick up the phone after so many years. I wish nothing but the best for her, and am always glad to hear from mutual friends that she is well. Yet, I know that if we were to bump into each other today, it would feel awkward. IF I value friendship so much, why don't I just go forth and make more friends?

It is easier said than done. People my age and older are busy with careers and family. I have fewer things in common with those younger. But the fault is mine. At my age, I lack the energy and enthusiasm. Starting and maintaining a friendship might be far less arduous than a relationship, but it still requires effort. Do I have the strength for that on top of the other demands in my life? So, next month, I say goodbye to Sunny and I am left with one friend fewer at work. British writer Virginia Woolf once said: 'I have lost friends, some by death - others by sheer inability to cross the street.'

Remember that we pass this way only once. "The hardest part in loving a person from a distance is not being able to hold her hand and embrace her tight and tell her how much you love her - because you are only a friend."

Sumitha Bennet

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Nobel for Literature

In the recent years, each year the Nobel Prize for Literature introduces us to a new writer in some corner of the earth. And soon, we dig up and translate his/her writings into English (and 20 other languages) and find so many virtues in it.

Elfriede Jelinek, this year's winner, is not only unknown in the world; not many people in her own country, Austria, have heard her name. Those who have read her don't really like her work much.

I liked what Bob Corbett said about her in The Guardian recently:

"I seethed, but I read on and on. Jelinek took me by storm, since I had to recognise these were very real people. True, they didn't live in my neighbourhood, but I knew they were legion. I pride myself on being a realist and was taken aback by my repulsion. I had to deal with that. I had to come to terms with Jelinek.

For me, that's what a great artist does. She sees the world, some corner of the world, and reveals it to the rest of us in her medium. I want to know my world, but I need the stimulation and challenge provided by artists, and Jelinek has become very important to me in my later years."

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Assessing Mulk

I had read Mulk's Coolie. It read so Indian. I had the same feeling reading R K Narayan. It all had seemed translated from one of the Indian vernaculars. Mulk's from Punjabi and Urdu, Narayan's from Tamil (I can make that out: a Tamil-literate person concurred with me on this).

By Indian, I don't mean the theme. It is of course Indian. I am talking about the tone and tenor, the voice of the narrative.

Reading one of my stories, a certain (well-known) writer commented that my stories don't read like one written by an Indian. That is to say, I am missing my Indian voice. He added that I might take it as a compliment but he did not mean it that way. Actually, I don't mind. I want a voice that most readers can associate with.

Here's Kushwant's colorful sketch on Mulk Raj Anand who recently passed away:

"Way back in the Forties, a few friends with literary ambitions formed a circle which met once a week to read poems and stories we had written. It was a mutual admiration society where whisky glasses were refilled after each recitation. We heard of Indian writers Mulk Raj Anand and R.K Narayan making good in England. Eagerly we laid our hands on their books and discussed them in our meetings.

We were a conceited lot and generally agreed that if Mulk Raj and Narayan could find publishers abroad, so could we. When Mulk visited Punjab, he agreed to come to our meetings. He expected to be lionised. He was visibly put off by the cool reception he got. ôYou chaps donÆt know what it takes to write a novel,ö he snapped. ôTalk to me after you have had one accepted by a publisher.ö He had every right to snub us.

My view of Mulk and Narayan has not changed over the years. Both were indeed pioneers of Indo-Anglian fiction in their own way, prolific in their output, but were mediocre craftsmen. MulkÆs novels were propaganda stuff with a sheen of fiction: Untouchable, Coolie, Two Leaves and a Bud. They were designed to rouse the conscience of readers to the indignities inflicted by the well-to-do on the poor and make the British feel guilty about colonialism.

He was duly lauded by British Liberals and Leftists. Narayan was content to remain a story-teller, combining simple themes about people living at a leisurely pace in an imaginary small town, Malgudi. He was more widely acclaimed than Mulk. One thing both had in common was being pioneers.

Mulk was born in Peshawar on December 12, 1905, but spent his formative years in Amritsar. He was short, with a mop of curly hair and a pouting lower lip. He was never at a loss for words and could hold forth by the hour, often waffling ôthuth, thuthö when he was worked up. Even when addressing meetings where every speaker was given ten minutes, Mulk would go on rambling for half-an-hour. He often dwelt at length on how his father often beat his mother, and what effect it had on him as a child. He never forgave his father and was diagnosed by no less a psychiatrist than Sigmund Freud as suffering from an acute mother-fixation.

Mulk was proud of being an Indian, of IndiaÆs great legacy of art, sculpture, painting, architecture, ways of living and etiquette. Once in a ghazal concert in London, he sat in the first row and applauded the singer at the end of every couplet and was acknowledged by a polite salaam. No one else knew it was the proper thing to do. An English friend I had taken with me asked me in whisper, ôWho is that little fellow who keeps barking æwow, wowÆ, while the fellow is singing?ö I told him who Mulk was and that he was saying æWah! Wah!Æ.

Although Mulk spent some time with Gandhiji at his ashram, he was much closer to the Communist Party in his politics. He was closely affiliated to the Progressive Writers Association and the PeopleÆs Theatre group. This made him anathema to Right-wingers. Once he was foolish enough to become an easy target for them. He was invited by the Evergreen Review of New York to write a long article on the erotic in Indian art. A week after the article appeared, profusely illustrated with pictures, the magazine received a legal notice from Prof. Campbell of Sarah Lawrence College of New York alleging that the article had been lifted from his translation from German on the same subject. Poor Mulk was asked to elucidate. He took great pains trying to exonerate himself. This was good enough for Communist-baiter Dosu Karaka, editor of Current, to splash the news on the front page of his weekly tabloid with the headline ôCommie writer caught plagiarisingö. It took months for Mulk to be able to appear in public.

I visited Mulk a couple of times in his ground floor flat on Cuffe Parade in Mumbai. He had a specially designed high chair with a slab in front to place his papers to write. Though no Casanova, women of different nationalities were drawn to him like moths to a flame. He was a celebrity and they enjoyed being seen with him. He married more than twice and had several lady friends.

MulkÆs lasting legacy is Marg, a magazine devoted to the arts financed by the Tatas. It had, and has, a limited circulation, but is unique in being the only one on the subject and is of high quality. He received awards, including the Sahitya Akademi Award and a Padma Bhushan. His words counted a great deal in official circles, particularly among senior babus who knew no more than the titles of his books, but were awed by his reputation. He was able to persuade them to make grants for writersÆ homes in Delhi and Lonavala. Usually he was the sole occupant of these homes.

What I have written may not sound like a tribute to a celebrated author. For this I crave pardon from MulkÆs admirers. But when I heard of his death in Pune on Sept. 28 at the age of 99, I was overcome with grief. I may not have held him in great esteem as a writer, but I recall him with great affection."


From Kolatkar's Kala Ghoda

"...Your sari wears a grin/where your buttocks have sucked it in."
"Which sets us all back by a good ten seconds.
It isn’t just your sari,
It’s time itself that feels the pinch"


"And I find myself a prisoner once again,
wearing a stone collar around my neck,
in Bombay instead of Baghdad,
with no hope this time
of ransom or rescue,
and forced to watch
the slow disintegration of a city
I cared about more than any other."


"unable to recognise her own
one-room apartment in Baniocha, near Warsaw,
where she’s the only Jew left.
She stares at the matzos on the table,
like her own 90-year-old skin,
and wonders where they came from;
and what happened
to everybody."

This is what we need to do

This is for Shakeel and Dina:

"Sometime in late 1974, Adil Jussawalla, Gieve Patel, Arun Kolatkar and I decided to form a small publishing co-op. The reason for setting it up was that though each of us had a manuscript of poems ready, there were, then as now, no publishers to send the manuscripts to. We called the co-op Clearing House. Half the money for it came from our own pockets, the rest through a pre-publication offer:

Rs 25 fetched you the set. We also shared the labour the best we could, though most of the leg work was done by Jussawalla.

The books, which appeared in 1976, had a square format with black end-papers and were designed by Kolatkar. The cover of Jussawalla's Missing Person showed a man in an overcoat, with the face out of focus; Patel's How Do You Withstand, Body, a kite, a man's bare chest framed in it; Kolatkar's Jejuri, an embossed image of Khandoba and his wife Mhalsa on a horse; and my Nine Enclosures, nine glass paperweights, each viewed from a different angle. Jejuri won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize 1977 and quickly went out of print. Today it is perhaps the only book of poems the English-speaking Indian might have heard of, apart from Tagore's Gitanjali."

More here:,00120001.htm

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan

I have never been to Bombay, err Mumbai. That's a confession, and I am really ashamed. But I can't do anything but to blame the circumstances about this deprivation.

But I love Bombay already.

Like millions of Indians who eat and breathe Hindi cinema, Bombay is a city after my heart. It is a part of my consciousness. The big city as I know it (I come from a mofussil town) took birth in the crevices of my imagination through Hindi films only until I saw one in reality (Delhi, and later Calcutta too).

"Zara hat ke, zara bach ke, yeh hai Bombay meri jaan..."

"Bombay se aaya mera dost, dost ko salam karo..."

"Bum bum bum Bambai, Bambai hum ko jam gayi..." (that incorrigible Govinda ditty!)

I remember the romantically poignant and materialistically heartless Bombay of Guru Dutt (Pyaasa, Kaaghaz ke Phool, Mr. & Ms 55), the socialistically polemical Bombay of Raj Kapoor (Shri 420 and Awara), the gangster-led and communally-charged Bombay (and its underbelly) of so mnay others: Ram Gopal Varma (Satya and Company), Mani Rathnam (Bombay), and so many Amitabh Bachchan-Manmohan Desai movies of the 70s and 80s. Then the middle class movies like Katha, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, Dharavi, and so many Amol Palekar movies... Bombay is an indelible part of my memories.

All this nostalgia began because of Suketu Mehta's "Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found."

See, the very title is like the lost and Found formula of Manmohan Desai. This much talked about nonfiction is Mehta's Tigerwoodsian debut. Amitava Kumar says: "Maximum City (is) an extraordinary debut--a debut that will rival Arundhati Roy's in fiction." (

Here are some of the points that caught my attention in the book:

Mehta writes, "With 14 million people, Bombay is the biggest city on the planet of a race of city dwellers. Bombay is the future of urban civilization on the planet. God help us."

"There will soon be more people living in the city of Bombay than on the continent of Australia."

"The notion of what is a luxury and what is a basic need has been upended in Bombay," he writes. "Every slum I see in Jogeshwari has a television; antennas sprout in silver branches above the shanties. Many in the middle-class slum have motorcycles, even cars. People in Bombay eat relatively well, too, even the slum dwellers. The real luxuries are running water, clean bathrooms, and transport and housing fit for human beings."

Maximum City is also a memoir of migration across cities. At one point, Mehta describes how when he was in high school, his father had shouted at him, "When you were there, you wanted to come here. Now that you're here, you want to go back." This was in New York, but it doesn't really matter; it could have been Bombay. The episode made Mehta aware of a truth about himself: "It was when I first realized I had a new nationality: citizen of the country of longing."

Consider the Bombay beer bars where "fully clothed young girls dance on an extravagantly decorated stage to recorded Hindi film music, and men come to watch, shower money over their heads, and fall in love." The world of the beer bar is unique to Bombay, Mehta writes, "and for me it is the intersection of everything that makes the city fascinating: money, sex, love, death, and show business."

"On a good night a dancer in a Bombay bar can make twice as much as a high-class stripper in a New York bar. The difference is that the dancer in Bombay doesn't have to sleep with the customers, is forbidden to touch them in the bar, and wears more clothes on her body than the average Bombay secretary does on the broad public street."

"The food and the water in Bombay, India's most modern city, are contaminated with shit. Amebic dysentery is transferred through shit. We have been feeding our son shit."

One of Mehta's informants is Prahlad Kakkar, who made Bumbay, "a film about shitting in the metropolis." Kakkar explains, "Half the population doesn't have a toilet to shit in, so they shit outside. That's five million people. If they shit half a kilo each, that's two and a half million kilos of shit each and every day. The real story is what you don't see in the film. There are no shots of women shitting. They have to shit between two and five each morning, because it's the only time they get privacy."

A young, homeless poet from Bihar tells Mehta that "the footpath is the friend of the poor" because it provides so many people a place to sleep on; this youth finds it remarkable that ditch water, black with sewage, is used to grow spinach in Bombay.

All this reminds me of Raj Kapoor from 'Shri 420'. He, upon his arrival in Bombay, is appalled to learn that he would have to pay Rs. 1.50 just to grab a place on the footpath to spend his night!

50 years later, the scenario remains unchanged. That is the tragedy of Bombay and of India.

"Here are a few statistics from Suketu Mehta's stunning new book, Maximum City. In some parts of Bombay, you can find 1 million people in a single square mile. Two million of the city's residents lack access to latrines, and the air has 10 times the maximum permissible levels of lead (to breathe it in, as 5 million or more living on the streets do every second, is equivalent to smoking 2 1/2 packs of cigarettes a day). An unusually large number of criminals are either shot in "encounters" or tortured to death in detention in Bombay; four years ago, only 4% of criminal offenses saw convictions. The courts of India had, at the turn of the century, a backlog of 25 million cases. At the present rate, these would take 350 years to clear."

The real import behind Mehta's tome has been captured by Pico Iyer in Time Asia (includes the above para):

"I read Mehta's book, by chance, a few weeks ago in Rio de Janeiro, where 700 favelas, or officially designated slums, spread across the hillsides and seem ready to mud-slide down and swallow up the Sheraton hotel and the condo blocks beneath them. According to one Brazilian friend, 400,000 people arrive at the city's bus station every year, seeking a new life, only to find that all the jobs and houses—and lives—have been taken up by others like themselves. They can survive only by joining the underworld, and a child is seen as irresponsible if he goes to school when he could be supporting his parents by running drugs. If the population of Bombay continues to double every 10 years, it will eclipse that of Italy by the year 2015, says Mehta. We may dream to ourselves of the beauties of a "global village." But then we wake up to the reality that we're stranded in a planetary metropolis."

Art and Poverty

A friend popped up the question: "Is it necessary that an artist must be poor, so poor that he does not even know where his next meal is coming from, to create great art?"

It is, undoubtedly, a profound question.

Actually, hiding behind a lot of flesh and fat, it is a marxist quest, an issue of dielectics.

It basically says: Are matter (food/resources:thesis) and aesthetics (art: anti-thesis) compatible (systhesis)? Can they go hand in hand? Is their synthesis possible? Will the existence of one weaken the soul of the other?

A Marxist would say that creating great art in the capitalist system is not possible. He simply would not take it as a great art. But, under the socialist system, he would argue, creation of true art is easily possible. The artist no more faces the dilemma.

In the marxist utopia, the perfect human being will be able to creat great art as well as a great piece of furniture.

Marxism is gone for now. So this angle is obsolete for discussion.

The other aspect of the issue is art, and great art. Who makes the difference between the two? Who are the judges? Who appoints them?

The Nobel Committe? The Booker Prize Judges?

I know only two things: art and kitsch.

And I am my own judge when it comes to art.

Back to the polemic. Personally, I don't think one need to be poor in order to create art, great or ordinary. Writing and art have mostly been the preserve of the rich and the endowed. Like romance, writing is the privilege of the rich, and not the profession of the unemployed and the poor.

Poor people also take to writing. Most fail. It needs perseverance. It is hard work. And those who start poor and succeed, become rich. Then they shouldn't be able to write again. But writers, rich or poor, write. That is their business.

Many a great writer wrote for reasons other than art. Dostoevsky wrote in order to keep up with his gambling debts.

Then, Dostoevsky said: "Suffering is the origin of consciousness."

Artists know uncanny ways to make themselves suffer. Born rich or poor, they know how to invite suffering. And suffer they do, and in return, gain a consciousness, an insight and a clairvoyance that makes their art timeless.


Poverty is not a sine qua non for art's creation. Suffering is.

Many writers invite suffering in order to practice their craft. Naipaul resolved not to do anything other than writing as a vocation (With an Oxbridge degree, he would have got a plum job). He suffered for this decision. He never did a job except for writing radio scripts for BBC for some time. So he suffered on. But he did not give up. At times, he was penniless. Then he got book deals and a couple of years later, made his millions.

This debate reminds me of Kafka's story "The Hunger Artist." In a circus, a hunger artist practices a dying art--the art of the hunger artist. He goes without food for months. People see him in a cage and get excited. Then one day he dies. His cage is replaced with the cage of a tiger. Now the tiger excites the visitors. Life goes on.

Like Kafka's Hunger Artist, the true artist is dead today. What remains is marketing and hype. Today's artists are bred and managed like brands.

And like Naipaul said--today's technological society does not need writers. It is a poignant truth.

We are today's Hunger Artists in the world of digital tigers.

Tackling Radical Islam

These days, more often than not, ideas about Islamic radicalism overwhelm my mind. The killings, the beheadings, the tortures--from Iraq to Beslan to Darfur--is so humiliating for me as a Muslim. And how do I react? What do I say? I have been wanting to write something on this. Needs research and time.

Liked the following stuff from Anirudhha Bahal's opinion piece in Outlook:

"Osama bin Laden, Zarchawi and others. These Arab Bismarks hate the west more than they wish to live. It's also time to rethink the view that Al Qaeda and co are reincarnations of some medieval djinn. They aren't. Radical Islam is now a globally transportable ideology stemming primarily from the belief that a new world order can be crafted by a theatrical display of force. The idea that it can so be possible is an influence of radical European belief and not Islamic thought. It's a byproduct of globalisation.

Says John Gray in Al Qaeda and What it Means To Be Modern, "Anyone who doubts that revolutionary terror is a modern invention has contrived to forget modern history. The Soviet Union was an attempt to embody the world without power or conflict. In pursuit of this ideal it killed, enslaved tens of millions. Nazi Germany committed history's worst acts of genocide. It did so with the aim of breeding a new type of human being. No previous age harboured such projects. The gas chambers and the gulag are modern."

And so are the beheadings set to Quranic chants. Right now, the only weapon of choice we seem to have against the terror that radical Islam wields is military power. But if our battle against terrorism has to be made more sophisticated, we have to realise sooner than later that the greatest tool at our disposal is the piety, decency, and courage of the world's vast majority of Muslims. Beslan might be a catalyst for that introspection—on both sides."

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Liked This Review

I guess it was Tarun Tejpal who said--scratch an Indian and you will find a novelist.

And who said, scratch a Russian and you will find a farmer? Was it in the movie Dr. Zhivago?

Read on...

The Magic of Facts

Amitav Ghosh's latest novel proves once again the delight of discovering esoteric information

Sometimes you have to wonder if everyone in India is writing a novel. In New Delhi, for instance, the roster of published novelists includes newspaper editors, gossip columnists, ex-bureaucrats, housewives, college teachers, advertising executives, a former Prime Minister and the present spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs. A trip to the fiction section of any Indian bookstore will show that Indians are churning out novels like chapatis these days; shelf after shelf bursts with paperbacks telling of the alienation and loneliness of Indians who've moved to America, the depression and misery of Indians who haven't, the stupendously complicated family lives of Indians everywhere, not to mention big feasts, tearful weddings, romping elephants—the works.

But walk over to the nonfiction shelf of the bookstore, and you have gone from feast to famine. When it comes to writing about the history, anthropology or art history of their civilization, Indians are, by and large, appallingly unproductive. The best book on the history of Delhi was written by a foreigner, William Dalrymple. The best biography of the Indian director Satyajit Ray was written by another foreigner, Andrew Robinson. At a time when more and more Indians are writing fiction that gets read in America and England, a disproportionate amount of the informative and scholarly work on India still gets outsourced to Americans and Britons. The sovereign obsession of middle-class India, it would seem, is to be entertained, not to be informed. And that is why Amitav Ghosh might well be the most important Indian novelist writing in English today.

Many of Ghosh's fans regard his best book as In an Antique Land, a work of nonfiction that explored the relationship between a medieval Indian slave and his Egyptian master. Since its publication in 1992, the Oxford-educated student of anthropology has mostly stuck to fiction, but each of his past few novels has been a Trojan horse of nonfiction—full of interesting facts about an academic discipline (science, anthropology, history, semiotics) that most of his countrymen would have been loath to learn about if it were not sugar-coated in fiction. The Calcutta Chromosome was brimming with details about genetics and malaria; The Glass Palace explored the colonial history of Burma and India; and The Hungry Tide, Ghosh's latest novel, contains long digressions into cetology—the study of marine mammals.

The Hungry Tide is set in the Sundarbans, a swampy archipelago in the Indian state of West Bengal, which has by way of tourist attraction the dual charms of man-eating tigers and cyclonic storms. Wading into the marshlands are Piya, an Indian-American marine biologist looking for a rare dolphin that might inhabit its waters, and Kanai, a bored rake from Delhi on the lookout for a more common sort of catch—a lonely American. Things go topsy-turvy for Kanai when Piya decides her search for the dolphin will need the expert guidance of Fokir, a silent, brooding local fisherman who exudes immense sexual charisma. This irritates Kanai, who tries to prove to Piya that talkative, urbane men aren't short on sexual charisma, either. The three of them head off on a boat to find a few dolphins. Sexual tension piles up, and myriad facts about the wondrous history of the Indian swampland are learned by all. Just when you think Piya and Kanai and the silent, brooding, vaguely Conradian Fokir will wander up and down the swamp forever, tigers begin to appear along the swamp, warning you that a climax is coming; it arrives in the form of a cyclone that sweeps the archipelago and kills one of the main characters.

Ghosh is not yet a great writer. He lacks the intoxicating, Dionysian power of Salman Rushdie at his best, and the craftsmanship of Rohinton Mistry—his only real co-passengers in the first-class cabin of Indian novelists—but he can do what they can't: leave you feeling two or three IQ points smarter by the end of one of his novels. And with his passion for subjects like marine biology, Ghosh remains his nation's best hope when it comes to getting tens of thousands of fiction-glutted Indians to read something mind broadening. The next announcement by Amitav Ghosh that he has a new novel to present to his countrymen—with multitudes of unexpected data tucked inside, ready to overwhelm even the most information-resistant reader with a sense of the magic of facts—will rank as the most important event in India's literary calendar that year.

Source: Time Asia, Sept. 13, 2004

Monday, October 04, 2004


Can you believe that the following authors indulged in self-publishing at one point of their career?

Mark Twain
Stephen Crane
Benjamin Franklin
Virgina Woolf
Rudyard Kipling
George Bernard Shaw
James Joyce
Walt Whitman
John Grisham
William Blake
WEB DuBois
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
EE Cummings
Gertrude Stein
Edgar Allen Poe
Margaret Atwood
Jack Kerouac
Bolles (What color is your parachute?)
Richard Nixon
James Redfield (The Celestine Prophesy)
Thomas Hardy
TS Eliot
Stephen King
Lord Byron

Unbelievably true!!

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Brief Encounters

Snatched it and committed to memory:

"What have they got in their newspapers? Not even tits coz they haven't got even tits!"

"He said Stretch her out. Well, I thought, I know only one way of stretching her..."

Day by day I learn things about people. Trust is so easy to repose, and each time I have been stabbed in the front. But I can't carry pain for so long. I forget and move on. So many ghosts travel in my memories.

A new beginning has to be made.