Friday, December 09, 2005

My Recent Writings

All these weeks and months, I have been busy writing and publishing stories here and there. Some of my latest writings that you can check out are listed here (with links):

Indians Roar in the Lion City (Little India, USA)

Hollywood's Indian Adventures (Asia Times, Hong Kong)

From Lantern to Lights (Outlook, India)

Salaam Mira! Tribute to a Global Talent (Jamini, Bangladesh)

BTW, Jamini is an exquisite arts journal published from Dhaka with excellent articles and pictures. I was really impressed by its quality. The Mira Nair profile is not available online but if you want to read it, I could send you a pdf. So, quite a lot to delve in there. Happy reading! And comments are always welcome.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Who is Preeta Krishna?

Preeta Krishna (India) is the winner of the 2005 Commonwealth Short Story Competition (administered by the CBA or Commonwealth Broadcasting Association) for her story 'Treason', which deals with the loss of innocence in a harsh world. Three other Indian (or PIO) writers--Mareet Sodhi Someshwar (Hong Kong), Swapna Kishore and Suchitra Ramadurai--have won in the category of Highly Commended stories.

Did you know about this competition?

I guess many have not heard about it. I am sure with time and more exposure, literary prize watchers will put it under their radars as they do about the Commonwealth Writers Prize (for the novels and administered by the Commonwealth Foundation, an intergovernmental organization). Remember the controversy about the Commonwealth Writers Prize for a novel by Amitava Ghosh. Ghosh had refused to take it for political reasons.

Rushdie wrote a scathing essay on the idea of Commonwealth literature in his collection of essays, Imaginary Homelands. The title of his essay was "Commonwealth Literature does not exist." Rushdie makes his point very clear in these words:

"The nearest I could get to a definition sounded distinctly patronizing: 'Commonwealth literature,' it appears, is that body of writing created, I think, in the English language, by persons who are not themselves white Britons, or Irish, or citizens of the United States of America..."

He further says: "By now 'Commonwealth literature' was sounding very unlikable indeed. Not only was it a ghetto, but it was actually an exclusive ghetto. And the effect of creating such a ghetto was, is, to change the meaning of the far broader term 'English Literaure' ...into something far narrower, something topographical, nationalistic, possibly even racially segregationist."

One may agree or disagree with Rushdie's observations, but the fact remains that such venues are big confidence boosters for the young and fledgling writers.

Seems a lot of people from the Commonwealth countries participated in it. The winner, Preeta Krishna, is joined by twenty-five other writers from across the Commonwealth who have won prizes in the competition. Their stories are being published in a CD-Rom format.

Before you jump to type Preeta Krishna in your google search engine, let me tell you that there isn't much info on her on the net. In case you find something on her, don't forget to share it with me.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Remembering Nirmal Verma and Amrita Pritam

In the last few weeks, India lost two literary figures: eminent Hindi writer Nirmal Verma and Punjabi poetess and novelist, Amrita Pritam.

While I did not have the pleasure of reading Amrita's novels or poetry, I had the good fortune of reading some stories and novels by Nirmal Verma. For the uninitiated, Nirmal Verma is among the most significant names in contemporary Hindi literature. He shot to prominence with his first collection of short stories, Parinde ("Birds," 1959), which gave a major boost to the Nayi Kahani (New Story) movement in Hindi literature. He reinterpreted and reshaped the short story in Hindi, India’s national language. His "art powerfully communicates the elusiveness and complexities of emotions and sensibilities in a way that no narrative can," it noted. Verma has several short stories collections, novels, essays, and travelogues to his credit. I have done a profile of Verma in my latest column in Kitaab. Check it out here (see under Columnists).

For Amrita's profile, there's one by Khushwant Singh (An Stamped Ticket; Outlook) whose "uncharitable remarks" about the deceased poetess has kicked a mini literary storm in the Punjabi literary circles. Excerpts from Mr. Singh's appraisal:

"Amrita was a woman of modest education and wrote only in Punjabi. She could barely read any other language and was therefore unsophisticated in her writing. She was besotted with Bollywood. For her, the ultimate in success was to have some of her novels and short stories filmed. Her first novel to be translated from Punjabi into English was Pinjar (The Skeleton). I did the translation, purely out of love for her. I gave her all the royalties on one condition: to repay me with a candid account of her love life. She did over many sessions. The only passion she admitted to was for the film lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi whom she had never met. But she had corresponded with him. I was disappointed. "All this could be written on a postage stamp," I told her. So when she wrote her autobiography, she called it Raseedi Ticket (Postage Stamp)."

The piece gets more frank as you read further. I am not surprised as it comes from a writer who had written his own obituary!

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Roy and Bunty Aur Babli

In the recent months, a Hindi film, Bunty Aur Babli, starring the father-son duo of Amitabh Bachchan and Abhishek Bachchan, did very well on the box office in India. The critics also appreciated the film for its portrayal of the aspirations of the youth of today's middle class India. I was pleasantly surprised when Arundhati Ray quoted a line from this film in her interview in the weekly Tehelka:

"There is the danger, especially for a writer of fiction, that you can become somebody who does what is expected of you. I could end up boring myself to death... It can be maddening, and I want to say like Bunty in Bunty aur Babli, ‘Mujhe yeh izzat aur sharafat ki zindagi se bachao…’"

Save me from this life of honor and gentlemanliness!

The interview is really interesting. In fact, all of Roy's interviews are thought-provoking. She has a fascinating way of putting things together, building a context, making a point. I quote some more--my favs from the same interview.

On the politics of resistence

"The facts are there in the world today. People like Chomsky have made a huge contribution to that. But what does information mean? What are facts? There is so much information that almost all becomes meaningless and disempowering. Where has it all gone? What does the World Social Forum mean today? They are big questions now. Ultimately, millions of people marched against the war in Iraq. But the war was prosecuted, the occupation is in full stride. I do not for a moment want to undermine the fact that unveiling the facts has meant a huge swing of public opinion against the occupation of Iraq, it has meant that America’s secret history is now street talk, but what next? To expose things is quite different from being able to effectively resist things."

On fame

"At the end of the day, fame is also a gruesome kind of capitalism, you can accumulate it, bank it, live off it. But it can suffocate you, block off the blood vessels to the brain, isolate you, make you lose touch. It pushes you up to the surface and you forget how to keep your ear to the ground. "

On money

"As for money, I have tried to take it lightly. Really, I have tried to give it away, but even that is a very difficult thing to do. Money is like nuclear waste. What you do with it, where you dump it, what problems it creates, what it changes, these are incredibly complicated things. And eventually, it can all blow up in your face. I’d have been happier with Less. Yeh Dil Maange Less. Less money, less fame, less pressure, more badmashi. I hate the f***ing responsibility that is sometimes forced on me. I spent my early years making decisions that would allow me to evade responsibility; and now…"

On the culture of celebrityhood

"People are constantly in search of idols, heroes, villains, sirens — in search of individuals, in search of noise. Anybody in whom they can invest their mediocre aspirations and muddled thinking will do. Anyone who is conventionally and moderately ‘successful’ becomes a celebrity. It’s almost a kind of profession now — we have professional celebrities — maybe colleges should start offering a course.It’s indiscriminate — it can be Miss Universe, or a writer, or the maker of a ridiculous TV soap, the minimum requirement is success. There’s a particular kind of person who comes up to me with this star-struck smile — it doesn’t matter who I am — they just know I’m famous; whether I’m the ‘BookerPrizeWinner’ or the star of the Zee Horror Show or whatever is immaterial."

On failure

"In this freak show, this celebrity parade, there’s no place for loss, or failure. Whereas to me as a writer, failure interests me. Success is so tinny and boring. Everyone is promoting themselves so hard."

On search for perfection

"I think we all are just messing our way through this life. People, ideologues who believe in a kind of redemption, a perfect and ultimate society, are terrifying. Hitler and Stalin believed that with a little social engineering, with the mass murder of a few million people, they could create a new and perfect world. The idea of perfection has often been a precursor to genocide. John Gray writes about it at some length. But then, on the other hand, we have the placid acceptance of Karma which certainly suits the privileged classes and castes very well. Some of us oscillate in the space between these two ugly juggernauts trying to at least occasionally locate some pinpoints of light. "

To read the entire interview, click here.

A Converstaion with Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth is touring the world promoting his latest work, Two Lives. A few weeks ago, he was in India and lots of his interviews appeared in the Indian media. Outlook magazine even published an interview in which Seth's mother also played a part (she also wrote a book that was published one or two years ago).

Now Seth is in the US and SAJAers Sreenath Sreenivasan, SAJA co-founder and Aseem Chhabra, SAJA board member, caught him in a web, err, a live webcast! The webcast is archived here. If you would rather read the conversation, go here.

I am quoting some interesting comments here:

On A Suitable Boy: "… the publisher asked, can we have a few more foreign characters to appeal to the foreign market… that’s why I was rather surprised that the… interminable book about a rather obscure period of Indian history in the ’50s… without war, without the assassination of prime ministers, without… much in the way of sex… without even a glossary… was successful outside India…"

On how does a small town writer make him- or herself heard? "I’m sorry, I don’t really know… the first book I wrote… [describes how his dad told him to go to the library and look up publishers, and he mailed unsolicited manuscripts which died unheralded and unmourned on the slush pile]… Finally an editor looked at a chapter or two… I didn’t have an agent in the beginning, and I didn’t know how to get one… when I wrote The Golden Gate, I didn’t think I could sell something as strange as that [a novel in verse] through an agent…
Try to write what you’re [compelled] to write, not what the market tells you… the market didn’t tell me to write a 300-page novel in verse. Selling a 60-page novel in verse would have been impossible, so why 300?… my own method of entering print was rather unorthodox…"

Got the point?

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Writing is about hard work

Enjoyed reading this piece "Character Building" by Juliet Sutcliffe in The Guardian. It is about Juliet's experience of going through a Creative Writing MA course at East Anglia. Starting with enough skepticism about creative writing courses and their use, she concludes:

When I started at UEA I thought I would wholeheartedly recommend such an MA to anyone. Despite claims that all writing graduates are taught to churn out work in the same (ie the tutor's) style, nobody teaches much of anything at UEA. That's not a bad thing. But the MA is not an easy option. The sceptical journalist had it wrong: these courses are more likely to stop people writing than to foster wild fantasies about living off royalties.

An honest account. Read it here.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Blogging has its price

With Freedom Comes Responsibility

Gone are the days when one could say anything behind the anonymity of cyberspace and get away with it

Read my article on blogging in Asia in The Bangkok Times (October 25, 2005). Click over the heading to read it online.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Troubled Paradise: Kunzru on Maldives, Deepika on Bali

Novelist Hari Kunzru seems to have had a bad time in Maldives. He recently went to the tropical paradise to have a nice time in the sun and sand but came back home a lot more angry. He writes in The Guardian:

"'However,' the tourist board site goes on, 'there is more to the Maldives than just that.' Too bloody right there is, as I found out the other day when I attended a meeting of PEN, the writers' organisation that campaigns for freedom of expression, working with people around the world who've been imprisoned or otherwise abused for writing or saying things their authorities don't like."

At the meeting I heard reports of torture, imprisonment and disappearances in these 'paradise' islands..."

Bali was in news again for terrorist bombings for the second time. Another paradise in peril! But the people of Bali have decided to fight terror with books and literature. Deepika Shetty of Channel NewsAsia was in Bali recently to take part in the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival. She had a great time there, and in her report in Kitaab, she shares some interesting anecdotes about writers like Michael Ondaatjee and Nury Vittachi. Enjoy!

Monday, October 10, 2005

Crush on Krrish...Hrithik Roshan in Singapore

Anybody who reads newspapers in Singapore would know that Hrithik Roshan is in town with his helmsman father Rakesh Roshan to shoot Krrish, the sequel of his box office blockbuster, Koi Mil Gaya--a Bollywood reinterpretation of Spielberg's ET.

Hrithik is the name of a rush for Bollywood lovers. When he burst forth on the Hindi movie scene a couple of years ago with Kaho Na Pyar Hai, girls began swooning in the cinema halls and on meeting him in person. He became a superstar, challenging the three Khans--Shahrukh, Salman and Amir Khan-- who have been ruling Bollywood for more than a decade now. But soon, his films began to tank at the box office (except Mission Kashmir) and his star power decreased. He emerged a winner again with his father's Koi Mil Gaya. Now he is working on the sequel of the film. He is also doing another film, Dhoom 2 in which he plays a negative character. He is, even now, one of the most powerful stars after Amitabh Bachchan and the three Khans. Saif Khan and Amitabh's son, Abhishek, can be called his competitors who have delivered many hits this year.

On my wife's insistence, I went to see Hrithik on the sets of Krrish. When we got wind of him, he was shooting at the Expo. When we reached there, the shooting was on. Hrithik, in an orange T-shirt over a light blue shirt and white sports trousers, was reviewing his action shots on a monitor. The crew was readying the lights to shoot a reaction shot of the heroine, Priyanka Chopra, a former Miss World. She was dressed in a greenish short dress and was supposed to clap at Hrithik after one of his heroic fights. Priyanka had to give about 10 retakes for a simple reaction shot. She was being directed by Rakesh and the action director Tony Chan (?). Hrithik had done his martial arts training in Hong Kong for this film. He had already suffered injuries shooting this film in Bombay. The film was also shot in Manali for forty days, revealed one of the crew members. It will be shot again in Mumbai and will be released in June 2006.

While the scene was being set up for Priyanka, Hrithik was getting his hair blow-dried and combed. He has grown long locks for the movie. When my dare-devil wife tried to take a picture of him from the front, he still getting his hair set, Hrithik got upset. "Excuse me," he said, a little loudly, bringing a large mirror in front of his face as a cover. "Ok, ok, no problems," said my wife and moved on. She had already taken his photo.

After Priyanka's take, the crew broke for lunch. The director, the stars, the ADs, and chief technicians ate their lunch together on a makeshift dinining table. The rest of the crew sat on the floor, here and there, and had their grub, complaining about the food. Maybe they were missing their Bombay food.

Many fans had assembled by then. They all wanted to photograph Hrithik and get themselves photographed with him. Post-lunch, a lady with a child began to shoot a video of Hrithik from afar. He was still sitting around the dining table with Priyanka when he noticed this. He immediately sent an emissary asking the lady not to videograph him. He was polite though.

In the next few minutes, Hrithik allowed people to have a contact session. The crowd jumped at him--kids, men, girls and aunties. For about five minutes, everyone got a chance to get a picture with Hrithik and Priyanka. It was an amazing moment. I had never seen fans mob a star before, and it all felt so surreal. The stars who were, till a few minutes ago, not even looking at the bystanders, were now all smiles for the cameras. That is showbiz.

I shot my wife beside Hrithik and Priyanka too. Her pilgrimage was over. We returned home.

On the way, my wife asked me: "Why didn't you get photographed with Htrithik and Priyanka?"

"Because I am not star struck," I said.

In fact, I was. Maybe only a little but I sure was. I was crazy about Bollywood stars, my demigods, when I was a kid. With time, the charm of Bollywood has worn off. And so has the magnetism of Bollywood stars for me. My demigods have changed.

Rushdie and Zadie

"The great silliness in the name of quality fiction"

Salman Rushdie, being what he is, is still being reviewed on the pages of lit mags. People are reviewing not only Shalimar The Clown but also judging and reassessing Rushdie as a storyteller, and what kind of road he (his pen) has taken since he became famous after the fatwa. Since his novel is out of the Booker race, it has become easier for the critics to rip apart the master. Surprisingly, I have not seen as many reviews of Coetzee's The Slow Man as of Rushdie's Shalimar The Clown. I don't understand why.

In the London Review of Books, Theo Tait writes about Rushdie's novel where he devotes the first three paragraphs discussing magic realism and how irrelevant it has become today:

With time and overuse, artistic style degenerates into mannerism. This is especially true of magic realism. Following the success of Gabriel García Márquez, a flood of semi-supernatural sagas was released all over the world – full of omens, prodigies, legendary feats, hallucinatory exaggerations, fairytale motifs, strange coincidences and overdeveloped sense-organs (all accepted placidly by their characters as part of the everyday run of things). Wonder and novelty were always an important part of its appeal, so the style had a built-in obsolescence: the decline into artificial gesture and cheap exoticism was inevitable (especially when British writers imitated South Americans, as they often used to do in the 1980s and 1990s).

The other problem with the style is its tendency to degenerate into a cosy and narrowly illustrative form of fiction, full of operatic clichés: passionate lovers, wise old women, tyrannical patriarchs – a sort of politically correct fairytale. Again, this is especially true of its anglophone variants: see the tedious fables of Jeanette Winterson, or the eccentric but warm-hearted villagers of Louis de Bernières.

These days, magic realism is deservedly out of fashion. But it’s worth remembering that it has been one of the great styles of the last fifty years...

He concludes by saying this: Shalimar the Clown will tell many readers that the recent history of Kashmir is a both a terrible tragedy and a fault-line in the modern world, which we ought to know about. This must be a good thing. But it is also a powerful testament to something completely different: the great sillinesses that are perpetrated in the name of quality fiction.

A thing of beauty

The opposite has happened in the case of Zadie Smith. With her On Beauty's inclusion in the Booker longlist, she has been winning rave reviews all over (I'm not saying it is because of that nomination). I am not going to discuss the merits of her latest novel here but it seems that the Booker nomination has done her book a lot of good. Remember, her novel was released later and had already got longlisted before it appeared in the market. In Rushdie's case, the book had come weeks before the nomination and many had already trashed it in the media.

Anyway, Frank Kermode has given her novel a balanced thumbs up in the same issue of LRB. He says:

What makes this novel a bit unusual is that it is conceived as an act of homage to E.M. Forster, ‘to whom’, the author writes, ‘all my fiction is indebted, one way or the other’. The acknowledgment is obscure and ‘one way or the other’ could, but probably doesn’t, mean ‘both by attraction and repulsion’. To take as a model Howards End, a novel published in 1910, need not be a mere game or stunt, but it does tend to steal the limelight of critical attention.

Read the full review here.

Changing hands

I recently read in a London newspaper that the ownership of Granta has changed hands, and so has that of the Times Educational Supplement. One of the rumours is about the folding up of the Times Literary Supplement. It has about 30,000 subscribers only. It will either die or will undergo some changes. Only time will tell but they say change is the unchangeable law of nature.

India's Literary Fortunes: Of Hemingway, Dons and Dollars

Hemingway and India?

There is hardly any connection, you'd say. Yes, that was right until now. Hemingway's last novel, Under Kilimanjaro, has an Indian character. I am yet to see the novel but I hope the Mr. Singh's role in this work will be better and meatier than the one played by Kabir Bedi (a bit role) in Out of Africa, a film based on the writings (and life) of Danish noblewoman and storyteller Karen ('Isak') Dinesen Blixen.

Here's the news: Under Kilimanjaro, Ernest Hemingway’s last novel that hit bookstores this month, has an Indian character.The 850-page manuscript was kept in a Cuban bank. It saw the light of day on September 27 — more than 44 years after Hemingway’s death in 1961.

Under Kilimanjaro, based on Hemingway’s experiences of an African safari months before he received the Nobel Prize in 1954, was released at a simple ceremony at Grand Forks in North Dakota, where its editor, Robert W Lewis, is based.
For more, go here.

Million Dollar Baby

But here is a bigger news (thanks Kitabkhana) : Indian novelist, Vikram Chandra, has landed a million dollar deal for his new novel, featuring Inspector Sartaj Singh and the Mumbai underworld. The novel is 800 pages long. Now I know what Chandra was doing while his friend, and co-writer of Mission Kashmir, was penning his Maximum City.

Here is the news: "...The Commonwealth Prize-winner’s new novel—his third book—has earned a million-dollar advance, putting him in an exclusive club of Indian authors that includes Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy. "

"The yet-untitled oeuvre has been signed for $1.3 million for its USA and UK rights alone. “The Indian rights still have to be worked out,” he adds, speaking from his home in Berkeley, California. The book will be published by Harper Collins in the USA and Canada and Faber and Faber in the UK. "

Great news for Vikram. Three cheers!

For details, go here.

Mafia don's Unfinished Dream

A former mafia don, Babloo Srivastava who is based in India, is making his literary debut. Says the weekly, Tehelka: "...Babloo’s first shot at writing, Adhure Khwab, has created an enormous buzz even before the book hits the stands on his birthday, October 14. After all, Babloo is no ordinary man. This former Dawood aide, who ‘turned patriotic’ after the ’93 Mumbai blasts, now craves for the blood of ‘gaddar’ Dawood. That’s his khwab — to eliminate Dawood; that’s how the book got its name."

"Satish Verma, editor-publisher of Nai Sadi Prakashan believes that it was sheer good luck that he secured the rights for Babloo’s ‘crime thriller’ conceived behind bars. “The pre-publishing hype made me go for the book. After reading the draft, I was sure that it would be a rousing success. The deal was clinched in four sittings,” he says. The don gets 15 percent royalty on print order. The initial print order is of 20,000 at Rs 80 per copy; the contract is of 5 lakh copies or three years, whichever is earlier, subject to renewal."

For the writer-don, it is really going great guns! Is he going to be India's Chilly Palmer? Who knows, if Leonard Elmore read this news, his Chilly Palmer would sit down and write a bestseller, and in the process, straighten a few things out in the publishing world too. Leonard, are you reading? You don't need no research to write this one, I bet!

Ramazan Razzmatazz

The holy month of Ramzan (Ramadhan) comes with its whole shebang of rules and rituals and cirumspects many of the liberties we (Muslims) take in life for granted. Sunrise and sunset become matters of faith, and time, suddenly measured in minutes and even seconds, acquires the power of dividing the line between hunger and bellyfullness. Working amid the ebb and tide of energy, sometimes the fasting stimulates fervent action by allowing utilisation of seemingly unlimited and uniterrupted supply of time and sometimes it enforces a sagacious laziness induced by a somnolent metabolism. We are at the mercy of the mood: heightened spirituality might sometimes puncture the alacrity to read and watch. And we yield oursleves to the demand of the moment. What esle can we do?

I've been reading, between fasting and feasting, Suketu Mehta's Maximum City (I had been waiting for the paperback edition which is now out), a magnum opus on the tumultous Bomaby, Urbs Prima in Indis, and All the President's Men, Woodward and Bernstein's famous chronicle of the Watergate scandal. The latter is for a project that I am doing and the former, for sheer pleasure.

Mehta has written an eminently readable book, and if you want a fresh take on contemporary India, it's the book for you. I would go so far as to say that it is an update on Naipaul's A Million Mutinies Now, only it has much less stolidity and much more drollness. What more can you ask for in less than S$20? The most interesting chapters in the book, revealed so far to me during my random readings, are the ones on the beer bar girls and on Bollywood. Mehta has uncovered many of the shenanigans of Bollywood and the pirouetting secrets that makes its 3.5 billion global audience go mad about it. There are also stories about the mafia bullets that fly over Bollywood. It's a fascinating view of Bollywood that he had failed to give in an National Geographic cover story early this year. Now I understand why Vinod Chopra was mad at Mehta. You have to read the book to get all the juice.

I also watched a couple of movies on DVD that were on my list for a long time: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Red River, Shane, Sunset Boulevard, Million Dollar Baby. In my humble opinion, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, is the classiest western I have ever seen. Red River was impressive, especially the relationship between John Wyne and Montgomery Clift, which was so much about love, defiance and the courage of conviction. Shane was ok but I guess it stands the test of time because of its essential humaneness: a stranger--a disavowed gunslinger--comes around to help and protect a loving family from the powerful rancher thugs. Once his job is done, he leaves for another place where he could help some other needy people. Shane is the quintessential do-gooder, the Gandhi with a gun.

Sunset Boulevard is, of course, in a league of its own. What interested me most, in fact more than the angle on the life of a fading silent-era film star and themes of love, jealousy, fame, and the cruel ways of the world, was the angle on the frustrated and hapless writer. I don't view myself as a pessimistic person but I can't help thinking that it has captured the essence of being a writer, especially a failed and out-of-favour writer. The screenwriter's death, the opening and closing sequence of the film--the rest in flashback, is a sad reminder to all writers of their fate if they ever ran out of luck. The difference between success and failure can be as grim as death.

Million Dollar Baby succeeded in stirring the right emotions, and tears, at the soulful moments. Clint Eastwood has helmed the movie with perfect elan, and a certain sophistication of understanding and represting the human condition is writ on every frame of this film. The best part was the voice over by Morgan Freeman who acts as the narrator of the film. This is not a movie to perk up your mood but it might reach your soul if you open yourself to it.

I also saw a movie in a multiplex: Into the Blue. No, this was not on my list. I just wanted to be entertained. In the past few months, Hollywood has become so infantile in its content and presentations that I had been left with little or no choice. I have been avoiding the theatres for months now as no Hollywood film was strong enough to rouse my interest. To cure myself of melancholia, when I stepped into the theatre, I was to choose among The Myth, Four Brothers, Dukes of Hazzard and Into the Blue. I finally settled for Into the Blue. If not a gripping story, at least Jessica Alba's curves could hold my attention. That was guaranteed and I got more than I had expected. But that is no compensation for a good story well told. No wonder Hollywood has its worst year in 2005 in the Asian market. Hollywood watch out! Don't forget that content is the king. I don't don't know how far King Kong can save it from an ignominious year at the box office. I have my doubts.

Monday, September 26, 2005

One year of blogging, etc.

Of late I have not been blogging as frequently as I would like to. The reasons are many. However, I am glad that I could complete my blogging spree for at least one full year. Yes, I have been blogging for a year now):

And I thank all of you who have cared to come here and share a few words with me from time to time, though I never expected to make so many acquaintances through my blog. I have also enjoyed visiting other blogs though I have been very parsimonious about my comments. What you say about what others think about a particular thing is a tricky business, and to avoid misunderstandings, I have often withheld my frank opinion on many occasions. But generally, I have often benefited by the discussions and descriptions of experiences by my fellow bloggers.

Over the past twelve months many things have transpired. Many of my friends who were blogging at the time when I started have bowed out of blogosphere. I started blogging in great earnest, treating it almost as an act of penance, as I was one of the late comers to this exciting world of blogging. And I was shocked when many shut down their blogs. Without going into the intricate details, now I know why they have done so. Blogging can become a tedious exercise especially when you have to blog just because you are supposed to. And if you didn't, when you saw many active bloggers around you going full steam ahead with their blogs, a kind of guilt begins to engulf you.

In this perspective, I have now decided to go a bit slow on blogging. I will blog only when I feel like it. That is the only principle I am going follow now.

Now a little about this past week. Had been very hectic, had some writing assignments to finish, and I have nearly done that. Saw this interesting brief interview of novelist Amitav Ghosh on Channel News Asia. He gave (to the viewers) his perspective on how fiction can be created in a location like Singapore. He mostly talked about his novels and the stories behind their creation.

Watched some movies: Tom Tykwer's Heaven (very good; stylishly shot) and the Hollywood classic, Stagecoach. It is said that Orson Welles, before making Citizen Kane, watched this classic nearly forty times! Also watched Lawrence of Arabia for the second time. I was again blown away by this epic movie.

Spent my Sunday in Pulao Ubin, a beautiful little island of Singapore. Cycling, food, and a view of the sea. A memorable experience!

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Gao Xingjian in Singapore

No, the Chinese Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian will not come to Singapore but an exhibition of his paintings will be held here between Nov 17 to Feb 7 (Singapore Art Museum).

The Straits Times (Clara Chow, Life!, Sept. 17, 2005) has published an interview with this recluse who, like Milan Kundera, has been living in Paris pursuing his creativity for about two decades now. He says, "Your experiences are constantly shaped by the choices you make. My choice was freedom and creation, for which I chose Paris. And I have no regrets."

Gao has been very unwell since 2002 when he was diagnosed with a major disease causing hardening of his arteries. He has undergone two operations to survive this life-threatening condition. Ever since, he does not travel greatly. He even avoids giving interviews.

Gao has this interesting perspective on living this dual life of a painter and a writer. In the ST interview, he says: "Painting is structure and image, whereas writing is mainly language. I don't use paintings to explain my literary notions. Painting begins only when language fails."

The only other Nobel laureate, as far as I know, adept at both writing and painting was India's Rabindranath Tagore. He was even a great musician.

A little peek into Gao's life so far is instructive.

Gao was born in 1940 in China and was influenced by his parents' liberal ethos. At 10, he wrote his first novel, something on the lines of Robinson Crusoe's adventures. In 1951, he began training in oil painting under a renowned master. But on his mother's insistence, he began to learn French at the Beijing School of Foreign Languages in 1957 instead of going to the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. His mother had feared that if Gao became a painter he would end up doing the propaganda posters for the government.

A la Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, he was sent to a re-education camp during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). There he had to burn a suitcase full of his manuscripts. What a great loss to the world literature!

In the 1980s, his plays were branded anti-social and he fled to the Chinese countryside to escape political oppression. During this time, he travelled through the length and breadth of China and the result was his novel, Soul Mountain.

In 1987, he migrated to France and is now settled there as a citizen. He lives with Chinese writer Xi Ling, his partner of 15 years. During the day, he paints in his studio at home. He sleeps at least 11 hours every day. As his illness has affected his eyesight, he can't read for more than an hour at a strech, and hence, he is not able to write novels any more.

However, he has completed a verse-drama (Night's New Song) in French and a film (Silhuettes and Profiles) which he is editing now. The film has been in the making for the last 3 years.

Is he optimistic about life? No, he says. But he also beautifully sums up his approach towards life: "Intellect lies in the ability of a person to calculate how he makes the most of his limited life. And making art is the best way to survive." I love that!

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

A scene from The Bicycle Thief: A desperate Antonio is tempted to steal the unwatched for bicycle.  Posted by Picasa

The Bicycle Thief and Pather Panchali

Over the weekend, I watched Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief (1948) and Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (1955) back to back. It was an experience that I had been waiting for for most part of my life. Both the films are landmark films. In fact, Ray's Pather Panchali is said to have started the so-called art cinema movement in India. It was the first of the Apu Trilogy. The other two films of the trilogy are Aparajito (1956; The Unvanquished ) and Apur Sansar (1959; The World of Apu ). This trilogy tells the story of Apu, the poor son of a Brahman priest, as he grows from childhood to manhood in a setting that shifts from a small village to the city of Calcutta. The conflict between tradition and modernity is the interconnecting theme spanning all three films, which can be construed as portraying the awakening of India in the first half of the 20th century.

Ray has written in his My Years with Apu that he was deeply impacted by The Bicycle Thief. When he was in London, he saw this film many times over. This neorealistic film, with its downbeat story and its economy of means -- location shooting with nonprofessional actors --, convinced Ray that he should attempt to film his favorite novel, Pather Panchali . Ray had illustrated this novel by Bibhutibhushan Banerjee, and had been contemplating its cinematic possibilities after seeing De Sica's work.

Though I am not going to analyze these two masterpieces (they anyway have been done to death), what I was trying to discover through this experience was the possible influence of De Sica's work on Ray's vision. The two films do share their spirit of humanism in an atmosphere of poignancy and depict the tortures that poor people have to undergo in order to survive (the aspects of social commentary). De Sica's work is matter of fact; Ray's is poetic. I cannot forget the scene where the trembling lotus leaves herald the arrival of monsoon as well the scene where Apu and Durga discover the train. Both the films have struggling parents and innocent but astute and understanding children. Both the films end on the road, without a resolution. While Apu and his parents escape (from crushing poverty, and sadness due to Durga's death) to Benaras, Antonio and his son Bruno keep walking on the road towards an uncertain future.

The story of The Bicycle Thief develops like a chase and the audience is kept in suspense throughout. Will Antonio find his stolen bicycle? Will he get his job back? In Pather Panchali, the story develops like life itself, Harihar's family and its relationship with the neighbourhood being revealed slowly. Ray uses a lot of close ups and extreme close ups and the camera often lingers on faces to depict the moods. The music is brilliant and rooted in the culture of Bengal.

I found the last part of Pather Panchali especially relevant as it deals with the issue of migration. When the poor Brahmin family is all set to migrate to Benaras, a neighbour visits them and says: "Staying in a place for a long time makes people mean. We will also see if we can migrate."

Apu's father Harihar is a priest and writer but he finds no takers for his art. Apu's migration from poor Bengal to the literary Benaras reminds me of Naipaul's (also a Brahmin's son) escape from Trinidad to London.

De Sica's film also reminded me of Bimal Roy's classic Hindi Film Do Bigha Zameen. In its vision and philosophy, it is much more closer to The Bicycle Thief.

Rushdie's Storytelling

I thought it odd that storytelling and literature seemed to have come to a parting of the ways. It seemed unnecessary for the separation to have taken place. A story doesn’t have to be simple, it doesn’t have to be one-dimensional but, especially if it’s multidimensional, you need to find the clearest, most engaging way of telling it.

Rushdie talks about his art of writing fiction in an interesting interview in The Paris Review. He also discusses his recent novel Shalimar The Clown along the way and makes interesting points, which, I guess, many of the reviewers have missed so far:

In Shalimar, the character Max Ophuls is a resistance hero during World War II. The resistance, which we think of as heroic, was what we would now call an insurgency in a time of occupation. Now we live in a time when there are other insurgencies that we don’t call heroic—that we call terrorist. I didn’t want to make moral judgments. I wanted to say: That happened then, this is happening now, this story includes both those things, just look how they sit together. I don’t think it’s for the novelist to say, it means this.

And this is what he says about inventing and charting the destiny of the characters in Shalimar:

Something strange happened with this book. I felt completely possessed by these people, to the extent that I found myself crying over my own characters. There’s a moment in the book where Boonyi’s father, the pandit Pyarelal, dies in his fruit orchard. I couldn’t bear it. I found myself sitting at my desk weeping. I thought, What am I doing? This is somebody I’ve made up.

Go read the whole thing or better still get a copy of the magazine (as a bonus, you get a cute cover picture of Salman Rushdie as a boy in Bombay!). The online interview is incomplete.

Two Sides of Journalism

Today I came across two interesting, almost contrasting, news items in the NYT. While one talks about the loss of media consumers and advertisers in New Orleans (due to massive exodus of its residents after the Hurricane Katrina's devastation), the other talks about Yahoo setting up an exclusive multi-media website to report on wars around the world.

In the first case, an entire population has been displaced by a natural disaster, leaving the New Orleans media companies (7 TV stations!) high and dry without any audience or advertisers. In the second case, Yahoo is creating a new audience selling the powerful images of devastation brought on by war!

An Uncertain Future for Media in New Orleans

Newspapers and television stations, as many people know, have been losing readers and viewers for years. But in New Orleans over the last two weeks, when news was precious, the local media's customer base - and its advertisers - literally vanished, exiled from home in a vast diaspora beyond the reach of telemarketers and ad salesmen.

New Orleans media outlets, including The Times-Picayune and seven television stations making up the nation's 43rd-largest media market, have been left to contemplate a surreal future of unknown duration in a city devoid of functioning businesses, with no goods to advertise and almost no people to buy them. As a plaintive Times-Picayune headline put it Friday, "Few Souls Remain in Shell of a City."

And yet the owners of The Times-Picayune, which had a circulation around 270,000 before Hurricane Katrina struck, and the seven television stations, which served about 670,000 households, were unflinching in their commitment to the deluged city - making plain the difference between the manufacturers of widgets and the gatherers of news.

Yahoo Hires Journalist to Report on Wars

SANTA MONICA, Calif. - Yahoo, in its first big move into original online video programming, is betting that war and conflict will lure new viewers.

Lloyd Braun, the former chairman of ABC's entertainment group who now oversees Yahoo's expanded media group in Santa Monica, has hired Kevin Sites, a veteran television correspondent, to produce a multimedia Web site that will report on wars around the world.
Mr. Sites, who has worked as a producer and correspondent for NBC and CNN, is probably most notable for a videotape he shot for NBC of a marine shooting and killing, in a mosque in Falluja last year, an Iraqi prisoner who appeared to be unarmed. That video generated a storm of outrage in the Arab world, and spawned both a military investigation into the incident and controversy about Mr. Sites.

The Web site, called "Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone" ( will focus entirely on Mr. Sites's travels as a war correspondent and will use nearly every kind of format the Internet allows. His reports will begin Sept. 26.

Speaking of Yahoo, there is a fierce competition going on among Microsoft, Google and Yahoo to dominate the cyberspace as much as possible. The results will not only be interesting but will decisively shape the future.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Writers and Literary Success

Came across this interesting opinion piece "Coetzee and Costello" by Nilanjan S Roy. In her piece, she ponders over the question of defining success for a writer, and if one found success, how to deal with it. She says:

“Success” is an increasingly contentious term in literary circles. Should you judge a writer’s work by the size of her audience, the number of prizes she’s won, the number of column inches she commands?

Of course not, and yet to ignore the demands of success is to ignore the fact that publishing itself has changed irrevocably in this century. Can authors be manufactured?

Look around you; from the kings of self-help sagas to celeb-lit all the way up to the buffed products of creative writing courses, programmed to turn out smooth, perfect, short stories and novels at the touch of a button, the assembly line is working at speed.

Through the example of Coetzee, she shows that "the only proper response an author can offer in the age of the soundbyte and the seminar circuit is to put forward his fictions instead of himself, and let them do the talking."

"Beauty" before age: The Man Booker shortlist

By now everyone knows that Rushdie, McEwan, and Coetzee are out of the Booker shortlist. Those who've made the cut are John Banville, Julian Barnes, Sebastian Barry, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ali Smith, and Zadie Smith.

The Guardian has published a comment ruing McEwan's non-selection:

Saturday, McEwan's tale of an extraordinary day in the life of brain surgeon Henry Perowne, has widely been seen as a shoo-in for the shortlist from the date of its publication. And he was joint favourite with Julian Barnes at the longlist stage to take home the gong for the second time. Instead, he has become the shortlist's most high-profile casualty - although with previous winners Salman Rushdie and JM Coetzee also failing to make the cut, he is in very good company.

The Independent has focused on Zadie Smith in its report on the Booker shortlist:

'Beauty' before age: Zadie Smith beats veteran authors to a place on the Man Booker shortlist

The high-flying young novelist Zadie Smith made it through to the final round of the £50,000 Man Booker Prize for fiction while heavyweight rivals including previous winners - Salman Rushdie, J M Coetzee and Ian McEwan - were felled yesterday.

"...Zadie Smith was the final name on the list with her third novel, On Beauty. At 29, she is the youngest of the six by some margin. She has been living and working in America and, in an interview with the latest New Yorker magazine, condemns British culture and its "general stupidity, madness, vulgarity" as "disgusting".

Though most are betting on Barnes, I'm not sure about anything now. As Naipaul had said maybe the weirdest book will win. Zadie Smith, with her debut novel White Teeth, had been hailed as the new Rushdie. Now, it seems she has really become one.

The Guardian comment further talks about Zadie's grand entry: Unpublished at the time of the longlist announcement, it came out last week and has so far received mixed reviews; while the Observer called it "exceptionally accomplished", Peter Kemp, the Sunday Times' chief fiction reviewer instead described it as "inconsequential" and "self-indulgent".

The Independent has also published a Salman Rushdie interview with Boyd Tonkin. Apart from discussing the characters and the setting of the novel, the interview also looks at some interesting side issues such as this one:

Although Rushdie does not consider himself "part of the Muslim community", Shalimar the Clown pays a warmly eloquent tribute to the tolerant, eclectic Islam of Kashmir, the land and the faith of his grandparents. They came from that now poisoned Eden of snow-shrouded summits and flower-filled orchards, where veil-free Muslims worshipped saints (a virtual "polytheism" that shocked incoming jihadis) and Hindu Brahmins eagerly scoffed meat ("and lots of it"). As a child in Bombay, Rushdie adored his Kashmiri grandfather, who was "a devout Muslim. He had performed the Haj to Mecca. He said his prayers five times a day every day of his life. I was very close to him and he was for me a kind of model of tolerance and open-mindedness and civil discourse" - even to such a wrangling, irreverent kid. "My relationship to him was one in which everything was up for discussion, from the existence of God downwards. And that Muslim culture, of which he was a product and a very fine example, is the Muslim culture I grew up in."

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Rushdie bashing is the flavour of the season

After the great Indian literary spat (William D. vs Pankaj Mishra & Others), it's time for Rushdie bashing. Many of his fans have found his recently released Shalimar The Clown to be a disappointing fare. Just like his previous novel Fury and Ground Beneath Her Feet.

When I argued that the guy has been writing under tremendous pressure (couched in a different language), so give him a break, someone retorted: "Just becuase Rushdie was fatwad, had lived in exile, had married four or five times or takes four years to write a novel, doesn't mean that we have to give him grace marks as far as evaluating the literary merit of his work is concerned. With every novel, a novelist is a first time writer: s/he would be subjected to as much scrutiny and enthusiam as a debutant. And with every passing novel, the stakes actually rise. If Ian McEwan, Philp Roth, Don Delillo and Thomas Pynchon can not just live up, but actually stun us with each new work, then why not Rushdie?"

(He was reacting to my comment: "It is very easy to take potshots on a writer. Rushdie takes a couple of years to write a novel and some people dismiss it as a clownish work within days of the novel's publication. The guy is a fabulist and his work should be approached in that manner. ")

I don't have an exact answer but I recall Rushdie's words: A writer will write what's within him (or something to that effect). So, there he is.

The latest in the line of critiquing Shalimar The Clown and its author is NYT's MICHIKO KAKUTANI. She says:

Mr. Rushdie's latest book, "Shalimar the Clown," aspires to turn the story of a toxic love triangle into a fable about the fate of Kashmir and the worldwide proliferation of terrorism. But this time, the author's allegory-making machinery clanks and wheezes. Although the novel is considerably more substantial than his perfunctory 2001 book, "Fury," it lacks the fecund narrative magic, ebullient language and intimate historical emotion found in "Midnight's Children" and "The Moor's Last Sigh."

Worse, "Shalimar the Clown" is hobbled by Mr. Rushdie's determination to graft huge political and cultural issues onto a flimsy soap opera plot - a narrative strategy that not only overwhelms his characters' stories but also trivializes the larger issues the author is trying to address.

However, Rushdie's star power is still intact. My friend Susan had a brush with this piece of literary history at the Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly. She beautifully describes her experience here.

Ubud Writers Festival

Now that the Singapore Writers Festival is over, the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival has been announced. Check out more details at under What's Hot.

Two high profile writers to grace the Bali-based festival are Michael Ondaatjee and Amitav Ghosh. Dina Zaman from Malaysia has also been invited as a guest writer.

One good thing about this festival is that it also organizes several writing related workshops. Great opportunity for aspiring writers to learn the craft!

Monday, September 05, 2005

Singapore Writers Festival, Graphic Novels, and Colleen Doran

One of the biggest draws of the Singapore Writers Festival was the American cartoonist and illustrator, Colleen Doran. She has been working with all the big names in the comic and graphics novel industry in the US.

Colleen spoke on "Graphic novels and the future of literature" at the Library@Orchard on Sep 1. A good number of youngsters attended the session of this Britney Spears of graphic novels. The charming and voluble lady established an instant rapport with the audience.

In Singapore, graphic novels are most popular among the "most reluctant readers". About half a million Singaporeans read graphic novels on a regular basis. Personally, I hadn't read a graphic novel before Sin City. Thanks to my friend Vinod, a self-taught CG whiz kid, I was introduced to this world of graphic novels and I began to respect this genre too. Later, I found out that movies such as Road to Perdition and From Hell were based on graphic novels. When I saw the movie Sin City and I was impressed.

Is graphics novel literature? Wasn't the rising popularity of graphic novels an indicator of the dumbing down of people's reading taste? I was wondering about these questions at the gathering when one member of the audience, let's call him the devil's advocate, asked Colleen this question right in the beginning of the session and it helped put things in perspective.

"Comics have their own visual syntax and they are more interactive than films or text-based literature," she said. " I think to dismiss an entire medium (graphic novels) is close minded and silly."

According to Colleen, graphic novels have been in existence for at least 100 years but it was only during the 1990s that it began to get acceptance in libraries and bookshops. The Sandman series played a large part in bringing about this change. Now almost all major bookstores and libraries in the world stock graphic novels.

Why do people read graphic novels? I had often seen young men and women reading graphic novels in the underground trains in Singapore and Hong Kong. And I used to think, what the heck? These guys should have been reading the latest Murakami or Ishiguro. Why were they wasting their time in reading childish junk?

"Comics and graphic novels are not junk," said Colleen. "You will see more and more young people reading graphic novels as reading such works needs a particular ability--the ability to make the closure, to take the cognitive leap between one frame and another. This ability might lead to generation gap as the generation before ours did not develop this ability."

Colleen said that graphic novels were more interactive for a reader in comparision to films. "In films, somebody has done all the thinking for you, all that was to be visually imagined in the story, someone has already done that for you in the film. But in a graphic novel, it is you who has to make that cognitive leap and that gives you control over the medium, and the story."

That was an interesting perspective. "I listen to films," she confessed. I never looked at film from that angle.

No wonder the graphic novels are doing very well commercially. Last year the industry saw a 30% increase in sales.

However, all comics and graphic novels don't make money, she said. What makes money for this industry/writers is licensing (T-shirts, toys, etc.) and "film rights" or what's called the work getting "optioned" by Hollywood studios. Colleen's Orbiter has been optioned by Warner Brothers.

I learnt a lot about graphic novels in that one hour and came back home with happy anticipations about Sin City. Colleen said that two more episodes of the film are being made. That is great news indeed!

This was also the last session of the Singapore Writers Festival that I could attend. Hope I am still around to attend the next Singapore Writers Festival!

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Voices from the Other Side: SWF

Had this opportunity to attend the Monday evening session mysteriously called “The Other Voice - Writings from the Other Side” though by mistake I missed out on Aniruddha Bahal's talk on investigative journalism in India. I had somehow thought that Bahal's session will follow the Voices session but, no, I was wrong. Why do festival organisers do this? There should not be any simultaneous sessions at all! It makes our life tough guys.

The charming Deepika Shetty of CNA was again compering the panel discussion. The participants were an eclectic mix of writers: Suhayl Saadi from Scotland, Ouyang Yu from Australia, Laksmi Pamuntjak from Indonesia, Dr. Rudhramoorthy Cheran from Canada and Felix Cheong from Singapore. The panelists attempted to look at the issues of identity especially in the context of living and writing in an alien culture and sometimes in a second (alien) language.

Deepika had an interesting way of introducing the topic. She clarified that the session was not about the voices from the "other world" (horror of horrors!) but was about identities and how writers struggled to deal with them.

First, Felix recited some poems and enlivened the atmosphere with his performance. I loved his poem about the anguish of an abused wife. Terrific imagery!

Ouyang is an angry young man and he brought out the frustrations of a migrant life in his talk. His discussed some episodes of hostility faced by Asians in Australia. The Western people think that the only interesting book to have come out of this part of the world is the Wild Swans, he said! How funny! He read a poem on the future of the world, which was hilarious but biting.

Lakshmi read two of her poems but what I liked most was her introduction on the question of identity and of belonging to the other side--and who decides what? It was brilliant skeptical look at the issue of majorityism and minorityism. I wish I had recorded her intro.

Dr. Saadi, a medic turned novelist, read from his latest work, Psychoraag. He came across as a guy with deep knowledge and understanding of issues of racial stereotyping in the Western world. He has a powerful sense of words and he mixes languages beautifully. Even his novel has an interesting smattering of Urdu and Punjabi words redolent of lost languages and lost connections. "I am monolingual," he said. "English is my first language. But in a way, my using Urdu and Hindi and Punjabi words in my novel is an attempt to connect to the languages of my ancestors. I try but I fail and there's a struggle in that." "Probably people who know and use more languages are better at writing," he opined.

During a question answer session later on Dr. Saadi said that the publishers in UK were still trying to pigeonhole writers and their material in accordance with their skin color. He said that if he wrote stuff like Monica Ali he would be far more successful (his novels were not published by big publishers). He said that in fact agents and publishers in the West wanted him to write Monica Ali kind stuff. Depressing, isn't it?

I salute Dr. Saadi for speaking the truth. He also gave some tips on writing short stories that I am going to cherish and practice.

Dr. Cheran's work is mostly in Tamil and he shared with us a few of his poems. He talked about the struggle of straddling the two worlds of Tamil and English. His creative language, he said, was Tamil even though he was at home in English.

I enjoyed my interaction with Dr. Saadi after the session. Walking off, I saw Anirudhha Bahal talking with Bruce Sterling at the Kinukuniya Book Bar. Bahal is as tall as his fellow Tehelka-ite Tarun Tejpal but seems to have developed a paunch. Earlier in the evening, I had seen Sterling buy a copy of Wei Hui's Shanghai Baby. Clearly, Hui had a made an impact on the sci fi writer):

Enough for tonight. More later. Cheers!

Tarun Tejpal reading from "Alchemy of Desire" Posted by Picasa

Monday, August 29, 2005

The Alchemy of Desire: SWF

I have always admired Tarun Tejpal, India's ace journalist, editor, publisher and now a novelist. I was excited knowing that Tarun was coming for a talk in the Singapore Writers Festival. Yesterday, an anxious crowd listened to this man who knew the secrets of The Alchemy of Desire (the title of his novel). The organizer of the Bali Writers Festival had especially flown in to listen to Tarun--such is the pull of this ponytailed creative powerhouse! In the audience, I could see writers like Manju Kapoor (Difficult Daughters) and Suhayl Saadi (The Burning Mirror), and Ruttawut L. (Sightseeing).

Tarun was introduced by Channel NewsAsia anchorperson, Deepika Shetty. She had already interviewed him for her Off the Shelf programme (here is the transcript). She spoke glowingly about this man who had changed whatever he had touched. His Tehelka expose, the discovery of Arundhati Roy through his publishing firm, IndiaInk, and now a novel that was getting noticed in the literary circles.

Tarun read from his novel several passages. The language was powerful, magical and poetic. Then questions and answers followed.

Tarun said that he was first and foremost a journalist but at heart a lover of literary fiction. He didn't see much conflict between the two vision: the journalistic vision and the novelist's vision. Though this is a debatabale point, he held forth by saying this: "A novel presents the inner world of its characters whereas journalism or non-fiction is about the manifest realities."

"In that sense, by playing that role, literature will always survive. Books will always survive, more than many of the physical forms of today's world," he said.

Tarun did not have much regard for the fame and hoopla surrounding his novel or many Indian novels of late. "This is the fluff of art," he said. "The true worth of a book will be known only 10 years or 15 years down the line--we will have to see if the readers still reached for this book, if it was still wanted." I could not agree more with this Naipaulian truth. I must mention here that Tarun and Naipaul are very good friends.

Tarun wrote the novel in 16 months during the toughest period of his life, he said. "I was being hounded by the government after the Tehelka expose and the novel was his 'centre of calm'," he said. "I returned to it everyday to find my calm."

"Did he always want to become a writer?" I asked him.

"In India, anyone who could write a straight line of English dreamed of writing a novel one day and I'm no different," he said.

He said that he was looking for his voice, the tone of the novel, for a long time but it only came during the worst period of his life.

About the Tehelka and its aftermath, he said: "I don't regret it. I am proud of it, and I am proud of it that it happened in India. I know scores of countries where it could have happened and the journalists would not have come out of it alive. I felt, during this time, I have lived a four or five lifetimes."

During the Tehelka expose, Tarun confronted fear. "Yes, fear came to me but once I crossed the line of fear, I felt so free. Fear is just a line in the mind. Once you cross it, that's it. Ater that it's a different experience. Once I had decided that at most they would put a bullet through my head, I thought: big deal! Then it was over for me. Everything became different..."

On the art of writing the novel, he said: "Writing journalism is like hugging the shore, to use an Updikian phrase. But writing a novel is like navigating in the open sea. You need to have your senses gathered to navigate the ship to a piece of a land. That's the ability needed to write a good novel."

He was influenced by Kafka and Orwell, among many other writers. No wonder as Tarun has gone through Kafkaesque experiences during the investigation and the crackdown on his office. He admired Orwell a lot. "Here was a courageous guy who went to fight someone else's war just because of his convictions. I don't think we are like him any more. We have much more secure lives. Even at the worst of the times, I had 24-hour police security with me!"

On the whole, it was an enriching session. After the talk, Tarun was surrounded by his admirers. There were many people who wanted his autograph on a copy of his novel. I gently slipped out of the room.

Sex and Desire in Asian Writing: SWF

There were two interesting sessions in the evening yesterday: "Sexuality and Desire in Asian Writing" and "The Alchemy of Desire."

"Sexuality and Desire in Asian Writing" was a panel discussion consisting of writers Gerrie Lim (Invisible Trade), Wei Hui (Shanghai Baby; Marrying Buddha), and Isa Kamari (Kiswah in Malay). After basic introductions to their life and works, the floor was thrown open for a discussion. So far, this was the most crowded event, thanks to the theme.

The svelte Wei Hui with her long straight hair and a "notorious writer" reputation was the cinesure of the gathering, and the other two panelists, expectedly, kept turning to her for her nodding approvals every now and then. Isa even thanked her for inspiring him to write his controversial novel "Kiswah". The novel has been deemed pornographic in the Malay circles, Isa informed us. But he said that since the novel had gone into a second edition, it was enough proof of its being successful. "I write about things that disturb me," he said. "Through this novel, I wanted to explore the sexuality of a Malay male."

Wei Hui writes in Chinese but she was catapulted to fame by her debut novel, Shanghai Baby, a poetic, bittersweet and subtly spiritual tale of one woman's quest for personal fulfillment and drive for creative expression in Shanghai. Banned in China, Shanghai Baby brought Wei Hui fame and notoriety in the country of her birth. One of China's new generation of bad-girl novelists who write candidly about sex, drugs and nightlife, Wei Hui's latest novel is Marrying Buddha, a continuation of Shanghai Baby and her second semi-autobiographical novel of desire and lust, this time set in New York.

"I combine sex and spirituality in my novels," she said. "I say don't be ashamed of your sexuality. I show that even Buddhism can be sexy," she added. "Sex serves as a sugar coating to convey messages in my books."

I wanted to ask her what messages was she trying to convey through her books. Didn't get the chance to ask the questions. Poeple were really enthusiastic and were ready with many questions on sex and sexuality. Someone asked whether they were ashamed of writing such sexy stuff. Obviously, they were not.

Wei Hui dismissed the claim that the East was more prudish than the West. It is stereotyping, she said. During her tour of America, Wei claimed that she found the country to be far more prudish than Asia (barring New York). The Kamasutra, The Perfumed Garden, The Inner Chamber (?)--all came from Asia, the authors opined.

Gerrie Lim, the author of Invisible Trade, the best-selling expose of the escort business in Singapore, said that he wrote the book not because he believed that sex sells but because he wanted to study a subculture (of escorts, karaoke girls, S&M workers, etc). Gerrie has an interesting career. He wrote the porn star interview column Cinema Blue for Penthouse Variations and was nominated for an AVN Internet Award for his work as an editor for Swelinda, the official website of the Swedish porn star Linda Thoren. His new book, Idol to Icon: The Creation of Celebrity Brands, is the result of his 25-year relationship with the entertainment industry, which he reported on for numerous magazines in the United States, most notably Billboard, Details, Playboy, LA Style, LA Weekly and The Wall Street Journal. The book had been launched in the afternoon the same day.

Gerrie has finished writing a new book and is going to announce it soon, in one of the festival events. Should be interesting.

I will write about the "The Alchemy of Desire" in my next post.

SWF: Women and Crime

I was late when I reached to attend a session on "Women and Crime" late in the afternoon yesterday. The panel comprised three writers: Kathryn Fox (Australia), F T Batacan (Philipines) and Nuri Vittachi (Hong Kong).

When I entered the Black Box, a Q&A session was on. Members of the audience were keen to know several things. Some of the questions were interesting: Why is there so much of crime writing in the West? And why is there so little of crime writing in the East?

Vittachi said that love and death were two primary human emotions and that's why almost all bestsellers belonged to the genre of either romance or crime. He said that even the best children's fiction writers such as Philip Pullman were writing about love and death in their novels.

Batacan said that death is such a personal inevitability, an experience that everyone has to go through that there is a certain affinity to it. We are curious to know about it, and that's what we do through the crime novels.

Kathryn Fox said something that I don't remember. She was so good looking! She is a doctor turned writer.

As for why so few crime writers from the East, Vittachi said that it was not just about the crime writers published internationally from the East but in general about writers in English from the East. He said that the simple reason was that there was no machinery to promote writers from this region: no literary agents, no publishers, no editors. But there was hope, he said. Two literary agents are now setting up office in Asia: one in China and another in Hong Kong.

Vittachi himself is one of the few Asia-based novelists to be internationally published in multiple languages. He has written more than 20 books, and has more than 100,000 books in print. He is best known for comedy-crime novel series The Feng Shui Detective, about a Singapore-based feng shui master. Born in Ceyon, he now lives in Hong Kong with his English wife and three adopted Chinese children.

Vittachi jokingly added that there used to be a literary agent in Hong Kong. She unfortunately had no writers to represent and so she had to shut shop! Too bad.

Things would be better now, I guess.

Singapore Writers Festival: Glimpses

Writers' Festivals are exciting events. Just to see the writers read, speak, laugh, retort and become friendly with their readers and fans is an electrifying experience in itself. It makes me believe that yes, there are still people around who care about writing and writers.

I was looking forward to the Singapore Writers Festival 2005. The event was publicised in different media, including roadside hoardings. It was marketed like any other event. The venue for most of the events is the newly-opened futursitic National Library Building. All exciting stuff!

I could not, however, manage to attend the opening ceremony. The first event I attended was "Writing Sci Fi." The speaker was Bruce Sterling, the well-known American science fiction writer. Bruce was one of the most prominent voices of the cyberpunk revolution. Well, to be honest, I haven't ready many science fiction novels, and definitely none of Bruce's works. So I will not comment on that side. But yes, if you want to know why I was there to listen to a sci-fi writer, the answer is very simple: I had never heard or met a sci fi writer before. All my gods are literary fiction writers and yet I was there to listen to this sci fi writer. I wanted to stretch my imagination.

Bruce, sort of, spoke in a gentle monotone and his observations often contained insights about the future world. Bruce has been teaching futuristic design in an American school for about a year now, apart from writing his novels. He spoke about sustainability, bio hazards, futursitic industrial design, and spy chips. He said that in future, the disctinction between the real world and the online world (internet) will more or less disappear and each and every object on the earth will be traceable, be it solid or liquid. He talked about the need for biodegradibility of material substances. Otherwise, he said, the toxins would seep into our bodies and become part of it, alterning and damaging our systems. He talked at length about the spy chips and how they could come handy for terrorists' purposes. But all these developments, he said, will come at the cost of our privacy. There will be no privacy in the world in future. I shuddered.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Novel vs. Short Story

Personally, I have always been a fan of short stories. I like my Carver and Chekhov better than Hemingway and Updike but no doubt all of them are oh so good.

There is no special enmity towards novels though. Mark it down to my laziness and short attention span. Big, fat novels scare me. So, I am always drawn to short stories. But in the last few years, a writer was not supposed to have made it unless he had done a couple of novels before his short stories could be taken seriously, even though veterans like Naipaul had declared the form (novel) to be dead.

Recently, there was this news that non-fiction was beating fiction (read novels) in the book shops. I was not surprised to hear this. I had been noticing the trend. After all, we are living in the age of reality TV and 24-hour news channels. How could they not succeed when there was hunger in people to know the real-life stories around them?

The latest news is that the short story form is being given a new lease of life by The Spectator in the UK and by in the US by constituting awards and making them especially available in digital formats (in the case of the latter).

"Alex Linklater, deputy editor of Prospect magazine, spoke out today in support of the short story. "The novel is a capacious old whore: everyone has a go at her, but she rarely emits so much as a groan for their efforts," he said. "The short story, on the other hand, is a nimble goddess: she selects her suitors fastidiously and sings like a dove when they succeed. The British literary bordello is heaving with flabby novels; it's time to give back some love to the story."

No body will complain but the fact is a lot of people have been writing hundreds of thousands of short stories on the web. There are a large number of e-zines on the web already promoting short stories, and honestly, they are doing it without any hope of earning profits or increasing their bottomlines.

So, what will happen after constituting the new awards and opening new platforms? More established writers will now get a chance to get their stories published there. You will see the same old literary mafia over there, with an occasional lucky chik or lad getting the crowning glory for the sake of credibility. Skeptical, uh? Yes, I am. I always am. Look what is doing: "Authors on board for the launch include Audrey Niffenegger (author of the bestseller The Time Traveller's Wife), with a short story about a man with a celestial infection, crime writer James Lee Burke with a coming-of-age-drama and Richard Rhodes with an essay on the birds of the Pacific."

Coming back to the topic of novels, does everyone has a novel inside them? Tim Clare ponders over this question here. Tim thinks no. Publishers need to be selective and most of them are fair to the new talents. So, everything is all right in the publishing world except that there are publishers like MacMillan who are promoting writers who are evidently less talented through special programmes.

Tim says:

"Every industry needs quality control. One thing that differentiates the publishing world from, say, the medical world, is that stitching an abdominal suture requires specific qualifications, whereas writing a novel calls for skills which, though far less quantifiable, are absolutely necessary for success. Just because hospitals lack the resources to field hundreds of requests a week from people wanting to perform open-heart surgery, it does not follow that the medical world is some kind of shadowy clique.

Queuing is what made our nation great. If anything, the British publishing industry is too open to new writers at the expense of skilled stalwarts. Cheap as chips enterprises such as the Macmillan New Writing imprint saturate the market and harm the prestige of publication. Picking authors before they're ripe represents a bad deal for all concerned. Instead of promoting an attitude of "everyone has won and all shall have prizes", the industry needs to remind people that brilliant writing is very, very hard, that there are many dragons to be fought on the way to publication, and that perishing in the battle is no shame."

So, all writers will have to stand in the queue, waiting for their chance, telling themselves until they die: "perishing in the battle is no shame...perishing in the battle is no shame...perishing in the battle is no shame..."


Monday, August 22, 2005

Islamic World's Road to Perdition

Read my op-ed piece "Islamic World's Road to Perdition" in today's Bangkok Post.

Any comments?

Monday, August 15, 2005

Arundhati hints at writing a new novel

In this brilliant interview in The Outlook, Arudhati Roy hints at the possibility of writing another novel. After her award-winning debut novel, The God of Small Things, Roy had veered off into the realm of political activism and non-fiction writing. He scathing essays and speeches on American hegemony, nuclearisation, globalization and human rights violation in India and the world have won her many admirers all over the world. Her fans, however, wondered if she would ever pen another novel. In this interview, she says she might. Excerpts:

It has been eight years since ‘The God of Small Things’. Is there a second novel in you or has too much politics meant the end of Arundhati Roy’s imagination? You have also been talking of disengaging from political writing?

All writing is political. Fiction is especially subversive. But it’s time for me to change gear. I am sort of up for anything right now, which is exciting. Let’s see what happens.

Read the full interview here. It's interesting.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Where will the next Arundhati Roy come from?

In his essay, "The lost sub-continent" (The Guardian, Aug 13 ), William Dalrymple argues that the next batch of successful Indian writers in English will emerge from the Diaspora, not from amongst those writers who are living and working on the Indian soil. He says:

"If the last few years are anything to go by, I suspect that in the years ahead the main competition Indian writers aspiring to win the Booker will face will not be the Alan Hollinghursts or the AS Byatts, so much as their own cousins born and brought up in the west."

And why this will be so:

"Writers such as Kunzru, born in Hounslow or Edgware or Brooklyn or New Jersey, have a clear and built-in advantage over their cousins brought up in Jhansi or Patna. They have far more confidence in English, and their ethnicity and geography makes them natural bridges between cultures, able automatically to translate an Indian sensibility for the west - if that is what they want to do. Certainly, their background effortlessly puts them in a position to draw together a range of different influences, to work with ease in India and Britain and the US, and to produce art that is readily comprehensible at both ends of the globe."

I guess William has a point here. But the fact is that this has always been the case, with the exception of Roy (incidently, Amit Chaudhuri has returned to his native Bengal from Oxford). For example, what did Picador discover in India? Only Rajkamal Jha and Siddharth Deb?

The fact is the market for Indian (and even African) writing in English is not in India but in America and Europe. It is natural that Indian writers, who have degrees and addresses in London or New York, will succeed as they have better access to literary agents or publishers. Also, the lack of a literary culture in India, especially in centres like Delhi as noted by William, will not be a problem for Indian writers in the West.

Agreed that a majority of 'successful' Indian writers in English will emerge from the diaspora, but I am not sure if all of them will be delivering masterpieces. We never know when another Roy emerges from the shadowy towns of Jhansi or Patna! Who had imagined that such a "Tigerwoodsian" debut-making writer from Kerala would take the literary world by storm? In literature the possibilities are always there.

I had noted the "there is much money in crearive writing these days" scene in Nair's Monsoon Wedding. But to me, that came off as more of satirical comment than anything else. In India, whoever can afford, is either going for a foreign MBA or Creative Writing or Filmmaking course. For Indians, what matters is money and the limelight ('the obsession with sucess'). That will always be the attraction. Remember the "Miss India" craze a few years ago after Aishwarya-Sushmita success?

I liked the description of Delhi mushairas in the essay. Yes, that culture is, alas, gone now. Then artists were patronised by rich nobles. Not any more.

The lack of non-fiction writing in India is because of the incestous nature of the world of Indian publishing. Editors will commission books to only those whom they know only, and won't give chance to new people or look for new talent. Also, where are the lit agents for the Indian market?

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Singaporeans celebrating National Day at Padang on Aug 9
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The Irascible Prophet

Time for a quick literary quiz.

He does not like what Graham Green did to himself.

You know, he took the Graham Greene figure to the Congo, took him to Argentina, took him to Haiti, for no rhyme or reason.

His heroes are Tolstoy and Dickens.

He followed Conrad in his journey.

He finds Proust ''tedious,'' ''repetitive,'' ''self-indulgent,'' concerned only with a character's social status.

He does not like ''Ulysses'' too -- ''the Irish book...and other works that have to lean on borrowed stories.''

He also finds Stendhal ''repetitive, tedious, infuriating.''

And his greatest disappointment is Flaubert.

Who is he?

Who else but the cantankerous prophet, V S Naipaul.

Naipaul always raises important issues. He declared the novel form dead long ago, and yet he writes one or two every few years. He says, in a recent NYT interview, that he found the non-fiction form much more satisfying and honest. Excerpts:

''If you write a novel alone you sit and you weave a little narrative. And it's O.K., but it's of no account,'' Naipaul said. ''If you're a romantic writer, you write novels about men and women falling in love, etc., give a little narrative here and there. But again, it's of no account.''

What is of account, in Naipaul's view, is the larger global political situation -- in particular, the clash between belief and unbelief in postcolonial societies.

Read this fascinating interview with this great writer with Rachel Danadio here. Includes MP3s. Go for it.

The Booker Longlist

So, there is going to be blood on the carpet.

I'm back to the Booker issue. The Independent carries a cantankerous take on the Booker tamasha.

"Every year in the August dog days, the conclave of five Man Booker Prize judges sends out smoke that's not yet white but a tantalising shade of grey. They deliver an interim report on the state of British, Commonwealth and Irish fiction in the form of a long-list. Every year, critics duly play the game of lauding, trashing or carping at the choices made. More of that later. But who ever bothers to judge the judges?" asks Boyd Tonkin.

"This selection reads more like an invitation to an upmarket vicarage tea-party than to a showdown in a blood-stained warehouse," he says.

I love it man!

Don't miss this Boyd piece.

And there are some more tidbits about the Booker Prize here:

As per The Telegraph, the longlist announces a fight for the PRIZE among the bigwigs like Rushdie and McEwan and Coetzee. So, what are the new comers doing here? "But among them are three first-time novelists, who add human drama to literary suspense," says Nigel Reynolds.
Adding human drama to literary suspense! Sounds like a theatre, no?

And there is more dope.

Harry Thompson, 45, one of television's most successful comedy producers - who has been long-listed out of the blue for his first work of fiction - was recently found to be suffering from inoperable lung cancer.

That is sad.

In contention for the first time is Zadie Smith.

John Sutherland, the chairman of the judges, said after yesterday's 90-minute long-list meeting: "This has been an exceptional year, and in the judges' opinion may rank as one of the strongest ever."

We know how Mr Smith must be feeling. Is that being mean?

Fiction: Rise or Fall?

So, fiction is back in the debate. Two views, it seems, are running concurrently about fiction, one for it and one against it.

On August 7, the U.K.'s The Guardian and the U.S.'s The New York Times ran a piece each on fiction's current status in our mindscape.

In The Guardian Jason Cowley painted a hopeful picture. He said that novels have made an invigorating comeback after the despondency that followed the 9/11 watreshed:

"Yet the evidence from the new novels I have read so far this year is quite the contrary - our writers have not allowed the extremity of 11 September and the wars that have followed to silence or defeat them; their imaginations seem far from meagre. The 'culture' is not overwhelming them. Quite the opposite, in fact, because this is, I think, perhaps the richest year for contemporary British and Commonwealth fiction since the launch of the Booker Prize in 1969, with most of our best novelists ...Having read most of these novels, as well as outstanding books from emerging writers, I would argue that the novel, so often declared dead or moribund by VS Naipaul and other cultural pessimists, is as vital now in this time of profound political crisis as it has ever been - and continues, through the popularity of reading groups and the huge influence of television programmes such as the Richard and Judy Book Club as well as the astonishing popularity of global bestsellers such as the Harry Potter books and Dan Brown's conspiracy thrillers, to be the principal artistic form of our times."

On the other hand, Rachel Donadio, sees the emergence of creative non-fiction as the substitute for the space so far claimed by fiction--short stories and novels. She has Naipaul and McEwan to buttress her argument. Naipaul said in a recent interview that "nonfiction is better suited than fiction to capturing the complexities of today's world."

The novelist Ian McEwan expressed similar sentiments when he said that after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, he turned to history books, and books on Islam and imperialism. ''For a while I did find it wearisome to confront invented characters,'' McEwan said on ''The Charlie Rose Show'' in March. ''I wanted to be told about the world. I wanted to be informed. I felt that we had gone through great changes, and now was the time to just go back to school, as it were, and start to learn.''

Rache says: Magazine editors apparently share these writers' sense of things. This spring, The Atlantic Monthly announced it would stop publishing fiction regularly, except for an annual summer issue. Around the same time, the new editor of The Paris Review, Philip Gourevitch, said he wanted the literary magazine to feature more nonfiction. GQ hasn't published fiction since 2003, and is undecided about whether to resume. Esquire, once the glimmering showcase of the postwar liter-ary scene, has also scaled back in recent years.

She further argues: Which is in part why the editors of The Atlantic Monthly decided to scale back on fiction. ''In recent years we have found that a certain kind of reporting -- long-form narrative reporting -- has proved to be of enormous value . . . in making sense of a complicated and fractious world,'' Cullen Murphy, the magazine's departing editor, wrote in an e-mail message. ''Certain kinds of nonfiction writing have claimed some of the territory once claimed by fiction. Not because nonfiction writing has become 'fictional,' in the sense of taking liberties, but because certain traits that used to be standard in fiction, like a strong sense of plot and memorable characters in the service of important and morally charged subject matter, are today as reliably found in narrative nonfiction as they are in literary fiction. Some might even say 'more reliably' found.''

I tend to agree with Rachel. Personally, for every novel, I am reading at least 3 non-fiction titles these days.

For an idea, look at my current reading list:

In fiction, the last novel I read was Hari Kunzru's Transmission. And a graphic novel, Sin City.

After that I have been reading non-fiction: The Lexus and The Olive Tree; Good Muslim, Bad Muslim; Holy Wars; and Living to Tell the Tale (memoirs of Marquez).

Creative non-fiction is so germane, so no-nonsense and so gripping that at times it is difficult not to believe the cliche that truth is stranger (and stronger) than fiction. What do you say?