Thursday, March 24, 2005

Tejpal's Tehelka

Mr. Tarun Tejpal, the famous editor of Tehelka weekly, recently hogged the limelight for an altogether different reason.

The journalist, who shook the Indian political and military establishment a few years ago with an expose, coolly penned his novel, The Alchemy of Desire, while fighting the establishment's crackdown.

According to media reports, the novel sold out on the day it was released. No wonder as Tarun writes very well and his reputation is unsullied. Critics are already appreciating "the voice" he has used in the narrative.

Tarun's mentor, Sir V S Naipaul, has liked the first part of the book. That is, I guess, good enough a recommendation for Tarun.

I think every English-educated Indian, whether he did or did not study at Oxbridge, is writing a novel or two these days, apart from doing his day job as a diplomat or a journalist.

Arundhati Ray's success has had huge impact on the Indians of all ages. Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi was 17 when he witnessed the phenomenal success of Roy. He was inspired. The result is his debut novel, The Last Song of Dusk. Only God knows, out of 1 billion Indians, how many more she has infected with the virus of seeking publishing success.

To make things clear, let me admit, I was not inspired by Roy. I had decided to become a writer in the pre-Roy India, if may say so. At that time, the only Indian writers I knew were Narayan, Rao, Sehgal, Naipaul, Rushdie and others.

At the rate the Indians are writing novels, the day is not far when it will be de rigueur for every educated Indian to have penned a novel--sort of a rite of passage of being an educated Indian.

Remember the line, "Scratch an Indian and you will find a novelist." (It is like the line from Dr. Zhivago: "Scratch a Russian and you will find a farmer.")

Do you know who said it?

None other than our honourable Tarun Tejpal.

Did I hear you say, look, who's talking?

Friday, March 18, 2005

Celebrating literature at the ‘fragrant harbour’

Read the snippets (all of them) from the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival 2005 here:


Tuesday, March 15, 2005

‘My work is not magic realism’

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s first novel, The Last Song of Dusk, won the 2004 Betty Trask Award. Ever since his emergence on the literary scene, Siddharth has been the toast of the media. The Sunday Times Magazine described him as “the next best thing to have happened to Indian writing in English since Arundhati Roy.” A publicity report in the Fringe Club described his books selling like hot cakes in India and the paparazzi waiting outside his house to take his snaps. Tired of all this Siddharth has taken to the Himalayas, working on his next opus. Meanwhile, his mother frets about the marriage of her (in)famous son: “who would like to marry a man who writes on sex?”

I was curious to meet Siddharth. When I reached the Cipriani’s, China Club, on the Bank Street, next to the imposing HSBC Bank building, he was already there. He was wearing a yellow turban and was chatting with Hsu-Ming Teo. Teo was born in Malaysia in 1970 and had emigrated with her parents to Sydney in 1977. She was a research scholar in a university. Her second novel expected to come out soon.

The programme started with Teo reading from her first novel, Love and Vertigo. It was a mother-daughter novel.

Then Siddharth read from his novel. It was a passage where the heroine admires Mahatama Gandhi’s loin cloth, calling it sexy. And so on. The interesting thing about Siddharth is his voice. He reads and talks as if he were in a trance.

After the readings a discussion followed. Everybody, including host Peter Gordon, was asking questions. Peter had read the book last year and was so impressed that he had immediately invited Siddharth for the festival.

Siddharth described himself as a small part of a large family (of writers like Roy and Vikram Seth) whose members were doing exciting things. He didn’t know if he wanted to become a writer. “I am in the process of figuring out what to do in life,” he said with a smile.

He wrote the novel when he was twenty-two. The writing took him about one year. It was his way of dealing with a broken relationship. Then he forgot about the book. In the US, his friend read the manuscript and advised him to publish the book. He found an agent (after interviewing about ten agents) and the rest is history. Now his work is being compared with Marquez and Rushdie.

When Peter called Siddharth’s work magic realism, he protested. “Please don’t call my work magic realism. I don’t like the word magic realism—it takes away from the realism of my story. In India, we have this belief that everything—a house, a tree—has a spirit and we must respect that spirit. So in my novel if a house is talking, it is not magic realism. You may call it heightened realism.”

“What do you think about your novel now?” I asked him.

“I haven’t read my novel,” he said. People guffawed.

He admitted he had a lot to read, a lot to catch up. He doesn’t dig short stories and so he has never attempted one. At present, he said, he was attracted to the idea of the deviousness and viciousness of Bombay. That may well become the theme of his next book. “To be a writer, you have to be alert to your emotions,” he said. “You don’t write a book. The book gets written.”

Hsu-Ming Teo said that she never thought of becoming a writer. After submitting her Ph.D. thesis, she was unoccupied and that was when she started writing her novel. Surprisingly, she works without an agent.

“What do you think about your novel now?” I asked her too.

“It could have been better,” she said.

She said she enjoyed the finishing part of writing more than anything else. Yes, the act of writing is hard work and most authors love to reach that part of the story where they can write ‘the end’. Later, I also had the opportunity of listening to a chapter from her second novel. It was about making love in a toilet. It was really good, much better than her first read.

Monday, March 14, 2005

The Fringe Club in Hong Kong Central is Hong Kong's contemporary arts space. Posted by Hello

The Craft of Writing Satire

Hari Kunzru, the Wire-geek turned writer, was to speak on the craft of writing satire at the Fringe Club, Hong Kong’s contemporary arts space. Kunzru is an interesting writer. He was born and educated in UK. His father had migrated to UK from Agra in India. Kunzru opposes any attempts to pigeonhole him as a coloured writer or an Asian writer. He knows that being labeled as a writer of particular race/origin makes it easier to market him by publishers. However, he doesn’t want to be a party to this marketing gimmick. His fame has only been increasing. In 2003, Kunzru was named by Granta Magazine as one of twenty ‘Best of Young British Novelists.’ His novels The Impressionist and Transmission have been well-received.

In the Fringe Club theatre, Peter Gordon (the chairman of the festival), introduced Kunzru to the audience. Kunzru started with the definition of satire: satire is writing or comic writing that illuminates a social subject. He said that one must know the subject intimately to write satire (“If you don’t know Hollywood, don’t write about it.”).

With intimacy, he said, comes complicity. Using the intimate knowledge of the subject, the writer is supposed to bring out the guilt. He read passages from Evelyn Waugh’s and Joseph Heller’s works. He discussed the works of satirists such as Jonathan Swift, Nobokov (his Humbert Humbert in Lolita), George Orwell (1984), and Michel Houllebecque (Platform). “Obscenity is central to satire. You need one kind of obscenity to expose another kind of obscenity,” he said. He quoted from a placard that he had seen in an anti-war protest rally: “Bombing for peace is like fucking for virginity.” A shining example of satirical writing!

So what was Kunzru’s final suggestion: “Take what you know and make it grotesque.”

Side bar: Kunzru looked dashing in a black suit. He wore glasses but his trademark scarf (seen in his previous photos) was missing. Next day I saw Kunzru along with his girl friend alighting from the Peak Tram at the Tram station.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Celebrating literature in Hong Kong

“When you fly to Hong Kong, try to get a window seat,” I remembered these words of advice from the Fodor’s Travel Guidebook while looking down the window. The airplane was losing altitude for the landing that was to happen in the next few minutes. “As you approach the coast of china you’ll see a few small, rocky islands, tiny fishing boats, and sailboats in the channels leading into Hong Kong Harbour—one of the Most spectacular harbours in the world.” I was enjoying the transmogrification of these words into reality as the plane approached the Chek Lap Kok airport.

I was going to Hong Kong to attend the HK International Literary Festival. The festival was in its fifth year and was soon becoming one of Asia’s most important literary festivals. For me the highlight of the festival was the predominance of writers from India or those who were writing on India. Though the Australian writers were also a force to reckon with, led by the Booker Prize winner, Thomas Kneally, I was more interested in the Indian voices. The festival was to sort of culminate with a speech by Alan Hollinghurst, last year’s booker prize winner.

Chek Lap Kok is really sophisticated and mammoth. “The passenger terminal is a mile long and could encompass those at Heathrow and JFK combined,” claimed the Guidebook rightly. I was impressed even though I was coming from Singapore’s Changi International airport.

Without much ado, I checked out of the immigration. I had been advised to buy an octopus pass that would allow me unlimited travel in the underground train. I bought the card and I took the airport express train to the Hong Kong island. The train was quite comfortable and sleek. It gave me scenic views of the seaside and the high rises. In half an hour I was in Hong Kong central where my hotel was. Once I was in my hotel, I readied myself for a plunge into the literary events.

March 7, 2005

Friday, March 04, 2005

Narayan's legacy

There are those who love R K Narayan's Malgudi. And there are those who hate it.

For a long time I was in the latter category.

When I was in Delhi, living in a shack with a friend, an engineer by profession, I was astounded by my friend's love for Narayan's novels. That guy had bought a number of Narayan's novels, and in the dingy room, used to read them with great relish. One reason was surely the price. Narayan's novels came for less than US$1 a copy while other novels would easily cost you more than US$4. Now the prices have gone further up. The other reason, I guess, was the novels' accessible language. And Narayan's novels were never fat (as compared to, say, Midnight's Children, or Trotternama, or better still, A Suitable Boy). They were slim volumes about life in small town India, written with gentle humour. I guess my friend appreciated all these qualities in Narayan's novels.

As a kid, I had seen Narayan's Malgudi days as a television series on Doordarshan. I had liked it. The humour was lost to me but I had liked the South Indian culture wherein the stories were set. Later, I saw the Dev Anand movie, The Guide. I found it only so so. The only interesting thing for me in the movie was the character of the archeologist--It was rare kind of character in a Hindi movie--who was finally cuckolded in the story.

In those days, I was reading the novels of Krishan Chander, the Urdu writer. I used to fantasize about his stories being made into movies. For example, I was especially taken up by his novel, A Violin by the Sea. It's protagonist was a history professor in a US University. If I remember correctly, the story was based on the themes of love and reincarnation. The novel was begging to be made into a Hindi film. Alas, no one ever paid any attention to it.

One day I decided to read Narayan. I picked up his (supposedly) best work, The English Teacher. It was well-written, and I was enjoying the read until it began treading into the metaphysical world. Maybe Narayan was trying his own (Indian) style of magic realism which bored me. I guess nobody has looked at this aspect of Narayan's work and it is time someone did.

I have reserved Narayan on my reading list. Maybe with age, I will be able to enjoy his brand of homour. Something like this happened to Jaithirth Rao. Read his essay here.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Miller and Monroe

Liked this joke from Vinod Mehta's diary. Enjoy:

The great American playwright Arthur Miller, who passed away last week, used to regale his friends with a story about the time he was courting Marilyn Monroe in the early ’50s. He took Marilyn to his mother’s New York apartment for dinner. The walls were thin and Monroe was obsessed by the fear that people would hear her peeing, so when she went to the bathroom she turned on all the taps to disguise the sound.

A day or so later Miller’s mother wrote to say that she thought his new girlfriend was very beautiful and very nice, "but Arthur, she pisses like a horse".