Thursday, September 27, 2007

September woes

I generally avoid writing about my personal life in my blog but this time I think it is too relevant to ignore. This will also help clarify, just in case, dear friends, you wondered why I wasn't updating my blog.

By the way, I admire the courage and frankness of those bloggers who write beautiful details about their personal life in their blogs. I am a little shy in these matters.

Is everything all right? It was not all right but now it is. Thank God.

My daughter Zara had joined a child care centre in late August and on the 4th day itself she came home with fever. We gave her paracetamol and the fever went away over the weekend. But it came back with a vengeance on Monday.

My parents were going back to India on Sep 8 (after 4 months of their stay here) and the same day we had to hospitalise Zara. She had been running very high fever for more than 3 days and when there was no improvement after 3 days of medication, her doctor advised hospitalisation. She was on drip for 3 days and was discharged on the 4th.

Given Zara's condition, my parents wanted to stay on for one more week but the airline was unable to give next dates until October. So, I told them to go back to India anyway. My younger sister in India was to deliver a baby and her reports were not coming out well. So anxiety on both fronts.

Before Zara fell sick, my wife got a job with a firm. She had gone to office only for two days when Zara was hospitalised.

My parents were supposed to stay on until January or thereabouts so that they could take care of Zara. But they had this Hajj programme and also because of my sister's upcoming delivery, they could not stay any longer. So, there, man proposes and God disposes. This upset all our planning.

Both of us had to stay on in the hospital. Shabana could not go to office for the next one week. Now she has joined back and I have made an arrangement with my office to work from home. So these days, I've been fasting and working and babysitting Zara and it is all so very strenuous. Meanwhile, we had been searching for a maid and running from agency to agency. Last week we interviewed a Filipina maid and applied for the Govt's approval. Two days back, we finally got the maid, and things seems to be getting better now. From this Friday, I think I shall be able to resume normal work from my office.

That, is a long story, cut short for you. When I wrote to a friend about my September woes, he said: "That, as Alice says, is a long and sad tale. But no sympathies - these are pangs of fatherhood and I have been through them thrice. Insha Allah, all will be fine, as it usually is, but the mid course travails are really blood sucking."

If you are an experienced parent, I am sure you will say the same thing. But there are some lessons here for those who are not married or planning a child.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Emperor of Narratives

Photo: Courtesy Lucy Cavender

David Davidar is a rare creature. You can count on your fingers the number of top-notch publishers who are also admired novelists in their own right. Mr Davidar, who is credited with the flourishing of Indian writing in English when he was the head of Penguin Books, India, now heads the same company in Canada.

Educated at Madras (now Chennai) and Harvard University, Mr Davidar, in 1985 became one of the founding members of Penguin in India where he edited or published authors like Kiran Desai, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, Salman Rushdie, Suketu Mehta, William Dalrymple, Mohsin Hamid and Ramachandra Guha, among others. Now in Canada, he has been publishing authors like Philip Roth, Khaled Hosseini, John Le Carre, Alice Munro, Zadie Smith, and Hisham Matar, among others.

Mr Davidar’s first novel, The House of Blue Mangoes, was published in 2002. It was translated into 16 languages and was a New York Times Notable Book and a Book Sense Pick. His latest novel, The Solitude of Emperors, (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2007) has just come out. I managed to catch the busy writer-publisher for an interview sometime ago. Excerpts:

Your latest novel, The Emperor of Solitude, is on communalism in India. What prompted you to write a novel on this subject?

David Davidar: The main cause was, you know, that India, as I say at some point in the novel, is one of the longest running plural societies in the history of civilizations. Every religion, every race, creed, known to man, has lived in India for thousands and thousands of years. Every time fundamentalists, whether Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, try to disturb the piece, I think people who believe in the amity of nations, communities, all right thinking man, in whatever way they can, should protest and say it is not right or point it out in whatever way they can. So, I thought given the fact that journalists are doing the standard job in India and elsewhere to point out how wrong all this is, I figured out I will take a different approach and try and use the medium of fiction to express my views.

So, in a way, this novel is your protest against communalism?

DD: Ya, I think so. Absolutely!

Do you think communalism is still a major phenomenon in India?

DD: Well, it flares up from time to time. India is a very large country. From time to time, there are sort of riots in some parts of the country, inspired by religion or by caste, whatever the reason. So, I don't think it will ever go away. One has to be vigilant. I think despite the problem of the 1990s and the riots of Gujarat in 2002, the country is quite calm. But there is communal violence everywhere else in the world. Everywhere you look there is some incident or the other. And while the book takes place in India, I hope what I am trying to work through in the course of the narrative is of universal importance.

The protagonist of your novel Vijay comes from small town South India and goes to Bombay to work for a magazine. You also went to Bombay as a young journalist. Did your personal experience help you draw material for this work?

DD: Ya, ya. But it is not autobiographical in any way. I have never worked for a magazine called The Secularist, I have never witnessed a communal riot, but, yes, I was perfectly happy in the small town I was born in. It gave me some ideas, for sure.

Some of the scenes of rioting are so realistically written in your novel. Did you see anything like that personally or was it just research?

DD: Friends of mine lived through those dark days in Bombay. I talked to them. My closest friend who lives in Bombay who I have acknowledged in the back of the book, he and I spent many hours talking about those days, what he had witnesses and so on. So, ya, it is not based on first hand experience but second hand experience.

You wrote your first novel while you were still in India, and your second novel has come out while you are based in Canada. When did you start work on this novel?

DD: About 18 months ago.

That was relatively quick. Your first novel, The House of Blue Mangoes, took you about ten years to write, didn’t it?

DD: For the last one, I actually did the major work in two years. I started it and stopped in between. This one I just wrote it continuously.

You are also a busy publisher. How do you strike a balance between the two roles, as a writer and a publisher?

DD: Well, I work very early in the morning, between 4 to 6 every morning. But I am not sure that I will be able to keep it up.

Any plans to come back to India?

DD: I don't know. At some point in the future, maybe, depending on the opportunities, for sure. Ya, I mean, it is a very exciting part of the world. Definitely. I wouldn’t rule that out.

You as a publisher were instrumental in the flourishing of the Indian writing in English (IWE) while you were the head of Penguin Books, India. After you left the scene, many success stories have emerged. How do you see the future of IWE in the coming years?

DD: Oh, I think it will continue to flourish because I think it is only getting started, you know. I mean the people I worked with were the first generation of great writers after Indian Independence and onwards from there. I mean they were all born around the 50 and 60s and 70s. Now people born in the 80s, 90s, and even in the new century, who knows in which direction they will take the novel. Creative writing in general has an exciting future.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Solitude of Emperors

Indian writing in English (IWE), however celebrated at home and abroad, rather than catching our eyes for the seriousness of theme and material often grabs our attention for its "tinsel glitter of celebrity."

Indian writing in the vernaculars, on the other hand, still gets loved, hated, discussed and fought over for dealing with an "aesthetics inseparable from questions of justice and equality."

Such an engagement, a legacy of India's Progressive Writers' Association, is at the heart of David Davidar's second novel, The Emperor of Solitude.

Like some of the socially conscious IWE novels of recent years, such as Sashi Tharoor's Riot, A Novel and Tabish Khair's Filming: A Love Story, The Emperor of Solitude takes us on a journey of India torn apart by the forces of communalism.

David Davidar has said that this novel is his protest against communalism, which in a way underpins the idea that the role of a writer as a partisan is still important and that writers should expose the ills of the society, just like journalists do, but with their own tools and in their own fashion.

The story is told through the eyes of Vijay, a South Indian small-town young man, who comes to Bombay in the early 1990s to work with a dedicated secularist, Rustom Sorabjee, the editor of a magazine, The Indian Secularist.

A young man with not great ambitions, Vijay's experience of meeting Sorabjee transforms him, making him conscious of the damage of communalism (mixing of religion and politics) in an otherwise great land of civilization where great leaders like Asoka, Akbar and Gandhi showed us how to reach out to people of all religions and races and how to live a life of peace and communal harmony.

Vijay witnesses the post-Babri Masjid Bombay riots and gets filled with horror. In the central part of the narrative, Sorabjee sends Vijay to Meham, a small tea town in the Nilgris to recover. There he meets Noah, a colourful character, a poet turned mad by the absolute demands of our world, and they become friends. By far, Noah's is the most interesting character in the entire novel. But even in Meham, communalism raises its ugly head. A Christian shrine, The Tower of God, becomes the object of political wrangling between the Christian community and a group of politically motivated Hindu right wingers. Tragedy follows which leaves Vijay further traumatised.

Running parallel to this story is a book within the novel, a book on India's ethos of secularism by Sorabjee. David has shared some great ideas on religion and life through the device of a book within a book.

Both through the main narrative and the book-within-the-book device, David's message of communal harmony comes through very clearly. It is just the kind of writing that one would locate at the heart of social change.

The Solitude of Emperors by David Davidar, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, S$32.95

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Diary of a bad year

Can't wait to read J M Coetzee's novel, Diary of a bad year.

I had read its first chapter in the NYRB sometime ago and I love the way Coetzee intertwines fiction and philosophy (political philosophy) in this novel. I have found very few writers who think exactly like I do and who care about things that I care about too (I hope I do not sound immodest in saying this). Coetzee is that writer who, as if, speaks for me, minus his penchant for probability that has never been a field of my interest.

Here's Christopher Tayler on Coetzee's fact-woven Diary of a Bad Year:

Unlike Life & Times of Michael K (1983) or Disgrace (1999), this isn't a book you'd press on someone new to this great writer. But it's much more than an exercise in letting off some steam inside a tricky fictional frame. Funnier than anything else he's written, if sometimes in a rather donnish way, it eventually becomes unexpectedly moving, offering surprises while avoiding a final thunderclap with the restraint that Coetzee's readers have learned to expect. The metafictional stuff is handled with more panache than it was in Slow Man, and the devices aimed at keeping the reader off balance work well. Towards the end of the book, Coetzee conveys absolute sincerity while scrupulously directing the reader's attention to the potentially fraudulent techniques he's using to convey it. Perhaps he's pulling a ladder up after himself, but you don't doubt that, as C puts it while discussing late Tolstoy, he's struggling in earnest with "the one question that truly engaged his soul: how to live".

And here's Boyd Tonkin's take on Coetzee's "late style" as exhibited in his latest novel, a work in the hybrid territory:

His latest novel (and it is one, in spite of all its formal games) puts the angry sage under scrutiny as it marks the further progress of Coetzee's bracingly bold "late style". Just as Edward Said proposed in his book of that name, Coetzee seems to be detaching himself step by step in a long "crisis of farewell" from the conventions of his genre. As in Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man, he edges away from fully-embodied fiction into hybrid territory where essays, fables and aphorisms bed down in the frame of an invented yarn.

As Diary of a Bad Year puts it, in relation to the ageing Tolstoy and similar late-stylists, "the texture of their prose becomes thinner, their treatment of character and action more schematic". Yet this depletion can also bring about "a liberation, a clearing of the mind to take on more important tasks".