Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Three is company: Shobha De, Mukul Deva, and Meenakshi Reddy

A candid report from the tenth India Se Literary Salon 2011

If anyone had any doubt about Shobha De’s popularity in Singapore, India Se’s 10th literary salon put it to rest for ever on 26 March. It was a Saturday afternoon and people voted with their feet—they preferred Shobha over siesta and thronged to the Singapore Recreation Club to enjoy her wit and benefit from her insights. Of course there were other attractions too. Indian thriller writer Mukul Deva was to unveil his latest novel, Tanzeem, and young writer Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan was to spice up the afternoon with her reading.

A gushing fan christened Shobha as the Sophia Loren of the East. In her welcome address, India Se’s CEO and editor-in-chief Shobha Tsering Bhalla said that every country is blessed with only one Shobha De, and she likened India’s Shobha De to USA’s Arianna Huffington (of The Huffington Post). What she meant was that Shobha De was not just a name—she signifies a tiger woman who is a combination of timeless beauty and ageless mind, and is the master of a fertile imagination with a killer attitude.

Shobha Bhalla shared with her readers how India Se’s literary salons had started in 2007 when such events were scarce in Singapore celebrating Indian writing and Indian writers. She regretted that writers Advaita Kala and Chetan Bhagat could not make it to the conference—Kala had lost her passport and Bhagat was already booked for the day. Shobha promised her readers that a writing workshop would soon be held with Bhagat holding a masterclass for the wannabe writers (I’m tempted to ask: Aur kitne Bhagats? India ke liye ek kaafi nahi hai kya?).

Unveiling of Tanzeem

Dr. T C A Raghavan, Indian High Commissioner to Singapore, unveiled Tanzeem—Mukul Deva’s fourth and last novel in his bestselling terrorism series. The high commissioner expressed his appreciation for Indian writing in English and said how it had been crucial for raising India’s profile in the world.

Mukul, an ex-army officer, is known as the Tom Clancy of India. He is India’s first military thriller writer. He shared with the audience how his publishers, HarperCollins India, were skeptical about the success of a military thriller in the Indian market. But with his first novel’s success, he proved them wrong. Lashkar was sold out in about 35 days in India and has since gone into several reprints. After Lashkar’s success, the going became easier for Mukul. He handed over one novel each year to his publisher, that turned out to be bestsellers. “In that sense, I created a new market segment of military thrillers in India,” Mukul said.

“Lashkar happened because I was disturbed after the bomb blasts in Saojini Nagar market in Delhi,” Mukul said, going into the antecedents of his terrorism series. “Newspapers give such incidents their own spin. To bring out the truth, I could either write big boring scholarly books or I could explain terrorism through novels. I chose the medium of novels to expose terrorism.”

Writing in her blood

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, the twenty something author of two novels, You are Here (Penguin) and Confessions of A Listmaniac (Scholastic), spoke about her blog, The Compulsive Confessor and how she had started her writing journey. Both her parents are writers so they understood when she wanted to become a writer too, she said. She couldn’t find her types of books on the bookshelves so she turned to writing those books for herself and for people of her age—and a changing India welcomed her books and she found a readership. Just like Shobha De and Mukul Deva, she too was not spared an epithet—a member of the audience called her India’s Sophie Kinsella. So it goes.

Reddy read two passages from her new novel, You are Here. The audience was clearly amused as one could hear giggles coming from the ranks of the audience.

Break the cage of age

Shobha De’s message to her readers was straightforward: break the cage of age. “We all need to be liberated from this cage,” she said. She was referring to ageism that she deals with in her book, Shobha at Sixty, which has gone on to become a huge success, beyond Shobha’s own expectations.

When Shobha had walked into the conference room, there were gasps from the members of the audience. And there was pin-drop silence—in appreciation—when Shobha read from her upcoming novel, Sethji. With this novel, Shobha had tried her hand at fiction after 15 years but from what she read, it was clear that she had improved on her craft.

Is Sethji’s character based on real life politician, asked a reader. Yes, it is, Shobha said, but thankfully, that monster is now dead.

“Guts and fearlessness are two main strengths of a writer,” she quipped in response to another question. And for a woman like herself, who is often pilloried from many corners, success is the best protection, she said.

A version of this report appeared in India Se magazine (May 2011 issue). You can read the report here.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Review: Bhog and Other Stories

Bhog and Other Stories
By Ankur Betageri
Pilli Books, Bangaluru, 2010
Hardback, 108 pp., Rs. 260

In Ankur Betageri’s debut collection of short stories, Bhog and Other Stories, the last story, Malavika, is about a Bangalore-based materialistic girl. The eponymous character, Malavika, is befriended by the narrator—a writer and a friend of the young college-going student. The writer shows that Malavika is confused about life.

Once Malavika and the narrator go to a hospital to donate blood. The doctor does not allow Malavika to donate her blood because of her having a low count of red blood cells. Malavika turns sad at this rejection and the narrator reads her a poem to cheer her up. She cuts him off in the middle of the narration and tells him that he should publish books and seriously consider writing novels. The narrator muses: “Only when a person’s capacity is expressed in the form of a product or a service can one give it the value of money—only things having money value can have any value. I realized that this philosophy was behind all her talk and action.”

Moreover, Malavika advises the young poet to exercise ‘emotional discipline’, implying that one should express oneself at the right places only, where ‘the expression’ could be monetized. In this story, Ankur is alluding to the marketisation of feelings and their commoditized modes of expression in our world.

Later on in the story, Malavika seems to suffer from a nervous breakdown. She can’t understand her own suffering. She meets up with the narrator. “Look, there is a deep lack of love in this world,” he consoles her. “Like most people who have adjusted themselves to the dehumanizing conditions of the capitalistic system even you have lost the ability to love someone with all your heart; to accept someone with all your being. While a small portion of your brain shows a little love and sympathy, the rest of your brain becomes busy calculating like a businessman.”

“Feeling is not our weakness—it is a sign of our humanity,” the narrator reminds Malavika. Obliquely, perhaps Ankur wants to tell us all about our materialistic madness and paranoia—our undesirable sufferings, the postmodern crisis of meaning in life. And Ankur should know it—he has a Masters degree in clinical psychology.

Like Malavika, most of the stories in this collection are about the dilemmas of life that characters in cities and villages face, until a transforming moment comes in their lives that imparts them a rare insight. The characters, and through them the readers, woven by Ankur in these stories are rewarded with epiphanies that somehow lessen the burden of life, for life invested with meaning becomes less painful.

Psychology, philosophy, and ancient wisdom form the framework for the screen on which Ankur throws his beam of imaginary characters that fashion his curious world. The resulting tales sometimes take strange, allegorical forms and depending on her taste, a reader could find it interesting or boring. In essence, his stories demonstrate the fight between the spirit and the matter. In The Source of the Stream, a character thus summarizes the modern man: “Modern man … (is) nothing more than an animated corpse—he has become a zombie. He is spurious, narcissistic, shallow and this has forced him to become sensational, for he can be nothing else…Sensationalism is the artificial spirit of the dead age. And if no one wakes up from this slumber of cynicism there is the unthinkable possibility of forgetting the very presence of Spirit, the Spirit in which is found the depth of our true joys and sorrows.”

Insights flow from one story to another in this collection of 14 stories. But all stories are not realistic. There are some fantastic stories too such as Atmaram Harbhaji and The Armour. Atmaram Harbhaji is particularly interesting—the main character is a man who was born in five bits and was lovingly brought up in a sack by his mother. This is a tragicomic story with the dark shades of Kafka and the linguistic inventiveness of Rushdie.

Ankur’s piece de resistance in this collection is the title story—Bhog. The story has been told in an old-fashioned narrative style which slowly grows in its power. It’s about a poor old man who prepares for the Bhog celebrations. Bhog is a ritual festival celebrated on the first Saturday after Deepavali to mark improvement in the family’s affluence and prosperity.

The old man, the story’s protagonist, has nothing to celebrate actually but he has to live up to the expectations of the villagers. As he painstakingly hews a dead tree to make firewood for the celebrations, he is met with the news of the death of his family’s dog. He uses the wood to make a funeral pyre for his dog, instead for his Bhog celebration. He gives in to feelings at the cost of his perceived prestige in the village. The story somehow reminds us of Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea (the struggle between the fisherman Santiago and the giant marlin vs. the struggle between the old man and the date palm tree). The image of the old man hacking at the unyielding date palm tree reminds me of a scene in Anusha Razvi’s Peepli Live in which an emaciated old man digs soil in an open crater. Given the setting, I had the feeling that a story like should have come from the pen of Munshi Premchand—it is so powerful.

Bhog is the most accomplished story in this collection of many insightful stories. Though the stories here are of uneven quality and they could have been better edited, each one of them leaves you with a thought or an insight. Overall, Bhog and Other Stories could be a rewarding read for those readers who want more than mere entertainment in their reading material.

An edited version of this review appeared in The Financial World, Tehelka's sister publication dated 5 May.