Friday, July 11, 2008

Does Rushdie's Midnight's Children add value to the Booker Prize?

Much is made of the fact that Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children has, for the second time in history, been judged the best ever winner of the Booker prize. [Link]

Victoria Glendinning, a member of the panel that drew up a list of 6 books for the shortlist, said that "the readers have spoken - in their thousands. " That is right, the honor was decided by a public vote via the internet and SMS text messaging (with a small charge).

I was rooting for Disgrace knowing that its author, J.M. Coetzee, stands no chance against the celebrity figure in Rushdie. I did not even dare contemplate J.G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur because public popularity contests are usually skewed against dead people. (Farrell passed away in 1979). Well, at least the others got the honor of being shortlisted. It seems like that is not a given any more.

Midnight's Children may be a fine piece of work. Yet I cannot help but wonder if the internet-based voters (a self-selected population) really read all six books on the shortlist before they voted for their favorite.

According to John Mullan, another judge in the panel that drew up the shortlist:

...the value of the Best of the Bookers is wider than its simple identification of a single winner: “It looks at what qualities of books survive the fashion that gives them their temporary celebrity.” [Link]

Given that there were only about 8,000 public votes in all (and 36% or 2,880 votes went to Midnight's Children), that seems like a tall claim. But this can be put to test very soon--after all, we are only 10 years away from the next major anniversary of the birth of the Man Booker Prize.

The books may all be good but the award is beginning to sound cheap.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


Like me, if you happen to be one of the few people in the internet world who hadn't heard of Dancing Matt until today, you are in for a charming treat. Matt Harding seems to have a quirky writing style and a quirkier dancing style. But in the third version of his simple but original and creative video 'Where the hell isMatt?' he has cemented his reputation for excellent taste in music. The lyrics are from a poem by Rabindranath Tagore; vocals by Palbasha Siddique, 17. You can read more about the music, lyrics and Siddique here.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Cheated out of being shortlisted

Imagine you have worked hard for several years to produce a collection of short stories and it has been nominated for a top prize. You are hoping to make the shortlist and would welcome the accompanying perks: publicity in newspapers, increased sales, prestige of calling yourself a shortlisted author and having your name attached to the historic record of the prize. But then you read this:

The judges for the Frank O'Connor award have dispensed with the ritual of issuing a shortlist, announcing today that Jhumpa Lahiri has won the world's richest honour for a short story collection. The jurors decided that Unaccustomed Earth was so plainly the best book that they would jump straight from longlist to winner, and have awarded Lahiri the €35,000 (£27,000) prize. ...

"With a unanimous winner at this early stage we decided it would be a sham to compose a shortlist and put five other writers through unnecessary stress and suspense," explained the award's director, Pat Cotter. [Link]
I don't know about you, but I would feel cheated out of a potential recognition that doesn't come around very often. Especially since some of the nominated books this year may actually be better than the winning book from another year, considering that the quality varies from year to year.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

'a complicated kindness' by Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews’ funny but heart-breaking novel ‘a complicated kindness,’ features the Mennonite church and community. It portrays Manitoban families in the fictitious East Village, cut off from a city that is only 40 miles away and ministered by the fiercely pious and overly-zealous Hans. Toews, herself a Manitoban of Mennonite descent, paints a picture of the Mennonite church as one which prepares its flock for life after death by stifling the life out of its followers' earthly existence.

The protagonist, Nomi Nickel, 16, is lost within the folds of silence in her family and her community. At the beginning of her story, Nomi informs the reader that half of her family, the better-looking half, is missing. As she unravels their story, layer by layer, with a wry sense of humor and sharpness that exemplifies the gift of adolescence, you cannot help but smile, even as you feel her pain. Her dad, Ray, has his heart in the right place but finds himself stunted in his ability to be himself, to be a modern-day father and a strong husband. Yet Nomi does not love him any less on account of his shortcomings. In fact, she goes as far as taking over the responsibility of being the rock in the now two-member family. Or so she thinks. Ray, on the other hand, sees clearly what is best for his daughter, despite not knowing how to help her or even himself.

The contradictions between the lifestyle that is expected in this village (duly showcased in the museum for the benefit of American tourists) and the lifestyle that is a reality among some teens are mind-boggling. Consider this passage:

We’re Mennonites. As far as I know, we are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager. Five hundred years ago in Europe a man called Menno Simons set off to do his own peculiar religious thing…Imagine the least well-adjusted kid in your school starting a breakaway clique of people whose manifesto includes a ban on the media, dancing, smoking, temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock’n’roll, having sex for fun, swimming, make-up, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities or staying up past nine o’clock. That was Menno all over. Thanks a lot, Menno.
So East Village, on the outset, appears to be a success from Menno’s point of view. Even well-stocked libraries are banned, as in all societies governed and manipulated in a top-down manner. However, a closer inspection reveals that bored (or bewildered) teen-agers in Manitoba’s East Village may be no different from those presumed to inhabit New York City’s East Village. They wander about the streets in the night, have sex out of boredom, drink and do drugs and sometimes self-destruct in very direct and more efficient ways than you would think is humanly possible in picture-perfect societies.

Toews' writing style, employing no quotation marks, even when she is writing direct speech, throws you off a little in the beginning but you get used to it very quickly. There are scenes and passages, especially in the middle of the book, where the book seems to drag. Had Toews cut the novel by 30 or 40 pages, the story would not have suffered even a tiny bit. But despite that minor weakness, the book is well worth a read.

Also read:
An excerpt of ‘a complicated kindness.’
An author interview.

Monday, June 9, 2008

On being tagged

I've been tagged. This is probably the only context in which I will concede to liking chain-letters and go on to honour them. Up until now I had no idea that Sujatha over at fluff 'n' stuff even knew of my existence but she has me listed right next to Usha from agelessbonding. Usha is a veteran of the blogging world--she started blogging in 2003 and her site meter indicates she gets 267 visits, on average, per day. Having blogged only since January of this year, I assume that my readership doubles on the days my husband wanders over lazily from his haunts to check out my latest entry. So now is probably a good time to share this thought: that the 'six degrees of separation' rule does not apply to the blogging world. Through blogs, people can probably be connected to each other in no more than three degrees of separation.

Now onto the business-at-hand.

These are the rules:

Pick up the nearest book.
Open to page 123.
Find the fifth sentence.
Post the next 3 sentences.
Tag 5 people, and acknowledge the person who tagged you.

The book is 'An Obedient Father' by Akhil Sharma.

The sentences:

"...When the Muslim moved into Tailor's Alley and started a milk bar, I said to the people there, 'In my life this has always been a Hindu alley. Tomorrow this Muslim will be selling your children milk with cow bones ground in.'" He realized he was merely boasting and brought the conversation back on track.

Now for the more difficult part--the tagging. The introductory narrative next to the chosen blogger is not essential; it is just my personal touch as a tribute to those chosen.

Kalyani from 'those middle ages' (after all she is only marrying off her daughter and does not have enough on her plate).

Anonandon (while being as opinionated as the rest of us, she manages, better than most of us, to carve time for Bellinis or rock concerts or both--much to the chagrin of some Y chromosomes. But that is another story).

Asal thamizh penn (if she rejects being tagged and chooses instead to write about how annoying the game is, she will at least stamp it with her ATP-brand comic style. But more importantly, she will show me all the respect my Tamilness deserves and will refer to me only as an anonymized 'M').

Lisa (she lives my dream--immersing herself in Russian literature AND getting paid for it in that beautiful state of Maine. Moreover, she too brings back the past with the likes of Pozharskie cutlets and столичный салат).

Angry African (because he can be funny, angry, poignant...Heck, he does not mince his meat, I mean, words).

I don't know if this will work but I am tagging an extra blogger: Melvin, my humor-immersed husband because I have this need to see him pick up a book and actually read a few lines.

Thanks for the thoughtful stuff masquerading as fluff, Sujatha.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Nabokov's 'Natasha'

In its June 9, 2008 issue, The New Yorker has published 'Natasha'--a short story by Vladimir Nabokov, circa 1924; translated by son Dmitri Nabokov.

The story is a study of contrasts. Witness this early scene: Ailing Khrenov "pulled the blanket tightly around him" but "the thermometer was warm, alive—the column of mercury climbed high on the little red ladder. "

Old Khrenov, who is bed-ridden, ill and almost dying, is most in touch with reality -- he pays attention to people's movements, and presumably, to their feelings as well. He is obsessed with the world outside that can come to his bedside only via the newspaper. He makes a pronouncement early in the story that one almost misses.

Young Natasha, even while nursing and caring for her father with utmost sincerity, is quite attuned to "the warmth of her own body, her long thighs, and her bare arms...". She is lost in her own world of formication just as Baron Wolfe lives in his own fantasy world. But through Wolfe, towards the tail end of the story, we are made to confront the following life-affirming questions: is it really that simple to decide who inhabits reality and whose life is fictional? Is one man's insignificant life less complete because he merely dreams? Is another man's gigantic life a solid reality when all he does is moan, groan and complain his way through it? Again, an interesting juxtaposition of contrasting themes.

Truly, a charming, moving, riveting short story.

Cross-posted at Russian reading challenge.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Wanted: More irreverence for Bachchans and their beatified bahu

Manish of Ultrabrown triggered this post by putting up a link to this -- hallelujah! -- glory. (See images 81129802, 81128887, 81128879, 81129935, 81130033.) Bookoholic's comment reminded me that I like to rail against mindless unfairness meted out to aging women who are way past their own glorious youth.

Hasn't the pretentious Bachchan family watched enough Jane Austen adaptations on TV to figure out that the older woman, however wrinkled and washed up she may look next to TM_Worshipped_Bahu_ITW, deserves a gentleman's arm to lead the way so the entire party can present itself in as regal and dignified a style and manner as possible?

I believe that Jaya Bhaduri Bachchan was/is the only true actor in the family; so it pains me to conclude that she looks the most uncomfortable in this meat 'film fest' display. Outlook India's words after Cannes 2007: "he looked awkwardly tremulous, while she struck extravagant poses". [Link] 'He' stands for Bachchan Jr ('she', of course, is god's personal answer to India's prayer). Much has changed apparently in one year's time for the most junior member of the family. Before Cannes' red carpet rolls around again in 2009, I am sure a makeover will be forced upon that member of the family whose initials are not AB. Sigh!

We need more irreverent comedians/humorists and bloggers in the subcontinent and its diaspora so we can get a few more laughs at the expense of these exaggerated versions of bollybrities and their fans. Here is a start.

Monday, May 5, 2008

"Can I be a Hindu too, Mommy?"

A Sepia Mutiny post highlighting the reactions of a particular religious group to the movie The Love Guru has evolved into an interesting discussion -- as I see it -- on spiritual origins and religious ownership of free-flowing thoughts and ideas.

A commenter suggests:

The real problem is when people trying to create boundaries, man made religious laws to trap or confine concepts which are universal and infinite...
Apparently this business of creating boundaries starts very early in life. Coming back from a dinner party recently, my 5-year-old asked if she can be a Hindu, like her friend 'X'. "What is a Christian? And why did ('X') say I could not join her in her game because I am a Christian and she is a Hindu?" So Sunday afternoon was spent in an impromptu crash course on major world religions. The course was distilled to appeal to little girls -- aged 4 and 5 -- who have spent roughly equal amounts of time on occasional temple and church visits but not enough overall time within the larger spheres of spiritual contemplation or religious claims-to-fame. The spurned-at-the-game daughter showed undisguised relief that Mommy seemed to know what went momentarily wrong between her and her much-loved friend. Not much else was needed for her general cheer to descend upon her once again.

As for me, I am reasonable enough to understand that kids, in anticipation of their roles and niches as adults, indulge in power games and activities that push boundaries and test social hierarchies. If it wasn't a 'religious otherness' label, some other characteristic, such as the shade of skin color, length of hair, gender of being or shape of nose, would have sent a seemingly submissive child to the sidelines. Yet I am unreasonable enough to feel irked that there is at least one adult in our circle of acquaintances who felt free to slap an unwarranted label on my child's forehead within the privacy of their homes. Neither the child's potential preference nor her parents' (lack of) preference was given any consideration.

Epilogue: In anticipation of similar, future sidelining attempts, our girls have learnt to declare that they are strictly forbidden to choose a religious team until the day they each blow out 50 birthday candles. In case of extreme and dire situations, they will describe themselves as Krishtians.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Pico Iyer on the Dalai Lama

Pico Iyer has known the Dalai Lama for over 30 years. Iyer was recently on CBC's Tapestry with Mary Hynes [Listen to the show here] in connection with the launch of his new book The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

In this program segment, Hynes attempts to tease out the pop-culture phenomenon the Dalai Lama appears to have become (in the west) from the complex intellectual, spiritual and political person that (I believe) he truly is. For me, the Hynes-Iyer conversation was more than just an intellectual experience. I actually came away with little snippets of information that ought to be put to use into my own everyday existence. Here, for instance, are some of those interesting tidbits:

--That the Dalai Lama considers it silly to hope for a magic wand that would help him resolve the situation in the middle-east.

--That the Dalai Lama practices a type of meditation during which he eats his breakfast, exercises on his bike, listens to the BBC World News. In short, he is constantly in motion while he meditates. This way, he gets to meditate for up to 8 hours a day.

--That the spiritual Dalai Lama is not averse to making a critical assessment of the political Dalai Lama and vice versa.

Listen for more such almost-obvious practical approaches to carrying on with our human existences. [Link]

Manish at Ultrabrown has a somewhat related post here after attending one of Pico Iyer's reading.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Meaning of (Academic) Life

Today is one of those rare days when I will admit to restlessness about life within the walls of academia. (This admission is coming from somebody who refused to apply for a position in industry or any other non-academic employment sector for that matter.) A generous dose of humor is desperately needed to get over this atypical personal crisis.

So perhaps it is time to transfer more books from the library to the ever-growing pile next to my bed: Roger Rosenblatt, author of the academic satire, Beet, went as far back as the 1950s and came up with a list of five best satires of academic life. However, all five books are populated by characters affiliated with the English departments.

I can understand the humanities taking on more than their fair share of book-producing responsibilities but I am puzzled by their over-representation inside the pages of books dealing with angst-ridden existence. Note to aspiring writers: Folks in health sciences too are desperate for comical assessments of their lives. They are literate and are willing to pay good money to laugh at themselves. Any takers?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Hazards of BWM (Blogging While Mom)

I was just recovering from one of the hazards of blogging during lunch at work: I had typed 'Booker of Bookers' when I actually meant 'The Best of Bookers'. My husband had discovered the error and chided me. He is a stickler for facts. He is a writer after all. I was mad at myself. I am a stickler for facts too. I earn my living as a researcher. Plus, I hate to discover I embarrassed myself. I can be obsessive like that.

So here I am, on a Saturday morning, wanting to please myself by perfecting my next post. I treat my children to whole-wheat chocolate pancakes (healthy food laced with dessert to ensure maximum consumption by fussy toddlers) and hope they will be lulled into playing by themselves for a short while. Breakfast things uncleared, I open the laptop at the kitchen table. So let me see: what are the top 10 reasons I remain fascinated with Pi Patel's life. Hmmm ... is it because Yann Martel had the audacity to start his book with a short thesis on the biology, ecology and physiology of the sloth? Or is it ... ?

By now, all the usual noises in our home -- the plonking of piano keys by chubby toddler fingers, the thuds of graceless falls by a 4-year-old acrobat practicing on the couch, the outraged squeals of a 5-year old discovering that evil sibling has (once again) raided the forbidden treasure box -- have all been forcibly pushed to the background. Yann Martel, Pi Patel. Piscine Molitor P. Richard Parker. Gather. Focus. Type ...

But wait. What is that noise? A chair being dragged across the kitchen floor. Okay, just this one reason before I look up: Religion vs. Zoology. What an excellent juxtaposition.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

That doesn't sound good at all.

I ... have ... to ... go. Wait, no one else has argued for the concept of zoos this eloquently, not even the most pessimistic ...

Hey, what's that whirring sound? The microwave is on? Am I defrosting something?

No, no, no. NO, you two-year-old monkey! Get down from there! What are you cooking in the microwave?

I dart across the kitchen floor. Press the Stop button. Can't help noticing that there are 7 mins and 8 secs left to complete what I think is my toddler's microwave recipe of cooked air. Turn to leave. On second thoughts: I open the door of the microwave oven. And there, awaiting its next avatar as melted plastic-and-metal goo, is our molded plastic-and-metal can opener.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Dark Side of Indian English

A person belonging to a scheduled caste told Anjali Puri of Outlook India: "English is a Goddess we worship." [From CBC's Dispatches. Listen here.] And why not? In a country where tools of education and livelihood are venerated and accorded their own special day, it does make sense to add the Language of Economy and Power to the pantheon of locally-relevant concept of Gods. No one will endorse this belief more vehemently than my now-deceased, agnostic, maternal grandfather who moved from the village to the city, leaving the life of a small-time peasant to eke out an equally unsatisfying living as a petty rice-shop owner.

My thatha went to prison marching against the imposition of Hindi in Tamil Nadu. Keeping in line with his philosophy and practical needs, he diligently taught himself to read the news in English. He died when he was 47 and I was only four. The most vivid image of him that comes to my mind is one in which he progresses slowly from one page of his English newspaper to the next through the course of the day; between customers who haggle with him; and among his many duties as head of a lower-middle class, multi-family household. He rejoiced when his daughter chose (and his son-in-law afforded) one of the better schools in the city for his granddaughter, but wasn't around to see her prize for highest marks in English at the end of 4th grade.

My thatha would have disagreed with Chachaji's advice to Anjali Puri. The thought behind the advice would have puzzled and troubled him. As proud as thatha was of his culture and country, he would have welcomed any genuine attention -- local or international -- to the English-language divide that weighed so heavily on his life and the lives of his children, nephews and nieces (and continues to adversely affect some of their offspring, even today). He would have been forced to sadly conclude that some people prefer to sweep major systematic (subcontinental) socioeconomic problems under lush imported carpets in distant North America, for reasons most suited to themselves. And he would have felt betrayed.

Reference: India's English Speaking Curse. CBC's Dispatches. April 20, 2008. (Host: Rick MacInnes-Rae)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

'Life of Pi,' my choice for Best of the Booker

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Man Booker Prize, a Best of the Booker will be awarded this year to one of the 41 Booker winning books (there were ties in 1974 and 1992). A panel of judges will select a short list of six novels, then the public will vote on the official website, which means, of course, that the best book won't necessarily win.

I have not read all 41 books to make a truly informed choice, yet I am vain enough to have a personal choice at this point: Yann Martel's 'Life of Pi'.

No one else has blended the field of animal behavior with literature as well as he has. No other book gave me reason to pause and wonder if it was equally suitable for my other blog.

For now, I will just have to wait and see if 'Life of Pi' makes it to the short list.

Here is an essay that gives us a peek into how he wrote this exceptional book.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

One little-known South Indian book

A comment on Sepia Mutiny:

"...I'd like to feel refreshed and uplifted upon finishing a South Indian authored book, not weighed down and vaguely guilty about something I can't quite put my finger on."

One book, little-known in contemporary reading-circles, seems to be Kamala Markandaya's 'Nectar in a Sieve.' I believe that if you choose to read just one South-Indian authored book (in the English language) in your lifetime, it should be none other than Markandaya's almost-poetic, sensitive portrayal of a landless peasant woman's life in an India that was rapidly changing. R.K. Narayanan fans may disagree with me on this but comparing the subject matter, social relevance, characterization, writing style and its ability to move and connect you with the characters, the place, and their hardships, I would still recommend Markandaya first. If you, like me, have some connections to impoverished rural India (even if that link has weakened with each successive generation), then you owe it to your people to learn about their perseverance in the face of hardships if only to cherish their dreams and hopes that have been passed on to you.

Make no mistake: Markandaya dishes up plenty of suffering in this book. But strangely enough her book left me feeling utterly grateful for everything I have been given in life--food in abundance; a roof over my head; a language associated with economic power in India; education; opportunities; some level of control over my life; my ability to keep moving periodically and reinventing myself--without my asking for some of this or even deserving any of this. I figured that one way for us to give back is to learn to have compassion for those that have been left behind (or stayed behind--whichever way you like to look at it) and, at the very least, to find it in our hearts to remember such stories and pass them on. Not for sentimental, sanctimonious reasons but for very practical reasons. A respectful appreciation, if nothing else, for the people who accept and endure devastating, multiple hardships and humiliations, can only lead us to see that our glasses are full enough. An understanding of the tenacity of the people who experience the loss of everything they own, know about, or connect with, except their ability to hope, can teach us to move our own personal mountains in ways that prayers cannot.

I discovered Markandaya's 'Nectar in a Sieve' on my own, by chance--in a library sale in West Lafayette, Indiana. At the time of my reading (over 10 years ago), my mind (with respect to both author and the specific book) was a blank slate. No reviewer had influenced me, no marketing gimmick wooed me, no school teacher had demanded a synopsis out of me, no academic had taught me how to interpret the characters or where to place the book in the grand scheme of literature. Yet the book resonated positively with me like few others did. It was a rare, pristine experience that I may never experience, ever again. Since then I have come to know that the book has been studied, approved, criticized and embraced by many. Here is an anthropologist's view on the characters Rukmani and Ira.

Don't let the cover illustration of the current edition fool you. The book is set in South-India. Rukmani and her husband work in their paddy-fields, growing rice. There are several Tamil words throughout the book, although I don't specifically recall the characters describing themselves as Tamil. Two sons leave to find work as indentured labourers in the tea plantations of upcountry Ceylon (now Sri Lanka)--which also added to the impression that Markandaya was writing about rural Tamils.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

'Namesake'--the movie

Only last week did Melvin and I, busy parents that we are, watch 'Namesake' the movie. (Wait, I am not completely honest here. We are not that busy. The truth is really embarrassing: we just can't get seem to reclaim the TV/DVD player from our kids and we've been reduced to watching cartoons aimed at 3- to 5-year old kids. But before you judge us, let me just say that this has done wonders to my reading habit.)

So nearly a year after the movie, directed by Mira Nair and based on the book by Jhumpa Lahiri, was released, we rented a DVD and watched with abated breaths. When I read the book a few years ago, I had thought that it was reasonably good--not great--and definitely not the kind that Iwould revisit. But being Mira Nair fans, we wondered what kind of magic Nair would bring to the product. But by the end of the movie, I was left wondering, "What was the fuss all about?"

In my opinion, one of the weaknesses of the book--the lack of a central plot--is more glaring in the movie. The entire experience amounted to nothing more than a movie-version of a long, rambling tea-time conversation that started with the life of the parents before drifting off into the as-yet-uninteresting life of their son. In the absence of plot, Ashoke Ganguli's revelation about his emotional connection with the son's name, has been given the status of a pseudo-plot. If I recall the book correctly, there was none of that filmy drama between father and son that got built into the movie.

In the book Lahiri lets the reader know, in a sequential manner, in her characteristic, detailed prose, Ashoke's emotional tie to Gogol the writer; the selection of 'Gogol' as a pet, not real, name for his son; the accident of the missing mail; the resignation with which Ashima and Ashoke accept the 'renaming' of their son by his kindergarten teachers. The name issue was an important feature to understanding the Ganguli family's (not just Gogol's) life and experiences in America, but there was no mystery surrounding it. So I didn't particularly appreciate all the vapid secrecy that was built around it in the movie. I also got the feeling that it was set up to make one cry with Gogol, while he learns of his father's past near-death experience, but, watching Kal Penn's reaction, I only felt deflated.

Ironically, for a character that is so obsessed, tortured and defined by the arbitrariness of names, Gogol Ganguli exhibited absolutely no awareness when he advised his future (Caucasian) brother-in-law to address all the sari-clad, middle-aged Bengali women by the generic label "aunty." "That will keep them happy," says he non-chalantly. As someone who is on the cusp of being called aunty (even though I don't feel like an aunty) by hordes of unreflecting kids, I want to officially register in writing my protest at this one-sided and selective understanding of the complexities of personal identity and nomenclature.

An aside: Amardeep exhibits an academic's insight into the name's issue here.

There was plenty of good acting by Tabu and Irfan Khan but the same cannot be said of Kal Penn, the most recognized (in North America) name and face among all those actors. But considering the alternative--apparently the first actor for Gogol's part on Nair's wishlist was Abhishek Bachchan!--I am all for Kal Penn, and only for Kal Penn (Can you see a pouting, tortured AB, Jr. in an American highschool classroom scene?). What was Mira Nair thinking? Is she selling her soul? Is she ready to give up all that she stood for? Doesn't she know that she is several cuts above that meat industry?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Sujatha, R.I.P.

S. Rangarajan, a prolific and popular writer in Tamil who adopted the pen name Sujatha, died in Chennai on February 27, 2008. He was 72.

I am not as well-read in Tamil as I ought to be but if any one writer deserves to get credit for opening my eyes early to the pleasures of reading in Tamil, it will be none other than Sujatha. I was a pre-teen when I discovered his serial novels in the pages of Tamil weeklies, Kumudam and Ananda Viketan , in the early 80s. The sketched illustrations that accompanied his stories and novels were strikingly different from those that accompanied other stories and features printed in the same weeklies. His Tamil women characters were often depicted wearing jeans (or skirts) and T-shirts and I paid attention to this tiny detail. Instead of slice-of-life stories about madisaaru-clad conventional middle-class Brahmin women and their maids with their nool podavai hitched up for easy mobility (people that I mistakenly assumed I was quite familiar with and, therefore, had no intention of reading about), the illustrator hinted at a world of stories intriguing enough for me to put down my Louis L'Amours. The illustrator was right.

Two decades have rolled by since those early years in Chennai, and I cannot recall the exact titles of the novels I eagerly waited for and read in weekly instalments. But I remember how often Sujatha surprised me with story-lines and genres that I, in my English language-informed ignorance, didn't expect to find in Tamil. There were mystery novels, detective series, perhaps too, some science fiction. There were charming, young, Tamil male characters more real and relevant to the local context than any that populated the books revolving around Jeeves; yet the young Tamil women characters often led lives and harboured interests quite independent of the conniving male charmers. Perhaps they ended up together occassionally but whether that happened or not did not seem to matter to the main plot of the story, I think. And always, always there was plenty of witty, sharp dialogue--the type of crisp humor you often see in Tamil stage comedies--that easily incorporated some English words written in Tamil script (just as any self-respecting Chennai-ite would do without thinking twice).

I loved Sujatha's style and stories (and his unconventional women and men) so much that I eventually explored other writers in Tamil--whether they glorified the Tamil woman's garpu and honour and frustrated me or whether they explored class/caste consciousness and moved me--during much of my teen years. I have not read a single novel or even a periodical in Tamil for several years now (in fact since I left India to study abroad at 19 years of age) but if it weren't for Sujatha's works I would not have entered the rich world of contemporary Tamil literature even for those few, brief formative years.

A tribute to Sujatha by Prema Srinivasan appears in The Hindu. [Link]

Monday, March 31, 2008

Sir Arthur C. Clarke

Sir Arthur C. Clarke, writer, best known for his science fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, died on March 18, 2008. Eleanor Wachtel remembers him (with audio excerpts from old interviews) in her CBC program Writers & Company. [Broadcast 30 March, 2008 and April 3, 2008]

Sir Arthur had his epitaph written: He never grew up. But he never stopped growing.

Listen to the entire program (50 mins 54 secs) here. [Link]

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Race/Ethnicity or Gender--which comes first?

Kate Zernike, in a New York Times article titled 'Post-feminism and other fairy tales,' writes:

...[M]any women who fought the first wave of battles for gender equality have seen a bias against Mrs. Clinton — which helps explain why older women form the core of her support...

...A contest between a woman and an African-American raises the inevitable question about whether it is harder to overcome racial bias than gender bias. Few claim to know the answer, and many argue it’s too hard to tease out the ways each plays a role. But some also argue that the media is not as quick to recognize misogyny as it is to recognize racism. “The media is on eggshells about race, but has blinders on about sex and gender stereotyping,” said Ms. Goldberg of Columbia... [Link]

If you are skeptical of Zernike's assertion, then pay attention to how prevalent and familiar the insult 'bitch' is in everyday use. One political blogger, reacting to Zernike's article, has a post titled, 'Stop trying to excuse the racist bitch'. (He's alluding to Geraldine Ferraro). Under similar circumstances in the opposite camp, we would be hard-pressed to find a post titled 'Stop trying to excuse the sexist _______.' Fill in the blank with your choice of ethnic/racial slur.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Winnipeg Hindus

As his wife, it is my prerogative to criticize everything that Melvin does, including what he does for a living (i.e., writing). I take my role seriously. Even the lightest, breeziest, funniest humor he writes gets subjected to my evil scrutiny. The sole purpose of such activity is to find something, anything to make him scratch that bald spot on his head -- even if only for a moment. If you can't have fun at your spouse's expense, what is the point of long-term commitment?

So when he announced he had an 800-word assignment on Hinduism for the Winnipeg Free Press, I doubted his sanity. Melvin on theology? Turns out I learned a thing or two from his article on Hinduism. In the process of his writing, we, as a family, made our first (and second) visit to the local temple.

An article on Sikhism followed, which prompted this response from a member of the local Sikh community (scroll down to the letter from Harpal Singh Dhanjal). It reminded me that it is so easy to get caught up in the external aspects in almost every walk of life.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Naipaul's Half a Life

Whichever book of Naipaul’s I read, I am struck by the ease with which he writes. This book, in which Willie Chandran learns about his “tainted” origins in India, comes of age in England and buries himself in Portuguese Africa for 18 years, is no exception.

Whatever you think of Naipaul and his politics, you have to admire his writing genius, the command he has over his writing, his unwavering, assured confidence. Although sometimes I am not sure whether the awe his style inspires in me is merely my own reaction to his stature and position in the world of literature. Would I accept without question similar techniques from a novice or less-acclaimed writer? Possibly, yes. Consider for instance how (smoothly and effortlessly) he changes the narrative voice in this book (3 times, in fact):

And this was the story Willie Chandran’s father began to tell. It took a long time. The story changed as Willie grew up. Things were added, and by the time Willie left India to go to England this was the story he had heard.
The writer (Willie Chandran’s father said) came to India to get material for a novel about spirituality. This was in the 1930s…I was doing penance for something I had done, and I was living as a mendicant in the outer courtyard of the big temple…
About 30 pages later:

This was the story that Willie Chandran’s father told. It took about 10 years. Different things had to be said at different times.
The omniscient, third-person voice takes over the story-telling for the next 100 or so pages again, after which,

And just as once his father, had told Willie about his life, so now, over many days of the Berlin winter, in cafés and restaurants and the half-empty flat, Willie began slowly to tell Sarojini of his life in Africa.

In keeping with the nature of those who believe in the caste system (such as Willie’s father), Naipaul unwaveringly, unself-consciously and unapologetically depicts the raw, sordid, unsanitized details of the upper/lower caste relationship.

It was the kind of voice I associated with people of her kind. I thought it might have been something that as a scholarship girl she had left behind…

…All my anxiety, when little Willie was born, was to see how much of the backward could be read in his features. Anyone seeing me bend over the infant would have thought I was looking at the little creature with pride. In fact, my thoughts were all inward, and my heart was sinking.

A little later, as he started to grow up, I would look at him without saying anything and feel myself close to tears. I would think, “Little Willie, little Willie, what have I done to you? Why have I forced this taint on you?” And then I would think, “But that is nonsense. He is not you or yours. His face makes that plain. You have forced no taint on him. Whatever you gave him has disappeared in his wider inheritance.”
The cold, self-centered, dysfunctional father is unable to see his own son as a normal human being full of prospects, potential and inherent worth. Willie the hybrid, bereft of his father’s help and guidance and unable to look up to his dad, looks towards the mission school for direction and support. To me, Willie’s life, his search to find his place in this world – all are a fitting metaphor for the social and political, historical and modern-day relationships between the upper and lower castes/classes in Indian society.

The other characters of note in this book are Ana and Sarojini—women who come across as stronger than Willie. Their half-lives are perhaps more wholesome than Willie’s half a life.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Exile of the Mind

On the outset, Links by Nuruddin Farah delves into the thoughts and emotions of the Somali exile arriving in Mogadiscio after 20 years. On a deeper level, the book depicts the sense of alienation and despair prevalent among resident Somalis in the land of their birth. A work of fiction, set against the background of actual events, the novel captures life at its rawest where warlords are “in the business not of building institutions but of demolishing them.” As readers we witness scenes, make attempts to assess people, and clutch at multiple realities through the eyes of Jeebleh, the protagonist. It is, therefore, fitting that no character (except perhaps that of Seamus) is easy to comprehend. We are left to wonder what is to become of the human persona caught in a never-ending siege of the land and the mind.

For this reader—an outsider somewhat introduced to Somalia through American narratives, specifically, Black Hawk Down—it was easy to visualize the frustrated trigger-happy youth killing, among other reasons, for fun; the zealous, territorial clan militia; the bizarrely efficient underground economies; and the elaborately set up organ cartels in a dysfunctional nation. However, grasping the significance of Raasta, the miracle child, to the decimated locals, was more of a challenge. That I didn’t warm up to the concept of “special children born to societies torn apart by internal conflict” itself goes to show that casual outsiders (like me), despite our best intentions to understand, may never recognize the tender longing of a conflict-ridden people to believe in the most innocent, precious and hopeful dream. This need to believe in something or someone good beyond the imagination may ultimately represent the desire of even the most wretched society to heal from within.

Farah’s narrative style is not consistent with respect to the craft of story-telling. There are passages where the book reads like a long, unedited interview. Yet there are other sections that are urgent and gripping and they let you live through Jeebleh’s horror or fear like they were your own. In the end, despite some weaknesses in plot and narration, the book stays with you, albeit sadly and heavily, and makes you look around your own somewhat-frayed society with newly wise eyes. For this reason the book is well worth the read for anyone who wishes to know more about a crumbling society from someone who is from that social world. No words can express my thoughts on this as well as Farah’s:

[Jeebleh] … saw a slim book in Italian written by Shirin Ramzanali Fazel, a Somali of Persian origin. He recalled reading the book in New York, and thinking that it was no mean feat for a housewife to write about her life in Mogadiscio, and then her exile in Italy. He was pleased that Somalis were recording their ideas about themselves and their country, sometimes in their own language, sometimes in foreign tongues. These efforts, meager as they might seem, pointed to the gaps in the world’s knowledge about Somalia. Reading the slim volume had been salutary, because unlike many books by authors with clan-sharpened axes to grind, this was not a grievance-driven pamphlet. It was charming, in that you felt that the author was the first to write a book about the civil war from a Somali perspective.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Rattawut Lapcharoensap, a young writer of note

Rattawut Lapcharoensap, the Thai-American writer, was featured in Granta 97: Best of Young American Novelists 2. The first of his short stories I read, which appeared in Zoetrope: All Story, was called At the Cafe Lovely. I thought it was powerful writing and it stayed on my mind for a few weeks. I later came to know that he was only 25 when that story was published. (He was born in 1979. Read an interesting interview here.) He has since published a collection of short stories called Sightseeing.

His stories Farangs and (an extract of) Valets brought out similar reactions in me, but Cafe Lovely remains my favorite.

To round out my post, though, here is a critic's viewpoint on Sightseeing.

Music to your ears, while your fingers your keyboard

If you would like to listen to a sampling of music, from the 1920s to the present, in different genres (jazz, popular, classical, opera, film scores, more) from Europe (and to a lesser extent from North America), while at the computer, Desmond Carrington's radio show 'The Music Goes Round' is a wonderful choice. Mr. Carrington's calm voice and knowledgeable introduction to his chosen artists, and their wonderful works, won't interfere with your ability to multitask--unless you count the time he played Petula Clark's rendition of 'The Little Shoemaker.' That day, my feet kept tapping under my desk and my heart felt like it would burst with the unexpected pleasure of finding an old favorite. Work just didn't seem important after that. Instead I hurried home (after hitting the replay button at least 10 times) and introduced the kids to an exhilarating song from their mother's childhood. Come to think of it, there were several more times like that, beautiful and haunting, but thankfully, none that distracting.

Mr. Carrington broadcasts his weekly BBC Radio 2 program live from his Scottish home (what a wonderful way to make a living!). Shows are not archived online; one show per week is available for online listening. Happy listening (and working)! [Link]

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Young, male, Clinton-supporting democrat = Loneliness

Alex Joseph is a student at Georgetown University. As an intern at, he reflected (with some humor) on how his political preference has made him the loneliest man on campus. He was on CBC's 'As it Happens' last night (February 6, 2008). You can hear him on the web (duration: 6 mins and 59 secs) or download a podcast from the site [Link]

Mr. Joseph writes on Slate:

...However counterintuitive it may seem, the confusion and distrust I've encountered when I reveal that I'm a Hillary supporter have actually allowed me to be a much better advocate for her than I expected, and they've made me much more thoughtful about my own political beliefs. As my friends and neighbors continually try to find reasons to explain why I would not join the Obama camp, I get to explain why I have chosen to support Hillary. I get to talk about her command of policy and her fierce political intellect. I get to explain why her plan for universal health care is superior and why I trust her more when it comes to foreign policy. In short, my experience as a college-aged man who supports Hillary Clinton has forced me to weigh the myriad reasons I have chosen her as my candidate...

You can read the article in its entirety here.

The image of youth as virtue

A family friend (more family than friend), who moved from India to the United States a year ago, was surprised to hear that I’m a supporter of Hillary Clinton in her bid to win the Democratic presidential nomination. "But why?" was all she could manage for the next two minutes of our telephone conversation, apparently quite stunned by my confession.

I tried to explain my choice, but being an observer of the political scene only from the periphery, I was not as articulate as I would have liked to be. I was not able to rattle off, at a moment's notice, Hillary Clinton's positions on specific issues, as opposed to Barack Obama's. But to articulate my feelings on the generalities surrounding her candidacy was slightly easier.

"She is sharp, to the point, and more experienced than Obama," I said.

"But she voted for the war," countered our family friend who knows me too well.

"True," I conceded. "And it came back to hurt her, didn't it?"

I know that one of my major discomforts with Obama is that he is so young. An acquaintance in her mid-forties, by remarking about Republican candidate John McCain's age (71) and rolling her eyes upward, forced me to admit my bias to myself. "What is wrong with being in your 70s?" I wanted to ask.

And alternatively, is being in the 40s the most important qualification one can bring to the table? If accomplished individuals in their 60s and 70s cannot make a bid for the position of the most powerful leader in the world without provoking derision, what roles can the rest of the gracefully aging members of the world population dare to fulfill in their later years?

In contemporary society, more people are living longer than ever before -- living physically healthier lives. It is believed that with age comes maturity, mellowness, wisdom, and compassion. Having lived (and worked) longer does not always make one boring, uninspiring, alien.

On an everyday basis, we are bombarded with images of youth and stories of young achievers, people who’ve become university graduates at 14, medical doctors at 17, millionaire entrepreneurs at 18, prize-winning authors at 22, and state governors at 36. When we achieve so much so early, what do we do with the rest of our lives? Where do we go from there?

And so to my family friend, I decided to be honest. I said that if most of the world wants to hold Obama up mainly because of his freshness and youth, then I want to hold those same qualities against him. He has time on his hands, he can prove himself, accomplish things and make mistakes in the process. And, if he has any substance, how can his day not come? Clinton (and McCain) have worked hard in their own ways and it would be a shame to toss them aside just because they have worked too long and survived.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Botswana on my mind

The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, a fiction series by Alexander McCall Smith, is a charming, humorous, light read about the life of Precious Ramotswe, the first lady private detective in Botswana. Mma Ramotswe is kind, compassionate and self-assured. She has a clear understanding of what is right and what is wrong with Botswana today. If there arose any new moral situations, she would peel the layers of the dilemma until clarity is restored, just in time for her next cup of red bush tea.

The series, I imagine, captures and reflects the way of life in a “fine African country” that remains largely peaceful in a region so unlike it. The style and pace of the language in the book reflects the picture of a country where people “still spoke to others with the proper courtesy, treated others, whom they did not know, in the way which was proper according to the standards of the old Botswana morality.”

Here is an appropriate illustration, although this particular conversation takes place outside of Botswana, in South Africa, where Mma Ramotswe finds herself while shadowing a subject.

[Mma Ramotswe] approached one of the woman traders and spoke to her in Setswana.

“Are you well today, Mma?” she said politely.

“I am well, and you are well too, Mma?”

“I am well, and I have slept very well.”


The greeting over, she said: “People tell me that there is a doctor here who is very good. Do you know where his place is?”

Women in the book are usually strong and naturally smart in a decidedly simple and feminine way, as in this passage below:

Grace Gakatsla, the owner of a dress shop, had sold a dress on a Friday to a Government Minister’s wife. The Minister’s wife brought it back the following Monday, saying that it did not really fit. Yet Grace had been at the wedding on Saturday when the dress had been worn, and it had looked perfect.

“Of course I couldn’t tell her to her face she was liar and that I wasn’t a dress-hire shop,” said Grace. “So I asked her if she had enjoyed the wedding. She smiled and said that she had. So I said that I enjoyed it too. She obviously hadn’t seen me there. She stopped smiling and she said that maybe she’d give the dress another chance.”

If this subtlety in human relations appeals to you, then the series is definitely your cup of red bush tea.