Today

Today is Facebook’s 10th birthday.
Today is Saraswati Puja.
Today is World Cancer Day.
Today, Microsoft got a new CEO.
Today, the AAP completed a month in office.
Today, many people celebrated their birthdays along with Facebook.
Today, many people celebrated anniversaries. Just like Facebook I guess.

Today I spent most of my time on Facebook. I found out all these things through it. I had the same epiphany that I’ve been having for the past many years that none of this made any difference to my life, except for pushing me further into a spiral of boredom and procrastination. It’s not like I have nothing to do and have not been doing anything. I have, but it is with the same enthusiasm a bureaucrat employs while moving a file from one place to another.

Throughout the day, I have been wishing for circumstances that would make me work better. I wished for being left alone to my devices so that I could think and write. I wished to be spared the duty of stuffing myself with healthy wholesome lunch that has a crippling effect on productivity. I wished for having people like me to work with. I wished and wished and the day went by.

I read an awful number of things on the web and (realized, not very surprisingly, that I am a huge consumer, but a very meager producer) two pieces that stood out to me. One was about marriage. I have no intentions or inklings about it in my life right now, but I found the article very fascinating. The other was about an application deadline to the Fellowship programme that I was part of and for which I work now.  Thinking about both of these, I found something common and my mind wandered to this quote I had read once and found amusing enough to stick with me.

  Dreaming about being an actress, is more exciting then being one.download (4)
― Marilyn Monroe

I have nothing against dreams and dreaming. I think those are excellent ways to use our time and provide ourselves amusement, inspiration, thrills and whatnot. But it is the only dreaming part which I see often and often. We aspire and dream for ideals. We have very lofty ideas and noble intentions. We believe, with the honest to god innocence of children, that believing in ideals would bring about reality. But we are so blinded by the light from the shimmering surface, we never get to see the deep murky churning underneath.

Take marriage. It is the ultimate fantasy, the dreamland, the utopia of togetherness. I don’t for a second believe that it can never be all those amazing things that it seems to be in print and celluloid (and rare anecdotal evidence). But I also think that there’s lots of hard work, boring moments, disturbing revelations and undignified fights behind the pretty picture.  I know of many many people who have had their “dream wedding” thought out since they were an embryo or something and I don’t understand how. Popular culture leads me to believe this is a girly thing. Sure. I’d like to have a nice wedding day where I can wear a pretty dress and eat cake and be the centre of attention for a sustained period of time. But am I willing to go through the days after that? Probably not. And if I can get the same deal of wearing a dress, having cake and endless showering of attention any day, then I’m set for life.  Hence I am truly confused by this pursuit of togetherness. I am sure there are individuals who strike a good enough deal and are comfortable with such state of being, but considering the number of unhappy twosomes I see, I am more convinced than ever that people love the dream of being married than the actual state of being a married couple voluntarily joined for life.

This brings me to the other bit of news. The application deadline. The Fellowship is a tough programme. It is a full-time teaching position in an under-resourced, low income school that mostly caters to children from disadvantaged communities. And it sounds like such a noble thing to do. It seems so challenging and inspiring. All those pictures and videos of children and teachers, so happy despite the odds. What a truly wonderful thing! And that is what sticks. The big dream. That awe-inspiring ambition to change the country and the lives of million children. But I wonder if many dig deeper to see the hardships behind that dream.

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Having gone through it I know that is a very fulfilling and motivating experience. It has given me some of the proudest moments of my life. I have experienced the thrill of enthralling a bunch of kids with ideas and information. I have learned things about myself and others that I hadn’t before. Forgive the cheesiness, but this has been the most challenging and inspiring experience of my life. But I have also learned that teaching can be very thankless job. It is not just singing songs and correcting few papers and having many vacations. I have had the most cruelly lonely, frustrating and defeating moments within those two years.  I have crumbled under self-doubt seeing a child not learn for months. I have cursed and railed against the “system” while handling endless paperwork. I have stayed up nights researching and making worksheets. Almost every teacher I know in the Fellowship has at some point or the other has strayed too close to starvation and sleep deprivation. For the children? Of course for them. But also to do the job well. Being a teacher is not the easiest thing and being a teacher in the Fellowship ups the challenge a few notches more.

Being part of this to do something good necessitates giving up on life as you know it.

That is a harsh truth to share. But that is unfortunately the truth. Just as being married can change your life, doing this means you are married to your work, your kids and your commitment to make a difference. If having a life means getting a good 10 hours of sleep every day, meeting friends every day to chill and hang or whatever it is that cool people do, watching movies and relaxing and all that, then having a “life” doesn’t always co-exist well with these aims.

We dream very beautiful dreams, wonderful ideals fill our dreamscape. We aim to do what we love. But doing what we want and love, involves doing things that are not always fun, or easy or even interesting. But we forget that in our passion and ambition. Aspiring is more exciting than acting upon things.

Am I saying we shouldn’t dream of an utopia? No. I think we all want to work towards an utopia. But it might serve us well to acknowledge that there is work to be done before we reach Arcadia.

This post serves as a reminder to myself to just get down to work without waiting for my ideal home-office to materialize.

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Interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

I’d done an interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, author of Mistress of Spices, Palace of Illusions and One Amazing Thing, after returning from the Jaipur Literature Festival’11 for BookChums.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

I’d read Palace of Illusions before heading to Jaipur and was mighty excited when I discovered Chitra would be one of the authors attending. That’s because Palace of Illusions was one of my favoritest reads of 2010 (I know, I know, review’s pending. Soon, soon) and she turned out to top my short list of Indian Authors I Like very soon.

The interview is finally up. Excerpts from the interview..

AM: Your latest novel, One Amazing Thing, tells the story of 9 people stuck in a crisis. I remember you spoke about how the idea for this book came to you at JLF. Could you give our readers a glimpse into that experience?

CBD: One Amazing Thing comes out of an autobiographical experience. In 2005, I, too, faced a natural disaster — Hurricane Rita was headed toward Houston, Texas, where I live, and we had to evacuate the city. There was a lot of panic, huge traffic jams, etc. It made me contemplate how human beings deal with catastrophe and the fear of death, and how we might be able to connect with strangers under such circumstances. That idea is at the heart of One Amazing Thing.

AM: Spanning a time of over 15 years, you have written 12 novels, contributed in various anthologies. You are often called a prolific author. Prolific authors sometimes tend to build a formula around their style and stories, but you have always taken up different narratives, even while keeping some similar themes. Where do you find the inspiration and the creative energy required to keep writing?

CBD: I don’t know. I only know that it’s important for me to set myself a new challenge with each book. For instance, with Palace of Illusions, I wanted to retell the story of an epic (Mahabharat) with a woman (Draupadi) at its center. In One Amazing Thing, I wanted to write a novel about creating community, and I used a disaster scenario as the setting.  In Mistress of Spices I used magical realism.

AM: We often see folk tales, myths and legends being retold in your various novels. Do you think as an Indian you have an advantage that you can mine into a treasure trove of stories that can be used as a trope in your narratives?

CBD: Yes, I feel very fortunate that I had a grandfather who was a wonderful storyteller and shared these folk/legendary tales with me. It gives me a very rich source to draw from, and I have used them amply, especially in my children’s books such as The Conch Bearer.

Palace of Illusions
Palace of Illusions

AM: Your novel The Palace of Illusions was a retelling of The Mahabharata through Paanchali. There have been several versions and retellings of the Mahabharata. Despite that, were you apprehensive with your retelling of one of our most sacred and beloved epics?

CBD: Yes. The original is such a great text, I wanted to do it justice & knew it would be the hardest task I’d set myself until then. I did a lot of research & reading in preparation.

AM: Following the same train of thought, Mahabharata and Ramayana are two of our most important epics. Both have women in a central role who have faced great injustice. What made you choose Draupadi over Sita?

CBD: I have always pondered about Draupadi, who is very timeless & modern (both) in her questioning of her role & rights as a woman. That said, I do want to write a novel about Sita.

You can read the full interview here.

From Behind The Yellow Door

Anjum Hasan
Anjum Hasan

Anjum Hasan is a poet, novelist, and a chronicler par excellence of our times. She has published two novels, a book of poems, short fiction, reviews and essays in various anthologies and journals. Her first novel, Lunatic in My Head was shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award 2007 and her second novel Neti, Neti was on the longlists for the 2008 Man Asian Prize and the 2011 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was shortlisted for the Hindu Best Fiction Award. She is also the Books Editor at The Caravan.

I first met Anjum at a panel discussion titled These Hills Called Home at the Jaipur Literature Festival.I thought she was the quietest panelist present. I ran into her at some other events and I always saw her with a diary, making notes, intently listening to the various speakers. Following this interview and after reading some of her works, I’ve come to realize how keen and discerning an observer she really is.

Excerpts from the interview:

Before we begin talking about writing, books and other things, could you please tell our readers a bit about yourself and how writing came into the picture?

Writing is a kind of biography, an alternative one. I don’t mean that one always writes about one’s own life, but that one creates a life story in and through the writing.

In Shillong, I grew up in the protected and somewhat insular way in which most Indian English writers grow up – going to an English medium school and reading a lot in English. Writing appeared naturally – I was always attracted to literature and with a house full of books and teachers for parents, it didn’t seem like a very radical thing, putting pen to paper.

-Sophie Das is living in big-city Bangalore, with all the freedom that she can get and yet she feels unable to let go of that “out of place” feeling. Do you think that this feeling, of not finding oneself accepted, of not belonging anywhere, is something that never really leaves a person, but swings from one extreme to another with time and place?

It’s different at different times and in different places. I think it’s important to try and pinpoint the exact nature of 21st century urban Indian alienation. I think the lack that Sophie feels is a cultural lack. It’s about the values that are on offer. She likes her friends but cannot completely fit in with their world of hard materialism and functional attitudes. And she feels this as a shortcoming. She would like to be more like them but cannot. There is nowhere, no institution or space that she can turn to whose values fit in completely with her own unarticulated ones – the family is breaking down, religion has become functional in its own way, and as for literature and art, which she does fall back on from time to time, that is of limited help because she has only read 3 books! But even if she had read more, literature would offer a solitary recompense, while Sophie wants a social one. She would like to belong.

-Your characters migrate from one microcosm to another, from one faraway corner to a big city, across the vast diversity that is India. Where smaller cities are sprouting up malls, multiplexes and CCDs, youngsters are getting trendier and stylish everywhere and economical development is seen as a means to bridge the cultural gap, how wide really do you think is the divide between big cities and small towns? Can and should this breach be removed?

Yes, you’re right – smaller towns are increasingly becoming like bigger cities. The middle class everywhere seems to want the same things. That’s what Sophie Das discovers too in Neti, Neti. But what my characters are interested in and what I’m interested in are the ways in which these are place aren’t the same – how each place has a specific local character which is erased in the name of development. That’s what my novels and poems try to capture.

-You have published poems, essays and novels. Which form comes to you most easily and which poses the biggest challenge?
They’re all incredibly difficult! What I enjoy is not being locked into one form, being able to move from one to another. That movement itself is inspiring because when you’re turning from one form to another, there is a sense of freedom and possibility. I like that.

What Happens in Jaipur, Doesn’t Stay in Jaipur

(Note: I know this blog has been barren and starved of attention for nearly two months now, but believe me, it was hardly my fault.  Also, this post is really, really long. I tried and tried to edit, but I couldn’t bring myself to commit any omissions.  So please be patient, and kind when you read this.)

Everyone has had their share of news to report, their accounts, and their observations and quickly arrived upon conclusions about the Jaipur Literature Festival 2011, so far called the biggest literary extravaganza happening this side of the hemisphere, and being compared to cult festivals like Woodstock. Given it’s been a good 5 days since the fest ended; I thought it’s time I put down my two cents worth of experience.

Once the festival kicked off and people got into the mood and started being prolific about their #JLF experience on social media channels, there seemed to develop a dichotomy between the avid followers of the event- those who loved everything about the fest and everyone who was there, and those who attacked almost everything said and done there as elitist, for being pseudo-intellectual and whatnot.  I’d say it had its own balance of the good, bad and ugly and it’s entirely upon the participant at the event to take the best of it.

There were more than 100 different sessions, over 200 authors present with varying degree of participation in the sessions, and around 50,000 or more, comprising students, media people, book lovers, and those who just came to sightsee, at the fest this year.  From this cacophonous mix, I’m going to try to enlist my top five seven events (in chronological order, if nothing else) from the fest. These aren’t the most enjoyable or thought-provoking ones necessarily, but these events are representative of the whole festival for me and will remain in my memory for long.

The Opening Ceremony and Sheldon Pollock

Sheldon Pollock
Sheldon Pollock

The inauguration of the fest took place on a quite grand note (for a literature event methinks) with Dr. Karan Singh as the guest of honour and politicos from Rajasthan present. Sheldon Pollock, who delivered the keynote address, in my eyes, set the tone for the fest with his lament on the state of classical languages, and literature written in those, in India. If there are Indian Institutes of Management and Indian Institutes of Technology, why can’t there be an Indian Institute of Classical Languages he asked. It was humbling to see an outsider remind us of our travesty, posing as a society that prides itself on a dying culture, not bothered enough to save the remnants. He spoke of the importance of poet who describes, but the necessity of the scholar to interpret and appreciate. The question he posed as a corollary is something that will be hard to forget. He asked, “Who do you think appreciates the beauty of the daughter, the father or the mother?”

Pamuk and the Art of the Novel

I think this was one of the most anticipated events of the fest and one that gave JLF the big kick-start that it needed to silence its detractors and validate its reputation as Asia-Pacific’s leading literature event. Orhan Pamuk, Nobel Laureate and author of novels My Name is Red, Snow and Istanbul was in conversation with Chandrahas Chowdhury. He spoke of his relationship with history, with painting and the subject of time (the darling subject of modernist writers  according to him) and how a novelist can draw personal inspiration out of these relationships to tell their story.

“I paint objects through stories, because I’m a failed painter”, he remarked before the Q&SA session with him was to begin. There were two instances in this Q&A session which made an impression on me. One involved this old gentleman who gushed on about Pamuk’s novel My Name is Red and wondered aloud about how good the translator was to have captured the essence and beauty of Pamuk’s storytelling. I’m not sure if the question was posed in the right way, but Pamuk’s dismissal of the point/question and person was a bit of a sad comment, more so after the topics that he spoke at length on and will do so in later events.  The second question came from another gentleman, slightly on the older side who asked “Which do you think is deeper of the two- philosophical love or physical love?” To this Pamuk joked, “I’d say that depends entirely on the penetration”. Amidst much appreciative laughter, Pamuk pointed out his urge to make that joke because the questioner has used the word “deep”.

A Eunuch’s Life

A. Revathi, author of The Truth About Me, was in conversation with Urvashi Butalia. Revathi, who was once a son of Armugam is now a member of the Hijra community. In her book, she has put down her journey, her trials and tribulations, and as far as I know, it is the first of its kind in English from a member of the Hijra community. There are three reasons why this event is on this list: A) This was a window to look at JLF’s aspiring culture to have an event where topics like this have been treated with such respect and maturity.  B) Despite the horrors that Ms. Revathi has gone through, what you see is not a defeated bitter person, but a brave, quite jovial person who makes no bones about her sexuality.  C) The lack of propagandist and sexist talk by the members of the audience.  Rest all was mere dressing for me.

A. Revathi
A. Revathi

Seated in the richly decorated Durbar Hall, dressed in a simple saree, Ms. Revathi fielded questions with a frankness that was quite endearing. When asked by an audience member why she chose not to write the book through a fictional narrative and thus avoid any probable stigma that might come with the event, Ms.Revathi did this enactment of how she would have to think and mull if she were to write it through fiction which had the audience in splits. She then went on to say that she didn’t have the time or knowledge to think of a fictional story and felt that it was important that people know her story the way it is, that she wasn’t ashamed to hide behind the cloak of anonymity, and that I think was what earned her the respect of every member in the audience.  In response to the abuses she had mentioned she had suffered, a member of the audience asked her opinions on perpetrators of abuse from the Hijra community. When asked this by Ms. Butalia, who also played interpreter, Ms. Revathi didn’t seem abashed at all. She answered quite honestly, with much humility, that there’s a case of bad apples in every basket. There are bad ones among men and women and the same holds true for the Hijra community. Someone posed the question of harassment women have to suffer and if this harassment made her doubt her choices and decisions to which she quipped, “India mein pathar ko bhi saari se lapetega toh aadmi haath lagaega.” (In India, a man would harass even a stone wrapped in a Sari.) For those who understood Hindi, her responses and animated delivery of those had the lot of us trying hard not to grin too widely.

A.Revathi was the Director of Sangama which is a non-governmental organization working for the rights of Sexuality Minorities namely, Hijras, Kothis, Bisexuals, Double Deckers, Lesbians, Gays and Transgenders. She is presently the advocacy co-ordinator at Sangama.

Out of West

This was a star-studded discussion to say the least. With a panel comprising Orhan Pamuk, Kiran Desai, Chimamanda Adichie, Leila Aboulela, and Nam Le, and moderated by Rana Dasgupta, what else could you begin with for a description?

Out of West
(L-R) Kiran Desai, Orhan Pamuk, Rana Dasgupta, Leila Aboulela, Nam Le, Chimamanda Adichie

Rana Dasgupta opened up the discussion with his interpretation of the topic, to be rudely woken up by Orhan Pamuk and receive an explanation of what the topic actually meant as envisaged by Pamuk when he suggested this topic to the organizers for a discussion.  Pamuk listed down lack of representation for non-English writers in the world, their marginalization, the provinciality to which their writing is subjected on basis of their nationality as some of the topics that should be covered by the panel.

Raising the issue of representation, Kiran Desai commented how writers are sometimes taken as diplomats of their respective nations and Chimamanda recounted how everything she writes is turned into a political allegory on account of her Nigerian nationality and the country’s political turmoil.  Pamuk touched upon provinciality and the subject of interpretation when he recounted how whenever he writes about love, international reviewers label him as someone who writes about “Turkish” love.  All the writers consented that they are all trying to write of human experience, not Nigerian, Turkish, Sudanese or Vietnamese human experience, irrespective of cultural, political and socio-economic influences and languages in which they write or think.

It would have been interesting if the panel had in fact debated upon the points raised by Orhan Pamuk, but it turned a bit farcical with the moderator claiming to make enemies out of all those present at the table with him. Pamuk clearly dominated the discussion, talking most of the time, talking a lot of sense but it didn’t seem like a discussion that you could take something from.  I think Nam Le’s comment towards the end of the session, “One good thing about the literary world is that you can always find some hurt feelings”, summed it all up.

Readings from Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee
J.M. Coetzee

Two times Booker Winner, Nobel Laureate, author of classics like The Life and Times of Michael K, Disgrace and Summertime, John Maxwell Coetzee was clearly The Man at the event (Though many I know would claim that title for Junot Diaz. Even I found Mr. Diaz quite entertaining, brilliant and full of acerbic humor, but there’s a reason why Mr. Coetzee is the clear winner here). Known for being extremely reclusive, it is a big deal in itself that he came down to a festival like JLF, teeming with thousands of people, eager fans waiting and milling around and wanting to “engage” with him.  In all other reading sessions, the authors read some pages, talk about the process and hidden nuances a bit, this and that, answer some questions thrown by the audience, but not so for Mr. Coetzee.  As Patrick French said in his introduction to the session, “Some writers perform, some write, John Coetzee will read.”  Thus, Mr. Coetzee read a short story called The Old Woman and Her Cats, the story of the character John’s visit to his mother’s place and his discovery that his mother is sheltering the local village exhibitionist along with many cats. Mr. Coetzee read out this story, without any break for forty-five minutes. For forty-five minutes, the audience was silent, of its own volition, rapt in attention, listening to a man delivering a “Lesson”. Some might not see why this would be exceptional, but again, Mr. French comes to our rescue by pointing out that Mr. Coetzee has performed a miracle of sorts by keeping an audience, that is largely made up of Indians, enthralled and quiet for a full three-quarters of an hour. That there is the reason for Mr. Coetzee to be crowned The Man at JLF.

The book signing line for Mr. Coetzee wasn’t as long and winding as the one for the trio of Pamuk, Desai and Dasgupta but the conditions set by the organizers while getting the book signed (it went from three books per person to two to one book quite soon) and the rate at which the festival book store ran out of stock for all of his books must give you some idea as to how big, important and essential Mr.Coetzee’s presence was at JLF 2011.

Veda: Ends of Knowledge

Roberto Calasso, author of books like The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony and Ka was in conversation with Devdutt Pattanaik, author of Myth=Mithya, Jaya and other popular titles covering Indian mythos and their retelling in today’s times.

 

Roberto Calasso
Roberto Calasso

I’d never heard of Mr. Calasso nor read anything by him before. I had gone there to try to secure an interview with Mr. Pattanaik and because the title of the event had immense appeal for me.  Mr. Calasso began with, what I remember as a breaking of the myth of myth. He explained how our times do not have any myths, what we have mere urban legends, and what myth really is. He spoke of the consciousness imbibing what has been told to us countless times, of myths that have a power even today, millennia later.

It was clear to me from the first few minutes of the session that Mr. Calasso is an authority on this subject.  From Greek mythology to Mesopotamian civilization, from the Brahmanas to the Odyssey, he impressed us all with his deep knowledge and recounting of stories, anecdotes, explanations and questions that were aimed as much at the audience as to himself. The passion with which he spoke of the human mind and consciousness, of its link with the rise and fall of civilizations was captivating, to say the least. At one point, he raised the question of research being done into the human consciousness by neuroscientists by saying, “Neuroscientists, paleontologists are now busy solving workable issues. They are a long way from studying consciousness.”

As he quoted from one of his books, “These things never happened, but are always”, he moved from mythology to metaphysics with surprising ease and grace, which felt only natural given the topic of discussion.

If human evolution, the journey from caves to the cornucopia of our times, were taken as a big jigsaw, Mr. Calasso’s retelling of myths, exploration of ancient texts and his attempts at connecting the dots and clues left from one civilization to another, one history to another, seem like vital precursors to pieces that would complete the puzzle.

The Alchemy of Writing: Truth, Fiction & The Challenge of India

I’m sure this is not an unique observation by any measure, but the number of journalist-turned-authors, journalist-cum-authors, media person-cum-authors was quite high at JLF.  Given that, it was no surprise that this event with Tarun Tejpal, the man behind Tehelka who made “sting operations” a catchphrase and Manu Joseph, editor, Open

Tarun Tejpal
Tarun Tejpal

Magazine and the man behind the Radia Tapes, was going to be a major crowd-puller. Both of them have written novels that have received some acclaim and positive reviews, but everyone present knew it wasn’t going to be about that. The session was to hear the man speak and be charmed by him and it is a difficult feat to keep one from falling for the words that come out of Mr. Tejpal’s mouth.

Another non-unique observation was the politically charged atmosphere at JLF. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant, but one had to concede that if not here then where would such discussions happen? From the now regular India-Pak debate that seemed to follow author Kamila Shamsie, to any discussion that comprised more than one media person (natural connection?), politics was a very dominant topic at this Literature Fest. Given our current headlines are filled with words like “scam” “illegal” “chargesheet” and so on, it wasn’t surprising that the session was all about what media is doing, should be doing, and how it has come to place where what it does matters a lot more. It was clear that Mr.Tejpal had the crowd under his spell with his charming and inspiring tale of how he started Tehelka, his struggles, his daily fights with the Indian judicial system, the red tapism, the bureaucracy. He spoke of young journalists from Tehelka reporting from Chhatisgarh, of reporters breaking news that matter to the public, of being an activist and of taking up journalism to serve some purpose and not just sell sensational stories.

Amidst all this, it wasn’t too difficult to not detect the subtle brand promotion that was going on.  Much blame was laid on mainstream media and its indiscriminate ignorance of news stories that are relevant for the public, which led one frustrated member of the mainstream media to question: Who’s to be blamed for this- our editors who pick these stories or the consumer who crave for these? I think he gave a very well framed answer without mentioning the two most relevant letters of our times: PR.

At the end of the session, you were very inspired and very charged up but it was difficult for you to let go of one question “So, what was new?”

These were my favorite seven events. There were five-six other contenders to this list, but I think I’m quite content with this edition. Most of the discussions were a bit of a sham with topics being left alone in a corner, many quotable lines being delivered individually but quite unsatisfactory when seen as a whole. I think I’ll refrain from any social commentary concerning the fashion scene, the sightseer crowd and the occasional slip in organization that led to chaos, because it didn’t matter. None of that mattered when you came to look at it. What mattered and still does is that there’s a forum now. Readers and lovers of literature can come here and take their pick in listening to the heroes they have adored through pages and tomes. Book lovers can come here and enjoy a moment of unrivaled excitement and pure joy when the writers they have loved and worshiped scrawl their name on their book and exchange a word or a smile with them. I had my share of high and low, jubilation and disappointment, wonderment and disillusionment with JLF 2011, but come January 2012, I think I’ll be there, struggling between chairs and choices.

Psst.. This is a sort of proper and official account. I’ve got some other tales to tell and many books signed that need showing off . I’ll do that here as soon as I am done with some distractions. 🙂

Also, you can read other posts about the #JLF Experience here.

On Record: Samit Basu

This is my second official interview as such. And this time the man is Samit Basu, novelist, screenwriter, writer of comics and local monster, talking about his latest book Turbulence and writing among other things.

Snippets of the interview:

Samit Basu
Samit Basu

You’ve been part of quite a number of anthologies and collaborations. Which one was the best experience?

Collaborations – I co-wrote a comic, or graphic novel if you prefer, with Mike Carey, who is a writer I’ve idolized since I first started reading comics. If you haven’t read his Lucifer comics or his Felix Castor books, do so at once. For someone at that level, he was both incredibly generous as a collaborator and surprisingly nice as a person. The comic is called Untouchable, it’s a turn-of-the-century romance/horror story about a young Anglo-Indian boy’s twisted relationship with a rakshasi. It’s set in India and England, and starts this doomed couple, both outcasts, one caught between the different worlds of his parents, another caught between different eras and worlds.

Anthology wise, Electric Feather, the anthology of erotic stories edited by Ruchir Joshi. I wrote a story about a bunch of twentysomethings going back to Cal for a wedding and getting it on afterwards. It was lovely, because I got to write a kind of story I wouldn’t have done otherwise, have a great deal of fun, and people responded strongly – most people absolutely loved it, and others were deeply offended, and both responses pleased me greatly.

If you could be one of your superheroes, which one would you be?

Tia. I love her power, the ability to duplicate yourself and therefore essentially never have to make a choice again, because now you can live several lives and experience so many more things.

One book that you’d bequeath to your favorite niece/nephew.

I’d be a fairly sad uncle if I gave my favourite niece/nephew only one book. Lots and lots and lots of really good books. Do I have to bequeath them? That seems to involve dying. Must I die now?

One writer that seriously scrambled your brains with his/her dangerous and exciting ideas.

China Mieville

 

You can read the full interview here.

You can also read my review of Turbulence here or there.

How to Write a Book Review

I never thought I’d be writing book reviews, more so a guide to book reviewing. But thanks to a good man I know through Twitter and who shares the same liking for blogging and books that I do, I am now going to lay down a ten seven step guide to the art of review writing.

Disclaimer: This is meant for the simpler folks who don’t review books professionally and who have just started or want to start book reviewing.

1)   It is not rocket science: All you have to do is describe what you thought of the book. Did you like it, love it, hate it? What did you like and why you liked it? Since giving unsolicited opinions is such a great pastime for most of us, one would think reviewing books should be a cake-walk, right? Well, it’s not that easy but it’s not that difficult either. You just have to try and be articulate and let your readers/friends know what you thought of the book.

2)  Introductions please: It’s always good to start with a brief synopsis of the book. Jumping right into the details of the heroine’s sorrow at losing her grandmother might leave the readers a bit confused. Lay the groundwork first by telling people what you are going to review or talk about. Let them get a feel for the book before they get to your opinions of it. You can either take the synopsis from the cover or give your own version. A well framed description of the book can create a good deal of interest amongst your readers to continue through your review.  Drawing a few character sketches can also help you to progress better.

3)  Keep the butler out of it: Everyone hates spoilers, but thanks to human nature and its workings, we cannot keep from yelling about the butler who killed the cheating husband. Try to work your way through the review without letting on the secrets, the tricks that keep the reader turning the pages. This doesn’t just apply to whodunits and mystery thrillers but any and every book.  Try and evaluate as to which pieces can be given away and which should be kept to ensure that the reader gets his money’s worth from the book.

4) Let’s not forget the real hero: The author. The man/woman behind the scenes. I think this is where the true review lies- what you think of what and how the author wrote.  If you’ve read many books by the author you’d be more aware of his tools and devices in narration, of his style and his/her so-called USP. It can make for good reading if you can shed some light on it and let the readers know how the author bends words to move the story ahead, to bring elements of surprise or create something unheard and unseen before.  But here you too, you must know to exercise some restraint, keep it relevant and not go overboard with superlatives. You can say XYZ is the best, but it would be nice to know why you think so.

5)  Every read is an experience: With every book you pick up to read, you start an experience that will be unique to that book and you. There are books that make you laugh, shed tears, wonder, reminisce or the cogs in your head run at double speed. Then there are those that will make you frustrated, angry, sleepy, give you a déjà vu feeling and so on. Try to recollect that experience and consider it when you write a review.  Being objective in your review vis-à-vis the content, plot, and writing style is good, but a review can hardly ever be non-personal. I’ve personally seen that my liking for a book is influenced a lot by the time or frame of mind I was in when I read it. Try to draw the best out of that experience and share it through your review.

6)  Don’t get swayed by the lynch-mob: This is your review, your personal account of your experience with the book. Just because the book lies on the list of top 100 books of the century doesn’t mean you should like it or lie about liking it. Also, because everyone is trashing the book doesn’t mean you have to jump into the bandwagon.  Since you are not responsible for the sales of the book, neither do you stand to lose or gain anything by how the book is received, why not be honest with it?  There’s a difference between a recommendation and plain pimping, know where to draw the lines. Your readers can see through a dishonest review.

7)  Mind your language: Last but not the least, please respect the language in which you’ve read the book and are writing the review. You are not writing a review using a tweet or SMS, so drop the chat-SMS-tweet lingo. Please use healthy and wholesome words, not their chopped off vowel-less versions. You will not be penalized for using up many words or characters. Nothing is more off-putting than seeing chat/SMS jibber jabber like lol, cuz, u, luv, etc in a review.  And grammar, yes grammar. You want your reviews to be read and considered, letting your readers see that you have basic grammar knowledge will help the process.  Also, there’s spell-check if you’ve not noticed. As I said in the first point, it is not rocket science. But if you want to write a good review, a review that serves its purpose of helping a reader decide about a book or even just make for interesting read in itself, you have to know how to communicate.

I think this should do for now.  I hope this helps and you start spewing seven reviews a week. If it doesn’t, well, go read some other articles with 20 steps.

And for those who didn’t check the hyperlink in the introduction, this post was brought to you because of @prempiyush.

 

You can also read the post here.

Brisingr : Book Review

(This review might contain some spoilers, but hey, where have you been if you’ve not read this one already?)

Brisingr- Christopher Paolini
Brisingr- Christopher Paolini

I’ve always had mixed feelings about the Inheritance series books. On one hand, I greatly admire the fact that Paolini was a young teenager when he started out and created a commendable piece of work in fantasy fiction, but at one hand he shows a complete lack of effort to improve his writing style and storytelling techniques.
In the third, and not the final book of the Inheritance Cycle, Paolini continues where the second book Eldest left off. The battle of Burning Plains has come to an end and Eragon and his cousin Roran are out to rescue Roran’s beloved Katrina from the clutches of the Ra’zac- a deadly treacherous beast under Galbatorix’s command who were also responsible for killing their father Garrow and ruining their lives in Carvahall.

During their rescue mission, Eragon comes across Sloan, Katrina’s father and the butcher who had betrayed them to the Ra’zac for his daughter. Here Eragon faces a moral dilemma as to when he feels he should kill Sloan for the murders he had caused but at the same time doesn’t want to become a law unto himself. Paolini meanders for a good 100 pages for this quandary and brings in an unnecessary detour in the story.

The story progresses to show Roran fighting with the Varden, having to proving his worth again and again before he can lead an army under his command.  Meanwhile Eragon has another face-off with  Murtagh his half brother and Thorn; returns to the Beor Mountains for the election and coronation of the new Dwarf King following which he and Saphira fly out to Ellesmera to meet their mentors, the old Rider Oromis and his dragon Glaedr.

Here Eragon learns that Murtagh and he have the same mother, but Brom was Eargon’s father while Murtagh is the son of Morzan, the evil Rider who had betrayed the Riders to Galbatorix.  They also discover the secret for Galbatorix’s ever increasing power and the source of energy behind it.
Armed with that knowledge they  fly back to join the Varden in their siege of Feinster and from thereon we hope and wait for the fourth book to release and see if Galbatorix will ever be slain by our last free Dragon Rider.

At places Paolini shows a maturity to his characters and depth to his story that is often hard to find in many better fantasy series. But at the same time, he still seems to not have learned the art of lucid and tight prose. He goes on to waste pages on plotlines that hardly seem relevant to the plot and more like fillers in a badly orchestrated stage act.

While he has an interesting host of characters, sometimes they fall flat.  For instance, Roran has got to be one of the most monotonous and lackluster character in the history of fantasy fiction. Despite being  the only human without any strain of magic in him to be a prominent warrior  his struggles, his interactions with Eragon, his undying love for Katrina  and his unwavering loyalty to the Varden, show only a drab doggedness rather than valor or any heroic trait. There are many pages depicting battles in which Roran was involved, and if the only excuse for those many chapters are to show what a brave and courageous leader Roran can be, then it again confirms the fact that Paolini needs to sharpen his writing.

It is for such unwarranted and unwanted rambling and extension that Paolini chose to write another book in what was supposed to be a trilogy and disappointed a large part of his audience.  He has mentioned that he wanted to explore the moral quandaries that Eragon faced, but writing a whole new book for the series hardly seems like a wise recourse.  As the character of Eragon develops and comes closer to fulfilling his ambition to slay Galbatorix, there will be many places where he will have to put his judgment, his character, his mind, his body, heart and soul to test.  The question here is not of exploring the character through pages and pages, but how to portray it with effective lucid writing. What a better writer could have achieved in 300 pages, Paolini takes 738 pages.

Though I didn’t outright dislike this book, I was disappointed with it. I was disappointed at how it began, such that anyone who’s not read Eldest will hardly be in a position to understand all the nuances in the book.  I was dissatisfied with how he managed the plot, the characters and the flow of the story.  There were many parts which I thought were too contrived or shoddily thought out, but let’s not reveal all here. Last but not least, I was upset with the note on which it ended.  It was like flat beer, to say the least. It doesn’t leave you with eager anticipation for the fourth book because you can’t wait to see what happens, but because as any fantasy fiction series nerd would attest, you can’t not read what happens in the series, no matter how bad it is.

Let’s just hope Paolini makes up for this with some brilliance in the fourth book.

You can also read other reviews here.

Review: The Solitude of Prime Numbers

I’ve never had the aptitude for languages. I’ve never regretted it. Except when I pick up books that are the translated versions. I wish I could read the original versions. I have nothing against the translators, oh no, in fact I think they should be appreciated a lot more for preserving the integrity and beauty of the work while making it accessible to a wider audience. It’s just that when I read them and get entranced and enchanted, I feel the need to read them as is, to find out more nuances in the writing, the words that lend more meaning to the story, the private jokes that are endemic to the language.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers- Paolo Giordano
The Solitude of Prime Numbers- Paolo Giordano

When I picked up The Solitude of Prime Numbers, I knew I was going to visit the same old feeling again. Even before I’d read the book, I was intrigued by it. One, writer Paolo Giordano is a physicist who was working on his doctorate in particle physics when he started writing the book.  Second, the title. It is a difficult feat to resist such a title. So, after waiting for a long time, I finally got my hands on it.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers tells us the story of Mattia and Alice, two injured and scarred souls who seem to be destined for each other. Mattia, as a young kid, left his mentally-disabled twin sister in a park to go to a party and returned to find that he has lost her. With an overbearing father Alice leads herself to a terrible skiing accident and then towards anorexia. With their own personal tragedies heavy on their young feeble shoulders, they create an odd alliance.

As a teenager,  Mattia, a math prodigy, studies prime numbers, numbers so soliatry that they can be divided only by themselves or unity. While studying these, he comes across twin primes– two numbers, who are odd and yet similar, separated by an even number between them. He thinks of Alice when he sees twin primes, close yet never completely together.

As they move through the torturous years of teenage to adulthood, fate seems to play with their lives and years. After many years when Alice sights someone she thinks could be Mattia’s lost sister, emotions that they had buried deep inside come resurfacing.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers, is a love story without the need or wherewithal for an ending. It is not a love story in the usual sense of lovers, romantic scenes and gestures, grand trials and passionate return to togetherness. It is a very restrained and precariously balanced tale of two people who are meant for each other but are helpless within their trappings of past burdens and own doubts and uncertainties.

I cannot say I could identify with the characters because it is difficult to identify with a girl who cannot eat and a math genius who cuts himself. You can relate to them, try to understand their pain. Giordano keeps the reader at a safe, slightly uncomfortable distance where you can feel for the characters without pity and feel a certain helplessness on their behalf. You will not even be in a position to blame cruel fate in their case.He has couple of strong secondary characters, but keeps them from overshadowing and usurping. I think Giordano does an excellent job here with character development.

When it comes to plot, the story kind of falters in the middle. The writing reeks a bit of amateurish attempts at something meant to be much more exquisite. In the later parts, it picks up with the deft handling of narrative. His writing reminded me a bit of Milan Kundera’s works and maybe he will do very very well with short stories. But all said and done, Paolo Giordano should write more, many more of his stories.

The book can be called, as it has been many times, elegant and melancholic. But for me it will be a read that left me very very sad and yet gladder for the experience. We are often advised not to judge the book by its cover. But if you are someone who judges the book by its title, and if you felt something when you heard the title, I’d say go pick it up. It’s not like you will miss out on one of the best books ever, but you will regret it if you don’t.

 

You can also read the review here.

Review: Turbulence by Samit Basu

Turbulence- Samit Basu
Turbulence- Samit Basu

I’ve rarely been so excited about a book from an Indian author. And I started loving my job a bit more when BookChums got me this book to review. 😀

Turbulence is India’s first mainstream novel talking about superheroes, very Indian superheroes at that. By some freak accident everyone on the BA flight 142 gets powers that reflect their innermost desires and secret longings. Some of them are coming to terms with their newfound powers and some are hatching plans and plots to change the world with their powers while some are disappearing off the face of earth. Our protagonist Aman Sen is trying to piece together the puzzle, get the other heroes on his side and form his own Justice League to eradicate evil, corruption, poverty and all things bad from this world.

Aman, your average Joe, who always felt he wasn’t well-connected enough, gets gifted with the power to control anything that is in a network, yes, even the interwebz. Tia, a housewife from the North-east who wanted to be many things and be at many places becomes a very literal, but better, embodiment of MPD. Uzma Abidi (very very Katrina Kaif-ish), who is on her way from London to make a career in tinsel town starts oozing charm and charisma that can melt a T-Rex. There’s Vir, the noble and handsome IAF pilot who can fly now. Together with Tia, Uzma, Jai and a bunch of other mildly (and weirdly) powered heroes, Aman sets out on his journey to beat the bad guys amongst the superheroes. One of the bad guys here is superman-without-wings, Jai, whose grand plans of world domination don’t seem to go down too well with the other bunch of superheroes and a mysterious character with ability to provoke and control mob rage. With such an eclectic and eccentric cast, Basu weaves a story that is brimming with acerbic wit, zany humor and supercharged exchanges.

One of the things I liked best was the Indian-isms, those behavior patterns and habits that are so typical to us Indians. One of my favoritest parts is when Vir gets a call, while preparing to fly in to destroy enemy camp, apparently from a telecaller about getting a new credit card. Then there’s his brilliant posse of heroes, who are not completely superhero-material but aren’t mere humans either. His depiction of Aman and portrayal through the novel is bound to win over many hearts. And how can one ignore all those glorious superhero fiction references. There was a moment when I was dying to scream out “X-Men X-Men” at the pages before Aman came to my rescue and said it. I do wish the battles and the progression of important events in the book weren’t as chaotic, but perhaps it adds to the book’s unpredictability.

This is the fourth book I’m reading by Samit Basu, having read his Gameworld Trilogy couple of years back. I loved The Manticore’s Secret but didn’t get as swept away by The Unwaba Revelations as I expected to be. When I first heard about Turbulence, I was hoping very hard that this one would match up with my liking for Manticore’s Secret. And I think it has succeeded, well beyond my expectations. I cannot wait to watch its movie version, I cannot wait for its sequel and I cannot wait to get my hands on his other books.
For anyone who loves superheroes, Bollywood, nerd and geek culture stuff and dudes and dudettes who are a bit off their rocker will love this book. If you are someone with time on your hands, you would definitely devour this one in one day. If you are someone with not much time on your hands, best of luck while you attempt to do the cover-to-cover run in one go.

Eldest : Book Review

Eldest - Christopher Paolini
Eldest - Christopher Paolini

Eldest is the second book in the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini. I’d read the first book almost 5 years back and had resisted reading the second one because I thought it would be boring, considering it was a good 700 pages or so and 5 years is too long a break to watch out for series.

When I discovered the book to be lying on my bookshelf, brand new and yet gathering dust, I decided to give it a try.  Eldest begins few days after the events in Eragon’s last chapter. The Battle of Farthen Dur over, the Varden, the rebel group opposing evil king Galbatorix’s reign over Alagaësia  (the fictional continent where the Inheritance Cycle takes place) are busy mourning their losses and preparing to move to Surda, the only place out of the empire’s reach.  Eragon, with the help of Saphira and Arya kills the shade Durza in the ensuing battle and earns the title of Shadeslayer.

When Eldest begins we see Eragon swearing loyalty to all the races- humans, dwarves and later to the elves. Shortly thereafter, Eragon, Saphira, Arya and Orik leave for Ellesmera where Eragon and Saphira will be trained as proper Dragon and Rider.  As the Varden needs his and Saphira’s help, they have to leave their training and fly back to join the Varden in their Battle on the Burning Plains. There he comes face to face with someone he thought was a friend who had died and learns the bitter secret of his true identity.

In a parallel plot line we see Roran considering how to ask for the hand of Katrina, his beloved in marriage from her father Sloan and trying to fight the Ra’zac who are chasing him because of his relation to Eragon. Despite his many attempts to keep the villagers safe, Katrina gets abducted by the Ra’zac and Roran must chase after them to save her.  He convinces his fellow villagers to fight the Ra’zac and rise against the Empire for the atrocities it has committed upon their village. He manages to stir up a following and they embark on a tumultuous journey to find a safe haven from the Empire.  Following a chance meeting with Jeod, who along with Brom had stolen Saphira’s egg from Galbatorix and had helped Eragon and Brom earlier, the villagers of Carvahall, Roran and Jeod set out to go to Surda where Roran meets his cousin, Eragon Shadeslayer.

This time Paolini infuses some maturity into his young characters and depicts their coming of age, their struggles to cope with adulthood and burden of responsibility very well. You can see his characters questioning and learning a great deal of things because of their roles in this war. That Paolini works on this process is very good indeed, but one does wish the process was more elegantly portrayed.

Throughout the book, it’s hard to detect any anticipation. The characters, the plot all seem to wander and roam at their own paces, rushing in places and meandering on unnecessary detours at many places. In attempt to show the cousins Roran and Eragon’s different yet similar struggles, Paolini harps again and again on similar stories and adventures with unexplained miracles and divine intervention sprinkled across here and there.  His imagination goes through sudden spurts but nothing extraordinary comes to the surface. In a tale involving humans, elves, dwarves, Urgals- a race which survives on their love for war and bloodshed and most importantly sentient intelligent dragons, Paolini could have cooked up a much more riveting and gripping work. Instead what we get is a mild mannered account of a war from various narrow perspectives and the occasional interesting insight.

It’s not a bad book, but it’s not a great book either. With Eragon, Paolini was sitting on a goldmine of potential brilliance.  He has pulled off a good second offering, but it falls short on many counts, the first and foremost being any lack of writing style that would stand out and add to the subject matter of the tale. With a good many interesting and eccentric characters, Paolini could have produced much witty dialogue, but all we see are few feeble jabs and exchanges.

In any case, I’m sure anyone who has read the first book will read this one (It’s the curse of reading series- one has to know what happens next) and whether they like Eldest or not, they will look forward to read Brisingr.

 

You can also read other reviews here.