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.
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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.

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.

Dreams in Prussian Blue- Book Review

 

Dreams in Prussian Blue - Paritosh Uttam
Dreams in Prussian Blue - Paritosh Uttam

I have some bias against Indian writers and writing. It was with much reluctance that I agreed to read Dreams in Prussian Blue. I didn’t have much hope from it and struggled through first quarter of the book. And somehow against my will, I started relating with its characters. And even more unwillingly, I felt affected by the fate of its doomed protagonists.

The novel begins with a simple, and somewhat clichéd, premise- that of a young naïve girl falling in love with a mysterious, somewhat obsessed artist. Love blossoms, and the odd couple struggles to set up a happy life together. Naina, the young feisty art student shoulders responsibility far beyond her age and Michael, the brooding painter immerses himself in his art while leaving his partner to make ends meet. Fighting against the world at large, and with each other, the pair still learns to love and live. Then calamity strikes and their already wobbly world breaks and shatters.  Michael is robbed of his eyesight in an accident. An accident that might not have happened had Naina not given him an ultimatum.  Naina fights with the guilt, but little does she know of how many more burdens she will have to bear in the near future.

What is a painter without his eyes? What is a relationship without trust? Paritosh Uttam weaves a story of conflicts that will sadden and trouble you, make you wonder what you would have done in their stead.  I personally hated the character of Naina. I could relate to her, understand her, even empathize with her to some extent, but I still hated where and what she had led herself to become. On the other hand, I felt more deeply for Michael, in a distant detached way, mourned for him. But after all of this, I can’t deny I was shocked at the end. For a small breezy read, the ending sure doesn’t hold back any punches. It can knock the wind out of you and leave you wondering, with a small knot of unease inside.

The story could have been paced better and characters given more depth I feel. But, it makes for an engrossing read nevertheless, once you get beyond the first few chapters. The writing style gives the impression of a strong current being held with much restraint. There is a lot explored within few lines, one only needs to look at it in the right way. The book might appeal a lot more to women than men I think, but that again is a very personal assumption.

Dreams in Prussian Blue came out from Penguin’s offering of “Metro Reads”, pegged as fun, feisty and fast reads that will go down with the temperament and taste of the burgeoning Indian urban middle class readership (or as Penguin says, for “readers on the go”).  In that league, Dreams in Prussian Blue fits almost perfectly. Readers who have grown up to city clatter and noise, rocky relationships and issues, the passions and dreams fuelled by a city like Mumbai, will be able to relate to the match that is Michael and Naina. But I wouldn’t categorize this one as a ‘fun’ read, where I count fun as something that will make you laugh, rollick and giggle at each turn of page. I won’t mark it for those who are “on the go” either. This one is meant to be consumed on a warm lazy weekend.

So would I recommend the book? I think yes. I think some folks, who enjoy reading about shifting dynamics of relationships, will like this book. It will give them much satisfaction to mull over what happens when love kills.

 

Psssstt.. I also interviewed Paritosh Uttam for BookChums. My first proper “interview” as such. You can read the interview here.

The Simoqin Prophecies – Book Review

The Simoqin Prophecies - Samit Basu
The Simoqin Prophecies - Samit Basu

Imagine all of your favorite myths and legends, fantasy series, science fiction pulp and the mish mash of all that and more is The Simoquin Prophecies. And a ruddy brilliant mash-up it is, brimming with puns and references and an underlying subtle current of humor that restrains it from becoming an outrageous parody of all its constituents.

First in the GameWorld trilogy, the book begins in the year of rebirth of the greatest rakshas Danh-Gem and the revival of another hero who will bring his downfall. That is a quite standard premise for most tales of fantasy fiction, we agree, but Basu makes this a much more interesting plot with his unexpected twists and a host of magical creatures and eccentric characters. The book has all the magical creatures ever explored in Greek, Egyptian, Hindu mythology (some characters and sub-plots straight off from our beloved Ramayan), and some are his own inventions. There’s the ravian Kirin, the good-looking prince Asvin and Maya, our feisty and sharp heroine who’s the daughter of one of the most powerful spell-binders Mantric. While the Chief Civilian of Kol, the most powerful city in the world, worries about the rising amount of magic in the world and increasing number of rakshas sightings, Mantric is busy in Bolvudis (oh, don’t you love such wordplay?) setting up the world’s first magical movie studio.

Thus, Asvin, Maya, Kirin and Spikes (a pashan), the Dagger(under the name of Amloki), a centauress Red Pearl, and a vaman Gaam set off for Bolvudis to meet Mantric. Much adventure and drama happens on this eventful journey and they come to a parting of ways with Kirin.

Where does Kirin’s path lead him and what further adventures do Asvin and Maya tackle? What happens to the love triangle of Asvin, Maya and Kirin? Well, to know all of this and get some more entertainment, you must go read this book.

Basu pulls off an amazing and delightful debut, bringing a first off fantasy genre novel in India that would appeal to those brought up on Star Wars and Harry Potter and those who grew up listening to Indian folk tales and legends. Basu wrote The Simoquin Prophecies when he was 22 and got it published when he was 23, making him India’s youngest author at the time. A much laudable feat, especially when you compare it with the ambiguous rise of Indian writers in English. His work might not be the most original, but at least it doesn’t show any signs of colonial burdens and hang-ups or any of the quick chick-lit types coming out in the market. Instead he gives you a story made up with elements from your favorites, adds his own charm and creativity and dishes out a book that will have you wanting to read the second one very very eagerly.

You can also read other reviews here.