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Books


Frames of fantasy

Unpredictable yet compelling

Refreshing classicism

Neither funny nor deep enough

Mixed motives

Unending quest

Cross-border dialogues

Unaccustomed Earth

Sacred Games

Blood Brothers

The Menagerie and other Byomkesh Bakshi Mysteries

The Radiance of Ashes

Q & A

Eastwords

Babyji

Frames of fantasy

VIJAY NAIR


The anthology pays tribute to the magic of movies and how it transforms those who engage with the written word.
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The Popcorn Essayists: What Movies Do To Writers
Edited by Jai Arjun Singh, Tranquebar, Rs. 395

The world renowned American film critic, Roger Ebert, has gone on record to say that he envies anyone who is about to watch “The Third Man” or “Singin' in the Rain” for the first time. Any Indian film aficionado who has read the book can experience the same feelings towards someone who's picked up the recent anthology of essays edited by Jai Arjun Singh, the well regarded writer and blogger on films and books. The Popcorn Essayists: What Movies Do to Writers is a connoisseur's delight. The anthology pays a tribute to the magic of movies and how it transforms those who engage with the written word. Singh's repertoire of writers comprises some of the most interesting contemporary literary voices.

Kamila Shamsie is included and so is Manjula Padmanabhan. Amitava Kumar gets to have his say on his fascination with Manoj Bajpai, an actor who has been on the periphery of Bollywood stardom for years now without really making it, while the academic Manil Suri holds forth on how he did a Helen in drag in a literary event and managed to sell two copies of his book. Namita Gokhale reminisces about superstar Rajesh Khanna and India's own Hedda Hopper, Devyani Choubal, and their tumultuous relationship that seemed to have existed mostly in the star scribe's imagination.

Singh also contributes a piece in the collection on the monsters he has known, evoking memories of the first horror flick we watched as kids with friends and cousins. The range of topics covered should give an indication of the treasure this anthology is for the film buff. And for those who love the moving picture and the written word with equal fervour, this collection is even rarer. The piece de resistance in the anthology, however, is from the Pakistani writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi whose hilarious piece “The Foot-Worshippers Guide to Watching Maula Jatt” is easily the most pungent bit of writing I have come across on the absurdity of what is referred to as commercial cinema on both sides of the border. It is deadpan and savage in equal measure.

Shamsie's contribution, on the other hand, is the most intelligent in the well thought-out arguments she puts forth to delineate the experience of watching a film versus reading a novel while trying simultaneously to recall and decipher one of her favourite films “Wings of Desire.” Shamsie's lines have always had music in them and this is as true of the essay she contributes to the anthology as it is of the fiction she writes. Sidin Vadukut and Madhulika Liddle also succeed in communicating their affection for films that have been massacred by the critics only to be embraced by the paying audience in two separate light and breezy pieces.

Favourite novelists

It is only natural that in a collection that comprises 13 contributions, two or three will not match up either in the subject matter taken up or the writing itself. In this particular collection, it is also easy to understand why they don't quite measure up. Singh shares in the introduction how he has included his two favourite contemporary novelists in the collection and ironically enough the two contribute the stodgiest of pieces, each based on a flimsy pretentious premise and each as difficult to plod through. Jaishree Mishra's essay is also a big cop out, coming as it does at the end of the collection, like most of her recent writings have been.

These are small quibbles to have with one of the best collections of essays on films and writing by writers from the sub-continent. Of course you miss the irrepressible Salman Rushdie in the anthology. Everyone knows about his passion for anything to do with Bollywood and a contribution from him would have made the book even more precious. But that's being greedy.



Plays

Aapki Soniya


Theatre from other lands




Unpredictable yet compelling

Vijay Nair

The dazzling brilliance of Kazuo Ishiguro has illuminated the literary firmament for nearly three decades now. His six published novels have won critical praise and prestigious literary awards besides being translated into 40 languages. Some of them have also been adapted into films and brought more fame and glory to the auteur writer. Never Let Me Go is his sixth novel that was written in 2005 and found a place in bestselling lists across the world, besides earning well-deserved praise from critics. The work is now available in a paperback version brought out by Faber & Faber.

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Understated

It wouldn't be wrong to hail the work as a modern classic. Suffused with tenderness, the novel manages to make us feel and care for characters that are not quite human. Ishiguro is a master of understatement. Nothing about the novel is flamboyant. A rather pithy work neatly divided into three segments, it tells the story of three friends who grow up in the same boarding school and are drawn into a romantic triangle. Lurking in the background is the grim shadow of the larger purpose for which they inhabit this world. Their destinies are predetermined and yet the three of them are unable to get past the traps of love and betrayal life has set for them. While they yearn and dream for a future that can never be theirs, for the rest of the world, they are figures of revulsion, to be avoided at any cost. This not only sets the context for the intimate and ultimately tragic relationships they build with each other, but also provides a commentary on the human society that will stop at nothing in the name of scientific progress.

Ishiguro is particularly effective when he is sketching scenes of great sorrow. His keen eye and sensitive writing leaves the reader with no choice but to become a part of the Hailsham world where the children grow up with guardians and not parents and seek meaning in the tiny objects they create for what they believe to be for the world that awaits them when they turn 16. Such a premise can easily turn maudlin and sentimental but Ishiguro avoids this pitfall with consummate ease. So gentle is his narrative that you end up feeling not just for the victims but also those whose work it is to prepare them for the horrors that await them at the end of their education.

Flawless work

To find a label for such a work is not easy. Broadly the work can be categorised as science fiction but the evocative story telling and the underlying pathos of the three main characters - Ruth, Tommy and the narrator Kathy - is such that it eludes any easy cubby holing. The easiest approximation the reader can arrive at is that it is a work of great literary merit at par with some of the immortal works of J.M. Coetzee and Margaret Atwood.

The two novels Ishiguro wrote before Never Let Me Go came in for a fair amount of flak from critics. Perhaps the unfair criticism drove the writer to come up with a work that is as unpredictable as it is compelling. It is as if the master is daring his opponents by creating a flawless work that eludes even the most minor of criticism either in its form, structure or story telling.

You shouldn't be content with just reading Never Let Me Go. It is a book that is meant to be owned and passed from one generation to another.

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber & Faber, £7.99.


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Refreshing classicism

Vijay Nair

The Quarantine Papers is motivated by the right concerns, but gets wearisome when it tries too hard.
The Quarantine Papers, Kalpish Ratna, Harper Collins, Rs.499

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Kalpish Ratna is the near anagram of the first names of two writers, Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed used for their collaborative writing. This pair of surgeons and writers is fairly prolific and we come across their articles regularly in different publications. Their latest work of fiction The Quarantine Papershas echoes of a non fiction book they had published earlier- Uncertain Life And Sure Death: Medicine And Mahamaari In Maritime Bombay.

Right Spirit

There is no doubting the fact that the duo has their heart in the right place. They give enough indications in the book to tell us their politics is secular and liberal as it ought to be. It's also difficult to find fault with their writing style. The narrative is crisp and pithy. But despite all these inherent advantages the book turns out to be a tedious read. For it tries too hard to camouflage the earnestness of the writing by affecting an aesthetics that bogs down the narrative rather than uplift it. Clearly ambition is at play here. Either the two writers or their publishers don't want to settle for an ordinary thriller. They want their book to be taken seriously by the literary establishment. And ambition as we all know needs to be tempered by good old common sense. It's not as if The Quarantine Papers is a bad book. It just tries too hard to be a great book that it clearly is not.

In its quest for glory, the book attempts too much of experimentation that not only distracts from its essence but also annoys the reader. Just think of a good old Bimal Roy film being retold by a hand held camera with jerky movements. It can only work if the characters are reworked to suit the new narrative. The Quarantine Papershas a classical plot that could have been the back bone of a worthy endeavour, provided the story telling was uncluttered and lucid. Instead all kinds of gimmicks are resorted to. Each section starts with a photograph that doesn't add anything. Sometimes even the changing of the font has pretentious undertones. At one point in the book, the mayhem following the destruction of Babri Masjid claims a signboard announcing Bismillah Laundry that is repainted as Brajmohan Laundry. The poignancy is lost because suddenly a different font in block letters crops up to depict this moving moment. If they had left it alone, allowing the reader to get into the layered leitmotif of the story telling, it would have showed rather than the “telling” it resorts to through the changed font.

The protagonist Ratan Ramratan Oak is also curiously short changed by the author(s). His unrelenting nobility is a little hard to digest. Apparently there are ten more Oak novels in the pipeline and if we see them in print it would be nice to see our hallucinating hero acquire many more complexities than he is currently vested with. A touch of meanness would go a long way in redeeming him from being a victim to a flesh and blood character we can empathise with. Also many parts of the book read like research that ought to precede the writing of a novel like this rather than be a part of the novel itself. Hopefully, the series would have a smoother flow.

There is a moral for the publishers too in all this. They ought to leave alone some books the good old fashioned way. We have the graphic novel today to cater to our taste for writing that needs to be embellished with visuals. Sure, Dickens had his illustrator too but those illustrations added rather than detracted. Let the narrative take care of the showing. And if possible re-launch this book without all the calligraphy, the illustrations and change in font unless it is absolutely essential.

The proof of the pudding, as they say, lies in its eating.


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Neither funny nor deep enough

Vijay Nair

The novel rides on sly humour and existential angst and only partially succeeds at both…

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Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, Random House, p.291, Rs. 395.
‘The only thing that’s keeping me going is the phrase “Indo-Gangetic Plain”. I just love that phrase.’
‘Me too,’ I said. ‘It’s just…It’s one of the great place names.’
‘D’you think we’re actually in it, even as you speak?”
‘You mean we’re having a conversation about the Indo-Gangetic plain in the Indo-Gangetic plain? How cool is that?’

This excerpt from Geoff Dyer’s intriguingly titled novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi should educate you about the kind of a book it is. Vaguely reminiscent of that 1980s Indian campus bible English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee, the work rides on its sly humour and a kind of existential angst that defines its genre.

August in the Indian novel was a young man cutting his teeth in the slovenly maze of Indian bureaucracy. Jeffery Atman, the protagonist in Dyer’s novel, on the other hand, is as British as they come. That maybe the reason why existential dilemmas confront him when he is well into his forties. He is a writer who never managed to complete the book he was commissioned to write and earns his living through the dubious means of freelance journalistic assignments. One such assignment takes him to Venice where he sets out to demystify the romance of the legendary city by constantly talking about the weather. It seems Venice, although a city set in water, can smoulder in temperatures that cross thirty five degree centigrade. He has a passionate affair with another journalist while he is on the assignment. They have lots of sex between them and talk dirty. Some of the post coital conversations are really funny because they take you back to your own adolescence when the man in the penny library furtively handed you books that were replete with such dialogues.

One insight that Dyer is intent on sharing with readers across the world is that his fellow countrymen are very bad tempered. That could be because they never really outgrow this preoccupation with the birds and the bees. All the copulation packed in the first section of the book seems to point to this.

Contrasting section

The second part moves to the surname. The enigma pertaining to dealing with the same protagonist in two sections by referring to him by his first name in the first section in the third person and by his surname in the second section when the narrative changes to the first person may be a structural device by the author. It could also be something that was intended to be much deeper. But apart from generating all the familiar stereotypes about India and the holy city that seems to hold an unending fascination for the Western traveller, this section does little to add to the merits of the book. We learn the names of a number of ghats and some new bonds are forged by the protagonist with other Westerners but the pace slackens considerably, the sex goes out of the pages and the book ends with a kangaroo making an appearance. If there is a moral to this story, it is contained in the last few lines. Anything goes. Maybe this book is intended only for those who like to read after getting stoned.

At the end of it, you are vaguely conscious that you have read yet another book that tried very hard to make you laugh and succeeded occasionally. If there is something deeper going for it, you can only discover it by reading the work more than once. As for me, if I had to read a book more than once to understand what it was all about, my vote should definitely go for Chatterjee’s timeless classic.


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Mixed motives

Vijay Nair

A tedious read that reveals confused intentions...

Arrack in the Afternoon ; Matthew Vincent Menacherry; HarperCollins, Rs.350

Mathew Vincent Menacherry's debut novel Arrack in the Afternoon, is a mixed offering. Parts of it are well written and then there are also parts to the book that should have been reworked if not edited out completely. So you coast through the first work of the author, partly enthralled and partly disgusted. Perhaps Mathew Menacherry went through the same dilemma that most first time novelists find themselves in while penning what they imagine to be their path breaking works. They want their book to be treated with respect and at the same time are unable to let go of commercial considerations.

The protagonist of the novel Verghese Konnikara is someone who in modern parlance would be referred to as a “loser.” He publishes a collection of poems and is unable to sell a single copy. Since the author begins the book with this disaster, the reader assumes the tale is a fantasy. After all it is impossible for a published work not to sell a single copy. There are always obliging friends and family to pick up the first hundred. This mishap in his life is followed by some more improbable things happening to him, culminating in him turning into a modern day guru. But, the book is not something that we can conveniently slot as magic realism. The author chooses to juxtapose the surreal with the grim and the gritty landscape of Bombay and strikes discordant notes throughout his work.

Lost reader

It is difficult to access the protagonist through the narrative. This may appear a bit of nitpicking, but how can it be possible that Konnikara is chronically depressed and an alcoholic to boot and he is blessed with a physique that men and women drool over. The author can always claim that he wanted to fight shy of clichés and stereotypes but this is just the kind of inconsistency the reader may find hard to swallow. By the end of it all, we never really care for what happens to the protagonist and that is the book's greatest failure.

The author comes into his own when he is fleshing out some of the other principal characters. The story of Kochapu, Konnikara's father is a delightful treatise on not just one individual but an entire state that he represents. The early life of Patricia, Konnikara's mistress in Mhow, before she migrates to Bombay, is once again captured remarkably well.

However, Menacherry chooses to locate his work in the commercial capital of India and sets out to tell a story rooted in the opportunistic ethos of the metropolis. He fails in this endeavour not because what he has to say is inauthentic, but because there is nothing new he has to offer about the city or its denizens. The narrative also suffers because of the excessive emphasis on sex. There is a lot of it in the book and not particularly tastefully written. Sample this- “The servant who had many glimpses of the still-delectable form of Rashmina, pretended not to notice the thin line of semen that extended to the middle of the bed.”

Alluring title

Arrack in the Afternoon has a nice enticing title, irreverent but captivating. There is also some good writing and story telling in parts. But when an author claims he spent five years in writing the novel and another three in editing it, the reader expects a lot more.

However there is enough promise in this one for us to believe that there would be other more accomplished works from Menacherry in future.


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Unending quest

Vijay Nair

An astonishing depiction of a journey that resists categorisation.

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Revolution, Sara, Tara Publishing, Rs395.

The most evocative part of the history of any land is the revolutions that dot the landscape. The legacy of blood and sacrifice of countless individuals that made existence bearable for those who came after them. Time and geographical boundaries may separate these revolutionaries from different lands and different periods, but their core remains the same. Revolutions as a social and psychological process bring together the oppression of past as well as the vision for the future. Whenever any medium tries to capture the essence of a revolution, any revolution, we are moved beyond measure.

Revolution, by French Artist and Illustrator Sara, is a collector’s item. It is difficult to cubby-hole the work into any particular genre. Part graphic novel, part stunning art, it sets out to tell the story of a woman revolutionary without putting her in any particular context. She wears a red scarf that’s as much a symbol of her revolutionary spirit as a metaphor for the blood that has to be necessarily shed for the cause.

Graphic narrative

She is introduced to the reader carrying a black flag with a red lion on it. She is not alone. There are other revolutionaries accompanying her. The flag is their counter to the power of the state that is bent upon breaking their will. Just as they finish hoisting the flag, the custodians of law appear to shoot and imprison them. Our protagonist is captured and tortured. Perhaps she is killed. We don’t know. What we do know is her soul goes and mingles with the lion in the flag, signifying revolutions spring from unfailing human spirit rather than human lives.

I counted eleven words in all in the book. But the sparse narrative hardly matters. The pictures are vivid enough to tell the whole story. It helps that the Artist/ Illustrator is a revolutionary in her own right. When she didn’t have the money to buy paint and canvas, she invented the torn-paper technique. The visuals in black, white and red are stunning. It comes as no surprise that the book won the prestigious BIB Golden Apple Award.

It is also interesting that the main protagonist is depicted as a woman. The female sex has contributed immensely to all revolutions including the Independence movement in India. But it is ironical that once the revolution is over, the patriarchal system existing in most countries wants to relegate them to their traditional roles. Perhaps the artist wanted to communicate that for women, revolution never really ends.

The book is brought out by Tara Books in the “French Focus” Series. But being visual based, the language it speaks is universal. This is a book you must possess. As much for the truth it espouses as for the deceptively simple way it sets out to tell it.


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Cross-border dialogues

Vijay Nair

Two narratives of migration and dislocation in the aftermath of the Partition that reinforce the goodness of the ‘common’ man.

Tales of Two Cities, Kuldip Nayar and Asif Noorani, edited by David Page, Lotus/Roli

The Partition of the British Indian Empire into India and Pakistan in 1947 is one of the biggest human tragedies in modern history, its scale rivalling the Holocaust that led to the Second World War. The estimates of the number of deaths owing to the violence and bloodshed that followed the population transfer range around 5,00,000, with low estimates at 2,00,000 and higher numbers placing it as high as 1,000,000. Many more lost their homes and possessions and were forced to build their lives from scratch in a new country. The scars the tragedy left behind continues to fester in the subcontinent and has accounted for two wars between India and Pakistan. Terror attacks on both sides of the border presently can also be linked to the migration that took place over six decades ago. Communal riots that are a shameful blot on the horizon of modern India owe a lot to the bloody legacy of the Partition. As the cliché goes, our country and its people forget their history only to repeat it time and again. From Godhra to Meerut. From Jamshedpur to Mumbai.

Enabling dialogue

It is in this context that the two long essays by Kuldip Nayar and Asif Noorani, edited by David Page and brought out in a single compilation by Roli Books as Tales of Two Cities assumes significance. The book is the fourth in a series of cross border talks. Other titles include Diplomatic Divide, Divided by Democracy and Fault Lines of Nationhood.

Nayar writes about the journey he undertook from Sialkot to Delhi as the first migrant in his family. He starts with his reluctance to leave the place of his birth where his father was a respected doctor and goes on to narrate how he was literally tricked into leaving Pakistan as the tension between the two communities began to escalate. He is not enamoured by the capital of India when he moves in with his aunt. Ironically, his first employer is a Muslim and his first job is with an Urdu newspaper. Nayar captures the subtle irony and paradox of the situation with his lucid prose. The simplicity of his narrative style helps the reader get in touch with the complex times. It is particularly piquant that the homeless finds himself at home with the same community that hastened his migration and who now find themselves in the same situation the author and his family were on the other side of the border. Even more poignant is the journey Nayar makes to Sialkot after many years of Partition only to discover he has been exiled forever and the home he grew up in belongs to someone else.

Asif Noorani is a film journalist of repute and it comes as no surprise that he was born in Bombay in the year the undivided country was extolling the British to Quit India. He and his parents migrate to Pakistan much after the Partition saga has unfolded. He continues to be linked to this country through his mother’s side of the family. Another tie that binds him to India is, of course, Bollywood. As someone who was somewhat protected from the trauma of the initial years following the Partition in the cosmopolitan ethos of Bombay, Noorani is able to retain his sense of humour even while he is sharing dramatic events from his life like being stranded in the city of his birth during the Indo-Pak war of 1965. His encounter with a junior officer of CID, Takle, who manages to retain his humanity even in trying times is particularly heart warming. Noorani also refers to the dilemma of the Indian Muslim when his friends from the film fraternity in Bombay are compelled to disown him in the time of war to prove their patriotism.

Gentle tales

The two long essays flow like gentle tales being told by two wise old men. They may be in the nature of short memoirs capturing a turbulent and traumatic period in their lives but read more like pungent short fiction. Both Noorani and Nayar are products of middle class and in a way their birth seems to have shielded them from the violence and brutality of the event. Neither of them report any casualty in their family. Both the writers reinforce the goodness of the common man who, irrespective of religious affiliations, continues to be gracious in times of strife engineered by political leaders.

It is only fitting that an Englishman is facilitating this cross border dialogue. The Dickens derived introduction to the two essays by David Page sets the correct tone for what is to follow. Tales of Two Cities may work for even those who usually give non-fiction a miss.


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Unaccustomed Earth; Jhumpa Lahiri 

Expect the unexpected

Vijay Nair

The first story, ‘Unaccustomed Earth’, jars. Everything about it is crafted almost scientifically right down to the twist at the end. It could be a lesson to students of a creative writing class.

The second, ‘Hell-Heaven’, appears to be nothing more than modern day retelling of Satyajit Ray’s ‘Charulata’ unfolding in the US instead of Calcutta. The third, ‘A Choice of Accommodation’, is the sort of a thing that one comes across in any anthology of American short stories. The kind of tale that suburban couples lend to fledgling story tellers. By the time I reached the fourth I was on the verge of yelling “cop out” almost gleefully.

I took Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest collection of short stories to be a sign that even the mighty can fall. Fortunately it just got better and better from this point. Ms Lahiri seemed to give up on her endeavour to portray Bengalis as quaint folks who continue to exist in their Calcutta time wrap in a foreign land and started to imbue them with deft human strokes so that they become ordinary like you and me. With ordinary fears and ordinary mishaps that

Only Goodness’ and ‘Nobody’s Business’ are stories about failures. A sister is forced to discard her protective demeanour towards her alcoholic, younger brother, who she had introduced to beer, when a reckless act of his threatens her own family life. The story teller in Lahiri is eerily perceptive in picking up the nuances of family life gone awry due to the transgression of one of its members. She gets everything pat in this tale including the boundaries of filial love. The sad but universal truth that as much hate makes itself visible in all families as does love.

‘Nobody’s Business’ is scathing towards its protagonist ‘Sang’ short for Sangita, who destroys herself over her macho and demanding Middle Eastern lover, as it is towards arranged Indian suitors she attracts on the phone in the apartment she shares with two American housemates. There is biting humour to the situations that crop up. The story is flecked with an almost equal measure of pathos and hilarity. She is in form in this one. It is almost as good as ‘Sexy’ the story that I rate as the best in her first collection ‘The Interpreter of Maladies.’

The novella ‘Hema and Kaushik’ masquerading as three short stories is very good too. Especially the first two stories— ‘Once in a Lifetime’ and ‘Year’s End.’ There is an elegant sense of loss and longing running through both of them and the bit where Kaushik raves and rants at his young step-siblings is as real as the bitter aftermath a quarrel leaves behind in the mouth. But she makes the same error with the third ‘Going Ashore’ as she made with the first one in the collection. There is something convoluted and laboured about Hema and Kaushik having their brief, torrid affair in Rome. And the tsunami as the forced climax is an avoidable short cut.

Some very good things can be said about the latest collection. Lahiri’s adeptness at painting word pictures is intact. So is her capacity to bring an unexpected lump to our throats when we are least expecting it. But it is evident she is suffering from the fatigue of expectations thrust on her after her remarkable debut followed by an equally remarkable novel. Sadly, some of the characters in some of the stories in the collection appear to experience the same fatigue.

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Sacred Games- Vikram Chandra 

More to maximum city

Vijay Nair  

Vikram Chandra introduced us to Sartaj Singh in his collection of short stories Love and Longing in Bombay that beat God of Small Things to the second place in the Commonwealth Awards. That was a time when Sartaj Singh was hurting after a messy divorce. In Sacred Games, he has recovered enough to feature as the protagonist in a story that spans 900 pages.

From the opening section that starts with a white Pomeranian being flung out of a fifth floor window in Mumbai and concludes with Sartaj’s philosophical musing ‘Love is a murdering gaandu. Poor Fluffy,’ Chandra casts an enchanting and enthralling spell that documents two tales of two worlds— the Mumbai police and the Mumbai underworld. And garnishes it with many other tales; tales of Partition, tales of adultery and blackmail, tales of espionage and counter espionage, tales that start in Mumbai but journey all the way to the far east and to the backward regions in Bihar.

In doing so, he takes the enigma of Bombay to a new unparalleled high. For it is the city the author is in love with and not any of his characters. From its glittering skyscrapers where pets are sacrificed over jealous quarrels to the most fetid of shanties where human lives are cheaper than a meal at the ‘Sindoor Restaurant, Fine Indian and Continental Dining,’ Chandra resorts to every cliché that defines the metropolis and gives all of them captivating and compelling new dimensions. The Bombay, Chandra takes his readers to, is familiar and mysterious, friendly and dangerous at the same time!


While Sartaj Singh negotiates a middle class existence in a city that appears to be partial to the very rich or to the very poor, Ganesh Gaitonde posthumously pays a tribute to the underbelly of the wished for Shanghai. These two stories of two different worlds fusing into one form the labyrinthine through which other but not lesser stories must negotiate their way.

The story of Katekar and his family, the story of Mary Mascrenas, the story of Prabhjot Kaur, the story of Swami Shridhar Shukla, the story of Aadil Ansari— there are more characters here than you can keep count of and yet surprisingly the narrative holds!

Rarely has a story been shared so simply with such subversive intentions. At the end of it the reader empathises as much with the dreaded gangster as with the turbaned policeman— both outsiders, both seeking redemption from their lonely desolate existence. The past, the present and the future blend as they can only in a city of such myriad hopes and multiple dissonances.

This is a novelist at the height of his prowess almost sneering at all the academics who would no doubt try to construct and deconstruct this great Indian fable. Sure there are excesses. There is almost a grandiloquent, melodramatic sweep to the story Chandra pens. The book is littered with nauseating violence.

There is a hacking towards the end of the book that is guaranteed to give nightmares to the weak stomached. But all in all this is also a book that couldn’t have been written in any other way.

Reportedly, Chandra took seven years to pen this epic masterpiece. The effort has well been worth it. For Sacred Games does the impossible. It makes an unwieldy hardcover unputdownable without missing a single literary beat!

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Blood Brothers- M.J. Akbar

A Compelling tale

Vijay Nair

Best Sellers list do not tell us the entire story. Read any of them and you would find they resort to an over simplification. According to them, books can be categorised into two genres- Fiction and Non Fiction. It is difficult to locate M J Akbar’s Blood Brothers squarely in any one of the two categories. This little nit picking aside, Akbar dedicates his book to his children. In reaching this personal milestone, he delivers an epic that future generations of Indians would benefit from. Not to mention the rest of the world, getting increasingly polarised on religious grounds.

Akbar weaves his narrative around a single family, headed by the enigmatic Rahmatullah. A starving Hindu boy, Prayaag, is given shelter by a childless Muslim couple. His formal adoption into the family and the new religion happens on the eve of his marriage. Given a new name on his conversion— Rahmatullah— Prayaag, the author’s grandfather, not only seamlessly integrates himself into the new religion helped by the poet teacher Ashfaque and the smiling Sufi mendicant, Burha Deewana, he also nurtures a community to life around a jute mill that holds all the promise of a secular independent India, much before the British leave the country. When communal tensions destroy the colony founded by the enterprising patriarch who is motivated as much by business wile as humanitarian considerations, it not only signals the end of a single commune but also of the dream that is India.

The book avoids any sentimental traps memoirs generally fall into. It treats tragedy in the same matter-of-fact voice that it chooses for its comic interludes and uses a liberal garnishing of Urdu couplets to illustrate many of the simple truths that can rest communal debates in our country once and for all. Like how the sacred text never talks of cow sacrifice. How could it when its origins are in the desert where cows are scarce?

When the canny Rahmatullah is challenged by a fanatic to sacrifice a cow for Bakri-id to prove his allegiance to his religion, he quietly produces a camel at the last minute, as the ultimate offering to the almighty and manages to quell the stirrings of a communal riot! Also notable is the author’s grasp over the myths around Hindu gods and goddesses. In his hands, both the religions— Hinduism and Islam— become a human paradox. Inspiring devotion and yet at the same time capable of inviting a healthy humourous irreverence for the extremities they preach if interpreted by power hungry holy men.

The compelling saga of three generations unfolds like a metaphor. The simplicity and lucidity of the prose is reminiscent of the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The story suffers only when Akbar, the journalist, takes over Akbar, the storyteller. The latter is infinitely more gifted than the former. A pity that both the author and his readers discovered this fact so late in his illustrious career! The only other book in recent times that can match ‘Blood Brother’ in its sweep and grandeur in retelling contemporary Indian history with a dash of fiction is Salman Rushdie’s ‘ Midnight Children.’

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The Menagerie and other Byomkesh Bakshi Mysteries

- Saradindu Bandyopadhyay.

Cloaks and khukris

Vijay Nair

The rest of the world may swear by Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, but for the Bengali, Byomkesh Bakshi is the greatest fictional sleuth ever created. The creator of this sauve ‘bhadrolok’ detective, Saradindu Bandyopadhyay, was a towering figure in Bengali popular fiction who popularised less respected genres like ghost stories and historical romances.

However Byomkesh Bakshi remains his greatest contribution to contemporary Indian writing. In 1999, Penguin books had published a translation of early Byomkesh stories on the occasion of Bandopadhyay’s birth centenary. Buoyed by the book’s success, the publishers commissioned the translator to bring out another collection. The Menagerie and other Byomkesh Bakshi Mysteries is the result of this creative endeavour to introduce four new delightful Bakshi tales.

Two of the stories contained in the collection qualify as novellas. The title tale— ‘The Menagerie” was in fact translated on celluloid by no less than Satyajit Ray. It starts with a farm owner paying a visit to the detective complaining about being swamped by motor parts that a miscreant is shattering his window panes with.

Bakshi and his assistant Ajit promptly make their way to Golap Colony where the farm is located and come across a bunch of castaways and deviants employed by the farm owner, ostensibly to give them sanctuary. Soon after the visit, the farm owner is found dead, apparently of natural causes but Bakshi is not convinced and therein emerges a layered tale of duplicity, deceit and death.

It is not difficult to understand why the master filmmaker found this particular escapade of Bakshi enticing enough to make a full-fledged feature film out of it. Lacing it with dry wit and gentle humour, Bandyopadhay is at his peak as a storyteller here. Twists follow turns, as the mystery is unraveled by the genius while his assistant looks with a mixture of exasperation and admiration much as Watson and Captain Hastings do with their respective counterparts.

The two short stories that follow— ‘The jewel case’ and ‘The will that vanished’ are simple tales and the revelations that come towards the end to sort out the mystery are just as smooth and uncluttered, leaving the reader smiling.

But the best is reserved for— ‘The quills of the porcupine,’ that comes at the end of the collection. Much like a delectable dessert that overshadows the main course, this particular novella is richly textured and interplays a love story of a newly married couple along with serial killings taking place in south Calcutta.

The pattern the murders follow is reminiscent of the murders in ‘The A B C Murders,’ by Agatha Christie, but that does not detract from the sophisticated narrative. It makes one wonder whether Bandyopadhyay ever got his due as a literary figure or his choice of the detective fiction genre left him shortchanged in this respect.

The translator, Sreejuta Guha, has done a commendable job of introducing this master storyteller to the English reader. Her translation relies on simple straight-forward narrative techniques that goes with the earthiness of the context in which the stories unfold.

Many years ago, Doordarshan had serialised a few of the Bakshi tales, introducing him to the rest of India. No doubt, the two volumes of translations would do the same for readers all over the world. Bandyopadhyay deserves the posthumous fame.

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The Radiance of Ashes-Cyrus Mistry


A Radiant Entry

Vijay Nair

I received the same award this year that Cyrus Mistry received in 1998. We were both hosted by the University of Kent as Resident Writers. My official host in the university told me we were poles apart. Cyrus was supposedly shy and hardly ventured out of his apartment. I was restless and gregarious and knocked on her door every other day to ask her whether she would buy me coffee. So when I was asked to review Cyrus’s debut novel, I felt confused and elated at the same time. Although I have never met Cyrus, I feel I know him. Like when you meet a senior from the school you went to. Your paths may have never crossed but there is a warm fraternal feeling nevertheless.

That warm feeling was reinforced when I got around to reading the book. Cyrus writes about Mumbai. A city that is entirely captivating in its madness. Jingo, the protagonist, hails from a middle-class Parsi family. His own private revolution has to do with writing. Leaving his disappointed parents behind in their housing colony, Jingo moves out to etch a frugal living as a field executive for a market research company. The choice of profession dictated by the writer’s hunger to meet new people all the time. As Jingo flits from one individual story to another, the story of Mumbai unfolds. A city weighed down by its own contradictions after the bomb blasts in the nineties. Secular but intolerant, tolerant but discriminating, crowded but lonely.

The Radiance of Ashes, has all the trappings of a debut novel. Cliché’s abound. There is the familiar ruse of weaving stories into stories to weave a labyrinthine plot that the western reader loves to locate in a novel by an Indian.

The affluent in these stories are superficial and the deprived victimized by the state machinery. However true these stories may ring, after a while it becomes difficult to separate the strands of one from the other. But the novel has equally compelling reasons to be read and appreciated.

For one, the prose is luminous. When the writer is in his element like when he is describing Ricky’s doomed love affair with the complex and troubled artist Christina, the book acquires a pace and symmetry that only those with potential for greatness can have. Sample this gem-
“But it happened again. And again. Entirely enmeshed in the other’s being, even their thoughts seemed no longer private. A fleeting glance, a private smile, an animated response to some stranger at a party was all it took for Christina to sense trouble. Always, it was the other women which sparked off these wretched quarrels, women who were often completely unaware that they had been cause of such terrible pain.

Sometimes Jingo too would be drawn into the frenzy of retaliation, punching and slapping, grabbing her by the shoulders and shaking her till her delirium had subsided into tears. And after every such fight, a voice inside him murmured, ‘Cry now, break into uncontrollable sobs.”

Clearly Cyrus Mistry has heralded his arrival in the literary horizon.


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Q & A- Vikas Swarup


A great read

Vijay Nair


‘Q and A’ has created quite a buzz in the literary circles in India and left some established writers writing in English indignant and fuming at the unseemly amount of publicity the book has attracted.

Cribs abound about how multinational marketing helps in drawing attention to something that is not worth the attention in the first place. Perhaps! Marketing may do the initial spadework but to endure, any product has to have fizz as well as durability. God of small things proved that and won Roy the Booker. Q and A may not be in the same league. But it is a bloody good book. No two ways about it.

It unfolds much in the same way as a Bollywood potboiler. But it does so unselfconsciously. Vikas Swarup is not embarrassed by any of the reference points that have inspired him to write the book.

Be it Kaun Banega Crorepati, the show that cut across the class divide and brought the original superstar back into reckoning, Or Stardust - Swarup calls it “Starburst” for some reason, or the new bisexual superstar - Swarup once again refrains from identifying him but leaves enough hints for the Bollywood literate reader to grasp who he is writing about. India comes alive in this book. The India of the real Indians, who patronise these films, drown themselves in the adulation of film stars and believe naively that it is possible to win millions in a television game show!
This India is not the India of dissenting writers who write soppy tales about middle class housewives pining for lovers and find it difficult to make it to the twenty thousand list but nonetheless it is the India of a throbbing billion that we encounter on the streets. The India that indulges itself in the escapist fare doled out by the Mumbai film industry and contributes to the TRPs of the soaps and gameshows!
Ram Mohammad Thomas, the protagonist of Swarup’s novel may not be the face of the only India that we know about. But he is most certainly recognisable. Q And A is charming much as Kaun Banega Crorepati was facilitated by the charisma of Amitabh Bachchan.

At times it becomes too clever, too quaint for its own good, but luckily discovers a heart before it is too late. How many recent novels can boast of the same?
Q And A packs some violence and has a bizarre and surreal texture to it. The book is a modern day fairy tale and rounds off all the loose ends as an unimaginable happy ending. Despite the seeming simplicity of the text, Swarup is an astute novelist. He believes in sharing his politics through the ancient Indian tradition of story telling.

The characters we encounter in the novel, be it the guileless Salim, the dutiful Lajwanti, or Nita, the whore pining for redemption, are all stereotypical and yet entirely believable. It is easy to feel for them. It is also easy to wish for a ride into sunset with them.

Swarup delivers all that at the end of a roller coaster ride - part quiz show, part morality tale. Q And A may never make it to the prize lists but it will definitely sell and familiarise readers the world over about yet another aspect of India.
It may not be about the most flattering parts, and Swarup may run into the same criticism as Satyajit Ray did about peddling Indian poverty, but what the heck, controversies always help.

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Eastwords-Kalyan Ray

‘Magic realism’ is getting boring

Vijay Nair

 In the beginning, there was Salman Rushdie. Or was he the beginning? Or was it Gunter Grass or Mulk Raj Anand or R K Narayan or G V Dasani. It does not really matter where the beginnings lie after a while.

What matters is that in the last two decades or so we have “Magic Realism” as far as Indian writings in English go. It is a genre that sells in the book shops of London and New York much like once upon a time Mills and Boons or the crime thrillers of James Hadley Chase sold in the bookshops of Bombay and Calcutta.

Kalyan Ray would obviously not be flattered by the comparison, but he is likely to agree with this reviewer on one count. Eventually it is all about the market.
So we have Eastwords, the debut novel from the Professor of English, more familiar to the denizens of Calcutta as the long distance spouse of Aparna Sen. Between correcting papers of American students, whose skills in spellings no doubt keep him awake on many nights, Ray, we learn penned this novel in one and a half years.

The trivia behind the novel is more attractive than what is contained between the covers and hence the long rumination before we get to the point of it all.
But what is the point of it all? We learn from another Bengali writer eulogising on the cover that it is a delightfully audacious book, “a rare example of literary cross dressing.” Hmmm…all Indian writers may be provincial. Some more than the others.

The point is after the first fifty pages, the reader tires of the laboured imagery (“the reed lattice of my dim hut amid the leopard chiaroscuro of the late day sun”) and starts hoping for the old fashioned plot. Unfortunately that is something that never arrives.

The book does have interesting characters. But the stunning cast of characters does not deliver. The only time the novel does appeal is when Ray illuminates the reader about history in a straight forward narration.

Like the onslaught on the ship with mostly women and children that Vasco da Gama and his men blow up with gun powder. Or Lord Clive’s suicide. He slit his own throat with a pen knife that the eighteenth century gentlemen used to sharpen their quill pens. “We all write our own histories, one way or another,” Ray concludes. That is well said. But then that is about all in a novel spanning two hundred and forty nine pages in the paperback edition.

We all love to hate Rushdie, including the clerics. But part of the reason why we hate the man is because he is so brilliant.

The ground beneath his feet maybe somewhat tenuous of late, but that may not matter because he has carved his name in dazzling gold in the literary history of all times. And while the countless imitations of the magic realism bit may flatter Rushdie, it only serves to deceive the irate reader.

The blurb on the cover has some truth in it after all. The book is an example of literary cross dressing. Like all cross dressers, it is striking at first. But once you have chuckled at the strangeness of it all, Eastwords is unfortunately that word that all writers dread - boring.

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Babyji- Abha Dawesar


A tale of morality

Vijay Nair

Babyji may not hold any appeal to many of the readers of Deccan Herald. Especially those who hail from south Bangalore and like their novels to be imbued with hues of what is traditionally considered literary. It may make them indignant and even angry to read this novel. This review is not meant for them.

They are welcome to skip this treatise on a post modernist feminist deconstructionist novel doused with liberal doses of kinky sex. As a statutory warning, it may be worthwhile to state here that this group of readers should stay away from anything connected with this book.

Anamika Sharma, the protagonist of Abha Dawesar’s novel is someone we are all familiar with. She was with us in school. On the day you wore unwashed socks to school, she towered above you, all gleaming teeth and starched skirt as the head prefect, asking you to take off your shoes, so that she could inspect whether you had cut your toe nails.

You cursed her under your breath and told your best friend that it was some kind of perversion on her part rather than the call of duty that made her do these things. Anamika is not a victim of circumstances. She is the circumstance that defines the schizophrenic ambience of Delhi and by extension urban India. She is deliberately cast in the Lolitasque mode. She comfortably walks the landmine zone of adolescence while others get blown up. She has the classic survival lesson up her sleeve– Rape them before they rape you.

She would rest not in a morality tale but in a sexy subversive film by Almodover. She is as controversial as “Tie me up, tie me down” is. She does everything that social mores dictate she should not do. She seduces an older woman. She molests her somewhat naïve same sex classmate and in the process betrays her best friend who is a boy. Too bad for the best friend. He should have known that in the context he is in, there could be no allowance for growing up.

She leads on the preying pedophile father of her classmate. She exercises her power over the lower cast house servant and the lower cast local bad boy. She is game to destroy a fair number of lives because it is her rites of passage story. And at the end of it, she slips on her most comfortable pair of jeans and leaves for America to study. Preferably an Ivy League. Anamika is the affluent class of India. There’s lots of sex in the book. But anyone who read Dawesar’s debut novel Three of Us about a man having affairs (read graphic sex!) with his boss and the boss’s wife simultaneously should be prepared for it. Dawesar knows a lot about sex. Much more than Shobaa De does. And gratifyingly enough she writes about it much more self assuredly. These may not be good reasons to read Babyji. However what is a good reason is Dawesar knows how intrinsically sex is related to politics. Of gender, sexuality and the nation.

Dawesar seems to be clever as well as wicked. That’s what her books indicate. They titillate only to deceive. They make you feel guilty. Not just because one tends to read them in one gulp, wondering all the while what the next sexy bit is going to contain, but because of the bitter aftermath. For not having been able to see what the book was trying to say all along– that sex is not always about a pleasurable act.

The devastation it can leave behind is every bit as scary as the tsunami. So finally Babyji is a morality tale. A morality that is far more contemporary


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Plays


Aapki Soniya

A fitting Sequel

Vijay Nair

Amrita is dead. Zulfikar Hyder still writes her letters because that was the last thing she had asked of him. He does not expect replies from her. The dead after all prefer silence. But someone writes letters to him from a distant land. He does not know the intruder. The letters are full of recriminations. They accuse him. They mock him. They heckle him. His old world graciousness couched behind a tired humour is of no help in countering the poison pen.

He tries persuasion and then barely concealed irritation. When they fail he falls back on old-fashioned threats to force his adversary’s hands. Thus unfolds Aapki Soniya, the sequel to the critically acclaimed Tumhari Amrita, which was staged in the City on May 13.

The sets appear to be a little more elaborate. The chairs on which the actors sit a little more comfortable. But one thing remains unchanged. Javed Siddiqi’s lines are as poignant as ever. They leap out of the letters as little gems. At times they plead with the incoherence of hurts long stifled. At times they flare up like little flames scorching the audience. At times they sooth like fresh raindrops after a scorching summer. But at all times they have a life of their own and make their presence felt like an invisible third character on stage.

The play is a different kind of love story between an old man, who lives a twilight existence, and a young woman wanting to be consumed by her own hatred. They both have a story to tell - about lost opportunities, about an innocence snatched away early, about songs long forgotten. And Sidiqi’s script takes the audience on a journey even though the actors on stage don’t move.

Deftly, through the highly personal letters, the play offers a commentary on the socio-political fabric of the nation - on politicians who don’t see anything beyond opportunities, on literary giants long forgotten, on the legacy of hatred the colonizers left behind. It is a master at work, helped no doubt by the intrinsic grace and beauty of the Urdu language itself.

Farooque Sheikh is dependably bankable. He is too consummate an actor to be troubled by technical glitches. The errant sound system did not deter him. But trying to set it right during interval seemed to have exhausted the actor. The performance suffered a little bit in the second half. On the other hand, Sonali Bendre’s lack of stage experience was evident at first. She flinched every time the microphones groaned. Her hand movements were jerky. But strangely enough just when one is tempted to give up on her, she embarks on the painful treacherous journey only the very experienced or the very brave actor embarks on stage to become the character.

When she signs off, the pain and pathos she transmits are as real as the tears she sheds. It may not be well crafted, but her performance comes from the heart. It is moving enough to be a reminder of the haunting lines Shabana Azmi delivered as Amrita - ‘Badi ajeeb si baat hai. Haveli wale yaad nahin aate. Haveli bahut yaad aati hai.’ (How strange it is. One doesn’t remember the residents, but the memory of that house continues to haunt me). Aapki Soniya just like Tumhari Amrita is the quest for the warmth of a home and the security of relationships. For once, the sequel matches the original.


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Theatre from other lands

 Vijay Nair

Nandikar, a 40-year-old theatre group from Kolkata, has visited Bangalore a number of times in recent years. They were back recently with three productions, two of which were performed for the ongoing national theatre festival at Rangashankara.

The first play, staged by the group on November 5, was at Ambedkar Bhavan for the Bengali Association. A musical based on poet Jasimuddin’s Sojon Badiyar Ghat was remarkable for the manner it was conceptualised as well as executed.

Jasimuddin was a disciple of Nazrul, whose poetry and songs are an integral part of the Bengali cultural fabric. Legend has it that the proponents of modern Bengali poetry were reluctant to confer the status of poem to the simple, unsophisticated lyrics of Jasimuddin, until Rabindra Nath Tagore came out staunchly in his support stating “such pure and honest poetry cannot emerge from a pen that does not have a natural flair for writing.”

Nandikar’s interpretation of the poet’s verse tale did ample justice to the timeless quality of the written work. The literature is 80 years old, but the concerns raised by it remain as topical as ever. Sojon Badiyar Ghat tells the tale of love between a Muslim boy, Sajan and a Hindu girl, Duli. Their love affair sparks communal tension and the two elope. Fate plays a cruel twist. Sojon is imprisoned and Duli married off to a rich Hindu zamindar. After a passage of time, they meet again, only to give up their lives on the banks of a river.

Having a cast of over 35, the chorus of singers and dancers are as significant as the lead played with great verve and conviction by Gautam Halder and Sohini Haldar. A production like this lends itself to a lot of stylisation and director Rudra Prasad Sengupta does ample justice.

Over the weekend, Nandikar performed a double bill at Ranga Shankara - Meghnad Badh Kabya and Shanu RoyChowdhury to a more cosmopolitan audience. Shanu RoyChowdhury is an adaptation in Bengali, English and Hindi of Willy Russel’s classic play about the redemption of a Liver Pool housewife, Shirley Valentine. The play has seen numerous avatars across the world and has also been made into an Academy nominated film. The adaptation is very basic - Shanu like Shirley is confined to an existence where her only emotional anchors are the walls of her kitchen.

Only the setting has changed to Kolkata. She fries luchi and makes aloo dum instead of egg and chips. She goes for a holiday to Kathmandu instead of Greece. The simplicity of the adaptation also works against it. When Shanu meets her hooker friend over coffee in a cafe, a false note is struck. The sense of unreality is compounded as the play progresses. Which Indian housewife would risk standing at the window of her house and yell to her daughter that she is going for a holiday just to have sex with her lover. This is not to say that Indian housewives are any less oppressed than their counterparts anywhere in the world. But surely the context is different and so are the modes of expression.

It leads the viewer to a fundamental question - Is it fair for great works of literature to be decontextualised and offered to a foreign audience under the guise of an adaptation? Shanu RoyChowdhury is redeemed in the final analysis by the performance of Swatilekha Sengupta. She is brilliant, playing it with the right mix of pathos and humour. Together with Willy Russell, she gives the audience a character they can go home with.

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