Thursday, January 26, 2006

Two new articles

Here are two new articles:

Raising the Asian Flag: Asian filmmakers rebel against Hollywood

AMU at the Crossroads

Enjoy and send me your comments!

(Photograph: Zafar Anjum)

Monday, January 09, 2006

Meeting Ustaad Zakir Hussain

Ustaad Zakir Hussain is one of the most charismatic musicians of India. I had seen him act in movies, or playing the tabla on tv, or promoting Taj Mahal tea in commercials. But nothing beats the experience of meeting the man in person.

Jan 8. Sunday. Noon. I reached the New Age Indigo Bar in Boat Quay braving the incessant rain. Ustaad Zakir Hussain was to meet the presswallahs there. He was on his way to the USA where he was teaching music at the Princeton University.

The Ustaad is holding a major show "Kaleidoscope of Rhythms" (World Fusion Music) on Feb. 5, 2006 (7: 30 pm) at the Esplanade Concert Hall. The show will also feature percussionists and musicians such as Terry Bozzio, Giovanni Hidalgo, U Shrinivas (Mandolin), Fazal Qureshi (Tabla), Salim Merchant (Keyboard), Vijay Chauhan (Dholki), and Kala Ramnath (Violin).

The press meet was meant to brief the journos about the show. The turn out was good--who could resist the charm of Zakir Hussain, even on a rainy day.

From the moment he burst into the room (an informal setting of low laying Indian style furniture), Zakir Saheb took over the scene. After personally meeting everyone, he started talking about the gig and the musicians. His talk was so lively and so full of erudition, and at the same time, he was able to present his knowledge and his sense of Indian music in such a simple manner that I was thoroughly bewildered. He was articulate like a professor. No wonder he is teaching at an Ivy League university.

His talk ranged from his own musical inspirations to Bollywood and Hollywood music. I will write about it in a different piece. But from the discussion, I am sure the Feb gig in Singapore is going to be a mind-blowing experience. Those who cannot come to Singapore can catch the ensemble at Bombay and Dubai around the same time. Not to be missed. (Tickets are on sale through SISTIC Hotline and outlest islandwise)

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Interest in Indian authors declining?

Meet novelist Vikram Chandra, after a long time, here. He is off with his beard now. He took many years to hit the bookstands again. His last book was a collection of short stories, Love and Longing in Bombay.

For his new novel, loosely based on the Bombay mafia, he got a million dollar advance and naturally hit the headlines.

In this interview, here answers at least two interesting questions:

Do you think that getting a huge advance puts pressure on a writer to "perform"?

I'm mostly done with the book, so in this case no. I'm very grateful but finally it is an external event I have to keep at a distance in the same way you maintain a distance from reviews or praise. Because your job finally is to imagine and you do your storytelling because you love to and want to. If it interferes with you sitting alone in front of the blank screen then it is damaging.

Despite there being many more Indians writing in English, why is there lesser interest in the West in Indian authors?

No, I don't think there is a real decline. May be they've just got over the initial bubble. The excitement that happened in the late 1990s with people in the West getting very excited and publishers pouring money into one or two books; that kind of artificial or frenzied bubble inevitably flattens out. I think what is happening now is that there is a constancy and at least I see in the United States more people than ever reading Indian authors.

For more, go to The Hindu website.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Patna Roughcut/Siddharth Chowdhury

These days, apart from Chetan Bhagat and Samit Basu, one more name is doing the rounds of the litblog world in India. The name is Siddharth Chowdhury. The cause: his debut novel, Patna Roughcut (Picador).

First about the novel. And I quote from Kolkata's The Telegraph:

Patna Roughcut (Picador, Rs 250) by Siddharth Chowdhury is about nothing in particular. Ritwik Ray is a small-time reporter in Patna, and recounts nostalgically his growing-up amid the Bengali diaspora in Patna colonies and Delhi University campuses. There is Harryda, his dreams in technicolour, Iladi who attained at 13 the wisdom “very few women attain even at menopause”. Then there are those typical years in college, full of love and idealism. And finally Mira Verma, who Ritwik meets again as wife of his professor. A rather tame start for a first novel.

Forget the last sentence. The book has received praise from reviewers such as Jabberwock and Hurree Babu. J wrote:

Patna Roughcut shows its hand early on; the very first paragraph of the book ends an overwrought analogy with the observation: "The poor shouldn’t dream. They can’t afford it." The remaining 180 pages are an illustration of this statement. Cynical though the idea is, it defines the lives of untold millions in this country - people who reach for greater intellect and "culture" and find that it destroys their pragmatism; that they are still unable to escape the vicious circle of their existence. Chowdhury’s achievement is that he filters this pessimistic worldview through a style that is tender, empathetic and even humorous when appropriate. This is crucial to the book’s success as a story of the aspirations and dashed hopes of young Indians caught between different worlds.

Being a fellow Bihari, I was intrigued as I did not know much about Siddharth. I wanted to.

I could connect with his book's theme as well and it sounded even a little familiar. My own first novel, Of Seminal Fluids, covered the similar ground of dream and reality, though with much less demonstrable success. I will admit that.

So, bending to my curiosity, I searched about Siddharth. This is what I found out about him:

Born in Patna in 1974, Siddharth Chowdhury earned an M A in English literature from Hindu college, University of Delhi before drifting into publishing. His stories have been published in The Brown Critique, Debonair, The Asian Age, The Sunday Observer and the Tehelka Literary Review among other places. He lives in Delhi and works as an editor with the house of Manohar. He is presently working on a short novel.

The Week has this to say about Siddharth:

Of the dozens of Indian writers in English whose debut novels are scheduled for publication in 2005, the one most likely to make a splash is Siddharth Chowdhury. His publishers, Picador, cannot stop talking about their lucky catch. Even Pankaj Mishra, not known for effusive compliments, raved about Chowdhury’s earlier collection of short stories for its brilliance in capturing "the bittersweet irony of our compromised modernity". The novel Patna Blues is being hailed as even better.

Chowdhury describes his own work as "charting the socio-political landscape of Patna and Bihar from the 1950s to the 1990s". As the newspapers testify daily, Bihar’s socio-political landscape is indeed tumultuous, but no English novel has so far sought to capture it. Chowdhury does so through the eyes and experiences of three men and two women who grow up in Patna during these four decades. But the book, says Chowdhury, is also about "literature and art, and the role they play in defining our lives".

Not surprisingly, Chowdhury himself grew up in Patna, though he presently lives in Delhi where, until recently, he worked with a publishing company. He began writing at 19 ("Rather late," he says, "most writers seem to start at 10 or earlier") but was soon publishing short stories in Indian and foreign publications. His first collection of stories, Diksha at St Martins, appeared two years ago to immense praise.

Before Patna Roughcut, he debuted with a collection of short stories, Diksha at St Martin's (Srishti).

As a fellow writer I wish him all the best and do look forward to reading his novel.

Naipaul's 'disguised' book rejected by Agents/Publishers

I first read it in Kitabkhana, and it amused me no end.

You take a famous manuscript (book) by a famous writer and send it out to agents/publishers with an unknown name for their kind consideration. Chances are they will not only not recognize the content (even Booker prize-winning content!), they will even reject it with complete professional sanity. It was done before with perhaps a Thackery or Dickens novel. I don't remember exactly. The Sunday Times has done it again like a sting operation:

Top novels in disguise rejected by publishers

THERE is no greater award for a writer than the Nobel prize for literature. Five years ago the accolade went to VS Naipaul in recognition of his 50-year writing career.

Naipaul, born in Trinidad, also won the 1971 Booker prize (now the Man Booker) in Britain, where he has lived since 1950. It was awarded for In a Free State, his novel about displaced colonials on different continents.

Dennis Potter, the TV dramatist, praised its “lucid complexity”. He wrote: “Do not miss the exhilaration of catching one of our most accomplished writers reaching towards the full stretch of his talent.”

Surely the special qualities of such timeless prose would be recognised by today’s publishing industry? Surely a first-time novelist who matched the standard of Naipaul at his best would be snapped up?

The Sunday Times sent out the opening chapter of In a Free State to 20 agents and publishers to find out. Only the names of the author and main characters were changed.

None of the agents or publishers spotted the book’s true pedigree. And instead of experiencing Potter’s exhilaration, they all sent back polite rejections.


Sunday, January 01, 2006

The box office heavyweight

I was all excited to see Peter Jackson's King Kong on the big screen (I had not seen the 1930's one) and when the sneak shows were announced, I bought a ticket and gleefully entered the movie-hall like a child.

King Kong! Oh, what a love triangle!

Peter Jackson has done a clever job. The film is a potent mixture of so many mise-en-scene seen earlier. It has Chicago (the struggle of an actress), Titanic (love blossoming on a ship), Jurassic Park (The island with the big lizards), and Godzilla (the big creature wreaking havoc in New York)--all rolled into a single snazzy package! The special effects are too good. The impact on the box office is, no wonder, gigantic.

Mangal Pandey--A wasted effort?

The year's biggest disappointment was Ketan Mehta's Mangal Pandey--The Rising. Amir had given four years of his life to this film and he famously grew a trademark sepoy moustache for this film. Despite all best intentions, the film lacks a narrative unity. The stoy being told through the ballad of Mangal Pandey does not work and the first few scenes are so disjointed, they are more like 'Episodes in the life of Mangal Pandey'. The problem is with the script. Mangal's character is not well-developed. We have not been given any glimpse into Mangal's personal life which is very important from the pov of character development. Amir and others have acted well. The second half is tauter but at the end of the film, one feels dissatisfied. Rahman's music is very good but has often been wasted in the film.

The New Year

Today is the first day of 2006 and I am writing my first post of the year. My new born daughter has practically kept me awake the whole night, and this morning only after quarter to six, when she was finally lulled to sleep, I could do some work. After that, this post. So welcome again and let me say it to you: Happy New Year!

First things first. Any new year resolutions? None. And I have not smoked for the past one week. Before that I had taken a smoking break for a while, in a smoking, non-smoking career spanning over a decade now. Writing-wise any new plans? Yes, sure. There is a novel ms to polish, and another ready to be written. The idea is ready and I should start writing a few paragraphs everyday from today onwards. Should. That's a dangerous word!

2005 was unique for me. I did not write a single short story. I started writing one and it is still unfinished. Was I trying to be a perfectionist? Maybe. You could say that. I want to achieve the kind of balance and beauty that I felt in Hemingway's The Indian Camp. I personally like stories that have both soul and brevity. Long short stories? I generally keep a distance from going to such lengths unless necessary.

The highlight of 2005 was the launch of I started it as a resource window on Asian writing in English. So far it has done fine. Some of my friends have been kind enough to support the site with content. I had expected many others to join me in this endeavour. At times I suffered disappointments. Turns out that people are not as interested in literature as in their own selves, which is understandable.

The Asia Pacific Writers Network also registered its presence in 2005. It is a great development for Asian writing.

The year gone by was strong in non-fiction. I did manage to write a few non-fiction pieces here and there. It was a great experience, especially working with some of the American editors. In 2005, I also read more of non-fiction than fiction. Here is a representative list:

Non-fiction: All the President's Men, Liberty or Death (Patrick French), The Idea of India (Sunil Khilnani), Maximum City, The Jaguar Smile, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Literary Occasions, Desperately Seeking Paradise, Holy War, The Crisis of Islam, The New Jackals, The Art of Fiction, Naked Woman, etc. (You could see a lot from my backlog)

Fiction: Shantaram, Woody Allen--The Complete Prose, The O.Henry Prize Stories 2003, The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, Tropic of Capricorn, Psychoraag, Transmission, Away, Be Cool, etc.

In movies, I must would have seen over 200 films this year (all languages, both new and old). This year's some of the best movie experiences were: Black, The Downfall (German), The 400 Blows (French), The Decalogue (Polish), Nine Queens (French), Madadayo (Japanese), Melinda and Melinda, Pather Panchali, How Green Was My Valley, In the Mood of Love (Chinese), Farewell, My Concubine (Chinese), Bunty Aur Bubly, Paheli, Sarkar, No Entry, Cyrano de Bergerec, Sideways, The Life Acquatic with Steve Zissou, King Kong, Main, Meri Patni Aur Woh, Spanglish, Maria Full of Grace, Man on Fire, etc.

Truffaut's The 400 Blows will remain an unforgettable film for me. Was it the precursor of all those great Iranian films?

I was really impressed with Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Black but when I saw The Miracle Worker, I lost some of the respect for the filmmaker, at least in terms of orginality. But to be fair to Bhansali, his work is glossier and he has taken the story foreward in his version of the Hellen Keller story.

Chandan Arora's Main Meri Patni Aur Woh is simply delecious. There is a Basu Chatterjee kind of old world charm here. Hazaroon Khwahishen Aisi was also remarkable. Chocolate was high class trash. How could Vivek Agnihotri shamelessly copy the supercool Usual Suspects? More than that, how could a talented actor like Irfan Khan agree to play Bollywood's version of Kevin Spacey? I am yet to see Maine Gandhi ko Nahin Mara but I hear it is really good. Apharan is also supposed to be good.

Hopefully, Bollywood would try to be more original in 2006. And there would be great novels to read. I am already running a huge backlog... God help me!