Thursday, February 28, 2008

Sulk factory

Ramachandra Guha writes on V S Naipaul in the Hindustan Times:

In the middle of last year I was asked to review Naipaul’s new book, A Writer’s People. I found it a disappointing and at times even obnoxious book. He could not, it seems, mention another writer without putting him down (thus Philip Larkin was dismissed as a “minor poet”, and Derek Walcott accused of insinuating himself into the good books of the Americans). The subliminal and at times open message of this silly little book was: Once there was Mahatma Gandhi, who transcended the boundaries of caste, religion, and nation to become a Universal Being. After him came VS Naipaul, who did likewise. In between lay a barren desert of under-achievement.

Referring to his early novels and the brilliant non-fiction books of his middle period, Guha says that VS Naipaul did enough to count as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. But, he says, his more recent works are another matter altogether: "They are unmemorable; lacking in warmth and empathy, and in insight and understanding as well. The once great writer has become a pompous bore."

What explains it?

How to explain this discrepancy between the early/middle Naipaul and the late Naipaul? A publisher friend attributes it all to the Nobel. This greatly esteemed and cherished prize, he tells me, is the kiss of death for the creative writer. There has been a perceptible decline in the quality of the novels published by JM Coetzee after he won the Nobel Prize. Even Naipaul’s great contemporary and rival, Derek Walcott, has not published much good poetry after being dignified by the award. Naipaul’s later trajectory is of a piece with this trend, with the caveat that in his case it has been a descent not so much into banality as into vanity.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Three cheers for Bardem and the Coens

In Sunday's Oscars, Javier Bardem's win was a certainty. I had seen the film, No Country for Old men, only last Friday and everything was fresh in my mind: I could not stop thinking about the character played by Javier Bardem in that twisted western. I kept wondering about the scenes that I had seen with near apnea, how the Coens had worked out every minor detail (the shot where the crumpled piece of a polybag unwinds itself, and nothing else moves in the mis en scene) in the film, how the sheriff was being outfoxed by this mysterious and ghostly criminal in a changing world. I was enthralled by the nihilistic vision of the directors. I will never forget the humourless dignified baddie (Bardem) in this film, who is even better than the Bill in Kill Bill.

Update: The New Yorker's David Denby describes the work as "lethal cool." Yes, that's the right expression I guess. Read the first two paras of his article on the Coen brothers and their works, and he says, in precise words, the words and images that I wanted to capture as my own reaction to No Country for Old Men.

The Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” casts an ominous and mournful spell from the first shot. Over scenes of a desolate West Texas landscape, an aging sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones), ruminating on the new viciousness of crime, says that he’s not afraid of dying. But, he adds, “I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard.” Without transition, we see Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), an odd-looking man in a modified Prince Valiant haircut, murder first a deputy sheriff, then a stranger whose car he needs. (He strangles the deputy and shoots the stranger with some sort of gun attached to what looks like an oxygen tank.) The movie jumps again, to Llewelyn, an early-morning hunter (Josh Brolin) who’s out in the desert tracking antelope. In the distance, he sees five pickup trucks arrayed in a rough circle and some dead bodies lying on the ground. He moves in slowly, rifle held low. His attentiveness is so acute that it sharpens our senses, too.


Islam and terrorism

A recent gathering of Indian Muslims declared terrorism un-Islamic. They should have done it a long time ago, but as the saying goes, der aayad durust aayad (it is never too late):

A large gathering of Muslim scholars representing different schools of thoughts and Muslims organizations unanimously declared that terrorism has no place in Islam and all terror activities are un-Islamic.

The anti-terrorism conference organized by Darul Uloom Deoband and attended by about 10,000 scholars from all over India issued a declaration at the end of the conference, here today. "Killing of innocents is not compatible with Islam. It is anti-Islamic," read the declaration.

Declaration stated that "Islam is a religion of mercy for all humanity. Islam sternly condemns all kinds of oppression, violence and terrorism. It has regarded oppression, mischief, rioting and murder among severest sins and crimes."

Various fatwas have been issued in the past against terrorism but this is the first time that such a large gathering of scholars have came out strongly against terrorism. This is also a first attempt to define terrorism in light of Islam.


Another piece of interesting news:

Here's something for Maharashtra Navanirman Sena's Raj Thackeray as well as his uncle and inspiration, the founder of Shiv Sena, Bal Thackeray, to chew on: If class X students from across the country were to take a common exam, who would perform the best?

Believe it or not, students from Bihar's madrassa board would stand high, second only to students of the ICSE board in Delhi.

Comparing the performance of educational boards across India, the HRD ministry has just released a report on student performance in various states in class X.

The results have the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examination in Delhi topping with the highest pass percentage of 94.3%, followed by Bihar State Madrassa Board with a success rate of 91.4%. The Central Board of Secondary Education, Delhi, stands third with a pass percentage of 86.4%.


Saturday, February 23, 2008

Life of a blog post

Have you ever wondered what happens to your blog post once you have posted it online?

Came across this interesting infographic in Wired magazine, that will show you what happens to your blog post after you have clicked "publish post" on your blog:

You have a blog. You compose a new post. You click Publish and lean back to admire your work. Imperceptibly and all but instantaneously, your post slips into a vast and recursive network of software agents, where it is crawled, indexed, mined, scraped, republished, and propagated throughout the Web. Within minutes, if you've written about a timely and noteworthy topic, a small army of bots will get the word out to anyone remotely interested, from fellow bloggers to corporate marketers...

Fun stuff. Check it out.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Listening To Grasshoppers

In my most recent post, I was talking about Arundhati Roy and how she was discovered by lit agent David Godwin. Today I want to talk about her in the light of one of her essays on Genocide, a hair raising piece on what's happening in India in the name of progress and unity (two of the key words used by her in the essay), especially with reference to India's poor (which includes the adivasis and Muslims).

Whenever I think of her, I think of former President Kalam's book title: An Ignited Mind. Arundhati fits that description to a tee.

In the essay, Listening To Grasshoppers , she proposes that
Genocide, Denial And Celebration go hand in hand, that it's an old human habit, genocide, that it's a search for lebensraum, project of Union and Progress:

The day I arrived in Istanbul, I walked the streets for many hours, and as I looked around, envying the people of Istanbul their beautiful, mysterious, thrilling city, a friend pointed out to me young boys in white caps who seemed to have suddenly appeared like a rash in the city. He explained that they were expressing their solidarity with the child-assassin who was wearing a white cap when he killed Hrant.

The battle with the cap-wearers of Istanbul, of Turkey, is not my battle, it's yours. I have my own battles to fight against other kinds of cap-wearers and torchbearers in my country. In a way, the battles are not all that different. There is one crucial difference, though. While in Turkey there is silence, in India there's celebration, and I really don't know which is worse.

She even criticises the Amitabh Bachchan video, a campaign to inspire people to leave behind the "constraining ghosts of the past". To choose optimism over pessimism. The superstar says in the video: "There are two Indias in this country."

One India is straining at the leash, eager to spring forth and live up to all the adjectives that the world has been recently showering upon us. The Other India is the leash.

To her, this is an example of a "counterfeit universe".

Then, she dissects it:

It tells us that the rich don't have a choice (There Is No Alternative), but the poor do. They can choose to become rich. If they don't, it's because they are choosing pessimism over optimism, hesitation over confidence, want over hope. In other words, they're choosing to be poor. It's their fault. They are weak. (And we know what the seekers of lebensraum think of the weak.) They are the 'Constraining Ghost of the Past'. They're already ghosts.

"Within an ongoing counterfeit universe," Robert Jay Lifton says, "genocide becomes easy, almost natural."


You may agree or disagree with her views but this essay is a must read if you haven't already.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

This agent is more cool than James Bond

His motto is: Rob the publisher and enrich the writer. many writers love him. And for the aspiring writers, he is the god of many big things.

He is the one who got the spunky Arundhati Roy's first book out and created a publishing sensation.

He is David Godwin, the legendary lit agent, the literay Robin Hood, as this Mint article describes him.

But apparently, he started small. When he got Roy in his stable of writers, he says he just had a table and chair in his office and nothing else. He took the next flight out to India to meet her and sign her up (perhaps, worried, had she seen him in his lacklustre office, she might have changed her mind):

After he was fired by Aitken in 1995, Godwin decided to set up an eponymous agency with his wife, Heather, looking after the business side. A friend who was a shipping agent offered him a desk and a phone at his office. “I was in my early 40s. I had no money. No salary. I had to live off what I had sold,” recalls Godwin.

Then everything changed. Godwin’s friend Patrick French (who would go on to write Liberty or Death) dropped by. “Patrick told me that Pankaj Mishra (then working for HarperCollins) had told him about a manuscript he had come across which was ‘the biggest thing since Midnight’s Children’,” says Godwin. It was written by a woman nobody had heard of. Her name was Arundhati Roy.

The manuscript arrived the same day. Later that night, half-way through The God of Small Things, Godwin made a call across the world. He loved the book, he told Roy. He was taking the first flight out to meet her.

A bemused Roy told Godwin to calm down, finish the manuscript and then call her back, if he was still interested.

Two days later, Godwin was flying out to a country he had never before visited—an event that has become so much a part of the folklore surrounding The God of Small Things that it is sometimes referred to simply as the “dash”.

But Godwin is less romantic about that dash and says with a sense of pragmatism: “I only had a desk in London. I thought it would be better for me to see her in India.”

There are two new things here, at least for me. I had read that Pankaj Mishra himself had called up Godwin. Turns out no, not him, it was through Patrick French that Godwin came to know of Roy's manuscript. Also, what is intriguing is that if the book was so good, and it was as time would prove, why didn't Pankaj buy it for Harper Collins for whom he was working at that time (am I right?).

"It was written by a woman nobody had heard of. Her name was Arundhati Roy." Well, I had heard of her. In fact, I had read one of her pieces, in the then Vir Shanghvi edited mag, SUNDAY. She had written protesting against Shekhar Kapur making a film on the life of India's bandit queen. The lady was always a fighter, and courted controversy right from the beginnning. I hope I am not getting the timeline wrong here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Yeh hai Mumbai meri jaan

When I see pictures like this coming from India, I feel angry at the atavistic nature of our politics in my motherland. So much progress, yet regressive ideas like provincialism (and casteism and communalism...) are still potent enough to move some elements of the society to hooliganism. Anand Giridharadas reports:

It was just another cosmopolitan Sunday in this city by the sea.

Tie-clad men and women in floral hats, dressed like English gentry at Ascot, streamed into the race course in Mumbai for the Indian Derby. They air-kissed. They sipped Champagne. They ogled visiting Brazilian samba dancers. Then they settled into their seats to watch a colt named Hotstepper gallop to victory and a $200,000 prize.

But as many of them returned to the suburbs on the afternoon of Feb. 3, they bumped into a traffic jam whose origins could not have been more remote from the glamorous, globalized Mumbai they inhabit. The roads had clogged because squads of local political cadres were beating migrants from northern India in the latest explosion of nativist violence in this city, inspired on this occasion by a rightist politician named Raj Thackeray.

Mumbai is a city of open arms. More than any other South Asian city, it has lured Muslims, Jews, Christians, Parsees and Hindus, aspiring taxi drivers and wannabe actresses, and melted them into an industrious whole. In a certain elite realm, freedom reigns; women dance on tables in nightclubs, and gays and lesbians flock once a month to a rather uncloseted party called Gay Bombay.

But Mumbai is also, today, teetering between its tradition of liberality and new tendencies toward intolerance.

In recent years, activists have driven into exile famous artists who offend them, closed down museum exhibitions and agitated to have movies banned. A minority of upper-caste Hindus has lobbied to cordon off whole sections of Mumbai as vegetarian zones, effectively excluding Muslims. And now politicians have revived a perennial cause: ridding Mumbai of migrants.

"There is increasing evidence that the pluralist foundations of this country, which are guaranteed by the Constitution, are being subverted by narrow-minded, sectarian zealots," Jug Suraiya, one of the most widely read columnists in India, wrote last week.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

India’s first international movie stars?

Looks like Anupama Chopra's (who recently did the biography of Shah Rukh Khan) next book will be on Aishwarya Rai.

Just as Jodhaa Akbar is poised to release this Friday, she has penned a cross-over piece on Aish and her co-star, Hrithik Roshan, in the NYT. She describes the two stars in a special way: "Both actors, to steal the phrase Pauline Kael invented to describe Michelle Pfeiffer, are “paradisically beautiful,” and are consummate superstars. With their ethnically indeterminate looks and impeccable English, Ms. Bachchan and Mr. Roshan could be India’s first international movie stars."

Here's the intro which is as dramatic as it gets:

LAST October Aishwarya Bachchan grappled with a tough choice. The Bollywood star could either stay in Los Angeles to pursue a lead role in Will Smith’s new film, “Seven Pounds,” or she could return home to Mumbai to celebrate Karva Chauth, a daylong ceremonial fast that some married Hindu women observe as a prayer for their husband’s health and long life. (The observance is a new one for Ms. Bachchan; in April she married Abhishek Bachchan, an actor and the son of the Indian film star Amitabh Bachchan, a union that prompted Time magazine to describe the three as “Bollywood’s Father, Son and Holy Babe.”)

Ultimately Ms. Bachchan chose to return to Mumbai and starve with a smile. National television channels covered her first Karva Chauth as headline news. Two months later she shrugged off her loss in an interview. “You do what you have to do,” she said. “Feeling torn and thereby unhappy, confused or guilty is not something I want to feel. So you make your choices and go with it. You get some and some you don’t.”


Monday, February 11, 2008

Eastern promises

The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East (Book)
By Kishore Mahbubani

Waving Goodbye to Hegemony (Essay)
by Parag Khanna in the NYT

Is India a superpower or will it become one, along with China, as America's status wanes in the coming time?

While some have no doubts about it, others are not very sure.

Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore's and one of Asia's best-known diplomats (dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore), argues in his new book, “The New Asian Hemisphere” that China and India (with Japan) will emerge (are already emerging) as the new superpowers and America needs to cede power to these Asian giants through sensible steps such as: "Chinese and Indian membership of the G8; an end to American and European hogging of the top jobs at the IMF and the World Bank; reform of the UN Security Council to give permanent, veto-holding status to more Asian countries."

The problem, however, is that, argues Mahbubani, the West (America and western Europe, plus Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and, more controversially, Japan)—has become so used to dominating and controlling the world to serve its own interests that it has ceased to recognise even that it does so. “If you deny you are in power, you cannot cede power,” he argues.

The Economist, in its review of the book, says that "Mr Mahbubani's Asian triumphalism is as futile and unconvincing as the Western triumphalism he deplores." It finds a lot of issues with Mahbubani's arguments. Here's more.

Now the other view.

Just a few days ago, I had read this seminal essay by Parag Khanna in the NYT in which he argues that India won't be a superpower in the new world order (Waving Goodbye to Hegemony):

At best, America’s unipolar moment lasted through the 1990s, but that was also a decade adrift. The post-cold-war “peace dividend” was never converted into a global liberal order under American leadership. So now, rather than bestriding the globe, we are competing — and losing — in a geopolitical marketplace alongside the world’s other superpowers: the European Union and China. This is geopolitics in the 21st century: the new Big Three. Not Russia, an increasingly depopulated expanse run by; not an incoherent Islam embroiled in internal wars; and not India, lagging decades behind China in both development and strategic appetite. The Big Three make the rules — their own rules — without any one of them dominating. And the others are left to choose their suitors in this post-American world.

I am sure the arguments are not over yet, and in time, the speculations will be out of the way if India joins an expanded G8 or the UN's security council as a veto-power-wielding permanent member.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Making an advance

I recently read this article in the Outlook magazine that enthusiastically talks about The Big Fat Indian Advance (Words worth millions).

Sheela Reddy mentions all the hefty advances Indian publishers are doling out to writers like Nandan Nilekani, Dev Anand and Amitav Ghosh these days:

Something funny is going on in the famously tight-fisted circle of Indian publishers. For the past few months, they have been punting dizzily on manuscripts by untried Indian authors, coughing up millions of rupees in advance royalties. The buzz about the boom in Indian advances has spread so fast that publishers and literary agents heading West with Indian manuscripts are swerving right back home, demanding five and six-figure dollar advances that rival those in the UK or Europe.

Here's a list of authors and their chunky advances (Thanks Saja).

Palash Mehrotra - The Butterfly Generation - $20,000 (Rs 8 lakh)
Aravind Adiga - The White Tiger - $35,000 (Rs 14 lakh)
Tarun Tejpal - The Story Of My Assassins - Rs 22 lakh
Dev Anand - Romancing With Life - Rs 15 lakh
Nandan Nilekani - Imagining India - $35,000 (Rs 14 lakh)
Amitav Ghosh - Sea Of Poppies Trilogy - $110,000 (Rs 44 lakh)
Tony D’Souza - The Konkans - Four to Five thousand pounds (Rs 3-4 lakh)
Shrabani Basu - Victoria & Abdul - $16,000 (Rs 6.3 lakh)

Interestingly, as SAJA has noted, Tarun Tejpal's Indian advance was larger than what he reportedly was offered by an Italian publisher. And for literary fiction, $20,000 to $30,000 for a first time author, even in the U.S., is nothing to sneeze at.

Apparently, the increased advances are generating great buzz. For example, a bidding war broke out over rights to Aravind Adiga's (photo, above) White Tiger. Harper Collins finally won. I am not surprised. Arvinda is a high profile guy: he was (?) a book reviewer for the Time magazine. And a good writer.

The episode on the competition for rights to Amitav Ghosh's trilogy is also very interesting: "Ghosh's agent, Barney Karpfinger, asked the six major rival houses here to not only read the manuscript of the first in the trilogy, Sea of Poppies, but demanded a presentation from each of them: on editing, marketing and positioning on their lists. After that, the bids. It was perhaps the most fiercely fought bidding war on Indian soil for an Indian book, soaring to new and unprecedented heights. It closed—or rather, was brought artificially to a close—somewhere in the region of 1,10,000 dollars (Rs 44 lakh). For the first time, the winning bid was slightly lower than the losing one. After a point, as the winning publisher, Ravi Singh of Penguin, puts it, "It's not only about money, but what you bring to the table in terms of editing and marketing."

Reasons cited for this leap in advances are the changing market conditions brought on by a middle class readership of some 300 million people, along with higher prices for some books. Though I am not sure about this middle class surge thing (as a research paper by two MIT economists, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, cited in The Economist, has shown how even a shopkeeper with a few bars of soap and some other basic stuff on the racks qualifies to be a part of this so called Indian middle class), I think it was time the advances caught up with India's working class's salary rises and inflation. Ten years ago, people who were earning Rs 10,000 are now earning 5 to ten times more in the metros. This change needed to be reflected in the book industry. Moreover, as a young aspiring India gets better educated (a large chunk of the Indian population is under 25 and getting literate), demand for books will grow (with growing disposable income). That's why foreign firms have set up businesses in India. Good for Indian writers.


Read on rising advances for homegrown talent in "The Dollar-Rupee Conversion:"

In theory, the growth of bookchains and at least seven major publishers in the trade should mean fierce auctions for new books by authors based here. But, in practice, it's mostly diaspora writers who are rushing in to fill the gap. For instance, Singapore-based writer Preeta Samarasan's novel, Evening is the Whole Day, got publishers here into a bidding war. HarperCollins finally bagged the manuscript at around Rs 3 lakh.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Race in the centre

Hanif Kureishi, discussing the social influences on The Buddha of Suburbia , talks about the influence his novel exerted on the literary scene:

Cyril Connolly once said that if a book you've written is still in print 10 years after it was published, it's an achievement, so at least I've managed that. But I guess also that when The Buddha of Suburbia, My Beautiful Laundrette and Midnight's Children appeared, they opened the door for multiculturalism. Writers who in former times were thought to be marginal began to enter the mainstream. Whereas before you only heard English names, you began to hear Rushdie, Kureishi, Mo, Ishiguro - and it became clear that race and its ramifications were to be the central issue of our time.


Friday, February 08, 2008

Twilight of the books?

I have often wondered about this: most of my friends, who are not into writing or journalism, hardly read books. If they ever would, it would be Who Moved My Cheese or Blink kind of books, which gives them instant gyan and practical advice about life or careers. Women who used to read books or magazines have had their attention taken up by the soaps. Men have their gadgets, DVDs, video games or the gym, then they would head for the bar to talk about soccer or cricket.

In India, because there is a large, educated young population, even if only a few people are reading, it looks like a big market. There is a lot of excitement about this market, aided by the constant rise of new writers (mini-celebs) but most others feel the frustration. A friend of mine recently wrote to me:

"The more I interact with editors etc here and see the kind of new authors getting published, it seems to me that publishing fiction is a totally commercial venture. A 'product' is packaged for marketing, depending on what the publisher thinks will sell. A couple of professional editors candidly told me that many of these new writers submit manuscripts with major anomalies in plot, characters etc, and dont care about changing names of the hero halfway through the story even. I also get the feeling that the Indian scouts want ad jingles and blurbs, the catchier the better. They dont seem to have the patience to carefully read two pages of real writing.
Dwindling attention spans, I'm afraid."

I think this dwindling attention span thing is true, at least in the case of most readers/should-be readers today. I am sure you know about the theory of fractured attention. Google it if you don't.

Apparently, something nasty (am being lazy here) is happening in America in this regard. Let me quote this piece of fact from The New Yorker: "Americans are losing not just the will to read but even the ability. According to the Department of Education, between 1992 and 2003 the average adult's skill in reading prose slipped one point on a 500-point scale, and the proportion who were proficient -- capable of such tasks as "comparing viewpoints in two editorials" -- declined from 15% to 13."

Not just that, here is one more terrible piece of stats: Only 40%of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. But in reality, it could be even less: say 27%, argues Mike Elgan. But there is something far more worrying.

In Will cell phones save books? Mike Elgan says: "To me, even more alarming than the loss of reading skill -- and probably related to it -- is that many young people have lost interest in books."

Moot point:

I don't have the data to back this up, but I'm convinced that young people today are reading more than any other generation in history. By that I mean they're passing their eyes over and "processing" more words. But the words are coming in the form of IMs, text messages, blogs, social networking messages and other nonbook material. They gravitate to this not because it's trash, but because it's participatory. They're reading as part of a dialog that involves writing.

"Literacy" isn't about passively reading, it's about reading and writing. If we want to increase the reading of books, we'll need to figure out how to increase the writing of books, especially novels.


How? What do you think?

Monday, February 04, 2008


I had suggested Deepika and Chris Mooney Singh to host a book show on the internet: either as a podcast or a webcast. But now the idea has taken an American birth (and I have nothing to do with it). It is well worth doing it here though:

Daniel Menaker, who left his post as executive editor in chief of the Random House Publishing Group in June, is moving online in March to be the host of a new Web-based book show.

Daniel Menaker is to be the host of “Titlepage,” an online show.
The show, to be called “Titlepage,” will feature a round-table discussion between Mr. Menaker, 66, a former fiction editor at The New Yorker, and a group of four authors. The first episode will be streamed online at on March 3. The idea is to take advantage of the fact that it’s much easier to post video online than to get a show on television.

“Titlepage” will combine elements of “Apostrophes,” a popular French literary program; “The Charlie Rose Show” on public television; and “Dinner for Five,” in which a group of actors discussed their craft, on the Independent Film Channel.