Prufrock's Page

Saturday, May 21, 2005


A ping-pong ball is hit by players from one end of the table to another. It often travels at high speeds, coming in contact with racquets, the table and sometimes, the floor. On occasion, it perches precariously on the net, before falling to one side. It is also not uncommon to find the ball spinning, thus changing trajectory after impact. This continues for the duration of several games, without abatement.

And that is how one feels after a week at work.

The New Harry Potter, However, Will Be Freely Available

Now that Lotus House Books is in irreversible free-fall, here's a partial list of forthcoming titles that one will not find it easy to lay one's hands on in Mumbai:.

- The Sea, John Banville

- Her Body Knows, David Grossman

- Lost In The Forest, Sue Miller

- Specimen Days, Michael Cunningham

- A History of the World in Six Glasses, David Standage

- Against Depression, Peter Kramer

On-line stores are always at hand, of course, but nothing beats the pleasure of venturing into a bookstore, finding a desired title reposing on a shelf and clutching it to one's bosom all the way home.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Strasbourg, Kashmir and The Ramayana

The Book Standard provides the first appraisal of Salman Rushdie's forthcoming Shalimar The Clown:

"A presumably political assassination that's in fact deeply "personal," the separate histories of the disputed territories of Strasbourg and Kashmir, and the classical Indian epic Ramayana are all ingeniously conflated and reimagined in Rushdie's dazzling ninth novel. It begins in 1993, when former U.S. Ambassador to India Maximilian Ophuls is murdered and nearly beheaded outside his Los Angeles home by his Muslim driver, who, the world will soon learn, is Kashmiri native Noman Sher Noman, a former traveling player and amateur acrobat known as "Shalimar the Clown." ... One parallel story is an extended flashback detailing Max's youth in war-torn Strasbourg, experiences as a Resistance hero and rise in the world of diplomacy. Other narratives recount Kashmir's ongoing victimization by Pakistan and India (notably, stiff-necked military leader Hammirdev Kachhawa and fanatical "iron mullah" Bulbul Fakh)... The pattern of the Ramayana—which recalls a hero's "war" waged against the "demon" who steals his beloved—is ingeniously reiterated when "Shalimar" fulfills his mission, eludes the sentence pronounced on him and confronts the woman who may or may not become his final victim... [A] magical-realist masterpiece that equals, and arguably surpasses, the achievements of Midnight's Children, Shame and The Moor's Last Sigh."

Equals and arguably surpasses the achievement of Midnight's Children? This, one would like to read.

A Likeable Unlikeable Character

A day after one wrote about Sherlock Holmes, The New York Times' Charles McGrath offers this rather workmanlike appreciation of Conan Doyle's fictional detective:

"Holmes, described by Conan Doyle as "the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen," isn't actually a particularly likable character, or even a very fully realized one. Raymond Chandler once remarked that Holmes "is mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue." He is languid, aloof, arrogant, supercilious and a bipolar druggie who in "The Sign of Four" is shooting up cocaine three times a day to overcome his lassitude. He has no friends other than Watson, and Mr. Lanza notwithstanding, he is almost certainly a virgin. In fact, there is something slightly inhuman about Holmes, though somehow that only adds to his appeal. We're fascinated by him, it seems, precisely because he is a kind of cipher, unlike anyone else we know or even have read about."


A recent report states that the Mumbai chapter of PEN, which had earlier been asked to vacate its premises on the ground floor of the United Lodge of Theosophists, is now going to be housed on the second floor of the same building.

This move, the report continues, will inject fresh life into the body: "PEN secretary Ranjit Hoskote says... that the PEN committee 'went through a lot of introspection' and has now inducted four new members in the executive committee. This, the PEN feels will save the literary body from going through a phase of 'inertia' that it underwent in the last nine months."

A renewed membership drive as well as a revival of their journal is on the cards. Ronita Torcato, one of the new members, adds: "The committee has decided to hold a memorial reading of Dom Moraes' poetry on June 6. It also plans to have more readings, discussions and novelists, writers and experts visiting PEN from time to time."

Given that the PEN committee members will have to take time off from their other pursuits to accomplish these objectives, this set of initiatives can only be applauded.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

There's No Police Like Holmes

While not quite a true-blue Sherlockian, one has nevertheless taken immense pleasure in the adventures of Conan Doyle's fictional detective over the years. Which is why it was delightful to hear of the recent publication of two novels featuring Holmes: Mitch Cullin's A Slight Trick of the Mind (which the New York Times calls "multilayered" and "beautiful") and Michael Chabon's The Final Solution.

Interestingly enough, both books portray Holmes as a man of advanced years, living through the dying moments of World War II, finding solace in the activity of bee-keeping. (Of course, authors have made non-parodic use of Holmes for years: offhand, one can recall The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes, by John Dickson Carr and Adrian Conan Doyle; Michael Dibdin's chilling The Last Sherlock Holmes Story; and Laurie King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice, the first of a series featuring a young American teenager assisting Holmes.)

As both Chabon and Cullin are well-regarded practitioners of literary fiction, one's palms are already itching to get hold of the work of these Baker Street irregulars.

Facts About Non-fiction

Go through the non-fiction section of First Proof: The Penguin Book of New Writing from India and you'll be struck by the strength and diversity of the selection on offer.

Travelogue, memoir, 'new' journalism and social analysis vie for space: of note are Sankarshan Thakur on the deprived of Bihar and Kashmir; Naresh Fernandes on Cuba; Andre Betielle on his schooldays; Arpita Das' notes on 'colonial bibis'; Jerry Pinto's analysis of Hindi movie vamps; and Nirupama Subramanium's encounters with Tamil Tigers.

This competence is but another aspect of a heartening trend. Other indicators are the annual Outlook Picador Non-Fiction Competition (read excerpts from this year's winners here) and the New India Foundation, that encourages the writing of Indian history, biography and analyses.

In the United States, authors of non-fiction are encouraged by and dependent on magazines that allow them the time, space and resources to pursue their interests. Commercial considerations preclude this happening in India at present, which is why the above is all the more to be welcomed and nourished.

Suketu Mehta may or may not win the Samuel Johnson Prize For Non-Fiction, but one's guess is that before too long, you're going to see Indian non-fiction writers making as many waves as their fiction-writing counterparts.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

I'll Be Back -- With A Poem

Governor Schwarzenegger's just appointed Al Young the poet laureate of California. Young was in India two months ago and reportedly, his outspoken liberal views caused some embarrassment to the First Secretary of the American Embassy, Ms Robin Diallo: “Al Young is here as a guest of the US State Department but he is not expressing the views of the state and that is the beauty of American democracy.”

Nirupama Dutt's report continues: "...the poet said that moving away from body time and natural time had been at the cost of human creativity. 'Now a child will say that his father will tell a story for 15 minutes and waste their time. I have known storytelling in old Mississippi where storytelling went on for several days and people did not tire'. Congratulating old cultures where values were developed, he lamented the fact that industrialised western societies had lost much by way of creativity. He gave the example of Australians catching hold of aborigines in the eighties to know of the parallel eality of ‘dream time’ lest it be lost. The poems he recited mirrored his feelings and one on old Houston town was very moving."

Laal Salaam

One has finished The Red Carpet, Lavanya Sankaran's collection of Bangalore-based short stories, and one is impressed. Her Austen-meets-Narayan whimsies have wit, have heart, and are extremely well-crafted. You can read a recent interview with the lady here. (Though one wonders why all new author profiles these days mention that Hollywood is interested in a film option. As though that's a marker of high literary achievement.)

An Unknown Error

An informative review in the Christian Science Monitor of a new anthology of South Asian short fiction, edited by Shyam Selvadurai, is marred in the end by a completely gratuitous plug for Chitra Banerjee-Divakaruni's The Unknown Errors of Our Lives.

(For his day job, Selvadurai writes for The Globe And Mail; you can read a recent column on astronomy here.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Banville's Swing

Irish author John Banville (whose sentences sing like few other contemporary authors) has harsh things to say about English literary fiction in general and Ian McEwan's Saturday in particular.

One was unable to locate the article in question, but here's an extended quote from Rod Liddle's column in The Sunday Times:

"The Irish writer and critic John Banville recently took a swing at English literary fiction, citing a 'disturbing tendency towards mellowness'. Banville was reviewing a book by an Englishman a couple of notches up the literary ladder, Ian McEwan, but possessed nonetheless of the same debilitating traits as Nick Hornby. In his review of McEwan’s ludicrous but hugely praised Saturday, Banville put his finger on the real problem with English fiction:

'Are we in the West so shaken in our sense of ourselves and our culture, are we so disablingly terrified in the face of various fanaticisms which threaten us, that we can allow ourselves to be persuaded and comforted by such a self-satisfied and in many ways ridiculous novel as this?' He added: 'Writers must give us more than his audience asks for.'

Banville has identified the chief fault of English fictional writing: a refusal to offend and discomfort, to tell us something we had not imagined, rather than that with which we are already familiar."

Interestingly, this is the first harsh notice of McEwan's book that one has come across; even the redoubtable James Wood, writing in The New Republic, called it a "fine and affecting" novel.

Though Liddle goes on to try and salvage Martin Amis' Yellow Dog, when one was reading the book oneself, one was gripped by a strong desire to hurl it across the room. Hard.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Sartaj Singh, Report For Duty Please

Now that Suketu Mehta's book on Mumbai has been shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, one's thoughts turned to that other chronicler of the city: Vikram Chandra.

It's been over eight years since Love And Longing In Bombay was published and since then -- apart from sharing scriptwriting credits for Vidhu Vinod Chopra's Mission Kashmir -- he hasn't come up with anything substantial. This, despite rumours that his novel featuring Inspector Sartaj Singh was close to completion -- selections have already been published, as Eternal Don (in The New Yorker, June 23-30, 1997) and Siege in Kailashpada (in The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature, edited by Amit Chaudhuri).

We trust your creative writing duties at George Washington University aren't taking up too much of your time, Mr Chandra.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

On The Surface

This Sunday, Siddhartha Deb's Surface is reviewed by Arundhathi Subramanium in The Times of India, by Anita Roy in The Indian Express and by Prema Nandakumar in Deccan Herald. Not one of these reviews mentions the fact that the book has strong thematic, and even structural, affinities with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Given that Deb himself has an epigraph by Conrad in his book, one wonders whether there's some substance to Tarun Tejpal's rant after all.

Fortunately, however, Jai Arjun Singh's Business Standard review doesn't make the omission.

(Yes, The Times of India now has a books page. Guess it's in their DNA too. Hee-hee.)