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Saturday, May 28, 2005

Kunitz's Century

Sometimes, you say, I wear
an abstracted look that drives you
up the wall, as though it signified
distress or disaffection.
Don't take it so to heart.
Maybe I enjoy not-being as much
as being who I am. Maybe
it's time for me to practice
growing old. The way I look
at it, I'm passing through a phase:
gradually I'm changing to a word.
Whatever you choose to claim
of me is always yours:
nothing is truly mine
except my name. I only
borrowed this dust.

That's an excerpt from 'Passing Through', by Stanley Kunitz, who turns 100 this year.

The New York Times has this op-ed piece on the man who was twice poet laureate of the United States, mentioning that one of his "commanding inventions" was Poets House in SoHo.

One has a fond memory of visiting this book-lined haven a few years ago -- more for the cheese and wine than the poetry reading in progress, alas.

The Former Prez Sez...

" books, I mean fiction and non-fiction. Not just Harry Potter."

That's K.R. Narayanan, deploring the lack of reading habits in the country. Read the rest here.

No Longer A Nymphet

The novel with the best opening paragraph ever written just turned 50.

Censorship Pros And Cons

Indian Writing directs one to an article by Jug Suraiya in today’s Times of India -- and his argument seems to be specious.

In a nutshell, Suraiya says that he’s in favour of certain forms of censorship. A somewhat lengthy extract is worth quoting, if only to reproduce the exact flavour of his argument:

“ …The then editor of TOI rang me up on the evening before my column on Thackeray was to appear. He told me that though the piece would be carried in all the other editions of the paper, he'd decided to drop it for the Bombay edition. Indignant, I began to argue with him about the right of freedom of expression. I respect your right to freedom of expression, said the editor. But how would I square it with my conscience, he asked me, if, as a direct result of my freedom of expression, the Bombay office of the paper was targeted by Shiv Sainiks and in the fracas some of my colleagues in Bombay, including women colleagues, suffered physical and psychological trauma while I sat safe in Delhi? I was free to choose to put myself in a possible danger zone. I wasn't at liberty to place others in a jeopardy not of their making. I thanked the editor, with genuine gratitude, for what he'd done. And as a professional communicator, I learnt a lesson which I hope I shall never forget: That freedom of expression is meaningful only when it carries with it an obligation of responsibility to the community at large.”

He goes on to state that he’d asked for a ban on Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh for the same reason: that the book may incite violence, with its portrayal of a Bal Thackeray-like character, and that lives may be lost while Rushdie remained cocooned in Britain, immune to the effects of his work.

There seem to be two problems with his case. First, the issue of foreknowledge: how exactly does one gauge whether a book or article will incite violence or not? Experience and instinct are unreliable guides: as it turned out, The Moor’s Last Sigh was freely available in Mumbai, without any untoward incident. (Thank goodness.)

And second, who has the right to be the guardian of public decency and outrage? Politicians will do whatever it takes – right or wrong -- to win over vote banks; and as for editors (who in theory have the experience and the gut-feel to make such choices), isn’t a democracy supposed to be about a plurality of opinion? If one doesn’t like a certain paper’s point of view, one is free to cancel one’s subscription and turn to another. When Suraiya speaks of “responsibility to the community”, he makes the assumption that the community is monolithic and homogenous, not multifarious and fragmented.

Though this may seem simplistic, it does boil down to the issue of intent: that’s what one ought to gauge, first and foremost. Does the allegedly offensive article/book/movie in question aim to incite, or is it a legitimate form of creative enquiry and expression? (Please do recall that Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lolita and Ulysses were all thought to be noxious and offensive to the community when they were first printed.)

Intent having been established, perhaps a much stricter policing and supervision of those who try to take the law into their own hands for so-called moral reasons is necessary. Not excision or censorship.

Utopian? Well, one lives in hope.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Jamaica In The Himalayas

The Sunday Times (UK) reviews what seems like a promising new book by Jamaica Kincaid: Among Flowers. It's an account of a "walk in the Himalayas" and what's intriguing is that nothing in the Vermont-based, Antigua-born writer's previous oeuvre suggests that she would embark on such a journey. The Times' reviewer says:

"This is no botanist’s treatise but travel writing at its best, and Kincaid knows well that a book about places benefits from an abundance of detail and few descriptions of panoramas. She remarks on the children whose hair had been black but has become blonde through the lack of some essential nutrient; she wonders at bamboo bridges swaying over raging torrents; she notices marijuana growing wild and people smoking it. It is not long before the party encounters Maoist guerrillas, fanatics who kill their compatriots but are reputed to spare foreigners. 'Nothing can be more disturbing,' Kincaid writes, 'than sleeping in a village under the control of people who may or may not let you live.' "

(Trivia: Kincaid, formerly staff writer with
The New Yorker, happens to be married to composer Allen Shawn, son of the legendary William Shawn, former editor of the magazine.)

Life Beyond Master Potter

M.Venkatesh, partner at Eureka, the first children's bookstore in New Delhi, writes here about the children's book business, touching -- inevitably -- on the Harry Potter spillover.

Meanwhile, the Imphal Free Press brings us news of V.S. Naipaul's views on J.K. Rowling:

"Her success has also attracted the outraged of literary purists like Sir Vidya S Naipaul, who snobbishly and sarcastically dismissed her literary forays saying: he always used to believe literature was about attempting to understand human nature and not about the ways of little green goblins."

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Big City Blues

Below, a random sampling of advice, warnings, pearls of wisdom and invective culled from city columnists over the past 130 years:

- We’re tired of seeing every square in the city flooded every time it rains. Whoever is supposed to fix this, should fix it soon. (1946)

- When you see a beautiful woman in the street, don’t look at her hatefully as if you’re about to kill her and don’t exhibit excessive longing either, just give her a little smile, avert your eyes and walk on. (1974)

- It is our hope that both drivers and passengers will make full use of the new taxi meters … and that our city will never again see the sort of haggling, arguments and trips to the police station that plagued our city twenty years ago, when … our city’s drivers took to saying, “Brother, give us as much as you can.” (1983)

- The loudspeakers on potato, tomato and propane gas trucks and the ugly voices of the men selling these products have turned the city into a living hell. (1992)

- Your city correspondent has received many complaints about our city’s night-watchmen who, instead of patrolling our markets and neighbourhoods, prefer to spend their time dozing…in many of our neighbourhoods, the sound of the watchman’s club is rarely heard. (1879)

- It is only by giving up our old way of comporting ourselves in the streets and in the city’s public places, and only by complying with the traffic regulations as they do in the West, that we can hope to deliver ourselves from the traffic chaos. But if you asked how many people in the city even know what the traffic regulations are, well, that’s a different matter altogether. (1949)

And the city in question is...Mumbai? New Delhi? Kolkata?

None of them: it's Istanbul. The selection is taken from the splendid book on the city by Orhan Pamuk, shortlisted for this year's Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction.

Addendum: Just came across Chandrahas Choudhury's post on Pamuk's book. Well worth reading.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005


Alan Cheuse's over-the-top review of Rana Dasgupta's Tokyo Cancelled in The San Francisco Chronicle makes some important points: "There is ... a certain glibness and, unfortunately, coolness -- if not utter frigidity -- when it comes to human relations. Perhaps morphing, one of the main techniques in a number of the stories, also makes for a bit of problem, so that when problems arise between characters, the writer can put them behind him by yet another act of transmutation -- damaged clone into celebrity, girl into store -- without ever having to resolve them in traditional terms."

Which, come to think of it, is always the problem with works of technical, structural or imaginative innovation: such achievements are at the cost of emotional resonance. They soar without ever touching ground in the reader's heart, as Cheuse aptly writes, going on to mention Ulysses and Cloud Atlas as examples. He could well have added the novels of Italo Calvino to the list.

One is racking one's brains to come up with exceptions. Perhaps Faulkner's The Sound And The Fury? Or perhaps even Michael Cunningham's The Hours?

Sounds Fishy

"Q: Your favourite book?
A: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, by Mark Haddock."

- From an interview with model-actress Tara Sharma in today's Mumbai Times.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

A Novelatory? A Shortvel?

Philip Hensher (author of The Mulberry Empire) has a wonderful article in The Arts Telegraph on the rise of a new literary genre: "... in the past few years a good number of writers have started exploring the previously blank territory that lies between the collection of short stories and the novel proper. It starts to look like a new form altogether."

He goes on to cite several examples past and present, from Julian Barnes' A History Of The World In 10 1/2 Chapters to Ali Smith's Hotel World to David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas to Helen Simpson's Hey Yeah Right Get A Life.

This is what he says about V.S. Naipaul's In A Free State: "[It] is fastidiously described on the title page as 'a novel with two supporting narratives'. The 'novel' is the story of a journey in an African country; it is preceded not just by the two 'supporting narratives', stories of post-colonial existences, but a prologue, a haunting account of a trip on a ferry to Egypt; there is, too, an unannounced epilogue. All are unconnected, except by theme; it is only Naipaul's exceptional sense of form and balance that turns the book into a whole."

Which actually got one thinking: there was a time -- in the years following the publication of Midnight's Children -- that magic realism, with its polyphonic, sense-assaulting, multitudinous nature, was seen to be the only way to capture the reality of India in a novel. Could the linked short story genre Hensher refers to be the new form that our authors will adopt to portray India's multiple realities? Watch this space.

I'll Have The Murgh Worcestershire, Please

Tom Jaine reviews three books on what we eat and why for The Guardian. The most interesting of the lot seems to be Londoner's Larder: English Cuisine From Chaucer to The Present, by Annette Hope: "Hers is a practised hand, having done the same for Scotland in A Caledonian Feast. She hangs her chapters on the biographical hooks of famous London authors: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pepys, Johnson, Dickens, Wilde and Virginia Woolf, using their writings and plenty of contemporary sources to give depth to her account, both of the style of eating, the ingredients, the markets and most importantly as the book goes on, the restaurants and public provision of food for eating-out."

Among the quotations in the book is one by Amitav Ghosh on "English Indian" food: "...the usual taste of spices transformed by stock and cream and Worcestershire sauce. But the food was delicious in its way."

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Sigh. Rushdie Again

(Sorry JAP. Couldn't resist.)

This is from film-maker Ram Madhvani's insightful article in the latest issue of

"I met Salman Rushdie recently and he spoke about how the only way for him to make a mark in literature was to borrow from our oral traditions. In a non-linear conversation, he spoke about how our stories are not linear stories. In fact, they break all the rules of what is supposed to be good story-telling. Our stories are circular looping rings of stories. Our oral story-teller of yore will tell you a story, then interrupt himself, then tell you a joke or tell some personal reminiscence or he will introduce political satire or he may make a reference to a mythological story, or he may sing a song."

Sounds a lot like my superiors at work trying to brief me on a new job, that.


After what seemed like an eternity, one visited Strand Book Stall in Fort again.

Little seems to have changed: the eclectic collection, the huge selection of Modern Library classics, the discounted piles of hardbacks, the somewhat dismaying sense that the books on offer have been selected because of deals with publishers rather then pure merit, the friendly if garrulous staff, and the always-available boxed sets of Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities. (Those hunting for bargains would be well-advised to seek out here copies of Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner; The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Frost by Harold Bloom and Collapse by Jared Diamond: all three at well below published price.)

One's own purchases reflected the eclectisicm of Strand's selection: the Stephen Mitchell translation of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching; Thomas Cahill's Sailing The Wine-Dark Sea: Why The Greeks Matter; and, perhaps most delightful of all, Herge's Red Rackham's Treasure, featuring the indomitable and ageless Tintin.