Monthly Archives: September 2012

Book Review: Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie

Title: Joseph Anton: A Memoir
Author: Salman Rushdie
Publisher: Jonathan Cape, Random House
ISBN: 978-0-224-09397-2
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoirs
Pages: 633
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

So I have a confession to make: I have not been able to complete a single Rushdie novel, except for Haroun and the Sea of Stories and I am not ashamed of it, only because I have tried reading his works time and again. I haven’t been able to cross the hundredth page. That is the relationship I share with Salman Rushdie’s books.

I started reading, “Joseph Anton”, his memoir about a week ago and I have read it twice since then. Strange, I thought, to myself: I cannot read the man’s fictional works but can breeze through this memoir and that too twice. What was different about it? Why did I read it twice and enjoy it more so the second time?

“Joseph Anton” is not just about a man who was in hiding from another man’s followers who were determined to hunt him down (as though he was an animal) and kill him, because of what he had written in his book (which the perpetrators hadn’t even read and never would). The fatwa on Salman Rushdie was issued on the 14th of February 1989 – Valentine’s Day (irony much) and since then he was forced underground – moving from house to house, with the presence of armed forces – they were his shadow.

An author who always believed in free speech and grew up with that philosophy in Bombay, with liberal parents (who later for some reason did not share liberal views), saw the world differently when the fatwa was issued. Things began to change. So did people – either for better or for worse, but they did.

The book, “Joseph Anton” is the most human that I have read this year. Salman Rushdie is angry and is hurt and hides no emotions. He is honest to the core – about his marriages, his children and his writing. The incidents and events that took place sometimes and were related to the book were horrifying – for instance, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was murdered. The Norwegian publisher was shot. He could not attend his mother’s funeral. He wasn’t there with her when she passed on and that for me hit the chord somewhere. That is probably the worst that could happen to a person and Rushdie isn’t shy from talking about his deepest emotions. What ran through my mind though while reading the book was just this: Is there really a true freedom of speech and writing?

“Joseph Anton” asks a lot of questions. It makes the readers think and the best part according to me about the book was the way it was written in third person. It is almost like Rushdie is taking count of his life (which it is in a way) and not being subjective in his style.

The book clearly depicts the powerlessness of the heads of states of various countries and how often politics was above the written word or the author. Amidst all this, Rushdie tried very hard to have a normal life – marry, raise children and write some more. He could never stop doing that after all. I remember at one point, he mentions that for once he thought he would have been someone else but a writer and then banished the thought as soon as it entered his head.

There is nothing which I did not like about the book. Everything worked for me. From the way he writes about every book he has written and its structure and story to the moments of glory and the moments of anguish – they are visible through his brilliant writing.

The title of the book is taken from his name that he used when he was in hiding, so one could recognize him – a combination of two of his favourite writers Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov – hence Joseph Anton.

For me, “Joseph Anton” is all about courage and resilience. It is about writing, the process, the wonder and the anguish it sometimes brings to the writer and his or her readers. It is clearly a fight – where more authors are being put to task for writing and viewing their feelings, their thoughts and emotions. The sad part being that no one can do anything about the consequences sometimes, though someone should. The writer’s voice is his only liberty – that is my sum of “Joseph Anton”. A riveting read for all. I cannot recommend it enough. All of its six hundred and thirty three pages.

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An Interview with Nilanjana Roy

One thing is for sure. I have absolutely loved reading The Wildings by Nilanjana Roy and it happens to be one of the best books I have read this year. So there was no choice but to interview Nilanjana Roy and know more about how the book came about, about the endearing cats, her literary inspirations and more…

So here goes my interview with Nilanjana Roy…

1. Why a book on cats?

It’s been an extraordinary few years for books with animal characters–in a more literary vein, there are Rajesh Parameswaran’s stories about remorseful tigers, Tania James on chimpanzees. For me, writing about cats came out of watching them, and realising that Nizamuddin, Delhi and most cities we think of as “human” are actually home to so many other species. TC Boyle has an interesting question: “How are we as an animal species distinct from other unintellectual species?” and part of the fun of The Wildings came from trying to imagine the secret lives of cats.

2. I wish the cats speak to me. Do they speak with you?

This morning, Tiglath (my oldest cat), brought me a feather and his meaning was very clear: “I have brought you gifts. Now you must cuddle me until your arm goes numb.” If you read Dian Fossey on gorillas, or Lawrence Anthony on elephants, they come to an understanding that humans have to work harder to “translate” animal communication, which very often happen non-verbally.

In The Wildings, the cats speak via whisker transmission, but I had to cut out an earlier description of how they
used scent, sprays and markings as a kind of bush telegraph. I think it’s true–they use smells almost as language–but it’s hard to get down in a book without sounding completely insane.

As an aside–when Lawrence Anthony died, herds of wild elephants journeyed for 12 hours to reach his home. They stayed
there for a week or so, apparently mourning him, and then they left. The question for humans was: how did they know? But they did, clearly.

3. What prompted you to write this book?

I’d spent years as a journalist, quite happy with that kind of work. But in journalism, you always write for other people; fiction forces you to ask what’s important to you, not to anyone else. For me, it turned out to be following the real Mara, who spent 12 indelible years with me and my husband, and who opened up this world. Not just the world of a cat in a house, surrounded by Bigfeet, but the outside world of cheels, dogs, langurs, animals who live in a universe shaped by one species–us. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you’re writing about humans or cats or little green aliens: you write about what you love, and whatever sets all of your imagination on fire.

4. Your literary inspirations…

Whether it’s Angela Carter, Ursula K Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, Asimov-Bradbury-Clarke, Philip K Dick, Norse sagas, old Bengali folk tales, Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the Arabian Nights, Szymborska’s Yeti poems, Richard Adams, Kenneth Grahame, L Frank Baum, I find that my strongest roots are in fantasy and in the old fairy tales and ghost stories.

This came as a surprise to me because I cut my teeth on literary fiction, but even there, the pattern is clear-Borges, Cortazar, Garcia Marquez, Annie Proulx. All the collectors of strangeness.

Nilanjana reading from “The Wildings”

5. Nilanjana, the writer….

Ask me this after I’ve got a few books down, I’m just learning how to write!

6. Nilanjana, the researcher…

There were the books and the reading, but in truth, most of the research was done on two feet, walking around Delhi. I don’t know why so many writers seem to need to walk for hours, or do the Murakami running thing: perhaps it’s building the physical stamina you need if you’re going to write for six hours at a stretch, perhaps it’s just that walking slows you down enough for you to notice how the world really works and fits together, as opposed to how you think it works. Someone went to Nizamuddin, where The Wildings is set, and told me, “But there were no cats there!” and I thought, but you have to walk around for a while, let them get used to you sitting in the park quietly, watch them go by under, not over, the canal bridge.

7. The Wildings had moments where I would choke up. Did that happen to you while you were writing the book?

Of course not, I was ruthlessly dry-eyed and stoic all the way through.

Oh, all right. There was one scene in particular–I think you know the one I mean–where I cried my eyes out. The thing is, my partner–who loves animals himself–understood perfectly. He treated the tragedy on the page as a real tragedy, which is very comforting. He never made the mistake of saying, “That character you’re crying about? You know she’s not real, right?” Of course I knew she wasn’t real, I’d made her up. But in that moment, she was real, and so was the sadness I felt.

8. What is the sequel going to be about? Maybe you could give us just a sneak into it?

Mara and Southpaw, the two cats who are tiny when we meet them in The Wildings, are growing up, and it’s a hard growing up for both of them. Mara has to make a choice, decide whether her loyalties lie with her Bigfeet or with the clan. And Nizamuddin has changed by the time we see the cats next; it’s not as gentle a neighbourhood. Southpaw has a lot to handle and some very hard choices to make–I hope he’ll make the right ones, but we’ll see.

That’s the end of the interview. You can read my review of the book here.

I for one cannot wait for the sequel to be out. So looking forward to it.

Book Review: Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle

Title: Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City
Author: Guy Delisle
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 978-0224096690
Genre: Graphic Novel
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Graphic novels always make it easier for a story to tell what it has to. They have the sense of making the reader understand what it wants to without putting in too much effort. Maybe that is why I understand politics best through a comic strip. That works for me on more than one level.

“Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City” by Guy Delisle is one such book. Before reading the book, I was aware to some extent about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but things became clearer, but obviously after the read.

Guy Delisle presents the conflict in a manner that I think a non-fiction account wouldn’t have been able to. This is not a typical travelogue either (though it is his account of travel to Jerusalem). The book is about Delisle’s wife, Nadege who works with the organization Doctors without Borders and she is transferred to Jerusalem for a year with Guy and their two children to help provide medical care in Israel. The book is a collection of the author’s observations of the city on a day-to-day living basis.

The narrative switches from bigger events to the daily living of the author and his family, which works very well with this kind of graphic format. There are no sides that Guy takes in the book. He just presents his observations – the keen eye for details – from Israel’s assault on Gaza to the Arab-Israelis issue. The book surprisingly is not controversial at all. As I said, Guy leaves the judgment and decision-making to the readers. He does not do it for them.

The reader gets to understand and notice just how bizarre Jerusalem is. The city is divided into different quarters – Jewish, Christian, and Muslim, each with their own rules and regulations. The military presence cannot be ignored. The check points are now a part of the citizens’ lives. The region is troubled and Guy infuses life and sometimes humour through his drawings and writing which is much needed for a book of this magnitude. A great read for all those who want to know more about this region and to a certain extent about its history.

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Book Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Title: The Marriage Plot
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Publisher: Picador USA
ISBN: 978-1250014764
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 416
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

After reading two of his earlier books, there was no way I was going to miss reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ third book, “The Marriage Plot”. It is very different from the other two though and that’s what I liked about it. An author’s real talent lies in the different genres he or she is willing to explore and takes that risk. If the risk pays off then nothing like it. If it doesn’t, well then at least the writer did what had to be done.

For me as a reader, the risk (if it was that) where, “The Marriage Plot” was concerned, paid off for Jeffrey Eugenides. “The Marriage Plot” as the title suggests is about the much talked about marriage plot that featured in books in the 1900s – the very Jane Austenish plots of meeting someone charming, maybe one or two, and marrying “the” person to live out your life. The difference being: The plot is set in modern times.

The story centers on three people – Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell, three students at an Ivy League University in the early 1980s. They study challenging and diverse philosophies from one another and unite in ways one cannot imagine. Madeleine is clueless and has a keen eye Victorian and Regency classics. She is studying semiotics though and has still remained true to Jane Austen and George Elliot. Mitchell Grammaticus befriends Madeleine and is secretly in love with her, and is drawn to Christian Studies and metaphysics. He cannot confess his love for Madeleine and moves to India for a while to work amongst the poor. Leonard Bankhead is charismatic, brilliant, a loner, who Madeleine falls for (why am I not surprised?). Leonard is everything that Madeleine wants and maybe is not for her or anyone else and yet she is drawn to him. She soon sees what is beneath the surface and her dreams of love and marriage are thrown off-course, before the story goes through various sub-plots and ends the way it should.

Now to the writing: As always, Eugenides did not disappoint with the writing. The style as I mentioned earlier is very different from his earlier books, but completely satisfying for a reader. References to literary works are all over the book and this is a treat. It has its own pace and at the same time the reader doesn’t feel bogged down with the writing or the references.

The characters are confused (that’s how they should be) and fit into the plot like a glove to a hand. Eugenides knows where to take the story and what to do with it so subtly that though the reader is almost expecting what is going to happen, he or she is in for a surprise.

“The Marriage Plot” is an intelligent read. It breaks elements of what marriage was thought to be in the past and at the same time pays homage to it. I would recommend this book to you more so if you are a literary fiction fan, more so for the references and the analogies. I would reread it for sure.

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Interview with Aroon Raman

I loved The Shadow Throne by Aroon Raman. And right after reading it, I had to interview the writer. So we spoke and spoke some more and here is an interview with him. I loved the book and here is my review of it.

1. What prompted you to write The Shadow Throne? How did the story idea germinate?

In the months post May 2011, post the bin-Laden assassination, I could see seismic shifts happening both within Pakistan and relations between Pakistan and the West. The country’s self-image was, of course, the first casualty; but equally important was that the carefully cultivated image of the ISI and the military as frontline guardians of the country’s security was also shattered. External relations with NATO, and especially with America, hit a nadir from which even today they have not recovered.

India too was in its own – self-generated – crisis: a crisis of governance and political will, that continues unabated. A government tarnished by a series of scandals, each bigger than the other; reports of bureaucratic dysfunction have abounded, and some stories – such as the bugging of the telephones of extremely senior government officials – have created an unprecedented sense of crisis. The military and intelligence arms of the government have been inevitably drawn into this mess: witness the recent fracas over the Army Chief’s run-in with military intelligence.

So we had a situation that to me seemed ripe with many possibilities; Pakistan with its back to the wall, India in its own crises of governance. The idea of TST germinated against this backdrop. The intent all along was to maintain an authentic feel to the plot: keep it chilling but believable.

2. Not many Indian writers have explored the thriller genre successfully. What made you? Weren’t you apprehensive to begin with?

A writer has to write about what excites him or her; in other words I must play to my metier. While I read non-fiction extensively, and literary fiction as well, I have been drawn to yarns of adventure and the thriller as a genre from an early age. Rather than being a hindrance, it has actually helped that the well-written Indian thriller is still relatively rare – at least in English. It seemed to me that it was therefore easier to make a mark with a fast-paced, well researched thriller than in literary fiction – where plenty of talent already abounds!

3. Like I said earlier, I felt that Meenakshi’s character had not been given her so-called, “due”. You think more could have been done to extend her part in the book? Does she progress to become essential in another Chandra thriller?

Though she does not appear as much in the book as Chandra and Hassan, I’d like to think that Meenakshi punches above her weight—so to speak. She is critical to the book; she is responsible for all the major breaks in the case: the early fix on the Kushans, the cracking of the code that leads Chandra and Hassan to Bamiyan and suggesting that the final rescue of Hassan is effected by Gul Mohammed. She is important enough that the bad guys move to eliminate her: an attempt she defeats with real courage. I also needed her in Delhi to provide the foil for the action in Afghanistan so that the plot switches back and forth between the two countries. This switching of locale is always something that adds to the plot and is very useful in a thriller.

That said, TST is well set up for a sequel, one where Meenakshi might well become central in a big way!

4. Your literary inspirations…

I cannot do better than quote Tolkien in his preface to The Lord of the Rings where he said, “The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them.” The relative strengths of these emotions may vary depending on the type of book, but my deepest desire (as I believe that of any writer) will be to ‘grip’ the reader powerfully, take them out of themselves and hold them in the book’s embrace till it is done.
There are several writers who are my icons and inspiration. Conan Doyle has to have pole position ( he created not just Sherlock Holmes, but a large body of thriller and historical fiction), closely followed by Tolkien, Rider Haggard, Peter O’ Donnel (creator of the Modesty Blaise series). Modern writers: Frederick Forsyth, Ken Follet, Caleb Carr, Stephen Hunter…these are just a few in a list that is very long!

5. Aroon the writer…

Believes there is a story within us all. Even in the most mundane of lives, there is the dramatic, the unusual. As a writer, I’d like just to be awake to what life offers us each day – little vignettes that can be the stuff of big stories! Another thing: one writes for ‘the market’, but one also writes for oneself. The key to success is to bring about a happy accord between the two. That is exactly what I strive to do as a writer.

6. Aroon the person…

Is a jack of several trades, trying to balance it all. Roughly 50 per cent of my time goes to running my R&D business and the rest to a mix of writing, trekking, travel and working with NGOs. There is so much to do, and so little time to do it!

7. There are so many books flooding the Indian market. By this I mean the local home-bred writers. What do you think of this mass production? You think there is a demand for every kind of book that is being published?

The mortality rate of new books is extremely high in India. We have to remember that Indian writing in English has exploded recently – in the last decade or so and the market is still developing. New writers are flooding the scene and there is necessarily a slew of books in practically every genre. Is this too much? It’s hard to say. India is also a big, complex reading market. I recently visited several book distributors across the country and was amazed at the numbers and varieties of books that sell – including local language translations of Western authors. So while there may not be a demand for every book that is published, there is certainly a demand for a huge number and variety of them. I believe that as with any market, this too will settle over time. In final reckoning the reader is the king…or queen!

8. What will the next book be like? Another thriller?

My next book is an adventure story set in Mughal India at the time of Akbar. It is also fast-paced, filled with action, and with an authentic feel of the period. A small band of animals led by a young boy make a hazardous journey through Hindustan to warn the Mughal Emperor of an impending threat to his Empire—from the fabulous treasure of Malik Kafur, long thought lost. The book is completed and will be published sometime next year by Pan Macmillan.

9. How has the book fared? It has been successful for sure. What do you think of yourself as a writer basis that? Has that changed anything? Do you expect more from yourself now?

The Shadow Throne has hit No. 8 in the bestseller list (HT Nielsen BookScan)in the very first week (ending September 15th) of its release. In that week, not all stores still had the book displayed, and so to get to this level of sales so early has been great for me as a debut writer. I’m waiting to see how it will do in the weeks and months ahead.

The early feedback from several readers and sales figures themselves validate the one most important expectation I have as a writer: that I’ve hopefully been able to establish a strong ‘connect’ with the reader. My plot, pace, characters and writing style have resonated with my target audience. This is a huge boost to my confidence as a debut author, and that in a less-populated genre. The experience of being published has also matured me as a writer; the feedback from people, even my own editing team have all deepened my perspectives of what works.

Obviously, we are still in the early stages of the introduction of TST and time will tell how well it will succeed. Still, expectations of myself for my further work have become more ambitious consequent to the early successes we have seen thus far. Building on a broad-based reader feedback is as a good a spur any for improving as a writer.

10. Your biggest reader compliment…

Kris Gopalakrishnan, the Vice Chairman of Infosys wrote in to say he felt compelled to finish the book in almost one go. This in fact has been the reaction of practically every reader of The Shadow Throne so far and the biggest compliment that a thriller writer can expect!