Links: Jobs and The Competent Authority

Yes, it's true. Deep inside me is a kimono-wearing, grey-coated Red Panda.
Yes, it’s true. Deep inside me is a kimono-wearing, grey-coated Red Panda.

One bad film and an excellent book, because what is life without balance? (she said and struck her best Shifu pose.)

On Jobs:

So imagine the disappointment of watching Jobs and realising a film about Steve Jobs doesn’t really bother with aesthetics, logic or storytelling. The music is forgettable, the cinematography is unimaginative and there are no insights into what made Jobs one of the most influential men of our times. Beginning with the unveiling of the iPod, rewinding to the 1970s when Jobs was a drug-addled college dropout and waffling on till the 1990s, when he reclaimed Apple after being forced out of the company by the board, Jobs takes a fascinating life and turns it bland and uninspiring.

You can read the whole review here.

On The Competent Authority, which is a superb satire of present-day India even though the novel is set in the near future:

Ultimately, The Competent Authority is a mischievous and insightful meditation upon the nature and effects of power. At its heart is a comparison between two people — a bureaucrat and a little boy — who become immensely powerful without warning or reason. What do you do with that power? How do you do good? How do you ensure that you know good from complete insanity? One could argue that only a Bengali author would point to teachers as the solution to India’s problems and cast a no-nonsense Bengali woman as the one who prevents absolute power from corrupting absolutely. (In real life, most of India’s experiences with stern women, Bengali and otherwise, in positions of power has been far from heartening.) But hey, it’s fiction. Chowdhury mines the depressing events of the past decades for brilliant fun and for all that’s wrong with its world, The Competent Authority leaves the reader with a sense of hope for Pintoo and our futures.

The full review is here.

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The Mag This Week

Cartoons, caliphates and cattiness in the Books page this week.

Diptosh Majumdar reviewed Tavleen Singh’s Durbar. He describes her as “a socialite who, by sheer accident, also happened to be a journalist.”

A. Faizur Rahman wrote a thoughtful review of The Caliph’s Splendor by Benson Bobrick. He ends it with a lovely bit of poetry:

Main tujhko batata hoon taqdeer-e-umam kya hai
Shamsheer-o-sana awwal, tawoos-o-rubaab aakhir.

(Let me tell you about the fate of Muslim nations,/ They begin with war and end in sensual indulgences.)

Ashley Tellis did not like Rabbit Rap by Musharraf Ali Farooqi and Michelle Farooqi.Image

The Mag This Week

Screen Shot 2012-12-02 at 9.02.41 PMLove was in the air this week on the Books page, by which I mean all of us liked most things about the books we read.

I have to say, it’s a bit odd to open up the inbox and see in the list of senders one “Ramachandra”. (The surname didn’t show, for whatever reason.) It made me wonder whether anyone from the BJP has got emails from Guha and if they have, how their pulse must have leapt for a couple of seconds.

Interview: Ramachandra Guha

DP: Penguin has described Patriots and Partisans as “provocative”. Do you think it’s provocative? 

RG: Provocative, yes (since it will offend ideologues of all stripes), but I hope informative and entertaining too (since it draws on some thirty years of research and travel and tries to convey what I found in an accessible way).

DP: You’d said in an earlier interview (around 2003) that you want to focus on writing books because there are about 6 books that you want to write. Have the number and topics changed over the years?

RG: I am now deep into the study of Gandhi’s life, times, and legacies,  a project that will result certainly in three books and possibly in four or five. Then I want to write an intellectual history of environmentalism, a book on rebels against the Raj (a follow-up to my biography of Verrier Elwin), a cricketing memoir, and one or two other books whose themes it is premature even to mention now. Of course I will not be fit and able to do all of this—and I might die of cardiac arrest tomorrow. A writer is permitted his dreams—and fantasies.

DP: Do you find research more rewarding than writing?

RG: In some ways, yes, since you don’t know what you will find in the archives. The thrill of discovering a new letter in an old file is something which still moves me thirty years on.  Every time I approach the Manuscripts Section of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library or the Reading Room of the British Library, I am brought back to my boyhood, when my step would quicken and my heart beat faster as I entered the stadium on the morning of a Test match. I can’t understand historians who outsource their archival research  to research assistants—but then they must get their thrills elsewhere.

DP: Most of the essays in Patriots and Partisans have been published (in shorter form) before. Why did you choose these particular pieces for the book? 

RG: For several reasons. First, they seemed to cohere around two broad themes—democracy and intellectual life. Second, they were each of substantial length, allowing me to make an argument and illustrate or defend it. I should add that even the pieces published before have been extensively revised and rewritten for the book.

DP: Have the themes or subjects that you particularly enjoy writing about changed over the years? 

RG: I started as an environmental historian, and then moved into social and political history. Along the way I got diverted into the social history of sport. When I began I had a more sociological perspective on history; now, a more biographical approach.  But underlying all of this has been a consistent, common preoccupation (or obsession)—understanding the encounter of an ancient, rural-based and hierarchy-obsessed society with the impulses and institutions of the modern world. I am a historian of India’s troubled and fascinating, emancipatory and painful, encounter with modernity, who has focused on different aspects of this encounter at different periods of his professional life.

DP: When you’re writing something, do you have a reader in mind? Does the question of whether a reader will enjoy what you’re writing concern you when you’re writing a book or an article?

RG: Yes and no.  A historian writes to please as well as  instruct, so must convey the depth of his research in lucid and (if he is skilled enough) elegant prose. But he must never doctor his ideas or his narrative to the needs (real or imagined) of a particular reader or group of readers.

DP: What is the most difficult part of writing about India? 

RG: Having merely not one life, not many. It is a privilege to be a historian  (or a novelist, or playwright, or film-maker) in India, in this large, diverse, complex country simultaneously undergoing a social, political, economic and cultural revolution.

DP: You’ve written about the angry responses that you get from both the left and right wing. We’ve seen a fair degree of self-censorship in recent times because there’s anxiety about reactions from the right wing in particular. Have the responses you’ve received ever impacted how or what you write? Do you feel self-censorship is justified in the current climate?

RG: No. But a writer must always be careful in what he says and how he says it. He must support his ideas with solid research. He must convey his ideas in as clear and logical a manner as is possible within his own limitations. I revise the manuscript of a book five or six times before I allow a publisher to publish it. I print out a draft of every newspaper column and edit and rewrite it closely. I am not on Twitter or Facebook because those can so easily become the vehicle of careless, ill-considered, remarks.

DP: Do you hope to convince those who don’t agree with your point of view with your writing? It seems you have some regular dissenters. Does it bother you that they haven’t “seen the light”?

RG: Not at all. But truth be told, I have converted quite a few! For example, very many people have written to me saying a reading of ‘India after Gandhi’ made them see some merit in the much-maligned Nehru.

DP: Reading Patriots and Partisans, I couldn’t help but feel that debate in the past — particularly in the realm of politics — was a more educated affair than what we have now.

RG: The decline of Parliament has much to do with this. When screaming and chair-throwing replaces reasoned debate among the leaders we send to the Lok Sabha, other Indians will be inspired to likewise replace argument with abuse.

DP: Despite all the problems that you write about in Patriots and Partisans, there’s a sense of hope in the book.

RG: I am glad you noticed the sense of hope amidst all the sharp and sometimes savage criticism of some Indians and some Indian institutions. I love this country and would like to see it a less discontented place.

Bollywood and the Nigerian Woman

Blaft has brought out what is possibly the first Hausa-English translation. I’d never heard of Hausa and after reading Sin Is A Puppy That Follows You Home, I had to do a little reading on the tradition of soyayya literature. There’s a Bollywood angle, which is interesting but what’s far more fascinating is how culturally-specific a word like “radical” is. I’ve written a piece about Sin Is A Puppy… and soyayya literature, which is here. Of course, it had to be cut to fit the page. Here’s the unsnipped version. Yes, it is a touch long. You should also check out Hausa music on YouTube. It’s eerily Bollywood-y.

Bollywood and the Nigerian Woman

Hausa architecture. How gorgeous is that?

In the 1950s, when Nigeria was still a British colony, a few Lebanese film exhibitors decided to try something new. Instead of the expensive prints of American movies, someone decided to see if Nigerians would take to Bollywood. It was a stupendous success. Particularly in the northern Nigerian city of Kano, home to the Hausa people, Bollywood films became enormously popular. Even in 1997, Mother India was playing to packed houses in Kano. People flocked to cinemas to see these movies again and again. Pop songs were written about men who fell in love with Indian actresses. Most remarkably, there emerged in the 1980s a genre known as “love literature” or soyayya literature that was inspired by the storytelling in Bollywood films. More than 20 years later, soyayya is as popular as ever and it’s become an important tool in Hausa women’s campaign to modernise their community.

The Hausa adopted Islam in the 11th century and they remain strictly religious and conservative. It may seem strange that the unflinchingly Muslim Hausa should be besotted by Sridevi or identify with the sentimental melodrama of Bollywood, which is predominantly Hindu. But pared down to just imagery, expressions and music, commercial Hindi cinema struck a chord with the Hausa. Unlike American films, Hindi blockbusters – with the demure heroines, the emphasis upon family, the modest, eyelash-fluttering depictions of love – felt familiar. The audiences responded to the standard tropes of Bollywood storytelling: the weeping mother, the quietly-suffering wife, the arrogant patriarch, the conniving vamp. Hausa audiences latched on to the basic theme of the films: tradition versus modernity. It was a dilemma that many were facing in their everyday lives.

Soyayya literature took inspiration from Bollywood’s sentimental melodrama and whipped it into Nigerian reality to create slim pamphlets of romantic pulp fiction. Mostly written and read by women, soyayya stories are bestsellers, cheap and usually talk about social issues. It’s estimated that more than 300 women in northern Nigeria write soyayya literature today. This has led to some grumbles and growls from conservatives and the Nigerian government. That these moral-laden stories criticise practices like child marriage, polygamy and dowry has led to soyayya being dubbed a corrupting influence. Authors are accused of being agents of the West and there have been incidents where the books have been burnt as a warning to both the writers and the readers.

Yet, soyayya authors are proud of the traditions they’ve been born into, as the lives of two soyayya pioneers, Bilkisu Salisu Ahmed Funtuwa and Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, show. Funtuwa lives in purdah; Yakubu is also a devout Muslim. Their intention isn’t to rock the conservative Islamic boat, but to help rid society of evils. With the power of soppy, Bollywood plots reincarnated as soyayya stories.

Yakubu’s Sin Is A Puppy That Follows You Home – according to publishers Blaft, this is possibly the first Hausa to English translation – won’t feel revolutionary to many of us. The heroine of the story is Rabi, a long-suffering wife and mother of nine children. Her husband, Abdu, falls in love with a vamp and marries her. Rabi tries to adjust to the new wife, but domestic bliss is not to be. Abdu, blinded by lust, divorces Rabi and kicks her and the children out. Rabi struggles at first, but she has the support of Abdu’s family, her own brother and her children. Things settle down and Rabi starts a little business that does well. Then, misfortune strikes Abdu and finally, when he’s literally left with nothing, the prodigal husband realises what a good woman Rabi is. He apologises to her and asks her to return home. Rabi resists initially. However, all the people who had supported her earlier now urge her to give him another chance. So, ultimately, Rabi and Abdu reconcile. He is humbled. She doesn’t give up her business. Everyone lives happily ever after.

As in Bollywood, there’s no such thing as moderation in Sin Is A Puppy. Characters don’t so much speak to each other as wail. Abdu’s new wife is a human pit of vice and immorality, without any redeeming qualities. When Abdu is the bad guy, he’s horrible. When he’s penitent, he tearfully speechifies. Rabi and her children are so unadulteratedly virtuous that you almost expect to have wings and haloes. Everyone bursts into tears at the slightest provocation. Young lovers fall in love at first sight (literally). In short, the line distinguishing Sin Is A Puppy from a B-grade Bollywood blockbuster is almost invisible.

But contained in all this squelchy pulp is rebellion that isn’t so subtle if you consider the society for which Yakubu writes. Polygamy is accepted practice among Hausa. If a man doesn’t have more than one wife, it’s assumed this is because he can’t afford a ‘proper’ family. In these circumstances, Yakubu’s insistence that a man cherish only one wife is distinctly radical; as is her decision to give Rabi a career. Yakubu also goes against the grain by emphasising the need to educate girls. Rabi doesn’t marry her daughter off before she’s finished school. Yakubu constantly reminds her reader that women must not be trampled upon. If she is demure and devout, then she is her husband’s equal. To mistreat such a woman is to be a bad Muslim.

While some have called Yakubu a feminist, she chafes against that label. She describes herself as “half humanist and half feminist”, and she’s extremely proud of her Hausa identity. Curiously, she’s not particularly fond of Bollywood. “I don’t like the songs and dances because it is not our culture,” she said in an interview. “We have our cultural dances and songs, but that Indian style is not our culture.”

Sin Is A Puppy is rich with local Nigerian flavour and detail. At the same time, it’s informed by values like monogamy, loyalty, familial solidarity, and compromising between modernity and tradition that are staples of classic Bollywood plots. The films that are made purely for entertainment and are often disturbingly regressive have inspired a genre that seeks to educate and empower. If the soyayya authors are successful, it’ll be as close to a happy ending as we can imagine in real life.

The Mag This Week

Right. Links. In the Books page this week:

Saikat Datta reviews No Easy Day by Mark Owen and Counter Strike by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker.

An exclusive excerpt of Mridula Koshy’s forthcoming book, Not Only The Things That Have Happened. Harper Collins is bringing out the novel in November (which means you should see it in bookstores in a couple of weeks. That is, if you’re fortunate enough to live in a place that has bookstores). The excerpt is about a character named Saramma, who has decided she’s returning to her family for good after having been a rich man’s sexual keep. Enjoy.

I saw Cloud Atlas and I wasn’t wildly impressed. In the never-ending debate of Book versus Film, this round goes to the book. Particularly unimpressed by the Wachowskis’ decision to ‘yellowface’ actors, rather than using Asian actors. Of course, it was done to underscore the idea of reincarnation (Bollywood thought of it waaay before them), but the trope gets tired quickly and hampers the acting and — since I’m not particularly clued in on Korean cinema — there I was, imagining someone like Tony Leung playing Hae-Joo Chang. Anyway, here’s the piece on Cloud Atlas. 

Cloud Atlas: Book vs. Film

David Mitchell described his novel,Cloud Atlas, as “one of the most ’unfilmable’ books I’ve ever read.” He also said that if the novel’s structure was retained in the film, it would “suck”. Clearly, Tom Twyker, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski agree. Their adaptation is very different from the intricately-plotted novel as far as structure is concerned. Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is complicated swirl of sub-plots that take the reader through past, present, future, and all over the world. Nested in this house-of-cards novel is a thriller in which a journalist is hunted by a powerful corporation.

There’s also a sci-fi story, in which “fabricants”, or clones, rebel against a horrific and oppressive system. Yet another sub-plot goes into the future while one goes back into the 1800s. All the stories seem independent but ultimately prove to be intimately connected. Much of the joy of reading Cloud Atlas comes from discovering connections and realising how one character’s experiences loop into another.

Cloud Atlas the film begins near the end of the novel and unravels the stories in flashback. This should make it easier for those watching the film, especially if you haven’t read the book.

However, shuttling between so many time periods and places can be confusing. Add to that the different dialects of English, from old-fashioned to futuristic, and you have moments when even a viewer who has read the book will wonder what the hell is going on. The directors chose to make the actors play multiple roles to make obvious the interconnected nature of the different strands in the story. So, Ben Whishaw is the young composer Robert Frobisher from the ’30s as well as a record store owner from the ’70s and a ship hand in the 1850s. Sometimes, this device works; frequently, it becomes tacky.

While the novel’s many parts add up impressively, the film demands you let go of logic and follow the slipstream of the screenplay. In fact, if you do apply common sense, then Cloud Atlas is unsettlingly akin to Bollywood. Here, reincarnated characters are played by the same actor (and you criticised Karan Arjun for being unbelievable), give or take some prosthetic accessories. How can you not watch Hugh Grant with obviously fake slit eyes, pretending to be a sleazy Korean restaurateur, and not remember Bollywood’s attempts to turn the faces of actors like Madan Puri, Chunky Pandey and Aamir Khan to a more Mongoloid persuasion? Of course, the make-up is much more sophisticated in Cloud Atlas but the effect isn’t much more convincing. One of the most ludicrous parts of the film is when Jim Sturgess appears as the Korean Hae-Joo Chang, and we’re supposed to believe he’s a normal human and Doona Bae, the real South Korean, is a clone.

That said, there are some breathtaking moments in Cloud Atlas. Its greatest strength is the music that remains imaginary in the book. Frobisher’s symphony (titled Cloud Atlas) is a soaring composition and acts as a wonderful sonic backdrop. Tragically, the Indian censors’ moral policing butchers the piece’s crescendo(it accompanies love scenes).

Loved this moment in the film, even though it’s one of the sequences that the damned Indian censors butchered. Grr.

Cloud Atlas is long — at almost three hours, it gives a Karan Johar’s films a run for their money in terms of length — and parts of it are beautiful. But three directors and a novel of dazzling complexity has resulted in a film that is almost naive in parts and frequently implausible. The film simplifies the novel but this doesn’t help make the story more comprehensible. Our advice: read the book.

Review: The Satanic Verses

There’s no Books page in Mumbai this Sunday because the elephant-headed god leaves our city today, which means the press is shut. It’s one of those occasions when I can, with all accuracy, say “Thank you, god” because it means a whole weekend. Yay! But what we do have today, on Saturday, is a Rushdie page, cunningly-masquerading as a books’ page.

The illustration is by Manjul.

I’m not sure if any Indian newspaper ever carried a review of The Satanic Verses, since the India Today review, written on the basis of an advance copy, led to the book being banned, but 24 years later, we’ve got a review of Rushdie’s fourth novel in DNA. My reasoning was simple — Joseph Anton doesn’t exist without The Satanic Verses and Indian readers can’t access The Satanic Verses. So what’s the next best thing to reading a book? Reading a review of the book (said a book reviewer). The timing was also superb since next week is Banned Books week. My editor, Aditya Sinha, decided that the way to go about it was to have a whole page on Rushdie (since we didn’t have a books page this week). The boss said he’d review Joseph Anton, which meant I could carry out my nifty plan of sneaking in a piece about The Satanic Verses. Like I said on Twitter, thank god for an editor who loves books. Now, not only is there a Rushdie page, but it’s a right-hand page! This, dear non-journalist readers, is a huge deal. Right-hand pages are precious because most readers’ eyes go there, rather than to a left-hand page.

So, below, is my review of The Satanic Verses (also available on the DNA website). The boss’ review of Joseph Anton is here. Read, and bring the books (if not Rushdie) home to you.

Speak of the Devil

Published 24 years ago, The Satanic Verses had, among other things, a writer called Salman who was forced into hiding because he fiddled around with holy text. Deepanjana Pal remembers the novel that started the whole mess

There are some slights that Salman Rushdie does not intend to forget, if Joseph Anton is any indication. One of them is the Indian government’s decision to ban The Satanic Verses four months before Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini rapped out the fatwa that forced Rushdie into hiding. The ban on The Satanic Verses remains in place in India, making it one of the few books considered objectionable not for its content, but because of the mysterious economics of distribution. (The Satanic Verses is banned under the Indian Customs Act.)

Published in 1988, The Satanic Verses is Rushdie’s fourth novel. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Whitbread Award for novel of the year. Divided into nine parts and riddled with sub-plots, the overarching story stars a Bollywood matinee idol named Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, a confused British-Indian. Fittingly for a tale narrated by the devil (Rushdie drops pointed hints about the identity of the narrator), it’s full of magic, madness and carnivalesque characters.

The Satanic Verses opens with Gibreel and Saladin clinging to each other — Gibreel singing “Mera Joota Hai Japani” — as they plummet towards London and away from an exploding airplane. The effects of this disaster include a halo for Gibreel and for Saladin, halitosis, horns and hooves. In the course of the novel, Gibreel becomes increasingly convinced that he is, in fact, the archangel Gabriel (Gibreel is the Arabic version of the name). Saladin, transformed into a diabolical goatish form, is forced to take refuge in a Bangladeshi café-owner’s home, which is agony for him because he’s spent years cultivating a genteel (read: Caucasian) Englishness and distancing himself from what he’s considered migrant riff-raff. While the two men come to terms with their evolving selves, Rushdie takes the reader to the imaginary city of Jahilia where a businessman-turned-prophet named Mahound is trying to establish a new religion that asks its followers to submit to one god. The parallels with the history of Islam are unmistakable and this is the section that has raised the hackles of devout Muslims.

There’s another strand set in which a beautiful young girl, shrouded by butterflies, is hailed as a mystic when she says an angel speaks to her (through the lyrics of hit Bollywood songs). Connecting all these snaking tales is Gibreel, who sees them unfold in his dreams where he is the archangel after whom he is named. Meanwhile, Saladin comes to terms with the fact that his beloved London is a savage city and, despite all his attempts to mimic Britishness, his roots are in India, a culture that is more comfortably syncretic than 1980s’ London, which was violently oppressive towards migrant communities. That is The Satanic Verses, in a rather large nutshell.

The novel has its weaknesses. There are a few episodes, like one about an imam in exile, that feel superfluous. The last few chapters lack energy, as though the batteries of The Satanic Verses were dying. But most of it is a dazzling read. The language is full of pyrotechnics. Take, for example, the title of the third part: “Ellowen Deeowen”. It looks like gibberish. Say it out loud, and you know where this section of the book is set. Rushdie’s sentences are often elaborate, tangled with fragments and jam-packed with ideas and electric imagery.

“An iceberg is water striving to be land; a mountain, especially a Himalaya, especially Everest, is land’s attempt to metamorphose into sky; it is grounded flight, the earth mutated — nearly — into air, and become, in the true sense, exalted.”

Read it out, because unless you hear the crackle and cadence of the words, the language may seem unwieldy and you won’t realise the mischief and beauty of the prose.

It’s chilling to read The Satanic Verses today and spot Rushdie as the devil, which would be how many haters would depict him later. He also casts himself in the part of Salman the Persian, one of Mahound’s first followers. Salman becomes Mahound’s scribe and later starts to doubt Mahound. So Salman begins to tweak the text he’s asked to transcribe and this ultimately forces him into hiding.
The Satanic Verses is a modern fable. Here, it rains men; there are improbable names like Alleluia and secret sanatoriums filled with migrants that are animal-human hybrids. Here, the ridiculous is normal. Yet, despite the surreal, the sentiments and dilemma of the characters in the novel are rooted in basic and real human emotions. Many in The Satanic Verses are consumed by a desperate need to be loved, for example. If home is where the heart is, then what happens to those who are homeless?

Rushdie’s migrants are not typical. For instance, his Bangladeshi café owner can churn out quotes by famous thinkers like he’s a human quote generator. This is not an unseen and impoverished lot, but a privileged and anglicised set that is rendered invisible because of racism. Characters like Saladin embody the confusion and anxiety about identity that troubled so many first and second-generation immigrants. That feeling of unbelonging and the struggle to create a sense of self that incorporates the indigenous past as well as a more globalised present hasn’t become any easier in the past two decades.

For all the wicked humour, the novel bleeds with violence, both emotional and physical. The police repression of the 1980s and the resulting disruptions appear in all their blazing anger. Near the end of the novel, a delusional Gibreel believes he has, with his angelic wrath and an ordinary trumpet, unleashed the forces of destruction upon London. He sees around him flames and “eddying debris: shards of broken doors, doll’s legs…shattered job prospects, abandoned hopes, lost illusions, accumulated bitterness, vomited fear, and a rusting bath.” He’s actually in the middle of a race riot. Rushdie alternates between descriptions of Gibreel’s hallucinations and the unmagical explanation, giving the reader a vivid portrait of the chimera of power that has Gibreel and the rioters in its grip.

At the heart of The Satanic Verses is ambivalence: “…an idea of the self as being (ideally) homogenous, non-hybrid, ‘pure’ – an utterly fantastic notion! — cannot, must not, suffice. No! Let’s rather say an even harder thing: that evil may not be as far beneath our surfaces as we like to think.” Good is evil, and evil is good. To quote the lines from Faust that Rushdie uses in the novel, “Part of that Power, not understood,/ Which always wills the Bad, and always works the Good.”

In our turbulent age when the aphorism “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” has become almost a mantra, Rushdie’s novel about the shifting quality of intentions and ideas remains as relevant as ever.

The Mag This Week

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In this Sunday’s Books page are Kalpish Ratna’s review of The End of Illness, Freny Maneckshaw on The Householder, Karishma Attari on Wish You Were Here and in a earth-shatteringly radical move, a straight person reviews Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica.

That straight person being me. Voila, the review.

Close Encounters

Rowan Pelling, who turned a society newsletter into the popular Erotic Review, was once asked the question that is among the most-repeated in literature: how does one distinguish pornography from erotica? This was her take on the subject: “Porn mags are produced to be thrown away. They are as ephemeral as the ejaculations of the men who read them. Erotica is made to be kept, treasured and referred to, time and time again.”

No matter which literary tradition you consider, the practice of writing about sexual pleasure explicitly can be traced back to faraway historical periods. Regardless of how blurry our understanding of Greece in seventh century BC, India in 200BC or Japan in the twelfth century may be, thanks to literature like Sappho’s lyrics, Kama Sutra and artwork like Japanese shunga, those interested can learn about sexual pleasure from those eras in graphic detail. The fact that these documents have survived, whether in fragments or intact, shows the veracity of Pelling’s definition. These are works that were indeed treasured and preserved. They couldn’t have survived otherwise.

But erotica need not be erotic. There are many who would find the famous wood cut print by the 19th-century Japanese artist Hokusai, showing a woman being pleasured by octopuses, disturbing rather than arousing. In the late 1990s, critic Nilanjana Roy was asked to read an anthology of Indian erotica and her conclusion was that it was “the least erotic book I have had the honour of reading.” In an effort to elevate it from smut to literature, erotica is often intellectualised, which is perhaps the most effective buzzkill. Ironically, this usually done to grant erotica legitimacy.

The challenge of keeping the genre titillating but intelligent is one that Tranquebar seems to have taken upon itself. Since 2009, it has brought outElectric Feather (edited by Ruchir Joshi), Slither: Carnal Prose (by UrmillaDeshpande), Blue: The Tranquebar Book Of Erotic Stories From Sri Lanka (edited by Ameena Hussein) and now Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica. Of these, Close, Too Close has perhaps the least overtly sensual of covers. Carry it with you on the train, read it in office or at the dining table, and no one would guess the racy content or its inclinations. There’s a mischievous quality to the illusion offered by the innocuous cover, but it’s also a reminder of our tendency to be tight-lipped about sexuality in general and alternative sexuality in particular.

Close, Too Close
 attempts to bring queer erotica to the mainstream Indian reading public. The stories aim to be satisfyingly raw, suitably exotic and literary. Few manage this complicated cocktail. Most of them falter at a basic, storytelling level. For instance, keeping track of whose limb is where (and doing what) proves to be a perplexing exercise in many stories. Phrases like “she incrementally geared down” aren’t the stuff of anyone’s fantasies and in “The Half Day”, the recipe for rajma is more tempting than the sex. Too many read like shrill confessionals or drunken boasts. Also, it’s inadvisable to read all of Close, Too Close at one go. Even LGBT sex can get monotonous.

The best stories in Close, Too Close are those that linger upon the idea of attraction and the tentative space we inhabit when we discover desire. “Soliloquy” and “Perfume” shows protagonists dealing with sexual longing in different ways. “All in the Game” is a deliciously playful tale.Without making a production of it, they explore the baggage that comes with being queer in India. The most refreshing aspect of Close, Too Close is that the stories feel like they’re tethered to our everyday reality. The settings — the bus, the shikara, the rented flat — are tantalisingly familiar. Its most fantastical aspect is the easy acceptance of queer people and desires. The volume also has two illustrated pieces, by Anirban Ghosh and Nilofer; both of which are smartly-drawn, pleasant to look at and far from titillating.

Considering our society’s problematic and confused relationship with homosexuality, the fact that Close, Too Close has been brought out by a mainstream publisher and is widely available makes it significant. In his foreword to the volume, journalist Vikram Doctor writes that this volume presents “an equal acceptance of different realities where queer and straight worlds meet.” The encounter isn’t always the most erotically charged, but it’s about time it happened.