February links: Bad films, good films, Oscar grump, literary feuds and more.

I’d like to hold this wretched heat responsible for the fact that I completely forgot to put up links of published articles for the past couple of months. The way the temperature’s been rising, the only logical explanation for Mumbai’s weather is here in this Instagram post. But let us rewind to when the temperatures were less harsh and when less of my brain had molten into slush. Here are the links from February.

Reviews of Shamitabh, Badlapur, Qissa and a running commentary of watching Roy‘s first-day-first-show. February was Oscar season, so here’s what we saw in the theatres from the list of nominees: Mr. Turner, Wild Tales, The Grand Budapest Hotel, American SniperThe Imitation Game, Wild, Whiplash, Boyhood. The big winner, ultimately, was Birdman and I wrote about the predictability of Oscar wins. In case it wasn’t obvious, I preferred Boyhood.

There was an odd programme on the History of Sex on television, which I wrote about here.

I know it’s fashionable to feel outraged these days — and considering all that’s happening around us, it seems we’re all en vogue, regardless of our political and cultural orientation — but MSG was the next level of shamelessness. Here’s a sample of my rant about MSG.

I’d like to imagine that in a culture that values aesthetics and creativity, the critical establishment would ignore MSGentirely. Singh has every right to make it, just as his fans and admirers have every right to see it. However, when we as critics consider MSG worthy of a review, we’re giving cinema a bad name. And it’s unfair because MSG is not a film. It’s propaganda.

But caged as we are today by the need to follow trends and the conviction that growth is judged quantitatively and not qualitatively, MSG is a film. With each review that we write, we’re validating Singh, with his non-existent cinematic skills and dubious intents, as a film director. When we say that his film is laugh-out-loud funny, we’re unwittingly putting him in a category that includes real comedic talent and ranges from the silly slapstick of Padosan, the black comedy of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, the mischief of Chupke Chupke, the goofy stupidity of Andaz Apna Apna and the crackle of Hera Pheri. No wonder Singh grins at us leerily through his unkempt beard. Now there are more people who know him as a director and actor than as one accused of rape, murder and possession of illegal arms. Everyone who laughed at MSG, the joke’s on you.

You can read the whole thing here.

Speaking of outrage, Bhalchandra Nemade and Salman Rushdie had an online spat of sorts. I couldn’t help but say a prayer of thanks that writers are, in fact, lunatics and wrote this piece looking back at literary feuds.

My personal favourite literary feud, however, is from 2008, between Derek Walcott and Naipaul. Naipaul had observed that only Walcott’s early work showed talent so Walcott responded by writing a poem for and about Naipaul, titled “The Mongoose”. You can hear Walcott recite it here.  It includes lines like, “The old mongoose, still making money as a burnt out comic”

What’s worth noting in all these examples is that the authors fought (sometimes viciously), but these incidents didn’t take on proportions that intimidated either party. If anything, the provocative statements encouraged debate and discussion. There were no silences because of these feuds; only conversations that were louder and more passionate.

Read about other, more scandalous author squabbles here.

Fifty Shades of Grey didn’t get a release in India, so I took a walk down memory lane and realised Bollywood romances are kinkier than you’d think.


Margaret Atwood, The Stone Mattress and one fangirl

An edited version of this piece was published in the December 2014 issue of ELLE India. 

Age is supposed to mellow us, soften the rough edges, dull the sharpness. Canadian authorMargaret Atwood, 74, doesn’t subscribe to this stereotype in either real life or fiction. In her new collection of nine short stories, The Stone Mattress, two women are murderers, another is a werewolf, one man lusts after a young woman who comes to interview him even though his body is far from able to keep up with his thoughts. No one in the book, regardless of how old and wrinkled they are, is going gently into the night.

They’re just the kind of characters you expect from Atwood, who may have gained wrinkles but has lost none of the stiletto keenness of her intellect. “After a certain point, people tend to think ageing is hilarious,” Atwood said, when I asked her how it felt to grow old. “Especially hilarious is the fact that there are things that young people think you don’t know. You know, [like] sex. They think you don’t know anything about that. Or you’re not supposed to know anything about it. You’re supposed to be sort of old, wise and sweet. My older characters are not like that.”

Interviewing Atwood was unusually difficult for me. When you’ve followed an author through her books, short stories, essays, poetry, cartoons, inventions, speeches and interviews over approximately 20 years, it takes some doing to surf past the waves of fandom. It’s also a struggle to figure out what questions to ask her. I know she was born in 1939, in Ottawa, and spent her childhood in the Canadian wilderness. She went to school for the first time at the age of 12 and some of her experiences became the starting point for her luminous book about how girls bully each other, Cat’s Eye.

I know she ate her first rattlesnake in 1957 and that she wrote her first novel, The Edible Woman, in exam booklets on a card table in Vancouver. The book spent two years gathering dust in a publisher’s drawer, ignored until Atwood won Canada’s highest literary honour, the Governor General’s Award in 1966, for her second collection of poetry, The Circle Game. I know Atwood writes the first drafts of her books by hand and then has them typed up. While writing The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel set in a dystopic future in which fertile women are turned into breeding machines, she noted in her journal that she had found puffballs. Atwood is the inventor of LongPen, a device that allows celebrities to sign autographs remotely. And the author may well be a prophet because the future she describes in her Maddaddam trilogy reads more like fact than speculative fantasy. Oh, and Atwood got repetitive strain injury from signing too many autographs. That’s how popular and beloved she is.

In short, I’ve spent years virtually stalking Margaret Atwood. Consequently, I also know that she is not a chatty interviewee. There are horror stories about how she has politely chewed up interviewers who have asked silly questions. Politely but crushingly, Atwood terrorised one journalist so thoroughly that she said she’d run in the opposite direction if she ever sawAtwood again.


Which is why, when I realised that we had been talking for half an hour and were now sharing stories about dead hands and phantom footprints, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief – not just that my questions hadn’t been slashed into ribbons, but also because writers can often turn out to be disappointing when you encounter them outside of their writing. As it turns out,Atwood is delightful. Her mischievous, dry wit and treasure chest of experiences make her a joy to interview because every story Atwood has written has another story behind it.

For instance, the title tale of The Stone Mattress came out of an Arctic cruise that Atwood had been on with her partner, writer Graeme Gibson. The heroine, Verna, goes on that very same cruise and sees what Atwood had seen: a field of stromatolites, 1.9 billion-year-old fossils that could be fabulous murder weapons. That, however, is where the similarities end. “I have never killed anyone in the Arctic with a piece of rock,” Atwood assured me drily. “But I have been in the Arctic and I have the very piece of rock in the kitchen.”

On the cruise, Verna encounters an old acquaintance, Bob. (There were many Bobs on the cruise that Atwood was on and they all survived the trip.) When they were in high school, Bob had raped Verna, but decades later, he doesn’t recognise Verna. She does and decides to avenge herself by killing him. Whether or not you think Verna is justified in her actions will depend on your personal sensibilities.

Verna isn’t the only murderess in The Stone Mattress, belonging as she does to an illustrious line of Atwoodian women who break both stereotype and laws. There’s almost always an anti-heroine in Atwood’s novels, usually the character who haunts the reader long after they’ve finished the book. Atwood is a feminist, but has over the years stood out as one who knows how to create realistic women (and men) who live, rather than serve agendas. The voices she’s crafted for characters like Grace Marks (in Alias Grace) and Cordelia (in Cat’s Eye) continue to mesmerize readers. They’re sharply intelligent, resisting the constraints placed upon them by society and convention in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable and always fascinating. Atwoodian heroines are disturbers of peace, for simple-minded wannabe feminists as much as chauvinists.

“I got some kickback in the ’70s for creating a female character who wasn’t virtuous,” recalled Atwood. “But since that time, after people have reflected a bit especially on their own experiences, we all know that it’s not true that all women are not angels of virtue because we’ve known a lot of women. They come in all shapes and sizes, just like men, and all degrees of meanness or pleasantness, like men.”

The equanimity in this statement belies the way Atwood savages misogyny in her stories, using the women in her fiction to put men – real and fictional – in their place and expose the stupidity of ‘mansplaining’. That said, Atwood’s fiction is peopled with many fantastic male characters. Sometimes, they’re the voices of reason, like Tin from “Dark Lady” in The Stone Mattress, who sees the sadness behind the manic, shiny happiness in his twin sister and is the one standing by her side, whether or not she needs his support.

Today, there’s a host of Canadian writers who feature in people’s reading lists: Nobel prize winner Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Yann Martel, Douglas Coupland, Carol Shields, to name a few. It’s difficult to imagine now, but when Atwood started writing, there was no such thing as a Canadian literary scene. This emptiness worked to her advantage because Canada was hungry for storytellers and the rest of the world proved to be just as eager to sample the stories told by Atwood and those who followed in her footsteps. She explains it as a confluence of coincidences: “If I’d arrived at the very same mental faculties but it had been the middle of the 19th century and it had been rural Canada, I doubt very much I would have become a writer. There wouldn’t have been a place for me to publish.”

Being born in the right era, however, doesn’t entirely explain the way Atwood put Canada on the literary map. She’s been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times (The Blind Assassin, not her best work, won the prize in 2000) and her novels are part of college syllabi in different parts of the English-reading world. That’s much more than time and place working in fortuitous tandem.

The charm in Atwood’s novels is similar to the stromatolites that give The Stone Mattress its name. Stromatolites, as Atwood explains, are “a fossilised cushion, formed by layer upon layer of…algae building up into a mound or dome.” Packed in these ‘stones’ are the story of our planet and life, because this fossil created oxygen on earth. In many ways, they mirrorAtwood’s style storytelling —layer is placed upon layer, with details being embedded neatly and densely within them.

stone-mattressThere are numerous references and allusions from literature, history and science in Atwood’s writing, she wears the erudition lightly. The hooks lie in the plots and characters and they reel readers in quickly: femme fatales, twisted marriages, lost fathers; a young woman who may or may not have killed the two people who showed her kindness; a republic where women are cloistered and segregated according to their childbearing potential. Most of the time, just the blurb at the back of an Atwood book is enough to make the question of ‘what happened next?’ start gnawing at you. Quickly, you discover her deadpan, cutting sense of humour surfacing unexpectedly across the terrain of her stories, like this observation from “Torching the Dusties”, a story from The Stone Mattress: “According to Tobias, it was more difficult to seduce a stupid woman than an intelligent one because stupid women could not understand innuendo or even connect cause with effect. The fact that a pricey dinner out to be followed, as the night the day, by the compliant opening of their peerless legs was lost on them.”

Incidentally, “Torching the Dusties” is about a few old people in an home for the aged which is besieged by a murderous group of protestors, holding placards that read “Time to Go”. They’re a group called “Our Turn” and they want the old to vacate not just the premises, but the planet. It’s unnerving how credible the scenario is, despite Our Turn’s absurdly cruel agenda, and that credibility comes from how Atwood’s characters think and respond to their circumstances.

No matter how surreal the context, those that people Atwood’s writing always feel real. They fall in love, leave scars and tease both other characters and the reader. Every relationship is a tug of war that tenses and slackens in a power play that may be sly or obvious. “In the very, very broadest sense, interpersonal relationships require negotiations of various kinds, stated or unstated,” said Atwood when I asked if she thought love was essentially a power struggle between two people. “Sometimes these interpersonal relationships, such as marriage, are politically determined because they’re constrained by law, and laws are made by politicians. So who can do what to whom legally is a political matter. Who actually does what to whom, that can be outside the box. But it’s always playing against what is legally permissible and what society considers acceptable.”

Listening to her, I was reminded of something she’d written in Cat’s Eye: “We are survivors of each other. We have been shark to one another, but also lifeboat. That counts for something.”

Atwood’s language and her gift for both sensing and articulating suffering is unmatched. Running through the heart of so much of her writing is pain that flashes like a river catching sunlight. Atwood torments her characters and then writes of their suffering with a simple, dazzling lyricism. Violence is written with a certain morbid relish and even something as over-written as heartbreak can become piercing when Atwood words it:

“Falling in love, we said; I fell for him. We were falling women. We believed in it, this downward motion: so lovely, like flying, and yet at the same time so dire, so extreme, so unlikely. God is love, they once said, but we reversed that, and love, like heaven, was always just around the corner. The more difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more we believed in Love, abstract and total. We were waiting, always, for the incarnation. That word, made flesh.”

Reading Atwood’s fiction, it often feels as though it’s the flesh made word, to turn the famous phrase from the Gospel of John upon its head. Her novels often feel like a record of something that we’ve experienced or are just about to experience. The Maddaddam trilogy, for instance, was supposed to be science fiction about “things that have not been invented yet” — ranging from hybrid animals to human-like species called the Crakers — but we’re already taking steps in this direction. Genetic splicing is not speculative and these novels offer a chilling (though not entirely hopeless) vision of where we as a planet appear to be headed.

Even in The Stone Mattress, whose stories are Atwood’s take on Gothic literature and folklore, Atwood can’t quite let go of her pragmatism. In the story titled “Lusus Naturae”, for instance, Atwood’s heroine is a werewolf, but her father insists it’s a medical condition. When she’s forced to stay hidden indoors, the werewolf educates herself by reading Pushkin, Lord Byron and John Keats. This only serves to make the fact that she’s considered fearsome both absurd and a reflection of how so many patriarchal societies are made nervous by empowered women.

As fantastical creatures go, Atwood’s are rather human and relatable, which isn’t quite what you expect of a volume that Atwood has stressed is made up of “tales” rather than stories. In her author’s note, she writes,

“Calling a piece of short fiction a ‘tale’ removes it at least slightly from the realm of mundane works and days, as it evokes the world of the folk take, the wonder tale, and the long-ago teller of tales.”

The Stone Mattress has many kinds of fantasies, ranging from the apparitions that are a symptom of the Charles Bonnet’s syndrome in the chilling “Torching the Dusties” to the alternative reality of Alphinland and the aforementioned werewolf. However, while none of these are mundane, neither are they entirely fantastical. “I kind of shy at the jump,” admittedAtwood. “I didn’t go all the way to say a dead hand really is creeping about under your bed. I couldn’t quite get that far. But I’ve always wanted to write a dead hand story because I was so smitten by the beast with five fingers.”

Margaret Atwood writing The Handmaid’s Tale, in Berlin, 1984. Photo by Isolde Ohlbaum.

Considering how much she’s written – that too in long hand – and the variety in her writing, it’s not surprising that Atwood is smitten by the beast with five fingers. At present, her hand is occupied figuring out the novel she will submit to Scottish artist Katie Paterson’s Future Library project. A forest has been planted in Norway that will, 100 years later, provide the paper to publish an anthology of books that are being commissioned now. Authors will write works that will be sealed for the next 100 years. They’re not allowed to tell anyone what they’re writing and the work must be made up of only words, which means there will be no graphic novels in the Future Library. These will be sealed in a box and all present-day readers will know is the title and the author’s name. After a century, the manuscript will be taken out and published. Atwood is the first writer to be invited to contribute a book to Future Library.

It seems fitting that the last novel that will be published in Atwood’s name will, like her first, sit unopened for a long time. At the moment though, Atwood’s concerns are more technical than literary. “I got some special archival paper because I didn’t want them to open the box and find a lot of oxidised scraps. That would be a disappointment,” she said drily.

Unsurprisingly, she’s breaking the stereotype of ageing yet again with this project. Instead of looking back, as we expect the elderly to do, Atwood is looking forward.

Talking movies: Fahrenheit 451, Blue Jasmine

From Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451
From Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451

For Banned Books Week, I wrote about the film, Fahrenheit 451:

Truffaut’s film presents literature’s as a cultural keepsake. Simple or complex, realistic or surreal, fact or fiction, words and stories are a record of how the human imagination has arrived at its present form. As Montag says of his nightly reading ritual, “I’ve got to catch up with the remembrance of the past.” Truffaut and Bradbury suggest literature is like the mythical phoenix, which had healing powers and could rise out of its own ashes. Both fragile and resilient, literature seems simple enough to stifle. Ban it, and it disappears. Burn it, as libraries have been in every civilization, and all that remains are ashes. But if a book has been read even once, it survives, even if only as a fragment, in memory. It’s passed on when someone shares that memory, and in this way, literature survives. It transforms, spilling its stories into different art forms, like cinema and painting. As long as there is memory, there is literature.

Click here for the entire piece.

More recently, Woody Allen decided Blue Jasmine wouldn’t release in India because he didn’t want the anti-tobacco messages imprinted upon his film.

Many will cheer for Allen standing up for his work and claiming his right as the director of the film to decide what happens to it, the way David Fincher did when he refused the edits that the Indian censors demanded of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. There are those who will raise the valid question of whether one line of warning against smoking, written in small, semi-transparent type, is actually potent enough to destroy the aesthetics of Allen’s frames in Blue Jasmine. Would that warning popping up now and then really distract us from the story he’s telling? It’s possible that Allen is being a cantankerous old perfectionist who is making a big deal out of a stupid requirement. But it is his film and he is the only one who has the right to decide whether or not it should be ‘customised’ for India.

The real question is, where does that leave the Indian viewer? The answer is, snubbed. You can either limit your film watching to what is available in cinemas or watch a pirated copy of the film.

The whole piece is here.

Links: Films, booze, books, art and caste

‘Tis the time to update. Here’s what I’ve been up to for the past few weeks.

1. A long interview with S. Anand, founder of Navayana publishing. The first part is all about publishing and among other things, he makes the rather pertinent point that books are not FMCG products so expecting to churn out the same kind of profits is absurd. In part two, he really sinks his teeth into the privileged Hindu. If you haven’t heard of Navayana, click here. Conservative Hindus who believe the caste system is a wonderful thing, Navayana’s books are not going to be your cup of tea (to put it mildly).

2. A combined review of Amitabh Kumar and Dhruv Malhotra’s shows. Malhotra’s photographs of Delhi are unexpectedly gorgeous. Unexpected because he doesn’t photograph the obviously pretty parts of the national capital, but his photographs are still beautiful. Maybe it’s just the fact that we’re entirely unused to seeing our cities without crowds, but Malhotra makes ugly cityscapes look mysterious and poetic.

3. I reviewed Shootout at Wadala. I’m going to put up the notes I took while watching the film in a separate post, but the review is here.

4. When The Telegraph carried a report that Andhra Pradesh had decided its women will not be served alcohol after 10pm (men, on the other hand, can hang around and drink themselves silly till 11pm), I naturally had to blow some steam. So that’s here. As you can see from the headline, the authorities have said no such notice has been issued.

Here’s the truly joyous takeaway from the posts I wrote on Saturday. Everyone thinks Bollywood is what is guaranteed to click with Indian readers. Turns out, booze gets our attention more than Bollywood.


As always, the comments warm the cockles of my heart. Current favourite is by one Karthik, in the thread for the Andhra-booze-ban-that-isn’t-a-ban:

A women only could write this article. They have a problem with everything, always cribbing about gender equality but are the first to demand special right and privileges for women. Hippocrates all of them.



The Mag This Week – One of Many Pages

Three pages of books, three pages of ‘It’s Personal’ stories — there’s a lot to read in this issue and I’m quite chuffed with how the whole thing’s come out so I’m going to go page by page. In the first page of The Mag, we had the Great Game and the great literary game and some cinematic glamour:

Bloomsbury India has published Return of a King and they were kind enough to let me choose an extract. In DNA, we have the luxury of carrying 800- to 900-word articles as the central piece, which is a lot of words for an article but isn’t really substantial enough for an extract so it wasn’t easy to pick an excerpt. I loved the end of Return of a King but it seemed a little unfair to give away the end, even though it’s not precisely a thriller. (Super last line in that book, though.) To pick the first 800 words seemed too predictable. Ultimately, even though the book is actually about Shah Shuja and Dost Mohammad Khan, I chose this little section about Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab and Alexander Burnes. Because the maharaja was a rockstar.

From Return of A King

“Whilst stooping to remove my shoes,” Burnes wrote, “I suddenly found myself in the arms and tight embrace of a diminu- tive, old-looking man.”

Maharaja Ranjit Singh

This was Ranjit Singh, the Lion of the Punjab himself. Leading Burnes by the hand, he brought him into the court where “all of us were seated on silver chairs, in front of his Highness”. It was now more than thirty years since Ranjit Singh had come to power, assist- ing Shah Zaman to save his cannon from the mud of the Jhelum, and thirteen years since Shah Shuja had fled Ranjit’s enforced hospitality through the city sewers. Since then, the Sikh leader had taken the opportunity presented by the Afghan civil war to absorb most of the lands of the Durrani Empire east of the Indus and build a remarkably rich, strong, centralised and well-governed Sikh state in its place. As well as training his remarkable army, Ranjit had also modernised his bureaucracy and ran a formidable intelligence network.

The British generally got on well with Ranjit Singh, but they never forgot that his army was the last military force in India which could take on the Company on the field of battle: by the 1830s, the Company had stationed nearly half the Bengal army, totalling more than 39,000 troops, along the Punjab frontier. It was therefore extremely important that Burnes establish a good rapport with Ranjit.

The French traveller Victor Jacquemont penned a revealing portrait of the Maharajah just a couple of months before Burnes arrived in Lahore. He depicted Ranjit Singh as a clever and charming rogue – as disreputable in his private habits as he was admirable in his public ones. “Ranjit Singh is an old fox,” he wrote, “compared with whom the wiliest of our diplomats is a mere innocent . . .” Jacquemont reported a number of encounters with the Maharajah: “His conversation is a nightmare. He is almost the first inquisitive Indian I have seen, but his curiosity makes up for the apathy of the whole nation. He asked me a hundred thousand questions about India, the English, Europe, Bonaparte, the world in general and the other one, hell and paradise, the soul, God, the devil, and a thousand things beside . . .” Ranjit Singh regretted that women “no longer give him any more pleasure than the flowers in his garden”. …

Jacquemont also noted that the Maharajah “has a passion for horses which is almost a mania; he has waged the most costly and bloody wars for the purpose of seizing a horse in some neighbouring state which they had refused to sell or give to him . . . He is also a shame- less rogue who flaunts his vices as Henri III did in our country . . . Ranjit has frequently exhibited himself to his good people of Lahore with a Moslem public woman, indulging in the least innocent of sports with her on the back of an elephant . . .”

Burnes was just as taken with Ranjit Singh as Jacquemont had been, and the two quickly became firm friends: “Nothing could exceed the affability of the Maharajah,” he wrote. “He kept up an uninterrupted flow of conversation for the hour and a half which the interview lasted: he enquired particularly about the depth of water in the Indus and the possibility of navigating it.” The dray horses and the carriage were then inspected: “The sight of the horses excited his utmost wonder; their size and colour pleased him: he said they were little elephants, and as they passed singly before him, he called out to the different sardars and officers, who joined in his admiration.” Indeed such was Ranjit’s pleasure in his gifts, and Lord Ellenborough’s letter which accompanied them, that he ordered an unprecedented artillery salute of sixty guns, each firing twenty-one times, so that the people of Lahore would be in no doubt as to his enthusiasm for his new English alliance.

For two months, Ranjit laid on a round of entertainments for Burnes. Dancing girls performed, troops were manoeuvred, deer were hunted, monuments were visited and banquets were thrown. Burnes even tried some of Ranjit’s home-made hell-brew, a fiery distillation of raw spirit, crushed pearls, musk, opium, gravy and spices, two glasses of which was normally enough to knock out the most hardened British drinker, but which Ranjit recommended to Burnes as a cure for his dysentery. Burnes and Ranjit, the Scot and the Sikh, found themselves bonding over a shared taste for fire- water. “Runjeet Singh is, in every respect, an extraordinary character,” wrote Burnes. “I have heard his French officers observe that he has no equal from Constantinople to India.”


Since from now to January, it’s one literature festival after another, it seemed an opportune moment to let disgruntled lit fest goers have their say. This one channels the complaints of many.

Dear Author

Screen Shot 2012-12-09 at 1.36.20 PMNow is the winter of our discontent — us being the hapless lot that attends literary festivals. It’s that time of the year again when you come into the spotlight. The literary festival season in underway, which means more panels than the government of India has instituted in the past 65 years. You think this is wonderful, and understandably so. You’re on stage, you have a bottle of water, you have a moderator, you have an audience, and you hold forth. And you’re convinced, of course, that your audience is hanging upon every pearl of wisdom that you utter.

News flash: Contrary to what your ego is telling you, you really are not that cool. In fact, to put it bluntly, a staggering majority of your tribe is boring. So here’s a plea from someone who attends literary festivals out of the delusion that literature can potentially be fun: get your act together. Be engaging. Don’t make us yawn. Wake up and wake us up.

This is the part where you get huffy and say that I’m an illiterate yokel. Why is it that when foreign authors have panel discussions, people are gung-ho but when Indian authors do the same, they’re labelled boring, you will ask. Because, unlike you, they know how to play this game. Either that, or they’re just smarter and more interesting. The jury is out on that one.

Here’s the thing: I desperately want you guys to be good.  I want to be able to tell people, “You must go and see this author’s session. They’re awesome!” Except you, dear writer, make it impossible for me to do so. I’m not sure whether you inherently lack charisma, but I can count on my fingertips the number of Indian authors who have a commanding presence. Most of the time, you say things you’ve said before. It’s absolutely depressing how lacking in humour most of you are. Neither you nor your moderators make any effort to engage an audience. You don’t have debates with panellists or have enlightening conversations. At best, when you talk, it’s like listening to the kid who sits in the first row and mugs up the entire textbook. Worst-case scenario, you say inconsequential bits of nothing that we forget by the time we’ve made our way to the exit at the end of your panel. No one tells you this because we Indians are genetically pre-disposed to rejecting criticism. Consequently, all we offer to one another is flattery, with varying percentages of helium.

You want to learn how to play the literary festival game? Look at foreign authors, like Margaret Atwood, Martin Amis, Gary Shteyngart, Zadie Smith, Hisham Matar, Teju Cole and Chimamanda Adichie. They’re witty, they’re insightful and even the most egotistical of them is aware that they need to work a crowd. At the end of listening to authors like these, the audience’s head is spinning with a million ideas. You feel awe at how this mind things, how much it knows, how incredible the experiences are, how cleverly they tell stories and — in case of writers like Smith and Adichie — how hot they are. Watching them is not the same as reading an interview of theirs. It’s richer, more informative and seriously fun.

I can’t think of too many Indian authors who inspire even one of these sentiments and I’d like to believe it’s not because we are basically a boring people. I prefer to think it’s you, dear writer, being complacent. The festivals are free so the crowds will come. You’re not trying to woo the reader. You want to woo the publisher and the agent, with whom you’ll netword during after hours. So we, the hoi polloi in the audience, are not really worth the charm. I’m not asking you to make provocative statements and get arrested (though if you are so inclined, I won’t complain. The spineless goodie-two-shoes nature of the Indian cultural scene needs to be slapped out of shape). All I’m saying is, give us a good time. You never know, you might find you’re having more fun too.


Disgruntled Lit-Fester

Booker Prize 2012: Hilary Mantel

How fitting that a writer best known (now) for historical fiction made history? My piece on Mantel’s double Booker in today’s DNA (I’m happy to report that the headline is, ahem, incorrect only in the website. The newspaper carried the sensible version). There’s nothing disappointing about Bring Up The Bodies winning because it is a brilliant book. Structure, pace, language, characterisation, tension, research — it has everything. The one twinge of disappointment for me came from the Booker judges choosing to pick an already famous and bestselling author, rather than someone lesser-known. I probably wouldn’t have felt this twinge if I didn’t love Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists as much as I did. But for all my fondness for it, I can’t deny that Bring Up The Bodies is tighter and better structured than The Garden of Evening Mists. So I guess the mightier book did win. Anyway, here’s my bit on this year’s Booker.

Double Booker for her Mantel

When Sir Peter Stothard, chairman of the judges, announced Hilary Mantel was this year’s Man Booker Prize winner, no one should have been surprised. Mantel has been the favourite ever since the Booker shortlist was released last month. In spite of this, it took a moment for the announcement to sink in because Mantel hadn’t just proved the bookies right; she’d made history.

After Peter Carey and JM Coetzee, Mantel is the third person to have won two Booker prizes. She is the first woman and the first Briton to win the double. She won her first Booker prize in 2009, for her twelfth book, Wolf Hall, which was the first instalment of a trilogy on the Tudor statesman, Thomas Cromwell. Bring Up The Bodies is the second part and Tuesday night’s win makes this the first sequel to win the prize. Stothard described Mantel as “the greatest English prose writer” of our times. Mantel’s reacted to the win with a quip: “You wait 20 years for a Booker Prize and two come along at once.”

This year’s Booker Prize shortlist was praised for the emphasis placed on craft, which was a stark contrast to last year’s selection that selected books for their “readability”. In the prelude to the announcement, Stothard said that the original idea behind the Booker was not to create bestsellers but to applaud high quality storytelling in prose. His words may have sparked a flame of hope in the hearts of the independent publishers of shortlisted novels — The Lighthouse and Swimming Home — but ultimately, the panel of judges ended up selecting the book that, in terms of sales figures, has proven to be the most readable. As of now, Bring Up The Bodies has sold 1,08,342 copies in UK, which is more than what the other 11 novels longlisted for this year’s prize have sold altogether. The success of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies must be particularly satisfying for Mantel because initially, she had trouble finding publishers for Tudor-era trilogy. Usually, fiction set in that era chooses well-known characters like Henry VIII as heroes, but Mantel picked Thomas Cromwell, a shadowy historical figure.

Wolf Hall introduced readers to Cromwell and in Bring Up The Bodies, he’s the man who brings Anne Boleyn down. The last of the trilogy is titled Mirror And Light and will continue Cromwell’s story till his execution in 1540. Upon receiving the Booker Prize, Mantel said, “I assure you I have no expectations that I will be standing here again. But I regard this as an act of faith and vote of confidence.” What’s the bet that once Mirror and Light comes out, we’ll all be hoping for a hat trick?

Nobel Prize for Literature 2012: Mo Yan

This is the week that you should feel a little pity for those of us on the book beat. If no one else wants the sympathy, I’ll take it all, thank you very much. We’ve got two pages of Books coming up in The Mag this Sunday in which yours truly gives you the low down on the six shortlisted novels for this year’s Booker. And as if writing all those reviews wasn’t work enough, the Nobel Prize for Literature had to go ahead and be announced this week. Sheesh.

So yes, Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Who’d have thunk there’d come a day when the Nobel Committee and the Chinese government could do same-pinch to one another? Dissident authors in China, you may cool your heels for … the next decade or so. Which, being pure speculation, is for this blog only.

Here’s the more restrained and polite piece about Mo Yan (not “Yo Man”, as he was dubbed by a colleague whose anonymity will be maintained) for today’s paper. (Of course I don’t have the link, but when I do find it, I’ll plonk it in here.)

China’s Mo Yan Wins Nobel for Literature

(From Red Sorghum) I sort of imagine Murakami fans would have a similar expression if they had to congratulate Mo Yan.

All the hopeful fans of Haruki Murakami and Bob Dylan will have to put their party hats away. This year’s Nobel Prize for literature has been awarded to Chinese author Mo Yan. Peter Englund, the head of the Swedish Academy, described Mo Yan as “an extremely original narrator” whose fiction fuses folktales with history and contemporary concerns.

The 57-year-old is the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Prize for literature. In 2000, Gao Xingjian had been awarded the prize, but the China-born author has lived in France since 1987 and is a French citizen. The Swedish Academy’s decision to honour Xingjian, whose work is banned in China, was not appreciated by the Chinese government which disowned the prize.

Born in 1955 in the township of Gaomi, Mo Yan grew up in hardship. He was taken out of school at the age of 12 and made to graze cattle. At 20, he joined the People’s Liberation Army and his writing career began in 1981, when he was 26. In earlier interviews, he has said that he came up with the pen name Mo Yan, which translates to “don’t speak”, to remind himself to not be too forthright. His birth name is Guan Moye.

In his almost 30-year career, Mo Yan has written numerous short stories and novels. He is most widely known outside China for his novel Red Sorghum, which was adapted into an award-winning film and marked the directorial debut of Zhang Yimou.
His novel Life And Death Are Wearing Me Out was translated into English and nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007. Before the Nobel was announced, Mo Yan had told media that he didn’t want to talk about the prize because anything he said would be criticised.

It’s possible that China’s Communist leadership may be mollified by the Nobel Prize being awarded to Mo Yan. Although Mo Yan has been critical of some government policies and a few of his books have been banned in China, the author maintains a careful relationship with the authorities. In the past, the Chinese writer Ma Jian has criticised Mo Yan for not showing solidarity with dissident artistes.

In 2009, Mo Yan pulled out of a seminar at the Frankfurt Book Fair when he learnt Chinese dissidents were allowed to participate in it. He articulated his stand in a speech delivered at the fair, in which he cautioned against “one uniform” expression of “criticism and indignation at the dark side of society”. “Some may want to shout on the street, but we should tolerate those who hide in their rooms and use literature to voice their opinions,” he said, clearly placing himself in the second category.

There’s no doubt that Mo Yan enjoys a degree of acceptance from the Chinese government. Last year, he won China’s Mao Dun Literary Prize, which is a government-approved award. He also contributed to a book that commemorated Mao Zedong by printing a speech that Mao had given 70 years ago, setting down the parameters for China’s arts and literature.

Prior to the announcement of the Nobel, there was some speculation that Mo Yan was perhaps too close to the Chinese establishment to win the Swedish Academy’s favour. The assumption was that the Nobel would be awarded to a dissident author, but the Swedish Academy seems to have chosen to exercise diplomacy by selecting a Chinese writer who is careful in his critique and isn’t radical or outspoken in his support of those protesting against the present Chinese leadership. Among those to express their disappointment was Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei who said that the Nobel committee’s decision reflected “bad taste”.