Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights: More hits than myths

Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty Eight Nights: A Novel

Salman Rushdie

Penguin India/ Hamish Hamilton

Rs 599, 286 pages


It was after the Emergency that Delhi’s citizens returned to the practice of writing to the jinns of the city, trusting in the existence and benevolence of magical beings who straddled the divide between the world of mortals and immortals.

Ask in Kotla or Jamali-Kamali, and some will tell you that the jinns still walk among humans: ageless, gifters of boons, curious, easily outwitted for all their special powers, relying on us to combat the boredom of the near-deathless.

It is easy to believe that some jinns (recogniseable, Rushdie suggests, by the lack of lobes to their ears) might read novels; after you read 2-8-28, you might wonder about jinns lurking among authors. Salman Rushdie’s 12th novel is an Arabian Nights updated for the 21st century, a thousand-and-one-nights epic noir written by a storyteller who knows, like Scheherazade, what it feels like to dodge the executioner’s axe and still keep the words flowing.

Rushdie’s jinns live roughly in our times, participants in the War of the Worlds that is both a battle between the jinns and humans, and a civil war among the jinns themselves. It is as pointless to outline his densely crafted stories-within-stories plot as it would be to list all of the nested Chinese box tales of the Thousand-and-One Nights themselves, and moreover, it would spoil the fun, the exhilaration of being swept into the crowded seas of his imagination.


For readers, 2-8-28 is a treasure, referencing much-loved books and answering old questions. For instance, what happened to Scheherezade’s sister, Dunyazade, whose listening to the tales is as life-saving as Scheherezade’s telling of them? She resurfaces as a jinnia, named for the world, mother of hordes of jinn-human children she assidously creates (the jinns really, really like sex, and this is important to the plot) along with Ibn-Rushd, the “philosopher who could not speak his philosophy”.

Los Caprichos (43): Sleep of Reason

Ibn-Rushd is invoked along with Francisco Goya, who supplies Los Caprichos No 43 as a frontispiece and a motto – “The sleep of reasons brings forth monsters” for the novel. By deploying them, two men who were censored in different ways by religion, as patron saints, Rushdie links the tradition of Western fantasy to the tales and deep myths of the Arab, Persian and Indian worlds. It is our monsters, gods and demons who seep into America and Europe when the seals between the human and jinn world break. Dunia’s babies – midnight’s grown-up children, scattered across the earth with their special blitzkreig powers – will be active combatants, though they bear her name, not Ibn-Rushd’s. “It is better that they be the Duniazat… To be the Rushdi would send them into history with a mark upon their brow.”

The war between those who love stories and those who cannot stand “fairy tales, pipe dreams, chimeras, delusions, lies” is as strongly contested as the jinn-human struggle. Mr Airagira, from the city of B. (a shrunken, bitter version of its once-joyous self), quietly notes the takeover of the managers of the construction programme in a changing India: “The orderers and pointers and herders, all seemed to be viciously angry all the time, and intolerant too, particularly of people like himself.”

And it’s the Managers and Swots who ask, with increasing anger, the question Rushdie raised first in Haroun and The Sea of Stories: what’s the use of stories that aren’t even true? A dangerous, silencing, stifling idea spreads: “The idea that language was an infection from which the human race needed to recover, that speech was the source of all dissension, wrongdoing and decay.”

From Kay Nielsen's illustrations for the Arabian Nights
From Kay Nielsen’s illustrations for the Arabian Nights

Of all the children of the jinn, the best-imagined is Mr Geronimo (formerly Hieronymous), who places his faith in gardens, not wishing to go to war until it is pointed out that the war will come to him. He hovers first an inch and then three-and-a-half inches off the ground. Also off the bed, and above plumbing facilities; Mr Rushdie is determined to underline the realism in magical realism. And yet, he is compelling in a way that Dunia, for all her dazzling capabilities, the wars she fights, the intensity of her loves, is not: Rushdie’s old weakness, the fact that his women characters are often admirable but seldom convincing, rears its head.

Some minor characters work brilliantly – Hugo Casterbridge, the atheist who has the misfortune to believe in divine retribution, Blue Yasmeen, as beguiling and intense as the film she is named after. Some are so thinly sketched they have about the same reality as the paper they’re printed on – Teresa, reinventing herself as a talented mass murderer called Mother Teresa, Daniel Aroni, better known as ‘Mac’ Aroni.

But I don’t expect a Rushdie novel to be neat, and tidy, and compact, and Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights gladdens my fantasy-loving soul by being none of these things. From minor conceits (could financial crises and climate change excesses be caused by dark jinns) to big ideas (the enemy is stupid; there is no originality in tyrants) to really big ideas (will we set aside god, like children done with their playthings), Two Years overdelivers.

And you would have to be a Swot, or a Manager, not to be drawn in by the great roaring energy of this intelligent parable of modern times, populated by creatures from ancient fantasy. This is one of the best of Rushdie’s novels, its flaws chiefly the flaws of excess, its gifts coming from its roots in old stories, old magic reinterpreted for modern times.

It even has a fairy tale ending, though that comes with the classic fairy tale warning: be careful what you ask for.

(Published in the Business Standard, September 8, 2015)

The Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize: shortlists from 2008

The prize was set up to “encourage authors from the subcontinent” in honour of Shakti Bhatt, writer and editor of Bracket Books, who passed away after a brief illness on March 31, 2007, at the age of 26. For authors, this is a very special prize — because it’s the only Indian prize for first books, because it allows fiction and non-fiction equal space, and because you can only be nominated for a first book prize once in your lifetime as a writer.

(More at The Shakti Bhatt Foundation FB Community page.)

2015 shortlist:

In alphabetical order, winner to be announced in November:

sb-fireunderash sb-mohan sb-shahid sb-vanishedsb-das-devoursb-karnad

Bharath Murthy, The Vanished Path

Indra Das, The Devourers

Saskya Jain, Fire Under Ash

Shahid Siddiqui, The Golden Pigeon

Raghu Karnad, The Farthest Field

Rohini Mohan, The Seasons of Trouble

2014 shortlist:


Winner: The Scatter Here Is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer (Random House India)

A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor (Hamish Hamilton Penguin India)

The Vanishing Act by Prawin Adhikari (Rupa)

a cool, dark place by Supriya Dravid (Random House India)

The Competent Authority by Shovon Chowdhury (Aleph)

The Smoke Is Rising by Mahesh Rao (Random House India)

2013 shortlist:


Winner: The Wildings by Nilanjana Roy

Boats on Land by Janice Pariat

India Becoming by Akash Kapur

The King’s Harvest by Chetan Raj Shreshta

Foreign by Sonora Jha

a pleasant kind of heavy and other stories by aranyani

2012 shortlist:


Winner: Taj Mahal Foxtrot by Naresh Fernandes (Roli Books)

Tamasha in Bandargaon by Navneet Jagannathan (Tranquebar)
The Purple Line by Priyamvada Purushottam (HarperCollins)
The King in Exile by Sudha Shah (HarperCollins)
The Inexplicable Unhappiness of Ramu Hajjam by Taj Hassan (Hachette)
Calcutta Exile by Bunny Suraiya (HarperCollins)

2011 shortlist:


The Wandering Falcon, Jamil Ahmad

The Collaborator, Mirza Waheed

The Truth About Me, A Revathi

Chinaman, Shehan Karunatilaka

A Free Man, Aman Sethi

RD Burman: The Man, The Music, Anirudha Bhattacharjee & Balaji Vittal

2010 shortlist:


Winner: Following Fish, by Samanth Subramanian

Home Boy, by H M Naqvi

The House on Mall Road, by Mohyna Srinivasan

Songs of Blood and Sword, A Daughter’s Memoir, by Fatima Bhutto

The Wish Maker, by Ali Sethi

Delhi Calm, by Vishwajyoti Ghosh

2009 shortlist:


Winner: If It is Sweet, Mridula Koshy (Westland-Tranquebar)

Arzee the Dwarf, Chandrahas Choudhury (HarperCollins)

Evening is the Whole Day, Preeta Samarasan (HarperCollins)

Hotel at the End of the World, Parismita Singh (Penguin)

Eunuch Park, Palash Krishna Mehrotra (Penguin)

Baulsphere, Mimlu Sen (Random House)

Atlas of Impossible Longing, Anuradha Roy (Picador)

2008 shortlist:


Winner: A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif

In Search of a Future: The Story of Kashmir by David Devadas

Kari by Amruta Patil

A Reluctant Survivor by Sridala Swami

The Music Room by Namita Devidayal

White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Smoke and Mirrors, An Experience of China by Pallavi Aiyar

Translations: Falling Walls, Upendranath Ashk

(Introducing a monthly column on books in translation. The only rule the column plans to follow is on language: if the book under review is from one of the three Indian language I can read, I will attempt a comparison with the original. If a book under review is from one of the many Indian languages I don’t read, I’ll review it the way I would review a Spanish or French or Chinese book in translation. The first in the series: Upendranath Ashk’s monumental Falling Walls, translated by Daisy Rockwell.)


In 1951, Upendranath Ashk wrote a passionate defence of his six-volume series of novels, Girti Divarein, their protagonist a lower-middle-class Punjabi man in the 1930s.

“The question is, in this age of struggle, for whom does the storyteller write?” he asked his critics. He wrote, he said, not for Kalidas’s maharajas, but “for the thousands of other mud-smeared souls”, like himself, setting down “the tiny, aggravating details of life that leave a bitter taste in one’s mouth”.

I had read a lot of Ashk growing up in Delhi, but ducked the Falling Walls novels in the same way you put off reading Proust, or all of Tagore, or other classics: marking it down as monumental, intending to get around to it some day, and permanently postponing the encounter in favour of other, more contemporary books.

Now I envy Daisy Rockwell, who has lived with the Falling Walls series for at least two decades, reading and slowly translating them, after meeting Ashk in his Khusro Bagh house in Allahabad in 1995, when she was in her twenties. “Falling Walls is one of those sorts of books that stay with you for decades and won’t let you go,” she writes in her translator’s introduction. “What it has been for me, in particular, is a guide to finding one’s own artistic voice and medium.”

This first volume (Falling Walls, Penguin Books, Rs 499, 486 pages), spans Chetan’s life in Jalandhar, a student at an indifferent college who wants to go to Lahore to experience life; his years in Lahore as an aspiring and permanently failing author; and an episode in Shimla, where his gratitude to the benefactor who takes him to the hill station changes when he realises he has been pressed into service as an underpaid ghostwriter. His father and mother, Pandit Shadiram and Lajwati, live in a shabby ruin. The gallis and sewers of Lahore and Jalandhar, unlovely newspaper offices, mud-caked drains, the memory of beatings from his father in childhood: these form his world.

Chetan veers between trying to write poems and short stories, distracted by a growing interest in women, and the usual necessary and demanding relationship between him and poverty. His marriage is arranged to a plain girl called Chanda, while he dreams of other women whom he meets only in glimpses – Kunti, Neela – relationships built on fragments, dreams, stray moments and accidental damage.

And yet he never lets go of the dream of being a writer. In Lahore, his mischievous nephew crushes his thick (and mostly unpublished) file of essays, stories and poems. The notebook in which he has kept the outline of his great realist novel slips from his hand into an open sewer.  When he decides to publish his stories himself, he has to ask a new friend, Kaviraj Ramdas (an expert in curing sexual ailments, known as a patron of writers) whether he might arrange for the paper to print his book.

In Shimla, he meets three literary types – a man who shifted from running a tandoori restaurant to running a famous paper that becomes the victim of its own success, a famous poet who has done ” a beautiful job making a compromise between art and life”, and a youth who arranges large mushairas. “Along with reaping the merit of literary service, he also raked in enough money to live off for the next eight to ten months…”

In contrast, all that Chetan has to his credit is the power of his imagination. “The foul atmosphere of Changar Mohalla, the stifling claustrophobic environment of the newspaper: when these came into contact with the touchstone of his imagination they became excellent, lovely and radiant.” And so he lurches from failure to failure, and all of his failures are more beguiling, in Ashk’s hands, than any success story could be.

Speaking Volumes: The Year of the Runaways


In 2013, an employment tribunal in the UK heard testimony from and his wife Amardeep, alleging that they had been discriminated against by their former employers. Mr Begraj, who was then a law practice manager, is Dalit, and his wife, who was a lawyer at the same firm, is Jat.

The testimony was disturbing, if grimly familiar. Mr Begraj and Ms placed 110 allegations of caste-based discrimination before the tribunal. After their marriage, Mr Begraj had faced name-calling and insults. He claimed that he had been assaulted by the relatives of their Jat employees.

The matter was unresolved – the judge had to recuse herself for technical reasons. But Mr Begraj’s case is just one of many instances that speak of an ugly truth: along with their labour and their dreams, immigrants from India have exported the toxic rigidities of the caste system to the UK.

The brilliance of is not just that he’s sharply aware of how caste discrimination operates today, or that he is well-informed on the realities of the lives of illegal immigrant workers who travel from Punjab or Bihar, or that he understands the dangers posed by the rise of rightwing groups in India who fan the flames of anger into deadly explosions of violence. If his writing had been driven solely by his sense of justice, he would have been only a polemical novelist, and that makes for terrible fiction.

Instead, Mr Sahota, who lives in Derbyshire, blends perception with a rare gift for empathy in his second novel, The Year of the Runaways. With careful skill, he lets the stories of three young men, Tochi, Randeep, Avtar, and Narinder, a visa-wife, emerge, the narrative ranging from the spare, broken-down house they share as a building crew in Sheffield to the places they came from: Patna, Amritsar, Chandigarh, Croydon and Anandpur Sahib.

The lives they’ve left behind are strikingly dissimilar. One is the child of a minor government official fallen on hard times, one was drawn to half a lifetime of love for the Sikh faith by her mother’s piety, one has a dead-end job as a bus conductor, one lives with his nightmares after the Maheshwar Sena holds a Pure Anniversary Day that spreads its flames across his family’s lives.

The sacrifices that immigrants make to acquire all that they need in order to leave home are given vivid life: the ticket, the elusive visa, the even more elusive job, all for the sake of being in a place where the way they stand, the way they stare, their sockless feet, how they speak is all wrong. “It seemed alongside the cosmetic changes there was a whole system of other things to correct.”

In return, what they earn is meagre: “Avtar studied the four small piles he’d made of his money.” The first is for a monthly repayment, the second a loan pay-off, the third for his parents, the fourth for his slender expenses. “No savings pile. There’d never been a savings pile.”

An uneasy camaraderie grows between the four, though Tochi holds himself apart: his full name Tarlochan Kumar coupled with his hometown follows him, stamps him as a chamar.

If had stopped at documenting the lives of the workers who staff the UK’s restaurants, build its Green Projects, clean its streets, it would still have been a powerful novel. But what makes it so moving is that these four protagonists constantly face questions of allegiance, more even than belonging – who are they loyal to? What betrayals have they survived, and whom will they betray? The answers arrive through mishaps and misunderstandings, some of them heartwrenching.

Randeep goes to meet the retired army man with whom he’s had a long-distance correspondence for years, not realising that making a request for help will change and diminish their relationship. Narinder’s deep faith is shaken when she comes up against the brutal facts of the deliberate cruelty that can be aimed with impunity at one kind of person, while another is protected from these horrors by accidents of birth, caste, class.

Tochi begins to rebuild a life despite the weight of the memories he carries – he wants to be seen as himself, as a man, a worker, but identity closes on him like a prisoner’s shackle. His language betrays him: he says “Vho bokhegiya instead of eh bichhdah“. It turns out to be a terrible mistake, for in the community of Indians there, as here, the question “Where do you come from?” is freighted with vicious import.

Mr Sahota is on the Man Booker longlist, but that is not why you should read The Year of the Runaways. Read it because he will draw you into the fragile, intertwined lives of this small group of people, and read it to see what both India and the UK look like from the perspective of those who do the dirty work.

For an Indian reader – Mr Sahota is a British novelist – some of the spellings jar (dhal, Sena logh instead of Sena log). But this is a minor issue. This beautiful, detailed novel is one of the finest contemporary explorations of what it means to cherish dreams when you live in an unequal world, and it questions the unthinking foundations of these inequalities. As a novelist, Mr Sahota has a quiet, unshowy voice, but it carries a very long way.

Printer’s Devil: Bookstores under siege

Introducing a new monthly column for the Business Standard: Printer’s Devil will look at publishing and bookselling trends across India. The focus is on English language trade and independent publishers, but the column will also include trends from other Indian language publishing from time to time.

August 1: Indies: Seagull’s Naveen Kishore and Zubaan’s Urvashi Butalia on bookstore trends

One of the best definitions for what an independent publisher does comes from Canongate’s Jamie Byng: “As an industry, we would do better to publish fewer books, and do it better.” He said this at a “big ideas” meeting of publishers two years ago.

The approach Byng advocates is put into practice by many of India’s best indies, from Blaft, Tulika, Leftword, WomenUnlimited to Tara Books, Seagull or Zubaan: their books receive more care and attention, and their lists are often more selective, than those of many mainstream trade publishers.

The big challenge for the indies has become more complicated in the online bookstore era – how do their books reach readers? I asked two publishing veterans, Zubaan’s Urvashi Butalia and Seagull’s Naveen Kishore, to discuss the challenges they face. Seagull (established in 1982) has a formidable world literature list, aside from its strong Indian list (especially in translations and theatre): its books are distributed by Atlantic in India and by the University of Chicago Press. Zubaan was set up in 2003 as an imprint of the highly respected feminist publishing house Kali For Women, and is now a leading independent specialising in books for and about women from South Asia.

On bookstores: It isn’t easy to find space in most bookstores, says Butalia. “They focus on the big sellers – the political books, the books by ‘rock stars’. Typically indies try to price their books reasonably and distributors don’t like this as they don’t make much from low-priced books!”

Kishore spotlights the disappearance of the bookstores in India or their reappearance as chain stores where books make up only one-fourth of the inventory. “The Landmarks under the Tatas have all but gone. Vanished. The other chain stores have reduced book inventories to one-fourth. It isn’t worth stocking slow-selling books specially if you compare them to say deodorants.” With Crossword also closing some outlets, that leaves independent bookstores who often don’t have enough retail space for independent publishers. “Except,” Kishore adds, “when we throw in a Nobel or a Booker winner every now and again.”

Both Kishore and Butalia said that it was hard convincing bookstores to stock books: there’s never enough shelf space.

On ebooks and bookstores online: As Butalia points out, large book retailers online don’t differ much from brick-and-mortar stores in their preference for big sellers. But she’s met individuals from Amazon and Flipkart who’ve been sympathetic to stocking books from indies. “Online book sales do make an immense difference. Readers who know what they’re looking for can at least order books online,” she says. However, the growth of online bookselling hasn’t translated into greater visibility for indies to readers unfamiliar with their imprints.

Kishore says: “Amazon and Flipkart are a significant presence in the lives of book buyers and us publishers. Their sales are very important and cannot be ignored.” For both Zubaan and Seagull, as with many other indies, their own websites have become crucial as a source of information for readers.

But a troubling trend that independent booksellers as well as other independent publishers mention: as online retailing sites grow more profitable, they depend less on the sale of books, compared to other products. Their direct contact with smaller publishers drops sharply. Several other indies mentioned that large online booksellers had been more accessible to independent imprints four or five years ago.

The growth of local bestselling writers and books is in many respects a healthy development – with the arrival of Chetan Bhagat, Durjoy Datta or Devdutt Patnaik, Indian publishing has its own stars, rather than depending on writers from elsewhere, the Stephen Kings or Paulo Coelhos. But a market that depends, lazily, on just 10 or 12 big books to bring in the money each year loses out on variety and quality.

Despite this, independents have found ways to survive. As Kishore says: “The bottomline is that everyone has to find ways to sell their books and reach as many people as possible. So sitting back and feeling dismayed or threatened at the online presence is of little help. One needs to work with everything that is available and at hand.”

July 4: Under siege: Bookstores

When the author started her bookstore some years ago, asked her what was needed if new stores like Parnassus were to survive. She said: “People are not mean spirited, but they really do go into with their iPhones, scan the barcodes of the books they want and order them on Amazon. We need to have someone say, ‘This isn’t good.’ If you like the warm feeling you get in a bookstore, then you can’t do that.”

Four years later, Parnassus is still thriving because of careful curating and community goodwill. It’s one of a small but hardy group of independent bookstores in the US that has weathered the twin threats posed by and online book chains, and the pressures of the retail sector.

In those four years, the brick-and-mortar bookstore business in India has been rocked by similar waves of change. Three beloved indies, and Co in Hyderabad and Manneys and Twistntales in Pune, shut down. (This column will focus on the general trade hardback/paperback segment rather than the textbook segment for now.)

The proprietors of AA Hussain and Manneys were near retirement, and didn’t want to go the extra mile to keep their stores open in a time of online-retail driven turbulence and sluggish brick-and-mortar sales. Twistntales found it impossible to cope with the many pressures on small bookstores. Bookstores must stock copies of books that customers might want, even if the demand for these books is neither steady nor reliable. Indies struggle with low turnover and high warehousing challenges.

A good bookseller builds customer loyalty in a way that online chains rarely match, by anticipating reading tastes. A few bookshops thrive because they’ve created a very special bond with readers: Strand and now in Mumbai, Ram Advani in Lucknow, The Bookshop and Fact & Fiction in Delhi, and Seagull’s indie outlet in Kolkata, for instance.

But brick-and-mortar bookstores cannot match the discounts that online bookstores like and Amazon offer. For many online retailers, bookselling adds to their brand identity while not forming their core business, which is often driven by smartphones and electronic goods.

Deep discounts are standard: no online bookseller minds if their customers browse elsewhere, so long as they buy online. In price-sensitive India, book-buyers look for big discounts and good delivery. So far, Flipkart has led the online book retail business; unconfirmed estimates place their marketshare at 75 per cent. (This will be challenged as competitors try to grab a bigger slice of the online trade.)

For a country with growing literacy in at least two dominant languages, English and Hindi, India has a dismayingly low bookstore-to-reader ratio, and this has grown worse. All of the three big bookstore chains, Crossword, Landmark and Oxford, have shut at least one store in the last few years. Crossword shut down two outlets in Bengaluru in 2014 alone. By the time Landmark shut down its Nungambakkam outlet in Chennai, the store sold so many other products that books accounted for only 27 per cent of its sales.

In bookstores from Goa to Bengaluru to Delhi, I heard the same story: independents could not match online deep discounts. They were haemorrhaging custom, especially over bestsellers.

Hachette India’s managing director, Thomas Abraham, is blunt. He places online retail’s share of the trade at 50-60 per cent, compared to under 10 per cent some five years ago, but says they tend to chase bestsellers rather than offer range.

“Deep discounting on the online side has become a major problem,” he wrote. “Most of online unleashes deep discounting in a bid to get ‘eyeballs’, traffic and transactions-at-any-cost, and thereby boost valuation. They can sustain their deep discounting to levels that your neighbourhood stores cannot. Indie and chain bookstores are forced to close down. Over the past five years the number of store closures are more than we’ve had in the preceding 20 years.”

Discounts might make already cheap books even more accessible, but for readers, the closure of bookstores slashes choice and range.

Speaking Volumes: Mockingbird and first drafts

The problem with Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman starts and ends with the book jacket, where it is advertised as a “landmark new novel set two decades after her beloved Pulitzer-Prize winning masterpiece, To Kill A Mockingbird”.

This is a superbly economical description, not untrue except in its multiple omissions. Charles J Shields has an account of Lee’s slow development as a writer in his biography, Mockingbird. She spent seven years working on a batch of short stories that were submitted to a publisher but never accepted. In 1957, she wrote Go Set A Watchman, retitling it “Atticus” after the main character, and submitting it to the offices of JB Lippincott.

Her wise and protective editor, Tay Hohoff, thought the manuscript was a mess – “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel” – but also felt that the book was not the work of an amateur or a tyro. Under Hohoff’s guidance, Lee rewrote Atticus/ Go Set A Watchman thrice, shifting from third to the first person. She finally settled on the unusual, distinctive, and beloved voice that made To Kill A Mockingbird such a classic: Scout’s voice as a child, interwoven with Jean Louise Finch’s deeper understanding of Maycomb County as an adult, looking back on the trial of a black man by a white court.

As a “new novel”, Go Set A Watchman is a moral and literary disappointment. Jean Louise Finch returns to Alabama, 26, and is steadily disillusioned with Maycomb County. Her brother Jem, who was the other half of <I>Mockingbird’s<P> conscience, is only present in flashbacks: he had “dropped dead in his tracks” of a sudden, inheriting her mother’s weak heart.

Her father, Atticus, has become a bigot in his old age. He admits to having attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting, and appears to be “dedicated to keeping the Negroes in their places”. Dill, who was modelled on Harper Lee’s friend Truman Capote, has been edged out by a bland boyfriend, Henry Clinton, who struggles not to be seen as white trash by Harper Lee’s judgmental Aunt Alexandra. Faultlines crisscross this unpromising terrain, especially in the final, stilted section where arguments replace plot. The Finches’ lonely, ghostly neighbour, Boo Radley, does not enter this novel.

Read only as a previously undiscovered novel, Go Set A Watchman is a puzzling betrayal – a sequel that carries none of the power, humour or moral force of the original, the narrator’s voice uneven and unformed.

It is, however, infused with Lee’s disillusionment; in New York, she’d found a better world, where the false fences of segregation had fallen. Home was no longer the place she loved and remembered – home stood revealed as a place of sharp, bitter divisions, between white, Negro and white trash. Arriving at adulthood, she had been forced to question those whom she had loved and looked up to in her youth.

This is the truest and best passage from Go Set A Watchman: “Blind, that’s what I am. I never opened my eyes. I never thought to look into people’s hearts, I looked only in their faces… I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour.”

The myth of the perfect novel, the writer who sets down her words from start to finish, each sentence ringing true, is a strong one, and yet it has little substance. F Scott Fitzgerald wrote Trimalchio in 1924. He hesitated over the title, suggesting On The Road To West Egg or Gold-Hatted Gatsby instead. Trimalchio’s Jay Gatsby is nastier, more violent; Carraway is much seedier, too. It took four months of rewriting for The Great Gatsby to take its final shape. Trimalchio was published, but it is read only as a curiosity, chiefly by those interested in the craft of writing.

JM Coetzee’s novels emerge from even more rigorous drafts. In her notes, Molly Schwartzburg describes the nine drafts that went into the making of The Life and Times of Michael K, all set down in yellow or blue University of Cape Town exercise books. In the first draft, Michael is Anna’s son; in another, he is her grandson; in the fifth draft, he is her common-law husband, and then Coetzee cycles back to the original relationship. Drafts are not just “versions” – drafts are where novels change shape, where novelists find their truest and most persuasive voices, where they decide what to discard and what must stay.

If Go Set A Watchman had been marketed as the first draft of a classic, it is unlikely that it would have reached the millions of readers who’ve bought into the myth of Lee’s “new”, dismayingly unpolished novel.

But if you read both books together, as rough draft and final classic, it is impossible not to be moved. In Go Set A Watchman, Atticus Finch drifts into bigotry; in real life, Scout’s father went the other way. “But AC Lee changed his views about race relations during the remainder of the 1950s. And Nelle watched as her father, formerly a conservative on matters of race and social progress, became an advocate for the rights of Negroes.”

In her first draft of Mockingbird, Harper Lee let her worst nightmares and fears have free play; in the final book, she allowed Atticus to stand up for what was right. In both books, Maycomb remained what it was: a segregated community, the divisions between the races so sharp that neither Harper Lee nor Scout Finch could imagine or enter the parallel world that Tom Robinson’s children inhabited. Go Set A Watchman’s importance is not that it was the sequel to Lee’s Mockingbird; it is important because it was the precursor. In all its roughness, it softens none of the bigotry and racism of Nelle Harper Lee’s American South.

(Published July 20, 2015, in the Business Standard)

Speaking Volumes: The Pleasure of Reading


There is a word for the awkward way people stand when examining other people’s bookshelves: ahenny. Douglas Adams made it up, and it is best used like this: “She was standing ahenny when he entered; he understood at once that he had been judged for his books and found wanting.”

I wish some other benefactor would invent a word for Antonia Fraser’s explanation of: “The deep division that exists in the human race, between those for whom books are an obsession, and those who are prepared, good-humouredly enough, to tolerate their existence.”

As Fraser says in her introduction to The Pleasures of Reading (Bloomsbury), compiled in aid of, this gulf is unbridgeable. This book, which interviews 43 writers about their early reading lives and the books they love, taps into another of Fraser’s truths: it is as fascinating exploring the reading of other writers as it is to look at the homes in which famous architects live.

For anyone who loves reading, this collection is unmitigated pleasure. The poet Stephen Spender confesses: “In old age I go back to masterpieces.” John Fowles rants about the isolation of readers in a world obsessed with cinema, TV (and Twitter): “Like raving about music to the deaf.” Doris Lessing, who taught herself to read after leaving school at the age of 14, declares herself a non-Poohist in the longrunning wrangle between Winnie-the-Pooh worshippers and haters: “The hero is a stupid little greedy bear.”

Most writers start out by reading voraciously but indiscriminately. The range of experience is widely varied, from those who grew up in the UK to those whose childhoods were in Africa, India, Pakistan or the Far East. Philip Zeigler read everything he could find, accepting as an adult that his reading is circumscribed by what he has to read – for book reviews or literary prizes, for instance. JG Ballard’s early memories of reading were shaped by Shanghai – a vast, polyglot metropolis, its bookstores stocked according to “an American zone of influence”.


Nostalgia is only one aspect of a reader’s life; the truth is that books are not for sissies. Judith Kerr read Kipling, Johanna Spyri and Else Ury, who wrote “undemanding but inventive stories”. It gave her a shock to come across a later work by Ury, who was a German Jew, where the heroine cheers Adolf Hitler and knows that “only happiness lay ahead”. (It was not true for Ury; Kerr tells what happened to her in one chilling paragraph.)

AS Byatt spent most of her childhood in bed — “greatly blessed by very bad asthma” – hours that she spent reading. From fiction, she learned fear: Blind Pew tapping in Treasure Island, Jane Eyre locked in the Red Room, Pip on the marshes being grabbed by Magwitch. Magaret Atwood read the complete, unexpurgated Grimms’ Fairy Tales, which her parents had ordered by mail: “unaware that it would contain so many red-hot shoes, barrels full of nails and mangled bodies”.

John Carey speaks for all booklovers when he writes: “I was lucky, being born into a house with books.” He divides the books in his house into “furniture” – sets of encyclopaedias, seldom consulted – and “real books”, Biggles, The Boys’ Book of School Stories, and Jane Austen.

For Gita Mehta, reading in India was democratic – “having the pleasures of reading shouted at you by pavement booksellers”, exploring the “secret shifting” Indian lending libraries which fit into garishly painted tin trunks. In contrast, Buchi Emecheta grew up in Nigeria, where reading was not a major activity – but storytelling was. She did not understand the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood: “In our families, grandmothers helped a great deal in making life harmonious.” She loved Austen and Achebe, the Brontes and Baldwin.

Kamila Shamsie’s impatience with the question postcolonial writers often face — “Who do you write for” — stems from her childhood reading: “CS Lewis is unlikely to have written for a girl in Karachi, but that doesn’t mean any boy in London grew up with a greater claim on Aslan than I did.”

I had a far broader understanding of bibliophilia, and the seductive powers of story, when I’d finished The Pleasures of Reading. It made me wish someone would do an Indian version, but that might be a more unsettling collection.

Rassundari Debi’s Amar Jiban, was published in the 1870s. She writes of an ambition that was then forbidden: “I came to be possessed by a single wish: I will learn to read, and I will read a sacred text. I began to resent my own thoughts. What is wrong with me? Women do not read, how will I do it, and why does it bother me so….” She taught herself to read in secret, and then she taught herself to write, authoring the first proper autobiography in Bengali literature.

For Daya Pawar, the Marathi poet and writer, books were an escape and a scourge. He writes in Baluta (1978, translated by Jerry Pinto): “I began to escape from the Maharwada, not just physically but mentally too into the world of books… All sorts of questions formed a raucous tirade inside my head.

Why did I ever discover the world of books?
I could have been a stone in a stream,
Grazed cattle in a meadow,
No need then to bear the scorpion’s sting.

But despite the perils that accompanied the discovery of reading, Rassundari Debi and Daya Pawar became writers, like the 43 essayists in The Pleasures of Reading. It is a logical, if not inevitable, transition.

Browsing in her grandfather’s study, Kamila Shamsie rejected Gibbon, Pliny, Marx, The Iliad, in favour of a book in blue binding called All Dogs Go To Heaven. She read it, and she howled, and read it with her best friend, Asad, who was also deep in mourning for his pet dog. He said, “Why don’t we write a book?”

“And so we did,” Shamsie writes. “We called it A Dog’s Life, And After. I was eleven years old; I haven’t stopped writing fiction since.”

(Published in the Business Standard, July 6, 2015)

Reading. Writing. Fooding. Lodging.


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