Reading: random notes

A group of young men stood outside the gates of the Jaipur Literature festival for three days, handing out blue-and-gold, handbag-sized copies of the Quran. Several journalists noted their presence, but in the ugliness of the threats by a minority of protestors on the last day that shut down Rushdie’s talk and almost shut down the festival, few put this quiet and surprisingly effective protest on the front pages.

Hamid, 22, said, when asked why he was handing out Qurans, that he had heard the Satanic Verses was a very bad book, that it insulted his Prophet and he felt no one who shared his beliefs–about faith and about reading–should read it. Was it all right for people who did not believe to read it? He said, “If you want to, but then please read this–the Quran–also, and see for yourself how beautiful the words are.” A day later, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan said to the NYT: “According to Islam, you have to counter a book with a book, a statement with a statement.” And I thought of the boys who had spent days outside at the festival, gently offering to counter one book with another, reasonably asking readers to compare both and make up their own minds.

* * *

About a year ago, when Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey was under attack for political reasons, a few politicians appeared on a television show to explain why they felt the novel should not be read. None of them had read the book, but all of them had read excerpts where a character had ranted about various things–the city of Mumbai and its varied communities, Bal Thackeray and what the Shiv Sena had done to the idea of Bombay. None of the politicians seemed to grasp the difference between author and character, the license fiction is granted over a news report. “It’s written here,” they said, pointing at the highlighted lines, as though they were afraid that the other side would deny the words. Useless to tell them that we knew, we had already read them–not as incendiary, standalone passages, but as conversations between characters in a novel. It was as impossible for the politicians to see these lines the way we saw them, as it was for us to read books as offense policemen, seeking what might hurt our sentiments to the point where we had our case. The reader as policeman and inquisitor–another old tradition, but in direct opposition to the tradition of the reader as listener and inquirer.

Censors learn to read this way, but the difficulty of the censor’s art is that over time, more and more phrases take on the shadow of offense and all words begin to bristle with hidden danger. Similes are dangerous, metaphors are deadly. Stalin was a voracious reader, voracious in the sense that he often began by reading and ended by devouring what he read. He read Mayakovsky and the playwrights and the poets; and he read and exiled Mandelstam to the poet’s death; and he read Maxim Gorky with so much enjoyment that he dispensed with the official censor and took on the task of censoring two of Gorky’s plays. This he did with great care and not very much skill.

* * *

In Scharada Dubey’s Portraits From Ayodhya, she writes of a time in 2006 when the Vishwa Shudra Mahasabha, a group of radical dalits, wanted to take a stand against portions of the Ramacharitmanas published by the Geeta Press, Gorakhpur, that were offensive to people from the lower castes. They warned the Geeta Press that if the offending dohas and chaupais were not removed, they would garland Rama’s portrait with chappals.

In Ayodhya, the original resentment against the epic has been forgotten; the people involved in the incident are only remembered as the strange men “who went and garlanded Rama with chappals”. Some years later, a Hindutva rightwing organisation would bully Delhi University into removing AK Ramanujan’s essay on the Ramayana from the syllabus. Ramanujan cites folk versions of the Ramayana in his essay, one of which is seen to be offensive. But both retellings of the Ramayana continue to be told and performed, away from the discussions over challenged books and free speech–the version that offends the lower castes, with the hurtful dohas, and the version that offends the righteous Hindus who see themselves as defenders of the faith.

The problem with Such A Long Journey is in the form: it’s the freedom of fiction that offends those who see it as fact. The problem with the Ramayana is also in the form: the epic is open-ended, recursive, self-referential, given to unfolding in multiple versions. The Ramayana itself instinctively resists being corralled into one, neat, easy story.

Reading seems like such a passive, private act, which it is when readers stick to the safe and the unchallenging. Perhaps all of these protests are no more than the discovery that reading was always meant to be subversive. The writer cuts a person off from the group and speaks directly to him, without mediation or interpretation. I can see how this might be terrifying for some.

The JLF columns: Unhearing the words

(Published in the Business Standard on January 23rd and 24th; both were written at the Jaipur Literature Festival. This is the first piece.)


There were two Jaipur Literature Festivals this year. The first was the festival that attracts readers by the thousands, to hear celebrities like Oprah, writers of the calibre of Tom Stoppard or Bama Faustina, to have their books signed by Chetan Bhagat, Kapil Sibal and other literary heavyweights. This festival was a grand success, drawing record crowds. (Also see: Ten of the Best.)

The other Jaipur festival was the one that Salman Rushdie couldn’t attend, after being informed of threats to his life that appear not to have been actually made. At this festival, when Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil, Hari Kunzru and Ruchir Joshi read excerpts from Rushdie’s banned novel, The Satanic Verses, in protest at the writer’s absence, they were asked to leave; the festival that had been willing to take on the burden of the security concerns raised by the invitation to Rushdie was unable to guarantee their safety.

For a brief while, it seemed as though the JLF itself might have to shut down, as the organisers and the authorities tried to measure the possible fallout from this form of dissent, and to calculate the possible risks, which were considerable. But as session after session, from the ones on censorship and protest to the conversation on the Enlightenment between AC Grayling and Steven Pinker, noted and protested Rushdie’s absence and discussed the actions of the Gang of Four, the debate over free speech became intense — and polarising.

The lines were rapidly drawn, and the argument that played out over the next few days at the Diggi Palace was fascinating in the accuracy with which it reflected the debates over free speech in India in the last ten years. Many writers were angry and uncomfortable with what S Anand, independent publisher, memorably called the organisers’ pusillanimity and their failure to defend the writers’ right to extreme gestures of dissent. Several writers didn’t see why reading out from a book, even if it was a banned one, should be wrong at a festival of literature, especially when that festival had panels on censorship and dissent.

But the organisers’ actions, however right or wrong they may have been, should be seen in another light — as the actions of decent people, and as an accurate reflection of what civil society does when it finds the space it holds precious under threat. By and large, decent people in India have not defended the extreme and the margins; they have defended only the mainstream, the centre.

The argument most often heard at the festival was that reading from The Satanic Verses was an illegal act. This was presented as a matter of fact, but there is some doubt over this (*in fact, it is not illegal), and some lawyers say there are loopholes — the publication, distribution and dissemination of the physical book is clearly banned, but there isn’t as much clarity over the question of whether reading an excerpt is illegal.

The real fear was an understandable one. The JLF, to a great extent, opened up the space for literary festivals, and many people genuinely fear that this space may be threatened, by gestures of dissent or by the evocation of a banned book that has, truly, become the book that must not be named. Writers like Chetan Bhagat spoke about the need for authors to be more responsible, to refrain, in the tired old phrase, from hurting religious sentiments.

Much of this speculation and many of the arguments that the Gang of Four, so to speak, had stepped across a line was of great interest, but it suffered from a major flaw. The four authors who had held a peaceful, non-violent reading in the festival’s halls were not there to speak for themselves. Rushdie, who had chatted with friends and readers and addressed crowds on these lawns in 2007, was not here to speak for himself, and at the time of writing, there was a question over whether he would be allowed to speak over the video-link.

The problem for the JLF is not the present situation, but the future of the festival. It is very easy to ensure that this sort of incident doesn’t happen again — don’t invite the potentially incendiary. Keep the public commons of the festival safe by retaining the entertaining sessions, and allow some space for free speech. That seems reasonable enough. But the question is, who’s going to decide what that space will be? And when someone crosses another line, who will draw that line for us?

(This was the second part, written on the day that the JLF organisers were bullied by protestors and couldn’t have the Rushdie conversation on videolink.)

Five minutes before Barkha Dutt is supposed to speak to Salman Rushdie via videolink at the Jaipur Literature Festival, the air is thick with tension. News reports say that the festival directors have received death threats. In the lawns, a tight knot of protestors declare their intention to disrupt the proceedings if the Rushdie conversation goes ahead.

The crowds at the Palace watch with more curiosity than fear, at this point. There are three rings around the protestors, with the police and the media adding concentric layers around that small, tight knot.

What happened to trigger this? An invitation was sent to a writer; a book he had written over 23 years ago was read out to an audience who listened politely and then continued on their way to the rest of the festival without rioting. That was all, but that seems to be enough.

Festival organiser Sanjay Roy announces that the conversation with Rushdie cannot take place because of the very real threat of violence, the presence of people who, in his words, are offended not just by the idea of Rushdie’s presence at the festival, but by his image on the screen. As he and the rest of the team come down off the stage, they receive a sympathetic round of applause. They had no other choice, in the circumstances.

This is the way in which the conversation on free speech has gone for far too long. Step across this line, and risk violence — or worse, be blackmailed by people who will threaten other people with violence.

There are some things that are unlikely to happen. The writers who read from The Satanic Verses earlier at the festival are facing cases, and the organisers face threats as well as cases.

But the protestors who moved so freely through the crowds just a few minutes ago are unlikely to face legal action for the threats of disruption they made, nor are the people who made death threats against the organisers likely to appear in a court any time soon. This violence is always one-way, to the point where the simple act of reading is interpreted as an equivalent act of violence, even though, as Hari Kunzru pointed out, a book is neither a bomb nor a knife.

At the centre of this circus is a book that refuses to die. As news stories have reported, it is actually not illegal to read The Satanic Verses, or to read out from it — the book is banned under a section of the Customs Act that prohibits its import and distribution in the country, but the law does not ban the reading of the book. Public readings were held at the time of the book ban twenty years ago, and a public reading being held today as a form of protest is merely echoing an old tradition. Private readings of The Satanic Verses have become so much easier once it became available on the Internet.

A festival might choose, for reasons of public safety, in Tarun Tejpal’s words, not to turn the lawns of the festival into the site of a “bloody battle”. The argument for keeping the festival safe and neutral is being made as I write, and after witnessing the protests, few people here will disagree, unfortunately. Free speech battles, bloody or not, will be left outside the gates of Diggi Palace in future — the festival will continue, but in considerably different form.

But it isn’t possible to step away from the book itself any more, if only because the “other side” will not let The Satanic Verses go. In a looking glass world where a book reading is considered equivalent to an act of violent provocation, perhaps it’s worthwhile asking why a book banned 23 years ago refuses to lie down and be forgotten. Many banned books drop into the black hole of irrelevance, and either the ideas or the language they contain are often rendered obsolete by time.

The real problem with The Satanic Verses is that those who wanted the book banned have not been able to ban the ideas in the novel; how do you separate the language from the content, the text from Rushdie’s philosophy? Today’s demand, for instance, from the protestors was not just that Rushdie be silenced; it was a demand that he not be seen. And what is becoming apparent is that the only thing that would pacify Rushdie’s protestors would be for the book to be unwritten, the words to be taken back. As the author Lionel Shriver said in a different context today, this is what is deadly about the written word: it cannot be taken back.

Somewhere deep in their bones, the people who would rather shut down a festival or threaten people with death than listen to an author understand this: The Satanic Verses cannot be unwritten, and its ideas cannot be erased. The central fact of the Verses is not that it’s blasphemous; it’s that the book argues that religion may be no more than the creation of humans and may be questioned as such. A day before, Richard Dawkins asked why the only prejudice we kowtow to is religious prejudice. One answer today is that it comes armed and dangerous into our lives, ready to kill for its certainties.

Perhaps the fear of violence will prevail, in the short run. But this fear has already taken too many prisoners. What became clear today is that if you cannot safely read from The Satanic Verses today, you cannot step away from it either — the book and what it stands for follow us everywhere we go. Even into spaces that were meant to be safe, and free.

Ten of the best: JLF sessions

The official recordings of the sessions by Amitava Kumar, Hari Kunzru, Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi where the writers read out from the Satanic Verses as a gesture of protest are not available on the festival site. Ten other discussions/ readings that stood out for me:

1) Michael Ondaatje, discussing Cat’s Cradle with Amitava Kumar.

2) David Remnick and Samanth Subramanian on Obama, with enthusiastic participation by JLF’s cows.

3) Samit Basu on building imaginary worlds—one of the few talks at the JLF that focused sharply on the craft of writing.

4) Gulzar, Mohammed Hanif, Madan Gopal: poetry from both sides of the border. This gets going after the first 10-15 minutes.

5) Philip Gourevitch on war: “Genocide has an order.”

6) AC Grayling and Steven Pinker on the Enlightenment, free speech and much more.

7) Cheeran, Charu Nivedita, Gogu Shyamala, Satchidanandan and S Anand on the literature of dissent.

The first two minutes, where S Anand reads out a lovely quote from the Satanic Verses, is missing from the tape—it shouldn’t be, because it’s not illegal to read passages from the book, and the JLF shouldn’t be sanitizing writers’ sessions.

Anand read these lines: “What kind of idea are you? Are you the kind that compromises, does deals, accommodates itself to society, aims to find a niche, to survive; or are you the cussed, bloody-minded, ramrod-backed type of damnfool notion that would rather break than sway with the breeze? – The kind that will almost certainly, ninety-nine times out of hundred, be smashed to bits; but, the hundredth time, will change the world.”

8) Ayesha Jalal on Holy Wars and the need to reclaim the meaning of the word ‘jihad’.

9) Two favourite writers in conversation: Teju Cole and Ben Okri.

10) Katherine Boo and Aman Sethi on writing beyond the “beautiful forevers”.

Out of my sessions—enjoyed listening to Kiran Nagarkar and Rahul Bhattacharya’s exuberantly “vulgar” readings, the conversation with Lionel Shriver: and my husband’s injunction to the audience after he was pulled in at the last moment to moderate the Richard Dawkins session: “If your questions go over 25 words, I’ll take back the mike.”

Speaking Volumes: Listening To Rushdie

(Published in the Business Standard, January 17, 2012)

In all the claims made for Chetan Bhagat, tireless father of the Indian bestseller, this is one you will never hear: he disturbs the peace. In all the arguments made against Salman Rushdie’s attendance at the Jaipur Literature Festival this week, the gist of them is just this: he disturbs the peace.

Bhagat’s Revolution 2020 (‘Love. Corruption. Ambition.’) is, like his four previous novels, reassuringly familiar and comfortably accurate in its reflection of contemporary Indian concerns. The obsession with success, the difficulties of modern relationships, small town heroes battling a corrupt system—every one of his blockbuster novels articulates the concerns of the civic-minded Indian with absolute fidelity, and not one offers anything in the nature of a revolutionary or subversive idea.

Chetan Bhagat is the most visible face of the unchallenging new Indian bestseller, comfortable in its certainties, mildly anti-intellectual. Most of the criticism of this school of writing has focused on its lack of grammar and style. This is less obvious in Bhagat’s own writing—pedestrian to a fault, but positively literate when compared to the bestsellers from Shrishti Books.

Srishti’s line of books might be summarized as the revenge of the inarticulate on the literate, and have eloquent titles: ‘Sum Thing of a Mocktale: At JNU Where Kurta Fell In Love With Jeans’, ‘Ouch! That Hearts!’ These books conceal a secret contempt for the reader, assuming that s/he is no longer deserving of even the basic courtesies of grammar and fluency.

From Bhagat to fantasy writer Amish Tripathi to the Srishti authors, none of these writers have built their careers by challenging the accepted wisdom of their times. The argument for welcoming Rushdie to Jaipur is a simple one. His early works, which include Midnight’s Children, Shame and The Satanic Verses, are unsettling and uncomfortable, and we need that discomfort much more in 2012 than we need the safe formulas of the new bestsellers.

The opposition to Rushdie’s attendance at the Jaipur Festival comes from theologians at the Darul Uloom Deoband who have in all probability not read his books, and who would probably be made very uncomfortable if they did. Midnight’s Children tears up the textbook version of Indian Independence; one of the ways to counter, for instance, the hagiography of the Gandhi family, those full-page ads featuring Indira and her progeny is to read Rushdie’s portrait of the Widow and what she did during the Emergency.

But in these times, there are other writers who continue to write against the grain of the official histories—the more official, the less likely to be true. Amitav Ghosh’s Opium War series swings the perspective around to the Indian view, Tahmima Anam’s The Good Muslim stands (as Rushdie’s Shame did some two decades ago) as a reproach to those who would deny the bloody history of Bangladesh.

There are fewer writers who write against the grain of religion. Tahmima Anam is one of them, and The Good Muslim is a mercilessly accurate exploration of two kinds of tyranny—the tyranny of the righteously faithful, and the twinned tyranny of the righteous liberal who stands against the excesses of faith. In many ways, Anam writes against the backdrop of the question Rushdie asked many years ago, when he wrote Satanic Verses.

Question: What is the opposite of faith?

Not disbelief. Too final, certain, closed. Itself a kind of belief.

Doubt.

This brief meditation lies at the heart of the controversy over the Satanic Verses, which has extended into the present and ridiculous debate over whether Rushdie should be “allowed” to attend Jaipur. The real question is why the Deobandis, who rarely come to literary festivals, should want to stop others from listening to Rushdie’s views.

When the Satanic Verses comes up in debate, it is rarely the book that is discussed. As with many other kinds of forgotten history, the version of the Verses we talk about is moth-eaten, fragmentary, the complexity of a novel about migration, magic, angels and devils, the certainties of religion and madness reduced to the simplistic idea that this is a blasphemous book.

In the two decades since the Satanic Verses were banned, it has become increasingly hard to discuss the idea Rushdie puts forward in his work, which is the idea that doubt is necessary and valuable. But in that time, India has also moved closer to accepting, blindly and without much fuss, a worryingly widespread belief. This is the belief that at worst, questioning any faith or religion is in itself a kind of blasphemy—and at best, it’s an esoteric activity that the majority can safely ignore.

In 2007, Rushdie spoke at Jaipur, to a packed audience. He touched upon the silences in the official histories of Kashmir, on meeting some of the men responsible for the Gujarat riots, on growing up among “extremely practicing but incredibly open-minded Muslims” in his family. He spoke about authors and books, writing and reading, and all the other things you hope to hear from writers.

In 2012, I don’t know what he would want to speak about: literature, free speech, fables, memoir writing, perhaps. But I do know that, like so many other readers, I want to hear what he has to say, and it would be a great loss if the manufactured controversy around his visit silenced his voice, yet again.

Email: nilanjanasroy@gmail.com

Speaking Volumes: Dickens and the Oriental Scene


(Carried in the Business Standard, 10 January 2012)

At the Bhowanipore cemetery in Calcutta, visitors can walk down the neat rows of graves with their tidy crosses towards the civilian section, to the plot where Charles Dickens’ son rests in peace.

Lieutenant Walter Landor Dickens was one of the young “griffs” who died early in the service of the East India Company, on New Year’s Eve, 1863. It took another year for the news to reach his father in England, a letter announcing the lieutenant’s death followed by a packet of his unpaid bills.
Two other sons were luckier—Alfred and Edward migrated successfully to Australia. Sydney Dickens died young, at 25, while pursuing a naval career—like Walter, he left his father a legacy of unpaid bills. Francis went from the Bengal Mounted Police to the Canada Mounted Police, and died in Canada in his forties. Dickens’ sons, except for Henry and Charles, were very much the children—and the casualties—of the Empire.

Dickens and Jane Austen, two otherwise entirely dissimilar authors, had this in common: the colonies emerged in their books only as absences, as the shadowy plantations that supply the fortunes of the family in Austen’s Mansfield Park or the convict ships from where Abel Magwitch escapes to meet Pip on the moors in Great Expectations. The places that offered first opportunity and then a gravestone to so many of his sons were by and large, off his fictional map.

Two hundred years after the birth of Charles Dickens, these gaps and omissions seem even more interesting. Peter Carey explored one in his disquieting 1998 novel, Jack Maggs, which told the Australian side of the convict story and featured an unpleasant but sharply drawn portrait of a Dickens-like Victorian writer, called Oates in the novel.

Dickens’s views have been widely documented, from his man-of-the-era defence of the practice of transporting convicts to the colonies—they would have a chance at a second life, away from the horrors of English prisons, in a new country. Peter Carey saw it differently: “The experience was to be cast out and flung to the other end of the Earth, and they really were like abandoned children… [The ships had] people chained and dead in the hold. And nobody wants to think of who was in the hold.”

It would be so easy to assume that Dickens was racist, if you take the silences as significant, or look more closely at his views of the 1857 Mutiny. But Dickens, of all the Victorians, stretched his imagination as far as it could go, forcing his readers to imagine the lives of orphans, or the children who fuelled the engines of Victorian factories, or clerks and scriveners. His imagination and his empathy, like many other men of his time, stopped at the borders of Britain.

In the aftermath of 1857, many British writers in India wrote with eloquence and anguish of what they saw as the precious (if betrayed) trust between the Indians and the British. But the reaction at “home” in England was far more vehement for the first ten years, with the writers and journalists of the day expressing their opinion about the treacherous natives.

Dickens was very much a man of his times, writing to his friend Angela-Burdett Coutts in a now infamous letter in 1857: “And I wish that I were Commander-in-Chief in India. The first thing I would do to strike that Oriental race with amazement (not in the least regarding them as if they lived in The Strand, London, or in Camden Town) should be to proclaim to them in their language that I considered my holding that appointment by leave of God, to mean that I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested; and that I was there for that purpose and no other, and was now proceeding with all convenient dispatch and merciful swiftness of execution to blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the Earth.” It’s an interesting letter—it begins by expressing a local frustration with the British gentry having disarmed the peasantry and the army politics of the day, and ends with this bloodthirsty promise.

Always the polemicist, he wrote The Perils of Certain English Prisoners in collaboration with Wilkie Collins in the same year, an allegory of which an English newspaper declared warmly: “He lays the scene of his story, not in India, but in Central America, and in the year 1744, instead of 1857. It is, however, impossible not to see that, though the venue is changed, the parties are substantially the same. The treacherous Sambos, half-negro half-Indian, too much petted and trusted, are the Sepoys; the persons employed about the silver mine are the civil servants; and the soldiers and the women stand in a position analogous to that which they occupied in the Indian revolt.”

Walter Landor Dickens had left for India in 1857, just before the rebellion began. As Claire Tomalin sets down in her biography, Dickens was very much a Victorian father, which is to say his interest in the lives of his children was sporadic, often offhand. But Walter was just 16, and it is not impossible to believe that Dickens, with his vein of sentimentality, would have had the figure of his son and other young cadets and griffins in mind when he wrote to his friend. His bigotry and bloodthirstiness were commonplace, for the times. He had other things on his mind that year, much of which was occupied with the writing and serialization of Little Dorrit.

In 1865, two years after the actual death of Walter Dickens and a year after the family is told about his end, Dickens writes again to his friend Cerjat about 1857. “Of all the many evidences that are visible of our being ill-governed, no one is so remarkable to me as our ignorance of what is going on under our Government. What will future generations think of that enormous Indian Mutiny being ripened without suspicion, until whole regiments arose and killed their officers?”

The tone is almost mild, reasonable, focused on the mistakes of the British government rather than on vengeance. A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations have been written and have found their audiences; the unsuccessful Our Mutual Friend is being serialized. The anger so violently expressed in 1857 has dissipated, and for Dickens, as for most of the men of his age, the Mutiny and India and all of the colonies have receded into the far distance.

Speaking Volumes: 2011 and 2012 in books

(Published in the Business Standard, January 2, 2012)

South Asian fiction in 2011 was alive and thriving, despite premature reports of its demise. To be fair, Chetan Bhagat and the authors of bestsellers such as The Saga of Love Via Telephone Tring Tring made it ridiculously easy for even the marginally talented to look like writers of staggering genius.

Debuts of the year: Shehan Karunatilake’s Sri Lankan novel about cricket (Chinaman), Rahul Bhattacharya’s dark romp through Guyana (The Sly Company of People Who Care), Jamil Ahmad’s understated tales of the frontier (The Wandering Falcon) and Mirza Waheed’s searing chronicle of Kashmir’s faultlines (The Collaborator).

Second novels: Tahmima Anam’s The Good Muslim was a disquieting look at Bangladesh and the righteous rigidities of both the faithful and the liberal, while Mohammed Hanif set a love story in a lunatic asylum to heart-rending effect in Our Lady of Alice Bhatti. One of the quieter and lovelier surprises of 2011 was Anuradha Roy’s The Folded Earth, set in Ranikhet, which updated the “plain tales of the hills” genre for our times.

Three of the best: Amitav Ghosh’s very cinematic River of Smoke took his ambitious Ibis trilogy forward into the murk and confusion of the Opium War. He also endeared himself to his readers by sharing journals, photographs and anecdotes on his blog.

Jeet Thayil, once the bad boy of Bombay’s thriving poetry scene, might have a cult classic in Narcopolis, a novel that circumvents the usual Bombay tropes of the underworld and Bollywood. Its characters are all extreme outsiders, from hijras to opium addicts, and this may be the closest India will get to a version of William Burroughs’ Junkie.

The Artist of Disappearance is a delicate reminder by Anita Desai that there are subjects and lives to explore outside of Delhi and Bombay. The three novellas in The Artist of Disappearance are all richly satisfying, but the pick of them might be “Translator Translated”, where a college lecturer discovers the antidote to a life that stretches out before her like “an empty, unlit road” when she begins translating the work of an Oriya writer. “Beauty is a casual glimpse of something very ordinary,” the author Marilynne Robinson said in an interview, and this is Anita Desai’s real gift, to make us stop and look at the ordinary again, whether it’s beautiful or filled with unbearable but commonplace loss.

Page versus screen: The other big shift of the year was the slow, but implacable, movement from the page to the screen. For most people who made the shift from the physical book to Kindles, iPads, Galaxy Tabs and other devices, the initial resistance was stronger than the actual transition.

But India often seemed ill-prepared for this shift, despite the clear and growing appetite for ebooks within the country. Many Indian publishers haven’t put their recent releases, let alone their backlists, into an acceptable ebook format. That’s shortsighted, given how ebook readers seem to be shifting from devices like the Kindle and the Sony e-Reader to reading on their tablets. A report in this paper estimates that India will see sales of 0.7-1 million tablets by end-2012 —that’s a huge base of potential readers, for publishers willing to make an effort.

With Amazon entering the Indian market, the expectation is also that ebook pricing in the country will come down drastically from its present and deeply usurious levels. (This could potentially explode piracy, but since more Indian books are now available for free and illegal download on Torrent than are available legally on Amazon, it’s really up to the publishers to treat this as an opportunity – free publicity – rather than a threat.)

In just the last year, the potential of reading on screens rather than the page showed unexpected possibilities, not just for publishers but for authors. Amazon’s Kindle Singles – short pieces, stories, news articles and poems – were wildly successful, hinting at an appetite for good literary writing that could be read in short bursts. Sites like Longread and Byliner drove an apparent revival of long-form journalism, and long-form journalism itself became the new novel — the thing every young writer aspired to be doing, often with no real understanding of what this alluring and ancient form might actually require.

In 2009, Rick Moody’s attempt to write a Twitter short story ran into technical trouble — his connected tweets, spun out over three days, were retweeted randomly. This created the kind of disconnect you’d get if you physically cut up a Nabokov short story and handed it out to readers in random paragraphs.

But all through 2011, the Nigerian writer Teju Cole pulled off a miracle with his “Small Fates”: 140-character tweets drawn from the newspapers, each poetically, crisply written, telling a self-contained story. For Twitter users inundated with too much white noise, “Small Fates” became an oasis of sorts, a resting place in the middle of Babel.

It seems unlikely that the physical book will die just yet, but the growing and worldwide shift from page to screen may be unexpectedly beneficial. There hasn’t been a really new writing form since the novel, now several centuries old. Perhaps the screens will deliver where hypertext failed.

Speaking Volumes: 2011’s best S Asian non-fiction


(Published in the Business Standard, December 27, 2011)

From the biography of a killer disease to a tale of three lovers and one murder, the Opium Wars to the life of a woman who found madness instead of God, this year’s non-fiction by Indians or set in Asia took a wide view of the world. What follows is a highly eclectic selection.

The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism (Deborah Baker, Penguin): The author photo of Maryam Jameelah, writes Baker, was that of “a shapeless black ghost: not even her eyes could be seen behind the dark folds of her veil”. Under the careful scrutiny of Baker, the convert came into sharper focus: Maryam Jameelah was born to a Jewish family, fled her home and faith in search of a truer religion, became a disciple of the fiery Islamic preacher Mawdoodi and stumbled between apparent schizophrenia and a state of temporary belonging.

The Convert is one of the most searching biographies of recent times, in the uncomfortable questions it asks about faith and the certainties of both West and East, and in Baker’s final, disconcerting encounters with the real Jameelah, born Margaret Marcus, who lives in Pakistan today.

The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China (Julia Lovell, Picador): Lovell is one of the few historians of the 19th century Opium Wars who has an understanding of the two competing views of the battles between China and Britain. Her lucid, complex account is finely detailed — and for added enjoyment, it should be read alongside Amitav Ghosh’s fictional trilogy, the Ibis saga, set against the same background and period.

The Emperor of All Maladies (Siddhartha Mukherjee, Simon & Schuster): The jubilant acclaim Mukherjee received in India for his monumental biography of cancer belied the fact that there is little Indian about the book itself. Mukherjee’s research into the history of cancer was all developed and conducted in the US.

But this minor quibble shouldn’t detract from his achievement: this is one of the most illuminating and moving books of the year. The quotations from Herodotus and the personal stories from patients give this already impressive biography even more intimacy.

Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty (Abhijit Banerji/Esther Duflo, Random House): Why would a kilo of dal be enough incentive for families in Udaipur to complete an immunisation programme? How complex are the choices made by really poor families, and how can that decision-making be improved? Duflo and Banerji offer a new way to think about and address poverty. Constantly updated with new research from India, China and elsewhere, their website has grown into a resource that complements but goes beyond the book.

A Free Man (Aman Sethi, Random House): For five years, Aman Sethi followed the life of Mohammed Ashraf, a mazdoor in Delhi, and attempted successive interviews, often abortive. What began as a promising research project grew into this biography of a labourer, one of the millions of migrants who flock to the capital in search of work. Ashraf, with his philosophical bent and a Chekhovian approach to life, opens up another city for Sethi and his readers, one where you can live a life of azaadi (freedom) and akelapan (loneliness).

The Red Market (Scott Carney, William Morrow): The hair shorn from devotees at the Tirupati temple forms the centre of a brisk trade in wigs; less well known is the red market in human wombs, tissues and remains. His investigation of the vampiric harvesting of blood in parts of India was grimly shocking; the ins and outs of the skeleton business are equally unsettling. But what raises this book above ordinary journalism is Carney’s ability to ask the darker and more uncomfortable moral questions, about the ethics of the surrogacy business as well as more obvious crimes.

Death in Mumbai (Meenal Baghel, Random House): Instead of treating the murder of Neeraj Grover as a sensational crime of passion, Baghel asks a simple question: what would make an aspiring model, Maria Susairaj, and her naval officer boyfriend kill her former lover, hack his corpse into pieces, and look for a cold-blooded cover-up?

It’s the normal, small-town backbeat to the lives and aspirations of Grover and Susairaj that makes the murder doubly chilling, and Baghel quietly draws a picture of a generation growing up in Mumbai, unmoored but easily seduced by the city’s promise of making it big. As with Sonia Faleiro’s 2010 Beautiful Thing, Death in Mumbai is another small indicator that Indian writers are finding their voices outside of the enclaves of fiction.

Taj Mahal Foxtrot (Naresh Fernandes, Roli Books): It was about 15 years ago that Naresh Fernandes began wondering about the backstories to the musicians who lit up Bombay’s jazz age. For years afterwards, friends and acquaintances would receive unexpected presents: MP3s of Lorna’s sinuously honeyed voice singing Goan anthems to love and drunkards, for instance. It seems unfair for Bombay to have two unforgettable city biographies coming out in the same year, but Fernandes’ homage to the city’s jazz age captures Bombay in swing time. The men and women who lit up the city, the era of “music without birth control”, the clubs and the small tragedies — all of these are captured perfectly. Get the book, and the soundtrack.