All posts by Nilanjana Roy

Writer, reader, curator of interestingness. Author of The Wildings (Aleph, 2012) ; The Hundred Names of Darkness will be out in Dec 2013. Columnist on books (for the Business Standard) and gender.

Booklove: “Being here” — on Nadine Gordimer’s life

Nadine Gordimer (from
Nadine Gordimer (from

(Published in the Business Standard, July 15, 2014)

“I didn’t know what politics was about until I saw it all happening to people,” Nadine Gordimer said to Alan Ross in a 1965 interview. She had been 15 when she wrote her first short story, about 25 years old when apartheid had been formally institutionalised in South Africa. Gordimer died this week at the age of 90 in Johannesburg. Her legacy included 15 novels and almost 20 short story collections.

By 1965, Gordimer was becoming well-known for her fiction. Some of her closest readers were in the State Publications Control Board, where censors argued whether (1958) was a desirable or undesirable work of literature. Gordimer, unlike many of her fellow South African writers, would not be jailed for her art, though three of her novels – including, A World of Strangers and Burger’s Daughter (1979) – were banned for long periods.

There were no picket fences or cordoned-off lines between Gordimer the writer and Gordimer the outspoken political activist: the censors were evidence of how closely her fiction bled into the real world and vice versa. The men who banned authors such as Athol Fugard and Gordimer, who decided that Es’kia Mphahlele was to be banned from teaching, were often colleagues, fellow writers and academics who did their censoring in secret. Censorship under apartheid extended, infamously, from books outwards. People could be “banned”, and not allowed to speak in public or meet more than one person at a time; these laws were in force against Nelson Mandela, among others.

Gordimer saw literature as a sacred calling, the writers’ task being nothing less than exploring the entire world. In her Nobel lecture, given in December 1991, she said: “Writing is always and at once an exploration of self and of the world; of individual and collective being. Being here.” But her life as a writer had begun with the refusal to look only at what was safe to look at: when she saw Johannesburg, she saw (with greater clarity over the decades) how her country was split into black and white, how the schools were different, how a black child like her might not grow up to be a writer as she had, because only one of them had the right of access into the local library.

“Censorship is control of communication,” she wrote in 1972. The aim of the censors was to act as a political weapon of apartheid, to bring about a situation “where there is ‘no communication’ between South Africa and the ideas that might cause us to question our way of life here”. Censorship, she continued, had successfully wiped out the literature of black South Africans – either their writings or their own selves had been banned.

The worst kind of ignorance was something she regularly breached, much to the alarm of the censors, in her own writings: the ignorance of white people about the inner lives of their countrymen of another colour. To write about these lives without appropriating them required a particular skill, and there Gordimer trusted her own writer’s ability to inquire as deeply into the human condition as possible. “First, you know, you leave your mother’s house, and then you leave the house of the white race,” she said in another interview in 1962.

And she was outspoken and firm in her defence of Salman Rushdie during the years of the Fatwa. She wanted people to recognise how the plight of one individual was an echo of a wider attempt to silence (sometimes murderously) dissenting, inquiring or provocative voices.

Her later story collections – , – and novels – , – ran in parallel to Gordimer’s active participation in worldwide anti-censorship movements, her growing involvement with the Aids crisis and the government’s handling of public health issues.

In Gordimer’s world, the writer’s life had the private side to it, the disciplined days and weeks when she was alone with her writing, and the public side of committees, protests, letters to various regimes, and she embraced both with almost equal keenness. In person, she was a slight woman with a formidable presence and a piercing gaze; she was polite rather than imperious, but conveyed the unmistakable impression that she would not allow her time to be wasted.

But it was perhaps when she read from her works that she was most compelling. In an early recording, she reads from a tart short story, her voice sharp, birdlike, completely in command of the stage: a voice that invites listeners, expecting them to listen in respectful silence.

Some 40 years later, Gordimer read from Jose Saramago’s touching The Centaur, and her brisk voice softened a little around the sentences that speak of a pursued creature without a homeland, destined to be a permanent refugee. Exiles, the marginalised and the persecuted, those who had been told they didn’t belong: this had been her territory, too.


Journal: The Creative Life & How I Write


The best writing advice ever is something you’ll hear from all the pros — figure out your rituals, use the space you have well instead of waiting for the perfect space, and most of all, write regularly.

Back in my twenties, I’d hear all of this — write every day, write regularly, show up at the typewriter/ computer, make an appointment with your Muse — and nod, and keep on reading, looking for The Secret Key to Writing. I thought you needed permission to be a writer, or the perfect space, or something; it took about two decades for me to figure out that all you needed was to start transferring the story in your head out of your head.

Starting out as a fiction writer, I have just one rule for myself, and it’s very simple, but it’s also slowly changing my life: write what makes you happy. More on that later, but for now here’s a link to an interview with Mumbai Boss, which asked some writers–Samit Basu, Namita Devidayal, William Dalrymple, me so far — a bunch of fun questions on how we write.

How I Write:

Do you procrastinate?
All through my twenties and thirties, by taking jobs that ran close enough to writing (journalism, publishing etc.) so that I could feel happy being around books while ignoring the fact that I wasn’t actually writing my own. Real procrastination is subtle: allowing chaos, drama, toxic relationships, poverty (material and emotional) into your life is a time-honoured way to avoid writing.

A well-ordered, happy, creative life and the comfort of routine are priceless. That calm foundation sets the ground for both writing and for other things—challenging travel, the ability to exercise your curiosity, to invite new experiences into your life.

The moment you start writing, and you realise how much richer and happier you feel when you’re making up interesting stuff for a living, the need to procrastinate disapparates.

Continue reading

Journal: Rubble — Three Stories for Jorge

For his Identidades Ocultas Series, New York-based artist Jorge Tacla asked people from four different professions — a philosopher, an art curator, a psychiatrist and a story-teller — to contribute short essays/ reactions.

Jorge Tacla, Identidades Ocultas

I loved collaborating on this — maybe there’s a natural jugalbandi between artists and photographers, maybe it’s just that the visually creative approach the world a little differently from writers, who work with the relatively more audible world of words and sentences. I wasn’t sure whether Tacla was expecting a proper essay, but his canvases were inspiring: massively layered, dense, tactile, and ominous and reassuring at the same time. So I wrote him three short-shorts. Here’s one from Rubble: Three Stories for Jorge.

Screenshot 2014-07-24 00.00.02

It looks even prettier in Spanish!

Screenshot 2014-07-23 23.59.21

To see more of Jorge Tacla’s work: his Publications page

The Identidades Ocultas exhibition, on at the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, in Santiago, Chile till September 2014


Booklove: The Sound of Things Falling

Screenshot 2014-06-24 12.13.56

(Published in the Business Standard, June 16, 2014)

It is only once in a while that animal tragedies impinge on human consciousness: the pathos of their suffering has to be extreme in order to jump the queue of human misery.

Some weeks ago, a Copenhagen zoo culled Marius, a giraffe with the soft nose and friendly air of a plush toy, to worldwide anger and indignation. Marius was fed to other zoo animals. The only reason for executing the giraffe was that he had undesirable genes; the zoo refused to listen to pleas from others who offered Marius a home.

That demonstration of dominion – man’s absolute authority, even unto life and death, over the animals in his keeping – came in the same week that a friend sent me Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Sound of Things Falling. His story of human tragedies – disappearances, assasinations, the evocative sense of a country where violence sweeps like malarial fevers through people’s everyday lives – starts with the death of an animal.

A hippopotamus escapes from Pablo Escobar’s zoo and spends his freedom recklessly, taking what he wants from the Colombian countryside. When he is finally shot, his death comes as tragedy: he had escaped with his mate and their baby, and it is the debate over what should be done with the lost hippos that brings back the narrator’s memory of more human losses.

The Sound of Things Falling is richly moving despite the atmosphere of menace and despair that surrounds its characters, and it came as no surprise when it won the International Impac Dublin Literary Award recently.

Mr Vasquez has a voice entirely his own, not in debt to any previous Colombian writer, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “In the darkness of the bedroom I thought of that, although thinking in the darkness is not advisable: things seem bigger or more serious in the darkness, illnesses more destructive, the presence of evil closer, indifference more intense, solitude more profound.”

The Sound of Things Falling solved a problem that the Indian writer, in and out of English, grapples with: how to write without ignoring the electric thrum of violence in India, but without turning fiction into an autopsy report.

In an essay, “The shiver of the real”, Amitava Kumar sets out a manifesto for Indian writing. He writes: “I hereby call for a literature that engages with ‘the real': not just the depiction of blood on the streets, or, for that matter, the cold air of the morgue, but also the warm, somewhat moist atmosphere of unwanted intimacy in the waiting room in which we have left behind a little bit of our past.”

Later, Mr Kumar writes – bringing to mind the way Mr Vasquez chronicles the noisy, chattering, relentless debate around the future of his fictional lost hippos – of the “news careening about on social media”, almost all of it bloodspattered, grim or grimy. “A writer’s task today, more than ever before, has become one of making sense of violence,” Mr Kumar writes, before gently pointing out that a writer’s task is also to see that what is around him or her is real and worth examining.

You don’t read novels as prescriptions, and I read The Sound of Things Falling for the most basic of reasons: because I liked Mr Vasquez’s storytelling, and I liked the sound of his sentences. But some weeks after events in India had swept Colombia from my mind, Mr Vasquez’s words kept coming back to me. He deals squarely with the missing parts of his country’s history, casually telling all the stories that many in Colombia today insist are unimportant or not useful; he remembers everything that has disappeared.

Julio Cortazar – another writer who, like Mr Vasquez, saw his own country more clearly when he was some distance away and did not have to breathe the air of violence and intrigue – divided the reception to his work into two segments. One kind of reader loved literature and books, and shared his need to struggle. The other kind did not like Cortazar’s writing. “The bourgeois readers in Latin America who are indifferent to politics, or those who align themselves with the right wing, well, they don’t worry about the problems that worry me – the problems of exploitation, of oppression, and so on. Those people regret that my stories often take a political turn,” Cortazar said.

He could have been speaking of Indian readers in this time. The demand made of writers here is that either they become reporters of the violence around them, recording each massacre like history’s clerks, or they produce pleasing books that allow people to stay in their comfort zones.

Some weeks after I finished The Sound of Things Falling, I looked for interviews by Mr Vasquez. In one, he speaks of following “the unofficial Latin American tradition, which said that you had to leave your country in order to be a writer”. The atmosphere in Colombia – violence, fear, corruption – kicked him out, but then he returned to Bogota, where he lives now. When I think of the generation of Indians in their twenties, many of whom hope to be writers, I think of his words: “I’ve always believed,” he says to The Huffington Post, “that one of the things that literature can do is open your eyes when most people want to close them.”


Speaking Volumes: A Perfect Time For Babelfish

The Tower of Babel, Bruegel.
The Tower of Babel: Pieter Bruegel the Elder

(Published in the Business Standard, June 30, 2014)

In a country criss-crossed by centuries of traders, explorers, invaders and curious travelling locals, deciding what language should be dominant in the 21st century is no small thing.

The local languages have deep symbolic resonance, but choosing one over another could cause explosive resentment. The institutional languages are imported from elsewhere and formalising one of them as the official tongue would spark justifiable anger. As Morocco grappled with these issues, their struggle with identity politics, history and present-day language domination would have been dazzlingly familiar to Indians – if we had been looking at our language politics in a more global framework, which we’re not doing.

The debate in India over dominant languages – the imperial legacy of , the present and contested crowning of – was summed up years ago by in his song, “I am a Third World Child”: “They said/’You should learn to speak a little bit of English/Maybe practise birth control/Keep away from controversial politics/So to save my third world soul/They said/’You should learn to speak a little bit of English/Don’t be scared of a suit and tie./Learn to walk in the dreams of the foreigner …

For most postcolonial countries, this was the devil’s bargain: entry to the global world and its suits and ties, at a price. Even when English was subverted, taken over, rendered fully Indian or given a Nigerian accent, it came with Clegg’s warning: to speak in English was to exchange your dreams for the dreams of the foreigner.

This is the platform on which most countries across the world build an argument for the use of local languages, but as with India, few countries stop to see if the position of English remains as culturally dominant as it once was, or check the health of their own languages before making the switch.

In a telling note by the Columbia Global Centre, linguists examine the dominance of English in scientific and educational research. They note that this is a problem of influence. Original research is published in many languages: from French and German to Arabic, Spanish, Russian and Chinese. But the journals that make the highest impact and that exert the most influence have been in English.

This has strong implications for India, where the demand for any Indian language to be made official must take into account two major factors. One of them is an institutional failure – just as until very recently, the Hindi-language publishing market had been swamped by English bestsellers by Indian authors in translation, the lack of original research conducted in most Indian languages is both revealing and alarming. This is a failure of the imagination as much as the will, as though we find it hard to believe that the job of academics and scientists should be to think along original, free and creative lines.

Indian researchers don’t yet have the dilemma that Spanish or Arabic language researchers or thinkers do – should they address the local audience that understands them, or reach for a wider audience elsewhere with no shared cultural context in common? But if we do adopt any Indian language as the official one, its reach will have to go beyond courts, schools and the bureaucracy: in order to thrive and have influence, a language must encourage creativity and originality.

The other problem that India has with language hegemony is put very well by , associated with the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, which counts at least 780 Indian languages as opposed to the government’s official count of 122. Mr Devy’s arguments for the need to protect rising languages such as Bhojpuri is eloquent. Instead of one tongue to rule them all, one tongue to bind them, the state should look at how best to preserve this diversity.

Some years ago, the writer wrote: “I dream of an english/full of the words of my language./an english in small letters/an english that shall tire a white man’s tongue …

Historically, that has been one way out of the language tangle: the proliferation of feeder languages, pidgins and creoles, so that there are many Englishes, many Hindis instead of one dominant language.

But the world might be changing faster than we realise. It is hard to estimate actual language use on the internet – social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, are “deep” sites, hard to search, and Web spiders are not very good at estimating the reach of local-language blog platforms and sites. It seems, though, that English is only one of many dominant languages online; it may be in the lead, but the internet speaks Chinese, Spanish, Arabic and several other tongues.

In 2012, the then Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, suggested that students be given the opportunity to learn Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian and Japanese in order to access nearby Asian markets. Importing those skills would be expensive, and the proposal may never take off – but Ms Guillard may have stumbled upon the next wave in language shifts across the world.

Instead of conquest or imperial domination, it might be regional affinities that decide which tongues you bring into your life. And the language of the neighbours might leave a better taste in our mouths than a language forced upon you by conquistadors, internal or external.

sbThe Wandering Falcon

Booklove: Jamil Ahmad and the Last Frontiers

Jamil Ahmad, author of The Wandering Falcon.

(Published in the Business Standard, July 14, 2014)

The work of a good political agent in the days of the British Raj could be splendidly varied. In Flashman and the Great Game, George Macdonald Fraser has a highly coloured description of the “political’s” job:


“After a couple of days, when I’d got the old Urdu baat rolling familiarly off my palate again, I even browned up and put on a puggaree and coat and pyjamys, and loafed about the Bund bazaar, letting on I was a Mekran coast trader, and listening to the clack. I came out rotten with fleas, stinking of nautch-oil and cheap perfume and cooking ghee, with my ears full of beggars’ whines and hawkers’ jabbering and the clang of the booths… It helped to get India back under my hide again, and that’s important, if you intend to do anything as a political.”


Jamil Ahmad died this week, at the age of 81, leaving a lifetime of warm memories and one minor classic, The Wandering Falcon, behind him. The most interesting part of his career had begun in Swat, where he was a political officer in 1971, though unlike Fraser’s Flashy, Ahmad did not feel the need for costumes and theatrical make-up in order to get his job done. Instead, he travelled across Balochistan, until he could have recited the family trees of the frontier tribes in his sleep.


The new Commissioner of Swat knew the area well: he had spent time as a political officer in Waziristan, Baluchistan, Malakand and the Frontier. But something changed in ’71; he began to set down his encounters with the tribes on the typewriter he shared with his wife, Helga. When we spoke some years ago, they laughed at the thought of how his writing began—he had aspired to poetry, but Helga, an exacting critic, said that he was wasting his time. He began writing sketches instead, and setting down incidents as they were told to him. They would make up the nine loosely connected chapters/ short stories that became The Wandering Falcon decades later, starting with the life of the orphaned boy, Tor Baz, whose name gives the book its title, continuing through the prostitute and slave markets of Mian Mandi, with Ahmad’s careful eye not shying aware from the death of camels, or the massacre of tribes.


Faiza Sultan Khan discovered Jamil Ahmad when the retired government official sent in a short story he’d pulled out from an old trunk to her literary magazine. She introduced him to editors and when she speaks of Ahmad today, it’s of the integrity and the gentleness of the man as much as of his talent.

 sbThe Wandering Falcon

What many readers loved about The Wandering Falcon was something they sensed in the way these stories were told, the lives of the frontier tribes revealed with compassion and openness, not dug out as anthropological curiosities: Jamil Ahmad’s integrity as a human being was inseparable from his skills as a writer.


As Faiza says, “He wrote about the tribes with such humanity, not seeking to explain them to us, but trying to make us see that we were just like them.” The empathy was mutual. The Powindahs and the Baloches narrowed the distance between the Commissioner-saheb and themselves. Faiza tells the story of how Ahmed had to tactfully decline the offer from his friends to provide a sizeable escort to his daughter on her first date—a well-meant offer, though one can only imagine what his daughter would have felt if he’d sent her off with the escorts in tow!


When we met, he was undeterred by illness, happy to talk about Delhi, where he had grown up and attended St Columba’s school. He was as wide-eyed as a child on the subject of the changes that had overtaken Delhi, though his gravitas returned when he spoke of the far sadder changes that had swamped his friends in Balochistan.


He wrote with gentle honesty and unflinching clarity. What he had chronicled in The Wandering Falcon, which won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Award, was the almost unbearable sadness of a proud culture with its own integrity, despite many flaws, coming up against the blank, unyielding wall of a civilisation could not understand, let alone share, the way the frontierspeople saw the world.


In The Dead Camel, Ahmad was blunt: it was the tribes themselves, and the way they lived, that went against the harsh grain of this thing called civilisation. The Pawindahs, the “foot people”, move freely across from hills to the plains in order to find grazing for their flocks. “This way of life had endured for centuries, but it would not last for ever. It constituted defiance to certain concepts, which the world was beginning to associate with civilization itself. Concepts such as statehood, citizenship, undivided loyalty to one state; settled life as opposed to nomadic life, and the writ of the state as opposed to tribal discipline.”


One way of life had to die. Many historians chronicled that death, but it took a writer like Ahmad to tell the full story of the General and the last of the travels of the Kharot tribes.


As the General reminded us, life is full of unpalatable things: it is best to develop a taste for raw onions, and to find a way of loving the world, even as the old ways collapse around you. There may be flashier, more spectacular writers than Jamil Ahmad, but few had his integrity, his wisdom and his compassion. May his tribe increase.


Speaking Volumes: The listener and the storyteller

(Published in the Business Standard, June 2, 2014)

In 1970, an interviewer whose collection of oral narratives would transform North America’s sense of history had a long chat with an author whose memories of her own history would transform the lives of thousands across the world.

The recording of that interview between Studs Terkel and Maya Angelou is a treasure; a great storyteller drawn out by one of the greatest listeners of all time. Angelou, who died this week at the age of 86, had lived a full life: fry cook, sex worker, dancer, journalist, author of seven landmark autobiographies, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Not enough Indians of this generation know who she is. Even among Indians who have access to books, there is little awareness of the resonance that the writings of James Baldwin and Maya Angelou in the past, or their contemporaries exploring race and gender divides in modern times, have for us.

The books that might help this generation see India’s caste divides more clearly are often missing from our private and public libraries. The few who find Angelou’s work tend to discover her when they’re studying or working abroad. Many young women stumble across her memoirs of surviving rape and abuse, and her tale of how she broke through the silence that stifled her beautiful, powerful voice, when they’re researching their own, similar experiences.

That absence is a grievous loss, because Angelou stood for much more than a collection of quotable quotes: her life and her writings were inseparable, the way she lived and her memories fuelling the way she wrote, what she saw, and what she became.

In almost every decade, those who aspire to be writers ask themselves a simple question: how should a writer be? Indian history has many answers to this, almost all of them now set aside: be restless and be a wanderer, forsake family and duty; be an exact historian of the epic truths, leaving out none of the ambiguities; listen to the people of your land and reshape their stories on the potter’s wheel of fiction; be engaged in ceaseless questioning; classify everything; be a disrupter who sets fire to the age’s pieties.

In this decade, we believe that a writer should be successful, a celebrity who shuttles between the writing desk and the television studio, in touch with her or his audience, aware of his or her readership, a national treasure on her or his way to acquiring a Padma Shri.

Angelou, despite the honorary degrees and celebrity heaped on her, lived a writing life, planning books up to her last year. She used her own life, and the stories of her mother, her grandmother, the people in the community she had grown up in, to reach out and seek the untold, unwritten, unprized stories of hundreds of others.

Her voice was resonant as a bell, and as intense, when she spoke to Studs Terkel about the title of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first memoir to insist that the personal lives of African-American women were important, worthy of recording.

“My suggestion,” she said, “is that I think that the free bird doesn’t sing very much. He’s busy finding worms and taking care of his business, marrying and things. The caged bird sings about freedom all the time, all the time, and that song is so rich and so beautiful.”

Terkel had just finished recording the histories of ordinary Americans who had been through the Great Depression, bringing out the “extraordinary depth of memories” of the people whom Richard Rhodes called “the natural novelists” in his review. In his conversation with Angelou, you can hear their mutual understanding that the voices of the ordinary, the overlooked, those invisible because of their race or gender or poverty or the hierarchies that push them to the bottom of the pile, are just as important and just as filled with wisdom as the voices of the privileged and the powerful.

Terkel asks Angelou at one point about what they both see as the stupidity of racism, and she speaks of the wasted potential of those who were only allotted certain jobs and certain ways of being. “Imagine,” she said, “if that intelligence had been able to be used constructively, that is, more constructively for the common good. We would really be a great country.”

Terkel’s oral narratives became the giant, sheltering structure within which you could hear the true voice of a nation every bit as complicated and nightmare-ridden, as criss-crossed by history’s tracer bullets, as India is in this decade. In Working, his gigantic collection of people talking about what they do for a living, you can trace every injustice, every social and racial division, every argument that work turns people into cogs in a machine – and also, in a few flaring moments of illumination, trace the satisfaction in doing a hard day’s work at a decent job. In Angelou’s autobiographies, you can chronicle not only her own hard-won healing, but the wide ripples of change across race, class and gender, and also some of the lasting chasms.

In their separate ways, they wrote truer histories of the United States than most of the official historians. Listeners and storytellers: we could do with more of both kinds, especially at this bend in the river of Indian history.


Booklove: KD Singh, Delhi’s gentle bookseller


(Published in the Business Standard, May 26, 2014)

The Book Shop in Delhi was a lot like the magical places of fantasy described in the books it carried: larger on the inside than it seemed from the outside. The space it occupied in the lives of city readers was far broader than the compact premises in Jorbagh would indicate.

You could leave some of Delhi’s large chain bookstores with a sense of dissatisfaction, a hunger unassuaged by any of the shiny titles that crowded their shelves, but the indie bookstores did better, from Midland to Motilal Banarsidass or Fact & Fiction and, always, K D Singh’s Book Shop.

K D Singh died last week, of cancer. He was one of the city’s finest booksellers for a reason: it wasn’t just his love of books that shaped The Book Shop’s stock, but the rare combination of talent, experience and an unteachable instinct.

He often anticipated the curve, so that it was at The Book Shop that his readers found George R R Martin years before the HBO TV series made Game of Thrones a household name, or discovered Junot Diaz or Chimamanda Adichie back when they were promising unknowns. But he also had a great selection of translations. The Book Shop had Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari and Vaikom Basheer’s stories, for example, long after those books had gone out of stock elsewhere.

His customers included most of the city’s writers as well as out-of-towners like Ramachandra Guha and Rudrangshu Mukherjee. In turn, Delhi’s writers told visiting friends from other countries that they must stop by The Book Shop because its two walls and middle aisle of books contained more surprises than they might imagine. Octavio Paz, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a dozen others visited, among many others.

The Book Shop opened in 1970 in Jorbagh; by the time its sister shop in Khan Market had shut down in 2006, Delhi had grown from a small town coming up in the shadow of the Walled City to a massive, tentacular metropolis. And yet, for such a large and ambitious city, Delhi has very few good bookshops. This generation of teenagers is exposed chiefly to badly stocked mall bookstores, places where indifferent staff sell kitsch merchandise and bestsellers, like prophylactic inoculations against the love of books.

For authors and readers, the understanding of how crucial bookstores can be in your life runs deep, and the urge to pass on that love of reading is strong. When Larry McMurtry, the author who is also a veteran bookseller, turned 61, he went back to his hometown in Archer County in order to create “a newly born book town”. Ann Patchett had a smaller-sized dream: when she opened Parnassus Books in 2011 in her hometown, Nashville, it was because she missed the bookstores of her youth. “Mills could not have been more than 700 square feet small, and the people who worked there remembered who you were and what you read, even if you were ten.”

When I read that sentence again last week, it brought back exactly what made K D Singh’s bookshop so special. He was often ensconced in a corner, listening to jazz, and when I met him at the age of 10, he ferretted out my love for Gerald Durrell in seconds. “Try this,” he said, handing me James Herriot. It was a perfect recommendation, the first of many through the next 30-odd years. His wife, Nini Singh, his daughter, equally book-loving staff and Sohan at the door handled business when he was away, but it was a pleasure to see KD in his element, handling readers he knew as competently as total strangers.

I was at the store once when a lady came in, asking for book suggestions. She liked Rumi; KD paused for a second, and suggested Agha Shahid Ali. The next week, I was back browsing (buying books is a ruinous habit) when another person asked for suggestions. “I love Rumi’s poetry,” he said. KD directed the man to Jiddu Krishnamurti: the two customers had browsed books differently, and to him, their minor shifts in taste were as clear as footprints.

Over the years in Delhi, I sometimes missed living in a city with great public libraries, and often wondered what it might be like to live in Tokyo, with its 1,675 bookstores, or Paris, with 1,025 bookshops. But the truth is that all a reader needs over their lifetime is one good bookstore, preferably run by a great bookseller.

When K D Singh’s cancer set in, we missed him and the book talk terribly. In all these years, he had seldom gossiped about the publishing industry; he preferred to chat about the books themselves. It was easy with him to start discussing authors in one decade and to finish three centuries further back in time. The day after he died, The Book Shop was open for business as usual, a reflection of the values he and his family had brought to the book-selling business.

It will be a while before it sinks in that I can’t drop by The Book Shop to ask KD what he thinks of Mai Jia’s Decoded, or of the new translations of the season. But on my bookshelves are the years of spoils brought home from The Book Shop: about three decades worth of reminders of an extraordinary bookseller, and of a friendship built on the shared love of books and reading.

ancientindia map

Speaking Volumes: Reclaiming the past

(Published by the Business Standard, May 19, 2014)

When I saw that the Murty Classical Library had released its first five titles, it jogged my memory about my MRI-inspired reading project. There are few art materials as beautiful and as disturbing as MRI scans of the human brain.

Angela Palmer’s art uses engraved details from MRIs to create moving, and haunting, portraits of humans traced in the delicate pulsations of neurons and synapses. Paula Crown uses convex images of her own brain scans to create the eerie impression that her mind is talking to its doppelganger. But it was a friend’s home-craft project – her MRI scans converted into a lamp – that made me the most uneasy: the brain, lit up in red, green and blue, is pretty, but also disquieting. We don’t want to look too closely at the inside of our skulls, at least not over dinner.

Even so, something about looking closely at how the electrical impulses change over time acts as a reminder to be kinder to your poor brain, to give it better fodder than random BuzzFeed stories or yesterday’s editorials. The morning after being introduced to the brain scan lamp, I sat down at my desk, filled with purpose, and instead of doing anything as sensible as drafting a will or making dazzling new financial investments, I drew up a lifetime plan of reading the classics.

At the bookshops I ran into an old, frustrating but familiar problem: it is easier to find world classics en masse, because they are published in well-organised series, than it is to find Indian classics outside the Indian languages you happen to read in. Except for a handful of Penguin translations of Indian classics, everything I have in languages outside Hindi and Bengali from my own heritage is badly ill-assorted, often in old and outdated translations because no modern ones are available.

It is a problem almost all Indians face: the risk of losing touch with your own, monumental, and magnificently variegated heritage outside your mother tongue. It is easier to source the core texts of ancient Japanese literature than it is to source a library of the core texts from our own languages.

This is the gap that Rohan Murty wanted to fill when he and his family took over the ambitious but juddering Clay Sanskrit Library project. The switch from “Sanskrit” to “Classical” – and the addition that makes it the “Library of India” – is not accidental. This four-year project, involving translations commissioned from over 40 scholars worldwide, hopes to create a library of our own. It is also a way of reigniting our collective cultural memory, as is a parallel project by the NYU Press to create a library of the world’s Arabic classics. These might help redress some of the vast and unforgiveable inequities of cultural trade: that the world should know only Rumi but not Surdas, or, as an editor friend says, that the world should elevate Shakespeare without ever having read Kalidasa or Adigal or Molla.

The first five titles from the Murty library are now out, and more titles will be released each year. They should serve as an annual reminder that India’s past was never a narrow one, and that the histories, poems, stories and myths that flooded out of the Indian subcontinent cannot be easily contained by ideologues who choose the thin gruel and the tedious quarrels of Hindu pasts versus Muslim pasts.

Take the Therigatha, for example, poems of the First Buddhist Women, sometimes claimed as the oldest collection of written poems by women anywhere in the world. How strongly Mutta’s voice resounds from the sixth century to ours when she declares:

“So free am I
So gloriously free
Free from three petty things -
From mortar, from pestle and from my twisted lord…”

The women spring to life, introduced by the stories of their rebirths as well as their present lives. Some years after reading the Therigatha, I met women at an ashram in Uttar Pradesh who shared their stories of renunciation, and the freedoms they had found there; and they sounded just like Mutta and Ubbiri, who had lived more than 2,500 years ago.

Sur’s Ocean – the collected Surdas poems, over 400 of them – should be welcome additions to the recent translations of Kabir’s poems by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Lal Ded’s vacas by Ranjit Hoskote. The Murty Library’s translation of Bulleh Shah’s Sufi lyrics should round out those reminders of the tradition of seeking and dissent, though of course with all three collections, the quality and rhythm of the translations will matter a great deal.

Two chronicles, one a translation of Abul Fazl’s The History of Akbar, and the other a hard-to-find translation of Allasani Peddana’s 16th-century classic, The Story of Manu, round out the first five. The intellectual territory that just these five translations span, and the wide range of Indian thought and experience they represent, should be amply clear – and it is also oddly moving.

When Sheldon Pollock wrote Crisis in the Classics, he mentioned the larger crisis brought about by the rising indifference to the humanities. That indifference, in turn, feeds the idea that success, economic growth and prosperity are the only essential forms of well-being, and that ignores the equally important question of why every citizen of India should not also have access to the best of ideas, the richest of their own heritage. But as Lal Ded wrote in a different context: “As you know, so shall you be.” The promise of the Murty Classical Library is a restorer’s promise: as you claim your past, so shall you shape your future.


Speaking Volumes: The messy bits


(Published in the Business Standard, May 5, 2014)

At the Chor Bazaar in Old Delhi, you used to be able to find Hindi film posters, record album art and what I classified as Readymade Families: discarded photographs gathered in shoeboxes and cardboard boxes.

In a faded pink cardboard box the colour and size of a bureaucrat’s file, I once found a set of family photographs from holidays taken over the years, in places like Srinagar, Nainital, Mount Abu. The photos were on black-and-white matte stock, lightly and carefully hand-tinted to add colour; the family a large and apparently happy one. But when the dealer and I brought the photos out for a closer look, we saw that someone had carefully scissored out one figure – whose? Impossible to tell – from each photograph. It had been neatly done, but almost all the photos were marked by the absent silhouette.

When I thought of those photographs, it was the blank silhouette I saw, not the smiling, posed people in the frame. Who was the missing figure: a loved one who had died too soon, someone who had committed terrible crimes? Perhaps it was just the work of a bored child.

So many stories lurk behind snapshots, especially the wooden, posed kind Indian families would have taken in 1979, the year the parents and two sons in Akhil Sharma’s Family Life emigrate to America. They leave on the back of many dreams, but chief among them is the father’s vision of “a West glamorous with the idea of science”. He is also propelled by self-loathing, the intolerable sense that the streets of the quiet, low-roofed Delhi of the seventies are indifferent to him. There is little to hold them in post-Emergency India, marked by the forced frugality of the era: “We saved the cotton that comes inside pill bottles. We used it to make wicks.”

In the week before Ajay and his older brother Birju leave, they are haloed by the possession – so rare in those days of circumscribed travel, the news read at slow speed on All India Radio and delivered via Inland Letter – of their US visas. Birju has more assurance than his brother; in India, he stands first in class, he likes America more than Ajay does, and makes friends more quickly.

All it takes to change their immigrant story from snapshot-perfect to something far more tragic is a dive gone wrong. Birju has an accident; and just like that, in the time that it takes to lie unseen at the bottom of a swimming pool, not breathing in oxygen for a certain number of breaths, the lives of everyone around him judder, shift and change.

The legend behind Family Life, Akhil Sharma’s remarkable second novel, says that he took 12 years to write the book, starting each draft from the first chapter on all over again, condensing thousands of pages down into a compact, heartbreaking, resonant 218 pages. But the truth might be that it took all of Mr Sharma’s four decades – he is almost 43 – to shape this semi-autobiographical story about what happens to family lives so carelessly warped and splintered by fate.

Ajay’s voice, anxious, self-aware, is perfect for the black humour that carries him and Mr Sharma through a chronicle of sadness and pain. In the hospital, he worries that his mother might judge him for not crying. “Don’t worry,” he says to her. “I’ve cried already.”

An unwanted sainthood pursues the family, bestowed on them by other Indian immigrants, but the cracks in their lives widen inexorably. Mr Sharma’s descriptions of how the New Jersey community backs away when the father eschews faith healers in favour of becoming a practising alcoholic are both brutal and true, and very funny. He finds his humour in the mixed debris of incontinence, Isocal, G-tubes and brain damage, and in the sport Ajay and his father pursue of competitive sadness: “You’re sad? I want to hang myself every day.”

If you have the stomach for it, read Family Life along with Roddy Doyle’s The Guts. This seems positively masochistic: yes, of course you would want to follow up a brilliant fictionalisation of a family’s suffering and a brother’s brain damage by reading another brilliant novel about a family’s suffering and a father’s colon cancer.

Before you decide to settle for either the nearest abyss or the nearest brainless bestseller, choosing whichever seems less painful at the moment, reconsider. One of the pleasures of reading (and writing) fantasy is the restfulness of stepping into a world of magic, where dragons or wicked villains are easily identified, and where “they lived happily ever after” is an achievable ending.

But the chances that any of us will ever visit Narnia or Middle Earth are remote; the chances that we will spend time in a hospital ward ourselves, as visitors or patients, are relatively high. Those who grew up with Jimmy Rabbitte in The Commitments will be relieved to know that his cancer doesn’t prevent him from being as wily, as irreverent and as human in The Guts – he’s us, only a little bit older. Akhil Sharma takes you to hell and not quite back; Roddy Doyle explores one of our possible hereafters.

Going from Family Life to The Guts is like taking a train through an unexpectedly beautiful, if bleak, landscape, to a town you had hoped to avoid visiting. The destination may be dismaying, but the journey is extraordinary – and Mr Doyle and Mr Sharma are the best guides anyone could ask for.