Category Archives: Journal

Nervous Throat-Clearing


Much to my own surprise, I have finished writing a book. Perhaps some people’s surprise is greater than mine, and that would be the very patient editors at HarperCollins India who suggested some five years ago that I should make a collection of my book columns.

From Bankimchandra's Bengali magazine, Bangadarshan.
From Bankimchandra’s Bengali magazine, Bangadarshan.

I started to collect my book columns and got side-tracked when hard disks (and floppy disks — remember them?) from eons past yielded other things that had been forgotten. Columns on the Internet back when we treated it as a strange new toy and thought Usenet groups and Lycos were so advanced; columns on random subjects that were blatantly written for the cheque back in the days when the partner and I had just started freelancing; columns on food (mostly on eating) from the time our food columnist disappeared and I was pressganged into doing this on the grounds that a) someone in my family had written a cookbook b) I read encylopaedias on food for fun c) I was the most efficient tiffin-raider in the office.

Rokeya Begum, author of Sultana's Dream
Rokeya Begum, author of Sultana’s Dream

So instead of taking six months to riffle through the files, what was then called The Collected Columns or Adventures in Reading or some such anodyne title took about two years to compile. My editor had stopped asking for a date of delivery and was instead anxiously asking whether I was still doing something — anything! — on the book.

Olga Perovskaya's Kids and Cubs, a Russian children's classic
Olga Perovskaya’s Kids and Cubs, a Russian children’s classic

Then I read the columns and realised they couldn’t go into print after all. Newspaper writing is supposed to be for the moment, and is supposed to contain some news, which means they don’t usually read very well six months or two or four years after they were printed. Discouraged, I abandoned How To Read In Indian — it had been retitled, after this essay in Caravan —  and went off and wrote a couple of cat sagas instead. That was a lot of fun. My editor came to the book launch and manfully, through gritted teeth, congratulated me on finishing a book, any book. Even if it wasn’t his. I like to think The Wildings gave him hope, and he was really very patient.

Dean Mahomet, shampooing surgeon, traveller & the first Indian writer to publish a full-length work in English.
Dean Mahomet, shampooing surgeon, traveller & the first Indian writer to publish a full-length work in English.

Once in a while, I’d run into Alok Rai, whom I’d discussed the book with back in 200– never mind when. I’d said exuberantly that I thought I’d finish in maybe a year, since the columns were already done. He laughed, wolfishly, and said, “You wait. Just you wait. It’ll take two years if you’re lucky.” Meanwhile, we were discovering that no one could pronounce How To Read in Indian. It was the “in Indian” bit that was tricky. Someone asked me how my reading nuns book was getting along, and that was the end of that title. My editor found himself a new cardiologist.
Then last December, a friend gave me excellent advice. I couldn’t decide whether the book with no title was a collection of vaguely literary journalism, or whether it should be a literary history of Indian authors and their relationship with English in the 18th and 19th century. Which was a) another terrible title and b) would have taken another four years to research and write. She said, “What do you think it’s about right now?”

I said, “It’s about how much fun it is reading books. And writing books. And eating books.” (That last bit is explained in the book, though I have to admit that the title’s a bit of a giveaway.)

She said, “Well then. Leave it be what it is.”

So I wrote a few more love letters to reading, trying to explain why anyone would spend most of their adult life doing this, and sent The Girl Who Ate Books off to my editors. This came as something of a shock to them, but they’re out of the emergency ward now and the doctors say they’re doing fine. As for the book, it is a hodgepodge, a mishmash, a salmagundi, and it should be out around December 2015.


(Wrote Softspeakers for Antiserious, an online magazine run by Sumana Roy from Siliguri: “Antiserious is anti-spotlight: it aims to democratise serious attention from a handful of issues of ‘inter/national importance’ to everything that constitutes our dailiness, the gun and the gum.”)



Those who lived in that city woke up late, not knowing why they felt so rested or what had brought them such an unusual sense of peace. Some woke to a sound they remembered from their childhoods, before the city had expanded and grown clamorous: the morning chorus of birdsong. Some woke to the sound of traffic, as they had for years, but the wheels of the trucks were hushed, and the car horns honked quietly, as though from a long distance away.

It was only in the evening that the citizens began to realise how great the change was in their circumstances. In the markets, a great lament rose from the tent-houses. Priests, politicians, devotees, celebrants, wedding guests (and happy couples, and their importantly busy families) found themselves baffled: none of the mikes or the loudspeakers in the city worked correctly any more.

The mikes appeared to be completely worthless, from the imported velvety-furred, red-lit mikes of the major TV channels to the humble, steel-grey versions available for hire for all kinds of functions, celebrations, festivals and meetings. The more loudly speakers shouted, the more raucously singers raised their voices, the less audible they became over even the most expensive fully-guaranteed Japanese and Korean mikes. Haranguers, demagogues, jaagaran and wedding singers, tambola announcers, campaigning candidates, preachers, teachers, all kinds of creatures: no matter how much they yelled, screamed, roared and threatened, the mikes were on strike.

By evening, a few clever and more patient speakers had discovered a workaround: if they lowered their voices, and spoke in reasonable tones, or even in whispers, they were audible. Well, they were audible as long as they held the interest of their audiences. A bored audience could drown out a tedious speaker without needing to raise its collective voice – just a general hum of rising chatter was enough to drown out the voices of rabble-rousers who weren’t rousing their rabble enough. As for the loudspeakers, they had turned into softspeakers. Though the mechanics and the electricians did their best, none of them could find a way to turn up the volume again.

In a few weeks, most of the citizens had adapted to their changed circumstances. Wedding songs continued to play, but instead of blaring the latest dance numbers across a sleepless neighbourhood, the playlists became more seductive, more lilting, vying to lure the attention of passers-by with melody instead of volume. Those who loved dancing found, to their astonishment, that their enjoyment was not curtailed.

The softspeakers did not amplify bands and singers in the same way as before, but they did, in a gentle rumbling way, make bass lines and beats more distinct, as though you were listening to the conversations of friendly dinosaurs. People flocked to discos to dance, but also to stand in long queues until their turn came to curl up against the softspeakers, where the low rumbles soothed them to sleep. It was like spa music, only less annoying.

Politicians and priests alike adjusted – grumbling – to the new order. The priests and the imams grumbled the most because they could no longer shout the word of God, and they had to hold more interesting prayers in order to bring in the devout. Politicians wondered in despair how they would hold rallies without yelling at the masses, but to their surprise, they discovered that far more crowds flocked to see them once they had shut up.

People liked watching politicians more than they liked listening to them, and the more cunning strategists put on beautiful light-and-soundless-firecracker shows, filling the city with their images picked out in glowing, gaudy, brilliant but mercifully silent holograms and billboards.

Festivals changed, too, but only a little; though pandals could no longer grab the attention of the city by its ears, they became more and more sprawling, attempting to cast giant shamianas across as much ground as possible. And they spent more on flowers and on food stalls than ever before, to attract followers, and so even though they still took up a great deal of space and time, no one minded because of the fragrance and the tasty food.

Gradually, the city’s natives grew to love their softspeakers and their whispering mikes. Many found that they were saying what they wanted to say far more often, now that they didn’t have to raise their voices or speak with force in order to be heard. Many found that their speech had lost none of its edge or wit, but that it seemed to be easier to listen as well as speak, in this city where everyone could be heard.

The only ones who hated the new order were the permanently angry and those who were full of hate. The haters had tried to start whispering campaigns, but these had been only moderately successful – you could only listen to those insidious and poisonous voices for about half an hour without wanting some diversion, and in the absence of blaring noise, other, quieter forms of entertainment had returned, from puppet shows to street singers to bioscopewallas.

Those who loved the softspeakers felt sorry for their angrier brethren, but provision was made for those who missed raising their voices. They could gather at spots outside the city limits and shout, “I hate softspeakers! I miss noise!” to their heart’s content. They could clang and clatter and quarrel, and make a ruckus, and create pandemonium for as long as they wanted, and many did, for hours and hours, and sometimes for days and days.

But every so often, one of them would stutter into silence in mid-rant, or would find himself turning down the volume on his loud, loud mike. And then when darkness fell and they thought no one was watching, they would go back to the city of softspeakers, missing the hush, the peace, the million murmuring conversations.

Happy Cortázar Centenary

Julio Cortázar, Elecciones insólitas.


No está convencido.
No está para nada convencido.
Le han dado a entender que puede elegir entre una banana, un tratado de Marcel, tres pares de calcetines de nilón, una cafetera garantida, una rubia de costumbres elásticas o la jubilación antes de la edad reglamentaria , pero sin embargo no está convencido.
Su reticencia provoca el insomnio de algunos funcionarios, de un cura y de la policía local.
Como no esta convencido, han empezado a pensar si no habría que tomar medidas para expulsarlo del país.
Se lo han dado a entender, sin violencia, amablemente.
Entonces ha dicho “En ese caso, elijo la banana”
Desconfían de él, es natural.
Hubiera sido mucho mas tranquilizador que eligiese la cafetera, o por lo  menos la rubia.
No deja de ser extraño que haya preferido la banana.
Se tiene la intención de estudiar nuevamente el caso.

My (very rough) translation:

The Unusual Elections

He is not convinced.
He is not at all convinced.
They have suggested that one can choose from a banana, a treaty of (Gabriel) Marcel, three pairs of nylon socks, one guaranteed cup of coffee, a blonde in an elastic habit, or even take retirement before the statutory age, yet he is not convinced.
His reticence causes insomnia for the officials, for the priest and the local police.
Because he is not convinced, they have begun to wonder if they would have to take steps to deport him.
They’ve hinted as much, kindly, without violence.
Then he said, “In that case, I choose the banana.”
Distrust him, naturally.
It would have been much more reassuring if he had chosen the coffee, or at least the blonde.
It is quite strange that he preferred the banana.
They fully intend to examine this case again.

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: The Creative Life & How I Write

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

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

2013-11-24 19.11.11


I remembered [the town] as it was: a good place to live where everybody knew everybody else, located on the banks of a river of transparent water that raced over a bed of polished stones as huge and white as prehistoric eggs. At dusk, above all in December, when the rains had ended and the air was like a diamond, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and its white peaks seemed to come right down to the banana plantations on the other side of the river. From there you could see the Arawak Indians moving in lines like ants along the cliffs of the sierra, carrying sacks of ginger on their backs and chewing pellets of coca to make life bearable. As children we dreamed of shaping balls of the perpetual snow and playing war on the parched, burning streets. For the heat was so implausible, in particular at siesta time, that the adults complained as if it were a daily surprise. From the day I was born I had heard it said, over and over again, that the rail lines and camps of the United Fruit Company had been built at night because during the day the sun made the tools too hot to pick up.



He placed the glorious tome in my lap and said: “This book not only knows everything, but it’s also the only one that’s never wrong.”
It was a huge illustrated book, on its spine a colossal Atlas holding the vault of the universe on its shoulders. I did not know how to read or write, but I could imagine how correct the colonel was if the book had almost two thousand large, crowded pages with beautiful drawings. In church I had been surprised by the size of the missal, but the dictionary was thicker. It was like looking out at the entire world for the first time.
“How many words does it have?” I asked.
“All of them,” said my grandfather.

From ‘Living To Tell The Tale'; goodbye, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.



An open letter to S Anand

From The Hindu: The Delhi-based publisher Navayana has decided to cancel the agreement for release of the English translation of Mr. D’Cruz’s first Tamil novel Aazhi Soozh Ulagu (Ocean Ringed World) in the wake of his recent political stand on Mr. Modi.

    An open letter to S Anand and Navayana

Dear Anand,   Somewhere along the previous year, I grew tired of the culture of judgement and condemnation that seems to be a hallmark of our times. Everyone has an opinion about everyone else’s actions, and we feel free to weigh and measure each other’s decisions, never doubting for a moment that we have the right to do so, seldom questioning our own selves.   So if I might, I’d like to share a personal story with you, about Yo Yo Honey Singh and the New Year’s Eve concert he’d planned to have in Delhi. It was December, the year Jyoti Singh died of the grievous injuries inflicted on her by her rapists. She was mourned in the way few rape victims are in either Delhi or India, as if her story and the abrupt full stop to her life stood for all the terrible stories we knew of, all the anonymous women for whom we had been unable to find the tears before.   In the wake of that grief, many women railed against Honey Singh, whose songs had included lines about breaking women’s cunts, asking that he not hold his concert. Someone circulated a petition saying ‘Stop the concert’, addressed to the hotel. I had emphatically argued that it would be wrong to ban Honey Singh’s music, but I signed the petition, thinking of it only as an appeal to both the musician and the hotel to be a little more sensitive.   Nikhil Pahwa of Medianama took me up on this the next day: didn’t I see that “stop the concert” could be interpreted as a threat, even if we didn’t intend any violence ourselves? Was it right to ask anyone to stop a performance at all—wasn’t that silencing them? Wouldn’t it have been better to hold a non-violent protest outside the concert, trying to engage with Honey Singh and his fans, explaining our position?   Nikhil and I argued the point back and forth, and slowly, I began to see that he was right. Saying ‘stop’ because this was the wrong time, or because it hurt our raw feelings, was easy enough; but it was the opposite of engagement. It split the world, always a more ambiguous place than social media debates, into Us versus Them. Nikhil’s question stayed with me—wasn’t there a better way to engage?   When you pulled Joe D’Cruz’s book from your catalogue, you did so because you had learned that he was a pro-Modi supporter. Both you and the translator felt that you could not publish someone who held those views, given how strongly you felt about Modi, and you felt that D’Cruz did not belong in your “political publishing house”.   I felt that as a publisher, you had a right to choose which authors you wanted to work with and which authors you would rather not publish. You had published Namdeo Dhasal, with his splendidly contradictory politics before, as many pointed out, but I also felt that you had every right not to represent an author if you didn’t want to. But as Salil Tripathi, Mitali Saran and others argued, that right was a legal right, not a moral right; contract law dictates that you’re the owner of your publishing list, and you can do what you like with it.   But were you really right to shut Joe out? In a time when everyone takes offence so easily, when everyone puts up their barricades and lets in only those who vote for x, or holds y beliefs, should you have closed your doors? The book Joe D’Cruz wrote was about a fishing community, not about Modi. The translator said she stood by the book itself. You had no disagreement with the book, but with the man and his political views.   And that is worrying. For years, the liberal quarrel with the Indian rightwing—sections of it—has been that they want to allow in only historians, thinkers, writers and journalists who agree with their world-view. When we’re dividing the intellectual life of India into Us and Them, we agree that They are intolerant, and that they leave no space for dissenting views.   How liberal are we if we start to close the doors on all those who disagree with us? How open-minded will we remain if we start to scrutinize all those we meet, befriend, work with for political correctness?   Every single week, I have a string of arguments with people who have different views from mine. Sometimes I can’t stand their intolerance; sometimes (always, sadly, in retrospect) I am taken aback at my own rigidities. Often, I learn something along the way, and find that my perspective has shifted. Once in a while you learn something unexpected: perhaps that a man like Joe D’Cruz, whose politics you disagree so violently with, can also create imaginative fiction about a fishing community that makes you want to be his publisher. There is no split between Joe the author and Joe the Modi supporter; they are the same person. (Isn’t that interesting, the idea that we all harbour contradictions?) Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Ruchir Joshi suggested that you had many other options, all of them to do with expressing your disagreement in ways other than pulling the book from publication. You could have commissioned a foreword critical of D’Cruz, the Modi supporter; invited him to a debate; even used a version of the old Twitter line, ie, publication doesn’t mean endorsement.   It’s your list; I argued that point with several people who felt that Navayana had no right to pull D’Cruz’s book. Not true: you had the right to choose not to represent Joe D’Cruz, and you exercised it.(For another perspective, from Somak Ghoshal, see: Between The Lines: Tough Call.)   But when Penguin pulled Wendy Doniger’s book, and when Aleph was involved in a controversy over a possible recall of her book from bookstores, many of us argued that they were wrong to give into pressure. We also argued that those who wanted Doniger’s book not to be published, because they disagreed with her worldview, were wrong. The only reason you didn’t want to publish D’Cruz is because you disagreed with his worldview. As someone said to me today, how does that make Navayana’s position any different from the Shiksha Bachao Andolan’s logic?   Some days, the squabbling in our cultural life gets to me. It turns out (what a surprise) that I don’t really like being contradicted, or being confronted with opinions that are greatly different from mine, especially when some of them are expressed with great anger or with the intent to harm, some expressed carelessly or without reference to the facts. I’d prefer a world where we all agreed on core issues like freedom of speech, and Indian history, and respect for each other, and all that good stuff.   If these arguments have taught me anything, though, it’s that people don’t agree with each other all the time, and that they don’t necessarily have to. It’s also taught me that I can be dead wrong, or often don’t know enough about a subject I thought I knew well. Sometimes, I’ve learned that people might hold opinions I find completely reprehensible, but that they are not monstrous in themselves. Sometimes it helps to realise that they’re the ones who find my beliefs strange, threatening and reprehensible.   The only thing I know for sure is that we’re closing off and corralling off too much, starting with our own minds. Their history; our history. This bit of intellectual turf for them, this patch of reason for us.   When does “I won’t publish anyone who is pro-Modi” become “I won’t publish anyone who supports the rightwing”? Aren’t we in danger of excommunicating those who aren’t like us—even when their books are not about the ideas you find unacceptable? What kind of precedent will this set, if we all become trapped in our own rigidities?   This cuts both ways: Somak Ghoshal, for instance, asked me whether people wouldn’t have reacted the other way and judged you and Navayana harshly if you had gone ahead and published the work of an unabashed Modi supporter. He’s probably right. We are so contradictory, and so quick to judge.   And yet: so much of the last few decades has been one long wrangle in the marketplace of offence and hurt sentiments. Joe D’Cruz’s beliefs hurt your sentiments; but his fiction didn’t. Argue with the man, but why hold up a stop sign to his book? Why make the already embattled space around us a little less free?   Perhaps you think that it is crucial at this moment in time to draw a line in the sand, and to declare firmly that your ethics as a publisher will not let you publish someone with Joe’s views. Perhaps you feel so strongly about Modi that you cannot, in all conscience, support a writer who endorses Modi’s brand of politics.   You and Navayana could close the doors and let in only those whom you’re sure share your beliefs, and that would be a reassuring world. But it would be airless, too, and windowless. As Joe’s publisher, you were also in a position to publish, but strongly disagree with, someone who thought so differently from you, and that might have been the more interesting stance to take, in the long run.   I hope you won’t be offended at this letter. I have little standing here; I fail at answering Nikhil’s question every day myself. Sometimes I turn away from arguments, bored; sometimes I’m bad-tempered and abrasive; sometimes I realise there’s a ton of reading to do.   But what he said has stayed with me a long time, and he changed the certainties with which I had once approached the subject of what was right and what was wrong, just as many who argued with me yesterday about you changed my first belief, that it was your absolute right as a publisher to turn away any authors whose political beliefs clashed with yours. It is in this spirit that I offer Nikhil’s question back to you: yes, you had the right. But wasn’t there a better way to engage, couldn’t the doors of your house have been opened a little wider?