Aniruddha Bahal may console himself with the thought that he’ll get to meet Sting, at any rate, who presents this year’s Bad Sex awards. Bahal won in the teeth of fierce competition from Paulo Coelho (“I was the earth, the mountains, the tigers, the rivers that flowed into the lakes, the lake that became the sea”) and Ron Liddle (“She came with the exhilarating whoops and pant-hoots of a troop of Rhesus monkeys, which was flattering, if alarming”). The passage that pipped these to the post concerned a swastika shaven around a key portion of a woman’s anatomy. At the book launch in Delhi, one of Hurree Babu’s more louche acquaintances asked the author if the swastika in question was clockwise or anti-clockwise–the one symbolising the ancient Hindu luck symbol, the other the emblem of the Nazi party. It was apparently a detail that hadn’t occurred to Bahal, who was more concerned with the revving of Bugattis. He’s calling the award a “rebellious gesture”; Auberon Waugh, who founded the Bad Sex award, had in mind something more closely approximating the, well, Rockefeller gesture.
Bahal may be pleased to know that Rushdie didn’t make the grade when he was nominated in 1999 for a passage from The Ground Beneath Her Feet: the judges considered the passage “too scientific” to enable the necessary suspension of disbelief. Hari Kunzru was nominated in 2002, but lost out to Wendy Perriam.
The 18-page letter sent by the Greater Sylhet Welfare and Development Council deploring Monica Ali’s depiction of the Bangladeshi community in Brick Lane has attracted some debate. The Babu agrees that Brick Lane should not become another Satanic Verses–a book to be hated because your community leaders tell you to do so–but he disagrees strongly with this defence of Ali, from DJ Taylor, one of this year’s Booker judges. (Brick Lane was shortlisted but lost out to the much-slammed Vernon God Little.) Taylor says in part, “”If Monica Ali wants to write about Brick Lane, which as a Bangladeshi she presumably knows a good deal about, then she should be free to do so.”
But the point that many Indian–and Bangladeshi readers–have made about the book is that Ali writes from a tourist’s perspective about Brick Lane, and about Bangladesh. There’s reason enough for the GSWDC to complain about Ali’s “completely stereotypical” portrayal of the community. The Babu’s view, however, is that she should be free to parade her ignorance–and insensitivity, which anyone who’s read the book and the dreadful patois in which Hasina’s letters from Bangladesh are rendered will testify to–without being muzzled. In the bad old days when Edgar Foster Wallace (the Sanders series) wrote about the “natives”, the “natives” weren’t in a position to write back. Ali is under no obligation to serve as an ambassador for any community, but as Alice Albinia remarked in a review for Biblio (*available in the print edition only), Brick Lane is the kind of book that is written for everyone except those who belong to Brick Lane. Personally, I don’t have a problem with Brick Lane attracting a mass audience; I do have a problem when that audience assumes that Ali presents an accurate, insider’s view of the community whose stories she mines for her book.