We’ve been busy…

…and lost track of posting.

Here’s the lazy link to my columns and reviews for Business Standard. This pretty much covers the August 2004-mid-Feb 2005 period.

Here are one or two pieces that I kind of like:

The Tom Wolfe Review:

Howling Wolfe, Toothless Story
Nilanjana S Roy / New Delhi December 16, 2004
There used to be a time when Tom Wolfe was The Man….a rambunctious….swashbuckling….iconoclastic….Young Turk!!….who took on the New Yorker, William Shawn’s temple of the gods, for Chrissake….with….irony….and wit. ohmygod HE WAS SO FREAKING GOOD!
He liberated pallid….shrinking.,,,ellipses from the clutches of linguafrankly challenged Romance Writers. He used CAPITALs and broke letters right in the middle of a sentence just so that he could, you know, convey the Truth in its shining glory.
He administered the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, mau-maued the flakcatchers, set a torch to the bonfire of the vanities. Oh yeah. He was the man. In full.
Then four years ago, his writerly instincts told him that college campuses were steaming petridishes hosting subcultures that had been unfairly ignored by the Great American Writer as a species. Now Wolfe, he knows subcultures.
He practically invented the word. So he spent four whole years hanging out with the basketball squad, relearning jargon, meditating on the endless possibilities of the f-word as verb, noun and general conversational comma, diligently attending frat parties.
Of course he dressed for the part. He wore a blazer and casual jeans. There is no length to which the man will not go in pursuit of his calling.
The result, served up as tenderly as a quivering cheerleader to a triumphant football team, is I Am Charlotte Simmons, a novel that will change your perspective on college campuses in the land of the free by revealing certain terrifying truths.
Such as: jocks rule, students party, some drugs happen, much promiscuous sex happens, and no one cares about Learning.
It’s mindboggling to think that we knew none of this before Tom Wolfe enlightened us; no, we were clearly naive enough to believe that colleges were temples of wisdom, that students would never, ever use bad language, or-gasp!-smoke, or-I need an ellipses, but Wolfe stole the lot when he wrote the book-screw around.
The plot, such as it is, is straight out of Richardson’s Pamela, marginally updated for the 20th century. Meet Charlotte Simmons, though you’re going to wish you hadn’t.
Simmons, freshfaced, beautiful in the manner of a shampoo ad, comes from North Carolina and is a paragon of virtue.
She has never gone all the way, given it up, made the two-backed beast; she appears to have gone through life without noticing her hormones; she is earnest, committed to her studies, and–what more proof could you ask of innocence?–a makeup virgin who knows nothing of the dark world of eyeshadow, blusher and Diesel jeans.
Wolfe may know his college campuses backwards and forwards, but he doesn’t seem to know what authors from Agatha Christie to Annie Proulx are aware of-if you really want to know sin, find yourself a small town.
Charlotte’s roommate, Beverly, is a social x-ray rescued from a Bonfire of the Vanities outtake. She is here to lower our heroine’s morale so that she can whisper her mantra”I am Charlotte Simmons”in tones of increasing desperation, and also to underline another great Wolfeian insight.
Women (barring the lesbians, but who cares about them? Not Wolfe) go to college to land rich husbands; men go to college to land good jobs on the higher end of the business ladder.
But, in an utterly stunning plot twist, the young Charlotte survives the bleak house of ostracism by attracting the attention of three sterling young men.
Jojo Johanssen is the only white player on the all-black basketball team. He must choose between the lure of the courts, SUVs and fat contracts–and Charlotte’s purer siren call, which beckons him to explore the life of the mind.
He is so inspired by our heroine, in fact, that he takes an advanced philosophy class; the struggle between Socrates and hoop shots was never so poignant.
Hoyt Thorpe is the reigning campus god, king of the frathouse, so gorgeous that the campus hotties are happy to ignore the fact that he has fewer morals than the average tomcat.
He’s the one who tests Charlotte’s virtue, and in what is actually one of the better-drawn passages in the book, our heroine proves unequal to the lures of booze and hazel eyes at an out-of-town frat party.
Deflowered by a man unworthy of her, she finds solace in the company of the campus ubergeek, Adam Geller, who has strength, principles, and usefully, the inside dirt on Hoyt.
Among all these tangled threads of passion, one skein will catch your attention: the love affair between Hoyt Thorpe and Hoyt Thorpe is one of the most poignant in history.
The central thesis that Wolfe employs to shore up this sorry edifice of the obvious and the trite is borrowed from a Nobel Prize winner’s experiments.
Victor Ransome Starling removed the amygdala from a group of cats, to discover that this sent them into “a state of sexual arousal hypermanic in the extreme”.
Over time, a normal group of cats, the control group, with their amygdalas intact, began to behave with the same ruttishness as their surgically altered counterparts.
Starling picked up the Nobel for his discovery of what was called “cultural para-stimuli”–normal animal responses could be overwhelmed if the prevailing social or cultural atmosphere was strong enough.
It’s quite an insight, and it might have worked better if Wolfe had been less overwhelmed by his research. His characters could have come out of the world of TV soaps and college-dorm flicks: the geek, the beauty, the schemer, the jock, the campus god.
His insights are equally banal: the new racism ensures that blacks and jocks aren’t allowed a life out of the sporting arena, geeks are discriminated against, everyone thinks way too much of the urban tribal warfare we know as sports, and hey, did he mention that college kids are very, very horny?
He did, and his efforts have not gone unrewarded: just this week, I Am Charlotte Simmons picked up the annual Bad Sex in writing prize. With lines like ‘Slither slither slither went the tongue’, the judges said it was the hands-down winner, no questions asked.
I Am Charlotte Simmons
Tom Wolfe
Jonathan Cape,

distributed by Rupa & Co
Pages: 676;
Price: POUNDS 9.75

Then these two recent columns on the ish-tate of Indian writing are personal favourites:

Nilanjana S Roy: The library of hollow books
Nilanjana S Roy / New Delhi January 25, 2005
You can buy anything in Delhi, including a library with no books. Once, wandering through old furniture markets in the city, I met a man whose speciality was creating dummy books�handsome volumes bound in leather, their spines lettered in blue and gold, but containing nothing inside.
They were meant to furnish the rooms of gentlemen who wished to be seen as readers, without going through the trouble of actually reading or buying books.
He was very good at his job. It was only when you attempted to take down a volume that you discovered its hollowness.
Over the last few years, the image of that library, its imposing surface concealing the hollowness within, has haunted me.
The odd thing is that while I see it as a Metaphor (what else?), the books that come to mind when I think of the empty library are not the ones coming out of India.
I spent the last three years, for various reasons, reading the top sixty or the top hundred fiction works of each year�an exercise that could have been depressing.
The general standard is still low; it�s still a struggle every year to recommend great fiction that can stand beside the best of Saramago, Pamuk, Murakami, McEwan, Roth and company; some of what gets published is incredibly dreary, incredibly mediocre.
But there is also cause for hope. I see unexpected talent, not yet fully tapped, blossoming in the works of writers like Kalpana Swaminathan and Indrajit Hazra.
There�s a growing willingness to be experimental with genres beyond straight fiction�the graphic novel, sf and fantasy, historical novels, children�s fiction�as writers from Sarnath Bannerji to Samit Basu to Timeri Murari to Vandana Singh take their first steps.
Much of what comes out is still raw, relatively unfinished; many writers are working in the dark, in the isolation produced by the lack of a thriving literary culture.
But each year, the general level rises. Just a little bit, but enough to keep hacks like me happy with the job.
The problem lies elsewhere, with the books about India and by writers of Indian origin that come to us on an ocean of advance publicity, gilt-edged, flagged for our consideration, endorsed by the Western world, stamped with the approval of publishing houses we should be able to trust, foreign editors whose names are legendary, authors who are living shrines.
For far too long, the debate over the merits of �phoren� versus �desi� books has been hijacked by an obsession with authenticity. Is Monica Ali�s Brick Lane the Real Thing, or a simulacra? Are Rupa Bajwa�s shop assistants true to life? How much of Bengali culture can an NRI like Jhumpa Lahiri truly understand? Has Naipaul really understood the neo-revolutionaries with whom he explored India�s villages? Is Manil Suri�s Vishnu authentic, is Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi�s sense of history authentic, is Samina Ali�s Hyderabad authentic, is Vikas Swarup�s beggar-turned-quiz contestant authentic?
The only possible answers to these questions are the ones that writers give when pressed: a writer is free to imagine his or her version of reality.
What is the authentic India anyway�the city, the village, the slums, the farmhouses? And what part of the phrase �work of fiction� do you not understand?
This debate, in all its many versions, has allowed writers, readers and reviewers to sidestep the central issue: are these good books, satisfying novels, great works of fiction? On the surface, every single author mentioned above comes to us with impeccable credentials.
Some have won prizes, ranging from the Nobel and the Pulitzer all the way down to the Betty Trask. Many have won critical acclaim, too.
Some even have the ultimate blessing conferred by the sound of cash registers ringing�brilliant sales figures.
And yet, and yet. If you put all of these books together, the Bajwas and the Swarups and the Shanghvis, the Alis Samina and Monica, and Naipaul�s recent novels, they force two inescapable conclusions on you.
The first is that none of these writers are untalented. The level of skill differs widely, from Shanghvi�s overripe prose to Lahiri�s delicately nuanced style, but all of them have at the very least an understanding of the rudiments of writing.
And the second is that we now have a body of writing by authors of Indian origin, about India, that forms a library of hollowed-out books.
Bajwa, Suri and Swarup appropriate the lives of people whom they do not understand; unlike Bibhutibhushan, who lived Apu�s life of deprivation in the city and the village, unlike Mulk Raj Anand, who saw at first hand what the humiliations of an untouchable encompassed, they are at a remove from their subjects.
And I do mean subjects. The fact that an appropriation is benign, or well-intentioned, does not make it any less of an appropriation.
Monica Ali does a more sophisticated version of the same thing, using a journalist�s techniques and a ham playwright�s voice when she employs pidgin English to convey the pathos of a Bangladeshi woman�s letters from the village to a luckier relative abroad.
This does not make their novels any less entertaining, in the cases of Bajwa and Swarup, or any less well-written, in the case of Monica Ali and Manil Suri.
But it does set up a constant, low-level interference that prevents an astute reader from engaging with their novels at a deeper level. I would call it white noise, were it not so very clearly brown.
Next week�s column will try to extend this argument by taking a closer look at the Hutch Crossword book award, back after a gap of three years.
This year�s shortlist for English fiction includes Amitav Ghosh (The Hungry Tide), Shashi Deshpande (Moving On), Raj Kamal Jha (If You Are Afraid of Heights) and I AllanSealy (The Brainfever Bird).
The nominees for best Indian Language Fiction in translation are: Chandrasekhar Rath (Astride the Wheel), Mahasweta Devi (Bait and In The Name of the Mother), Bani Basu (The Birth of the Maitreya), Sharankumar Limbale (The Outcaste) and Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay (Waiting for Rain).
Nilanjana S Roy / New Delhi February 01, 2005
Just after the Hutch Crossword Book Awards were announced last week in Bombay, someone came up to me.
Along with Kai Friese and Urvashi Butalia, I�d been on the panel for the English Fiction category. �Ms Roy,� this man asked, �tell me: what kind of job is judging?�
A humbling job, and a rewarding job, one that raises difficult questions. The easiest part is, oddly, the judging itself.
When about forty to fifty books�one-third of the number that Booker judges must go through, but rising steadily each year�are read in bulk, you may experience fatigue or exhilaration, but you will not have a problem identifying the good stuff.
Reading at that intensity brings clarity. Good books shout from the cartons. They announce their quality in the very first three chapters.
Picking the shortlist�Shashi Deshpande�s Moving On, Raj Kamal Jha�s If You Are Afraid of Heights, Amitav Ghosh�s The Hungry Tide and I Allan Sealy�s The Brainfever Bird�required intense discussion and a willingness to respect the perspective of your fellow judges, to re-read books that may not initially have been to one�s taste.
But all of us could identify, easily, what we were passionate about. The Hungry Tide was a clear winner, but each of the books on the shortlist was a worthy contender.
But two things became glaringly obvious. The first was that it�s getting harder and harder to define the Indianness of a writer, or a book�and the Hutch Crossword, being an award for Indian fiction, in translation as well as in English, needs to remain an Indian prize.
But writers one might claim as Indian were not necessarily eligible: no Anita Desai (The Zigzag Way), no Jhumpa Lahiri (The Namesake). And books that were set in India and that qualified to me as Indian fiction, such as Gregory Roberts� Shantaram, were not eligible either because the author himself isn�t Indian.
This raises an old debate�is Rudyard Kipling�s Kim, for example, an Indian novel, is Kipling an Indian writer? Yes. And no. Do we need to go beyond nationality?
Perhaps, but we need awards like the Hutch Crossword because international awards see only one-tenth of the iceberg of Indian writing: many authors who�re well-known here or who write brilliantly are invisible abroad�whether they write in English or in other languages.
The second thing I noticed is that the quality of the fiction we had to read varied from the acceptable to the truly abysmal.
There was no lack of ambition�this year was thick with experimentation, in genres from SF and fantasy to the historical novel and the graphic novel, writers felt free to tackle everything from the great life-and-death questions to the Bhopal gas tragedy.
But so much of what I waded through read like a first draft; so many writers had produced books that had tremendous potential, but no more than that.
After the awards, I dropped by Crossword, Lotus and Strand�s annual book sale. And I watched readers who approached books with the same level of sophistication, knowledge, and passion that Indians bring to food these days.
�Those books are so cheap, let�s buy,� a woman said about the Indian fiction in English on display at Strand. �Just because they�re cheap you�ll buy? But only some are any good,� her companion said.
The books written in India in English evoke several reactions: many readers love them like they love ghar ka khana; it�s familiar, it can be very good, but some of it is plain old dal roti under a fancy name.
And some is overcooked or underdone, too much masala or too little.
The books coming in from elsewhere, written by Indians or about India? Please, as I said in my previous column, forget the authenticity debate.
It�s like chicken tikka masala. Or balti cuisine. Or the spring roll dosa. Or fancy fusion food. No one cares any more whether these represent Authentic Indian Cuisine; the question�s whether they�re any good.
The books and authors I named last week�Swarup, Shanghvi, Bajwa, Ali�failed for me as books for various reasons. One of the many reasons is that there are authors in the subcontinent who do what they�re doing rather better.
Mahasweta Debi writes about the lives of the disenfranchised with more empathy�and more style�than Swarup. If I want lyricism, the Urdu poets do more for me than Shanghvi does.
Bajwa�s shop attendant pales in comparison to the people I meet in Premchand�s works. I�ll read Monica Ali for her take on the immigrant experience, for her incredibly luminous style; but if I want to read a Bangladeshi author, two words: Prafulla Ray.
These are all good authors in their own way, but to me they�re so much firang fried chicken; why should I patronise KFC when Chawla�s Chick Inn does better chicken pakoras?
But there are authors who aren�t chicken tikka masala. Whose works are illuminated by location and distance�think Anita Desai, for whom moving out of India freed her to write about Mexico and India too, think Amitava Kumar, whose criticism gains perspective from the fact that he lives in two countries, think Suketu Mehta, who could never have written his Bombay book until he left Bombay.
Distance works for writers we think of as Indian; Amitav Ghosh travels a lot, lives in New York and Calcutta, and his work is all the better for it.
Ruchir Joshi�s ear for Indian English and sense of history may not have been the same if he hadn�t also spent time in Europe. Jhumpa Lahiri�s sensitivity to the immigrant experience is crucial to her work.
And there are writers for whom distance is irrelevant: Rana Dasgupta, whose Tokyo Cancelled forces us to make connections between people, wherever they might come from; Pico Iyer, the anywhere man whose travel writing leans on his being a global soul.
What I object to is having chicken tikka masala and boil-in-the-bag curries dished up on our table on silver platters, as though they were the best fare available, here or elsewhere.
In the global marketplace of books, India�s English readership barely makes a dent; we�re a niche market, 2,000-odd readers for the average good book, 10,000 for a bestseller.
We don�t count; we can be treated as the dupes we are, people who can be conned into buying mutton dressed up as lamb. That I suspect will change as English grows in India.
Right now, this is where we stand: we have ghar ka khana that needs to get better, we have ersatz microwave curries served up as fine cuisine, and we have some absolutely brilliant literary cooks keeping the broth going.
And we have a growing body of readers who know what they want, who�re sampling the best of the global banquet of writing, and who�d like all our writers, here and elsewhere, to stand shoulder to shoulder with the giants of the literary world.
They�re not going to be conned for very much longer and it�s because they are gradually beginning to demand better books that Indian writing, wherever it comes from, will start to improve.


  1. A slightly sheepish comment: I came across your name for the first time only fifteen minutes ago, but I’m hooked on your writing now. Where’s your book, by the way?

  2. Oh, that’s fine–fame hasn’t darkened my doorstep yet, and I’m happy to be unknown (even happier to be appreciated, of course!). The book’s published by Penguin and should be available at most bookstores in the metros in India, I think. Though there seems to be some confusion over where to list it: friends have reported finding it in the cooking section, in the general Indian non-fiction section, and slightly confusingly, once among self-help books and once nestling next to Make-Up Tips for Women.

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