Speaking Volumes: So long, and thanks for all the fish

(Published in the Business Standard, December 20, 2011.)

Except for the books, they had little in common. The writers and book lovers who died in 2011 spanned worlds of experience, from Diana Wynne Jones, who survived a horrifying childhood to become a writer of children’s books, to Vaclav Havel, the playwright who ushered his country safely into revolution and beyond. This column pays tribute to some of the best.

George Whitman, proprietor of Shakespeare & Company: “The rumour spread to the corners of the world that there was a strange bookstore on the Left Bank in Paris where you could sleep for free. A generation of writers and wanderers were sheltered and fed, and then that generation’s children,” wrote Jeremy Mercer of George Whitman’s bookstore.

Whitman had soup, dubious pancakes and books on offer for all who came; and Shakespeare & Company may be the only bookstore in the world to have its own, official song. “If you ever come to Paris/ On a cold and rainy night/ And find the Shakespeare store/ It can be a welcome sight…”

Indira Goswami: Better known to the young writers and countless friends who found shelter, companionship and a link to “home” in Assam as Mamoni Raisom, Indira Goswami’s novels and other writings defined Ahomiya literature for at least three decades.

In her Unfinished Autobiography, she wrote that all the places she loved were riverine places, from the Ahiron in Madhya Pradesh and the Chandrabhaga in Kashmir to the Thames in London, as though the Brahmaputra had marked her fiction indelibly. “Without my pen, I would die,” she said many years later.

Christopher Hitchens: It was typical of Hitchens, perhaps the true literary heir to Kingsley Amis and Hunter S Thompson, that the Twitter account he started about a year before his death from cancer ran under the flag of @hitchbitch. Hitchens was unabashedly outspoken, the last of the grand old hacks, stubbornly defending his support of the Iraq war, ferocious in his attacks on organised religion and what he saw as the iniquities of faith.

His literary journalism was of a piece with the man — laddish, opinionated, sharp. There would be no RIPs for Hitch; he had already written his epitaphs, in utterly unsentimental examinations of the indignities of late-stage cancer. Of his obituarists, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie were among the best, paying homage, as Rushdie put it, to a “great voice” and a “great heart”.

Srilal Shukla: Of all the satire and fiction Srilal Shukla wrote, the one that would last was Raag Darbari, written in the late 1960s, still as trenchant and biting today, over four decades later. His protagonist, Vaidyaji, was the philosophical manipulator who knew exactly how to make a corrupt system work for him. Shukla’s Shivpalganj was an amalgam of the many places he had known and worked in as a government servant.

There was a classic moment at the Neemrana literary festival, where a TV anchor asked Shukla to step out of the frame so that they could get footage of Naipaul. The cameraman was horrified. “Don’t you know who this is?” he told the anchor, who recognised neither Shukla nor the mention of Raag Darbari. Giving up, the cameraman said in exasperation, “This is Naipaul’s baap!” But Shuklaji had already left, amused rather than offended.

H R F Keating: In 1999, the creator of Inspector Ghote published an odd, now forgotten book: Jack, the Lady-Killer. This crime novel in verse was inspired by Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, though Keating confessed he couldn’t match Seth’s rhymes. (The title was taken from The Golden Gate: “The old folks settle down with books:/ He with Tom Jones, she with a thriller/ Entitled Jack the Lady-Killer.”)

This was not the first time Keating had turned to India for inspiration. Inspector Ghote was born in the early 1960s, out of a romantic fascination with a country Keating had read about but never visited. Ghote’s name was borrowed from a George Bernard Shaw diatribe about the illogic of the English language, where you could spell “fish” as “ghoti” — using “gh” as in tough, “o” as in women, “ti” as in mention. But the real allure of Inspector Ghote, for Keating, was that the anarchy of the Bombay CID allowed him to get away from the more stifling conventions of the English detective novel.

Ghote was a good man in a corrupt world, intent on following “the proper procedure” through a delightfully varied list of cases. By the early 2000s (Bribery, Corruption Also and Breaking and Entering), Ghote had become an anachronism, and references to Keating were almost always prefaced with the word “old-fashioned”; but he is still remembered with affection.

Diana Wynne Jones: The year was a hard one for fantasy-lovers, who lost Anne McCaffrey and Russell Hoban as well as Jones. Jones’ fantasies, from the Chrestomanci series to Howl’s Moving Castle, were guaranteed free of mawkishness and predictability. She wrote for the child she had been herself; frighteningly bright, alive and alert to the world, already aware that magic might have its dark side and fairies might have their own twisted agenda. “Writing for adults you have to keep reminding them of what is going on,” she had said. “The poor things have given up using their brains when they read. Children you only need to tell things to once.”






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