Thursday, December 30, 2010

Curious Lessons for an Aspiring Writer: Looking Back at a Decade of Publishing

I just realised that not only are we approaching the end of a year but also the end of the very first decade of this century. Or should that have been last year already?  Regardless, this year, 2010, also marks my very first decade as a published writer. And what a difference ten years make!

Well, actually make that ten years, three countries, three books, a PhD and well over half a million published words.  Phew!  Not sure how I packed all that in, but it has been a fun ride so far.  And yet, today is a good moment to look back at that younger me, at that naive, wide-eyed writer with a bagful of a dreams, no idea of publishing, zero contacts,  and an ambitious manuscript.

There are times I laugh at that younger self, amazed at her absolute sense of belief in her own work (some have, and probably rightly so, called her arrogant).  In my mind, I watch my younger self sending off her chapters to agents who suggest that she make the manuscript more "marketable;" to publishers who respond with a stock letter of rejection that she still does not know means they haven't even opened her precious work; to literary "mentors" who she does not know trade more in sexual favours and big egos than in well crafted words and ideas. And I am amazed that she walks away each time, a little bit stronger, a little bit more convinced that those purveyors of literature are wrong, that her writing will eventually find the sympathetic reader - if only she looks hard enough.

But I also wish I could protect that young writer: from discovering that some of the "big" names in the literary field have feet of clay, that they wouldn't know good writing if it came and hit them on the nose; from realising that many reviewers are driven by their own thwarted literary ambitions and ideology rather than any knowledge or love of stories; from that slow and sickening horror when her very first review in a national newspaper pans her novel based on its chapter headings rather than content, demonstrating clearly that the reviewer could not be bothered to read the book; from the knowledge that much of publishing, like many other industries, is more about who one knows rather than any focus on literary quality.

Yet - now ten years since my first novel was published - I would not change a thing for that young writer.  Those years of fruitlessly pounding the pavement gave me immense strength and the crucial insight that no-one knows my writing better; that there are friends and support in the unlikeliest of places; that the most important quality for a writer is not talent or sensitivity or empathy, but rather absolute grit and obsessive self-belief. Without that messiah-like fervour, few of us can survive the cruel knocks meted out by the coterie of editors, publishers, reviewers (and no, the knocks don't stop with a publishing contract; that is just the first round of the punishing cycle).

But more than anything else, I would remind that young writer of the old Hindi proverb: अंधी गाय का धर्मं रखवाला (Dharma protects the blind cow), that the cosmic law protects the innocent.  How else could I send off dozens of emails to literary agents and yet end up signing up with the only one who believes with missionary zeal in absolute literary merit of my work?  How else would an Indophile reader in Barcelona pass on my first novel to a friend who also happens to be one of the most courageous editors in the country? How else would a naive kid like me, from a nondescript small Indian town, end up with an extraordinary international group of editors, publishers, literary agent, reviewers, readers and academics who champion my work in big and small ways? That in itself is a little miracle!

But most importantly I would tell that young writer-self of mine that she would find champions in other unlikely places: in chance encounters with other writers; in brief meetings and snatched conversations with unusual and unexpected literary mentors.  And perhaps there is no other way but to remind myself of two brief literary encounters with more experienced writers who generously shared their insight and kindness in that first year of my publishing trajectory.

The first would be a series of brief meetings with Ruskin Bond, that gentle chronicler of the Himalayas, in Delhi as well as in Landour, when he repeatedly advised me to focus on my craft and try to block out the distractions of the "publishing circus."  At an early meeting, he pointed out that it was better for a writer to not get early success as it gave them a chance to develop their own craft and ideas.

On one memorable occasion, we escaped a glamorous book event in a five-star Delhi hotel - to get chaat in the Bengali Market. The excitement he generated amongst the school kids when we walked in was the clearest reminder that a writer lives not in the inane chatter of the apparent literati but in the minds and hearts of his/her readers.  Through out that meal, Ruskin got wide smiles and gasps of recognition, shy, affectionate and utterly non-intrusive greetings, and a little kid's loud triumphant announcement: "he does love chaat, he does! Just like in his book!"  No amount of literary praise or prizes can replace that incredible warmth and affection that I noticed amongst Ruskin's many readers that night.  For me, it was an early lesson that good writing is not about royalties or prizes or reviews, but about the abiding affection a reader can hold for a writer.  I have since followed Ruskin's advice, staying true only to my craft, and have been ever grateful for his  gentle guidance.

The second lesson was even shorter and more unusual, with a single brief meeting - again at a book event - with the novelist, Shashi Deshpande.  That she knew me at all surprised and flattered me but the fact that she had not only read but liked my book came as the biggest shock.  I veered madly between pride and embarrassment through the evening, feeling giddy and slightly sick.  We spoke briefly, and later my brother and I gave her a lift back to her hotel in our dilapidated, dog-drooled, student-y Maruti 800 (she graciously ignored the dog toys and crumbs of dog biscuit on the seat, and was unfailingly courteous and lovely).  As we said goodbye, she said a strange thing to me: "Get away from this city; it will stop your writing. Go somewhere where you can continue writing."

For a young writer loving the glamour and excitement of book launches, and literary talks, press interviews and society chitchat, the advice seemed a bit odd. But in the months that followed, and I found myself unable to concentrate on my writing, I realised its importance.  Keeping her words in mind, I began drawing away from the literary circles, refocussing on my own work rather than the "networking." Soon after I moved, first to Barcelona, then to London, and to this day, continue inhabiting the fringes of the literary communities in both cities.

That decision to withdraw has come at a price: for example, only one national publication in India chose to review my last novel despite my editor's very valiant and concentrated efforts. And yet instead of that novel sinking without a trace, given how studiously it was ignored by the press, Indian readers continue to find it, read it and love it.  More interesting is its trajectory overseas where it continues to spark debate and attract readers. (An aside: its Serbian translation also brought back a long lost friend, who found the novel in a Belgrade bookshop and emailed, after over two decades of no contact).  I am now in a strange situation: even though much of my writing is about India, and often for Indians, now European and American critics engage and discuss my work more often and more thoroughly than those in my own country.  I often wonder what Ruskin and Shashi would make of this weird contradiction?

So what next for this writer?

The past decade has taught me many things, but one is more important than all else: my job is to write good stories, to consider ideas, to create debate and provoke thought. And to do all that to the best of my capacity!  The rest is neither my area of expertise nor my remit.  My agent, editors, publishers continue to work very hard to get my writing out into the world, and for that I am very grateful.  They are the ones who take risks, persuade and cajole, believe and hope, and most of all passionately champion my cause.  And they do so while fully conscious that my writing shall neither be the next bestseller, and without advising me to be more "marketable." Those are the true heroes of this journey!

But then, most of all, there are my readers who take choose to spend hours of their time and energy with my books, and short stories, and essays.  And they take the trouble of finding me and emailing me with their responses: indeed, not a week goes past without receiving an email from a reader somewhere (and often in very unexpected places).  And that keeps me focussed on what I need to do: think more, dream more, live more. And most of all, write more.

Happy 2011! And a very happy new decade!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Speaking as a Non-Christian, Only Grinches Hate Christmas

Alright, so I am not a Christian, never was, and never will be. However, I spent an awful lot of my childhood in Catholic schools, where for the record, I was neither abused nor mistreated. Instead I met some wonderfully committed teachers who followed their vocation by instilling their students with intellectual rigour, discipline and a respect for hard work.  Along the way, I learned the Bible, sang in the choir, participated in nativity plays and, as my father mischievously reminds, also tried to get drunk on the sacrament wine.

Add to this education, my family background and may be it makes sense why we celebrate Christmas.  It may be because Hinduism is culturally incapable of "fundamentalism" as we don't have a "fundamental" text  (we have a dozen to choose from, often contradictory, but never literally a "revelation" or "word of god"), or because our tradition emphasises inclusivity and respect for other religions rather than mere tolerance.  Who knows? But frankly, celebrating kindness and generosity is hard to dislike.

When I was very young, our traditionally Hindu home was visited by Santa who always left a book or game under our pillows. Of course, we suspected that my grandmother and uncles did that to ensure that we didn't stop believing the stories we heard at our Catholic school or read in books.  Funnily enough, thanks to the Soviet kids books that proliferated in India during the Cold War, my family could also de-link Santa and the presents from religious education, just as the Russian children's books did.

Of course, it helped that we had Christian friends who celebrated the festival. Sometimes, they were alone or unable to go back to family, in which case we stepped in to help them celebrate.  A meal, a shared set of carols, or grace said over the dining table has yet to hurt anyone!  And when we went back to school after our winter holidays, and wrote or spoke about our experiences, our Catholic priest-teachers praised us for practising the ultimate Christian virtues: compassion and kindness.   As my very first principal, Father Joseph, said to us in "morals" class, "the Good Samaritan is the best person in the Bible."  Over three decades later, I still believe him.

This is why the alleged "war on Christmas" makes me sad. Even though it is couched in language of liberal multicultural tolerance, it is really about exclusion and ghettoisation. Worse still, it is about a paternalistic view of the religious minorities in predominantly Christian western countries that has little to do with reality. Even worse, all these stories about the "war on Christmas" or cancelling of nativity plays, getting rid of Christmas trees, or not celebrating it at all, rarely include voices of those religious minorities.  This particular war is framed, debated, decided and fought entirely by apparently Christian western politicians and media; the dominant culture decides what the religious minorities in the West think, want, do. (Come to think of it, this isn't so different from the real wars in Iraq and Afghanistan!)

So over at the American liberal site, Huffington Post, there are a lot of personal experiences about non-Christians (mostly Jewish and atheist) feeling initially queasy about their Christian partners celebrating Christmas. These accounts are always framed as "tolerance" as the non-Christian partner eventually comes to tolerate the rituals in a deluge of self-righteousness.  Hilariously enough (at least for me), these rituals tend to be limited to a family meal, presents and a decorated tree; I have yet to read an account of a non-Christian partner "tolerating" their partner's trip to a mass.

Over at Independent, it has taken some Muslims from Luton to emphasise the spirit of Christmas; of course, this is the same story where Luton's Gujaratis are apparently fighting to preserve the Bengali language, but lets not quibble over astonishing ignorance.  And the ever faithful Telegraph has this rather odd story about how Christmas trees depress non-celebrants!

Pardon me, but I don't see why a Christmas tree would depress anyone but a grinch.   As the only non-Christian in his flat, my brother puts up an exquisite one every year in his home. The only reason I don't put one up at mine is because I am too disorganised, although I still put up the fairy lights and decorations all over my home.  When we were children, we had an artificial one that travelled to all sorts of bizarre places around the globe with us. To this day, some of my favourite memories are of coming home to the tree with its twinkling fairy lights, the gingerbread men and candy canes waiting to be devoured, and the beautiful ornaments nestled amongst the branches.  Sorry, but you have to be a miserable old git to hate a Christmas tree!

To be fair, this much maligned tree study is from Canada so I have no idea about its parameters, but the newspaper article made me wonder.  Is it really the Christmas tree that depresses people? Do the non-celebrants feel depressed because they know they shall be excluded from the social celebrations? What if it is their experience and knowledge that in many northern European and north American traditions, Christmas is so insularly celebrated that it leaves non-Christians feeling ever more like outsiders?

Having lived the bulk of my life in Christian majority countries in the Americas, Africa and Europe, I have noticed the huge difference between the way Christmas is celebrated in UK or the US (and from what I have seen, in most northern European countries) and the more "traditionally Christian" ones.  The former don't consider the neighbours, friends, or anyone beyond their immediate circle as part of the celebrations; Christmas is strictly (if a little harrowingly) only for the family.  Contrast this to places like Mexico, Namibia, or even southern Europe, where Christmas is not only a family affair but also a community one. People automatically include all others in the celebrations, which - for an outsider like me - is not only an enlightened and welcoming gesture, but also a truly Christian one: I have gone to midnight masses with friend's families, and early morning masses with the grandmothers, set up nativities and decorated Xmas trees, learned to cook obscure traditional dishes, given and gotten presents; I have gone carolling as well as sung silly songs and beat a Caga Tio.  In all cases, I have felt very much a part of the celebrations, and therefore a part of the community.

Not surprisingly, I have returned the favour: setting up decorations, cooking "traditional" Christmas meals, and organising celebrations for those who cannot be amongst family.  For me, it is about putting some of the good cheer and kindness back into the system, but also about opening my home and life to others.

Many years ago, a boyfriend (northern European) was shocked that my Muslim flatmate and I had not only put up a beautifully decorated tree in our home, but also planned on cooking big Christmas eve and Christmas day meals for friends who were unable (or unwilling) to go home.  Despite all our explanations, he just didn't "get" it.   His view was that we were not Christians so why bother; our point was that it wasn't important as the people we were cooking for were!  Since then, I have met many similar people, and they all seem to share the same traits: often highly educated, middle-class, mostly northern European origins, apparently left-leaning, secular and multi-cultural. And yet they are not only deeply uninformed but also unwilling to learn or experience anything beyond the narrow confines of their predetermined realities (sometimes, I think those are also the same people who make up the bulk of the mainstream western press).  But more sadly, they are also happy to project their own narrow view of the world to everyone else, projecting a sort of grand grinch-ness over the globe.

Somewhere in the process of commercialisation, religiosity, secularisation, multiculturalism, or whatever it is you call it in post-war Europe, the basic principle of the golden rule has been lost.  My friends - mostly non-Hindu - help me celebrate Diwali and Holi with equal affection and generosity, just as I celebrate Ramadan, Eid, Easter and Christmas with them.  And that is far more inclusive and therefore less depressing than taking away Christmas trees!

Trust me, the only reason a Christmas tree will ever depress anyone is when it stands for exclusion rather than a warm embrace.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Sweden's Rape Laws Infantilise Women? (Regardless of Assange)

I have no idea whether Julian Assange is guilty of rape or not.  If he is guilty, he should be tried (and not in a kangaroo court) and duly punished.  What worries me more is a strange silence on part of journalists about a more bizarre twist in this tale. That twist is about Sweden's distinctly bizarre rape laws and the generally uncritiqued but dangerous corollary of the infantilisation of women by those laws.

The only reason I have noticed Sweden's rape laws is because of the current case against Wikileaks' founder.  The facts are murky but at least this is much is clear: Assange had sex with two different women within a three day period, and behaved in general promiscuously and as a cad.

Frankly, two is less than many rock stars get up to, but then Assange apparently was far more interested in his computer than in the second woman with whom he had sex (her statement).  The rock star comparison is not out of the blue.  Whether we agree with Wikileaks or not, Assange has become a sort of internet, geeky version of a liberal, crusading rock star.  If you think about it, he is the ultimate geek fantasy: a lap-top toting Luke Skywalker singlehandedly battling the Empire. Are we surprised that, unlike the PG rated Hollywood version, this geek not only has a sexual appetite, but also willing candidates lining up?  Hell, even a killer and wife beater gets celebrity status and wild fans these days; remember the Moat saga?  Assange, in contrast, has the added advantage of a liberal international halo to boot!

But neither Assange's sexual escapades nor his rock star status are of particular concern for this blog post. Instead what is more worrying are the epic twists and turns of Sweden's rape laws which appear to be applied at discretion.  Already this case has gone from being upgraded to rape, then downgraded to molestation, changed to rape by surprise, rape because the condom broke, and finally, yesterday's he "used his body weight to hold her down," (which is definitely rape, but strangely brought out only three months in to the legal process).

Of more concern is a rather odd point, not discussed in the ad nauseum articles about rape in the mainstream media: that the Swedish prosecutors themselves have asserted that the consent of the women is not in question.  Over the past week, as a result, my feeble feminine brain has been trying to understand how consensual sex is rape.  Surely the term applies to lack of consent?

Then the accusers' lawyer Claes Bergstrom explained the contradiction of a crime of non-consent committed with consent by declaring: "they (the accusers) are not jurists.”  As one of Assange's lawyers (and therefore to be taken with a grain of salt) pointed out: "How the Swedish authorities propose to prosecute for victims who neither saw themselves as such nor acted as such is easily answered: You’re not a Swedish lawyer so you wouldn’t understand anyway."

The problem here is more worrying than simply of the prosecutor or even the entire Swedish government caving into foreign (presumably US) pressure.  The issue here is of a supposedly developed, socially progressive nation - which can't stop itself from taking on the mantle of moral superiority on all global issues - assuming that a rape victim cannot decide whether she has been raped.

Isn't this precisely the sort of infantilisation that feminism fought against?  Isn't this infantilisation insulting and demeaning to all women, and not only those who have been raped?

As a long time feminist, a sometime volunteer for abused women, and most importantly, a woman myself, I need to say this loud and clear: a woman KNOWS when she is raped.  Taking the power to identify her own rape from a rape victim is the most derogatory act that any state can perpetrate.

There is another under-reported aspect to Sweden's worrisome infantilising of women in context of its rape laws. Assange's lawyer, Michael Caitlin points out that the Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny is also involved in "reforming" Swedish rape laws.

Already, as part of that infantilising women as creatures who obviously need to be protected by their nanny state against men, the Swedish rape law apparently considers consensual (albeit regretful in the morning) sex without condom a "sex crime." Not agreeing to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases - as far as I can make out from press reports - is also a "sex crime."  But apparently, these laws are not strict enough for the Swedes. (An aside: are we surprised they have such a high suicide rate? With little sunlight, cold climate and state regulated strictly conformist sex, what else would they do?)

More seriously, the impending "reform" would apparently "introduce a test of whether the unequal power relations between the parties might void the sincerely expressed consent of one party."  In principle that sounds good, right?

But how will this "unequal power relation" be established?  Is it money? If a man buys me dinner, is he coercing me? Or will a Swedish man, by dint of history, gender, race, all of which position him as "more powerful" be considered a rapist simply for having sex with a non-European woman like me, despite my express consent?  Or will the imbalance be because of age? Shall Sweden prosecute all couples who are not exactly equal in age? What happens to not only men who like younger women, but the newly emergent breed of cougars? 

Perhaps it shall be based on intelligence, with a surgeon accused of rape should she have sex with a carpenter?

Or is it temperament? Will all of us going to Sweden be required to carry insta-psychometric tests to see if each partner is of the same psychological ability?  What if a woman had sex with her partner while the latter is suffering from the horrific man-flu,  would the Swedes believe that she were being coerced by his whinging?

On a more serious note, are these "reforms" actually yet another racist law meant for immigrants but couched in "liberal, protect European culture" vocabulary? 

Back in my riotous days of student protests in the US, we demanded that "government get out of my womb."  But in Sweden, it seems that the government is present in the beds, vaginas and wombs!  All in such a benign big brotherly fashion that even Orwell would have trouble imagining it.

To be absolutely honest, Sweden is welcome to infantilising its women.  This isn't the feminism I fought for, definitely is not the feminism I support, and will not be one I will teach to the young girls of my family.

Monday, November 08, 2010

World Literature Today runs issue on Writing from Modern India

University of Oklahoma's venerable magazine World Literature Today (established as Books Abroad back in 1927) has dedicated its November/December issue to writing from modern India. 

Of course, the focus on Indian writing is not new for the magazine. It carried a brief survey of Indian poetry back in 1939 by Vasudeo B. Metta, while its 1954 issue considered contemporary Indian writing more comprehensively in an essay by Mahendra V. Desai.  In 1969, just as the Beatles were discovering India, WLT dedicated its autumn issue to Indian writing, this time with an introduction by Nissim Ezekiel.

The next time the WLT searchlights found Indian was in 1994, again at a critical juncture, soon after the country had launched its long process of economic liberalisation with the corollary of unprecedented growth.  That issue, guest edited by Vinay Dharwadker, devoted a hundred pages to Indian writing from a host of major languages including carrying many original language poems alongside their translations into English.

2010 seems an appropriate moment to return to Indian writing. The hyper-excitement of the western publishing industry about the country's writers in English of the 1990s has now settled into comfortable familiarity.  With clockwork regularity, Indian writers (from India, expatriates and of the diaspora) deliver interesting, powerful, politically engaged and emotionally charged poetry, fiction, essays,  and turn up regularly on international awards nights and bestseller lists. 

And yet, as an Indian writer (who writes mostly in English, for the record),  I am always disappointed by the lack of dissemination of brilliant writing by the country's greatest writers.  Here I must confess that - at the risk of sounding parochial - in my opinion, the country's best writing is done in languages other than English. Writers in the country's regional, autoctonous languages push boundaries of class, faith, gender and sexuality, as well as literary techniques and style, in ways that many of us, writing in English, can barely begin to imagine. 

WLT's India issues have always gone beyond the English language in seeking out writing from India. The current issue is no different.  Guest edited by poet Sudeep Sen, the issue features the some of the best loved writers from Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Oriya and Malayalam, in addition to writing in English by Indians based in the country as well as around the globe. 

More pleasurable for the reader, however, is the issue's exuberant mix of old favourites and new writers, as well as the stellar diversity of ages, genders, regions and interests.  It is this diversity that fulfills Sen's self-declared aim of providing not a comprehensive list of authors but rather "just an introductory show window to the vast array of fine Indian writers and literary practitioners."

A slightly different online edition (featuring an unusual selection of poetry by Rabindranath Tagore) can be found on the WLT website which also has instructions for obtaining the very beautifully illustrated and designed print edition.

All in all, a lovely celebration of India's literary practices.

PS: As full disclosure, I must also inform you that the print version features my short story "Faded Serge and Yellowed Lace," my small tribute to my years of living in Spain and dedicated to (and set in) my old neighbourhood of Gracia, Barcelona.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Against Book Bans: An Open Letter to Rajan Welukar, VC, Mumbai U

Some of you may already be familiar with the sudden decision to drop Rohinton Mistry's wonderfully evocative novel Such a Long Journey by Mumbai University.  The decision was taken mid-way through the term and for no academic reason. It also appears to have been taken without any clear academic procedure.

Apparently, Aditya Thackeray - another budding thug leader of the Shiv Sena clan - is at the point of being anointed the youth leader of the party's student wing.  The novel, which dwells on the Sena's thuggish history of violence and intimidation in Mumbai, is obviously an easy target, allowing the goon-in-making to score family loyalty points thinly disguised as a pro-Mumbai rant.  It must be noted, in all fairness, that in keeping with the behind-the-screens tradition of the family, Aditya Thackeray has been noticeably silent and missing from this whole saga, although apparently the protests and book burnings have been carried out at his behest.

I believe it is time for responsible citizens then to stand up and protest. So this morning, I  emailed this letter to Mumbai University Rajan Welukar, protesting the ban and in the hope that an 18 year Thackerey may learn that perhaps violence may not work as a political tactic in the future. If you feel as strongly about establishing and maintaining a stable, democratic, free India, as I do, definitely drop a line to Mr. Welukar protesting his cowardly surrender to political thugs.  He may be emailed at:  vc@fort.mu.ac.in


Dear Mr. Welukar,

This is to strongly protest the unceremonious dropping of Rohinton Mistry's novel Such a Long Journey from the university curriculum.

Not only does such a decision cede to the power hungry fanatics who threaten our democracy and polity, it also smacks of cynical pandering on part of university officials who are apparently bending over backwards to help launch the political career of yet another unthinking, undeserving young thug whose only concern is perpetuating his familial power base rather than any national, state or even local community interest.

Regardless of Shiv Sena's thuggery, surely the university has a responsibility not only to instill academic discipline and intellectual rigour in its students as well as contributing to their formation as responsible citizens. This last is the key role of Humanities in higher education and banning books at behest of thugs - no matter how violent - is abdicating this responsibility entirely.

Best,

Sunny Singh

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Making Myself at Home in the Chateau de Lavigny

Odd Memories of the Family
I suppose I should be thankful to my family that I find myself feeling very quickly at home at Lavigny. The chateau’s completely arbitrary combination of high art, antiques and kitsch reminds me of my parents’ home where random plastic souvenirs rub shoulders with whimsically personal art from Latin America, extraordinary wood and copper works from Africa and just stuff we seemed to have inherited from some eccentric ancestor.

Through out my stay, I feel a constant sense of homesickness, mingled with nostalgia and familiarity. The emotions come in waves: I want to run right back home in the evenings; my morning cup of tea, taken always on the steps of the French windows to the garden, is oddly comforting; working in the living room is a favourite, partly because it makes me feel like a child again.

Perhaps I am most off-kilter in my assigned bedroom, originally that of Jane Rowohlt herself. This is vast, all in pale pistachio and peach and gold; a wide swathe of frills and lace and silks, so hyper-feminine that it unnerves me. Then I figure out, typical desi-style, or perhaps like that urchin my mother had often accused me of becoming, that I can sit on the floor to work, with the low platform for the bed serving as my own little seat. In making myself at home, I throw off the silken covers, pile up the lacy pillows on the sofa, and drag the heavy down duvet down to the floor. Each tiny gesture of making myself at home feels vaguely like a desecration, like a secret intrusion into someone else’s bedroom, but I plough ahead regardless.

The bedroom leads to the dressing-room, a room lined entirely with built in, lit closets. Apparently, they were once filled with numbered haute couture dresses by Yves Saint Laurent; my handful of t-shirts seems just a bit bedraggled and desolate in their depths.

There is a desk against the window, nominally designating it as my work space. But the boudoir chair in the corner reminds me that even this manageable space is really meant for a woman far more glamorous than me, that it is really the domain of a woman who is an artist of the body instead of the mind. It is a slightly mysterious place, reminding me inexorably of my mother and the teak panelled, mirrored dressing room I always associate with her.

The space is simultaneously unfamiliar and comforting, and on long days, I find myself sitting at the desk not to work but to stare out the window and daydream. Perhaps for the same reason, I have strange dreams, often about my mother. Joyous dreams, including one where we are caught in a rain-storm. My mother has always been supremely elegant, and thus slightly intimidating. Enjoying being caught in the rain seems a bit beneath her. And yet she does so, with abandon and laughter in my dream.

The bathroom is what feels most familiar in the suite. It is huge like the ones in old Himalayan bungalows where I grew up, and equally draughty. I keep expecting the separate toilet to have a hidden door to allow waste removal in the mornings. It is not nearly as simple as the ones I remember from my childhood: one wall is lined with grand built-in mirrors, with golden ornate fittings, a faucet shaped like a golden swan’s neck in the bathtub. I find myself wishing my sister could have a go at this wonderful space! I remember that when we moved into a house full of bathtubs many years ago, she was only six and yet she was the one who enjoyed it most, like some amphibious being finally finding her own element.

The entire chateau feels terrifically feminine, which is why I am not immediately reminded of the men in my life. The items that I know my brother would appreciate with his finely honed sense of the social ridiculous are the animal-shaped knife-rests at dinner. Slightly deformed, oddly expressioned, barely recognizable pig, rabbit, dachshund, ram, squirrel and fox rotate through the table over the days. These are items almost forgotten in our ruder, more casual era but provide a touch of magical silliness to the table, and one can never be sure if one ought to take them seriously or as a ridiculous bourgeois conceit.

It is the garden that reminds me of my father. When I walk on the vast lawn, apparently emerald and well-groomed, I still see the weeds that need removing. Often I am tempted to find myself a little seat and set myself to cleaning up the lawns, as we do at home. Sometimes I find myself looking over my shoulder, slightly bemused, convinced that he is lavishing care on the roses, the lavender, the hibiscus even as I type away on the laptop. Exactly like at home!

But even indoors, there are little things that I know my father would appreciate: the Chinese peg tables with detachable tray tops; a hidden music room with an extraordinary LP collection and a strangely anachronistic sound system; a wine cellar that must truly hold enough for the best of parties. My father always gets a mischievous, wild glint in his eyes, a wide happy grin, when he finds a place or person or thing that amuses him. I can imagine him enjoying an entire house dedicated to secrets and amusement and parties.

Finally, it is these links to my family that help me feel at home at Lavigny: the fantasy that I am once again in another of the strangely decorated houses that my family would occupy with each move. That I am a child again, moving into yet another ‘diplomatic residence,’ once again with the familiar, weird and wonderful mix of luxury and kitsch, whimsy and formality. And that is really what gets me through my weeks at Lavigny (what my sister very aptly qualified as “voluntary house-arrest”): an imaginary half-sense that one day soon, we will just rip off all we don’t like from the walls and table-tops to store it in the garage or the attic, and make this space our own. After all, haven’t we done it over and over again?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Le Chateau de Lavigny: First Brief Impressions


So, I just survived my very first writer’s residency!

Three weeks in a Swiss chateau, all comforts catered for, time and space rigged up for writing. With living literary history not only haunting the quaint villages but dwelling within each photograph and painting and sketch on the walls, woven even into the spectacular silks of Jane Ledig-Rowohlt’s bed where I sleep.

There were five of us. All writers. From across the world: USA, New Zealand, Nigeria, and of course yours truly.  

All in a beautiful summer villa, full of books and art and literary memories.  Water colours by Henry Miller; photographs of Lewis Carroll’s child muse, Alice Liddell framed in burnished gold and cream.  Scattered amongst the books are numerous pretty pieces of glass, and china and metal. And little artefacts of whimsy: a couple of dozen porcelain King Charles spaniels of varying sizes, some whose heads wrench off to reveal a pitcher; they unnerve the writer who must sleep in that chamber. A pair of heeled wooden sculptures carved like Victorian buttoned shoes stand on an imposing chinoiserie, too small to fit any feet even had they been real.  In the library, the books seemed to be held in place by hefty vintage earthenware jars from Fortnum and Mason’s marked cheddar and stilton.  Why do they live in the library? No one seems to know the answer.

Our interaction at the beginning is a little awkward, a bit hesitant, like a blind date with no convenient way out.  But slowly we manage to get along, carefully avoiding any rough edges, any potential pitfalls.  It is a diplomatic manoeuvre that I renounced, consciously and deliberately, many years ago and is a great effort to revert to childhood manners; I can imagine I would not be able to retain the façade for much beyond the required three weeks. 

Indeed, midway through I make a long distance, expensive, late night call to a friend. Much like an addict needing a fix. Our conversation is wholly political, heated, silly; wholly inappropriate.  I hang up knowing I will survive the self-imposed isolation.  My sister rather aptly pronounces that I am “volunteering for self-imposed house arrest” although, in all fairness, I do take walks to the neighbouring villages, wander through the vineyards and orchards and sunflower fields.  So perhaps, house arrest with a little electronic bracelet to ensure I don’t wander too far afield?

At the end of the second week, we have a reading of our works, not necessarily what we have been writing but whatever we choose to read.  Strangely the reading does more to break the ice than any other activity we have undertaken.  Suddenly, we can identify each other, mentally find a place for ourselves: our words are indeed our disembodied selves, perhaps far more powerful than any other.   

The rest of the residency passes with greater camaraderie, a great deal of hysterical laughter over the routinely extra bottle of chasselas at dinner.

The end, when it arrives, is a relief; and a surprise; and strangely tinged with sadness.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Technical Gaffes

Apologies to those who are not interested in politics. For some odd reason, my last blog post has been crossposted on to this blog. I am working off the assumption this is primarily human error (mine!) although still not quite sure how, although of course it may well just be the usual technological snafu of our times.

Either way, apologies and do keep an eye out for a new post soon.

Appointment of the Prime Minister: Real Politik Continues

Book 1, Chapter 8

Apologies once again but deadlines intervened. But lets forge ahead nevertheless.

Chapter 8 provides a sort of job description and personnel profile for three key appointments: the prime minister, key members of cabinet and the royal priest.

Chanakya spends most time detailing the qualities that a king should seek in his prime minister or the official who will be the head of the executive branch.  The very long list of qualifications for this post range from professional abilities, natural talents as well as personal type. The list that I reproduce below is fascinating not only in its far ranging criteria but also for the priorities it places on various aspects:

1. This official must not only be from the state but also deeply connected to it.
2. Free of any major addictions and bad habits. Chanakya especially considers alcoholism and drug use and promiscuity, beyond the rather wide range of permitted sexual behaviour in those times, a practical risk. It is worth noting that Chanakya's definition of sexual misbehaviour concerns risky sexual behaviour that extends to partners of other influential citizens. Adultery in the western Biblical sense was not nearly an issue in his times.
3. Must be a good rider/controller of chariot, horse, elephant and other vehicles of war
4. Must be well educated in cultural arts, including poetry, music and dance.
5. Must be well versed in political theory and practice, including of course, Arthashastra (although to be fair, Chanakya is talking of the entire corpus of political education rather than plugging his own book).
6. Intelligent, with not only 7, a good memory, but also 8, the ability to read and understand people.

Have to confess that I am not surprised that Chanakya privileges patriotism about all other qualities for this key post. What I am intrigued by - as you will notice - is that he privileges loyalty to the nation/state/kingdom/land over any personal loyalty to the king.  Indeed, loyalty to the king is much lower on the list. This is especially apt as Chanakya himself held the post of the prime minister and is obviously writing from personal experience here.  He appears to be quite aware of the distinction between a king's interests and that of the realm, and believes that the prime minister should act in accordance with the latter. Once again this is an early indication of a more republican and less monarchist/absolutist tendency in classical Indian political thought.

Interesting also that warrior abilities and cultural finesse take precedence in Chanakya's list over political knowledge. It is almost as if the initial criteria for the job ensures that it is open to all able citizens (nagaraka) of a state. Still, the emphasis on culture is telling, especially for our times when any sense of cultural education has been devalued as non-utilitarian (or useful for commercial enterprise).

Chanakya also spends a fair time in specifying the necessary verbal talents and abilities, explaining that the prime minister must be able to :
9. Speak appropriately, in regard to occasion and company,
10. Crush others in debate,
11. Refute (or as Sarah Palin prefers "refudiate") any untruth or propaganda in a convincing manner,
12. Spin, or create a favourable meaning from something unpleasant that is said.

Am fascinated although not surprised that the verbal/debating skills are so heavily emphasized, even though Chanakya is writing not of a professional politician in a democratic sense but a political appointee. However the need for getting the state's message out across a wide cross-section of constituencies is obviously immune to vicissitudes of history.

In addition, on a personal front, the prime minister should be 13, passionate and driven (good point!); 14, influential and convincing;  15, capable of facing adversity and opposition; 16, well behaved - not in the sense of meek but rather free of course or uncouth behaviour; 17, worthy of friendship; 18, capable of sticking to a decision and opinion; 19, loyal (interesting that loyalty to the king comes fairly far down this list!); 20, calm and even-tempered.   


The final seven qualities may seem to repeat the earlier ones but obviously Chanakya believed they needed reiteration or more precision.  These are more character traits rather abilities and include:

21, capable and strong; 22, healthy in mind and body, with no chronic weakness or ailment; 23, steadfast, and calm in moments of crisis; 24, modest and without arrogance; 25, stable in moods, and thus not likely to waver; and 26, pleasant looking (I guess leaders had to be presentable even in ancient times!).

And finally, 27, the prime minister should not be vengeful or indeed have any long standing enmities. Strangely prescient this bit, in light of Peter Mandelson's memoirs of the Blair-Brown years in government. Perhaps, Chanakya should be made compulsory reading for all aspiring politicians!

Chanakya ends this section with a wonderful recommendation: a king should attempt to find a person with these 27 qualities for the prime minister's post, as one possessing all the listed qualities is the superlative one for the job.  However, in the spirit of practicality, he ends with pointing out that a person with a quarter of the listed qualities is a mediocre prime minister.  Implicit in this suggestion is that in the absence of a great prime minister, a mediocre one may be necessary, although in case of the latter, the king should be aware of the fact and thus keep a close watch. 

The next two sections of this chapter are on qualities of the cabinet minister and the royal priest. I hope to include those as soon as possible.  I do have to confess to having a slight bout of RSI, which means typing is a (literal) pain.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Writing Fantasy: A Secret Childhood Game

As a child, I had a favourite if secret game. I would cover a book with brown paper that we used for covering our text books. On the newly concealed spine, I would painstakingly write my name with a dark coloured, felt-tip marker. This was the particularly arduous part as I have never been good at colouring within the lines, or indeed drawing straight lines (Let psychologists make of this what they will!).

Then I would find a particularly good spot on a bookshelf. Luckily my grandmother's house had many of these. Somewhere between works by my favourite writers of the moment, I would place the newly created volume, now with my own name on that covetted spine. The very first time, I played this game, I remember placing the book between Enid Blyton's Naughtiest Girl in School (which my aunt said was really about me) and Arkady Gaidar's Timur and His Squad (which is what I desperately wanted to become).  For much of the afternoon, I pretended that I had written a book that some other little girl loved as much as I loved those two novels.

Then as the afternoon drew to a close, and the family began to rise from their siesta, I took the brown paper off my English grammar exercise textbook and threw it away.

Over the years, as I grew, I played that game over and over again. Alistair McLean and Jane Austen; Jack Higgins and Charles Dickens; Emily Bronte and Leo Tolstoy. At times, I would leave the brown-paper covered book on the shelf for an evening, wondering if anyone would discover it.  Then I would suffer absolute spasms of stress: equal measure of curiosity, anxiety, and an absolute terror of the teasing from my cousins that would follow should my act of literary fantasy be discovered.  It is a feeling I have grown to know well: equal measures of desperation that someone should read my work and a deep dread that they shall loathe it.

Some times, I would play in my uncle's room, a small den at the back of the house with all sorts of hefty, arcane medical tomes on the bookshelves (and Playboys hidden under the bed).  Once I covered one of his books with a fictional title: How to Save Lives, written of course by a ten-year-old me.  That was a superb afternoon of fantasy: of saving humanity from itself, of turning into a hero!


Perhaps that is really at the root of wanting to be a writer: a combination of wild fantasy of needing a story, alongside a terrifying awareness that one can never be a hero.  It is at least what drove me in those early days: I was too little to be of much use, too protected and weak to battle great dragons. There was little recourse but to tell stories where, if I couldn't become a hero, at least I could create one.

As I grew, the game changed a little. I no longer needed to cover textbooks to see my own name on spines. Instead, it became a "safer" game: I could walk into any library or bookstore, look out at any bookshelf which held my favourite writers and I could - in my mind - imagine my own name on a spine nestled between those greats.  As my ability to fantasize (and knowledge of literature) grew, so did my ambitions:  Dante, Thackerey, and Rimbaud;  Doctorow, Golding, and Garcia Marquez; Tagore, Lessing and Potok.

I am convinced this fantasy pushed me to not only finish my first novel but also to expose myself to nearly three years of critique and rejection before I found a publisher.  No matter how dejected I got, no matter how deep the depression, somewhere in the back of my mind was always a bookshelf that held my favourite writers and me!

In the past ten years, since my first novel was published, I have published other things: more books, some which have been translated; short stories, that have been published and read in various parts of the world; articles, essays, even this blog.

In these past ten years, I have walked into bookstores and libraries and seen my book on sale, and each time felt that jolt of recognition and excitement.  Once in France, at a FNAC, I had to pinch myself to believe what I was seeing:  my book was in the section for literature in translation, sitting just at the end of the shelf, just after Rushdie and Saramago.  Yes, I know it was alphabetically arranged, but I still hugged myself with joy and walked on air for a long time after!

I suppose this is what keeps me focussed on writing: I was never interested in money, except to the measure it gives me my independence. Fame is interesting but most of it seems a little ridiculous and distracting: I know Rushdie famously said that all writers wanted to be rockstars (just noticed that I have managed to throw his name around twice in this piece)!  But I just wanted to be accepted into that elite club that beamed down from our bookshelves.

As I look back over the ten years since the publication of my first novel, I do recognise the milestones: not only what I have published but all that I have written; there is an increased control over my craft; the growing clarity of my own thoughts; a persistant need to improve not only what I write but how I write it. Of all these, I am proud.

But what really matters to me is something quite different:  every time a piece of mine is published, I draw one step closer to realising my childhood dream.  I still haven't written enough or of sufficient quality to satisfy myself, but there have been some great moments on the way: seeing my name in a publication alongside Isabella Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa or JG Ballard should be reward enough.  Yet I still hanker after that elusive book-spine with my name running along its side that can sit with ease amongst the greats.

At the end, my definition of my own success as a writer is simple, and for that reason, all the more difficult. In my mind, I will succeed if a child somewhere, in another time, will look up at my name on a bookshelf and desperately want what I wanted: to be counted alongside.

PS: I had been thinking about this for the past few weeks. Then yesterday Jose Saramago died and I realised that less than a year ago, I had achieved a personal milestone: a short story of mine had been included in the same magazine as him. I don't know if he noticed or even looked at that magazine, but I would like to think he did.  Saramago: storyweaver and teller of truths. RIP

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Are Women Ever Allowed to be Happy?

I know that sounds like a strange question because when I look around me, most women I know are quite pleased with the way their lives have panned out.  But then I open the newspapers and magazines, and when these are not peddling gloom, doom, Botox and thousand pound shoes that have been inspired by Chinese foot-binding, they are telling us about how we are truly unhappy!

Recently there is an absolute surfeit of these unhappy-coz-I-succeeded articles racing around British press. It started with columnist Allison Pearson explaining in dreary details how her terribly successful life made her depressed. Then Marion Keyes, the unrelentingly upbeat author of happily-ever-after chick lit novels went to town about her depression. And lo and behold, we were all depressed! Driven to suicide because our jobs and paying bills were not enough, being able to publish novels and create art were not enough; nor was having children and raising them to be decent human beings not enough.

Then of course the rest of the media circus got into the act, reminding me inexorably of Susan Faludi's brilliant book - and I know most of you have forgotten all about it - Backlash.   And yes, I know it is overambitious and over-reaches at points, but the basic premise of the book seems to have held true since its release back in 1991: every time women make significant social, economic and political progress, there seems to be a knee jerk reaction from mass media against this.  Worse still, it seems we have stopped talking about it, because - as the media (and some of my young students tell me), feminism is so "out-dated" and "unfashionable" almost as if women's right to equality were no different from a pair of Jimmy Choo heels.

And yet, we must talk about it. The recent Dove ads in America drove home the point of how young girls are tyranized by images of physical perfection. But perhaps someone needs to create a commercial about how women are all tyranized by images of other unrealistic fairy-tale perfection: John Lewis, yes, I am talking to you!

Which is what brings me back to this media-driven epidemic of depression amongst 40-something women. Agreed I am looking at a relatively small sample size, and definitely not a random one, but I can't see these depressed-because-of-perfection women anywhere. I find that most women of my acquaintance are hitting 40 and getting a second wind: physical hang ups have melted away, as have ridiculous expectations of fairy tale lives.  Instead they all seem to be living extraordinary lives, perhaps finally enjoying the rights earlier generations of feminist fought for.

Some are marrying while others are single or dating. Some are even having children, although few are ever going to be baking cupcakes for a bake sale; it will be a box of from the local supermarket or nothing! (And no, Laduree macaroons are too precious to waste on a bunch of kids!). But mostly they are challenging themselves, physically, mentally, emotionally, taking more risks and pushing the boundaries: marathon training for a former couch potato, launch of a new business in the midst of a recession, emigrating across the world, buying homes and redoing them with great gusto (and absolute personal style).

In all of this, there is a pattern: most of these very happy women are careerists. They have slaved to build their lives, bank balances and professional profiles for quite a few years. Even when they are leaving high flying city jobs to go farm in Australia, they are backed by a financial portfolio (and practical skills) they have built over two decades.  It reminds me of what my mother has always held as the cornerstone of women's rights and drummed into our heads all through our childhood: economic independence would set a woman free!

Reverting, however, to the backlash driven media narrative unfolding around us, most media stories (written cleverly enough by female journalists) stress that women are unhappy having it all.  That somehow no one told them that there would be a price for "having it all."  The tone in these pieces is not only patronizing (really, grown women need to be told this?) but also implicitly infantalizing (see, little girl, if you want to play with your dolls, you can't play on the swings at the same time).

Worse still, and this brings me back to Faludi, the embedded message is one that has been historically only reserved for women (never the men!): don't excel at anything beyond the confines of your home! Don't even hold ambitions of material and intellectual excellence because not only will you fail, but that success -should you achieve it with blood, sweat and tears - will make you unhappy (depressed and suicidal in modern parlance).   Moreover, should you still choose to test your fate in those fields of achievement beyond the home, you shall be punished: judged for your lack of maternity, derided for your achievements, shamed if your kitchen not meet the same standards of excellence that you bring to your professional life.

Female emancipation it seems is not only about economic independence then, but also about building an enormous strength to withstand the undermining narratives that bombard us.  (Note to self: the happy women in my life - students, colleagues, acquaintances, friends and family - need to be seriously commended for their amazonian abilities to excel in face of such opposition). And just for that, I am planning to include Susan Faludi on my undergraduate reading list for the next academic year. Its about time women - however few of us are ready and willing - started pushing back!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Oscars, Kathryn Bigelow, Hurt Locker: Quintessential America

Much has already been written about Hurt Locker's double win at the 2010 Oscars and of course, the historic achievement of a woman director finally achieving the "Best Director" award. And congratulations are indeed due to Kathryn Bigelow. This however is neither a review or a comment on her win, but rather general thoughts that came to me as I read various pieces about her.

First, in all historical fairness, technically a woman director HAS won an earlier Academy Award, except not in the coveted best director category: Marleen Gorris directed Antonia that won the Best Foreign Film award back in 1995.

Also, I am somewhat bemused that Bigelow's seems to play right into the narrow, almost archaic feminist narratives that I thought we had moved beyond. Way back in the 1980s as a student in US, I would remain silent about my reservations regarding a feminism that seemed only to apply to white, middle-class women, and required these women to somehow behave like men in order to achieve a mythic "equality."  When I started reading the likes of bell hooks, I was hugely relieved! I wasn't alone in being alienated by that narrow definition of feminism.

The Bigelow win (along with recent events discussed on this blog in the past week) brought back memories of those days.  Yes, she got the Oscar, but she got it for a properly "American, boys movie."  Ironic, by the way, just how many veterans have been questioning the veracity of the film's events!  These are most likely the same guys who pump their fists and cheer along to 24, not only for great entertainment but also for its "realism."  In fact, the narrow confines of the discussion around Bigelow's win is perfectly demonstrated by this NYT article.  In a way, Bigelow exemplifies the early feminist model: you want to play with the boys, dress like the boys, act like the boys, BE one of the boys! It is a strangely Euro-American model of feminism and one I have never quite managed to understand (coming from a country where wearing a sari gives me far more power cred than square shouldered suits would).


Reading the NYT piece, I was reminded of Sai Paranjape, a self-avowed feminist director from India who won the Filmfare award for best director back in 1985. Her movie, by American standards, would get classified as a "girly" one or worse still as Disney's latest quest to drop girl titles from fairy stories shows, a "chick flick" that "alienates boys."  Paranjape's Sparsh was a delicate exploration not only of relationships, but also the complexities of the male ego, the consequences of physical disability, and the human ability to sabotage our own happiness. Yet it is as easily accessible and impactful for a man as for a woman.  Its neither a "women's" movie nor one that attempts to out-macho the boys.

Of course, the list of the Filmfare winners has a definite preponderance of male directors, and god knows, we could do with more women filmmakers everywhere around the world, including India, but the list also shows a clear difference from the Oscar winners: most of the films on the Indian list are not muscle-bound macho sagas (regardless of their liberal/conservative leanings) that seem to dominate Hollywood in varying guises.  Even the male directors from India seem to explore far more social and emotional issues in their narratives than those on the Oscar list and in ways that are neither hyper-masculine or indeed with any particular male view (perhaps this may be one reason, in addition to the obvious issues of competition for market share, that India has yet to win an Oscar in the Foreign Film category?).  Of course, the issue of scopophilia (that Bigelow mentioned in a run-up interview) doesn't even begin to apply to Bollywood's multi-gaze, multi-perspective cinematic universe.

I was also reminded that I can think of influential women in cinema right through my childhood. The 1930s screen legend and producer, Devika Rani was the first recipient of the Dadasaheb Phalke award for contribution to cinema, the country major "life-time" achievement award.  Raj Kapoor's key films not only featured Nargis, his muse and actress, but she also worked on scripts and production, a positive corollary of the industry's "heterogenous mode of production."  Beyond the confines of the industry, women actresses, producers, filmmakers, have served on national committees for film and culture and served as chairs for the country's (very problematic) censor board. They have been good, bad or indifferent in doing these jobs, but have rarely been judged based on their gender.

Even today, I can think of a dozen or so filmmakers who make quality cinema in India. And, in the particular case of Farah Khan, it is a woman director who (for the moment) has a 100% blockbuster ratio for her film production, a figure that can only be compared to Don Bradman's batting average!

This year's Oscars also scored another "historic" moment:  the first African American - Geoffrey Fletcher - won the award for screenwriting (for Precious).  Of course, Lee Daniels was also in the running with Bigelow for the Best Director award for that movie (strange echoes of Obama elections here).

I suppose that brings me to the second difference I have noticed between the Oscars and the Filmfare. There has yet to be an African American filmmaker to win the biggies! And even the nominations in the past, including that of Spike Lee, have always been for clearly "black" films rather than an "all-American" movie.

Again, I am reminded of the huge difference between Hollywood and our much derided "Bollywood" industries. (Clarification: The example of the Muslim minority in India as a comparison is meant simply because the community is the most sizeable, and given various US "reports" on other countries, narratively linked to the subaltern status comparable to race ones in the USA. This does not intend to exclude the "caste", language, or regional minorities or other religions, all of whom have been closely involved with the film industry).

Can we Indians imagine a film industry where no Muslim won the best director or best film award for decades on end?  Can we even begin to imagine an industry without the likes of Mehboob Khan, Sohrab Modi, Ardeshir Irani, Kamal Amrohi, John Matthew Mathan, and other directors of all sorts of minority affiliations?  Even worse, can we imagine a Muslim filmmaker only making "Muslim" movies? What would be do without Mehboob Khan's Mother India? Or Farhan Akhtar's Lakshya?  Or Salim-Javed's extraordinary scripts? Or Kaifi Azmi's delicate lyrics.  And god forbid that they decided to stay only within the confines of the "minority" flicks, rather than big India narratives!!! 

I know we are supposed to be keen on the Oscars, but I stopped watching them nearly two decades ago. Too boring, too same-same. Frankly, and yes I do mean this, give me Filmfare awards any day (the clowning around with Saif and SRK, and all those glitzy dance numbers help as well!). Days like this, I have to say: hooray for Bollywood.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

What an Amazing, Manic 2010! Updates

Okay, for those of you (precious, precious few yous!) who follow my blog and have been wondering why there have been no updates, here is the low down: the past two weeks have been mayhem!

I have been madly working, writing, catching up on chores, organising.  For the first time in my life, I am even re-doing my humble abode to make it more comfortable and fit-for-purpose.  All in all, the blog has had to take a backseat.  Of course, part of running around chasing one's tale is that there is really very little to report or indeed ruminate upon.

However, there are two key updates:

First, I had a brilliant time at the LSE's Fiction of Development event.  As always, LSE has uploaded a podcast of the event that can be accessed here.

Some of the questions were rather predictable (and annoyingly so), but the positive side was to note just how many students are ahead of the curve: the best, most thought provoking questions came from them.

It also threw up the "developed" vs "developing" world divide in stark contrast.  The non-European/US students were far more aware, better prepared and more thoughtful. They were also willing to engage in debate, challenge their own and others' assumptions, and were far more passionately involved in the issues the panel raised.  After the event, over drinks, these were the students who approached me and raised even more issues that they felt had been left out during the session.

Having done similar events before, I guess this response could have been predicted. But one statement by a student made over a glass of wine really made me sad that we haven't moved beyond the narrow confines of the colonial mindset. She told me: "Thank you for being on the panel. Your views made me realise that I am not the crazy one. That there are other people who think like me."

Back in the 1980s, as a student in the American north-east, I would often keep my mouth shut on issues of race, gender, power because my views were so completely different from those being expounded by (mostly American) experts on campus.  I had hoped that this had changed in the past decades; that there was more diversity of voices and views for students who were still building their viewpoints.

Then again, I can't remember hearing/seeing anyone on a panel who articulated my thoughts. So if just by my presence or by my views, I can provide either validation or confidence to some student, perhaps I am doing something right.  And that in itself is no mean achievement.

Second, Palgrave Macmillan has just published Religion in Literature and Film in South Asia, edited by the wonderfully passionate and dedicated India scholar, Diana Dimitrova.  It has some really amazing essays by scholars in Europe, India and US.  It also carries my comparative analysis of Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan's star personas, the ways these interact with the Mahabharata and Ramayana, and how they reflect their respective zeitgeists.

So all  in all, very productive start to 2010. 

Monday, February 08, 2010

Fiction of Development: Event at LSE

This is a slightly crazy week full of commitments that I obviously did not realise I was making. As a result, this is a very short post.  However, if you are in London, it may be a useful one.

I am participating in a panel discussion on Fiction of Development at the LSE Literary Festival 2010. The panel is scheduled for Friday evening and is free, although you do have to book tickets in advance. If my fiction, or indeed the issue of socially and politically engaged fiction interests you, please do come around.

The panel includes Giles Foden of the Last King of Scotland fame, the Malawian poet Jack Mpanje and David Lewis who started off this conversation with his paper (written with Dennis Rodgers and Michael Woolcock) on fiction and development.

I am looking forward to the panel for personal and professional reasons. On a personal front, because LSE is sister's old alma mater and I have a lot of friends who studied there. So it holds all sorts of great memories. Professionally, I am pleased to be part of a discussion that needs to take place - that fiction often sheds light on issues of development, social change and conflict that is perhaps not take as seriously in academic circles.

Perhaps this panel will be an initial step towards fostering a dialogue between novelists and social scientists.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Where Three Dreams Cross: Well Worth a Look!

Last week I walked around the newly refurbished Whitechapel Gallery in East London to go through an enormous exhibition of photography from the sub-continenent with over 400 images dating back over a 100 years. Phew!

First of all, yes, I wholeheartedly recommend Where Three Dreams Cross.  It ticks all the boxes: iconic photographs by master photographers like Sunil Janah and Raghu Rai; archival portraits of colonial era Maharajahs; stills and photographs of beloved movie stars; some really good sociological and documentary work; and of course, if you just love photography as an art form, some really amazing work that is at once passionate and intelligent.

As an exercise in highlighting photography from the region, this is an amazing project. One of the curators, Sunil Gupta, himself a photographer and exhibiting currently in London, explained that the project took nearly four years to bring life. And the hard work shows.

Now a couple of observations:

1. For an expat, and definitely a "new" (as in post-colonial, post-Partition) Indian, the ideological agenda for the exhibition is a bit troubling. An exhibition that somehow makes the three nations "look" so similar and thus blames the political divisions on history or some sort of false distinctions is problematic in itself. When that exhibition is held - with self-rightous glee - in the country that carried out that bloody process of history, then one is left feeling distinctly queasy.

Perhaps it is a generational issue: Sunil Gupta is of an earlier generation, and perhaps feels more nostalgia for a "united" India than most of us from the sub-continent. Moreover, I was left wondering once again why racial or cultural markers are somehow meant to make us so "similar." How often do we see an exhibition on the region of Savoy (divided between Italy, France and Switzerland) with a similar intent? Or on Catalunya (divided between France and Spain)? The implicit imperial conceit in erasing our contemporary political and national identity in favour of racial/cultural markers encodes us in well-known colonial boundaries. And those are not only out-dated but also grate.

2. Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie has already expressed some of her unease in her piece published in Pakistan's Dawn and UK's Guardian. As I am not writing for mainstream press, I can be a bit more blunt. No, I didn't find myself trying to find images from India, but then that may be a function of our size.

I also realised that we - as in Indians - are better at representing ourselves than our neighbours. When we got the first camera, we immediately deployed it to "flatten" out the photographs to represent our cultural aesthetic instead of wielding it to re-create the western post-Renaissance three-point perspective.  We hand-painted the early portraits, overlaying technology with miniaturist precision to create images that were us.

Then in the 1930s, we took on German and Soviet oppositional aesthetics and deployed them for anti-colonial and then nation-building purposes.  The techniques were shorn of their Nazi (yes, that influence does not quite get a mention) and Communist agendas and used the way we wanted, for purposes that suited us.

Recent photographs reflect the same: we are good at representing ourselves, and more at ease being represented, than our neighbours. Perhaps it is a corollary of the past 60 years of democracy and republicanism, or merely our much-criticized hotch-potch secularism. But this exhibition definitely emphasises our love affair with the camera.

3. Another aspect that bothered me about this exhibition, and again I believe this resulted from its ideological impetus: India, at least it seems in the exhibition, ends in the south at Mumbai and in the east, at Bengal! I guess Tamil Nadu, Deccan, Kerala, North East's seven sisters don't quite allow for the easy racial/cultural markers of "unity" with Pakistan and Bangladesh.  However, this studied invisibility of our non-north/centrals parts really bothered me.

In making the Three Dreams Cross,  I feel that the Indian dream has been purposefully mutilated.

And that brings me to a final quibble: I understand the exhibition is about the three big countries in the sub-continent, but I would have liked to see more from other nations in the same region: Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, especially as, in the final case, issues of political borders formed by colonial heritage are still playing out in horrific bloody detail and are very much a colonial legacy for that that teardrop island nation as well.

Perhaps, I should just put aside my hopes and admit to the one fact I would prefer to forget: that like all exhibitions, this one says more about the curators who put it together than about the region it purports to show. 

PS: I spoke to Harriet Gilbert who presents the BBC World Service show The Strand about the exhibition. Fortunately, Sunil Gupta was also there. You can find the chat here (just let the player go past the 16:30 minute mark for the segment to begin).

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Pleasantly Surprised By Gordon

I don't normally watch television. And moreover, for the sake of my own sanity and blood pressure, I do not ever watch programmes made abroad about India as they all follow the well-worn loop: poverty; exotica; poverty; look an erstwhile royal; poverty, oh-wow-an-elephant; poverty again.

But when Gordon Ramsey's Great Escape ads started popping up on my facebook page (talk of advertising!) I was intrigued. After all, I like food and he is a famous chef.  But what clinched it for me was the relatively negative reviews the show got from the British press. With properly postcolonial reasoning, I decided that if much of the British press didn't like the show, there had to be something good about it.

So off I went to Channel 4 website to check out the three part series (apparently, there is a book of the same name but as I don't buy cookbooks, it doesn't really matter).

My reaction after watching all three episodes?

Well, he is brash. And he is foul-mouthed but not nearly as much as some of the Delhi taxi drivers I have encountered. And after all there is only so much offense the same recycled half-dozen four-letter expletives can cause, unlike the very graphic, very colourful Hindi or Punjabi di galis! One grows inured to them quite quickly.

Yes, he was a bit silly. Yes, he tasted food although he was eventually told off for it even on camera. Yes, he was the bumbling, slightly arrogant Englishman abroad, annoyed that people didn't speak English, or amused that they didn't speak it properly. Yes, this is part of the "gentler, kinder" Ramsey re-branding. But it all made for good television.

More importantly for me, was that there were genuine moments of loony happiness and Ramsey's ability to take pleasure in them was infectious!  Despite television's formatting, the enthusiasm and giddiness shone through: especially on his Nagaland and Kerala sections.

There were also oddly touching moments of vulnerability, and not only in the kitchen. It was kind of cute to watch Ramsey suck in his stomach, especially in profile.

And of course, hilarious to watch that Bollywood catch-that-train fantasy has permiated even British cooking shows. Yes, it was staged, and yes, he wasn't really missing the train but it was sweet to watch nevertheless.

Finally, full marks for going into Dharavi, explaining that it was where the abominable Slumdog Millionnaire was filmed and then not falling into the same trap! Ramsey cooked sambhar on the street with a famous Dharavi chef, played cricket and served food at the birthday party. Yes there was poverty but it was also a more "real" version of Dharavi than Boyle's one-sided take. Ramsey's team picked up on the Dharavi (and other slums) in India where there is joy, entreprenuership, pride in one's achievements, and aspirations alongside the hardships.

Just for that alone, Ramsey may have found a new fan!

Friday, January 15, 2010

I am soooo sick of this one!

Okay, so this one was just basically a bomb waiting to go off: I have been wondering recently about various (sort of and former) friends who live where they do because its safely "white." They tell me that they think their preferred neighbourhood  has good schools, where their kids "learn the national ethos", but frankly when I look at the Ofsted figures, these are the schools that do poorly for one key factor: diversity (read slowly: "good" Home county schools are "great because they are predominantly white").

And then it makes me question why we were ever "friends" at all? Was I their token "race" justification or proof against racism?

Its a bit worrying when you start wondering how racist your friends and lovers really are; and if they have been using you as their token for proving their non-racist credentials:  Kills all respect and affection, I promise you!

But the reason the proverbial cup runneth over tonight of all nights (is that WAAAY too many references pulled together in way too few words or its just me being too bookish?), is getting to the Times page and seeing the ultimate F&CKing cliche! Sigh! Really? Are we f*cking done?

How often do you see me - the brown Indian woman, and no apologies for the language - declaring that there is something SERIOUSLY wrong with white people because they think that Haiti's earthquake happened because Haitians made a pact with the devil? When do I expand that one statement to the general populace? But I guess that measured thinking is the requirement only of the "other" and the marginalised!

And when do we - as in the brown people - start using a single dumb statement as a point of explaining how stupid, prejudiced, backward, illiterate, prejudiced, white people were?
 
See my point? Generalisations are dumb! And prejudiced! And based on a lack of understanding. 

So when I see a headline talking of: "Millions Rush to Cleanse in Filthy Ganges" I want to scream! I want to point out to these little white/middle-class (and yes, believe me, few people who are not either/or get employed or consulted at the Times) insular shits that they need to get over themselves!

That poor brown people like me who think nothing of bathing in a "filthy river" think that "their" reverence for the queen and the royal family is just as  if not more idiotic! Hell, bathing in that filthy river gets me benefits post-mortem but you lot bow to a some human who is supposed to be greater than all others in the land WHY?  So WHY do modern, post-Enlightenment, educated, humans bow and courtesy to these "royals"? Frankly, I will bathe in that filthy river a million times before bowing/courtesying before a pathetic human who has no worth beyond their birth! And PLEASE tell me HOW the Brits can justify that reverence for the monarchy as any more rational and logical than the Hindu partaking of the Mahakumbh (and we are not even getting to religion here!)

One good reason I have always thought for never giving birth to a child on UK soil is that the top post in this country is hereditary! I mean WHAT sort of a loser accepts that as part of human development?  And as a life-long republican, I can't see the point of ever raising a child with that sort of absurd limitation.    But  of course, as the apparently enlightened Brit journo will tell you: certain kinds of "royalty" are okay: funny how the British press is quite happy to talk of their own and other European royalty in laudatory terms but of course anything nonwhite is "oppressive," "backward", etc, etc.  

So yeah, I am sick of this one!

I am SICK of getting the bloody colonial British take on India (and much of the world) over and over again.   And worse still: you know the Brit press's favourite "uncle Tom yes-life-is-so-great-out-here-coz-we-have-no-clue" British Asian take?  Get OVER it: most second and third generation British-Asians (immigrants in general) are people who have no clue about India or the general subcontinent! They don['t speak the language, don't know the traditions or history or literature. Their parents were often illiterate when they got to Britian/USA and hardly in position to talk of their "culture." The first city they often saw was not Delhi or Lahore or Dhaka but London or Manchester.  Its like having a random American be an "authority" on Britain simply because somewhere two or three generations ago, their parentage was Welsh or Scottish or English (funny just how much fun the Brits make of the Americans looking for their heritage but then have no qualms turning the lens the other way). 

Point being, this is not just about cultures as in east or west but also urban vs rural. I find a 3rd generation British-Asian from the midlands is more backward/conservative than a first generation Indian villager who went from a home without electricity to working for NASA in six years (thats IIT graduates for you!).  But that is the point for a different post.

It is the embedded, intrinsic colonial conceit that pisses me off. And I am not quite sure what it would take for the people who peddle it constantly to realise that the empire is over. And frankly such retrogressive headlines don't do any good: the balance of power is shifting. Grow up and deal with it!!!!!

PS: Not particularly erudite, I have to say, but this has been written at the spur of the moment and I am furious (not unusual). I try to not blog when I am angry, but today, I make an exception.

Friday, January 08, 2010

"In Praise of the Delinquent Hero" out now!


This is a good moment to plug a new anthology, How They See Us: Meditations on America, edited by James Atlas.

When I was asked to write for it some time back, I thought it was a good idea. After all, haven't the Americans been proclaiming their confusion about the reasons why so much of the world doesn't like them, or is disappointed, disillusioned, saddened by them, since 9/11? It seemed like a good moment to open a discussion about how the rest of the world sees the US of A. I had no idea who else would be included in the collection, but it seemed like a great opportunity.

Well the anthology is now out. And boy! Whoa! Some serious heavy hitters in there: Mourid Barghouti, Terry Eagleton, Alberto Fuguet, Luis Fernando Verissimo....and of course, the minnow: ME!

Needless to say, I am pretty chuffed!

More interesting for me than the actual publication however is the reaction the anthology is raising from the American press. After all, as a non-American writer, this is an amazing opportunity to observe American reactions in a specific context: a sort of intellectual petri-dish if you will.

Sadly however, the initial reviews of the anthology seem to confirm what I have long thought: that there is a small band of Americans who are interested in actually hearing what the non-Americans have to say. San Francisco Chronicle (even though they got my gender wrong) and the Publisher's Weekly seem to reflect that America (that is the one that I got to know during my years as a teenager in NYC and then as a university student at Brandeis). However, beyond this circle, most Americans don't care about the world beyond their borders (and as such are constantly surprised when that world doesn't agree with their own self-image).

I have also been reminded of a remark that Belgian friend made back at university about how Americans didn't get irony, especially by the WaPo review which ends by quoting Verissimo's piece. Did the reviewer really read that anecdote straight, without irony?

If so another anthology, and another, and another may well be in order!

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Lessons of 2009 (Part II): Amazing Friends Equal Happiness

A couple of months ago, in the midst of massive personal upheaval, I commented to my sister that I was extremely fortunate to have so many exceptional people love me! Her response, rather predictably, was to thank me for thinking her exceptional.

So I clarified: "Actually, I am speaking of my friends. Family has no choice but to love me." (Further note: My sister did make a very good point that the above is not quite true. A lot of families are unhappy enough and feel no need or motivation to love each other).

But getting back to the point: 2009 was the year of learning just how many extraordinary people form part of my life. For most part, they have very little in common with each other - except me. This was highlighted when we were at a house party over my birthday: my friends didn't necessarily know each and shared even less. They were drawn from different parts of the world and hold wildly divergent interests, political ideas and world views.

Lets be honest: a dance school owner, a clown, a banker, a terrorism expert and a bar owner have very little in common, although it does sound like the opening line of a long, complicated joke. And yes, that is just a cross-section of those who travelled from around the globe to be at my birthday.

I have thought about it a great deal since that party and finally realised that despite the overt differences, my friends share one thing in common: their incredible passion for life and their insistence on living each moment of it. Not one of them follows rules set by others nor tries to conform to what is expected of them by social norms. It is a tougher way to live as they often fight harder for what they believe, have more complex (and often unachievable) ambitions, and always inhabit liminal spaces regardless of the company they keep and societies they live in. And yet, they would have it no other way, choosing over and over again to live their lives on the "tip of the rabbit's fur" (to paraphrase Jostein Gaarder).

They are extraordinary not only because they are deeply loyal and caring, but also because they are good at nurturing others' ambitions and dreams. No matter how outrageous the ambition, or how far the goal, none of them ever seems to voice a doubt. Instead each wild idea provokes gales of laughter and then a determined attempt to see how the person chasing it can be supported.

Before this all begins to sound too happy-shiny-people-y, let me point out that none of this means their lives are perfect. Indeed far from it! Living at the tip of the rabbit's fur seems to mean making more and crazier mistakes to learn from, and falling lower and harder and far more often than those who live safer, more conformist lives. Despair when it strikes one of us seems deeper and darker than for most others, and perhaps because of it, happiness is also shinier and brighter than others.

An acquaintance told me some years ago that she found just hearing about my life exhausting. Looking back at 2009, I realise just how much living my friends have packed into a single year. Not surprisingly, anyone without the same passion for living each moment seems to fall quickly by the wayside: partners, lovers, and new friends who are initially attracted by energy and passion often find the pace tiring. Worse still, I am beginning to realise that far too many people choose emotional safety even if it means stagnation and misery over taking chances and living fully. Yet when one of us meets a partner or friend with the same kind of passion, they quickly become part of our lives, linked not by any shared interest but by what my sister once termed the "wooo-hooooo" factor (as in the ability to go through life as if on a perpetual exciting rollercoaster)

My mother says that lots of people like grabbing the tail of a comet but they can't last the ride. 2009 made me realise my friends are like those comets. We all have different paths and trails, and we don't always manage to be in the same country, or same life-path to be able to connect except very briefly. On the other hand, there is always a mutual recognition of eachother's blazing paths. And there is an instinctive respect for our shared ability to embrace life - no matter what it holds - regardless of the risk and and pain. Perhaps, thats why we stay friends.

And for that, I am very grateful.