Categories
Books

Amit Chaudhuri, The Immortals

Amit-Chaudhuri It's been a long time coming. Except that Amit Chaudhuri wouldn't have used those words sung by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

The gifted Indian writer,who teaches contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia, prefers Indian classical music.

An accomplished singer himself, he pays homage to the music in The Immortals.

Now don't  let that turn you off a wonderful novel.

Even though I know nothing about Indian classical music, I was drawn irresistibly into the story.

Categories
Books India

Paul Theroux on Kali and Calcutta

In A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta, Paul Theroux describes an animal sacrifice at the Kali temple in Kalighat. A goat, garlanded with flowers, is led bleating into a walled enclosure to the beat of drums. Once inside, the terrified creature is thrust between two upright stakes and caressed by a barefoot priest, who then hacks off its head to screeches of delight from the crowd.

The narrator, Jerry Delfont, an American travel writer invited to give talks in Calcutta (Kolkata) by the US consulate, is horrified by the spectacle. He is then led inside the temple, which is also frightening:

We shuffled past an inside window where the image of the goddess Kali, gleaming black and brightly marked, stared with orange lozenge eyes from a stack of blossoms and offerings. I was briefly frightened, jostled by the mob in this stifling place of incense and flowers and dishes of money and frantic pilgrims, who were twitching with gestures of devotion and gasping, seeming to eat the air, all of them staring wildly at the furious image.

Theroux is clearly writing as an outsider, who doesn't share the religious sentiments of the Hindus. The scene is nightmarish. Even Hindus may recoil from the animal sacrifice. And was it necessary to give such a lurid description of the image of the goddess?

Categories
Books

Avatar No 1 on the Net: Indian words in English

Viagra sounds like the Sanskrit word for tiger — “vyaghra”.

Henry Hitchens points that out in his delightful book, The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes the similarity but doubts any connection between the two words. The “vi” of Viagra possibly comes from virile and virility, it says.

That may be so, but there are plenty of Indian words in English. Think of the Oscar nominee, Avatar.

That’s another Sanskrit word, which means incarnation. It was first used in English by the Orientalist Sir William Jones in 1784.

But how did avatar come to mean a computer graphics icon? OED offers no explanation for this new incarnation of avatar. It simply notes the word has been used in this sense since 1986.

Indian words may not be a dime a dozen in the English language, but they are certainly among the most common.

Think of curry, cot, bungalow, bangle, pyjamas. They are all from India. Cot comes from the Hindi “khat”, bangle from the Hindi “bangri”, pyjamas from the Urdu “pyjama”, bungalow from the Hindustani “bangla”. Curry is from the Tamil “kari”, which means sauce or relish for rice, says the OED.

Now let’s do a Google search to see which appears most often on the internet.

And the winner is …

Avatar!

Categories
Books

First Booker for a Brit in five years?

A British writer is likely to win the Man Booker Prize for the first time in five years when the winner is announced tomorrow. Unless the South African born Nobel Prize winner JM Coetzee wins the Booker for the third time — and sets a new record in the Booker's 41-year history.

All the five other writers on this year's shortlist are from the British Isles.

That is highly unusual for the Booker.

The prize for the best in English fiction from the Commonwealth and Ireland has been won by a Briton only twice in the past 12 years. Alan Hollinghurst was the last British winner in 2004 for The Line Of Beauty. Ian McEwan was the previous British winner, for Amsterdam in 1998.

There have been more Indian than British winners in the past 12 years. Arundhati Roy won for The God Of Small Things in 1997, Kiran Desai for The Inheritance Of Loss in 2006 and Aravind Adiga for The White Tiger last year.

This video shows the shortlist being announced earlier this month. (Another video at the end of this post.)

Coetzee, the 2003 Nobel Prize winner, won the Booker for Life & Times of Michael K in 1983 and Disgrace in 1999 — and has been shortlisted this year for Summertime.

The English novelist AS Byatt is another past winner back in the fray. The 1990 winner for Possession is on the shortlist this year for The Children's Book.

But the punters' favourite is Hilary Mantel, author of the historical saga, Wolf Hall, set in the court of Henry VIII and centring on the character of Thomas Cromwell.

Here are the odds on the six shortlisted authors and their books cited by a betting website:

Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall – (2 – 1 Favourite)

Sarah Waters – The Little Stranger – (4 – 1)

JM Coetzee – Summertime – (6 – 1)

AS Byatt – The Children's Book – (10 – 1)

Simon Mawer – The Glass Room – (14 – 1)

Adam Foulds – The Quickening Maze – (16 – 1)

Other past Booker winners include Anne Enright (The Gathering, 2007), John Banville (The Sea, 2005), DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, 2003), Yann Martel (Life Of Pi, 2002), Peter Carey (True History Of The Kelly Gang, 2001) and Margaret Atwood (The Blind Assassin, 2000).

Categories
Books

Anthony Burgess on Malaysia

Anthony Burgess
Anthony Burgess

Malaysia celebrated its 52nd independence anniversary recently. So how much has it changed since Anthony Burgess wrote about it in The Malayan Trilogy?

The book is based on his experiences as an education officer in Malaysia in the 1950s.

In his introduction to The Malayan Trilogy, he writes: “The Malays resented Chinese wealth and were determined to keep the Chinese out of politics.”

On the other side, says Burgess, were the “Chinese communist terrorists” who fought a guerrilla war throughout the 1950s.  “These were young men and women, possessed of weapons left over from the war (World War II) and animated by political ideals taken from Peking, who were determined to prevent Malaya’s emergence to parliamentary democracy and wished to see a communist state ruled by Chinese,”  he says.

Here is his introduction to The Malayan Trilogy, which is worth reading in full.

Categories
Books

A New World by Amit Chaudhuri

A New World by Amit Chaudhuri

Amit Chaudhuri is one of the finest but possibly less known Indian authors writing in English. His language can verge on poetry and be as vivid as a movie. But nothing much happens in his stories.

That didn’t matter very much in his early novels, A Strange and Sublime Address and Freedom Song. Both were critically acclaimed. I can think of no better books in English about my hometown, Calcutta (Kolkata), except Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, my favourite novel, but there only part of the story is set in Calcutta; most of the action takes place in the Hindi belt.

To get a feel of Calcutta, what it looks like and understand us Bengalis, the natives of Calcutta, A Strange and Sublime Address and Freedom Song are invaluable. They portray our ideas, attitudes and lifestyle. And the writing verges on poetry, which is something we Bengalis love.

A New World unfortunately lacks that poetry. The writing is fluid and flawless. But as I turned from one page to the next, it felt like a lazy summer afternoon. It’s uneventful by deliberate design.

The story

Jayojit, a Bengali economist teaching in America, visits his parents in Calcutta during his college holidays with his seven-year-old son, Bonny. He has recently divorced his wife, also a Bengali from Calcutta, who has left him to live with her lover -– and gynaecologist — in America. The story describes his stay in Calcutta. In the process, we see his interaction with his parents, his parents’ relationship and his own relationship with his parents. There are also flashbacks to his broken marriage and his parents’ abortive attempt to arrange a second marriage for him with a Bengali divorcee. He had met her on his previous visit but they had got nowhere. She had backed out, he now learns from his father, because he had seemed to be looking not so much for a wife as a governess for his son.

Categories
Books

Sublime writing — like a movie

Amit Chaudhuri is one of the best Indian writers in English today.
Salman Rushdie may be more flamboyant, but when it comes to describing
a scene, Chaudhuri is second to none. He can be as vivid as a
photograph or a video. The only reason he is not better known is his
short stories and novels are not ambitious in scope: they are more like
subtle miniatures than epics. But Chaudhuri, who teaches creative
writing at the University of East Anglia, has won several literary
awards. See Amit Chaudhuri  for more details. Praising him, the Guardian  said:

Yes,
he writes about India, but not the Technicolor romps British readers
have come to expect since Midnight's Children. Mr Chaudhuri's work is
better, and more truthful, than that…

Here's an extract
from A Strange and Sublime Address, which won the Commonwealth Writers
Prize for Best First Book in 1991. It's set in Calcutta (Kolkata),
where Chaurdhuri was born. Here he is describing three little boys
looking out of a window and watching pigeons mating. They are too young
to know what the birds are up to. The details are fascinating. It's both poetic and funny.

On
the far side of the parapet, while the rest dreamed, two pigeons began
to kiss each other in a solemnly painful manner, beaks locked together,
heads moving up and down simultaneously as if they were trying to
release themselves from the mysterious lock. It was a strange kind of
passion; it was the only way birds could embrace, or come close to
embracing — locking their beaks in that funny, tortured way. Finally,
the male climbed on the female's back and proceeded to flap its wings
in an abstracted fashion. The female waited, bending its head in a
world-weary manner.

Categories
Books

Second Indian Booker winner in three years

Aravind _adiga_190
The award for the best English novel by a writer from any country except America goes to… an Indian for the second time in three years!

Aravind Adiga has won the 2008 Man Booker Prize worth 50,000 pounds ($87,000) for Commonwealth writers for his novel, The White Tiger, set in India. Indian Kiran Desai won the award for The Inheritance of Loss, spanning India and America, in 2006. Irish Anne Enright was the winner last year for The Gathering.

Adiga, 33, who read English literature at Columbia and Oxford and writes for Time magazine, lives in Mumbai.The White Tiger, about corruption, poverty and exploitation in India, is his first novel. Links to his Time articles appear at the end of this post.

"Adiga is the fifth Indian author to win the prize, joining VS Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai, who won the prize in 1971, 1981, 1997 and 2006 respectively," notes the Man Booker website. Roy also won with her first novel, The God of Small Things.

The only other debut novelist to win the prize was the Australian DBC Pierre in 2003 for Vernon God Little. 

Adiga is the second-youngest novelist to win the award and cites the black American writers Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin as influences, says The Times.

About The White Tiger

Adiga also admires the Indian writer RK Narayan, he said in a Rediff interview, where he said he started writing the book based on his experiences as a Time magazine correspondent in India. He was struck by the vast gulf between the rich and the poor — and the fact that, despite the huge poverty, there was "so little crime in India compared to that in New York, South Africa and Latin America".

 The White Tiger is a clever, dark, unusual novel where:

Categories
Books

Bengalis in 1920s Singapore

I am glad that Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke at the Global Indian Diaspora Conference this morning. His presence there while Singapore officially went into recession underlines the deepening ties between the two countries.

India too is caught in the economic turmoil.  Indian banks from tomorrow will be allowed to keep just 7.5 percent cash in hand, down from 9 percent. It’s the steepest cut in the cash reserve ratio in India since 2001, reports Bloomberg, releasing 600 billion rupees ($12.2 billion) into the financial system.

But this post is about what the Prime Minister said at the conference. The full speech can be read here. I only wish to draw attention to this remark he made:

Many early Indians started out here as humble labourers and plantation workers, but succeeding generations have made their mark in government, business and the professions.

That is only part of the story, passing over details like this: Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore with soldiers from India. But anyone can learn that from a history book.

What’s more interesting to me is this Singapore scene painted by Somerset Maugham in his short story, P & O. It appeared in his collection of short stories, The Casuarina Tree, published in 1926. He mentions “sleek and prosperous” Bengalis. Where did they go? Maugham captures the buzz, but it’s a totally different Singapore:

Categories
Books

Jhumpa Lahiri and Unaccustomed Earth

jhumpa_lahiri_ Jhumpa Lahiri writes about Indian Americans. But this is really literature of globalisation and the immigrant experience — at the opposite end of Monica Ali's Brick Lane and Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss. Lahiri writes about highly qualified, professionally successful immigrants. But there is the aching loneliness of the outsider in a foreign land that will be familiar to immigrants everywhere in all stations of life.

What makes Lahiri all the more relevant and poignant is her ability to depict the gulf that separates the immigrants not only from their homelands but from their own flesh and blood — parents from children, first generation from second generation. While the parents create their Little Indias, the children are more at home in the big US of A. And that creates tensions and communication gaps. The Sound of Silence could be the theme song of Unaccustomed Earth, where Ruma and her father in the title story, despite their love and affection for each other, have become virtual strangers, unable to share their inmost thoughts.

Lahiri uses a dual perspective, showing the thoughts of both Ruma and her father, revealing the distance between them and making the story all the more touching. Ruma wonders if her father ever loved her mother. That is another theme explored by Lahiri — love, estrangement, infidelity are all explored in minute detail. Lahiri is always vivid and intimate: her characters come to life, burdened with all the flaws and expectations that make us human.

But she is too subtle a writer for me to portray adequately. Read the New York Review of Books instead, where Sarah Kerr reviews Unaccustomed Earth. The headline sums up the book perfectly: Displaced Passions. Time, while praising her, notes:

Among the things you will not find in Jhumpa Lahiri's fiction are: humour, suspense, cleverness, profound observations about life, vocabulary above the 10th-grade level, footnotes and typographical experiments. It is debatable whether her keyboard even has an exclamation point on it.

But that is what makes her writing so clean and natural and, combined with her gift for the telling detail, all the more sombre and poignant. Like these last two sentences in Going Ashore, the last story in Unaccustomed Earth:

It might have been your child but this was not the case. We had been careful, and you had left nothing behind.

As she says in an interview with the Atlantic:

I like it to be plain. It appeals to me more.

Also worth reading is her interview with Newsweek two years ago. Talking about how speaking to her parents every day and seeing them once a month has kept her thinking of herself as Indian, Lahiri — who is married to a Guatemalan Greek American journalist — said:

I can see a day coming when my American side, lacking the counterpoint India has until now maintained, begins to gain ascendancy and weight.

The Indian connection is fading.

None of the stories in Unaccustomed Earth is set in India. That's a big change from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake.