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.

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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?

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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!

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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