Saturday, July 03, 2010

Skimming the Surface

[This review of Dreaming in Hindi, by Katherine Russell Rich, was published with some edits in the Deccan Herald]

Sometime in 2001, Katherine Russell Rich decided to learn a new language. In fact, she decided to leave New York, go to the country where it was spoken and do a year-long course there to learn it. The language was Hindi, and the country was India. This book is partly a chronicle of that one year in India, and partly an exploration of what it feels like to learn a new language.

The book runs on four tracks simultaneously: Her experiences in India; discussions on the Hindi language itself; her views on Indian culture, religion, and so on; and finally, the neurology of learning a language, as understood from several researchers in the domain.

Of these four tracks, the last one is the most successful. Rich’s core theory is that learning a new language changes the way the brain itself works, and probably shapes the way experiences are stored in the brain. She interviews several experts (all of them American) about the latest findings, and explains their theories. At one point she uses the various flavours of sign language – American, Indian, formally structured and informally developed – to explain how the cadence of a language influences communication itself. These are the most interesting parts of the book; these topics have not been covered enough in popular writing, and Rich has created a good overview of the field here. Moreover, the discussion often goes way beyond Hindi itself, into what learning any new language is like, so there is plenty of interest here for Hindi-speaking readers too.

Unfortunately, the other three topics covered by the book fall flat. These sections are written with a very specific reader in mind: a monolingual person who thinks of India as an exotic land of turbaned, old-world maharajas. Neither of these criteria matches the typical English-speaking Indian reader, who speaks at least two languages and thinks of maharajas as belonging to mythological serials on TV.
Rich’s year in India was spent almost entirely in Udaipur, which is described in loving detail, exoticized the way the tourists like it: She lives in havelis, walks past cows on the street, meets traditional housewives who never completed school. And yes, meets the requisite Maharanas. Udaipur, however, is not equivalent to India, and Mewari-accented Hindi is definitely not the only language spoken in the country. So sentences like these jar: "In India, time is circular, a perception that’s shaped by the concept of reincarnation… yesterday and tomorrow are the same word: kal. 'The day before yesterday' and 'the day after tomorrow' are both parson... All the days in the spin are the same: aaj. In the west, in contrast, in English, time is linear..." What about the hundreds of other Indian languages with different words for "yesterday" and "tomorrow"?

At times, Rich attempts the near-impossible task of explaining India to the western reader from her Udaipur vantage point. When she opens up a newspaper, the paper invariably mentions some significant event, such as Godhra, or the Babri Masjid destruction and the resulting riots. A colleague’s idle comment is linked to the massacres on trains during partition. All these incidents are pithily explained away, blame squarely placed, history turned into bite-sized chunks, definitely not intended to give the complete, complex picture.

Then there’s the required quota of exotic-India words, stuffed in at the first possible opportunity: tigers and saffron and saris. In the first chapter of this book, Rich sees a hotel swimming pool, and describes it thus: "The pool was mango-shaped."

The overall form of the book causes a few problems as well. Because she’s using her experiences during her course as the springboard for the scientific theories, Rich needs to shoehorn in some incidents that roughly match the topics of the theories she plans to talk about. So random comments by acquaintances lead Rich to talk about the latest views on Chomsky’s papers, and an invitation to a deaf school leads to a discussion on the "spreading activation network theory". This sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t. Also, since we know she did a specific course in India and then came back, there’s no ending or climax to build up. Rich ends her chapters with cliffhangers like "…and now I would be the next one to go down", which don’t really turn the book into a page-turner.

Rich winds up talking of too many things at once, and perhaps because of this, never really goes deep into any of them. The neuroscience sections are probably the only ones that feel authentic, and it would have been a good idea to have an Indian look through the culture sections for glaring errors (The definition of saala given actually means jija in Hindi – the problem probably happened because both words mean brother-in-law in English). But, as mentioned above, the book isn’t written for Indians at all. It is definitely not a guidebook to India, nor does it help in any way in learning Hindi. No, the book is about an American woman’s jaunt to an exotic country, and her subsequent interviews with researchers back home.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Some rudimentary water-related calculations

I posted this status on Facebook the other day: "If you take the number of centimeters of rain that fall on Bangalore or Pune every year, multiply by the land area, and divide by the population, you get so much water per person that we should all have enough and more of it every day.
(This is what I've been doing today afternoon, aided by the numbers from Wikipedia)"

A couple of folks wanted me to post the calculations, so here's a post explaining it.

According to this site, one cubic metre of water is equivalent to 1000 litres. So, if your city has an area of one square meter (small city, I know), and it has one meter of rainfall in a year, the city is getting a thousand litres of water. I.e., one centimetre of rainfall over one square metre is 10 litres of water.

Wikipedia lists Bangalore as having an area of 710 sq. km. approximately. 1 sq. km. is about 10^6 square metres. Therefore, if one centimetre of rains falls on Bangalore, we have 10 litres * 710 * 10^6 of water. That's 710,00,00,000 or 710 crore litres of water.

The official government site on Karnataka lists Bangalore as having about 900 mm of annual rainfall, or about 90 cm. That means that about 63,900 crore litres of water falls to the ground within Bangalore city limits every year.

Again, Wikipedia lists Bangalore's population at 65 lakhs. 63,900 crore (i.e. 63,90,000 lakhs) divided by 65 lakhs is 98,307 litres of water per person per year. In other words, about 270 litres per day.

This set of statistics show that only about 9 developed countries show a water use of more than 270 litres per day. India is way down the list, at 150 litres or so.

What it all boils down to (pardon the pun), is that if Bangalore can hold on to all the water that falls in its own territory every year, every citizen will have all the water he or she needs for every purpose. I haven't even considered all the water from the Kaveri river schemes and so on, and the much lower population density of non-urban areas in Karnataka.

Just hold on to the rain - using lakes, by letting the earth absorb the water, by helping the water table rise, and you will solve your water problem for a very, very long time.

[This is a rather naive calculation, I know, but the overall logic sounds pretty fair to me. Try it for your own city]

Friday, May 28, 2010

A fun thriller inspired by headlines

[This is the unedited version of a review published in the Deccan Herald]

Fun Thriller

[ Review of Blowback, by Mukul Deva]

Early on in Blowback, a mysterious tribal leader assembles all of the tribes fighting for jihad and outlines a radical plan to them. They listen, awestruck by the brutality and originality of the plan, and elect him as their leader. A few months later, the plan is put into action. You the reader wait to see what dastardly ideas the terrorists have. And it turns out that they’re... putting bombs in crowded places in Indian cities. Yes, it is brutal and effective, but your average Indian reader is bound to find this revelation a bit anti-climactic. We know this is happening today, and, due to the hard work of our investigative agencies, we also know some part of the planning. Reading about almost exactly the same thing in a thriller makes it seem like some sort of investigative journalism. Where are the devastating nuclear bombs, the almost-unbelievable terror plots, the top-secret biological weapons?

Once this bit of disappointment is digested, though, the book grows on you. After all, some of the terror attacks of recent times would have been unbelievable a few years back. Some of Frederick Forsyth’s writing doesn’t seem quite so comfortably imaginary any more. Deva’s writing could be looked at as something closer to real life, immediate, something really plausible and right-out-of-the-headlines. The writing style adds its impact – Deva’s big strength is the smoothness of his prose, crisp and fast-moving, and you never get distracted from the story by the writing. It all feels like a good piece of reportage rather than an action thriller.

In addition, the main protagonists are generally well drawn and plausible, if slightly larger-than-life. The different people in Force 22, the elite unit around which the events of this book (and Deva’s previous two books, Lashkar and Salim Must Die) revolve, feel well etched out, with their individual weaknesses, passions, and history, and some of them evolve through the book.

If the character development fails anywhere, it is in the bad guys. Without an exception, all are totally evil and monomaniacal – no trace of doubt and no understandable motivation for their viewpoints. You could substitute the low-level terrorist recruits with the tribal leader mentioned above with no difference to how the story would proceed. The best action thrillers take the time to show how the villains got where they are, and what the world looks like from their viewpoint – this book doesn’t.

Unfortunately, there are a few segments where the storytelling isn’t up to par. The ending takes on a Bollywoodish touch, with true love, maa-ki-mamta (mother’s love) and tragedy taking over the proceedings instead of the expected riveting action sequence, leaving a bit of an off-taste for the reader. Another weak segment is a several-page-long discussion between senior Indian officials and the Prime Minister about the growth of terrorism. Deva uses this scene to list all of his ideas to solve the problem, one after the other, ending the sequence with the comment that things will now improve since the Prime Minister’s heard these ideas. Any smart editor would have cut this sequence, since it is nothing more than a tirade by the author.

Overall, the book succeeds at being a fast-paced, entertaining, genre thriller, in the vein of works by dozens of other western writers. Just like those other books, though, it also disappears from your head after you’re finished, leaving no real impact on you.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Adventure of the Name-dropper

[The following review of Holmes of the Raj appeared, with some edits, in the Deccan Herald]

Holmes of the Raj, by Vithal Rajan

You have to say this about Vithal Rajan – he gets the language down pat. For anyone who’s been a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories of Sherlock Holmes, and can’t get enough of Doyle’s crisp narration, reading Holmes of the Raj will be nostalgic. The book consists of 6 stories of Sherlock Holmes, chronicling an extended visit to British-era India, narrated by the sturdy Dr. Watson, using very similar language to the original.

The language, however, is where the similarities end. It’s fun to read about Holmes travelling to all the popular spots in Raj-era India – Madras, Nainital, Calcutta – but, well, he doesn’t seem to be doing all that much. The core of the Holmes stories are always murders that are just not possible, incredible-sounding mysteries, and in general, puzzles that make us go “Ah!” once we understand the answers. Holmes doesn’t get into any such thing here. At most he’s traipsing through Central India looking for a tribal deity, figuring out a smuggling ring, or stumbling across Jack the Ripper while looking for something else. Where are the speckled bands, the dancing men, the curious incidents of dogs in the night-time? The stories here would have fit on Allan Quatermain or The Saint or maybe even Fleming’s James Bond – any heroic British character, in fact.

More than the locations, Rajan relies on references to real-life and fictional characters from the era to set in the book in the Raj. Unfortunately, there’s rather too many of these. There are no less than 64 entries in the appendix of Holmes of the Raj, most of them about the real-life people referenced in it. This doesn’t include the dozen or so fictional characters referenced. Considering that the book is 260 pages long, that comes to about one reference every three pages. And these references go all over: Dhyan Chand, Motilal Nehru, Ronald Ross, Kim, Clark Gable, Madam Blavatsky, even Balraj and Parikshit Sahni. It’s as if Rajan was attempting to stuff in as many names as he could think of. And there’s no subtlety about it, each character is named and described and given his dialogues, so you never have to make any effort to spot them, which is no fun.

In addition, Holmes and Watson sometimes seem like the aliens from 2001: A Space Odyssey, teaching the natives all sorts of things that they couldn’t have thought of themselves – how malaria is actually spread, how to bowl the doosra, how Rabindranath Tagore should begin his famous poem. More focus on the mysteries themselves, and less on all these clever hints about India, would have made it worthwhile.

To his credit, Rajan has done a lot of reading on the topic. His descriptions of the railway systems, of the British dwellings of the day, and so on are meticulous and detailed, and the stories use these things as integral elements. The characters making cameo appearances often expound upon their points of view about British Rule and India, and assuming these are historically correct, the book serves as an interesting reference about who said what. And, as mentioned before, the language is very close to Doyle’s language.

But it takes a special kind of writer to create convoluted murder mysteries – to imagine strange circumstances, to think up clues and red herrings, to model the murderer’s and the detective’s mind, and Rajan simply does not belong to that class.

Read this book as an interesting journey through the Raj as narrated by a familiar voice, but not as a series of detective stories.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

A Shelf-full of Books

[The following piece appeared, with some edits and a title change, in DNA on the 21st of March]

A few days after my first translation, The 65 Lakh Heist, by Surender Mohan Pathak, was released, I walked into a large chain bookstore to see if it was stocked there. I found it in the “Indian Fiction” bookshelf. Its two closest neighbours were an anthology of Love stories edited by Ruskin Bond, and the newest book by Salman Rushdie.

I’ve been browsing through bookstores all my life, but it wasn’t until then that it struck me just how unfair the categorization was for all of the books displayed in the Indian Fiction category. The Ruskin Bond book should have been under Romance, or maybe under Anthologies. Rushdie’s book should have been Literary Fiction. Many of the other books felt wrong, too – Tagore’s and Premchand’s translations should have been under Classics. There should’ve been some sort of category created for Indian campus-lit and chick-lit by now, but those books sit next to historical thrillers and post-modern fiction in the same Indian Fiction bookshelf.

The reader will, no doubt, point out that the volume of Indian books in all these genres is so low, that the books would be lost if mixed in with the other – non-Indian – books. And starting from that point, the reader – and several writers and reporters – have come to the conclusion that Indian writing is very limited and that readers here read much less than their counterparts in other countries. Although this makes for great copy, it’s far from the truth.

Let’s go back to that book I talked about in the beginning – The 65 Lakh Heist, by Surender Mohan Pathak. Mr. Pathak writes crime thrillers in Hindi, and has so far written 270 of them, selling over 25 million copies of his books. The 65 Lakh Heist alone has sold over 3 lakh copies in Hindi. Hindi Pocket Books, as they are called, are a huge industry – but no less than Marathi, Tamil, Gujarati, or Bengali popular fiction. This is hardly surprising. The number of people speaking these languages in India is more than those for whom English is a first language. And this industry publishes books in all genres – romance, action, thrillers, noir, social dramas, literary and historical fiction. And if you look at Indian publishing as a whole, instead of just the English segment, it’s thriving and can give English-language publishing in, say, the US, a run for its money.

But if this industry is so large, why are the books in the Indian languages not stocked in the “prestigious” chain bookstores in India? In Bangalore, chain stores have an emaciated-looking Kannada shelf which features Kannada translations of “Chicken Soup for the Soul”; in Pune, there’s a Marathi shelf which contains (you guessed it) Marathi translations of “Chicken Soup for the Soul” and “The Alchemist”. The Hindi shelf, if present, has the same content. Why do the stores boast variety in the English section but turn the Indian language shelves into pale echoes of the English shelf?

I spoke to Krishnakumar R., of Odyssey, about why there weren't more regional language books in Odyssey stores, and he listed three reasons. "The publication schedules of regional publishers are not well planned and have less volume than the English publishers. Second, the distributors of these books don't do a good job of pushing these books to our stores, so we don't get the books reliably. And thirdly, economics is a factor too - our profit margin on regional language books is definitely less than the English books."

All of which are potential discouraging factors, true. But then these stores already deal with a wide variety of products: music, movies, weekly magazines, stuffed toys, show pieces, and so on. Many of these will have the same problems that Mr. Krishnakumar listed. Most tellingly, though, he states, “And we also need to stock those products that cater to our target class of people.”
Perhaps that’s the crux of the issue – the perception that popular fiction in regional languages is a different class of people from those that read English. The feeling is that there are different stores for those books anyway, and the people who come here prefer only the English books.

The movie shelves of these same stores prove them wrong. In the past few years, the size of the Marathi, Kannada, Bengali, and whatnot shelves has grown dramatically – everything other than Hindi and English used to be on one shelf, and now they occupy a fourth of the movies section. And there’s always a crowd sorting through them. Everything that could be said about regional language books could be said about the movies, too. Yet, the stores cater – profitably – to every type of Indian movie watcher. If they actually stocked a representative collection of popular fiction in Indian languages, the stores would similarly attract the general Indian reader, instead of focusing on the niche.

We the English readers, though, us fans of Chetan Bhagat and Dan Brown, would find ourselves in trouble if this happens - we wouldn’t know what to buy. Not because we’re ashamed to, but because we simply don’t know which books are good, and which are tripe. We know when the newest John Grisham is coming out, but we don’t even know which writers are good in Hindi. How is it that we, readers of this paper, never hear of the new releases in Hindi/Marathi/Tamil ? Why are there no best seller lists or reviews we can refer to?

Well, yes, the Hindi/Marathi/Tamil newspapers do talk of these books, and they do have a good circulation. So it could be argued that English newspapers don’t “need” to cover them. But the reason to cover regional literature is the same reason that Bollywood and other Indian cinema is covered in the English media – it is interesting to a large part of the population, it is a large industry that involves thousands of people and large amounts of money, and it is as much a part of the popular culture as movies are. It’s strange that cinema is covered and fiction isn’t.

We might be in this situation because we’ve imported the whole business of English books – writing, buying, marketing, even the genre names on the bookshelves, from the Western books ecosystem. This includes the reviewing and the top ten lists and the contacts with the press – everything that constitutes the hype that sells the books. Publishers in other languages are still waking up to the fact that the English publishing industry is dominating the literary supplements with its flashy covers and advertisements. Writers in other languages are much more grounded – they aren’t turned into celebrities the way English writers are, and they have traditionally depended on word of mouth for their publicity.

Some Indian language book publishers are now learning from their multinational counterparts – they have websites, push for reviews, and even make extracts of new releases available for new readers. A couple of English newspapers now carry columns by writers in other languages. The translation market is booming – until now, it was lop sided, with books from all over available in other Indian languages, but next to nothing available from Indian languages in English. This has changed over the past couple of years, with more and more interesting titles coming out, and more publishers jumping into the fray. Almost every genre of books is now getting translated, raising interest in the originals in their respective languages.

Maybe in a few years, we’ll be as informed about the latest releases in Kannada or Hindi or Marathi as the English ones. And we can go to the chain book stores, and buy our own writers from the genre shelf that they belong to – not the ‘Indian Fiction’ bookshelf.


What to start reading
If you’re interested in reading some popular fiction from around India, but aren’t familiar with the languages required, here’s a list of new and interesting translations into English.

1. The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction: This was probably the book that started the current wave of interest in popular fiction. Excellently produced, smoothly translated, this book is a must-have.
2. Chandrakanta, by Devkinandan Khatri: The original isn't contemporary, in fact, it's nearly a century old now. But a recent translation, by Puffin books, was quite well done, and probably is one of the few of Indian fantasy so far.
3. The Adventures of Amir Hamza, and Tilism-e-Hoshruba: These are very interesting popular epics, in Urdu and Persian, which have been embellished through the centuries by storytellers. Excellent translations by Musharraf Ali Farooqui came out last year, which revealed these stories for the first time to English readers.
4. The Feast, and other visions of malevolence: This is an interesting graphic novel adaption of weird tales("goodh katha") by the renowned Marathi writer, Ratnakar Matkari. It is scheduled to be released this year, and it will be the first translation of this genre into English.
5. House of Fear, by Ibn-e-Safi: Random House recently released this translation of the cult Urdu pulp writer Ibn-e-Safi, detective stories. There is another anthology of his work, Doctor Dread, coming out soon from Blaft publications.
6. Faster Fene: B.R. Bhagwat created this young lad who gets embroiled in adventures and mysteries with alarming frequency. He's been a favourite of Marathi readers for decades now. Some of his stories have been translated into English, too, but are available only in stores in Mumbai/Pune.
7. Byomkesh Bakshi: Made famous by the TV serial starring Rajit Kapoor, Bengali readers have long been fans of this detective. Sreejata Guha has recently been translating them into English to bring the stories to a wider audience.
8. The 65 Lakh Heist, and Daylight Robbery, by Surender Mohan Pathak. Blaft published these translations of the bestselling Hindi crime writer. These are books starring his popular anti-hero, Vimal, who is reluctantly conscripted into criminal capers.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Anarchist's Agenda

[An edited version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald on the 14th of February.]

Anarchist’s Agenda

(Review of The Diary Of An Unreasonable Man, by Madhav Mathur)

There’s a certain kind of urban, salaried young man who will instantly understand Madhav Mathur’s message in this book. The man who’s working a white-collar job, finding that the moral compromises he makes in the course of work weren’t on any syllabus in college. Who is beginning to get tired of the rat race for the new car, the new flat and whatever else everyone else wants.

For this reader, Mathur offers a thought-experiment: What if you stopped being part of the system, and instead decided to take on the people taking advantage of it? And what’s more, what if you actually went through with all those vaguely imagined pranks you’ve always thought would serve the villains right? And what if all those prankish plans executed perfectly, and people understood what you were trying to say and made you a folk hero?

The story stars Pranav Kumar, an advertising executive, whose normal state of mind is ‘sickened by hypocrisy’. After several years of working at writing advertising copy, he finally confesses to his boss that he can’t keep doing this job. Advertisers, he says, are the root of all the materialistic rot in society: “We’re building wants. We’re making an entire generation adopt cellphones and motorbikes as their goals. We’re to blame for discontentment. If we don’t get them through television, we always have papers, magazines, and billboards…”

Pranav quits his job and, together with two friends, decides to shock people into realizing the mess that society is in. The story chronicles all their “prove-the-point” practical jokes. For example: they bring over toxic sludge from a chemical factory and use it to prove that the factory owner was hand in glove with the Pollution Control Board. Or use a paint bomb in a local train to remind commuters that life is precious. Or expose all the regulars at a brothel to society.

What exactly Pranav wants to prove with his jokes is not exactly clear – the targets are all over the place, but one can imagine Mathur, at some point, daydreaming of them and going, “It would be so cool if someone did that!” The most consistent message, of course, is the anti-materialism one. Without this message, the book is just a series of practical jokes played on people and practices everyone loves to hate – industrialists, prostitutes’ customers, salesmen, fashion designers. It’s the message that gives some form to the book. In some ways, this is similar to the work of Chuck Palahniuk. But where Palahniuk takes one or two sentences to express his pop-cultural, cynical sentiments, Mathur fills up half a page with clunky ponderings. His forte is the action scenes, not all the philosophy and dialogue.

In fact, one can imagine Mathur playing the scenes in his head and putting them down on paper, the action playing out quickly, the characters’ voices providing the depth to the dialogues. But since we see only the bare words, that depth doesn’t come through. The book’s been blurbed by Anurag Kashyap, and someone like him would probably be able to transfer the book to screen well (as long as the speeches are kept short, of course).

Different writers have their own ways of placing their characters and story in recognized contexts. Stephen King uses common American brand names and advertising jingles. Palahniuk uses phrases from current slang and street talk. Vikram Chandra used Hindi curse words and Mumbai place names to set Sacred Games. Mathur, however, doesn’t do a very strong place setting of his people. The characters listen to Metal and Rock music (no bollywood?), and their conversation sounds generically current-desi. There are mentions of local trains and of contract killers, but very little else that places the book in Mumbai. It may have been deliberate, an attempt to make the book applicable to all white-collar-dominated cities in India, but the book would have benefited from setting it more strongly.

However, Mathur does have a distinctive voice, a hip attitude, and an interesting subject and approach. If he had revised it through a couple more drafts, or read it out loud to friends, it would have smoothened out the flow and removed clunky elements. Too many paragraphs feel like a first draft, and there are phrases and words that jar. In the most glaring example, the word ‘anarchist’ is used throughout the book as if it’s commonplace: by reporters, by police constables, by contract killers. It’s a bit of a stretch to believe that the word could be used as commonly as, say, terrorists – couldn’t it have been introduced more naturally?

It will be interesting to see what Mathur does next. If he can hone his voice, and channel the sentiments of upwardly mobile India, his books will be a much-needed gritty alternative to the current college-campus-set crop of writing.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Daylight Robbery

An explosive plan that’s one bullet away from disaster.

A grizzled old card shark who wants to pull one last job before he retires from his life of crime.

A security officer with a dangerous penchant for gambling.

A hot-blooded beauty who judges a man by the thickness of his wallet.

And Vimal -- a man so desperate for a future that he's willing to commit

"Surender Mohan Pathak was one of the two people I wanted to be as a kid. The other was Amitabh Bachchan." -Anurag Kashyap, Film maker

Translated by Sudarshan Purohit

And here's what's new: you can order it from the Blaft website directly now!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Angrez chale gaye, par...

The latest issue of Tehelka magazine has a cover story entitled ‘The Phantom Reader’. It’s about how the book reading market is much smaller than publicized, how people read for education and information, how Chetan Bhagat rules over the pantheon, and so on.

What the feature - and the magazine cover, for that matter - glosses over is that this survey is only about the English books market. Now, the English market is a comparatively small and new market in India. Almost every other Indian language has a larger and more established market, with its own history and poplar genres. In my limited exposure, I already know a bit of the Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati, and Bengali books market, and whatever conclusions the Tehelka feature comes to definitely do not apply to any of these others. It's a bit surprising to see Tehelka fall into this trap, because they're usually better than that.

But first, a look at their methodology. They interviewed 1,700 people in ‘leading bookstores’. I think it’s safe to say these were Crosswords, Landmarks, Odysseys and other such stores, not railway station bookstalls, street-corner stalls, or even lending libraries, that cater to a different (and much larger) set of readers. And, based on the crowd that comes to the ‘leading bookstores’ to buy English books, they’ve come to the conclusion that the Indian Reader reads mainly ‘for learning and education’, and ‘to improve his English’. Try doing this, Tehelka: stand outside a shop selling college textbooks and ask the crowd there why they read – you’ll get even more of the ‘learning and education’ response and you’ll be even happier. You’re already biasing the survey results by focusing on one type of reader, so why not take it to the logical conclusion? But don’t survey the railway station stall folks, because they’re buying their Ved Prakash Sharma or Rajesh Kumar or SMS Jokebooks or Manohar Kahaniyan for timepass, not learning.

The conclusions of this survey are listed here. Note how sweetly the “English” word disappears as you go down the page, trying to make you think this is about all readers in India. And make it a point to read through the other articles by IWE intelligentsia, and see how many of them even acknowledge the other markets. What's the point of all these articles if they're going to give an incomplete picture?

English media alone seems to have these blinders on. The media in every other Indian language recognizes that it is a part of a larger picture. Books reviews and interviews with intellectuals of other cultures are cheerfully published. Translations from other languages sell well in Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Malayalam, and all literature is understood to be part of a whole. Why can’t the English media do that? By being so self-centred, it’s depriving its readers of a treasure of rich content from all over.

PS: To round out the picture, though, it’s not as if the other-Indian-language market is really booming right now. Publishers who, a few years ago, had annual sales of pulp fiction in lakhs, now find circulation down to tens of thousands (which is still okay, as compared to a couple of thousand for an average English book). My personal feeling is that other entertainment media – cheap pirated DVDs, cable television – are eating into the “read for pleasure” market. Of course, I can’t interview 1,700 people to be sure, so I could be wrong.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

What the cyclist did

[This is the unedited version of my review of The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules, by Manohar Shyam Joshi , published a few days back in Deccan Herald. They changed the title to "A man's gradual descent into insanity". I think I like my title better :) ]

What the cyclist did

It takes a while for you to realize that there’s no one narrator in The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules. The narrator of the story is the collective we, the entire clan that Hariya belongs to, the family who talks about him and the events surrounding him. There is no truth, no untruth, nothing marked believable or incredible – all you hear is what the family talks about and how it interprets what it knows. The whole cacophony of the family is captured here – the superstitious uncle, the greedy, alcoholic nephew, the doctor in the family, the press reporter cousin, the know-it-all teenager.

The plot is simple on the surface, but difficult to categorize. Harihar Dutt Tiwari, better known as Hariya Hercules, lives with and cares for his paralyzed, blind father, “Rai Saip” Girvan Dutt Tiwari. It’s a miserable life – Rai Saip is temperamental and difficult to care for, and Hariya has a low-paying job. Their social life consists of Hariya cycling over to relatives’ homes on weekends on his Hercules bicycle (hence the nickname), reporting about his father’s health to them in excruciating detail (“Today I couldn’t get all [his shit] out even with my hand.”), and getting updates from them to report back. When his father dies suddenly, Hariya looks through his belongings and finds evidence of his father getting “cursed” by a priest. He decides to set off to find this priest and temple, and never returns. An aunt who accompanied him reports a strange sequence of events that transpired, which don’t exactly match other witnesses’ versions.
But this is only the basic plot. Hariya’s story can be looked at as a man’s gradual descent into insanity. Or it’s a spiritual tale revolving around a curse. Or it could be about a simpleton bilked by greedy relatives. It all depends on who in the family is telling the story. And the family itself recognizes the multitude of meanings, and is conscious that it should select the version that makes it feel good about itself. In the broader sense, the story is about how a family creates and assimilates its own folklore.

Joshi has given us a family that talks sort of like ours, but still has that little strangeness to it. The modes of address are different – “Ija”, “Kainja”, “Bhinju”. It is some time before we figure out that this is a Kumaoni family, with their own dialect. One feels sort of like a non-Hindi speaker reading a book with the normal Hindi addresses – “Chacha”, “Bapu”, etc. – we have the same experience when we read it as Indians of a different community.

It’s also nice to see that there’s no glossary or other attempt to translate the unfamiliar words into English – whatever you understand, you understand through context. There’s also no attempt to use exotic or unfamiliar words in the translation just because it’s an Indian book. The language comes across as very earthy and day-to-day, the rhythms of Hindi are captured and made to feel a part of the English text.

Manohar Shyam Joshi is probably best known as the writer of the TV serial Hum Log. I was too young to appreciate the serial when it first aired, but this book demonstrates anew that Joshi knew how Indian families behave, and I felt an urge to go back and watch the serial. The brief introduction to Joshi’s other books on the flap reveals a very interesting repertoire. This, perhaps, is the biggest success of this book – introducing the English reader to a multi-faceted literary personality and making him want to read more.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Darkness in Delhi

[This is the longer version of my review of Delhi Noir, which was published in an edited form by Deccan Herald a couple of weeks back.]

Darkness in Delhi

The title’s a bit of a shocker. Noir, set in Delhi? As in, fedora-and-overcoat-clad detectives looking for Maltese falcons, in Delhi? But then you think a bit, and the idea sounds appealing. Noir, after all, isn’t only private eyes and dames packing lead. At its core, it’s about the blackness of human nature, about the corruption that even the most innocent are capable of. And Delhi, with its layers of history and its confluence of cultures, would be the perfect showcase for this form of fiction.

Yet the introductory note to the book, by Hirsh Sawhney, puts you off. He wonders: “Why explains the lack of noir set in Delhi?”, and goes on to postulate that it’s because delhiites are too scared or hypocritic to want to read about the unpalatable parts of Delhi life. Here’s a better answer to the question: Maybe you’re looking in the wrong places. Fiction written in English, and the coverage of the English press, are thin and recently-created layers over the seething broth of Delhi culture. Look at Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi publishing to see the rest of the story. To take an easy example: Surender Mohan Pathak, the bestselling Hindi pulp writer, has a series of novels starring the opportunistic private detective Sudhir Kohli, the self-professed “Dilli ka kameena” (Delhi scoundrel). Or, look through the issues of the long-running pulp magazine Manohar Kahaniyan, which features true crime and short stories. In Delhi Noir, there’s exactly one story originally written in Hindi, by Uday Prakash – why not source more such?

As it stands, however, Delhi Noir is a pretty good anthology. There are 14 new stories by different writers, ranging from bestselling veterans to newbies just starting out. Its part of a series by New York-based small press Akashic Books, who have previously published noir anthologies set in San Francisco, Paris, London, and a dozen other cities. This is the first time they’re publishing an India-based collection. The series is licensed by Harper Collins in India.

The stories are divided into three thematic sections: the police force, the young generation, and the immigrant population. The themes are just starting points for the stories, and they take off in entirely different directions, providing a varied experience of the city. Everyone’s favourite story is likely to be different here – I had a soft spot for Uday Prakash’s tale of a sweeper who finds a hidden store of cash, and for Meera Nair’s story set in the underworld of the Inter State Bus Terminal. The one held up as a representative of the book in several reviews, the I. Allan Sealy story, didn’t work for me though – perhaps because of the excellent language. Somehow, the idea of a rickshaw wala talking about “listening to Sufi fat-boy tapes” and explaining that “his spirit clad me, sliding over me like a lover’s hand” didn’t seem convincing. And the first story by Omair Ahmed, about a private detective and the ’84 riots, seems to be trying too hard to fit in “Noir” and “Delhi” into the flow. But all the stories are competent enough, read well, and have the required dose of darkness.

Special mention must be made of Manjula Padmanabhan’s story, ‘Cull’, set in a future Delhi. The story really works as a metaphor for Delhi, no, India’s spirit of making the best of the situation and coming out on top by whatever means.

Corruption, being a large part of the common man’s experience with most established institutions in India, plays a part in several stories. This is especially true of all the police characters, not a single one of which are completely honest and idealistic.

One question to think about is how closely the stories need to be set in Delhi. Noir as a genre is a fairly universal, as opposed to say Partition stories, which could be set only in India, and only in a specific time period. So several of these plots could be set in different parts of the world, with local characters, and work just as well. But then, if the stories had been entirely focused on Delhi quirks and events, the appeal to the audience would have gone down. The book makes a sensible balance between the two extremes in this case.

It would be interesting to have a counterpart to this book, composed entirely of stories written by Hindi or Punjabi writers. Considering that a lot of the inner workings of the city happen in one of those languages, it would probably have a more insider’s look at the city. Most of the stories in Delhi Noir revolve around a certain level of society – press reporters, college students, private detectives, advertising executives – and we need more stories from below the glass ceiling of English – street urchins, immigrants, shopkeepers, clerks.

While we’re thinking of counterparts, how about a set of stories set in older Delhis, before the liberalization age that Sawhney refers to in the introduction? The focus of this book is squarely on current Delhi, and that’s not a bad focus to have either, but one wonders about what the seedy side of Delhi was like, say, twenty or thirty years ago.

Overall, this is an interesting anthology . It exposes the reader to a varied selection of stories, leaves him wanting more, and – as in the foregoing paragraphs – thinking about all the directions the genre can go in the Indian context. I’m looking forward to a couple more Delhi volumes, atleast one Mumbai Noir volume, and a small-town India volume – Jhumri Talaiya Noir, maybe?