Sunday, October 07, 2012

Joseph Anton

 By Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie has in some ways, become something more than a novelist. Khomeini’s fatwa ensured that. History will judge him not just for the overblown, over-rich, over-everything style of writing he brought into being, but also for being the polarising Galileo figure of the last few decades of the twentieth century.

I am a fan and I read Joseph Anton as one. Even if I could never finish his Satanic Verses, the book at the heart of all the controversy, having lost interest in it midway, I loved some of his others – Midnight’s Children, The Enchantress of Florence, Haroun, Fury.  I suppose it makes a difference. I can forgive almost anything of anyone, if he or she can tell me a good story. Rushdie can most certainly do that.
Joseph Anton is the name Rushdie went by in his years of hiding – a coming together of the names of two writers he admired – Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov. And this is an engrossing memoir, written surprisingly in third person, of all those years of dodging a bullet or a knife, a story told only the way Rushdie can –no holds barred, candid, humourous at times, starkly cruel at others. There is name-dropping of the highest degree – Thatcher, Blair, McEwan, Pinter, Hitchens, Clinton, Styron, Pynchon, Roy, Le Carre among others. There is intensely personal stuff – his four marriages and their coming apart, his love-hate relationships with his father and sisters, his love for his children and his fear for them, his own cowardice at times of great fear and stress. And then there is his sense of himself as standing for something more than himself, standing for a principle, representing the good fight, the fight against tyranny and fundamentalism, the fight for human heterogeneity and multiple identities, and the right to tell stories any way we want.
Rushdie makes that fight the base storyline that runs through the book. And anyone who stands on the other side of the line- Le Carre, Cat Stevens, The Telegraph, the British Government - come in for contempt and criticism. And that is as it should be. For Rushdie, as a story teller, there is nothing more fearsome than attempts to block the wellspring from which the stories spring – the myths of our race, the ability to see reality through different perspectives, the flexibility to twist our stories into whatever shape that is most interesting. Any religion’s or any ideology’s wont to suppress this is what he believes the world of art should fight against. Some people see this as another example of a rigid ideology too – an inability to see the side of people with faith, who believe in the absolutism of the One True God. And there have been not-so-flattering reviews of the book in this light.
But it is a good fight that Rushdie fights. There can be no two ways about it, in my book. The moment we agree to let someone else censor our words, we let ourselves create an Orwellian world. Joseph Anton should be read if only to keep that fight alive.
But there are other reasons to read it too. Prurience, for example. Salman Rushdie writes of his encounter with William Styron – “His main memory of that trip would be of William Styrons genitalia. Elizabeth and he visited the Styrons at their Vineyard Haven home and there on the porch was the great writer in khakhi shorts, sitting with his legs splayed and wearing no pants, his treasures generously and fully on display. This was more than he had ever hoped to know about the author of The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice, but all information was useful, he supposed, and he duly filed it away for later use.” Or the insight it gives into the writer’s craft – “”You must never write history,” Hibbert said, “until you can hear the people speak.” He thought about that for years, and in the end it came to feel like a valuable guiding principle for fiction as well. If you didn’t have a sense of how people spoke, you didn’t know them well enough, and so you couldn’t – you shouldn’t – tell their story.” Or prurience again, the instinct for gossip all of us carry in our hearts. Here is Rushdie talking of Padma Lakshmi, his fourth wife “…and as he watched her pose and pirouette for the human wall of screaming photographers, burning with the bright flame of her youth and beauty, he looked at the expression on her face and suddenly thought, She’s having sex, sex with hundreds of men at the same time, and they don’t even get to touch her, there’s no way any actual man can compete with that.
But beyond it all – the gossip, the encounters with famous people, the flaws in his own personality - Joseph Anton needs to be read for the passionate defence of free speech that it truly is. “Compromise destroyed the compromiser and did not placate the uncompromising foe… The greatest danger of the growing menace was that good men would commit intellectual suicide and call it peace. Good men would give in to fear and call it respect.” It is a thought worth remembering, especially for us liberal sorts, who can be quite apologetic about individual responsibility in the face of religion and the rage against America.
Joseph Anton is more than a memoir of a famous man.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


It’s a funny life. A year back, I was stressed out, convinced I was burnt out, convinced my 24x7 advertising career was the stumbling block to my prospective writing career. There were so many things I wanted to do – learn Spanish, travel the world, write stories, read tons of books, blog. And all were at a stand-still because I couldn’t take time out of my job.

Today I have a job that gives me weekends. That is definitely not 24x7. That does not turn me into an anxious, frazzled wreck. Now I truly have the time to do all the things I really want to do. And what do I do?

Spend my mornings on Facebook and Pinterest, evenings on comedy central, my weekends watching movies I have watched a hundred times before. I used to be more regular at the gym a year back. A year back my blog had double the number of posts in the same time. I met my friends more often (I had more friends) and had more interesting conversations.

If I ask myself why this is so, I have no real answer. Maybe all this time on my hands rattles me. It might be that my innate laziness takes over and I would rather vegetate than work at something, even if that something should excite me. Or maybe, just maybe, hard work has a self-feeding mechanism – it makes you work even harder. A stressed out advertising executive makes time to pen that poem or get up an hour earlier to go to the gym because she feels compelled to make the little time she has count! Who knows why?

All I know is, I disappoint myself. The past year, I have found myself slipping back, not pushing myself enough, not being hungry enough. I need to wake myself up from this inertia. I need to get serious about my hobbies.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

The Art of Fielding
Chad Harbach

The last time a book consumed me so much was Franzen’s Freedom. And there is a connection. Franzen is on the book blurb, announcing, “It’s left a little hole in my life the way a really good book will.” High praise indeed, from possibly the best American writer today.
It is a campus novel, a love story, a baseball story. A story of out-sized talent and the pressure that comes with it. A story of friendship and all the strains it can be put to. A story of love, ageless and almost deathless. I compare it to another celebrated campus novel, Eugenides’ Marriage Plot, and realize how much better a book this is.
The campus is Westish, an Eastern liberal arts college with Melville as its hero. Henry Skrimshander is the unassuming baseball star with a talent that is potentially destiny-making. Mike Shwartz is the team captain, an intelligent jock, who spots Henry’s talent and takes it upon himself to be his guide and mentor, even if it means letting his own ambitions take a back seat. Owen Dunne, Henry’s roommate and baseball team mate is the Buddha, openly gay and wise beyond his years. Guert Affenlight is the college president, handsome, scholarly and falling into an affair that could prove disastrous. Pella is his emotionally fragile daughter who comes into campus from a broken marriage and slides easily into the lives of the other four.
I have little knowledge of baseball, but Harbach makes it feel like poetry. Henry is his poet, with a talent that has Mike Shwartz musing –“All his life Shwartz had yearned to possess some single transcendent talent, some unique brilliance that the world would consent to call genius. Now that he’d seen that kind of talent up close, he couldn’t let it walk away.” But talent comes with its set of rules. The most important of which is, you never let yourself doubt it, because if you let one wrong throw bring in the first ounce of self-doubt, it’s a downward spiral all the way through. Henry’s wrong throw sets in motion a series of events that affects all the characters, throwing some relationships out of gear, starting a new one and most of all, challenging genius.
The heart of the story is the relationship between Mike and Henry. Mike needs Henry just as much as Henry needs him – to finally make sense of each one’s true calling.  And just as coming of age novels often do, it takes some heartbreak and some grief to ultimately get them to that realization. There are also other interesting relationships - Pella and Mike, Pella and Henry, Owen and Henry, Owen and Guert, Guert and Pella – pairings that Harbach gets the reader deeply involved in, getting them turning the pages to get to resolutions. And resolution there is. The way real life does resolutions. Where you don’t get all that you want, but just enough to let you hope. Where there is some sourness and grief and unrequited-ness; yet there is a sweetness to it all. Harbach sure does growing up well.
This is a first novel. And Chad Harbach, has hit it out of the park, to continue with the baseball theme of the book.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Bring Up the Bodies
Hilary Mantel

It is about a year later. Anne Boleyn is Queen, she has borne a daughter and there is pressure on her to give King Henry a son. That she fails to do is the crime that leads to her downfall. Not too different from today’s times, you would think.
The second instalment of Mantel’s trilogy of the life and times of Thomas Cromwell is not as shockingly fresh to our eyes as the first one, in terms of the setting and Mantel’s writing style. But it is far more terrifying. It chronicles a year in which Anne goes from being the smart woman who toppled a Queen to take her place, to a helpless woman tossed about by the vagaries of an all-powerful King. Thomas Cromwell, who’s story this is after all, remains the fascinating character he was in the first book, out to reform the Church, in the process amassing wealth for himself and his King, still unforgiving of the people who brought down his Cardinal Wolsey and still the right hand man of the King. And when the King decides he has had enough of his Queen, it is left to Cromwell to get rid of her. Anne goes and we are left none the wiser if she was really the horrific woman she is painted out to be – ‘He had asked Wyatt, how many lovers do you think she has had? And Wyatt had answered, ‘A dozen? Or none? Or a hundred?.’ The horror is that the uncertainty in no way slows down Anne’s downfall. The King has decided she has to go and the way must be cleared for Jane Seymour to become Queen. And Anne’s un-proved infidelity and her supposed thought-crime of wishing the King dead are enough to get her and her supposed lovers beheaded.
It is through Cromwell’s eyes we see the scenes unfold. Yet, he remains a slightly enigmatic figure. Is he driven by vengeance, out to get all those responsible for his Cardinal’s downfall? Is he out to get Anne because she and her family had crossed him? Or is he just faithfully following his King’s wishes? We are never to know. Maybe it is all of the above. All we know is that the people he dislikes do not survive and those he likes, like Wyatt, do. And nothing gets in his way of filling the King’s coffers with the bounty of the Church he is reforming.
Mantel’s language is as sparse as ever. She lets the dialogue do the storytelling. There is little description of the surroundings, yet she makes the uncertainty of the times come alive. Cromwell’s musings are the only commentary on the history-making events. There is no author’s voice. And while Cromwell is shown as a somewhat objective spectator (“He has studied the world without despising it. He understands the world without rejecting it. He has no illusions but he has hopes. He does not sleepwalk through his life. His eyes are open, and his ears for sounds others miss.”), we are left with doubts about it as well.
There is a third instalment yet. Katherine is dead. And so is Anne. Jane Seymour is being crowned Queen. There are more Queens to come in Henry’s life. Thomas Cromwell is still supremo. But we know that state is changing. Wriothesley asks him a question at the end. “A gentleman asked me, if this is what Cromwell does to the cardinal’s lesser enemies, what will he do by and by to the king himself?’. It strikes Cromwell as a presaging of his own downfall. Uneasy lies the head that causes other heads to fall.
A riveting read, Bring Up the Bodies keeps my faith in historical fiction.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Stealing Joy 1: Mary Oliver

Reading her is like reading a contemporary Thoreau. Or even a Whitman. A lot of her nature descriptions don’t hold particular relevance to a city-dweller like me. But the sheer joy she finds in the birds and the trees and the water bodies, the connections she establishes between the natural order of things and modern contemporary life, the importance she places on just sheer attentiveness to the world around, makes her a precious piece of extraordinariness in an otherwise ordinary Sunday evening.

Stealing Joy
I have conversations with friends about life. About what it all means. About being 42 years old and wanting to do and experience so much more. About the mundaneness of it all. About working at jobs that excite us just 40% of the time. About postponing interesting things. About not having the discipline to sit down and put that story in our head down on paper. About not finishing War and Peace because we haven’t had enough free time. About not getting fit enough to climb Kilimanjaro or even Kota Kinabalu. About not living life today.
And then, on the other hand, life is also about figuring that you are handed out bits of serendipity every day. Like discovering Julian Barnes. Getting on a local train after ten years, on a cheap weekend trip to Matheran, a place you haven’t been to after living almost two decades in Mumbai. Watching The Namesake. Or Moneyball. And coming across Mary Oliver in unexpected places. Stealing joy from the mundane, each time you are handed one of these bits of extraordinariness.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Valley of Masks

By Tarun Tejpal

Tejpal has attempted an Animal Farm. Or a 1984. The Valley of Masks is a fable in the Orwellian fashion, of a society that breaks away from the real, messy, filth-ridden world to create a Platonian Utopia. A world of perfection where everyone is equal, there are no possessions, there is no sense of self, only a striving towards an elimination of self.

The narrator is one who breaks away. And as he waits for his retribution, he tells his tale. It’s a fast paced tale, fascinating and thriller-like, and as he recreates the perfect Utopian world he comes from, you can see in it facets of all the religions and all the big ideologies – Jesus, Marx and the Buddha, the Gita and the Koran. And you can see in it all the fallacies of the quest for the one right way.

Tejpal, in the voice of Karna (born Karna, but growing into a Wafadar with a name with 2 numerals and 1 alphabet) describes his birth and growing up in a society where there are no mothers, only the motherhood, where you are taught to eschew anything to do with ‘I’, where individuality is subsumed under the collective ‘we’, where ‘purity’ of thought and action is valued over anything else, where the truth of the Aum is deemed greater than Aum himself. Aum is the prophet, the great one who led his flock to the Promised Land. And his disciples understandably, set up Utopia.

Of course the Utopia gets dystopian. The quest for perfection is flawed. Because there is music (“We sing and we hear song, and we understand and we forgive, and our great unhappiness slowly drains out of us, like pus from a boil, and we sheathe our knives and bury our axes, and we are saved.”) and there is love. Because there are ideas and there are men, and there is a difference. Because the absolute cannot survive doubt. Because Utopia is by definition horrific.

The fall is swift. After years of worshipping the Utopian ideal, Karan comes face to face in a horrific way, with the personal toll it takes. And it is then that he realizes the folly of it all.

Tejpal does not tell a new tale. We have read it before in Orwell and Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World. But he tells it well, with passion and unrepentant sentimentality, the way an Arundhati Roy would.

I liked The Valley of Masks. Because at its heart, it espouses a thought I totally buy into. The thought that “…the one word, possibly greater than music or love. Doubt. That should forever alternate with faith as day does with night.” Check this earlier post of mine.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

A Sport and a Pastime

James Salter

France in certain American novels and movies is beguiling. There is beauty, casual beauty, beauty in the everyday food and the conversation and the women and the clothes and the cold and the countryside and even the poverty. Think Last Tango in Paris, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Before Sunset, Moulin Rouge, Hemingway’s novels…

James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime is charming France all over again. It’s Philip Dean’s charmed existence, a Yale dropout spending time in France, searching for authentic France driving around in the French countryside with a young French girl Anne Marie, learning about love and sensuality and all about being young and irresponsible in that intoxicating time before you have to grow up. But it’s also about the thirty four year old unnamed narrator seeing in Philip Dean all that he can never be – the insouciant rebel who does not feel the need as he himself did, to ‘do everything properly.’ And so he becomes the voyeur, playing the peeping Tom, imagining the erotic, sensual life of Philip and Anne Marie, seeing the villages they drive through, the everydayness of their life that is always tinged with the extraordinary, a life more ‘lived’ than he can ever imagine. It’s a paean to sensuality, in a way that I imagine Nabokov’s Lolita was, not just in the way the love making is imagined and described, but also in the way the French countryside is and the French food. It is all the more poignant because you know it will end. It has to end. You even know how it will end. That Anne Marie will grow old, marry, have children and will, with her husband “walk together on Sundays, the sunlight falling upon them. They visit friends, talk, go home in the evening, deep in the life we all agree is so greatly to be desired.” And of course we know the irony of that, when we juxtapose that with the memory of that one magical year of Philip and Anne Marie.

Salter’s writing is quite different from usual. He uses the present tense most times. And his sentences are not always complete, especially when he is describing places and moods and feelings. It’s like an impressionistic painting. Here he is describing Autun, the French town where he is staying. “This blue, indolent town. Its cats. Its pale sky. The empty sky of morning, drained and pure. Its deep, cloven streets. Its narrow courts, the faint, rotten odor within, orange peels lying in the corners. The uneven curbstones, their edges worn away. A town of doctors, all with large houses. Cousson, Proby, Gillot. Even the streets are named for them. Passageways through the Roman wall. The Porte de Breuil, its iron railings sunk into the stone like climbers’ spikes. The women come up the steep grade out of breath, their lungs creaking. A town still rich with bicycles. In the mornings they flow softly past. In the streets there is the smell of bread.” Could a painting have painted it better?

So the writing is quite a treasure –precious, delicious, to be savoured like a free afternoon in a European city. And if only for that, Salter is worth a visit.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Europe Days

An office trip takes me to Paris, Rotterdam and Lisbon. During one of the coldest Februaries Europe has seen in a long time.

Paris is white when I land. A quick trip to the Louvre tells me snow can be beautiful. It can also be colder than anything I have quite experienced before. That coupled with intense jet lag forces me to abort my Sunday afternoon musings over the Mona Lisa.

Rotterdam is a day trip by train. Gare Nord and Rotterdam station are cold in ways that my bones can feel. But the sun is out in Rotterdam and there is little in the world more crisp and exhilarating than bright sunshine over snow.

Lisbon is warmer. Just about. But Lisboa has a Goa-ness to it that I can’t help but feel good about. And I realize India does play a big part in the country’s historical imagination. Vasco De Gama after all did discover India for the West. But I need to keep correcting people who insist on telling me Vasco touched land first in Goa.

The waterfront is lovely. The Discoveries Monument and the Belam Tower are to Lisbon what The Gateway is to Mumbai – monuments that look out into the sea waving ships outward and inward.

And I discover Lisboa is small. Everything of major note is around the waterfront. The Jeronimo Monastery is calm and serene and the Sunday morning Mass is absolutely lovely. The Maritime Museum is big… but I cannot help but compare it to the Viking Museum in Norway and be disappointed.

St. George’s Castle is my last stop. It has some terrific views over the city and it reminds me of Prague – red-tiled roofs, narrow cobbled streets, unexpected squares.

I take a flight back to Paris and my European sojourn is over. It has been nice enough, but leaves me wishing myself back among the smells, crowds and bustle of Mumbai. I land in the chaos that is Mumbai international airport and begin to re-think my wish.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

On Canaan's Side

By Sebastian Barry

It’s about an eighty nine year old Irishwoman writing her life story in the days before her death in America. It’s about Ireland and running away to America in her teens, living the best part of her life there, loving the land without ever totally understanding it, without ever being able to forget the one she came from, loving the men in her life and never completely understanding them either, her husbands and son and grandson, each of them so utterly beloved, yet in some way so utterly incomprehensible.

It’s a gentle book. Noteworthy is the Irishness pervading it in language, in imagery, in distinctiveness. Nothing much else really. Gentle and a bit vapid and a bit forgettable.