Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Almost Island 2

Is now up.

Lots of exciting reading there, including an essay by Claud Magris and the first two chapters (Alok alert!) of Satantango translated by George Szirtes.

Read the News section for George's account of the Almost Island Dialogues: Two held in Delhi earlier this year. And, of course, the rest of what's there.

(Vivek, how come Harriet is not on the links page?!)

Lalita Larking Elsewhere

RIP, Lalita.

Neha's post(s) and Dubious Move's.

And from Reginald Shepherd's post today on Harriet, this poem by Tim Dlugos:


When I try to imagine
what heaven will be like,
I think of Puccini’s Pekinese
court, ruled by a big Joan Sutherland
type wearing an enormous headdress,
where riddling has metastasized
from a show of wit into a burning
passion, consuming all the time
that passes in the progress
toward an end that never comes,
and everyone, not only the sympathetic
slightly ridiculous Ping, Pang and Pong,
has long since been sated by the marvels
of the capital, and just wants to go home.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Reclamation: Sea of Poppies

Warning: this review is highly coloured by circumstances. I went for the book release by the man himself before I read the book. One remark he made put all other ideas I may have had about the book (right) out of my head. While talking about what made him want to write this book, he said how, when he was a kid, he enjoyed reading all these stories at sea – all that Melville and all those Sabatinis.

That was, as you can imagine, enough.

One of the great joys of reading good historical fiction is knowing that while what you are reading is a good yarn in its own right, it is also a careful and often very political selection of the past that is in dialogue with the present. What a writer chooses to present as the past is often a function of what it is about the present that most preoccupies him or her.

Historical fiction is also characterised by more description, more ‘local colour’ than the fiction that was produced at the time; it sometimes has a fictional character responsible for historical shifts of varying magnitude that may be familiar to us who stand at the end of history – think of Andre-Louis Moreau’s speech at Nantes; of the comfort provided by the Persian Boy to Alexander that may have had small but important influences on the course of his campaigns.

Such narratives remind us that the locus of power in stories often lie not only with the characters, but with the author of these narratives. This is a very 19th century perspective, one that refuses to acknowledge the Death of the Author, while still retaining a very 20th century self-consciousness in the act of writing historical fiction.

Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (the first of what he says is a trilogy, though he does not rule out the possibility of it being two trilogies) is good historical fiction. It reads easily, involves you in its characters while drawing you successfully into another world for a brief while. The world of the book is the mid-19th century, with its opium factories, slave ships that will now carry indentured labourers and later opium, the supporting Indian classes with their gomustas and khidmatgars, and those who want to or have to exchange the world they know for a place across the kalapani.

The book follows the stories of motley characters who will find their way on the Ibis: Deeti (whose shrine contains her sketches of relatives and will later contain every one of the main characters on board the Ibis) who, when her opium-addict husband dies, escapes with Kalua, the outcaste strongman; Zachary Reid, a half-black American, who brings the Ibis to India after rising improbably early to the rank of second mate; his lascar mentor, Serang Ali; Neel Ratan, the Maharaja of Raskhali, dispossessed by the owner of the Ibis, Mr. Burnham; Paulette, the daughter of a French naturalist and her almost-brother, Jodu (whose mother was Paulette’s wet nurse); and Baboo Nob Kissin, the gomusta who thinks he is undergoing a spiritual transformation that will end with his finding the Lord Krishna.

But beyond the fun that is to be had in the curious melange of languages and comic situations involving the navigator Mr. Doughty, or Baboo Nob Kissin is the knowledge that here is a story that speaks directly to the present in its engagement with the themes of displacement and belonging and in the politics of enterprise.

At one point during a dinner that Neel Ratan gives on board the Raskhali budgerow, Mr. Burnham says:

The war, when it comes, will not be for opium. It will be for a principle: for freedom—for the freedom of trade and for the freedom of the Chinese people. Free Trade is a right conferred on Man by God, and its principles apply as much to opium as to any other article of trade. More so perhaps, since in its absence many millions of natives would be denied the lasting advantages of British influence.

The hawkishness of powerful governments is familiar to us, as are its tactics. Ghosh takes care, though, to avoid the pitfalls of polemics. This conversation takes place during what is essentially a rather hilarious social situation, one of many that punctuate the book.

Reading this book, it occurred to me that, just as an experiment, Ghosh is trying to find out what it is about the 19th century that makes it so adaptable to the novel. The enterprise of Empire certainly looms large thematically; but because this is Ghosh, the area of maximum interest is at the estuary where language meets language, and displacement or belonging is as much a function of speech as it is of space. This is why the reclamation I speak of in the title is primarily one of language.

Ghosh has said often in interviews and at readings, that the language of 19th century English in India was richer than it is now; that it absorbed a variety of influences that are now lost to us. As an example, he talks about writing about sailing. Most of the terms are unfamiliar to us anyway, he says, and a lascar term or a Bengali one would do just as well as an English one. That he chooses the lascar over the English is not just deliberate but a way of stating a perspective that is ‘native’ or at any rate not colonial.

In other words, though this is historical fiction of the kind that is familiar, it at the same time one that consciously situates itself in the subcontinent, with subcontinental perspectives. If I was an academic, I would say that Ghosh is retroactively attempting to write back to the Empire. But I’m not, so I will say, instead, that the choice of historical fiction is significant because from a peripheral perspective, there weren’t enough stories told that we know.

The book ends dramatically and you can’t help considering what it must have felt like back then, to await the next instalment of a Dickens. Then you remember that bhasha magazines in India still routinely serialise novels in Puja and Diwali issues and you realise that the novel is not just a hybrid of 19th century practices but a very contemporary and ongoing enterprise, whatever the genre.

[Part of The 2008 Booker Mela]

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Good Neighbours

Yes, I know I'm going on about my tiny little world but bear with me. Other kinds of posts will follow.

My mother, very annoyed at the amount of water flowing from all the neighbours upstream from us because of washing cars, hosing down driveways and so on, calls Neighbour #1.

"Hello? Mrs. N#1?"


"I am calling from the last house on the road. I wanted to tell you that there is a lot of water that is coming from your house down the road. It all pools up outside our house."

"Oh, is it? I have just now come back from hospital. I didn't know. Can I have your number? I will find out and call you back."

"Okay. Here it is."

(A little later)



"I am Mrs. N#1. I spoke to my servants. They are saying they have not used any water. But they use so much water, what to do? Every month my bills are so high."

"Well, maybe if you didn't hose down your driveway your bills won't be so high."

"It is paved, no? Sand gets between the cracks. We have to clean it with a hosepipe otherwise it will look dirty. But nowadays we are doing it only once a week."

*stony silence*

"Actually my real problem is those trees on the road."

"What about the trees on the road?"

"They make the road so dark. And they keep dropping leaves all over my garden. My servant has to sweep it three-four times a day. It's such a nuisance."

"Leaves are bio-degradable. That should be the least of your problems."

"No, no, I don't like it. I wish I could cut off all the trees. Then my garden will look nice."

"I have to go. Please see that your water goes into a drain and not over the road to the outside of my house."

Update: One tree outside N#1's house has been cut and that put me in a vicious sort of mood.

"If she hate trees that much she should just uproot her whole lawn and shrubs and all and plant plastic flowers."

Upon which my mother looked at me pityingly and said that what passes for a lotus pond at the entrance to their drive is actually a bunch of plastic lotuses in a trough of water.

Monday, August 18, 2008

baroque in hackney and cynicalsteve the doggerelist

Baroque in Hackney can't help being nice:

It is a problem, this compulsion to be nice. Every time I say anything that isn’t nice - publicly, I mean, not just to friends, God no - my friends know only too well what kind of stuff I’m liable to come out with, God help them - however deeply I feel or think or believe it, the anxiety is terrible, sometimes I can’t even sleep. I worry about meeting the person somewhere and just having no excuse. What if you liked them? A perfectly nice person, say, with a tin ear. It’s not his fault he can’t hear the way his lines sound. A charming fellow, but trivial. And all the sweeter for it, if you suspend your disbelief - like that sweet young woman over there, she’s like a sugar cube. And those four or five poets, who are they, they all seem the same… Nothing to tell their work apart, or them. How can a person be so dull. And all your enemies are friends with your friends, anyway, and you’d never sit at tea with someone and slag off their friend - and if you do it in print you as good as just have. Haven’t you? Like the guy who publishes “versions” of other living writers’ poems, depriving those poets of access to English “translations” of their work or the royalties thereof… (but then what if you were friends with the versioned poet? What if he was better than the English one? What if he was rubbish?)

While cynicalsteve (who is now beyond all of it) has a poem:

Come the Revolution

A new day is dawning, the fawning will cease,
You'll soon get a call from the Bardic Police.
They wander around like a Cumbrian cloud;
Their remit is simple: no poems allowed.

The first thing they'll do is, they'll jail all the poets,
The free-versers, free-cursers, go-with-the-flowets,
Sad tree-huggers, mad buggers, plods and emoters,
Those limerick loonies and I'll-get-my-coaters,

De-dum, de-dum merchants, the ones who can't spell,
The nuts who write epics on heaven and hell,
The angries, the Musies, the minimalists,
Declaimers who froth at the mouth and shake fists,

The delicate flowers on a spiritual high,
Unspeakable egotists, pregnant with 'I',
The ones who write verses in praise of their dogs,
Back-of-an-envelope types with crap blogs,

You didn't think that was all, did you? The rest here.

Saturday Night (Recorded)

I live in a surreal locality. It only looks rural and enchanting if you don't actually live here. If you do, you know that weird things happen more frequently than not. Such as, young men are liable to accost you and ask the way to the Bhoot Bungalow.

This Bhoot Bungalow (also known, locally, as Ghotala) is the very Heart of Weirdness. And in my more confessional moods I admit to myself that I feel partially responsible for this: after all, I once got married on the terrace of the house there and basically walked to my own wedding in rubber chappals. I may have set in motion a series of events that now comes back to haunt me (no one please say, what did you expect - it is a Bhoot Bungalow)

After that marriage, it occurred to the owner that he wasn't putting his over 40 acres of land to good enough use. The film shoots started, then TV serials. Eventually, after a major film was shot here and a gigantic set constructed, no one had the heart to tear it down. Subsequent productions altered the basic set - a large Charminar-y kind of structure in Jaipur pink - a little bit, tweaked the colour here, put in a street there, or a few shacks, and before you knew it, it was a permanent settlement.

More recently, the owner's brother has sanctioned the dumping of all kinds of construction debris there: not just a dump, but a whole mini-mountain. A hundred trucks pass by everyday, carrying small boulders, mud and such-like and they climb to the very top of the heap where they let go of it with small explosions and mudslides.

Occasionally, the place is hired out to parties. It is these that I chiefly object to. When it's once a year, one learns to grin and bear it; but when it's every Saturday, as has become the practice, I want to weep and drum my heels on the ground.

But this Saturday, when the organisers had done checking the sound (it was loud. I think that's the effect they were aiming for), I decided I would not lie awake all night resenting them and wondering if I could, should call the cops to complain about the noise and the sleep of decent citizens and taxpayers. I decided I would check out what was happening on the party scene, just aurally, as it were.

Being a DJ must be much like being an editor - one primarily makes decisions about whether to do smooth and seamless or startling and revealing juxtaposition. But whoever this guy or girl was, the music was 1) from what was playing in nightclubs three years ago or thereabouts, 2) Punjabi retro-cool, with lots of - yes I know - Daler Mehendi, 3) standard filmi populars such as 'Pappu Can't Dance' and 'It's The Time To Disco' and finally 4) very, very loud. My window panes were rattling in time to the bass.

The party was taking place in the ruins of the permanent set. The recent rains had torn off some of the scaffolding and had very likely churned up some of the unpaved ground. I was imagining all those people, the heat of bodies, arms upflung, hearts thudding. Above, the clouds had gathered and were obscuring the eclipse that had begun.

It rained and still they went on. Some people left. I know because their cars hissed by, the lights sent lacy leaf patterns travelling on my wall. The music stopped. It was only a little past midnight. One half-hearted (and incoherent) announcement later, a loud cheer went up and the music began again.

Were they getting wet? Mud-spattered? Weren't they afraid for their equipment? Did they even know there was an eclipse on, far above the rainclouds, where the bruised moon was turning yellow or orange, more wild than the dancing, taking as its due the little tribal ritual being enacted far below?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Quick Tales Contest from Caferati and LiveJournal

Via email from Peter.


Peter says:

We're delighted to be able to tell you about this contest we have just got up and running. We're presenting it in partnership with LiveJournal, one of the oldest, most respected names in the global online community blogging platform.

It's a pretty simple challenge we have here, one that will particularly appeal to all the fiction writers among you, but simple enough for those of you who like other forms of writing to give it a bash. Can you tell a quicker, snappier story than anyone else? Would you care to pit your story-telling abilities against those of your peers?

Quick Tales, the LiveJournal - Caferati Flash Fiction contest, asks you to tell us a story in 500 words or less. On offer: delicious cash prizes, global visibility and the chance to be part of a book.

You probably know what Flash Fiction is all about - we have run Flash Fic contests for the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival for the last three years, which is how many of you have wound up on this list, and FF tags and memes have been floating around the blogosphere for ages but, just in case you do need a few starting tips, see this page.

The contest is open to residents of India who are members of LiveJournal's India Writing community. (If you're not an LJ member, joining is free. Click the "Create a LiveJournal Account" link at the top of any LJ page.) The theme is "Journal," and your deadline is 7th September.

Prizes? The top 5 winning entries take home cash prizes of Rs. 19999, Rs. 16000, Rs 12000, Rs. 8000 and Rs. 4000, respectively. And the rest of the top ten get one year paid accounts on LJ. Each of the top 100 entries will also be highlighted on LJ's India Writing community for the world to see. (Short-listed stories may also be included in a book that LiveJournal plans to publish at a later date.)

Go straight through to our Quick Tales microsite for all the details, and don't forget to join India Writing, which is the place where all the updates will be happening. Live Journal has more plans for writers in all languages in India, and that community will be HQ.

Good luck, and we hope to see your entry soon
Peter Griffin (and also for Manisha Lakhe and Annie Zaidi)
Editors & moderators, Caferati

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Wilderness Tips: 1

Do not, even in the most dire circumstances, buy Fiama de Wills' Exotic Dream body wash. It's purple, has glitter beads - whatever those may do - and smells like a man's shirt on which half a bottle of cologne had been emptied and in which he has partied all night long and now discarded on that pile of dirty clothes in the bathroom.

You do not want to smell like that. Really.

This is the monsoon.

For unbelievers who seem to think only the Kerala and Konkan coasts experience monsoons.





(this is the second highest recorded rainfall - 20cms in 30 hours, as against August 2000's 24 cms - in the city.)

But the most priceless statement (link currently unavailable) comes from one Mr. Lakshminarayana Kanna, Transport Minister, who says, "This happens every year. Public cannot expect us to come up with instant solutions."

Friday, August 08, 2008

Simon Gray

Dies at 71.

Though I discovered him only recently, all the memorialising and recording of illness that takes place in his Smoking Diaries makes me feel this almost as a personal loss.

A review of The Last Cigarette.

And though it's not online, Gray's piece forms the backbone of Granta 91: Wish You Were Here.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Reincarnation of Paul Revere's Horse


It's not a move. It's not permanent.

In fact, it's likely to be temporary, temperamental, capricious, wholly self-absorbed and you should read it only if the thought of death, decay and illness fills you with horrified fascination. And I'm almost certain to regret it. Which means that posts you see today might not be there tomorrow, might have been edited out of their pathetic little lives and so on.

For other forms of navel-gazing, go here.