Life happened because I turned the pages~~Alberto Manguel

Saturday, January 31, 2004

Ananya Vajpeyi on the real issues behind the attack on the BORI Institute in Pune: "...[Are] we prepared to defend acts of violence perpetrated in the name of our identity, our beliefs and finally, our sentiments? The work on Shivaji by the American professor James Laine must be judged on the cogency of its arguments and the propriety of its methodology. Instead we are asked to judge it on the basis of the nationality of its author." She points out, incidentally, that tolerance and freedom of speech are under threat not just from the Hindu right but in Congress-ruled states and Communist-ruled states as well.

"For some months now, the elite in this country has been raising hell over the government's decision to route all contributions of the NRI alumni of IITs, through the Bharat Siksha Kosh. What is wrong with that?" .J S Rajput, the man who enshrined illiteracy as the operating principle in a thousand NCERT textbooks, on another key question. A bit of background: the Bharat Shiksha Kosh is a fund operated by the Central government, where would-be donors to the IITs and other institutions are told to hand over their cash and let the government decide where it's going to be used and how.
I'd love to take off on this issue, but Sandipan Deb has already done it for me in his book, The IITians:
"In a meeting between a senior Education Ministry bureaucrat and eminent IITians, the government official said that when IITians made donations to their alma maters, there should be no strings attached to the money. That is, they should just write out a cheque without specifying a particular project, and it was upto the Indian government and the IIT to decide how the funds would be used. This was of course as stupid a suggestion as any a non-bureaucrat in that room had ever heard, and showed a complete disconnect with the real world. As soon as the bureaucrat finished, Rekhi took the floor. 'If you are telling me that I give money and I don't have a say on how that money will be used, I say: Screw you,' he said. 'Do you want my money or not? Do you think you are doing me a favour by taking my money? As a donor I have the right to specify where my money will go, and to check that that money is being used properly and is going there. You have the right not to want to use the money for the purpose I am specifying, and I have the right to refuse to give money for any purpose other than what I have in mind. Get real.' Following Rekhi's straight talk, all the other IITians too spoke up and, as the man who told me of this incident put it, 'the bureaucrat didn't know where to run'.

"Perhaps more than dams or technology, if libraries had been designated as the temples of new India, made to proliferate across towns and cities, who knows how different the cultural and political history of modern India might look." Pratap Bhanu Mehta touches a nerve out here. Delhi has several decent academic libraries, but their vast stores of knowledge are available only to a few scholars. Public libraries exist in name only; of the two the Babu attempted to visit recently, one has a vast collection of third-rate books of poetry and mediocre prose written by government officials, and the other is used as an unofficial meeting point for junkies.

Dale Peck is hanging up his hatchet in disgust. "Since 1996, I'd registered my dissatisfaction with contemporary fiction in reviews panning everyone from Stanley Crouch to Julian Barnes, with little more than the occasional email from a friend to register my efforts. But my pleasure faded as I realised that people were less interested in what I had to say than in the possibility of a brawl. Like schoolboys chanting "Fight, fight", they let loose their own ripostes: I was "a troubled queen"; my reviews "degrade the profession"; I was "foolish", "bitchy" and, finally, "snarky"."

"I think there's something very dark in the South African psyche, I think we live a lot of the time in a state of a very low-grade civil war; the levels of violence in South Africa are extremely high. In a way the civil war that never happened is being played out in a covert way, so we live with a lot of very ugly things. Yes I am disturbed and it feels a lot of the times like the fabric of society is unravelling." Damon Galgut, author of The Good Doctor, in an interview with The Hindu.

Padmini Mongia has had enough: "I am now making a list I call "Novels I've forgotten to finish." Iyer's [Abandon] is one of them. As is Pankaj Mishra's The Romantics and Raj Kamal Jha's The Blue Bedspread... I've longed for these novels, I've peeked into but withheld reading them so I could yield to their power for a clear stretch of several hours. But when I have finally opened their crisp covers, I've been numbed. The books have deadened me instead of gripping me in a page-turning momentum. Then I've wanted to force the plane to stop, to turn around, to go back to that bookstore, back to that book review, back to that hype, to that book launch, that tremendously large advance from publishers in London and New York, all that machinery that fed the attention the novel received and I've wanted ? at least, at the very least ? to demand my money back."

"There isn't a country on God's earth that is not caught in the cross hairs of the American cruise missile and the IMF chequebook. Argentina's the model if you want to be the poster-boy of neoliberal capitalism, Iraq if you're the black sheep." That would be Arundhati Roy. Read the piece, if you haven't already: her arguments are as impassioned as we've come to expect, and backed by some serious numbers.

Friday, January 30, 2004

M K Chakrabarti echoes the uneasiness I've often heard expressed in India about Monica Ali's Brick Lane: "The truth is, London?s East End Bangladeshis do not live in a hermetically sealed community. No immigrants in London do. The world is too globalized, too interconnected, too interdependent to allow for that. The rest of British society constantly impresses itself upon the immigrant experience, and Ali knows it, though she avoids its implications." (Link via the Bookslut. That woman always gets to everything before I do.)

* "The world of best sellerdom is full of books that might be wildly popular even if their pages were blank." Janet Maslin in the New York Times on the unbearable lightness of being on the bestseller list.

Tariq Ali's tribute to Abdelrahman Munif, who died on January 24, gives me another reason to read Cities of Salt again. Ali once asked Munif why he'd chosen that phrase as the title. "Cities of salt means cities that offer no sustainable existence. When the waters come in, the first waves will dissolve the salt and reduce these great glass cities to dust. In antiquity, as you know, many cities simply disappeared. It is possible to foresee the downfall of cities that are inhuman. With no means of livelihood they won't survive. Look at us now and see how the West sees us."

The Babu's a big fan of Sara Suleri's Meatless Days, which she wrote in the year dot before disappearing into the wilds of academia, so he was thrilled to hear that she's come out with another book. But the list of contents took him aback for a moment--they sound more portentous than promising:
Boys will be boys
Love demands patience
Ask of Kohakan's heart the reality of existence!
There is a wilderness within the wilderness
My golden town, Kasur!
Give birth to your own world, if you are among the living!
Why ask about Mir's religion and beliefs? He has long since drawn a line on his forehead, sat in a temple, and renounced Islam
There are many brothers here, but few friends
You are with me, as it were, when no other can be there
The pious keep going to report to the authorities: That Akbar actually names God, in this very age!
Don't trouble me, you perfumed wind, take to your road! You have frivolity on your mind while I sit here in despair
We are the lover, they the impatiently disdaining: Dear God! What kind of business is this, anyway?
Long live, you purest land!
The point of the tongue

Some reviews have been enthusiastic. Not to mention gushing. I guess I'll plonk down my Rs 300-Rs 400 after all: "As I started reading Boys Will Be Boys my heart stilled. This was vintage Suleri: the voice I had grown to love in Meatless Days."

Man with shellshock reviews Catch-22. Lobotomised manic-depressive reviews One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Nubile nymphet reviews Lolita. Welcome to the world of the special interest reviewer. This isn't to knock William Schofield: he does a better and more honest job than the crew over at the NYT.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

William Dalrymple reviewed Bernard Henri-Levy's Who Killed Daniel Pearl? for the NYRB recently. Dalrymple didn't pull his punches, but he had cogent points to make: "Lévy shows an intermittent disdain for Islam, and something approaching hatred for Pakistan. He rightly criticizes Pakistanis for their anti-Semitism, and for regarding Israel as evil incarnate, but then goes on to use the same prejudiced language about Pakistan. It is "the Devil's own home," "drugged on fanaticism, doped on violence," a "silent hell, full of the living damned" and their "nightmare mullahs." Karachi is worse still: "a black hole," full of "the half-dead," where "fanatic... long-haired dervishes with wild, bloodshot eyes" howl outside "the house of the Devil."
Henri-Levy's response is distinguished by its bombast: "Who insults the memory of Daniel Pearl: a book critic who dares to offer the insane notion that the country where Pearl was beheaded is a country friendly to journalists, or someone who undertook a year-long, step-by-step investigation of this atrocious murder and the network that perpetrated it?"
In his reply (scroll down the page), Dalrymple prefers the rapier approach: "Finally, it is true that the final page and a half of Who Killed Daniel Pearl? is marginally less hostile to Islam than the rest of the book, and that in it BHL visits a mosque where for "the first time I enter a religious space in Karachi without feeling the wind of imprecation, of hatred." BHL says that this brought to mind good Muslim acquaintances such as the late President Izetbegovich of Bosnia and the Afghan Mujahideen leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. Coming, however, after over four hundred pages of invective against Pakistan and ordinary Pakistanis, this coda reads suspiciously like the traditional disclaimer, "Of course some of my best friends...."

The Babu thinks he needs to do the disappearing act more often--Peter "Zig" Griffin is clearly as good a guest in a home as he is on a blog. If you're missing him, as I am after the great and very thorough job he did at Kitabkhana, do drop in here.
Meanwhile, the Babu's own travels were pretty instructive. Let's just say that this is the last time he's going to throw out the anorak and the extra shawl in order to make room for books he intends to read on the road. Thomas Mann, William Gibson and Carol Shields do many things for me, but even opened out and with the dust jackets stacked separately, they don't keep shivering Babus warm on trains in freezing north India where the attendants explain carefully that they have extra blankets and bedding, but you can't have them because it's against the regulations. I owe Mann, though; Death in Venice kept my left ear reasonably toasty.

Somehow, I don't think The Blue Guitar Murders would have picked up a Whitbread. "...it involved the Via Negativa and a singing policeman. It should be published as a stern warning to over-intellectual 21-year-olds who want to write a big book." This interview with Mark Haddon made the Babu question, not for the first time, the insanity of hyping debut authors instead of looking for the third-novel gem or the fourth-book masterpiece.

Janet Frame is dead. "Because of the experience she had, particularly the 10 years in psychiatric hospitals, she identified much more closely with people on the margins of society, people who were strange or eccentric or different in some sort of way, because she had been there and had been treated that way," Michael King told National Radio today. "She came out of a New Zealand that used to be terribly conformist and terribly mistrustful of plurality of behaviour, of people who were different. I think in the latter part of her life she had found herself celebrated in her own country for those very qualities."

I'm kind of viciously glad the Wharf misspelled "descendent" when they were referring to this particular sprig on the Dickens branch. The man spends 40 years hating his illustrious ancestor before he so much as opens a page of The Old Curiosity Shop, then writes a book about Great Grandpa's favourite fish-and-chip joints. It's not subtitled How To Cash In On The Famous Ancestor You've Hated All Your Life, for some strange reason. (Link via Bookninja.)

Please Sir, Can We Have Some Mao?

"It is in the nature of the nastiness being directed at Nasreen to either reduce her achievements as a writer to her sexual life and personal appearance, or else, to produce the more pernicious obverse of this: to actually channel her creativity, her compulsion to write, into an endlessly rehearsed contrariness, expressed in ways that could often be quite banal.... Power-dressing, power-shopping or power-dieting could become just another, more insidious, form of powerlessness, and could reduce the integrity ? indeed, the point ? of one?s existence, as a writer and as a human being, to something sadly other than what it could have been in all its fullness." Aveek Sen on Taslima Nasreen; he starts the piece with a nice riff on the symbolism of purple chapstick, by the way.

The Guardian profiles Robert Silvers. "There is only one story you need to know about Bob," says the writer Timothy Garton Ash. "Four o'clock on Christmas day: the family is gathered around the turkey, and the phone rings. It's Bob. 'Tim,' he says, 'How are you doing? On column six of the third galley, there's a dangling modifier.'"

I missed out on most of the debate over the shift in focus at the New York Times' books section. Going by this Observer piece, the good souls at the NYT are this close to using the term "infotainment".

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Glad to inform you that Hurree is back in civilisation, bursting with tales of faraway lands and strange sights. So this is the last you'll hear from me, at least until The Babu next goes walkabout.

A few links to remember me by:
A bit dated, but... Esquire's 70th Anniversary selection of the greatest stories they have ever told is available for your reading pleasure - pieces by Richard Bren Cramer, Michael Herr, Norman Mailer, John Sack and Tom Wolfe. For the winner, Frank Sinatra Has a Cold By Gay Talese, you'll have to buy the magazine. (Thanks for the link, Les)
Mark Haddon wins the Whitbread Book of the Year award, shortly after the South Bank Show awards best book prize. (Both in The Guardian.)
Living to Tell the Tale, and Elizabeth Costello didn't make the list, but Richard Powers's The Time of Our Singing, Tobias Wolff's Old School and Caryl Phillips' A Distant Shore did. As did Monica Ali's Brick Lane. Jonathan Brown in The Independent reports on the USA's National Book Critics Circle awards nominees.
& thes ones fore our frend, The Enemy. Thanks for keeping us on our tose, pal.
If you're as sick of the Social Networking thing as some people seem to be, there's an antidote. (Attention DD!)

Right then, i'm off. Come by and see me some time.
Zig at Zigzackly

"Thanks to Miss Mitchell and Scarlett, right now I can say any damn thing I want to, and people will listen."
Alexandra Ripley, author of Scarlett, the officially sanctioned sequel to Gone With the Wind, died on January 10 at her home in Richmond. She was 70. "Ms. Ripley is survived by two daughters, Elizabeth Ripley and Merrill Ripley Geier, and a granddaughter, all of Richmond." Huh?
Zig at Zigzackly

TL: ....because most writers would be deeply embarrassed to say "I am an artist".
HK: Do you think?
TL: Actually say those words...
HK: I think I'm an artist, I do. But why - are people thinking of themselves as entertainers or commentators?
TL: It's the social embarrassment of suggesting that in some way you live up to the idea of what an artist is. People think it is halfway to saying "I'm a genius".
HK: Which means that people in literary life have an old-fashioned romantic notion of the artist and should probably have been paying a bit more attention since the second world war.

Hari Kunzru and Toby Litt chat about literature (and a lot more) at the Guardian.
Zig at Zigzackly

Graham Robb, who, if Google and Amazon serve me right, wrote biographies of Rimbaud, Balzac, Hugo, turned his attention to another aspect of the 19th Century with his book Strangers: Homosexual Love in the 19th Century. One of his conclusions: Sherlock Holmes was gay. Laura Miller, in NYT*, begs to differ.
Zig at Zigzackly

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

The other MS we hate
Mark Simpson, the chap who first inflicted the term metrosexual on an unsuspecting world, interviews himself at Salon. Or as the more entertaining blurb on his site says, "'Metrosexuality is a textually transmitted disease' - Q&A with Mark Simpson on his bastard child." (*Salon Premium requires registration or viewing several screens of inane ads. Psst. i have the interview copied, so if you'd rather not go to all that trouble, mail me. Just don't tell Salon.) (Via Radosh.net)
Zig at Zigzackly

You can say "f**k" on TV. For now.
Jan Freeman, in the Boston Globe, writes about the debate on the use of the F Word on TV. (For those who came in late, Bono's use of it in his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes last year started a minor storm, bringing in the FCC. Bono apologised, apparently, and also promised not to do it again if U2 won. They didn't.

Naresh Fernandes (thanks for the Boston Globe link too) wrote in to point out a goof i made in this post.
The quote i butchered should have read, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." But i can take some consolation from a little googling, the results of which tell me i wasn't completely boneheaded. The most authorative sounding page i found was Alan Scott's. He says that its origins "have long been shrouded in mystery and controversy." Besides a "more common and euphonious" variant ("Talking," instead of "Writing") there are also many candidates for the person who first said it. Miles Davis is in the list, yes, but so are Frank Zappa, Steve Martin, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, William S. Burroughs, and the most solid citation, Elvis Costello.

Oh, and while on the Golden Globes, will one of you in the UK please tell the author of Budgie: The Little Helicopter that she should not let herself get photographed from that angle?

Zig at Zigzackly

Monday, January 26, 2004

Just did a little searching through various publication's archives, and found this review of James Laine's Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, dated December 7th. It was headlined "An image that might be disturbing." Hm.

Now here's a subject on which i have mixed feelings. Copyright. As a person who earns a living (well, sort of) by writing, the prospect of someone ripping off stuff i've written for money and me not making any money out of it pisses me off. But the reader - and the cheapskate - in me wants as much free information as i can get. Robert Bonton, in the New York Times Magazine, looks at both sides of that issue in The Tyranny of Copyright*. (Via Arts & Letters Daily.)

While visiting the usual suspects, we found this: "I double-dare all columnists, writers, storytellers, hack journalists, essayists, bloggers and related parties to make the hard choice of sticking with first person singular. Resist the temptation the same way that you avoid telling a story in second person." Don't know about Anirudh Behl, but we, we like doing this. Besides, we have Dissociative Identity Disorder. And worms. (Via Old Hag.)

Zig at Zigzackly

Darkness piling up in the corners
defying the soulless moon ...
it is neither today’s tomorrow
nor is it tonight’s last night
but now
and forever
and you are scared
for this is forever
and this is death
and nothing
and mourning.
That poem, the only one V S Naipaul ever wrote, was in a bundle of some of his early work that he deposited in a London warehouse in the 50s. Unfortunately, they were incinerated. "Although this destruction may not match the burning of the library in Alexandria in its importance, it was a substantial literary loss," said Patrick French, his authorised biographer. French did a little sleuthing in the BBC's archives, and unearthed grainy microfilm of four short stories, a radio play, and the poem above, which was broadcast from London to the West Indies just after his 18th birthday. More in Outlook and The Telegraph.

Zig at Zigzackly

Saturday, January 24, 2004

More on the Bhandarkar Institute, James Laine and the Sambhaji Brigade.
The Times of India reports that "seven major Ganesh mandals have condemned the Sambhaji Brigade for allegedly threatening to attack the historic Shaniwarwada."
Rajeev Dhavan in Outlook : 'The core of the emergence of the new form of social censorship has only one watchword: "You cannot read what we do not like even if we have not read it."'

The tributes to Nissim Ezekiel keep pouring in. This one is by Menka Shivdasani in The Daily Star. Makes me wish i had summoned up the courage to go meet the man.

Here's an example of the When You Have Nothing To Say Use Flash school of web design.

And, if you were masochistic enough to hit that link, here's an antidote. Danny Gregory's lovely art blog, Everyday Matters.

Zig at Zigzackly

Went a-visiting yesterday, dropping by the list of lit sites and blogs that Hurree, kind soul, left behind to help low-brow me wing it here this week. Clicked on many, many links, opening new browser windows galore. Windows and IE registered their protest by hanging my computer. Followed my browser history to revisit those links, so all is not lost. But there was such a jumble of stuff, interspersed with other links i'd googled, and now i can't for the life of me remember where i saw each one first. So, to all the sites that pointed me to the following links, my apologies for not crediting you today.

Sandy Bauers at the Philadelpia Inquirer tilts at Don Quixote. "Clearly Cervantes, who composed the novel in debtor's prison, had some time on his hands."

Someone once told me, if i want you to think of me as a funny guy, i could say to you, "I'm a really funny guy," and inside you'd say, "Yeah, right." Or i could make you laugh, and you would conclude, "Hey, that's a really funny guy." Bill Clinton's joke writer made this humble blogger conclude that humourists shouldn't try and explain how it works.

And was it Miles Davis who said "Talking music is like dancing architecture"? Doesn't matter. In the Fermilab Arts and Lecture Series in Chicago, Dr. J. Murray Gibson presents "The Physics of the Blues," where he will use "live musical examples to illustrate the physics behind musical scales and harmonic relationships, which are the palette with which musicians create. He will also reveal how the physics of music can give insights into other areas of science such as quantum mechanics and the molecular basis of life."

This one is a slightly dated link. Had been saving it till i could think up a really witty intro. i did, after all, spend ten years in advertising, and have been single and unattached most of my life. But i can't compete with this: "Tap-dancing Classics lecturer. Chilling isn't it? (M, 38)." Or this: "Before I turn 67 - next March - I would like to have lots of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me." So go ahead and read Catherine Keenan on the personal ads in the LRB.

Zig at Zigzackly

"Said," he said during the lecture, is the only proper word to convey dialogue. (i want to send this to every news reporter in India who uses 'informed' at the end of a quote. And if i have your attention, may i also recommend this?) The Palm Beach Post attends a talk by Elmore Leonard. (Via Moorish Girl.)
Zig at Zigzackly

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Hurree, before he went gallivanting, had been following the Bhandarkar Institute story (here, here, here, here and here).
To make up for my irresponsible neglect, here are a few updates.
The Times of India reports a chain e-mail that calls for silent protest on Republic Day, further threats to BORI, and that the Maratha Vikas Sangh, has "demanded censorship on all books that would be written on historical figures," besides filing a petition in the Bombay high Court "demanding that all documents at BORI be seized by the union government."
Mid-Day carried this opinion and these reactions from both sides of the debate.
Hindustan Times reported the Maharashtra Chief Minister's justification of the ban.
The Indian Express spoke to James Laine, and also featured this piece on Union HRD Minister Murli Manohar Joshi (of whom Hurree has written much) who condemned the incident, but went on to deplore Laine in far stronger words. (Covered slightly differently in the TOI). Also in the Express, a longish piece that questions Laine's scholarship and intentions, and concludes that the book comes across "like an exercise in skulduggery." And there's been a fresh twist in the plot with the caste angle rearing its head.

The positive fallout for BORI has been the funds pouring in from India and abroad, which will go a long way to help to digitise its archives.
(Footnote: The Sambhaji Brigade has been on the other side of such controversy in the past, when it defended a historian who landed himself in a controversial soup, as this article from 2000 shows.)
- Zig at Zigzackly

Done with all the year end reviews at last? Than take The Guardian's 2003 quiz. Prefer to forget? Then try the Tintin Quiz, or the literature of food quiz or test your knowledge of the Fictional Detectives. And plenty more.
- Zig at Zigzackly

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Wanna flex your hippocampus? Try the Popular Science 6-point brain regimen to "ensure that yours is flexible enough for creative problem solving, strong enough to run the occasional intellectual mini-marathon, and most of all, free of pseudoscientific flab."

Now-why-didn't-i-think-of-this? Department
At Spaceworks @ the Tank in NYC, visitors to an exhibition called Reimagining the Ordovician Gothic: Fossils From the Golden Age of Spam will visit a world "populated by miracle sex drugs and lucrative real estate investment opportunities... correspondence from deposed African statesmen, and remnants of an ongoing war waged between the creators of the messages and rival systems analysts." Note to self: save those mails offering bigger boobs, a longer penis, Paris Whatsername videos and health insurance; you're gonna need it in your old age since this writing thing isn't bringing in the bucks.

As the World Social Forum winds down, one of the little miracles the organisers can pride themselves on is the translation of proceedings into 13 languages, using open source software and inexpensive mid-range computers. Wired Newstells the story.

And Wired magazine talks to Doug Engelbart, the man who, in 1968, made a 90-minute demo that 'rolled out virtually all that would come to define modern computing: videoconferencing, hyperlinks, networked collaboration, digital text editing, and something called a "mouse." '

Subheads
Jim Walsh doesn't like them.

- Zig at Zigzackly.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

There's not much info on what's been happening at the World Social Forum on their own site. As one of the people behind the scene tells me, "alas, too much happening, no volunteers for the site." Pity. But i guess they'll get it together once the dust settles. Meanwhile, if you're interested, go to Ciranda and do a search for World Social Forum. And for a sometimes cynical, but reasonably balanced look, try Rediff's coverage.
- Zig at Zigzackly.

Over at The Edge, they're asking The 2004 Edge Annual Question, What's your law? "There is some bit of wisdom, some rule of nature, some law-like pattern, either grand or small, that you've noticed in the universe that might as well be named after you. Gordon Moore has one; Johannes Kepler and Michael Faraday, too. So does Murphy. Since you are so bright, you probably have at least two you can articulate. Send me two laws based on your empirical work and observations you would not mind having tagged with your name. Stick to science and to those scientific areas where you have expertise. Avoid flippancy. Remember, your name will be attached to your law."
- Zig at Zigzackly.

This one is for our friends at the World Social Forum, currently stirring up more than dust in a Bombay suburb. Gersh Kuntzman writes in Newsweek about a new dating site, "considering how we liberals are constantly being told that we're a dying breed, we've got to do something to protect our numbers (and, more important, save valuable dating time)." He quotes a post on the site: "I want to be able to tell people that George Bush is a moron and have them agree with me." That's a difficult thing to find? (Thanks for the link, Nina.)
The site in question is Act For Love, and here's a snippet from the home page. "the cause-oriented personals service that lets you ... take action, get action."
Perhaps if some people had seen this a little earlier...
- Zig at Zigzackly.

Monday, January 19, 2004

The trAce Online Writing Centre has announced a New Media Article writing competition "To provoke discussion and raise awareness of new media writing, trAce and Writers for the Future." Prizes are publication for real pay. Go here for details.
- Zig at Zigzackly

Sunday, January 18, 2004

In other news:
Richard Goldstein in Village Voice asks why "Michael Jackson Is Damned and R. Kelly Is the Man."
Geoffrey Wheatcroft, in the New York Times, takes a look* at the "long literary pedigree" of anti-Americanism, from Dickens to Le Carré.
Jennifer Jacobson, in The Chronicle, on: colons in book titles: "Some books even boast two subtitles, glued tenuously to the title with two colons." (Link found on Arts and Letters Daily.)
And Woody Allen was late for work.
Georgina L Maddox, in the Indian Express, on High Pop, "the sugar-coated capsule [with] a dash of snobbery and a smidgen of intellect."
The Business Standard has lunch with Justice Leila Seth, author of On Balance.
The Guardian and Penguin Modern Classics photography competition results are out.
Jeet Thayil makes 14 attempts at a tribute to Nissim Ezekiel. On Rediff. (Thanks Les, for the last two links)
- Zig

Yesterday was The Champ's 62nd birthday. The fact that you probably know who i'm talking about without me having spell out his name says a lot about the man. Arguably the most famous American on the planet, "certainly the world's most famous Muslim-American", one of Time's 100 most important people of the last century, the man who wrote Clean out my cell / And take my tail / On the trail / For the jail / Without bail / Because it's better to be in jail / Watchin' television fed / Than in Vietnam somewhere dead and also said "It's just a job. Grass grows, birds fly waves pound the sand. I beat people up," the man who is hailed as "the father of rap" by George Plimpton, editor of The Paris Review... i could go on. He's one of a very short list of people who i would unabashedly admit to being a fan of.
What's The Greatest doing in a book blog? Well, there's a truly heavyweight tribute scheduled to hit the stands (ouch) sometime now. Weighing in at 34 kgs, 50 cm x 50 cm in size, "800 pages of archival and original photographs, graphic artwork and articles and essays," GOAT: Greatest of All Time is a limited edition, just 10,000 copies, each one signed by the Champ, and is available for US$3000. You can snatch a preview here, here or here.
Is GOAT (godawful acronym!) the Greatest Book of all time? Dunno about that. But it won't be the Biggest or even the Heavyweight Champion. That spot was recently taken by Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom.
- Zig

This is not the first time i'm abusing The Babu's hospitality. Many moons ago, on a visit to his city, i, with Significant Other of that time, dropped in on the Babu establishment for what was supposed to be a couple of nights, and stayed for nigh on two weeks. Despite which Hurree, naive lad (he is of tenderer years than his world view and wisdom tell), has now given me license to lounge around his virtual home.
This is, quite frankly, intimidating. Over at Zigzackly, i blackmail my dearest friends into dropping by once a week or so (they claim greater frequency, but the site tracker tells me otherwise). The Babu, on the other hand, has several thousand of you dropping in every day from every corner of the world. And that's on the days he doesn't post.
Anyway, let's clear up a couple of things first. The Babu's introduction is over-generous on all counts. i am what is euphemistically referred to as a consultant - which means i don't have a job, and freelance from home - so i spend a lot more than five minutes away from Real Work (which, in any case, has very elastic boundaries when you're consulting). Therefore, a) i have oodles of time to amble around the web; b) so, on roughly three separate occasions, when Hurree was on vacation, i found something before he did; and as for "c)," you know all those surveys that say the one thing women most want in a man is a sense of humour? Well, i'm old enough to have read Midnight's Children when it was first published, but am still single, with no signs of impending banns. Which also explains "a)."
That said, a passing glance at Zigzackly (yet another shameless attempt to get some bonafide page views - many years spent in advertising are to blame) will tell you that i lack the experience and knowledge to even start doing a Hurree. In all honesty, the little i know about blogging is from reading this blog every day and taking envious mental notes. And about the book world, i know even less. (This is not coy false modesty. i have a huge ego, even though i insist in using a lower case 'i.') But, hopefully, enough has rubbed off for me to be able to keep you here till next week when HB returns, kisses the Partner, feeds the cats, or vice versa, and puts finger to keyboard again.
- Zig

Saturday, January 17, 2004

The Babu has packed his bags yet again and is off to do one of those long trips distinguished by his complete inability to find working Internet connections. Peter Griffin, recent creator and sole proprietor of Zigzackly (go visit; he has an uncanny knack for archiving brilliant links in the five minutes he spends away from Real Work), will be taking over Kitabkhana over the next week. He's going to do a far, far better job because: a) he has a conscience and updates regularly b) he's beaten me to every single truly juicy books link this far c) he's a very funny man. Enjoy.

I leave you with these links until the Griff fills in the gaps:

Only Elmore Leonard could make Michael Dirda gush.

H Masud Taj on living in two languages: "I learnt to write Urdu from right to left, and English left to right. One direction cancelling the other and soon my scripts were going where no script had gone before. Poetry led to calligraphy in both the scripts and explorations of calligraphic space led to architecture (each time the poet, calligrapher, architect paused to catch his breath he received a new label). I still tend to browse publications backwards which sometimes means, in bilingual Canada, encountering undecipherable French before reverse-engineered English (Da Vinci would have approved)."

Vajpayee to book banners: Tut-tut. I don't know, I was hoping for a little more in the way of positive activism from the country's prime minister. Silly me.

"When I was a boy we used to meet at the Naaz cafe on a rooftop in Cumballa Hill. He would look beyond the chairs and tables to the open sea, a cigarette in his long fingers, and smile his kindly smile, contented with this time and this place. He had the gift, given only to a few people, of being happy with small and humble things." Dom Moraes on the late Nissim Ezekiel.

Brief aside to Indian editors: it's perfectly okay to mention Arundhati Roy without mentioning her size (she gets called "petite" a lot), her looks or what she's wearing (one paper says a "rani pink" dupatta, another mentions a red or hot pink ditto: the dupatta got about the same space as the quote from her speech). She's having fun at the World Social Forum: everyone's favourite soundbite was: "Debating imperialism is like debating the pros and cons of rape."

Sandipan Deb defends a taste for fantasy and plugs The Simoquin Prophecies, being widely touted this season as "India's first SF-fantasy novel". (The SF variety, not the other kind.) "You know how grown-up men look slightly sheepish when caught with a novel with a name like The Druidmoon Testament? That?s because most people they know think that reading something called The Druidmoon Testament is a symptom of some weird eccentricity.
Whereas I think Philip Pullman?s His Dark Materials trilogy is the greatest story ever told.
So I am a man of strange tastes."
NB: Of course The Druidmoon Testament doesn't exist; even fantasy writers wouldn't stoop that low, titlewise.

* Edward Albee, bless the man: "There's all this talk of the Sturm und Drang and the pain of writing, but I've never experienced any of that. I don't know what's wrong with me, but I enjoy writing."

Friday, January 16, 2004

"In banning Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India by James W. Laine, the Sushil Kumar Shinde government has unveiled a new order governing intellectual discourse and rowdy criticism. And a zero-sum game is glaringly evident. The victors of this round are the book vandals of the Sambhaji Brigade, who last week brandished their destructive power at Pune?s Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute for providing assistance to Laine, a professor of religious studies at an American university." The Indian Express puts it better than I could, in a season of one disgraceful book ban after another.

And Dilip Chitre reports on the "neo-fascism" and "domestic terrorism" that has changed his life as well: "This is the first time in my life that I am sitting down to write an article while a commando sits in my living room to protect me from possible assailants. This provision has been made by the home minister of my state, Maharashtra, to protect me from other Maharashtrians, who were earlier incited by their "leaders" to attack the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI), a world-renowned centre of research in Indology at Pune."

Michael at 2Blowhards has a follow-up on the book people versus movie people post he did a while back. "I find the view that what makes a work "literature" is that it's "not-trash" -- let alone the view that literature is an ineffably-marvelous thing that justifies all the degradation and tedium -- not just annoying but factually inaccurate. Just as movies don't (and can't) exist without all the money and sex and ego, there's no such thing as books without the book-making life, and without the publishing life." Lovely stuff.

The Rushdie roundup: he did the Bombay party circuit, assorted lunatics offered to blacken his face, and the script he's writing for Padma Lakshmi about the relationship between an older man and a younger woman is not autobiographical. Perish the thought. (Remember Nila in Fury? Remember how sweet it was to see the man burble on and on about her beauty? Remember how each sentence about her was announced by a chord of heavenly music, written in softly hued alphabets, and haloed all around? Remember how it made you want to throw up?)

Female sleuth, aged 74, hopes makeover will change her life.

This is one of those dumb-ass things: the Babu read the article, meant to link to it, and forgot, which is why it's been on every book blog bar Kitabkhana this far. The Atlantic on its book-reviewing policy: "If we run more than the predictable number of reviews of novels composed in English, we run fewer than the predictable number of reviews of books on politics, public policy, and current affairs. This is partly because we assiduously cover these areas in other parts of the magazine, but mostly because a very high proportion of these titles are just godawful. (I write this as someone who once made his living as a foreign-policy analyst.)"

The Babu has a feeling this is going to be his favourite story of the year. From the Village Voice:
"Sammy is the door-boy for kindly local doctor Samuel Hubbs, a stand-in for Foote himself?they share the same Lexington Avenue address and have written books with the same titles. Sammy Tubbs becomes his young prot?g?: In a sort of med-school Pygmalion, the older white Hubbs molds the young black Tubbs into a doctor. In each respective volume, amid servant high jinks and literal monkeyshines, Tubbs gets lectured on Muscles, Circulation, Digestion, and the Nervous System. But the fifth and final volume bears a curious inscription on its cover: A Book for Private Reading. Leaf through it, and you'll see why: It has line drawings of genitals, of Rand McNally road-map accuracy.
It's a Victorian sex-ed manual. For children. Starring a monkey."

Haruki Marukami discovers that his birthday is a public event. It makes him uncomfortable: "...at least at that moment some of the people throughout Japan - it was a nationwide broadcast - standing (or sitting) by their radios may have had at least some fleeting thought of me. "So, today is Haruki Murakami's birthday, eh?" Or, "Oh, wow, Haruki Murakami's ** years old, now too!" Or, "Hey, whaddya know, even guys like Haruki Murakami have birthdays!" In reality, though, how many people in Japan could have been up at this ridiculous pre-dawn hour listening to the radio news? Twenty or thirty thousand? And how many of those would know my name? Two or three thousand? I had absolutely no idea."

"For example, the monkeys could master simple word structures, analogous to realising that "the" and "a" are always followed by another word. But they were unable to grasp phrase patterns analogous to "if... then..." constructions." Hmmm. There was someone at the Babu's former workplace who was just like that.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

At 18, the Babu had a poem accepted by the college magazine; at 18, the Babu's partner was peddling Bengali porn to the partner's fellow students. No one offered either of us four hundred thousand pounds for our literary efforts. Damn.

The Curse of the Well-Read Spammer: The Babu has little compunction about deleting, unread, emails from Mr Obasanjo headed "This Might Interest You"; missives from GloriousGoth titled "hurree, teenage asian nymphets do donkeys"; or letters plangently titled "can u a4ord 2 bmws?". But he would have almost certainly opened a document titled "procurator of judea". The base uses to which we put Bulgakov these days, alas.

New Deals We Hoped We'd Never Have To See: "Deepak Chopra's daughter and mother of a two-year-old daughter Mallika Chopra's first book ONE HUNDRED PROMISES TO MY BABY, about how she created promises to her child based on the traditions, beliefs, and values she was raised with, and helping pregnant mothers and new parents to do the same, to Heather Jackson at Rodale, at auction, for publication in early 2005, by Linda Loewenthal at the David Black Literary Agency (NA)." Every single book I've ever read by the Clan Chopra (his son wrote a truly dire New Age fiction thingummy once) has made me want to puke: and I'm not even pregnant.
And Comparisons We Hoped We'd Never Have To Hear: "Rabindranath Maharaj's A PERFECT PLEDGE, called "reminiscent of Rohinton Mistry and V.S. Naipaul," (The Babu: Wot, no Vikram Seth while we're at it?) an epic about a stubborn Trinidadian cane farmer whose dreams and battles against the corruption and smallmindedness around him wreak havoc in his family and ultimately have tragic consequences, to Ayesha Pande at Farrar, Straus, by Hilary McMahon at Westwood Creative Artists (US)." (Both items from Publisher's Lunch.)

Trustee to writers: I want your cheques. (Via ArtsJournal.)

Andree Seu on the infallible omniscience of writers: "Writers want you to think they wrote the whole thing in one sitting, an effect they achieve after about 12 drafts. Writers know that people are impressed by foreign words, and that a phrase like humanum est errare (which I just found at the back of my Merriam Webster's Collegiate) lends magisterium to any sentence it's in, even though you could have simply said 'to err is human'."

The Rule of the Rabble: * James W Laine speaks out in the LA Times:

"The last chapter is where I entertained what I called 'unthinkable thoughts' . questioning 'cracks' in the Shivaji narrative. I wondered, for example, why no one considered the possibility that Shivaji's parents were estranged, given that they never lived together during the period the three were alive (1630-1664), and that the tale provided 'father substitutes' for the king-to-be. Why not entertain such an idea? What made it unthinkable?
As it turned out, the "owners" of Shivaji's story had their own set of questions, delivered with a punch: Who should be allowed to portray this history? Should an outsider, working with Brahmin English-speaking elites, have a greater say in Shivaji's story than Shivaji's own community?

This is very, very different from the accusations made by the Maratha Seva Sangha founder, Purushottam Khedekar: "It has come to our knowledge that some passages in Laine's book state that Shivaji's renowned mentors, Samarth Ramdas Swami and Dadaji Kondeo, are his biological fathers." But Laine doesn't appear to have said this at all--he's referred to Shivaji's mentors as father-surrogates, which is a completely different thing. (More.)
I'm left with another question: should OUP have pulled the book? The publishers have received threats today from "some organisations" (no prizes for guessing who): they've demanded that OUP shut shop in Pune.
Given the irrationality of mobs, OUP might have felt it was doing the right thing by apologising for some of the comments made in Laine's work. As a publisher, though, they should have either stood by their author, if they thought his work was accurate and unbiased, or issued another corrected edition. If they were trying to avoid trouble by withdrawing the book, guess what? The MSS targetted the Bhandarkar Institute anyway. They blackened Balukar's face anyway. They've gone ahead and promised more of the same, despite the fact that the book was withdrawn. All that OUP has accomplished is to ensure that the unbiased reader no longer has access to Laine's point of view. I can understand the publishers' concerns: it must protect its staff and its other authors as well--but it's dealing with people who will unleash their aggression irrespective of the response, placatory or not, from the other side. Perhaps we need to ask for more. If Laine is to be held accountable for his words, why can't the hooligans who ransacked the Pune Institute be held accountable for their actions--and why can't their leaders be held accountable for their threats?

Sunday, January 11, 2004

The Babu is back in the land of Net connections that last a little longer than a fruit-fly's orgasm, so expect blogging to be less, well, interrupted than in the weeks gone by.

This is ridiculous. The police in Pune showed up so late at the Bhandarkar Institute that the mobs had ample time to loot, destroy and pillage manuscripts without fear of reprisal, haven't yet booked any members of the Sambhaji Sena for their extremely objectionable verbal outbursts--but they have time to register a case against Laine for "writings which hurt the sentiments of people". The first point to be made is that Laine's writings on Shivaji were the product of a scholar who had researched his subject in depth; when a few statements he'd made were taken out of context, he apologised for them anyway. (Rumours that Laine's book claimed that Shivaji had a different father are simply untrue: he merely explored "the fact that the king's parents did not live together for much of his life and that his father moved south and had another family".)
The second point that should be hammered home is that the hoodlums who rampaged through the Pune institute decided to express their sentiments after Laine's book had been withdrawn. To hold Laine accountable for the actions of a mob so illiterate and so disrespectful of their own culture that they destroyed pictures and manuscripts related to Shivaji, the icon whose besmirched honour they were apparently so eager to protect, is to completely warp the course of justice.

Poet Nissim Ezekiel died late on Friday night; he'd been suffering from Alzheimer's for several years. Jerry Pinto writes in Mid-day: "I do not feel as if I have lost a friend, a colleague and a fellow-worker in the salt mines of the word. The onset of Alzheimer's meant that we, Mumbai, its poets, his friends and I lost him by degrees."
The obituaries in non-Mumbai papers have been pathetically brief; politicians get more word-space than poets, even pioneering poets, these days. Two years ago, Ranjit Hoskote had written this moving tribute to Ezekiel for The Hindu--a premature obituary, if you like.
This page has a quote from Ezekiel about how he started using Indian English in his poetry:

"It all started as a comment by a friend who said that you write in
English no doubt and you write English well but you don't seem to even know
or realise that thousands of Indians speak what can only be called Indian
English, because you only meet people who are learning English Literature.
So I said yes, it's true I have never thought in terms of writing what you
call Indian English. I have just thought it was bad English or wrong English
and ignored it. He said no, no, no, you must listen to it. So from that time
in all my train journeys from Mithibai College back home, I began to take
some interest in the way English was being spoken on the train. Every time I
heard an obvious Indian English phrase like, "I'm not knowing only", I would
take it down. When I had about a thousand of these, I thought now is the
time to create a character, who will speak Indian English from beginning to
end."


Rushdie and Padma Lakshmi are in Mumbai. He has nice things to say about Vikram Chandra: "I was hoping to meet him because he is someone whose writings on Bombay I have always liked. Envy is a very good test... when you get annoyed that somebody is so good." That's about the only bit of this fairly lame report you're really going to want to read.

"...More bad poetry is being published now than ever before in Indian history. And whereas our fiction has made a decisive impact on literary writing around the world, nothing very significant has been seen in the output of Indian poetry written in English." Jayanto Mahapatra on the state of his profession today.

* The New York Times on the esoteric world of the photographer who specialises in book jacket photographs of writers: "...Ms. Ettlinger is hard for writers to resist because she is, in some sense, the ideal reader, who will try hard to make them look like the reader's idea of a writer." Urk. It also explains why pets are such a favourite prop--Naipaul with his cat, Ken Kesey with his parrot.

Michael at TwoBlowhards has a provocative post on the difference between book people and movie people: "If the movie-world view is all about the vital connections between art and trash, and about how each is the lifeblood of the other, the book person's imagination is taken up with the neverending struggle of art, talent and brains to triumph over the forces of money, hustle and fame."

If you've been reading online fiction, nominate a short story for The storySouth Million Writers Award for Fiction. "The reason for the Million Writers Award is that most of the major literary prizes for short fiction (such as the Best American Short Stories series and the O.
Henry Awards) ignore web-published fiction. This award aims to show that world-class fiction is being published online and to promote this fiction to the larger reading and literary community."

Jonathan Yardley surprised me by suggesting that The Reivers might provide an easy introduction to Faulkner for intimidated readers. Faulkner's last novel wouldn't have come to my mind as the key to his kingdom, but Yardley makes a very persuasive argument in its favour.

Little Green Men Stole Our Plots: SF writers ponder questions thrown up by the mission to Mars.

Or, Why The Babu Ran Away From His Lit Crit Classes: "The basic enterprise of contemporary literary criticism is actually quite simple. It is based on the observation that with a sufficient amount of clever handwaving and artful verbiage, you can interpret any piece of writing as a statement about anything at all. The broader movement that goes under the label 'postmodernism' generalizes this principle from writing to all forms of human activity, though you have to be careful about applying this label, since a standard postmodernist tactic for ducking criticism is to try to stir up metaphysical confusion by questioning the very idea of labels and categories. 'Deconstruction' is based on a specialization of the principle, in which a work is interpreted as a statement about itself, using a literary version of the same cheap trick that Kurt Godel used to try to frighten mathematicians back in the thirties." (Link courtesy Zigzackly.)

Hmmm. "Naomi Baron has called Netspeak an 'emerging language centaur--part speech, part writing' and David Crystal says computer-mediated language is a genuine 'third medium'. But I don't know. Remember that thing Truman Capote said years ago about Jack Kerouac: 'That's not writing, it's typing'? I keep thinking that what we do now, with this new medium of instant delivery, isn't writing, and it doesn't even qualify as typing either: it's just sending. What did you do today? Sent a lot of stuff."
From Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves. The Babu is cravenly glad that Truss never got going on the subject of blogs.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

When Kitabkhana protested the destruction of the Baghdad library, we had no idea that Pune would witness vandalism on a similar scale. "Thousands of books, rare manuscripts in Sanskrit, Pali and Ardha Magadhi and old Vedic literature, research work, meticulously and painstakingly arranged index cards for reference and photographs were seen strewn all over the two buildings housing the institute after Monday's incident," says this IANS report.
The Sambhaji Brigade, a wing of the Maratha Seva Sangha, was responsible for the assault. The provocation was a passage in Laine's Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India--the book has already been withdrawn and Laine had previously apologised for an error he committed.
Laine comments on the assault and the controversy over his book here: "Today is the saddest day in my career, because my love of Maharashtrian culture has produced a vicious backlash against those institutions and innocent scholars who are devoted to its exploration."
Seventy people, if you can call a screaming mob of hooligans human in any meaningful sense of the word, have been arrested for their role in the destruction of 18,000 books and 30,000 manuscripts. I would wish the worst of fates for them but that won't bring back the years and years of history they've destroyed. Ironically, in their urge to "protect" icons of Hindu culture, these unmitigated barbarians also smashed statues of Ganesh, the god to whom one ritually makes an invocation before embarking on a manuscript, and Saraswati, the goddess of learning.

Laine had made the point that the Sena's attacks and the subsequent withdrawal of his book ensured that there would be no debate--only, as he said, displays of "anger and frustration". He had not intended to write a life of Shivaji; historian Bhaskar Gajanan Mehendale had. But after the attacks on Laine--and a few days before the Pune atrocity--Mehendale announced that he had destroyed a thousand pages of his planned biography. "[He] stated he just wanted ‘‘leaders of the society’’ to react and the attackers to apologise. ‘‘Those who can plan such an attack, can also write the king’s biography,’’ says Mehendale. If the only history that is acceptable is a sanitised, airbrushed history, there will soon be no historians left in this country.

Friday, January 02, 2004

The Babu is typing this from a cybercafe in Calcutta that also sells namkeens and other things to eat. One mentions this only because the other patrons have clearly taken advantage of the offline menu; the keyboard is lightly oiled and fragrant with yesterday's singara stuffing; the connection runs at the speed of sticky treacle; and the amount of porn someone's been downloading is just amazing. (Speaking of which, he obviously visited Bookslut, which I'd bookmarked from the same terminal yesterday, with high hopes that have been belied. No naked pics of J Crispin and co on that site, unfortunately for the perve!)

What with sticky fingers and all, have no time to do much but round up a few links. Happy Slightly Old New Year and enjoy:

Slate completes a year when critics and criticism made the headlines almost as often as those writer chappies by focusing on the best and the worst of criticism.

The Guardian rounds up the year's literary stories so that the likes of the Babu can get on with eating vast quantities of leftover figgy pudding instead of working for a living.

My worst nightmare just came true, but it happened to someone else. Allow me to savour this moment of Schadenfreude.

Little Black Sambo is back, redrawn to suit our politically correct times. Not everyone's thrilled.

* "It's only after your friend's airplane has crashed into a mountain in North Carolina -- killing her, at 32, along with her mother and her father, who was flying the plane -- that everything she ever said to you, and everything anyone ever said to you about her, takes on the weight and shadow, the damnable significance, of history." Michael Chabon pays tribute to the late Amanda Davis.

The Babu can legitimately take an axe to anyone who uses the word "metrosexual" henceforth. He should probably do the same to anyone who uses the word "henceforth" henceforth, like far too many of his Bengali brethren in Calcutta. They also say "notwithstanding" a lot. Don't ask him why.

Slip of the Tongue Department: "Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, the author of Jana Gana Mana..,"

"But maybe his most influential and hazardous work was done in 2002 when he exclusively reported to "The Spoof" on the Grimsby fish filleters strike, where for six weeks, he joined the picket lines of striking workers reporting on their determination to bankrupt their management." Meet the winner of The Nobel Prize For Spoof Literature.

Literature as Better Homes and Gardens, Angler's Guide and Bar Companion. Iain Sharp puts the classics to work.

* Intelligence literature and the CIA's secret librarian.

For obvious reasons, Kitabkhana loved this defence of babus and babudom.