Literature posts

Jaipur, lit

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

So here’s the usual annual reminder about the Jaipur Literature Festival; it’s on from the 21st to the 25th of this month and the list of attending writers is very impressive, as you’d expect. The day-by-day schedule is on the website, but do keep chec…

Birds of a feather… Dhruba Hazarika’s Luck

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

Penguin India has a new eight-book series titled “Jewels from the North-East”, and there are some interesting titles in it. I’ve started Mamang Dai’s Stupid Cupid and look forward to reading A Game of Chess: Classic Assamese Stories, edited by …

Books of 2009: Fiction

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

The Tamil writer Salma’s The Hour Past Midnight (Zubaan) tells the story, and the stories, of a group of women who belong to a Muslim trading and landowning community in a small village in Tamil Nadu. Each one of these characters is vividly brought to life, and the narrator beautifully negotiates multiple visions of love, truth, justice, sorrow, anger, belief and desire: the novel is a magisterial exercise in the working out of point of view. The focus is primarily female, but not exclusively so. We are for time to time catapulted into the lives of patriarchs, husbands, and brothers, and often the predicaments of these men are just as tenderly observed. Lakshmi Holmstrom’s translation often leaves some of the vocabulary of the Salma’s Tamil world intact, thereby making us enter a world as much on its own terms as on ours (readers cannot always demand the rights of consumers). Not the least of the novel’s pleasures is the quality of its thinking about God, who appears sometimes as a source of succour for the miserable and the helpless, sometimes as justice and at other times a perversion of justice, sometimes only as a question or a blank space – and therefore always human, in the sense of always appearing to us filtered through a human imagination. To my mind one of the greatest of Indian novels.

The leisurely and beautifully weighted stories of Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (Random House in India, Norton in America, Bloomsbury in the UK) take what has become a convention in short fiction – the stories of interlinked characters conceding primacy to each other – and raise it into an examination of the many currents of life emanating from the decaying estate of an aging landowner in feudal Pakistan. This world appears, like Salma’s, grossly patriarchal, but we find to our surprise that most of Mueenuddin’s stories are about women, and these women often exert a power over men that pierces the hearts of the heartless. Mueenuddin is often an astute psychologist, as when he shows us an estate manager throwing all caution to the winds in a love affair because he has so carefully calculated his rise that now, for once, “he deserved to make this mistake.” Some of the prose effects of this book are too vivid for description in a single paragraph. Longer essay here.

Orhan Pamuk’s long-awaited The Museum of Innocence (Knopf is America, Faber & Faber in the UK) proved to be a love story that, not for the first time, found a channel that made readers ask: why didn’t we think of this before, the idea of an actual museum for a relationship? A 30-year-old business scion, Kemal Basmaci, falls in love with his beautiful teenaged cousin Fusun and is vividly transported into the wonders of a private and shared vision, even as he about to make what society would think of as “a good marriage” to an attractive and accomplished woman of his same class and standing. Kemal cannot bring to a halt his drift in either direction, and becomes, to his own anguish, a resident of two camps. 1970s Istanbul and its streets, consumer objects, and mores are beautifully worked without any theoretical debris into this highly pleasurable story, the many fine moments of which invite the same rapture as the real experience of love itself.

Narrative swiftness and weightlessness – pure fictional skills, in a way, in which no sentence seems significant enough to be quoted but the story glows with an easy confidence in itself – were also a feature of works of fiction by two old masters: Nocturnes (Knopf in America, Faber & Faber in the UK), a collection of stories about music, memory, and dreaming by Kazuo Ishiguro, and The Middleman (Penguin India), a novel set in the discontented Calcutta of the 1970s by the Bengali novelist Mani Sankar Mukherji, or “Sankar”. Both writers are very adept at dialogue; indeed, since Ishiguro’s stories are all in the first person, they all aspire to the register of talk. Both writers also love plot. Ishiguro likes to move his stories on with little tremors of disbalance or revelation; we are never allowed to settle comfortably into our knowledge. Sankar’s tightly worked story expands just enough around a morally hazy landscape to carry a violent sting in its tail as we witness the protagonist’s journey from innocence to experience. Eudora Welty once observed: “A plot is a thousand times more unsettling than an argument, which may be answered.” Sankar is one of those writers who knows the truth of this, and revels in the power of story to make meaning through a narrative arc. Arunava Sinha’s translation was expertly thought out. Longer essays on these two books are here and here.

A novel explicitly about politics and then about all those things that politics, no matter how omnivorous it is, cannot possess or destroy, Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants (Knopf in America, Fourth Estate in the UK) tells the moving story of a family of a young woman sentenced to death for counter-revolutionary activity in a fictional city in China in the year 1979. As with Salma’s novel, a number of characters, most of them on the margins of society, seem to draw the text out behind their trajectories, and the novel’s amplitude and artistic balance often rouse the reader to wonder. Longer essay here.

Aseem Kaul’s Etudes (Tranquebar) was the work of a truly independent sensibility: a book of 75 very short stories notable for their pellucid observation, dazzling metaphors, and jettisoning of the conventions of realist storytelling (which, in default mode, as it is used by so many practitioners, especially in popular fiction, can be absolutely wearying). A longer essay on Etudes is here. This was only one among several distinguished works of short fiction published in India this year, the others being Jahnavi Barua’s Next Door (Penguin, longer essay here), Mridula Koshy’s If It Is Sweet (Tranquebar, longer essay here), and Nighat Gandhi’s Ghalib At Dusk (Tranquebar, longer essay here).

Sudarshan Purohit’s translation of Surender Mohan Pathak’s The Sixty-Five Lakh Heist (Blaft) brought into the house of Indian fiction in English, for the first time, a colossus from the Hindi pulp-fiction scene, and was a worthy successor to the same publisher’s The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction (2008). Longer essay here.

For a while now the translator Sandra Smith has been bringing to readers English, almost year by year, the vivid and striking novels of the French writer Irene Nemirovsky, who when at the height of her powers was captured by the Nazis and killed in Auschwitz in 1942. This year’s Nemirovsky release was The Dogs and The Wolves (Chatto & Windus in the UK), which follows the stories of three cousins, one rich and the other two poor, across Russia and France and across two decades. Nemirovsky’s passionate and questing protagonists, her shrewd eye for human vanities and hypocrisies, simmering plots, and intensely dramatic and economical style always make her sound like no one else you have read. Longer essay here.

A friend of mine, flipping through the copy of Shariar Mandanipour’s Censoring An Iranian Love Story (Knopf in America, Little, Brown in the UK) lying on my table, expressed shock that I had scored out so many passages of this book with a black pen. This was an unintentional compliment to perhaps the most unusual novel of the year, in which the love-story of two characters, Dara and Shirin, in Tehran, is intercut with the narrator’s own battle to defend the integrity of his text against an army of guideline-obsessed cultural censors (who, even when they find a female character sweating and saying “It’s hot”, immediately set about slashing and burning). Art literally fights for its life in this clever and jazzy postmodern tale, even as the author finds his own two creations rebelling against him and the storyline he has thought for them. When, towards the end of the novel, Dara and Shirin meet and are fulfilled, we totally understand, and are moved, when the narrator begins to speak of “my own loneliness”. A salutary deconstruction, and reconstruction, of fiction as it is conventionally understood. Longer essay here.

A survey of the best non-fiction of 2009 is here.

Books of 2009: Nonfiction

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

Here are The Middle Stage’s favourite nonfiction books of 2009:

MG Vassanji’s A Place Within (Penguin in India, Random House in Canada) was a brilliant meditation on history, religious identity, and Indianness by a novelist turning the questions of his fiction upon his own life and traditions. A member of an old, syncretistic faith, the Ismaili Khojas, Vassanji (who was born in Africa and later migrated to Canada) returns to the Gujarat of his ancestors and to the many Delhis to history to think about where he stands on some of the most vexing issues of our time. “It is always instructive,” writes Vassanji at one point on his travels, “to remind oneself of the obvious fact: The boundaries and names of many places are only recent in origin and often hide richer, more complex truths than one might imagine; the past then becomes inconvenient and slippery, far less easy to generalise.” And in a more personal mode, confessing to an inability to feel the belief of the true believer but also the skepticism of the agnostic: “At any dargah, a shrine of this kind, and even at a temple before a priest, I cannot but help but allow in me a solemn feeling, some respect and humility, for I stand alongside others in a symbolic place that it some manner reflects human existence and frailty, or smallness and exaltedness, and our striving for understanding.” To my mind this is the best Indian travel book of this decade.

Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice (Penguin in India and the UK, Harvard University Press in America) was, at one level, a highly technical and specialised work grappling with key questions in the theorisation of justice, most notably the landmark work by John Rawls on the same subject. But Sen’s book also offered, to any intelligent lay reader interested in being led out of his comfort zone by a very astute tour guide, page upon page of brilliant thinking on both the plural nature of what we think of as “just” or “fair”, while simultaneously insisting that these ideas be rigorously tested in the practical domain of “redressable injustice” instead of only aspiring to a theoretical, almost mathematical, beauty. Sen contests many ideas that have acquired a general currency in the world today, arguing here against rational choice theory and its “remarkably miniaturised view of human rationality”, there against “the propensity [of theories] to account for all appearances from as few principles as possible”, and holding a candle for “the plurality of reasons that a theory of justice has to accommodate.” “Reasoning is central to the understanding of justice even in a world which contains much ‘unreason’,” Sen writes. “Indeed, it may be particularly important in such a world.” The use of that understated and yet somehow reproving phrase “may be”, which actually leaves the reader filling in a stronger word, offers a clue about what it is about Sen’s style that makes his work so persuasive.

Hooman Majd’s The Ayatollah Begs To Differ (Doubleday in America, Penguin in the UK) richly deserved the accolades it won for being one of the best books available on the complexities of modern Iran. One of the very charming features of Majd’s book is that we are brought up close not only with Iran, but also with Majd himself: his love of life’s little pleasures, his sunny nature and love of jokes and absurdities, and his alertness to very subtle nuances of social conduct. I read his work as a meditation not just on how to live when one goes to in Iran, but on how to live. Also perhaps the best book title of the year.

Chaturvedi Badrinath’s The Women of the Mahabharata (Orient Longman) was simultaneously a brilliant philosophical inquiry and a work of subtle and polished literary criticism. Badrinath’s book focuses on twelve significant women in the Mahabharata and the place of their stances and actions within the larger web of meaning embedded in the epic. “In being a most systematic philosophic inquiry into the human condition,” writes Badrinath in one of his moments of flight around the idea of story,”the Mahabharata does not see the meaning of a story in the way it ends. The particular end of a story is not the whole of its meaning.” Both epigrammatic (”Irony is the laughter of truth”) and expansive (it quotes at great length from the text), this is a book which deserves a world and not just an Indian audience. Badrinath is also the author of The Meaning of the Mahabharata.

Another book which offered a brilliant interpretation of key cruxes in the Mahabharata, as well as other questions raised by the Ramayana and that of many other texts in the library of Hinduism, was Wendy Doniger’s magnum opus The Hindus: An Alternative History (Penguin). Doniger’s title gestures at an ambition to write a more comprehensive and inclusive history of Hinduism than the standard narrative allows, concentrating in particular on of women and lower-castes and their modifications of received traditions, as well as the vast internal diversity of Hindu thought itself on any of the big questions. Like Sen, Doniger is happy to accept the plurality of approaches towards the resolution of complicated academic debates; like Majd, she likes a good joke and is not shackled by ideas of scholarly decorum. I was particularly amused by her assertion that Emperor Ashoka’s equivocations and hedging on the subject of non-violence ““is the expression of a man who finds himself between a rock edict and a hard place”.

Jonathan Bate’s Soul of the Age (Penguin in the UK, Random House in America), a biography of Shakespeare by one of the greatest living Shakespeareans, beautifully organised its copious material around Shakespeare’s own famous conceit of the Seven Ages of Man. Bate, who is also the author of the excellent book The Genius of Shakespeare, shows us Will the boy, youth, theatreperson, householder, and businessman against the background of a richly realised world of sixteenth-century reading, rhetoric, politics, statecraft, and even botany. Some of Bate’s readings of individual plays, particularly of King Lear and its vision of human love and folly, showed how literary criticism is not just a response to literature and a meeting of two minds over one text; it is itself a form of literature, and can tint older works with new colours.

Tzvetan Todorov’s Torture and the War on Terror (Seagull Books) was a short, eloquent and trenchant book about the vitiation of both inteliigence and dignity by the use of torture to grill suspects, whether in America’s war on terror in particular or war in general. Todorov refutes various arguments made in support of torture, such the widely circulated “ticking bomb scenario”, and suggests that the long-term damage of torture that is sanctioned by both states and societies – that is, you and me – are far greater than its apparent payoff. “Institutionalized torture is even worse than individual torture,” writes Todorov, “because it subverts the very foundation of the idea of justice and law. If the state itself becomes the torturer, how can we believe in the civil order that it claims to bring or to sanction?”

Harsh Mander’s Fear and Forgiveness: The Aftermath of Massacre (Penguin India) was a compassionate and morally lucid account of what happens to a society – in this case Gujarat after 2002 – for weeks, months, and years in the wake of a genocide. The defining feature of the Gujarat violence to this day, Mander argues, “is the determined absence of remorse in both the state and many segments of the people.” As much as the trials of those who orchestrated large-scale murder and carnage in Gujarat in 2002 are about punishing the guilty, they are also, argues Mander, a way “for the victim to reestablish her or his equal citizenship and rights before the law in a secular democracy.” Mander describes the work done by himself and his volunteers on behalf of those deprived of their livelihoods, families and dignity in the carnage of 2002, but he always sees them as human beings first and victims second, even if this means that they choose not to fight the long fight in the courts.

Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (Penguin in the UK, Pantheon in America) was a beautifully composed meditation on the idea of work as imagined and lived out by 21st-century human beings in a range of situations, from fishing in the deeps of Maldives to the backroom operations of supermarkets. De Botton is less a reporter, more a writer; he is no Barbara Ehrenreich, infiltrating the sites that he wants to investigate. One of the criticisms offered of his book was that he is rarely seen getting his hands dirty, and approaches the work of labour from a certain remove. But it seemed to me better that the writer made this clear, and mined his own mind and intuitions for the significance of what he was seeing, instead of committing himself to a more detached and perhaps quantitative engagement with the situations he was entering. One of the book’s many pleasures was the distinctive filamented cadences of de Botton’s language.

Many excellent meditations on both life and literature were brought together in The Essays of Leonard Michaels (Farrar Straus Giroux). One of the joys of reading Michaels is his emphasis on how writers are as interesting as the thoughts or ideas for which we know them, and that to understand a writer’s ideas we must first and foremost read his sentences, not just seek out his arguments. “Because the sentences from Hegel and Blake also have a form in which their intuitions, and preserved against rational analysis, it is not easy to explain them without letting their pleasure and energy bleed away,” he writes at one point. Elsewhere, in a beautiful meditation on the human face, he writes, “A face is the thing we most consciously bear or carry into public view, while it remains invisible to ourselves; and it is also the thing we contemplate endlessly in others, in the tremendous variety and subtlety of their moods, desires, and meanings….A face is revealing and at the same time a disguise….Whatever we say, our face says it first, or differently, or withholds part of the meaning. It betrays as much as its expresses.” The cover of this book features, appropriately enough, a striking photograph of Michaels.

Dearest Father (Oneworld Classics), a new translation by Richard and Hannah Stokes of a long letter written well into middle age by Franz Kafka to his dominating father Hermann, but never sent, showed us the contorted emotional world and murky artistic wellsprings of one of the greatest of modern writers as perhaps no biography or work of interpretation could. Kafka casts himself and his father as permanently warring but poorly matched antagonists, and his life as one long series of failures presided over by the older man. “I was no real match for you, you soon disposed of me; all that then remained was escape, bitterness, grief, inner struggle,” writes Franz. The sense of human powerlessness which is everywhere in Kafka’s fiction is evoked here as a grown man’s inability to see himself in any other way than as a despairing and unworthy child.

The electrocutioner’s tale

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

Reading about the death of the hangman Nata Mallick – and the fact that West Bengal doesn’t yet have anyone to replace him (or anyone who wants to replace him?) – I was reminded of a short story I used to love: Stanley Ellin’s “The Question?…

A for Adapt

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

Ok, it doesn’t matter how much you dislike Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing, how can you not fall in love with her dad making pulao? Personally, I’m not entirely convinced about either the recipe (no black peppercorns, really?) or Amar Lahiri’s assertion that it’s not buttery, but as a wise person said, “It’s hard to go wildly [...]

An Indian poetry special in The Literary Review

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

The new issue of The Literary Review, an American literary journal that has been published quarterly by Fairleigh Dickinson University for more than fifty years, is a special on Indian poetry. Edited by Sudeep Sen, it has about 200 pages of verse by 44 Indian poets.

Here are three poems from the journal that caught my eye for their quality of thought, delicacy of language and beauty of sound. The first one is by Robin S Ngangom:

After Cavafy

We believe we own them but
In the evening of a street not a soul will be found.
Only a few stars shuffling in the oily sky and
Orange trees for neighbours.
Here, they’ve lain huddled in December waiting
For Christmas to rock them on its pinewood floors
And in blue afternoons
You can see them drowsing in the barber sun.

Relentlessly, a dream has hemmed me in these hills
While the future has cast me as a bleak interpreter of signs.
And so many things to finish
That I did not pay attention to their birth,
There were no labor pains,
And they have shut me off from their hearths.

Some more poems by Ngangom (“Body”, “Flight”, “The Last Word”) are here, and his book Time’s Crossroads is available here.

And here is Karthika Nair’s splendid poem in tercets, “Tempus Fugit”:

Tempus Fugit

I think I would like to die watching you dance,
feet staying quicksilver skies, arms a swift crease
of light across longitudes. Stars rise from trance

at your touch, drape the stage with night while stagehands
mix music (bass from springtides, then soughing trees,
I think). I would like to die watching you dance

the tango with Mistress Time—trellised, by chance
or choice, in memory’s arms—,transform a frieze
to light. Across longitudes, she twists in trance

till lips landlocked by your will blaze morning, lance
the inky continents, where—like yestreen breeze—
I think I would like to die. Watching you dance,

scissor land and sea, curve orbits with bare hands,
Time learns to whirl on lone, hennaed feet: release
of light on longitudes. Stars fall into trance

as you plummet out of life: no backward glance
of farewell, no thunder, no tears. With such ease
would I like to die, I think, watching your dance
—like lightning on longitudes—strike and entrance.

Often, when typing out poems or passages from books for this space, I am able to better appreciate their qualities because the hand is so much slower than the eye, and so the mind stays with the words longer than it ordinarily would. I liked this poem by Nair even better while I was copying it out than when I read it the first time. Nair is the author of a recently published book of poems, Bearings, and some poems from this book are here.

Last, here is Anjum Hasan’s “This Biography”:

This Biography

My heart beat fast or did not beat at all;
I could not say all that I loved and thought
till words deserted me. I loved too abstractly.
I dreaded how all there was to give me was me—
like water, this biography. I unravelled far too easily
then fled to selfish deserts and slept on the hardest rocks.
I couldn’t make what others made and broke and broke
and made, that sweet choreography. I went alone
and missed the world continually. I misread smiles;
I stuttered before open arms, but time passed too fast
for disappointment’s imprint on the glass of memory.
I sought the future even when the blood swirled now,
I let the past decide too greedily. I kept searching out
the window, I tried to stay half hidden by the light.

Hasan is the author of the collection Street In The Hill. Here are some of her poems (“Mawlai”, “Small Town”, “To The Chinese Restaurant”), and some more can be read here.

Meanwhile, almost every Saturday in Mint Lounge you will find on the books page a new poem by an Indian poet, and here are three recent ones: “Ghost Sounds” by Aruni Kashyap, “Identification Marks” by Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, and “New Delhi Love Song” by Michael Creighton.

And lastly, an old post about a great seventeenth-century Indian poet, Salabega: “Tigers in the poetry of Salabega and William Blake”.


Friday, November 20th, 2009

Check out the intricate White Tiger cover in Bulgarian, a Cyrillic spin on the tale of the übermensch. When I first learned Punjabi, that Gurmukhi script used the same glyphs as Hindi for different sounds struck me as an elaborate joke. I was being punked by an unseen prankster. And with Cyrillic: the ‘H’ is [...]

In Bhima’s voice: M T Vasudevan Nair’s Randaamoozham and Prem Panicker’s Bhimsen

Sunday, November 15th, 2009

[I’ve written earlier on this blog about Prem Panicker’s Bhimsen series; here’s the text of a story I did for Business Standard Weekend]The literal English translation of the Malayalam word Randaamoozham is “next in line”. Slightly extended, …

Notes on Paul Theroux’s A Dead Hand

Friday, November 13th, 2009

Just finished Paul Theroux’s new novel A Dead Hand, which features a Theroux-like narrator-protagonist – Jerry Delfont, an itinerant travel writer currently living in Calcutta, looking for a story, and suffering from a bad case of writer’s block …

On Aseem Kaul’s Etudes

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

Two moments involving the clothes of departed people might serve to give a sense of the distinctive mood and method of Aseem Kaul’s book of very short stories, Etudes. In “The Shirt”, we see a woman who has recently been widowed. Every day she continues to wash one of her late husband’s shirts and then hangs it out to dry, watching – the image is both macabre and touching – “the empty shape of him billow in the back yard.”

And in “The Smell of Smoke”, a woman is abruptly left by her partner, and decides instantly to give away all his clothes. The narrator proffers this observation: “There was something very attractive in the idea that if he did come back (not that she allowed herself to think about this, not even for a moment) he would find his wardrobe empty.” Although the parentheses insist that the woman is not considering the possibility of the man’s return, we know, of course, from the very vehemence of her insistence that she is. The sentence is simultaneously a description of both determination and desolation.

Almost uniquely among Indian short-story writers in English, Kaul is determinedly a writer of short shorts (for similarly compressed and elliptical work by contemporary Indian writers in English, I can think only of Kuzhali Manickavel’s Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings). Kaul’s characters are rarely named, their backgrounds barely sketched in, and the places they live in almost never described—all the pillars and plinths on which realist storytelling is based are rigorously cleared away. But for all the austerity of the writer’s method, his creations seem no less real than those of realist writers. What we see his characters do, primarily, is think. In his best stories, we feel as if mind has insidiously established contact with mind, in the same way as we might in a conversation with someone we have just met.

Indeed, many of Kaul’s stories are built upon a model of conversation, either real or imagined. One of them, “Where Shall We Go For Dinner?”, is written entirely in dialogue, without a single word of narratorial explanation. It shows us a couple quarreling over where to eat dinner, and then making up. It is hard to work from such a simplified palette, so the success of this story is no small achievement.

In another story, “Conversation”, a man begins to track the voice of the woman who lives next door, because he can hear her on the telephone through the wall they share. Although they never actually speak, he becomes more and more involved with her life, . When he realises she is sad, he takes “to playing soft music at night – works for solo piano” to soothe her (as the title of his book indicates, this is clearly the kind of music Kaul loves best). But, churlishly, the woman complains about the disturbance, and makes the narrator gloomy. One day he finally takes the plunge, and calls her. She picks up the phone. “He doesn’t say anything, just sits there, hearing her voice coming through the receiver on the one hand, through the wall on the other. Like a conversation.” Kaul’s arresting ending beautifully fulfils the spirit and strangeness of the story.

Like the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who is clearly one of the moving spirits behind Etudes, Kaul loves to write a certain type of mind-bending fiction. In one story, “Googled”, the protagonist Bihag Sharma (one of the few characters in the book who are named) googles his own name, and is astonished to find, among the search results, a few links dated 2014, describing things that are going to happen in his future. Google’s reach and power are now so immense, the story suggests, that is knows not just every bit about our past but also the future. A story called “Juliet” puts a wicked modern spin on the love story of Romeo and Juliet, suggesting that Juliet was really a malevolent schemer who cozened Romeo into sacrificing himself so that she could marry someone else. Kaul’s mischief extends all the way to the back cover, with its list of quotes by fictional reviewers, including one Orhan Gutan.

Here, in full, is the story with which the book opens, called “Note Autobiographical”:

Note Autobiographical

Every time he speaks to himself you sense something missing, something not quite true. It’s not that you doubt his sincerity—on the contrary, you know he’s making every effort to be honest. It’s just that by putting himself in the spotlight he has blinded himself to his own shadow, to the audience of alternate selves who watch him from the wings. He tells you what he sees, but all the while the real self remains invisible, like light seen from the inside of a bulb.

It’s like the difference between the way you picture yourself and your face in a photograph. The way you hold your breath at immigration, waiting to see if the man examining your passport will accept you for who you are.

In six sentences, many truths and intimations about the self are captured, and the three metaphors—the two light-related ones of the spotlight and the inside of a bulb, and the one about the difference between the face’s conception of itself and its look in a photograph—are all rich with suggestion, with lights and shadows. Even such a short piece attests to the writer’s control over prose rhythm, and indeed, while the 75 stories in Etudes might prove wearying if read at one go, there is not a page here that does not reveal in some way the writer’s ferocious intelligence and alertness to metaphysical complexity.

These winning pieces might be seen not only an assertion of a new kind of method, but also be seen as a tacit criticism of the lazy gestures and banalities of much realist storytelling, particularly from the subcontinent. Such a fresh and strange sensibility is very welcome in the house of Indian fiction.

And an older post on another writer of very short stories: “The zany fictions of Etgar Keret”, which features Keret’s strange and beautiful story “Pipes”.

‘Continents’ revisited: meeting Ved Mehta

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

[Did a version of this profile for Tehelka]“Most of us experience our parents as authority figures, we don’t think of them as human beings,” says Ved Mehta. We’re discussing his books Daddyji and Mamaji, now republished in graceful new editions…

Twilight with Sir Salman

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Craig Ferguson brings us a very entertaining, Halloween-themed Rushdie interview. They discuss vampires, Enchantress, Michiko Kakutani, sexual awakenings at Cambridge, Romanian translators, graphic novels, the difference between red and green kryptonite, and dick jokes. (thanks, Joolz)

An essay in Foreign Policy

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Recently Foreign Policy magazine invited me to venture some thoughts on the problems of and pressures on the Indian novel in English in a globalising time. The essay I wrote, “English Spoken Here”, appears this week in the November/December issue.

Here are some essays that discuss in greater detail some of the novels brought up in this piece: Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, Fakir Mohan Senapati’s Six Acres And a Third, Manil Suri’s The Age of Shiva, and Ali Sethi’s The Wish Maker.