What is Suprose?

Welcome to Suprose.

Why Su-prose? "Su" in Sanskrit is a prefix for "good". This is a place where we will discuss and analyze prose (with a South Asian Connection) - that which is good, awesome, excellent, and maybe rant about prose that could be better.

Whether you love prose, are a prose expert, or want to learn more about prose, or to put it simply want to have anything to do with prose, this blog is for you.

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Girls of Riyadh --Modern women in a traditional world…

Originally released in Arabic in 2005, the novel Girls of Riyadh or Banat al-Riyadh, was immediately banned in Saudi Arabia due to controversial and inflammatory content. Black-market copies of the novel circulated and the daring originality of Girls of Riyadh continues to create a firestorm all over the Arab world and has been a bestseller across much of the Middle East.
Girls of Riyadh is a novel that narrates the love stories of four young Saudi girls, Lamees, Michelle (half Saudi, half American), Gamrah, and Sadeem in the form of emails. This novel reveals the social, romantic, sexual adventures and tribulations of these four young women from the elite classes of Riyadh.
Every week, after Friday prayers, an anonymous female narrator sends an email to the subscribers of her online chat group. The novel unfolds in 50 such emails spanning over a year. The world that these four women inhabit is a modern one that contains flirting with boys at the mall, and this affluent contemporary existence causes the girls to collide endlessly with the customs of a culture rooted firmly in an ancient way of life.
Thus it is no surprise that this novel caused an uproar. This is the story of women who negotiate their love lives, professional successes, and rebellions large and small against the strict traditions of their society. This novel represents the mongrel culture of a globalized world, reflecting the way in which the Arab world is being changed by new economic and political realities. Even though the novel is set in Riyadh the characters travel all over the world shedding traditional garb as they cross over into western society.
These are women who have embraced modern culture and way of thought, as did the author of this novel. Rajaa Alsanea grew up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the daughter of a family of doctors. She currently lives in Chicago where she is a dental graduate student. She is twenty-five years old and this is her first novel.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

An Initiated Doctor Reminisces

Sanjay Gupta, Atul Gawande and Sandeep Jauhar - What do they have in common? They are all ambivalent doctors with a passion for media and communications. Dr. Gupta is a neurosurgeon with a published book under his belt, a glamorous reporting job with CNN, and a generous female fan following, Dr. Gawande is a sought after surgeon and a renowned writer and author of many popular non-fiction books pertaining to the medical field.
Another one to join this growing clan of doctors, is Dr. Jauhar, a thriving cardiologist and the director of the Heart Failure Program at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, also a medical journalist. Since 1998, he has been writing regularly about medicine for the New York Times. His writing has also been published in Reader's Digest, Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine, and he has appeared on CNN, CNN Headline News and National Public Radio. Dr. Jauhar’s memoir “Intern: A Doctors Initiation” published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (December 26, 2007), is a refreshing look at the alluring and lucrative medical profession.
This memoir is Dr. Sandeep Jauhar’s story of his days and nights in residency at a busy hospital in New York City, a trial that led him to question every assumption about medical care today. Residency—and especially the first year, called internship—is legendary for its brutality. Working eighty hours or more per week, most new doctors spend their first year asking themselves why they wanted to be doctors in the first place. This book is also a love story of sorts and more significantly the story of an immigrant family with strong cultural traditions and modern ambitions.
Like many others, Jauhar’s parents were also distressed when Jauhar earned his PhD in Physics from the University of California in Berkeley, with thoughts of becoming a lawyer, academic or writer. For them these were not lucrative professions. They should have been relieved when he answered his calling and decided to become a cardiologist, yet they were concerned about him “changing horses in the middle of the stream.” Jauhar was determined. For him, “Physics was an enterprise of reflection, ideas. Medicine was an endeavor of prescription, of action. Becoming a doctor, I hoped, would bring me back into the real world. It would make me into a man.”
Jauhar’s internship was even more harrowing than most: he switched from physics to medicine in order to follow a more humane calling—only to find that medicine put patients’ concerns last. He struggled to find a place among squadrons of cocky residents and doctors. He challenged the practices of the internship in The New York Times, attracting the suspicions of the medical bureaucracy. Then, suddenly stricken, he became a patient himself—and came to see that today’s high-tech, high-pressure medicine can be a humane science after all.
“I was an Intern a decade ago, but I still remember it the way soldiers remember war,” writes Jauhar in his memoir, recounting the first year of his medical residency – navigating the pitfalls of nights on call, calling codes, informed consent, treating depression other than his own, and generally coping with patients so exhausted, frustrated and scared that patients and doctor alike just want to go home.
Jauhar writes with dexterity about various incidents, cases, medical staff and patients he encountered during his residency years. These little stories, spice up the otherwise bland subject of medical residency, making it interesting to a non-medical reader. These incidents also elucidate the difficult lives of doctors, whom many forget are also human beings who need to train themselves very hard to be emotionally detached from their patients in order to be rational and provide better service.
This is a profession that is physically demanding as well, especially with the nightfloats and the on call schedules running into a continuous 36-hour stretch. “On call nights, the ward was like a sleeping village, and you were the night watchman on patrol with your penlight and stethoscope,” muses Jauhar, “Sometimes I worried about how I was going to get through another night on call, until I realized that my patients were helping me. Their bodies had the homeostatic reserve, the capacity to self correct, to compensate for my mistakes.”
After struggling with the difficulties surrounding the internship, Jauhar gradually arrives at a curve in the road, “The month long rotation in the ICU was a turning point. Like a phase transition, the transformation was almost imperceptible, yet the results were striking. When I got back to the wards I discovered a level of comfort I could never have imagined as an intern, or even early on in my second year.”
He successfully endures the rigors of his residency and is near the end when he looks back at his experience. “What a strange experiment I had conducted! Bailing out of a promising physics career in my mid-twenties to go to medical school. And then a clinical residency in internal medicine when I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be a doctor. It had been a foolhardy mission, and yet it occurred to me that I would do it all over again,” reminisces Jauhar.
With it’s many case histories full of vivid detail, many of them quite gory, this book is an interesting read for all lovers of the hit NBC show ER, and for that matter anyone who is interested in the trials and tribulations in the life of a doctor.

Reviewed by Visi Tilak

Thursday, October 11, 2007

India After Gandhi

It appeared that the Indians loved pomp and ceremony as much as their departing rulers did. Across Delhi, and in other parts of India, both state and citizens joyously celebrated the coming of independence. Three hundred flag raising functions were reported from the capital alone. In the country’s commercial hub, Bombay, the mayor hosted a banquet at the posh Taj Mahal Hotel. At a temple in the Hindu holy town of Banaras, the national flag was unfurled by, significantly , a Muslim. In the north-eastern hill town of Shillong, the governor presided over a function at which the flag was raised by four persons – a Hindu boy and girl and a Muslim boy and girl, for “symbolically it is appropriate for young India to hoist the flag of the new India that is being born.”
– from India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha.
“India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy,” is a engrossing narrative, all about the creation of a new democracy, it’s evolution, it’s struggles and triumphs as it lived through the first 60 years of it’s subsistence. Guha’s expertise in history, sociology and politics are manifest in this, his latest book.
Ramachandra Guha writes compellingly of the myriad protests and conflicts that have peppered the history of free India. But he writes also of the factors and processes that have kept the country together (and kept it democratic), defying numerous prophets of doom who believed that its poverty and heterogeneity would force India to break up or come under autocratic rule. Once the Western world looked upon India with a mixture of pity and contempt; now it looks upon India with fear and admiration, despite her struggles with cultural differences and religious disturbances.
“As Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Indian leader of the Muslim League, said ruefully in a 1940 speech, seven years before he founded Pakistan: “The Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs and literature. They neither intermarry, nor interdine together, and indeed they belong to two different civilizations.” To say that India is riven by myriad factions and castes and, more fundamentally, divided between two religions is to describe a particularly vicious curse,” says Isaac Chotiner in his review in the New York Times.
Chotiner then adds, “One of the achievements of Ramachandra Guha’s deeply felt new history is that the author remains acutely aware of both the truths and falsehoods contained in Jinnah’s remark. A visitor to the world’s second most populous country can, without much effort, witness nasty and sectarian politicking in New Delhi or Mumbai. And the consequences — vicious religious rioting, scars on both India’s landscape and her people — are all too visible. Yet Hindus and Muslims do dine in one another’s homes, and they play on the same cricket teams. Guha’s central aim is to register these discordant notes, and for the most part he succeeds admirably.”
Moving between history and biography, this story of modern India is peopled with extraordinary characters. Guha gives fresh insights on the lives and public careers of those long-serving prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. There are vivid sketches of the major "provincial" leaders whose province was as large as a European country: the Kashmiri rebel turned ruler Sheikh Abdullah; the Tamil film actor turned politician M. G. Ramachandran; the Naga secessionist leader Angami Zapu Phizo; the socialist activist Jayaprakash Narayan. But the book also writes with feeling and sensitivity about lesser known (though not necessarily less important) Indians—peasants, tribals, women, workers and musicians.
In a review in “The Guardian” Amit Chaudhuri says, “Guha tells us what happened elegantly, sometimes doggedly: but it's by constantly implying what might have, while disavowing it with the professional historian's gesture, that he brings his copious material to life.”
Massively researched and elegantly written, India After Gandhi is at once a magisterial account of India's rebirth and the work of a major scholar at the height of his powers. K.K. Panikkar, in a review in “The Hindu” agrees, yet questions Guha’s optimism, “Guha has admirably captured the spirit of the struggling nation. However, at the end a doubt lingers in the mind: whether the author has overstated his case about the strength of Indian democracy, underplaying in the process some of its glaring weaknesses. A fairly large section of the population is deprived of the benefits of democracy, particularly their right to a share of the wealth of the nation. That they remain in the margins of the democratic process can hardly be wished away.”
Chotiner prognosticates, “Guha terms modern-day India a “populist” democracy, which is probably as good a term as any. The question he leaves unanswered is how the country will be able to overcome crushing poverty and overpopulation without exacerbating religious tensions and imperiling its already strained environment. Guha would probably say that India’s hope lies in the strength of its democratic institutions, which have shown impressive and surprising resilience. We can only hope he is right.”
“Guha, as a citizen, has been "exasperated" by India, but, in the light of historical evidence, has been won over by it. This mixture of distance and surrender is fairly emblematic of why many middle-class Indians continue to invest themselves, emotionally, in the country; it's quite distinct from patriotism,” says Chaudhuri who then goes on to surmise, “To suggest the ambiguity of his own relationship with the country of his birth, and also his utter investment in it, Guha has often in the past used some oddball Englishman of distinction who's lived in India or thought about it as a metaphor: Verrier Elwin, EP Thompson. In his epilogue, Guha invokes the biologist JBS Haldane, who, moved by the "wonderful experiment" India had embarked on, decided to become an "Indian citizen". Guha's book reminds us that the citizenly pride that permeates it is not incompatible with judgment, hindsight, intelligence and distance; that citizenship is not a natural thing, but that it is, in some cases, inevitable.”
Guha best sums up his views in a passage in his epilogue, “Is India a democracy then? The answer is, well, phipty-phipty (as in the immortal quote form Hindi film actor Johnny walker). It mostly is a democracy as regards holding elections and permitting freedom of movement and expression. It mostly is not as regards the functioning of politicians and political institutions. However, that India is even 50% a democracy flies in the face of tradition, history, and conventional wisdom.”

Reviewed by Visi Tilak

Friday, September 21, 2007

Divisadero – Of Intersecting Lives, Divides and Links

“Gotraskhalana, is a term in Sanskrit poetics for calling a loved one by a wrong name, and means literally, ‘stumbling on the name.’ It’s a familiar occurrence in the Restoration-like fables of marital life and love affairs collected by the scholar Wendy Doniger. What these verbal accidents do is aim a flashlight into the brain, reveal it’s vast museum of facts and desires.”

Michael Ondaatje, is not compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Faulkner for nothing. He has been called a thinker, an explorer and a seeker of truth. What sets him apart for me is his fabulous use of language and ability to concoct intricate plots yet narrate them simply and effortlessly like a beautifully woven tapestry, these are his strengths.

While some accuse Ondaatje’s work of being too poetic, that’s what brings music and melody to Divisadero. Like jazz music, the narrative in Divisadero traverses back and forth in time and place. Each character finds some foothold in a present born of their entrenched past.

Anna, the protagonist narrates this story, which is set in 1970’s Northern California. A father and his teenage daughters Anna and Claire work their farm with the help of Coop, short for Cooper. Their life is torn apart and sets fire to the rest of their lives. Subsequently, Coop’s life as a poker player, Claire’s attempt to rebuild her life as a public defender’s legal researcher and Anna’s pursuit of an academic career at Berkley, form the latter half of the novel.

In parallel, Anna’s interest in French literature takes her to the French countryside and to the home of the late author Lucien Segura. As she delves into research and slowly reconstructs Segura’s life she finds that Segura’s life is connected episode by episode and image by image to the story of her own family. Love, loss and reminiscence play soulful melodies through this lyrical narrative, laying upon it the Ondaatje brand.

Divisadero is a word that Ondaatje says he fell in love with many, many years ago. A word that has two meanings at least, - it is a street in San Francisco from the Spanish word for “divide,” but it also means “gaze from afar” in Spanish. “I just loved that name: it had first of all, more vowels than my own name, which is rare! And it was the sound – a great word,” says Ondaatje.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The New World, New Experiences, New Challenges

The Hindi Bindi Club,the title of a novel by Monica Pradhan, is also the nickname given by her three characters, Kiran, Preity, and Rani to their mothers who left India to start life anew. They have remained close for decades, sharing treasured recipes, honored customs and the challenges of adjusting to a new world.

Theis novel is anout the three girls who are once again coming home, to a suburb of Washington D.C. for the holidays, to food, family, gossip and reflections.

Meenal Deshpande’s daughter Kiran returns home after a failed marriage that occurred despite her father’s disapproval. This will be her first trip home in five years. She arrives home craving tradition, wanting a family of her own, and wondering if a semi-arranged marriage is the answer.

Saroj Chawla’s daughter Preity is happily married with two delightful children. Most would describe it as the perfect life. What Preity is haunted by, however, is not the present. A past encounter with her soulmate is keeping her up at night, remembering and wondering.

Uma Basu McGuiness’s daughter Rani, is a rocket scientist-turned-artist, a career move which, while painful for her parents, has proven successful. Instead of celebrating her success with an opening night exhibition on the horizon, she is drowning in depression, her creative juices run dry.

For Kiran, Preity and Rani, adulthood bears the indelible stamp of their upbringing, from the way they tweak their mothers cooking to suit their western lifestyles to the ways they reject their mothers’ most fervent beliefs. Now they are inexorably drawn back home to confront the disappointment and successes of their chosen paths and to question whether they have the courage to hold on to their dreams and create new ones.

Most of all, what stands out about this novel is the use of proverbs or sayings to initiate the reader to each chapter. For instance, the chapter titled “Rani McGuiness Tomashot Reincarnation” is introduced with the renowned saint Kabir’s “doha” or saying “A diamond was laying in the street covered with dirt. Someone who knew diamonds picked it up.” This is a wonderful way of enlightening readers by presenting them with the profound thoughts of spiritual gurus while associating a story or an anecdote to it, to motivate them to reflect on the idea.

Similar to Like Water for Chocolate and the Joy Luck Club, this novel attempts to talk about two or more generations of a culture influenced by immigration and westernization. Peppered with recipes to enthuse the reader, this debut novel from a financial manager turned writer, is a pleasant light read which reflects themes of family, women, culture and the influence of love on life and the soul.

Reviewed by Visi Tilak

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Lure Of The West and How to be Modern in South Asia

“The societies, culture, and traditions of countries like Tibet, Pakistan, India and others are becoming diluted by western influences,” this has long been the grievance of many patriots and thinkers. Echoing this reflection, the mutability of cultural boundaries is a familiar theme in Pankaj Mishra’s works, as in his latest book “Temptations of the West: How To Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond,” which raises several questions about the cultural, political and social upheavals currently taking place in Southern Asia.
Mishra, an erudite intellectual in this book, his fifth one to date, identifies the more important issues that have risen out of such intense cultural change. From the pressures and temptations presented by Western style modernity, the lure of prosperity, and the paradoxical nature of globalization, as both an agent for change and an eraser of cultural history, Mishra astutely juggles the ever increasing number of problems currently facing the people of Southern Asia.
From Bollywood stardom it’s mafia and it’s financiers, to India’s post-independence politics, to the troubled state of Kashmir, to packaging Tibetan Buddhism to tourists, Mishra furnishes a vivid picture of modern India and it’s counterparts, that is straightforward and candid while at the same time describing the real life human beings who struggle to understand their constantly changing way of life.
His references to Muslim insurgency, his declaration that Hinduism in the hands of these Indians has never looked more like the Christianity and Islam of popes and mullahs and less like the multiplicity of unselfconsciously tolerant faiths it still is for most Indians, might infuriate many Indian readers, not to mention those of the middle class that seek Western endorsement.
The toughest of critics though have been captivated by Mishra’s latest book, which is partly autobiographical in nature. John Gray of the “Guardian” encapsulates Mishra’s latest book perfectly, “Like his study of the Buddha this is a genre-bending book. It begins autobiographically with an account of Mishra's time as an unofficial student, reading voraciously in the decaying libraries of a run-down Indian university, and continues with his adventurous travels throughout India, Kashmir, Pakistan and Tibet.” Ben Macintyre of the New York Times is all praise as well, “Mishra has a talent for discovering such extraordinary, even lurid characters to illuminate his account of dashed dreams, clashing religions, huge wealth, crushing poverty, corruption, oppression and, almost unbelievably, hope.”
While one may argue that Mishra, since he lives in India part of the time and in London for the other art, is not really an insider, his writing has always been inspiring and thought provoking. Temptations of the West, though angry and passionate, is insightful and eloquent. His vivid and lyrical language, make his experiences all the more rich and exotic. This is a book about history in the making and about a conflicted world, which is explained lucidly by a writer with an analytic mind and the skills of a journalist.

Reviewed by Visi Tilak

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Splendid Reading For A Thousand Suns And Beyond

Khaled Hosseini’s second novel,“A Thousand Splendid Suns” debuted as the #1 book in the nation, and it held the top position for four straight weeks. In addition to being #1 on The New York Times hardcover fiction list, it was also #1 on nearly every national bestseller list, including USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Publishers Weekly, and Fort-Wayne Journal-Gazette.
At the axis of a nation that is changing politically and socially, in the midst of carnage and bloodshed, two women from completely different backgrounds, develop a strong relationship that even death cannot do apart. This is the story that is told in a Thousand Splendid Suns, a touching, emotional tale of a friendship that grows stronger in the heart of a nation that falls apart and tries to rebuild itself.
Mariam, a “Harami”, illegitimate daughter of a wealthy businessman from Herat, is forced into marriage with a much older shoemaker from Kabul. Mariam’s mother has recently committed suicide, something she blames herself for. After coming to terms with her marriage, she fails to bear her heavyset husband, Rasheed a child. The relationship between Rasheed and Mariam becomes abusive and highly matter-of- fact in the midst of a changing Afghanistan.
Laila, a neighbor’s child whom Rasheed and Mariam have watched growing up, loses her love and her siblings and parents to the war and fighting. Having been brought up in an intellectual environment she is saved by Mariam and Rasheed, whom she eventually agrees to marry for reasons that are only known to her.
Two women from two completely different backgrounds and of very different upbringing are thrown together in the middle of war. They suffer the oppression of their husband, the fighting and political environment together. Though Laila and Mariam begin their relationship as co-wives with hostility, it wanes quickly and becomes an eternal companionship that goes beyond mortality.
Hossieni’s first book, The Kite Runner, which is still on the top ten list, is about the relationship between fathers and sons. His second book is about the relationship between two Afghani women, told magnificently and succinctly in simple and effortless prose by a skilled storyteller, while interweaving the factual history of a besieged nation in the background.
A Thousand Splendid Suns went back to press almost daily its first week on sale, building to 1,255,000 copies in print in the U.S. Rolling into its second week, the book continued to fly out of stores, with another 150,000 more copies printed. Now in its sixth week, the current in-print total for A Thousand Splendid Suns is over 1,400,000; and growing…
Visi Tilak is an award winning writer who lives in Ashland, MA

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

“The form the novel, with the narrator and his audience both acting as characters, allowed me to mirror the mutual suspicion with which America and Pakistan (or the Muslim world) look at one another’” says Mohsin Hamid.
Hamid is author of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a novel which is written as a monologue, a very challenging style since the author has to guarantee credibility while safeguarding against tedium. It’s stimulating, unsettling prose and surprise ending are thought provoking and evocative.
Hamid’s second novel draws upon the author’s own experiences in America and is the story of Changez who is living an immigrant’s dream of America. He is at the top of his class in Princeton and is snapped up by the elite evaluation firm of Underwood Samson. What drive him are the energy of New York City and the budding romance with a rich classmate, the elegant and beautiful Erica whom he gets close to during a summer vacation in Greece. With Erica, Changez has the promise of entry into Manhattan society at the same exalted level once occupied by his own family back in Lahore.
In the wake of September 11, Changez’s world is turned upside down. Tables are turned on him. His position in his adopted city is abruptly reversed. His relationship with Erica is eclipsed by the reawakened ghosts of her past. Changez starts questioning his own identity. Ethnic profiling and external influences unearth allegiances more fundamental than money, power and maybe even love.
A few years later, Changez eloquently relates his American experiences to an American man he meets at a café in Lahore. The American mans visit to Pakistan could very well do with recent Anti-American activities. Is this a conversation between a terrorist and a spy? Changez, from a successful, slick and well settled professional in New York to the bearded, traditionally dressed, vaguely menacing stranger in Lahore accompanies the unnamed American man to the latter’s hotel, building the climax with skilled suspense and trepidation.
Hamid elucidates, “The Pakistani narrator wonders: is this just a normal guy or is he a killer out to get me? The American man who is his audience wonders the same. And this allows the novel to inhabit an interior emotional world much like the exterior political world in which it will be read. The form of the novel is an invitation, which if the reader accepts, will in turn implicate the reader, because the reader will be called upon to judge the novel’s outcome and shape it’s ending.”

Reviewed by Visi Tilak

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Karma and Other Short Stories

Karma, chance, fate, destiny, providence, are the muses of the stories skillfully crafted by Rishi Reddi in her debut collection of short stories. Set mostly in the Boston area, the stories vividly portray the interconnected lives of members of the Indian American community who struggle to balance the demands of a traditional Indian culture with the charm of a modern Western life.
The title story “Karma,” deftly crafted, is about two brothers Shankar and Prakash who live together with their families. About a year after helping him immigrate to America, the younger and the wealthier one Prakash, asks Shankar the older one, an unemployed colonial history professor to leave his house, because Shankar lost his job as a convenience store clerk. Shankar moves out with his family and tries to find a job, any job, and while trying to file a claim at the Massachusetts Division of Unemployment, he inadvertently becomes a rescuer of birds in downtown Boston.
In “Justice Shiva Ram Murthy, “ which appeared in the Best American Short Stories 2005, an irascible retired judge reconnects with a childhood friend while trying to adjust to a very different way of life after moving in with his daughter and her husband. In “Lord Krishna,” a teenager is frustrated and offended when his evangelical history teacher likens the Hindu deity to Satan, but forgives him against his father’s wishes in the end.
A widow decides to return to her native village in India to flee her sons off-putting ways in “Bangles.” In “Devadasi,” a young girl visits Hyderabad to learn dancing from a famous Bharatnatyam dancer, right around the time of the Babri Masjid riots. On her way to the dance studio during the unrest, her Muslim driver saves her from becoming a victim of the riots .
Even though the stories are very well written and reach out to some thoughtful realms, one oddity is the use of unusual spellings and pronunciations for some common terms, such as chalwar kameez for the more commonly known Salwar Kameez and Sonnayi for Shehnai.
The social themes of the stories are very relevant in today’s world. “Many of the themes “Karma” addresses grew out of my family’s own experience as immigrants in America. Writing it was a way for me to understand my parents’ story, and thereby understand my own story,” says author Rishi Reddi.

Monday, May 7, 2007

A Conversation With Ed Luce

Ed Luce is the Washington bureau chief of the Financial Times, and author of “In Spite of The Gods – The Strange Rise of Modern India” published by Random House. Describing India’s “schizophrenic” economy, the astounding reach of its massive government, the intricacies of the caste system, Hindu nationalism, India’s ruling families, India’s large Muslim minority, it’s upward trajectory of trade and industry, it’s paradoxically modern and traditional society, and the implications of India in the global future. In his book, Luce reveals that India’s technological revolution, which has been vilified as a threat to American prosperity plays a tiny role in the overall Indian economy.

1. You traveled extensively in India to write "In Spite of the Gods". What were the highlights of your travels?

There were so many. I took a year off from The Financial Times to write this book. Prior to that though, I was the Financial Times Delhi bureau chief for four years and I traveled constantly. It is very hard to single out any, I generally loved traveling in India it is such a varied country. It's such a compellingly diverse society that traveling is always educational. In fact it is a little bit similar to living in Washington. There is no equivalent for beltway/cabin fever in Delhi. If you stay in Delhi too long your sense of reality needs to be corrected, the only way to do that is to get out of Delhi. The same applies to Washington. There should be an equivalent phrase IN DELHI to Beltway fever.

2. What other cities that you went to stand out in your mind?

I love Bombay. If and when we live in India I would prefer to be based there. I find the attitude of people a lot more open. Less status conscious, less of a business card giving, more frank and open and more cosmopolitan in a way and less public sector. It's the same as the difference between Washington and New York.

3. What do you like best about the book? What do you think you might have liked to emphasize better? What would you change now if you could?

The book is a perishable commodity. This is essentially a book of journalism by a journalist. Although I draw in a lot of scholarship and reference it and perhaps, AS JOURNALISTS OFTEN DO, unconsciously plagiarize OTHERS, it's not going to be as relevant five years from now. It's really a snapshot of contemporary India and how it is changing. And because India is changing very fast a lot of things are happening though some of it would become outdated pretty quickly rather than a book on Russia which I don't think is changing AT THE SAME SPEED. So I wouldn't really be able to change that aspect of it.

I'd like it to have a decent shelf life because I think I have condensed a lot of observations and learning into this book. And tried to sort of portray that lightly rather than in a heavy going manner but there is nothing I can do about that. A direct answer to your question is that there is no aspect of the book that I can change. It would be the weak point of the book. It is not going to be NEARLY AS relevant four years from now. India is changing very rapidly

4. What were some challenges you faced while writing this book?

Well, journalists writing books… I am used to what we say in England, we call it "Tommorrow's Fish and Chip paper" you know because we wrap up Fish and Chips in newspapers. I am used to thinking maybe a week, maximum two weeks ahead for a long feature and getting that kind of instant gratification. The book is very different psychologically, temperamentally, for journalists it is quite an adjustment. This is something you have to ensure is relevant, you have to immunize yourself against this short termist thing that journalists sometimes suffer from. So what I did at the beginning of the book process was go through four years worth of notebooks, it took a long time it took several weeks, about a hundred densely written notebooks, and I condensed these into four notebooks, but taking notes on notes. From the journalism I had done, its amazing how much you forget, in retrospect, how it's often the unimportant stuff that you have actually reported on. The passage of time shows you how much you have not used you have probably only print in the newspaper about ten percent of what you write down of the interviews you conduct and so forth. So it was first and foremost a very useful exercise, in discovering how much I had forgotten.

I never understood this phrase until I started writing this book which is "The urgent drives out the merely important," it sort of reinforced that phrase to me. A lot of journalism is the urgent, what I tried to make of this book was merely the important.

5. Have you read "Planet India" by Mira Kamdar? Your thoughts...

I haven't yet. I must get around to it. I will certainly read it at some stage. In fact I was sent a copy.

6. How do you react to reviews of your book? Any that you really liked
and did not like that you would like to share with us?

There have been surprisingly few unkind reviews. Obviously I am interested in reviews. When I read interviews with authors who say they never read their reviews that puts me off their VERACITY. Of course they do. I have been fortunate enough firstly to have overwhelmingly favorable reviews. It was a very nice surprise. And also to have quite a lot of reviews. If you add up the three main markets that this book has been disseminated in, India, UK and the US, theres probably been more than a hundred reviews now. After you have read fifty, you start getting bored even if they are nice.

7. When you do readings what kinds of questions/reactions do you get from your readers... How do the readers react to In Spite of the Gods?

All kinds. It's never the same. I don't specifically do readings, but I give talks about the content of the book or the subject. Readings are better suited to books of poetry or works of prose, and I hope that my prose is good, but really the book is about content and argument and observation and so what I do is I give speeches around this subject.

The questions are as varied as India itself. There is no real pattern there. In some of the radio interviews I have done, its been quite interesting to take the temperature of radio listeners out there in mid-America. In between the coastS there is quite a lot of angst still about outsourcing and off-shoring. And that's been an interesting thing to observe. In general there were just so many aspects to India and an equally large number to the questions I get. But it is a large subject.

8. Some say that when writers who are not from India write books, there is not very much depth to them. How would you react to that?

I could only react to a mention of specific writers. It depends on what you define as Indian, would V.S. Naipaul be defined as Indian? I guess he wouldn't be. I guess it depends on the writer. I'd far rather judge people individually rather than by their passport.

9. Do you have any other books/book ideas in the works? Can you share
them with us?

The job I am in as the Washington bureau chief of the financial Times is extremely draining and always interesting. America is at a political crossroads, I think. The conservative revolution is running it's course. But I don't think we know what is going to replace it. So there are all sorts of fascinating trends there and intellectual questions to ask of America's trajectory and what that means for the rest of the world. So I can quite imagine a book idea emerging from this but at the moment it is all consuming doing the journalism. I just don't have the time to spin out a book outline. But that's certainly my aspiration to continue to be an author. It is much more rewarding to being an author, although I wouldn't be an author if I wasn't a journalist.

10. What do you think about the exodus of Indian Americans / non-resident Indians moving back to India?

It's a natural consequence of the growing economic opportunity and the number of NRI's who by word of mouth get to hear of others who have enriched themselves by returning. Some people call it the "reverse brain drain". It is very different from ten to fifteen years ago, the common narrative was a horror story of what you are subjected to when you return about a telephone connection or a gas connection. Ten years ago you might have had to wait a year or six months for a telephone connection and now you can buy one as you arrive at the airport.

It is particularly interesting to see foreigners being hired by an Indian company, in the pharmaceuticals sector, in telecom, in the hotel industry. I think the head of the Taj group is an American. Its not long before we'll see white waiters, in dhabas around Delhi, which would be fun. In hotels you see all sorts of foreign employees already.

11. Would you move to India again if you had a choice?

Sure. My wife is Indian and also many many of my friends. Its quite a natural thing to do, though I have no specific plans at the moment to live there in the near future. It is something that could quite easily happen. It wouldn't be something I would resist. I love being in India. That's quite possible.

12. A more personal question -- Your wife Priya is Indian. Would you tell me how you met and where and how you came to be married?

We met a long time ago. We met at university in England at Oxford where she was a graduate and I was undergraduate in 1990. I met her a long time before I met India or maybe it's the same thing. We got married in both England and India, legally in England in a rather dry registration office, in India we had a full Hindu wedding. It was great fun, I had no idea what was going to happen. It happened in sort of a chaotic but colorful Indian way. It was one of the most memorable days of my life.

-13. What was the impetus behind this book? Where did the idea for this book come from? What made you want to write this? (Please describe how this book came into being; whether your agent/ editor approached you about it or was it the other way around. How things worked from conception to published book)

I approached an agent in London, Natasha Fairweather, with an outline. She took it from there really. So I was in good hands and very fortunate. The idea came from the work I was doing as the FT correspondent. I felt that India - and the new India - needed a book that was accessible to the mainstream market. The fact that I love writing about India made it a no-brainer for me. It was duck to water situation.

14. Why did you pick this particular title for your book?
The real title is The Strange Rise of Modern India. The publishers wanted a punchier title so I accepted In Spite of the Gods because it seemed better than some of the alternatives. But the subtitle is my real title. The words "strange' denotes the unusual sequence of India's rise and not the fact that it is happening.

15. Who are some of your favorite writers both fiction and non-fiction, Indian and non-Indian?

Too many writers to mention both Indian and non-Indian. I discard about one in three books that I start reading because there are fewer good writers out there than you'd think, or perhaps I'm just getting more choosy as I get older.

By Visi Tilak

Monday, April 16, 2007

A Conversation With Mira Kamdar

Mira Kamdar is Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute, Associate Fellow of the Asia Society and author of “Planet India – How the fastest growing Democracy is Transforming America and the World.” She surmises that the new and powerful India is technologically savvy, culturally hip, politically powerful and poised to challenge the dominance of the western world. But despite this rapid rate of expansion and growth, India is still beleaguered by poverty and an overwhelming scarcity of resources. The two sides of India will have immense repercussions on the world stage – both good and bad. Kamdar articulates that at this point it is unclear which side will dominate. As the world invests in the future of India, our fate becomes inexorably tied to the fate of India. “So goes India, as goes the world,” Kamdar says succinctly.

1. What was the impetus behind this book? Where did the idea for this book come from? What made you want to write this? (Please describe how this book came into being; whether your agent/ editor approached you about it or was it the other way around. How things worked from conception to published book)

I felt that what was happening in India and with India's greater intersection with the world at this particular global moment was very important and complex, and that the general public had only the vaguest sense of it. In the United States, for example, India was getting a lot of attention as a potential lucrative market and as a potential threat to American jobs via outsourcing. The cultural, social, political and environmental dimensions were lacking. I felt that the problems India is facing are global problems and that it was very important for people around the world to pay attention to what was going on in India. I wrote a proposal and my agent sent it out to publishers. I got a couple of offers and went with Scribner.

2. You travelled extensively in India to write this book. What were the highlights of your travels?

My train trip to Nagpur and my road trip through Vidarbha. The interview with Sanjay Bhansal and the glimpse he gave me into the whole world and history of tea. Talking with college students.

3. What do you like best about the book? What do you think you might have liked to have emphasised better? What would you change now if you could?

I like best the stories and perspectives shared by the individuals I interviewed, especially those who are making a difference and are really thinking "outside the box". I wish I'd emphasized the problem of corruption more. I wish I'd had time to go to Chennai. I wish
there weren't the few errors that I've found (which will be corrected for future printings and editions).

4. What were some challenges you faced while writing this book?

The biggest challenge was how to get a handle on a huge, complex story that was changing even as I tried to grasp it.

5. Who are some of your favorite writers both fiction and non-fiction, Indian and non-Indian?

Limiting myself to more or less contemporary authors that I've read recently: Amartya Sen, Irene Nemerovsky, Kiran Desai, Magda Szabo, Mavis Gallant.

6. Have you read "In Spite of the Gods" by Ed Luce? Your thoughts...

I haven't sat down and read it. I did leaf through it after my book was done. It strikes me as being very well written and perceptive but also one more in a long line of British male authors who've sojourned for a few years in India and then written an account for the readers back home.

7. Shashi Tharoor had a rather impressive review of your book in the Times Of India. Your reaction to that review...

I was glad Shashi reviewed the book, and it was by and large very positive. I do think he made a bit much of my not being Indian. If I have an Indian name, it is because I have an Indian father. I've been going to India since 1960. I went to school there for awhile. I have a lot of family there. I speak Hindi. So, I'm not simply an American author masquerading as an Indian under an Indian name. But other than that, I was pleased.

8. When you do readings in the US what kinds of questions/reactions do you get from your readers...

I get a lot of questions about poverty and caste. I also get a lot of questions about outsourcing.

9. How about in India? How do the readers react to Planet India?

The most frequent question I get in India is how, given my unblinking account of all the challenges facing the country, I remain so optimistic and finally bullish on India.

10. Do you have any other books/book ideas in the works? Can you share
them with us?

My 11-year-old daughter has been clamoring for some time for a book she would enjoy reading. She finds what I write incredibly boring! So, I've promised her the next book I write will be with her in mind. I've just started thinking about it and don't want to say much at this point.

11. What do you do in your free-time? Or what would you like to do, if
you had the free-time?

I wish I had more time to play the violin, which I did professionally in France many years ago. I'd like to become really proficient in swing jazz violin -- Stephane Grappelli kind of music. And I'd like to move to Paris where I've spent a lot of time going back to 1976. I also wish I had a place in the country where I could do a little gardening and also the time to go there and do it.

By Visi Tilak

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Romance and Sex in Indian American Fiction

Modern Indian American fiction has started to sizzle with explicit sex scenes, not to mention the variety of hues interspersed within these graphic descriptions. Most Indian American writers often hesitate to describe sex scenes overtly, partly because it is taboo in Indian culture, and partly for fear of what their parents and relatives would say. However, modern literary writers like Salman Rushdie have consistently been different and radical about blurring the lines and using sex to better their narratives. While some believe that sex helps tell a story better, some believe that the same story can be told effectively, without using the vivid sex scenes. Lately more and more young writers have started using sex as an important part of their storyline, and some also use it as an integral part of their plot.
“Nandini Hariharan’s mouth was, in reality, playing with the painters fly and the tumescent, torrid baton behind it while her curious hands were snaking into Libya Dass’s navel, stroking flesh where it ached to be tickled. Of course neither adult in question imagined, even in their wildest dreams, at the time, that a fourteen year old might be in possession of talents that left them breathless and clammy, and they chose, instead, to believe that it was the fantastic discovery of absinthe that had reduced their loins to liquid and that the child lying between them was merely a lotus over the pond of their lust.” – The Last Song of Dusk, by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi.
Indian American writers are going beyond the realm of writing about sex between a husband and wife, in the traditional sense, into more contentious territory. With writers like Abha Dawesar and Sidharth Dhanvant Shangvi writing about gay and lesbian sex, sex with multiple partners, underage sex, and what not, Indian American fiction is breaking ground and marching bravely into unchartered terrain.
The question arises, has sex in Indian American fiction come of age?
“Somewhat. I still think that in so many ways, sex is treated as illicit in the literature and not at all a part of a normal thinking, feeling person’s life,” says Michelle Reale an avid reader of South Asian fiction and a Circulation Supervisor at the Arcadia University Library in Glenside, PA
The idea is to represent Indian Americans in their many walks of life, their queer and straight behavior, their way of life as it is. The fact remains that Indian Americans are as versatile in their sexual prowess as they are in any other sphere.
“Ready or not, here we come.... I think that as the population grows, the young reader will need their fiction to reflect their culture... I think it started with the "freed woman" type of stories to mixed race relationships and now there is so much open to explore. I think that films have also touched on gay/lesbian and other "modern" issues so that it is more accessible. Even more so, we have many Indians represented now on television without the stereotypes enforced (think of Bug on Crossing Jordan or Mohinder on Heroes as a start). I think as Indians born and raised in North America, we are "Americans" and therefore it is always great to see that reflected back to us... we need to see an Indian shopaholic, an Indian Bond, etc...” adds 32 year old Dimple Mahatani Chaubey, who lives in Montreal, Canada and is herself a creative writer and an avid reader of Indian American Fiction.
A review of Abha Dawesar’s second book Babyji, which is considered to be an Indian interpretation of Lolita, in Ego Magazine reads thus–
“Baby-ji is a novel about the adventures of Anamika, a sprightly 16-year old Indian girl, as she explores her sexuality. It is surprising at many levels for a South Asian author, not least of which is the candid treatment of one of its main themes: same-sex love. Anamika has affairs with three women - her doting servant Rani, her vulnerable classmate Sheila and the exotic divorcee who first starts Anamika on this journey. The sex scenes are unrestrained and might be shocking to an audience not used to seeing it in South Asian novels. In particular, Anamika's sexual aggression and promiscuity seem to cross the line between teenage experimentation and a disturbing lack of perception about what is right and wrong. But these conflicting tensions, confusing ethics, and rebellious giddiness are explored with the flair and sense of adventure typical of a young teenage life. Dawesar inhabits the voice of Anamika with ease as Anamika maneuvers herself through the world of schoolmates, homework, servants and aunties.”
In Babyji, Anamika, the 16-year old Lolita like protagonist has multiple affairs simultaneously, with her young maid servant, a middle aged woman, a class mate among others. Without the use of sex, Dawesar would not have been able to tell the story coherently.
“If she really didn’t want me to she could scream or move away or kick me. “You’re beautiful,” I said as I slid my hand between her thighs where her bloomers should have been. He closed her eyes again, but this time I couldn’t tell if she was enjoying it or not. I pushed with my finger. I wasn’t slow the way I had been with India and Rani. I was afraid if I was too gentle she would use it to move away. I used all the force I could muster.
She let out a howl, “Stop it hurts.”
I pulled back and said, “I just fucked you.” There was blood on my finger. – Babyji by Abha Dawesar
In fact sex is one of the main themes of this book, as it is in her first book “Miniplanner” and her third book “That Summer in Paris” “That Summer in Paris,” Dawesar’s revels in its descriptions of incest, multiple partner sex and other vivid sex scenes. “Dawesar's keen, witty third novel opens on an author feeling defensive about the dirty bits of his oeuvre-not sorry they're dirty, but sorry they're not better received: "Even the French repeatedly poked fun at Prem's passage on drinking a lactating woman's milk." Prem Rustum, a Nobel Prize-winning Indian amalgam of Henry Roth (Prem slept with and wrote about his sister, Meher) and Salman Rushdie, is 75, and he's ready to try again at both love and the writing of it.” says Publishers Weekly. “Dawesar (Babyji) shows off her own superior dirty-bit skills in plenty of sex scenes and daydreams.”
When a young writer like Abha Dawesar writes explicitly about sex in its various forms it is because she believes that, “In the past 10-15 years, Indian society has changed so much, especially urban India. It has changed economically, and the individual has grown so much more important. Women are more independent, have more choices about marriage, careers, and their lives in general. There is a sexual revolution of sorts brewing in the country. This (her third book) book addresses the generation facing the changes,” says Dawesar in an interview with India Currents magazine.
Shanghvi is another writer who does not mince words during the sex scenes in his debut novel, The Last Song of Dusk. A very prolific writer with a gift for the written word, he spices up his book with sex scenes galore.
His first novel, "The Last Song of Dusk" has been published in 10 languages and won literary prizes in Italy and England. “A lush, wildly imaginative fairy tale, "LSD," as it's dubbed in the Indian press, blazes with erotica, floats on magical-realist flights and unravels a fever of images that read as if they were coaxed through dreams or hallucinogens,” says an article in the San Francisco Chronicle.
“For the next two months, every night, no sooner had everyone gone to bed than Edward would knock on Raghubir’s door. He would open it, pull his young lover in, strip him naked, fling his white body on the antique four-poster bed, and then take him with the craze of his ample lust. Each night his stallions legs shuddered as he rammed Edward again and again, such gentle violence, such refined debauchery, until all of Edward melted like the frost on the grass and he felt he was everywhere; a liquid of flesh spreading over the bedsheets, over the Indian’s sweating body, over the floor.” – The Last Song of Dusk, by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi.
“As I read LSD thoughts of Isabel Allende’s ‘The House of Spirits’ hovered over the pages but at some point I was able to move past that and flow with the musical lyricism of his poetic language. I longed to have known the magical Bombay that he painted on the pages of his book, and I was fascinated with the house. The words that stayed in my mind as I read it and even after I completed it were ‘lush’ and ‘fertile’. He is a wonderful storyteller and I loved the languid sensual pace of the narration,” says Sita Bhaskar the author of “Shielding Her Modesty” a collection of cross-cultural stories.
Are Indian American readers ready for gay/lesbian sex, multiple partner sex and such in Indian American fiction?
They certainly seem as ready as ever. There is a growing market for Indian American writers who do not shy away from narratives that call for explicit sex in all it’s many forms. As with any controversial subject there are those that are for and those that are against, but the fact is that fiction grows and changes along with the experience of the generation and population that it is addressing.
Shobhan Bantwal, whose debut novel “The Dowry Bride” is slated for release by Kensington Books in September 2007 says, “I believe they have been ready since the second generation of Indian-Americans who were born and raised in the U.S. started to read adult fiction. They have grown up with fewer hang-ups about sexual orientation and promiscuity and therefore accept sexuality in all forms as a part of living. Concurrently, their parents, the first generation Indian-Americans, have gradually begun to adapt to mainstream American culture as well, and as a consequence begun to shed their puritanical outlook and view such topics with less censure. They are now more accepting of literature that includes sex—at least the heterosexual kind. But they still seem to have some issues with gay and lesbian themes.”
Reale has a very down to earth perspective, “Well, these things occur in the lives’ of Indian-American’s don’t they? Let me say this: I think that all readers who love the South Asian genre of writing are ready for a more realistic portrayal of all segments of Indian-Americans and the lives’ they lead---their inner, personal lives’. What do they sound like within their own families? Are their marriages unhappy? Do they have a way out? Have we had our fill of mango, spices and arranged marriage? Or do we still want more of the same? I was reading an interview with the Scottish author Janice Galloway who said that she and other Scottish writers have been desperately trying to get away from the genre of Scottish writing that is all the “heather,heather,heather.” I think, too, with Indian-American writing, there may be that temptation to write what is marketable, to write what is “exotic.” Indian writers rail against “pandering to the west” but they are the ones, in fact, who are writing the fiction.”
Sushil Nachnani, grew up in India and has lived in San Francisco for the last fourteen years. Having studied relationships involving Indian women with varying degrees of intimacy, he says, “I suspect a fair number of Indian American readers have had all kinds of sex, so you would think that they would be ready for it in fiction! Seriously though, I think two things have to feed each other for acceptance on a larger scale of gay/lesbian and multiple partner sex. The first thing is that it has to become more accepted in Indian American society and two, the writing of gay/lesbian sex has to mature where the story is not just about the kind of sex. These two phenomena are feeding each other and it won't be long before this is not a question of interest anymore.”
Sonia Singh is the author of “Goddess for Hire” and “Bollywood Confidential”. She believes that Indian American readers are more than ready, “I have Indian-American friends who are gay. They would love to see their particular experiences and lifestyle addressed in Indian-American fiction in a positive tolerant way. Shows like Queer as Folk are critically acclaimed. There was an orgy scene in The Da Vinci Code--the most popular book on the planet. We're all more than ready to see it in Indian-American fiction as well. I don't think it would be a big deal. Now our parents... that's another matter.”
Socially Acceptable Writing…
Writing about Sex is not socially acceptable in many South Asian cultures. The first question that would come to mind would be “What would my parents say?” Even those who write erotica or sex scenes in their fiction, try to keep their parents prying eyes away from it.
Although she dedicated Miniplanner to her parents, Dawesar was quite clear that she did not want them to read the book. She says in an interview with Rediff, "I love my parents. This my first book. I dedicated the book to them, but that doesn't mean I wanted them to read it." Even though her book was not released in India at the time, her parents managed to obtain a copy through friends in America, "I was aghast," Dawesar says. "And so I called them up and said please don't read it, but my mother said she was definitely going to read it. So I said fine, but please don't let anyone else at home read it." Her father who was 50 pages into the book told her that it was quite remarkable, "So I was kind of shell-shocked," says Dawesar.
Kavita Daswani is an author who writes under the Chick-Lit genre. She says, “I've never used explicit sex in my novels, and doubt I ever will. It's an interesting thing, because oftentimes as I write, in the back of my head I have this mechanism going "My parents are going to read this". I think I'm just really conscious of what those close to me think of my work. I want it to be funny and touching and insightful, but it never seems to have been necessary - in my view anyway – to include any graphic sex.
A New Trend…
More and more Indian American authors are getting published each year and more or them are trying to change the landscape with their writing. Writing about Sex or including colorful explicit sex in Indian American writing is becoming as common as it is becoming widespread. Is this a new trend in Indian American Fiction? Are we going to see more of this?
“As that culture grows increasingly permissive and liberal, I think we'll be seeing a lot more of it. I would imagine that in many ways, it mirrors what's been happening with Bollywood films over the years; 30 years ago, everything was chaste and wholesome, but these days, anything goes. And ultimately, nobody is going to be forced to read a book with lots of sex in it!” says Daswani. “I would imagine that segments of the reading population would be ready for that kind of thing. The fact is, those kinds of relationships are real and not uncommon, so I wouldn't see why readers would object to seeing them written about.”
“I think the only thing important to a story or plot is a good story or plot. An explicit sex scene must serve the story or what's the point? Everything needs to be motivated. Conflict without motivation, sex scenes without motivation, character angst without motivation...don't add anything. I'm not saying a well-written sex scene isn't juicy and fun to read but if it doesn't serve the story the reader is likely to just read the scene and put the book down,” says Singh.
The fact remains that as the newer generations of Indian Americans are exposed to the western way of life and the unabashed referral to sex and intimacy, they are getting primed for the onslaught of erotica and sex in Indian American Fiction that is yet to arrive. There are no rights and wrongs about this.
Nachnani has read Abha Dawesar's 'Babyji', “I heard her speak at a conference at a session that was tacking the subject - "Sex and South Asian Fiction." There were a number of young writers there who had all written about sex in their books. And they seemed to agree that writing about sex seemed the natural thing to do when they first started writing but as they wrote their second and third novels, it seemed to play a smaller role in their writing. I think that's a fair statement of Indian American fiction. We need the first fifty, hundred books to get sex out of the closet in Indian society in general, but after that I think sex need not be such a central theme.”
Bottom line, readers are looking for excellent writing, a superior story, a grand plot and book that they want to enjoy reading. Reale says it succinctly, “South Asian writing parts the veil on a world that many of us may never get to see, firsthand. It is atmospheric, evocative, intelligent and often has a spiritual element. It often challenges preconceived notions. It links the human family by experience.”
There will be controversy however and there are going to be those that react strongly against this. But there is also going to be a huge following for this kind of writing, and why not, India is after all the land of the Kama Sutra!

This article written by Visi Tilak appeared in the magazine "The Indian American"

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Desi Mario Puzo… And the Indian Godfather…

As I wait in the lobby of a posh Boston hotel, a short, medium built man clad in black casual slacks and polo shirt, with ruffled hair, looking very relaxed and rested walks up to me and introduces himself as Vikram Chandra. It is indeed delightful to meet this person who seems very modest and unpretentious, considering the amount of press and media attention he has been getting lately, thanks to the rumored million-dollar contract for his latest book “Sacred Games”.
I could not but resist starting off my interview with Chandra by asking the “big” question -- Was there a bidding war for “Sacred Games” and how much truth is there to the rumored million-dollar contract that he signed?
“I am not allowed to say contractually, but it was more money than I had ever seen before, so it made me very happy,” he says. “You sit in your office and write for years and years and years and at that point I was very happy with my life the way it was, writing literary novels and books and finding a readership. When I was writing this (Sacred Games) and even when I was finished, I expected the same kind of response when I sent off the manuscript to my agent. Suddenly all this excitement started happening in New York. Both Melanie (his wife) and I were sitting at home getting these phone calls and it was all really strange. It was all unexpected and surreal to me as to anybody else. We were happy and thunderstruck and surprised,” says Chandra with a smile.
“When you send out a 900 page novel full of Hindi and Marathi, you don’t think that this is the kind of reaction you would get, at all. I knew it would get published but was expecting a “normal” kind of publication for a literary writer,” he adds.
And why does he believe that this novel got the reception it did? “Maybe this time the novel plays with a lot of perverts and upturns, a lot of things that generally belongs in what people call “genre fiction” with detective stories and police mysteries, etc. In many ways I think that this book is an anti-thriller, and an anti-detective story also. This could have been one of the reasons that the publishers liked this book so much, says Chandra, “and that they thought that for this book they could find a larger audience than they could find for a work of literary fiction.”
His Roots
Vikram Chandra was born in New Delhi in 1961, to Navin Chandra, a Corporate Executive and Kamna Chandra, a writer of plays and films in Hindi. The oldest of three children, he was influenced by his mother. “I was a very dreamy kid who lived very much inside my head, with a huge imagination. I used to make up stories in my mind. Sometimes there would be installment stories that would continue from day to day with the same characters and so forth,” says Chandra.
“Since my mother is a writer, all three of us, my two younger sisters and I, grew up seeing her at the kitchen table writing plays for Doordarshan and AIR then later when we moved to Bombay she started doing films.” It just seemed natural to him to write down the stories that were brewing in his head.
A voracious reader, Chandra spent his summer holidays growing up, consuming novels and literature, borrowing books from lending libraries until he ran out of money and had to beg for more. Besides racy thrillers like James Hadley Chase, he also encountered the work of American modernists and the works of Fitzgerald and Hemmingway. “Once I started reading them, I realized they were doing things to me that I didn’t understand,” he says in an interview with Bonnie Azab Powell at the University of Berkeley, “Reading The Great Gatsby at age 15 in India, I knew nothing – I had no context for it, social or symbolic – and it still blew me away, it was so beautiful.”
At the young age of 11 his first story got published in the school magazine. “A friend of mine saw a science fiction story I had written, he encouraged me to submit it to the school magazine and it got published.” says this Isaac Asimov fan. “It felt really great, the cricket captain and those who would not have noticed you otherwise suddenly knew who you were. It was very pleasing. I have been doing it ever since,” says Chandra who realized quite young that it was hard to make a decent living as a writer.
“It seemed very hard, when I was growing up, to imagine yourself as a writer because of the fact that I had seen the check my mother got. For an hour-long play she would get Rs.25 or so in those days. It is still very hard, very few people make a living from writing fiction,” says Chandra whose undergraduate degree was in English but with a concentration in creative writing. “After I finished my BA at Pomona College in California, the question then arose, how are you going to make a living? So then I went to film school at Columbia University thinking I can at least get a job.”
While at Columbia, Chandra found the subject for his first novel, and then decided that he had to just confront it and write it and see what happens. The autobiography of Colonel James “Sikander” Skinner, a legendary 19th century soldier born of an Indian mother and a British father, inspired Chandra’s first novel. He spent several years working on this book, which was written while completing an MA from John Hopkins University and an MFA from the University of Houston.
Vikram Chandra is the author of three books and a screenplay. His first book Red Earth and Pouring Rain received high acclaim from many. Described as “the history of India converted into the brilliant disorder of a kaleidoscope”, this debut novel was received very well. The Atlantic Monthly called it “adroitly written, constantly interesting, lyrical, fantastic, brutal, and, at bottom, serious. Mr. Chandra can make a lightning bolt look like a Roman candle—but that bolt strikes.”
His second book, a collection of Short Stories, “Love and Longing in Bombay” won the Best Book award of the 1997 Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Eurasia region, which included a 10,000 pound cash prize. This collection comprising five short stories/novellas titled Dharma, Shakti, Karma, Artha and Shanthi, beat “The God of Small Things”, the Booker Prize winning novel by Arundhati Roy, which was judged runner up in the same category.
Chandra then went on to co-write a screenplay for “Mission Kashmir” along with Suketu Mehta (Journalist and Author), Vidhu Vinod Chopra (well-known Bollywood director) and Abhijat Joshi (of Lage Raho Munnabhai fame). He then spent seven years on his latest book released in January 2007, “Sacred Games”. It was no surprise that this book has been receiving rave reviews and accolades, and was allocated a whopping $300,000 marketing budget.
Chandra finds it hard to point out the favorite of his three works. “Now when I look at my first novel it feels like it was written by somebody else. It was a different you, you know. I think I am still very much inside this novel. It takes a while to get your head out of the world that you build for yourself inside and live in it for a long time.”
All of them have been extraordinarily rewarding to Chandra, “I think the interesting thing about writing fiction is that very soon you realize that books and stories have a very long life in the world. You know the initial reception the reviews, good or bad, are only a temporary and a minor bump in the road. For instance, I still get e-mails from people who are reading “Red Earth” for the first time and are passionately engaged with it still. I think that is the wonderful thing about fiction, is that it goes very far from, where you wrote it and stories find their way to very distant parts of the world and then people make it their own.
The Genesis of the Indian “Godfather”
Chandra’s family is very closely connected to the film industry and the effect of the underworld was very close to home, “I knew people who were getting threatened who were shot at and who were wounded. My brother-in-law who is a film maker got one of these calls and he refused to pay up and suddenly there were armed guards, men with guns all around his house and his kids were growing up in a world where people with automatic weapons were just part of the landscape. At that point I was very angry, I am still angry. I always thought of people on that side of the law as “Rakshas”. Whenever people do something that you don’t like to think that you would do, you tend to make them “other” and the scary thing is they turn out to be people just like yourself,” says Chandra to whom the most terrifying thing is that often violence or unfairness is perpetrated by ordinary people. “That’s the paradox about us human beings, we are capable of all these things at the same time.”
Sacred Games was published in India well before it was published in the US, because it was clashing with some other major US publications. Chandra says he got e-mails back from people telling him that they usually never read these heavy 900 page literary novels but they picked it up because of the character Ganesh Gaitonde and such… “Which is great for me,” he says, “I don’t much trust the categories of literary fiction and genre fiction, I think it does more harm than good”
Sacred Games has a glossary filled with Hindi and Marathi words, many of them words that no mother would want their children to be exposed to. This use of “Bombay English,” more appropriately “underworld English,” and the use of very “colorful language” has been a topic of discussion for many reviewers and critics, however Chandra defends his writing with keen logic, “My intent while writing this book was to use the English that is actually used in India and spoken in India on a regular basis. So if I was sitting in a bar with a friend and telling these stories to him/her I would use that kind of English and you would assume the knowledge. That’s what I did.”
Chandra says he wasn’t even aware of how much he was doing this, until he finished the manuscript and went through it again. “It’s been an interesting thing, it’s been out in England also for almost six months. I think just like we Indians when we read books by western authors, there are certain specific words there that we expect to be interpreting, which we don’t really understand, but by context we get it and we figure it out as we go on with the book. I think that an American reader or any other reader from outside of the country will also do this,” says Chandra. He smilingly adds, “In fact some of the slang that is used is so particular to Bombay and sometimes the underworld that sometimes even a reader from Chennai would have the same problem.”
On Fiction Writing and Research…
Chandra believes that as a fiction writer one can use the word research, but at least initially, they don’t know what they are looking for. “It’s very hard to quantify how much of the seven years I spent on the novel was research versus writing since I was doing it all simultaneously. Every time I was in Bombay walking the streets and meeting people, that also fit into the book,” says Chandra who had been thinking of this area of the underworld and crime for a very long time.
“As someone who grew up in Bombay during the 80’s and the 90’s you couldn’t help but see it thrust in your face. When I first started to think about seriously working on this as a project, I knew a couple of policemen and friends who I had spoken with from my earlier book where a key character from Sacred Games, Sartaj Singh first appeared. Then I thought about asking them to introduce me specifically to other people who might know something more about this. All kinds of people – policemen, journalists, astrologists, social workers, at first it was very random,” explains Chandra.
His intent was to go and sit with somebody and to get them to talk about their lives in general. Along with all these people he got to meet those on the other side of the law as well. “It has been a big talking point for this book, this question of research and specifically, “Oh! so you really met bad people!” I completely understand why because that was part of my curiosity at the beginning,” he says. “And then later on in the writing of the book I had very specific questions about how is a particular thing done, how do you move money from here to there, then I would try to find people who could answer these questions,” says Chandra who finds it strange that a lot of emphasis is laid on research, especially with Sacred Games.
“For a fiction writer it does not really matter where you get your information. As a reader, I don’t really care if you spent years doing research or you saw it all on TV and then you wrote a really good story. As long as it comes alive on the page, that’s what really matters,” says Chandra who believes that the writers work really begins when you start to imagine the characters and the landscape and then you make that exist on paper in a way that the reader can completely engage in it.
Chandra is a very disciplined writer, “I work quite regularly, once I have started something I like to work six days a week during the semesters and whatever days I am not teaching, generally in the mornings from about 8 am till lunchtime.” He thinks that one has to treat writing like a job, “because if you wait for inspiration then you’re dead. Even if that day there is nothing sort of happening then just sitting there and forcing oneself to think about it, at least gets the gears moving perhaps the next day something else will occur.”
Because of the way the semesters are set up he spent about 7 months in the US and 5 months in India while writing this book, “I still go twice a year, during the long summer holidays and during the winter break,” says Chandra who sometimes leaves for Bombay on the last day of his class. “The first time I met my wife I left for India a few days after that on sabbatical for eight months but since then I have been going back and forth and she travels with me.”
“Writing is hard work,” says Chandra, “Fiction writing can be really tough, and sometimes in the middle you question the virtue of what you are doing, you are not sure it is worth anything, you are too close to it to see it and those days you just tell yourself at least you have to go through to the end. It can be really a tough job, especially because you are doing it alone for the most part and the future seems really uncertain, you don’t know where it is going to go. It sounds strange because people think you just sit at a desk all day long. But it is actually really physically exhausting.”
His favorite part of the writing process is the editing of the second or the third draft because by then all the heavy lifting is done, all the blocks are in place and the writer is just polishing and making sure that it all just holds together. Chandra says that for writers that really becomes the best time, “The other thing is you’ve already seen yourself write the words “The End” which is a very pleasing thing because sometimes you have been writing for a very long time,” which in Chandra’s case has always been several years.
While screenplay writing is a totally different ball game it has got its own challenges, “What is nice about writing fiction is that you have such complete control over your craft and you are completely responsible for what goes in. Film, from day one is a collaborative art; you are working with dozens sometimes hundreds of people, which has all the excitement of collaboration. Sometimes you write a very simple theme and the actor takes it and does amazing things with it and then you are very happy. There is other times when you think it should go one way and the director may think it should go another way and then you are really frustrated,” says Chandra who loved doing it because it was a different thing and it took him out of his field and how he thinks, but he is quick to say it’s not something he would want to do regularly.
Another thing about film is that from the ground up it’s a business that has to be concerned with money, emphasizes Chandra, “you can make up things with your imagination, I can write that a thousand elephants came over the bridge and flower it up with words, but if I say that to a producer from the first second he is thinking, OK how much is that going to cost me per day, I have to feed the whole lot. It’s very bound by practical reality and sometimes unpredictable practical reality.”
Movies, Music and Reading…
What really gets Vikram Chandra’s creative juices flowing is reading a lot, listening to music and watching movies. “What you are doing in a sense is feeding the imagination and sometimes by itself a solution will pop into place. You can’t just compel it to come, I guess that’s just the truth you know there is no forcing it,” says Chandra who enjoys listening to music when he writes. “Melanie is also a writer, when we first moved in together, we tried to share a study and it didn’t quite work out at all, because she likes absolute silence when she writes.” A lot of music he listens to is instrumental, Indian instrumental or jazz fusion like John McLaughlin and also Hindi film music.
“I am an omnivorous movie watcher,” admits Chandra, “I can pretty much watch anything… really from all parts of the world, including a lot of trash,” he says adding that it’s interesting thinking about what popular culture really does and what values it is sort of embedding in itself.
Chandra when he was getting towards the end of his book, was very hyper aware of the story he was reading and found himself editing the words on the page, this is the reason he has not read very much fiction recently, “I am very behind on my reading and I have been playing catch-up now.”
“I like to read everything. I am halfway through Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s latest book “Memories of My Melancholy Whores” and I am just blown away by it,” he says. “I have been reading quite a bit of non-fiction as well. There is book that is quite provocative called “Radical Evolution” that I just finished reading. It examines the current state of the art of several technologies like bioengineering, nanotechnology and information technology and tries to surmise what will happen in the near future. It’s not science fiction several hundred years away but right now. The authors argument is that very radical things will happen. It is provocative and frightening and exciting all at the same time.”
He admires Salman Rushdie, Premchand, Victorian writers like P.D. James, Conan Doyle and some of Edgar Allan Poe’s earlier works. An interesting book he read recently by an Indian American was a book by Ghalib Dhalla titled “An Ode to Lata.”
Popularity of Indian American Fiction
Why has contemporary Indian American fiction become more popular than ever? Vikram Chandra thinks one of the reasons might be that after 60 years of independence there have been about three generations of Indians now who have grown up speaking English in the schoolyard and now they feel free to experiment with the language to twist it and to do things with it.
“And then I guess the other thing is that there is a lot to write about. What I like about Indian writing is the variety of things that people are doing and the variety of techniques they are using. There is no one school in terms of method or ideology, so I think it is a very healthy period,” says Chandra who is also very glad to see is that there is more and more popular fiction also, which used to be a big gap. There was a lot of literary fiction going on in the early period, but now there is a lot more published in terms of love stories and chick-lit and detective stories and Chandra finds that exciting, “You need all kinds of stuff to make for a healthy mix.”
Whats Next
“I am giving myself a holiday. I have marked it on my calendar. I am trying to be a consumer, read as much as I can, watch a lot of movies and television and listen to music,” says Chandra who adds “What happens is once your wheels start turning it is hard to get away from it. It’s a wonderful job to have but it is not like just being at an office, it stays with you 24 hours of the day. So I think if I can avoid this for a little while, it feels like a holiday. It’s like when you are a kid during the long summer holidays, you can read whatever you like and there are no exams coming.”
Chandra calls himself “a kind of a geek.” He says he likes technology. While attending graduate school, he was doing a business on the side, doing some computer programming and software and hardware consulting.
“While I was writing Sacred Games, I used Microsoft Project to keep track of characters and the storyline, etc. I was surprised that there was no software for this niche. Maybe that can be my next project and I can build fiction writing software,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. Is this where he is going to make his next million, only time can tell!!!

This article by Visi Tilak was published in the magazine, "The Indian American."

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Desi Godfather Saga

It’s been called an epic, the Mumbai Godfather Saga, the publishers reportedly paid top dollar for the manuscript, but what better compliment can one receive for a 916 page book than Paul Grays critique in the New York Times Book Review, saying "you may find “Sacred Games” as hard to put down as it is to pick up"!
"Sacred Games" is written by a well-educated student of literature, which means that Chandra (who studied with John Barth and Donald Barthelme and spends part of the year teaching at UC Berkeley) knows exactly when to break rules and when to follow them,” says Susan Salter Reynolds, Review in Los Angeles Times. “Chandra's genius is in the way he trusts his readers.”
“One of the coolest things about "Sacred Games" is the crash course it offers in 21st century Indian society and especially the life of Mumbai. This is the city regarded by Salman Rushdie, among other writers, as the country's quintessential metropolis, affectionately referred to as "Wombai," adds Reynolds.
Sacred Games is an epic 19th century novel with the framework of an intriguing detective story that delves into the profane depths of the underworld. Besides calling it an “Epic of Mumbai's Underworld,” NPR calls the novel “Dickensian in scope, and part Godfather as well.”
Skye K. Moody writes in the Seattle Times, “The splendor of Chandra's prose is quite enough to enrapture a reader for 900 pages. Its exotic Bombay setting may inspire readers to consult maps to guide them while following Sartaj's and Gaitonde's exploits. Texturally, the story is lavishly layered with descriptions of Bombay's neighborhoods, with the colors and shapes of typically Indian costumes (sharply contrasted with contemporary Western outfits some characters adopt) and with tough-guy talk and the usual crime-story guns and guts, offering the reader an opportunity to descend into the grittiest, if not the poorest, precincts of Bombay.”
“Chandra's tale is peppered with bits of Hindi vocabulary that add color while occasionally inviting readers to leaf through the short glossary at the back of the book. Even without the glossary, though, the reader will likely understand a word's meaning just by its association to the subject or its placement in a sentence. Whatever challenge "Sacred Games" presents to Western readers, the payoff is grand and satisfying,” writes Moody.
The Publishers Weekly says“…it's obvious that he knows what he's talking about. He takes his chances creating atmosphere: the characters speak in the slang of the city ("You bhenchod sleepy son of maderchod Kumbhkaran," Gaitonde chastises). The novel eventually becomes a world, and the reader becomes a resident rather than a visitor, but living there could begin to feel excessive.”
Sartaj Singh who first appeared in Chandra’s short story “Karma” is an honest skilled Sikh police inspector who tries to remain as decent and honorable as he can working within a system where kickbacks, extortion, and bribes are the order of the day. He receives an anonymous tip that the legendary mafia crime lord Ganesh Gaitonde is holed up in a nearby safe house. As Sartaj and his colleague wait outside for backup, Gaitonde talks to Sartaj telling him the story of his rise to power from humble beginnings and by the time Sartaj can enter the building the notorious criminal Gaitonde has killed his female companion and committed suicide.
Sartaj’s routine investigation, to his surprise, is overseen by the governments top intelligence agency, and leads him well beyond the morally ambiguous Mumbai he thinks he knows. In alternate chapters, Ganesh Gaitonde tells his own singular story with remarkable candor.
“Though the novel does have its moments and a couple of intermittently interesting central characters, mainly it just wanders aimlessly along, written in a droning monotone and peppered with Indian colloquialisms that are sure to put off all but the best-informed American readers,” Jonathan Yardley says in his review in the Washington Post, “It masquerades as tough-minded about all the bloody, sordid business with which it is preoccupied, but its heart is little more than sentimental mush. It may sound exciting and engaging, but it isn't, and when the novel's climax finally occurs, it's the most anticlimactic climax I can recall. But it is, perhaps, a fitting climax to a book that, for all its ambition and intelligence, ends up going nowhere at all. ·
In The New Yorker, Pankaj Mishra observes, "More ardently than most recent chroniclers of India's most hectic metropolis, Chandra embraces the vitality as well as the vulgarity of the millions chasing the 'big dream of Bombay.” He writes, “As in a typical, multipanelled mandala, “Sacred Games” offers many stories simultaneously, while allowing us to gaze separately at each life in its own moment of being.”
“Unlike those novelists who have much to say but lack the necessary craft, Chandra seems to be able to do anything. His violent naturalism superbly renders the disorder of the contemporary world. Yet it is unable to transcend an equally pervasive intellectual and spiritual complacency,” writes Mishra, “Conceived on a grand scale, “Sacred Games” leads us to expect more than self-sufficient virtuosity from a writer who possesses the rare, prodigious power to make literature.”

Sacred Games
By Vikram Chandra
Harper Collins Publishers
Publication Date: January 9th 2007
Hardcover/ 916 pages/ $29.95
ISBN: 0061130354

Reviewed by Visi Tilak