Interview with Pakistani Novelist and Translator Musharraf Ali Farooqi

(This interview was conducted in the form of a Skype conversation in English and Hindustani; it was transcribed, translated and edited by the interviewer for publication in the Sunday Guardian.)

Musharraf Ali Farooqi in the Pahalwan's Gallery in Lahore's Old City

Musharraf Ali Farooqi in the Pahalwan’s Gallery in Lahore’s Old City

Q. It took you 10 years to write your latest novel Between Clay and Dust. How was the idea conceived? What took you so long?

A. This novel stemmed from a desire to explore certain abstract notions that had been in my mind for a long time. I wanted to explore them on the lines of a Borgesian parable or a philosophical statement about the place of the pahalwan in the world. I kept thinking about it for some time, and the story of the protagonist Ustad Ramzi started to develop – a simple story which did not feature the characters Gauhar Jan, Tamami or Malka. Then I stumbled upon Akhtar Husein Sheikh’s Dastan-e-Shehzoraan: Barre Sagheer Pak wa Hind kay Namwar Pahalwanon ki Dastan, a history of wrestlers of the subcontinent, that had been wrongly classified alongside the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza volumes at the University of Toronto Library. When you read non-fiction or period history, you begin to visualise the people; and when you begin to visualise the people you also create an outside world around them in which they move and interact with others. From that outside world emerges the inside world of the person or the character you are trying to create or explore. So this is how I started visualising the character of Ustad Ramzi. Then Tamami joined in, which completed the entire story. Later, Malka came into the story – this clarified the nature of Ustad Ramzi’s problem and Gohar Jan’s fate, and how their characters were different.

In the first draft I had included many wrestling scenes, though the story was the same as now. Over subsequent drafts I tried to make the emotional lives of the characters more thought out and panned out in a way. I experimented a lot with the narrative voice too, but I felt something lacking. I showed one of the drafts to Urdu poet Afzal Ahmed Syed. He really liked the novel and thought I should get it published, but I knew I had to get it absolutely right. So, I kept going back to the narrative voice I had employed in the first draft; once I decided to stick to that voice, the rest became very easy. It took me 10 years to write Between Clay and Dust because the novel was constantly evolving in my mind: I was thinking and rethinking the actions of the characters and their consequences. Had I rushed it, it may not have been as good a novel as it is. As a writer I am satisfied with my work. Maybe another writer would have done better, but as far as I am concerned this is the best I can do. I have no regrets whatsoever about my novel.

Q. Was the manuscript as long as the published book?

A. I worked on five or six drafts. I haven’t had a printer throughout; I kept working on the file in my computer and rewrote and crossed out sentences an infinite times. Between Clay and Dust could easily have been a very long novel: I could have inserted long dialogues and descriptions of the buildings or the weather, but that would have created impediment in the emotional lives of the characters. Characters do not breathe through structures. The reader would stop there and start thinking about the structures for the moment, and the locus would shift from the emotions of the characters. I could have related, say, an instance where Tamami goes to a kotha and sleeps with a tawaif. But that is something one does out of desire. I was only interested in his shortfalls as an artist and his life as a pahalwan, not his basic faults as a human being. His life as a person outside the akhara – the kind of food he liked, the films he went to etc. – would have had no bearing whatsoever on the story. I thought a lot about his life in the outside world, but I didn’t include all of it. This is a novel about the inner lives of people; the outer world does not really matter. Relationships play out and emotions take centre stage.

Q. A reviewer felt that you have been partial to Ustad Ramzi’s character and etched it in all its shades, whereas Gohar Jan has been sidelined to the ‘golden-hearted tawaif‘ we know all too well. Did you deliberately choose to be partial to Ustad Ramzi’s character?

A. In my opinion, Gohar Jan’s character is more important than that of Ustad Ramzi. That is, if you go by the ‘weight’ of the character; not how much they are focused on but the acts they perform that change the complexion of the story. Ustad Ramzi’s relationship with Gauhar Jan played out beyond his notice, yet he wasn’t fully unaware of it. Ramzi is essentially a selfish man, and my job as a novelist was to portray his entire flawed character. As far as the ‘golden-hearted tawaif‘ is concerned, I truly feel that women are more compassionate, conciliatory and understanding than men. The nature of their lives, especially in the subcontinent, creates a consciousness of suffering that creates awareness in them. Men have an understanding, too, but our ego is an impediment. We tend not to probe beyond our comfort level.

Also, there is an instance in the novel where people come to know that Ustad Ramzi has started frequenting Gohar Jan’s kotha, and she is said to be spreading rumours that he’s finally succumbed to the temptation. She was doing her job as a tawaif by teasing the uptight and disciplinarian Ustad Ramzi. Gohar Jan is shown less than Ustad Ramzi, and it is through four or five pivotal actions in the novel that we come to understand her character.

Q. In the novel, Gohar Jan is shown as a kind and humane woman who is deeply religious and philanthropic. But when she offers to make a donation to the mosque, the maulvi shows reluctance to openly use her name. What do you think led to this intolerance in Pakistani society over the years?

A. There is a mosque in Lahore called Masjid Moran Tawaif, now known as Masjid Moran Mai, which has been widely documented in books about the history of Punjab. It was built by Raja Ranjit Singh’s mistress, the tawaif Moran. So, tawaifs contributing to public and religious institutions is not an alien concept. It’s a part of history we tend to forget.

I wouldn’t say that this rigidity has something to do with Partition; it had already started creeping in by the early 20th Century or late 19th Century. The year of 1857 was life-changing for people; it also made people insecure about their religious beliefs and less inclusive of those of others. We don’t have a record of our elders’ emotions, but I think that respect for the composite faith of the community figured prominently in their lives. I have a 400 page-long collection of naatein, that is, poetry dedicated to Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) – written in Urdu by Hindu devotional poets of the pre-Partition era. Today, people would object to Hindu poets writing about him. Now the composite faith of the community is no longer there; one’s immediate faith has taken precedence, which is painful and can take a violent form.

Q. What was the biggest challenge you faced while writing Between Clay and Dust?

A. Writing in the English language about people who live here is a problem. I thought many times about writing this particular book in Urdu. But I told myself: If you’re a self-styled writer writing in English, then you must accept this challenge. An important effect that I wanted the novel to achieve was that Ustad Ramzi’s actions should not seem questionable from a moralistic point of view and the reader should be complicit in this. I wanted the reader to go along with Ustad Ramzi and question his actions when he himself does that, so as to be a part of his remorse only at the very end.

Q. Tell us about contemporary Urdu or English writers you read with pleasure.

A. I mostly read Urdu writers. I don’t know why we make a fuss over Pakistani writers writing in English. How can the ideology of a nation-state become involved in the creation of literary work? Why aren’t Pakistani writers writing in Urdu, Punjabi or Sindhi given the same attention as their counterparts writing in English?

I immensely enjoy reading India-based Urdu writer Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. His novel Ka’i Chand the Sar-e-Aasman is one of the world’s greatest novels. Its translation will be published next year in January; it will be an international novel. I am a great fan of Naiyer Masud; I don’t like the way he constructs his stories, but the ambience he creates is beyond cavil. As far as Pakistani writers are concerned, there is Ali Akbar Natiq. One of his short stories A Mason’s Hand was translated by Mohammed Hanif in Granta. Muhammad Khalid Toor’s wrote a brilliant novella, Kanni Nikah, that I plan to translate soon. These are some of the writers that I really like and read to learn from. I can’t praise Afzal Syed’s poetry enough. Yoda Press will publish my translation of his complete poems Rococo and Other Worlds in India.

Q. Your first novel, Salar Jung’s Passion, is being reprinted soon under the title The Time of the Termites. What was writing your debut novel like?

A. I faced a lot of difficulty writing my first novel. But it’s also a favourite because I wrote it at my own pace. When I embarked on my first novel, I had read a thousand or so books, yet I did not know how to write one. That book is very close to my heart as it is reminiscent of my childhood days in Hyderabad. My maternal grandfather, who was a colourful character in his own right, also figures in the novel. I had in mind my father’s struggle to write in his later life while writing Salar Jung’s Passion. He wanted to write a book which would bring together the people of the world under one banner of humanism. He would compulsively write notes and research, but when the termites would strike his work would be disrupted. However, I had no idea where to start writing the novel, so I started writing sketches of individual characters and places, such as the Sessions Court building opposite our home in Hyderabad. And once I’d written fifteen or so sketches, I began to see the connections between different characters. This was a very important novel for me because it made me more confident as a writer.

Q. How do you think you have changed as a writer since your first book was published?

A. Now I have the complete plot in my mind when I sit down to write. When I’m writing things do tend to change, though. When that happens, I sit down to think about those changes and the ideas about the possible changes and how they might affect the overall story and plot. If it improves the plot or makes it more complex and more interesting, or I like that new change, I adopt it, otherwise I discard that idea.

I don’t consciously sit down to write during a particular time of the day for two or three hours. I’m writing all the time. That used to be the case when I started out as a writer. Now, if I’m not writing, I’m doing something or the other related to my writing – launching my book, doing media interviews etc. I’m constantly thinking about my writing, a new project or the background of a new story.

Q. You’ve collaborated with your wife Michelle Farooqi on a graphic novel, Rabbit Rap, which will be published by Penguin later this year. What was it like working with her?

A. Michelle is a brilliant and diverse artist. She’s a strong writer too, but she doesn’t write professionally. She has an exacting eye for shoddy sentences. She points out the shoddy passages in my work and tells me to rewrite them.

Rabbit Rap started out as a graphic novel but now it’s more of an illustrated novel. The story had become very text heavy, and if I and Michelle were to write it in the form of a graphic novel, it would easily take us two to three years more to complete the project. As a writer, I didn’t want everything to be conveyed through the illustrations. Michelle had her own projects too, and I couldn’t take her away from her personal art. But I think what we have now is a more interesting combination. What use is a book without illustrations anyway?

Rabbit Rap was an easy book to write: it took me three to four months to complete the story. I wrote the chapter outlines and then worked on the chapters themselves. One of the chapters had become very long, so I made two chapters out of it. Other than that I had the entire story in my mind when I sat down to write the book. I laughed a lot while writing Rabbit Rap. I like the story very much.

Q. You’ve lived in Toronto for than a decade. Has Canada’s literary heritage influenced you in any way?

A. I really like writer, singer, poet Leonard Cohen. I read his novel Beautiful Losers 25 years ago, long before going to Canada. It was an odd and intimate novel about human relationships. At that time I really liked it. I love his poetry too. I think he deserves a Nobel just for his poetry. He hasn’t influenced me, though; I admire him as a writer.

Q. Between Clay and Dust has received rave reviews in many publications. Do you think the 10 year-long toil has finally paid off?

A. I think so, yes. And I feel very good about it. I worked very hard on this novel; I sat on it for ten years because I didn’t want to publish it till everything was absolutely right about it. I knew that this was an important novel, and if I executed it correctly, it would become something really magnificent. I knew I could not afford to make compromises.

Update, 2/3/13:

Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s translation of Afzal Ahmed Syed’s complete poems—Rococo and Other Worlds—is due out in October 2013 from Yoda Press. You can read some of the poems here.

His translation of Dastan-e Amir Hamza (The Adventures of Amir Hamza) has been reissued recently by Aleph Book Company. You can buy it here.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Literary Indian

When writer-journalist Manu Joseph won The Hindu Fiction Award last year for his novel Serious Men he remarked half-jokingly, “In India, the novel is being received very well. As long as it doesn’t win the Booker… Most Indian books that have won the Booker have not been received well in India, because the question is raised, is the novel interpreting India for foreigners, and is it a fair interpretation or an exotic one?”

While it is debatable whether an Indian novel which wins the Booker is received well back home or not (The God of Small Things and The Inheritance of Loss went on to become bestsellers), the Booker Prize – an award that is “neither properly international nor entirely local” – may soon become irrelevant in the present Indian context. During the past three years, not one book from the subcontinent has featured on the Booker longlist, and the kind of ambition and novelty that is visible in Indian writing in English today requires that Indian books and authors be judged by indigenous panels for an Indian audience.

Until a decade ago, there was only one major literary prize in India for Indian writing in English—the Sahitya Akademi Award. Being a government-funded prize brought the Akademi its fair share of imbroglios; leading Hindi writer Krishna Sobti went as far as to say that a literary mafia was at work within the establishment. Like all good bureaucratic institutions in this country, the Akademi reeks of sycophancy, lobbying and politicking, where a writer’s “official position weighs in favour of his getting an award.” The award may once have been a symbol of literary reform in the Nehruvian era of hope, but the heavily state-sponsored prize today is more a reminder of the License Raj.

In the last decade or so, four new literary prizes have come up from the private sector in India—each unique in its own method of judging books, and the submissions it allows. The first to make its mark on the Indian literary scene in 1998 was the Vodafone Crossword Award, which, instead of being an Indian facsimile of the Booker, has turned out to be just as dynamic and multi-layered as Indian literature today. It is the first of its kind to have a category for children’s literature. Ranjit Lal’s Faces in the Water – judged the best children’s book this year – is a ghost story for young adults on female infanticide. While writers hardly like to talk about issues as sensitive as gender cruelty in the country – andfewer still would base a young adults’ book on it – Lal has carried out the feat with ease and humour, and the result is far from depressing.

The Vodafone Crossword Prize’s appeal clearly lies in its multifariousness, yet an Indian book that wins the Booker or even gets shortlisted for it – carry as it may the burden of being judged by a British panel and being manufactured for foreign audiences – grabs more headlines in India than one that wins the Vodafone Crossword Award.

The Vodafone Crossword Book Award has also raised a very important, if esoteric, question: What makes an Indian book Indian? There were some glaring omissions in this year’s longlist: Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing, Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables, and Samath Subramanian’s Following Fish, even though these books were hailed as some of the best examples of narrative journalism to have come out of India in recent years. Prakash and Subramanian are American and British citizens respectively, but Sonia Faleiro has retained her Indian passport despite having shifted base to the United States. So, does a well-written book on India cease to be Indian if the author does not reside in the country any more? In order to excuse itself from this tribulation, the Vodafone Crossword Award may start accepting entries from the entire subcontinent from next year, but it is not certain whether the books will be defined as ‘subcontinental’ by the nationality of their authors or their content.

Instead of bothering itself with the bureaucratic process of examining the passports and PIO cards of writers, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature is open to books about South Asia in terms of content and theme. This means that a writer can enter for the prize irrespective of her ethnicity if the book is set in South Asia (e.g. Ruth Prawer Jabhwala’s The Householder) whereas an author of South Asian origin whose book is set abroad cannot (say, Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music). The titles on the shortlist have common South Asia-centric themes, though some well-written books set in other places may be left out. Another drawback of the DSC Prize is that there is a gap of more than a year between the date of publication of the books and the announcement of the winner, creating a gulf too large for the attention spans of readers and publishers; it is possible a book is forgotten by the time it appears on the DSC Prize longlist.

The way an Indian Literary prize deals with translation of Indian language fiction sets it apart from others, and might govern its authenticity and credibility in the long run. The Vodafone Crossword Prize has a separate category for translated fiction whereas translations and English language fiction compete against each other for the DSC and The Hindu Literary Prizes. Pitting translations against original English fiction has its disadvantages: it difficult to judge the nuances and verbal eccentricities of a translated work against the authority and fluency of one written originally in English; and more often than not the translation gets left behind in the selection process. Such a lacuna is unhelpful for any award that aims at recognising Indian fiction.

It would be interesting to see if any of these prizes is able to generate the same enthusiasm among readers in India as the Booker does in Britain, and finally end our obsession with featuring on the Booker shortlist. This may sound paradoxical, but the demographic of readers buying Booker prize-winning books in India is too important to ignore (Julian Barnes’s The Sense of An Ending was sold out in India two days after it won the Booker.) A stronger and more skilled PR and publicity team for Indian lit prizes would help them to rise in ambition. The DSC Prize – a very likely candidate – boasts of a cash-heavy prize of $ 50,000, and is announced during the glamorous Jaipur Literature Festival. The Vodafone Crossword award could find a more effective way of dealing with the nationality and ethnicity of the writers; too much meaningless red-tape may result in glossing over some of the best books published in a particular year.

The Shakti Bhatt First Book Award, on the other hand, prefers to keep it low key. The prize is awarded in the memory of Shakti Bhatt, former editor with Random House India who died tragically at the age of 27.  Featuring on the shortlist for India’s only literary award for debut writers can act as a great encouragement to first-time published authors. “High-profile prizes bring recognition and increase book sales, helping your work reach a wider readership. And if there’s a monetary prize attached [the Shakti Bhatt Award has a cash prize of Rs. 100,000], that’s always a nice bonus—because the writing life is not usually conducive to making a really good livelihood,” says writer and blogger Jai Arjun Singh, who was on this year’s jury.

Faiza Sultan Khan

In spite of their growing popularity, Indian literary prizes may stand the danger of becoming formulaic over the years. Editor of the Life’s Too Short literary review Faiza Sultan Khan, who is also on the jury for the 2012 DSC Prize, feels that Indian literary prizes often give the theme and content priority over the quality of writing. “Indian lit prizes still judge books by scale and subject matter, and so they’re judging Indian writing in the same way as international prizes do. Non-fiction books about the underprivileged and destitute do very well, but if you write a great book on Indian film writing, chances are you could be completely overlooked,” she says. While the biography of legendary Indian music director ‘Panchamda’ R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music did make it to the Shakti Bhatt Book Award shortlist, it lost out to Pakistani author Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon.

Times are exciting and dynamic for the world of Indian writing and publishing. Literary prizes should deliver with the same kind of promise and freshness that Indian writing in particular and South Asian writing in general displays. The prizes have to be more consistent in the submissions they allow—neither too wide nor too narrow. If literary awards in India want to make readers notice, and buy prize-winning books like other distinguished international prizes do, they have to avoid the kind of books the Indian reader finds “exotic” and misleading, and instead judge books by the quality of their writing and power of narrative, rather than the repetitive, hackneyed, so-called Indian themes.

Ultimately, the quality of writing on the shortlist determines the following of any literary prize. The biggest accomplishment for a good literary award is its ability to expose shortlisted writers to a larger readership—elusive otherwise in the competitive Indian market of today where writers of popular fiction rule the roost, and 10,000-odd copies sold make a book a bestseller.


(I know, I know — I haven’t been posting as regularly as I should. I am very occupied with my studies, but I promise to post every week beginning from April 2012.)

Posted in Authors, Books, Jaipur Literature Festival, Man Booker Prize | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Dot-Com Bookstore

KD Singh has been a bookseller for 38 years. When you enter his bookstore – The Bookshop – located in the posh neighbourhood of Delhi’s Jorbagh, you will find him sitting contentedly at his desk, working. He won’t mind if you strike up a conversation with him about his latest read; at 70, he has a refined taste in books. His cosy, yellow-lit bookstore looks like a relic from another simpler world, where people would go to bookstores to buy their books, a time when online bookstores were unheard of and the publisher-distributor-bookseller-reader structure worked in harmony.

When was founded in 2007 by Binny Bansal and Sachin Bansal (they are not related to each other) – ex-IITians and former employees of America’s ferocious online retailer – little did readers and booksellers imagine that it would revolutionise the book business in India. Selling over two lakh books annually, Flipkart is now the largest bookstore in India, and may be set to become a billion-dollar enterprise. It provides customers across the country with hassle-free service, a choice of over seven million titles, and brutal discounts. Students swear by Flipkart, and so do those looking for imported editions and rare titles. In Pondicherry, where there is only one good bookstore, it is a source of comfort to bibliophiles.

According to CEO Sachin Bansal, 10,000-12,000 people buy books from Flipkart every day. While half the orders are placed by customers from big cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai, Flipkart delivers more than 1,000-odd books through government book-post to small towns where courier services are still unavailable.


As Amazon plans to make its presence felt in India in 2012, could this spell a further transformation of the book trade in this country? The online e-commerce giant is reportedly in talks for a major collaboration with leading websites such as Flipkart and Though Flipkart has rubbished claims of a possible selling out to Amazon, it is hard to say whether they will be able to refuse a great offer.

Will Flipkart’s clientele shift their loyalties to Amazon? The big player might need to learn a trick or two from its Indian counterpart. The most important difference between Amazon and Flipkart is the payment mechanism. In a country where credit-card culture isn’t as widespread as in the West, and where buyers still feel reluctant to reveal their credit card numbers on the internet, Flipkart’s cash-on-delivery method has worked well, and accounts for nearly half of all purchases made on the site.

However much one might rave about online booksellers, Amazon has destabilised the book industry in the US, leading to bankruptcy of the famous chain Borders, and shutting down of other revered independent bookstores that could not adapt to Amazon’s uninhibited expansion. Could a similar phenomenon in India threaten independent booksellers? Not so much. What about bookstore chains? Probably yes.

“The rise of online bookstores has massively affected bookstore chains that depend largely on ‘fun-list’ books and bestsellers, whereas we concentrate on literary fiction, and therefore remain relatively unaffected,” says KD Singh. “An indie bookseller should be a voracious reader and passionate about books. Flipkart may make recommendations based on your past purchases, but there is room for loopholes. Whereas, if I see a regular customer picking up a book he may not like, I stop him from buying it. In this way, he would end up saving more money than while buying from an e-bookstore!” he adds with a laugh.

The attitude toward online bookstores in India and abroad is similar, insofar as readers and compulsive book buyers have a sentimental attachment to the physical experience of buying books; they still give importance to flipping through the pages of a book before buying it. However, because of space constraints, Indian bookshops are unable to stock books that cater to the needs of different sorts of readers, and this is where online bookstores have an upper hand. “I buy a lot of literary criticism as well as obscure genre fiction. No sane bookshop owner would cater to those areas. If you have unusual book needs, it’s much easier to buy online,” says Sunday Guardian columnist Aishwarya Subramanian. Come to think of it, what could possibly hinder you from enjoying browsing books online? “I love clicking on an author name and finding a whole page of other books by her that I can now order,” says Subramanian.

As book sales in India grow by 50 percent each year, and Flipkart’s turnover continues to impress, a much larger share of the Indian book trade will be carried out online than before. More than half of Flipkart’s customers are working men between the ages of 20 and 35, a statistic which shows that in a country where good independent bookshops are scarce, young people increasingly prefer to shop from online bookstores – something they can do in an instant from their desks.

K.D. Singh of The Bookshop (copyright: The Delhi Walla)

Nonetheless, readers who cherish visiting their favourite bookstores, discovering new books, and relying on the recommendations of well-informed booksellers like KD Singh, know that independent bookstores have to be kept alive. “The experience of returning to a bookstore is nostalgic and magical for me,” says Mira Dutta, who teaches English at a coaching institute. “It reminds me of the time I spent as a child with my father scouring for books in Calcutta.” As the online market for books grows, independent booksellers need to know their books well and provide customers with a wholesome experience. While modern Indian readers do not have qualms about ordering discounted books from an online bookstore, they still prize the satisfaction of entering the warmth of a bookshop, meeting friendly faces, sniffing a book, and feeling overwhelmed on seeing the shelves stocked with handsome paperbacks.

On my bookshelf at least, Ondaatje’s The English Patient bought from The Bookshop lies atop Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita – which I purchased from Flipkart.

Posted in Books | Leave a comment

The Languishing Young Reader

Click to read the article on The India Site

On my way back home from school in a dingy van, I would often take out a book, and start reading. The journey in the school van was like a vacuum — the only time when my mind was not preoccupied with the mundane battles I had to fight at school, located on the periphery of the Central Ridge near the crowded residential area of Rajinder Nagar in Delhi; or with the music lessons that awaited me on returning home. It was the ideal time to take out a novel and read.

I was 11, and I had recently discovered Agatha Christie; it would set my pulse racing, and make a pleasant distraction from the sultriness of the days and the noisy bullies in the van. On the first day, as I was reading, I noticed an uncanny silence in the vehicle. I lifted my eyes from the book, and found all the boys staring at me, one of them trying to figure out the title of the book in my hands. Their eyes were brimming with astonishment, and, as I like to imagine, the allure of having seen something mysterious. But when I looked back at them, they broke into a dismissive laughter. Apparently, they had never seen anyone read a novel in the van before. For many days one of them would pass by my home each night, cry out “Miss Novel!”, and run away.

Being a teenager who loves books (reading, buying, collecting, and talking about them), I feel disappointed by the exoticism and condescension with which many young adults perceive reading. Reading is as natural as breathing or the morning bread and butter to me, and this why for a long time I didn’t realise that for many people in my milieu, taking extraordinary interest in books was bizarre. On a school trip to the hills, when I chose to read Marguerite Duras in the bus, my schoolmates came up to me and asked if everything was all right, because something had to be terribly wrong if I was reading while travelling, that too in French.

Most Indian youngsters, on being asked which books they are reading or have read, would give the following answers: the Harry Potter series, the Twilight series, The Da Vinci Code, and everything written by Chetan Bhagat. Literary fiction is by and large unheard of, and most Indian writing – in English, Hindi and other regional languages – remains unexplored territory. While there is nothing wrong with reading about Potter or vampires, why should young people restrict their preferences to such narrow options? One of India’s greatest gifts is its multilingualism, and the rich body of literature that comes along with it in the form of ancient literary traditions in languages such as Tamil and Malayalam. Yet, my South Indian friends inform me that Tamil literature is not of much interest to the majority of young people down there.

Recently, I was interning with the student edition of The Times of India, which has a large readership among school students across the country. Strangely enough, the newspaper does not have a books section. I wrote a round-up of books for teenagers, thinking it would be an interesting initiation into reviewing and writing about books for the publication. Instead, my article was pushed to the sidelines and edited brutally, and another article about “swearwords trending with young people” was made the chief story of the page. HT Edge, a “newspaper customised for young readers” brought out byHindustan Times, doesn’t have a books section, and I have never seen a book review being published in it. Evidently, these so-called youth newspapers believe that the Indian youth doesn’t have anything to do with reading, or at least, reading and writing about books.

Looking back at the days when my reading in public would surround me with a circus of curious students, I don’t think things have changed much. The fact that youth newspapers think of reading as an activity their target audience would not be interested in, undermines the passion that many teenagers may feel for books.

Many young people are reading after all, and since they rely on media for exposure to new books and writing, they find themselves disappointed in newspapers that promise to address their issues, yet take no notice of books they would like to read. Parents too would rather have their children study for umpteen entrance examinations, success in which would ensure a seat in a top professional college, rather than waste their time reading novels, from which – in their opinion – little can be gained. As long as teenagers do not openly express their love for reading, these irrational attitudes won’t change, and my generation will have to live with the label of being ignorant to the pleasure of reading and cherishing books.

Posted in Books | 3 Comments

Why I read…

Why I read…

Two Women Reading, Sylvia Plath

I have been buying books recklessly. I see a book I have heard about and pounce on it at the very sight of the paperback. I read a review and I think this might be the book that I have been looking for and start hunting for it. I have spent thousands of rupees on books this year. Every week I am adding new titles to my shelf. It is brimming with books, it seems to shout that it cannot take more; a new shelf will have to share the load. I have bought twenty-four books in 2011 and there’s still half a year to go.

Every reader should ask herself “Why do I read?” Every reader should be asked “Why do you read?” For pleasure? For satisfaction? Yes. But there are other motives. What are they? The Reader should know what makes him “run his tongue naked into books”.

I have been asked the same question myself a lot lately. I have had some extraordinary reading experiences in the past month which have led me to ask myself the same question. And it isn’t only about reading. It is also about the uncontrollable urge to possess books that I would like to read in near future. The urge to be surrounded by books.

The answer would never come to you in a flash. It would slowly trickle down your mind like a drop of sweat; it would ooze out of the senses that are awakened when you read, as you read. It would rise in the form of bubbles from the hot spring of ideas in the reader’s mind. It would incubate; it would take time to gather itself. And one day, it would present itself in front of you (it could be at the oddest of times) and surrender.

I read because I want to know what is behind the face in the picture of the writer on the back cover. I want to see language in a new form; I want to explore and appreciate its uniqueness each time I open a book. I want to live the events in a book that I would not experience at all otherwise, or at least for a very long time. I read because I want to see another world through a different set of eyes. I read because I like feelings and thoughts being articulated. I read because some writers make me horripilate with their writing styles: I read for thrill. I read because I love the written word. I want to thrust solitude upon myself, detach myself from the world when it stops making sense to me, and come back to it when a session of reading has made me believe that it does, if you change your approach.

There is another aspect of reading that I would like to talk about —the solitude it enforces on you. Reading is a solitary activity, after all. It’s the other way round as well —solitude brings about a love for reading. The desire to escape from ennui makes it necessary for some to make the acquaintance of fictional characters. But, is reading really a solitary activity in the 21st century? In a world where social networking tools such as Twitter and Goodreads connect readers to each other, this solitude is becoming more and more elective. Readers around the world are asking for suggestions, recommending books, participating in online book-clubs, and even holding online group readings. They are coming together and building an internet-based reading community that is stronger than ever. Two such tools enabling readers to share their observations and discuss books are Fridayreads and 1book140. Fridayreads is a readers’ community on Twitter and Facebook that invites readers to share with the ‘Twitterverse’ what book(s) they are reading. I have often Tweeted my Fridayreads and received enthusiastic comments and reactions from people I would otherwise not even have had the chance to talk to. Fridayreads is a great way of coming across new books, writers and readers. More than 5000 people are tweeting each Friday what they are reading and reaching out to a community of readers that loves to talk about books. 1book140 is again a Twitter-based book-club hosted by The Atlantic magazine.  Readers voted for Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Blind Assassin as the inaugural book for discussion. Atwood tweeted “Would it be cheating if I joined in?” The book-club has been welcomed with great zeal by readers and they will soon choose a second book for discussion in the month of July.

I have deviated much from the point, but I have made this digression with intent. In my social milieu, reading is not taken up with much fervour. At times, it is even looked down upon, as if it were some mind-numbing anti-social activity that would turn you into a supercilious monster who goes on babbling incomprehensible words and ideas. And yet, this condescending attitude towards reading doesn’t emerge from hatred. It emerges from a failure to grasp the power of reading and the meaning that it adds to one’s life. The helpless feeling of incomprehensibility of certain non-readers towards reading makes them susceptible to condemning something they cannot do. If you cannot appreciate reading, simply pass it off as something you would rather not do if given a choice.

I read because I do not identify with such people. I read because I know reading is not anti-social but it brings like-minded people together. I read because reading is what I would like others to do if I ever wrote a book. I read because there is no better way to disseminate ideas than writing them in form of books. I read because books never let me get bored —they are a perpetual comfort in the hardest of times. I read because I know that even if I am buying twenty-four books in six months I am going to read all of them. I read and buy books because one day I am going to have a large library with thousands of books and a mahogany coffee-table. You will be invited to tea and we’ll talk about books and munch home-baked cakes.

Tell me, why do you read?

Posted in Books, Reading Bug | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

The Recovering Writer

The Recovering Writer

You have probably noticed, if you are one of the blessed souls who bother to read this dear, little blog regularly, that I haven’t written or posted anything in this space for over a month now. Yet, some of you have been gracious enough to comment, subscribe and read my earlier articles, and this has motivated me to start tapping on the keyboard again. In fact, I recently bought a new laptop so that I could write without facing the inconvenience of working on the PC and straining my neck at odd hours of the night. And the grave irony of this matter is that I haven’t produced much, ever since the laptop established itself on my table.

I asked myself, is it this what writers, publishers, reviewers, critics, readers and all those associated with the world of writing, call WRITER’S BLOCK, in broad capitals?

‘Writer’s block’ has always seemed to me a taboo term— you might as well shout out Lord Voldemort’s name in Hogwarts. The protagonists of many novels and stories have been writers with the temporary inability to write. In  George Orwell’s novel Keep The Aspidistra Flying, the protagonist tries to write an epic poem describing a day in London, but fails. This phase has plagued the greatest of writers, like Virginia Woolf and Coleridge. But at the same time, many have scorned at this term, condemning it as pretentious writers’ mumbo-jumbo. Nevertheless, there are moments in every artist’s life when words stop to flow, when the paintbrush refuses to move on the canvas, when all the tunes go haywire. Those moments are living hell for an artist. The premonition that she might lose the one thing she’s good at lurks in every corner—the fear is unsettling. When she reads a book of an author she admires, she thinks, “Will I ever be able to write like that?”At that time, the answer that comes to  the mind is seldom an affirmative. The apprehensions of an aspiring writer, or even an established writer, are numerous, and once she has chosen the path she wants to tread, little can be done to change her mind. Margaret Atwood, in her book Negotiating With the Dead, writes about her becoming a writer,

“…How is it that I became a writer? It wasn’t a likely thing for me to have done, nor was it something I chose, as you chose to be a lawyer or dentist. It simply happened, suddenly, in 1956, while I was crossing the football field on the way home from school. I wrote a poem in my head and then I wrote it down, and after that writing was the only thing I wanted to do. I didn’t know that this poem of mine wasn’t at all good, and if I had known, I probably wouldn’t have cared. It wasn’t the result but the experience that hooked me: it was the electricity. My transition from not being a writer to being one was instantaneous, like the change from docile bank clerk to fanged monster in ‘B’ movies. Anyone looking might have thought I’d been exposed to some chemical or cosmic ray of the kind that causes rats to become gigantic and men to become invisible.”

The humour and honesty with which she writes about her experience are rare (again, will I ever be able to write like that?); however, the process she describes is universal to most devoted writers. Once you are in love with writing, it is not in your control to stop it when the inner compulsion arises. At times you just want to lock yourself in the room to avoid any outside disturbance -your mother asking you to run an errand or to do a household chore- and let the state where the subconscious and the conscious meet take over.

But what to do when these processes stop to happen for a while? When you feel the art is dying (even though it might have just gone on a short vacation)? What does a writer, aspiring or otherwise, do to recover from this curse, the feeling of helplessness on seeing the cold, dusty keyboard which strikes as an ugly reminder of her inability to write?

She takes a break. She reads and reads and reads and reads books. And she tries to read them carefully. Over many cups of coffee and tea (any day better than alcohol, which might make you a writer-Devdas of sorts, and that won’t help at all), she thinks about returning to what she loves best. She tries to pinpoint the distractions and disturbances that have been hindering her from writing, and does away with them (I’m not saying it’s easy). She thinks about the ‘Dear Reader’. She buys books she has always wanted to be a part of her library (so much of positivity!), and assures herself that it is going to work. She finally writes an article about it, to establish the fact that it is working, after all.

Posted in Books, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments



If I were living in a cold Western country, I would have described the weather saying that the snow is finally melting and giving way to green after a long winter. Only if the transition of seasons was that apparent in Delhi. Consider this- One day as you’re walking warmly packed in your woollens, you feel a little sweaty and realise that the sun is shining in all its resplendent glory above your head, you touch your hair and they are pretty close to burning. You go home and sigh heavily that summer has arrived and at night you go to bed in a cotton nightie. The very next morning, three-fourth sleepily you find yourself looking for that extra blanket that your mother left beside you (just in case) and your feet are cold like two solid icebergs. On opening your eyes, you realise that it was raining heavily while you snored your way through the night and the temperature is, how shocking, five degrees.

This volatility of the weather heralds the change of season where I live. If you don’t take into account an ugly row or petty, mean remarks being passed by someone or the other, the day is beautiful and its beauty rests in not knowing what colour the sky will be half an hour from now, whether the hovering clouds promise in earnest a spell of rain, whether the elusive sun will give way to the glory of grey skies (all the other colours come out so rich against grey).  Yet, it is a pain to wake up at six in the morning for school and make it in the nick of time just as the gate is about to be closed. I crave for tea on seeing my teachers deriving sweet schadenfreude from my miserable state as I fix my eyes on the steaming tea mugs in their hands and they chat merrily in the staff room (Dear Teachers, kindly allow some exaggeration for imagery’s sake).  The day slips into darkness early and if there are no deadlines to be met or nothing interesting to read on the Internet, staying awake past eleven-thirty is but a sweet dream. It is difficult to imagine that in a few months the ‘hot, brooding’ Summer will regain its kingdom and oust Winter yet again, though only temporarily.

But do seasons change the way you read? Do you think you read more in one season than the other? I guess I am inclined to read faster and more in when it’s not very hot, but at the same time seek refuge from the heat by forgetting about it and simply, reading. Presently, if you walk in my room you’ll find me engrossed in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park which I was prompted to read by the opinion of a friend that it is Jane at her best. Now that I’ve started I am set on reading all her works, I always feel energised and get chatty after reading her (I read Pride and Prejudice last year as we were to discuss it at the Book Club, which we never did, because these Chetan Bhagat types never, somehow, finished reading it). Austen left a brilliant body of work behind her; she was an author who worked all her life and didn’t quit even when very close to her death. Rather than idealising the personalities who embodied the characters in her novels such as Lady Catherine de Bourgh and the Bertram sisters (and seemed perfectly cultured at first glance),  she brought out their superficiality as honestly and wittily as no one else could. The preoccupation with marriage of the provincial gentry, the way Austen portrays it, is so strikingly similar that of the Indian upper middle-class today that I am left wondering how people of different societies centuries apart can resemble each other so well in their attitudes. Jane is my hero- she gives us girls the perennial hope that the Fannys and Elizabeths among us will find love and happiness notwithstanding the Mrs. Norris s and Mrs. Bennets who stand in our way. Everything about her inspires me to pursue my passions and do what I love best. Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, EmmaLady Susan– to sum up aptly in the words of Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe, “Every morning, I have woken up knowing that I will never run out of books to read. That has been my life.”

Jane Austen, Watercolour and pencil portrait b...

Jane Austen

Posted in Authors, Books, Reading Bug, Women's Writing | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Guardian Books Podcast: Life, Death and Literary Critics home

Guardian Books Podcast: Life, death and literary critics

Listen to this week’s podcast about human obsession with immortality and the changing role of the critic in the era of social networking on my favourite newspaper, the Guardian‘s website (through which I discovered Katherine Mansfield and her work at the age of 14). For the first time, the Guardian invited readers to post their comments in the form of audio recordings to be included in the podcast. I was thrilled by the very idea and had to participate, so you’ll hear my voice too.

The Guardian Books podcasts are thought-provoking and stimulating, with a great editorial panel that knows how to maintain the listeners’ interest throughout. I am looking forward to next week’s podcast which will be about books that make us feel good (and obviously, those that make us feel the opposite).

(click here to listen)

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Jaipur Diaries- Listening to J.M. Coetzee

Jaipur DiariesThe Old Woman and the Cats

Listening to J.M. Coetzee at the Jaipur Literature Festival

In an article in the Magazine Littéraire, French writer Véronique Ovaldé recounts the fifty hours she spent in the company of Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez, who happened to be a friend of her uncle, when she was 12.  She watched as the two men drank alcohol in the cafe and argued on the opening lines of novels almost without a break for two days and two nights. She writes- “During that time that I passed terrified and starving, I understood, I think, what literature was […] (After many years) having forgotten that I had met this man, I had to reactivate my memory, open the drawers of my childhood one by one […].”

Ovaldé talks about her experience as a precocious reader on meeting “the grandfather and king of Latin America” and the imprint this encounter left on her otherwise unhappy childhood. She remembers, even after so many years, how ‘Gabo’ spoke loudly and that his white clothes were covered with ochre dust. The memory has stood the test of time and has perhaps subconsciously shaped Ovaldé’s reading and writing life. The claim of my assumption is strengthened as she quotes Vladimir Nabokov at the end of the article, “Nothing is lost forever, memory accumulates secret treasures that thrive in the dark and dust.”

On the third day of the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival 2011, as I proceeded for lunch, I noticed a large gathering of people waiting impatiently at the venue called the Front Lawns. There was still half an hour for the session Readings from J.M.  Coetzee to start, yet the place was so packed that hardly any vacant seat was visible from a distance. I decided to skip lunch and wait with them.

I found a charpai in the front, from where a good view was guaranteed (though comfort had to be compromised). Sitting next to me was a young admirer of Coetzee (pronounced ‘kut-zee-uh’) who had taken the morning train to Jaipur just to listen to him and would take the evening train after the session to return to Delhi. This devotion and keenness wasn’t unlikely considering how reclusive Coetzee is. The Nobel Laureate didn’t even turn up to collect his Booker Prizes (in 1983 for The Life and Times of Michael K and in 1999 for Disgrace).

We basked in the desert sunlight of the afternoon at Diggi Palace as announcements were made for the spectators requesting them to switch off their mobile phones and clear the way for J.M. Coetzee. Accompanied by William Dalrymple and Patrick French (the moderator for the session), Coetzee walked to the stage. His demeanor was calm, his expression unattached and undisturbed by the large crowds surrounding him.

He arrived


Coetzee and William Dalrymple

Patrick French welcomed the public to the session and announced that Coetzee was going to read a short story for forty-five minutes. He joked that that very morning he had read in an Indian newspaper (he wouldn’t say which) that he was going to read from Coetzee’s work for forty-five minutes. But then in the same newspaper he read that Junot Díaz was Spain’s leading writer which didn’t turn out to be accurate. The audience laughed and exchanged glances.

Half an hour earlier, French had come to the festival bookstore (where I was volunteering) to borrow a copy of Coetzee’s Youth for the session. He read a passage from the same copy, “Describing the experiences of the young reader, he (Coetzee) writes, ‘He likes Flaubert. Emma Bovary in particular, with her dark eyes, her restless sensuality, her readiness to give herself, has him in her thrall. […] He is not sure that wanting to meet Emma is a good enough reason for admiring Flaubert. In his sensibility there is still, he suspects, something rotten, something Keatsian.’ ” I feel a certain pride in the fact that I now own the same copy, the one that Patrick French had borrowed, read from in the presence of Coetzee and which, later, the author signed for me. There is a strange fatalistic, romantic and mystical element attached to my ownership.

The podium from which Coetzee was to speak was placed at a position from where I and the girl sitting next to me couldn’t see Coetzee clearly. I signalled Sanjoy Roy, the organiser, and he was kind enough to go to the stage himself and change the podium’s position for us. Coetzee stepped forward and soon there was nothing but his clear and soft voice to be heard. It is a voice you never forget, a voice that haunts you in your dreams, that comes back to you as you comb your hair half-sleepily in the morning, a voice that betrays age and experience, a voice that was soft yet one that separated and distinguished each word sharply like an axe chopping the log of the sentence into small, congruent wordly blocks.

“Festivals like this one provide writers with opportunities to air their opinions on one subject or another. Like most people I have opinions but I confess that I don’t find my opinions particularly interesting.” the voice said. “Therefore, I use this platform to read you a story. The story will take about forty-five minutes to read. So for the next forty-five minutes, we’ll hear one uninterrupted voice- my own.” the voice  prophesied. “The story is called The Old Woman and the Cats. It stars two personnages- a middle-aged professor and his aged mother who once upon a time was a well-known novelist.”  We listened. No one spoke. No one but Coetzee, the cooing pigeons and the parrots were to be heard. Slowly the sunlight subdued and the afternoon transcended into a mildewy softness, as if trying to imitate Coetzee’s voice. The bright yellow sky was now grey-blue, the colour of Coetzee’s shirt. For a moment, he seemed the priest, one in whose presence no one would dare speak, he being the intermediator between man and God. Coetzee spoke and I tried to embed his words in my memory in a manner such that no passage of time could wither it away. I tried to make a video to be treasured as a souvenir but my hands trembled.

The Old Woman and the Cats is one of the ‘lessons’ in Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello. The protagonist is an aging novelist (considered to be Coetzee’s alter ego) who lives alone in rural Spain despite her failing health. Her son John has come to visit her and he finds himself repelled by the “strange man in the kitchen” and the many cats his mother feeds and shelters. Coetzee is not only a master story-writer but also a gifted storyteller. He knows when exactly to pause, to give the voice a sudden swish, and how to keep a perfectly straight face as the public laughs at a light moment in the story. In my life, I had never before seen so many people of different nationalities together so silent and miraculously held rapt by a writer of such great literary powers.

To those who feel that I am romanticising my experience, I might as well say that there is no other way I can do justice to it, for few moments in my life of sixteen-and-a-half years have been as ethereal, stimulating and powerful as listening to J.M. Coetzee with a thousand other people.

Coetzee and French

“One uninterrupted voice”

The Rare Smile (That’s my copy of Youth in French’s Hands)

Inner Workings

After reading Ovaldé’s account of the two days  she spent in the private company of a literary giant at a tender age, I envisage myself recounting my own experience of this one fine afternoon in Jaipur to perhaps an inquisitive friend or lover after many years. As I read Youth, the voice, my voice, that usually reads the text in my mind, has been replaced with another one. It’s Coetzee that now reads his work to me.  He has managed to invade that personal space in a span of three quarters of an hour. As he signed my copy, I said to him, “I hope the experience of listening to you today remains alive in my memory forever”, and I guess it will. Again, in Nabokov’s words, “I think it is all a matter of love: the more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is.”

A Stolen Moment- I and Coetzee

Watch the full session here

Posted in Authors, Books, Jaipur Literature Festival, Man Booker Prize | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Jaipur Diaries- The Jaipur Literature Festival 2011

Jaipur Diaries

The DSC Jaipur Literature Festival 2011

Last year in January, I sent Mayank Austen Soofi an e-mail when he had just returned from the Jaipur Literature Festival,

“See you in Jaipur next year!”

At that time I wasn’t sure whether I was just joking or I really wanted to attend the festival. But, by a quirk of fate, here I am in Jaipur writing this post.

The Jaipur Literature Festival, organised by DSC began in 2008 with historian-author William Dalrymple (best known for his books City of Djinns and White Mughals) and Namita Gokhale as the Directors. Over the time it has become the largest literary festival of its kind in South Asia (Tina Brown called it “the greatest literary show on Earth” in Daily Beast), attracting bibliophiles, journalists, literature students and the general public (the festival,  contrary to what one may think, is free and open to everyone) from all over the world. Well-known authors like Salman Rushdie, Wole Soyinka, Ian McEwan, Alexander McCall Smith and Hanif Kureishi have been a part of the festival. Celebrities better to the general public, Shabana Azmi and poets Javed Akhtar and Gulzar come to the festival each year. This year Nobel Laureate and author of the acclaimed Museum of Innocence- Orhan Pamuk, the Booker Prize-winning author of the Life and Times of Michael K and Disgrace– J.M. Coetzee, Roberto Calasso, Jim Crace and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will be a part of the festival for the first time.

The festival is held for five days from 21st-25th January every year. I am eagerly awaiting the inaugural day, when I will get to be a part of the festivity and witness the literatti from across the globe get together under the roof of the beautiful Diggi Palace, where the festival is held.

Diggi Palace ©Outlook Magazine

Keep watching this space as I will upload videos and pictures along with a write-up each day beginning from 21st January under the series entitled Jaipur Diaries reporting the events of each day. Being a delegate, I will get the opportunity (hopefully!) to interact with the authors and journalists and have VIP access to the events.

So even if you couldn’t be here this time, I will make sure you don’t miss out on the thrill.

See you in Jaipur!

Posted in Authors, Books, Jaipur Literature Festival | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment