Looking Ahead: 2010, A Year of Promising Literature


Was just going through the catalogue of a publishing house and realised that there are a lot of books I'd be interesting in reading next year. A quick glance through my own shortlist

1) The Temple-goers by Aatish Taseer: Billed as the Delhi novel, I can't remember the last time a book was awaited with such anticipation. A debut novel, Temple-goers is the story of a young man who returns to Delhi after living abroad for many years. Soon, he is befriended by Aakash, an unpredicatable young man who shows him the dirty underbelly of Delhi. Both get embroiled in a politically sensitive case which exposes the ruthlessness of Delhi society

A few months ago, Aatish read out excerpts from Temple Goers for a select audience in Delhi. I happened to be present at the reading and, along with the others, was mesmerised by what I'd heard. And if that reading was any indication, this book will definitely be flying off bookshelves. 

2)  Dork: The Incredible Adventures of Robin 'Einstein' Varghese by Sidin Vadukut: Before I proceed any further, let me declare that this is a plug. For ever since I started reading whatay.com, I've been a fan of Sidin's writing. Be it popular culture, travel tales or mostly random observations, Sidin's brand of humour is immensely popular among bloggers and tweeters. But his forte is looking for humour at the workplace. And that's exactly what Dork is about - a hilarious book on office culture and humour. Want to know more? Click on the link and/or wait for excerpts.*

3) May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss by Arnab Ray: What you just read wasn't a typo nor am I drunk-blogging but that is actually the title of the book.  Popular blogger Arnab Ray, also known as Greatbong (of Random Thoughts of A Demented Mind fame) is out with his debut novel; a promising laugh-out-loud, irreverent take on everything that India is (and isn't). C-grade bollywood movies, cricket, education and reality TV shows among many other things

4) Evidence of Suspicion by Amitava Kumar: Writer of the much-acclaimed Husband Of A Fanatic, academician Amitava Kumar critically examines the impact of the war on terror from a philosophical, moral and political perspective. I'm one of the lucky few who've had a chance to look at the text (fleetingly) and I wouldn't like to divulge too many details except to say that it's a gripping, moving and thought provoking tale

5) Homeboy by Husain Naqvi: The story of young, New-York based Pakistani boys in search of their identity and chasing The Great American Dream who embark on a road trip which goes horribly wrong. Another much-anticipated debut by yet another Pakistani author.

6) Karl Aaj Aur Kal by Cyrus Broacha: Television's most popular funny man pens his debut novel which promises to be as hilarious as his spoofs and bakras

7) The Biryani cookbook by Pratibha Karan: Yes, I do read recipe books and I'm not ashamed of admitting it. And I'm eagerly looking forward to this book because my cook can't make a decent biryani to save his life. In fact, his version of the biryani is an absolute insult to the dish. Hence, I'm looking for some much-needed course correction and a few unusual recipes. 

8) The 'Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron Book' by Jai Arjun Singh(aka Jabberwock): Noted literary and cinema critic, Jai Arjun Singh writes about the iconic movie which pioneered the dark comedy genre in Hindi cinema. Not much is known about the book since Jai's still working on it, but since Jai is a prolific and respected blogger, this book promises to be an interesting read

*Off-late, I've met Sidin a few times and the man has the ability to generate humour every two seconds. Hence, I'd like to forewarn journos who'd be doing author interviews with him - you'll probably spend most of your time laughing and don't be surprised if your giggles drown the conversation on your voice recorders!

That's it for now, folks. Enjoy the year ahead and do lots of reading.

Oh, and in between please leave comments on my blogposts. It'll help improve the quality of writing 

(My review of Aatish's Stranger To History: A Son's Journey Through Islamic Lands is here. Also, an interview with Aatish)

Interview: John Elliott and Bernard Imhasly


Earlier this year, I read an anthology of journalistic writing, Foreign Correspondent: Fifty Years of Reporting in South Asia. Published jointly by Penguin Books India and the Foreign Correspondents Club to celebrate the latter's 50 years of existence and contains the best journalistic accounts by foreign correspondents. Now, in an email interview two of the three editors, John Elliott and Bernard Imhasly, discuss the role of a foreign correspondent and the nature of his/her work

With South Asia being exposed to a variety of new media forms such as blogs, social networking websites and, on a larger scale, the internet, how do you think a foreign correspondent approaches his work in the region?

Bernard (BI): For foreign correspondents, the nature of work in the subcontinent has not changed (yet). The citizen journalist profile has yet to gel, so the approach is still much the same - travel, investigate, meet people, use the traditional media, read, look and listen.

John Elliott (JE): A foreign correspondent approaches his work in the same professional way that he always  has, but the pace of work and consequently the time available to research and analyse stories, has been dramatically reduced by the advent of the internet. This not only affects news agencies but also leading newspapers with websites which require instant stories from correspondents. There is therefore less demand for, and time for, reflective stories and the general quality of reporting is thus at risk. Some newspapers allow (or require) their correspondents to write blogs, which gives a journalist a new way to express his personal views, but again increases the pressure on time.

When a foreign correspondent was posted to South Asia say 30 or 40 years ago, how would he react then and how would he react now?

BI: The environment was different in many ways but in one strikingly so: the fact of time had another quality. Political processes were slower and so was the reaction time. There was more deliberation before filing a story. Now, speed is of the essence; so much so that the story is still developing while the correspondent files it. 

JE: I was first posted here 25 years ago when the country and region were different in many ways, though the negative aspects which colour many people's views remain the same - the appalling poverty, dismal airports, awful roads and tiresome bureaucracy. That of course is offset by the huge potential for success, which a newcomer can see more quickly now than 25 years ago though it was of course evident then. 

During the 26/11 attacks, the BBC was severely criticised for using the term 'militants' instead of 'terrorists'. Is there still some sort of bias against the region in the Western media?

BI: Biases across societies and continents are inevitable. They have lessened with globalisation, but have become more insiduous also because now they are more hidden behind this global facade. What is important (and what has improved) is the awareness about them. 

But it is also important to differentiate between biases and points of view. It is legitimate to look at a society eg. India from the point of view of, say, a European and this is especially so in India where there are many indigenous points of view for everything anyway. So it is okay to report from where one stands - and say so.  A bias is a principled prejudice unwilling to be corrected by reality. And that is obviously wrong.

JE: This is not a bias - those who regard it as such are surely paranoid. Along with other parts of the media, the BBC is, I believe, attempting to avoid indiscriminately labeling people and group with tags - though I would agree that 'terrorists' would have been correct on the Mumbai attacks. But, to illustrate the problem, in the 1980s when I was reporting Punjab for the FT (Financial Times),  should Khalistan 'militants'  have been called extremists (as I sometimes did), or 'zealots' as another FT colleague wrote, or 'terrorists' as they might be called now?

This anthology contains a lot of pieces on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. What is it about this family that it towers over all others in South Asia? Is it because they gave India three Prime Ministers or is there something more?

BI: Simple: They have dominated the politics of India and therefore pretty much of the subcontinent so naturally the media, and that includes the foreign media, reflects this reality.

JE: The number of pieces on the dynasty accurately reflects the role they have played down the years.

Which are your favourite piece(s) from the lot that got left out of the book?  Any specific reason as to why they couldn't make it in the end?

BI: We left out many good pieces and it is difficult to rate them. I missed a piece on Bhutan by Simon Denyer, one by John Elliott on modern Indian art; there should have been a piece on the Maldives, women,  more on the many diversities of India - from languages to food to street culture to religious expressions.  But given the parameters, I think we covered a lot of ground.

JE: I agree with Bernard's list including his kind mention of my modern Indian art article and would add that it is a pity we have not got a couple of pieces on other politicians around Nehru in the early years. If we were going to press now, we would need one on the emergence of Rahul Gandhi as a serious politician. The paperback edition (now published) has added articles on Sri Lanka, the Mumbai attacks, and Pakistan, as well as a report from 1984 on Indira Gandhi's assassination. But note that in our introduction we said that, while we tried to get a broad spread of history into the book, we selected good reporting and writing even if that meant that subjects or events were not covered. 

In his 1990 piece about the BJP, James Clad writes towards the end that "the BJP is a coming power in India, a beneficiary of vacuum at the centre of Indian politics". 19 years later, do you think a similar/different vacuum still exists in North Indian politics?

BI: That is a wide field - too wide to be answered in this space. Certainly, the vacuum of 20 years ago has been filled to a large extent, though the BJP has not really grown into a modern right-wing party but has remained stuck in the tradition v/s modernity discourse. In that sense, there is still a vacuum to be filled by a modern party that challenges the Congress on its own ground.

JE: There is a vacuum in that there is no major party representing the poor and emerging lower castes. The parties that have grown into space left by the decline of the Congress Party are run by mostly self-serving, highly corrupt politicians with littler interest in the welfare of those who elect them. It is, however, beginning to look as if the Congress is beginning to emerge as a significant player again.

Another striking feature of this anthology is that there isn't a single piece on cricket: a sport which has a huge fan following in this region. Why? Was it a conscious decision?

BI: No, certainly not a conscious erasure but deplorable nonetheless. Our editorial approach was largely directed by what came in in terms of contributions. When there were significant gaps, we tried to plug them by looking for pieces ourselves. In the case of cricket, this wasn't possible or maybe we just didn't look hard enough.

JE: No, not a consicous decision. Add to the list of gaps above!

The year 2001 was, in many ways, a tumultuous one for South Asia - the Gujarat earthquake happened, the war on terror started as a consequence of 9/11, a Royal massacre in Nepal, an attack on the Indian Parliament....As a foreign correspondent, how did it feel to be in South Asia back then?

BI: A bit overwhelming, to be frank. The Delhi posting was always exciting and never lacked action. But in 2001, there was a surfeit of it. It was difficult to keep up especially for the (many) one-man-bureaux in town. To give an example, when the Indian Parliament was attacked, I was in Pakistan - in Quetta!

JE: Apart from the Royal massacre in Nepal which was (hopefully!) a one-off,  the other events reflect the range of stories that crowd in, year after year, in South Asia, with the Parliament attack adding emphasis on terrorism. 

Lastly, do narrate the one incident which you will always remember being a foreign correspondent in South Asia.

BI: One of many that comes to mind immediately: the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, being confronted by a bandana-clad man who put his face close to mine, and hissed: "Get out of here you bloody Muslim!"

JE: Maggie (Margaret) Thatcher said the Dalai Lama should not speak publicly when he was in the UK in the late 1980's ('88 I think) so most of the British media - including me from the FT - rushed to Dharamsala to interview him. He thus got much more publicity than he would if Thatcher had not tried to gag him just as he has recently because the Chinese said he shouldn't go to Arunachal Pradesh. 

Shoutout: Jaipur Litfest 2010


Sorry for the prolonged silence but I've been buried under a mountain of books and have been busy procrastinating. However, literary endeavors - big or small - must continue and hence, I've booked myself for the Jaipur Literature Festival next month. Honestly speaking, the list of speakers isn't as glamorous as it was last year but they've still got some fine writers such as Hanif Kureishi, Anjum Hasan, Sankar, Soumya Bhattacharya and Amit Chadhuri in attendance. When I visited the official website a few months ago, I was delighted to see Ahmad Rashid's name on the list as well but to my disappointment, it seems he's skipping the fest again this year. Which is sad because his book Descent Into Chaos is one of the best books ever-written on terrorism and America's response to it in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Hopefully, he'll make an appearance in 2011.

Keeping these writers company will be Gulzar ( who re-appears after a spectacular debut last year) and Javed Akhtar. I just hope that unlike previous years, there isn't any Bollywood superstar present this year (Aamir Khan came a few years back and Amitabh Bachchan came last time around). It'll help attendees to appreciate the work of writers who've come there and keep the crowds slim at Diggi Palace.

To be honest, I had ambivalent feelings about attending the festival this year; a less-than-glamorous author list, huge crowds and of course, expenditure. But I guess it only seems natural that I should be there this year as well - after all, the germ of this blog and whatever freelance writing I'm doing these days is the festival. Hence, I shall be at the Diggi Palace again next month - attending sessions, meeting new people and (hopefully) doing some interviews for my blog.

In the meantime, do go through the January and February archives to read the interviews I conducted last time. I'm feeling too lazy to link them here. Hopefully, they'll be tempting enough for you to come to Jaipur!

Frontier fast-food


A review of Imran Khan: The Cricketer, The Celebrity, The Politician- The Biography

In the introduction to this book, author Christopher Sandford writes that after working on a biography of acclaimed Hollywood director Roman Polanski, writing this exhaustive tome seemed like "drinking sparkling mineral water after eating heavily salted peanuts." But to me, it seemed like eating a lavish Lucknowi or the North-West Frontier cuisine accompanied by potent red wine; Khan's cricketing career - be it the initial trials and tribulations or the subsequent superstardom - reminded of soft, juicy but robustly tasteful galouti kebabs; their taste lingers on the palette even after I'm done with my meal. His frequent run-ins with the Pakistani cricket board (or the BCCP as the author writes), altercations with team members (most notably Javed Miandad) and his later political career is reminscient of the burra kebab;grilled, boney, chunks of mutton which are hard to chew with the meat often getting stuck between your teeth. His liaisons with beautiful women is the perfect metaphor for a full-bodied, potent red wine while his obsession with the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Center in Lahore - which he built in memory of his late mother - reveals the softer side of this pathan; just like a delicately delicious Lucknowi Biryani. And to round off this delicious fare, nothing better than a phirni would suffice; the soft, sweet, slightly imperfect semi-liquid dessert - a reminder of Khan the doting father but a failed husband.

Born as Imran Khan Niazi in a well-to-do family, Khan was the only male sibling in his family and, consequently, the apple of his mother's eye. He had a privileged - but rigorous - childhood; while he studied at the prestigious Aitchison College in Lahore, he was made to run innumerable rounds of his Zaman Park locality - sometimes with a backpack filled with rocks in order to build some muscle in his skinny body. And soon after he was done with Aitchison, young 'Immy' as he was called by friends and foes was packed off to Oxford - the start of what would soon be a roller-coaster cricket career. 

One of the most striking features of Imran Khan is the amount of paper devoted to his cricket career in England's domestic circuit. It seems to suggest that Sandford wrote these chapters keeping in mind a British audience populated by a large number of Pakistani immigrants. Every aspect of his life in England - the racial abuse hurled at him, the low match fee, his poor communication skills and his inability to get along with his British teammates due to cultural differences - is interesting but only up to a point. Simply because Imran Khan is known as a Pakistani cricket legend and not an English county cricketer.

Khan's cricket career in Pakistan was marred by frequent run-ins with the cricket board, a rebellious stint with Kerry Packer's World Series of Cricket and a career-threatening shin injury. It is the last of these aspects and Imran's handling of the injury which makes for fascinating reading. To be able to make a comeback aged 31 - and that too as a fast bowler - is testament to the man's determination. Throughout his years as a Pakistani cricketer, 'Immy' had to deal with a high-handed cricket board, an equally arrogant selection committee and a frequently rotating captaincy. But that isn't to say that Khan was a holier-than-thou figure. Sandford writes, rather dramatically, that if the cricket board was haughty, so was Imran; giving credence to speculation that Imran was a one-man cricket board himself. And his image of a lothario certainly didn't endear him to the board.

To Sandford's credit, he doesn't portray Khan as someone who chased women all the time; in a lot of cases it was the women too who were smitten by his good looks. For instance, there was an incident in an English pub where a young woman plonked herself on Imran's lap so he could "explore" her. Yes, his dalliances with British socialites and girls at Oxford (including a certain Benazir Bhutto) did make him a playboy and an "international sex symbol". However, Sanford his careful not to let this aspect of Khan's overshadow the others. Instead, he timidly takes back his statement about the Bhutto-Khan affair saying the friendship was "platonic". Bhutto would later remark that Khan would make for a "valued" public servant.

And that's exactly what Khan did soon after retiring from international cricket. In 1996, he formed the political outfit Tehreek-E-Insaaf but didn't have much electoral success initially. Did this lower Khan's morale? Doubtful. Instead, Khan is said to have remarked emphatically that his party was the "fastest growing movement" in Pakistan. Going by sheer numbers, the movement is still in its infancy as the party shares just 0.8% of the parliamentary seats. But going by Khan's personality and Sandford's slightly naive assessment, the 'Lion of Lahore' will get the country's top job one day. What the writer forgets is that it's one thing to be a cult figure, support a lawyers' agitation, make grandiose statements on television but quite another to translate all of these into votes. Yes, Khan remains a glimmer of hope for an otherwise failed democracy but it'll take a while before he can make a significant impact  in his country's polity.

So what does this exhaustive and meticulously researched biography say about Pakistan's most colorful personality? Simply put he's a complex figure who's been a victim of circumstances and, conversely, used circumstances to his advantage as well. As Sandford rightly suggests, Imran Khan has provided his deprived Pakistani citizens some hope and joy through his political and cricketing career. And as far as the biography is concerned, it may not be tautly paced but is certainly very enjoyable. Remember, its a lucknowi and North-West Frontier fare you're eating. Not a McDonald's burger!

A slightly different and edited version of this review can be read in today's Business Standard Weekend supplement 

Picture Courtesy: www.livemint.com

In Conversation with Sadanand Dhume


Author, My Friend, The Fanatic

Can a non-fanatic be friends with a fanatic?

Yes, I think so. The territory of friendship can be marked in many interesting, different ways. What happened with my friend Herry and me was that even though we had profound political disagreements, we had no problem accepting that we'd agree to disagree politically but so much of our friendship was based on shared experiences, shared travels, shared curiosity, banter, the journalistic ability to display what I call plasticity of character - the ability to get along with people because that's partly the disposition which you cultivate as a journalist. So yes, maybe in the long run you can't be the closest and firmest of friends over time, but it is not difficult in my opinion to strike up a friendship.

If you were to analyse Indonesia, is there a cultural shift taking place from the time you wrote this book and since the time you've been travelling?

I think there's a profound cultural shift taking place. What's happening in Indonesia, in a nutshell, is that an old, tolerant civilisation deeply influenced by Buddhism and Hinduism is giving way to a new, strident, intolerant civilisation deeply influenced by some of the new, hard line strains of Islam coming out of the Middle East. So, Indonesia is going from being one kind of country which, even though it was religiously Muslim, was culturally close to Thailand to becoming a country that is culturally drifting in the direction of the Middle East. That doesn't mean Indonesia has become a Middle Eastern country - that might take decades or even centuries - but the trend lines that Indonesia is experiencing are extremely worrying.

Do you think that Indonesia which - as you say - is going through a period of transformation can ever produce a figure like Abdurrahman Wahid again -  a liberal one as you've portrayed him in the book

Good question. I'd say Indonesian politics can throw up figures who are tolerant but not in the same way as Wahid. What sets Wahid apart is that he's not just a public figure, but a religious figure who is deeply tolerant and stands for secular, liberal values. There may be people who come up and stand for secular, liberal values such as former President Megawati (Sukarnoputri) but the odds of that kind of person coming up from the milieu of pious Islam.

Let's take this hypothetically; if such a person were to come up in Indonesian politics would he/she be able to survive politically in this transforming society?

It depends on what's going on now and whether its cyclical or permanent. If what you're saying is cyclical and the pendulum is swinging from tolerance to intolerance and swings back to tolerance, then he/she will not only survive but also thrive. If on the other hand what you're seeing is a permanent transformation from one kind of thinking to another kind which I fear is what is happening because the old synthetics of Islam - kids reading the Mahabharata in the villages - is dying. I think it becomes much more difficult to be tolerant in the way that so many Indonesian leaders have been tolerant. That becomes harder because the space for that (tolerance) becomes smaller.

You traveled extensively through Indonesia and met a diverse set of people. How did this affect you as a person? Did your views on religion, society, politics etc. alter in any way?

What it did was it gave me a deeper understanding of the Muslim world. The kind of understanding you get spending time with people, listening to them carefully, talking to them, allowing them to explain themselves in their own words rather than trying to force-feed their views into your own pre-conceived notions is a tremendous education. I feel that I have much better handle on not just Islamic fundamentalism but on how people who are driven by these extreme messianic ideas think and behave.

Since you're book is a travel narrative, how did you go about writing it? Did you take notes as you traveled or did you just dive into writing the book as soon as you finished traveling?

I'm a very detailed and compulsive note-taker when I'm reporting so I filled up dozens of notebooks and they're filled with details- sights, sounds, smells, observations and my reflections on those observations. And from that large mass of notes, I culled out what is now My Friend, The Fanatic.

And while culling out this book, did you ever feel that some portions got left out which could've made its way into the book?

One thing would've been of interest to an Indian audience which is that I made a brief trip to the Dieng plateau in Java which is home to the oldest Hindu temple in Java; about a 1000 years old and it was a very evocative scene and was a very meaningful visit, because what I've shown over there was the actual slow-motion death of that old spiritual Javanese culture. It didn't make it but I've repackaged it and its coming out in this prestigious New York literary journal called Guernica. So it's lived to see another form.

Lastly, what are you working on next? What is the the subject of your second book?

To try and understand how globalisation has altered ordinary lives. What I'm looking for are people who's lives have been made extraordinary or have been turned upside down or changed in ways their own families would find difficult to recognise because of the forces unleashed by globalisation and liberalisation. The story I'm trying to tell is the broader story about India but the people whose eyes I want to tell it through are all based in Delhi and its surrounding areas.

A version of this interview can also be read here