Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tehelka's "original fictions"

Has a newsmagazine got anything to do with literature? Not really. Things it churns out every week are mainly politics, not literature. But this is Tehelka, India's most controversial and real newsmag, which has a track record of fighting fiercely with the Establishment, and suffering in the process interminably at the hands of the power-that-be, but still elects to fight doggedly for people's cause. Interestingly, it has devoted its year-end double issue to "original fictions" by 15 writers.


"..every journalist and politician -people who shape the public domain - should read at least one literary novel every year," writes Tehelka's esteemed editor Tarun J Tejpal. "Just so they can step out of the halogen of self-aggrandisement, look at life bottom-up rather than top-down, enter other lives through backdoor rather than the front, and connect with their own inner lives rather than the image on the screen."

Have you ever read any such comments from any newsmag editor? Who, among our newspaper editors, has such refined tastes and insights?

My sincerest thanks to Tarun for adding this new dimension to his weekly.


Saturday, December 27, 2008

Harold Pinter

What a shame that Harold Pinter's death news did not appear on the first page of the morning paper I read; it was tucked down in a single paragraph in the bottom of seventh page!(I'm changing my paper every year, and may perhaps end up without having one. Newspapers are really a shit these days).

Harold Pinter was such a rare personality: real writer, courageous, outspoken without fear of consequences, politically incorrect, with a genuine compassion and concern for the mankind.

Of his all works, I loved his
Nobel Lecture hugely.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ten best short story collections, 2008

BookFox offers ten books for
Best Short Story Collections of 2008. Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth is the only book in the list that I've read partially, but frankly didn't like her banal family theme. But I'm a bit amazed that short story collections are still published - in US, specially-, and there must be some readers like our BookFox who love them.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Why Arundhati Roy is a threat for Indian males

Arundhati Roy is derided by the Indian male as she refuses to be slotted into the “liberated” position that Aishwarya Rai is in. Unlike other Indian women, Arundhati will not be bullied or subjugated into accepting a controlled choice. To us she is closer to the Kali persona than the feminine cult of Sita and Lakshmi, which Indian society so much venerates. Like Kali she is the rebel, the outcast - the slayer of all masculine power. All hail Kali.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bolano story review

Story: Meeting with Enrique Lihn

The story has a single-paragraph text which could have been divided in many, many paragraphs. But why would Bolano do it? He's not your MFA-trained writer that he would be bothered about the look of the text; he must write his own way. Yet it's a wonderfully smooth read: compact, gripping, moving, insightful, evocative and full of experiences, histories and images like you find in big classics. I expected, though, some anarchic element in it.

Look at its opening line:
In 1999, after returning from Venezuela, I dreamed that I was being taken to Enrique Lihn’s apartment, in a country that could well have been Chile, in a city that could well have been Santiago, bearing in mind that Chile and Santiago once resembled Hell, a resemblance that, in some subterranean layer of the real city and the imaginary city, will forever remain.

Everything happens in the writer's dream. The vivid but unnostalgic narrative of his poet-friend Enrique Lihn - as if a non-movie rewind of a colourful life lived in real time and space - unfolds in a very apt and surreal milieu.

I get a feel that Bolano encapsulates a novel's material in the short space of a story. His effortless blend of the real and imaginary, fact and fiction, present and past is simply amazing.

And what a great end:
And we looked and looked, and the façades were clearly the façades of another time, like the sidewalks covered with parked cars that also belonged to another time, a time that was silent yet mobile (Lihn was watching it move), a terrible time that endured for no reason other than sheer inertia.

Read the story here.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

"New good sex" by famous writers!

It's of course a crazy idea that the world, now deep in recession woes, needs new good sex for its survival. But it's exactly what the new e-book service Ravenous Romance thinks.

What is more, this e-venture is being backed by,among others, John Updike, the well-known American writer and literary icon, who has entertained readers with his varied depiction of sex for quite a while.

How do you feel about this venture? Is it selling soft porno in new garb? Does it point to bankruptcy in ideas? or, do you like it?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Arab Booker shortlist

Six Arab authors were short-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2009 (IPAF) in London.The prize was launched in Abu Dhabi in April last year in association with the Booker Prize Foundation and with the support of the Emirates Foundation. Gulfnews link

short-listed authors:

1.Mohammad El-Bisatie

2.Fawwaz Haddad

3.Ina'am Kachachi

4.Ebrahim Nasrallah

5.Al Habib Al Salmi

6.Yousuf Zaydan

I've read Mohammad El-Bisatie's novel Hunger partially. A wonderfully gripping novel about a theme most writers would avoid these days. Real writing.
An excerpt from the novel .

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bolano, Bolano!!

"2666 is an epic of whispers and details, full of buried structures and intuitions that seem too evanescent, or too terrible, to put into words. It demands from the reader a kind of abject submission—to its willful strangeness, its insistent grimness, even its occasional tedium—that only the greatest books dare to ask for or deserve."
Slouching Towards Santa Teresa: Roberto Bolaño's utterly strange masterpiece.

“He didn't set out to do this just to prove something, to experiment, or to make some nihilistic statement. As he said many times, writing was for him a radical way of living, and thus he had to find a vital and arresting and, in some ways, anti-literary approach to fiction.”
A Great Conversation on 2666

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Nobel Lecture,2008

"If there is one virtue which the writer's pen must always have, it is that it must never be used to praise the powerful, even with the faintest of scribblings."

Read Le Clezio Nobel lecture

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Kafka's office writings

Princeton University Press has just published a selection of Kafka's Office Writings in English. Three scholars -two professional Kafkans, Stanley Corngold, and Benno Wagner, and a law professor and a civil rights attorney, Jack Greenberg, have appended their commentaries, charts, prefaces and postface to these writings.

Despite Kafka, it's excruciatingly boring to read his office writings. So you have to read them as companions to demystify his novels and stories. There is an obvious connection between his office writings and his fiction.


Sunday, November 30, 2008

"Kill till the last breath": Mumbai terror strike

New terrorism stuff for real writers
Azmal Amir Kasab (not his real name, I suppose) is 21, handsome, educated, fluent in at least three languages, techno-savvy, and a master killer. He is the sole member of the Mumbai terror strike team, who remains alive as if as a historical necessity, as a clue to the ghastly plot, as a trail to whoever and which way the operation was masterminded.

Amir reminds me of Salman Rushdie's terrorist-protagonist in his brilliant novel Shalimar, the clown. But he was an illiterate Kashmiri guy, and the premise of his turning a terrorist was that her beautiful wife was eloped and subsequently abused by the American Ambassador whom he would blast to death in an operation.

We don't know anything about Amir's premise. But given his profile, it seems he took to terrorism by choice. Gone are the days when the terrorist outfit could employ only illiterate, poor and strong youths from the backyards of a country. Terrorism is a hot new industry now, and have many lures for the educated young folks. Remember Pheerboy who was arrested by intelligence agency sometime back? He was a top-notch executive of Yahoo.

During his training Amir must have fed on enough of radical Islam theology and rhetoric. ”Kill till the last breath!” is just one of those dictums. No wonder he killed at random as many people – innocents, police and army personnel, and foreigners – in as many ways as possible. He's a gigantic killing machine, and in his perception, men are just objects - no living things.

The intersting thing is, he did not even try to kill himself when he fell in the hands of Indian security personnel despite potassium cyanide with him. Which testifies that his survival instinct was intact in him and got the better of his master's tutorial.

Now, his interrogations have begun. Expectedly, after his intial reluctunace, he would reveal most important things though with a lot of cooked-up and fabricated details. His masters, successfully, turned him a crazy and hardened criminal, but he still values his life.

Like any other ideology, radical Islam is also a construct, and however powerful the ideologue’s rhetoric, most of its followers are wrong-headed and cowards. All it can foster is rabid fanaticism and senseless killings.

Terrorism has now come to such a state that it's no longer easy to tackle it. George W. Bush who is the most vocal champion of "war on terror" actually stoked terrorism by attacking Iraq on a false and motivated pretext, and ravaging the country physically and intellectually. Is it hard to imagine that this is one reason why the terrorists in Mumbai strike sought the Americans and British citzens first in Taj and other hotels?

Now, do you think our netas (politicians) will do anything to curb terrorism? Not really. While many of them are accomplices, complicits or benificaries of this terrorism thing, all of them love this crisis, and cash on it to get their political mileage. The latest example is that of Narendra Modi, the hated genocider, who rushed to Mumbai to announce his donation package to terror victims. He was brilliantly rebuffed though.

As of now, you're left with no clue whatsoever to face terrorism. But you can certainly hope that terrorism will one day get jaded and stop after running its course. Meanwhile, get ready to see more gore and bloodbath.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Roberto Bolano makes it - posthumously!

How fascinating and sad that Roberto Bolano, a post-modern response to Gabriel Garcia Marquex, generates the buzz (and getting evaluated in the process) five years after his death! His recently released tome "2666", is flying off the bookshops at a time when book sales are flat and declining. It's the best book of 2008, according to some critics.

"It’s special. It’s weird. I don’t entirely understand the commercial side of it”, said Lorin Stein, editor of “2666” at FSG.“This is a difficult and very sad book, and adults rarely follow a literary author’s career the way they used to. It’s like an intellectual Harry Potter.”

Sunday, November 23, 2008

James Kelman interview

The crucial factor is the ability to earn a living, this is what is taken from writers who work on/from the margins. Your question suggests it is a fair go, an even fight, or some such nonsense. It isn’t. One side has power and authority and the other doesn’t. One has the power to stop the other from earning a living. It is better to be acknowledged as a writer than have to continue proving it all the time.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award

Iain Hollingshead wins Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Awards this year for a passage in his first novel Twentysomething (Duckworth).

The awards were set up by Auberon Waugh with the aim of gently dissuading authors and publishers from including unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing or redundant passages of a sexual nature in otherwise sound literary novels. Previous winners include Tom Wolfe, AA Gill, Sebastian Faulks, and Melvyn Bragg.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Josef Winkler interview

In writing I discovered where I came from. Only in writing did I discover what had happened. Had I not started writing, my life would have remained a matter of three lines. Now it is thousands of pages.

Who's Josef Winkler?

Australian novelist Josef Winkler was born to a farming family on March, 3, 1953 in Kärnten and has worked as a novelist since 1982. He lives in Klagenfurt where he teaches at the university. He has been recently awarded the Georg Buchner prize - Germany's top literary award.

Winkler has already been honoured with the Berlin Literature Prize, the Alfred Döblin prize and the André-Gide prize.

He has written thirteen books about death.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Taslima shunted out, again!

Exiled Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen has again been "forced" to leave India after her brief stay here, prompting the controversial writer to question the country's alleged secular credentials.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Nadine Gordimer visits India

Who's a real writer?
Dr. Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel Laureate from South Africa, is now visiting India. She read excerpts from her books in Mumbai (09 Nov 08), delivered the Second Nobel Laureate Lecture in Kolkata on 10 Nov 08. She would be attending a book reading session followed by Q&A session at 1700 hrs on 13 Nov 08 in New Delhi.

In Kolkata, she spoke for about thirty minutes. She said that the literature of the new age was to reveal the secrets of hearts, not sequence of events. A writer was a political being, he could not be insensitive to what went on in the world, she said.

She added that a real writer's job was not only that of witnessing, he must go deeper to understand the significance and meaning of what was happening around him.

She had this quote from Albert Camus: "The moment when I'm no more than a writer, I will cease to be a writer."

When asked about her views on globalization, she quipped, "It's nothing more than trade pacts."

Friday, November 7, 2008

25 Best Fiction Titles, 2008

A PW list
Don't get disappointed if you don't see your favourite title here. The list covers only the American publishing in 2008. Of course, these titles were reviewed by PW. For sure, there are still some titles outside of this list, probably from small or independent presses that can match or beat the selection. Do you know of any such title?

When Will There Be Good News?Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown)
Unrelated characters and plot lines collide with momentous results in Atkinson's third novel to feature ex-cop turned PI Jackson Brodie.
Roberto Bolaño, trans. from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Bolaño's sprawling masterpiece revolves around a passel of academics, a reclusive German writer and a fictionalized Juarez, Mexico. Pure brilliance.
Hold Tight
Harlan Coben (Dutton)
Edgar-winner Coben's unnerving thriller follows a sadistic suburban killer in a New Jersey community with his usual mastery.
The Brass Verdict
Michael Connelly
(Little, Brown)
This beautifully executed crime thriller brings together two popular Connelly characters, LAPD Det. Harry Bosch and L.A. lawyer Mickey Haller.
Master of the Delta
Thomas H. Cook (Harcourt)
Edgar-winner Cook examines the slow collapse of a prominent Southern family in this magnificent tale of suspense set in 1954.
The Konkans
Tony D'Souza (Harcourt)
This story of an Indian-American family's immigrant experience in Chicago is loaded with humor and pathos. Young in writer-years, D'Souza writes with a seasoned hand.
The Plague of Doves
Louise Erdrich (Harper)
Erdrich's 13th novel, a multigenerational tour de force of sin, redemption, murder and vengeance, finds its roots in the 1911 slaughter of a farming family near Pluto, N. Dak.
The Likeness
Tana French (Viking)
Fans of psychological suspense will embrace Irish author French, who blurs the boundaries between victim and cop, memory and fantasy, in this stunning sequel to her debut, In the Woods.
Sea of Poppies
Amitav Ghosh (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Diaspora, myth and a fascinating language mash-up propel the Rubik's cube of plots in Ghosh's picaresque epic. The cast is marvelous and the plot majestically serpentine, but the real hero is the English language, which has rarely felt so alive and vibrant.
Mo Hayder (Atlantic Monthly)
Readers looking for visceral thrills need look no further than this British crime novel involving African witchcraft.
The Lazarus Project
Aleksandar Hemon (Riverhead)
Dueling story lines about Central European immigrants dovetail into a masterful account of the immigrant experience and the quest for identity in MacArthur genius Hemon's second novel, an NBA finalist.
A.L. Kennedy (Knopf)
Kennedy's highly stylized and immeasurably sad sixth novel (after Paradise) follows former Royal Air Force tail gunner Alfred Day as he relives his experiences in a WWII German prison camp.
My Revolutions
Hari Kunzru (Dutton)
A reformed London radical's past returns to haunt him in Kunzru's divine novel.
Unaccustomed Earth
Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf)
The gulf that separates expatriate Bengali parents from their American-raised children—and that separates the children from India—remains Lahiri's subject for this faultless follow-up to The Namesake.
Zachary Lazar
(Little, Brown)
Lazar channels the Rolling Stones, Kenneth Anger and a Manson family associate in this piercing examination of the dread and exhilaration of the late 1960s.
The Boat
Nam Le (Knopf)
The stories in Le's stunning debut collection cover a vast geographic territory and are filled with exquisitely painful and raw moments of revelation, captured in an economical style as deft as it is sure.
The Given Day
Dennis Lehane (Morrow)
In a splendid flowering of the talent previously demonstrated in his crime fiction (Gone, Baby, Gone; Mystic River), Lehane combines 20th-century American history, a gripping story of a family torn by pride and the strictures of the Catholic Church, and the plot of a multifaceted thriller.
Flesh House
Stuart MacBride (St. Martin's Minotaur)
Scottish author MacBride's dry wit turns what could have been a gratuitously gory slasher story into a crackling thriller.
How the Dead Dream
Lydia Millet (Counterpoint)
Millet is as lyrical, haunting and deliciously absurd as ever in this Heart of Darkness–style journey into massive loss.
Joseph O'Neill (Pantheon)
A Dutch-born equities analyst gets swept up by a fast-talking, crooked-dealing Bangladeshi cricket enthusiast in post-9/11 New York City in O'Neill's beautifully written and intelligent novel.
Donald Ray Pollock (Doubleday)
They don't come much grittier than this debut collection set in Knockemstiff, Ohio, a grimy pocket of derelicts, perverts and criminals.
Lush Life
Richard Price (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Price trains his sharp eye and flawless ear on Manhattan's Lower East Side in this manic crescendo of a novel that explores the repercussions of a seemingly random shooting.
Ron Rash (Ecco)
This implacably grim tale of greed and corruption gone wild—and of eventual, well-deserved revenge—follows the dealings of a Depression-era lumber baron and his callous new wife.
Tim Winton (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Two daredevil Australian teens get involved with a dangerous surfer (and his more dangerous wife) in this taut story of death, life, pleasure and thrill-seeking.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
David Wroblewski (Ecco)
A Wisconsin mute hides out in the woods with hyperintelligent dogs in Wroblewski's contemporary riff on Macbeth.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Jurassic Park author dies

Michael Crichton, doctor-turned-writer, dies of cancer at 66

"He was the greatest at blending science with big theatrical concepts, which is what gave credibility to dinosaurs again walking the Earth... Michael was a gentle soul who reserved his flamboyant side for his novels. There is no one in the wings that will ever take his place."
Steven Spielberg

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

If Kurt Vonnegut was alive today..

Welcome, Prez Obama!
If Kurt Vonnegut was alive, he would have been the happiest person today at this historic moment of the US. Vonnegut was extremely distressed and unhappy with George W Bush and his policies – to such an extent that he once called Bush as a twit.

In reality, Bush was worse than a twit: he was arrogant, aggressive, uncultured, semi-literate, malevolent, bully, liar, history-sheeter, psychopath, evil incarnate, war-monger, genocider, enemy of civilization…

Bush was perhaps the most despised figure after Hitler and Stalin in human history.

I can never figure out how the people of the US voted Bush to power twice. They had to pay a heavy price for their action. In his nincompoop way, Bush shoved the US (and a large swath of the world) to the brink. With McCaine and Palin, the world would have fallen to pieces, for sure.

I’m happy that the people of the US have at last had senses to boot away the Republican candidate in a spetacular fashion.

Of course, Barack Obama is a messiah who people look up to deliver the goodies, to save the country and the people from the raging apocalypse.

I have no idea of how Obama would pan out his strategy to deal with the deep financial crisis, and sort out the mess. It’s really a big challenge.

I'm not sure how he would tackle the big corporate houses who constitute a formidable power, and actually run the government.

I don’t know how he would take on the free market economy and other neo-liberal policies of the Bush regime.

Who would be his thinking tank? What reformist model would he follow?

Barack Obama emerges as a historical necessity, as an anti-thesis of all that went wrong with Bush. Hopefully, he will represent an US we want – a sanitized country with humane and cosmopolitan attitude and values.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election "short-story"

Barack Obama or John McCain? You'll know it soon. Meanwhile, may I ask you to read a short-story "Foes" by Lorrie Moore, one of America's best short-story writers, who had this election as her theme? As ever, she combines humour with pathos and insight.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

George Saunders' Jon now on stage

Heard of George Saunders, the short-story madman, recently? He has been frequenting Chicago in the past few months to help develop the first stage adaptation of his work in his hometown.

Opening Thursday, October 30 running until December 14 Collaboraction Theatre Company presents the world premiere of Jon (originally published 2003 in the New Yorker).

"The basis for literature is the fact that all of our brains are essentially, structurally, identical. First love in 1830, in Russia, beneath swaying pines, is neurologically identical to first love in 1975, back of a Camaro, Foghat blaring. That’s why that wonderful cross-firing occurs when we read."

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Mobylives, new version!

The future arrived yesterday
Mobylives is back with its great fare of news and views about real writers and real writing.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Die Box: Part 2 Of Gunter Grass autobiography

Real writing:"Best by Grass in a long time"

"It's autobiographical writing, but in the way I can do it - telling stories. The first one, Peeling the Onion, was about my youth when I was an unknown author, then it finished with the year 1959 when The Tin Drum came out. Now I start with the year 1960. I didn't like to write about my own writing, but I was interested in how my children - I have many children, eight children - how they saw their father with his typewriter, an old-fashioned typewriter. When they asked questions I would give an answer, but my head was still going on with what was in my head. From this point of view I've collected all my children, and they are speaking about that time in connection with me."

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Le Clezio story in New Yorker

The boy who had never seen the sea

"We thought lots of people would be very interested to see what his work was like," said New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman.
"We also wanted to move fast and publish it while people still remember his name.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Writer News: Gommorrha writer faces direct life threat

Roberto Saviano, the Italian writer who has been living under state protection for the past two years after writing "Gommorrha", a best-selling book about the shady business practices of the Camorra, the organized crime group that operates in his home region around Naples, faces a direct threat to his life.

The Camorra’s threats against Mr. Saviano’s life are reportedly worse than the fatwa against Mr. Rushdie following the publication in 1988 of his novel, “The Satanic Verses.”

Rober Saviano was at the ongoing Frankfurt fair to receive an award for the Oscar-nominated movie that was based on his book, “Gomorrah.”

Saturday, October 18, 2008

50 most "worth talking about" books.

A list of 50 books touted as the "most worth talking about" was announced on Friday ahead of World Book Day 2009.

The organisation behind World Book Day published the list to launch its new Spread the Word website www.spread-the-word.org.uk designed to encourage reading.

On the site readers are invited to vote for "the best book to talk about".

The winning book will be announced on World Book Day, Thursday 5 March 2009.

The panel that selected the 50 books consisted of major and independent booksellers and representatives of reading groups, as well as World Book Day organisers, the spokesman added.

The winning author will receive a £5,000 prize.

Now, check out how many books in the list you've read, whether they are real writing, or by real writers, or doubt the list being a subtle marketing ploy to promote some titles..

The list:

Imagine This, by Sade Adenirai, (SW Books)

Catch a Fish from the Sea (Using the Internet), by Nasreen Akhtar, (Greenbirds Publishing)

The Blood of Flowers, by Anita Amirrezvani, (Headline Review)

A Golden Age, by Tahmima Anam, (John Murray)

Joe The Only Boy in the World, by Michael Blastland, (Profile)

Away, by Amy Bloom, (Granta)

The Opposite of Love, by Julie Bluxbaum, (Bantam)

The Song Before It Is Sung, by Justin Cartwright, (Bloomsbury)

Broken, by Daniel Clay, (Harper Perennial)

Random Deaths and Custard, by Catrin Dafydd, (Gomer)

The Solitude of Emperors, by David Davidar, (Orion)

Maynard and Jennica, by Rudolph Denson, (Harper Perennial)

Fup, by Jim Dodge, (Canongate)

Zoology, by Ben Dolnick, (Harper Perennial)

The Vitamin Murders, by James Fergusson, (Portobello)

The Glassblower of Murano, by Marina Fiorato, (Burning House)

Ancestor House, by Aminatta Forna, (Bloomsbury)

Love Falls, by Esther Freud, (Bloomsbury)

Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen, (Harper Perennial)

Tao: On the Road and On the Run in Outlaw China, by Aya Goda, (Portobello)

Now You See Him, by Eli Gottlieb, (Serpent's Tail)

Wild, by Jay Griffiths, (Hamish Hamilton)

The Condition, by Jennifer Haigh, (Harper)

The Fantastic Book of Everyone's Secrets, by Sophie Hannah, (Sort of Books)

The Archivist's Story, by Travis Holland, (Bloomsbury)

The Mistress's Daughter, by A.M. Homes, (Granta)

Blood Tender, by Rachel Ingrams, (Tindal Street)

When We Were Romans, by Mathew Kneale, (Picador)

The Children of Freedom, by Marc Levy, (Harper)

Bad Traffic, by Simon Lewis, (Sort of Books)

Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction, by Alison MacLeod, (Hamish Hamilton)

Remedy, by Anne Marsella, (Portobello)

The Family That Couldn't Sleep, by D.T. Max, (Portobello)

The Bloomsday Dead, by Adrian McKinty, (Serpent's Tail)

Feather Man, by Rhyll McMaster, (Marion Boyars)

Queuing for Beginners, by Joe Moran, (Profile)

Season of the Witch, by Natasha Mostert, (Bantam)

Twenty Eight: Stories of AIDS in Africa, by Stephanie Nolen, (Portobello)

Serious Things, by Gregory Norminton, (Sceptre)

Chinese Whispers, by Hsiao-Hung Pai, (Figtree)

Train to Trieste, by Domnica Radulescu, (Doubleday)

Gold, by Dan Rhodes, (Canongate)

The Good Plain Cook, by Bethan Roberts, (Serpent's Tail)

Vicky Had One Eye Open, by Darryl Samaraweera, (Burning House)

The Forger, by Cioma Schönhaus, (Granta)

Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart, (Granta)

Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth?, by Andrew Sims & Joe Smith, (Constable & Robinson)

I Think There's Something Wrong With Me, by Nigel Smith, (Black Swan)

Rainbow's End, by Lauren St.John, (Hamish Hamilton)

The Abyssinian Proof, by Jenny White, (Orion)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

West stooge or real chronicler?


In India, no one talks about poverty now-a-days. Not even the leftists. What you hear instead is that India is shining, a super-power, and most of its people are getting rich every day. It's of course a myth that the country's politicians, most being neocon converts, and industrial biggies have been assiduously building for the past few years.

It's interesting that Aravind Adiga has attacked this myth hard and laid the country bare, warts and all, through his Booker-winning novel The White Tiger. "so where is shining India everyone's talking about? It was time someone broke the myth," said Adiga in an interview just after the announcement of the award.

In a report titled Western stooge or true chronicler of India? The Times of India writes: But opinion among Adiga's countrymen was divided, with many seeing the young man, partly brought up in Australia, as a story-teller stooge of the West for laying India bare...

I scanned some other newspapers for reactions, but nowhere it was so harsh and savage. Clearly, it reflects the newsgroup's own point of view.

The Hindu, a respected daily from Chennai, has an editorial on Adiga's success.

"The debutant’s novel beat the odds with its unusual voice and its unsparing vision of an India that many may prefer not to see. The White Tiger is a stunningly brave narrative of our times and its triumph is well deserved."

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Aravind Adiga wins the Man Booker Prize 2008

The 33 year-old Adiga took home the £50,000 prize for his debut novel The White Tiger. He is only the third debut novelist to claim the award in Booker Prize history, and, according to the Guardian, is the second-youngest Booker winner ever

Aravind Adiga was born in Madras on 23rd October 1974 and studied at Columbia and Oxford Universities. He is a former correspondent for TIME magazine in India. He currently lives in Mumbai.

The Booker judges said, "In the end, The White Tiger prevailed because the judges felt that it shocked and entertained in equal measure. The novel undertakes the extraordinarily difficult task of gaining and holding the reader's sympathy for a thoroughgoing villain. The book gains from dealing with pressing social issues and significant global developments with astonishing humour.
Feel interested in The White Tiger: A Novel?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Possessed by Shadows/ Donigan Merritt

I don’t usually review books in this blog, but this is an important novel, and I want to share my reading experience. The novel is Possessed by Shadows by Donigan Merritt (Other Press, New York).

PBS is about a woman climber Molly – a terminal brain tumour patient – and her husband Tom, also a climber, taking a trip to the mountains to fulfill her desire to die in the mountains, her passion for the better part of her 34 years of life. It’s epic material, and Donigan handles it with just as deftness and restraint as it demands.

You find two voices in the novel: Tom’s sophisticated, savvy, occasionally morose voice, and Molly’s unfettered, jovial and confessional one. Together they create their individual and collective stories, and form a unique narrative that is fascinating and irresistible. But the novel’s main strength is its humanity quotient. The novel is full of guileless but believable characters all belonging to the community of climbers. Their actions and talks seem to be brimming with humanity, in a land not really famous for it, and never for once flag and suck.

Towards the end of 239-page book, you see Tom carrying Molly on his back strapped in a rescue chair up the slope braving the odd weather. Stefan, his friend, another climber accompanies him. “She did not speak, but Sefran told me that from time to time her eyes were open and she seemed to be trying to focus.” Then Molly dies in the circumstances she craved for, but she had already been in a coma. “I saw blood trickling from her ear. She struggled for air less than 10 seconds and then stopped. Everything stopped and there was only the wind buffeting the tent walls…I ran my fingers through her fine long hair. She was dead.” Great depiction, without being banal or stereotype.

But PBS is as much about death as about life. Or rather, it’s a riveting narrative about a circle we call human life.

I think Donigan Merritt is a brilliant and real writer. I recommend this novel to all readers of literary fiction.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Le Clezio interview

Q : Your novels also have an autobiographical side. Do you get the impression of being the archivist of your own history, of your own experience of life?

LC : My favourite novelists are Stevenson and Joyce. They drew their inspiration from their first years of life. Through writing they relived their past and tried to understand the "whys" and "hows" of it. When you read Joyce’s Ulysses, you truly have the impression that Joyce was not aiming to relate the story of the present moment, but to express everything that was in him, everything that made him what he was. He resurrected the slightest sounds of the street, snippets of conversations, the corporal punishment suffered at school and which still haunted him like an obsession. Naipaul too, returns in his imagination to his first years of education. Literature is only strong when it manages to express the first sensations, the first experiences, the first ideas, the first disappointments.

Read the full interview.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

French writer wins the Nobel in literature 2008

The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2008 is awarded to the French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio

"author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization".

Nobel Prize for Literature 2008: Press Release
About Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio

(updated Oct 10) Le Clezio is largely unknown outside of his own country France where he has long been known and respected as an anti-establishment figure. He has been writing for about four decades, but just a few of his translated works are now available, and those too in not so new and tidy condition.

An interesting thing about Le Clezio is that all of his works have been published so far by independent and university-affiliated publishers(real writers take heart!). Now it would be far more interesting to watch how the publishing behemoths, some of whom must have rejected his works earlier, deal with this new Nobel Laureate.

Le Clezio was initially an experimentalist, but later switched to traditional form. His reaction to the Nobel Prize is worth a mention."I am very happy, and I am also very moved because I wasn't expecting this at all. Many other names were mentioned, names of people for whom I have a lot of esteem. I was in good company. Luck, or destiny, or maybe other reasons, other motives, had it so that I got it. But it could have been someone else."

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

My favourite Bengali writers are all dead and dying

Dearth of real writers in current Bengali literature

It’s autumn festival time in India, and you get some days off your work -medical practice, in my case. For years on end, I’ve used this "puja" time reading new works of Bengali literature, which have a way of landing in the market by way of special editions of almost every Bengali daily and periodical. These are really tomes, and you’ll get in each of them several novels (5 to 8 on an average), and more than a dozen stories by established and upcoming authors among other things. It’s practically impossible to read all of them, - it doesn’t make sense also – but you can choose your picks.

Until last year, I was a sucker for this Puja literature, and geekily bought and read quite a number of mags. This year I’ve not bought a single mag and ai’nt reading any work at all - decidedly of course. Though I wish to read a long essay by Taslima Nasreen published in Bangla Statesman. In it Taslima has written about her nightmarish brush with the Marxist Government during her last Kolkata sojourn.

Puja tomes have changed hugely from what they were in the past. Once these were focused on literature, now the shift is towards entertainment, following in the current trend of the market. So, what you find in them are all kinds of schlock things, and writers who can write them.

For the past few years I had pared down my reading list to just these writers: Shyamal Gangopadhyay, Sandipan Chattopadhyay, Debesh Roy, Mahasweta Devi( a contender for the Nobel), Udayan Ghosh, Subimal Mishra. Shyamal Gangopadhyay, Bengal’s Marquez, died a few years ago. Sandipan is also dead. Udayan died last year. Mahasweta, being engaged now with her activist work most of the time, is not writing much fiction these days.

So, I’m left with Debesh Roy. Now, here was a writer who had life-experiences, knowledge, and writing prowess to write big novels which I’ve always enjoyed, and spoken highly of. He has steadfastly written quality fiction in spite of poor response from readers and publishers.

But strangely for me, when the Singur mass-movement started last year against the Marxist government's forced acquisition of farmers’ land for SEZ, Debesh Roy actively took side with the government. This was a stand against the underdogs whom he has championed for all of his life! It was painful for me. i let him die in my consciousness as a writer. Now I'm no longer interested in his work.

Subimal Mishra is another of my favourite authors. He’s anti-establishment, and like Udayan Ghosh, never wrote for any commercial mag. Yesterday I called him to learn where I could find his new writing. His phone rang, but there was none to pick up the receiver. For a while, he had been keeping in bad health – complications of his long-standing diabetes actually. I was worried. So I dashed an e-mail to his translatorV.Ramaswamy(Harper Collins’ India would publish Subimal's selected stories next year)enquiring about his whereabouts. Ramaswamy's e-mail reply: “I tried to contact him too. No idea. Might be shifted to hospital.”

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Dumb down your work, or...

Real Writers be damned!

"I have had a weird feeling that I'm being dumbed down by my publishers and it's interesting there's an agenda of how it should be in the marketplace.I'm amazed they are even trying it on"

--Dame Margaret, British novelist who takes over as chair of The Society of Authors.

Top novelist feels pressure..

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Nobel Prize for Literature 2008

Is it Haruki Murakami this year?
Once again, the Nobel Prize season is here. The prize announcements will start next week with medicine, and end as always with literature. In all probablity the Nobel Prize for literature will be announced on Oct 16 this year.

The punters have been already at it. Their hot favourites this time are:
Claudio Magris at 3/1
Adonis at 4/1
Amos Oz at 5/1
Joyce Carol Oates at 7/1
Philip Roth at 7/1
Don DeLillo at 10/1
Haruki Murakami at 10/1
Les Murray at 10/1
Yves Bonnefoy at 10/1
Arnošt Lustig at 14/1

Horace Engdahl, Swedish Academy's permanent Secretary, has already frustrated the American authors and their fans with his statement,
"The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature."Full Report here

Murakami, Murray and Bonnefoy are three big contenders this year. All of them are winners of Franz Kafka Prize, regarded by many as a precursor to the Nobel. Murakami, of course, has the best chance but the Nobel jury has a healthy aversion to the bestselling authors.

Have you read Claudio Magris , the topper of the list? Do you know which language he represents? No prize for guessing.

Last word: the 18-member Nobel award jury is quite unpredictable, and is used to spring a surprise. Think it selected Elfriede Jelinek, though for good reason, whom nobody ever thought to be a winner!

(updated -5 october) Adam Kirsch responds to Horace Engdahl's remark on American writers in Nobel Gas in Slate.

(updated -6 October) Another good but more balanced response to Horace Engdahl's remark in the New York Times
Lost in Translation? A Swede's Snub of US Lit.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Jewel of Medina

Will it be an Important Book?

Things that happened after Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses have not yet faded from our memories. Violence, murder, Fatwa, round-the clock security cover for the writer outside his house. Fortunately for us, the great writer survived all this, and is still alive and writing.

From all indications, the Rushdie book rerun is going to happen with Sherry Jones' The Jewel of Medina to be released in October this year. The only difference is that while Rushdie's was a literary work, Sherry's is a mass-market pulp.

I just read through the Prologue available on the net. In a typical historical-fiction style, she tries to recreate Prophet's physical relationship with one of his child-brides named Aisha. I had no idea that the prophet had child-brides. What I knew about him was that he married a lady called Khadiza some years senior to him.

I don't know where the writer gets her facts from and whether the sources of her research are authentic. But what I'm more bothered about is the subject of her choice. It's more prurient than blasphemous. And for sure, she does not write it from any sense of any kind of conviction. All talk about women empowerment and freedom in this context are shit. This is out and out a commercial venture. Of course, it's a bestseller that has presold.

Back to my reading. The prologue is a polished and professionally edited piece that is intended to whip your emotions, but actually reads bland and contrived. It might excite morons, but I'd wager that few discerning readers would go past it into the first chapter of the book.

I feel pity for the author. Allah forgive her!

Prologue to The Jewel of Medina

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Jose Saramago News

I'm equally excited and disappointed that Jose Saramago, the Nobel Laureate, has started a blog since Sept 17. Excited because I can't think of someone like Saramago's stature can embrace blogging as a medium, and that too at 85. Disappointed because he's writing in Portuguese, not in English.

Anyway, take a look at it
Saramago's blog

I tried to read it using Google's translation tool, but failed to figure out anything. I think it's related to George W. Bush.

Could anybody translate it for me?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Project 10^100: a writing geek review

Sometimes, you get a barely 200-word ad more compelling and enjoyable reading than a fashionable book. Most fashionable books suck because of their no-brainer stuff and lack of insights, and it feels like time wasted to read such books. But read this ad: not only it's intellectually stimulating and interesting, it also touches a chord, and evokes the best in you as a human being.

“Never in history have so many people had so much information, so many tools at their disposal, so many ways of making good ideas come to life. Yet at the same time, so many people, of all walks of life, could use so much help, in both little ways and big.
In the midst of this, new studies are reinforcing the simple wisdom that beyond a certain very basic level of material wealth, the only thing that increases individual happiness over time is helping other people.”
(In this consumerist climate, it sounds like an advice from a spiritual guru, but you would like it because there is a truth ingrained in it.)

"In other words, helping helps everybody, helper and helped alike."
(Great play of words – almost mesmerizing!)

“The question is: what would help? And help most?
At Google, we don't believe we have the answers, but we do believe the answers are out there. Maybe in a lab, or a company, or a university -- but maybe not.
Maybe the answer that helps somebody is in your head, in something you've observed, some notion that you've been fiddling with, some small connection you've noticed, some old thing you have seen with new eyes.
If you have an idea that you believe would help somebody, we want to hear about it. We're looking for ideas that help as many people as possible, in any way, and we're committing the funding to launch them. You can submit your ideas and help vote on ideas from others. Final idea selections will be made by an advisory board.
Good luck, and may those who help the most win.”
(I’m not sure it’s wholly a noble and altruistic cause. There might be a cause behind this cause. Nevertheless, I like the content and the way it’s delivered.)

But I’m not submitting any new idea for the project. What any other new idea can a writing geek have except that more and more people read more books by real writers to know the other people, to know the various human conditions, to know the world, and in the process morphing into as human as humanly possible?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The importance of being Philip Roth

"I don't have any sense of audience, and least of all when I'm writing. The audience I'm writing for is me, and I'm so busy trying to figure the damn thing out, and having so much trouble, that the last thing I think of is: "What is X, Y or Z going to be thinking of it?"

Philip Roth is 75, and has just published a new novel called Indignation . Now, you'll find a flood of reviews in various magazines, and across the web. Ignore it. It's time to read some good interviews with the great living American novelist.

The story of my lives
An audience with Philip Roth (Thanks to John Self for the link)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Amazing tribute for DFW

NSCAR Cancels 2008 season schedule

"LOUDON, NH—Shock, grief, and the overwhelming sense of loss that has swept the stock car racing community following the death by apparent suicide of writer David Foster Wallace has moved NASCAR to cancel the remainder of its 2008 season in respect for the acclaimed but troubled author of Infinite Jest, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, and Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.

In deference to the memory of Wallace, whose writing on alienation, sadness, and corporate sponsorship made him the author of the century in stock car racing circles and whom NASCAR chairman Brian France called "perhaps the greatest American writer to emerge in recent memory, and definitely our most human," officials would not comment on how points, and therefore this year's championship, would be determined."

Friday, September 19, 2008

Why paint a gloomy picture of the world?

László Krasznahorkai interview

Q: In a situation like this, what do writing and literature give you? What do books mean? Obviously, not the way out. Nor does writing function as a form of personal salvation for you. Then, shall we say it is the gentlest form of rebellion? Or does it play the role of issuing certain signals?

A: Whenever I manage to state my view in its full extent, my partner in conversation, anywhere in the world, invariably reminds me, “If you paint such a gloomy picture of the world, then why write?” This is a subtle way of asking why I don't shoot myself in the head right there and then, and indeed, why I hadn't done so a long while ago. My critical remarks do not mean that I think or have ever thought that literature could directly interfere with the workings of the society it criticises or rejects. The impact that a writer can exert over his or her own society is far more subtle, almost indecipherably complex and indirect, working through a number of transformations. I even doubt whether at such a degree of remoteness you can still call this an impact and an influence. In Oriental cultures, this question has found an almost radical solution: art had absolutely nothing to do with the direct, palpable reality of its own age. On the contrary, real artists were not “members” of their own society, in the same way that saints never are. This way, the art they produced did not exist as an integrated, definable, graspable part of society. Instead, it found its place in an emphatically spiritual space which nonetheless was still perceived as a part of reality.

László Krasznahorkai is a contemporary Hungarian master of apocalypse who inspires comparison with Gogol and Melville.

Monday, September 15, 2008

When a real writer kills himself

David Foster Wallace was a brilliant humanist writer

..all great writers -- and I have no doubt that he was one -- have a preeminent purpose: to tell the truth. David Foster Wallace's particular vocation was to allow us to see just how fraught and complicated, how difficult yet how necessary, that telling had become -- not just for him, but for all of us. What will we do without him?

DFW was only 46. He had talent to burn, time to write, had a nice teaching job in a college, and had people reading and loving his books. So, why did he kill himself?

DFW was a master of byzantine prose and virtuoso thinking. He was an acknowledged post-modernist who had great imagination and intellect. So, why did he kill himself?

In a country where empathy is considered a weakness, DFW had empathy and compassion - a lot of them - for his fellow human beings and was a brilliant humanist writer. So, why did he kill himself?

He was not happy at the new trends of the publishing world.

He was not happy at the chaos and insanity spiralling around him in his own country.

At one point he must have stopped to see the point of life.

What an end for a truly great and creative mind!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Booker shortlist

Linda Grant is my choice

“These novels are intensely readable, each of them an extraordinary example of imagination and narrative.”

In his press conference, Michael Portillo, the chair of the Booker jury, does not utter the word 'literature' even once. He does not emphasize on the originality or voice of any writer. Evidently, the focus of the Booker award has shifted from the quality fiction to the popular/pulp fiction. And the judges are no longer interested in literary fiction alone. Now it can be any kind of fiction, even a bad thriller, that the jury can take into consideration. What a shift for the prestigious literary award!
-------------------------------------------------------------------The Man Booker Prize 2008 shortlisted novels are:
Aravind Adiga The White Tiger (Atlantic)
Sebastian Barry The Secret Scripture (Faber and Faber)
Amitav Ghosh Sea of Poppies (John Murray)
Linda Grant The Clothes on Their Backs (Virago)
Philip Hensher The Northern Clemency (Fourth Estate)
Steve Toltz A Fraction of the Whole (Hamish Hamilton)
This year's judging panel is chaired by Michael Portillo former MP and Cabinet Minister. He is joined by Alex Clark, editor of Granta; Louise Doughty, novelist; James Heneage, founder of Ottakar's bookshops and Hardeep Singh Kohli, TV and radio broadcaster

------------------------------------------------------------------ As we all know, the Booker longlist this year was mediocre. They took all sorts of fiction based on their new criteria -even such crappy books as Child 44 and Girl in a Blue Dress. It was expected they would pare down to a shorter, reasonable shortlist this year. Nope. The shortlist has six titles, and most are the kind that you would give up reading half-way and even in case you finish them, you would never like to recall your reading experience.

The only book that I liked is Linda Grant’s The Clothes on their Backs.It is based on 70's immigrant experience, and addresses various questions about the nature of suffering and survival. It is an outstanding work in terms of both theme and treatment. Of course, I would like this title to be the winner.

But I’ve kind of hunch that Linda would not make it in the final round. Amitav Ghosh is in the list, and he is now the best and most suitable contender by establishment metrics. All efforts might now be directed to make him the winner.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

From a Jorge Louis Borges interview

Below are some quotes from a 1984 Borges interview I came across in le rubi. Here is a real writer talking without any pretension about his world of reading and writing.

"I’ve read very few novels in my life; for me the foremost novelist is Joseph Conrad."

"For me reading and writing are two equally pleasurable activities. When writers talk about the torture of writing, I don’t understand it."

"Since I have committed the indecency of turning eighty-five, I confirm without melancholy that my memory is full of verses and full of books. I can’t see past the year 1955—I lost my reader’s vision—but if I think about my past life, I think of course about friends, lovers also, but I think most of all about books. My memory is full of quotes in many languages."

"I hope to be totally forgotten. I believe that this is death."

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Being contemporary

A real writer's take

MR: What makes a literary work of its time? What makes it contemporary in an interesting or meaningful way? Do you care about being contemporary?

JPT: Literature has no real political or social role to play. Its role is primarily aesthetic. It’s an art. But it must absolutely offer a view of the world. I think writers should necessarily talk about the contemporary world; they should read it, decipher it, and reconstitute it. My choice of having Fuir take place in China, quite independently from my trip there in 2001, brought to light a desire to focus on the present, on the contemporary world as it is being built today, a world that is forever alive, moving on and transforming itself. China represents what is contemporary, in my mind. At some point in Fuir, we’re both in Paris and in China, it’s both daytime and nighttime, and the characters, connected by a cellphone, are both in a night train in China and standing in the sun outside of the Musée du Louvre in Paris. In the past, it would not have been possible to write that scene, for the obvious reason that cellphones did not exist 15 years ago. Starting from a new object of daily life, one discovers a new use of the novel.

Jean-Philippe Toussiant interview here

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Obituary of an unremarkable man

My father – the first imposing figure in my life – died yesterday. He was a doctor, and a negativist, but one of the very few contented men I’ve encountered in my life. He was eighty four, and lived life in a profound way.

He died of acute bronchopneumonia, but the real disease was the cancer of lung. He had cancer of the larynx twenty years ago, but was treated successfully for it with radiotherapy, and had almost a normal life, devoting time to three passions of his life – crosswords, Bengali cinema, and cricket.

Perhaps every man can sense the arrival of death in due time, but he knew it more in advance and accurately. He kept his eyes shut tight, refused to eat or respond to our interrogations, and on rare occasions when he opened his eyes, he fought hard to check his tears. The message was clear: he was unwilling to depart. But what was more remarkable was that he was in a sulking mode till his last moment.

I’m the eldest of his ten children, and have not lived with him much. Circumstances had so much to play around against developing a strong bond between us. He was a domineering father and always wished that I follow his advice to the full. I revolted. I liked writing, but he discouraged it. I was more inclined to intellectual and literary things. He would not approve it. He wanted me to become a doctor following in the tradition of our family. I decided not to oblige him. So at my first chance, I left the family – I was eighteen at the time - to pursue my own passion and kind of snapped all relations with him. It meant lots of struggle for me, but the fun thing is I ended up being a doctor myself graduating from a premier medical college in Bengal. He had the last laugh.

His attitude towards other children was different. He proved a careless father to them. So barely had I started my medical practice than they began to gravitate to me one by one. I had to fend for them. I had to take care of their education. And he never sent any help whatsoever.

He joined us many many years later when my siblings were somewhat settled, and some sisters married off. And then he opted to live with my youngest brother, an engineer-turned-entrerpreneur, who was going great guns at a very young age. My father sold out all his property in the country, and must have brought a good, if not large, sum with him. He never discussed it with me, and I never enquired him of it.

At one point, I lived several blocks away from him. I saw him in the market, scanning fish, vegetables and fruits before buying them. Sometimes I saw him on the road taking his morning walk. Sometimes he would visit my flat for a brief while. He seemed to be fond of my son. I have heard them discussing cricket.

When I visited him at my youngest brother’s residence, he was either busy fiddling with his crossword with dictionaries scattered around him or seeing some live cricket match on TV with so much attention that he didn’t notice me. But when he noticed, he welcomed me with a shy smile and asked me to sit down, but no further words, and our conversation never progressed.

We celebrated his 80th birthday with great style. As usual, he was impeccably dressed in his starched while dhoti, and punjabi, and seemed to enjoy the party. When asked to say something for the occasion, he said that he was indeed a very happy man, and had no grouse or complaint against anybody or anything as such, but would fervently wish that some, at least one of our children, might be a doctor.

He was not a successful doctor for whatever reasons, but a good clinician. He had great love for his profession.

In his deathbed, when he had severe spasms of breathlessness, he said to me in one lucid moment, “I have never harmed anybody in my life. So, why do I suffer this way?”

I had no reply for him.

Is there any relation between one’s karmas and sufferings? I’m not sure.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

10 reasons why you should read Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy is one single writer who has never disappointed me, and who always gives value for my time. I can read her any time any day. Give me a new Arundhati piece, and I'm into it in an instant, reading and savouring it word for word - literally. She is a window for me. She is my idea of a real writer.

So, what's it that draws me in? Or, why should you read her?

1. She has poetry in her prose. Or, music. If you love literature, you can't miss it.

2. She writes about sensitive, yet important subjects that other writers would carefully avoid for reasons of libel and/or personal security( e.g. globalisation, judiciary, dams, nuclear tests).

3. She has more brains for a writer, and is endowed with a sharp analytical mind.

4. She is a one-woman army and can take on the establishment without considering about the consequences.

5. She has astounding skill to garner facts and figures about India (the emerging superpower to some)and the world.

6. She is a rare independent writer with integrity, who is never afraid of asking questions.

7. She has great imagination to enrich her work.

8. She writes less, and never ever any crap - whether fiction or non-fiction.

9. She did not blush when people were clapping on her Booker award occasion.

10. She has no blog or any account on Facebook or You Tube.

Now, read Arundhati Roy's New Article at Outlook India magazine.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Sea of Poppies : Two readers

I have just finished Sea of Poppies and am on a high, the euphoric state that occurs when I have read a masterpiece for that is what this book is. It is perfection. And I am so glad to read that this is the first of a trilogy on which he is working already.

A sweeping, complex narrative, a large cast of characters and the most extraordinary use of language, combining 19th century Anglo-Indian with Bhojpuri, Bengali and Hindi with no concessions to Western readers. It is gripping stuff and I was mesmerised, eyes transfixed on the page. The story telling is so masterly without any hiccups or laboured prose, it carries one away as on the crest of a wave.

The last time I felt like this was on completing Midnight's Children in '81 just before the Booker Prize was announced and I did a victory dance in front of the telly and went to see Rushdie two days later. One could do that then!

I still haven't read In An Antique Land but will do so now. I am hooked.

I have no interest in Amitav Ghosh and his writing. I had only read Shadow Lines. I don't consider his writing to be literature. He works hard on his books, especially in terms of research. But that does not amount to literature. Besides, in the context of Indian apartheid and the opportunistic duplicity of writers, Ghosh included, I have no interest whatsoever in their output.

People like Ghosh write, an elaborate artifice, precisely to produce the kind of reaction you felt. But it has nothing to do with India. It does'nt come from there nor does it go there. And most of all, not only does it not contribute an iota to change in the apartheid situation, it only reinforces the charmed narcissism of the English-reading class.

(Source: my inbox. Names withdrawn because I've not sought their permission. My apologies.)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Literary teddy bears!

"Do you believe Indian writers published by the West have conformed to a specific style?

Not so much a style as a certain formula, limitations on content, the expectation of a cultural- social-spiritual-exotic biriyani, good for an evening out for the White Masters, not too hot, not too aphrodisiac, an Anglofriendly masala, not politically or sexually impudent. Have you noticed that teddy bears don’t have sex organs? They want us to be their literary teddy bears, pettable and dispensable at will. I am an independent, autonomous human being with sex organs, and I refuse to be a Western reader’s teddy bear! But many of us oblige."

Guess who's talking. Not any familiar published Indian author, for sure. Note his in-your-face tone and style. One needs balls to talk like this. Here's a writer who is not bothered to be as as savvy, clever and politically correct as other Indian writers. He just speaks as he thinks and experiences. It is as simple as that. And it's not bullshit. It makes sense.

Richard Crasta writes quality books for his own literary pleasure, publishes them himself, and sells them too. Publishers and distributors have never favoured him, but he has his fans and some of his books are best sellers.

He's my idea of a writing geek.


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

The only book by Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn I have read is Gulag Archipelago, and that too at a very young age when I had little experience of the real world. I remember I didn’t like the book much because it was more journalism and history than literature, and I found the writer very crass in his critcism of Vladimir Lenin, who he thought to be the person responsible for the vast system of prisons and labour camps in Russia.

But it was an awesome work in terms of first-hand testimony and primary documents of interrogation routines, prisoner indignities, camp massacres and other inhuman practices.

I’ve always wondered how, under constant surveillance of the KGB, he worked on this colossal book living in a camp with single-minded dedication and effort. He had to do his writing secretly, and as soon as he was done with a few pages of writing, he smuggled those pages onto his trusted friends scattered across the Soviet –to different friends at different times to save his work. This way he built up a huge, gigantic work – published later in three tomes from Paris.

He was an extra-ordinary dissident. He had amazing guts. He was a real writer.

If not for anything else, Solzhenitsyn would be remembered for this work alone.


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn: The Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

50 Best Translated Books from last 50 years

The Translation Association of the society of Authors is 50 years old this year, and to mark its anniversary, it has released a list of 50 best translated books from the last 50 years.
Some of these titles you must have read and liked so much that you never felt they were translated works. Yes, they were all master translators with love of literature in their DNA, who devoted their time and efforts to translating the real writings by real writers. We, as readers, could never be more grateful to them. Without them we would have never known these great authors the way we know them.

Two of my favourite translators from the list are Gregory Rabassa, who translated Hundred Years of Solitude by Garcia Marquez, and Michael Henry Heim, translator of Milan Kundera. On one occasion Kundera candidly admitted that his translated work is much better than his original work!

So, love the translators, and respect their efforts!

The list has been sent by my translator friend V.Ramaswamy


1. Raymond Queneau – Exercises in Style (Barbara Wright, 1958)

2. Primo Levi – If This is a Man (Stuart Woolf, 1959)

3. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa – The Leopard (Archibald Colquhoun, 1961)

4. Günter Grass – The Tin Drum (Ralph Manheim, 1962)

5. Jorge Luis Borges – Labyrinths (Donald Yates, James Irby, 1962)

6. Leonardo Sciascia – Day of the Owl (Archibald Colquhoun, 1963)

7. Alexander Solzhenitsyn – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Ralph Parker, 1963)

8. Yukio Mishima – Death in Midsummer (Seidensticker, Keene, Morris, Sargent, 1965)

9. Heinrich Böll – The Clown (Leila Vennewitz, 1965)

10. Octavio Paz – Labyrinth of Solitude (Lysander Kemp, 1967)

11. Mikhail Bulgakov – The Master and Margarita (Michael Glenny, 1969)

12. Gabriel Garcia Marquez – 100 Years of Solitude (Gregory Rabassa, 1970)

13. Walter Benjamin – Illuminations (Harry Zohn, 1970)

14. Paul Celan – Poems (Michael Hamburger and Christopher Middleton, 1972)

15. Bertolt Brecht – Poems (John Willett, Ralph Manheim, Erich Fried, et al 1976)

16. Michel Foucault – Discipline and Punish (Alan Sheridan, 1977)

17. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie - Montaillou (Barbara Bray, 1978)

18. Italo Calvino – If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (William Weaver, 1981)

19. Roland Barthes – Camera Lucida (Richard Howard, 1981)

20. Christa Wolf – A Model Childhood (Ursule Molinaro, Hedwig Rappolt, 1982)

21. Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose (William Weaver, 1983)

22. Mario Vargas Llosa – Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (Helen R. Lane, 1983)

23. Milan Kundera – The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Michael Henry Heim, 1984)

24. Marguerite Duras – The Lover (Barbara Bray, 1985)

25. Josef Skvorecky – The Engineer of Human Souls (Paul Wilson, 1985)

26. Per Olov Enquist – The March of the Musicians (Joan Tate, 1985)

27. Patrick Süskind – Perfume (John E. Woods, 1986)

28. Isabel Allende – The House of the Spirits (Magda Bodin, 1986)

29. Georges Perec – Life A User’s Manual (David Bellos, 1987)

30. Thomas Bernhard – Cutting Timber (Ewald Osers, 1988)

31. Czeslaw Milosz – Poems (Czeslaw Milosz, Robert Hass, 1988)

32. José Saramago – Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (Giovanni Pontiero, 1992)

33. Marcel Proust – In Search of Lost Time (Terence Kilmartin, 1992)

34. Roberto Calasso – The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (Tim Parks, 1993)

35. Naguib Mahfouz – Cairo Trilogy (Olive E. Kenny, Lorne M. Kenny, Angela Botros Samaan, 1991-3)

36. Laura Esquivel – Like Water for Chocolate (Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen, 1993)

37. Bao Ninh – The Sorrow of War (Frank Palmos, Phan Thanh Hao, 1994)

38. Victor Klemperer – I Shall Bear Witness (Martin Chalmers, 1998)

39. Beowulf (Seamus Heaney, 1999)

40. Josef Brodsky – Collected Poems (Anthony Hecht et al, 2000)

41. Xingjian Gao – Soul Mountain (Mabel Lee, 2001)

42. Tahar Ben Jelloun – This Blinding Absence of Light (Linda Coverdale, 2002)

43. W.G. Sebald – Austerlitz (Anthea Bell, 2002)

44. Orhan Pamuk – Snow (Maureen Freely, 2004)

45. Amos Oz – A Tale of Love and Darkness (Nicholas de Lange, 2004)

46. Per Petterson – Out Stealing Horses (Ann Born, 2005)

47. Irène Némirovsky – Suite Française (Sandra Smith, 2006)

48. Vassily Grossman – Life and Fate (Robert Chandler, 2006)

49. Alaa Al Aswany – The Yacoubian Building (Humphrey Davies, 2007)

50. Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace (Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky, 2007)

Compiled by Shaun Whiteside (Chair, TA) and the Committee of the TA (Don Bartlett, Alexandra Büchler, Martin Chalmers, Nicholas de Lange, Sarah Death, Marueen Freely, Daniel Hahn and Christine Shuttleworth).

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Arundhati Roy's New Fiction

Arundhati Roy has not written any fiction since the publication of her Booker-winning novel The God of Small Things in 1997. She was busy, besides her activist’s work, penning brilliant and phenomenal essays about nuclear testings, dams, globalization, Indian judiciary and about things most writers would not dare to touch. So her returning to fiction after this long sabbatical– eleven years to be exact – is itself an exciting news for literary folks. But this is a short story for now, she would follow up with her second novel soon.

Arundhati’s “Briefing” is about a fort in the hills, a real invincible fort, built with stones from surrounding hills, a result of massive investment of labour and money. It is not so much a story as a narrative. No story-line (a real writer is never bothered about it), no human characters except the narrator, and no twists. And it has a lot of subversive material (in a recent interview, Arundhati describes fiction as “more subversive…more mysterious”).

As we have seen in her other writings, she lets her imagination in full play here in this story also. The fort’s location in the hills leads us to snow. Snow is not naturally found these days atop hills. So comes warming of planet, and hot natural snow. In the final part of it, you see the narrator wishing the fort razed so the ecology returns to the land and snow falls again.

Arundhati is the kind of writer who gets evolved as a writer everyday. Don’t expect her handle the same things the same way from her every time. In every new piece she reinvents herself, and reveals something new. The subject of this story is another proof that she is trying to take herself to a loftier level.

But the story has some flaws. First, despite a fresh subject, you hear Arundhati’s too familiar angry non-fiction voice here in this story also. Initially, it’s hard to believe that you’re reading a work of fiction. She incorporates details of snow-manufacturing business in a non-fiction way. And then her swipe at capitalism is also blunt. The end too is simplistic. Where is the subtlety and mystery of fiction?

It seems that Arundhati has not yet been able to unplug herself fully from her non-fiction mode. After all, she has been into it way too long.

Arundhati needs to put her fiction-writer’s cap tightly.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Hey, how many books did you sign?

Of course, it is one of those trivia. I should not have written about it. But it involves one of our real writers, and I kind of reacted. So I can’t help write it.

On one occasion during his recent promotional tour for his latest novel, Salman Rushdie signed as many as 1000 books in 57 minutes. All very well for someone who looms bigger with his new writing success. But the galling thing is, Rushdie has begun bragging about it. He went so far as to write a letter to The Guardian that he has made a signing record with this, beating Malcolm Gluck, the wine writer, who signed 1,001 copies in 59 minutes in 1998.

Gluck questioned about the veracity of this claim. Did Rushdie put in his intials, he queried. Rushdie quickly added: Let me be clear. I didn’t initial the books, but signed my full name.

So, here’s the controversy, and please join in!

I tried to do a little math, but soon gave up on it realizing it was a waste of time. Does it really matter if somebody signs his name in just about 3.42 seconds or less? It’s absolute rubbish. We did such competitions in our school days.

I wish Rushdie had not bragged about it at all. Not only was it in bad taste, it also spoke unfavorably about his persona.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Midnight's Children Revisited

The occasion of the Best of the Booker award prodded me to revisit the Midnight’s Children after one long decade, if I remember it right. For constraint of time, I read it randomly, beginning in the middle, skipping pages, and finally ending with the first page.

Saleem Sinai –variously called Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Sniffer and Buddha –is still fantastic. The episode of his being baldy at the age of ten – the outcome of an angry school-teacher’s assault –shocked me again but what hurt me more was the cruelty of his classmates his age who made him a permanent object of ridicule for his baldness. His losing a finger in the fight with friends is equally painful for me. Fortunately for me, Rushdie made Saleem a rich man’s son, and that indeed had a check on my overactive lacrimal glands.

I had forgotten about Saleem’s Hanif uncle and Pia aunty, who were associated with Bollywood, one as a failed script writer, and another as a failed actress. They were still an interesting read, and I enjoyed Saleem’s interaction with them.

Midnight’s Children, I feel this time, has a strong storyline, or rather a string of compelling episodes. They alone can carry you along with their own force, even if you ignore the sub-text.

And it’s an overwhelmingly Indian story. Hindu gods, myths, Indian foods (chutney specially), Muhammad, Pakistan, Indian democracy, election, you name anything. It left me wondering how foreign readers got to crack all these. Then Rushdie’s humour is not always as good as his wits, and he can bore you to death with his endless babble with Padma, the perennial woman in his life. But he’s marvelous in his observations on India’s politics, people, culture and other sundry things.

What’s so special about Midnight’s Children? You get bits of tragedy in almost every episode. An undercurrent of pathos flows throughout the entire text, and finally seeps into your consciousness to form a huge grey.

In its content and style, Midnight’s Children brings about a huge paradigm shift in English writing. It was a great risk-ridden experiment for a writer whose first book simply vanished without a trace. I cannot but appreciate Rushdie’s courage and confidence. But at the same time I’m surprised that even after so many years and so many good and bad novels down the line, Rushdie has the same mindset, and his writing style remains the same – with all its components intact, only a bit jaded by time.

Now, from the first page:

I was born in the city of Bombay…once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date; I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th,1947. And the time? The time matters too. Well than; at night. No, it’s important to be more…On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out; at the precise instant of India’s arrival at Independence.

Saleem Sinai's sojourn begins.

Friday, July 11, 2008

What You should Expect in Kafka Papers

What do you expect in the newly discovered Kafka papers? Any new stories or novels? Little chance. Max Brod scanned it all and published every worthy stuff. Notebooks or letters? Probably yes. According to one of his biographers, Franz Kafka used to maintain notebooks, and had filled twenty notebooks with his writing. Some of Kafka’s letters might be in the papers.

As we all know, Kafka gave away all his manuscripts to his close friend Max Brod. Prior to his death at age 41, he instructed his friend to burn all of his writings. Brod in his good sense ignored his friend’s order, and kept them with him. In the wake of the Nazis invading Prague, Brod had to flee, but he took utmost care to carry along with his valuables the two suitcases stuffed with Kafka writings. Later, he oversaw the publication of most of his works in his possession.

The newly discovered papers are part of Brod’s possession, which he didn’t publish for whatever reasons. May be Brod did not consider them publishable, or those contained material not suitable for readers at that time. But they are still important, and can shed light on the great writer.

Kafka has always been a literary puzzle. With just a few stories published during his lifetime, he got noticed only posthumously. Then he never finished any of his novels except The Metamorphoses.
Yet he was an iconic writer and influnenced the world litearture in a big way.

I have always seen Kafka as an author who foresaw the horrors of capitalism, and used them exclusively in 'The trial' and his other writings.

The world Kafka had lived and written about has changed hugely since. Capitalism has now come a full circle with all of its horrible attendants. The Kafka papers, at this juncture, may prove to be an interesting read.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Perish before you publish

Book industry is now at an all-time low. Real writers have a very tough time publishing their books. In fact, their odds increase everyday with the already dumbed-down publishing houses now targeting the lowest common denominator.

"Publishing is in a well documented state of economic and structural chaos and worried about whether its physical end-product will even exist in the future. In short, it's now dealing with the problems that my own industry - magazines - faced seven years ago. Sadly, the book industry seems to be responding in the same way - by retreating into safe, middle of the road ideas and a particularly stubborn intransigence.

It didn't work for magazines - dumbing down content and aiming for the lowest common denominator didn't boost any existing title's ABC - and it won't work for books either. The good titles that do get published are too often lost in an attempt to make them look unthreateningly "mainstream"."

Read the whole article at Justin Quirk's blog

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

So What if Chetan Bhagat's not a real writer?

Chetan Bhagat’s latest novel – his third in a row – has reportedly sold 5,00,000 copies since its release last month(Over-hype? One source says only 60,000 copies of the book have been printed till now). He’s being touted variously as people’s writer, a publishing phenomenon, and young voice of India. His publisher is now sending boxes of candy to media offices to celebrate the huge success of the book. Chetan, on his part, is taking a well-earned sabbatical before he begins working on his next novel. Meanwhile, the Bollywood has decided to film two of his books.

All very nice for Chetan and his publisher, but many people (even some of his fans) have now started complaining. Here is a list:

 His work lacks literary merit.

 His writing style is clunky.

 He cranks out ‘read and throw’ stuff.

 He has little life-experience.

 His books have silly titles (e.g, Three Mistakes of My Life, One Night@ the Call Centre)

 He has no world-view.

 His social critiquing is random and unfocussed.

 He has chutzpah!

Of course, these things suck. But then people should know Chetan is no real writer. He’s simply a pulp-fictioneer with Luck. How can you expect real writing from him?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Why I'm a Shalom Auslander Fan

The thing is, you get fewer and fewer real writers these days.

I discovered Shalom Auslander quite by chance. Caught in a bad mood, I was frantically browsing the net one day when I stumbled upon his columnA Terrible Experience. I wanted to read just the first paragraph, but I was gripped. It had so much funny kind of punch that I found myself reading through it. And I loved the piece absolutely. Here was a writer who wrote what he exactly wanted to write!

That's how I became his fan.

I like Shalom's attitude, his style. He reminds me of Mark Twain, but only faintly.

Shalom is crazy, intelligent, irreverent, believer, hilarious and gloomy - all at the same time. He does not care about political correctness. He has always something to say, and he says it like it is - without worrying the least about the repercussions. Who would not love such a natural and real writer?

Shalom has a book called Beware of God . All the stories of this book revolve around the idea of God. "I have a 'Beware of Dogs' sign on my house," says he,"I feel the same way about God." If it seems like blasphemy, he does not really mean it. Does he believe in God? "Yes, I do because I want to not," he said in an interview.

"Sadness and tears have never been the goals of my reading, or my writing, and I can't imagine why they would be. I thought that was the goal of the Drudge Report, of the Evening News: “Now With TWICE the Misery.” Murder, war, rape, global warming, global cooling. Then the five-second clip of the squirrel waterskiing. Tears in the writer? Tears in the reader? This is some kind of victory? Catharsis, I know. No amount of dragging a reader over the miserable coals of a writer's miserable imagination can’t be excused by catharsis, by the waterskiing squirrel: The lovers live on, only without legs, a home, or a future. Oh, and she'll get raped. Him, too. But they LIVE, damn it, they LIVE. Mother, father, and children are burned to death in a house fire, but a rat in hole somewhere has learned an important lesson about life. I'm not buying it. I purchase more novels than I can possibly write off as expenses (trust me, I've tried), and put most of them down before I'm a third of the way through. Call it laziness if you like. I call it prudence: I can only kill myself once, and I'd like the book that makes me do so to be really worth it. I've read enough of them through, though, to know that if there's a baby, it will die. If there's a dog, it will be shot. A heart, broken. A family, torn apart. A city, demolished. A tire, flattened. A toe, stubbed. A nail, bent. A cup of tea, spilled. But cathartic, always cathartic."

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A real writer first and foremost

The Wall Street Journal has published an interview - in an odd format, though - with Salman Rushdie. A question and answer format would be more appropriate. In such interviews, we like to read what a writer says -in the exact, unedited version - without any commentary from the interviewer

"There was a number of ways in which such an event could cripple a writer," Mr. Rushdie says of the death sentence that lasted until 1998, when the Iranian government withdrew support for it. "One way was that it would frighten you into innocuousness – that you would suddenly try and avoid writing anything that could in any way upset anyone. Which would essentially mean you couldn't write anything. Or, it could provoke you into vindictive writing. Kind-of revenge fiction. And I thought both of those things would destroy me, because they would turn me into a creature of the attack."

Read the whole interview A Writer, Not a Martyr

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

When J.K.Rowling delivers like a real writer

Let me confess: I've never been able to bring myself to like J.K.Rowling's work. But her background and struggle fascinate me. Below is her Harvard University Convocation address, which I truly liked. Why did'nt she go in for some real writing alongside/instead of her usual, no-brainer stuff? In this speech, she sounded just like a real writer should. Thanks to my friend
V.Ramaswamy, who has an interesting habit of sharing with me whatever he reads and likes

President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and, above
all, graduates,

The first thing I would like to say is 'thank you.' Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I've experienced at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and fool myself into believing I am at the world's best-educated Harry Potter convention.

Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one, because it turns out that I can't remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.

You see? If all you remember in years to come is the 'gay wizard' joke, I've still come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step towards personal improvement.

Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that has expired between that day and this.
I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called 'real life', I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.

These might seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear with me.

Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of me.

I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that could never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension.

They had hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents' car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.

I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.

What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.

At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university, where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers.

I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.

However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person's idea of success, so high have you already flown academically.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.

Given a time machine or a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone's total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

You might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working in the research department at Amnesty International's headquarters in London.
There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.

Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to think independently of their government. Visitors to our office included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had been forced to leave behind.

I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just given him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country's regime, his mother had been seized and executed.

Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard and read.

And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.

Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people's minds, imagine themselves into other people's places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces can lead to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathise may enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people's lives simply by existing.

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people's lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world's only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.

I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is something that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life. They are my children's godparents, the people to whom I've been able to turn in times of trouble, friends who have been kind enough not to sue me when I've used their names for Death Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.

So today, I can wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom:

As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.

I wish you all very good lives.

Thank you very much.

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