& occasionally about other things, too...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

GAB is Good

I began this blog in January this year with the sole purpose of keeping myself engaged with the process of writing.

After many years of writing for a living, I suddenly found myself without having anything to do with writing in early 2009.

Generally About Books was to give me an outlet to write.

In the last seven months since I started writing this blog, I’ve learnt a lot about blogging and about writing.

Several Canadian institutions and a number of Canadians have contributed to this process of improving my writing.

Today, I got an e-mail from the Canadian Web Awards 2009 informing me that my blog is rated “Good”. (see the award logo on the sidebar to right)

The Canadian web awards is a trusted source for independent website reviews worldwide since 1998. It evaluates and rates websites on four broad categories:

  • Is the website Canadian friendly?
  • Is the website informative?
  • Is the website unique?
  • Will the Canadian consumer benefit from visiting the website?

My blog is not yet "Very Good" or "Excellent". Nevertheless, I'm elated.

Also, the number of visitors visiting the site is steadily rising. I'm happy to report that I've proved NYT's prophecy - that most blogs have a readership of one - wrong.

Since I began measuring, there's been a steady rise in the number of visitors to my blog.

My target is 1,000 hits a month. At present, that seems ambitious.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The God of Small Things-I

The God of Small Things-II

How other cultures perceive one's own culture is an interesting issue for debate.

Of course, one has to agree on certain aspects before we can begin a debate – for instance, what is “culture”, and what is “one's own” culture and what do we mean by “other cultures”.

Last week, I was part of a classroom audience as a group of students discussed Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.

None of the presenters was from India. All of them were erudite, academically oriented and some even scholarly.

They raised several pertinent issues – from Roy’s dexterous and felicitous use of English. to the intricate, incomprehensible and yet omniscient caste system in India.

What struck me as a singularly important aspect of the discussion was the universal appeal of Roy’s book (barring two notable exceptions).

I consider The God of Small Things (1997) as one of the three books that shaped the literary sensibilities of the English-speaking and reading world in the last quater of the 20th century.

Midnight’s Children (1981) and A Suitable Boy (1994) are the other two. It's not a coincidence that all the writers are of Indian origin.

Rushdie, Roy and Seth changed forever the English novel – a point also raised during the discussion.

In The God of Small Things, Roy says, “The secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again. That is their mystery and their magic.”

This is true of Midnight’s Children, The God of Small Things and A Suitable Boy.

Writer as God

The relationship between a reader and a writer is one of a guest and a host, and the book is like a house.

As a reader, I’m the guest. I need the host – the writer – to show me around her house. Draw my attention to the things that she wants me to see and in the manner in which she wants me to see them.

The host will introduce me to the people in her house – the characters – and tell me about them. While I’m there, I’ll get to know them better, and discover things about them that she didn’t tell me. And that will reveal her -- perhaps more than she’d want to show.

Often I’ll like these people, and they’ll be my pals forever. Some, I want to bed and wed (I’m still looking for East of Eden’s Cathy and will turn polygamous when I find her). And some, I’ll hate forever.

As a guest, I’m a demanding person. I expect special treatment. If I don’t get it, I’ll leave the house – sooner than the host wants me to.

I will also leave sooner when she ill-treats the people in her house. When she does that, I’m wound up. I realise my host is either not a nice person herself, or is not sure how to deal with one of the people in the house.

As she’s seemingly clueless, she indulges in acts of god that I can barely tolerate in God and cannot in a writer.

The reader doesn’t give the writer the right to play with her characters; as God does with human beings.

When a reader enters into a contract with the writer, she is seeking a commitment from the writer to help her escape into a different reality. That’s right – a different reality.

The writer has the responsibility of making her characters believable emotionally to the reader. When the writer makes the character act uncharacteristically, the reader is distressed.

It’s a breach of contract. The reader feels cheated.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Laughing Buddha

It was raining in Kathmandu.

I was walking down the road to reach my hotel. I had my umbrella. It wasn’t protecting me. I saw him standing on the side of the road, holding his hand over his head.

His clothes were wet and clinging to his body. He looked ill. He had probably been standing in the rain for long.

I looked at him. He looked at me. He smiled. My hotel wasn’t far.

“How far do you have to go?” I asked him.

“End of the world,” he said.

“You’ll need an umbrella in this weather,” I said, and gave him mine.

“Thank you,” he said, “You take this.”

He gave me what looked like a small statue that resembled him.

“Whenever you feel sad, take a look at this and you’ll feel happy,” he said.

And vanished.

Wikipedia says the laughing Buddha is admired for his happiness and contentment. Rubbing his belly brings wealth, good luck, and prosperity. At the Humber School of Writers’ Summer Workshop, I met her and metaphorically rubbed her belly.

Image: Isabel Huggan with me at Humber College's Lakeshore Campus. Humber School of Writers provided the photograph.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

All writing is rewriting

The Summer Workshop at Humber School of Writers is focused and intense. It'll be more so from Monday.

Today (Sunday) was special. Martin Amis, the English author, spoke to the participants, read a review and chatted with Antanas Sileika.

Amis doesn’t share the gloom that permeates the world of the printed word. He was the star of the day but he wears his celebrity hood lightly. Amis is among the 15 writers that met their group at the workshop today. Among them are writers of such eminence as Isabel Huggan, Nino Ricci, and Wayson Choy.

Amis read his recent review of John Updike’s collection of short stories. For me – and I believe for Amis – Updike is an icon.

I felt squeamish when Amis did a thorough job in detailing why Updike’s collection of short stories doesn’t work. But his review ends with high praise: “Updike's creations live, and authorial love is what sustains them. He put it very plainly in his memoir, Self-Consciousness: ‘Imitation is praise. Description expresses love.’ That love, at least, never began to weaken.”

The three most purposeful sessions at the workshop were:

I don’t mean that the others sessions were not. The sessions with Humber’s students who have become published authors was also insightful.

Then I met Isabel Huggan. When Humber’s Madeleine Matte had informed me that I’d be assisting Huggan, I had borrowed her book The Elizabeth Stories from the library at The Village Terraces, where I worked as a security guard. I wrote about the book here in April.

Today, when I met her, she came across as a strong-willed and focussed. A superb writer, who I’m sure is also a brilliant teacher.

Memorable quote from Huggan: “All writing is rewriting.”

Image: Martin Amis: http://www.ica.org.uk/thumbnail.php?max=408&id=2880

Humber School of Writers Summer Workshop

Murphy’s law (Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong) never fails me.

Saturday morning, I wore an ironed white shirt and navy blue dress trousers; black leather shoes and my brown leather Daks bag and started my journey to Humber College’s Lakeshore Boulevard campus.

It was a moment I had been waiting for since March, when Antanas Sileika, the artistic director of Humber School of Writers, selected me as an assistant to Isabel Huggan for Humber’s Summer Writing Workshop.

I’ve stopped the tedious business ironing my clothes and trying to turn out smartly everywhere I go. I prefer the ‘casual’ look because I’m lazy.

However, last Friday I spent a few hours ironing my shirts for this week’s workshop.

I reached Humber’s campus about 30 minutes before the event’s scheduled time. It was my first visit and I had factored about half-an-hour lead-time to find my way around.

But what do you think happens just as I get down from the TTC bus? It begins to rain. Correction. It begins to pour. For the next hour it doesn’t stop. In the last year that I’ve been in Toronto, it’s rained this heavily perhaps once, or maybe twice.

I don’t know where to go. There’s none to ask for directions.

I have no choice but to walk through the downpour and reach the venue. I must’ve looked like an apparition (the campus, I’m told, has a few ghosts). I’m drenched to the bones, my shirt is clinging to my torso and the trousers are dripping water all along the corridor leading to the auditorium.

A participant who holds the door open for me wryly remarks, “You’re more desperate than me to reach this place.” One of the members of the staff suggests I walk to the gym and take a towel to dry myself.

I dry my hair. I don’t have a comb. My hair is all over my face. I go to the washroom and glance at myself in the mirror. A strange man with a lot of hair on his forehead and everywhere else looks back at me.

This is my Mumbai incarnation. I never carried an umbrella in Mumbai. I always do in Toronto. I didn’t yesterday.

That’s Murphy’s Law for you.

I walk back and have a lukewarm cup of coffee. It’s not enough, so I have another. That’s too much. I throw it away.

I’m introduced to Antanas Sileika. He’s much taller than I had thought he’d be. He’s suave and courteous. He says he’s happy I could make it. “I’ve been looking forward to attending this workshop,” I say. I hope he takes my appearance as proof of my enthusiasm.

The auditorium fills up fast. There are more than a hundred aspiring writers. Everyone has to introduce herself.

On my turn, I say, “I complete my first year in Canada today.” There’s spontaneous applause.

There couldn’t have been a better way to celebrate the first anniversary of my arrival in Canada.

A special thanks to Joyce Wayne.

Image: Antanas Sileika: http://www.wcdr.org/wcdr/wp-content/uploads/2007/12/antanas-sileika.jpg

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Time magazine 1969

When the history of the last century gets documented (not necessarily written), the one event that will acquire singular significance - to the exclusion of so many other equally compelling ones - will be man's landing on the moon.

The greatest achievement in the last century (perhaps in all recorded history) was without doubt that moment when Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin set foot on the lunar surface. Michael Collins, the third astronaut, continued to orbit the lunar surface in Columbia (the command module) around the moon. The year: 1969.

Time magazine has issued a special edition for 1969, coinciding with the 40th anniversay of the moon landing (07-20). I saw it at the Oshawa Centre mall and got it as a gift from Mahrukh.

It's a rare treat. Moon, Beatles, Woodstock, Vietnam, Nixon & Kissinger Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid...everyone who was anyone back then is in there.

Nostalgia is big business. Actually, in my case it isn't nostalgia at all. I was seven in 1969.

It's history. I firmly believe that if there's one year that defines the last century it's 1969. And that's because for the first time human beings broke through the confines of earth's gravity and landed on the moon. This will be remembered centuries from now, when all else will be forgotten.

Incidentally, Armstrong's confirmation that they were on the moon (the Eagle has landed) is also the name of one of Jack Higgins' bestseller.

Of course, the other reason I like 1969 is that a few people I know will turn 40 this year. Some I admire. Some admire me.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

A Suitable Boy

Vikram Seth will do a sequel to A Suitable Boy. It’ll be called A Suitable Girl. Seth will get – hold your breath – 1.7 million pounds from Hamish Hamilton.

A Suitable Boy is a masterpiece. It’s a book that you never wish ends, and the writer almost grants you your wish.

It’s the nearest to reading Premchand in English.

I read it many years after it was first published. The reason for the delay was its daunting size; it’s supposed to be the longest novel in the English language.

But once you begin to read, there’s just no way you can put it down.

All through the book I wanted Lata Mehra to marry Amit Chatterjee, but she marries the straightforward and boring Harish Khanna.

It's a prudent choice, I guess. Girls who marry interesting guys suffer.

I wanted Mann Kapoor and Saeeda Bai to be together. But she refuses even to see him in the end, preferring agonizing loneliness.

Again, a prudent (though heart-wrenching) decision. Tawaifs and young lovers don’t have a future together.

Even Jawaharlal Nehru is a character in the book. The author doesn’t have him speak. Nehru, while spending a night alone in a dak bungalow, reminiscences of his pre-independence era affair.

The book creates images of the fictional Brahmpur that to me brought back memories of Bahedi, a small town on the Bareilly-Katgodam railway line where I had extended stays in the early 1980s. And, once while I was at the guesthouse, ND Tiwari, who was passing through, came and camped for the night in the next room.

The novel brings to life a young nation’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes of partition. It weaves several complex themes that a nascent nation grappled with often unsuccessfully and yet never wavered from the chosen path. In so many ways, A Suitable Boy is an accompaniment to Ramchandra Guha’s India After Gandhi.

The book is an epic and Seth is a master. A Suitable Boy can effortlessly translate into a blockbuster Hindi movie. Ashutosh Gowarikar, with his talent and attention to detail, can easily turn the book to celluloid.

I had tried reading The Golden Gate (an imitation of Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin written in iambic tetrameter verse), but couldn’t move beyond the initial phase. Pet iguanas didn’t appeal to me then; they don’t even now.

Image: http://www.brokenenglish.com/dickss/portraits/images/vikram%20seth.jpg

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Happy Birthday Canada

I'm not the flag waving type, generally speaking.

But, what the heck!

I'm happy to be here.

Canada's let me reinvent myself.

And given my life an all new meaning.

On my first Canada Day, I join all Canadians in wishing a big