Tag Archive: Literary Review


To present Manashi Dasgupta’s (1928-2010) legacy involves pulling together the academic, cultural and critical strands of a vision that cherishes friendship and intercontextual conversation. It is at this crucial interface, she suggests, that the democratic imagination must make interpersonal sense of institutions.

Dasgupta’s 1962 Cornell University doctoral dissertation brings social psychology to bear on what makes somebody seem interesting to others. She proposes that we imagine narratives about people we meet; perceiving a half-story leaves us intrigued and interested in the protagonist.

She argues (especially in Jiggasa 11:3.287-301, 1990) that we make friends where we find it possible, in principle, to initiate joint projects.

Dasgupta’s interpersonalist vision identifies a democratic, anti-hierarchical imagination as a prerequisite for modernity. The point is to fashion a friendship-based institutional format outside the patriarchal family paradigm.

The academic flows into the cultural in Dasgupta’s work.

Few of the friends who picked her brains, however, recognised that this was one of her ways of nurturing intercontextual conversations and thereby feeding the democratic imagination.


Then in the space of weeks her marriage broke up and she discovered she had breast cancer. But although it might seem a wretched incongruity that such a full life should suffer such a swift fall, Rich’s own view is that it only made sense. ‘I smoked two packs of Newport Lights a day’, ‘I drank, a lot’, ‘I ate like shit’, ‘I worked out… hardly ever’, and thanks to a ‘high-drive, adrenylated job’, ‘mostly, I inhaled stress’. It is intelligent, articulate ideas like these that make for the attractiveness of Rich’s writing.

She also presents a grim picture of the American medical establishment. The history of her treatment abounds with dodgy diagnoses, overlooked symptoms, adversarial tussles with dispassionate doctors, who are too afraid of being sued to properly care. It is easily inferred from this book that market forces and health-care are a dangerous mix. Also, that while New York may be a wonderful place to be young and healthy, it is not so pleasant to be sick there, and dependent for support on a paid therapist. For Indian readers, this book should also lead us to appreciate better the personal touch of our own culture, the familial networks that we sometimes take for granted.


Looking back, I think the writer in me was born somewhere in the dark interior of my ancestral house, about which there had always been a mysterious silence. Being the only male child in a joint family, I grew up lonely in the midst of unbelievable things. What moulded my childhood mind were stories of gods, goddesses and the dead, told at untimely hours, splashing and bathing in the tharavad pond; scenes of country oracles, or komarams; and sorcerers performing poojas and black magic.

Terribly lonely, also obviously scared, I developed a habit of talking to myself. Not just to myself, but also to trees, animals, birds – and, sometimes, to the ghosts and gods too. They were my companions then. It might be that those interior dialogues developed into my writings, be it poetry or prose. My writing still remains an attempt to come to terms with what otherwise appears indefinable in life. It’s all about relating what is within and without.

Poetry today is a form where boundaries are pushed to the point where readers are confused about why a particular work is judged to be poetry. For you, what defines a poem?

Primarily, it’s a feeling of being incomplete, together with an irresistible discontent, rather, disquiet, always growing within. Poetry, for me, is an attempt at overcoming the depressing human condition and giving a meaning to it. Devoid of this, even if a work of art is technically perfect, it will invariably be soulless.

If you had to deliver a sort of State of the Union address about the world of poetry, what would be some of your thoughts?

There’s something in poetry that doesn’t allow it to die. There isn’t any literary medium that has undergone as much misuse and abuse as poetry; still it survives. The most ancient of all human expressions, it’s still as fresh as something just invented. Poetry nowadays has almost become a personal medium. Often, it’s not the medium of the winner, but that of the defeated. At least like that, I think, it’ll continue.

Who are some of the poets who continually “speak” to you?

Those whom I read to recharge my writer-ly batteries include Kumaranasan, Vyloppillil and Edassery in Malayalam; Vacana poets, William Blake, W.B. Yeats and Wislawa Szymborska in other languages. I read Kumaranasan and the Vacana poets for the way in which they address the metaphysical dilemma; Blake and Yeats for their prophetic but simple articulation; and Szymborska for the dexterity with which she transforms a thought into a poetic experience.

Do you have a daily routine into which you slot in your writing?

I don’t have a routine. I can live doing nothing for days, I can work continuously for days without sleep. I enjoy unpredictability and believe that everything in my life is an accident; sometimes I even feel that becoming a writer was an accident.

This is not to mock Rich — anyone with cancer might be so desperate — and indeed she chastises herself for the fact. Just as she chastises the ‘talk-show honesty’ of her generation (‘self-revelations about sex or degradation…but never venality or arrogance or the other, more banal sins that actually made us look bad’). But it is one thing to be perfectly aware of a shortcoming, and another to overcome it. The truth is that The Red Devil does feature a kind of talk-show honesty, where splendid insights are dragged down from their rightful pedestal and mixed up in the shallows, and where the aim is not so much to share one’s courage, as to have it confirmed. In the nicest and discreetest way, it is a showy book, one outstanding proof of which is that it reads like a novel. The dialogue is all within quotation marks, conversations are described in implausibly cinematic terms, and the love stories are weaved in like sub-plots. This ‘fictional’ treatment helps the book read easily, but it also hides the absence of real, helpful content, that a more mundane and less stagy style would not have been able to. To sum up, I think ‘ The Red Devil’ will have you genuinely liking and rooting for the author, but I doubt it will have you thanking her.


I am hardly the performance poet, preferring to focus on what I express on paper rather than on the stage. I read a lot of poetry to myself, out loud, but that is because I enjoy how a piece tightens or releases my breath; I am interested in exploring that. My early readings likely had a performance aspect: I would look at an audience member at just the right turn of phrase, at just the right moment and make her feel exactly what I wanted to. That sort of attitude can easily corrupt, so I backed off. I want to vanish and be unimportant during a reading; so if the audience stays engaged, it is due to the poem not the poet.

I am some sort of a ‘reverse traveller’. I don’t move around to get inspired, but the other way round. I hear or read about a particular place and that stays with me. A year or two later, if that memory hasn’t left, I start making plans. The sort of poetry I prefer to write cannot be written on a tourist visa, so I much prefer to stay at a place for a month or two at a time. It helps me find stories I would miss otherwise.

Music is just another form of expression, another method of self-exploration. There are things I cannot express with poetry alone, so there is certainly an opportunity to merge both media. I haven’t been very successful at it so far, but I am trying. For example, right now I am working on a set of poems that will read in sync with a few Chopin nocturnes, the narrative, the punctuations, and line-breaks allowing the poems to ascend and descend with the music.

Absolutely. I find what I do as an engineer very challenging and enjoyable. Also, it pays the bills, allows me to travel on whim, and to take creative risks. I know there are writers who are inspired by poverty, but not me.

http://www.hindu.com/lr/2011/02/06/stories/2011020650040200.htm  Almost taking a hint from Pamuk, Hindi writers and those from other Indian languages made hay at the festival, speaking their language, their way. If Gulzar, Javed Akhtar and Prasoon Joshi had to host a session on Hindi film songs almost twice over, Mrinal Pande made her presence felt too. At the session, “Aisi Hindi, Kaisi Hindi”, she quietly tore into the host Satyanand Nirupam’s argument that expletives are a form of expression too! “People use ‘gaali’ when lacking words. An intelligent man does not abuse. He uses measured words. When a child picks up an expletive on the street, the mother always scolds him. If abuse were really a form of developing expression, the mother would have probably hailed the child!” Pande left co-panellists speechless and the audience clapping in appreciation.



The Wandering Falcon; Jamil Ahmad, Penguin India, Rs. 399.  Seldom does a writer take you by the hand and lead you into a hidden world with such sure-footed ease. Jamil Ahmad does precisely that as he takes you deep into a folded land of hills and valleys straddling the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Occupied by a tribal people united under the banner of Islam but governed by a more ancient code of conduct, this is a dark world of abject poverty, deprivation and want, but one that is also lit from within.

Translucent beams of Life irradiate it. The will to live, the zeal to carry on with dignity and grace, the inherent desire in human beings — no matter how lowly or brought low by fate and circumstance — to rise above the human condition permeates this seemingly dark domain that could have been wretched but is inexplicably not in the least wretched. A deeply ingrained sense of honour, justice and loyalty permeates a world that is as harsh and unforgiving as it is inscrutable to the outsider.


Set in the decades before the onset of talibanisation, The Wandering Falcon allows us to wander, like the falcon that soars high over hill and dale, but takes in the minutest detail of life on the ground with its razor-sharp gaze. Appropriately enough, it has a boy protagonist, Tor Baz or the hunting falcon, the outsider looking in who connects the series of inter-linked stories that comprise the book.

While each chapter can be read as a self-contained short story, together they narrate the rite of passage of a boy — whose lineage is unknown, whose parents were a run-away couple killed in cold blood to avenge the family honour, who belongs to neither this tribe nor that — as he learns to survive in a world that is both cruel and gentle, harsh and loving, fragile and unrelenting, timeless yet changing.

The notion of honour and its concomitant principles of loyalty, fidelity and truthfulness string the stories together as much as the coming of age of Tor Baz from infancy to adulthood.

Winters of misery and desperation followed by the short-lived spring of hope and the summer months of wandering are leavened by a highly codified set of principles that govern every moment from birth till death.


 For a writer who has debuted at the age of 78, Ahmad writes with a surprising ease and confidence. Simple, spare and stark, his words are unembellished by rhetorical flourishes, his sentences shorn of even a trace of artifice or artfulness. There are no fancy turns of phrase, no verbal acoustics, no play upon words, nothing in fact to draw away from the stories he wants to tell in as straightforward a manner as possible. Here is writing – the finest one has read in a very long time in English by a South Asian writer – that ebbs and flows with such effortless ease and conveys the essence of the story in such few words that it catches you unawares with its freshness.


The Nobel laureate’s repeated use of the words “naive” and “sentimental” in this book derives from Friedrich Schiller’s 18 {+t} {+h} century essay “Uber naive und sentimentalische Dichtung”, which distinguished between two types of poets: the “naive” ones who write spontaneously, almost as if they are being dictated to by an unseen power; and the “sentimental” ones who are painfully self-aware, questioning everything around them, including the artifice of their own writing. Novelists can be similarly classified, Pamuk proposes.

But it would be a mistake to think of this divide as a clear-cut one: the creative process is a mysterious thing, in which “deliberate effort” and “natural, unforced talent” constantly overlap with and inform each other.

Of course, a novel hardly exists in isolation; it acquires a new life when readers respond to it, and readers can be categorised as naïve and sentimental too. The former are literal-minded sorts who always read a text as an autobiography or as disguised chronicle of the author’s experiences, while completely sentimental-reflective readers think that all texts are constructs and fictions anyway. “I must warn you to keep away from [both types of] people, because they are immune to the joys of reading novels,” writes Pamuk, tongue firmly in cheek. But somewhere between these two extremes lies the ideal reader, and as you turn the pages of The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, you begin to think that Pamuk himself must be very close to being one such.

On view throughout this book is Orhan Pamuk the reflective writer as well as Orhan Pamuk the enthusiastic reader. His descriptions of the effect that his favourite novels have had on him — “sometimes twilight would pervade and cover everything, the whole universe would become a single emotion and a single style” — are eloquent and moving. He uses great works of literature like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Melville’s Moby Dick to illustrate important aspects of the reading and writing process (everyone, from Homer through Cervantes to Naipaul, is grist to his mill) and reflects on the novelist’s use of the tools available to him — character, plot, time and objects. He also writes — somewhat enigmatically, not always with clarity — about the “secret centre” that a great novel should have, which the reader should — consciously or unconsciously — be seeking.

Speaking of the artistic calling that he almost took up before becoming a full-time writer, Pamuk admits, “I have always felt more childlike and naive when I paint, and more adult and sentimental when I write novels.” It was as if — he says in a very revealing passage — he wrote novels only with his intellect, but produced paintings solely with his talent. However, he also reflects that with age and experience, he may have found “the equilibrium between the naïve novelist and the sentimental novelist within me”. His best novels are certainly a testament to this. This book is an insightful literary study, but even more interestingly it’s a window into the mind of one of the major writers of our time.

grist for your mill (American)

something that you can use in order to help you to succeed As an actor, all experience is grist to the mill.
arcane known or understood by very few; mysterious; secret; obscure; esoteric: She knew a lot about sanskrit grammar and other arcane matters.
Epistolary  ( -p s t -l r ). adj. 1. Of or associated with letters or the writing of letters. 2. Being in the form of a letter: epistolary exchanges


A wise aunt recently shared with me her mantra for happy families: the acceptance that there are only two things you can give your grownup children – unconditional love and freedom. The rules, the values, and the corrections taught by parents must be internalised by this stage, and not vocalised.

As with many mantras that sound simple yet offer an essential truth of contemporary life, this one is anything but easy to practice. It is the failure to understand this mantra that results in the hurt experienced by many central characters in Jonathan Franzen’s dazzling new novel Freedom.

The early part of the Berglunds’ 20-year stint there sees them as the perfect Norman Rockwell family; successful, seemingly happy, well-intentioned and just worthy enough not to have real friends among their neighbours.

Over the course of its 562 pages, Freedom reads as a forensic examination of the disintegration of baby boomers forced to inhabit the disappointing skins of middle age in contemporary America. Which begs the question: why are we interested in the novel in India?          In part, it’s because the much-debated idea of “freedom” is universal, and has reference points with middle-class societies in all countries with a reasonable degree of social stability. The freedom attained upon becoming a sovereign country is much more easily defined than the freedom pursued by the now-free middle-class. The latter freedom seems unable to provide the contentment we thought it would bring – whether due to our inherent competitiveness, or to the grass-is-greener syndrome, or to human selfishness. Whatever the reasons, the Berglunds invite us to examine them.

Gorgeous prose  

Also, one cannot deny the novel’s gorgeous prose, a breath-taking display of the novelist’s art. Patty is one of the more knotty aspects of this sprawling examination of individual, familial and social issues. Both men in her life talk of her attractive qualities but in her interactions with them, we only see a woman who is becoming increasingly depressed and unhinged.

Franzen took nine years to write Freedom. But unlike multimillion-dollar films in which you can’t figure where the money went, here you absolutely know how and where the nine years were spent; it’s visible in every line. Like me, you may not like the people being written about, but they are written up in prose so meticulously crafted, it’s to be lingered over.

While Freedom has its flaws, the very fact that we wind up thinking so intricately about the people and issues in it is a testament to its quality. It’s not a book you would want to speed-read because much of its appeal lies in the detailed writing; the medium is — a substantial part of — the message.

Man Booker Prize winner Yann Martel’s second novel, Beatrice and Virgil, is in many ways a book of memory and remembrance. The artful metaphor is our only ally against forgetfulness, he says. Excerpts from an exclusive interview…

Yann Martel’s second novel has been a long time coming. Recently released in Canada and the US, Beatrice and Virgil has received polarised reviews. That it has been trashed as well as praised, he says, is a sign that it has elicited active engagement, not indifference, from the readers. The controversial reception is a sign that it is getting people to think and act, he says from San Francisco where he is on a promotional tour. Excerpts from a telephonic conversation…

Are you planning on coming to India to promote the book here?

I have a nine-month-old son. Before I can promote it — I am not going to Australia, New Zealand — I want to get back and be with my son. So, as much as I would love to return to India, for any reason, not just to promote my books, just to be in India — I haven’t been there for about nine years now — I don’t know when that’ll be. India has changed a lot, I would love to go back and see that.

Lest we forget: Yann Martel. Photo: MACARENA YANEZ

Is this novel about the primacy of the imagination? You think we live in a world where the profusion of facts is working against making sensible meaning out of it?

Reality is a 100 million details. Right now where you are, if you think about it, you are surrounded by 100 million details on which you could focus your attention. Everything, from chemical, scientific details to cultural details to personal emotional details… now some of that has to be lost. Time, you know, is an eraser. It all goes. [We need] something we can hold on to. It’s called history. But even history has hundreds of thousands of details and sometimes it’s overwhelming and it’s hard to get to. The forte of the arts, the forte of the imagination is that it can take some of those details and give them immortality. A painting, a story, a song can float across the ocean of time like a lifeboat. So you can get to the essence of an event and convey it in the form of art. It can be like a suitcase, taking the essential and preparing you for a trip to elsewhere…

Does ‘getting to the essence’ necessarily bring a moral perspective that is lacking in mere facts?

It can be but art isn’t necessarily moral. Art could be immoral too. Art is witness. But in some stories, yes, it can also have a moral edge. It can also, in telling a story, convey certain moral situations. Which is what my novel does at the very end — In “Games for Gustav” are these 12 situations that are morally, existentially difficult. So, yes, it can make a moral situation fresh again…

You dwell at length in the initial stages of the novel about the concrete, everyday circumstances around writing /publishing that are usually glossed over. Is it autobiographical and are you saying that though there is a market built around imagination, it is essential to our being and identity?

I didn’t do it because I wanted it to be autobiographical, it was more because of the idea of a writer who stops writing, whose message has stopped, suited me because I was discussing the Holocaust. And any great horrific event, the Holocaust, war, has a tendency to erase language, to make us at a loss for words. You know, famously, when people encountered the Accounts, their language was full of clichés to do with “there are no words to describe”, “I couldn’t believe what my eyes were seeing.” So, to have a writer who is at a loss for words and then to meet the taxidermist who is also in some ways at a loss for words suited my purpose when discussing the Holocaust…so that’s why I have that theme.

I did indeed have a meeting with my publishers, I did want to do a flip book with them but their argument was different. They were saying, “listen, an essay is a specialised product. A novel is not.” They were afraid the essay would drag down the novel.

You keep coming back to the notion that is art is about joy. The taxidermist is shown as someone who is joyless, cheerless, who plods through his play. “My story has no story. It is based on the fact of murder,” he says at one point. You think the character of the taxidermist is too steretypical, he and the novelist falling easily into opposite sides of a too-easy divide?

Art is joy in a general way. Any art, music, dance, painting, to create at that level is deeply joyful, it involves your whole being. Art and religion are the two ways in which we fully engage with life. In this particular case, I enjoyed wrestling with that subject. I wanted to make the taxidermist ambiguous. He clearly has some sort of a creative impulse, he is working on a play, he is quite rude with the writer. I wanted someone whom we wouldn’t understand why he was doing the things he was doing until the very end and even then we are not sure what his intent was.

And that to me was the parallel of the encounter of the Jews of Europe with the Nazis who did not see it coming. By the time they realised fully what the Nazis’ intents were, it was too late, they couldn’t escape and that’s why so many died.

How has the novel been received?

It’s been very interesting and very polarised. Some critics absolutely hated it. I got absolutely trashed by The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and there’s some blogger on the Internet named Edward Champion who absolutely hated it. And then you have reviewers who absolutely loved it. The USA Todaythought it was positively a masterpiece. There were very positive reviews inNewsweek and the LA Times. So it’s been very polarised, which is good. The one thing you don’t want with art is indifference. You don’t want people to shrug. Even when people hate it, they are engaging with it.

Is there some sort of thematic continuity or evolution between Life of Pi and Beatrice and Virgil? If the former was about God, faith and religion, the latter is about imagination and art, isn’t it?

In some ways they are very different books. Yes, they both feature animals but that’s just on the surface. In Life of Pi hopefully the reader loses himself looking at those animals. Forget may be his humanity. In Beatrice and Virgilthose animals are anthropomorphised and are meant to bring us back to our humanity.

And as for the role of the imagination, to me it’s something more immediate like life itself is an interpretation. We cannot choose the reality we live in, but we can choose how we interpret it. In that sense, imagination is not something whimsical, fairy-tale like, I am simply saying that reality is a co-creation, reality is something which is out there but it is also how you take it. To that extent, I suppose there is a similarity between the two novels in the sense that how you represent reality will speak of how you see it, of what that reality is. A person of faith reads transcendendance into the world, sees a divine plan; I suppose it is the same with reading history. You are representing an event that is past, and in that representation there is an element of interpretation, of imaginative reading. In that way there is a thematic link between the two novels.

To me this novel seems to come behind a line of books from the West dealing with the Holocaust. Why this obsession in the West about the Holocaust? There are historical continuities to the Holocaust in the contemporary world like what is happening in Palestine, Gaza today, injustices, perhaps of equal magnitude. Nobody seems to talk about them much…

Well, aside of the politics of West Asia, which poisons everything, just looking in terms of history, the Holocaust still remains unique: every other genocide before and after has to some extent been politically expedient. The Armenians in Turkey were killed because they were in the way of the Turks who were trying to start their nation. Excesses in Gaza were committed because of political enmity between the Palestinians and the Israelis. In both cases you killed people who were in the way, who bothered you but the ones beyond a certain border were irrelevant to you. But the Nazis were obsessed with killing the Jews everywhere, as if they were a disease. That does remain unique. And the reason I think it is still relevant, not a piece of historical arcana from several years ago in the backwaters of Poland, is because what led to the Holocaust is still absolutely contemporary.

The act of hate, the thinking of hatred, the disrespect in the mind of an individual that eventually in Germany led to the Holocaust, that little beginning, that seed of hatred is found everywhere. The Holocaust is not rooted in Auschwitz, in Poland. It is rooted in the human heart. And that applies to India too. There are people in India with holocaustal thinking, for example the BJP, the Shiv Sena, you know, that kind of hatred of the other whom you don’t even know, who is just a construction in your mind to relieve tension, to relieve whatever… that is holocaustal. Now because India is democracy, there is a free press, it is unlikely that there will ever be a genocide but the roots are there…

The thing about this novel is that it is not an orthodox Holocaust novel. There is no history in there, there are no Germans, there is minimal reference to the Holocaust yet it is soaked in it.

So I do choose the Holocaust but not just as a historical artefact, I am looking at what is to me relevant. At the very end, there are 12 more situations where there is no historical colour or detail that put you at the heart of it. And those 12 situations could take place in India. You could be in a line of people about to be executed and you could be holding your grand daughter’s hand and she asks you a question. And what might that question be? What would a child be thinking when it sees people being massacred? That completely fits in with realities in India today. That’s why I think it’s still relevant…