Sidq Jaisi moved from Uttar Pradesh to Hyderabad in 1923 to take up a job at a school. He managed to get an invitation to the nightly court of a minor prince where he impressed the wanton royal sufficiently to take him on as a poet-courtier. He would spend every night over the next seven years paying homage in an orgy of sycophancy. And the word nocturnal isn't just a figure of speech - the court would begin around 8 in the evening and end anywhere between 3 and 6 in the morning depending on the whims of the princeling. He records these experiences in a Urdu diary titled Darbaar-e-Darbaar whose translation of course forms the basis for this book. The accounts of the goings-on in the prince's court are interesting... at first but I quickly tired of the repetitive feasts, self-aggrandizing Urdu couplets, all that boot licking - seven salaams for all manner of events from fawning bouts of gratitude to the princely breaking of wind (okay, I made that up, but bumlicky as these courtiers were I am sure they were quite capable of it). Overall, the diary is mildly interesting as a first-hand account of princely life in the last days of the Raj and I suppose there really is a paucity of perspectives other than those written in English. What irked me what was the completely idiotic introduction by the translator of the diary, Narendra Lutra whose language resembles that of a secondary school student from a self-professed English medium school.
Sunday, July 31, 2011
Saturday, July 30, 2011
I am lovin' all these hyper-interesting works of multicultural urban fantasy. First, there was Ian McDonald with his superb speculative trilogy and then Paolo Bacigalupi with his astounding book The Windup Girl. When you take fantasy out of its habitual Anglo-American (and Judeo-Christian... think Narnia) setting and set it down in a place like South Africa, it gives it that special oomph, turning it into a dynamo of a story. Of course, a rabid imagination also helps and Beukes is fairly rabid.
Much of Zoo City takes place in Johannesburg in an alternate reality. People who commit serious crimes become animalled - attached to a familiar. No one knows why it happens but it imbues the individual with special powers. But, it also comes with a host of significant drawbacks. Zinzi December's familiar is a sloth, an animal she acquired after getting her brother shot. She has the ability to find lost things, a talent that she uses to eke a meagre living, a situation that's compounded by her drug debts. Her debtor forces her to write phishing emails (of the Nigerian variety). I felt the use of this device was particularly canny besides being topical. When Zinzi is offered a large amount of money to track down a missing singer from a teenage brother-sister teen pop sensation, she gets herself into more trouble than she could have ever anticipated.
Weird, hallucinatory and simply outstanding. All I want from life is some decent wine, pleasant weather and a pile of books as addictive as Zoo City.
Ayyan Mani, a lowly assistant at the Institute of Theory and Research, is charged with writing the hallowed establishment’s quote of the day and among genuine quotes, he churns out gems like...
“Rebirth is the most foolish mathematical concept ever.” - Issac Newton
“If ancient Indians were really the first to calculate the distance between the Earth and the Moon, why is it that they were not the first to land there? I look at the claims of old civilizations that they have done this and that with great suspicion.” - Neil Armstrong
“It’s a myth that Sanskrit is the best language for writing computer code. Patriotic Indians have spread this lie for many years.” - Bill Gates
...just one small part of Ayyan’s machinations to cause discomfort to the bloated Brahmin heads who run the place. I commenced Serious Men with tredipdation. I vaguely remembered something about caste in reviews I’d read last year. However, I’m glad that Joseph’s first novel turned out not to be polemical social commentary. Instead, it’s refreshingly well written satire.
Ayyan, the son of a sweeper is chronically dissatisfied with his lot and he would like nothing better than turning the system on its head. From his matchbox sized one room kitchen in Worli's BDD chawls, he plots a better life, one where his wife doesn't look like a cook next to other mothers at their son's school and where he can be intimate with her without this same son watching them at night. But, it's his ten year old son, Adi, who takes pride of place in a plurality of his plans. He weaves an elaborate ruse to make his below average half-deaf son into a child prodigy. Adi says pre-scripted lines like "prime numbers are unpredictable" so often that he seems to believe in his own counterfeit skills. I know this is a little suppositious but Ayyan Mani reminded me a lot of Arun, Vijay's Tendulkar's flawed Dalit genius in Kanyadaan.
At work, Ayyan's antagonist is his boss, Arvind Acharya, the Brahmin who runs the Institute of Theory and Research with a titanium fist, a man who was once tipped to win a Nobel Prize and who rubbishes the Big Bang for being too Christian (only a Christian would want a beginning). Ayyan opens all mails, personal or otherwise, eavesdrops on all meetings, conversations and calls, and writes fake anti-Brahmin quotes, running his own little covert operations through an army of clerks and cleaners. Acharya, though, is far too preoccupied to notice all this. His attention is diverted to a shapely new denizen of the basement lab in what develops into the most unexpected romance. But, when a coup led by radio astronomers (who want to participate in SETI, - a quest Acharya lampoons as idiotic saying "Man is not searching for aliens. Man is searching for man. It's called loneliness. Not science.") displaces him, Ayyan and Acharya become unlikely allies as the former is allowed to bring his most devious plan to fruition in exchange for the latter's return to his post as head of the institute.
I'm very impressed by Joseph. Serious Men is brilliant because it works on different levels. A tight, well-written plot, original language, outstanding character development and a keen sense of reality make Serious Men an exemplary addition to the best of Indian fiction. I really appreciate how authentically Joseph shows us Ayyan's world down to those small, strange details like men in the chawls training their bowels to move after they reach work to avoid the indignities of queuing for a shared toilet. That kind of insight comes only when you yourself have lived in such circumstances (Joseph has, apparently). Adiga - here's a lesson in authenticity for you.
Tuesday, July 26, 2011
I have been reading a lot since I got back from Ladakh, but try as I might, I can't seem to write anything.
Here are the books I have been reading. I hope I'll be able to write short posts on them this weekend.
Here are the books I have been reading. I hope I'll be able to write short posts on them this weekend.
Saturday, July 16, 2011
Magyk is the first book in a seven-part fantasy series for children revolving around a young wizard named Septimus Heap. At the beginning of Magyk, a mediocre but good-natured wizard named Silas Heap finds a baby girl with violet eyes in the snow just outside the fortified town in which his large and impoverished family live. On his return home, his discovers that his seventh son (clearly, there were no spells for contraception) Septimus, has died and his body has been taken away by a midwife. He consoles his wife by giving her the orphaned baby girl who they name Jenna.
When Jenna turns 10, she learns from Marcia Overstrand, an extraordinary wizard, that she is a princess – the daughter of the murdered queen of the city. But, when the Supreme Custodian discovers her whereabouts, the whole family is forced to flee. Jenna, along with her brother Nicco and Marcia, hides out in the marshes, in the home of her aunt Zelda, a white witch. They’re accompanied by a reluctant member of the Supreme Custodian’s young army, a ten year old soldier who is known simply as Boy 412. They then have to withstand the forces thrown at them by the Supreme Custodian as well as DomDaniel (the dark wizard sponsoring the plot).
No prizes for guessing who Boy 412 might be. The trouble with Magyk is its extremely linear and predictable storyline. DomDaniel and his chums are neither sinister nor scary. Unlike other children’s fantasy series like Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, I don’t think Magyk has what it takes to appeal to postpubsecent readers. Nevertheless, I do want to know what happens to Septimus Heap but I shudder at the thought of rambling my way through six more books of earnest little heroes.
Sunday, July 10, 2011
Quentin Coldwater, a gifted somewhat loner from Brooklyn is obsessed with his friend Julia who is seeing his other friend, James. He deals with his dejection by withdrawing into Fillory, a cherished fantasy world from a set of children’s books (modelled faithfully on Narnia). Quentin gets his lucky break when he passes through a portal in a hedge to Brakebills, an exclusive school for magic. He attempts the bizarre entrance exam and gets through, one of only two who pass from hundreds of candidates. “Hogwarts by any other name” you might say. References to Harry Potter are quite overt (mazes, hippogriffs and outright naming). But, wizardry at Brakebills isn’t as peculiar or prankish as in Hogwarts. It’s demanding and frankly no fun at all. The students are older and sexually (and explicitly) active. In endeavouring to give us a grown-up version of Harry Potter, Grossman is at his try-hard best. When Quentin asks an impertinent older student, Eliot, who later becomes his best mate about how he deals with the negative effects of the numerous cigarettes he smokes, he says “It’s kind of you to ask. I sacrifice a virgin schoolgirl every other fortnight by the light of a gibbous moon, using a silver scalpel forged by Swiss albinos. Who are also virgins. Clears my little lungs right up.” Irreverence, I sense, for the sake of being irreverent.
Life at Brakebills occupies more than two thirds of the book. These chapters are kind of flat but agreeable enough to prompt you to read on. The sudden appearance of a demon and a freezing term at Brakebills South are perhaps the only bits of action to be had. Then, Quentin and his friends graduate and settle into a life of parties, drugs and booze in New York. Just as you ask yourself about the direction in which the story’s heading, Quentin’s nemesis from Brakebills rocks up, claiming to have found a portal into Fillory, the imaginary land of Quentin’s daydreams. Things go horribly pear-shaped (both for the characters and the plot) when Quentin and his mates decide to explore Fillory and perhaps become its Narnia-style rulers. Although, I wouldn’t say that The Magicians is in the top its league, it was fairly pleasant till this point. However, I found the whole Fillory excursion completely silly. Even Grossman’s writing which is pretty decent through much of the book disintegrates into something dull and puerile. I didn’t like any of the characters but in Fillory, they are all particularly charming – Quentin reveals himself to be an even bigger prat that I’d thought.
The trouble now is that Grossman will surely reprise Fillory in The Magician King, the sequel to The Magicians. Overall, this was an okay read but I reckon that an adult version of Harry Potter or Narnia needs much more than sex, crack, self-loathing and sarcasm to make it work.
Tuesday, July 05, 2011
I was away in Ladakh all of last week. I took Mirrorwork - a fat anthology of Indian writing - with me as holiday reading. Unfortunately, I didn't make much progress. It wasn't for a lack of interest or time. The good thing about anthologies is that if one piece doesn't work, something else will. And I had oodles of time, particularly with the chronic power cuts in Ladakh. Maybe it's the lack of oxygen or some other intangible reason but the place is just not conducive to reading.