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Welcome to this edition of The Hindu on Books Newsletter.
When David Davidar met Bill Buford, then editor of Granta, many years ago, he picked his brain on the essential quality he looked for in the stories he chose to feature in his magazine, which showcased the best of the world’s contemporary literature. The crux of what Buford said was that a story needed to be “adventurous, original, and above all, have the narrative drive to keep the reader pinned to the page.” In his introduction to A Case of Indian Marvels (Aleph), Davidar says the 40 short stories, written by the best of young Indian writers, all have that quality: “line after superb line creating a narrative so compelling that the reader wants to keep reading.” Earlier, Davidar had captured the “work of the golden generation”, including Salman Rushdie ( Midnight’s Children), Shashi Tharoor ( The Great Indian Novel), Vikram Seth ( A Suitable Boy), Arundhati Roy ( The God of Small Things), and Aravind Adiga ( The White Tiger), in an anthology, A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces. For this new collection of writing, he chose the best work of writers aged 40 and under, with 2020 being the cut-off year. On the list are writers who have published books, including Madhuri Vijay, Kanishk Tharoor, Meena Kandasamy, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Prayaag Akbar, Avinuo Kire, Vineetha Mokkil and Vrinda Baliga, and also those who have books in the making. What is this young generation concerned about? Davidar says many of the stories “reflect the dismal times the country and the world are passing through,” others give a new spin to mythology and history; some other provide acute insights into Indian society. Each one, he contends, reflects the country’s ethos, and “this bodes well for the future of Indian literary fiction.” These stories apart, it’s an exciting time for fiction with new books by Anees Salim ( the bellboy/Penguin) and Janice Pariat ( Everything the Light Touches/HarperCollins, which is out in October). The protagonist of Anees’s new novel is 17-year-old Latif who is appointed bell boy at the Paradise Lodge, a place where people come to die. When he witnesses a crime in one of the rooms, his life changes, and he is drawn into the probe, a vulnerable bystander. In Pariat’s story, world-weary travellers and botanical adventurers cross paths and the journeys thereof explore many themes: the contrasts between modern India and its colonial past, urban and rural life, capitalism and old-world values.
In Literary Review, we read Vandana Shiva’s memoir, profile children’s picture book makers, and find out how bookstores have resisted censorship, and more.
Books of the week
Vandana Shiva begins the fascinating, brave, and often controversial story that has been her life with the Chipko movement in her memoir, Terra Viva: My life in a Biodiversity of Movements (Women Unlimited) . The eco-feminist was a child of the movement which saw young women hugging trees in the Garhwal mountain range to protect them from being felled. In her review, Ramya Kannan writes that Shiva’s life and career, thanks to the prominence she has gained over the years, is nearly folk lore especially within the community that has taken the same path. “Yet there are nuggets of information that only an autobiographic account is privy to, and she records them.” Working with communities, international climate activists and conservationists, she has marked tremendous successes. “To quote a few, the Monsanto case at The Hague where ‘ecocide’ was recognised as a crime in international law; the 2009 Climate Manifesto; or the way in which Terra Madre or the slow food fair has taken off. These were long battles, stretching for years, and required the same zeal, energy and commitment, with which the movement was initiated.” But after a point, the book seems like a listicle, says Kannan. “One wishes that there were some more emotional insights and perspectives into what are undeniably larger than life movements in global environmental activism.”
The Three Great Living Temples, World Heritage Landmarks (Grantha Research Foundation, Universal Publishing), co-authored by S. Rajavelu and Ram Shankar, is a glossy, coffee table addition to other tomes on the history of the Chola dynasty. The three temples were built between the 11 th and 12 th centuries CE, considered the golden age of the Chola empire. In his review, T.S. Subramanian says the book is essentially a photo essay, with illustrations by the artist Maniam Selvan. It is, therefore, limited in scope with the text added on to the excellent photographs. It offers basic, well-known information available across publications, on the three temples’ architecture, structural engineering, gopurams, vimanas, sculptures, bronzes, karanas, inscriptions, frescoes and miniature bas reliefs.
Canato Jimo and Pankaj Saikia have been creating picture books set in the Northeast that show children navigating mundane issues: their first wobbly tooth, showing the new kid around school, and playing pranks on each other. Most children’s books set in the region have largely been folktale retellings or mythology and there’s little that portrays contemporary life. In her essay, the second part in a series on children’s books illustrators from across the country, Menaka Raman writes that both Jimo and Saikia feel that folklore and oral traditions should be preserved, they need to be put in context too, and children must not miss out on their lived experiences. Set in Nagaland, Jimo’s Snip! is a book about siblings making mischief while their parents are out working. Jimo grew up in Zunheboto, a small town far away from the capital Kohima, and there was no library at his school. The book Saikia has illustrated, Priyadarshini Gogoi’s When We Are Home, is about difficulties of childhood – in this two children displaced by floods remember their home through memories. Asked whether the tag of ‘Northeastern illustrator’ comes with any burdens, Jimo says he is sad the diverse region is often clubbed together as one, and Saikia says most of the visual material on the region that is available is hardly representative of their time and space. Talented artists like Jimo and Saikia, says Raman, fill the gaps with their artistry and imagination.
On August 12, when news came that Salman Rushdie had been stabbed critically just as he was preparing to give a talk at Chautauqua Institution in New York, reports invariably harked back to February 1989, when Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa for his new novel The Satanic Verses. In solidarity, across the Atlantic and the U.S. land mass, in March of 1989, people gathered to talk about Salman Rushdie and his work. Lewis Buzbee, then a sales rep in the book trade, was among an assorted gathering invited by the owner of Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino, a small town in northern California, and he recounts it in his memoir, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: “Throughout that rainy weekend, we gathered around the wood-burning stove, huddled on the floor and in the few chairs, and read aloud to one another. In bookstores around the country, the same scene was repeated. In Mendocino and elsewhere, we all wore big white buttons with black lettering: ‘I am Salman Rushdie.’” In her column, Word Count, Mini Kapoor writes that the bravery and defiance shown by bookstores at a time when anyone identified with or stocking Rushdie’s book faced the threat of violence and worse was, Buzbee reminds us, not unusual. The attack on Rushdie foregrounds the defence of the freedom of expression put up by booksellers. In the 2006 memoir, Buzbee revisits the stellar role of Sylvia Beach, owner of the iconic Paris bookshop, Shakespeare & Co., in defying curbs on James Joyce’s Ulysses and publishing and distributing it a century ago.
- India’s Most Fearless 3 (Penguin), by Shiv Aroor and Rahul Singh, includes first-hand accounts of the 2020 Galwan clash. The ten stories in the collection include the account of an army medic who went beyond the call of duty in Ladakh’s Galwan while his fellow soldiers fought the Chinese; the crew of an Indian Navy destroyer that put everything on the line to rescue hundreds from Cyclone Tauktae in the Arabian Sea; an Indian Air Force pilot who ejected from his doomed fighter less than two seconds before it hit the ground, only to find he was missing a leg.
- In a frank portrayal ( In Free Fall: My Experiments with Living/Speaking Tiger), Mallika Sarabhai doesn’t hold back in talking about her ‘thirty-year obsession with being thin’; her addictions like smoking and how she ‘hypnotised’ her way out of it; her fascination with alternate therapies like Pranik healing, Ayurveda and colour therapy, and the beauty treatments she uses for ‘future-proofing’ her body so that she can continue to dance and perform for years to come.
- Pashupati Chatterjee’s Death on Diagonal Lane (Hachette) is the story of a bunch of characters with a comically absurdist approach to life. But their daily circus is abruptly disrupted when the local gossip, Mr. Reddy, dies suddenly. While one neighbour tries to ward off the police, another bungles it up. With the police putting the Diagonal Lane denizens through the wringer, the whodunit has its twists and turns before the rollercoaster comes to a halt.
- Manohar Malgonkar’s books, long out of print, are set to be released in new editions with a new introduction. A remarkable storyteller and a keen observer of social and political realities, Malgonkar occupies an important place in the canon of Indian literature in English, along with pioneers like Mulk Raj Anand, Khushwant Singh and R.K. Narayan. Some of his major works that will be available this year are: The Sea Hawk: Life and Battles of Kanhoji Angrey, A Bend in the Ganges, The Devil’s Wind: Nana Saheb’s Story and The Princes (HarperCollins).