Cover pic for this piece, including snapshots of the three books featured and the title text

Animals / Books | Wonderful as an Animal

Logo for VegPlanet magazineThis piece is for the launch issue of VegPlanet, the new quarterly premier lifestyle magazine for vegetarian, vegan and veg-curious folk. This appears in their Media Matters section.

Author Venita CoelhoAt The Hindu Lit for Life 2016 litfest, held about a year ago, I had bumped into Venita Coelho, both of whose animal fiction books I had just read then. Venita has been a scriptwriter for serials and films, before recently moving on to authoring and activism. I wished to find out one key thing from her: the motivation for writing these books. Her answer was simple: “Write for children. Adults’ minds are too set.”

Perhaps why much animal writing is aimed at children. So, in this round-up of last year’s best animal-friendly writing, we feature a couple of children’s books, including one by Venita herself. But for good measure, and perhaps to show that all is not lost with adults, we also include one aimed at grown-ups. Happy animal-friendly reading.

Front cover of the second animal-fiction book by Venita Coelho, Dead as a DodoThe second in Venita’s Animal Intelligence Agency (AIA) series, Dead as a Dodo traces the efforts of three AIA agents – Rana (boy), Bagha (tiger) and Kela (langur) – to save a dodo. A lone member of this extinct species has been miraculously discovered, but as expected, avaricious hunters are in pursuit too, for unscrupulous collectors worldwide. The three sleuths need to take the dodo to safety, so that history does not repeat itself. Like her first book, Tiger by the Tail, this too is racy, with several fantabulous adventures. No wonder it won the fest’s Young World – Goodbooks Award. So, are the three able to save the dodo? The ending is… clever as a fox.

Front cover of Stephen Alter's 'The Secret Sanctuary'Stephen Alter’s The Secret Sanctuary is more sublime. This too features a trio (all bipeds though), also out on an expedition, but only by chance. As they head out for school one morning, they lose their way in the forest en route, and are forced to spend the night therein. Before too much harm can come to them though, they encounter a naturalist, who helps them navigate through and also educates them in the ways of the jungle. What baffles the kids most is that while they spot and touch many a wild animal, the animal doesn’t see or sense them in response. The premise is simple: animals are meant to be away from humans – and from humans harming them. If only that were true in real life.

Front cover of Han Kang's 'The Vegetarian'As simple and smooth as the previous two books are, South Korean Han Kang’s Man Booker-winning The Vegetarian is as complex and intense. The protagonist, Kim Yeong-hye, decides to turn vegetarian (actually, vegan, as she gives up dairy and leather too), but the story, in three parts, is not from her viewpoint. Kang presumably wants to portray how others perceive veg(an) folk. So, Part 1 has the protagonist’s family not taking her decision well at all, her father even forcing meat down her throat at a get-together. Part 2 is esoteric: her brother-in-law yearns to paint floral-scapes on her bare body, the idea being that a plant-preferring’s person’s skin becomes very alluring. (This may not be so esoteric after all: there are several studies supporting this notion.) Part 3, told from her sister’s perspective, depicts her institutionalization in a mental health facility, as she is seen to take her vegetarianism “to an extreme”. (Now, how often do veggie folk hear that?) Due to its surrealism and structure, Vegetarian is not an entirely easy read, but serves its purpose well: showing how challenging it may be for folk who resolve to lead an animal-friendly life to live that life, especially when they have to do so around unsupportive others. For folk who’ve turned veg(an) in real life though, that’s easy: just think of the animals.

Cover pic for this piece with the title of this piece and the cover of 'Sleeping on Jupiter'

Irficionado | Books | ‘Sleeping (Well) on Jupiter’

Logo for Irficionado series

Author Anuradha RoyI discover Anuradha Roy through a Hindu interview and like her attitude: frank and no-nonsense. I read up more about her and begin liking her voice. I come to know she’s nominated for The Hindu Prize 2015 and wonder if she’ll disappoint a favourite writer nominated alongside, Siddharth Chowdhury, but she doesn’t – neither of them wins, in fact – but am okay; I guess because I haven’t still read her. Then, she wins the DSC Prize (given for South Asian literature) – $50,000, or Rs 32,50,000, the cost of a 1 BHK on the outskirts of Chennai and the nethers of Bombay / Mumbai – and I resolve to finally read her. So, I buy Sleeping on Jupiter, for which she won, just before a 16-day workation to Bombay and Bangkok. And what do I do? I start reading on the way to Bombay, finish two chapters… and then nada through the entire trip and 10 days after that, after returning to Chennai, as I’m busy settling back and then fall sick.

So, although I finally finished it a couple of days ago, because of this long gap, because I lost the flow during that time, this will – criminally – not be a review, but rather just a few points on it.

Right off the blocks, Anuradha writes keenly. The second chapter alone – The First Day – can be a delightful short story in itself. After that, I found her stellar writing continuing, but wasn’t struck by it, but this could be because I was either used to her style by then or due to that damn chasm in reading.

The story itself is not a novel structure – it’s the one with multiple stories (of multiple people) converging at some point, in this invented town of Jarmuli, which sounds like a mongrel of Digha in West Bengal (due to the beach), Konark in Odisha (the famous big temple) and Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh (the erotic sculptures).

I won’t get into the details of the stories, though here’s a sliver: three old women making a trip to the temple town without their families for some time with their best friends, a documentary filmmaker who was adopted as a child coming to trace her bitter past under the pretext of researching for a film on the temple, the cameraman assisting her going through a divorce, a temple guide in love with a server (a guy) at the beach tea-stall… Through them emerge dark and heavy themes of unholy godmen, the frustration of gay love, the spirit-sucking degradation of the faculties in old age, and the despair of failed marriages.

Roy builds up the stories astutely, making them mingle well and at the right time. Does she resolve them, at least some of them? Well, she gives all of them an ending, but not surprisingly, there is melancholy laced in each, and one ends particularly macabre, in fact, you get this right at the end.

Now, due to the reading break, that’s all I will, or can, say about the book. Nevertheless, I do have two comments more. Though this could be the advertising / branding (brand-naming) part of me talking more than the writing part.

Cover of Anuradha Roy's DSC-Prize-winning book, 'Sleeping on Jupiter'For a long time, you wonder about the title of the book. Having almost reached the end and finding no signs of it, you wonder if you’ve missed it, or if you haven’t, then whether Roy won’t reveal it to you. But she fortunately does. And I kinda like it. (I had my own take, just in case, which I’ll share right after.)

So, ‘sleeping on Jupiter’, with its many moons, and their quiet, peaceful, soothing lights – the light of our moon at night times Jupiter’s – promises to be calming for the tortured human soul from earth. There, under that blissful light, you’re free from the tyrannies of vicious godmen, agonizing old age, depressing divorces and scary pasts. Forget Mars, we should target Jupiter.

My take, which I later realised could be considered similar, comes from the Hindi word and Hindu mythology for the planet. Jupiter in Hindi is called ‘brihaspati’ or ‘guru’ (if you consider the day, Thursday, or ‘guruvar’) and is considered a lucky planet (compared with Saturn, called ‘shani’ and regarded as the inauspicious one); and ‘guru’ in Hindi also means a ‘spiritual teacher’. Just what you need to go through the hardships of life. I will help plan that mission to Jupiter.

Finishing the book, I went through the end praise for her previous two books, An Atlas of Impossible Longing and The Folded Earth. So, her titles all seem to employ geography and then twist it? Well, doesn’t life?

So, even though I’m not sure if this was worthy of a $50K award – but again, blame the chasm – but for the titles and her apparent “exploration of the human condition” (just had to use this oft-used phrase by reviewers), going by Sleeping on Jupiter, my appetite is whetted. To the size of Jupiter.

Author Anuradha Roy receiving the DSC Prize 2015 for her book, 'Sleeping on Jupiter'

Anuradha Roy receiving the DSC Prize 2015 for ‘Sleeping on Jupiter’

Cover pic for this post with a composite image of the brothers from 'Kapoor and Sons' and the post title

Irficionado | Writing and Creativity (Since 1921… and Way Earlier)

Logo for Irficionado series

Wrote this piece for The Hindu’s thREAD. It got published today, the perfect day, Friday, as it’s about movies, and the arts in general. Here’s the link: This Piece on thREAD. And below’s the original piece.

 ∞

There are about three conversations happening around the super-loved, superhit Kapoor and Sons (Since 1921) right now.

First, it’s a delectable easy-charm, slice-of-life movie that takes the protagonists and the viewers not from A through Z, but to, let’s say, a T. Also, it’s a liner and not a submarine – it cruises along without diving deep. I agree with most of that, but wish it could have gone just a bit deeper; it would have been a “truer” film, like the director, Shakun Batra’s debut Ek Main aur Ekk Tu, which does the opposite of Kapoor and Sons – it goes from A to T and then back to A: the protagonists don’t end up being together at the end, nor seem very likely to.

Next, how insanely good-looking Fawad Khan is, especially shorn of the stubble from his Bollywood debut, Khoobsurat – and people thought that was hot. Fawad has got most girls, and some guys, weak in their knees and other body parts. And there’s talk that just for this delightful import from across the border, we might finally let their cricket team win a World Cup match.

Fawad Khan in a scene from 'Kapoor and Sons'Finally, people are going to town about how sensitively the film-makers have dealt with Fawad’s character, Rahul, being gay. (Did we hear those girls weeping and those guys whooping? Chill, that’s just his character – although he is married in real life.) The LGBT community especially seems ecstatic that the makers have said ‘gay’ without saying ‘gay’ – there’s no mention of the word, not even an indication (even the fuchsia feather boa in the family belongs to his dad) and Rahul isn’t portrayed as disco/Cher-loving or shirt-chasing. I think the makers could have gone better here too – while no one uses the G word, Rahul’s mom treats him, at least as soon as she comes to know of his “truth”, with the same disgust most queer people find themselves at the receiving end of. But portrayals of LGBT characters in our movies rarely go beyond those effete, pink-loving stereotypes, so this is at least two-steps-forward, one-step-back.

But I’d like to bring a fourth, and perhaps more discussion-worthy, conversation to the Burma-teak table. Before that, the context-setting.

Rahul and his younger bro, Arjun, are both writers. However, Rahul is the successful one and Arjun the struggler. Rahul’s second book has been a huge success – although his first tanked – and he’s presently working on the third. In fact, he seems to be doing well enough to come to his home-town, Coonoor, to scout for a bungalow to turn into an artists’ retreat. Arjun, in contrast, is struggling with more than just his writing. He’s recently given up, after a short stint, his gig of blogging about Bollywood and is presently making ends meet as a part-time bartender. In his spare time, he is working on a book, his second one, after having given up the first because it “somehow” proved to be very similar to Rahul’s second/successful book. (Did Rahul sneak a peek and get “inspired”? For that, you’ll have to watch the movie.)

Sidharth Malhotra and Fawad Khan in a scene from 'Kapoor and Sons'

Setting aside their differences for a while, in the second half, the brothers begin talking about Arjun’s manuscript. Arjun shares that the publisher has asked him to change the ending as it’s a not happy one, but he is, um, not happy with doing that. Why? Because he believes “books, or literature, should reflect real life – and real life is never happy.”

However, toward the end, as the movie moves toward its T point, we see Arjun reneging: he makes the book end positively. At the publishers’, when asked how he finally relented, warmly recalling Rahul’s reflections to him (more about this later), he offers, “Based on someone’s suggestion…”

As a writer and creative individual (or so the hope), this seemed a more primal point for discussion than how deep a movie should go, how lovely a lad looks, or how a gay guy can love other colours in the rainbow flag.

A quote about happy endingsThe great books, even the good ones – and by this I mean literature and not “racy, pacy reads” – have almost always ended sad. From Homer to Shakespeare to Hardy to living authors, it’s like a defining trait of literature that it shouldn’t end joyous. And I believe this is for the good: people read these books, not so much to escape their pain, but to empathize with others in a parallel universe somewhere dealing with the same kinds of pathos. As we see our troubles equalled, or even surpassed, in literary characters, we are assuaged – kind of like a therapy session right at home, or wherever you choose to read. And while these characters are fictional, lit-lovers know that somewhere these are either alter egos of the writers or amalgamated versions of people the writer has met or observed.

While I haven’t read Iliad and very little of Shakespeare and Hardy, let me talk of the ones I have, right from my favourite authors and books to more recent literature.

Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, while mesmerizing to read right from the first Buendian (the family in the story) to the last, eventually ends up in loss for the family. As the second-last Buendian loses himself more and more in academia, the last Buendian, the baby, loses his little life, Second-Last failing to pay attention to Last’s precarious situation. A century on, the family is back to solitude.

Cover of V S Naipaul's sublime 'A House for Mr Biswas'In Naipaul’s tender, tearful A House for Mr Biswas, there is almost no relief for Mr B through the expansive tome. As he sees his third and final house slowly disintegrating, his life too seeps away, at the ripe old age of… 46.

Even in Marquez’s ultimately-happy Love in the Time of Cholera, the lovers meet only after “51 years, 9 months and 4 days.” Many would say, where’s the joy in that?

Cover of Cyrus Mistry's 'Chronicle of A Corpse Bearer'Or take the recent DSC winners (an award given for South Asian writing, which seems to be going India’s way over the last few years, just like the Ms Worlds/Ms Universes were once upon a time). Cyrus Mistry’s Chronicle of A Corpse Bearer deals with the many tragedies in the life of the titular khandhia, from his excommunication from his caste on marrying a woman “below” him to the death of his wife at a very young age. Even the most recent winner that I’m in the middle of now, Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter, deals with many dark and heavy themes: the not-so-holy doings of some (all?) godmen, the frustration inherent in most gay romances (the flavour of the season?), and the spirit-leeching deterioration of the faculties in old age. I’m yet to know how it ends, but it surely doesn’t augur well.

So, if literature ends up being tragic yet triumphant, and he isn’t writing a book with a number in its title or a Hindu mythological figure as its hero, why does Arjun end up modifiying its ending?

The answer perhaps lies where it started – in our movies. Many Bollywood directors (no doubt, there are examples in other Indian cinemas too, but I am a Big Bolly Buff) make a great first movie – a movie from their heart and soul – but which doesn’t do ting at the tills as it’s too “real”, and so change tack and make a more “commercially viable” movie henceforth, which not surprisingly works.

Ayan Mukerji made the wondrous Wake Up Sid, which despite all its acclaim at best only woke up, rather than shook up, the box office. So, he moved to more commercial elements, such as a more saleable leading lady and foreign locales, and delivered the blockbuster Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani.

Poster of Zoya Akhtar's debut movie 'Luck by Chance'Zoya Akhtar first gave us, or me (as it’s my favourite film of all time), the rich, deep, involving Luck By Chance, which had layers upon layers of psychology, nuance, complexity, and then some. But apart from folk like me who watched it 15 times, it had little luck. So, she swerved to the big, vapid Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and then the bigger and only less vacuous Dil Dhadakne Do.

Director Shakun Batra leaning over a cut-out of his debut movie 'Ek Main aur Ekk Tu'Finally, and ironically, Shakun Batra himself. He debuted with, as I already wrote, the ruminative Ek Main aur Ekk Tu, where the hero-heroine remain ek main aur ekk tu, but never ek hum (one you, one me, but never one us): the heroine, Kareena Kapoor, feels they are nice individuals in their own place but can’t be together, at least she doesn’t see it that way. Not surprisingly, the movie was seen by ek-do (one-two) folk. And so, in Kapoor and Sons, Shakun had Arjun and Tia (Alia Bhatt) hooking up by the end. And perhaps, to be doubly sure, he made Rahul prefer men. (Oh, was that the real reason for the character being gay?)

Cover of the book 'Creativity, Inc.To be fair, these directors might be attempting a golden middle. In a mini-interview to a different part of The Hindu, about which book he’s reading presently (Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace), Shakun had this to say: “The book talks about finding the balance between telling the stories you have to tell and fighting the battle you have to fight… It gives a lot of perspective and also makes me feel that it is possible to not sell your soul and make a film that connects with people.”

Your first creative endeavour goes under. You don’t want the next to suffer the same fate. Any wonder then that in making its ending a happy one, Arjun makes a practical decision. He wants to be successful – and if this is the only thing stopping him – why not, in a manner of speaking, lower your ideals?

Now, to all the writers/creative souls out there: what would you do? Write (pen/direct) a real but less saleable story? Or a happy and more successful one? That is, write for the self – or to sell? Or is there a golden middle?

As you begin writhing over that, let me finally share the suggestion Rahul gives Arjun, which leads to the modified ending, “Because people find real life tough, they look for happiness in stories…”

Now what would you do?

Agonizing, huh? Well, such is life. And I guess, literature.

Cover of Sidin Vadukut's new non-fiction book, 'The Sceptical Patriot'

Irficionado | Book Review | ‘The Sceptical Patriot’

Logo for Irficionado seriesCover of Sidin Vadukut's first book, Dork: The Incredible Adventures of Robin "Einstein" VargheseIn the Dork trilogy, Sidin Vadukut expects us to suspend disbelief, over all the dumb things the protagonist, Robin “Einstein” Varghese, does, for which he somehow eventually receives fantastic payoffs. In ‘The Sceptical Patriot’, Vadukut urges us to do just the opposite.

SubtitlFront cover of Sidin Vadukut's new book of non-fiction, 'The Sceptical Patriot'ed Exploring the Truth Behind the Zero and Other Indian Glories*’ (the asterisk denoting ‘Conditions apply’), Vadukut’s first book of non-fiction goads us to have a skeptical, enquiring mind toward all the glorious “truths” that are hurled our way by jingoistic politicians, cultural chauvinists and lazy history books, instead of accepting them at face value. “Facts” such as India invented the zero, Sushruta performed the world’s first plastic surgery, this great land never invaded another land in the past 10,000 years, J C Bose invented the radio before Marconi, and Taxila/Takshashila was the world’s oldest university.

Vadukut aims to get to the heart of the “truth”, with a lot of research, referencing and reading. Plus an army of questions. In the chapter on Taxila, he has us mull over how exactly to define a university. In the one about the Chola kings, he urges to keep looking and digging for further and deeper truth. And in the one on the invention of the radio, he makes us consider: an invention isn’t as easy a definition as GK books make us believe – many inventors may have invented things that enabled the final inventor (or assimilator) to come up with that invention; so, who do you really credit it to?

Popular illustration of Sushruta performing the first plastic (nose) surgery in the world

Intentions aside, Vadukut is candid enough to admit that this is at best a “pop history” book and some discussions are beyond its scope. Fair enough. For he doesn’t aim to establish the truth, but like any ideal guide, or even teacher, he urges us to find out the truth for ourselves. Nevertheless, he does share the “truth” according to him: at the end of each chapter that examines a particular popular India “fact”, he gives a truth scale, offering his opinion of the said truth. And leaves each chapter with a few questions for the reader (learner) to chew on.

However, Vadukut hasn’t abandoned his trademark gut-busting humour, though it can’t be abundant in a book of this nature; else, it wouldn’t have been just ‘pop’, but actually junk. In the Sushruta chapter, he goes, ‘We don’t care if plastic surgery was invented in India by Bijumon Biryanveetil or Blossom Babykutty. All we want to know is if they did this before anybody, anywhere else.’

Author Sidin VadukutVadukut also shows that he can write. You don’t see this in Dork; Dork is distractingly funny. However, he shows he can layer and build stories, in the process, making non-fiction absorbing. The way he does this is by beginning each chapter with an extremely tangential anecdote or experience and then eventually linking it to the “fact” under exploration. For the one on Taxila, he begins with his visit to the Edinburgh castle, where he learns how impregnable it was designed to be. He then moves on to how India had a natural barrier from almost all sides due to its location (the seas in the south and the mountains in the north and north-east) – which is why all invaders came from the north-west. He finally comes to talking of Taxila’s location – it had to be where it was for where else would you see so much interaction in those times?

‘The Sceptical Patriot’ thus comes across as a very admirable and even brave effort. Someone questioning, and urging us to question, the veracity of these “time-honoured” statements. However, it is also a sign of the times that Vadukut has to bookend the heart of the book with disclaimers (at the beginning) and worries of the culture vultures coming after him next (at the end): ‘This is going to piss off a lot of people, and I am buying asbestos underwear as I type, but…’. However, Vadukut need have no such worry. He lives and works out of London. And maybe that’s just why and how he can afford to write such a book: the safety of distance and objectivity. If he had been here, he would have had to do a waapsi of the signing amount he got for this book, at the very least.

Which brings you to a question of your own: wonder if this book will have a series too? Given its intention and quality, there should be. So, dare I predict the names of books two and three? ‘God Save the Sceptical Patriot’ and ‘Who Let the Sceptical Patriot Out?’ Bring them on.

If interested, check out Sidin’s blog here, where he writes with the nom de plume, Domain Maximus: Whatay

Author Siddharth Chowdhury holding his new book, The Patna Manual of Style

Irficionado | Books | The ‘Heart’ of an Author

Logo for Irficionado series

You read a book by an author you haven’t read before. You like it. You read up about the author. You like what you read. Then, you meet the author at a literary fest. And promptly fall in love with them. Literarily. Not literally.

Cover of 'The Patna Manual of Style', Siddharth Chowdhury's new bookI spotted Siddharth Chowdhury on the very first day of the just-concluded The Hindu Lit for Life 2016. Siddharth was there as his new book, ‘The Patna Manual of Style’, was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize for Fiction. I read the book a couple of months back, after reading glowing reviews of it, and found it sweet, simple, soft, warm. His storytelling and language are so simple that it makes you believe you can be a successful writer yourself. And I mean this in a good way, of course.

So, there Siddharth was at one of the event organizer tables at the entrance, signing a cheque. (From what I could gather, there must have been some change of plan, for which he was presently having to pay out of his pocket, and I guess he would be reimbursed later.) A few people were coming up, not to speak with him, but for inquiries, believing him to be one of the organizers. But since he seemed to be busy, they just picked up the event brochure and left. I took the opportunity to approach him with what I thought was a clever introduction line, “Hey, Siddharth, you shouldn’t stand here as they’ll think you’re on the organizing committee.” And before he could wonder who hadn’t mistaken him for an organizer, I quickly added, “I know your name because I’ve read your book, loved it, and am waiting to speak with you.”

Photo of author Siddharth Chowdhury on the inside cover of his new book, The Patna Manual of StyleCheque-signing over, Siddharth was free to speak with me. While I shared with him whatever I wanted to talk to him about, I couldn’t help noticing how soft-spoken he seemed to be. Even shy. Even benign. Even like a mouse. (And I mean this in a good way, of course.) I was a little surprised by this, for on the inside back cover of the book is a photo of his where he seems to be from a regal family, and therefore a bit unapproachable. The same pic was on the board nearby that spotlighted the names and books of all the nominated authors. I told him so. I don’t remember his exact reaction now, but it was… benign.

I spotted who seemed to be his wife and kid close by, and then parts of the book (which is actually several parts of his life autobiographized) came back to me: going to Calcutta/Kolkata to ask for his to-be wife’s hand from her parents, making out with her with implorations of “no, not on the chin, like a dog” (she), his wife encouraging his writerly dreams… It’s surreal watching a writer’s life, or at least parts of it, unraveling in front of you. Or at least, you think it is: for what if rather than autobiographizing it, he, being a writer, was actually concocting it?

And then, we spoke about his book and writing. The book is a 143-pager, comprising several short stories that are interconnected. While it’s a pleasure to read, I shared with him that it’s perhaps too short, at least too short to win a major award like this. He told me his writing is very short (so I need to go and read his other books). And left me with – when I asked him, despite the size of the book, whether he fancies his chances at the award – a not-so-benign, but utterly-filled-with-candour, “No way!” And that’s when I was smitten with Siddharth. Again, literarily of course.

I read more about him at night, and saw him the next day too. He was all dressed up as the award ceremony was in the afternoon. He, like the other authors, would be reading a bit from his book. Wished him luck. Asked for his card (didn’t have it). Wondered if it would be okay to drop in to meet him if and when I’m next in Delhi (he’s an editorial consultant at Manohar Publishers). Went for the session. Watched him read. Watched him receive a generous response. And watched him not winning. Sigh. (The winner was Easterine Kire for ‘When the River Sleeps’.) Heard my mind go: ‘Rigged’. ‘Unfair’. ‘Boohoo’.

Pic of red panda, known to be extremely shyIn my two interactions with him, as I’ve already written, I found Siddharth Chowdhury to be as gentle as a Red Panda (what’s with my animal analogies, and hope he doesn’t mind, or better doesn’t see this). And then, his writing seemed to unravel some more. ‘The Patna Manual of Style’, as I see it, should be called ‘The Writer’s Manual of Style’, or even ‘The Siddharth Chowdhury Manual of Writing’: simple, warm musings and anecdotes of a writer’s aspirations (‘ambitions’ is too strong a word for someone like Siddharth and for his writing), muses, rigours (the chapter about a day in the life of a writer, titled unassumingly ‘Autobiography’), insecurities (the first chapter where he loses his job). And the best part is, it’s part of a series (the previous two being ‘Day Scholar’ and ‘Patna Roughcut’, from what I know). No, the real best part is the name Siddharth gives his protagonist, or alter ego (as it’s autobiographized). ‘Hriday’. ‘Heart’ in Hindi. Not ‘Dil’, also ‘heart’ in Hindi, but which sounds commercial and coarse. But ‘hriday’, a softer word. Or a word that’s more… benign.

My hriday looks forward to more from gentle little Siddharth Chowdhury.

 

Indian mythology fiction writer, Amish, in his study

Irficionado | Books | Something’s Amish

Logo for Irficionado series

Cover of Amish's first book, 'The Immortals of Meluha'I read Amish’s first book in the Shiva trilogy (‘The Immortals of Meluha’, his first book ever, which also shot him to spectacular, overnight fame), soon after it released and on taking in all the buzz, up to page 100, that too with a lot of self-pushing, and gave up. The writing was too every day.

I like mythology, especially Hindu mythology, which almost blends into the religious domain. And I like Shiva – his wild appearance, his yin-yang forces of masculinity-femininity, the anger he harnesses within, which when provoked, manifests through his taandav dance or, in rare cases, through the opening of his third eye, and eventually his power to destroy (which is actually aimed at restoring balance in the world). But I need my writing (that is, the writing in the books I read) to be as engaging as the story itself. Which is why I gave up on Amitav Ghosh too (many of his fans themselves say his books are tremendous… from a research perspective, and therefore a delight… for academics).

Vaishna Roy, Associate Editor, The HinduNow, why would somebody who had an interesting subject (to the best of my memory, no Indian writer had written fiction around Shiva before this; they have on Ram – through the Ramayana – and on the Mahabharata, but not the Destroyer God) not write mesmerizingly on it too? The session with Amish at the recently concluded The Hindu Lit for Life litfest provided some answers, or better still, some insights. (Interviewing Amish was Vaishna Roy, Associate Editor, The Hindu, who I’ve met and corresponded with a couple of times.)

Indian mythology fiction writer, AmishOne of the first questions to Amish was about something he himself has stated earlier: he gets the plot of his books and its details through some “divine inspiration”. He just sits at his laptop and sees clearly the pictures he’s going to paint, and the writing just flows. Amish has also said how he’s a Shiva bhakt and believes Shiva, and the other gods (or people), did exist. (He also reveals how he was atheist for a long time before he turned believer.) If you want to read “divine inspiration” in another way, it can mean pure talent. So, Amish has the innate talent for this; it’s, well, God-given. But now, if his books seem more like recordings than narrations, that means… he does nothing more with his talent. No developing it, no growing it, no interfering with it. Stasis. (Which also means that if one day, the talent deserts or subsides within him, then what? No worries. The author is also a good speaker and businessman – he kept goading attendees to buy and read his books – and can rely on these other talents to see him through. Plus, in India, there are enough takers for mythology/religion.)

Indian mythology non-fiction writer, Devdutt PattanaikThat however was only one part of the story. The tale unraveled further when Amish answered another question (and the most exacting one of the interview, in my opinion). “Your writing seems a bit utilitarian.” A euphemism for “functional”, or worse, banal. (Good one, Vaishna.) Amish fielded this one as well as he did the other questions (he came across as being as diplomatic as the other hugely successful writer on Hindu mythology, though in non-fiction, in India, Devdutt Pattanaik), saying that each style (pedestrian vs poetic) has its merits and serves a function, and in a very cloistered way, agreed that his writing is not, to use another euphemism, ambitious.

The decider though was yet to come. When asked about the kind of books he reads, Amish answered that while he reads a lot, and has been doing so for a long time (4-5 books per month), only 15%, at the most, 20% of it is fiction; 80-85% is non-fiction. Based on the kind of writing he produces, I dare say this non-fiction is more detail-based than narrative. And there I guess you have it. Why Amish writes the way he does.

Composite image featuring, from top to bottom, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Bishwanath Ghosh and Siddharth ChowdhuryIf I had to read interesting mythology, I’d go to Arundhathi Subramaniam, author/poet on spirituality and culture, who has written a book on Buddha and who chaired a session on female Indian mystic poets at the litfest. I still wouldn’t go to Devdutt, who I believe merely presents (or worse, packages) mythology (though he knows a lot about it, and well, packages even better when speaking). For non-fiction (non-fiction that actually reads like fiction), I’d go to someone like Bishwanath Ghosh, also Associate Editor, The Hindu, who I met at the fest too. And for fiction that reads like narrative non-fiction – it’s that easy and simple and warm – I’d go to someone like Siddharth Chowdhury, who too I met at the fest. And about who I’d be blogging about next.

Really, Amish, I’m more than happy to give you A-miss. And now, I know just why.