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.

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

Irficionado | Books | The ‘Heart’ of an Author

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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

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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.