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.

Side shot of Melange, The Hindu's Saturday supplement

Offside: “Home Town”, Heart Paper

Logo for Offside, the series on my blog about 'being an "outsider" in my "home town"

In my second stint in my “home town”, Chennai (I will soon be completing two years since I came here for the second time), I decided to do two things differently to be able to better adapt to the city. (After first 18 years and then five years of staying in my “heart town”, Bombay/Mumbai, Chennai, like any new city actually, can take quite some adjusting to.) One, I resolved not to view Chennai through Bombay’s eyes/lenses; no city in the world can be the same as any other city in the world. Two, I decided to buy an apartment for myself so that I could have my space when needed. (I have stayed by myself for over a decade and am staunchly independent-minded. However, I did move to Chennai to be with my parents, and presently stay with them, enjoying home-cooked food and motherly affection.) While the apartment obviously took some hunting and deciding and finalizing, and in fact is still under construction, the first was easy to initiate. Courtesy The Hindu.

Before Tenure 2, when I would visit Chennai during vacations, I would make it a point to read Hindu instead of Times of India, which is the paper du rigueur in Bombay. (We all prefer reading the leading local paper wherever we go, don’t we?) For, as I just mentioned, to get the local news and flavour, and okay, primarily the movie listings at SPI Cinemas (my favourite multiplex chain in Chennai, India, the world; okay, hyperbole: I haven’t gone abroad.) Especially after its revamp of the supplements (about three and a half years ago, I think), both the layout and the writing drew me in. So, when I decided to move back here, one way I felt I could come to understand the culture and mindset of the city was by devouring a city paper (again, only the supplements; have never been too hot about politics, business or current affairs).

Chillis hanging at a bajji stall on Elliot's Beach in Chennai

Chillis hanging at a bajji (a popular snack item) stall on Elliot’s Beach, Chennai

Be it through MetroPlus (the weekday city supplement), Melange (MetroPlus’ chunky avatar on Saturdays), Friday Review (arts and culture), CinemaPlus (on Sundays) and Sunday Magazine (literature and opinion), I slowly started “getting” the culture here. (I haven’t “got into” the culture yet – and am not sure I ever will, having stayed elsewhere for so long and coming here later in life – but again, I do believe I get the culture here.) And myriad aspects of it. Chennaites’ love of music, dance, art, reading… Of kaapi and bajjis… Bessie Beach… The ECR lifestyle… The love, no, craze for movies… The Kamal-Rajini factions… Now, Vijay-Thala factions… So much so that when one of my best friends came down here from Bombay in November, I was able to give him a fairly involved experience of the city. We watched ‘Thoonga Vaanam’ the opening week in a mass-market theatre chain. We visited V House and even did some meditation in the room of silence. And we gorged at many of the ‘bhavans’.

But apart from a view of the city, MetroPlus also gave me a peek into many of the people who are from here, have moved here, or have lived here. And somewhere, some of these people stories provided answers to some questions in my mind. (City changes can make you philosophical. Also, I was on a sabbatical for the first part of last year, trying to figure out in which direction, career-wise, to head next. City changes can also do that to your work, I guess.) Here’s a snapshot of three stories that spoke to me, in chronological order of appearance. I don’t remember the names or the details, but I guess I remember what I needed to know.

A lady RJ had moved from here to China as her husband had got a transfer there. For obvious (linguistic) reasons, she couldn’t pursue a similar career in Mandarin Country. So, she decided to change careers. She fixed on fashion designing, took up a course, excelled in it, and eventually set up her own studio, which is doing just sweet. Well enough for her to be profiled in MetroPlus, you see.

A male theatre personality who had studied, taught and performed theatre in several cities in India, then moved back here some years ago, eventually found himself at a crossroad. The only way he could do what he wanted to do was by doing his own thing. So, he started his own theatre group, which too is quite successful. Else, why would MetroPlus…

The lady director of either a hospital group or a hospitality chain (I told you, I don’t remember the details) mused in the middle of her interview, while talking about the ups and downs in her life and how she was none the worse for it, “God always gives with one hand and takes away with the other. Such is life.”

Here’s where I fit in.

When I was moving here the second time and also wanting to get back to advertising (after being in content development for some years), several people both here and in Bombay tut-tutted the idea: “Bombay’s the place to be for advertising… Advertising in Chennai is very local… Go to Bangalore: it’s better for advertising…” Agreed, Chennai may not figure in the top three cities in India known for its advertising fraternity (those would be Bombay, Delhi and Bangalore, respectively), but the city has an Advertising Club chapter, so it can’t be that small either. Although a bit pensive due to these pronouncements, I was keen on making the reshift to advertising while sticking around in the city (why go to Bangalore when I had come here to be with my parents?). But something else was happening along the way…

As I got more and more into The Hindu supplements (reading most of them page to page), I started realizing I also wanted to get into writing. While writing has always been a part of what I’ve done, it started acquiring firmer proportions. Blame all that quality writing and all those fine writers (Baradwaj Rangan, Bishwanath Ghosh, Vaishna Roy, to name a few senior Hindu journalists).

Audience at a literary event in Chennai

Audience at a literary event in Chennai

Now, jog back to the first two stories earlier. I moved to a city that may not be known so much for its advertising but is quite the opposite for the writing profession. And I wanted to do two things, which I felt I wouldn’t find together in one job. Ergo, I decided to strike out on my own. My current profile reads: Self-employed, and ‘Writer and Ad Consultant’.

And now, the third story.

I’m not sure how many people may have their closest friends in one city and their parents (and relatives) exclusively in another, and have had to make that choice. I had to, a few years ago; and obviously, I did come here; and of course, my best friends are in a different city. We talk on the phone, yes; last year, I did go there (and do plan to, once a year); and one of them even came here last year (as I mentioned earlier). But sometimes, you would like that listening ear to have a face too. And then you assuage yourself with: ‘God takes away with one hand, but gives with another.’ Today, it’s time for my parents. Maybe, tomorrow, when they’d have moved to a higher place, it might be back to my friends, let’s see. I shall let God employ his hands again.

Pic featuring Mr Big and a quote from 'Sex and the City'

Oh, and how about making friends in a new place? As Big says in the ‘Sex and the City’, “Middle-aged men don’t make new friends.” (The path-breaking ‘Sex and the City’. The only place with more truisms than MetroPlus, I guess.)

So, thanks, The Hindu supplements, for helping this offsider get a bit more onside. And if the aspiring writer in me does manage to write for any of you, then I guess, I’ll also be on the inside.

The The Hindu Lit for Life 2016 logoAll the glorious things I’ve said about The Hindu supplements come to the fore at The Hindu Lit for Life fest, a celebration of reading and writing, writers and readers, literature and the intellect. This year’s edition starts tomorrow and goes on until Sunday. Just where I’ll be, soaking up some more Hindu pleasantness. Check out the site here: Hindu Lit for Life