Friday, November 13, 2009

Young spunk, more open, more books

The shortlist is out for the ‘lesser Boo­ker’, known as the Man Asian Literary Prize and three of the names, Omair Ahmad, Siddharth Chowdhury and Nitasha Kaul are Indian. That is one better than last year. So far, no Indian has won the award, though it’s early days yet as the Man Asian was initiated only in 2007.

It does show, however, that it’s not just Kiran Desai and Arvind Adiga who have made the world sit up and notice Indian writing; there have been other seismic events that shifted the tectonic plates. Earlier, the shelf life of the modern Indian writer was somewhere between the milk and the yogurt, and why not considering the fact that most writing came either from journalists or ex-journalists. But that is no longer the case.

The proof can be found in the longlist for the Man Asian. Half the people who made it are Indian. More interestingly, for some of them writing is not a full-time job.

Omair Ahmad, whose Jimmy The Terrorist is on the shortlist, says, however, that writing is still a top shot job. “You need money and time to do research and visit the places. To write my book on Bhutan I had to pitch story ideas to Penguin India and I was lucky enough considering they commissioned six books, including the one on Bhutan.” But he says the publishing scene has improved. The era of ‘vanity publishing’ is over.

“Three to four years ago, if a book sold 3000 copies in India, that was deemed a bestseller. Nowadays, 10,000 is the magic number. A lot can be done to popularise books, though. In London, even the underground railway stations have the posters of upcoming small books, something which is unthinkable here.”

K Srilata, who was on the longlist for her debut novel Table for Four, is an example of the change that is taking place. Her resume boasts quite a few published works apart from a first prize at the All India Poetry competition in 1998. But writing is not her bread and butter. She teaches creative writing and literature at IIT Madras.

Asked if writing is just an extension of her job she answers: “No, writing is very much a departure from my work as a teacher, though both have to do with words and with the life of the mind. But the energies required for teaching are altogether different from those you need for writing. As a teacher, I am dealing with flesh and blood “real people”. There is a constant reality check happening. Teaching is a very public thing, unlike writing. In the latter you deal with characters who can be pushed around a bit!” Before you think that Srilata‘s lifestyle seems to be straight out of Jekyll and Hyde, Ram Govardhan will make you think again.

Govardhan too was on the longlist for his first novel Rough With The Smooth and, he, surprise, surprise, is an auditor with a market research company in Chennai. Last year, two writers got book deals on the basis of their blogs’ popularity — Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan (You Are Here) and Amit Varma

(My Friend Sancho), the latter even made it to last year’s longlist.

What this suggests is that now there are many avenues to get published in India. Every major publishing house has a branch in India. On an average, Penguin India publishes one book every ten days. This is statistics and bikinis, both revealing as well as concealing.

Srilata too was emphatic about the publishing scene over an e-mail: “I think there are many more options now for Indians writing in English today than there were in the 90s. Lots of young publishing houses with spunk and a lot more openness, I would think, are open to new writers. It was certainly more difficult to get published in the 90s compared to now.”

Tom Dark of Heacock Literary Agency and the agent of Sriram Karri, another who was on the longlist, almost nails it: “In general, the Indian writers we hear from write beautifully. Indian English as it has developed over 250+ years maintains a grace in prose that Americans have begun to forget. Maybe they‘ll teach the world something.” Sriram Karri too straddles two careers. While he writes books, he makes a living as a corporate consultant and has worked with some of the biggest blue chip companies. He writes columns for The Guardian and The New Indian Express. Sriram expe­cts to be a full-time writer by 2011.

Considering these stories, it‘s unclear what‘s more remarkable — that they finally got their ship up the mountain or that they managed to come down, the other side more or less intact.

Anatomy of the page 3 crowd

Best selling author Dan Brown’s writing exploits have been described by Edinburgh professor of linguistics Geoffrey Pullum as, “Brown’s writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad.” One would echo Pullum’s sentiments after ploughing through Ira Trivedi’s sophomore work The Great Indian Love Story. The audacious title notwithstanding, this book is to be read only if one wants to expand his understanding of the word trite to infinity.
An alternative title for the book could have been Love Aaj Kal. Here’s why. Set among the page 3 crowd of Delhi, the Love Aaj part is about two women, who are friends — Serena and Riya. The book starts with Riya’s life in the US and how the recession has had a debilitating effect on her life, both personally and professionally. Only a few pages later do you realise that Riya’s character is the book’s moral buffer and that she will introduce Serena into the narrative.
Serena, “who lives her life one debauched night at a time”, takes to wrong men like fish to water. One such man is Amar Khanna — a coke addict, serial adulterer and, more importantly, a husband. To understand why things have come to such a pass, Ira weaves a hackneyed past set in Serena’s student days in the US where the latter is knocked up by her long-time boyfriend Salman and, consequently, cracks develop in the relationship when Serena wants to keep her baby and Salman doesn’t. After a crude abortion and a broken heart, Serena returns home where bigger shocks await her.
Here starts the Love Kal part. Her mother Parmeet and IAS father SP (just SP) get divorced. Parmeet finds love out of the marriage in Randeep, whom she eventually marries; not before a cuckolded SP gets vicious towards Randeep
and drives him to a point where he appears for civils and becomes a bureaucrat. Upset over his wife’s conduct SP dies of heartbreak. Consequen­tly, Serena starts staying with her mother and step-father, something not to Serena’s liking. The accounts of the trio that make up Love Kal part are like overlapped dialogues, something only Robert Altman can pull off, and here it seems no more than warbled monologues.
It’s pointless to even discuss the book’s predictable denouement. That would be as sensible as asking what would come after electricity. More than the soporific storyline it is the jaundiced eye of Ira that gets on the nerves. She paints the entire page 3 crowd with the same thick brush, what with Serena having one-night stands as frequently as Martin Scorsese’s characters mouth expletives. What’s more, she even has a boy toy.
Ira studied at elite institutes like Columbia Business School and Wellesley College. However, some serious gaps in her education come to
the fore in this book. How else can one explain phrases like “master the art of bullshitting” and words like rocking, babe, perv in the book? To talk of grammatical howlers in this alleged drama would be nitpicking.
Ira’s debut novel What Would You Do To Save The World was a far better work than the current one because of its honesty. In The Great Indian Love Story Ira’s prose sparkles, albeit sporadically. Despite drawing caricatures of the high and mighty, she has been able to describe their ethos with panache. However, that doesn’t mean the material is compelling.