Friday, January 29, 2010

Do raise eyebrows over low brow

Clad in a khadi kurti made in one of those sweatshops, with not a single strand of her straightened hair out of place and those chiselled facial features that transcend sexual tendencies; this local train co-passenger resembled a Cajun goddess. What’s more, she was reading a book. Blame the male mindset, if you have to, I even imagined ourselves as literary soulpartners walking into the sunset with our hands held. Anticipating a Netherland or at least a Sue Townsend I peeped into what she was reading and, here lies the dampener, it was (drum roll) Chetan Bhagat’s “Two States”. Whoooosshh! That’s how the crumbling of my imaginary castle sounded.

Why would anyone endure writing that is clunky and is the LOL equivalent of literature? Isn’t Chetan Bhagat essential reading only for those below 12 years? Why does India celebrate writers who can’t string two sentences together? These were the initial questions that popped up in my mind. I tried to find a pattern but all I have been able to glean is that we swear by bestsellers. Look at the books that made waves in the recent past, Da Vinci Code, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and, of course, Chetan Bhagat sack of chicken feed.

Most often you would find these names mentioned in the profiles of social networking sites’ users. I don’t mean that everyone ought to have mandarin tastes and should be reading W G Sebald and Patricia Highsmith. But do give Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy or closer to home, Samit Basu’s GameWorld trilogy a read.

It’s not the economic imbalance that is the difference between the third world countries and developed nations but the fact that printed word is celebrated in the latter and, well, not in the former. A US friend was telling me that everyone in the New York’s locals are to be seen reading books, a rare sight over here. My heart swells with pride at the sight of so many people reading the newspapers cover-to-cover in the Mumbai local trains. I hated Bangalore for not patronising newspapers (I, however, wonder why every newspaper is available in that bottomless pit of techiebabble). But then newspapers do not enrich one’s life the way books do. To think of it, they are not supposed to.

Some might say that the lack of reading culture may be attributed to the rise of Web but that is an argument that doesn’t deserve credence. A Pew Survey says that every American read at least ten books in 2009. This, when an average American spends ten hours on daily basis to swim across the ocean of hypertext links.

The cartoon in Atlantic Monthly captured the bestsellers’ phenomena very well by a bunch of kids holding Harry Potter books berating another child at a distance as ‘problem child’ for reading Charles Dickens. When I made a Mumbai friend privy to my rant, she said that the city is essentially ‘working class’. In that case, won’t Grapes of Wrath have greater resonance in Mumbaikars’ lives than Chetan Bhagat’s love story that is as interesting as watching wet paint getting dry.

I am not listening if you are going to mouth that gigantic cliche to justify proliferation of low brow art: “To each his own”.


At 5:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

awesome. beautifully nasty and I fully agree. and it made me smile. I understand your pain jugs. Just yesterday, I read the latest book survey by Tehelka on what is India reading. First four books - chetan fucking bhagat, then Da Vinci, Shakespeare (I think they might just be buying it to show off in living rooms), Shiv Khera and other such luminaries. Roy and Adiga, of course because of the bookers. Out of exasperation,despondency and an acute sinking feeling in my heart, I circled my room a couple of times. I won't even try to publish something in India, I think, unless I manage to write something in hindi, because hindi is being read a lot, as usual, and good stuff is also being written in it. Have you checked out Uday Prakash? I think he has been translated in English.


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