Master of Spices

A successful Bollywood masala depends on things happening at speeds quick enough to obliterate any doubts that might arise in you – Before you can go, “But thats ridi…,” that is over. This has started, and despite a series of vague questions lurking in the recesses of your left brain, that and this are fun to watch. When a little bit of melodrama overwhelms you, a comic break is right around the corner; when you feel like turning off the (small) part of your mind thats still awake, you get just that with a pretty girl gyrating to a great song.

There is no better vehicle for a creator brimming with ideas than an Indian Movie: clever digressions are welcome and appreciated; and no one will crib if the “creator’s brain is the most important presence on the frame.” Collections of disjoint ideas strung together on 35mm film can make a movie, and depending on how good the ideas are, the movie might even do well. For anyone that thinks in vignettes, this is the right place.

Shashi Tharoor is from this school of thought. The Great Indian Novel and Show Business, two of his better known books, are the most Bollywoodic books I’ve read – hectic and hyperactive; pages filled with wordplay and allegory; average stories held up by smart screenplays. And to complete the metaphor, the books break out into poetry on a whim. (Skimpy attire, courtesy your overactive imagination). I got to re-read both of these books last week, and they were exactly what I remembered them to be – light, easy, entertaining reads.

The Great Indian Novel is a contemporary retelling of the Mahabharata . Tharoor cleverly (again, clever is the word for it) weaves characters and events from modern Indian history with the Mahabharata, making for a riotous, enjoyable political satire. Mixing politics and the puranas makes an intriguing premise, and the writing takes care of the rest. I laughed out loud at a lot of places, (and cringed at a few), but here’s an excerpt that I liked a lot.

Pandu (in a dual role as Subhash Chandra Bose), sharing his deathbed on a plane with his pretty, lisping wife Madri:

‘Oh Madri!’ He took her in his arms
And kissed her long and wetly,
Till, attritioned by her charms,
His will collapsed completely.

‘No Pandu don’t!’ his loved one cried.
As his hands explored her buttons,
‘Remember the doctor when you nearly died
Let’th kith, but not be gluttonth’

‘Oh, yes!’ he breathed back in pneumatic bliss.
‘Onward! Thats my immortal credo!’
But then his lips, after a pulsating kiss,
Turned blue, and exhaled a croaking ‘O…O…’

Poetic.

Show Business, is a “this is what Bollywood is really like” book narrated by Amitabh, I mean Ashok Banjara, a ageing superstar who failed in politics (no mention of KBC, this was before that), and despite the trademark infectious Tharoor energy and wit, this one isn’t in the same league as TGIN. (A few more words starting with K in the title, and you never know….). Quite often, you can’t help feeling you’ve read this before, plus halfway through the book, I was angry that I was stuck reading this and not Never Let Me Go. So maybe it is in the same league. But you know what, that doesn’t really matter: Just the four plot summaries in Show Business make it worth a read.

On Beauty

The point of Zadie (Smith) is looks.. ahem, books, says the Guardian, in a profile titled (disconcertingly enough) Learning curve.

Apparently, Zadie woke up one day, and On Beauty was there, fully formed in her head. (If you are interested in this kind of thing, you should probably know that I wake up most days with More Sleep on my mind. It’s just not that fully formed yet, but maybe by the next Booker longlist.) The profile is written by Aida Edemariam, with a lot of help from Hari Kunzru, who contributed “the point of Zadie” line. Flippancy apart, it is a good profile that discusses her influences, inspirations(“I’m so easily influenced. I read somebody, and then I just write their book again”), and beliefs. And yes looks too.

Talking about Zadie’s (obvious) good looks, Kunzru describes the seeming disconnect between her anger at discussions of attire as “another way to belittle women” and the pleasure she derives from “being able to play a movie star” as an “odd contradiction between tradition and flamboyance”

[…] and yet, says Kunzru, “Zadie does turn up in public looking fabulous.” She knows a ‘worrying amount’ about old Hollywood, and I think the pleasure she takes out of being a public novelist is being able to play a movie star. It’s a piece of fun.” She’s an “odd contradiction between privacy and flamboyance,” and has, he thinks, “become a phenomenon despite herself”.

Zadie is full of grace and humility, describing herself as “a beginner, an apprentice”, an old fashioned moralist who believes that the novel is an “ethical enterprise,” a life simulator if you will.

On Beauty is also a sustained attempt to enact ideas she’s been mulling over for a few years: that the novel – writing a novel, reading a novel – is an ethical enterprise, a practice place for morals where we watch, in safety, people choosing what they must do, and what they lose when they choose wrongly; that it is the closest possible rehearsal for the real thing, which is the most important thing of all. “Good writing requires – demands – good being,” she wrote a couple of years ago, introducing a collection of short stories, The Burned Children of America. “I’m absolutely adamant on this point.”

Guardian Unlimited Books | Review | Learning curve

Update: The Observer’s review of On Beauty is up here, and it is very, very complimentary – calling it “exceptionally accomplished” and “wonderfully funny.”

Here, there, and everywhere in between

Like most good Rushdie books, Shalimar the Clown draws reviews that span the whole spectrum from terrible to terrific.

John Updike is decidedly lukewarm in his New Yorker review, but one does get the feeling his grouse is with the author’s style. Rushdie’s writes in an over-the-top, hectic manner and Updike obviously dislikes it (“James Joyce and T. S. Eliot established brainy allusions as part of modernity’s literary texture, but at the risk of making the author’s brain the most vital presence on the page.”) – he never quite gets over his issues with style to review the book substantively.

Why has Rushdie attached a gaudy celebrity name to a different sort of celebrity, preventing the Ambassador from coming into sharp, living focus on his own? It is partly, perhaps, characteristic Rushdiean overflow. His novels pour by in a sparkling, voracious onrush, each wave topped with foam, each paragraph luxurious and delicious, but the net effect perilously close to stultification. His prose hops with dropped names, compulsive puns, learned allusions, winks at the reader, and repeated bows to popular culture. His plots proceed by verbal connection and elaboration as much as by character interaction.

Rushdie as a literary performer suffers, I think, from being not just an author but a cause célèbre and a free-speech martyr, thanks to the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in the wake of “The Satanic Verses” (1988), a playful work that precipitated riots in India and Pakistan, and gave American and English publishers and booksellers an early taste of heightened security. The fatwa, which invited any good Muslim to kill Rushdie, was withdrawn in 1998, but a decade of living in hiding deepened this previously gregarious author’s expertise on two subjects: celebrity and human cruelty. His fascination with fame and theatricality, movies and rock music predated the fatwa, and gives his fiction a distracting glitter, like shaken tinsel.

In the Detroit Free Press, Marta Salij gushes: (link through Prufrock).

Better? It will have to be, because I have no more. Prepare for magic when reading “Shalimar the Clown,” the kind of magic that comes from a novelist weaving a story worthy of his genius — and the kind of magic that comes from a novel that opens you to seeing the world as you never supposed. I have warned you.

Justine Hardy, writing for the Times, starts his review off with,

THE PUPPET MASTER IS BACK. He was absent for a while, busy with re-invention, polemic and courtship. The intervening years have perhaps softened him to the extent that he almost allows us to believe that we are independently able to grasp his art. But no, with a snap, he reminds us that he holds the strings. We just get to dance around beneath his elevated acrobatics, bragging to our friends that yes, indeed we understand how the tightrope tricks are done.

before pulling back a little bit at the end:

This is an important book, a wonderful reversing story with a cast of characters with names that are not their names, and ideals that have been thrust upon them, but this is not a real study of the anatomy of terrorist warfare or its perpetrators. Remember this as you read this vast story set in a splintering world reflected in lakes.

I can’t wait for September 6 (although where I am, it’ll probably be September 6, 2006).

Naughty William

I kind of knew it the first time I picked up Hamlet. Not to toot my own horn or anything, but it was quite obvious to me after reading the second line of the play, the one that had someone asking someone else to “stand, and unfold yourself” – this book was multidimensional. Deep. Cryptic. It was pregnant with hidden meaning, and if you got a copy with better line spacing than mine, I am quite certain there was a lot that you could have read between the lines.

From cryptic to cryptographic isn’t such a big leap, and Clare Asquith has made just that. She thinks, nay, knows that Shakespeare was a “subversive who embedded dangerous political messages in his work.”

She argues that the plays and poems are a network of crossword puzzle-like clues to his strong Catholic beliefs and his fears for England’s future. Aside from being the first to spot this daring Shakespearean code, Asquith also claims to be the first to have cracked it.

‘It has not been picked up on before because people have not had the complete context,’ she explained this weekend. ‘I am braced for flak, but we now know we have had the history from that period wrong for a long time because we have seen it through the eyes of the Protestant, Whig ascendancy who, after all, have written the history.’

Not to be judgemental, but here’s an example of the code:

Sunburn:

The sun represented divinity, and so sunburn denotes closeness to God. Shakespeare described himself as ‘tanned’ in Sonnet 62.

Makes me yearn for Dan Brown.

Read the whole thing here. In case you are wondering, I had to do several carefully conducted searches using multiple search engines to sort through all the Salman Rushdie news/profiles/reviews/interviews/conversations before I got to this article.

You’re welcome.

Red Herring

Henry Alford does a little sleuthing for the New Yorker – to locate a “Mountweazel” in the New Oxford American Dictionary.

Turn to page 1,850 of the 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia and you’ll find an entry for Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, a fountain designer turned photographer who was celebrated for a collection of photographs of rural American mailboxes titled “Flags Up!” Mountweazel, the encyclopedia indicates, was born in Bangs, Ohio, in 1942, only to die “at 31 in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine.”

If Mountweazel is not a household name, even in fountain-designing or mailbox-photography circles, that is because she never existed. “It was an old tradition in encyclopedias to put in a fake entry to protect your copyright,” Richard Steins, who was one of the volume’s editors, said the other day. “If someone copied Lillian, then we’d know they’d stolen from us.”

Following the tradition of this (and other) Encyclopedias, the New Oxford American Dictionary decided to put a fake word in their latest edition. Using a single leaked clue (that the word started with an ‘e’), Alford whittled down the list to six and then consulted a few lexicographical authorites, who narrowed it down to one word.

esquivalience—n. the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities . . . late 19th cent.: perhaps from French esquiver, “dodge, slink away.”

A call was placed to Erin McKean, the editor-in-chief of the second edition of NOAD. Upon being presented with the majority opinion, McKean confirmed that “esquivalience” was a fabricated word.

[…]The word has since been spotted on Dictionary.com, which cites Webster’s New Millennium as its source. “It’s interesting for us that we can see their methodology,” McKean said. “Or lack thereof. It’s like tagging and releasing giant turtles.”

Incidentally, this is a trick that I’ve used quite often on this very website – the occasional typoos you see are cleverly disguised mountweazels. I feel significantly lighter now after this confession, although it could also be because I moved my monster Dell from my lap to the desk.

A Premier Long List

The Guardian announces its long list for the Guardian First Book award, touting it as “the most diverse (list) yet in ethnic origin and theme.”

Themes stretch from the death of a small Yorkshire farm, homelessness, loss of an identical twin, and transsexuality in Victorian England to the origins of Islam, western tourism in Thailand, the colonial legacy of Malaysia and the search for the icebound land of Thule as mythical citadel of the “perfect north”.

The Guardian award is open to debut works of fiction, poetry and non-fiction. So strong was this year’s non-fiction entry, in particular, that at least two of the titles squeezed out in the first round of judging could have gone through in another year to have won the award.

Suketu Mehta is on the list for his Maximum City, the “Sideways of the South Asian Bookshelf” as is Tash Aw – the only author to feature on both the Man Booker and Guardian longlists (for The Harmony Silk Factory).

Nick Laird, born in Northern Ireland, brings off the double of being longlisted for the Guardian award and shortlisted for a Forward prize for his first poetry collection, To a Fault. Lists will be an active topic in his household: his wife Zadie Smith is shortlisted for the Man Booker for her novel On Beauty, and is a previous winner of the Guardian prize.

Insult to Injury

We were in a little bit of a rush, but I wanted to go into the store “real quick.” After some haggling, I was allowed to go, subject to some rules (but, of course). The instructions were fairly clear:

Come back in 10 minutes.

Just buy the ones you want, don’t just stand there gawking.

I hurried in, and headed straight for the information counter. A winsome girl gave me smile just as winsome – but I remembered the second rule and asked her in my best business-like tone,

“I’m looking for a book called Never Let Me Go.”

“Author?”

“I-s-h-i-g-u-r-o”

“Sorry. Don’t have that author.”

Uh-oh.

“What about Smith, Z-a-d-i-e?”

“Book name?”

“On Beauty.”

Taps on keyboard, “Yes, we have.”

One out of two isn’t too bad.

“Ok, where is it?”

“No stock.”

“What does ‘we have’ mean?”

“Have in database.”

Damn. I start to walk out disappointed – not smart to sign up to review two books at Veena’s Booker Mela without checking for availability. Just then, the girl calls me,

“Sir.”

“Yeah?”

“We currently have a sale. 25% discount on all Danielle Steel books.”

I wanted to thank her for rubbing it in, but my ten minutes were up.

Power Reads

Zoe Williams minces no words in this hilarious analysis of the “astoundingly unimpressive” results of an opinion poll in which British politicians named The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter as their favorite reads.

The soaraway favourite was The Da Vinci Code. Mention of this book is often suffixed by how many copies it has sold, as if sheer weight of numbers obviates all consideration of how rubbish it is. And it’s a bit late to launch into a critique of a work that makes people feel physically sick when they finish it, like a pound of strawberry bonbons, but the question remains – why aren’t they embarrassed?

[…]the ubiquitous Harry Potter, a series so infantile that it is, quite literally, a children’s book, a work that even the publishers admit that an adult ought to be embarrassed to be caught reading (well, they have a special “adult” edition, with a discreet cover; this is like reading Playboy inside the Economist. Except that it’s slightly worse, since if one of these representatives had said “I shall be holidaying with a copy of Playboy hidden inside an Economist”, I would probably vote for that person).

Williams theorizes that the lack of class in the preferences might be because the politicians deliberately dumbed down their list to appear more human and accessible to the average guy on the street (read voter), ending with a bit of advice for the ones that chose Potter: “Children aren’t allowed to vote.” Yes, but juveniles are.

Rushdie in Conversation

The Times carries a longish conversation between Salman Rushdie and Ginny Dougary. Dougary obviously likes Rushdie a lot – and perhaps because of this Rushdie sounds a lot more relaxed, and talks in his usual freewheeling manner about a whole lot of things. It’s the most “human” Rushdie interview I’ve come across, his usual sharp candor tinged with humor and graciousness.

He doesn’t care to use the word “brainwashing” for what goes on in the terrorist training camps and the madrassas, saying it’s too loaded. But in the novel he shows, most feelingly, how you can persuade people that they have been seeing the world wrong, and that the world is not like that – the world is like this, and you must unlearn everything you have learnt in order to understand the truth.

Rushdie says he is embarrassed about Grimus ([…] I want to hide when I see someone reading it), and explains his petulant Booker acceptance speech as his reaction to the “cruelty” of people that “asked him to find a different form of employment” forgetting that it was his first book. And then adds philosophically, “I guess, with hindsight, you shouldn’t ever try to get even because you always lose.”

Out with a Bang

Hunter S Thompson, colorful writer who led a life most bizarre, wanted a denoument no less bizarre. He shot himself to death, and then wanted his remains “blasted into the sky.”

His faithful wife assembled a few people together Saturday for a morbid ceremony where a

[…] a combination of fireworks and the writer’s ashes were blasted into the sky from the top of a 153ft tower in a series of red, white, blue and green flashes.

Cannonization, alright. I’ve heard rumors that he’ll be called Sainnt Thompson from now on.

Through the Indpendent.