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R K Narayan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chetan Bhagat and then some…

July 25, 2014

R K Narayan was very much part of our English literature in school/college days. One of India’s most celebrated authors from the ’80s, he wrote desi stuff sitting right here in India that brought Indian writing to the world stage. So that’s what makes him special compared to those like Jhumpa Lahiri or Arvind Adiga of the millennium era. For a fact, I am a huge fan of Jhumpa.  As for Adiga, looks like he did his schooling in the city, so proud that he went on to win the Man Booker. Still someone cashing in on India’s poverty and misery always angers me. R K Narayan on the contrary, was compassionate in his approach to Indian issues. The first time I read him was in the form of short-story in high school (The blind dog) (English Prose). What I like about him is his simplicity and narration in re-creating an Indian environ that we are all familiar with, can identify with. The essence of his work is this pure innocence.  For me, ‘the Blind Dog’ was like a point of reckoning – until today it keeps haunting me.   He is a very well read children’s author round the globe.  His ‘Malgudi Days’ was televised a long time back but it is good to have him back in You Tube finally.

It makes me sad that my son’s gen does not appreciate his work the way we did. My son reads a lot but his choice of books flabbergasts me – its all sci-fi with machines, aliens like that, with no human touch. And then he is into what he calls fiction-fantasies – of the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings genre.  I miss RK kind of Indian authors these days – when it comes to Indian kids especially. Well there are some like Amish who authored the Shiv Trilogy and ‘The Bankster’ fame Ravi Subramaniam and ofcourse Chetan Bhagat. Amish’s quality of prose is poor, but understandable given that he is a first time author. Chetan Bhagat is a rascal. I hated his ‘2 States’ that has been filmed into a picture after the success of Aamir Khan’s ‘3 Idiots.’ In fact I wrote a point-by-point review on its publication but deleted the post when I went public for the scathing attack I had mounted on the author. I have since avowed never to touch any of his books. But my son is hooked onto this guy and happens to think all that is vulgar is actually cool.

We do come across some nice columnists, journalists, a sweet surprise, from most unexpected quarters. I always wonder why they stop short of writing for like…Man Booker for instance. Not necessarily for awards perhaps, but why not fictions like that. Gifted bloggers/writers must try that in my opinion. When I read ‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundathi Roy and then ‘Namesake’ by Jhumpa Lahiri some years back (when Jhumpa won the Pullitzer), I remember I liked them but wondered whether they merited awards of that stature. Arundathi – i found downright crass in a way. She has since degenerated into very sorry personality who none of us takes seriously. Now in modern times, I come across a lot of journos doing a great work, adept at story-telling kind of write-ups, but what is stopping them from .. well wanting more, writing more.. May be they have been there, done that, I keep trying to download/buy such novelettes but they are not available in Flipkart, the online store here in India. Guess there are a lot of things I have missed. Authors must remember to go for reprints or think of making their e-books available for those who want to read them up 🙂

I think I am missing out Salman Rushdie here. Nothing to add except that he was once married to the local-girl gone global – Padma Lakshmi, who is also a well known cook-book author and who has done tv shows. I am not impressed with his style though i have not read more than a couple of his works. I kind of like him for the rebel he is hahaha. But frankly I feel, there is much ado about ‘nothing’ in his case. Correct me if I am wrong.

Vikram Seth – another one. I have read his ‘Suitable Boy’ – long and drawn out and tiring. But wanted to. Have missed a lot of other good ones like Amitav Ghosh etc but where is the time to cover everyone.

Indian writing is like an enigma – keeps changing form every now and then. Now there is this whole new breed of different kind of authors – with books like ‘Krishna Key’ etc doing brisk sales. If you go to ‘Landmark’ and Higgin Bothoms or if you try ‘e-bay’ or Flipkart online, what you first get is the this l…ong list of Indian authors – which is good actually (even if most of the crop is bad hahaha).

I also grew up reading the ‘Panchatantras’ and Jhataka tales – all Indian mythical and mythological stories. And then there were sub-tales and stories from the ‘Ramayan’ and ‘the Mahabharat.’ Wow who can forget the ‘Amar Chitra Katha’ series in India. Those were local folklores and Hindu history and myths’ animated series that carved a niche in our hearts in the ’70s and ’80s. Indian writing for children at its best.

So with fiction on one side, I was also glued to this kind of Indian writing on the other in my pre-teens and teenage over those like Tin-Tin honestly. In fact I preferred Indian writing, local setting to foreign always.

In those days we had a circulation library that catered upto 4 books/mags 3 times a week – right at your doorstep. Its is through them that I regularly read Readers’ Digest, Sunday, Illustrated Weekly etc along with some tamil mags. Buying or owning anything was out of question. The Ramakrishna Mission Mutt library in Mylapore gave membership for a mere 5 bucks as annual fee where i joined. Mostly surrounded by retired men, used to do a lot of free reading there. They got all Indian newspapers and publications. Finally there is this another library that I don’t wanna name in Mylapore. It stands in the same place, same street even today right from my school days.  Do rent books from there even now. The owner who was a teenager in those days is a middle-aged man today. Horrible thing is he remembers us girls in our school uniforms! He employs someone these days but he is very knowledgeable and well-read even if he hardly went past high school. He has a definite opinion on books, newspapers, authors, columnists, everything, everyone.

There was this ragpicker in front of Mylapore club in Luz, ancient and bearded and in torn clothes – selling his ware/old books for decades and I have bought a lot from him through years, bargaining hard. He must have died sometime back. No civic body could ever evict him out of his spot. He was kind of celebrity for us school & college students. Seen college guys discussing Karl Marx and Leo Tolstoy with him – i would hang around with friends poring through books but listening to their interesting conversations all the time – the least a girl could do 🙂 Got all my college text books from him for throw-away prices.

In those days owning a fiction/book was like a luxury. Now finally I am able to afford buying books – I order what I please online. Can’t ever believe this luck, good gracious!

So books kind of have been mainstay of my life on and off… Would never miss the Chennai Annual Book Fair but of late I don’t like it anymore. Its over commercialized – and there is nothing literary at all about the event. Just a sales point where bhelpuri wallahs to chaiwallahs set up their stalls advertising their daily menu. Do buy pirated versions from footpath even if if its  unethical lolz – and that’s how I read the Musharraf book ‘Line of Fire’ etc (which even came with a Tamil translated version = hehe local charm). In this case I was determined the author must not make a single penny from India hahaha so the pirated version. If I like and respect an author, I buy him legally now.

Rarely authors/writers interest us personally, or do they?  Started reading English fictions in class 8. My first one was ‘Vulture is a patient bird’ by James Hadley Chase. Finished with him totally with that 1-2 years. Ever since I am an English fiction fan. The second one was Sidney Sheldon‘s ‘Rage of Angels’ in class 9. School had just started and I had had just lost my mother. A friend passed on the book under the table thinking that the hot scene in the book would take my mind off things. I read Sheldon exactly for that reason and I had to hide it in my house – in that age I thought my family would actually bother, catch me red-handed for those few pages and shame me. But the book moved me to tears – especially the part when the mother/mistress loses her son that the father never knew about. Wept over the fictional characters over even my mother. I knew what kind of writing I really liked then.

In between in high school and higher secondary (class 11 & 12), would finish one M & B a day keeping the book under my desk in boring school hours. Addicted to Mills & Boon. Biggest stress-busters and they are actually so girlish… even now once a while i make it a point to read them up hahaha. That is why I read ’50 shades’ – but its kind of extreme. Then there was some interest in Robin Cook etc but I found I had no appetite for science fictions. They seem so surreal, but like I said, my son loves them. In fact he keeps teasing me for my romance addiction.

What my son is reading up right now.

Never into serious reading or anything like that, read only for pleasure. Read anything that comes my way.

But so far there was never this urge to look up an author. Wilbur Smith, the old man is someone I love through whose eyes I am seeing Africa for a number of years now. John Grisham, I love for his sense of social justice. His pic was there in one of the back covers of his books that came as a surprise. In fact I was wondering, why must we know the author’s face.

Same with journos, columnists etc. Used to be a big fan of M J Akbar, Vir Sanghvi, even Pranoy Roy in those days but after Akbar joined politics and Roy got involved with NDTV, totally lost interest in them. Looking forever for that credible Indian writing in vain. I like bloggers in my newspaper ‘The Hindu.’ Down here people are somewhat serious, academic and so their writing style is different. The issues they take up are also different. I do read blogs in TOI – some of them are fine. Still can’t say what is missing in them all. May be that satire, that sarcasm, that wit. For all the happy-go-lucky nation we are, we are yet to produce someone like XXX seriously in this 1.2 billion nation of ours. For one thing, my newspaper Hindu will never entertain that kind of writing i know, they are so prim and proper. TOI is a tabloid so far as I am concerned, but atleast they experiment with things.

I do think we have that spot blank – earlier I think we had Khushwant Singh, oh Khushwant Singh, how can I ever forget! “Not a nice man to know’ as he used to describe himself! Why are Indian journos so tight and prissy otherwise. They also lack this vitality, versatility- they’re all oh-so-boring! Anyway, TOI has of late combined everything under one umbrella ‘Opinion’ I guess.

Chennai does get its fair share of international visitors. From Richard Gere to Bill Gates to Boris Becker, we have had a variety. Gates came here in connection with IT/Microsoft India. Since my city has produced a couple of junior Wimbledon champions like Ramesh Krishnan for instance and since this is the hometown of Vijay Amritraj (of Amritraj brothers), we have this strong tennis connection. So we have Indian Tennis Open which draws international players here (who are mostly retired). Because the city has also produced the World Chess Champion V Anand, the last world Chess title was held here recently (that sadly Anand lost in a nailbiting finish). (MRF Pace Foundation was also functioning alaongsideAmritraj’s Tennis Academy. Dennis Lillee was city resident a no. of years under whose able guidance those like Srinath etc trained. The Tennis academy produced Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes.)

So everytime a celebrity is here, I do think I must join the crowd and take a peek, but that simply has not materialized so far. Only on that particular day there will be too much of housework to do, bank work, or some important pooja or some family function or other chores that can’t be postponed. Or if my husband is in town (twice an year for almost a month), there is no way I get a minute free. Keeps me on toes all 24 hours – have to fetch even the water bottle from fridge to our guys sprawled in front of the tv (watching invariably for hours b & w cricket matches from ’50s and ’60s etc). Or i will be in Doha. (This time for a long haul in Chennai – because next year we will know where our son will be headed. So for next 1 year, wanna spend every minute with my sonny).  So somehow I keep missing the VIPs always.

Jeffrey Archer has come to the city twice I think – and both times ‘Landmark’ advertised his visit & book reading session followed by open meet with public. He signed every book sold that day. Both times i was in town but, after all, household chores kept me busy !!! Busier than Archer that is! Feel ashamed to think of that now. But cooking for family, cleaning up seemed more important at that point of time! A middle-class housewife’s priorities.

They think housewives are free – its true I have lots of free time in the evenings but never in the day time. Its the opposite in Doha – free in the day, busy in the evenings. There is always one work or other…

Anyway, never thought about looking up an author/journo before. Like never wanted to check out anyone but one day felt like hahaha. Donno why. The style of writing, the wit, the satire and sarcasm that actually masked a deep-felt ache at the way things were moving or working out, the fierce passion for everything you can imagine, a lively grasping narration, and more than all this wholesome goodness that I can’t define… all that wanted me to check out whose mind was that that was so fertile, so creative, yet so pained. All the while I thought like, ‘it must be one very soft heart.’  (except for beef-eating I suppose!) (love animals don’t eat animals 🙂 )

There is this spontaneity and sharp intelligence. and then I know its not easy to sustain the readers’ interest week after week for years. For that, you have to be someone extraordinary. You have to have that alert brains and the alacrity to switch over seamless over various subjects of interest. So that consistency is the mainstay of successful bloggers/journalists/writers in my unimportant opinion.You have to cater. And when someone does that so neat, well, then I wanted to see the face, wanted to hear the voice wanted to look into the eyes  lolz…

Well some authors/bloggers may think they are so … worldly or whatever, but if you ask me, they are like kind of boyish  (i mean no insult) that their writing exudes such an innocence that is so endearing,  like I wish I had known the writer from younger years…

There is so much honesty, so much of detail, so much of hardwork and research – a thorough homework no doubt. I do understand figures better – in fact only that first. Prefer write-ups based on facts and stats and years and dates and places that will give a solid back-up to any story. Like kind of evidence.

I may be only a bored housewife, and may be my opinion does not matter, but I thought I must record it nevertheless…

Because this kind of clean writing is hard to come by these days. Sometimes I get irked with those like Arnab Goswami (even if he is a tv guy) because I always have this suspicion in my mind that he is doing ‘paid news.‘ I am done with the likes of Barkha Dutt long since. I get this impression with most media people in India and may be I am true most of the times. If anyone could be finally sincere, they could still have this political/regional bias/clout that disappoints me totally. Which is one good reason, why writers must avoid tv.

There may be some religious/political posts in my blog,but most of the times I try to stay neutral. And even if am not neutral, it must not matter, because who am I after all.  Why must it matter which side I am leaning. However, with journos and media people, the case is different. I expect them to be neutral – and is that too much to ask for. Because those in public glare, whose every single word many of us hang on to, have this social responsibility. They are answerable. They are idols. They are like Gurus, and they will go down in history as ‘mind=shapers’ of the nation, won’t they.

So all these things playing in my mind made me check out well… some interesting columnists/bloggers.

May be because Grisham or Wilbur Smith do not share anything in common with me – like Indian roots if i can say that. And may be because they are not writing up our everyday story – theirs’ are entirely fictional works, a figment of their imagination. But journos or columnists are real people in the sense, they give us the local story, the happening story. They show us our real face in the mirror, they shake us awake out of our ‘enforced’ stupor. Many of us suffer from ‘selective amnesia’ whenever we wish to and that’s a problem.I do keep asking myself now why i never felt the urge to go and get autograph from Jeffrey Archer like so many others did – i could still have.

We do read may authors/journos, but those who write from home=base are who I respect most. Because they are in the thick of things everyday. They are not sitting cozy in America or London judging us or advising us or chiding us.

I kind of miss also honest writing in Indian scene. The bloggers in TOI sometimes sound bourgeois to me. Hindustan Times is okay. No time to check out every single write-up.

Sometimes when we lose all hope for a system, for a society, there comes this breather in the form of brilliant journalism, thoughtful write-ups. Then I think, not everything is lost – after all when something so chaotic can produce such a cute (!) mind and thought process, there is bound to be light someday at the end of the tunnel…

Sincerely wish India breeds this kind of writers.  Sympathetic, considerate, resourceful, earnest, down-to-earth, practical, witty, genial yet putting it all across right in our face, making things clear point blank. This kind of writing has a power to make people pause and think over. If this is not revolution, what is.

Used a fake email ID for years – but last year got a notification that the e-mail company that I have been using since my Malaysian days was closing down. So for the first time I used my original ID – like I got reckless and thought why should anyone bother. So I never tried to cover my trails. Anyway thanks for whoever visits my blog, today is a lucky day. I tend to get gibberish, still when someone lends a kind ear it is so touching.

I am tempted to introduce my son to this kind of writing that I am sure he will enjoy. He stumped me completely when I found him reading a local college boy’s fiction, ‘The great Indian democracy – a political satire!’ That was in Doha this summer and the book became a rage around the election times. The author is an engineering grad with an MBA who one day thought he would rather sell ‘momos’ and kebabs in front of Spencers’ stores in the city in hawking stands. Writing is his passion I believe and my boy happens to hang out in that particular street/area with his gang. So he bought the book for friendship sake – i still have it lined up for reading (son says ‘don’t bother).

I wish honest writers aim for more, want more – like definitely a Man Booker sometime. I wish sincerely. If plans are already afoot, fine.  C’mon why not. But one thing i want to say is, please dear authors and writers, don’t make books or pictures for awards on the poverty of the subcontinent, child prostitution or acid-victims or things like that. I want to read about positive things mostly. I feel totally betrayed when someone tries to cash in on our weaknesses and ugliness.

There never was this urge to qualify any author/writer, but with John Grisham I used to think he must be a wonderful guy, nothing more. For the first time in my life, I am getting a one-in-a-billion chance to look deeper into a writer’s heart – i need not ever have to see him in my life with my own eyes – but i have this gut feeling, I am reading up a very good man. An honest man. Thank you blogger for that!


UPdated 26th  morning:

Son just left for college at 6.30 and when he was having breakfast we both were watching BBC. He asked me what is US and India’s stand on Israel-Gaza conflict. I said India wouldn’t take sides given our bloody history. We are becoming aware of our past like never before – good or bad that may be and we have some ‘experiences.’ ‘But the past must not influence your current rational thinking’ said my son before he left to the bus stop. ‘A wrong cannot be righted with another wrong.’ Happy to see that my son is so level-headed.







From → Books

  1. I am smiling as I read your post because it so reflects my feelings…. Here is another take:

    * This generation does not seem to appreciate RKN and others of his ilk because they write about an India or a time & place that this generation cannot identify with. I grew up in Mumbai but in a traditional South Indian home and travelled to the South so much even as a child that RKN’s India with all its morals and mores is all too familiar to me. I am sure that is the case with many of us.

    I recently read translated works of MT Vasudevan Nair. I must say that while I knew what he wrote is a few decades old and was probably true of its time, I was annoyed with how dark his view of life was. Then I realised he belongs to a generation where such darkness was celebrated.

    The same is true of John Grisham’s Painted House. one way to look at it is that it is a sloooowwww novel; another way is to understand that he successfully conveyed the stifling atmosphere of life in the South of US at a particular time in history.

    * While I hate Indian authors who peddle misery and mayhem as India, recently I stopped to think of why I like western authors. Perhaps they write about a world I am unfamiliar with and encourage my romantic view of the west. As I have travelled the world, I realise neither is life in UK as idyllic as it is portrayed by Enid Blyton or The Bronte Sisters nor is the western world as licentious as we are led to believe.

    Given that my comment is as long as your blog, I will sign off now. Have a happy weekend. 🙂

  2. Thanks Aruna, you are a well-traveled and experienced writer, heartening to note that our view points agree mostly. Yes, to some extent I can understand why our GenNext cannot appreciate authors from our time, but those like Chetan Bhagat, I feel, are not the right people to grow up on. May be gadgets are the reason our young people like books they do.Like Vasudevan Nair, we have had ‘Jayakanthan’ in Tamil – you can try his translations, amazing creations really that have been made into equally good b&w tamil pictures in the ’70s. I will cite 2 good ones with Lakshmi (heroine of hindi film Julie) as heroine: ‘Oru nadigai naadagam paarkiraal’ (an actress watches a play) and ‘sila nerangalil sila manidhargal’ (some men sometimes). That will give you an idea of how advanced Tamil writing/pictures were for that period. Its a terrible loss to gennext to ignore them completely, they weren’t morbid, only too mature and heavy subjects even by today’s standards.. Always want to revisit the classics but the Zee Studio channel has spoiled me so now I also love watching pictures like “Pride & Prejudice’, ‘Little Women’ or ‘The count of Monte Cristo.’ Please do a photo blog of the places you have visited for our sake. Thanks for your comment and a happy weekend to you too!

  3. Well said…. I am already looking up the movies.

    I could not agree more than Chetan Bhagat is not something anyone should read; let alone impressionable minds. However, classics of their time will probably be different from ours.

    for a generation whose attention span is less than 40 characters, novels of yore would be a bore.

    BTW, I am reading Greek Myths by Robert Grave. The only thing I can say is that it is a textbook. (His footnotes span multiple pages; footnotes mind you, not endnotes). I am so tempted to make notes and draw diagrams.

  4. Shall google and try to get it. Any fiction suggestion pl. Pl do try all K. Balachander movies in tamil from ’70s, most are adaptations from great tamil novels. Try this song – a beautiful carnatic composition with different raags – this film is KB’s and is also the first picture for Kamal Hassan and Rajnikanth. Music director: M S Viswanathan. The singer is KJ Yesudas. Heroine is Srividya, daughter of carnatic vocalist M.L.Vasanthakumari (MLV) – she is sadly no more. This film is a mix of so many things: rebel life, carnatic music, traditional family system everything.My all time favourite.

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