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Sunday, December 30, 2007


Here are some of the authors I would like to read more of in the coming year

1.Philip Roth- One of the most influential figures in American and,indeed,world literature.I have read two of his novels-the classic "Portnoy's Complaint" and the lesser-known but equally hilarious"Our Gang".I plan to start his Nathan Zuckerman(his fictional alter-ego)series,which he concluded this year with "Exit Ghost".

2.Gunter Grass- The incomparable German,whose frantic,magical realist style inspired writers like Salman Rushdie,is on my list.His magnum opus "The Tin Drum" is already on my shelf,while a couple of others lie on the musty college library racks.The horror of Germany during the Holocaust awaits.....

3.Orhan Pamuk-I became a fan after reading "Snow" whose absurdist,macabre and Kafkaesque humour,coupled with a beautifully crafted tale of the (cliched) clash of East and West,won him kudos worldwide. A Nobel Prize followed soon after."The Black Book" and "Istanbul" are on my wishlist.

4.Thomas Pynchon-I read a few of his early short stories,which he had written much before the dense panoramic works like "Gravity's Rainbow","V" and "The Crying of Lot 49"(which I have on my computer right now) which were to make him famous worldwide.The famously reclusive author(very few photographs of him exist) also released a new historical novel"Against the Day" in 2006.

5.Hari Kunzru-The young Brit-Indian writer is every bit the modern writer.He announced his arrival with his debut novel"The Impressionist" and went on to write two more novels "Transmission" and last year's much applauded "My Revolutions".After reading a few of his science fiction stories,I must say I am looking forward to reading some of his longer works.

6.Milan Kundera-I have read a few of his essays,and I have the Czech stalwart's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" on my computer right now.I was pleasantly surprised to find Kundera in a bookshop in humble Kharagpur!(where my college is)

7.Michael Chabon-I was enthralled by his novella "The Final Solution" which resurrected one of the most iconic characters ever to be created-Sherlock Holmes,albeit an 89-year old Holmes,at death's doorstep,but still in supreme control of his famous mental "faculties". On my wishlist are the Pulitzer winning"The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" and "Wonder Boys".

8.Norman Mailer-The irritable,combative and,literally pugilistic(he had a lifelong obesession with boxing) veteran of American literature,who passed away this year(It was a sad year for America especially as both Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut bid adieu)is next on my list.I will be looking for "The Naked and The Dead" and "The Executioner's Song".

9.Joyce Carol Oates-Her incisive short stories(most of which I read on the online version of "The New Yorker")made a huge impression on me.She can make you cringe effortlessly and had many critics looking the other way.Along with her Canadian counterpart Alice Munro,she is one of the leading short story writers in the world today.

10.Amitav Ghosh-He is one of the best known Indian writers worldwide.I read one of his best known works "The Shadow Lines" a couple of years ago.On my list are "The Hungry Tide" and his science fiction novel "The Calcutta Chromosome".He will also release a new novel this year,"The Sea of Poppies",the first of a new trilogy about the opium wars.

P.S. If you guys thinK this is a bit too heavy or overtly"serious" list,I also plan to beef up on the fantasy/science fiction genre with guys like Terry Pratchett,Samit Basu,Eoin Colfer and Jonathan Stroud.Also ,coming up in February is the Kolkata Book Fair,so make sure you guys don't miss that one! Happy New Year and happy reading!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Chinua Achebe's Africa, and the magic of Marquez

Last week I read two very different kinds of novels,both by acknowledged literary heavyweights.The first was "Things Fall Apart",by Chinua Achebe,and the other was "Chronicle of a Death Foretold",by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.The former is perhaps one of the most talked-about works of the last century,widely recognized as The Great African Novel.I was aware of this when I started the book,and I must say,I wasn't disappointed one bit.

The novel focuses on the Igbo tribes of Umuofia(in Achebe's native Nigeria)and in particular,the life of Okonkwo,local leader and one-time wrestling champ.His father Unoka was a good-for-nothing,lazy idler who preferred playing his flute to working in the fields.Throughout his life,Okonkwo is consumed by a burning desire to prove that he did not inherit his father's weakness and laziness.He is thus,the classical flawed hero,whose pride and anger often override his essentially rational and kind nature.This is beautifully described in the scene where he kills Ikemefuna,a young boy from a neighbouring village,whom he had taken under his wing,only because the Oracle had decreed his killing.He does so even though the village elder advised him not to do so(as the boy called him father).His desire to be seen as a "strong-willed" man is far too important for him.

The life of the tribals has been chronicled with an obesessive eye for detail and a compassionate tone rarely seen nowadays.From the yam crops to the marriage customs,from the oracles,ancestral spirits and witch-doctors to the strict code of conduct,one comes out of the novel with a deep understandingof the Igbo people and their seemingly incomprehensible ways.However,as the story progesses,things do start to fall apart,as Okonkwo is banished for seven years,for inadvertently killing a boy.Upon his return,he is dismayed to find Christian converts in his native village,and even more so to see his own son Nwoye among them.(Nwoye never really recovered from his best friend Ikemefuna's death).What unfolds next tests Okonkwo's own honour as well as the dignity and independence of the Igbo people.

This is a terrific story,simply yet exquisitely told,with an eye for irony.It richly deserves that grossly overused term "classic".

Magical Marquez

"ON THE DAY THEY WERE GOING TO KILL him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on."This is the delicious opening line of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" ,partly inspired by the famous opening line of "The Metamorphosis" by Kafka, who is clearly a huge inflence on Marquez.This is the story of the murder of Santiago Nasar,and how nearly the entire town was,in a way,complicit.It is difficult to find conventional structures of chronology and narrative here,but this jamboree somehow comes together under the masterly pen of Marquez.There are conflicting versions,half-truths and lies,misunderstandings and misinterpretations.....all of these combine to create the quintessential Marquez mood.

A young bride Angela Vicario is spurned on her wedding night,when her husband finds out that she is not a virgin.And when she names Santiago Nasar as her "perpetrator",her twin brothers vow to kill him.A fantastic yet believable (the magic realism Marquez is famous for) tale unfolds as dozens of people,each having their own reasons,fail to warn Nasar of the impending threat.

This was my fifth Marquez novel,and he never ceases to amaze me.Let's hope Gabo(as he is affectionately called) continues to dazzle us in the years to come.

Friday, December 28, 2007


Play it again,Sam
I don't quite know when we forgot the radio.It might have been the day when we proudly flashed that oh-so-neat ipod.Or that brand-new phone with the great new sound system.Or maybe we might not have raised our heads from our laptops,after all.Whenever the death-blow may have been dealt,the fact is that we are all missing out on some forgotten pleasures.I re-discovered some of these during these holidays,courtesy a trusty old Philips.So,with a little help from Big Phil,I went about tackling a battered-looking copy of "Vernon God Little" ,the wickedly funny 2003 novel (I'll come to that soon).It was sheer bliss! The beauty of the radio lies in its uncertainty.As Tom Hanks reminded us all in Forrest Gump,"Mama always said life is a box of chocolates,you never know what you're gonna get." One moment you might get an absolutely foot-tapping number,and the very next song might be a slow,soothing golden oldie. Somehow,the absolute control one associates with a personal music system doesn't quite compare!
All of us agree,I think,that when you are on a month-long vacation from college,time tends to behave like Rahul Dravid on a sticky wicket(he made an agonizing 5 from 66 deliveries today against the aussies,by the way).I certainly owe a lot to Big Phil,in this respect.I suggest you guys find out for yourselves! So play on,ye sweet pipes,play on..........

Dirty But Clean
Yes,this is what DBC stands for , according to Peter Warren Finlay,the author who made his debut with "Vernon God Little" ,written under the nom de plume DBC Pierre.(The novel went on to win the Man Booker Award for 2003,along with plaudits from nearly all quarters)He might have been talking about his protagonist. Because 15 year old Vernon Gregory Little is both. The wise-cracking,sweet tenager also has a predilection for lying,has an unusually dirty tongue,and is especially unforgiving on his single mom.The action takes place in Martirio, the "barbecue-sauce capital of Texas". One of the main reasons why this novel works for me is its hilariously funny and harshly satirical take on small-town America-the petty concerns,the innate hypocrisies,and myopic dreams of its people.
Having said that,Vernon is a highly engaging narrator.Pierre has created one of the truly unforgettable characters of modern literature.You fall in love with him and his misadventures,even as you marvel at the quality of the comic writing on display.He finds himself on the run after being accused of a Columbine-style high school shootout which was actually committed by his lonely,dysfunctional Hispanic friend Jesus Navarro.The slightly hysteric tone of the novel works well as a rant against the trappings of pop culture and the TV rage(the reality TV gag towards the end will have you in splits).All in all,this is a delightful book,peopled with eccentric characters,and handled with a liberal dose of satire,yet remaining very compassionate.
Comparisons with "Catcher in the Rye" are ,perhaps inevitable , but in my opinion,this wacky work is in many ways superior to J.D.Salinger's much-loved classic.It does not go out of its way to make you cry,something Salinger was guilty of.Also,the handling of teenage angst is,I feel,much more maturely done by Pierre. The novel grabs you by the scruff of your neck,before you can say "Holden Caulfield"!

Read the New York Times review of "Vernon God Little" here

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Art of Vishal Bharadwaj

I just finished what has to be my seventh shot at Maqbool today . It's really remarkable,this funny little thing about great films, every time you watch them, you notice something something fersh,something remarkable which had eluded your eyes till then. One cannot but marvel at the vision of the man behind this modern classic-Vishal Bharadwaj.To take a Shakespearean tragedy and weave a cynical yet compassionate fable around it, takes some serious creativity.

Maqbool is a film belonging to the" noir" genre associated with writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett ,and directors like Martin Scorsese ,Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino. These are extraordinary men,but it is company Bharadwaj deserves. Technically,the film is almost obsessively perfect,with the director showing some bold sweeps of the brush,especially in the hallucinatory sequences of Maqbool(Irrfan Khan,at his mesmeric best)
The screenplay is crisp, the dialogues are on the button throughout,but what clinches the issue for me is the characterization,and therein lies Bharadwaj's genius.The portrayal of Abbaji,(Pankaj Kapur,who delivers a masterclass in acting) the dimunitive but chillingly powerful don,is unforgettable. The three wicked witches are transformed into two wisecracking,cynical,middle aged and crooked cops,played by veterans Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah. Macbeth was given an altogether new spin.

Vishal's next film Omkara had more mainstream "stars" like Ajay Devgan,Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor, but it was every bit as enchanting as its predecessor.Saif in particular stole the show with a smashing performance as Langda Tyagi. Again Vishal's eye for detail and impeccable characterization came to the fore with the badlands of UP proving to be an engaging backdrop for the movie. I particularly liked the depiction of Omkara as an aadha brahman or a half caste. Remember, Othello as depicted by the bard himself was a Moor, which was a racially ambiguous term. Not a shot is out of place in this powerful, moving tale of love,jealousy and deceit.

A man of diverse talents, Vishal Bharadwaj was an acclaimed music director much before he decide to dazzle us with his directorial ventures. Writer,director , music composer........ in my opinion , he is the closest thing we have got since Ray,for sheer versatility and briliance!
That the legendary Francis Ford Coppola requested him to shoot the indian portions of his recent film(when Coppola was bedridden) is a testimonial to his talents.
Here's to the next big hope of Indian cinema!