Author Interview: Deepti Menon on Satire, Stories and War


Deepti Menon is a well-known name among writers’ circles in India. Writing runs in her blood, as does teaching. She has lived in the Army as a child, and then as a wife, and travelled around the country to places, both beautiful and challenging. In 2002, Arms and the Women, her light-hearted book on life, as seen through the eyes of an Army wife, was published by Rupa Publishers, Delhi.
Many of her short stories have seen the light of day in anthologies as
varied as 21 Tales to Tell, Upper Cut, Chronicles of Urban Nomads, Mango
Chutney, Crossed and Knotted, Rudraksha, Love—an Anthology, The Second Life
and A Little Chorus of Love.

Today, Deepti Menon has agreed to give me an interview for my blog. We’ll talk about many a things, though our focus will be on satire as Mock, Stalk and Quarell, Readomania’s recent offering on satire in form of an anthology has been published and is available in online and offline stores all over India.

AN: How are you doing? Are you ready?

DM: Hi, Anirban! I am like that famed battery… Eveready!

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AN: Ha ha! Good. Our focus of this interview will be on mainly satire. Satire, as we know, is difficult to master. It is a fine art. Can you tell us what inspired you to write a satirical tale? What makes writing satire so difficult?

DM: Writing satire is like tightrope walking. You can either walk on it, perfectly balanced, like a professional artiste, or you can make a perfect clown of yourself as you tumble over in a heap. Satire is a fine-tuned instrument, the kind of writing that needs to hit the target that it is aimed at. If you miss it, you end up sounding ludicrous or hyperbolic.

AN: We have seen recently the bold steps taken by the government, and we are also witnessing the social and political changes India is going through. Many have different opinions about these issues and events. What do you think of the role of satire in expressing one’s opinion in present time?

DM: 2016 will certainly go down as a red-letter year for many reasons – money matters, (pun intended), the Trump card and of course, the end of the Amma era in Tamil Nadu. Is it a coincidence that Cho Ramaswamy, noted humorist and political satirist, also passed away soon after?

Right from ancient times, satire was always seen as a weapon to hold up the ills of society. It is no different today as well. If two pieces are written on the same subject, one in prosaic language and the other veiled in satire, it is always the second one that will evoke more curiosity, and drive the point home, in my opinion.

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AN: In the current Indian literary scene, we see a significant lack of satirical work. What is your response to such a situation?

DM: Very true, Anirban! The reason lies within ourselves. We, the homo sapiens, have turned into a dour, humourless society, unable to take a joke in the right spirit, be it in the case of cartoons, books, movies, newspaper articles or even WhatsApp messages. The powers above scream, like the proverbial Queen of Hearts in ‘Alice in Wonderland’, “Off with their heads!” And out pop the bans, which ironically, work well for those banned as they bring up the curiosity quotient.

Isaac Hayes couldn’t have put it more aptly when he said, “There is a place in this world for satire, but there is a time when satire ends and intolerance and bigotry towards religious beliefs of others begins.”

 
AN: In your story in Mock, Stalk and Quarrel titled, The Little Princess, we see a girl in search of true love, defying the social norms. Though, on closer look, it seems more like a parody. Through a mere matter of groom-matching, you have brought out the political situations of the country in a subtly humorous way. Tell us how you have come up with the idea of this story.

DM: Frankly, Anirban, this was a harmless little story that I had written a decade ago, because I wanted to come out with something light-hearted. It did not have any political allusions at all. When the idea of an anthology on satire came about, I stuck to the same story, but added on the rest, so that my story would fit the bill.

AN: Apart from situational comedy, we find many funny Wodehousian dialogues like:

“So what do you think? Isn’t he handsome?” Her eyes twinkled as she smiled at her daughter.

“Hardly, Mamma! He can get lost in a crowd of two!” The girl’s answer ruffled her mother’s feathers.

I have also read an article on Wodehouse by you. How has Wodehouse influenced you in your writing?

DM: I adore Wodehouse, and so, I love this question. I think his books are the epitome of good humour wrapped around in a writing style that is unique. I would often sit and chuckle over certain portions, even when I was travelling, and earned many strange looks in the process! I also feel that humour is one of the most difficult genres to master, and he is a master, indeed. I have friends who disagree with me on this point, but each to their own.

AN: At the end, the man with whom the girl falls in love identifies himself as ‘the Common Man’. In context of love and politics, its significance is something interesting to note down. Do you think that both a lover and a leader can be found amid the Common Man?

DM: “I think comedy and satire are a very important part of democracy, and it’s important we are able to laugh at the idiosyncrasies or the follies or vanities of people in power.” So said Rory Bremner.
I think in an ideal democracy, it should be the Common Man who rules. After all, it he who votes and brings people to power. So, a lover and a leader can be found in the Common Man. Please note that I am not alluding to the present Common Man, high on cough syrup, who sports a scarf.

AN: Recently, you have published your new novel Shadow in the Mirror under Readomania. Many congratulations to you for this success. What difference did you find between writing a short-story and a full-fledged novel? Of course, apart from short stories are short. Ha ha!

DM: Ha ha, indeed! J Thank you so much, Anirban. I feel that short stories need more skill, and that’s purely my opinion, because an entire story with a beginning, a middle and an end, needs to be encapsulated within a given word limit. Hence, the writing needs to be brief, and yet, sparkle enough to catch the imagination of the reader. A novel is a longer read, and the author has time to meander through the theme and make it work at a more leisurely pace.

AN: I have read your stories in Defiant Dreams, Urban Nomads and When They Spoke. A recurring theme of women empowerment can be noticed in your stories. This is also true for the story in Mock, Stalk and Quarrel too. There has not been a better time when the topic of women empowerment is of such importance. What do you think, as a writer, of the role of women in modern creative writing in India?

DM: My stories write themselves. I have never deliberately written a story on women’s empowerment. However, the issue is, perhaps, so strongly engrained in my psyche, that it comes out as a subconscious narrative. I think that all writers, men and women, should try and bring in a renaissance of gender equality and the empowerment of women and children.

AN: Does your new novel touch on similar issues?

DM: ‘Shadow in the Mirror’ is a work of fiction that has autobiographical elements in it. Thus, one of my main characters, who is a journalist, does fight against various issues that impact women negatively.

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AN: What do you think of the current Indian literary scene? Also about the publishing trends?

DM: The current Indian literary scene is bursting at its seams with new writers being born and published every day. Today, everyone can write, and does, sometimes well, and at other times, with disastrous results. But I do think that it is a very positive trend which will throw up “full many a gem of purest ray serene” that would otherwise remain hidden “in the dark unfathomed caves of (the) ocean”.

Publishers have also mushroomed over the years. Today you have traditional publishers, vanity publishers and self-publishing, as well. Hence, it is easier to get your manuscript published than it was in the past, like back in 2002, when my first book, ‘Arms and the Woman’ (Rupa Publishers, Delhi) got published.

AN: Name a few of your favourite authors.

DM: George Eliot, Alexander Dumas for their classics, Somerset Maugham, O Henry, Guy de Maupassant and Jeffrey Archer for their short stories, and Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle for their mysteries, are among my favourites. I also enjoy Indian writers like RK Narayan, Ruskin Bond, Shashi Tharoor, Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee and Jaisree Mishra. I have also enjoyed all the books I have read from the Readomania collection.

AN: As an experienced writer, your advice to young writers?

DM: Love books, read and savour them, and identify the genre with which you want to be associated. Most importantly, enjoy what you write, for if you don’t like your own writing, no one else will either.

AN: Thank you for this interview. It’s been a pleasure.

 

DM: Thank you so much, Anirban, for the interesting questions. All the best with all your writing, and God bless!

AN: Thank you very much. Same to you.

 

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Telegram, a potential new literary magazine .



I don’t write reviews of magazines, but I want to make an exception for this one. Tons of online lit-mags are coming out every month and most of them are of sub-standard quality in terms of content, design and editing. Telegram, on the other hand, stands out as a magazine exclusively devoted to literature.

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To review Telegram, I’ll take one issue (September Issue) as a sample and give an overall reaction.

It contains a balanced mix of poetry, short stories, reviews, discussions and non-fiction articles related to literature, music and art in general. It also has a fun quiz section on literature.

The theme for September is Cityscape; stories that are connected to your hometown, stories where cities become characters. All the stories have successfully achieved this. There is Bus Route 86 by Percy Wadiwala which describes Mumbai in the span of a bus ride. Its cricket, its humdrum, its buildings and corners – everything come into life as the narrator remembers his childhood city and the city now, how it has changed over years. Parallel to this cityscape, there runs another story, story of a failed love and tussle between two friends, powered by ego and politics. The end is both surprising and apt. A fine piece of fiction.

Prayag by Nilesh Mondal tells a person’s experience in a new city via a letter sent to a friend who has never tried to become intimate with her city. Madras and Pondichery come to life as the narrator describes his experiences at both places, and how he has fallen in love with the new city more than his hometown. This story is both description-wise beautiful – you get to experience all the five senses – and effective to incite the urge to know your city, to feel home with it. The result is a satisfying and nostalgic read.

Local Politician by Abhyudaya Shrivastava is a humorous take on a local politician during a bus ride. The hypocrisy is brought out brilliantly, in a way that is not at all offensive.

The poems go with the same rhythm like short fictions. Augmented Reality and Souvenir are the poems I loved. The Home I Left is a long poem wonderfully written that chronicles the journey of a city as it grows old. It reminded of a poem by Jibanananda Das which starts like: “I am walking for a thousand years…”

The discussion on Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and the study of the relationship between madness and literature is surprisingly insightful. I did not anticipate such a well researched article. It should be noted that Mrs Dalloway is often compared and discussed along with Jane Eyre and Wild Sargasso Sea. A few interesting observations could have been added to the article then.

A detailed and well written review of Persopolis is also there in the issue. Glad to see a graphic novel getting place in the magazine.

I was saving the cover story for the last, because I think it is of huge importance. The cover story on the upcoming Indian music bands is very informative and an example of good journalism. I like to mention that the article on JNU published in the July issue is also a very good one. I enjoyed reading that. There is a humour and truth in the reports, making them quite engaging.

One thing I like to suggest is to include one or two lines about the contributors after the index page or at the end of each piece.

Overall, I like to say that a magazine like this gives me hope that something good is happening in Indian literature. I believe, if it keeps up this quality, it’ll see bright days in its future. I have become a regular reader of this magazine.

On Beloved


A year ago, I tried to read this book, and left it. I was not familiar with magical realism and modernist writing. It was too difficult for me. Even now, the essence of such writing eludes me. But from whatever knowledge I gained from reading a lot for a year, I can now appreciate the importance of this book.

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Beloved is probably the most complex novel by Morrison. The plot, the characters, the setting, the language—everything is very complex.

Right from the beginning it is obvious how ambitious Morrison is with this book. She set out to write a masterpiece, a novel so important and horrifying and beautiful that it gained her the recognition of a great writer. And undoubtedly she is.

To give an idea about how meticulously Morrison drew the book, (yes, she drew, not wrote), let’s discuss the significance of a simple thing: the number ‘124’, the identification of the haunted house. Quoting Morrison:

It was important to name this house, but not the way “Sweet Home” or other plantations were named. There would be no adjectives suggesting coziness or grandeur or the laying claim to an instant, aristocratic past. Only numbers here to identify the house while simultaneously separating it from a street or city—marking its difference from the houses of other blacks in the neighborhood; allowing it a hint of the superiority, the pride, former slaves would take in having an address of their own. Yet a house that has, literally, a personality—which we call “haunted” when that personality is blatant.


On one symbolic level, the numbers 1 + 2 + 4 add up to 7, the number of letters on Beloved’s [B-E-L-O-V-E-D : 7] headstone. In Christian lore, the number 7 represents charity, grace, and the Holy Spirit, as well as completion and perfection. As we will see later in the novel, Beloved’s death signified the end of all of these elements in both Sethe’s life and the life of her family. The family became incomplete and imperfect. The number 124 emphasizes this incompleteness when examined sequentially. The number 3 is missing from the sequence, just as Sethe’s third child (Beloved) is missing from the family. A more complicated arithmetic equation denotes Sethe’s arrival at Sweet Home and her selection of Halle as her husband, an act that leads to four children, doubling of one into two and two into four.
[Courtesy: Cliff-notes]

 

Then comes Water: something that recurs repetitively throughout the novel. Denver was born in Water, Beloved comes out of the Water and when returns to Sethe, drinks four cups of water. Water is sometimes seen as a veil between this world and the other world. Water simultaneously symbolizes life and death. That line I’ll never forget: “A fully dressed woman walked out of the water.” Wow!

Feet are also significant in portraying freedom and love and sanity. Paul D reminds how many feet Sethe had: two, not four. Indicating what she did was animallike. Beloved’s baby-steps were marked portraying freedom. Sixo’s feet were cooked first; signifying death of another slave.

This book is full of such things (colors, manhood and more). I can go on for pages after pages showing how brilliantly she manages to do so much within mere 320 pages.

The following is not only a description of corn:

The jealous admiration of the watching men melted with the feast of new corn they allowed themselves that night. Plucked from the broken stalks that Mr. Garner could not doubt was the fault of the raccoon. Paul F wanted his roasted; Paul A wanted his boiled and now Paul D couldn’t remember how finally they’d cooked those ears too young to eat. What he did remember was parting the hair to get to the tip, the edge of his fingernail just under, so as not to graze a single kernel.
The pulling down of the tight sheath, the ripping sound always convinced her it hurt.
As soon as one strip of husk was down, the rest obeyed and the ear yielded up to him its shy rows, exposed at last. How loose the silk. How quick the jailed-up flavor ran free.
No matter what all your teeth and wet fingers anticipated, there was no accounting for the way that simple joy could shake you.
How loose the silk. How fine and loose and free.

The narration is stunning and beautiful. Innovative. Sublime, too. I learned a lot about language and how to handle it from this book.

Saying all this, I’ll say this is not the best work of Morrison in terms of language. This is the most important book, no doubt, but in a few scenes when emotionally disturbing events come into play, I felt she overdid with poeticism (only a few times, though), trying too hard to make the reader feel things, which is, well, not an example of great art to me. I’d say, in terms of language and narration, Love is a better book.

Till now I have read some five books by Morrison and this one will remain one of the most memorable books I have ever read.

A.S. Byatt rightly said: “A magnificent achievement.”

Magnificent, indeed.

Even the trailer of the movie gives me chills.

 

On James Joyce


Whenever people ask me who my favourite writer is, I blurt, without even letting them complete the question, “Joyce, Joyce, it can’t be anyone else.” And the reactions I normally receive are mixtures of surprise and doubt.

A writer who have not read even one Austen or Bronte novel, says his favourite writer is Joyce. It surely would stir doubt about the honesty of the statement. Even it can reflect pompousness, pretentiousness or boastfulness of an aspiring writer who wants to let people know that he knows things.

I don’t want to defend myself, I don’t need to. And I am not bound to explain myself either, because I really don’t care.

This post is my dedication to the writer for whom I have the purest, the most childish love possible between a writer and a reader.

(Before starting, I confess: I have not read “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake” yet.)

 

I never knew I want to be a writer. I am good with mathematics and science has always been my easy choice. Still, when time or mood permitted, I picked a random book and read. My childhood books consisted of the Bengali translation of “Tintin” and Bengali comics like “Nonte-Fonte”, “Batul the Great”. I never needed to seek stories in English language. Feluda and Byomkesh gave me all the Sherlock Holmes I wanted to read and “Chader Pahar” (The Mountain of Moon) gave me all the adventures I aspired to have. When I needed some serious stuff, I had our good old Tagore.

During my college days, I didn’t regularly read books. My selection was so random that I read one book by Bhagat, then next by Robin Cook, then Hosseini or Ken Follett or Coelho. I never wrote much either. One or two scattered Bengali poems max.

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James Joyce


So 19 years of my life had passed and I had read only some 20+ books. After graduating in engineering with rather good marks, I had too much free time. I watched all the movies I got from hostel and had all the boozing I could indulge myself in while staying in home.

I could do nothing but read books. I read “The Idiot” by “Dostoevsky” next. Strange, isn’t it? I just randomly picked it from my ebook collection I got from my hostel friends (reading or not you got to have collections to show off). It was long but I liked it. It was good time-pass for me. I read “1984”, “A Passage to India” after that, which I got from our town library. I attempted to read “Beloved” and “Midnight’s Children” back then but couldn’t understand it.

One day, I happened to come across a book titled, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” By then, I started to doubt whether I’d remain an engineer and go for research in control and automation.

The title and the content of the book had a kind of ironical justification to my mental condition back then.

There were few thoughts, emotions I used to have when I was child and I thought only I thought that, and they were my secrets, my very own little but extremely personal ones. No one knew it. But here was this book where I was seeing Stephen doing things, thinking things that shook me at the most vulnerable corners of my mind. For example when I read:

But he was not sick there. He thought that he was sick in his heart if you could be sick in that place. Fleming was very decent to ask him. He wanted to cry. He leaned his elbows on the table and shut and opened the flaps of his ears. Then he heard the noise of the refectory every time he opened the flaps of his ears. It made a roar like a train at night. And when he closed the flaps the roar was shut off like a train going into a tunnel. That night at Dalkey the train had roared like that and then, when it went into the tunnel, the roar stopped. He closed his eyes and the train went on, roaring and then stopping; roaring again, stopping. It was nice to hear it roar and stop and then roar out of the tunnel again and then stop.


I literally used to do that. During the boring lectures in the programs at my missionary school, I used to do that (opening and closing ear-flaps) and entertained myself. I thought I knew a trick that no one knew. It was mine. Mine. But this strange author came and took that away. For the first time, I realized what words could do to a person. I read that part again and again. After that, I came across this paragraph,

He turned to the flyleaf of the geography and read what he had written there: himself, his name and where he was.

Stephen Dedalus

Class of Elements

Clongowes Wood College

Sallins

County Kildare

Ireland

Europe

The World

The Universe


I wrote that in my school copies. (Anirban Nanda, Class 4, Section A, Saradamoni Sisu Niketan, Haldia, West Bengal, India, Asia, World, Universe.) How the hell Joyce knew that?

Though winter is short in my country, I cherished those nights inside quilt as described below.

First came the vacation and then the next term and then vacation again and then again another term and then again the vacation. It was like a train going in and out of tunnels and that was like the noise of the boys eating in the refectory when you opened and closed the flaps of the ears. Term, vacation; tunnel, out; noise, stop. How far away it was! It was better to go to bed to sleep. Only prayers in the chapel and then bed. He shivered and yawned. It would be lovely in bed after the sheets got a bit hot. First they were so cold to get into. He shivered to think how cold they were first. But then they got hot and then he could sleep. It was lovely to be tired. He yawned again. Night prayers and then bed: he shivered and wanted to yawn. It would be lovely in a few minutes. He felt a warm glow creeping up from the cold shivering sheets, warmer and warmer till he felt warm all over, ever so warm and yet he shivered a little and still wanted to yawn.


In short, I felt Joyce wrote this book for me to read. It was meant for me. The struggle of Stephen to find his vocation in later chapters resonated with me. Though the prose was becoming denser with each chapter, I read the book line by line. Read each sentence again and again until I understood it. I read it three times in a row. I almost ruined the library copy.

There are many more deeper secrets that I share with this book and for this reason, whenever I feel down, I read it; whenever I feel a block, I read it.

I read Dubliners after that and with each story —I must emphasize on ‘each’— I learned unexplored sides of human emotions. So, yes, even if Joyce had never written (thank God he did) “Ulysses” or “Finnegans Wake”, I’d worship him all the same.

Joyce is not just another writer for me; he is my tuning point, my Literary Guru.

A Forgotten Indian Masterpiece: All About H. Hatterr by G.V. Desani


It is matter of utter despair that a book like this, of such caliber and quality, is long forgotten. This is the first major attempt to break the pure English and mix it with oriental colloquial. Desani did something for Indian literature as Joyce did for Irish literature. Though Desani never wrote another novel, and though he published few short stories and a poem (Hali) apart from this, he was immediately recognized by the likes of T.S. Eliot and Saul Bellow.

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This novel is essentially a polyglot one, but it goes on to break the general assumption that anything polyglot is bound to be difficult (the major reason of this, obviously, none other than Finnegans Wake). I have never read a funnier book than this. Desani’s innovative play with words makes you read a page again and again and chuckle each time.

The reviewer at the Los Angeles Times rightly says,

“”I write rigmarole English,” Desani taunts, “staining your goodly, godly tongue.” Bless him, he does mash it up, bending orthography, stretching syntax, mixing in shards of Hindi, Hungarian, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, German and a goodly dose of balderdash, whilst tossing in references to Whitman, Shakespeare, Socrates, Freud and appeals to Kama and Laxmi as well as to Allah and Christ. Only a quasi-outsider (an Irishman, say) could have such an irreverent ear for the Anglo-Saxon tongue. But “Hatterr” is more readable by miles than “Finnegans Wake,” and a lot more fun.

 

To introduce to the style of this novel, let me quote H. Hatterr (Desani) himself in chapter III, page 120.

(…Wherefore, pious brethren, by confessing I lie, yoiks! I tell the truth, sort of topholy trumpeting-it, by the Pharisee G.V. Desani: see the feller’s tract All About …, publisher, the same publishing company): a language deliberately designed to mystify the majority, tempt ‘em to start guessing, and interpreting our real drift, and allegory, what the hell we mean: pursue our meaning on their sthula (gross), the sukshana (subtle) and para (supreme) planes, and levels, and still miss the issue and dash their heads against the crazy-paved rock of confusion.

We are getting the drift. Though the book seems pointless rambling (allusion to one of the characters in the book Y. Rambeli .. Why rambling?) of a person who loses in every adventure he goes to, the book is intricately structured. To quote from the paper: Chaudhury, Sarbani. “All About H. Hatterr – Desani’s ‘Novel Gesture’.” Glocal Colloquies 1.1 (2015): 38-53 .

The subterranean method in madness, mentioned earlier, becomes more pronounced as we encounter the making of fiction. Despite his numerous disclaimers, Desani’s novel-gesture (as I shall persist in calling it) has a rigorous structure: the two epigraphs labelled “Warning!”, and the production account followed by a “Mutual Introduction” of the inscribed author (Hatterr), serve as a kind of combined prologue for the seven chapters recounting Hatterr’s encounter with the seven sages. The rear is brought up by an epilogue labelled “An Afterthought” supposedly penned by another fictional character in the work, a lawyer who, as mentioned previously, prefixes the pompous title of “504 SrimanVairagi, Paribrajaka, Vanaprasthi, Acharya” to his more simple but nevertheless comic name “YatiRambeli” (giganticbelly) to suit the lofty task of providing a worthy defence for the hapless Hatterr. Apart from undermining the very defence it intends to uphold, the ‘naming ceremony’ is a dig at the aristocrats’ and god-men’s tendency to legitimise and iterate their political/ religious status by claiming a long line of descent from royal/ holy forbears.

Seven chapters form the main stay of the book where Hatterr, seeking lucre, lust and illumination, encounters seven sages across India who take on increasingly presumptuous names as the work progresses – sages of Calcutta, Rangoon (now resident in India), Madras, Bombay, “right Honourable sage of Delhi,” “wholly worshipful of Mogalsarai-Varanasi” and “naked Holiness number One, the Sage of All India himself!” – matching the ludicrousness of the ‘life experience’ encountered and the lesson learned thereof. Save for one, where Hatterr gains a princely sum of Rs 1000/- (Chapter IV), all the escapades conclude in inevitable disaster with Hatterr, very much the modern prototype of the ‘gull’ in classical drama, barely escaping by the skin of his teeth.

Each of the seven chapters is given an intriguing and often half-finished title – Chapter I. “The Sage, He Spake…,” Chapter II. “…Versus the Impressario,” Chapter III. “Archbishop Walrus versus Neophyte the Bitter-One,” Chapter IV.“Apropos Supernatural Agent…,” Chapter V. “Assault below the Belt,” Chapter VI. “…Salute the ‘Kismet’” and, Chapter VII. “Punchum and Another, with Contempt” – that literalise the ensuing content. For instance, Chapter V. “Assault below the Belt,” is literally an assault on Hatterr’s loincloth by a demented Naga sanyasi to relieve Hatter of his hidden stash of money so as to release him from the clutches of “Evil-Triumphant” green monster (223)!

To show you some example of ultra-creativity of Desani, few small excerpts are presented below.

Excerpt 1:

” The name is H. Hatterr, and I am continuing… 

Biologically, I am fifty-fifty of the species. 

One of my parents was a European,

Christian-by-faith merchant merman (seaman). From which part of the Continent? Wish I could tell you. The other was an Oriental, a Malay Peninsula-resident lady, a steady non-voyaging, non-Christian human (no mermaid). From which part of the Peninsula? Couldn’t tell you either.

Barely a year after my baptism (in white, pure and holy), I was taken from Penang (Malay P.) to India (East). It was there that my old man kicked the bucket in a hurry. The via media? Chronic malaria and pneumonia-plus.

Whereupon, a local litigation for my possession ensued.

The odds were all in favour of the India-resident Dundee-born Scot, who was trading in jute.

He believed himself a good European, and a pious Kirk o’ Scotland parishioner, whose right-divine Scotch blud mission it was to rescue the baptised mite me from any illiterate non-pi heathen influence. She didn’t have a chance, my poor old ma, and the court gave him the possession award.

I don’t know what happened to her. Maybe, she lives. Who cares?

Rejoicing at the just conclusion of the dictate of his conscience, and armed with the legal interpretation of the testament left by my post-mortem seaman parent, willing I be brought up Christian, and the court custody award, the jute factor had me adopted by an English Missionary Society, as one of their many Oriental and mixed-Oriental orphan-wards. And, thus it was that I became a sahib by adoption, the Christian lingo (English) being my second vernacular from the orphan-adoption age onwards.

The E.M. Society looked after me till the age of fourteen or thereabouts.

It was then that I found the constant childhood preoccupation with the whereabouts of my mother unbearable, the religious routine unsuited to my temperament, the evangelical stuff beyond my ken, and Rev. the Head (of the Society’s school), M.A., D.Litt., D.D., also C.B.E., ex-Eton and Cantab. (Moths, Grates, and Home Civ), Protor par excellence, Feller of the Royal Geographical, Astronomical and Asiastic Societies (and a writer!), too much of a stimulus for my particular orphan constitution. (The sort of loco parentis who’d shower on you a penny, and warn you not to squander it on woman, and wine, and
song!)

“Help others! Help others!” he used to say. Knowing that the most deserving party needing help was self, I decided to chuck the school, get out into the open spaces of India, seek my lebansraum, and win my bread and curry all on my own.

And one warm Indian autumn night, I bolted as planned, having pinched, for voluntary study, an English dictionary, the Rev. the Head’s own-authored ‘Latin Self-Taught’ and ‘French Self-Taught’, the Missionary Society’s school stereoscope complete with slides (my second love after my mother) and sufficient Missionary funds lifted from the Head’s pocket to see me through life.

From that day onwards, my education became free and my own business. I fought off the hard-clinging feelings of my motherlessness. I studied the daily press, picked up tips from the stray Indian street-dog as well as the finest Preceptor-Sage available in the land. I assumed the style-name H. Hatterr (‘H’ for the nom de plume ‘Hindustaaniwalla’, and ‘Hatterr’, the nom de guerre inspired by Rev. the Head’s too-large-for-him-hat), and, by and by (autobiographical I, which see), I went completely Indian to an extent few pure non-Indian blood sahib fellers have done.

I have learnt from the school of Life; all the lessons, the sweet, the bitter, and the middling messy. I am debtor both to the Greeks and the Barbarians. And, pardon, figuratively speaking, I have had higher education too. I have been the personal disciple of the illustrious grey-beards, the Sages of Calcutta, Rangoon (now resident in India), Madras, Bombay, and the right Honourable the Sage of Delhi, the wholly Worshipful of Mogalsarai-Varanasi, and his naked Holiness Number One, the Sage of All India himself!’ (pg. 31-33).

 

Excerpt 2:

PRESUMPTION: ‘Kismet’, i.e., fate — if at all anything, and as potent as suspected for centuries — is a dam’ baffling thing!
It defies a feller’s rational: his entire conception as to his soma, pneuma, and psyche!
Why did a feller like me commit matrimony with a femme fatale like Mrs H. Hatterr (née Rialto), the waxed Kiss-curl?
A personal query, but I don’t mind answering…
If only I could!
All I know is that I wanted to raise a family: add to the world’s vital statistics and legitimate: have a niche in the community, for my own kid, to hand out the wager till the end. And since you can’t achieve this without a wife — the neighbours wouldn’t let you! the police wouldn’t let you! — I equipped myself with the blarney-phrases, convinced this female that she was real jam, had me led to the middle aisle and gave the ready ‘I do’ to the amenwallah her brother had hired for the occasion.
This I did, knowing, hell, that between us was all the temperamental difference in the world!
Till death us do part! this museum-piece and I! And that promise — what a stingo! — after a conflict dating back to the donkey’s Sundays!
The female — contrast? — was poles apart: though, between the cur Jenkins, me and the Duke Humphrey, it did seem once that she was going to win my regards for good, by delivering me an heir-presumptive — my own piccolo le fils — to survive me (and be added to the looney-bin). But despite days and days of biological observation and anticipation — the wasted reference to the obstetric table and pre-occupation with the signs of labour — it didn’t come off. (Backed the wrong filly, or, maybe, something the matter with me as create-or!).

 

After writing this novel, Desani got deeply involved with spirituality and Buddhism and didn’t publish another book. He nonetheless inspired Rushdie to take the lead and expound upon the newly invented babu-vernacular and write another Indian masterpiece, Midnight’s Children (Rushdie’s essay “Damme, This Is the Oriental Scene for You!” is based upon this very novel).

I wanted to type and present few more wonderful excerpts but what can I do? Every single page of this book is shouting brilliance and I can’t choose! Desani was so sure about the importance and genius of this work that he had the following conversation with Khushwant Singh:

“Can you recommend me for the Nobel Prize?”

Khushwant was dumb struck: “But you’ve only written that one book!”

“So?” countered Desani softly, “Eliot’s written very little also!”

“Only Nobel winners can recommend others,” Khushwant protested weakly, taken aback by Desani’s total lack of modesty.

“No, even the Government can”, insisted Desani steadfastly.

Worn down by his persistence and ingenuous self-belief, Khushwant meekly signed the forms. Nothing came of it of course. The Nobel Committee checked with Dr.Radhakrishnan, Ambassador to Sweden and a nominee for the Nobel at the time. Totally unamused, he ticked Khushwant off roundly and Desani continued to live with his inconvenient loo across the courtyard until he took off for the Orient.

(source: http://www.dooyoo.co.uk/user/319051.html)

I’ll end my discussion about the book with the praises about it by the greats:

Anthony Burgess: “…it is the language that makes the book. . . . It is not pure English; it is like Shakespeare, Joyce, and Kipling, gloriously impure.”

T.S. Eliot: “… Certainly a remarkable book. In all my experience, I have not met anything quite like it. It is amazing that anyone should be able to sustain a piece of work in this style and tempo at such length.”

C.E.M. Joad : “… an original and remarkable book. It starts well and continues at the same level … to my surprise … the gusto, tempo and style all being maintained until the end.”

Edmund Blunden : “… Something remarkable here by this most curious and resourceful among writers. I can’t think anybody who pays attention will miss that.”

Saul Bellow : “I didn’t read many books while writing Augie. One I did read and love was All About H. Hatterr…. So, what about All About? I hate to be siding with T.S. Eliot… but what can you do?”

Salman Rushdie: “This is the ‘babu English,’ the semi-literate, half-learned English of the bazaars, transmuted by erudition, highbrow monkeying around, and the impish magic of Desani’s unique phrasing and rhythm into an entirely new kind of literary voice.”

Damme, buy the book!

 

 

Review: Spy from Unaula by Alok Kumar


Introduction:

The story is set in pre-independent India spanning over a life time of a character. The story follows Ram, who born in a remote village Unaula and his adventures as he frees himself from the bondage of social prejudices and backwardness of the uneducated society there. He is inspired and supported by his brother Bhagwati right from the beginning.

What I like about the story:

The content of the story is very unique, fresh and something we don’t see in present piles of romance, mythology and crime-thriller novels. The characters are normal, real-life people and events are told in good detail (the war with Japanese, the process of selection, the atmosphere of death). Especially I like the sketched images which frequently try to bring out the scenes going on in the book. It has social messages, about how a little person from some remote village can become big.

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Critical Comments:

The narration puts me off, to be honest. It is top to bottom telling in dull way. The story here is huge and if it is written with more patience it could become a 400+ pages epic, whereas solely due to the school text-book style telling, the book is merely 210 pages long. For example, it is not enough if one tells me that Ram is courageous and nervous at the same time. One can show that simply by his actions (like he elopes from his house just before 2 days of his forced-marriage but at the same times, trembles, cries sobs, wanting for water etc. when he is walking away from his home.) Or if one really wants to stick to telling, he should use similes, allegories to evoke cruelty, humor in the tone. For example, let see if the same situation can be written like : Fifty kilos of weight, he felt such pride and determination that he could alone conquer even Achilles if he tried to force him to marry that unknown girl, who definitely was not a decedent of Helen. By the way, when Bhagwati fights against Japanese in army of British, I have expected the mention of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, who was using the Japanese force to create the menace British felt.

To be Specific:

Plot:

The plot is has potential, as I have mentioned before. You’d agree with me after completing the journey of the characters in this book.

Dialogue:

It is natural and okay, but the amount of dialogue is very less in this book which is not compensated by good narration.

Characterisation:

It is good but could become livelier with more developed style of presentation. I wanted to feel the same disappointment was Ram was prevented from going to school, I wanted to feel the tension Ram felt when he was leaving his home forever.

Pacing:

Unnecessarily fast which neither creates the thrill it intends to create, nor allows the reader to feel for the characters.

Narrative:

It is mentioned in critical comments section.

Editing:

Not many typographical and grammatical errors. It’s neat.

Resolution:

Satisfying but could have been of more impact.

Overall impression:

A good read for readers searching for something new based on Indian setting which could become a far better piece of novel.

3 out of 5.

Amazon Link.

View my other reviews.

How to receive a review (both positive and negative)


A book can get both positive and negative criticism from a reviewer. This post is about how to handle such criticisms. Now, if you search in internet, there will be plenty of posts regarding handling a negative criticism, but no one tells you about the positive one. We shall try to discuss that too in this post.

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Before reading any review, remember the following:

1. The reviewer has invested 6-10 hrs of his time on your work. He has the right to voice his say.
2. If he thinks his time is wasted by reading your work, he can say bad things about your work.
3. If you get offended by that (and yes, you have also the right to get offended), you should be okay with it. Tastes vary.
4. If a reviewer tells that “this part of this novel is crap, and should have been written in this or that way”, it doesn’t establish that the reviewer himself can write the way he has expected to read.

Read the last sentence again.

Now, let us divide our discussion in 2 parts.

  1. Handling Positive Criticism: If you get positive views from someone about your work, then pat yourself, you deserve it. You should use this praise to boost your confidence and work harder to bring better work. 36657610-Cartoon-of-businessman-dog-receiving-excellent-performance-review-he-is-a-good-dog--Stock-PhotoBut I have seen in many cases, the recipient gets so inflated that he refuses to work hard anymore. Remember, every work will require equal and preferably more effort than you have put in your previous work. So boost your confidence with positive criticism but don’t become overconfident. If you become overconfident, points in italic in following will happen.
  2.  Handling Negative Criticism: If someone bashes your book showing valid reasons, analyze if those reasons are at all valid for you. In many cases, the reviewer may not get your intentions or visions. In those cases, as you are the creator and know more about what you are doing, you may (not must) ignore those points. But this is the way we've always done it.- Barron's Cartoon - by Kaamran Hafeez.

    Source – Barron’s Cartoon – by Kaamran Hafeez.

    On the other hand, if a good reviewer gives negative review and justifies his points with enough reasons and examples, preserve the review and apply the lessons learned from it. Due to overconfidence, if you respond with hostility to the review and ignore everything he has said, two things will happen: people will get a pretty good idea about your nature and you lose the chance to learn from your mistakes which you will iterate in your next works.

So, that’s it about receiving a review. This is the last post about reviewing and receiving them. Coming up: few short-stories, few discussions on books, some amazing workshops/articles/interviews by various well-known authors and a serialized post about something (I’ll reveal later). 🙂