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The Indophile's Top Dozen of the Year

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December 2002
The Indophile's Top Dozen of the Year

In the world of literati, Indian authors have staked their claim. With a host of writers such as Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, V. S. Naipul and a score of others winning critical acclaim and international fame, the stock of Indian literature continues to rise. Here is a roundup of twelve notable books that attracted attention in North America, India and the U.K. These new books ? equally divided between fiction and nonfiction ? were published in the U.S. in 2002. They are listed in the order of popularity, starting with the most successful title to date in this country. One caveat: The ranking is based on an unscientific estimate and, therefore, not necessarily accurate. Nevertheless, all the books are interesting and have something worthwhile to say.

Life of Pi (Fiction)

by Yann Martel. Harcourt, Inc. 336 pages.

This allegorical tale of survival in the Pacific Ocean won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2002. At a glittering ceremony, shown on British television, Yann Martel managed to beat out some heavyweight contenders ? William Trevor, Rohinton Mistry and Carol Shields ? to win the coveted award. The story is about an Indian teenager named Pi (short for Piscine) Patel, who belongs to a family of zookeepers in Pondicherry. They leave for Canada with their animals, but the ship sinks on the way.

Pi remain  alive in a lifeboat, along with an ?injured zebra, a hungry hyena, a confused orangutan and a huge Bengal tiger called Richard Parker.? After the 450-pound tiger finishes off the other animals, Pi quickly learns to use his wits in the battle for survival. Pi?s admirable resilience and faith ?which is a blend of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity ? keep him alive for 227 days. When they finally reach the Mexican coast, the tiger vanishes into the jungle. Since the Japanese officials who question him don?t believe his improbable tale, Pi tells them another ? more conventional ? story.

In his author?s note, Martel tells the readers how his book was born when he was traveling in India. At a coffeehouse in Pondicherry, he met an elderly man named Francis Adirubasamy, who told him the story of Pi Patel. But is this chance encounter any truer than the novel that follows? This inventive and richly philosophical work is also entertaining. Martel - whose parents were diplomats - has lived in many countries, including India. Although he?s Canadian, this global writer now lives in Berlin. ?Fanatics do not have faith ? they have belief,? he said, soon after he won the prize. ?With faith you let go. You trust. Whereas with belief you cling.?

Family Matters (Fiction)

by Rohinton Mistry. Knopf.

448 pages.

Undoubtedly, Rohinton Mistry is one of the finest novelists who write about India. His books have won major awards not only in Canada, where he lives, but also in other countries. But the Booker or, now, the Man Booker prize has eluded him so far, despite being short-listed three times. He has been compared to Charles Dickens, and when it comes to the portrayal of urban life in modern India, there is no one quite like him. Mistry?s first book, Tales from Firozsha Baag, provides a marvelous entry into this teeming world, mostly filled with middle-class Parsis. Such a Long Journey, his debut novel, was made into an enjoyable movie, with Roshan Seth giving a riveting performance as the hapless Gustad Noble. His next work, A Fine Balance, went on to become a New York Times bestseller (one of the very few by an Indian author), soon after Oprah Winfrey chose it for her now-defunct book club.

Rohinton Mistry came to writing by chance. While working at a bank in Toronto, Mistry entered a short-story contest at the local university, where he was taking night classes. After bagging the first prize two years in a row, he never looked back. It was the start of his highly successful career as fiction writer.

Family Matters is also set in Bombay, but this time it?s the 1990?s. When Nariman Vakeel ? a retired professor who is suffering from Parkinsonn?s disease ? becomes an invalid, his uncaring stepchildren turn him over to Narimann?s daughter, Roxana. She?s kind and patient, but the burden of caring for her father in their small apartment overwhelms Roxana?s family. Mistry creates believable and engaging characters, and he?s a peerless master when he depicts their heartbreaking struggles and simple joys. The most vivid character in his books is the deteriorating city of Bombay, where Mistry grew up. In The New Yorker recently, John Updike wrote that he presents the ?diverse, congested metropolis with a realism that, if too wry to be called sober, might be termed Tolstoyan.?

The Writer and the World: Essays

by V. S. Naipaul. Knopf.

416 pages.

This is a wide-ranging and absorbing selection of nonfiction from Naipaul?s formidable oeuvre, which spans over four decades. In his introduction, Pankaj Mishra ? who edited the book ? mentions that ?of Naipaul?s travels in the 1960?s, the visits to India seem to have yielded the greatest number of intellectual and personal discoveries.? The first essay (?In the Middle of the Journey?) is an extract from The

Overcrowded Barracoon and Other Articles?. After describing a hilarious encounter with an inquisitive passenger on a bus, Naipaul observes that ?in this vast land of India it is necessary to explain yourself, to define your function and status in the universe.?

The postscript - which is a thoughtful meditation on ?Our Universal Civilization? ? was originally delivered as a talk at the Manhattan Institute of New York in 1992. Since the book also covers the African and American continents, the section on India is somewhat short. It?s a pity that Mishra did not include any excerpts from the third volume (India: A Million Mutinies Now) of what might be seen as Naipaul?s travel trilogy on India. For readers who missed the Nobel laureate?s work, this meaty compilation has representative samples of his nonfiction. For Naipaul?s numerous fans, however, there can be no substitute for the actual books.

Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction (1992-2002)

by Salman Rushdie. Random House, Inc.

320 pages.

In this book of essays and op-ed pieces, Rushdie writes stimulatingly on a variety of topics, ranging from politics to well-known authors. Although not as substantial as his previous collection, Imaginary Homelands, which was published about a decade ago, there is enough food for thought here even if the reader is not a fan. ?A Dream of Glorious Return? is a touching exploration of his complicated relationship with India, which he was able to visit again after more than ten years. In the long title essay, which was given as a Tanner lecture on human values at Yale in 2002, Rushdie talks about migration and frontiers. He says that in ?the dance of history? of our time, ?we step across these fixed and shifting lines.?

In the second section of the essay, he writes how ?Indians and Pakistanis have become each other?s others, each seeing the other as it were through a glass, darkly, each ascribing to the other the worst motives and the sneakiest natures.? He adds, ?I hate it, but in the last analysis I?m on the Indian side.? Some of the thought-provoking pieces in the collection were written in response to 9/11 and the riots in India.

Desirable Daughters (Fiction)

by Bharati Mukherjee. Hyperion Press.

320 pages.

Bharati Mukherjee has been writing since the early 1960?s, shortly after she came to the U.S. to attend the renowned Iowa Writer?s Workshop. When The Middleman and Other Stories won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1988, she became the first Indian-American fiction writer to gain prominence in this country. Mukherjee and her Canadian husband, Clark Blaise, have co-written two books: Days and Nights in Calcutta, a memoir from the 1970?s, and Sorrow and the Terror, which is about the Air-India bombing in the 1980?s.

According to some critics, this new novel is her best one so far. One reason could be the strong autobiographical element that runs through it. This sweeping work, with its explorations of differing cultures and philosophies, gives us a nuanced portrait of Indians in the U.S. and India. One of the ?desirable daughters? is Tara, an upper-class Bengali Brahmin, who leaves her husband ? a rich entrepreneur ? and strikes out on her own in San Francisco. The plot, involving gangsters and cyber terrorism, seems a little creaky and out of place at times, but the well-developed characters and the fluent narration keep the reader hooked. Unlike a lot of fiction these days, this is a novel of ideas that makes one think.

The Impressionist (Fiction)

by Hari Kunzru. Dutton/Plume. 416 pages.

This is a quirky, readable novel about the shifting identities of race and class in the colonial encounter between India and Britain. It generated a lot of interest and went on to become a bestseller in a few countries. The protagonist, Pran Nath Razdan, is born of mixed parentage (Indian and British) in the early decades of the twentieth century. While growing up as an Indian not far from the Taj Mahal, his true identity is revealed when he turns fifteen. When his stepfather throws him out as an outcast, the boy embarks on an astonishing journey that seems more magical than real.

In Bombay, where he assumes a dual identity as Robert and Pretty Bobby, he learns to use people even as they are exploiting him. After brazenly stealing an Englishman?s passport, he escapes to Britain, where his extraordinary adventures continue. Can one?s identity and allegiance be really changed? The epigraph in the book, taken from Rudyard Kipling?s Kim, begins with this line: ?Remember I can change swiftly.? It ends with a question: ?What shall the third incarnation be?? Clearly, Hari Kunzru ? who was born of mixed parentage ? has been inspired by this master storyteller of the British Empire.

The House of Blue Mangoes (Fiction)

by David Davidar. HarperCollins Publishers.

421 pages.

As the top executive in Indian publishing, David Davidar of Penguin India wields enormous influence in the world of books. He has discovered, nurtured and published many authors ? especially those who write in English. Now he has penned his own Indian opus, and it?s a panoramic family epic covering the pre-independence years of the twentieth century. Like Ayemenem in The God of Small Things, Chevathar ? where the action takes place ? is a typical village in coastal Kerala. At the turn of the century, Solomon Durai, the patriarch, is the headman of Chevathar, which is known for its luscious blue mangoes. When the story begins, he is trying to avert a tragedy involving caste violence in his village.

The saga continues through the turbulent period before Indian independence. In the final section, reflecting the rapid changes in society, Solomon?s Western-educated grandson, Kanan, defies family tradition and goes his own way. The novel can be fascinating if one is curious about the history and life of rural India in the first half of the twentieth century. ?One of my reasons for writing this book,? Davidar says, ?was to recapture memories of an idyllic childhood? in southern India.

Five past Midnight in Bhopal

by Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro. Warner Books, Inc.

403 pages.

Eighteen years after it happened, the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal remains the deadliest industrial accident in history. It?s estimated that between 16,000 and 30,000 people died over the years. Lapierre ? the author of bestsellers such as The City of Joy and Freedom at Midnight ? teamed up with Moro, a Spanish author (The Jaipur Foot and The Mountain of the Buddha), to write a compelling docudrama. They spent three years researching the book, and their letter to the reader mentions why the writing of the book was so important to them.

This searing account of the tragedy shows how, after all these years, many people in Bhopal are still living with the horrific consequences of gross mismanagement and corruption. Although their brisk narrative of the events is effective, Lapierre and Moro seem to be on shakier ground when relating their conversations with the victims. Perhaps the language barrier couldn?t be easily surmounted. Moving beyond being just a famous author, Lapierre used his earnings to help establish humanitarian organizations in Bhopal and other cities in India with the support of like-minded people.

For readers who wish to contribute to his worthy causes, he has included some addresses at the end of the book. As he writes, there are ?no overhead costs. Each donation received goes entirely to serve a priority need.?

The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature

edited by Amit Chaudhuri. Vintage Books.

672 pages.

In the prose anthology entitled Mirrorwork: 50 Years of Indian Writing (1947-1997), Salman Rushdie, the co-editor, made the controversial claim that Indian writing in English was ?proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the so-called vernacular languages.? Predictably, this comment led to a vigorous and, sometimes, acrimonious debate on the literature of modern India. In this new anthology, Amit Chaudhuri tries to give us a more balanced representation of Indian writing. Like Rushdie?s anthology, this volume is always engrossing, even when one is puzzled by the omission of certain authors (Rohinton Mistry is an example). One realizes that an anthology cannot please everybody because it remains subjective.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the strongest section of the book is on the literature of Bengal. Apart from selections by twentieth-century giants such as Rabindranath Tagore and Bibhuti Bhushan Banerjee, there is an excerpt from what is ? arguably ? the greatest Indo-Anglian memoir of the last century: The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian by Nirad C. Chaudhuri. As V. S. Naipaul once said, ?No better account of the penetration of the Indian mind by the West ? and, by extension, of the penetration of one culture by another ? will be or can now be written.?

Premchand and Nirmal Verma represent Hindi literature, while Manto and Qurratulain Hyder showcase Urdu literature. From the southern languages, we have U. R. Anantha Murthy (Kannada), O. V. Vijayan (Malayalam) and Ambai (Tamil). When it comes to Indian writing in English, Chaudhuri picks not only the better-known authors but also some underrated ones like Aubrey Menen and Dom Moraes.

Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India

by Ashutosh Varshney. Yale University Press.

382 pages.

This significant and timely book addresses a topic that?s, alas, familiar to many Indians: communal violence. Ashutosh Varshney, who is a professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, picked three pairs of cities (Aligarh & Calicut, Hyderabad & Lucknow, Ahmedabad & Surat) for his study. One city in each of these pairs has a history of communal intolerance, while the other city has a history of relative peace. People who are sufficiently familiar with India will have no trouble separating the cities.

One is reminded of Sudhir Kakar?s Colors of Violence, which was praised when it came out a few years ago. But the earlier work is a psychological analysis of the problem, whereas this new book is from a political scientist?s perspective. In his introduction, Varshney writes that he seeks to ?establish an integral link between the structure of civil society on one hand and ethnic, or communal, violence on the other.? In a work that Samuel Huntington of Harvard has called ?one of the most important studies of ethnic violence to appear in many years,? Varshney shows how intense civic engagement and integration can lead to harmony between estranged communities.

The Myth of the Holy Cow

by Dwijendra Narayan Jha. Verso.

120 pages.

Did Hindus in ancient India eat beef? Many scholars believe that they did, and now D. N. Jha ? a leading historian in India ? presents impressive evidence, drawn from various sources, to support this view. Before A. D. 500, according to Jha, beef was an important part of the diet in India. Then, however, the rapid expansion of agriculture made the cow too valuable for ancient Hindus, who eventually made beef-eating a taboo.

If the Hindu fundamentalists in India hadn?t taken notice, this somewhat dry but reputable work would have been confined to academic circles. But in a manner that was chillingly reminiscent of the infamous fatwa on Salman Rushdie, some extremists called for a ban of the book and even threatened the author?s life. As Sukumar Muralidharan, the Delhi bureau chief of Frontline magazine, said, ?It?s very much a reality of the culture here in India that scholars have to face harassment and intimidation.?

My Passage from India: A Filmmaker?s Journey from Bollywood to Hollywood

by Ismail Merchant. Viking Press.

160 pages.

This attractive book, with its lavish photographs (75 in total) and workmanlike prose, will be a treat for film buffs. The author grew up as Noormohamed Abdul Rehman in Bombay, but he changed his name to Ismail Merchant. This is the extraordinary story of his journey from middle-class obscurity in India to international renown as a producer, director, gourmet chef and writer. Starting with the Bollywood of the 1950?s, Merchant takes the reader on a memorable trip across different cultures. He writes about encounters with famous stars, and tells us how he met James Ivory, his gifted collaborator. Shakespearewallah was the first classic movie they made together, but that was just a start in a long and distinguished career. In a singular way, Merchant has adapted the styles of Hollywood and Bollywood to direct films such as In Custody, Cotton Mary and ? most recently ? The Mystic Masseur.


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