Thursday, January 19, 2012

Shrinking Artistic Tolerance in India

Recently the Indian government armtwisted Jaipur Literature Festival organizers to have Salman Rushdie dropped from their invitee list. The government has justified its decision by saying that Rushdie’s visit will hurt Muslim sentiments thanks to his book Satanic Verses which insulted Islam by caricaturing the Prophet Mohamed.

Rushdie has been coming to the festival since it started, but it’s the first time the government wants us to believe his visit will wound religious sentiments. UP elections are near and UP has a sizeable Muslim population. UP is a place the Cong, the leading party of the ruling coalition, can ill afford to lose because being among the largest states in India, UP has a big impact on general elections.

The Rushdie controversy is not an isolated incident. It’s the recent installment of a series of incidents in India where outfits of all political hues or their affiliates have attacked people or work (books, movies , paintings, etc) opposed to their strain of beliefs.

The reasons for the outbursts are varied. Sometimes it’s a political party desperate to retain its political space, sometimes a political newbie trying to make a mark for himself, sometimes a political party making a desperate bid to woo a community (Hindu or Muslim).

Three incidents related to books will help you understand the pattern.

Around seven years ago, Taslima Nasreen (the writer of Lajja) had been forced out of Bengal by the Left government and then out of the country by the central government which refused to renew her visa. Why? Because Taslima had expressed blasphemous views in her book Lajja and mobs had taken to the streets demanding her ouster from Bengal when her visa was due for renewal. The Left government justified its decision saying her stay would have led to communal riots.

About a year ago, a political aspirant from the Thackeray clan (a family that founded and heads a regional political right wing outfit which models itself on Hindu nationalism and chauvinism) got together a mob which burnt the copies of Such A Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry alleging the book to have provocative material (not sure to provoke whom) demanding the removal of the book from English honors syllabus. The authorities obliged (apparently to quell the mob).

And then came this Rushdie controversy.

As the instances above demonstrate, it’s not just parties coming from one strain of political or social belief who demand book bans and persecute writers (or creative people guilty of challenging popular beliefs through their work) for their ends, but parties of all political color (from left to right) partake in them and frame their demand and actions according to their constituency.

If you read the books as against the claims that the ban-seekers make, you will know that they don’t read the books they seek ban on. Lajja has nothing against Islam in it; it’s a story about a Hindu Bengali family in Bangladesh; and Such A Long Journey was published in the 70s (and demanded a withdrawal of in 2011) and is loosely about Congress politics in Bombay, in the 70s, a party which the Thackerays are anyway hysterically opposed to. (I have read Lajja, but not Such a Long Journey.)

This hostility on books or any creative output works on a certain belief.

Banning of a book or movie doesn’t hit people’s interest in the way, say, closing of a factory does. So whether you are part of the establishment imposing a ban or forcing out an author or you are part of sloganeering mob demanding a ban or an ouster, the belief on either side is since the common man won’t be hurt beyond, say, the denial of a book or a movie, they will move on and the intelligentsia will stop shouting on TV once the media get another story. Elections are won and lost on more immediate and tangible issues, not on books, after all.

And, of course, there is the additional gain for the political party of ingratiating itself with a group/community (whatever) through the emotive route, which has a long-lasting electoral value, where reason is always a casualty.

What the establishment overlooks is each time you yield to a bullying mob, you concede a space that is hard to retrieve. What they also forget is when application of force becomes an accepted means to silence a contrary voice, you lose the ability to tolerate because you don’t need to stress your endurance to tolerate; an easier option is available – force.

It’s one thing to brag about having great values (in this case, freedom of speech and free thought) as a nation; it’s another to be ready to defend them at whatever cost they demand. Great Britain gave knighthood to Rushdie in the teeth of opposition from the Islamic world. France gave political asylum to Taslima Nasreen after she was hounded out from India.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Ithaca - A Novel on Books, Publishing and Writers

Many years ago, I had read an Arthur Hailey book – Hotel – where the author had beautifully spun a tale around the hotel industry, introducing you to the lives of men and women who run it, taking you beyond the glitter and showing you the hardship, struggle, treachery and politics of the hotel industry. Since then stories set at the heart of an industry have interested me. This explains why I picked up David Davidar’s latest offering Ithaca.

Those of you who are not familiar with the author, David Davidar is a successful publishing professional who rose to become the President of Penguin Canada and had to resign the job following a sex scandal.

After leaving his Penguin job, David returned to India and has recently launched his own publishing house together with Rupa.

Ithaca is about the publishing industry, its existential problems presented by self-publishing and e-books, how talents are spotted, manuscripts pitched by editors, plagiarism, small publishing houses acquired by giants, careers made and destroyed, jobs found and lost.

A mid-sized publishing house based in London is struggling to survive, fighting as it is a recession and the advances of a publishing giant looking to acquire it to enter the UK market. Although it has been able to delay its slide thanks to three best sellers – a trilogy on angels - produced by its best-selling author, Seppi, it requires another blockbuster to remain afloat.

The problem is Seppi is suffering from terminal cancer and can hardly be counted upon to produce one. Seppi dies and Zach, the editor who had spotted Seppi, is tasked by his boss to find if Seppi left behind any unpublished work – unfinished novel or short stories – which they could publish to feed the hunger for Seppi’s work among his fans worldwide. This is their only hope for survival.

Seppi lived in Canada and wrote in Italian and had a translator to translate his work into English. Zach goes to Canada to meet the translator who was close to Seppi and is the only living person expected to know whether the recluse author left any unfinished work behind.

Bingo, Seppi did; and Zach’s publishing house acquires its rights for a hefty sum and Zach goes to Frankfurt book fair to promote the book. The book becomes a roaring hit, but its sucess doesn't help Zach’s publishing house to avoid getting gobbled by the publishing giant looking to acquire it.

David develops the plot well through twists and turns that keep the reader interested. However, he often moves in and out of the plot to accommodate interesting trivia from the publishing world that an aspiring author will give anything to know. For example, Davidar takes the scene to Frankfurt book fair to give his reader a detailed tour of the fair.
This informative approach often blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction, but it sustains the interest of the reader, who may be interested to know something beyond the story.

The book is understandably autobiographical and it also leaves you feeling that the author is forcing his views on you. Many a time Davidar argues in favour of conventional publishing houses as against online publishing and is somewhat reluctant to admit that their future might be in danger. Perhaps Davidar should have tried to maintain a detachment with his subject while writing on it.

Davidar’s writing style is simple and his main emphasis is on plot. His language avoids unnecessary clever turn of phrases or words you use more to intimidate your readers than to endear them. His grip on story-telling is not surprising given that he has been actively involved in the editing and polishing of many manuscripts that topped best seller charts. The author is certainly well-read and here and there mentions the names of his favorite writers to support his points.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Visit to Flurries in Calcutta

My habit to try out European food joints led me to Flurries when I was in Calcutta this time. During my stay outside Calcutta, many people I know have asked me whether I have been to Flurries in Calcutta after their visit to the city. I said I’m familiar with the restaurant but I have never been there. Probably it’s like staying in Bangalore and not visiting Koshys even once, in Delhi without a visit to Nirulas etc.

But even though I never visited Flurries, a mention of the name by my friends was enough for me to recall what they were talking about. I don’t know whether there are more than one Flurries in Calcutta, but even if there are, when one mentions Flurries in Calcutta and expects you to spot (unless he is totally unfamiliar with the city), the one he refers to is the Flurries in Park Street.

When I stepped into the restaurant, I was quite impressed with its sprawl and grandeur. It reeks of old-world class and exclusivity. I sat at a table and ordered for a chocolate pastry. The waiter asked me to go to the counter and take it from there. Even though they serve pastry at tables going to the counter and getting it myself would make it faster for me, the waiter informed. He told it earnestly and I didn’t feel offended.

I went to the counter and asked for a chocolate cake. The counter guy told me to go to a table and order it there. By that time, I had spent considerable time in the restaurant and didn’t want to walk out without trying out something – not to please them but to use my time well. Nor did I want to sour up my mood and start my Calcutta trip on a grim note. (It was the second day of my trip.) So I went back to the table where I was sitting and called a waiter. After hearing I would only eat a solitary pastry, he asked why didn’t I go to the counter and buy it.

This time I solemnly told him to get me the pastry. After some time he returned with a brown pastry. It was accompanied by a fork and knife. When I tried to cut my way through the damn thing, it refused to yield easily. I was scared of the knife suddenly rushing through the pastry and hitting the crockery with a nasty sound. The place looked too snob to let go such a plebian goof up without a frown.

When I discussed the place with one of my friends (its grandeur but unfriendly atmosphere), he said the joint is probably a remnant of colonial Calcutta where British officials used to visit to drink their tea with cream. I didn’t disagree with him, because Flurries stank of upper-stiff-lip club snobbery where respectability comes from your membership of a certain clique and not from your self-acquired social standing.

I can understand where this comes from. Mostly its patrons are rich (and burly) Marwaris who come and spend hours reading newspapers over a cup of coffee and pastry. Unlike other places, they are not approached by waiters reminding them that they have overstayed their time in the restaurant. This stay-as-long-as-you-want culture is dying in India because restaurants are mostly space-starved nowadays and a customer overstaying his time at the table means another has to wait.

This old-world style probably puts Flurries out of step with today’s no nonsense Euro joints where the staff behaves with you with a ‘tailor-made hotel-management-taught’ courtesy and leaves you feeling that here the luxury (or time) available to you will not outsize the bill you will pay. But Flurries isn’t complaining because in Calcutta there aren’t too many Euro joints to compete with.

It’s difficult to hold anything strongly against Flurries: because it’s such a nice place to be in. It’s located at a prominent turn-of-the road of Park Street and occupies a lot of the pavement where it stands. The front part of Flurries is wrapped by a tinted glass which leaves the inside looking mildly and pleasantly cloudy. Through the glass pane, you can see the world go by as you eat.

There are enough people on the waiting staff to ensure no table (and there are many) goes unattended for too long. And the behavior of the staff is generally nice, although it may sometimes leave you with a ‘new comer’ complex.

So although I left the pastry half way through, paid my bill (Rs. 75) and decided to leave in disappointment, I will return to Flurries again when I am in Calcutta next time.

Wish you a happy new year.
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