Monday, July 12, 2010


... in Brussels airport. I've been off the net for three days and very BIZZY, staying with wonderfully hospitable friends in Ghent, Paul & Bea. Am now at the airport and getting ready to leave for NYC. I hope to post pictures and more news after I arrive. For now, I need to log off and concentrate on the flight ahead. I belong to a little-known sect of international travelers which believes that no flight we take can land or take off safely unless we guide it with the energy of our superior worrying ...

Sunday, July 04, 2010

JOEL STEIN in TIME Magazine, about those Immigration Blues

When I started reading MY OWN PRIVATE INDIA I assumed it was meant to be ironic. Then I began to think, well, you know? It's a view I vaguely sympathize with, because it IS unpleasant to wake up one day to find that one's familiar neighbourhood has become UNfamiliar. Everyone knows that. It's like falling asleep in a pale blue room and waking up in a green neon pizza parlour (or the reverse!).

Then I began to think, Uh-oh! Joel Stein's e-mail box is going to be filled with hot, wet hate VERY SOON!

MEANWHILE, in other news, here's my review of VISHWAJYOTI GHOSH's DELHI CALM. I can never find India Today's online review links, so this is my own text-version (with my title for it -- the print title is most likely different):


The thing about a graphic novel is that it is so very personal. The author's hands have touched the work, not merely via the keyboard, but physically: the paper, the colours, the visual shape of the narrative. In this sense, it seems to me, Vishwajyoti Ghosh's graphic novel, his first solo work as an illustrator/artist, is so intensely internal that reading it is to trespass within the author's inner studio of thoughts, moods and memories. Even though he's invited us in by publishing the book, his style is that of an artist who would much rather not exhibit at all.

So yes: this is not a novel in the normal sense. Nor is it an autobiography. It's more like the disinterred remains of a national trauma, reconstructed by someone who must have been a small child at the time (three years old: I checked). The trauma was and is forever, the Emergency. Yet in this version, it is less a historical event than a state of mind. The political figures of that era are not named, nor are their parties vilified. The entire situation is presented as a crisis that began for an obscure reason and was then maintained forever, a bogeyman in the collective national psyche. The book suggests that as a nation and as a people, we have become so inured to being in condition of stressful anxiety that we have forgotten what it means to be any other way.

The narrative is presented in a series of discontinuous episodes focusing on the persona of a journalist, Vibhuti Prasad. Interspersed between his interactions with friends and fellow-thinkers, are sections presented in the form of newspaper clippings in which we see a character known as Moon who is clearly meant to represent a certain woman prime minister. The atmosphere of unease within the book is infectious to the extent that I find myself unwilling to name this historical character in my review. Indeed, it strikes me as both very odd and very sad that while India prides itself on being a nation with a free press, Ghosh could not afford to name anyone in his book.

The entire story is told as if it were a fever-dream, and though some events are all too familiar – the rise of the younger son, called Prince in this version, the forced sterilizations of that era, the midnight disappearances alongside the flowering of a rare and sweet idealism, as if only the extremes of political excess can squeeze the purest type of radicalism out of an otherwise inert populace – other effects are presented as fantasy. The wearing of ever-smiling masks, for instance, and the chopping back and forth across narrative lines.

The drawings are presented in a yellowy sepia brown, watercolour washes combined with sharp, scratchy ink-effects. I found the work most effective in some of the long perspectives, where the city is represented as a jumble of rickety aparments held together by telephone wires, illegal power cables and the once-ubiquitous cable TV lines. The title is a slap of bitter irony: there is nothing in the least bit calm about the book. It rakes over the coals of the past with anger and in mourning, for all that was lost and all that will never be.

Thursday, July 01, 2010


This is the link to my review of Manjushree Thapa's Seasons of Flight. Here's the review:

In the opening pages, Prema, a young Nepali living in the US, is asked where she’s from. She tries explaining: “‘It is near India’, or ‘Where Mt Everest is’, or ‘You’ve heard of the Sherpas?’, so that they might say, ‘Geez, that’s real far’, or ‘I could have sworn you were Mexican/ Italian/Spanish’, or ‘You speak good English.’” In this efficient, endearingly familiar way, second-time novelist Manjushree Thapa introduces us to a story about displacement, self-definition and one South Asian woman’s search for fulfilment.

Prema’s story starts in a small village near Kathmandu, ascending quickly through the loss of her mother in childhood and the commonplace hardships of poverty, to a college degree in forestry, resulting in a job with an NGO. Secondary plot-lines include a younger sister who runs off with Maoist rebels when they come calling, an anaemic romance with a fellow NGO worker and a stoic, undemanding father who only wants to see her daughter go forward in her life.

One day, in a spirit of indifference, Prema signs up for the US Green Card Lottery. When she wins, her response is characteristically laconic, as if resigned to her fate. Her inner world, however, is taut with emotion and she turns her face westward with a faint quickening of hope. When she finds a lover in the US, an attractive Guatemalan, she responds with an ardour native to her own passionate nature and her mountain culture. Another kind of heroine might have capitalised on the romance to build the familiar multi-storeyed, bathos-laden Asian drama. Prema’s different. She knows her path is an “ever-directionless zigzag trail”. In the spirit of a true seeker, she exceeds the stereotype. Her strength lies in the miniature scale of her aspirations. Like a tiny field-mouse setting out to find a niche in the limitless sprawl of the North American cornfield, she succeeds by being undeterred by her smallness.

Thapa has a light touch and maintains an admirable balance between telling a story and making socio-cultural observations. I enjoyed noticing the altered perspective of someone who might be mistaken for an Indian, but isn’t. Prema’s personal life is enviably free of the guilt and family-honour-type tensions of the subcontinent. Thapa writes as if she knows what there is to enjoy about sex. In a literary ethos where authors all but compete to earn the Bad Sex award, it was a rare pleasure to read a description worthy of the opposite.