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2006: Books

The year of activism (from A. Roy to V.Seth via S. Rushdie), plagiarism (K. Viswanathan) and novel book launches — and an overview of awards, passings, controversies.

December 27, 2006

"I Have A Cloth Ear" "We thought it was quite original. In the end, though, I'm afraid we just weren't quite enthusiastic enough to be able to offer to take things further." So wrote Barbara Levy, a London literary agent, when typed manuscript of the opening chapter of Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul's 1971 Booker Prize winning book In a Free State was submitted to her disguised as that by an aspiring novelist. Other major literary agencies PFD, Blake Friedmann and Lucas Alexander Whitley all turned down the book. Sirji was not perturbed. "To see that something is well written and appetizingly written takes a lot of talent and there is not a great deal of that around," he said. "With all the other forms of entertainment today there are very few people around who would understand what a good paragraph is." Indeed. As the year drew to a close, he delivered a rare public address to the Royal Society of Literature and spoke of wanting intensely to be a writer, always, but "my talent took about five years rather than three years to develop. It did come, to my great relief, and until it came, I was very very wretched. It was the pain below everything I did." But it is a much mellower Naipaul now. For example, when asked why he hated Thomas Hardy (about whom he has famously said in the past: "can't compose a paragraph ... has no narrative gift") and if it is because he is such a poetic writer, Sirji was grace personified: "I arrived at poetry very late in my life" and "I have a cloth ear ... It is a deficiency. I am not proud of it ... But I am full of deficiencies like this, because I have been so focused on my own work that it's shut out a lot of other things." When asked if he regretted missing out on life, he said, "I felt that very much when I was younger. I regretted that I didn't have the time to - shall we say - have emotional adventures because I was doing my work. I have often wished that I could have three lives: one to read, one to write, and one to experience."

"Pick Your Side, Take Your Position, And Then Go For It" Arundhati Roy began the year by refusing the Sahitya Akademi award because, she said, she could not accept the honour from an institution linked to a government whose policies she opposes. She once again pointed out how Manmohan Singh is a 'prime minister who has not been elected. He is a technocrat who has been nominated. He is part of the Washington Consensus' (Last year she had upset the PM by pointedly asking, 'If Bush is so acceptable to Manmohan and the Congress, why lose sleep over Modi?'). And then came the Bush visit to India. ("Since the Purana Qila also houses the Delhi zoo, George Bush's audience will be a few hundred caged animals and an approved list of caged human beings, who in India go under the category of "eminent persons." ... Will the gorillas cheer him on? Will the gibbons curl their lips? Will the brow-antlered deer sneer? Will the chimps make rude noises? Will the owls hoot? Will the lions yawn and the giraffes bat their beautiful eyelashes? Will the crocs recognize a kindred soul? Will the quails give thanks that Bush isn't traveling with Dick Cheney, his hunting partner with the notoriously bad aim? Will the CEOs agree?) That was not all. In between she found time to speak out against the American army in Iraq and Indian army in Kashmir, against the Supreme Court micro-managing our lives, against the entry of Wal-Mart and Kmart, against Armed Forces Special Powers Act in northeast, against the Tata factory in Kalinganagar in Orissa, and, then again, in Singur, West Bengal. And then, finally, by the time we entered the last month of the year, she was railing against the death sentence to Mohammed Afzal, the accused in the Parliament Attack case, questioning the Supreme Court's decision: "To invoke the 'collective conscience of society' to validate ritual murder, which is what the death penalty is, skates precariously close to valorising lynch law." But when it came to Singur in West Bengal, even old allies were seeing red. Her remarks against displacement in the name of development ("whether the government or the opposition, they are all speaking the same language") provoked Brinda Karat of CPI (M) to lash out: "Ms Roy is in the company of Ms. Mamta Bannerjee, George Fernandes and Rajnath Singh and a 19 party alliance led by them (Krishi Jami Raksha Committee-KJRC) and has supported their campaign of anti-communist calumny."

"We're Fine, Thank You" Splitsville? Is the Rushdie-Padma Lakshmi honeymoon finally over?, we had asked. His Salmanness was cut to the quick and responded in an interview elsewhere: "Oh, for fuck's sake. All I did was say to some journalist that in the last couple of months we haven't seen much of each other because she's been making a TV series in LA. It's kind of difficult. It's difficult for any working couple to deal with this question of separations. But actually, there is no "splitsville". We are extremely happy. We are here. She is here. We are living in the same place in New York. Everything is fine. One of the things I knew when Padma and I got married was that the next story would be that we are splitting up. Otherwise there is no story: "People living together happily. The end. But we're fine, thank you." In addition to all this, he did find time, as the year began, to protest against the trial of Turkey's most famous writer, Orhan Pamuk, months before he won the Nobel for literature, for "insulting Turkishness". And when the controversy over Prophet's cartoons was raging, Rushdie once again was at the forefront of protests against protests:  "After having overcome fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, the world now faces a new totalitarian global threat: Islamism," while Iran reiterated that the fatwa condemning Rushdie to death over The Satanic Verses will remain in force "forever". That was not all, he also found himself " in the unusual position of feeling sorry for the Pope ... I just think people should calm down a bit. This immediate, manufactured outrage that takes place is getting to be excessive ... Look at the things that are not being protested about. In Darfur you've got a Muslim massacre of other Muslims. Why aren't there demonstrations about that in the Muslim world? That seems to me to be a much bigger thing than the Pope saying a 15th-century quote". When not protesting, he defended Gunter Grass's Nazi connection and collaborated on a work of art, Blood Relations, with sculptor and friend Anish Kapoor.

From Bangalore To Bengaluru Kannada Jnanpith laureate U.R. Ananthamurthy (URA) was named, by the ex CM of Karnataka, to be the brain behind changing the official name of Bangalore to Bengaluru. ‘Bengaluru’ is a combination of ‘Benda’ and ‘kaluru’, literally meaning ‘a city of boiled beans’— a title given to the city in the 14th century, apparently by a hungry Hoysala king who was fed beans by a poor woman. The official logic for the name change is that the ‘u’ sound (as in Uruguay) for noun endings is special to the Kannada language and renaming the city would be a special way of commemorating the 50 years of the state’s reorganisation. But it was not taken kindly by all. "The city’s name is common heritage. For the CM to make it look like it was the brilliant suggestion of one writer given to gimmickry is an insult to five crore Kannadigas. He should have said his government was proud to go back to the original name," fumed one D.V. Prahalad, editor of Sanchaya, a literary magazine. That was not all, he also decided to contest the Rajya Sabha elections on the shrill chauvinistic "Kannada lobby" reasoning and declared that this being the 50th year of the state’s formation, he was trying to save "Kannada pride", which was being undermined by the BJP and the JD(S) who fielded industrialist Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a non-Kannadiga. This, from the man who only a few months ago would talk loud about the "inclusiveness" of Kannada culture but now wants all states to adopt teaching in the mother tongue instead of English: "English in India just has a frontyard in form of English schools, whereas all other Indian languages have a backyard and a frontyard, and it is from this fertile backyard from where we will have the talented writers local languages." No surprise then, he lost the election.

"I Wasn't Aware Of How Much I May Have Internalized" It began as a fairly tale: Chennai-born Kaavya Viswanathan scored enough firsts in publishing history to make her publicists euphoric. At 17, even before she joined Harvard to study how to become an investment banker, she became one of the youngest authors when a book she'd written as a timepass was auctioned to America's most prestigious publisher, Little, Brown (now part of Time Warner); she bagged the highest advance it had ever paid a debut novelist: $500,000; her book, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got In was seen as providing a new, NRI twist to chicklit and was already heading for the bestseller lists, having already sold film rights, when the script went badly wrong. Multiple plagiarism charges surfaced. Little Brown initially indicated plans to release a revised version of the novel, but these plans were soon cancelled and DreamWorks ceased development of the movie. The book was withdrawn, all copies in circulation were recalled. We have a suggestion: why not an annotated edition of the book, with footnotes citing "references"? Elsewhere, the year saw enough drama in the form of fake memoirs (James Frey), and even a fake memoirist, JT LeRoy.

"...I Am A Criminal" 

So spoke the reclusive and reticent Vikram Seth, as he led the campaign to "support the overturning of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era law dating to 1861, which punitively criminalizes romantic love and private, consensual sexual acts between adults of the same sex," pointing out that 'Section 377 violates fundamental human rights'. "In a curious way, if I were to say that I acted on my feelings while I was in India, I would be saying I am a criminal. But of course I did eventually, and to that extent I am a criminal. And ludicrous though it may seem to you and me, the people who want to maintain this law on the books want to make millions like me remain, in our own views and in the views of society, criminals. That is absolutely ludicrous. But it took me a long time to realise that the problem lay not with me but with the injustice of those who want to preserve unjust laws."

"...A Bit Of A Bloody Fool.." Just days before publication of his long-awaited autobiography, Peeling the Onion, Nobel prize winner and Germany's most famous literary figure Guenter Grass revealed that he served in the Waffen-SS, Adolf Hitler's elite Nazi troops for two months in 1945. In an interview to conservative newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Grass said he volunteered for the submarine service towards the end of World War II but was called up to serve in the Waffen-SS in the eastern city of Dresden. The response was suitably divided. While Salman Rushdie was supportive ("His stature comes from the fact he's a giant in the world of literature and the fact he's made mistakes... You can either look at the life on the basis of a youthful mistake or you can look at it over the course of more than 70 years, most of which have been spent being, in my view, one of the two greatest writers living in the world, with Gabriel Garcia Marquez."), his good friend Christopher Hitchens typically was far more direct and scathing: "Let those who want to judge, pass judgment," Grass said last week in a typically sententious utterance. Very well, then, mein lieber Herr. The first judgment is that you kept quiet about your past until you could win the Nobel Prize for literature. The second judgment is that you are not as important to German or to literary history as you think you are. The third judgment is that you will be remembered neither as a war criminal nor as an anti-Nazi hero, but more as a bit of a bloody fool."

'Buy The Book' 

This was also the year of celebrity/novel book launches and promotions. First, Jaswant Singh's Call to Honour made waves for its references to an American mole in the PMO. Then, come September, and the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, began his address to the UN General Assembly by dramatically waving Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival: The Imperialist Strategy of the United States : "Representatives of the governments of the world, good morning to all of you. First of all, I would like to invite you, very respectfully, to those who have not read this book, to read it. Noam Chomsky is one of the most prestigious American and world intellectuals, and this is one of his most recent books...It's an excellent book to help us understand what has been happening in the world throughout the 20th century, and what's happening now, and the greatest threat looming over our planet." Perhaps inspired by it all, two days later, General Musharraf was with President Bush in a press conference and said he was "honor-bound to Simon and Schuster not to comment" on his book, In the Line of Fire before it was published, prompting the ever so subtle George Bush to remark, "In other words, buy the book, is what he's saying." While Musharraf's book was ripped apart by many a security analyst and the like, what had us chuckling was the typo which described the Pakistan capital as "Islam is bad". Meanwhile, William Dalrymple, Vikram Chandra and their publishers generated the usual hype, but two Darjeeling poets, Wangdi Gyalpo and Sonam Bhote created a new high—they were on top of the world, literally, when they released their book, Bards' Sketches on Mt Everest.

Guest Of Honour India had been featured at the 58-year-old Frankfurt Book Fair once before, but that was some two decades ago. As the international flavour of the season, it was no surprise that India became the first country to be chosen for the second time as guest of honour. The Indian delegation included Mahashweta Devi, Girish Karnad, Namdeo Dhasal, Mamang Devi and Dilip Chitre, while as many as about 70 Indian writers including Amitav Ghosh and Kiran Desai presented their work at the five-day event. Hear it from Mahasweta Devi (who, incidentally, also received the Padma Vibushan earlier in the year): "Sixty years after our hard-won Independence, the khadi sari is India just as the mini-skirt and the backless choli is. A bullock cart is India just as much as is the latest Toyota and Mercedes car. Illiteracy haunts us yet the same India produces men and women at the forefront of medicine, science and technology. 'Satyam Shivam Sundaram' is India. 'Choli ke Picchey Kya Hai' is also India. The multiplex and the megamall is India. The snake charmer and the maharishi-that too is India."

Awards Orhan Pamuk got the Nobel for Literature, while Kiran Desai's Inheritance of Loss got the Booker, first-time author Iain Hollingshead won the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction award for his novel Twenty Something—for his evocation of "a commotion of grunts and squeaks, flashing unconnected images and explosions of a million little particles". But, as the judges elucidated, it was his description of "bulging trousers" that sealed the win. Also of note, the 2006 Ig Nobel Prize for Literature went to Daniel Oppenheimer of Princeton University for his report "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly." The award for Peace, incidentally, went to Howard Stapleton of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, for inventing an electromechanical teenager repellant—a device that makes annoying high-pitched noise designed to be audible to teenagers but not to adults; and for later using that same technology to make telephone ringtones that are audible to teenagers but probably not to their teachers. click here for full list

Rest In Peace

Manohar Shyam Joshi, Pratibha Basu nee Ranu Shome, Raja Rao, Ravi Dayal, Naquib Mahfouz