In keeping with several of my resolutions in life, I've decided to keep tab of what I've been reading. And because I generally like reading such lists on other people's pages, I'm going to put mine up as well. :-)

Currently Reading:

The Gene, Siddhartha Mukherjee
The Hand, Frank R Wilson
The Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
Visions of Culture, Jerry Moore
Affliction, Veena Das

Next on my list:

The Adivasi Will Not Dance, Handsa Shekhar
Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee

Recently Read:

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
77 Dream Songs, John Berryman
Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence and Poverty in India, Akhil Gupta

court of fools

My love for Siddhartha Mukherjee is delayed. When people were talking about him (Emperor of All Maladies!), I didn't pick up the book - why would I want to read about cancer anyway? This year though, after a year of book drought, I was trawling across my house desperate for something to read. I had already started reading The Hand by Frank R Wilson, and was fascinated by much of the stuff he was talking about. I needed to run to the bathroom though, and it was nowhere to be found. (I only found it much later under layers of blankets on my bed). So I picked up the book at the top of my shelf - The Gene.

Mukherjee is, more than anything else, a storyteller. The book is tightly knit prose pretending to be non-fiction. The very beginning, his journey to Calcutta; the story of a monk; the middle, a complex plot of people, history and places putting together something resembling a murder mystery - except the mystery is about the fundamental make-up of the human material body. Consider this. His description of the relationship between James Watson and Francis Crick: "It was not an erotic love, but a love of shared madness, of conversations that were electric and boundless, of ambitions that ran beyond realities. (...) They were self-appointed jesters in a court of fools."

To talk about his way with writing people would be incomplete. His science writing is equally brilliant. There are a couple of pages where he describes the relationship between the genotype and the phenotype. Moving from genotype + environment = phenotype, he takes us through a range of experiments that lead us to a remarkable conclusion; that genotype + environment + triggers + chance (!!) = phenotype. Excuse me if I sound like I'm rambling about vague science-y things without context. But that's exactly the most exciting thing about Mukherjee.

He tells it like a story. Not just any story: a racy, murder mystery full of crazy characters racing through world wars, politics (both petty university politics and poisonous world politics), nobel prizes, love - to build a narrative about the Gene. Each step along the way is carefully constructed, taking into consideration every side of the debate - people in conversation with each other through academic papers, conferences, experiments, discipline; sometimes across time, sometimes within same universities and rooms; sometimes wilfully so, sometimes simply by accident.

Often, while reading the book, I told myself that this is the type of teacher I want to be. To weave together the most complex theoretical debates into such fascinating stories. Because at the end of the day, isn't that what it is?

The Lost Generation

The Lost Generation: Chronicling India’s Dying Professions
by Nidhi Dugar Kundalia.

Read my review here on Open Road Review. 

An excerpt:

"Once we move past the novelty of these professions, of the nooks they occupy in battles and epics, of their romance and nostalgia, we have to ask, so what! Are these professions indeed anachronistic, stuck in a timewarp surrounded by Rudaalis waiting to weep? Or, as patriarchy, caste and feudalism change their natures, do they continue to make space for these professions?"

city and the river

by arun joshi

um. i wanted to like it. really.

salman rushdie's new book

is stellar.

this is why i love salman rushdie. exactly this. it's witty, hilarious and perfect. it's full of parables - most directly taking apart the current indian and global political regime, questioning the role of religion in the world today, the notion of free speech... (my favorite line from the book has to be - "anti-national element is an element for which there is no longer any place in our periodic table".) at the same time, it's a triumphant story about jinnis, love, war and crazy things. this is the salman rushdie the world fell in love with - let nobody have it any other way.

a good run

I've had such a good run these past couple of months!

Firstly, I went to Turkey (!!!) and Istanbul, oh my god, is where it's AT.

Otherwise, the books I've been reading! SO good. After SUCH a long time.

I am Radar, which I am convinced is amazing:
"We can only witness the witnessing!"


The Sandglass by Romesh Gunasekara, which is as complex and lyrical a murder mystery as I've read:

"My father... would've said that arrack has been extremely lucrative for a hundred years, so someone must be (interested in it). It was the only route to real capital accumulation: cheap to produce, and a permanently addicted market. Why do you think the British introduced these taverns? It's like the opium dens."

or even:

"...selling the paradise experience between death camps and suicide bombers to tourists who didn't care."


Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut:

"Kilgore Trout once wrote a story called "This Means You". It was set in the Hawaiian Islands, the place where the lucky winners of Dwayne Hoover's contest in Midland City were supposed to go. Every bit of land on the islands was owned by only about 40 people, and, in the story, Trout had those people decide to exercise their property rights in full. They put up no tresspassing boards on everything.

This created terrible problems for the million other people on the islands. The law of gravity required that they stick somewhere on the surface. Either that, or they could go out into the water and bob offshore.

But then the Federal Government came through with an emergency program. It gave a big balloon full of helium to every man, woman and child who didn't own property."

(pp. 73; Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut.)

i am radar

by reif larsen

such. meticulous. detail.
such brilliant writing. (ok, also may be slightly sluggish in places, but i'm not one to complain. the illustrations and footnotes more than make up for it).
the kind of range reif larsen has is CRAZY. i think i have to read this book at least thrice over before i can see its bottom.

ps. there is such a thing as post-book exhilaration. once it has passed, people are known to say different things about a book. for now i have to say this - i lived with this book for about three weeks. i read it in small doses every night and looked up a lot of things that he writes about. these things ranged from cambodian and serbian history to poetry, birds, theatre and wikipedia pages on quantum physics.  i want reif larsen's job!

neapolitan novels

by elena ferrante

Way too many conversations I had last month were rants about how new Indian fiction writers often write their characters too flatly: they write the "Indian" in contexts they hope break class barriers (in english) and in language that sounds like it is translated from the vernacular. Especially those who write women. I understand what they're trying to do. It's a part of a larger project of making the unnamed, undepicted in images, not only unspoken but unspeakable* speakable. It is to give voice to a subaltern, write those who aren't known, whose concerns aren't valued, whose lives aren't written. It's a project I'm fully convinced about - it definitely needs to be done. 

But what comes out of it (especially in India) worries me. I can't put my finger on what it is, exactly. I know it's condescending of me to say this, but it's not self-aware or political in the way that it engages with its subject. If one is writing a character in a village in Bihar, or a slum in Bombay, or an earthquake in Gujarat, or a shop in Andhra Pradesh, it isn't enough to merely write that character in that context, one also needs to write a person capable of abstraction, intellectuality, thought. It is so easy to lose yourself in recreating what you imagine this person's world to be (even if it is well-researched), that you forget what it is like to be the person. 

Such writing, in its urge to "capture" or "represent" what it imagines is "real", forgets that no text is neutral or apolitical in its engagement. You have to take a considered position. It is such consideration, in my view, that sets good writing apart from the mediocre. (If I may quote the awesome Alison Bechdel**, "I had set out to name the unnamed, to depict the undepicted, to make lesbians visible and I had done it! Wait a minute... I forgot to account for the observer effect! I've disrupted the space-time continuum. You can't pin things down without changing them somehow.")  

It's also, if I have to get to the core of my problem, pretty damn patronising to write like that. So if someone is poor, they can't be intelligent? They can't have motives that aren't base? They can't be aware of their bodies, their sexualities, their emotions? They don't have the capacity to challenge power? They can't see what you see? They can't speak beautifully, in sentences that are fluid? They can't be political, engage in discourse? Why is it that you can't write poor people as people? Why can't you imagine yourself, give them a voice that is closer to yours, more personal? 

Anyway, the reason I'm talking about all this here today is because I just finished Book 3 of the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein). It's a powerful series written by someone who does exactly what is lacking - she writes women who are smart, challenging, complicated, intelligent and intellectual. I took some time to get caught up in the first book. I thought it read too much like a translation, often grappling with how much of the vernacular should sound that way. It annoyed me because I thought it was going to be a lot like these Indian writers and translations. (Where you hear the original language in your head and keep wondering how it may have read). The second book was good too, and I was really taken by the way she writes. The third book - the third book was spectacular. It felt like it was written by someone who knew what she was about. She was finally sinking her feet in and telling you what she really thought. It was more complete, more culled out. Less raw. Less intimidated. Fluid.


*"Whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography, censored in collections of letters, whatever is misnamed as something else, made difficult-to-come-by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language - this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable." Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets and Silence.

**I only just started to read The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, Alison Bechdel.

Out on the open ground not far from the buildings
an abandoned newspaper has lain for months, full of events.
It grows old through nights and days in rain and sun,
on the way to becoming a plant, a cabbage head, on the way to being
            united with the earth.
Just as a memory is slowly transmuted into your own self.
—“About History” by Tomas Tranströmer (from Bells and Tracks)

flood of fire

amitav ghosh

ties up everything, and most beautifully.
brilliant book, all by itself.

more later.

notes: mr. reid! whattaguy! (i missed mr. chinnery, but this "affliction" was brilliant! i did miss more of ghosh's humour, though.)