Sunday, January 21, 2007

About books..and a book

I don't quite remember who first told me that it was a good idea - I think it was my grandmother - to write the date and place on the first leaf of a book that you either buy for yourself or are about to gift to someone. Although I couldn't understand what the deal was, with the writing - when someone for example gifts you a brand new Tintin - and you sneak away from the boisterous uncles and aunties - who were commenting on how funny your latest haircutting disaster looked - and start reading the first page and are just about to guffaw at the Captain screaming "Carpet Sellers" at an offender .. when you mom calls you back to the living room so that the auntie can write the date and place on the book. Especially when the Auntie asks you "how are studies going beta?"... to fill up the chilly silence. Man!!

Anyway, it turns out that I have right now an immense collection of books that have been gifted, all with the places and dates neatly scripted on the first page. Well - time has passed and I still have haircutting disasters as often as I used to. Each one of those books today seems to come attached with an tiny shred of long - forgotten memory. From Surat... to the tiny Angul in the middle of nowhere - tiny places that no one knows or hears about or cares about.

Well, Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Namesake" was the first book I bought for myself! This was as late as 2004. So accustomed was I to being gifted(and gifting) books, that the thought of buying one for myself seemed unnatural. It finally happened on a footpath in New Delhi - Rs 50 seemed an irresistible deal.

Since then - I have vultured the footpaths of cities I have lived in. The guy selling books on CMH road got so used to me stopping in front of his stall and looking and browsing , that after a few days he stopped giving me his salesman rap everytime I stopped by - and looked shocked to the core when I finally decided to buy one. My stance towards the piracy of books, is what is expected of a poor student in a world where Kiran Desai's new book costs Rs 1120. What can you do!

In America sadly, vulturing has little scope. With the exception of New York City where the footpaths were joyously dotted stalls selling everything for Kebabs to T shirts to Maps - the footpaths I have walked on are disappointingly barren... Anyways, I have therefore had the experience of buying "my first Book for myself from a store with a roof". Borders on Madison Square Garden.

The book was a christmas gift - I had a borders card. Anyway, I picked up "The Inheritance of Loss" by Kiran Desai. I had read about it winning the Booker prize - and had been waiting to get to a place where I could find it. There were no copies in Buffalo. I some how seem to identify better with, and therefore enjoy more, books by Indian authors - and have read authors from Jhhumpa Lahiri to Ruskin Bond - and have without an single exception thoroughly enjoyed them. or Had..

I have never read a book that has been better written - or that I have hated more. Desai is undeniably talented, and I cant but admire some of the magical prose that one comes across in the pages of "Inheritance" - but the book appeared to me to have the net effect of a Civilized Western Man looking at India - crinkling his nose - and saying "Eww - how smelly!". All the major characters of the book are Indian - and they are all one - dimensionally weak, sad ... and in an ignorant blindfolded awe of the west - of the magical land that is America. The characters have also given up on ever being happy. The book deals with the stereotype of the "Poor Dirty Indian". No matter what he does - education notwithstanding - he remains "the poor dirty Indian". He is unhappy, superstitous, a wife beater, a thief and of course - suffers of an insufferable inferiority complex towards the White Man. In fact so entrenched is the Indian in his numerous complexes, superstitions, customs,religious hypocrisy that he has no hope whatsoever of leading a happy, fulfilling life.

It is clear that Desai blames the west for the Poor Dirty Indian - and assuredly, the poor dirty indian exists - in millions, maybe - but in dealing with this stereotype only - she has helped fit the tunnel through which the west view India a little better in its eye.

From the book it is clear that Desai knows her prose, but she doesnt know India - and the gross misrepresentation of the Indian is sad - especially since she does it with so much beauty. She should go read some R.K Narayan.

Now I thought that I might be going crazy, because after all the book has won the Booker - but then I remembered - the Booker isn't given by Indians - or by people who know India.


Saikat said...

You don't think the book is worth buying, eh? I Just read one called "Bombay Time" by some US Based Parsi Author... a really depressing account of the typical Parsi community settled in Bombay. You planning to go for NAMESAKE when it releases? I saw a promo, got totally overrawed by the catchline,
"The greatest journeys are the ones that bring us home!" :)

pitamagan_5 said...

a very refined post, I see you have mastered the "art" . I find it very tough to write a piece without going to either of the extremes, I particularly like this one for the subdued tone ; talking of such writers , have u read any of naipal's books ? I never actually got through the one i was reading ( a house for Mr biswas ) , but looking back it seems to fit the description . and he too was honoured !

Ch@ry said...

a really good booker prize winner is 'vernon god little' by 'dbc' pierre.

i think most indo-anglican writers are very pretentious - kiran desai's mother anita leads the pack.

Sujan Dhar said...

i am planning to go for namesake,,I liked that book..

thank you.. maybe its us being parochially patriotic..but i dont think so..


will check out the book..
and will steer clear of the desai clan

candyman said...

Its sad but its a fact that for an Indian to win a prestigious Western literary award, the storyline has to be driven by the "poor downtrodden inferior" Indian stereotype. There are some notable exceptions though,
Rushdie's Midnight's children makes for a much better read, as does God of small things despite its social message and all...

Sujan Dhar said...

i agree.."God.." was a way better read.. this trend is saddening..

Prasoon said...

Huh.. Another feather in Anita's cap - She makes to final 5 in Kiriyama prize

Damn - i couldn't steer myself beyond 20 pages into that book - the style and content drove me crazy.

Justify this somehow ..

Sujan Dhar said...

@ prasoon

i dont know man..i ve never left the elder desai.. although i hear the apple hasnt fallen far from the tree