Saturday, September 10, 2005

The social whirl

So I'm feeling lazy, and there's a hint of rain in the air, and the smell of brownies baking (not the hash kind, the walnut kind, sorry) and three editors whose screams can be heard faintly on the breeze as dem deadlines just sort of slide by--what's not to like about the day?

Feeling sociable, in the virtual sense, so decided to check out the neighbourhood.

Dilip D'Souza revisits scenes from the tsunami:
"I'm drawn back to this spot, behind Pandala Salai in Nagore, like a moth to a flame. The remarkable photographer Joel Sternfeld once did an entire book of photographs of scenes of great disaster; and it's on this trip back here that I begin to understand why. I know this is the spot where that poor woman was buried, back in December. I remember the scene in deep-etched detail, down to the man who ran up and used his cellphone to take a photograph of the body and his friends crowded around to see it, as if it wasn't enough to see the body itself in tragic flesh."

The Griffin's post on Being Really Poor has been doing the rounds:
"BoingBoing quotes [via Making Light] John Scalzi's Being Poor. And for the first time, I find myself genuinely upset with how little people in the USA know about how the rest of the world lives. Fercrying out loud, that piece is about luxury that some people in this part of the world can never aspire to.
Here, with no apologies to Mr Scalzi, is my version."

The Duck spits on spats:
"I wish I were an intellectual giant. The great thing about being an intellectual giant is that you can say silly things and people will take you seriously. So whether its Salman Rushdie blowtorching all Indian writers who don’t write in English, or VS Naipaul killing the Novel, intellectual giants draw splutters of outrage and passionate rebuttals instead of the quiet shudders and sympathetic glances they sometimes richly deserve."

Jabberwock celebrated his first birthday with a string of good posts:
"One of the things Sudeep and I discussed was that there’s so much talk of chronicling the “real India” - whatever that grossly overused term means - in current literature that a lot of other things get undermined: the experiences, for instance, of a whole urban generation that grew up in boarding schools in the 1970s and who are as much a part of modern India as anyone else."

Uma blogs about adult literacy...via rangolis:
"There are eight women in the learning centre, which is called the kalika kendra. These are women who are holding a piece of chalk or a pencil in their hands for the first time in their lives. First, they learn pre-literacy activities. Holding the stub of chalk, pressing it just so to the slate, making the first mark, scratch, line, curve, now curvy lines, wavy lines. Uncertainly, tentatively, delightedly, their hands move across the slate, pause, move again, then they laugh like excited children, they move the chalk again, they run it over and over the slate. It's fun even to watch. It's play....
...Months later, the class is celebrating. Outside Lata's one-room house, where the women have met every evening for so many months, on the dry powdery soil smoothened down with sprinkled water, they had first thought of organising a rangoli contest.
“But then we decided to make one large rangoli together,” they tell me, talking in an excited chorus. Rangolis: their intricate, gaily coloured patterns made on the ground outside the threshold of the house with rice flour. Complicated and beautiful patterns that welcome us into the house. And after all, these women’s hands have always been sure and confident when they make their rangolis: there is no uncertainty there, nothing tentative. And so, now, here is this huge and festive rangoli: a map of India, copied painstakingly from Lata’s geography textbook: an India that is roughly diamond-shaped, outlined in white, the oceans around the peninsula, now the state of Karnataka, now their jille within the state, now their taluk inside the district, now their hobli, now their panchayat, and now, magically, a little tamarind seed to show their village."

Amit Varma contemplates his--nope, make that The State's--kidneys:
"From this interesting story, I find out something that rather startles me: we do not own our kidneys, the state does."

Chandrahas goes from darkness into deeper darkness:
"All of last week I sat inside my room working, and the sun rose and set without my knowing very much about what was going on in the world outside; by the time I finished work it would be dark, and when I did leave home I went most days to a place where bright light never penetrates: the cinema."

Sonia Faleiro posts her Tehelka story on Bombay's migrants:
"City tabloids occasionally publish photographs of a furtive Nigerian looking suitably dodgy. The words ‘fraudster’ or ‘drug peddler’ accompany the picture. Unfortunately, as most Indians won’t actually come into contact with a Nigerian themselves, the media is free to reinforce stereotypes and encourage fear mongering of immigrant communities in India. And it’s not just the Nigerians. The Nepalis will rob you in your sleep, Russians sell their bodies and Bangladeshis are slum dwellers. Immigrant communities have always been open to unashamed pigeonholing and haranguing from the media, the state and its citizens. The majority of migrants leave their countries in search of better economic opportunities or freedom from persecution. But how are they integrating into Indian society?"

Absolute Lee does what it takes to be a Resident of the UAE:
"One of the pre-requisites for acquiring a Resident visa is the medical test. I was dropped off at the clinic nearest to our office, by the affable driver who told me, “First x-ray, then blood, then finish.”
Simple enough, I thought. I headed to the X-ray section and was handed an innocuous looking form at the Reception. My eyes flew open. I blinked a few times and shook my head just in case I had misread the questions.

Q2: I am not pregnant because:

a) I am single or widowed
b) I am on contraceptives
c) I am staying away from my husband
d) Others (specify)

There's heaps more, but India Uncut's hosting a blog mela soon, so I'll leave the hard work to them.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

55 word stories, brought to you by JAP

Blame Prufrock, he's the one who tagged me. The challenge is to write short stories at a length of exactly 55 words. He's got some good ones over here, so why he's tormenting a distinctly fiction-challenged writer like me, I don't know. On the subject of tagging other bloggers--nope, not going to do that. Instead, here's an open invitation. 55 words, Sibyl started the original tag, get yer creative juices flowing--and tell me about it.

Oh, yeah, here's my three:

For centuries, the oldest ghost in the world lived undisturbed, in a green-slimed abandoned stepwell.
Then the tourists came and she had to move.
But the newer ghosts jostle too thick, there is no room for her. She is fading; she doesn’t know where ghosts go when they die, but she will find out soon.

“If I’d said, stay, that night?”
His stubble is grey. Age spots speckle her hands. They’ve exchanged pictures of the grandchildren, spoken of the spouses, sat in silence.
She had said “Good night,” not “Stay”; that changed everything.
It saddens him. Not that the moment came and went, but that he can’t remember it, now.

The first visit to the zoo: the boy dreams that the cages are open, that the heavy sound of paws outside and the fetid breath near his pillow are real.
The leopard doesn’t miss his forests tonight. He twitches contentedly; his yellow teeth are cleanly bared. It's good to share dreams with a human, sometimes.

The BS Column: Coetzee and Costello

(Published in the Business Standard, September 6, 2005.)

With two days to go before the Booker shortlist is announced, this is as good a moment as any to consider the dilemma of the successful writer today. "Success" is an increasingly contentious term in literary circles. Should you judge a writer's work by the size of her audience, the number of prizes she's won, the number of column inches she commands?

Of course not, and yet to ignore the demands of success is to ignore the fact that publishing itself has changed irrevocably in this century. Can authors be manufactured? Look around you; from the kings of self-help sagas to celeb-lit all the way up to the buffed products of creative writing courses, programmed to turn out smooth, perfect, short stories and novels at the touch of a button, the assembly line is working at speed.

Is the novel/ fiction/ writing itself dead, threatened by (fill in the blanks) technology/ information overload/ the rise of functional illiteracy? As a product, no: there are more books being published today than at any other point of human history. As a vehicle for ideas, well, Milan Kundera argued decades ago that to look at a novel merely as a receptacle for ideas was to commit a despicable act of anti-reading. As entertainment, as spectacle, the book is alive; as an emblem of the quietly insurgent act of reading, the late Saul Bellow was right when he argued that every generation produces its own set of readers, even as it laments the death of the reader.

Through this century, the dilemma of the writer has never been more acute. If he chooses to retreat into silence, like Thomas Pynchon and J D Salinger, that silence generates comment anyway. If he chooses to be part of the publicity machine, he does the circuit: the airport shuffle, the interviewer dance, the switch from conference to literary festival--it's the same old dance.

J M Coetzee is one of the few authors who's found a way out—by using fiction as his shield. J M Coetzee is on the Booker longlist for The Slow Man, but it's of little moment whether he makes it on to the shortlist or not. What's interesting about Coetzee is how the South African writer has slowly erected a defence around the figure of the author using only the tools of fiction.

In 2003, Coetzee gave the oddest acceptance speech in the history of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He thanked no one; he made no reference to the Prize; he told the story of a fictional character whose fictions were brought to him by another man. It was a device he had used before. Asked to give a speech, he reads stories about an author asked to give a speech. Invited to a conference in Amsterdam on the nature of evil, he read out a story by a fictional writer called Elizabeth Costello who, in the story, had been invited to a conference, in Amsterdam, to speak on the nature of evil.

In time, he writes a book called Elizabeth Costello. In the book, he invents a writer who is famous for her fifth book, the one that rewrites James Joyce's Ulysses from the perspective of Molly Bloom. Costello gives lectures, usually to disastrous effect; the lectures she gives are amended versions of lectures that Coetzee has already given himself. In The Slow Man, Costello returns--as a character in someone else's story.

Metafiction is an old device, as old as Cervantes, and if you consider the frame stories in the Mahabharata, perhaps as old as story telling itself. Philip Roth came close to anticipating Coetzee's methods when he invented Nathan Zuckerman, who first appeared as a character in two autobiographical short stories written by another Roth creation, the writer Peter Tarnopol. Zuckerman lasted longer in Roth's fiction than Tarnopol, and the standard reading of the character was that he was Roth's alter ego, which was both true and an oversimplification of the truth.

But perhaps Coetzee understood the world rather better than Roth. The only proper response an author can offer in the age of the soundbyte and the seminar circuit is to put forward his fictions instead of himself, and let them do the talking.

Last Word: The pavement women

(Published in The Kolkata Telegraph, August 2005. In the week since I wrote this, Amina got in touch to say that her husband has found a permanent job as a courier for a local NGO. They're moving soon, to a better home. The only downside is that it's located in yet another slum cluster that's been targetted for demolishing--but that, says Amina, is something she'll worry about next year. Her other friends on the pavements of Mathura Road haven't been as lucky. And winter is just a month or two away.)

At first there were no pavement people. Then when the slum near our South Delhi residential colony was demolished two years ago, the footpaths and roads outside the Nizamuddin dargah slowly filled up with the homeless—all men.

Then the families, losing the battle to stay on the respectable edge of slum life, began to spill over the edges of the dargah into the streets. You'd see either girl babies or women whose faces had been polished into agelessness by fatigue and hardship, as though, for homeless women, you go straight from infancy to old age without passing childhood in between.

Every big city, from Calcutta to Bombay, has its homeless. Delhi has an estimated 1,40,000 homeless people—and that's a conservative estimate. There is little provision for any of the homeless, less for homeless women. Some NGOs have shelters for women. The government-run shelter for homeless women was shut down last year, just before winter set in.

For weeks, the pavement women and I passed each other by. I walked down those pavements often, but though the kids and I got friendly, the women had seen too much. They're tired of the journalists, the NGOs, scared of the police, terrified of the truck that might corral them like stray cattle and take them to the "beggar's home". The "beggar's home" is a place of terror: they will be separated from their families, locked up. More than even violent drunks or a hard winter, more than rapacious cops, they fear the truck.

Amina and I get talking only after she and her family have found a home—a plastic sheet over a doorway-sized space—in the dargah. She hails me: "You're the one who walks so much, you gave my daughter bananas once." She wants to know why I wanted to talk to them. I have no answer; I can't change their lives.

But she talks anyway. Her family is one of the city's silent casualties, their slow progress from village to railway platform to slum arrested by the demolition drive that sent them skittering into the street. Her eyes grow distant as she remembers her three street years.

The loss of privacy is hard, but you get used to it, she says. Winters are the worst; babies and the old die, warm clothes are yearned after but must be guarded ferociously. She got so used to the dust and dirt that she couldn't stop lifting up her youngest to smell her, all day after the first bath in their new home, a bath in dirty water--but, oh, she smelled like a baby, not garbage.

"The worst, Didi," she says, "was not the beatings or the cold, it was the nights." When sleep was an illusion broken by quarrels and fights for space, by police raids and traffic. She used to think about sleep all the time. Wonder what it would be like to spend an hour asleep, uninterrupted.

Amina has to visit another pavement family. She doesn't know whether their baby will survive this winter; the mother has gone mad, she says matter of factly. But as I start to get up, she stops me. "Wait, you'll have tea." And I see in her face something I never saw all those months we walked past each other: the pride of a woman who, finally, has something to offer me from her own home. "Yes," I say. "Thank you."

The BS column: Ripped To Shreds

(First published in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, August 30, 2005. After it came out, I got an email from Trevor Marriott: "Hi, As i was one who denounced her theory in my recent book, I thought you might find it an interesting read." His website is here; do visit.)

"Jack the Ripper is caught," Patricia Cornwell wrote at the end of her 2002 book, Portrait of a Killer . "We have done it together."

Cornwell is the bestselling author of the Kay Scarpetta mystery series. There are parallels between the creator and the creation. Like Kay Scarpetta, Cornwell knows her forensic science (though her heroine outstrips her); like Scarpetta, she has considerable means; like Scarpetta, she believes that an unsolved murder is an abomination; like Scarpetta, she has battled alcoholism and come out on top. Her books are respected for the accuracy of the forensic detail, though long-time Scarpetta fans are dismayed at her increasingly tortuous plotting.

In 2002, Cornwell put her reputation on the line—not as the creator of a detective, but as a writer turned detective herself. She claimed to have solved the most notorious series of murders ever; she claimed she knew the identity of Jack the Ripper, the man who murdered at least seven women in the Whitechapel area; she claimed the Ripper was the painter Walter Sickert.

Over the next three years, Ripperlogists tore her theory to shreds. While Cornwell had clearly spent time, money and passion on the research, her case seemed unconvincing. Though many doubted her theory about the painter, no one doubted that she believed that theory in all sincerity.

When I read Portrait of a Killer three years ago, I read it as a book about Jack the Ripper, and looked to see if Cornwell had actually assembled enough evidence. It seemed to me that she was after the wrong suspect, and her case was not convincing at all, though it was passionately argued.

This week, Cornwell is back with what she says is near-conclusive evidence that will go into the revised edition of Portrait of a Killer . To prove her lack of obsession with Sickert, the crime writer took out full page ads in The Guardian and The Independent that declare she isn't obsessed with him. I picked up Portrait of a Killer again, realizing that I had read it wrong: this was not the story of a hunt for a long-dead killer. It was a study in obsession.

Many crime writers know the impulse that takes you down a cold, long-dead trail. P D James did this in The Maul and the Pear Tree , where she tried to exhume the story of the Ratcliffe Highway murders. She and her co-writer set out, like Cornwell, impelled by a need to deliver a belated justice; but in the end, James conceded that she could not name the killer. The investigation was its own catharsis; she moved on.

Crime writer James Ellroy's mother was murdered when he was a child, and the killers were never found. At 32, he wrote Clandestine , a thinly-veiled account of his mother's murder in which he made his father the killer, even though he knew that was neither possible nor true. Then he wrote the Black Dahlia books, about the unsolved murder of a young girl, summing up his reasons cynically: "Boy, bereft, seizes on Black Dahlia murder case to express the grief he never felt on the occasion of his mother's death." It would take him more years, and more books, before he found a kind of resolution.

Even Ellroy didn't display the degree of obsession that Cornwell does with Sickert. "It has always been easier for me to get angry than to show fear or loss, and I was losing my life to Walter Richard Sickert. He was taking it away from me," Cornwell wrote. At lectures, Ripper fans watched in bemusement as Cornwell's paranoia grew—she hired armed guards to protect her from possible attacks from Ripperologists, she called anyone who cast doubts on her theories part of the "Klingon brigade".

Patricia Cornwell has one more chance, with the second edition of Portrait of a Killer . If she has worked out her forensic evidence, if she has made the case beyond reasonable doubt, then she'll have got what she wanted: banner headlines saying "crime novelist solves Ripper mystery". If she doesn't, and I'm betting she won't, I'll buy the book anyway, as a record of one of the strangest obsessions in literary history.

Man Smart, Woman Smarting

(Published in The Kolkata Telegraph, August 2005. Had a lot of fun with this one :))

Harry Belafonte was no statistics whiz or gender studies expert, but he may have been on to something when he sang:

"I say let us put man and a woman together
To find out which one is smarter
Some say man but I say no
The woman got the man so dey should know…"

The examples in that calypso are corroborations of the research done by Matt Ridley on the female biological imperative towards seeking the best parental candidate while retaining a mate who is better partner material, but has less suitable "father" genes. (To cite more scholarly sources, as the well-known calypso 'Shame and Scandal in the Family' has it, "Your mama she laughed, and said, go man go,/ Your daddy ain't your daddy, but your daddy don't know.")

If Ulster University's Richard Lynn only had to debunk calypso wisdom, he would do better having his controversial new research accepted. In a paper co-authored with Paul Irwing, Lynn contends that more men become chess grandmasters or win Nobel Prizes because there are more men with high IQs than women.

Lynn's previous work includes research that "proves" white people are more intelligent than black people, and that light-skinned Africans are more intelligent than darker-skinned Africans. Now Lynn is examining gender differences in intelligence, with equally controversial results.

The problem with Lynn's research is not that he's attempting to quantify whether intelligence levels are different across race and gender barriers. This is fraught but interesting territory, as authors like Simon Baron-Cohen have discovered. Baron-Cohen drew flak with The Essential Difference: Men, Women and The Extreme Male Brain. He suggested, much to the fury of the politically correct, that the critical difference between men and women lay in the capacity for empathy: men were more likely to systematize, women were more likely to empathise. He suggested that autism was an "extreme version" of the male brain, caused perhaps by overdoses of testosterone.

The implications of his research may be open to debate, but Baron-Cohen cannot be faulted in his analysis of men as being more likely to fall into the extreme ends of the spectrum. Both in terms of mental disorders, a higher tendency to autism—and possibly to higher IQ levels—men show up at the extreme ends of the scale.

Unlike Richard Lynn, Baron-Cohen is dispassionate about presenting both ends of the extreme when it comes to male cognition. Richard Lynn's findings about higher male IQs may be derided, but in one respect they match the facts. IQ test takers have long since known that men score more at the extremes of IQ test scoring—both high and low.
Lynn could have argued, using the same statistics, that there are more men of low IQ than women. (There tend to be more women of middle and slightly higher than average IQ than men, extending the same argument.)

What's really disappointing about Lynn's research is not that it's pointlessly controversial—his track record indicates that he is not afraid of controversy. But he has paid no attention to the really interesting research about gender and the brain, which also comes from measuring IQ scores of men and women in the same range. Researchers found that women use their frontal lobes more; men use their frontal and parietal lobes equally. But though they used different paths to problem-solving, they got there just the same. Now that is fascinating, but it's not going to make the headlines in the same way "Woman Smart, Man Smarter" does.

No Bed of Rhesus

(Published in Outlook City. Wrote a version of this in a post for Animal Rights India. As for the monkeys, they're still here...we're still getting along, and I reflect that, well, I've had worse-behaved human guests so I shouldn't complain.)

My guests have been hooted at, had obscene gestures made at them, and showered with muck. "Really," they say nervously, retreating from verandah to main house, "it's a zoo in here." A gibbering band of bandars celebrates our departure by doing imitations of The Who at the guitar-smashing stage. Because of the curious fence around the verandah, it feels like being in a cage: on display, harassed, hoping the bars will hold.

The first monkeys I met in Delhi were much more polite: the twice-born, the legendary rhesus macaques of North and South Block. Civil servants and ministers came and went, but there were always monkeys in the corridors of power.

It's often said that it's hard to tell the three apart, but that's not true. The ones who do their raiding in bands are the civil servants, the ones who jump up and down and hoot raucously are the politicians, and the quiet guys over there, reading files and sipping tea, that's the Bandar-log. The only real grief they caused the Government of India aside from shredded files was that, in the heart of Red Tape Land, they refused to sign attendance registers.

The four places where you'll always find monkeys are at the University, near Parliament, in temples and on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, home to the media. The University monkeys were more civilized than the students: they refrained from eve-teasing, rigging elections and organizing bandhs and only got into the bhang on Holi.

The BSZ Marg monkeys often dropped in for cups of Akhtar's tea. One group of four would sit with grave solemnity at the Udupi while the waiters brought their regular "order": garish ice creams with vadas on the side, no sambar. Like true media types, they never paid the bill. When the Old Lady of Boribunder turned into slutty Page 3 pin-up, the monkeys endeared themselves to us by getting smashed on purloined rum and pissing into the water tank on the ToI roof.

As Delhi expanded and its forests died, rhesus macaque became permanent migrants, small bands of furry exiles always on the run, displaced by yet another granite-marble colony or mall. Papers wrote of the "monkey menace": the baby biters, the homicidal ones who killed people by dropping flower pots on their heads. No one mentioned that we'd made them homeless in the first place. The MCD caught monkeys and dropped them off at the ruined ramparts of Tughlaqabad; they came back, searching endlessly for the homes we'd taken from them. Parliament hired langurs, about the only other monkey that rhesus macaque fears, and Priti Langur and Hero Langur scared off monkey bands as official servants of the state (payment in bananas).

The band of bandars who scared my guests was terrifying at first, the bulls gnashing and barking, the mothers rampaging like thwarted vamps, even the babies baring their little teeth. We called the langur man, but his langur was on holiday—"chutti ke liye Mashobra jaati hai". So we did nothing for a few days, beyond politely asking the littlest baby not to pee through the bars.

Yesterday, they were quieter, less hostile. The bulls slumped like tired clerks and stared into the sunset. The mothers slept in tree branches, holding their babies close. When I asked them to stop thumping the bars, they obliged. The afternoon settled into peace. In the evening, a baby monkey came shyly up to the bars, and pushed a bit of fruit in at me, looking coy. I think I'm going to have to tell my landlord he has sub-tenants.

The BS column: The guardians of the gates

(Published in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, on August 24, 2005)

I'm skeptical about software packages for writers, but that comes from years of trying to persuade my machine to write my column for me. To no effect: the computer has better memory than I do, but it also has permanent writer's block.

One of the cleverer writing software packages is called New Novelist--"The software will coax the detail out of you and store it in a useable and accessible format…" It's interesting how well New Novelist understands market forces: "You're then asked to choose which category (plot-driven, character-driven or epic) and plot-type your story uses."

This is cynical, but not bad, advice to the aspiring, untested writer: decide in advance whether you want to be High Lit, or crime, or chicklit, then figure out how to write it. It may have not been how Faulkner or Soyinka, Raymond Chandler or Ursula K Le Guin got going, but it's a start.

Mainstream literary prize lists reveal a deep paranoia, a grand defence of the literary novel versus whatever oozing horror might try to slide through the gates. Margaret Atwood would make the cut for a Booker shortlist with mediocre science fiction allied to tremendous literary skill, but Nancy Kress (Beggars in Spain), a brilliant writer who can ask classic SFs question with as much literary style as the most dessicated critic might desire—no, she's out. The ambitious, sprawling, cluttered epics of Don DeLillo or Salman Rushdie or Peter Carey qualify; but the far more ambitious epics of Neil Gaiman or Stephen King stay outside the gates.

It's the market that needs genres, divisions and careful corralling of authors; with more books being published in our time, the publishing industry needs labeling and categorization as much as the food industry. Whether a particular writer is actually a rare epicure taste, an exotic indulgence, a mainstream gourmet pleasure or a processed mass-market snack is less important than the fact that the label has stuck.

The divisions we make are deeply inadequate. William Gibson? He's cyberpunk. But Haruki Murakami, who writes on the thin edge of fantasy? He's literary. Rushdie's a literary writer, if you manage to ignore—and most do—that early, clumsy foray into SF with Grimus , his flirtation with classic SF techniques in Fury , the use of fantasy in Midnight's Children .

However, the borders between the closely guarded kingdom of high literature and the invading barbarian hordes from the worlds of SF, fantasy, crime writing or reportage are very porous.

Susanna Clarke, whose debut novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell imagined two wizards clashing in an England forgetting its heritage of magic, won the Hugo this month. Jonathan Strange was on the Booker longlist and a score of other mainstream prize shortlists last year; but that didn't stop the judges of one of the world's great SF awards from seeing it as the fine work of fantasy it is.

Off just this year's Booker longlist, Ian McEwan's Saturday examines esoteric medical territory in ways that are close to non-fiction science writing. Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go asks a great SF question: what would the lives of clones be like? There are writers who've asked that question before Ishiguro, but they all come from the SF tradition.

Writers know something that critics should: the terrain in which you write is vast and endless, and contains no borders; the worlds of literature and genre fiction bleed into each other all the time.

Back in 1989, a writer began work on a saga of seven ageless siblings, Dream, Destiny, Death, Desire, Delirium, Despair and Destruction. His source material included Shakespeare, Greek myth, the life of Lucifer after the fall, and Barbie. This is classic epic territory; if any mainstream novelist attempted even half of this, he'd get a Booker nod simply on the grounds of ambition.

Neil Gaiman's Sandman saga was published in graphic novel form between 1989 and 1996, and ranks as one of the great works of storytelling and imagination, no questions asked. And of course he didn't get a Booker nod; faced with a great writer using a thoroughly contemporary form to tell a great story, the response from the guardians at the gates of literature was to pretend that Gaiman and Sandman didn't exist. Half the authors on the Booker shortlists that spanned that period have been forgotten, justly. But the Sandman is still read, and celebrated—outside the gates.

The BS column: Shalimar and Sherlock

(Published in Business Standard, August 18, 2005. I know, I know. I'm just plain lazy about blog updates.)

If the purpose of a longlist is to entice lapsed bibliophiles back into the reading habit, this year's Man Booker judges have done their job. The 17 books on the list range from a sea adventure set in the 19th century to Siberia in 1919 to a day in the life of contemporary London to the private lives of clones.

Over the next few weeks, this column will take a closer look at some of the books on the list and the subjects they explore, from Irish soldiers in the Great War to Ukrainians in England, from cloning to psychics, from 1930s Malaysia to an actor's village in Kashmir. To start on an unabashedly parochial note, two books are of special interest to readers in India: Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown and Julian Barnes' Arthur and George.

Shalimar the Clown is a "loose large baggy monster", but to expect Rushdie to write anything less than an ambitious book is foolish. It's not an easy novel to read, but it is deeply rewarding; he goes at his complex subject in breakneck style and his writing is powered by force, scholarship and a relentless, rising tide of rage. In Rushdie's worldview, Yugoslavia, Kashmir, World War Two and contemporary America are as deeply yoked together as families, or pairs of lovers. You cannot hope to examine Kashmir without understanding how California works; you cannot live in California and be ignorant of the Kashmirs of this world any more.

Shalimar is an actor, a clown, a tightrope walker, from a small Kashmiri village of 'bhands'; his talent for killing is as innate to him as his talent for climbing trees, and the twisting politics of the region will allow him to discover the first. Initiated into murder as the "iron mullahs", the hollow men formed from the detritus left behind by a corroding and increasingly invasive Indian army, begin to close their grip on Kashmir, Shalimar will see his marriage and his village destroyed.

The man whom he kills in revenge for having seduced and then discarded his wife, the dancer Boonyi, is an actor of another kind: Max Ophuls, who has played parts ranging from threatened Jew in Nazi Germany to Resistance hero to expert forger. As the American ambassador, Max has helped light the fuses of the violence that spills out over every place like Kashmir. Rushdie's rage over the rising tide of intolerant Islam, so far from what he sees as the religion's real roots, and his anger at the troops, from the Indian army to foreign mercenaries, who have raped Kashmir sometimes threatens to overwhelm him. But Shalimar the Clown packs quite a punch; all of us who recognized the true history of India in Rushdie's Midnight's Children will have our perceptions of the dividing lines between East and West challenged by this novel.

Julian Barnes' Arthur and George has a much smaller compass, but it tells a story that had been unjustly forgotten. George Edalji was the son of a Parsi vicar and an Englishwoman. Born and brought up in England in the 1900s, George became a solicitor in Birmingham; in 1903, he was accused of maiming horses after a rash of cattle, sheep and horse mutilations broke out in Staffordshire. There was a considerable element of racism in the case: the police and the public assumed George had carried out "animal sacrifices" for the sake of his religion, despite the fact that he was Christian. He was imprisoned for three years; in 1906, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took up the case after examining the evidence and concluding that Edalji was innocent. Sherlock Holmes' creator got his client off on the basis of forensic evidence, but he always felt that Edalji had been victimized unfairly on account of his mixed race.

In Barnes' delicate narrative, he contrasts the upbringing of the two men, the advantages of one and the struggles of the other, building up a picture of British life at the turn of the century, with its prejudices and its unspoken assumption of certain truths. One of the questions Barnes asks is why it's been so easy for us to forget the Edalji case even as he explores the history of racism through the trials of George Edulji.

Last Word: How to help a rapist

(Published in the Kolkata Telegraph in August, 2005)

As a society, we're better at meeting the needs of rapists than we realize. We mythologise rapists, and cloak them in invisibility: we know much more, often far too much, about the women who are raped, nothing about the men who rape them.

The typical rapist lives in a normal neighbourhood, he might have an average job, sometimes a wife and children. They've been policemen, businessmen, teachers, fathers and fathers-in-law, ward boys, swamis, sometimes jobless. Rapists have been lawyers, like the advocate in Kerala who held a 16-year-old girl captive for 40 days while she was serially raped by 43 different men.

Rapists understand how to pick a victim. In 84 per cent of the rape cases filed in India, the victim knows the rapist: he's a neighbour, a friend's father, a local guy whom she's seen around the area but not registered as a threat. The rapist begins his rape not with the first physical assault, but by coveting what he sees before him. In one-third of rape cases, the victim is below 16—far easier to threaten and control, far less likely to fight back.

Rapists understand the odds, and know that these are stacked against the victim. Relatively few rape cases are actually filed in police stations and courts, because of social pressure and the reluctance to undergo the brutal and demeaning trial process. The conviction rate in rape cases is appalling: 4.5 per cent.

What happens to the roughly 95 per cent who get to walk free? Nothing. The victim in a case of rape often goes through lasting trauma: rape victims are far more likely to turn to alcohol or drugs, are far more likely to suffer depression and are far less likely to be able to form strong, trusting relationships. Those who receive counseling and support from their families and friends rebuild their lives; but that's a very small minority of women. The typical rapist is not stigmatized by either family or neighbours: rapists are rarely even ostracized. Some acquire sexual bragging rights among their circle of friends; in the courts, rapists are not cross examined on their sexual history, not asked whether they are habituated to sex.

Rapists know this, even if they don't know the exact statistics. They know that rape cases can take as long as four to five years moving through the court system. They know that they can offer to marry their victims, hoping that the court will see this as "reparation": in two recent cases, the judges accepted this sickening line of reasoning. Rapists can plead that they have families to support: Justice Laxmi Rao, who has now been transferred, accepted this argument in two separate cases, allowing the rapists to walk free after a token spell in prison.

That's the thing about rapists. They know that getting away with murder isn't that easy. But getting away with rape? 95.5 per cent of them do.
Visit to discover Indian blogs