Category Archives: Books

The Year Gone By- 2013

2013 is the year when I discovered Mo Yan- who won the 2012 Nobel prize for literature. (Shifu , You’ll do anything for a laughLife and Death are Wearing me out, and Red Sorghum). Red Sorghum, the Nobel winner’s first novel is somewhat a let down compared to the other two later books that were reviewed earlier this year on this blog.

Everything Flows by Vasili Grossman, one of my favourite 20th century authors did not disappoint. It is at least as brilliant, if not more than his longer and more well known Life and Fate, considered to be the War and Peace of the 20th century.

Khrushchev on Khrushchev, a chance discovery at a down town used books sale, was a wonderful find. The first part that dealt with the days of Nikita Khrushchev are well described by his son, Sergei, giving a human touch to a very significant part of the Soviet and world history. The events leading to the secret speech against Stalin and the subsequent overthrow of Nikita Khrushchev by the neo- Stalinist brigade are described from a keen memory that remembered small and significant details all through the intervening decades. The book was published in 1990, towards the end of the Soviet rule.

The mediocrity the of the Stalinist gang that overthrew was well represented by the sullen face of Brezhnev. But, as Nikita Khrushchev on the eve of the coup observed- there had been a fundamental shift in Soviet society by the time he was forced out of office.

I have done the main thing. Relations among us, the style of leadership, has changed drastically. Could anyone have dreamed of telling Stalin that he didn’t suit us anymore, and suggesting that he retire? Not even a wet spot would have remained where we had been standing. Now everything is different. The fear’s gone and we can talk as equals. That’s my contribution. I won’t put up a fight.

The levels to which the administration went to bug the Khrushchevs’ house and movements look both ludicrous and naive-  particularly as the Snowden revelations about the NSA’s snooping were coming out at the time I was reading this book. The Soviets did the same thing – just more clumsily with a primitive technology.

Down and Out in London and Paris by George Orwell was a failed attempt at re- reading a book that I had enjoyed a lot the first time but did not find it to be the same on a second reading.

The Adventures of Amir Hamza, an accidental and interesting find, did not hold much interest after a few pages. I would have liked to read it when I was a teenager, and perhaps in Urdu rather in English in which the language is far too ornate. The long and bulky work is considered to be the Indian equivalent of the Thousand Nights.

I read a lot more online this year but reading on a screen is not the easiest mode for the long form- there is too much of a temptation to read shorter articles.

Unfortunately, these don’t make for an annual review of reading, they are easier on the twitter river on the side bar or the face “book”. Yet, I would like to single out these two review essays (both on contemporary Chinese literature) to end this post:

Prison Notebooks and Chinese Whispers- Contemporary Chinese literature through an Indian lens.

[Read posts from past years in this series]

Reading Vasili Grossman in the time of Mo Yan

I have just begun reading Part III of Mo Yan’s “Life and Death are wearing me out”  (a little over one third of the book) and have mixed feelings about it. What works for me is the narrative of post- revolutionary China, particularly about the Cultural Revolution. What also works are the different points of view, a robust sense of humour amidst a tumultus period of China’s post- Revolution history and a literary flourish that make the book a page turner.

What doesn’t seem to be working is the quirkiness of the narrative, tangential diversions and exaggeration- much in the style of Garcia Marquez in “One Hundred Years of Solitude” which I liked the first time I read “One Hundred…” but found it irritating while reading the second time.

Mo Yan’s style also contrasts with another book that I happened to be reading alongside- “Everything Flows” by Vasili Grossman.

The collectivization of the peasantry, among other changes in the post Revolutionary Soviet Union up to Stalin’s death are very similar to those in China in the 1950s and 60s. Yet, the contrast between the two writers could not be more striking- Mo Yan is verbose and humourous while Grossman has used tight prose and is uniformly serious, digressing into long soliloquies on Lenin, Stalin and a grand sweep on Russia’s thousand years of history. It was refreshing to read a simply written, straightforward novella that is no less – if not more, engaging than “Life and Death…”. I finished the 200 page “Everything Flows” in a couple of weeks, much moved by its sparse but surgically precise prose.

I continue to plough through “Life and Death are wearing me out”, and if I am not worn out by the time it is finished, will post a longer review.

Eric Hobsbawm: An Uncommon Life

Eric Hobswam (1917- 01 October 2012) is no more.

I first read Hobsbawm’s three volume work on the 19th century in the early nineties, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those were the years of intellectual disarray- and the first piecing realization was that my history of humankind started from Marx, I knew little of even extant socialist traditions, not to mention the Enlightenment and Renaissance. Hobsbawm’s writings, particularly his 3 volume trilogy  formed the anchor around which I got introduced to 19th century history and also the history of socialism.

It was the late Mohit Sen who introduced me to Hobsbawm’s works. He had been a student of Eric Hobsbawm in the 1940s Cambridge and he recounted a number of anecdotes about him that made me feel closer to Hobsbawm- his ability to rattle off statistics even when he was just about 30, his lectures that were attended by students from all over the university and his letters to Mohit Sen over the decades.

Both went on to recount those years in their respective biographies, though Mohit must have felt very crestfallen on discovering that Hobsbawm had not even mentioned his name on his otherwise long recollection with Indian students, while Mohit  spent considerable ink on his former teacher.

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Switching to an ereader

Having prevaricated about using an e- book reader, I switched over to one recently, albeit with an initial skepticism which was soon belied. The Barnes and Noble’s Nook turned out to be quite a charmer.

For one, the Nook enables one to read the numerous books available as pdf files, particularly the ones that are out of print or those for which copyrights have expired. Even the ebooks that are available for purchase are cheaper than the printed ones- a random check at Amazon and BN.com shows that the average price tends to be around $10. Using the calibre e-book management software, converting different formats to the ePub standard is a breeze. Given that a number of newspapers are also available for download, one can read the news without the distracting advertisements.
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Mario Vargas Llosa’s Exasperatingly Long Wait

Five years ago, when the Peruvian writer, Mario Vargas Llosa was asked his opinion on the possibility of his winning the Nobel prize were, he replied:

“Let us not even think of it…”

Indeed, Mario Vargas Llosa’s turn at the Nobel has come in exasperatingly late, when not only him, but many of his admirers had given up on the honour coming his way.

In the words of Carlos Fuentes, when Garcia Marquez (Gabo) won the award in 1982, he won it ‘on behalf of all writers of his generation from Latin America.’ Twenty-eight years later, the Nobel to MVL is a restatement of the recognition that the Amazonian flow of literature from Latin America- during and after Gabo’s generation so richly deserves.

Llosa’s relative lack of recognition in the English-speaking world is probably the reason that I came so late to his writings, a decade after discovering and relishing Gabo’s writings.

A few years ago, while on a short visit to the US, I came across a book on the Zapatistas. In an interview given to Gabriel Garcia Marquez sometime after the Zapatista peasant rebellion in Mexico in 1995, the masked Marxist leader Subcommandante Marco explained that after Cervantes and Shakespeare it were the contemporary Latin American writers who moulded the minds of his generation. Besides Garcia himself and others, he named Mario Vargas Llosa, quickly adding that he influenced, despite his ideas.

This last observation flummoxed me. How can an author influence one’s mind despite his ideas?
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End of the road for Orlando Figes

It’s a pretty tragic end for Orlando Figes. I was quite impressed with his first major work on the Russian Revolution- A People’s Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution, even though I later felt that his work was little more than a well narrated compendium of many extant works on the Russian Revolution. I do not agree  with his blanket statement that the Russian Revolution was a “people’s tragedy”. At that time, however,  in my own little, dilettantish manner I had ended the review of his book with these words:

… The brashness of his youth shows clearly in the rather eclectic treatment of the subject throughout the text. But the sheer volume of the information makes up for any slackness in analysis.

There cannot be any doubt that Figes’ book marks the start of a brilliant career for the author and is central to the debate that he has brought into sharp focus.

By owning up to writing negative reviews of the books of his rivals, of all places at the Amazon.com book reviews, I am afraid the brashness of his no-longer-youth (the review was written over a decade back), has brought his brilliant career to a grinding halt.

Re- experiencing the classics

Even though I could not find Stendhal’s The Red and the Black there, the chance discovery of the Dailylit site (viaVincent McCaffery’s twitter feed), has made me go back to re- reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov with gusto. There are many sites that have for long provided digital books, particularly of out-of-copyright books. I haven’t had a very good experience reading them, unless the books are short enough to be printed on a regular printer and then read later. Reading long texts on MS Word is possible since there is the provision of adding bookmarks. However, it is tedious, and returning to where I left off reading a book is not always possible. What makes Dailylit very unique is it  has the option of sending the text of books in installments, via email but more usefully, as an RSS feed. Since Google reader is part of my daily routine, I find it much more convenient reading a book via the RSS feed. At the end of the feed, there is a link which when clicked posts the next installment into the reader, making it self- paced.

I remember the time when I started reading the Russian classics as a student- they were bought at a Soviet book outlet in Chandigarh, and sometimes borrowed from the local state or university library, then read in a frenzy- sometimes overnight. A regular job now makes it impossible to devote nights, let alone days, to such reading. However, it is still possible to snatch a few moments when I can read during work. The duration of such frenzied reading  is now reduced to  moments stolen between meetings and other such professional hazards- which is why, for me, the possibility of reading via RSS feeds is so exciting.

Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography by Francis Wheen

Marx’s Das Capital: A Biography by Francis Wheen (2008, Manjul Publications, India, Rs. 195)

Francis Wheen’s biography of Karl Marx, published in 2001, was probably the first one to be published after the collapse of the Soviet Union and ‘existing socialism’ in Eastern Europe. He has now written a ‘biography’ of Marx’s magnum opus Das Kapital. Wheen’s central point is that Capital needs to be seen, above all, as a work of art.

Although Das Kapital is usually categorized as a work of economics, Karl Marx turned to the study of political economy only after many years of spadework in philosophy and literature. It is these intellectual foundations of underpin the project, and it is his personal experience of alienation that gives such intensity to the analysis of an economic system which estranges people from one another and from the world that they inhabit- a world in which humans are  enslaved by the monstrous power of inanimate capital and commodities. (page 7)

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Why I may switch to an e-reader

My initial reaction to ebook readers like the Kindle and the Sony reader were Luddite. I now feel they were knee jerk as well.

I realized this a few months back when I was relocating from the United States to India for an uncertain length of time. Three boxfuls of books had piled up during a little over four years. Not even half of them had been read. The Hamlet- ian question was whether I should ship them back to India or leave them in the US. Given my indecisiveness regarding where in the world I want to be, I decided to leave them with a friend in the US. It was in those moments between packing and then driving them down to his place that sealed my decision as far as switching to an ereader was concerned. For the very least, I wouldn’t have to lug around these paper versions. For another, I would have access to my books where ever I was. A look at the Sony reader at the local bookstore convinced me of the inevitable, though at $350, the price was still a deterrent.
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What is the People’s History of the World?

British writer Chris Harman, author of A People’s History of the World (2008) explains in an interview about why he wrote the book at the blog Grits & Roses

I wrote the book out of frustration at the fact that although there were many radical accounts of particular episodes and phases in history, mainly influenced by the insights of Marx and Engels, there was not over-reaching account. In the earlier part of the book the major influence was the Australian archaeologists of the first half of the 20th Century, Gordon Childe. But his account had to be updated to take into account new research by archaeologists and radical anthropologists like Richard Lee and Eleanor Leacock since his death in 1957. For the Roman period there was the writing of St Croix, for India the work of D D Kosambi, Irfan Habib and Romila Thapar, for the rise of slavery, Eric Williams and CLR James, for Britain that of Christopher Hill and Edward Thompson, for the French revolution Albert Soboul and Andre Guerin,…and so on.
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Limited Social base of Indian Sociology

In the current issue of the EPW, Surinder S Jodhka has an exhaustive review of the book Anthropology in the East: Founders of Indian Sociology and Anthropology. He critically points out that the social base of the early Indian sociologists was rather limited (made up almost exclusively of Brahmin men) and correlates this with the concerns of Indian sociological studies.

My only (minor) crib with the review and possibly with the book is that there is no mention of Radhakamal Mukherji who pioneered the teaching of sociology in the 1930s at  Lucknow University, though the contributions of his colleague D.P. Mukherji are well recounted.

Incidentally, Surinder,  an old friend and now a prof at JNU, has earlier guest blogged here. Following is an excerpt from the review.

However, these life histories of pioneers also tell us about the larger social contexts in which sociology/social anthropology, and perhaps, other social sciences began to be practised in India during the colonial period, the kind of people who came to occupy positions in the university system and the kind of knowledge they produced about Indian society. With the exception of two “foreigners”, all the Indian scholars were upper caste Hindus. With the exception of one upper caste brahmin woman, they were all men. Continue reading

One Reader, and so many Countries

At long last, I have been able to migrate the list of the books read over the last 10 years to GoodReads, a very neat site to keep track of one’s reading. Despite its very simple interface, I did like Bibliophil but it is not very intuitive or exciting to use. I also maintained a list on an html page. Except for a few minor glitches the list on goodreads is pretty accurate. I was quite tardy in keeping a record between 1991- 1997 though I do have a record for the four years before ’91 and will add them soon. That will more or less cover the entire history of my life as a reader, and bookshelves, I think Alberto Manguel remarked somewhere, tell the autobiography of their owner. In my case, for whatever its worth.

Over the past few years I have read mainly fiction, and the countries of the authors’  origin is displayed on the map below as well as tagged over at goodreads. I am quite proud of having covered South America  reasonably well (~ 75 or so)- especially countries like Uruguay, Bolivia and Nicaragua. There are quite a lot of writers from Argentina and though the count of books from Chile and Peru is also high, these are limited to single authors- Roberto Bolano and Mario Vargas Llosa respectively. I am still waiting for an English translation of Dona Barbara so Venezuela may remain uncovered till then, and am totally clueless about anything from Paraguay.

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Recovering the Lost Tongue

Recovering the Lost Tongue: The Saga of Environmental Struggles in Central Indiaby Rahul Banerjee has been published by Prachee Publishers and is now available in India. It is priced at Rs. 250/- and can be ordered directly from the publisher:

Prachee Publications
3-3-859/1/A, lane opp. Arya Samaj,
Kachiguda,Hyderabad 500 027
Phone (O) 040-2460 2009 (11:00 a.m.to 5:00 p.m.)
email: joshippc@yahoo.co.in

See related post and a more detailed review of the book. Continue reading

Buy this Book!

About Rahul Banerjee, and his just published book Recovering the Lost Tongue:

For Rahul Banerjee, the road from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur led straight into the land of the Bhils, the indigenous people in Central India. Over the last quarter of a century, Rahul has worked among some of the poorest of the poor in the country. This book recounts not only his life among the Bhils, but also his own transformation into an apostate from modernity. The book is the product of an active and restless mind presenting a delightful account of activist and Bhil life in India “from below” while engaging with the broader ideas that are shaping contemporary India.

Recovering the Last Tongue has now been published in the US and is available at amazon. Click on either image to go to the amazon.com site and do purchase the book. It ships free if the total value of the purchase is over $25. Buy two, and gift one to a friend!

The Indian edition of the book is in progress and will soon be available.

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Rajan Iqbal

Somewhere between Chandamama and Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, I remember reading a few novels in a series about a homegrown, desi investigator duo called Rajan Iqbal.

A google search revealed that at least one of the versions (Rajan Iqbal aur Preton ka Aatank- “Rajan Iqbal and the Terror of the Spirits“) in its comic book format is available online. Also, I came to know, after all these years, the name of the author- SC Bedi- I am quite intrigued by it and wonder if it is, like the name of the heroes in the novels, fictional too.

I think the novels were published by Diamond Pocket Books or Hind Pocket Books, and those days could be found in any bookshop or newspaper kiosk in small towns in Northern India. I wonder if those are still around or they have given away to Harry Potters mutated into Hari Puttars. It is also striking that the duo has a Hindu and a Muslim name conjoined into one, much like Aligarh and so many other names in the sub- continent- that combine an Arabic and a Sanskrit word forming a new one altogether.

Nowadays, perhaps, the name of “Rajan Iqbal” would rather conjure up the image of a gangster duo. When I was a child, they were detectives out to help the world get rid of evil doers.

Between when I was a child and now, the world has turned upside down.

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Chingiz Aitmatov- RIP

Sometimes death serves as the reminder of a book unread. Chingez Aitmatov’s death yesterday in Germany just reminded me of a book that has been on my reading list for longer than any other one that I can remember- Jamila.

Jamilia’s husband is off fighting at the front. She spends her days hauling sacks of grain from the threshing floor to the train station in their small village in the Caucasus. She is accompanied by Seit, her young brother-in-law, and Daniyar, a sullen newcomer to the village who has been wounded on the battlefield.

Seit observes the beautiful, spirited Jamilia spurn men’s advances, and wince at the dispassionate letters she receives from her husband. Meanwhile, undeterred by Jamilia’s teasing, Daniyar sings as they return each evening from the fields. Soon Jamilia is in love, and she and Daniyar elope just as her husband returns.

A love story that ranks alongside Turgenev’s First Love.

A news report about his death at IHT:Kyrgyz author and statesman Chingiz Aitmatov dies at 79

Aitmatov first found fame with his 1958 novel “Jamilya.” Set during World War II, it tells the story of a young Kyrgyz woman who leaves her husband and runs away with a crippled war veteran. The novel sparked heated discussions in the majority Muslim and male-dominated society about whether a woman could leave her husband for another man.

French poet Louis Aragon praised “Jamilya” as “the best novel about love.”

More on Aitmatov’s works.

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The Common Reader: a Quote

There is a sentence in Dr. Johnson’s Life of Gray which might well be written up in all those rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is carried on by private people. “. . . I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning,must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.” It defines their qualities; it dignifies their aims; it bestows upon a pursuit which devours a great deal of time, and is yet apt to leave behind it nothing very substantial, the sanction of the great man’s approval.

The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole—a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr. Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.

from The Common Reader: a short essay by Virginia Woolf (source)

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TOT

I had not heard about TOT, till I chanced upon it while reading up on “Freudian slip.” There is even a story by Anton Chekov on TOT.

“What is TOT?,” you ask….hmm… let me remember… something to do with a Hotentot, or was it something to do with a tiny tot, or perhaps … give me a minute to recollect… something like… why do I always have that temporary amnesia at the exact moment I need the word or its explanation and I know that I know it?

Ah well ! That’s what it is.