Salman Rushdie: Quichotte

The latest addition to my website is Salman Rushdie:‘s Quichotte. This is nominally Rushdie’s pastiche of Don Quixote, with its inspiration more from US TV shows and Pinocchio than from Cervantes. We follow a TV-obsessed Indian immigrant to the US, who wants to win the heart of a former Bollywood, now US TV star and sets out on a journey to do so. However, his story is being written by another Indian immigrant to the US. Both men have similarities with Rushdie himself, both men have fallen out with her sister and both men are estranged from their son (one real, one imaginary). However, Rushdie goes all over the place – cheap jokes, US TV, science fiction, fantasy, racism and Trumpism, the road novel increasingly prevalent psychological disorder in which the boundary between truth and lies became smudged and indistinct. It is quite a fun read but really not a very good novel.

César Aira: El testamento del mago tenor [The Will of the Tenor Magician]

The latest addition to my website is César Aira‘s El testamento del mago tenor [The Will of the Tenor Magician]. This book, not translated into English, tells the story of a magician who, on his deathbed, leaves a special magic trick to the Eternal Buddha. The Eternal Buddha is a god but also very much a living being and very small indeed, living in a dilapidated house in the Punjab, with his housekeeper, Mrs Gohu, with whom he has a tempestuous relationship. We follow this story but also the story of Jean Ball, a lawyer, who takes the trick to the Buddha but who meets the lovely Palmyra on the way out and, on the way back, the mysterious Mr Gauchat who is reading a book about Buddha, in which Ball is featured. As is usual with Aira, it is all decidedly strange but highly enjoyable, if you do not mind some mystery in your life.

César Aira: El volante [The Flyer]

The latest addition to my website is César Aira‘s El volante [The Flyer]. This is another novel from Aira which starts in a fairly straightforward manner and then veers off, concluding with something of an apocalyptic ending.

Norma Traversini is a teacher of dramatic arts, who is writing a flyer to be distributed around the neighbourhood (in Buenos Aires) offering her services to teach her neighbours how to be more sincere in their daily dealings with lovers, bosses and children. Unfortunately, she gets carried away in explanations and, even when she starts again, does not seem to be able to do anything but waffle. She then changes tack and starts summarising a novel she has recently read, the name of whose main character, Lady Barbie Windson (sic) is the name she has chosen for her studio. Lady Barbie is being educated in Kent while her parents are in India. When her mother suddenly dies, she, aged twenty, is summoned to India to be her father’s hostess. She gets caught up in a wild adventure, involving Catholic vs Protestants battles, kidnappings, crocodiles, polo ponys, Indian mystics, teleportation, silk worms, the ruined city of Kali, resurrection from the dead and a strange character called The Mask. It is all great fun but does not help Norma with her flyer.

Khushwant Singh: I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale

The latest addition to my website is Khushwant Singh‘s I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale. This novel is set in 1942-1943 in Amritsar. Buta Singh is the paterfamilias of a Sikh family and also the chief magistrate, the most important Indian official in the region, subordinate to the twenty-eight year old British Deputy Commissioner, Taylor, but very loyal to the British. Buta Singh’s son, Sher, and his friends, however, have acquired rifles and other weapons and are planning armed insurrection against the British. We follow the life of the Singh family but also the attempts by Sher’s group to become an organised resistance group. It all goes wrong when Sher is arrested, both for his family – Buta disowns him – and for him, as he is not the tough guy he thinks he is. It is an interesting snapshot of life in the Punjab when the British were not doing well in the war and the Indians were pushing for Independence.

Amit Chaudhuri: Odysseus Abroad

The latest addition to my website is Amit Chaudhuri‘s Odysseus Abroad. It is a day (19 July 1985) in the life of Ananda Sen, an Indian studying English literature at the University of London. During the day, he visits his tutor (to whom he has sent some of his poetry) and goes out with his only friend, his uncle, who lives in nearby Belsize Park and whom he sees regularly. Apart from his poetry, Ananda has a dull life, complaining about the noisy neighbours, bemused by the strange customs of the English, finding sexual relief only in masturbation, and sure that he is misunderstood. Chaudhuri really gets into what makes Ananda (and, to a certain, degree, his uncle) tick but there are no fireworks, only begrudging acceptance of life as it is.

J. G. Farrell: The Siege of Krishnapur

The latest addition to my website is J. G. Farrell‘s The Siege of Krishnapur, the second novel in Farrell’s post-colonial Empire trilogy. This one is based on the Siege of Lucknow of 1857, part of the Indian Rebellion against British occupation. The British seem intent on bringing civilisation to the Indians but the Indians do not want it. The well-meaning collector, Mr Hopkins, the man in charge, and the other British tend to live in a bubble, seeing the Indians only as servants or, in some cases, as people to be exploited. When the sepoys (Indians who had served in the British army) revolt, the British fight back and, naturally, continue their routines, including afternoon tea, even though there is no tea, but they do realise their civilising mission has not really worked. Farrell mocks everybody – the British, the few Indians we do meet as individuals, religion, capitalism, the idea of progress, art and anything else he can attack. It is still a worthwhile book forty-five years after it was first published.

Triveni: ಶರಪಂಜರ (Sharapanjara; Cage of Arrows; The Mad Woman)

The latest addition to my website is Triveni‘s ಶರಪಂಜರ (Sharapanjara; Cage of Arrows; The Mad Woman). Triveni was a feminist Indian writer, writing in Kannada. This was one of only two of her novels published in English and was written shortly before she died in childbirth. It tells the story of Kaveri, a good-looking and intelligent woman who marries Satish, a good-looking and intelligent man. Initially, they have a very happy marriage. After the birth of her second son, she has a nervous breakdown and spends two years in a mental hospital. On her return, her children barely know her and she is rejected by her husband and most other people. Anything she does that seems slightly untoward (e.g. picking up a knife to peel some fruit) is seen as evidence that she is still mad, though she feels that she has fully recovered. It is a feminist novel but also a plea for better understanding of mental illness. It was made into a successful film in India.

Upamanyu Chatterjee: The Mammaries of the Welfare State

mammaries

The latest addition to my website is Upamanyu Chatterjee‘s The Mammaries of the Welfare State. This is a follow-up to Chatterjee’s English, August and continues the story of Agastya Sen, an Indian civil servant. I say that it continues his story, which it does, but the book is essentially a long, vicious, occasionally witty satire on Indian government, with Chatterjee outlining the corruption, incompetence, laziness, at times viciousness and malice of those who govern India. He does not hold back; indeed, he goes overboard all too frequently, with long, tedious facetious memos, pointless regulations, silly acronyms, boards and committees which seem to serve no purpose but to provide employment for some civil servants, a whole range of venal politicians and civil servants and a government which does anything but serve the people it is meant to serve. Everyone is on the make, eager to feather his or her own nest or protect his/her interests (to be fair most of the miscreants are male) and eager for their own advancement. I felt that Chatterjee could have taken a fine scalpel to dissect the problem but, instead, takes a massive sledgehammer, scattering all in its wake but leaving us overwhelmed and, to be honest, too often bored.

Jhumpa Lahiri: Two Novels

namesake

The latest additions to my website are the two novels by Jhumpa Lahiri. The first is The Namesake, a novel which has deservedly received much acclaim and has been made into a successful film. It deals with the issue of names, identity and cultural differences. Gogol Ganguli is so named because, thanks to a book of Gogol’s short stories, his father was spotted in the wreckage after a train crash. However, he has problems with the name, not least because it was meant only as a pet name and not his permanent name. During the book he will continue to have concerns about the name. His parents had moved from India to the United States and while Gogol and his sister, Sonia, were both born in the United States and feel that they are American, they still have concerns about their roots and identity. Lahiri, who went through some of the same things herself, skilfully explores these issues.

lowland

The second book is her The Lowland, which is on the Man Booker shortlist. Though it is not a bad novel, I do not think that it is as good as The Namesake. It tells the story of two brothers, who are very close when young, but drift apart as they get older, with the younger, Udayan, getting more involved in politics, particularly relating to the Naxalbari Uprising, while the older, Subhash, goes to the United States to continue his studies in chemical oceanography. When Udayan is brutally murdered by the police, Subhash decides to marry his pregnant widow, not least because she is being harassed by the police. He takes her to the United States and treats her daughter, Bela, as his own but things do not seem to work out for any of the three of them. At this point, the book seems to lose some of its focus, as all three drift somewhat aimlessly through life. It is certainly not a bad novel but not up to the quality of its predecessor.

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: اند تھے سر آسما (The Mirror of Beauty)

mirror

The latest addition to my website is Shamsur Rahman Faruqi‘s اند تھے سر آسما (The Mirror of Beauty). This has been hailed as one of the great Urdu novels. It was published in Urdu in 2006 and has now been translated into English by the author, a mammoth task as the book is over 950 pages long. It is a superb story, telling of the life of a great beauty, Wazir Khanam, in the early-mid nineteenth century, just as the East India Company was taking over India. Wazir Khanam enthralled both Indian and British men – her first lover was English. She has two lovers and two husbands (and children by all four) but retains her beauty, her elegance and, above all, her strong personality, which means that no-one, Indian or British, can control her if she does not want to be controlled. As well as being about Wazir Khanam, this novel is also about a key period of Indian history, as the Mughal Empire is waning and the British, in the form of the East India Company, are gradually taking over. Faruqi, clearly and understandably, does not think very highly of the British but he does extol the Indian culture of the period – the poetry, learning, general interracial harmony and the customs – and it is this that helps make the novel so fascinating for a Western reader. This novel is clearly destined to be a classic.