What I’m Reading Now…

1.SEA OF POPPIES by Amitav Ghosh

Salman Rushdie Revels

I heard a talk  from Salman Rushdie when he spoke at the Seattle Town Hall late last year. He was promoting his latest book, a memoir, titled “Joseph Anton”. I guess I was amongst the majority of the attendees who were definitely interested in his latest work but were more honestly interested in the man himself and his ideas. He had courageously weathered a most horrendous storm for nine long years. When his book “the Satanic Verses” was condemned by the Iranian religious authorities and a death edict was leveled against him his  life was turned into a petrifying  and inhuman circus. Despite having lived through the terror, Salman Rushdie was not beaten. Apart from his zest for life,the things that struck me most when I heard Salman Rushdie talk were his eloquence of speech and ideas, his affability and also his  great sense of humor.

I  read his memoir after the event. His memoir traced his early youth growing up in Bombay, his difficult boarding school education in England and then his better years as a student of history at Cambridge. After working for a short time composing advertising jingles he decided to explore being a writer. He gained fame and notoriety when his novel “Midnight’s Children”, won the prestigious Booker Prize.  Soon after he wrote “The  Satanic Verses” in 1988, a fatwa or edict was set against him. The rest of the memoir related how he struggled and lived a life of hiding under constant threat of death.The memoir not only related events but Salman Rushdie also explained his theories about the role of writing in the world and the necessity to defend and uphold basic human rights such as the freedom of speech and the freedom from threat to ones life.

This is what Salman Rushdie wrote about literature in “Jospeh Anton” Random House, New York 2012

“Literature opened the universe, to increase, only if slightly, the sum total of what it was possible for human beings to perceive, understand, and so, finally, to be. Great literature went to the edges of the known and pushed against the boundaries of language, form, and possibility to make the world feel larger, wider, than before…There were plenty of people who didn’t want the universe opened, who would, in fact, prefer it to be shut down quite a bit, and so when artists went to the frontier and pushed they often found powerful forces pushing back. And yet they did what they had to do, even at the price of their own ease, and, sometimes, of their lives. ” (p628)

Others have written about Salman’s life story. Most recently this month was an article in Vanity Fair. Read my article here about a response to some of these views about Salman Rushdie.

SAM illuminates India.

At Volunteer Park,Seattle

The Seattle Asian Art Museum is  located in the lovely Volunteer Park and it is nestled in the Capital Hill neighborhood. It  is a fantastic resource for those looking to hear lectures and conversations with  authors and historians. In particular the Gardner Center for Asian Arts and Ideas presents these talks. Each Saturday from October till early September there will be speakers discussing several century’s worth of  Asian history.

Pertaining to India there is a talk titled “Photography and the Uprising in India,1857″. It is scheduled for Saturday October the 12th.

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Amit Chaudhuri lectures in Seattle at SAM

Amit Chaudhuri,the  renowned author who lives in Britain is heading to Seattle. He is planning to  give a free lecture at the Seattle Asian Art Museum on  Monday, 30th September.

Amit Chaudhuri’s latest offering is called  “Calcutta: Two Years in the City”. He is also the author of  “The Immortals”, “A New World”, “Freedom Song” and others.

Originally from Calcutta he has lived in Mumbai and currently lives in Norwich where he is a Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of East Anglia.

His book on Calcutta is a non-fiction piece talking about his experiences and relationship to Calcutta. I’ve only read through the first couple of chapters so  I’ll let you know how it goes.

Amit Chaudhuri

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“Matter over Mind”-how the computer wants to erradicate real thoughts…

We rely on computers to keep track of our bank accounts,our medical records and to guide us through traffic but should we give computers the responsibility or right to create literature on our behalf?  Authors and thinkers alike are discussing the direction that literature is taking in our ever computerized world. Human creativity, just like any other human endeavor is open to change and re-creation in different forms; that’s a sign of progress which reassures us that we are developing rather than stagnating. However reading a book on an e-book  device is different from a similar device actually authoring the content of the book.

British Indian author Hari Kunzru and American author Stephen Marche have some thoughts about this subject. Read my article here..

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Middling novel by Bharati Mukherjee dissapoints.

They say that simplicity can hold it’s own perfection.Well this novel starts with a simple premise- a young girl on the precipice of adulthood in modern day India tries to make her  way in the world without the usual safety net of her family.However the execution and the path that the plot takes renders it far from perfection. Written by Bharati Mukherjee who is known for her sensitive and realistic portrayals of Indian women caught up in the maelstrom of modernity,I had high hopes.I had read “Wife”, “Jasmine” and “The Tiger’s Daughter” in the 90′s and was impressed by the stories about ordinary Indian women caught up in the strictures of their own culture and also the new dramas experienced when they also had to navigate and integrate the culture of the West.

This new novel is set solely in India.Initially I had hoped that it would give a grounded picture of how a young woman would find life in an alien city without the blessing or backing of her family.Reading the novel I was disappointed that Bharati’s main character Anjali Bose lacked a backbone and  that the life she found in Bangalore searching for a job at a call center was filled with a series of unbelievably bad and conversely unbelievably good events.I am still searching for a more authentic novel that gives a more lifelike glimpse of a young woman’s maturation in modern ,urban India. Read my review here.

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Subhankar’s Art at Sydney’s 18th Biennale

Subhankar Banerjee’s photographs about the Arctic and the Desert will be on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art from 27th June till 16th September 2012.They are part of the 18th Biennale of Sydney-a massive showcase of Australian and international artists.

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Melting Ice Makes Mounds of Money

How the Demise of the Arctic is Creating a Giant Cash Cow…

On Thursday the 21st June,2012  I listened to a talk given by Subhankar Banerjee at the Town Hall of Seattle.Subhankar is an ardent advocate for the protection and appreciation of the Arctic. The three words that commonly chime together when describing Subhankar are usually artist ,writer and activist.This evening it was through his leadership as an activist that he encouraged both awareness of the pressing issues occurring today in the Arctic and a call to action to help save the Arctic.

Obviously being a talented writer can provide a very powerful means to propel Sunhankar’s activism.His latest book is called “Arctic Voices-Resistance at the Tipping Point”,published by Seven Stories Press ,in New York just this year.It is a collection of pieces of writing by an assortment of people-writers, scientists  and activists ;all concerned with the fate of the Arctic.Subhankar is one of those contributors.

The main thrust of Subhankar’s argument is that the Arctic is in great danger ,which if left unchecked will lead to the whole earth endangerment .He amongst others is urging people to educate themselves about the current events in the Arctic and to act to try and stem the damage. Casually we may believe the Arctic to be a distant ,alien land .A land so far away that we neither have influence or effect over it. However Subhankar emphasized several times about the “local  and global interconnectedness.”   The greenhouse gases so profusely produced in America ,Asia and elsewhere  do not contain themselves to those continents alone .Carbon dioxide and methane like bad news travels fast!

Most people have come to the realization that global warming exists and most people also realize that it’s having a real time effect on the earth. Subhankar is at pains to emphasize that the warming in the Artcic is double the rate of the rest of the planet. The acceleration  and lengthening of warming in the Artcic and the fact that the Arctic is predominantly ice is heightening the release of methane, which for centuries has remained trapped by the ice .The released methane travels around the entire globe and, is adding volume to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and in turn will simply heat up the planet more. Subhankar believes that this is a planetary disaster .He says that “species are disappearing like Autumn leaves on the trees”.  Can anyone stand by emotionless knowing that there have been reports of polar bears dying because their icy home is shrinking.?Subhankar wants to alert us to the fact that people actually inhabit the Arctic .People who  live in the uppermost reaches of Canada, The US ,Greenland, Norway and Russia are part of the Artic community .The Naskapi ,the Inuit, the Chukchi are all communities of people that   dwell in the polar region .Animal species both the large and the microscopic also  find a home in the Arctic.  Apparently  many people would have you believe otherwise.

Some say  that the Arctic is a barren, useless quarter of the world-“a flat white nothingness..a wasteland”.In fact many –in industry and the American government  would have you believe that this wastelands only redeeming factor is energy. That is energy in the form of oil and natural gas. This so called wasteland “misinformation” that Subhankar talk of ,brings us to the second serious point-the fact that the U.S government and     the oil and gas industries are downplaying the environmental richness of the Artic so they can justify major plans to drill for oil and gas. Subhankar states that the U.S government is actively suppressing its own Federal science reports that publish the truth about the biodiversity of life in the Arctic and the negative effects that drilling for oil would have on life in the Arctic. Caribou, whales, walruses, polar bears, birds ,fish ,krill and many more creatures reside in the Arctic. Their fate and the people who live alongside them are being directly and negatively affected by drilling for oil and gas.

Seattle has recently been giving safe harbor to two massive Shell oil rigs .Just a few days ago these rigs left the Seattle waters en route for the Artic-their mission –exploratory drilling for oil. There has been very little coverage in the media about the Shell oil rigs and very little resistance to their presence and mission. The Greenpeace ship the “Esperanza” is planning to travel with the two Shell oil rigs up to the Arctic to not only act as an environmental watchdog but once up there Greenpeace will conduct its own  research on the Arctic conditions.

It is a disturbing aspect of human nature that increasingly and possibly fatefully that all life eventually gets reduced and manipulated by  the executioner’s axe commonly known as economics .We can’t live life it seems without an economy that creates jobs to make money so we can buy and live and then live to buy. The economy is a sword with two edges-we can’t live without money but too often that quest to make money renders the living simply: unlivable. Arctic waters poisoned with the pollution from mining effluent along with toxins from oil spills will result in the death and disease of both people and animals residing in the Arctic. A report in the Economist magazine from June 16th-22nd 2012 sums up the triumph of economy over the survival of the human species. “In the long run the unfrozen north could cause devastation. But, paradoxically, in the meantime no Arctic species will profit from it as much as the ones causing it: humans. Disappearing sea ice may spell the end of the last Eskimo cultures, but hardly anyone lives in igloos these days anyway .And the great melt is going to make a lot of people rich.”

Subhankar and other activists such as Ricky Ott, also another speaker that evening at the Town Hall, are well aware of the economic trade off that has environment on the losing end  .They are encouraging everyday citizens to lobby to change that laws which currently protect money making at the environment’s expense. They are encouraging everyone to demand new energy sources. They are encouraging everyone to make democracy work.

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A Londonful of love, lust and life.

When Hanif Kureishi published his most famous novel “The Buddha of Suburbia” in 1990 it came off the back of the very successful screenplay that Hanif wrote called “My Beautiful Laundrette”(1985). The film directed by Stephen Frears was a breakout success, winning raves reviews internationally and earning Hanif Kureishi an Academy award nomination. I saw the film in the late 80′s and was sucked in by Hanif’s cocky sense of humor and his ability to bring the more unpalatable facts of life such as homophobia, racism and infidelity out into general consciousness without bludgeoning your sensibilities.

It may be difficult to imagine the film landscape of the time when films about other ethnic groups amongst the white, western world were stuck in a time warp. There was a hankering for nostalgia in the 1980′s and films such as The Jewel in the Crown, A Passage to India and Out Of Africa; which were basically romancing the white colonial past, were at the height of film fashion. Hanif Kureishi with his fabulously irreverent but extremely relevant and modern screenplays such as “My Beautiful Laundrette” and “Sammie and Rosie Get Laid” and his novels “The Buddha of Suburbia” and “The Black Album”, basically gave the proverbial two fingers to the Victorian drawing room loving set and said get real!

His was one of the lone voices paving the way for multi-cultural writers in the Western world to present a more honest and open picture of what life was really like for the immigrant in modern day Britain.This experience could be translated to New Zealand, Australia,the U.S or any other nation where many races were rapidly  integrating.The fabulous thing about Hanif Kuresihi is that his specialty is not just race, he is a writer who explores the universal aspects of humanity and he does it with his own brand of cheeky, salacious humor and wit  that is really quite infectious.

“The Buddha of Suburbia” written now over 20 years, is still brimming with Hanif’s love of life. Set in London in the 1970′s it chronicles the chaotic,  curious, lustful and often painful life of Karim Amir-the mixed race boy who desires a better life for himself. Chock full of interesting characters and social commentary this novel is hard to put down.This is my second reading after more than two decades and the strength of writing and Hanif’s ideas that he is trying to get across have not lost their shine.

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Take a walk on the conventional side-”The Guide” becomes a film.

The film version of the novel “The Guide” was a blazing star on  1960′s Bollywood screens.It was a big hit at the box office.However it had no qualms about mincing up R K Narayan’s novel “The Guide” and delivering an A1 melodrama with resoundingly stereotypical characters.There’s the suave fallen hero, the villainous ugly husband, the sexy damsel in distress and the long suffering but loyal mother.The outline of the story has been captured but the intense,darker  heart of the story has been whipped into a heady souffle of  sugar and spice.One can’t deny the attractiveness of the film-the characters are handsome, the acting is consistently strong and the action rolls along seamlessly from one entertaining scene to the next. The music is also part of a memorable score. However as a lover of the literature of R K Narayan one can only be dissapointed by the turns the film version takes  from the book.

As discussed in the review the main character in the novel- Raju was played by heartthrob Dev Anand.He was the golden boy of the Bollywood film industry especially in the 50′s and 60′s.With his lustrous black hair  slicked across his forehead in a style reminiscent of Elvis, his regal streamlined features and his quizzical, expressive eyes it’s no wonder that audiences were taken by him. Playing opposite Dev was Waheeda Rehman- also a sparkling  star of the 50′s and 60′s Bollywood galaxy.She was an undeniable Indian beauty both in looks and talent.Her passionate, trance-like snake dance scene in the film is  a veritable treat.

The film storyline is predictable and ends on a heartily high note. As every successful film producer and director of the film world knows-happy endings make for even happier bank balances. Judging by the position that the film “the Guide” is held in many film goers hearts and opinions, even many years after it’s release, it is necessary to admit that  the audience’s  emotional  high note  bears no responsibility for the original author’s intended story. They are each separate creations that must have their own life.

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R.K Narayan gets under your skin.

R.K Narayan is such a clever writer.Who would have thought such a seemingly simple story could reveal so much about humanity. At first glance R.K Narayan’s ‘The Guide” is about a man who from simple beginnings rises to become a revered sage. As the novel proceeds  it became evident that the message within is something quite more  disturbing. Some people on this earth deceive themselves and then deceive others so resolutely that the damage they leave in their wake is irreparable. Have you ever met someone who takes and takes and then when they give it’s only to get more?

“The Guide” follows the story of one such character-a charmer and a charlatan named Raju.I have written a review here about “The Guide”.This is a novel written by R K Narayan in 1958. Narayan was born at the turn of the 2oth century in Chennai,South India. He set this novel like several others in the made-up town of Malgudi. The novel doesn’t concern itself with any historical events of the day ,instead it lends itself a timeless and truly valuable quality by focusing on the vagaries of human nature that can be found in any little patch of earth across the globe.

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