My problem with The Cat’s Table

My first acquaintance with Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table was through an extract published this spring in The New Yorker. Reading it, I felt like an eleven-year-old watching a magician pull a rabbit out of his hat. I wanted to see more. The book, I learned, would be published “in summer”.

Summer arrived early, but the publishers kept their date fixed not to the season but to the calender. The weekend before the book’s release I scanned some reviews, avoiding parts that revealed the book’s contents, looking for whiffs of judgement. Everyone seemed to love it. On the day of its release, the Kindle edition on Amazon was prized at $3.50. Could this be true? For the price of two ice-cream scoops I could buy a new novel from a contemporary master of fiction? And it would be delivered instantly?

* * *

I do not own a Kindle, but the iPad at home has a Kindle App that lets me read Kindle eBooks on the iPad.

Let this be an experiment, I told myself, as I greedily purchased The Cat’s Table, Kindle Edition. Perhaps this would mark my transition into the world of eBooks, a step I had avoided this far.

* * *

Months later, I am still at “location” – the Kindle analog for “Page” – 235 of 3525. And I’m struggling to understand why.

* * *

Continue reading “My problem with The Cat’s Table”

The Language-Place blog carnival

Last October, during one of those blog-hopping journeys I occasionally indulge in, I stumbled upon an invitation to participate in a “blog carnival” on “Language and Place”. Through it I learned what a blog carnival was — a curated list of links to blog posts on a given theme, which moved like a traveling carnival from one host to next — and, finding it an intriguing concept, I decided to participate. An old post on my German learning experiences figured in the first edition of the carnival that came out in November 2010. A few months later, in April, I hosted edition #5.

Now, after an year of travelling around the world, this carnival is back to its creator, Dorothee Lang. The anniversary edition, modelled around the theme “Streets, Signs, Direction”, features 31 entries presented ingeniously along three dimensions: a poem, an itinerary, a geographic map.

With age, the carnival begins to show its value as a concept. So much of individual writing on the Internet is buried under a tangled web that search engines can barely reach; a carnival like “Language-Place” offers a theme-based portal to navigate such writing. Like an anthology of essays, it offers a menu of tastes to savour and discover, leading you to voices you may otherwise have never heard of. Over time, the archive of links carves out a historical journey spanning lands and peoples, creating a more enduring repository of stories and events than real-time networks spawned by Twitter or Facebook.

The best way to grasp its potential is to begin at the carnival home page and go through the editions. Spend an hour doing this. You may be surprised by what you discover.

The Left Hand of Darkness

What is the loneliest job in the world?

Imagine an envoy visiting a remote planet seventeen years from his own, living on that alien world in the middle of an ice-age, sifting through layers of unfamiliar etiquette, entangled in political intrigue, with no one to trust: this is the world of Genly Ai, envoy from Hain, through most of The Left Hand of Darkness. His mission is to enlist planet Winter/Gethen into a federation he hails from, and his quest reveals what is at the heart of this sad and beautiful story: the meeting of two vastly different cultures, and the possibility of a friendship between aliens.

Continue reading “The Left Hand of Darkness”

Asimov’s psychohistories, Hegel’s histories

[If science fiction is viewed as history in reverse (or as alternate history), what does it reveal about the way history is written and understood?]

The first female character in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation appears in the final third of the book. Licia, wife of the Korellian republic’s leader, is a young woman whose “face was pale and coldly formed” and whose “voice was tart”. She taunts and threatens her husband, invoking her father’s power: “My father would pulverize your toy nation to meteoric dust.” She makes another brief, and similarly insignificant, appearance thirty or so pages later, which marks the end of female presence in this novel that spans a hundred and fifty “Foundation years.”

Rereading a classic can be revealing. I remembered little from my first reading twenty years ago, and on this occasion reading Foundation was like entering a video-game world of men with their politics and guns and trading ships. The sense of place, a vital element for imagining a world vastly different from our own, was all but missing, and the only cultural references included a “vegan” cigar, a two-century old wine, and a game of solitaire. Technology, too, seemed old-fashioned for a world fifty-thousand years in the future: calculators, elevators, public “visiphones” to make calls, “spy beams” to snoop on conversations, “air tubes” between ships, alchemical “transmuters” to convert iron into gold, atomic weapons, identification through a photo-bearing passport, and an encyclopedia containing all human knowledge. The novel was first published in 1953, and the last six decades have turned this view of a future world into an anachronistic vision. A sobering thought, it suggests that predicting the arc of technological progress is harder than we think it is. With our imaginations influenced by extant or emerging technologies, can we conjure up anything that wouldn’t pale half a century later?

Continue reading “Asimov’s psychohistories, Hegel’s histories”

Just let it be, my friend

Sometime in the late Eighties, during my school days in Secunderabad, I watched a movie on television that left a strange impression on my mind. I must have been thirteen or fourteen, a typical Indian teenager fond of cricket, comics and movies. (Girls were only a curiosity, but that would change soon.) Every Sunday I would check the Deccan Chronicle for the scheduled evening movie on Doordarshan, and if it looked interesting I would be home in time for the 5:45 pm “Hindi Feature Film”. There was a Black & White TV at home, an Uptron portable fourteen inch with a V-shaped antenna that stuck out like a pair of bunny ears, and Doordarshan, you’ll remember, was the only channel we received those days.

On this Sunday the movie, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, was not one I’d heard of before, and there were no big stars listed either. But the name intrigued me for some reason, so that evening I skipped a game of cricket and settled myself on the sofa at a quarter to six. The next two and half hours had me in splits. I don’t remember laughing so much to a movie before, and since then only Johnny Stecchino, starring the incomparable Roberto Benigni, comes anywhere close. But there was one problem with Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro: I did not understand the ending, which left me sour and confused all evening, and I decided I didn’t like the movie. Next day, at school, I asked my classmates, but no one had cracked the puzzle. Why did the Vinod and Sudhir, dressed as prisoners, make that throat-slitting gesture? Were they to be hanged? Or were they already ghosts, spirits of two innocent men who were hanged, wandering in Bombay like zombies? Why, after all that fun, did the ending need to be so tragic? It simply wasn’t fair!

Continue reading “Just let it be, my friend”

The review cycle

Dear Teju,

At home we get a few magazines and a newspaper delivered to our mailbox. The Financial Times comes everyday, the New Yorker each Thursday, the Economist the day after, and with Time I never can tell the time – it slips in unnoticed. Each has its particular lens, form and style, but there are commonalities too: political events and book reviews are two themes that cut across these periodicals, and following a thread here often reveals more about the publishing industry than the object under the lens.

For instance, some books are reviewed everywhere. What seems to matter here is the reach of an author’s brand or the publisher’s clout: you either have to be a big name, or have a big label behind your name. So Amitav Ghosh, David Mitchell, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Michael Ondaatje – they are picked up everywhere. It tells you how closed publishing circles are. Looking at these reviews repeat themselves – over a span of a few weeks or, depending on the publishing cycles across the pond, a few months – I would sometimes ask how a new author from a small publishing firm could break through this barrier. Or even a new author from a well-known publishing firm.

Open City has shown how.

What began with James Wood’s review in the New Yorker this spring ended today with Economist’s article hailing a “surprising new voice in fiction”. In between these parentheses were Time’s reference to Soyinka’s reading list (featuring Open City) and Pankaj Mishra’s tiring pyrotechnics in the FT.

(We also get a copy of the Scientific American each month. If you had slipped in a theory or two on those notorious bedbugs or on the colony collapse disorder, you might just have made it in there too.)

I’ve kept aside the print copies containing these references. Looking at these reviews I sometimes wonder how I would have responded if I had known nothing about the author, if I had come upon review after review praising this narrative of a flâneur in New York. Would it have been a different book for me? I’ll never know, and perhaps it is better that way.

What’s next in the journey? Der Spiegel, perhaps, once the German edition is out? And after Europe it will reach the Indian shores. I’ll be watching.


The Thousand Autumns

In 1542, a Chinese pirate ship was swept by a typhoon towards the island of Tanegashima in Japan. On the ship were a few Portuguese sailors, the first Europeans to land on Japan, who returned to Europe with stories of a united nation with people who had treated them well. Soon Portugal sent its first trading ship, and for the next hundred years the Portuguese had a virtual monopoly on European trade with Japan.

Continue reading “The Thousand Autumns”

Super-Frog Saves Tokyo

“Now, you are a real frog, am I right?”

“Yes, of course, as you can see. A real frog is exactly what I am. A product neither of metaphor nor allusion nor deconstruction nor sampling nor any other such complex process, I am a genuine frog. Shall I croak for you?”

Frog tilted back his head and flexed the muscles of his huge throat. Ribit! Ri-i-i-bit! Ribit-ribit-ribit! Ribit! Ribit! Ri-i-i-bit! His gigantic croaks rattled the pictures hanging on the walls.

“Fine, I see, I see!” Katagiri said, worried about the thin walls of the cheap apartment house in which he lived. “That’s great. You are, without question, a real frog.”

“One might also say that I am the sum total of all frogs. Nonetheless, this does nothing to change the fact that I am a frog. Anyone claiming that I am not a frog would be a dirty liar. I would smash such a person to bits!”

Katagiri nodded. Hoping to calm himself, he picked up his cup and swallowed a mouthful of tea. “You said before that you have come here to save Tokyo from destruction?”

“That is what I said.”

“What kind of destruction?”

“Earthquake,” Frog said with the utmost gravity.

An excerpt from ‘Super-Frog Saves Tokyo’, After the quake, Haruki Murakami

In the woods next to a gentle stream


[ Part two of a series – a conversation about the book Open City – that began here. You will find this post accessible even if you haven’t read the book – try it. Then, go buy the book. ]

The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.

Roland Barthes

Dear Teju,

I’ve been thinking, in these past few days, about classification. How does Open City compare with other novels in the reading experience? If I relate reading a conventional work of fiction – with its apparatus of plot, well-developed characters, a beginning, middle and an end – to the act of watching a tennis or soccer match, with its well-defined boundaries, roles and actors, winners and losers, a start and a finish, then Open City makes me feel, at this moment after a hundred or so pages, like someone sitting in the woods next to a gentle stream watching the water flow by, with its characters who appear, linger for a while, and go away, as it has been going on since millennia. There has been no beginning – the first sentence led me into the middle, really – and I do not expect an end. What I see in the stream is guided by Julius’s eye (he is both a character in the stream and, like me, an observer watching it) but my eyes can wander, and so can my mind. Unlike a match, where the anticipation of what happens next often robs me of the joy of the present until, in almost no time, it is all over, sitting by the stream and watching it flow is a reflective activity, unhindered by any plan of action, unlimited by boundaries of space and time.

On the flight to Brussels, as Julius entered into conversation with Dr.Maillotte, I was reminded of my weekend trips to Brussels (when Wife still lived in that city) and those train conversations. One particular encounter stood out; you’ll soon see why.
Continue reading “In the woods next to a gentle stream”

The beauty of pylons


A new type of electricity pylon may soon loom over the countryside. It will look less offensive and leak less electromagnetic radiation than its predecessors.

The Economist

The other day while walking across the countryside I spotted a pair of pylons ahead. They stood in the middle of a field, and the arcs hanging gently between them were dotted with silhouettes of birds. The wires continued further, almost endlessly, punctuated in regular intervals by identical towers with outstretched arms. There was a sadness in that beautiful vision: these objects were either ignored or routinely dismissed as ugly.
Continue reading “The beauty of pylons”