Thursday, June 2, 2011


When Ian McEwan got famously feuding once-friends Paul Theroux and VS Naipaul to shake hands and make up at the Hay lit-fest, it became a photo-op gleefully captured by publications that had nothing to do with literature, much less to do with any of the dramatis personae involved in the 15-year-old joust. But Theroux and Naipaul’s blazing row – over, what else, suspicions and women – had all the ingredients of the kind of salacious stuff that makes headlines across the world in distinctly unliterary publications. There were barbs, very public ones, and the two cerebral writers behaved like kindergarten kids. It was delicious.

What came out of it, apart from some well-documented tongue-lashing, was a book – Sir Vidia’s Shadow, Theroux’s revenge on Naipaul for trying to auction off a personally inscribed copy of his book dedicated to the Nobel laureate and his first wife. Sir Vidia’s Shadow, an ode to Naipaul’s “elevated crankishness”, though, is hardly the only product of a literary row. The good thing about cerebral fights is that they sometimes spawn stuff other than intemperate outpourings of a creative mind.

Take English poet John Dryden’s famed faceoff with fellow poet Thomas Shadwell. It resulted in Mac Flecknoe, Dryden’s mock heroic satire that was a not-too-veiled attack on Shadwell. Dryden and Shadwell famously sparred on their inspiration Ben Jonson and the structure and nature of comedy. Their differences were also political – one being a whig and the other a staunch royalist.

Had he been alive, Jonson would certainly have enjoyed the faceoff given how well he handled his own quarrels. He once invited critic John Sylvester to a repartee session. “I John Sylvester, Lay with your sister,” came the barb. Jonson’s reply was cutting, “I Ben Jonson, Lay with your wife.” “That is not rhyme,” said Sylvester. “No,” said Jonson. “But it is true.”

More recently, Salman Rushdie and John Le Carre had a delightfully bitchy slanging match via letters to the Guardian newspaper. Rushdie called his bete noire “ a pompous ass”. Back in the 80s, when Rushdie was in hiding after the fatwa on his life following the publication of Satanic Verses, the two writers locked horns on the question of freedom of speech and whether even literature needs to draw a line sometimes. It seems it all began when Rushdie trashed The Russia House in his review.

Years later, the quarrel resurfaced when Le Carre was left battling accusations of anti-Semetism in his writing. Le Carre wrote that his “purpose was not to justify the persecution of Rushdie, which, like any decent person, I deplore, but to sound a less arrogant, less colonialist and less self-righteous note than we were hearing from the safety of his admirers' camp.”

Rushdie replied, “I’m grateful to John le Carre for refreshing all our memories about exactly how pompous an ass he can be”….(his letter) “suggests that anyone who displeases philistine, reductionist, radical Islamist folk loses his right to live in safety.”

The pompous ass invective isn’t the only colourful endearment from Rushdie. When John Updike did a catty one on Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown for the New Yorker sometime in the mid-2000s, Rushdie retorted with a vicious  below the belt attack.  “Why, oh why, did Salman Rushdie in his new novel call one of his major characters Maximilian Ophuls?” said Updike. Rushdie’s reply: “A name is just a name. 'Why, oh why .. ?' Well, why not? Somewhere in Las Vegas there's probably a male prostitute called 'John Updike'.”

The review row is of course also as old as the hills. One of the most famous literary friendships turned sour also has a review angle. Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre were philosophers, thinkers and novelists. The two men appreciated the sameness in each other and after a slightly awkward introduction went on to become firm friends. Camus’ review of Nausea was both appreciative and critical. Sartre’s review of The Stranger, on the other hand, seemed to drip an “acid tone”. The joust, stuff of literary lore, has been captured in a splendid book by Ronald Aronson titled Camus & Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It (Chicago 2004).

Of course any post on literary quarrels can go on and on. I haven’t yet mentioned the Norman Mailer-Gore Vidal faceoff or the Mary McCarthy-Lillian Hellman legal catfight. But then again, this is only a post….and I do need to keep some tidbits aside for my friends to enlighten me…so keep writing in and adding to the list I have mentioned here. I promise not to use this as a trigger for a word war…

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Mircea Eliade & Maitreyi Devi in 1973
 The idea for this blog came to me while browsing through the reams that were written – and the attendant zillion images clicked – during the just-ended Jaipur Festival. And no, it's got nothing to do with either Hartosh Singh Bal or his now famous face-off with William Dalrymple. While speed reading the goss that the festival threw up, I came across several pictures of the literary world’s newest IT couple – Orhan Pamuk and Kiran Desai. Their love story is so sizzling right now that Pamuk’s last offering, The Museum of Innocence  is already a best-seller in India, although Pamuk is a brilliant but notoriously difficult writer to love. I should know ….I read his My Name Is Red with fascination and awe but it wasn’t an easy read. But an Indian Booker-prize winning girlfriend can endear an author to our chattering classes like nothing else…he’s boyish and a Nobel laureate…she’s stunning and a Booker winner…heck they even have a house in Goa! They are, as my friend Reshmi so aptly described them, the Saifeena of the literary world. So what’s not to love?
Although strongest in India, the interest in the Orhan-Kiran love story is by no means a local obsession. The pair are trailed by paparazzi as they sizzle on the sun-kissed beaches of Goa and they get top billing at all literary events they grace. Yet, half a century ago, an equally celebrated love story fetched no eyeballs from western media. India, clearly hadn’t arrived back then and the star-crossed story of a Romanian intellectual and an Indian littérateur didn’t find too many takers. Two best-selling books and one failed film later, the Maitreyi Devi-Mircea Eliade romance has now been relegated to the scrap heap of history. No one remembers them, much less revisits one of the most touching instances of cross-cultural love. And the film, (Bengali Night) despite a very young Hugh Grant and a very nubile Supriya Pathak, generated more controversy than footfalls. It has been thankfully forgotten. If you still don’t know what I am talking about, you haven’t read Na Hanyate. Or leafed through Maitreyi/La Nuit Bengali. The first was written forty years after the second and today Chicago University Press offers the two as a ‘he said-she said’ package. Yet even a cursory read of the two – despite what’s lost in translation, from Bangla and Romanian respectively – leaves no one in any doubt whose account is of greater literary merit. Despite his erudition and fame, Eliade’s Maitreyi is nothing more than romantic rant, a semi-erotic rendition of his affair and the painful separation that followed.
Eliade & Maitreyi Devi, 1933
 Na Hanyate, on the other hand, is an elegantly-written, beautifully structured autobiographical novel. Unlike Eliade, Maitreyi Devi does not write simply to externalize her pain – for her the love and longing that lasted a lifetime was a ‘glimpse at eternity’. The book was an instant best-seller in Bangla and all the other languages it was translated to and even mainstream Bollywood borrowed copiously from it when Sanjay Leela Bhansali picked chunks of the book in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. It won an academy prize and is now considered a cult classic. Eliade’s Maitreyi too won him enormous fame as a novelist though his later works of punditry have completely eclipsed that early novel.

So what do these two literary couples – separated by nearly a century – have in common? Actually nothing. And that’s the point. Despite her renown in Bengal, Maitreyi Devi never managed to get the kind of respect that Western critics showered on Eliade. To them, she was always Eliade’s first love and the muse of his best-selling novel. Essayist Ginu Kamani chronicles some of those responses in her seminal essay A Terrible Hurt: “Many of the reviewers champion one book over the other, saying of Devi's book, for example: "one-sided," "self-absorbed," "anti-intellectual arrogance," (Carmel Berkson, "Lost Love in India", Far Eastern Economic Review, November 17, 1994); "Her angry response is naive, and rather Indian" (Ian Buruma, "Indian Love Call", New York Review of Books, September 22, 1994); "Maitreyi Devi could have done with some editorial help" (Isabel Colegate, "Love in Calcutta, His and Hers", New York Times Book Review, May 15, 1994); "a distracted meditation on emotional transcendence," "rambling and anecdotal, often slack in prose style," (Philip Herter, "Both Sides Now", St. Petersburg Times, May 8, 1994).

Kiran Desai-Orhan Pamuk, Goa, 2011
Was Eliade’s formidable reputation as a scholar responsible for a section of the western intelligentsia trashing Na Hanyate? Would Na Hanyate have got a far more unbiased review if Maitreyi Devi had written it today, in the backdrop of India’s economic prominence? Would it have managed a Booker Prize perhaps? Would Maitreyi Devi then get the treatment she truly deserved, an inte-llectual equal of her first love? In post-liberalised India, Pamuk and Desai are literary equals. Sadly, Maitreyi Devi never got that chance.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Emigrating to Pondichery

The trouble with being 40-plus is that no one quite gets you. If that makes me sound like a teenager, then may be my life has come full circle. But truth be told, when a 40-plus couple take a life-altering decision, they face disbelief at best and derision at worst.

Our decision to emigrate from saddi Dilli – or shall I say apno Gurgaon – to Pondichery elicited all manner of reactions from friends, colleagues, acquaintances and strangers. So much so that we spent most of September, October and November explaining ourselves to anyone who cared to listen. The ‘let-me-explain’ mode continued via facebook all through December. The new year throws up more of the same…so by now, I know my ‘oddball reasons’ by heart. No small achievement for a 40-year-old trying to learn French verbs!

The commonest reaction has been what hubby and I term the ‘halo-ji angle’. “We are proud of the two of you…what a brave thing to do…takes so much conviction,” goes this refrain, making us feel like we’ve committed the biggest, most spectacularly stupid mistake of our entire, useless lives. Yikes, what have we done!!!!!

The other lot would offer snide solace. “Heard you’ve taken sanyas?” said one source. Not quite, I tried to explain, but he wasn’t listening. “Call when you need a break from religion…” Another friend of my hubby’s christened him ‘Baba’ while still others asked, in all seriousness, whether we weren’t too young to find religion. One friend hurrah-ed our quest for nirvana, saying he’s been trying to give everything up and live in the mountains for a while….The most damning though were those who called to ask, “Heard you guys are retiring? Is it true or did one of you get fired?”

That neither of us got fired or were taking sanyas didn’t seem to register on our social radar. People just assumed we were smoking some exotic herb growing in our backyard. One social acquaintance even wondered whether Pondichery offered good opportunities for real estate investments. And if we could help him get a nice old villa in the French quarter….

The best of the lot simply assumed we had a)had enough of the big city life b) were losing our marbles. Both assumptions were easier to handle because in a way they weren’t very far from the truth. In my case, I had to even field a Gestapo like inquisition on my choice of school for my baby – the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education in Pondichery – with one dinner companion asking me why ‘normal’ options like Sri Ram School or Vasant Valley weren’t good enough. Do I mean to say, kids who go to those schools don’t turn out right? Not quite, I stammered to explain. But I just like the idea of mine growing up in a different milieu. Why? Did I go to SAICE? Didn’t I turn out right, despite a lifetime with the Loreto nuns? Ho hum. I was silenced.

While pretty much everybody was skeptical about our decision, reacting with disbelief, incomprehension and occasionally even derision, some responses were just plain over the top. One member of our extended family called our alternative living plan ‘shocking’. “There has to be more to this than what you’re letting on…you’re just not telling me the whole truth,” she said. Lest this spawn an entire cupboard full of imagined skeletons, I hastened to add that neither of us had lost of our jobs, nor was there any problem with our immediate family…this was purely a lifestyle choice. “But you’re throwing away everything you’ve achieved in these 17 years in Delhi,” she ranted. “Are you mad?” I tried to reason with her saying that it was a little bit like emigrating to London. We were doing this because we were convinced that we were moving to a better quality of life. “But London is the West…you’re not emigrating, you’re giving up Delhi for some la la land,” she insisted and then drew her own conclusion, “Is it because you don’t want the fact that your child is adopted to get around?” I gave up…
To be fair, some people came up with fairly acceptable objections. One friend noted that growing up in Pondichery would mean a lifetime of sheltered existence for our baby. Would she be able to face the real world when she grows older? Yet another said, “The school does not offer any certificates…what if she wants to get into the regular stream mid-way?” Yet others assumed, rightly, that I would miss the frenetic, news-hungry days in the Delhi Bureau. “We’re giving you a year tops,” said one colleague. “After that you’ll be back. Pondichery is too quiet for your liking.” Yet others remarked, ‘It’s good you’re not selling your Wellington Estate flat in Gurgaon. That way you can come back anytime you want.”

A select few, though, actually got the idea. They told us, they loved the idea of a gentle pace and gentile milieu, a small town where everyone knew everyone else, of colonial architecture and great seafood, of spirituality and a liberal, creative ambience. They said they were tempted to follow suit and would start building their nest egg. But till then, they would miss us. To them, I say, we miss you too guys. And hope you’ll emigrate to our alternative world really soon. That, by the way, is also my new year resolution. Bonne Annee to all….