Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Kishwar Desai, an interview

Kishwar_DesaiI recently had the pleasure of interacting with award-winning author and former print and TV journalist Kishwar Desai.
Her novel, Witness the Night (Harper Collins, India and Beautiful Books, UK, 2010) won the Costa First Novel Award and was long listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize and long listed for the DSC South Asian Literary Prize, among others. The story of social worker Simran Singh explored the issue of female foeticide and infanticide in India. It has been translated into over 25 languages.
Her critically acclaimed second book in the Simran Singh series The Origins of Love was published in June 2012. It examines the growing commercialisation of Artificial Reproductive Technology (ART). This has become a huge international business and a very exploitative industry, led by the medical profession trying to “help” infertile couples.
She has recently finished her third and the last book in the Simran Singh series, which is set between Goa and the UK, and deals with the brutal death of a teenager on a Goa beach.
Kishwar Desai is deeply interested in Indian cinema. She writes columns and is also a member of the Steering Committee of the International Film Festival of India. She is married to economist Meghnad Desai, a member of the British House of Lords. She lives between London, Delhi and Goa—travelling all too frequently!

Please tell us about your books; some anecdotes perhaps, of how they happened.
My first book, Darlingji: The True Love Story of Nargis and Sunil Dutt, was something my husband, Meghnad and I had discussed as a book we would do one day, together, as we are both very interested in Indian cinema. And, after we met Sunil Dutt, we even started planning it. However, very soon after, Meghnad became busy in the UK Parliament, and I ended up doing the research and writing the whole book by myself! The trilogy of novels featuring the social worker cum detective Simran Singh, on the other hand, was something I had wanted to write for a long time. Especially the first book, Witness the Night. It evolved out of a chance meeting with a woman who told me how she had survived an attempt by her family to kill her as a new-born baby. As a journalist I had written about female foeticide–but this woman’s story was so moving I wanted to make it into a film. At that time I was working in TV. So after writing Darlingji, I sat down to write a film outline for Witness the Night–and it grew and grew into a book. And then my publisher liked Simran Singh so much I was asked to write a second and a third.
Any pitfalls of being an attractive female writer, and being married to another famous personality?
Thanks for the compliment! I haven’t noticed any pitfalls—but then I don’t think there are any advantages either! After all, writing is very hard work—looks don’t matter! Being married to a famous author means that one can be overshadowed, and I used to be worried about that—but fortunately since my books are very different from the kind that Meghnad writes—I have managed to retain my own identity.
We live in a market economy. How has that changed writing and publishing?
Well, all authors want to write books on subjects they are passionate about. So far, it has been very good for people like me. But I can see that there is a lot of pressure now ( when we see how bestsellers have been ‘created’ and ‘sold’ in India) on writers to go out more, interact with the trade and marketing personnel—which did not happen before. Social media has also become very important. All of this is very time consuming—and I suppose writers like me who want to be a little reclusive will have to try harder to learn all these new ‘techniques’. But I still hope that ultimately if a book is good, it will sell.

The detailed interview is published in Kitaab

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Review: Toraja: Misadventures of an Anthropologist in Sulawesi, Indonesia by Nigel Barley

toraja-jpgToraja: Misadventures of an Anthropologist in Sulawesi, Indonesia by Nigel Barley (Monsoon Books; US$ 15.95, Pp 232)
Many interesting books are being published all over the world, but only a handful make it beyond their borders to an internationals audience. Being associated with Kitaab has given me the opportunity to review foreign books which publishers and marketers may feel will not draw a huge audience outside their country of origin. But these books are interesting to readers like me, who are unfamiliar with the subject and setting. In fact, to me at least, this novelty makes the reading experience more exciting.

Toraja is a delightful account of antrhopologist Nigel Barley's sojourn into a remote and little-known region of Indonesia. The name Sulawesi, Indonesia invokes mystery and the lure of the exotic and unknown. This book offers a knowledgeable and entertaining account of an anthropologist’s journey through a remote, largely uncharted region and culture.
The author succeeds in making us laugh page after page with hilarious accounts of his travels rife with the human touch. He also offers enough insights to engage serious readers. The spontaneous flow of humour is sustained throughout the book, with only a few points where it could seem contrived. This is certainly no mean feat.
As author and anthropologist Nigel Barley states in the introduction, this book is far from a bland monograph written by an omniscient scholar. “It deals with first attempts to get to grips with a ‘new’ people – indeed a whole ‘new’ continent. It documents false trails and linguistic incompetences… Above all, it trades not in generalizations, but encounters with individuals.”
Amusing, animated descriptions fill page after page. For example, the author is compelled to stop at a hotel called the Bamboo Den, which also doubles as a language school. “It was a vision of hell. Hot, dirty, full of cockroaches so confident of their tenure that they sat on the walls and sneered at passers-by.”

Nothing, not even fellow anthropologists, escape the author’s witty barbs. Field work satisfies anthropologists because, among other things, “he ceases to belong to the impoverished part of the population and becomes, in relative terms, a man of wealth – the sort of man who can blow seven pence in a gesture of sheer altruism.”
The author’s observations on local culture are just as humorous, while containing a core of serious truth. He and his guide wear t-shirts with silly slogans to a Torajan funeral, not just because these are the only black clothes they have, but also because “Torajan funerals are inherently jolly occasions, at least in the later stages, for grief is long behind them. The body may well have been kept for several years while resources are mobilized and people summoned from abroad.”
Such animated descriptions are alternated with occasional comments on serious issues such as value judgements and ‘cultural prejudices’...

The wonderful thing about this book is that such serious observations are kept brief and do not weigh down the overall ebullience of the narrative. Indeed, some of these serious observations are also presented in an amusing style. “It is always slightly shocking to be in a country where Christianity is regarded as a serious religion and not a mere euphemism for godlessness.”
The author leads us in an unexpected and delightful twist, when he brings Torajans to England to build one of their elaborate rice barns in a museum. The Torajans find England as exotic and outlandish as the author found their land, and much fun happens from culture shocks.

...Overall, this is a thoroughly delightful read about a little-known, remote region of our globe. A section with the author’s own black-and-white photographs supports the text. One only wishes for more photos, and in colour. Also, little errors creep in every now and then, which could have been cleared with more careful editing.
My detailed review of this book is published here in Kitaab