Once the young beacon of fantasy fiction, Samit Basu has tried a ‘novel of the now’. The media hype just has to catch up, says Poorva Rajaram
SAMIT BASU is not that young. The 31-year-old first published fantasy fiction at 23, and has since branched out into comics, graphic novels and young adult fiction. Over the years, he’s been constructed as many things: beacon of savvy genre-writing in India, an IIM dropout who found something else, publishing phenomenon and of course, prodigy. There isn’t a critical review to be found. So far, reporting has sponged off his apparent ability to be forever 21 in the popular gaze.
Basu makes literary reporting easy — when you meet him, he converses in convenient bytes. He is acutely aware of how he is marketed, saying, “I’m wary of the conveyor belt of next big things.” He also says there are no advantages to the young writer tag. “It just means they don’t take you seriously.”
From his Gameworld fantasy trilogy (The Simoqin Prophecies in 2004,The Manticore’s Secret in 2005 and The Unwaba Revelations in 2007), Basu describes the first book as “a bit (like) Terry Pratchett”. At around 600 pages each, these books prey on the bookish grace of readers. The trilogy is proficient and carefully textured. It only lacks immediate allegorical value.
Without that, there is an even bigger burden: to keep the reader interested in the interior imaginings of the author’s head. The fallbacks of eastern mythology and archetypes only help you so much to connect with the story.
Turbulence, Basu’s new novel of postmodern superheroics, is supposed to be his tipping point that coughs him onto the playground of bigboy literary fiction. Basu says instead of fantasy, he wanted to write “the kind of novel Indian writers in English are supposed to write — that addresses contemporary India in all of its chaos”. The plot is easygoing: all the passengers of a London-Delhi flight arrive with the one superhero power they subliminally desired. Uzma becomes universally liked, Aman controls networks, Tia can replicate and so on. These everyday superheroes band together to save the world from baddies and a bombastic fight ensues.
Turbulence is a kinetic feat. Basu should be congratulated for the sheer number of calories his characters burn whizzing around the globe. At 337 pages, the literary workout has been effective. It is abuzz with some of the endearing, frolicky qualities of a romp — a genre best described as anti-introspection. People just do stuff.
UPON INTROSPECTION, though, you notice some canny literary scaffolding — places, times, character attributes, superhero powers, names, occupations — everything except characters. You meet characters mainly through lifestyle descriptors — Aman is “medium everything”, Uzma wants “to be the next Aishwarya Rai” and Vir used to wear “red Bata bubblegummers” as a kid.
Basu treats his characters in the very same meagre way the media has treated him: denying a full-bodied existence of shades. His attempt to write the IWE contemporary novel works at cross-purposes with his irreverence about form and insight. He has, as yet, been unable to accommodate both insignificance and societal resonance.
Some writers have powers but are not superheroes.
Our lady of keema and kebabs
Most food books are just rotten lettuce, but Mita Kapur’s superb memoir ignites forgotten recipes with memory, says chef Manu Chandra
I MUST ADMIT (somewhat grudgingly now) that I was sceptical of The F-Word doing justice to the food book genre even before I began reading it. I really can’t be blamed for my initial reluctance though, given the amount of ‘rotten lettuce’ in bookstores across the country: Imported cookbooks, food books, travelogues, entire series for which not a single ingredient is available this side of the Indian Ocean. Clearly, publishers realise that food — in any kind and in any form — offers an easy connect. There is, after all, a very basic instinct in us that responds to images, descriptions and anything to do with food in much the same way we relate to pornography. Consequently, anyone who can wield a ladle and slice a grapefruit can find a publisher who wants to broadcast his story — result, a lot fewer trees.
Mita Kapur’s debut book had me thinking ‘not again’ in the first couple of chapters. “This kebab is as sensual as a salsa dance. It cavorts, glides and swirls, balancing it’s mystery with quiet grace” didn’t do it for me even though I could certainly relate to the setting in its entirety, much like anyone raised in an upper-middle class north Indian family with dysfunctional relatives and odd food behaviours. It was, to a large extent, the seed for my career as a chef.
BUT IT started to get pretty interesting as I read on. The narration of her time in Lucknow brought back fond memories of me trying to get to the bottom of the recipe. “But why do we pisso the keema on the sil batta, Dadi?” was a question I always asked, since the much-repaired Sumeet mixie seemed as much up to the task as the medieval stone slab kept out in the garden. Kapur provides the answers while provoking a sense of déjà vu, and rekindling old and often forgotten recipes. She covers some of the most delicious parts of northern India with delightful recipes, relatively short descriptions and much left to andaaz and imagination.
Not unlike Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, the recipes pepper a warm narrative, in this case of a woman who came to terms with many things as life progressed, motherhood being one of them. I loved the parts where the book goes into flashback mode and grandparents speak about their pasts intertwined with their food memories. Had there been more of that, the ride would have been more joyous. It could have been a little lighter on the number of recipes too (though I’m itching to try out some of the Indian ones) and the vast gamut of cuisines covered, but that is perhaps integral to Kapur’s own cosmopolitanism.
Kapur is an entertaining writer, but perhaps more importantly she tells an engaging story, one that is bound to touch any mother, wife or child. She has done a good job reinventing a genre that hovers between MFK Fisher and Julia Child, and has given it a quintessential Indian makeover — one that you must read.
Chandra is Executive Chef of Olive Beach, Bengaluru and Olive Bar & Kitchen, Mumbai
The underworld is not enough
Sonia Faleiro’s new book reports nothing original about Mumbai bar dancers, finds Nithin Manayath
CONSIDERING THAT Indian narrative non-fiction is aquiver with book launches that have celebrities cooing at each other, an ethnographic book about bar dancers is rather ill-fated. It is ill fated in its affinity to be liberally hip right from the word go.
Sonia Faleiro’s tale of a young bar dancer fighting personal and political odds builds slowly towards a tense resolution but her vision is far too limited for this to be your complete guide to the world of bar dancers. For one, this world (the blurb dubs it ‘underworld’) is not as disconnected from the rarefied airs of south Bombay as Faleiro insists.
The chapter on bar dancers in Maximum City offers just as much understanding with brevity and easier flair. Beautiful Thing works inventively when Faleiro’s territorial realist voice expresses the cadences of her Mira Road bar dancer-protagonist-subject Leela and her friends.
In her pursuit of pulling off bambaiya snap, the authorial voice clatters with that of her subjects through astoundingly bad translations and unwise phonetic realism (kustomer!). A less broke reviewer might have well given up after she encounters, on the first page, a sentence like, “Umrao (the courtesan) was a beauty, but it was her epic nakhra, pretense, that made her legend.” Or more hilariously, “‘Dekho, lund-fakeer,’ she said uncharitably. Check out the dick-fucker.” Elsewhere, a hijra’s chelas become “hangers-on”. While even pop culture references to hijras (as opposed to someone who spent days with them) suggest that chelas are more disciple-daughters!
But through some parts Faleiro thankfully forgets to translate (or you train yourself to ignore them) and lets the ‘sharp’, ‘Gold Flake’ tones of Leela, her friend Priya and others incisively cut for the reader — everyday loves, fears, laughter, unhappiness, reminiscences, hopes, adas and nakhras. What seems to work for Faleiro is less her journalistic acuity as her flair for narrative structuring. One wonders if we could have done away with the journalist interlocutor, who often interrupts with cloying naiveté (“…and yet Priya’s beauty did not give her the upper hand in her relationships”) or stinky condescension (“He was dressed like a rap star — how he thought a rap star might look.”)
The book also works when Faleiro forgets to plough the implied titular triteness, of beauty searing into and from terror. It is in these exchanges between the quick-witted women, men and hijras that one glimpses a good storyteller’s tricks. One who even lets herself be a character, (“Priya’s boyfriend was a gangster! Gangsters carried Guns!”). It might have made a decent novella. But in its present form, gayi bhains paani mein — and unlike Faleiro who translates this to “the buffalo has gone into the water”, we know that it has also sunk.
Manayath is a sexuality researcher based in Bengaluru
By Poorva Rajaram
Your favourite genre?
Since I stopped reading books 20 years ago, I have to say photography books — not that photography books are read. Before that I read all the classic literature on my parents’ shelf — Keats, Shelley, Shakespeare — the stuff in BA and MA syllabi. But, I think I overdosed!
A book that means a lot to you?
The one I did on my father, A Critic’s Eye. It was a repository of my family history.
A photography book you recommend?
The work I really like is by someone who showed here recently at the Spanish Embassy in Delhi, Graciela Iturbide. Her show, An Eye for an Eye, was quiet, poetic, beautiful and disturbing at the same time. You really see the similarities between Mexican and Indian culture.
A book you learnt photography from?
Robert Frank’s The Americans is a classic for the way he shot photographs and interpreted America in the 1950s and 1960s.
An overrated book? And why?
Those glossy, often badly photographed coffee-table books on India that are mega-sized (like tombstones) and overpriced for the tourist market.
Your favourite character?
I recently read Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace. It had some family resonance because of the journey that my father made from Burma to India. I liked the photographer, Dinu, who is quite lost when his niece goes to find him.