Praise for My Books

"Manreet Sodhi Someshwar is a gifted writer of great promise. I have a gut feeling we have a new star rising in Punjab's literary horizon. She has an excellent command of English and a sly sense of humour."
- Khushwant Singh on The Long Walk Home

"An enjoyable tale of a sassy girl's headlong race up the corporate ladder."
- India Today on Earning the Laundry Stripes

Monday, 25 July 2011

A Rare Achievement or Hot Air: Can One Book Be Both?

Hot air beneath a layer of subcutaneous fat ... resurrects a Mumbai staple ... parcelling it in comically fustian prose

A funny yet deeply melancholic work ... is brilliant, and remarkably mature ...  A rare achievement

The preceding two statements come from two separate reviews of the same book published recently. The book is written by an Indian (?), or, at least, a writer of Indian origin, revolves around an Indian city - Mumbai, and the two reviews come from two magazines - one Indian, the other not. (No prizes here for guessing which comes from which.)

I am not picking the statements out of context - the first is the lead into the review, the second the finale, and the complete reviews can be read in the links provided. What I am looking to do is to explore how one piece of writing can be viewed so differently by two very credible reviewers.

Writing is supposed to be universal - in which case, why such polarity?

The skeletal underpinning of all writing is alike, it is the dermis and the clothes the writer adds that provide the specific details that furnish us with a context. The dilemma, and consequent sacrifice, of Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities is instantly recognizable; the character who will sacrifice his life to preserve the lover of his beloved, the louche who hides within him the heart of gold has been seen in films and books before. And yet, Dickens' Sydney is unmistakably Dickens' Sydney: the British barrister who is bloody brilliant yet self-indulgent and self-deprecatory and whose redemption must lie in his own effacement - the ultimate tribute to the very English trait of stiff upper lip!

Must we then examine the process by which books are reviewed? Which begets the question: what is the purpose of a review?

A review is an evaluation; it is meant to provide its readers with a synopsis and critical analysis of the material at hand - be it book, movie, play - and leave the reader with a clear viewpoint of the reviewer and, therefore, his recommendation to go for it or ditch it.

But a review is also personal and subjective since a reviewer brings to the material his own perceptual filters. In fact, the best reviewers are highly opinionated - Roger Ebert, Michiko Kakutani - choosing to provoke, educate and entertain through forthright distillation.

And yet, there isn't any denying that reviews can be, and often are, compromised because of associations with publishers, writers and their agents. Or, in today's world especially, the marketing hype accompanying a new book can overwhelm a reviewer and cower into adhering to the trumpeted line. Just think of the last anticipated arrival on the book racks that was not heralded as brilliant, coruscating, masterly, compelling ... yawn ...

And then, there are times when the reviewer is plain lazy or has a deadline to meet. In come the Seven Deadly Stuffers - duds that are packed in with regularity to bolster a review.

Enough of reviewers, what about the writer? Is the book intended for a particular audience? Did the writer have some target group in mind?

Indian publishing is newly flush with writers who claim they aren't writing for a gora audience. Instead they are telling Desi stories intended for their country folk who are lapping them up. And the sales of such books support their claim, be it Chetan Bhagat or Amish Tripathi or Rashmi Bansal.

The flip side of the coin then is that writers such as Seth and Rushdie and Desai were writing for a western audience who are interested in the 'exotic' image of India, that of mangoes and hennaed hands and squalor. I don't agree with that view but the cover designs of fiction by Indian writers sold abroad tend to favour the 'exotic' look. And despite the saying, a book is judged by its cover. Hmm... biases, biases, biases ...

Which brings me back to where I started. By now, you'd have followed the links, read the reviews and figured that the book in question is Last Man in Tower, Aravind Adiga's second novel after his Booker win. My dilemma: should I read it? I wrote the post to sift through the conflicting arguments in my own head but am I any clearer? Dunno.

How we engage with a book is a function of who we are, which, in turn, is a function of the books we have read, the environment we've grown up in, etcetera. Adiga's first novel The White Tiger left me scratching my head at the collective wisdom of the Booker jury. Awarding the prize in 2008, Michael Portillo, the chair of the judges, said in praise of the book: "Does this book knock my socks off? And this did."

I have to admit though, Mr. Portillo, that I had to peel my socks off - blame Hong Kong's humidity. And in my subsequent review for the SCMP I said:

In the seventies a pair of Bollywood scriptwriters, drawing on the chaos of the times, created the character of an “angry young man”: a man raging against the avarice of an elitist system in which many are sacrificed to the whims of a few. The reputation of Amitabh Bachchan, the legendary Hindi film star, rests on his myriad portrayals of just such a defiant character. Thirty years hence, transported into the newly-chaotic India of a booming economy and rising economic divide, Balram Halwai is alas a feeble Xerox of the angry young man.

The White Tiger was described as a bracingly modern novel about the dark side of new India. Nonetheless, for any one looking to read about contemporary India's fetid underbelly, I'd recommend The Story of My Assassins by Tarun Tejpal.

Ultimately, what a book means to us has to do with whether it resonates with us. Does its narration strike a chord within, do the characters find a home in our soul, do their tears and laughter echo in our own lives? That, to my mind, is the test of any book.

Recently, Rupert Murdoch was attacked at a Parliament hearing by a pie thrower. Before the attack the man had tweeted: It is a far better thing I do now than I have ever done before.

He was harking to a quote from Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities when he goes to his death voicing, "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known".

Not for no reason does Dickens' novel published 150 years back still find resonance with people!

To round up this post, if any of you have read Last Man in Tower, please share your views with me. My promise: an open mind; My hope: for some resonance.


  1. what a piece...among other things, i love the comment on the pie thrower...I never knew this guy had more noble thoughts in him than one of aiming a pie at Rupert...

  2. @ Friends of Gaia: Thank you! Noble, yes. And now it seems he'll be sentenced before Murdoch - the irony of life!