Thursday, November 19, 2009

Pages from the Past

In Calcutta, I was doing what I usually do when I come home. I was settling my book shelves that are now spread over some 4 cabinets and 3 walls in 3 different rooms.
And during this settling, I came across a whole lot of books that I had forgotten I had (Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut's book-length interview of the director), I wish I had preserved better (Indrajal Comics) and a few I wished I did not have (The Great Indian Dream by Arindam Chaudhuri).

Also, I found quite a few books that I enjoyed tremendously, read most of them several times but somehow, they never got the widespread acclaim they deserved. So, here is a list of nine books from the mid-90s to the early-2000s - that should have got a far bigger audience that they eventually got.


The Last Post - Narendra Pani

A small town newspaper, which reports more gossip than real news, is a phenomenon I have seen firsthand in many East and North Indian towns. I read this book much before that happened and was a hilarious account – from the editor’s perspective – of the strange goings-on of Narasimhapur (I think, that’s the name of the town).
Sleazy politicians, their goons, gossip-mongering elderly sitting in the chowk, hapless journalists out to make a fast buck, rusting government machinery and pseudo-sympathetic social workers from the city – all of them combine to form a very sharp satire on the Indian small town.
Not really in the league of Malgudi but then, what is?

E=mc2: A Biography of World's Most Famous Equation – David Boudanis
In the foreword to A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking says that his publisher had threatened him that for any book on science, every equation halves sales. Dr Hawking kept his book as non-math as possible but had to incorporate one equation, E = mc2, and hoped that it would not scare half his potential readers!
This ‘biography’ traces the ‘life’ of the famous equation, its ‘birth’ in a German patent office, the initial years of disbelief, gradual acceptance, corrections & additions to the theory, its role in the development of the atomic bomb and further. It stopped only before the Mariah Carey album named after Einstein’s most famous (and quotable) theory!

Show Business - Shashi Tharoor
In between all the Twitter and the cattle class, we tend to forget that Shashi Tharoor is probably a much better author than a politician. And even those agree would probably give the example of The Great Indian Novel.
We tend to forget the story of Ashok Banjara, Bollywood’s biggest superstar who went from rags to riches, from cinema to politics, from happy marriage to extra-marital affairs in a span of some rapidly turning 400 pages. It had all the clich├ęs that we love to read about Bollywood – some of them existing more in our minds than in actual films!
And it had the standard disclaimer as well. “Any resemblance to any person, living or dead…”

Love in a Dead Language - Lee Siegel
A professor in an American University is killed, while in the middle of a sexual harassment suit and translating Kama Sutra. His research assistant goes through his diaries, books, notes and even some of his students’ test papers to piece together a weirdly adventurous love story about an American obsessed with Vatsyana’s most famous work and his Indian-American student.
The book – apart from being hilarious – is very inventively produced with different kinds of fonts, illustrations, alignments since various sections are supposed to be reproduced from different books, notebooks, dossiers and whatnot. One interesting twist is that there is a portion of flashback which is printed in the opposite direction and you have to turn the book around to read that part, which eventually merges with what you were originally reading. Very cool!

The Moor's Last Sigh - Salman Rushdie
After Satanic Verses, Rushdie wrote Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a fairy tale that counts among his best works. After that, he wrote about Moraes Zogoiby a.k.a Moor, who was the last surviving member of a spice trading family from Cochin. He and his adventures from Bombay to Andalusia form the book.
The most memorable character in the book – for me, at least – was Raman Fielding, leader of a Hindu fundamentalist organization and a thinly disguised version of Bal Thackeray. I remember wondering that after Islamic fundamentalists, it was Rushdie’s turn to be attacked by Hindu ones.
Certainly not one of Rushdie’s most well-known books, Moor had a sweep that was quite fantastic and I loved the construction too. The entire book was written in flashback as Moor wrote the story of his life, while imprisoned by a rival. Borrowing from the Arabian Nights, he was allowed to live as long as his story continued.


Autobiography of an Unknown Cricketer - Sujit Mukherjee
Sujit Mukherjee – as his biggest fan, Ramachandra Guha puts it – is one of those rare writers on cricket who have played the game with some degree of success. He appreciates the giants of the game that much better but is mature enough not to be bitter about other people’s successes.
He represented Bihar in the Ranji Trophy and writes affectionately about the college matches, English priests who taught him the game, scarcity of good-quality kits and Patna in the 1950s. Such idyllic things are usually not the subjects of riveting prose but the book turns out to be an unlikely page-turner as Mukherjee breezes through his cricketing career, before he left it to become an academician.
It reminds us of a time when cricket matches took 5 days to play and 5 years to discuss.

Pundits from Pakistan - Rahul Bhattacharya
The brief author bio states that Rahul Bhattacharya represented St Xavier’s College, Bombay and managed to break the brilliant cricketing traditions set by Sunil Gavaskar and Ashok Mankad. While he has not played Test cricket, Bhattacharya has certainly overtaken his illustrious college-mates in cricket writing.
As a journalist trailing the Indian cricket team in their historic tour of Pakistan in 2004, Rahul Bhattacharya wrote this book as a part-travelogue, part-social history, part-sports journalism with a wonderful mix of observation, sensitivity and humour.
And a sense of history. Sehwag’s battering of Saqlain probably led to the latter’s career getting derailed as had Prasanna’s career in the hands of Zaheer Abbas. It takes more than just a cricket lover to say this.

Follywood Flashback - Bunny Reuben
As a publicist, movie reviewer and movie buff, Bunny Reuben was the quintessential Bollywood insider. Except that, he did not agree with the name. He called it Follywood, named after the quirks and foibles of its stars. And of this wondrous town, he gave a fabulous flashback. The anecdotal history covers the ‘golden era’ of the industry and the whole roster of stars – from Dilip Kumar to Janki Dass. From Kishore Kumar to IS Johar.
I have been accused of finding even the post boxes in Bombay high-rises interesting! But I suspect that even non-enthusiasts would fine these stories not without appeal. After all, who wouldn’t be interested in the tussle between reigning showman Raj Kapoor and upstart producer Gulshan Rai over their similar sounding magnum opii – Mera Naam Joker and Johnny Mera Naam – releasing approximately at the same time.
And when all else fails, there is the story where Dev Anand takes Frank Capra swimming nude at Juhu beach.

In which Annie Gives it those ones - Arundhati RoyThis is the screenplay for the best film I never saw. But neither did the rest of the world, apparently.
The film ran in a late-night slot on Doordarshan. I am simply amazed that the government-run channel actually let something so anarchic run! Based in a school of architecture somewhere in Delhi, the film is set in the last few days before the final year exam - one which has been repeatedly flunked by the eponymous Annie. Written by Arundhati Roy, it is brilliant and hilarious screenplay starring most of the DD and NSD regulars. Including one Mr Shah Rukh Khan in a bit part!
Pity Ms Roy is only interested in the algebra of infinite justice nowadays.
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