Nov 172012
 

The political cartoonist harnessed Mumbai’s working-class rage into the the city’s most potent political force.
That he loved Mumbai, there’s little doubt — though his supporters in the Shiv Sena found a funny way of showing it. Of his politics, the less said the better.
Balasaheb was 86. R.I.P.

 Posted by at 9:12 am
Nov 152012
 

There’s little Indians hate more than foreigners writing (or making a film or insert your chosen art form here) about the country. This sentiment is particularly evident in a city like Bombay. “Why do they want to see only the negative side of the country?” is one question. “Who do they think they are?” is another. “Why don’t they focus on their own problems?” All, of course, are valid questions, and I’ve asked these very questions, particularly when I lived in India, about various documentaries and films that portrayed Bombay and, indeed, India.
But now that I’ve written a novel set in Mumbai from the comfort of my living room in the U.S., I have a different take. Possibly because I did get a few , “Sitting in America and writing about us…” sort of comments — mostly said half in jest. Anyhoo, that’s the reason for my reversal.
Hypocrisy? Perhaps. But I’d like to think of it more as a disinterested view.
A previous blog post chronicles a list of my favorite books on Bombay.
It’s only on revisiting that post today did I realize that four of the five books on the list were written by authors who don’t live in the city. Among them is Katherine Boo, the author of Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, which won the National Book Award last night for Nonfiction.
Here’s what I wrote about the book at the time:

Reporter Katherine Boo’s telling of life in a Mumbai slum can be daunting reading, but it provides stark and necessary relief to much of the narratives emerging from India in the Western media about India’s growing prosperity.

Here’s what I liked about Boo’s book: She neither patronized nor infantilized the subjects of her book. Now, that’s a rare trait in most of us with relatively privileged upbringings who deal with the poor or poverty. Boo’s focus comes from her career, which has been spent reporting on poverty in cities like Mumbai, but also in American communities.

Her reporting on the mentally retarded in Washington, D.C., won her a Public Service Pulitzer in 2000. Here’s what the awards committee said about her work at the time:

“Awarded to The Washington Post, notably for the work of Katherine Boo, that disclosed wretched neglect and abuse in the city’s group homes for the mentally retarded, which forced officials to acknowledge the conditions and begin reforms.”

Her article “The Marriage Cure”, which reported on Oklahoma’s efforts to promote marriage as a way out of poverty, won a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing in 2004.

What is especially remarkable about Boo’s reporting is that she’s avoided the allure of reporting on the world’s “big events,” preferring instead to focus her attention on social issues. Here’s how the Guardian described her in a recent profile:

“American reporter Katherine Boo decided early on that hers would be a different route. Once and only once did she agree to write about life at the top: in 1993, as a reporter at the Washington Post, she was commissioned to write a lengthy magazine profile of the new vice-president, Al Gore.
Afterwards she felt it had been pointless. “I get tired of obsessing about characters,” she says when we meet in London. “I feel like there’s a lot of people who want to do that kind of work, and they’re really good at it. I think social issues are kind of worthy things that people graduate from, to a large extent. In journalism, if you get to be really hot stuff, that’s where you get to go – to the White House! – and that’s too bad.”
So Boo, then in her late 20s, returned to her vocation: writing about the lives of the poorest people in America.”

I highly recommend Beyond the Beautiful Forevers if you haven’t read it yet. It’s a remarkable work of reporting that delves deeply into the lives of people whom the rest of us do our best to ignore.

Oct 102012
 

While looking for information on crime fiction in India, I came across this article published in May in Tehelka magazine.

These two sentences in particular caught my eye:

Hachette publishers say that while their international detective fiction titles sell 50,000 copies in a single edition, Indian counterparts sell a tenth of that in total.

As readers of this blog know, my book, Murder in Mumbai, was released as an ebook by Dutton Guilt Edged Mysteries in July. I’m still hopeful that there’ll be an Indian edition — hopefully in paperback (Penguin, Are you listening?). But the numbers cited in this story suggest why Indian publishers may be reluctant to publish mystery novels set inside the country.

This isn’t true only of mysteries. Arvind Adiga’s excellent White Tiger only got traction in India once it won the Booker Prize.

I’m as guilty of this as any Indian reader. As a child, I read Enid Blyton, an English writer. As a teenager, I read Agatha Christie. As an adult, I read Scandinavian mysteries. Even my first introduction to a mystery set in India was written by an Indian — H.R.F. Keating’s highly enjoyably Inspector Ghote series (talk about a colonized mind).

It’s not as if there isn’t crime fiction published in India. The fact is, however, that much of it is published in regional languages. And unless, it’s one of the major languages — Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil (if I’m leaving out any, please forgive me, it’s not to suggest that all Indian languages aren’t important) — there’s little chance of it being translated into English.

This is how I read Satyajit Ray’s charming Feluda stories, and Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s Byomkesh Bakshi books. More recently, there have been translations of Tamil pulp novels by Blaft publishing, which is also behind the translation of the Urdu best-sellers Captain Hameed and Colonel Faridi (there are new , and I haven’t read them yet).

But as the Tehelka article notes there are new Indian writers setting mysteries in India. Here’s more from the article:

“Says Nandita Aggarwal, publishing director, Hachette India, ‘That the genre is becoming popular is not statistically gaugeable but one can sense a certain interest in the market. There are more authors writing. Last year, we published five books in the series as opposed to none before. It is not a paradigm shift. But the market is exploring the genre.’”

Hopefully, the “market” will be able to sustain more translations as well as more works in English.

Sep 112012
 

Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi

Two stories this week made me think about the perilous state of free speech in India: One is the arrest on charges of sedition of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi; the other is older, but I was reminded of it by an excerpt of novelist Salman Rushdie’s memoir in the most-recent issue of The New Yorker.

First, the cartoon.
Trivedi is a 25-year-old cartoonist and anti-corruption activist. Two of his cartoons drew particularly strident responses, prompting a Mumbai lawyer to complain and leading to the charges against Trivedi.
In one, Ajmal Kasab, the Pakistani man convicted of carrying out the deadly 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, is depicted as a dog urinating on the Indian Constitution (presumably, the complaint is that Kasab’s death sentence hasn’t yet been carried out). In another, India’s national symbol of three lions have morphed into wolves and the motto Satyamev Jayate (“The truth will triumph”) has been turned into Brashtamev Jayate (“Corruption will triumph”) — it’s a linguistic pun that makes more sense in Hindi.
Reaction to the cartoons has been mixed — even on Trivedi’s Facebook page.

One woman wrote:

“At least respect our national symbol! please dont make a joke with our prides..”

And that was one of the milder comments.

Trivedi was granted bail today, and he’s vowed to campaign against the nation’s British-era sedition laws.

“If telling the truth makes me a traitor, then I am one,” he’s said.

His story is hardly unique. As Soutik Biswas of the BBC has written:

“So, have Indians become more intolerant?
On the face of it, yes. In recent months, the chief minister of West Bengal state sent a professor to prison for emailing cartoons critical of her, there was a massive row over old cartoons showing Dalit icon BR Ambedkar and the government has been talking about curbs on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter”

Now, to the second story: Rushdie, the novelist, has a new memoir, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, an excerpt of which was published in The New Yorker. The excerpt deals with the novelist’s travails following the publication in 1988 of his most controversial novel, “Satanic Verses.” The book and that era hold a special memory for me. I remember going with my older sister to Folyle’s in London where they’d stocked the book behind the counter despite bomb threats. The line snaked through the store, a defiant public message if there ever were one.

In his memoir, Rushdie describes living life under a fatwa, in hiding, and not knowing if a day is your last. Mostly, he seems aggrieved that his novel was perceived more as an “insult” than a piece of literature. Of course, the book was banned in India, and Rushdie explains how that came about:

“Then, on Thursday, October 6th, his friend Salman Haidar, who was Deputy High Commissioner of India in London, called to tell him formally, on behalf of his government, that “The Satanic Verses” had been banned in India. The book had not been examined by any properly authorized body, nor had there been any semblance of judicial process. The ban came, improbably, from the Finance Ministry, under Section 11 of the Customs Act, which prevented the book from being imported. Weirdly, the Finance Ministry stated that the ban “did not detract from the literary and artistic merit” of his work. Thanks a lot, he thought.”

As we can see, things have changed little in the more than 20 years since that ban.
What does this means for India?
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees a free press and freedom of speech. India has no such guarantee. In fact, it allows for “reasonable restrictions in the interest of the general public.”
It’s easy, of course, to resort to that old saw, free speech good; restricted speech bad. But in India, everything is more complicated. A cartoon drawn with righteous indignation can lead to arrest on charges of sedition; an offhand remark can spark religious riots. Many Indians, including my friend and former editor Aakar Patel, believe India’s media should not have a U.S.-style free press. He has based his view on reporting on the 2002 Gujarat riots.
So should India’s laws allow artists and writers and cartoonists to be arrested when their work is deemed to be against the “interests of the general public”? Far be it for me to sit in the U.S. and prescribe what may or may not be good for India (for the record, I believe in Voltaire’s line: I disagree with what you say, but will defend unto death your right to say it), but surely laws governing the media and literature need to be re-examined by a country that prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy.

Sep 042012
 

Can a city like Mumbai be the setting for noir? Here’s my take:

In the 1980s, I lived on a street in Bombay that housed the Soviet cultural center. Western movies took years to make it to theaters — that is if they came at all. We listened to music that had been popular in the ‘60s. And there were two cars on Indian roads: the Premier Padmini and the Ambassador, an elephant-like giant modeled on the Morris Oxford. Nothing ever seemed to happen. But that placidity belied some tumultuous changes shaking the city. The biggest one was the shuttering of the textile mills, Bombay’s lifeblood for much of the past century. Along with those mills went thousands of livelihoods, people who’d been trained to do nothing else suddenly out of a job. And the unions that were supposed to protect them were being slowly coopted and destroyed.
Fast forward 20 years. The Soviet cultural center is now a car showroom. Hollywood movies are often released in Bombay before they are in the West, and music choices are as diverse as any other place. And there are cars; plenty of them, along with showrooms to sell Audis and Porsches and anything else you may want. But this dramatic change belies a constancy among those left behind: the old man pulling a wooden wheelbarrow laden with goods that weigh three times as much as he does; the half-naked beggar seeking pennies from the passenger who has shut the have-nots away; the migrant worker who comes to the city full of hope only to be told he doesn’t belong here. These stories aren’t unique to Bombay. A similar scenario has played out in countless other places. What they have in common is a city that’s at once welcoming and cruel, and residents at once despondent and full of hope.
That’s where noir comes in.
To me the genre has always been about characters: flawed, cynical characters, characters down on their luck, with a bleak worldview. The best place to find such people is a city.
Cities represent the best society has to offer: arts, culture, diversity, opportunity; a vital life force if you will that makes a nation hum. But they also represent the worst of humanity: crime, greed, apathy, poverty; those aspects that we’d prefer to conceal.
Both these attributes are apparent in a city like Bombay, and they are all the more apparent because of the dramatic increase in wealth — and the consequent increase in income disparity — India has seen over the past two decades. This is fertile ground for noir. Any story that focuses on such a city and its characters is bound to have elements of the genre. Indeed, Indian filmmakers have been among the first to successfully exploit this with a series of recent gripping crime dramas. Now, for a city the size of Mumbai, crime is surprisingly low. But what noir teaches us is that when you scratch below that veneer of cosmopolitanism, the world is much more interesting. That’s true whether you’re living in Mumbai, New York or Rio.

Jun 192012
 

I wrote last week about crime statistics and crime fiction and how the relative absence of one from a particular society needn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t produce the other.
I revisited that thought last night as I read a blog post by the brilliant David Simon.

If you’ve known me for any length of time you’ve probably heard me rave about Simon’s The Wire. It’s my favorite TV show, not just because of its brilliant plot, performances and writing, but because it tells the story of a society in decline. Now, we often tend to gloss over the less appealing aspects of our cities, but The Wire not only stares those defects in the face, it forces us, the audience, to confront all that is wrong.
Continue reading »

Jun 152012
 

There’s a paradox in crime fiction that’s set in a particular place: One the one hand, you need crime, preferably murder, and on the other, you risk making your location, usually a place you know and love, appear crime-ridden and desperate.
I certainly faced this dilemma while writing my first novel, Murder in Mumbai, which focuses on the investigation surrounding the killing of an American executive in India’s largest city. But as I’ve said in the book and to anyone who’ll care to listen, there are comparitively few homicides in Mumbai. But the more emphatically I said that, the more I wondered, is it really true?
With that question in mind, I visited the Mumbai police website to look for actual crime data from the past few years.
Here’s what I found: There were 202 homicides in the city in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available. That’s a drop from the 227 homicides the previous year. (India’s overall homicide rate is among the lowest in the world).
Now, one might argue that even one murder is a killing too many, but let’s look at the facts: That’s 202 homicides in a city of 14 million people. In comparison, Philadelphia, a city of 1.5 million people, had 324 homicides the same year, the highest rate among large U.S. cities.
But crime statistics are only one part of a writer’s armory. If they were the only thing that writers relied on, there would be no Scandinavian crime fiction, no Sherlock Holmes and certainly no mysteries based in large English castles.
So what does one consider — besides fact — when writing about crime in a city? Mood, for one. This is easy when a city has its own personality, as Bombay does. It helps that the city isn’t a planned one; its growth has been organic, its focus commerce. And because the city exists for one purpose — to make money — it attracts a certain type of population: the striver. The belief is that your background doesn’t matter in Mumbai, all you need to succeed is determination. This environment is perfect for crime fiction. True, homicide rates may not be high, but the type of crime to be found — con jobs to make a quick buck, examination scams to get ahead and the unholy nexus of crime, politics and business — make it a fertile ground for the genre.
I’ve never visited Scandinavia, but the crime novels set there are among my favorite. Many of them focus on serial killers and sex crimes. Do such crimes happen? I’m sure they do. Do they happen at the rate the books suggest? Certainly not. But that doesn’t detract from the writing or the genre.
As someone once said, why let the truth get in the way of a good story?