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What we are writing now

I remember the time the first Penguin India books came out. I stood in Mumbai’s now-defunct Strand Book Stall, reading from Nisha Da Cunha’s beautiful stories, Old Cypress and then saw Padma Hejmadi’s Birthday Deathday. Those were the days when I did not buy a book unless I had already read it and knew that it would be something I would want to own for the rest of my life, a belief that only a young man can have. But I promised myself, as someone who dreamed of having a book out, as someone who dreamed of being an Indian writer in English, that I would try and buy as many Indian authors as I could.

I already had a stack of strange-looking Jaico paperbacks: Nayantara Sahgal and Kamala Das and Raja Rao but those were second-hand books, bought on the streets. Now I would contribute to my biraadari, I would help my qaum, even if they didn’t know I was one of them, by buying their books.

That was 1985. It’s been a long time and much ink has flowed and I have given up even trying to keep in touch. We’re a huge bunch and there’s been two Booker Prizes, Arundhati Roy’s for The God of Small Things and Arvind Adiga’s for The White Tiger. We’re now getting close to what might be called a mature market: we don’t just have literary fiction, the epics and the classics in translation; we have genres: there’s chick lit and crime fiction and romances written by men and thrillers. We have 65 literary festivals across the country; I was told that one just ended in Amritsar. Mumbai has three or maybe five, I don’t know. Universities are organising their own. There are hierarchies now: Jaipur at the top and Kozhikode coming in second with the additional cachet of moral superiority.

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Essay: Words — A Love Story by Varsha Tiwary

Very early on, my eight-year-old self understood that spoken words were not the same as those written. Spoken words hurt, made noise, sounded ugly, were sometimes false. Written words, when spoken aloud, sounded beautiful; even when improbable, like the antics of the ‘vanar sena’ from Ramcharitmanas recited aloud by my nani, they rang true. What makes words on paper different? Perhaps their ability to be of life, from life, while simultaneously being away from it. Maybe the reflection and thought that goes into it. I can articulate this at forty-seven. But I always knew it.

As I saw it, words, stories, poetry, writing, made up one big stew pot. You chose beautiful, sparkling words. You stirred the pot. You strung them together. They made beauty, made sense, made happiness. All the things that I thought my life lacked: grace and culture, glamour, laughter, excitement, fun, could be picked and savoured from assorted jars of words: books. Reading and writing were ideal pastimes for a lonely small-town girl like me. It let me be at once docile and dutiful; rebellious and willful. My mother and father would peep in to see me furiously scribbling or poring over a book, and feel comforted that I was a good, studious child, even if I was penning mean tirades about them or hiding yet another Agatha Christie inside my physics textbook.

Writing words cleansed me. After I wrote about what people did or said in my diary, it ceased to matter. I could smile serenely and move on.

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Selfie with cat, coffee and Karenina: Reading in the age of social media

Half of the fun in reading a book lies in going to a bookshop and browsing through the titles, no matter if you are buying them or not. When Amazon replaced bookshops, book-browsers took to social media sites to moon over gleaming first-edition covers, fresh from the oven.

Follow any one of the many book-related hashtags on Instagram and what shows up is an assembly line of photographs, all exquisitely composed. The featured books are usually collectors’ editions, the filters used in the photographs cover them in a warm glow and the frame often includes a brooding cat or a steaming coffee mug, sometimes both. But the story does not end with the photographs: social media sites like Instagram, Facebook, and even Youtube are playing a significant role in connecting book-lovers across the world.

Classic connect

“I started using Instagram when I was in between jobs,” says Arpita Bhattacharya, one of the ‘bookstagrammers’ who has been using the platform to build an online community of book-lovers.

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Celeste Ng: By the Book

“I try to read omnivorously, because I never know what’s going to spark a new idea. Often the things that I least expect to seize my imagination end up being the most productive.”

The author of, most recently, “Little Fires Everywhere,” often returns to “The Count of Monte Cristo”: “Right now, I see it as an exploration of the complexities of good and evil and how easily one shifts into the other.”

What influences your decisions about which books to read? Word of mouth, reviews, a trusted friend?

Friends. Taste is idiosyncratic, so I don’t love everything people recommend me, and I don’t love everything my friends love. But if a friend adores a book or thinks I will, there’s always something in there that’s interesting and worth thinking about and discussing.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

I was reading about life in the Soviet Union, looking for information about samizdat for novel research, and learned that people shared banned music by cutting old X-ray film into circles and making records out of them. They called them “ribs” or “bones.” I’m fascinated by the ways people under repressive regimes still manage to share information — and joy.

What kinds of books bring you the most reading pleasure these days?

I read with my 6-year-old son every night, and frankly, with the state of the world, it’s a relief to turn to children’s literature. We’ve been enjoying some classics like “The BFG” and some new books like Abby Hanlon’s “Dory Fantasmagory” and Shannon and Dean Hale’s “The Princess in Black” series, which make both of us laugh. And picture books — especially really thoughtful, beautiful ones like Aaron Becker’s “Journey” trilogy, Carson Ellis’s “Du Iz Tak?” and everything by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen — are a balm for the soul. They give me hope for the next generation.

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I want to see more clearly: Amitava Kumar

Amitava Kumar’s latest collection of essays throws a bright light on cinema and politics, life and death: The Hindu BusinessLine 

With five non-fiction books and a novel behind him, the professor of English at Vassar College in New York spends a night answering questions sent by email. Here he reveals the times he gasps, ‘yeh sahi cheez hai (this is the right thing), the role of writers and reporters and the Booker wins that he finds laughable. Excerpts from the interview.

The relationship of Indians with the English language is of special interest to you. In which ways do Indians use it best and in which ways do we mangle it?

I have often seen signs in Bihar, but also elsewhere in India, saying ‘Child Beer Sold Here’. I was delighted when Siddhartha Chowdhury used that in a novel. There is no pleasure in being prescriptive about language. I enjoy the inventive ways in which language is manipulated to make meaning. But even as I say this, I have to acknowledge that I often get mails from people in India who want advice about writing. And while reading their letters, my first impulse, quite often, is to ask them to read George Orwell. Continue reading


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Against YA by Ruth Graham

Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.

As The Fault in Our Stars barrels into theaters this weekend virtually guaranteed to become a blockbuster, it can be hard to remember that once upon a time, an adult might have felt embarrassed to be caught reading the novel that inspired it. Not because it is bad—it isn’t—but because it was written for teenagers.

The once-unseemly notion that it’s acceptable for not-young adults to read young-adult fiction is now conventional wisdom. Today, grown-ups brandish their copies of teen novels with pride. There are endless lists of YA novels that adults should read, an “I read YA” campaign for grown-up YA fans, and confessional posts by adult YA addicts. But reading YA doesn’t make for much of a confession these days: A 2012 survey by a market research firm found that 55 percent of these books are bought by people older than 18. (The definition of YA is increasingly fuzzy, but it generally refers to books written for 12- to 17-year-olds. Meanwhile, the cultural definition of “young adult” now stretches practically to age 30, which may have something to do with this whole phenomenon.)

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Can great literature really change your life?

Stop beating yourself over not reading the “right” books. Fiction is about two things: curiosity and pleasure, says Malcolm Jones in The Daily Beast

Ernest-Hemingway-007I am a bad reader. I don’t mean that I don’t know how to read or that I don’t understand what I have read. And I’m about average when it comes to speed (no, I’ve never taken an Evelyn Woods course, but I once took their test and that’s what it said: I was smack in the middle of the pack).

No, by bad reader, I mean someone who doesn’t finish books he doesn’t like, rereads old favorites at the expense of discovering something new, doesn’t worry about being broadminded, and prefers detective stories to Hemingway or Mary McCarthy. Continue reading


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Is it all about a good book?

Soumyabrata Gupta wonders if  in the face of electronic gadgets and e-books, paperbacks and hard covers are losing their charm.

One of my dearest dreams is to gaze at the top of fir and elm trees while reclining down on a wooden armchair in some distant hill station. In my dreams I am always with a book of poetry by Keats or the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda or even Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude in one hand (and a glass of red wine in the other) while the light from an aesthetically etched lamp shade offers enough luminescence for me to read the immortal verses or the serpentine prose. The light is never too overpowering as to take the subtlety away from the starry night or my idyllic dream.

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