Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The name is Faulks, Sebastian Faulks

By Sunil K Poolani

Devil May Care: A James Bond Novel

Sebastian Faulks (Writing as Ian Fleming)


Price: 395; Pages: 295

When I was in the boarding school, James Bond novels were banned. The nuns thought Bond was full of whisky and women and, in all their Biblical simplicity, did not want us to get influenced by Agent 007. Needless to say, we read the Ian Fleming classics in the sly — this was much before our mofussil city talkies started showing the legendary Bond movies.

So it thrilled me when I read Sebastian Faulks short biography: “…the books were banned at his school, but he read them by torchlight under the sheets.” Faulks is no rookie. He is the author of the much-acclaimed novels like Human Times and Birdsong, first an epic and the second sold more than three million copies.

After Fleming’s death, and when Hollywood is still regurgitating the Bond movies to charm the secret agent’s aficionados, Faulks comes as a saviour to millions of Bond admirers across the world. Faulks, you will realise, is the best person, as you savour the book, to recreate the magic created by Fleming.

One may argue why Faulks set the story of the present-day Bond (in this post 9/11 terror attack days) in the former USSR days. In Devil May Care’s case the plot unfolds in the Cold War days. But, as you would know most of the old Bond stories were set in the fifties, sixties and seventies — and Faulks, too, follows suit. Hello, there is nothing wrong in it, as one should realise Bond is not an evergreen hero, let alone immortal.

To be frank, after a long time Devil May Care is one book that hooked me from page one. Seriously. The thriller starts on a very promising note: a murder, that of drugs dealer Hashim. He was killed in a peculiar manner: his tongue was pierced. That lead leads to an intriguing and devastating ploy that a psychopathic schemer is planning. His name is Gorner with a monkey-like left paw, which he is ashamed of, nevertheless.

Gorner is one of the best brains the world could boast of, but only for devastating consequences. Naturally, Bond has been deputed to hunt him down and also to scuttle a sinister plan that would wreck the western world, especially Britain. If Gorner can’t stand anything British, Bond is a proud Briton, all set to save his homeland from the scum of the world.

In between, as it should be (like any Bond book or movie) comes in a lady in armour: Scarlett. She, nonetheless, comes under several aliases (including posing as her ‘twin sister’ who never exists) at different points of time as the book progresses.

But naturally, after a rollercoaster ride-type narrative till the end, Bond survives, and discovers, at the fag end of the book, that Scarlett is Bond’s colleague. But, alas, Garner, escapes. Obviously, Faulks plans a sequel to this book, and it is not anyone’s guess that Gorner will reappear; maybe in several books to come.

Devil May Care has been apparently written to celebrate the centenary of Fleming’s birth on 28 May 2008 and is, sans doubt, a deft furtherance of Bond’s charming legacy. And Faulks is a true inheritor of Fleming’s Midas touch.

Final things finally: do not expect a path-breaking literature here; it is at the best a great thriller; a great bedtime read when you get fed up of pelvic gyrations of Bipasha Basu.

And, yes, I get a feeling that Faulks, if he hones his skills further, which I am sure he will, can be a better writer than Fleming. Blasphemous it may sound, but it is the truth.

-- Sahara Time

Off the Shelf

With the Tiger

Inez Baranay

Harper Collins

Price: 295

Pages: 305

One who grew up with classics storytellers like Somerset Maugham, this impressive volume leads you on a trip down nostalgia lanes. For, With the Tiger is a graceful retelling of Maugham’s classic The Razor’s Edge. Where Baranay succeeds is the way she intersperses Maugham’s characters in Indian context with such brave and unwavering way, without losing the girth and grip of the narrative, cogitative most of the times. Baranay, as she admits, has followed Maugham’s structure exactly and named her characters for his. Brief: The charming young Larry (along with a host of other characters) returns as Australians; his life-altering occurrence is not as an underage enlistee in WWI, but during a teenage backpacking trip to India, where he converts himself into a mysterious hermit. A racy read, this is a worthy addition to your literary vocabulary.

— Sunil K Poolani

Guardian of the Dawn

Richard Zimler

Penguin Books

Price: 350

Pages: 358

Unlike any other year, the last two years have seen a gamut of historical novels set in India. After Rimi B Chatterjee’s The City of Love, here comes Zimler’s Guardian of the Dawn, equally rich in talking about the atrocities and vengeance of colonial India. Zimler, nevertheless, takes a daring turn: he vivifies the Catholic Inquisition in Goa (we Indians, fearfully, never discussed this before, to remain politically correct), and how Hindus or immigrant Jews were strangled by executioners or burnt alive in public. Zimler presents a wide canvass of devotion and discrimination, peppered with lots of historical research and passion. A veritable treat (the beginning may put many readers off, but as the novel progresses it becomes unputdownable), this novel is an enchanting and authoritative retelling of Othello. Zimler, an internationally-acclaimed author, has absolute command over the language which drags the readers into the realms of a barbaric system that we conveniently try to forget. Impressive.

— Sunil K Poolani

-- Sahara Time

Monday, July 14, 2008

Scratch thy back, get noticed

By Sunil K Poolani

A disconcerting although dominant lobby is functioning overtime in the (figuratively speaking) surreptitious and serpentine corridors of publishing in India. Disquieting, yes, but it seems this trend — the dividing line between publishing and journalism getting almost imperceptible — is here to stay.

There is hardly anything erroneous when these two streams of creativity (ahem) getting together to enrich each other’s causes, but that is not the case, if some recent incidents or trends are anything to go by.

In the last few years, publishing has grown magnanimously, and there was, and is, a crying need to find good people to run the show. Journalists, disgruntled or not by seeing the apathetic profession they are in, filled that need, to some extent. And this ilk now dictates what should get published and what should not; akin to choosing your favourite columnists or contributors for newspapers.

That is still understandable. What becomes an eyesore is that these writers, who do moonlight for newspapers as reviewers or consultant editors, dictate which book should be promoted and which authors should get interviewed. It’s a clique, nebulous at that. They, today, make or unmake new authors; they decide, whatever the quality of the book in question may be, whether to denigrate or promote it. And their brethren in other publications too follow suit, lest they will fall off the radars.

To quote one, there is this one group in Mumbai (like in Delhi and Kolkata) comprising mostly journalists, who churn out books like they write 600-word pieces for newspapers. The team endorses each other’s work, provided you scratch their back and, in turn, you can be happy to see your name and picture in print.

What happens when one ‘reneges’? Oh, hell, you would be branded a misfit, untouchable… and this ilk will ensure your book and the ones published by the authors friendly to you get denounced or, worse, ignored.

This, if you are a writer. Well, if one is a publisher, who is an ex-journalist, writer of sorts and a reviewer of books, then you had it. Ask me. Some time back I reviewed a book of a journalist-writer’s novel. I did a judicious job, but the writer was quite upset that I did not praise him to the skies, so he shot off letters to the editors in the paper, shouting, I should be, from then on, debarred from writing for the paper in question. The novel sank without a trace, but the simmering feeling, inside the ambitious novelist, still exists.

Now, this would seem to be a complete debacle of the cultural zeitgeist. Since I had a journalist background every friend of mine in that profession has, I have just realised, a book in her or him. So, can I ever say no to them when they suggest that I should read their magnum opus and publish it? No. But what if the work is bad and it will burn my pocket deficiently? (Of course, they will never part-compensate if the book would bomb.)

Then you go on and say no. Then you had it. The coterie will ensure that there wouldn’t be any interviews with the authors of the books that you would eventually publish and they will, in their wisest capacity, try to stop any reviews of the probable books of others.

Now I know what an incestuous world means and journalism is literature in hurry.


A friend of mine in publishing told me this story. His company has been publishing an astrologer’s book for something like twenty years. A new editor took charge and she wanted to scrap the soothsayer’s books everlastingly as his popularity was on the decline. So she shot off a letter to the astrologer: “Dear Sir, as you would have, of course, anticipated, hereafter we would not require any new books from you. Have a nice day!”

-- Asian Age / Deccan Chronicle

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Launch Pad

By Sunil K Poolani

Book launches are important as book publishing. Old hat. But what is new is that launches have today become venues where everything else is discussed except books; not even about the book in question which is supposed to be getting ‘launched’.

Predictably, these books launches are now occasions where people, who might have not read anything other than Mills and Boon or Bible, gather — people who do not understand the difference between a bar of soap and a book. Book launches have also become places where the who’s who of the glitterati and chatterati of the city assemble, flaunting their Armani suits or Ritu Beri salwar-kameezs.

These pretentious people only get attracted or want to be seen there for just one reason: if the author is a celebrity or at least s/he is the offspring of one, and/or if the person who launches the book is a great figure. Like? The recent launches of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s daughter’s book or Jeffrey Archer’s multi-city book promotion tour.

I normally do not attend book launches precisely for the above reasons. And I do not even recommend that to the authors of my own books as launches hardly contribute to the sales of the books. They are at best a vanity in exercise that costs money for no rhyme of reason.

Last week, nevertheless, I attended two book launches at Oxford Bookstore in Mumbai, a great bookstall to have such events as the people who run it cherish and cultivate the value of books, good and great books. Not trash.

The first one was Farzana Versey’s tremendous and gutsy effort. The book, titled A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan, was launched by the indomitable Mahesh Bhatt and Indo-Pak expert Ritu Dewan. Versey’s book is a daring attempt: single lady, Muslim and Indian travelling to the heartlands of Pakistan to explore why India is still obsessed with a nation formed by Jinnah. But why did she choose Pakistan as her subject? For that reason, why are all so-called secular Muslims in India still obsessed with our cousins across the border? I asked her. Her answer was quite simple: “Only because Pakistan is our neighbour and Pakistanis are our brothers and sisters.”

Versey’s book is not a conformist travelogue; it delves into the Pakistani mind rather than the land. It explores that complex society, and Versey also finds herself struggling with her own identity.

When Bhatt is invited for an event, there is no dearth of controversy, no scarcity of sound-bites. But at this launch he was quite serene, was direct to the point, and yes, without making any provoking statements, he was making good sense. And that’s how a book launch should be.

The next one was Prasad Ramasubramanian’s novella, Raising the Bat. Inevitably, the book is about cricket and the 27-year-old writer lived and breathed cricket since the time he touched a bat as a kid. He is quite well versed in all cricket statistics and has never missed a match in action, either on the ground or on the telly.

Acclaimed actor Tom Alter was supposed to be the chief guest, but the previous day his house in Mussourie was burgled and he had to rush there. So the book was launched by the legendary cricketer Nari Contractor, who captained India in the sixties.

Contractor confessed that he has never read a book and has made it a point to not read one ever. Fair enough. But there could not have been a better choice for the book launch as he travelled down memory lanes, peppering with one anecdote after another. The launch was moderated by the best-selling author Murzban F Shroff of the Breathless in Bombay fame.

Good evenings before you hit a bottle of chilled beer.

A confession. I was getting tired and bored of the column I am presenting to you, readers, every week. But, then, I am getting damn good mails and responses from discerning readers. And, yes, I am getting more brickbats than bouquets. Due to which I shall continue.

— Asian Age / Deccan Chronicle