28 September 2007

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A Little Book on Men
By Rahul Roy
Yoda Press
Pages 98
Rs 150

One is not born a woman, one becomes one. Simone De Beauvoir wrote that. Her seminal The Second Sex (1949), which ostensibly tries simply to define a woman, led to bra burning, gender study courses at western universities, vagina-gazing sessions on the BBC, free sex, and perhaps courtrooms full of divorce seekers. Roy advocates that men consider themselves a gender too, to live longer and to keep away from violence by seeing through and side-stepping social conditioning. An innocuous, limp, smug, brown-coloured scrapbook containing doodling and Ideal Boy posters, A Little Book on Men makes an unlikely manifesto for men’s rights, but that’s what it is. The book does more than subvert the comic book form. It aspires quietly, half-seriously, with a when-no-was-looking approach to starting a revolution. Its assertion that men are a gender, much like women, and equal victims and agents in the enveloping meta-narrative of patriarchy, would eventually have to be faced by our fast-becoming-capitalistic society.

The West already has seen a male backlash to feminism, so is Roy’s prescription by chance a pre-emptive, bitter antidote to ludicrous alimony demands? No. This is a saner, studied, if not very accessible, appeal to make men and women realise that men are far more complex and calibrated beings than received notions about masculinity allow them to be.


The Road
By Cormac McCarthy
Picador
Pages 301
Rs 196

McCarthy, easily one of the greatest living American authors, was on Oprah recently, and was appropriately embarrassed by comments like, ‘You look just like your picture at the back of the book.’ ‘Is that a good or a bad thing?’ McCarthy asked, stuttering like a school boy. He turned scarlet and almost choked when asked by the Kerchief Queen if he was passionate about writing. Now ask yourself, ‘Why did Oprah pick up The Road, a book from a serious author whose obsession with violence has produced such works as Blood Meridian, considered by New York Times to be one of the five best books written in the past 25 years?’ The answer is in the book: The inherent and explicit emotionalism of The Road has found resonance with Oprah’s own mushiness. The story of a father and son seeking redemption in a horribly realistically, despairingly well-researched post-apocalyptical America -- cold, ashen, sterile, and zombie-ridden. Minimally written, prophetically imagined, this is McCarthy’s most ordinary work. Sorry Oprah, no fault of yours. The man was asking for it.



Kashmir Pending
Written by Naseer Ahmed
Artwork by Saurabh Singh
Phantomville
Pages 95
Rs 300

Before you read it, flip through Kashmir Pending. Its chiaroscuro images rendered in the unnatural, inverted colours of a nightmare would seem familiar. The images are generic: The stock, repetitive breaking-news footage on 'routine' crises in the Valley. But behind those enervating bioscopic images are real and urgent stories about real people, waiting to be told.
One such is the true story of Mushtaq, a surrendered militant, protagonist of this novel. The big story of Kashmir, caught between two lethally armed nations, usually elbows out the smaller stories of the Kashmiris. In this simmering war the first casualty is nuance. Nuance is brought back in Kashmir Pending by minimal use of text, panels that zoom in on the minute detail and pull back to get the panoramic view, sharp editing, cinematic cuts, and unintuitive colouring -- all of which go into recreating the sinister, turgid, paranoid gloom of the valley. The story flows naturally with deceptive artlessness. It’s a marvellous collaboration between the writer, the illustrator and the visualisers; the only problem is that the story is over in a trice, and ends where it could have begun. Published by Phantomville, run by India’s foremost graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee and his partner Anandiya Roy, who aim to tap the unarticulated narratives and graphic patios of India before western graphic novel publishers flood the Indian market with their fare. Remember David Davidar starting Penguin India in a Green Park barsati?

India At 60
Ed Ira Pande
Harper Collins India and India International Centre, New Delhi
Pages 355
Rs 495

Don’t expect light reading from India’s number one think tank and club, with a members’ roster that reads like a veritable Who’s Who. We imagine that finding contributors of the most-sought-after kind for this state of the nation anthology must have been a cakewalk, and a short one considering Ira Pande herself works at the IIC. No wonder the impressive line up: Mark Tully, Meghnad Desai, Sudhir Kakar, Rachael Dwyer, and Pankaj Mishra among others. Desai gives a racy, unputdownable account of India’s economic ups and downs since 1947. Nehruvian policies began, he reminds us, with Indira Gandhi and ‘not with the man.’ Mishra sadly says nothing new about small towns in his piece on small towns. Indrajit Hazra scores a point with his piece on how and why he heckles in his mother tongue, Bengali, at dinner parties and public functions. Anuradha Roy dishes out a readable stories-behind-food essay, catching with her pet theme the zeitgeist. Nayanjot Lahiri’s archaeological misgivings; Niraja Gopal Jayal’s musings on elections since 1952; Srilata Swaminathan’s take on the marginalised for which she confronts us, the English-speaking, mall-crawling, professionally qualified Indians for the march of millions to the periphery; and Mark Tully on why broadcast can never be business (Mark is still a BBC man at heart, see!) are some of the contributions that enlighten without using academese. Though seemingly extravagantly produced, the contributing photographers, and that too the likes of Raghu Rai and Dayanita Singh, must be up in arms at the quality of their works’ reproduction. Otherwise, a good snapshot of a 60-years young nation, complex and vital.


The Last Bungalow: Writing On Allahabad
By Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
Penguin Books India
Pages 331
Rs 395

The Nehrus, the Bachchans, Sangam, Civil Lines, and the Oxford-of-the-East Allahabad University. Beyond these associations, the name ‘Allahabad’ evokes a lost world of the progressive parochial and genteel living. Surprisingly, Allahabad is much written about. Hsiuan Tsang, the 7th century Buddhist pilgrim, witnessed animals bathing, fasting and dying on the banks of the sacred rivers. Saeed Jaffery makes Allahabad read like a small American university town. Harivansh Rai Bachchan gives us a taste of the pre-colonial Allahabad. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s introductory piece joins the dots of the city’s decline. Amarnath Jha’s diary entries make even outsiders regret the loss of what apparently was once a flourishing civilisation. Big names here, like Ved Mehta and Pankaj Mishra, attest to the city’s contribution to India’s cultural and intellectual capital. Sadly, this book is packaged as if the editor and publisher were unsure there would be any takers. Don’t judge it by its cover.

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