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Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Review of Kunal Basu's The Yellow Emperor's Cure

Buy The Yellow Emperor's Cure by  Kunal Basu online in India

It is refreshing to read a book by an Indian author that does not talk about India, or dwell compulsively on what it means to be an Indian or scrape any one of the many wounds that scar the Indian psyche. In fact Kunal Basu’s new book, The Yellow Emperor’s Cure is far removed from many of the usual ills that plague the present crop of Indian writers. Located as it is in turn-of-the-century (the previous one, that is) China with the Chinese people torn between the Boxers and the foreigners, the Empress Dowager hedging her bets and the country poised on the cusp of a violent revolution, it is quite unlike anything that Indian Writing in English – the much-feted IWE – has recently produced.

Having said so, it takes considerably more than picturesque details and a meticulous eye for local colour – not to say immaculate research – to transform an idea into a story. A novelist’s job is, I would like to believe, essentially to tell a story; that he should tell it well and with aplomb is of course a natural expectation. But what happens when a story fails to germinate from an idea? When an idea, no matter how ingenious, peters out somewhere along the way and runs aground? What happens when a series of incidents strung together, intelligently and coherently, fail to make up a story? The Germans called it a bildungsroman (a ‘formation novel’), a sort of coming of age tale involving adventure and romance. And that is what The Yellow Emperor’s Cure, is. Sadly, it could have been much more; it could well have been a novel of ideas, a novel that poses questions and tries to answer them.

Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Voltaire’s Candide, we have the young and dashing Dr Antonio Maria. Patrician and wealthy, intelligent and attractive, he works hard all day at the Faculdade Medicina in Lisbon and carouses equally hard at the festas and bull-rings . In a word, he has the world at his feet till he hears the devastating news: his beloved father, a doctor like him, is dying of the dreaded disease: syphilis, a disease that has Europe in its thrall, a disease for which there is no known cure. He decides (on slender evidence) that of all the known civilizations, China alone possesses the secret cure in the canon of the yellow emperor, the mysterious Nei Ching, and sets sail for Peking.

Basu seizes upon a brilliant idea: the search for an incurable disease and one man’s fight to discover and vanquish an unknown enemy. In locating it in China, he also tells us, quite successfully, that Western medicine has it all wrong: qi, the life force, governs both health and sickness. But somewhere along the way, he also wants to tell us about the Boxer rebels who are bitterly opposed to the cutting of the Chinese pie between the foreign merchants, priests and mercenaries. In doing so, Basu clutters his narrative with an avalanche of minutiae: American missionaries, British bankers, Belgian railway men, Chinese spies, Portuguese padres, German technocrats, Chinese femme fatale, et al. Had he kept it stark and simple, like Siddhartha Mukherjee’s masterly ‘biography’ of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, we would have had an engrossing tale of the advance of malady and its eventual conquest.  For, as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, ‘Diseases desperate grown/By desperate appliances are relieved/Or not at all.’ We would have loved a tale, no matter how desperate or desolate, that had stuck to the story of syphilis.

Kunal Basu -- Interview

The following interview appeared in The Herald, Karachi, February 2012.
Kunal Basu has written three novels: The Opium Clerk (2001), The Miniaturist (2003), and Racists (2006); and a collection of short stories The Japanese Wife (2008), of which the title story was turned into a film by Aparna Sen. Basu lives in Oxford, UK and teaches at the Said Business School; in the past, he has dabbled in advertising, journalism and film-making. Born to Communist parents, Sunil Kumar Basu (a writer and publisher) and Chabi Basu (a writer and actress), books and cinema were early influences.


RJ: There is an incredible richness of detail in The Yellow Emperor’s Cure. Tell us how you go about your research, especially for a book such as this located as it is in turn-of-the century China?

KB: Once I think of a story that’s worth writing, I identify aspects that I need to research to bring it to life.  For Emperor, there were three: History of syphilis; Chinese medicine; and the Boxer rebellion.  But beyond such ‘background’ research that helped to establish the broad parameters of the story, I researched the ‘foreground’ of textures, settings, colours, cuisine, festivals, etc. and used my imagination to create scenes that were both vivid and believable.  Historical accounts are usually dry, and taking a walk with the characters through fantasy was as invaluable as consulting published sources.


RJ: As a writer do you have a ‘comfort zone’? Do you find it easier to write a story located, for instance, in Calcutta, a city you know well rather than one in Peking or Lisbon?

KB: For me the thrill of writing comes from abandoning the ‘comfort zone,’ and encountering the unfamiliar.  I blame it on a wildering mind that refuses (perhaps foolishly) to accept demographic limitations.  If I can imagine it, I can write it – I believe.  Writing about a familiar place has its own disadvantages, as intimacy often creates a placid state of mind.  The story is critical for me, and I’d follow it no matter where it takes me.  

RJ: Do you think more Indian writers are locating their stories outside India? Do you see a move towards globalization, a broadening of horizons, a moving away from the small and the local to the world arena?

KB: In terms of historical fiction, at least, I haven’t seen such an expansive move.  I am still asked fairly routinely, why despite being an Indian I’ve consistently located my stories outside India, be it Africa, China, Eastern Turkey or Japan.  I don’t know if economic globalization per se creates a broadening of horizons in fiction.  British and American writing haven’t shown such adventurous tendencies. 


RJ: You are off to the Jaipur Literary Festival. Tell us, how important are these lit-fests for a creative writer? Do you feel a sense of companionship with the fraternity of writers that you are likely to meet at such a gathering?

KB: More than fellow authors, it is the company of readers that I find refreshing.  After years of solitary pursuit at my desk, it is rewarding to hear someone speak to you about your books.  It makes me think that writing hasn’t been a purely imagined activity on my part but real.  The presence of readers at sessions is also reassuring because it implies that books are still important to some people despite the doomsday predictions of pundits who claim that they’re fast becoming extinct.


RJ: Would you say writers, especially creative writers, are egotistical and self-centred, or do they show any degree of real interest in what fellow writers are doing?

KB: While some writers can be egotistical and self-centered, I wouldn’t  paint everyone with such dark colours.  I think there is a duality here: a passion for one’s own writing that can immerse the self completely in one’s work, coexisting with a curiosity for other authors who are practitioners within the same genre.  I am looking forward to what Michael Ondaatje has to say, for example, or Ben Okri.

RJ: You have tackled a wide range of concerns so far: the opium trade, the Mughal court, the origin of European racism and now the Boxer Revolution. What draws you to these themes, especially the past?

KB: I am not drawn to specific themes or particular historical periods.  My mind engages in perpetual story making that result in forays down different civilisational episodes in our past.  There is unquestionably a love of history, an imagination that searches for intricately woven tales of human endevour set in the backdrop of great social turmoil.  As a child I was spoilt by the reading of classics that instilled in me an urge to paint miniatures within murals. 

RJ: You have been exceptionally prolific, with four major books and a collection of short stories over the past decade. With a full time teaching job, how do you take time out for the research that surely goes into each of these books, not to say the writing? Also, does teaching business studies in any way distract you from the sort of historical novels that you write?

KB: I don’t take time off my job to write, but write about 12 hours every day, and work my teaching around it.  There are casualties, of course – sleep and socializing.  Teaching business is my day job.  It doesn’t distract me from my writing because I know its place in my life.

RJ: There was no ‘India’ in The Racists. There is very little, virtually none save for stray references to Goa, in The Yellow Emperor’s Cure either. Is this deliberate?

KB: This ‘non-Indian-ness’ wasn’t a part of deliberate strategy, but dictated by the stories.  In writing them, I wasn’t trying to create a distinction of sorts or making a deeper cultural statement.  Perhaps travel and a broad reading habit has led to a kind of cosmopolitan imagination which assumes that every place and time is part of my writing kingdom.  My first and second novels though, had large dollops of India (Pakistan/Afghanistan as  well in The Miniaturist), as will my next novel which is set entirely in India in contemporary times.


RJ: Does living away from India affect the way you see India, especially Indian writing?

KB: Unlike some Western commentators, I don’t feel comfortable with the label ‘Indian writing.’  In a subcontinent as diverse as ours, defining writers by their common ethnicity seems unduly limiting.  Rushdie and Desai, Seth and Hamid, each have charted very different aesthetic trajectories.  They make me proud though by their success. 


RJ: What are you reading these days?

            KB: Belatedly finished Daniyal Mueenuddin’s stories – marvelous!


RJ: I understand you have your next book, waiting in the wings to be released: Intimacies (Niyogi Books). Tell us a little about it.

KB: Before starting on my new contemporary Indian novel, I wrote text for quite a remarkable album of photographs by Kushal Ray.  These are utterly unsentimental and un-staged photographs of a middle class Kolkata home, and I’ve fashioned six almost fictional pieces around them.

Khajuraho -- In the Heart of India

The great bard of India, Rabindranath Tagore, had likened the Taj Mahal to a teardrop quivering on the cheek of Time. If I were to extend that simile, I would say that if ever there is a tiny black mole, a near-perfect beauty spot on the pout of Time that heightens its allure, then surely that is the ancient temple town of Khajuraho!

I had seen Khajuraho from the air before. On a hopping flight from Varanasi several years ago, as the plane banked into a low swoop, I had spotted the temples, the tops of their spires blackened with age, rising like rocky outcrops from the rugged terrain.  From the tiny airplane window they seemed mysterious and alluring, filling my mind with images of stone-hewn goddesses and mortals in lascivious pursuit. But on a recent visit to this temple town, I found that nothing – nothing—prepares you for the reality of Khajuraho. Everything that you may have read or heard about these ancient temple carvings pales in comparison to what your eyes behold. For, if ever there is a place that breathes sensuality, where every stone speaks, where every particle of ancient dust throbs with passion, then surely that place is here. That such a place should exist deep in the Hindu heartland of madhya bharatvarsh (middle India) is not a little surprising. But, then, that precisely is the mystique of India!

Spread over 21 sq km, the town of Khajuraho has little to recommend it except the temples that have been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. So go prepared to look long and longingly at the temple carvings and for the duration of the trip just chill! Towns in central India, even big tourist magnets such as this one, have little to offer as add-ons to the One Big Draw. The choice of a good hotel or resort therefore becomes essential to complete the experience and to take some of the rough edges off travel and in negotiating the usual tourist traps that lie in wait to snare the unwary traveler. My stay at the Radisson turned out to be a good choice for several reasons that I shall enumerate later.

First, the temples themselves. In all there are said to be 25 left of the original 85. Built from 9th to 12th century by a series of Chandela rulers, they are dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu and to a pantheon of Jain deities. Visiting all 25 of them is neither advisable, nor necessary. Most visitors feel sated by having their fill of the two clusters: the Eastern and the Western group. I make my way to the eastern group first, as it is closer to my hotel. Situated beside a swift-flowing river, my first port of call is the Parasvanath temple. It is, I am cautioned by a local, no more than a trailer; ‘Picture abhi baqi hai mere dost!’I am told in true filmi style!

Like all the other sculptured temples I will see over the course of the day, it is constructed of hard river sandstone, built atop a platform and accessed by a flight of steep steps. Celestial maidens (the alluring sura sundaris) drape its walls as do a thicket of motifs that will reappear before my eyes: horses, elephants, lotuses, flowering vines, apsaras and mortals in a variety of poses. Sensual yes, even life-like and finely-etched, but there is no sign yet of the famous sexuality and concupiscence of these sculptures that one has heard so much about. From here I make my way to the three Jain temples nearby. Dedicated to Adinath, the Jain Tirthankara, it has more yakshinis guarding its walls and a more lavish profusion of embellished outer walls. I peep into the Ghantai Temple and gaze at a depiction of the16 dreams of Mahavira's mother. Images of nubile goddesses on winged Garudas, a damsel bending to pluck a thorn from her feet, another tying an anklet around her slender feet stay with me as  I hurry out; my appetite whetted, I want to see the real McCoy at the Western group.

A short distance away, with two glimmering tanks on either side and the usual chaos of touts, trashy trinket-sellers and roadside eateries, stands the magnet that has drawn me so far. A mere ten rupee-ticket lets me loose into an enchanted wilderness; another Rs 60 and I am the proud owner of a set of earphones and an audio-guided tour. From amidst landscaped gardens, a small sea of temples of varying sizes and shapes rises before me, their undulating spires  ascending in tiers reminding me instantly of the high peaks of the Himalayas, the true abode of the gods.

 The large Lashmana, Kandariya Mahadev and Vishwanath stand beside the smaller Devi Jagdambi shrine and the Devi Mandap. After the first few, their names and historical details blur into meaningless tour guide patter as the sheer physicality of the frescoes stuns the visitors into silence. A Babel of tongues is all around me – Italian, French, Russian, Spanish, Chinese and many more that I cannot recognize. Groups of tourists cluster before the carvings, listening intently to their guides or frowning in concentration to hear the crackling audio tapes. Each time, I see a point of oblivion dawn on fellow visitors when the sounds fade out; in their place is an intense concentration on what lies before one’s disbelieving eyes.

 In temple after temple, I take off my shoes, ascend the stairs, and begin a clockwise circumambulation of the outer walls. The sculptures are densely packed on the outer walls; the more erotic ones are at the lower levels and as the eye travels up the spire, the physical forms gradually lessen and disappear altogether. Each time, I sense a hush descend on knots of chattering crowds; the lewd comments and the loud banter suddenly dies out as the sheer physicality of the tableau stuns the viewer. Caparisoned elephants, horseback riders, court scenes, musicians, dancers, children, courtiers, mythical creatures that are half-human half-beast are interspersed with human beings performing the most mind-boggling sexual acrobatics. Why this profusion of libidinous activity on temple walls? What lies behind this sexual preoccupation? Could women have been so wasp-waisted and men so well endowed? Could human hands have wrought these wondrous spectacles or, were they, as myth and legend tell us, crafted by divinely-inspired master craftsmen?

 I get answers to some of these questions when I come back to the temple precinct for a light and sound show. Organised by M.P. Tourism, this turns out to be a singularly memorable experience. My nose numb with cold, I sit on a plastic chair on dew-encrusted grass under a star-spangled sky, and find myself mesmerized. With the sound of a chisel striking a stone, the narrator draws you into the story of Khajuraho: how it got its name from the tall khajur (date palms) that ringed the tank, and how the nayika is central to a temple for just as a house is barren without a wife so too a temple without female beauty shall not bear fruit. The secular and the sacred merge just as science and religion, architecture and sculpture come together in the making of these temples.  Concentration on the essence of the deity is vital, for concentration alone is the tool of the sculptor. Neti, neti, neti… not this, not this, not this… By a rigorous process of elimination, the sculptor removes all non-essentials and gives us a sculpture that is spare and shorn of inessentials. Balance and precision, harmony and proportion are vital as enormous blocks of stone are fitted like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. The sound of temple bells evoke images of a sanctum sanctorum lit by oil lamps and heavy with the scent of incense and fresh flowers as ancient verses reverberate in the still night. I listen entranced as the cold seeps though my winter clothes but the beauty of the narrator’s words and the spectacle that unfolds leaves me with a warm glow.

The next day I make the most of the half day I have before catching my late afternoon flight back to Delhi. The airy, light and cheerful interiors of the Radisson are designed to pamper and delight. A dip in the pool or a nap on the brightly-striped deck chairs; an energetic game of badminton or a soothing Kerala massage; a drink on the manicured lawns or a walk around the seven-acre property – you can take your pick!

Having sampled a lightly-grilled, freshly-caught sindha, a nearly boneless firm-fleshed river fish, the previous day, I allow the chef to tantalise my tastebuds with a choice of buffet and a la carte dishes. But first he takes me on a quick tour of his pride and joy: a kitchen garden bursting with winter greens, seasonal fruits and exotic herbs. He shows me rows of neatly planted pok choy, turnips, carrots, brinjals, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, and beds of basil, thyme, chilly, dill, lettuces and much else. He points to a tree laden with plump, golden orbs; these are the Indian gooseberry (amla) which he turns into a piquant pickle. He offers me a reddish-purple Chinese guava, its tart sweetness unlike anything I have tasted before, and a handful of glistening pale-skinned ber, the new super-food said to be packed with Vitamin C. He returns to his kitchen and produces a marvelously flavoursome minestrone soup, full-bodied and fragrant with tender baby carrots, still smelling of warm earth, and home-grown basil leaves. With it, he sends up an expertly done chicken stroganoff and a side dish of buttered peas and greens spiked with garlic. On winter nights, I am told, he sets up a barbecue on the patio outside and produces sizzling kababs and tandoori platters.

Winter is a good time to visit central India: the weather is balmy with just a nip in the air, the days pleasant and the nights chilly enough to make candle-light dinners and coal braziers seem like a good idea. The fields are green with a variety of winter seasonals – wheat, pulses, vegetables, cereals, all grow in great abundance in these parts. The bright yellow of mustard in full bloom creates a pretty patchwork-quilt pattern with the green of ripening wheat. The dips and hollows between the densely-forested hills and grasslands are filled with monsoon rains; crystal clear water laps in the plentitude of tanks and lakes. The many big and small rivers and rivulets gurgle and tumble over ancient rocks, causing small waterfalls along their path. Plump river fish are waiting to be caught, and trees laden with guavas and berries border the lush fields.

The energetic would do well to stir beyond the sanitized compound of their hotels and take in something of this spectacular countryside. Most hotels, including the Radisson, are only too glad to organize short trips: to view the waterfall at Raneh or look for elusive crocodiles at the Ghariyal Sanctuary (20 km). Another pleasant way to spend a winter afternoon is to go on elephant back to the riverside and watch the sun go down.

Those wishing to go further afield can plan an itinerary that includes trips to other neighbouring destinations. Orchcha, lying off the Jhansi-Khajuraho road, has plenty to offer the history buffs. Ornate chhatris (cenotaphs or memorials to dead Bundela ancestors) are interspersed with palaces, temples and forts; resorts and palaces offer stunning views of the Betwa river and the very air is redolent with tales of love and valour. Kalinjar, situated 130 km away by road, offers a glimpse into the martial past of the Chandela rulers who ruled from their well-guarded citadel in the heart of India.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Invite for the launch of my sister's book, 1 March 2012

My sister, Dr Tabinda J Burney, has written a book for children. It is being launched at the IIC on 1 March 2012. All are welcome, especially kids!

The book launch is followed by a lec-dem on the book. This event is on 3 March at 4 pm in The Attic, Regal Building, Connaught Place, New Delhi. The event on 3 March requires prior registration.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Shahryar: A Tribute, Indian Express, 15 Feb

Iss umr ke safar ka
Kitna taweel rasta tai maine kar liya hai
Aur ab bhi taaza dum hoon, bilkul nahi thaka hoon
Hairat ki baat kya hai?
On this journey of life
I have travelled a great distance
Yet I feel refreshed, and not one bit tired
Why is it so strange?

I remember once asking Shahryar the reason for being taaza dum. In reply, he told me a story. When his first book was published, Ale Ahmad Suroor, the noted Urdu critic, wrote on its blurb: ‘If he remains safe from the danger of takraar (repetition) and thakaan (exhaustion), he will go far.’  Ever mindful of the consequences of both, he said: Mujhe thakan aur takraar ka khauf hai. That mindfulness was to become the stamp of his ouvre as he managed to retain the freshness and vigour of his maiden collection, Ism-e-Aazam (published in 1965). Despite early critical acclaim and commercial success, throughout his long innings, he consistently refused to become a performer playing to the gallery at mushairas. Also, rather admirably, he spurned the joys of a handsomely-paid wordsmith churning out ‘hits’ from a plush Bollywood studio; instead he was the peripatetic voice, heard at mushairas, public platforms, academic circles, private soirees.

While Shahryar’s songs for popular Hindi films such as Umrao Jaan, Gaman, Anjuman and Fasle still enjoy enduring mass appeal and taxi drivers in Mumbai still play Seene mein jalan ankhon mein toofan sa kyun hai?Iss sheher mein har shaqs pareshan sa kyun hai? decades after the film's release and Asha Bhonsle still weaves the old magic with these haunting lines from Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan: Yeh kya jagah hai doston, yeh kaun sa dayar hai/Hadd-e-nigah tak jahan ghubar hi ghubar hai – his popularity does not rest with film lyrics. Shahryar can be credited with infusing a new potency and immediacy into the time-honoured confines of the Urdu ghazal and nazm. The joys and sorrows of ordinary, lived experiences, the complexities and ambivalence of city life, the oppressive sense of melancholy and dislocation of the urban milieu coupled with a sharply political consciousness – these form the rubric of his poetry.

What sets apart Shahryar’s poetry from his contemporaries is the sheer lyricism, the sweet melodiousness that is all the more striking because it is garbed in an everyday, conversational idiom. The relentless probing of his own heart and the human predicament is viewed through the prism of his intensely personal experiences. At the same time, there is none of the stridency and militant ideological onslaught that mars much of modern poetry. Instead, there is a collage of images that tell a story of their own. Sensual, multi-coloured, delicately filigreed, these word pictures – tumbling out of a kaleidoscope of the known and familiar – capture the pathos and alienation of the urban individual with just a few deftly-drawn strokes.

Whether it was his personal views or his politics (which, incidentally, was pronouncedly left-of-centre), he saw the good rather than the bad, and was constantly hopeful of a better tomorrow. When the right-wing government was in power at the centre, he wrote: Siyah raat nahi leti naam dhalne ka/Yehi to waqt hai suraj tere nikalne ka (The dark night is showing no signs of ending/ Now is the time, Sun, for you to rise). And when communal tensions rent the country apart and his belief in goodness and humanity was tested, he wrote: Ek hi dhun hai ke main raat ko dhalta dekhoon/Apni in ankhon se suraj ko nikalta dekhoon (My one great desire is to see this night come to an end/And that I may see the sun rise with my own eyes). Ayodhya, Gujarat, Nandigram provoked him to pick his pen and write from the heart. Perhaps he was drawing inspiration from Ghalib who expressed the poet’s concern best when he said: Hamne yeh jaana ke goya yeh bhi mere dil main hai (I found that this too lies within my heart). A wealth of compassion for human suffering lay within Shahryar’s heart; it came out and caught us unaware in a rush of images.

The liet motif of sleep and dreams ran through much of his poetry. The desire to fall asleep effortlessly, pass through the portal of consciousness into some magical land of dreams and sip from the fount of a deep, untapped subconscious was a recurring concern. Yet, dreams and sleep meant different things to him at different times. Dreams could be joyful or fearful. Sleep could beckon, and elude. Dreams offered escape from unpleasant reality, or they could be a punishment of sorts. To yearn for sleep and be denied, was for Shahryar, the worst nightmare. And when he slept soundly and dreamt, he would always say, he felt most blessed.

When he walked into the night on Monday, 13th February, all those who cherished him and his poetry can only hope that the closed doorway of dreams has opened and Shahryar is sleeping the sleep of the innocent.

Rakhshanda Jalil has translated Shahryar’s nazms in English, under the title Through the Closed Doorway (Rupa & Co., 2004).