Books & Reading

Reading French Writers in English: Echenoz, Sobin & Colette

Since I first began learning French nine months ago, I’ve acquired all the competence of a mumbling three-year-old. My journey has been a series of stumbles and fumbles, faux pas and misspellings, verb-noun disagreements and quite a few horror stories starring dismal efforts at conjugation and communication, not least amongst them the time when I spotted a long-furred cat on a sweltering afternoon and said “La chatte est chaude“. Happily, my first tentative steps are a thing of the past, and my vocabulary has since expanded to consist of more than bonjour, oui, ca va, and the perennial favourite/highly disreputable, “voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?” (From what I’ve been told, the French absolutely abhor this putain of a phrase.) In any case, if I happen to find myself in France, I’m happy to report that, in an atrocious, milk-curdling accent, I’d be able to express my needs and wants, but, unfortunately fall short of talking about my favourite books.

To complement my learning journey and make the French language come alive in context, I bought a handful of novels by French authors. Of course, since my competence is nowhere near what’s required to read an entire novel in French, I acquired translations. I’d already read the usual suspects in university – Camus, Sartre, Flaubert, Voltaire, Balzac – and, besides, these days I’m more inclined to contemporary voices. Guardian has a respectable list of crowd-sourced French books and authors; I’d recommend anyone interested in reading French authors/novels in English to start there if they’re looking to add a sizeable addition to their TBR list. That’s exactly what I did.

Jean Echenoz – Je m’en vais (1999), translated as I’m Gone


Jean Echenoz won the prestigious Prix Goncourt for I’m Gone. For a moment let’s forget that right now, the Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary prize, is suffering from a bad reputation for being unusually sexist. I’m Gone begins simply enough: in its first sentence, Felix Ferrar, an urbane Parisian art dealer, walks out on his wife – “I’m going. I’m leaving you.” He drops his keys on the table and closes the door behind him. He then goes on to pursue a memorably pathetic international crime spree that takes him across the tundra of the Arctic. I shouldn’t reveal the plot because half the fun in reading is discovering where Felix intends to go next, but suffice to say, the novel is a sly, witty exploration of love, mid-life crises, and a biting satire on the art world. I loved it, and I plan to re-read it, if not for the humour, then at least for the little descriptions of Paris:

‘Around the Madeleine church, strings of unlit Christmas lights hovered above the streets still more deserted than the subway. The decorated windows of the high-priced ships reminded the nonexistent pedestrians that they would survive the end-of-year festivities.’

Gustaf Sobin – The Fly-truffler (1999)


Language is alive, sensual and languid in Sobin’s expert hands; the story as soft and creamy as a delicate Camembert. Set against the fading of the Provencal traditions and language, each page is a remarkable tribute to the lush romance of the region, and celebrates France’s fecundity of nature.

Since the premature death of his wife, Philippe Cabassac, master fly-truffler, has come to expect more of the truffles that he discovers every winter on his family estate in Provence. He discovers that the truffles bring him a series of dreams where his lost wife is restored to him in intimate communion. His seductive dreaming epiphanies threaten to take over his waking life, as he becomes more and more obsessed with collecting and storing truffles.

I never thought reading about silkworms could be so dreamy, or that someday I’d know the practice of something as precise as how locals in Provence discover truffles in their gardens and woods. Read this especially at night, for that is when the magic of Sobin’s prose is unstoppable:

‘He’d have to wait, though, for the ground to thaw and the first timid signals of spring to break like so many flags from their hard little shell cases. He’d have to wait until the first wild almonds had begun blossoming, bringing with them a whole host of honeybees, before unearthing the last truffle. It lay between the pawlike roots of a holm oak at a depth of no less than forty centimeters. A richly faceted “black diamond”, as they’re occasionally called, this particular truffle had a wild, oily provocative aroma.’

Read the first chapter here.

Colette – Cheri (1920)


Cheri is one of my favourite love stories. I know I mentioned being more inclined towards contemporary voices, but Colette writes so well (and without affectation) that you could easily imagine Cheri being written recently. This slim, sad novella is about the separation between the 25-year-old spoilt and beautiful titular protagonist and his lover of five years, the 49-year-old courtesan Lea. When an advantageous marriage is arranged for Cheri, Lea reluctantly ends the affair. However, despite his apparent detachment, Cheri is increasingly isolated from his marriage and haunted by the memories of Lea. Things aren’t better for Lea either, who, in spite of her extensive experience in matters of the heart, finds that she, too, has fallen in love with the young, brash boy-child. For six months, both parties find ways to escape their memories, until fate decrees that they meet again one tumultuous night.

What really hooked me was Colette’s unflinching account of Lea’s slowly crumbling beauty. Imagine an incredibly stunning woman in her twilight years, disenchanted with the suffocating company of elderly courtesans. Even better, imagine a society where courtesans are a necessary part of the social hierarchy, and celebrated rather than stigmatized for their profession. That’s a France I’d like to travel back in time to visit.

Painting by Evengy Lushpin

Books & Reading

Existential Essentials: A Halloween Reading List

True terror is not otherworldly. In fact, it is a thing far more terrifying (and far more real) than ghouls and spooky spirits. You find it in the most innocuous of places: in history textbooks, small newspaper articles, unreported events. Most of the time, you find it in other people, and, sometimes, even within yourself. This is a place of madness, hysteria, suffering, narcissism and confusion.

In the spirit of Halloween, I’ve put together a list of novels that offer a sample of what real-world terror can look like: abject poverty, plotting paedophiles, book-burning, totalitarian states. Though works of fiction, they are inspired by the monsters of this world, and more frightening because of it.

WARNING: This list contains truly depressing novels.

1. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

It is 1951, a winter day in a Siberian labour camp. A prisoner goes about his day, bending rules, avoiding punishments and making life a little easier where he can. Based on Solzhenitsyn’s own experience as a labour camp prisoner under Stalin’s reign, this is a grim but powerful account of life in the Soviet Gulags.

2. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

a fine balance

The unfair prejudices of the Hindu caste system are revealed as we follow the lives of 4 characters from different castes in Bombay, India, in the 1970s. The poor survive by living on a razor’s edge. For them, everything goes badly; there’s no happy ending in this overwhelmingly sad novel that’s the unfortunate reality of millions of impoverished Indians.

3. Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa


Yoko Ogawa is a master of modern Gothic. Beautiful and deadly, each short story is like an exquisite delicacy that’s rotten to its core. In the first story, for example, a woman spends an “Afternoon at the Bakery” where she goes to buy strawberry shortcake for her son’s birthday, twelve years after he died while trapped inside an abandoned refrigerator.

4. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell


Nineteen Eighty-Four and Farenheit 451 (#5, below) are equally frightening dystopian novels with similar themes. Orwell’s version depicts a totalitarian state where truth doesn’t exist, independent thought is banned, and love is an alien concept (unless it’s love for the Party). It is visionary because some countries today function exactly like the nightmarish world depicted in this 1961 novel.

5. Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

farenheit 451

I reviewed Ray Bradbury’s frightening vision of future a few years ago. In this dystopian classic, owning, publishing and reading books is a criminal activity. Distracted by technology, citizens allow, in fact prefer, to let books burn. (Sounds familiar?) In the midst of this extreme government-imposed censorship, one book-burning fireman has a moral awakening.

6. Black Hole by Charles Burns

black hole cover

I’ve written about Burns’ macabre graphic novel before. In a gruesome twist of fate, all goes awry when a mysterious sexually transmitted plague starts infecting teenagers in a quiet suburban American town. What unfolds is a testimony to the savage cruelty of puberty and high school politics.

7. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov


Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged European intellectual, meets his ideal nymphet in the shape of 12-year-old Dolores Haze, and constructs an elaborate plot to seduce her. The prose is as hauntingly beautiful as the story is sad, sick and tragic.

8. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

the metamorphosis

Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning and finds himself transformed into some sort of vile insect though his intellect remains intact. But the longer he’s trapped in his new form, the more bug-like his mind becomes. Truly kafkaesque. 

9. Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews

Flowers in the attic

The four Dollanganger children are locked up in the attic of their beautiful mother’s childhood home, a sprawling Victorian mansion. Here, the children grow up, enter puberty and discover sexuality with some disastrous consequences. It’s not highbrow literature but that doesn’t stop it from being a dark, twisted fairytale.

Books & Reading

10 Books That Changed My Life

Frequently, I’m asked to recommend books to other readers based on their reading preferences. I don’t do it, but I could easily point them in the direction of a definitive list, and ask them to just pick a title. I’m sure you’ve seen one of these “best-of” book lists before. The Internet abounds with hundreds of them: Modern Library’s 100 best novels, Guardian’s self-proclaimed definitive list, BBC’s top 100 read-before-you-die books and Time Magazine’s top 100. A lot of big guys defining what’s considered the best in literature. My reaction to most of these is quite blasé: “So what? It’s yet another Anglocentric book list.” Most of the time, I can count on one hand the number of literary tomes from the non-Western canon, and it simply does not sit with me. To summarise: in an average list of 100 books, Murakami represents the best of Japanese literature; Rushdie represents South Asia; Khaled Hosseini for the Middle East; Marquez (if he’s mentioned at all !holy shit!) for South America; and 90 writers representing the best of American and European literature. This is not a race thing, and I’m not making it one. It’s just a really, really irritating thing. So, when I sat down to list the 10 books that changed my life, it came as no surprise that most of them are translated novels.

Most voracious readers perceive life changing experiences through books, so to speak, and to narrow it all down to less than a dozen is nothing less than committing perjury. By no means is this a comprehensive list, but as difficult as it was to write, it is purely and wholly me, from start to finish. Every word, page and and twist of phrase has shaped my sentimentalities, inspired my opinions and coloured my world. I carry all its djinns, labyrinths and desires in my heart and under my skin.


1. Train To Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

train to pakistan

 “People began to say that God was punishing them for their sins. Some of them had good reason to feel that they had sinned. The summer before, communal riots, precipitated by reports of the proposed division of the country into a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan, had broken out in Calcutta, and within a few months the death toll had mounted to several hundred. Muslims said the Hindus had planned and started the killing. According to the Hindus, the Muslims were to blame. The fact is, both sides killed. Both shot and stabbed and speared and clubbed. Both tortured. Both raped.”

Train to Pakistan takes place in 1947 in the fictional village of Mano Majra, located along the Indo-Pak border, where Sikhs and Muslims have always lived peacefully and in brotherhood until a Muslim money-lender is killed and the blame falls on the local village Sikh gangster. One day, a train comes over the bridge at an unusual time and the villagers discover that it is full of the bodies of dead and mutilated Sikhs. A few days later, the same thing happens again. Reading Khushwant Singh’s novel made me understand the trajectory of my personal history, and the politics of the time that inspired a desperate flight to a safer, less turbulent future for many Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. It’s also the only book on this list that’s made me cry. 


2. Songs of Kabir translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

songs of kabir“Listen carefully,
Neither the Vedas
Nor the Qur’an
Will teach you this:
Put the bit in its mouth,
The saddle on its back,
Your foot in the stirrup,
And ride your wild runaway mind
All the way to heaven.”

Kabir (1398-1518) was my first introduction to Sufism. As a preteen, I was inspired to explore Kabir’s poetry because I kept hearing his compositions and poetry in the Sikh Scripture. In my father’s library, I found a really old biography of Kabir’s bought in Delhi. While I skimmed through the life and death bits, what really hooked me was his poetry, which was so madly pagan, absurd, defiant and metaphysical that my mind reeled with shock. Kabir taught me that it’s possible to have a deep, meaningful relationship with The Universe without going through the channel of religion. The fact that he was derisive of both Hinduism and Islam  — “If you say you’re a Brahmin, born of a mother who’s a Brahmin, was there a special canal through which you were born? And if you say you’re a Turk and your mother’s a Turk, why weren’t you circumcised before birth?” — struck me as really revolutionary, both in the 14th century and the 20th.


3. The Trial by Franz Kafka

the-trial“But I’m not guilty,” said K. “There’s been a mistake. How is it even possible for someone to be guilty? We’re all human beings here, one like the other.”
“That is true,” said the priest, “But that is how the guilty speak.”

On the morning of his thirtieth birthday, Josef K. is arrested by two men for an unexplained crime. The rest of the book is an attempt to figure out what K’s crime truly is. For simply existing? We don’t know. We never really find out. Reading Kafka elevated my self-consciousness to such a great degree that I could not communicate effectively with people for the longest time. The world he writes about, governed by its own inexplicable laws and logic, could he be talking about ours? Is the character K. meant to be an extension of the writer or the reader? We keep thinking we are getting to the meaning, K.’s true crime, the reason for his arrest and his overwhelming guilt, but the meaning keeps skipping and alluding our grasp. Tricky, so tricky.


4. Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

labyrinths“The history of the universe…is the handwriting produced by a minor god in order to communicate with a Demon.”

Each of Borges’ short stories have enough meat to become an entire novel. Labyrinths was an obvious choice because it contains three of his most famous short stories: “The Library of Babel”, in which the author discuss an infinite library housing every possible combination of letters within the confines of what is considered a story; “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” explores the language, philosophy, culture, and religion of the fictional country of Uqbar on the fictional world of Tlön through an encyclopedic entry written by a group of mysterious intellectuals; “The Garden of Forking Paths” – I can’t talk about it but I’ll try – is a crazy, convoluted, unimaginable short story about how the grander scheme of the universe is made up of the millions of crossroads billions of people take at every point in their lives. Reading Borges was like taking drugs, without taking drugs. I could understand his message, but I could not explain it without sounding like a lunatic.


5. Dune by Frank Herbert

dune“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

This is the best science fiction novel I’ve read in my entire life. Period. I re-read it at least once a year.


6. Amulet by Roberto Bolaño

amulet“This is going to be a horror story. A story of murder, detection and horror. But it won’t appear to be, for the simple reason that I am the teller. Told by me, it won’t seem like that. Although, in fact, it’s the story of a terrible crime.”

Roberto Bolaño opened up the world of Latin American fiction for me. Essentially, Amulet is the story of Auxilio Lacouture, the self-proclaimed “Mother of Mexican poetry”, her personal triumphs and tragedies, the circle of aspiring writers and poets that she goes to parties with and whose homes she cleans. But it is also the story of Latin America’s harsh politics and violence in the 60’s and 70’s, especially the massacre at Tlateloco where the Mexican army surrounded students from Autonomous University and  opened fire. The novella’s opening scene shows Auxilio Lacouture hiding in the university’s toilet without food and water for several days (weeks? I forget) as she hears gunfire in the plaza below. This novella is a haunting, confusing elegy to war, death and love. I adore Bolaño’s sentences.


7. City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi by William Dalrymple

IDA06“The greatest disappointment was Chandni Chowk… As you sit on your rickshaw and head in into the labyrinth you still half-expect to find its shops full of jasper and sardonyx for the Mughal builders, mother-of-pearl inlay for the pietra dura craftsmen; you expect to see strings of Bactrian camels from Kashgar and logs of cinnamon from Madagascar, merchants from Ferghana and Khemer girl concubines from beyond the Irrawady…”

I want to see Dalrymple’s Delhi: the century-old mithai stall at the corner of Chandni Chowk, the old havelis, Nizamuddin’s whirling dervishes. I want to hear the Urdu of Ghalib and see not unkempt alleys and roads but Shahjahanabad, the greatest and most beautiful city the Mughal empire has known. In City of Djinns, Dalrymple walks the fine line between travel memoir and two thousand years of history, and deftly balances both with expert skill. He summons catacombs, hidden tunnels and the ghosts of eras past, superimposing them on modern Delhi. The result is something absolutely magical.


8. One Thousand And One Nights (Arabian Nights) translated by Husain Haddawy

arabian nights“Her forehead was flower-white, her cheeks like the anemone ruddy-bright. Her eyes were those of the wild heifer or the gazelle, with eyebrows like the crescent moon which ends Sha’aban and begins Ramazan. Her mouth was the ring of Solomon, her lips coral-red, and her teeth like a line of strung pearls or of camomile petals. Her throat recalled the antelope’s, and her breasts, like two pomegranates of even size, stood at bay as it were. Her body rose and fell in waves below her dress like the rolls of a piece of brocade, and her navel would hold an ounce of benzoin ointment.”

Fairy tales, fables, romances, farces, legends, and parables. Baghdad, Basrah, Cairo and Damascus, China, Greece, India, North Africa and Turkey. It was page after page of poetry and repartee, riddles and deception, the most sublime description of women, perfume and food, vengeful djinns, pitiful dervishes, pettish sultans, sprawling gardens and even more exquisite descriptions of beautiful women. Till today, words like musk, ambergris, rose and myrtle always suffuse me with a strange sort of wonder and joy.


9. Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin

delta_of_venus_narrowweb__300x400,0“I had a feeling that Pandora’s box contained the mysteries of woman’s sensuality, so different from a man’s and for which man’s language was so inadequate. The language of sex had yet to be invented. The language of the senses was yet to be explored.”

I can’t remember how I came into possession of Anaïs Nin’s collection of fifteen lush, musical and absolutely magical erotic short stories, but needless to say, it completely changed my life. There is nothing pornographic at all about her words. Everything is poetry in motion. (I’m not so sure about the Hungarian pedophile, though.)


10. Roald Dahl.

Matilda1Because of Matilda and the hours I spent staring at my pencil, willing it to twitch, so I could show that teacher in first grade exactly who she was messing with. Because the giant floating peach housed with talking insects. Because of the mad twits in their upside-down house. Because only god knows how many times I read about the crazy witches, wishing they were real because at least that would be something. Because of that giant, who could make dream potions. Because of that damn factory and its chocolate lake, and if only there weren’t those Oompa Loompas that I never really liked at all. Because he taught me the power of well-placed words, and has all the gratitude and joy of all my lonely childhood hours.

Books & Reading

A Short List of Unusual Novels

1. Black Hole by Charles Burns

black hole cover

Growing up is dangerous business, as teenagers in a suburban Seattle town soon discover when a mysterious sexually transmitted plague descends upon their sleepy little corner of the world.  This is a highly sexualised, twisted horror graphic novel, coloured entirely in black and all the more nightmarish for it.

black hole 1

Teenagers undergo grotesque mutations, boils and horns appear overnight, skins peel off, and an entire talking mouth even appears on one poor character’s neck. There’s an undercurrent of desperation, apprehension and fear that runs through all the character’s motivations.

black hole 4

At its heart, Black Hole cuts to the crux of every teenager’s topmost concern: what does it means to fit in with the cool crowd, and what happens to the outsiders, the nobodies, the freaks. Charles Burns’ art is simple yet dark, surreal and super creepy. Highly recommended to anyone in their early twenties.

2. Night Film by Marisha Pessl

night film cover

A genius, enigmatic model-daughter of a Hollywood cult director commits suicide. The rest of this complex novel is a collection of screenshots, police reports, news clippings and transcripts that try to unravel the reasons behind Ashley Cordova’s premature death and her reclusive father’s cult status amongst his legion of fans.

There are various plot summaries of Stanley Cordova’s Lynch-like films, screened only in the secrecy of the night. Watching any one of them supposedly causes the viewer to leave his old self behind, walk through the doors of hell and emerge reborn at the film’s end. Pretty cathartic stuff.

night film 2

There’s black magic in here, tribal blood sacrifices and secret Internet forums, too, but the kicker is the dream-like sequence through an incredibly complex series of stage sets of every single Cordova film ever made, complete with props and dead bodies. Reading Night Film was like entering a long, disturbing and sophisticated hallucination that lingered sleepily after the last page.

3. Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shariar Mandanipour

iranian love story cover

A novel by an Iranian writer about an Iranian writer who wants to write a love story and see it published in Iran. But he finds himself in a metaphorical burqa. Almost everything he writes is in danger of being censored, because it’s politically offensive, or blasphemous, or offensive to some unknown third-party.

iranian love story

Forget the writer’s block. This is every writer’s biggest nightmare. What do you do when you’ve managed to write a simple boy-meets-girl love story but you can’t even publish it? Circumstances threaten to kill characters; other characters go out of control within the story, assert their independence from the writer and rebel against the story and narrator. Sentences, phrases and paragraphs are striked through. Read this novel if you want to know how Shariar Mandanipour manages to treat censorship like a new literary form, much like a sonnet or a graphic novel.

4. S. by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst


CT jj-abrams02.jpg

S. is a book that takes place in the margins of another book. There are actual, physical notes, postcards and clippings wedged between the pages of this hefty tome. There are even several websites dedicated to helping readers keep track of the various paraphernalia found in the book. Have I gotten your attention yet?


s. 2

s. 3

Essentially, S. the novel comprises of a fictional novel Ship of Theseus written by a fictional author, V.M. Straka. All the pages within Ship of Theseus feature handwritten notes in the margins. It’s like you went to the bookstore and bought an example of the type of book one can find in libraries all over the world. The notes in the margin belong to two students, passing the book back and forth and creating a kind of dialogue between each other. Now if you ever figure out how to read this super metafictional book, drop me a message. I’d love to go back to university just to study a text this jaw droppingly beautiful and complicated in class.

Books & Reading, Fiction

Top 9 opening lines in children’s literature

A response to Guardian‘s 10 favourite opening lines in children’s books because The Virgin Suicides? Rudyard Kipling? and no Harry Potter? That’s unacceptable! Here’s what I would have done if Guardian had asked me to list my favourite opening lines from children’s literature.

P.S.) Alice isn’t included because there’s really no need, is there? She’s the guardian angel of every piece of children’s literature written, ever.


“All children, except one, grow up.”

“There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name.”
Cover art by Lesley Barnes for Vintage.

Cover art by Lesley Barnes for Vintage.

“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

“It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.”
Cover Art by Mirjam Dijkema.

Cover Art by Mirjam Dijkema.

“Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.”
Cover art by M. S. Corley.

Cover art by M. S. Corley.

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

“These two very old people are the father and mother of Mr. Bucket.”
Cover art by Nicolai Sarbib.

Cover art by Nicolai Sarbib.

 “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

“It was a dark and stormy night.”
Cover art by Ellen Raskin. First edition dust jacket.

Cover art by Ellen Raskin. First edition dustjacket.

Books & Reading, creative writing

“Portrait of a Woman” by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi

Portrait of a Woman (1881), by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi (1837–1887)

“Portrait of a Woman”, by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi (1837–1887)

The ruffle collar of her dress tickled her neck, the light shone a little too bright off the white pages of her book and her back ached from sitting in the same position for too long, but the lady bore all her discomforts with stoic determination. The painting, she told herself, would only take a few hours more – and then no more. She would not see the painter after this day. It was her last sitting and then — back to that dreadful routine of illness and medicine and endless sleep. Her grandmother’s dazzling sapphire ring, which fit a little too tight, had to be returned to its rightful place in the drawer. She had enjoyed wearing it. It was a blue of the oceans she read about in books, the endless, frightening deep blue of death and oblivion. She longed for more sittings with the painter. Her nurse stood behind him by the lady’s bed, alert to the smallest sign of fatigue. This was truly the last and final one – Ah! The lady tried not to let her misery show on her face. Oh, but it was just too dreadful to think about! The painter was the only man who, despite her handicap, thought her capable of something important, even if it was just to keep still. After him, her days would go no further than this dark, gloomy room with its one lonely window through which shone the light of that distant star, illuminating the farthest corners of her misery. But there were books, the lady reminded herself gently, holding the one in her hand closer and tighter, eyes swimming across the words. She blinked back the tears from the glare of the light, too harsh this afternoon. There were always books.

Books & Reading

What’s going on at Penguin India?

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed…

– William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming (1921)

Thus begins my copy of Hindu Myths, published by Penguin with introduction and notes by Wendy Doniger. I had bought Wendy Doniger’s book while at university, inspired by a module on South Asian religions and my lecturer’s effusive praise for Doniger’s research and textual scholarship. I remember looking specifically for the Penguin edition because I held them to the highest standards. Now? Not so much.

Wendy Doniger (November 20, 1940), a prolific translator of Sanskrit texts, has published Vātsyāyana Kāmasūtra, The Laws of Manu, and Hindu Myths: A Sourcebook among others,

Wendy Doniger (November 20, 1940), a prolific writer on the Hindu religion and translator of Sanskrit texts, has published Vātsyāyana Kāmasūtra, The Laws of Manu, and Hindu Myths: A Sourcebook, among others.

In an out-of-court settlement with a Hindu nationalist group, Penguin India has agreed to recall and destroy all copies of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History within India. The lawsuit in which her book is implicated claims that Doniger is accused of hurting “the religious feelings of millions of Hindus by declaring that Ramayana is a fiction”. provides a succinct summary of events thus far:

In 2011, the Hindu nationalist group Shiksha Bachao Andolan filed a civil case against Penguin India over The Hindus: An Alternative History, by Wendy Doniger, a professor of religion at the University of Chicago. The group claims the book offends Hindus by, among other things, inaccurately representing the religion and offering an overly sexual interpretation of Hindu texts. This, it contends, violates a section of the Indian penal code that prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”

However Penguin India chooses to justify its decision, the fact remains that there was no court order and that the great publishing house could definitely have fought its case further and harder. Naturally, we’re all furious with Penguin’s chickening out. But despite our alarm, fury, outcry and protestations, I wonder if Penguin India is the real villain here.

William Dalrymple pointed out that “real villains are the laws in this country, which were old colonial laws drawn up in the 1890s, and which make insulting religion a criminal offence… The reality is that it is very difficult to defend yourself because the law is stacked very heavily on the side of any lunatic.”

Adding to Dalrymple’s voice of reason, Doniger herself defended her publishing house. Despite her anger and disappointment, she believes Penguin India was “finally defeated by the true villain of this piece – the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offence to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardises the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book”.

A copies of The Hindus: An Alternative History within India will be recalled and pulped.

All copies of The Hindus: An Alternative History within India will be recalled and pulped.

However, Arundhati Roy appears has a different opinion on the matter. In an open letter to Penguin India, she has demanded an explanation of their decision. And to be perfectly honest, as someone who’s seen Penguin as a hallmark of great literature, I cannot help but agree with her. Who else is going to fight for free speech when senseless, arbitrary laws threaten writers and readers with censorship? What a heart wrenching, agonizing irony it is that the purveyors of speech are the ones undermining free speech. If Salman Rushdie’s fatwa issued by the Ayatollah had sent a tsunami wave of shock and disbelief through the literary world, I can’t imagine that the pulping of Wendy Doniger’s books in the Indian subcontinent won’t do any less. The only point this proves is that fascists have no creed or nationality, and that sometimes, they do win.

As a citizen of the world and a woman of Indian origin, I am deeply concerned and a little frightened about the future of the freedom of speech in India as long as saffron-robed fascists are in power.