2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature Longlist

This year it’s felt like we’ve been inundated with longlists & shortlists for literary prizes.  For the most part I’ve tried to mention those that are significant to translations and international lit.  There aren’t any new prizes, the same lists are being posted, still I can’t be alone in feeling burnt-out?

The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature longlist came out today.  It’s an interesting list. Strange even.  According to Wikipedia (yes, I have the stereotypical American grasp of geography) South Asia consists of 7 countries, though there is an extended definition that adds 5 more.  But if we stick with the 7 core countries the DSC Prize longlist represents only 3 of them.  India dominates in 10 of the 16 slots.  Bangladesh & Pakistan make up the rest of the list.  Except for one author, Alice Albinia, who actually appears to be British.  Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal & Sri Lanka are nowhere to be seen.  Of course, it’s not surprising that  industrialized/industrializing nations – i.e. India – should make a strong showing.  But that’s awful strong.   I don’t know much about the literature of Bhutan, but Sri Lanka seems a missed opportunity.  Added to this the fact that only 2 of the books are translations.

Women, on the other hand, make a strong showing.

  1. Jamil Ahmad – The Wandering Falcon (Pakistan)
  2. Alice Albinia – Leela’s Book (England)
  3. Tahmima Anam – The Good Muslim (Bangladesh)
  4. Rahul Bhattacharya – The Sly Company of People Who Care (India)
  5. Roopa Farooki – The Flying Man (Pakistan)
  6. Musharraf Ali Farooqi – Between Clay and Dust (Pakistan/Canada)
  7. Amitav Ghosh – River of Smoke (Bangladesh/India )
  8. Niven Govinden – Black Bread White Beer (India)
  9. Sunetra Gupta – So Good in Black (India)
  10. Mohammed Hanif –  Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (Pakistan)
  11. Jerry Pinto – Em and the Big Hoom (India)
  12. Uday Prakash (Jason Grunebaum, translator) – The Walls of Delhi (India)
  13. Anuradha Roy – The Folded Earth (India?)
  14. Saswati Sengupta: The Song Seekers (India)
  15. Geetanjali Shree (Nivdedita Menon, translator) –  The Empty Space (India)
  16. Jeet Thayil – Narcopolis ( India)

The links are all (to the best of my knowledge) to the American publishers.  Most seem to have paperback editions available, which is always nice.  Have you read any of the books or authors? Do you have an opinion of the overall list?  Or just want to dazzle with your knowledge of Bhutanese authors?  Claim your place in the comments section below.

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India or Bust?

Map courtesy of Lonely Planet

O India! Where did you and I go wrong? Of the five books I meant to review, I completed three. July saw me never quite in sync with my reading list. Was I overly ambitious? – things did seem to fall apart when I tackled the nonfiction titles.

So to recap (follow the links if you missed a review):

  • Chef by Jaspreet Singh

The two books that stonewalled me:

  • Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers, Essays by Arundhati Roy
  • An Autobiography by M.K. Gandhi

And my favorite book from the July list? Can’t you guess? A Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais.

Coming up in August:
Lots of short story collections… as many as I can manage. So if you have any favorites you’d like to pass along – comment below. The more the merrier!

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Visiting India – A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

I have a confession to make.  I’ve never been to India.  It’s incredibly annoying to try to spend an entire month focusing on a place that you’ve had no first hand experience with.  Which is why I’ve decided to call in a ringer.  Erica Derrickson not only spent a significant amount of time wandering around India…she came back with a book full of photographs.  Which, by the way, you can purchase (but more on that later).

The photos in India:  A Thousand Words are beautiful.  The perspective joyful.   They show a landscape and culture that is tangible – as if you could step through the image and into that world without missing a beat.  In her introduction Erica describes India as a place of contrasts.  She cites “poverty and privilege, abundance and scarcity, empowerment and disenfranchisement, purity and filth, the ancient and the modern, enlightenment and ignorance, and life and death.”  But looking through the photographs I could see only the positives in that statement.  So I asked her – did she do that on purpose?  Here is her answer.

India is indeed a country of extremes, and yet while my book does reference that in the opening pages, this book is not about directly portraying those extremes. While moments can be labeled as ‘joyful’ or ‘depressing’, the way I see it is that the images I take are moments that occur in the ambience of the contrasts of these labels.

If you were to look, for example, at the picture near the end of the book of the young child wearing the orange top and a strange scowl on her face. I took this image on the banks of the holy Ganga river in the ancient city of Varanasi, aka Benares, one of the most sacred and ancient urban sites in India. Mark Twain once commented that “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” The child is seated on the steps of one of these ancient bathing ghats (a set of stone carved steps and platforms created for accessing the river) from which the local population has been bathing for generations spanning across centuries. In this same holy city, along the same holy river, there are other sacred ghats that do not host the activities of the living, but rather the Hindu rituals of the dead. Every day, for the past two thousand or so years, hundreds of bodies are burned on grand pyres and ceremoniously interred in the waters of the sacred river. Hindus come from all over India to have their remains laid to rest in this sacred city; to have your body buried in the holy Ganga is to instantly attain Nirvana and end the cycle of life and death, and to wash your living body in its waters is to wash away your karma. Considering the ambiance of these extremes, bathing the bodies of the living in the same waters that are receiving the ashes of the deceased, the look on the child’s face reveals something different, or rather, begs some different questions. This moment of beauty, a fleeting expression that questions the origins of innocence, intends to offer a fleeting glimpse into a world so attuned to the cycles of life and death.

You can find Erica’s book (and see more pictures) by following the link to  India: A Thousand Words.

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100 Pages – Happily setting aside Chef by Jaspreet Singh

I started this series – 100 Pages – for the books I can’t finish, but which I still think might have merit.  Chef, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, falls into that category.  I received my copy through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program.

So let’s rip off this band-aid quickly.

Kirpal “Kip” Singh, the novel’s narrator, is dying of a brain tumor.  Kip  has been summoned back by his old commander, General Kumar, the Governor of Kashmir.   The General has requested that Kip cook the wedding feast for his daughter’s marriage to a Pakistani Muslim.  These two men have something in their past, something Kip is intent on resolving before he dies.  On the rail journey to Kashmir, he remembers his apprenticeship under the General’s first chef decades before.  He recalls the circumstances which he led him into the army.  An innocent young man, most of Kip’s flashbacks revolve around his attempts to rid himself of his virginity.  So, not surprisingly, from the book’s French flaps we learn that the rift between Kip and the General occurred because of a woman –  a lovely Pakistani woman who washes up on the river bank and is accused of being a terrorist.

But I never actually reached that point in the narrative.  100 pages, over a third of the way into the novel, Jaspreet Singh is still laying the foundation of his story.  The pacing is incredibly slow; the writing is thick and torpid.  The reader spends all his time trapped within Kip’s head and entangled in Kip’s memories. Which is probably the main reason why I was unable to lose myself in Chef.  Kip by turns bothered and bored me.  He sees every woman he meets as a possible sexual partner.  His courting technique consists of approaching the current object of his affection (who, more often than not he is barely acquainted with) and staring at them creepily until they gently rebuff him.  He get’s lots of sexual advice, along with culinary training, from the chef who he serves under – equally creepy.  And while Singh may have felt this to be necessary in order to develop the story – it was more than I was interested in reading.

Ultimately, despite the amount of time spent following Kip’s thoughts, he never became a fully developed protagonist for me.  Every scene is rife with emotional undercurrents that I was unable to decipher.  The prose felt too thick.  Eventually, I just stopped caring.

For me – finishing the first 100 pages of Chef was a struggle.  But not everyone shares my opinion.  KevinfromCanada felt differently.  As did Page247.  Their reviews are well written and worth reading.  They also are, on the whole, positive.

So if anyone is interested in a gently used copy of Chef by Jaspreet Singh – comment below and send me an email at BookSexyblog@gmail.com.  OR, if you’ve read the novel and loved it – let me know why.  Maybe I gave up too soon… maybe it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA, New York. (2010)
ISBN: 978 1 60819 085 0

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Richard C. Morais’ The Hundred-Foot Journey (Advance Review Copy)

The Hundred-Foot Journey is narrated by Hassan Haji.  It is, in essence, a middle-aged chef recounting the story of his rise to Michelin stardom.   We learn of Hassan’s childhood in India and  follow the culinary fortunes of the Haji family as they travel from there to France (by way of England) – eventually finding a new home in the French Alps.  They open a restaurant directly across the street from Madame Mallory, a draconian French hotelier who will become Hassan’s worst enemy and greatest benefactress.  The Hundred-Foot Journey is a charming first novel about the collision of two cultures: spangled India against the tasteful restraint of the French countryside; and between conflicting personalities – Papa the showman versus Madame Mallory the ascetic.  But, mostly, it is about Hassan’s struggle to follow his destiny without forsaking his past.

I wasn’t surprised to discover that Richard C. Morais counted the late Ismail Merchant (of the legendary Merchant Ivory film company) and the author Kazuo Ishiguro among his close friends.  It made perfect sense.  Much like his friends’ works Morais’ writing contains quiet, subtle touches that might easily be overlooked.  And I couldn’t help but think that if Ismail Merchant were to have made The Hundred-Foot Journey into a film the screen would have been filled with gorgeous vistas of the French countryside.  Ishiguro would have told the tale from Madame Mallory’s perspective – looking back on a life that fell just short of greatness and sorting through the reasons why.  Morais’ story is instead as upbeat as a Bollywood film, and he keeps just the right balance of discovery and nostalgia in his narrator’s voice.  The plot conveys a real sense of the passing time and of place.  And underlying every sentence in The Hundred-Foot Journey is an ever abiding love of food, in all its glory.

Yes, it’s a foodie book.  But like everything else in the novel, Morais’ depictions of food are visceral and earthy.  At the same time they manage to retain a degree of sharp delicacy, due to his precisely worded descriptions .

I watched the famous chef expertly trim the vegetable’s leaves with a pair of scissors, the smart snips of her flashing tool ensuring each ragged leaf of the artichoke was symmetrically aligned and aesthetically pleasing to the eye, like she was tidying up after nature. She then picked up one of the lemons that had been cut in half, and doused each of the artichoke wounds – wherever she had snipped a leaf – with a generous squirt of lemon juice. Artichokes contain acid, cynarin, and this neat trick, I later learned prevented the sap-oozing leaves from discoloring the vegetable around its wound.

Next, Madame Mallory used a heavy and sharp knife to cleanly take of the top of the artichoke with a firm downward crunch of the blade. For a few seconds her head was down again, as she plucked some pink, immature leaves from the plant’s center. Picking up a new utensil, she cut at the inner artichoke and elegantly scooped out the thicket of thistle fuzz called the choke. You could see the satisfaction in her face when she finally and surgically removed the soft prize of the artichoke’s heart and set is aside in a bowl of marinade, already heaped with succulent and mushy cups.

Morais provides his reader with the clean, concise explanations of how a dish is prepared, allowing it to speak for itself unburdened by adjectives.  His writing is all the more powerful because of its austerity.   And while he preserves the inevitable link between love and food within his story  – I was glad to see that he doesn’t fixate on the romantic or sexual, but instead equates it with more familial bonds.  In the end, I felt that Morais was writing about food in a new and different way.  Not the typical “food porn” as described by Anthony Bourdain in the blurb – which to me implies artifice, a need for enhancement and ultimately fantasy.  The food in The Hundred-Foot Journey is honest and authentic.  Morais has done something much more difficult than creating food porn.  He has pin-pointed the beauty in what is real.

All through the month of July I will be reviewing books that share a common element: India.  These will include books by Indian authors, books set in India, or simply books about Indian culture.  The Hundred-Foot Journey seemed like the perfect place to start.  Because don’t most of us first experience a foreign culture in the same way?  Through the discovery and appreciation of its food?

Publisher:  Scribner, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 68407 812 0

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