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JAI ARJUN SINGH
WORDSMITH

Jai Arjun Singh is an author and runs the popular cinema and books blog Jabberwock.

New platform allows serious discussion

s anyone who's attended high-profile book launches in Delhi knows, many of these events are less about literary conversation and more about socialising, snacking and schmoozing. And the more serious-minded ones tend to have a narrow focus – since a new book has to be promoted, all discussion must centre on it. But now there's a welcome alternative in the form of a "platform for the written word" by the Alliance Francaise de Delhi: "Writers Etc", held on the first Thursday of each month, can take the form of a discussion about an author's entire career rather than just the book of the moment. When I engaged Namita Gokhale in conversation last week, I had firsthand experience of how satisfying this format can be.

For starters, this was a chance to get acquainted with some of Gokhale's early work – notably her debut novel Paro: Dreams of Passion, which created quite a stir when it was first published in 1984. This, remember, was when Indian publishing in English was at a nascent stage – Penguin India hadn't yet set up its offices – and it wasn't the "done thing" for a young upper-middle-class woman to write a sexually explicit story about decadent socialites. But Paro is a social satire that still holds up surprisingly well, given that contemporary readers don't shock easily. It's the story of a temptress who has a line of men under her spell, but what makes it really intriguing is the perspective of the narrator – a woman named Priya, who contemplates Paro with a mixture of envy, resentment and fascination. In a way, this was a natural progression for Gokhale, who, as the publisher of a glossy Bollywood magazine in the 1970s, must have had a ringside view of the lives of glamorous movie stars. But during our discussion, she also pointed out that Priya represents the voyeurism inherent in the writing process itself; an author's obsessive interest in the lives of others.

For Gokhale herself, it's been quite a journey from Paro to more sombre novels like A Himalayan Love Story and Gods, Graves and Grandmother (written during a bout with cancer) to her work in the field of myths with The Book of Shiva and the fine anthology In Search of Sita, about the often-misrepresented heroine of the Ramayana. Her reminiscences about the many facets of her work helped put her long career in perspective for the audience at the Alliance Francaise, and I hope we get to see more authors doing candid sessions of this sort.

Who will look after the Dogs of War?

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ou'd think that a British sergeant posted in war-torn Afghanistan in 2006 would have many things on his mind – not the least of them being his own survival. You wouldn't expect him to spend time and energy rescuing stray dogs from human cruelty and then lug them around with him, all the while making desperate attempts to have them transported to a welfare sanctuary hundreds of miles away. But such was Pen Farthing's remarkable true story, chronicled in One Dog at a Time: Saving the Strays of Helmand. This account of one man caring for helpless creatures while himself stationed in the heart of darkness could so easily have become a self-conscious allegory about human responsibility and about the pettiness of our conflicts. But Farthing doesn't preach; he doesn't place what he's doing in a larger context or turn it into a profound statement – he's simply obeying the dictates of his heart, no further explanation needed. And this approach is very effective.

I don't know whether only animal-lovers will be able to appreciate this book, but I hope that isn't the case. It should be enough to understand that small, seemingly inconsequential acts of kindness can add up to a great deal, even in a world where immeasurable suffering is being perpetuated each day. I think of myself as fairly cynical about the future of this planet, but reading this book reminded me of the overused quote "He who saves one life saves the world entire." It no longer sounds as trite as it used to.

 
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