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Book launch: Patrick French’s ‘India: A Portrait’

Photo: K. Murali Kumar

What makes India tick? What makes it the way it is today? Those are some the questions that British historian and author Patrick French tries to answer with his latest book on the subcontinent, ‘India: A Portrait – An Intimate Biography of 1.2 Billion People.’

“The idea is very broad – this is not a book I felt ready to write until recently,” said the author during the launch of the book at British Council recently. “After ‘Liberty Or Death: India’s Journey To Independence and Division’ (1997), I got diverted by the biography of V.S. Naipaul, and I realised that unless I did this book now, I would lose the moment.”

‘The moment’, of course, is this period of rapid social and economic change that has seen India, in all its complexities and contradictions, evolve into a global power that, to quote from the book, “may be the world’s default setting for the future”.

The backbone of the book is a series of fascinating portraits of people across India, from Mayawati to Dattu, the Adivasi wine cellar master, and the launch event too was filled with a number of lively stories, such as the time French spent trailing the famous Dabbawalas of Mumbai and his interview with their “extraordinarily grumpy leader.”

But most of the evening was spent discussing the central issue of the book – India as it is today, all that’s wrong with it and all that’s right.

“I think the trajectory India is on gives many reasons for optimism,” French said during his discussion with Rakesh Khanna of Blaft Publications. “There are terrible inequalities and disasters, but there’s also a dynamism and sense of possibility. People aspire to things now that their parents and grandparents couldn’t.”

Indeed, his tone was so upbeat throughout – even in the midst of discussions on nepotism in politics and the growing gap between the rich and the poor – that it prompted an audience member to remark during the question and answer session: “You sound more optimistic that most of us (Indians) are!”

“What I’m trying to get away from is this sense of fatalism about India,” he explained. “It partly comes from people imposing ideas from elsewhere on India; the only way you can learn some things is by talking to a lot of people.”

And his project, so to speak, continues with the website theindiasite.com, which has additional information that didn’t make it into the book, as well as stories and reports on India added on a daily basis. “I’m hoping it’ll go on to become a collaborative and self-sustaining effort,” he said. “We’ve already had 150,000 hits in the last couple of weeks.”

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Article: To each his own (Interview with Mark Billingham and China Mieville)

A crime writer who’s also a stand-up comic; a fantasy fiction writer who’s also a left-wing political activist. Put them both together in a room and what do you get? A rapid-fire, roller coaster conversation on everything from avant-garde fiction to rakshasas and assorted monsters, the induction ceremony to Agatha Christie’s Detection Club to falling anvils in Tom & Jerry cartoons.

Best-selling crime novelist Mark Billingham and fantasy fiction writer China (his parents were hippies and named him after a popular Cockney slang term, in case you were wondering) Mieville from the U.K. were recently in Chennai as part of British Council’s Lit Sutra initiative. Lively, opinionated and articulate, the two quite literally talked up a storm, first during an interview at the British council and then again at the public event at Landmark.

At first glance, it would appear that they wouldn’t have much in common, but Billingham and Mieville quickly proved that to be untrue. Both exuded self-admittedly geeky enthusiasm for their particular genres of fiction, and a love (and a staunch fight-unto-death loyalty) for genre fiction in general.

Mark, for instance, said he was a ‘crazy collector’ of first edition American crime fiction, and took to interviewing writers and doing book reviews just so he could get free copies. “Seriously,” he said, straight-faced, “it was costing me a fortune. After a couple of years of that, I decided to try my hand at writing one myself.”

Giving up on the idea of a ‘comic-crime novel’ (“It’s rubbish”) the TV actor turned stand-up comic turned novelist created what would end up becoming his most famous character  – the country-music loving, world-weary D. I. Tom Thorne – in his very first novel Sleepyhead. “Crime writers use exactly the same tricks as comedians – the way the punchline is revealed is the same way a key piece of information, a clue, for instance, is revealed in a crime novel,” he said. “It’s all about timing.”

Mieville, on the other hand, quite simply never outgrew his childhood love for monsters, aliens and witches. “People often ask ‘what got you into it?’ and my answer to them is, ‘what got you out of it?’” he said, adding with a laugh, “I’m just more rigorous than they were.”

The two-time recipient of both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and British Fantasy Award admits to ‘cheerfully philistine piracy’ of mythologies the world over to create his awesome array of weird creatures, such as the half-man half-bird Garuda in Perdido Street Station. “Anglo-American fantasy draws on certain creatures – elves, dwarves and dragons – but what I wanted to do is take creatures from other mythologies, deliberately not concerning myself with their mythic resonance, and do something new with them,” he said.

At some point, the chat about their work – the filming of Billingham’s Thorne novels for TV, for instance, or how Mieville’s strong political leanings influence his writing – segued into a passionate discussion on how ‘despised’ genre fiction was amongst some readers in the U.S. and the U.K.

“There’s this general sense of literary fiction being ‘real fiction’ versus all the rest,” said Mieville.

“The problem is that literary fiction is judged by its very best, while genre fiction is judged by its very worst,” added Billingham. “It just isn’t a fair fight.”

Mieville, in fact, loves genre fiction so much that he once rashly claimed he wanted to write a book in every genre. “I blame the Internet – you say something once and it’s never forgotten,” he said ruefully. “But I am fascinated by the protocols of the different genres.”

That’s why for his latest book, a crime novel but set in his fantastical universe, The City and the city, he ensured that he was ‘absolutely faithful’ to the protocols of a police procedural. A crime novel without those protocols, according to Billingham, would be like a Western without a horse, a gun or a cowboy hat.

“In that sense, crime novels haven’t changed that much since Sherlock Holmes – detectives who have problems with booze, music and can’t seem to form relationships,” said Billingham. “But the protocols have changed in other ways, of course – back in the 1920s there were some preposterous rules such as ‘there can be only one secret passage’ and ‘no Chinamen’!”

This lively discussion spilled into the Landmark event, ‘Thrill of the Unknown’ with ease. Co-ordinator Shreekumar Varma simply had to sit back and watch as the two took off on another freewheeling –and very funny– chat on novels of the future (“Remixed-novels will become the norm.”— Mieville), the perils of too much research and nitpicking readers (“It’s a novel, not a train timetable.” – Billingham), a running joke on their dislike for Jeffrey Archer’s books, and much more, with plenty of time devoted to audience interaction.

After all, as they said at the interview, they were here for a conversation with Indian readers. And boy, what a conversation it was.

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You can read excerpts from Mark Billingham’s latest novel From the dead and China Mieville’s latest Kraken on Lit Sutra’s blog: http://www.litsutra.com/

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