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Jan 19, 2003

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uPertinent subject
uJourneying inward
uSri Lankan experience
uPoetic justice

Writers' World

Peddler of tales
Anand Kurian has written an unlikely bestseller


Anand Kurian took two years to write The Peddler of Soaps. But even he couldn't imagine that it would burst upon a bloody Indian canvas, post Godhra, to become a bestseller. In fact, it is selling better than the Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi. Trained as a lawyer, the ad-film maker slipped into the role of storyteller with ease.

Excerpts from an interview:
Isn't The Peddler of Soaps an unusual title?
I am a great fan of R.K. Narayan. He had titles like The Painter of Signs, The Vendor of Sweets, Bachelor of Arts... They were quaint, yet simple. I tried something similar, and it is a tribute to Narayan.

Normally ad film makers prefer to do a film. How come a book?
That's true. John Mathew of Sarfarosh fame is a perfect example. But when the idea took hold in 1999, I knew it had to be a book. I felt the political characters did not belong in Hindi cinema. Honest political cinema is still shackled. Deepa Mehta's experience with Water is an apt example. Certain lines in my book would have met the censors' scissors, for sure. The written word gives more breathing space.

What was the first reaction of publishers?
Everybody liked the book. However, the common refrain was, "Nothing serious, (like what the book mentions, of religious rioting,) has happened yet." They felt the political element had been overplayed. Then Godhra happened and the attitude changed completely. At the Delhi launch Shabana Azmi described it as "the right novel for these wrong times".

Do you feel vindicated, since Ayesha, the main female character, is killed by a Hindu group?
Yes, I do feel vindicated. People thought that we would never reach such a situation as described in the book... but here we are with Godhra, post-Godhra and history.

Blaming Chief Minister Narendra Modi is fine, but it is the thoughts of the people that led to such heinous crimes-this has to be understood and dispelled. This is what the fight is all about.

Have you always had a political bent of mind?
A time has come when none of us can remain apolitical. Even Tipu, (the central character in the book), who tries to remain apolitical becomes politically savvy towards the end.

When I started writing, the Babri Masjid demolition, the Bombay riots and the Graham Staines killing had already happened.
Pre-Gujarat, the media gave the fundamentalists a free rein by not asking tough questions. It did not see it coming.

Did the Gujarat crisis fuel greater sales?
The Gujarat crisis was just a coincidence. Most people tell me it is an easy book to read. That is why it is selling so well. It simplifies a complex issue like communalism and allows people to think for themselves... that is the strength of the book.

When is the next book coming?
(Smiles) No book. It is going to be a film.

Pertinent subject
The Peddler of Soaps
By Anand Kurian
WLI Foundation
Rs 120 pages 211


I came across The Peddler of Soaps when Anand Kurian launched the novel in Bangalore at a book reading and panel discussion, which had the topic, 'Art and politics-do they belong together?' I was part of the panel.

The story is very simple really. A successful advertising man, Tipu Bhattacharya, a little bored and jaded with his 'empty' work, pursues and falls madly in love with Ayesha Jung, a sensitive and caring newscaster, in this mythical land called Mahadesh (read India!).

The first half catalogues the protagonist's work, his associates, his loves, and his tremendous passion and admiration for Ayesha. All the characters seem drawn directly from the world of advertising in Mumbai, a world that Kurian knows well, since he is a successful ad man himself.

The novel takes a darker turn as the two lovers get together and seek to expose the bigotry and racism that has become inherent in Mahadesh politics. Fundamentalists, such as we know only too well, look to 'cleanse' Mahadesh of its multicultural identity and return it to the purity of, well, we all recognise the rhetoric.

The language of the novel is that of an advertising person rather than 'literary'. At times one misses the larger prose of a writer used to expressing and examining various emotions in their totality. Much in the novel is left to the imagination of the reader. That is why I felt the love story suffers a bit from the sketchy details of Ayesha and Tipu's love and life together. But there is a general angst in the writing that does lend itself to the darker shades of the story.

The crux of this novel, however, lies in the examination and condemnation of the communal situation that we are facing today.
There seems to be plenty of guilt in Kurian for allowing our religion and philosophy to be subverted by fundamentalist forces, a guilt that should be shared by all of us.

He feels the need to speak out and that is obvious in the passion expressed towards this cause in the novel. It is the novel's most persuasive feature.

Art and politics have, forever, been intertwined and it is to Kurian's credit that he has been able to combine the two, to create a most readable novel that has so much pertinence to what India is facing today. And to remind us that we also must speak out if such aberrations of our collective identity are to be halted.
(Sajnani is a well-known filmmaker)

Journeying inward
By Dr Hiramalini Seshadri
and Dr Seshadri Harihar
Published by Giggles
Rs 200 pages 272


What can you say about a book whose authors disclaim its ownership and view it as the work of a Divine Will? Co-authored by rheumatologist Dr Hiramalini Seshadri and psychiatrist Dr Seshadri Harihar, The 'Saience' of Medicine inspired by Sri Sathya Sai Baba can best be described as 'a book of faith'.

At a time when the practitioners of modern medicine are being criticised for commercialising the healing process, this book is most appropriate, for it takes the reader to the realm where "the rational and scientific meets the divine and miraculous". It is without doubt a must-read for medical doctors who are used to 'playing God' as well as for those interested in living a holistic life. The foreword by former Supreme Court judge V.R. Krishna Iyer is a fitting tribute to the book.

The first chapter offers a comprehensive insight into the life and teachings of Sri Sathya Sai Baba, believed to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba. Baba's words of wisdom, couched in simple language, lend the book a spiritual radiance. The miracles wrought by Baba might seem improbable to some, but are narrated in an objective manner that the reader ends up acknowledging the faith.

For those desirous of learning more about Baba, there is a list of reference books and recommended reading. Written in a colloquial style, the book draws the reader in. The dialogues between the devotee-doctors and the sceptical patient succeed in answering certain doubts in the mind of the reader.

If authenticity is the hallmark of a good book then this work, which is for the most part made up of the personal experiences of the doctors, passes the test. Interspersed throughout are case studies from India and abroad, from the doctors' personal experiences as well as documented sources. The chapter on 'Anatomy and Physiology of the Subtle bodies' is the most interesting for the layman, dealing as it does with accounts of near-death experiences. It is sprinkled with quotes from experts like Dr Frank Baranowski (Kirlian photography) to substantiate the experiences.

How spiritual evolution in the form of visions and inner voices is sometimes mistaken for mental illness is an interesting observation. The power of the mind to heal the body is best described in Baba's own words: "... the mind holds the key to everything; it can be the instrument of your bondage or the instrument of your liberation; and during life harnessing the mind holds the key to positive health."

Towards the end of the book we come across psycho-spiritual strategies like bhajans, mental housekeeping, yoga and seva used in the treatment of modern stress-related diseases. This practical guide not only offers us a glimpse of what our lives should be but takes us half way there.

The book succeeds because it helps us reach inward and touch base with our innermost self. It bears testimony to the fact that faith can heal and in the end readers are impelled to acknowledge the supreme consciousness, whether they choose to follow it or not. From where the book ends, the journey for the reader begins.

Sri Lankan experience
Masterpiece and Other Stories
By Yasmine Goonaratne
Rs 195 pages 208




The dividing line
By Jean Arasanayagam
Rs 195 pages 184


The 20-year-old civil war in their island-country figures prominently in both these collections of short stories by Sri Lankan women writers. But the emphasis varies. Yasmine Goonaratne, a renowned literary critic, who teaches in Australia, refers to it only tangentially in a few stories (Astronauts, Waste): most of her tales are about Sri Lankan immigrants in her adopted country.

Jean Arasanayagam, who married a Tamil, only to find herself rejected by her in-laws, and later witnessed the in-laws turn refugees following the ethnic cleansing of July 1983, confronts the apocalyptic events much more directly.

Goonaratne is charming, playful and ironic in turn, a delight to read; Arasanayagam is all sombre earnestness, and thus it is some trouble getting through. Goonaratne's A Pot of Rice, For Love or Money, and How Barry Changed His Image are jewels. Arasanayagam's The Sack, The Cry of the Kite, The Bridge and Exodus are near shockers. Goonaratne's immigrant experience is best delineated in the heartbreaking yet hilarious How Barry Changed His Image, about a Sri Lankan couple, Bharat and Navaranjini Wickramasingha, who in a bid to integrate into white Australian society, turn themselves into Barry and Jean Wicks.

Not all Arasanayagam's stories deal with the ethnic conflict, but the more memorable ones do. Her descriptive powers are formidable, though her narrative imagination may appear to flag at times.

The best known names among Sri Lankan writers in English-Michael Ondaatje, Romesh Gunasekera, Shyam Selvadurai-have all been men. But these two collections make it apparent that our southern neighbour also has women writers deserving of equal acclaim.

Poetic justice

Guldasta-A Bouquet of Many Hues
Translation with commentary
By Dr K. Hussain
Published by MIFAH Publishers
Rs 150 pages 136

By Litta Jacob

A nose-to-the-grindstone techie and academician turning to the study of Urdu poetry is news. Urdu, one of the most mellifluous languages of India, is more foreign than familiar to many of us. Dr K. Hussain, the author of Guldasta, does yeoman service by translating and commenting on the select couplets of 20 venerated Urdu poets.

Beginning with revered Meer Taqi Meer, pioneer of Urdu poetry, who witnessed the disintegration of the mighty Mughal empire in the latter half of the 18th century, Hussain moves on in chronological procession to Ustad Zauq, Mirza Ghalib, Daadh Dehlvi and so on, ending with contemporary poets, the late Kaifi Azmi and Ali Sardar Jafri.

Alongside expla-nations of the delightful couplets are little anecdotes about the poets with a little bit of history thrown in. For instance, we read about how Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, on his historic peace mission on the Lahore bus in 1999, took with him 10 cassettes containing Urdu poems by Jnanpith winner Jafri, two of them aptly titled Sarhad (Border) and Subah Farda (New Dawn). Jafri, though invited for the trip, declined because of ill health.

Guldasta is indeed a bouquet of many hues, produced with scholarly precision by Hussain, former principal of MHSS College of Engineering, Mumbai, and now honorary secretary of Salar Publications and director of Al-Ameen Technical Education and ITI, Bangalore. By leafing through the pages of this handy book, even amateurs can savour the subtle nuances of Urdu poetry.

As T.P. Issar, bureaucrat and scholar, writes in his introductory note: "The title Guldasta sums up its nature and value. It is a gift of painstakingly gleaned and well-packaged beauty, for people who would love to sample, if not drink from, our great heritage of Urdu poetry but cannot because of the inability to read the script."
Once you have read, you can privately say: "Wah wah!"

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