Tuesday, January 20, 2009

What do I have to do to get a decent book to read?

Way back in Kolkata, around two months into my life here in India, I visited Crosswords, a large book franchise found in most malls and cities here in India. As I perused the books, I noticed a number of volumes written by John Grisham, Sidney Sheldon and Danielle Steele. Eric Segal. I thought he only wrote that peice of trash that was popular in the 70's called "Jonathan Livingston Seagull", but he's written a TON of books and they're very popular here. Every minute or so, a clerk was aking me if he could help me find something. Instead of feeling that they were serving me, I felt like the African American in the fur section at Burlington Coat Factory where everyone was watching to see if I was going to steal something. (Trust me on this one. I had a friend who worked there and they were told to racially profile. Very bad.)

I went to the classics section looking for Steinbeck. No Steinbeck. Keyes? No. Vonnegut? No. Salinger? No. Okay.... What about Yann MArtel - has he written anything lately? Hmmm. I searched my mind for other writers I loved. Pearl Buck? No. Lots of Shaekspeare, and Elizabethan writers and Romantic poets, but nothing recent, nothing considered an American Classic. I didn't even bother to look for David Sedaris. But who else WAS there? The chick from Desperate Housewives, Terry Hatcher's memoirs. Huh? Classics?

Okay. Poetry. Any Whitman? Any Langston Hughes? e.e.cummings? Robert Service? No. Not even Dante, who seemed old enough to be in the classics section...

I checked the philosophy section for maybe Hediegger or at least Bertrand Russell. I spied a Jean Paul Sartre, but it was a book about him, not his work. I thought maybe I'll find some Indian writers that I had previously enjoyed, like Krishnamurti. No K-murti.

Dejected, I walked to the wall of magazines. No Vanity Fair. No Dwell. No Wallpaper. No architecural magazines, not even that toilet paper called Architectural Digest. Was there an Indian version of an architectural magazine? No. I found a few Indian decor-oriented magazines, but nothing else.

One of the most infuriating things about the bookstores here is that any beautifully printed art or architecture book is shrinkwrapped, so you can't see the pages (I've been tricked before and bought books with all black and white versions of artwork). I'm not buying unless I can see it.

I've been trying to locate a David Foster Wallace book from 1996 called "Infinite Jest". It became even more important since he passed away this year. Actually he finally succumbed to his depression, which usually accompanies genius, and committed suicide. His story reminded me of another writer of genius, O'Toole, writer of "Confederacy of Dunces", another brilliant work of art, that either love or hate.

I talked with the staff and asked them if they could special order it for me. I'm still waiting.

I hadn't been introduced to good Indian writers at this point. I decided to immerse myself in Indian writers and just before I left for India, Vanity Fair had an issue that interviewed all the U.S. based NRI's who had been able to get published int he United States, and a couple of people introduced me to their personal favorites. Out of those, I have found three AMAZING Indian writers.

Amitav Ghosh lives in New York City and writes historically relevant novels about Kolkata and it's relationship with Myanmar (Burma), the British Raj and the Opium Trade, and Partition. I was first introduced to "The Hungry Tide", that discusses the delta of the Ganges as it flows into the Bay of Bengal. It was very good introduction to the culture that is Calcutta. Because I was living in this city, I was hungry for more. I read another of his books, "Shadow Lines", which discusses what happened to Bengalis during Partition.

(Note: I hired an intern at my company BuzzBoltMEDIA, who was the son of a Muslim NRI. He did not know that during Partition, there were two Pakistans, East and West. I'm not sure whether to blame the parents or the school, but geography especially the other side of the planet, is not a prerequisite to graduating high school or college in the U.S.)

"Shadow Lines" talks about the myth of borders and their arbitrary placement, changing the lives of the people surrounding it. It focuses on a single family trapped between two countries. After reading that book, I was told, actually required, (:-)) to read "The Glass Palace", a sweeping book that showed me the deep connection/split between the two countries surrounding the Bay of Bengal. It was recommended to me by a Burmese National and it exposed me to a piece of history and the depth of it the encircles the epicenter that is now called Kolkata. A few months ago, this same friend, also a fan, was lucky enough to meet Mr. Ghosh at a book signing in Kolkata and connected with him regarding Burma. She gave me my favorite present of all time, an autographed first edition of "Sea of Poppies", the first in a trilogy by Amitav Ghosh. It discusses the Opium Trade between the English centralized in Calcutta who shipped Opium all the way to England and China. I am excited to read the second, not yet out in India. All of his books were all the poignant because I was living in the city around his novels revolve. It made the city all the more interesting and visiting places mentioned in his books were all the more vivid because of its historical context.

I was also introduced to Arundhati Roy's "God of Small Things" that focuses on South India, a place I've never been. I could viscerally see and hear the sounds of the deep south of India, and while it had a universal story, the specifics were purely part of the culture of India, that after reading, really haunted me.

A very good friend of my son's gave him a book called "White Tiger" by Aravind Adiga, who lives in Mumbai. It's his first book, a book about the tensions between the rich and servant classes and takes place in Gurgaon, where I now live. At the time, we had a servant living in our home, and slept in the room next to me, and it seriously freaked me out. I understand the servant's point of view from the book, and, if my servant had these thoughts, we were seriously in trouble. (If you've been reading my posts, this is the same guy who was responsible for dropping a large piece of wallboard 14 floors crashing into a car, and is at fault for the death of my cat.) The idea that this book caused here in India was something of a sensation. It was virtually unavailable - book stores could not keep it in stock.

When I was traveling with my parents and had arrived in Dharmsala, the Norbulinka Institute had its own library, mostly of books left by other visitors. I loved the fact that some of these other people passing through had written notes inside. I picked up Rohinton Mistry's "A Fine Balance" and the person who had left it said that it has changed their life. I'm speechless as to how to describe this novel. I finished it in two days, cutting down my touring because the book meant so much to me. I can't describe the story - the cast of characters are huge and each individual is vital to the story. Just find it and read it.

Okay, as I posted to twitter earlier, I'm still waiting to find a copy of David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest". I still don't know how or when I'll get it, but I am sure looking forward to finding it. :-) If you can recommend good Indian writers that focus on the history of Delhi or Mumbai, as Amitav Ghosh does about Calcutta, I would love to hear your suggestions.


  1. Have you tried the Landmark store at Grand Mall beside the Sahara Mall? Might be of some help to you.
    Actually Jeanne, here in India... as far as literature is concerned, nothing American is considered a classic. I myself have very little exposure to American literature except a few like Shirley Jackson, Robert Frost, Hemingway, etc.
    I'm not quite sold on celebrating archaic English literature as classics; people should move on. But, the colonial hangover remains.
    By the way, One Night @ Call Center was really too hyped! It made for good travel reading, though. At some points, it made me nostalgic about my ex-girlfriend.
    Hope you find something good to read. Hey btw, have you read Chinua Achebe? African writer.

  2. I've been to Oxford, Landmark, checked the bookstores around New Market...

    I think I'm going to have to order it from Amazon and pay the exorbitant shipping.

    I read the call center book. It was a total ripoff of Life of Pi by Yann Martell. I haven't read Chinua Achebe, but have heard of the author... any titles you recommend? Are they easy to find here?

    When I see you next, remind me to bring you a book. I can't get you Steinbeck, but I have a couple of books to lend you. :-)

    BTW, what do you think of Amitav Ghosh?


  3. Did you try Higginbothams or Gangaram bokstores - both of which are in Bangalore?

    You could request someone who travels back and forth the States to get it for you.

    (I may travel to India in March - if so I wouldn't mind getting it and mailing to across to you.)

    What I discovered is that popular British authors are rarely found in North America! Guess it has something to do with the reading culture in each country.

    There are several Indian writers - some are outright B Grade Paperback kind of authors - and some really delightful - a totally mixed bag...

    Have you tried these writers?
    R.K. Narayan
    Shashi Deshpande
    Anita Desai
    Anita Rau Badami
    Salman Rushide

    Try this link for more info:


  4. Have never been to Bangalore, but plan on heading there someday.

    R.K. Narayan - don't like the flowery prose. It's a typical problem I have with a lot of writers, including (dare I say it?) James Joyce. They take a paragraph to say the flower was red. I prefer writers who respect the reader to fill in the blanks.

    Shashi Deshpande - will check this person out.

    Anita Desai - I hear she's brilliant. I read one book, Baumgartner's Bombay, and it felt empty. It did not inspire me to read more.

    Anita Rau Badami - have not read this person's work. I will take a look at her work.

    Salman Rushde - I think he's overrated - he's lucky Kholmeini put a death threat on his head, otherwise he'd never have sold so many copies of Satanic verses. Midnight's Children was just okay. For some reason, he's not an interesting read for me.

    Thanks for the recommendations! Next time I'm at the book store, I plan to check out these writer's works. Tell me, do they write about Mmubai or Delhi as the focus of any of their work?

  5. Ha! Ha! I agree with you on James Joyce - stream of unconciouness more like it!

    Rushide - yep the death threat had more to do with his popularity than the writing - his "Shalimar the Clown" is totally pretentious.

    I think you'll find Amulya Malladi's "The Sound of Language" - to be quite sparse and sensible.

    Anita Rau Badami writes about various places in India and her "Can you Hear the Nightbird Call" is set in both Vancouver and Delhi - talks about the Air India bombing.

    The good thing about books is if you don't really like it - you can skim through the pages and if it still doesn't interest you - put it aside and pick up another.

    Happy Reading!

  6. Jeanne,

    I'm from India, though I live in the US - I'd recommend Premier Bookstore in Bangalore - the owner, Mr. Shanbhag, is a fantastic resource, who orders books for peopel all teh time. You should be able to find a phone number for Premier online somewhere (just googled, and it came up with 080-5588570). If you do visit, be warned, the bookstore is tiny and absolutely CRAMMED with books - no room to sit and browse, though plenty of people do try!

    Other Indian authors:
    - Suketu Mehta (Maximum City) - about Bombay.Popular book, just seemed a little overblown IMO.
    - Vikram Seth - Bombay based (very good, captures the "tone" of Bombay well)
    - David Davidar - House of Blue Mangoes
    - Kalpana Swaminathan - fairly fluffy mysteries set in Bombay.

    Non Indian, but write about it:

    - William Dalrymple - Delhi
    - Mark Tully - essays from POV of BBC correspondent in India for the past x years. Mostly very good.

    Actually, check out SAWNET (www.sawnet.org) - they maintain a list of S.Asian women writers, which is as good a place to start as any.


  7. OMG! yes! Love your suggestions, Anu. Sounds like I have to go to Bangalore just to visit the bookshops!

    Others have suggested Vikram Seth. I'm definitely checking him out. I'm writing down the rest of the authors and the titles you've suggested.

    Thank you so much. :-)

  8. Anonymous, sorry, two comments at once. fab suggestions. I'm planning on looking up your suggestions as well. :-) Thanks!

  9. Things Fall Apart is a famous novel by Chinua Achebe. You can get it from Worldview.
    Here is the owner's Linkedin profile
    Ask him if you can get his books couriered.
    btw, Worldview has two bookstores in Calcutta. and one right inside Jadavpur university.
    Did you try Daryaganj in old Delhi? I plan to go there soon. Can we go together?

  10. Sounds great, Swarnab - I'll be short of funds until I get paid in Feb. Let's do it then. I'll email you. :-)

  11. Hi, I just stumbled on your blog and I am not sure if I should even be commenting (for the fear of intruding) but I love to read as well and so I shall just take the liberty to comment.
    One way to go is joining a library - they stock good books usually! Sometimes libraries have even rare collections as they do not have the fear of books not being sold! You could try the British Library though membership needs a bit of waiting.

  12. No Steinbeck. Keyes? No. Vonnegut? No. Salinger? No. Okay.... What about Yann MArtel - has he written anything lately? Hmmm. I searched my mind for other writers I loved. Pearl Buck? No.

    Really? thats awful. but you must try the book shop in jor bagh. he has stuff most other places dont.


  13. Pra:

    Thanks, I'll look up all the libraries and see if there are any in Gurgaon. It seems most people shop here instead! :-)

  14. Madmomma:

    Where is Jor Bagh? I have yet to find my way around the Delhi area...

    -- Jeanne

  15. You could check out Midland book store in Aurobindo place market, Hauz Khas (near IIT). It's a teeny tiny hole with barely the space for 3 people to move around in but also the place where you are most likely to stumble (sometimes literally :P) on to something great :). And also a blanket discount of 20% makes the place all the more popular (atleast till 4 years back when I was in India). Also you could probably request for something specific and the manager would be able to get it for you. Happy hunting :)

  16. Maximum city was a very interesting read. A bit long, but it did offer a good history of Bombay.

    Could anyone suggest non-fiction Indian writers? or books on india that are non-fiction?

    Is anurita badama a non-fiction writer?