Reviews by hirak
Eyes wide open
Dying is serious business and writers, like all other people, die too. Some live long enough to write about their experience of ‘living dying-ly’ as Christopher Hitchens does here in his last book Mortality before he succumbed to esophageal cancer in 2011. In terms of categories, to find this book you need to look under ‘memoir/essays’ >> ‘sickness’ >> ‘cancer’ and it’s still a crowded space - this genre of ‘cancer-lit’. Among the Susan Sontags, Gilda Radners, John Diamonds and Katherine Russell-Richs is a new addition to this sub-sub-genre. What separates this book from the rest? the unique, out-sized, and outspoken personality of provocateur extraordinaire - Christopher Hitchens.

In the introduction Graydon Carter writes:
For the fact is that Christopher was one of life's singular characters - a wit, a charmer, a troublemaker, and a dear and devoted friend. He was a man of insatiable appetites- for cigarettes, for scotch, for company, for great writing, and above all, for conversation.
What Carter missed out was Hitch’s appetite not just for debate, but for controversy. The targets of Hitchens’s pugnacious pen have ranged from the Dalai Lama to Mother Teresa to the Clintons to Henry Kissinger. Less famously - women (for their lack of humour), the British royal family (they are just a British fetish), Philip Larkin (for his racism). Whether you agree with his interpretations or not, Hitchens makes trenchant and accurate observations and always, always entertains with his acerbic humour. He was a formidable debating opponent in word and in print who could artfully turn a word or a phrase and maul his opponents with weapons of their own making.

More on (
Early Orwell
It’s George Orwell season again, an observance that may outlast the swallows of San Juan Capistrano. War is always a good occasion to trot him out, as are obfuscating politicians. So, really, he goes well with anything.
- Willing Davidson

In his 47 years on the planet George Orwell certainly packed a lot in his life before he finally packed his bags and moved further upstairs. He served in the Burmese Imperial Police, made time to join other writers in fighting in the Spanish Civil war, and later was known mingle with sweepers and others by dressing and working like one in order to research his material better. Orwell, of course, had a strong political agenda and is best known for his essays on poverty, politics and his grand works. As Willing Davidson writes, he goes with anything including social comedy.

A few months ago, I read Coming up for Air and Keep the Aspidistra Flying and realised that Orwell's writing is not always like listening to Beethoven's openings - heavy, dark and laced with deep sarcasm. There is a light version of Orwell, much like the playful melodies of Mozart or Schubert.

The hero of Coming up for Air is George Bowling, an middle-aged insurance agent with a crabby, penny-pinching wife and two kids who are more of a burden than a joy to bring up. Bowling is aware that he is the regular Joe - living in a suburban home outside London and one who fears his boss and his wife. He has not much to complain or much to live for. Frustrated with his boring job, nit-picking wife he has the feeling of being drowned by it all and wants to 'come up for some air'.

It's not really other women that he wants to chase, but something more innocent - his childhood. For sometime he wants to go back to his old hometown and go fishing and relive those sunnier and happier days. So, Bowling goes AWOL and embarks on this nostalgic adventure trip using the cliched excuse of a business trip. It is an entirely innocent desire, but not something that you would expect a grown man to indulge in or his wife to allow him to do so.

"If Hilda finds out, there will be a dreadful row", Bowling is convinced. Sure! I dare any husband to be able to actually convince his wife that the 'lost weekend' was really spent trying to find any old fishing spot from childhood and not spent seeking the arms of another woman. So, despite being a childish, but chaste adventure, Bowling feels guilty all the time. Yet, the promise of the forbidden pleasure makes Bowling feel he was coming up for air. As is to be expected, much as we would like, time does not stand still in our boyhood homes. People die, things happen. Bowling did not conceive of his old home,, as a Utopia, but he is ill-prepared to face the reality decades after days of youth.

(More on:
Driving changes in China
China looks a lot like India. When I visited China in 2006 it seemed to me as if Indians had been evacuated from their cities and replaced with Chinese people. A recent Economist article mentioned that there are more ways the countries are dissimilar than similar. Perhaps politically and economically, but on the level of the street it's shockingly similar: the level of noise, the throng of people, the hustle-bustle in the street, and of course the crazy traffic and driving with all the nice, loud honking. I thought that purposeless honking to be a uniquely Indian contribution to the world of transportation (see old post), but I was wrong. The Chinese are equally adept at this art. Also, they are adept at the art of driving really close to the next car and navigating through tight spaces.

Many of Peter Hessler's observations that to the Chinese traffic laws were 'mere guidelines' and that driving was a survival sport was nothing new to me as an Indian (I hazard to say that apart from Europe and North America, driving is mostly a survival sport). Peter Hessler has lived and worked in China for many years and his writing shows a genuine affection and respect for the Chinese people, but the tone of his description of traffic transgressions of the Chinese smacked of slight condescension. His explanation for bad Chinese driving was that the bulk of mass of the Chinese were suddenly uprooted from their pedestrian and cycling ways and stuck into cars much too suddenly, and they tend to drive as they walk. Taking the shortest path, huddling in groups, and making sudden turns almost as in mid-step and deciding to go the other way.

(More on:
An Indian in China - 30 years ago
In 1981, Vikram Seth was 29 years old and at Nanjing University. In the summer while traveling on a 'guided tour' in Turfan, he was seized with the idea to return home to Delhi overland from China via Tibet. Based on a journal he kept, this would be his first book. This was before he embarked on that remarkable novel in Onegin stanzas - Golden Gate and a decade before the Suitable Boy catapulted him to his rightful place as a lyrical master of the modern novel.

The prose in this is book isn't lush or lyrical. The Cultural revolution in China had just ended a few years ago (in 1976) and now much-celebrated decade of economic reforms was still in its infancy. Seth used both diplomacy, charm, bull-headedness, and his knowledge of Chinese to make his way through uncharted territory for foreign travelers. Hitchhiking with chain-smoking truckers across isolated parts of China, dealing with guiding shi guiding (regulations are regulations) from small-town bureaucrats, the hospitality of strangers, and facing the legacy of the misadventure of China's cultural revolution.

(More on:
A mirror of Bombay
Jeet Thayil, a published poet and sometime musician, had enough time to bask in the attention in the heady few weeks after making it to the Booker shortlist for 2012. By the time I managed to obtain a copy of the book, Hilary Mantel had already won the Booker for Bring up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall. The copy I received was printed after the shortlist announcement and the odious, obvious and superfluous comparisons, blurbs, reviews on the cover and inside pages seemed a bit dated already. There were comparisons to Denis Johnson, Robert Bolano, William Burroughs, and Salman Rushdie mainly because Narcopolis is 'about drugs and Bombay'. One applauds the publisher for trying to latch Thayil to a corpus of writers and work that is already familiar with readers, but that does Narcopolis a grave disservice since those blurbs 'only go skin-deep'. Booker or no-Booker this book is a winner.

More on: