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Archive for the ‘Book Excerpts’ Category

Today, I started reading ‘Narcopolis’ by Jeet Thayil (it has been shortlisted for the Booker prize this year), for book club. The first page went like this :

 

 

“Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroin of this story and since I’m the one who’s telling it and you don’t know who I am, let me say that we’ll get to the who of it but not right now, because now there’s time enough not to hurry, to light the lamp and open the window to the moon and take a moment to dream of a great and broken city, because when the day starts its business I’ll have to stop, these are night-time tales that vanish in sunlight like vampire dust – wait now, light me up so we do this right, yes, hold me steady to the lamp, hold it, hold, good, a slow pull to start with, to draw the smoke low into the lungs, yes, oh my, and another for the nostrils, and a little something sweet for the mouth, and now we can begin at the beginning with the first time at Rashid’s when I stitched the blue smoke from pipe to blood to eye to I and out into the blue world – and now you’re getting to the who of it and I can tell you that I, the I you’re imagining at this moment, a thinking someone who’s writing these words, who’s arranging time in a logical chronological sequence, someone with an overall plan, an engineer-god in the machine, well, that isn’t the I who’s telling this story, that’s the I who’s being told, thinking of my first pipe at Rashid’s, trawling my head for images, a face, a bit of music, or the sound of someone’s voice, trying to remember what it was like, the past, recall it as I would the landscape and light of a foreign country….”

 

And on and on it went – one sentence stretching on to six more pages. Who said that the long Proustian sentence was dead? It is alive and kicking! Thanks to Jeet Thayil for showing us that. Can’t wait to read the rest of the book.

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I read these two beautiful passages in two books that I am reading now. Thought you might like them J

 

From ‘Reading Like a Writer’ by Francine Prose

 

Can creative writing be taught?

      It’s a reasonable question, but no matter how often I’ve been asked it, I never know quite what to say. Because if what people mean is : Can the love of language be taught? Can a gift for storytelling be taught? then the answer is no. Which may be why the question is so often asked in a skeptical tone implying that, unlike the multiplication tables or the principles of auto mechanics, creativity can’t be transmitted from teacher to student. Imagine Milton enrolling in a graduate program for help with Paradise Lost, or Kafka enduring the seminar in which his classmates inform him that, frankly, they just don’t believe the part about the guy waking up one morning to find he’s a giant bug.

      What confuses me is not the sensibleness of the question but the fact that it’s being asked of a writer who has taught writing, on and off, for almost twenty years. What would it say about me, my students, and the hours we’d spent in the classroom if I said that any attempt to teach the writing of fiction was a complete waste of time? Probably, I should just go ahead and admit that I’ve been committing criminal fraud.

      Instead I answer by recalling my own most valuable experience, not as a teacher but as a student in one of the few fiction workshops I took. This was in the 1970s, during my brief career as a graduate student in medieval English literature, when I was allowed the indulgence of taking one fiction class. Its generous teacher showed me, among other things, how to line edit my work. For any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, and, especially cut, is essential. It’s satisfying to see that sentence shrink, snap into place, and ultimately emerge in a more polished form : clear, economical, sharp.

      Meanwhile, my classmates were providing me with my first real audience. In that prehistory, before mass photocopying enabled students to distribute manuscripts in advance, we read our work aloud. That year, I was beginning what would become my first novel. And what made an important difference to me was the attention I felt in the room as the others listened. I was encouraged by their eagerness to hear more.

      That’s the experience I describe, the answer I give to people who ask about teaching creative writing : A workshop can be useful. A good teacher can show you how to edit your work. The right class can form the basis of a community that will help and sustain you.

      But that class, as helpful as it was, was not where I learned to write.

 

From Literary Theory : The Basics by Hans Bertens

 

Within binary oppositions we do not only find an oppositional relationship between the two terms involved, we also find a strange complicity. Take for instance ‘light’ vs ‘darkness’. Arguably, light needs darkness. If there were no darkness, we would not have light either because we would not be able to recognize it for what it is. Without darkness, we would in one sense obviously have light – it would be the only thing around – but we would not be aware of light. We would not have the concept of light so that what we call light (which implies our awareness that there is also the possibility of non-light) would not exist. One might argue, then, that the existence of darkness (that is, our awareness of non-light) creates the concept of light. Paradoxically, the inferior term in this oppositional set turns out to be a condition for the opposition as such and is therefore as important as the so-called privileged one. The two terms in any oppositional set are defined by each other : light by darkness, truth by falsehood, purity by contamination, the rational by the irrational, the same by the other, nature by culture. Here, too, meaning arises out of difference. If there were no falsehood, we would have no concept of truth; if there were no purity, we would have no concept of contamination. Once difference has given rise to meaning, we privilege certain meanings and condemn others. Some privilegings will strike most of us as wholly reasonable – good vs evil, or truth vs falsehood – others have done incalculable damage – white vs black, the masculine vs the feminine. But whatever the effect of binary oppositions they always have their origin in difference. To analyse and dismantle them, as I have just done, means to ‘decentre’ the privileged term, to show that both terms only exist because of difference.

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A beautiful passage from the book I am reading now – ‘Till We Have Faces’ by C.S.Lewis. It is a retelling of the love story of Psyche and Cupid. I am reading this as part of the ‘Read-a-Myth’ challenge hosted by Jo from ‘Bibliojunkie’ and Bina from ‘If You Can Read This’.

Of Psyche’s beauty – at every age the beauty proper to that age – there is only this to be said, that there were no two opinions about it, from man or woman, once she had been seen. It was beauty that did not astonish you till afterwards when you had gone out of sight of her and reflected on it. While she was with you, you were not astonished. It seemed the most natural thing in the world. As the Fox delighted to say, she was “according to nature”; what every woman, or even every thing, ought to have been and meant to be, but had missed by some trip of chance. Indeed, when you looked at her you believed, for a moment, that they had not missed it. She made beauty all round her. When she trod on mud, the mud was beautiful; when she ran in the rain, the rain was silver. When she picked up a toad – she had the strangest and, I thought, unchanciest love for all manner of brutes – the toad became beautiful…I wanted to be a wife so that I could have been her real mother. I wanted to be a boy so that she could be in love with me. I wanted her to be my full sister instead of my half sister. I wanted her to be a slave so that I could set her free and make her rich.

– From ‘Till We Have Faces’ by C.S.Lewis

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I read these beautiful thought-provoking passages in the book ‘The Meaning of Life : A Very Short Introduction’ by Terry Eagleton. Thought you might like them 🙂 Pardon me if some of them are heavy-reading.


 
Irreconcilable beauties
 
“As the sociologist Mark Weber bleakly remarked : “The ultimately possible attitudes to life are irreconcilable, and hence their struggle can never be brought to a final conclusion”. Isaiah Berlin writes in similar vein that ‘the world that we encounter in ordinary experience is one in which we are faced by choices equally absolute, the realisation of some of which must inevitably mean the sacrifice of others’….the truth is that there just are situations from which one can emerge only with dirty hands. Pressed far enough, every moral law starts to come apart at the seams. The novelist Thomas Hardy was well aware that you can paint yourself unwittingly into moral corners in which, whichever way you move, someone is bound to get badly damaged. There is simply no answer to the question of which of your children you should sacrifice if a Nazi soldier orders you to hand over one of them to be killed.”
 
Abstraction – the double-edged knife
 
“Because we live by signs, which bring along with them the capacity for abstraction, we can distance ourselves from our immediate contexts, free our from the imprisonment of our bodily senses, and speculate on the human situation as such. Like fire, however, the power of abstraction is an ambiguous gift, at once creative and destructive. If it allows us to think in terms of whole communities, it also allows us to lay them waste with chemical weapons.”
 
‘A Useless Passion’
 
“Other animals may be anxious about, say, escaping predators or feeding their young, but they do not give the appearance of being troubled by what has been called ‘ontological anxiety’ : namely, the feeling (sometimes accompanied by a particularly intense hangover) that one is a pointless, superfluous being – a ‘useless passion’, as Jean-Paul Sartre put it.”
 
The ‘Modernist’ take on Meaning
 
“What marks modernist thought from one end to another is the belief that human existence is contingent – that it has no ground, goal, direction, or necessity and that our species might quite easily never have emerged on the planet. This possibility then hollows out our actual presence, casting across it the perpetual shadow of loss and death. Even in our most ecstatic moments, we are dimly aware that the ground is marshy underfoot – that there is no unimpeachable foundation to what we are and what we do. This may make our finest moments even more precious, or it may serve to drastically devalue them.”

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Beautiful passage from Nick Hornby’s book ’31 Songs’ that I am reading now.

‘You Had Time’ sets itself a further handicap : it begins with more than two minutes of apparently hopeful and occasionally discordant piano noodling. I know, I know – neither ‘Baby Let’s Play House’ nor ‘(Hit Me) Baby One More Time’ begins with piano noodling, and they wouldn’t have been much good if they had; that’s not what pop is supposed to be about. But DiFranco’s song is nothing if not ambitious, because what it does – or, at any rate, what it pretends to do – is describe the genesis of its own creation : it shows its workings in a way that should delight any maths teacher. When it kicks off, the noodling sounds impressionistic, like a snatch of soundtrack for an arty but emotional film – maybe Don’t Look Now, because the piano has a sombre, churchy feel to it, and you can imagine Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie wandering around Venice in the cold, grieving and doomed. But it cheers up a little, when DiFranco makes out that she’s suddenly hit upon the gorgeous little riff that gives the song its spine. She’s not quite there yet, because she hasn’t found anything to do with her left hand, so there’s a little bit more messing about; and then, as if by magic (although of course we know that it’s merely the magic of hard work and talent) she works out a counterpoint, and she’s there. Indeed, she celebrates the birth of the song by shoving the piano out of the way and playing the song proper on acoustic proper – the two instruments are fused together with a deliberately improbable seamlessness on the recording, as if she wants us to see this as a metaphor for the creative process, rather than as the creative process itself. It’s a sweet idea, a fan’s dream of how music is created; I’d love to be a musician precisely because a part of me believes that this is exactly how songs are born, just as some people who are not writers believe that we are entirely dependent on the appearance of a muse.

–  From Nick Hornby’s essay on the song ‘You Had Time’ by Ani DiFranco

You can hear ‘You Had Time’  here.

Do listen to it and tell me whether you agree with Hornby 🙂

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I had gone to the bookstore today to get a gift for someone. Wrong place to go to, when I am trying to buy less books. I got a gift that I think the recipient will like. Unfortunately, I couldn’t resist browsing through the bookstore. I discovered a few ‘must-buy’ books and I held strong and resisted the temptation. When after spending sometime, I still didn’t have anything else in my hand, other than this gift-book, I thought I had finally triumphed against the circumstances ranged against me – that I had finally learnt how to enjoy browsing in a bookstore without succumbing to the temptation of its riches. When I started revelling in triumph, out popped a book from a nearby shelf and as soon as I saw it, I knew that I was doomed. Clearly my feeling of triumph was a false dawn and I hadn’t reckoned with the power of the bookstore. As soon as I picked the book, I heard, in my inner ear, the bookstore laughing at me in triumph. Yes, I had failed again. I looked at the book that had leapt at me. A deep love stirred in my heart and made me feel light and tried lifting me to the clouds. But at the same time a heavy feeling weighed down my heart and tried to pull me down – the heavy feeling of defeat. After a while, the old saying crossed my mind that it was better to have loved and lost – in this case, loved one thing and lost another thing – than not to have loved at all. The heavy sense of defeat continued to sink my heart, but a strong light burned brightly in my eyes – the eyes of an incurable book fanatic. There seemed to be no redemption for him.

 

Now about the book. It is called ‘Four Letter Word : New Love Letters’ edited by Joshua Knelman and Rosalind Porter. It is published by Vintage Books (one of my favourite imprints and editions). It is a collection of fictional love letters written by today’s leading authors, published for the first time. It has most of the leading writers of today and gives a fair representation to writers from both sides of the Atlantic. The odd South African and Australian are also there. The list of writers includes Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (I got that spelling right!), Lionel Shriver, A.L.Kennedy, Francine Prose, Jeannette Winterson, Michel Faber, Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, Jan Morris, Margaret Atwood, Audrey Niffenegger (I got that spelling also right!) among others – a total of 41 writers. I read the introduction by Rosalind Porter and found it to be quite beautiful. I read a few letters at the beginning of the book. The blurb on the book cover said that they are ‘ridiculously enjoyable’, ‘delicious’ and ‘seductive’. They are all that and more. The fanatic’s eyes had burned with good reason.

 

 

I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the introduction. Hope you enjoy reading it.

 

On 4 May 2000, I was one of the millions of people to open an email with the subject ‘I Love You’ containing an attachment ‘Love Letter For You’. Launched by a Filipino hacker, the love letter virus ‘Love Bug’ first appeared in Hong Kong before quickly spreading to Europe and then to the United States, infecting servers and costing companies an estimated one billion dollars in lost time and recovery.

      In the UK, both the House of Commons and House of Lords were hit, leading to a shutdown of email that lasted a few hours. ‘The message was noticed before lunch. It was a message sending love to you, which is the sort of message a lot of us here don’t expect to be receiving,’ claimed the deputy sergeant at arms for the House of Commons at the time. Which begs the question : who are the people who would expect to receive such a message?

      Most of us don’t check the post in anticipation of scented envelopes stuffed with locks of hair, though many of us have received a fervent card; a flirtatious email; a suggestive text. Often we save them and reread them to remember a moment in time or a phase of life, even those from relationships long dead.

      Over time, a hierarchy to this kind of semantic courting has developed with the ambiguous text at the bottom and the email only a bit higher up. A card may prove a touching example of someone willing to take the time to find a stamp, seek out an address and locate a post-box, but the letter – with all the noble attributes of the card and no space restrictions – is perhaps the supreme medium to befit a message of love. Also, it harks back to a chivalrous age full of men attaching scrolls to pigeons or throwing bottles into the sea and aligns the writer of the love letter with a whole tradition of literary seduction.

      Written on something highly flammable and sent precariously by post or slipped underneath a door, there has always been something slightly risky about the love letter. Someone delivering it to the wrong person who then got the wrong idea; letters getting lost and therefore never replied to.

 

***

      Unlike a phone call or a conversation, a written declaration of love is a thing : a thing which exists in the world (often for a very long time) with the power to conjure up an emotional disposition, which is why, on occasion, we ask for them back, destroy them, prevent people from publishing them or keep them.

      Something that has survived thirteen house moves is a Valentine I was given when I was five. ‘Dear R,’ it reads. ‘I want to love you. Happy Valentine’s Day, From P.’

      I adore this card. I remember P well, perhaps because I’ve had his Valentine for all those years. Sometimes, when I come across it, I feel the urge to write back – I want to clear up the ambiguity, an ambiguity that’s intrinsic to most love letters. ‘Dear P, Does this mean you don’t love me? That you want to, but can’t for some particular reason? Or are you asking my permission to do so and if that’s the case, well then yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.’

 

***

 

      Like any published writer, the author of the love letter can never take anything back. Words – unlike the actual feelings they connote – cannot simply be loaned….Because all writing is an affective art form – the manifestation of a voice meant to move the reader in a premeditated way – which is why love letters can be so exhilarating and so convincing; which is why so many people opened the ‘Love Bug’ email.

      Even though he got caught, the Filipino hacker was no dummy. He observed our collective hunger for a demonstration of something so ethereal it’s not always possible to demonstrate it, and with prescience, he lured us to him with a false promise of words. Because with words, anything is possible. Through words, even our most ardent desires can be fulfilled.

 

Did you like the excerpts?

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As I love mythology, I thought I will participate in the Read-A-Myth Challenge  hosted by Jo from Bibliojunkie and Bina from If You Can Read This. (For more information on the challenge please check the challenge website). I am planning to go up to level 2 – Erlang Chen – in the challenge. I need to read four books on mythology for that.

I am reading ‘Ka’ by Roberto Calasso as my first book for this challenge. It is a book on Indian mythology and its subtitle reads “Stories of the Mind and Gods of India”.

The first chapter is about Garuda the eagle, who becomes Vishnu’s vehicle / mount. I am giving some excerpts from that chapter below (they don’t tell a continuous story – sorry for that).

Garuda flew and remembered. It was only a few days since he had hatched from his egg and already so much had happened. Flying was the best way of thinking, of thinking things over. Who was the first person he’d seen? His mother, Vinata. Beautiful in her tininess, she sat on a stone, watching his egg hatch, determinedly passive. Hers was the first eye Garuda held in his own.

Vinata went on : “My child, I have kept watch over your egg for five hundred years.”

“I’ll go and win this soma, Mother,” said Garuda wth his most solemn expression. “But first I must eat.”

Garuda, who was gazing ahead with his beak half open, just enough to swallow up swarms of Nisadas, suddenly felt something burning in his throat. “That’s a brahman,” he thought. So he said, “Brahman, I don’t know you, but I don’t mean you any harm. Come out of my throat.” And from Garuda’s throat came a shrill, steady voice : “I’ll never come out unless I can bring this Nisada woman with me, she’s my bride.” “I’ve no objections,” said Garuda. Soon he saw them climbing onto his beak, taking care, fearful of getting hurt. Garuda was intrigued and thought : “Finally I’ll know what a brahman looks like.” He saw them sliding down his feathers. The brahman was thin, bony, dusty, his hair woven in a plait, his eyes sunken and vibrant. His long, determined fingers never let go of the wrist of the Nisada woman, whose beauty immediately reminded Garuda of his mother and his treacherous aunt Kadru. This left him bewildered, while he reflected that quite probably he had already swallowed up thousands of women like her.

Garuda settled on a branch. Surrounded by the foliage that enfolded his feathers, he felt at home and couldn’t understand why. Of his birthplace he could remember only sand, stone, and snakes. Whereas this tree protected him on every side with swathes of emerald that softened the merciless light of the sky.

“So many things happening, so many stories one inside the other, with every link hiding yet more stories…And I’ve hardly hatched from my egg,” thought an exultant Garuda, heading north. “No one has taught me anything. Everything has been shown to me. It will take me all my life to begin to understand what I’ve been through.”

At that very moment one of the gods noticed something odd in the celestial stasis : the garlands had lost their fragrance, a think layer of dust had settled on the buds. “The heavens are wearing out like the earth…” was the silent fear of more than one god. It was a moment of pure terror. What came afer was no more than a superfluous demonstration. The rains of fire, the meteors, the whirlwinds, the thunder. Indra hurled his lightning bolt as Garuda invaded the sky. The lightning bounced off his feathers. “How can that be?” said Indra to Brhaspati, chief priest of the gods. “This is the lightning that split the heart of Vrtra. Garuda tosses it aside like a straw.” Sitting on a stool, Brhaspati had remained impassive throughout, from the moment the sky had began to shake. “Garuda is made not of feathers but of meters. You cannot hurt a meter. Garuda is gayatri and tristubh and jagati. Garda is the hymn. The hymn that cannot be scratched. And then : remember that puddle, those tiny beings you found so funny, with their blade of grass…Garuda is, in part, their child.”

Buried deep among the tree Rauhina’s branches, Garuda read the Vedas. It was years before he raised his beak. Those beings he had terrorized in the heavens, who had scattered like dust at his arrival, who had tried in vain to fight him, he knew who they were now: with reverence he scanned their names and those of their descendants.

Finally he reached the tenth book of the Rg Veda. And here he smelled a shift in the wind. Along wtih the names came a shadow now, a name never uttered. What had been affirmative tended to be interrogative. The voice that spoke was more remote. It no longer celebrated. It said what is.

Garuda stopped and shut his eyes. He had never felt so uncertain, and so close to understanding. Never felt so light, in that sudden absence of names. When he opened his eyes, he realized that the nine stanzas were followed by another, this one separated by a space that was slightly larger.

I have read about Garuda being the vehicle of Vishnu but I haven’t read about the feats of Garuda himself. He seems to be a cool Eagle 🙂 I loved the passages where he fights with the gods and brushes them aside and he doesn’t know his own strength – so much power and so much innocence. I also liked very much the quote “I’ll go and win this soma, Mother. But first I must eat.” I don’t know many cool eagles in literature or mythology – the one which comes readily to mind is the eagle which takes Gandalf on its back in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, but that eagle didn’t have a name (if I remember right). Garuda seems to be the coolest Eagle of them all 🙂

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