The day after the wedding, I flew out of Patna. When I returned to New York, I found copies of Granta 130: India waiting for me. At the end of his introduction, the issue’s editor Ian Jack had mentioned Patna. Jack had known Patna thirty years ago; he had had his appendix removed there and someone had remarked that if he had gone to the state hospital he wouldn’t have come out alive. Jack’s piece ended with these lines:
‘Now I’m going to Patna again. Of all the things it needed – decent sanitation, drinkable water, honest policemen – who would have guessed the latest aspect of its public life? To a city where I once bought Treasure Island as the most interesting book in a bookshop, I am returning for the Patna Literature Festival.’
Today I was sent the full cover of the new book.
Kirkus Reviews calls Lunch with a Bigot “an exuberantly inquisitive collection of essays.” The photograph above is of Hanif Kureishi. I’ve put it up here because 1. he is looking good; 2. I have an essay on him in the forthcoming book; 3. I just wrote a review piece on his latest novel, The Last Word, and will post a link when it is published.
Go here for the review in Kirkus.
Granta 130 carries my essay, “Pyre,” a report on my mother’s death in Patna. A different version of this essay will appear in my forthcoming book, Lunch With a Bigot. This longer essay is titled “Missing Person.”
This book is forthcoming from Duke University Press, April 2015. Picador India will publish it in the summer of 2015. The cover-art is by Subodh Gupta: “Full Moon,” oil on canvas. My essays in the book, spanning fifteen years, are divided under four headings: Reading; Writing; Places; People. The book includes this brief piece: “Ten Rules of Writing.”
What is the responsibility of the writer?
Our responsibility is only to be honest, even if it means being base or wrong. I fear it is fashionable for many writers to think that they have to be right. I want to be wrong but true. Our task is to be human. – Click to read the rest.
My essay about Akhil Sharma’s writing, and his new novel Family Life, is now available on the Indian Quarterly website. Here’s an excerpt:
I have read what I have written above and am struck immediately by the thought that Sharma himself would never approach his subject in the same way that I have. His writing isn’t clogged with commentary. Instead of being academic, he reaches for the heart of the matter. A recent article by him begins, “I am not sure what caused me to start sleeping with married women, especially ones who were much older than I was.” Which is to say, his sentences, with their air of simplicity, and their energy, are also characterised by their directness. This is a part of the writer’s honesty. (Jonathan Franzen once said to me about Sharma: “His candor almost gets to be frightening but stops at exhilarating.”) Honesty in a writer doesn’t mean simply the desire to not hide anything; no, it refers to an ability to see through his characters and know what the story is really about.
On the Indian Independence Day, a post went up about my meeting with Jitan Ram Manjhi, the Musahar Chief Minister of Bihar:
Toward the end of May, I was driving on the Taconic highway and listening to a report from India on NPR. A reporter was at a bus-station in Gujarat, asking the youth selling tea there if they could become the prime minister. This was because Narendra Modi had just led his party to a massive win in the parliamentary elections. As a teenager, Modi had sold tea at a bus-station in Vadnagar. Each one of the youth being interviewed said yes.
Then, a few days later, on May 26, there was the news that Jitan Ram Manjhi had taken oath as the chief minister of Bihar in eastern India. A report in a British paper said that Manjhi had been “born into the blighted Musahar community and grew up catching and eating rats.” The report also said that Manjhi’s career represented “the most extraordinary rise of any politician in the history of India.”
When I read that line I thought of the radio interview I had heard about Modi. India allows you the luxury of a million inequalities. You can be a schoolboy selling tea to passengers sitting in a state transport bus, but you are royalty when compared to a shirtless, barefoot village boy, from what was traditionally considered an untouchable caste, living on snails and small fish, and sometimes rats.
In the Paris Review, The Daily, my piece on Harry Roseman’s photographs of businesses in Hudson Valley:
I first noticed Harry Roseman’s art while dropping off my shirts at the dry cleaner near my home. It is a photograph of the wall in the dry cleaner on which the photograph hangs. Roseman had taken the picture because the sun had thrown on the wall the shadow of the shop’s neon sign. The name is spelled in outline on the drab wallpaper: Gladmore Cleaners. The picture hangs in the same spot where the shadow had fallen.
Then I noticed another one. Shirts under plastic covers and suspended from white, metal hangers form a line behind the register. Each shirt has a yellow slip attached to it. My own shirts hang there, ready for pickup. When the owner moves a section of shirts aside, a large photograph comes into view: a tight composition of the scene that has just been disturbed—all the shirts in their neat row.
Daisy Rockwell interviewed me this month for Bookslut (I also love her illustration for the piece):
You discuss a Hindi short story in your book, in which the three kilometers the young heroine must walk to college each day is described in three phases, and represents a kind of microcosm of the trials and tribulations of making one’s way through Patna. If you were to choose a stretch of road in Patna to describe in that manner, what stretch would you choose and why?
Oh, that passage! I wish I had written it myself! I’d gladly exchange a whole book for three paragraphs of Arun Prakash. Frankly, I think his brief description of the three stages of his protagonist’s journey from her home to her college is better than many sociological treatises on cities.
Your question makes me think of the street near my house, Boring Road. I used to catch my school bus there. The house of my history teacher, a man who drank himself to death, is now a bank. Across from that building is a huge structure that also houses a new coaching institute. Next door is the Hindi paper, Prabhat Khabar. Down the road is the house of the great historian Ram Sharan Sharma, and closer than that is the home of another great historian, Surendra Gopal. This was where a great communist leader lived till his death, and a communist poet has a small apartment there. The shabby stalls selling chicken and fish are still there, and a Sudha milk-booth. Right in the middle of the chauraha is the temple, which appears bigger with each passing visit. When I was a schoolboy, it was just a shrine, coming up to my knees. The main change is the explosion of commerce on this street. New stores with their air-conditioned galleries and security guards, jewelry merchants, sweet and gift shops, even a spa. What I’d like to do is write three paragraphs naming each store and take note of how recent they were. My theory is simply that the dates of their establishment would prove a simple fact to us: in place of the old culture, including the prized place of the intelligentsia, what we have now is the sudden influx of black money. Unaccounted-for cash that proves wrong all dire observations about economic downturn. Yes, there might be no electric supply, an absence of wide roads, a general sense of pollution, even violence in the air… but in the secret lives of the people, there is industry and ambition. Too bad that it can’t always be distinguished from criminality and greed.