Posted in Writing

‘The work of a writer is to write’

Long ago in my schooldays we studied the stories of Premchand in Hindi, and I realized what a great writer he was. Later I  read more of his work, but a few words from one of his stories remained in my mind  right from those days. The story was about a writer, who keeps writing though he earns hardly anything. His wife is constantly telling him to get some work, as finances dwindle and there is no food left in the house. Calmly, he ignores her, and remains bent over his paper, writing. One day, during one of her harangues, he raises his head and says: ‘The work of a lamp is to glow; the work of a writer is to write.’ [deepak ka kaam hai jalna, lekhak ka kaam hai likhna]. It was many many years before I became a published writer, but those words always seemed true to me. A writer must write, whether the writing is published or not, because that is the nature of a writer. A true writer does not write for fame or for money, but because they cannot help writing. Good, bad, indifferent, a writer goes on writing.

Even when in jail, Jeffrey Archer wrote for about four hours every day, despite all that had happened to him, and all that was happening around him. In prison camps Solzhenitsyn wrote on scraps of paper. And as I have mentioned in another post too, Yuri Olesha said, ‘Let me write fragments without finishing them—at least I am writing!’ You know you are a writer, when you just have to write. No matter what.

Posted in Books, Current Projects

Current projects–And the odd ways of cats

There are always a hundred ideas or more in my brain on what to write, but of course organizing and writing anything is a slow process. Right now I am still winding up my article on Zoroastrianism, and tentatively thinking of expanding it into a book. Now, at some time in the distant past, I must have had the same idea. I don’t remember this, and obviously hadn’t worked much on it.

For a few days one of the cats has been busy opening a cupboard and throwing things out of it. I noticed they were index cards, that I used to use long before there were computers, but didn’t bother to read them till today. And what to I find when I finally go through them? Part of a bibliography on Zoroastrianism in India. Each card has a reference to a book, neatly written by me, and classified alphabetically. There is so much stuff that I haven’t gone through that I didn’t know they were in the cupboard till the cat threw them out!

Anyway before that I have to once again read through and finalize my first novel. I had taken a break in order to look at it through fresh eyes.

Posted in Books, China

Smoke and Mirrors: An experience of China (A Book review)

I had read this  book by Pallavi Aiyar, some time ago. It is based on her experiences in China, where she lived and travelled between 2002 and 2007. With this is an introduction  to China after 2000, I will subsequently add more about books on China or by Chinese authors, and also write something about my  research  on Post-Mao China.
This particular book consists of a series of essays on Pallavi’s experiences in China, seen from an Indian perspective. Smoke and Mirrors thus provides a first-hand account of the new China, where change and development is constant, and money and material wealth the apparent focus.
The essays are diverse, both amusing and insightful. One learns how Chinese students give themselves Western names when attending classes in English, names chosen by themselves, that include Byron, or the more descriptive Better or Fat (because I am fat, the student explains). The makeover for the Olympics, the SARS crisis, industrial zones, rich villages, religion, strange food habits (from an Indian point of view!), and finally Tibet, are some of the essay topics. The author constantly compares India with China, and contrasts the dignity of labour and welfare for the poor in China, with democracy, the caste system, and the different approach in India. However, sometimes one feels she is less in touch with India than with China, and her comparisons are with an India of twenty years ago. For instance she feels that owning a TV, DVD and motorbike in India would classify one as middle class, which is certainly not the case today. At other times, the comparisons reflect a desire to whitewash India’s problems, as when she compares India’s north-east policy with China’s Tibet policy, but totally ignores insurgency in the north-east, instead stating: ‘The North-East might not have figured prominently in the national imagination or policy priority list, but the local governments that ruled these states were genuinely representative.’ There are also too many generalisations, both on China and India. Are the Chinese really as non-intellectual, uncritical and materially oriented as she portrays? Or do they refrain from revealing what they think to a foreign visitor?  These are some of the questions that come to mind while reading the book, but on the whole it presents a fascinating and incredible picture of China as a country on the move.

There are certainly great and intellectual books by numerous Chinese writers, and I plan to look at some of these.

Posted in death, life, Religion

The West and the East: Life and Death

Western religious systems generally want to change and improve the world–the Eastern often want to ignore it, as the world, life and death are considered unreal. The only reality is the eternal unchanging soul. Here is a typical passage from an important text.

‘It matters little to these countless beings which are continually being born only to be destroyed, whether the noble and kind-hearted grieve or delight over their fate. The widespread illusion called samsara [world or worldliness] is an arena for incessant births and incessant deaths. Neither exhilaration nor bemoaning is called for from any quarter.’
Yoga Vasishtha, 14.34-35, trans. by Swami Bhoomananda Tirtha.

Can one ever agree with this and ignore the world?

Posted in Books, Writing

The Young and the Old–Other People’s Blogs

I am  impressed by many of the blogs I have read here, most of them well-written and thoughtful. The Robotic Hermit, Arti Tyagi, Elle, and so many others, seem to be great bloggers, though I haven’t had time to read all their posts. Toutparmoi is writing the thoughts of an Elizabethan cat! Intriguing. The other blogs I follow are good too, and some have thousands of followers.
But I have been wondering if all these bloggers are young people. I am impressed, also, with their dedication and the ease with which they handle technology. Some write on video games and TV serials, and some subjects and themes are new to me.
Growing up without television or computers or easy access to phones, meant that a whole lot of time was spent reading. There were vacation months when I read three books a day, and all this reading certainly shaped one’s life. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, I remember books and poems of all kinds. I can even remember some of the first books I read!
Are there other older bloggers here? Do older people like different books, or do good books reach across generations? These are some questions that came to my mind.

Posted in Books, Writers

“No Day Without a Line”

[I had written this article earlier and it was published in the Garhwal Post, a different version in]

“In everything I want to reach
The innermost kernel
In work, in life’s constant quest
In the heart’s trouble;”
(Boris Pasternak)

Literature of the former Soviet Union was once popular, but has now largely been forgotten. Though ‘Soviet literature’ is perhaps too wide a term, the great writers of the USSR, had something in common – like Boris Pasternak in his poem above, their writing had a certain intensity, reflecting that ‘constant quest’ to reach ‘the innermost kernel’ of everything. Their greatness was recognised in the West, and some of them– Boris Pasternak, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Josef Brodsky– were Nobel Prize winners. Other brilliant writers included Andrei Voznesensky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrei Sinyavsky, and many more.

Several of the Soviet writers were imprisoned or faced problems of some kind with the authorities in their country. Boris Pasternak, famous for his book Dr. Zhivago, was not allowed to accept the Nobel, awarded to him in 1958. He found a champion in Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, who not only wrote to Khrushchev about him, but remembered his birthday, and sent him the gift of a clock!

Solzhenitsyn, who received the Nobel Prize in 1970, spent long years in labour camps, and among his books, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, and The First Circle are fictionalised accounts of his life there. The Gulag Archipelago, is a comprehensive record of the Soviet prison system. Cancer Ward, and other books and short stories, reflect some of the absurdities of life in the USSR, but also record the lives of ordinary people. His other work included Two Hundred Years Together, the story of Russia’s Jewish minority.

Brodsky, Nobel Prize winner in 1987, was exiled from the USSR after eighteen months in a labour camp, and went to the US. He is well known for his sensitive poetry. In his poem The Fly, he watches, records and philosophises on the life of one fly, who had hovered around his cell for months, and finally faltered and died. It begins with the lines:
“While you were singing, fall arrived.
A splinter set the stove alight.
While you were singing, while you flew,
The cold wind blew.
And now you crawl the flat expanse
Of my greasy stovetop, never glancing
Back to whence you arrived last April
Slow, barely able….”

Voznesensky has been called Russia’s first modern poet, and was inspired by Pasternak. His poems are often philosophical and detached, yet sometimes passionate and intense. One can compare his Autumn in Sigulda, which has the gentle lines, “I know that we will live again, As friends, girlfriends or blades of grass… ,” with Sketch for a Poem:
“Forgive me dearest, it happened this way:
The deadend seemed deader
Than ever today
The deepest sadness, sadder.
I know the end will come
In the dark shaft where I lie
Where those who love, love not enough
And no one hears you scream….”
Khrushchev called him a ‘bourgeois formalist’, but later his work was accepted in Russia, and he received the State Prize for Poetry in 1979.

Sinyavsky, another protégé of Pasternak, wrote novels, short stories, and poems on life under Stalin, initially under the name Abram Tertz. In 1965 he was arrested and spent six years in a labour camp. Finally he was allowed to leave the USSR for France. Though his work is varied and often allegorical, his despair in prison is reflected in this poem:
“ For spring my child you’ll wait, it will not come
You’ll call out for the sun to rise, it will not rise
And when you begin to cry, your cries will sink like lead
Then be content with life today
Stiller than water, lower than grass…”.

Yevtushenko wrote long poems, and is best known for Babi Yar, condemning anti-semitism, and the autobiographical Zima Junction, the place in Siberia where he was born:
“And the voice of Zima Junction spoke to me
And this is what it said
‘I live quietly and crack nuts.
I gently steam with engines.
But not without reflection on these times, these modern times…”

Of course there were many other writers, both despairing and hopeful, philosophical and amusing— Mayakovsky, Anna Akhmatova, Zabolotsky, Tarkovsky, Gorbanevskaya, Kazakov, Turbin, Shukshin, Ginzburg, who was one of the first to start samizdat or underground publishing – the list is long, and they are all worth reading. While some continued to write, others felt hampered by the lack of freedom.Yuri Olesha [1899-1960], was one such. Known for his novella Envy published in 1924, the story of a writer, Nikolai Kavalerov, he was initially praised by the establishment, but later criticised, and found it almost impossible to write. When he started again, he wrote small passages, but was happy at this: “Let me write fragments without finishing them–at least I am writing!” he said. After his death by a heart attack, extracts from his notebooks were published under the title ‘No Day Without a Line’.
One hardly sees the work of these extraordinary writers in bookshops, though some may be available online. As Voznesensky wrote:
“It is rare in our polluted skies
To hear the crane’s lonely cries
While every bookstore’s lined with stacks
Of monolithic published hacks.”
[Roshen Dalal is a writer living in Dehradun].

Posted in Books, writer

To be a writer, one must be a reader

One cannot be a writer without reading widely. It is this reading that gives whatever one writes a personal touch. Even when writing non-fiction, the fiction one has read can provide both background and intensity. I may, for instance, write just a few lines on Biafra in a chapter on Nigeria or on Africa, but if I have read a book that depicts what happened [Half of a Yellow Sun], I will write more authentically. So here are just a few of the books I like, not in any particular order.
1.The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse.
2. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.
3. Most other books by Hesse and Mann [but not Siddhartha].
4. The Morning and the Evening by Joan Williams.
5. A Multitude of Sins by J A Cuddon.
6. Dibs—in Search of Self by Virginia Axline.
7. Place Mill by Barbara Softly [a children’s book]
8. The Synthesis of Yoga by Sri Aurobindo.
9. Walden by Henry David Thoreau.
10. Europe: A History, by Norman Davies.
11. Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; also The First Circle, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by the same author.
12. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig.
13. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.
14. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.
15. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.
16. All the plays of Henrik Ibsen.
17. The Mahabharata.
18. The Ramayana of Tulasidasa.
19. Manimekhalai
2o. The Golden Treasury [F.T. Palgrave]

Posted in Books, History, Writing

My first published book

The Puffin History of India
The Puffin History of India
Who is this blog for? It is for my readers, those who already know my books, and for potential new readers. It is also to share something about writing and publishing, with aspiring writers.
Perhaps because my mother was a writer, and because the house was always full of books, and I spent most of my time reading, I always believed I was a writer. Somehow, though, I became one only late in life, and almost by chance. After a stint in academics, a PhD, spending years doing research in a musty library, I moved on to become an editor. Then an interest in the philosophy of J Krishnamurti took me to teach in a school in south India run on his philosophy. After a few years there, teaching history and geography to youngsters, I realised there were no books in history that they wanted to read on their own. Teaching there I had begun to understand the kind of books young people required. I approached Penguin India with an idea for several small books on different dynasties, but instead they suggested a single book on Indian history. After sending them a synopsis and sample chapters, I had a contract. I wrote the book in longhand, got it typed, revised it, and got it retyped–I think it was probably the only book for which I kept to the deadline! Meanwhile, Puffin, the children’s division of Penguin, had its own problems, and closed down for some time. Submitted in 1993, the book was finally published in 1997! I had almost given up on it by then, had left the school, and was back to editing. This book, now called The Puffin History of India vol 1, is in its 3rd edition, and continues to have steady sales. A few years later I was pushed by my editor to write its sequel, on India after independence, which is now The Puffin History of India vol 2. After that I went on to write more books.

Posted in Books, Religion, Writing

Fiction and non-fiction

I am mainly a non-fiction writer–but I wanted to diversify, and have completed a novel. I’m still working on improving it and tying up loose ends. Simultaneously I have an article to complete on Zoroastrianism–and today I’m focusing on that. I have most of it in place, but I have started wondering about the authenticity of later texts, and about the authenticity of the translations. It is only a five to six thousand word article–I have written more about Zoroastrianism in my book Religions of India. Now I have the idea of writing a whole book on this ancient religion.

Posted in Books, writer

As a writer

I’ll be writing about my life as a writer, my books and my ideas. I have been writing and keeping a journal for much of my life, but became a published writer somewhat late. Now I have eight published books on history and religion, and have completed my first novel–have not decided on a publisher yet for this. I’d like to use this blog to connect with more readers and writers.