Posted in Books, Writers, Writing

When I met Alan Sillitoe

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Apart from Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and a few others, one of my favourite writers, though very different from them, is Alan Sillitoe [1928-2010]. It was after I read his brilliant short story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, that I began reading his other books, among which my favourite is The Storyteller. A working class boy, Sillitoe started work at the age of 14 in a bicycle factory, but went on to become a world famous writer.

I thought of him today because of a question posed on social media, have you ever met a famous writer and what effect did this have on your writing? Of course, I have met many well-known Indian writers, my mother being one of them! But among international writers, the one I remember is Alan Sillitoe.

It was 1979 or 80 perhaps. He came to India, and then to JNU in New Delhi. I don’t remember if he gave any public talks, but he spoke specifically to a small group at the history centre. He was simple and informal, and during the interactive talk, he said that he loved maps. Those were pre-digital days, and after the talk I took him to see our collection of 1 inch to 1 mile Survey of India maps. They were not easily available and could not be accessed by the public. Acquired for a special project, a form had to be filled and signed every year stating that the maps were safe and secure.

Sillitoe spent some time looking at them and seemed fascinated. We discussed his books, he was surprised that I had read them all and was such a fan. What effect did the meeting have on me as a writer? None, as I wasn’t a writer then, and had no idea I would become one. But his books, and the simplicity of his writing, certainly influenced me.


Posted in History, India, Mahatma Gandhi, Writers, Writing

Writers and nationalism


There must be innumerable writers who are, in some sense nationalists, or who write about their own country.  The Russian writers such as Solzhenitsyn come to mind. However, nationalism which leads to hatred of the ‘other’ seems unacceptable in a writer. The best writing, one that is long lasting, can include details of a place or country, and yet have a universal theme. Writers are rooted in the land where they live, or where they were born, and that forms the theme or background of much writing. I too write on India, and from an Indian perspective, about its history, culture, religion and its natural beauty, its wonderful arts and crafts. At the same time, one can still appreciate other countries and their histories and traditions.

India remembers Mahatma Gandhi, but forgets his words. Gandhi, lived, worked, and died for India, but his views were never narrow or limited.

Here is a quote from him.
I would like to see India free and strong so that she may offer herself as a willing and pure sacrifice for the betterment of the world. The individual, being pure, sacrifices himself for the family, the latter for the village, the village for the district, the district for the province, the province for the nation, the nation for all. (YI, 17-9-1925, p. 321)


Posted in book review., Books, Writers, Writing

Writers and book reviews

Times have certainly changed. In the past there was no self-promotion. Writers spent their lives writing, some were recognised, some excellent authors faded away, hardly known.

Recently, I read a short review of a book [I am not  sharing its name or that of the reviewer], that said something to the effect that it was written by undoubtedly the best writer of the 21st century–a brilliant new voice. How is it I had never heard of this book or author? I downloaded a sample. In the very first paragraph there were grammatical errors. Proceeding further, the story meandered in a meaningless way. Unable to continue I deleted the sample. The author was self-published and had paid a new small publisher, first for publishing it, and then for promoting the book.

I am not against self-publishing, in fact I believe it is the best way for an author to retain control over her work. But I am against fake reviews that people are paid to write. I have received several offers myself, Rs 4000 for four good reviews of your latest book, etc. , which of course I would never take up. If the book is good, or if it is controversial, people will review it themselves, without any encouragement or inducement.

Then there are those reviewers who are not paid, but rush to write critical reviews online, of books they have hardly understood–reviews that are again full of errors.

In today’s world, it is okay to advertise, perhaps it is essential, but shouldn’t a reviewer be honest, whether paid or unpaid? And shouldn’t they at least have basic writing skills, and some background knowledge?

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].