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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Between the lines

Why do some fictional characters have such a powerful grip on our imagination?

So, Atticus Finch turned out to be a racist so-and-so. Now, who could have seen that coming? Not me, not the many millions of other readers who loved the upright, righteous lawyer of To Kill A Mockingbird. No, not even his adoring daughter, Jean Louise Finch, better known to us as Scout, who suffers a full-scale nervous breakdown when she discovers the 'truth' about the father she hero-worshipped.

What could Harper Lee have been thinking, when she turned the wise, gentle and just Atticus Finch of Mockingbird into just another Southern supremacist who flirted with the Klan in his youth and now attends 'Council Meetings' in Watchman to discuss how to keep the 'Negroes' in their place as desegregation gathers strength?

By the time you read this, much newsprint will have been spent on articles, columns and book reviews, dissecting the strange and disturbing path Atticus' character takes from one book to another. You will have heard from those who insist that Go, Set A Watchman was nothing more than a first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird and should never have seen the light of day. You will have read about how the dark undertones of Atticus' racism were always present in Mockingbird, if only we had bothered to look. You may even followed sly suggestions that the new book was not entirely Harper Lee's work. And you will probably have made up your mind about Go, Set A Watchman after reading it yourself.

So, I am not going to bore you my views about Harper Lee and her two books (except to say that while Mockingbird remains a classic, Watchman is an interesting case study of how great literature comes into being).

Instead, I'd like to talk about something that has intrigued me for many years now. What is it about certain fictional characters that we invest so much of ourselves in them? Why do we get so involved in their entirely imaginary emotional lives? And why do we feel so cheated, even angry, when they don't live up to the image we carry of them in our heads?

Atticus Finch is only the most recent example. But there are many other fictional characters who exercise as great a control on our imagination. And we feel outraged when they are presented as something entirely different without our consent. It seems like a betrayal of the worst kind - because it is.

Yes, yes, we've all heard that trite line. The book belongs to the author, as do the characters in it. And it is for her/him to do with them as she/he sees fit. But I beg to differ. I truly believe that the act of reading turns the book into something that belongs to every reader as well. And when authors turn rogue (yes, Harper Lee, I'm looking at you!) it feels as if they spitting in the face of every single person who has loved their books and fallen in love with their characters.

In the case of Watchman, at least, you could argue that it is the author herself who has done the dirty on us. But it is even more annoying when the reinvention is the work of a new author/adapter who has decided to mess with classic pieces by writing a sequel, a spin-off, or just doing a simple rewrite. (Here's an idea: if you are so creative, why don't you just make up your own stories peopled by your own characters, instead of ruining other people's imaginary worlds?)

Much as I loved Longbourn, with its central conceit of telling the story of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice from the viewpoint of the servants of the Bennet household, I was revolted by the little plot twist that gave the entirely harmless (if woolly-headed) Mr Bennet an illegitimate child. Now, what had the poor man done to deserve this kind of besmirching of his character?

I feel much the same way when I see some of Agatha Christie's Poirot mysteries re-imagined for television. A much-loved book, with its cast of familiar characters, is transformed into something entirely different by the sudden inclusion of a lesbian angle in the mix (poor old Agatha would be spinning in her grave if she got wind of this!). Not that I have anything against lesbians (some of my best friends...etc. etc.) but they are not a part of Christie's universe. If you want a murder mystery with a lesbian twist, then feel free to write your own.

And then, there's the whole Game of Thrones imbroglio (if you haven't seen the last series or read all the books, be warned: spoilers ahead!). You read a book in which sweet little Sansa Stark escapes from Kings Landing and ends up at the Eyrie with Littlefinger. Meanwhile, a girl is tricked out to look like Arya Stark and married to Ramsay Bolton. And then, one day, you settle down to watch the TV series. And what do you see? Sansa Stark, in the flesh, married to Ramsay Bolton!

So, to go back to my original question, why do we feel so invested in certain fictional characters? Why do their fates so absorb us? Why do we feel outraged on their behalf when their creators do the dirty on them? Why does Atticus Finch turning out to be a racist upset us so?

Is it because we feel the certainties of our world being turned upside down? Or are we just big babies who can't bear to grow up and see the world in shades of grey rather than in stark black and white?

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Chapter and verse

If you love bookshops, do your bit to keep them alive

I have always believed that you can tell a great city from the fact that it has some great book stores. New York has Barnes and Noble, a ginormous space on 5th Avenue where you could easily get lost as you made your way from the new releases to the classics section. Singapore has the best Kinokuniya I have ever been to, stacked with every book you've heard of or wanted to read (and then some). London has its hallowed Hatchards, a book store positively bristling with history, redolent of the heady smell of paper, and filled to the brim with titles both new and old.

Some of my best holiday moments are spent in such book stores. I could easily spend the better part of the day simply browsing the aisles, picking up an old book of poetry I last read in college to see if it still speaks to me, glancing through the first chapter of the new book by a favourite author, discovering new writers as I trawl through all the titles on display.

So it was only fitting that the last day of my summer vacation found me in the Piccadilly branch of Waterstones. This is one of my favourite stores, not least because it encourages its staff to put up little handwritten recommendation cards about the books that they have enjoyed (and you might conceivable like), but also because it has these capacious red sofas on every floor, where you can sit and read the day away without anyone coming and bothering you or asking if you actually intend to buy anything.

I always start my visit by revisiting my childhood favourites, all those Enid Blytons that I devoured hungrily the moment I got them out of the school library. I chuckle at the adventures of the Five Find-Outers or the Famous Five. I giggle with fond reminiscence as I glance through the Mallory Towers series. I delight at stumbling across such childhood reading staples as The Black Beauty (which I knew by heart at one point).

Then it's time to pay my respects to the books that marked my teenage years and early youth, now reissued with ever-more-fabulous covers. P.G. Wodehouse gets a look-in as does Georgette Heyer. I am, in fact, sorely tempted to buy the books all over again simply because they look so beautiful and elegant (talk about buying a book by its cover!) but manage to resist the temptation by sheer force of will.

I distract myself by going over to the suspense and thriller section where all my favourite authors live. And if I can find a Val McDermid or a Karen Slaughter I haven't yet read, it goes right into my little cart. Only then do I wander over to the new releases to check if there is anything worth getting my teeth into on the flight back home. Yes, I was disappointed by the last Daniel Silva, but maybe the new one, The English Spy, will make me remember why I fell in love with his writing in the first place.

This time, however, as I stood at the till, waiting to pay for my purchases, I noticed something odd. Though the store was positively heaving with customers, everyone was browsing but hardly anyone was buying. Ah yes, of course. The book store was just a place where people stopped by to draw up their wish list. They then went home and ordered the books online, saving about 20 to 30 per cent in the process. Or even better, they downloaded it on their Kindles, so that they could carry around as many as 20 titles at a time.

Now, don't get me wrong. I have nothing against buying books online, though I have yet to do so myself. And I do read my books on Kindle as well, especially when I am travelling and need to save on luggage space and stay within weight restrictions. But it kills me a little to see people exiting a book store without having bought even the cheapest paperback.

Think about it. If we all behave in this way, treating the book store as a pit-stop on the way to making an electronic purchase (or download), how long do you think the actual physical bookshop will survive? How long will independent book stores with razor-thin margins manage to stay in business? And even large commercial chains will have to reexamine if they want to stay in brick-and-mortar locations when most book buying takes place online.

If this trend continues, it is only a matter of time before the bookshop begins to wither and die away. And when the last one closes its doors, where will all of us, dedicated book lovers, go to get our fix of that heady perfume of paper and the printed word?

If that scenario alarms you as much as it does me, then let's take a pledge this Sunday morning. If you love books and reading, then make a resolution to buy at least one book from a book shop every month. It doesn't have to be a pricey hardback, even the cheapest paperback will do, so long as you buy it from an actual book store.

It won't make that big a dent in your budget, but for book shops everywhere it could well mean the difference between life and death.

Friday, July 17, 2015

London calling

The summer capital of India plays host to the rich, the famous and the powerful – at their preferred haunts, of course

If you have been following the Lalit Modi saga (and unless you’ve been hibernating in Siberia I don’t see how you could possibly have missed it) you will be familiar with the long list of Indian celebrities whom he has ‘bumped into’ in London. 

Yes, I know that on the face of it, these claims strain credulity. After all, how many restaurants and clubs does Lalit Modi frequent that he ‘runs into’ some Indian politician or the other whenever he eats out? Is it really possible for one man to have so many ‘accidental’ encounters with the rich and famous of India as he lives the high life in the British capital? 

Well, funnily enough, not only is it entirely possible but it is also very probable. Not because Lalit Modi includes the ability of omnipresence among his many other talents. But because when rich and famous (not to mention, powerful) Indians embark on their annual summer sojourn to London, they all tend to hang out in the same places. And so, inevitably, they tend to hang out with one another as well.

So, in case you’re looking to do a Lalit Modi yourself at some point, here’s a ready reckoner of all the London spots where you can spot the desis from a mile off.

51 Buckingham Gate: This is the Taj property located a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace, which becomes the summer residence of most Indian celebrities. They check into the swish apartments, and then head right down to the lounge area to see which of their friends is already in residence. The courtyard then becomes the Indian adda venue, with masala chai and samosas greasing the rumour mill as it grinds several reputations to shreds. Bollywood seems to prefer The Washington and The Courthouse (which has its own cinema) while ministers choose The Bentley. All three are owned by one of London’s most famous Indians, Joginder Sanger.
Selfridges/Harrods: These are the department stores of choice for Indians looking for their summer shopping fix. The ones with bigger budgets head for Harrods (though, for some strange reason, the tonier Harvey Nichols never gets a look in) where the personal shoppers zero in on them, recognizing big spenders when they see some. The ones who are looking for better value for their buck head to Selfridges, and then drop into the Oxford Street Marks and Spencer for a quick trawl through the lingerie department. 
Bond Street: This is the chosen stomping ground for dedicated Indian shoppers (for some reason, they prefer this to Sloane Street, where they hardly ever venture). The most popular stops here are Bottega Veneta and Louis Vuitton (“the range is so much better than they have in India, darling!”) though Emporio Armani sees some action as well. And then, there’s always Bicester Village, the shopping centre in Oxfordshire, which is quite a hit with the Indian crowd. It helps that you can make a day of it, driving past pretty countryside and stopping for a meal along the way.
The Audley: This pub in Mayfair is taken over by desis every summer evening, as they crowd its outdoor benches for a quick beer or glass of champagne to catch their breath after a busy day. If you stay very quiet, you can pick up some amazing gossip here.
Clubs: Those who are lucky enough to have well-connected local friends hit the club scene with a vengeance. Harry’s Bar is a particular favourite with some of the mega-rich London Indians, though George is fast catching up. Those with a little more discernment end up at the Dover Street Arts Club, where the food is better than that served at Annabel’s or Tramp.
Trendy restaurants: This market has been sown up by the Sindhi restaurateur Arjun Waney (who also own the Arts Club: see above). His restaurant empire includes Zuma, La Petite Maison, and the recently-opened Coya, and each of these outlets attracts its fair share of Indian custom. On a good day, you could swear that you were in a happening restaurant in Mumbai or Delhi rather than in Mayfair or Knightsbridge. It helps that the food is always excellent, though the service can be dodgy sometimes.
Chinese restaurants: Most Indians tend to get a bit fed up of eating Western food every day and begin to long for a kick of spice. So, Chinese food hits exactly the right spot, especially when it is served in the glamorous environs of such restaurants as Hakkasan and Kai. Those who don’t mind slumming it a bit head to Royal China.
And once the vacation is done and dusted, where does the Indian contingent gather to share holiday stories? Why, they congregate at the Jet Airways First Class lounge (it’s actually owned by a Middle-Eastern airline but used by Jet; but why split hairs?), as they wait to board their flights back to India. Those who still haven’t had their fill of shopping head off to the duty-free shops. Those who have had enough settle down with a gin and tonic or a glass of wine and swap stories of how utterly fabulous London has been. Whether or not they bumped into the ubiquitous Lalit Modi is another matter entirely!