Any book by William Dalrymple is good news, but a travel book after close to a decade calls for a dash to the bookshop instead of a click on Amazon. Nine Lives, Dalrymple’s first travel book after two exhilarating expeditions into Indian history, is a risky enterprise.
Evoking Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the grandfather of literary and travel texts in English, Dalrymple knits together the narratives of nine “pilgrims” and the people around them. They are pilgrims in the sense that they are all deeply immersed in a religious tradition of India. They are also pilgrims in the Canterbury sense because they have or have had a secular life: The Naga sadhu has an MBA, the inspired theyyam dancer is also a jail warder, and so on.
It is difficult for anyone, let alone “Westerners”, to write about Indian religious traditions without slithering into Orientalist, New Ageist or Hindutva tropes. It is even more risky to narrate Indian religious beliefs against the template of today’s India, which is itself a half-mythical being in the throes of constant change. But Dalrymple has managed to do so, and with aplomb. Nine Lives will be released in the UK this month and a little later in India.
After a long lull, a fresh and vigorous breeze appears to be touching the desolate shores of Indian poetry in English: Jeet Thayil, Tishani Doshi and others have brought out exciting new work. Arundhati Subramaniam’s Where I Live (Bloodaxe Books) combines her two published-in-India collections, On Cleaning Bookshelves and Where I Live, with a selection of new poetry. This is accomplished poetry, the poetry of perception and nuance. As the senior poet and writer Keki N. Daruwalla puts it: “Subramaniam’s poetry is one of illumination. She flashes a pencil-torchlight on a subject, and suddenly you feel you are the richer for it.” Subramaniam belongs to a new crop of poets, all born around or after 1960, who have finally lifted the flag of Indian poetry in English, filling it with the breeze of inspiration that seldom blew strongly after the long (and strong) generation of poets such as Nissim Ezekiel, Arun Kolatkar, Kamala Das, Jayanta Mahapatra, Daruwalla and others.
Talking of that founding generation, so few of whose members are still alive, here is another book one should run to the bookshop for: Kolatkar’s The Boatride and Other Poems, published with much love by Pras Prakashan, Mumbai. With an introductory essay by the poet, critic and personal friend A.K. Mehrotra, it contains 262 pages of poems from across Kolatkar’s career, both originally written in English and translated from Kolatkar’s Marathi collections. It also includes Kolatkar’s excellent translations of Namdeo, Tukaram and others. It is a collector’s item, to my mind, and so reassuring in these days of literary fads. But then, as Kolatkar writes in one of his poems, “You need a double barrelled gun/to shoot a bilingual poet./One bullet in the head will never be/enough to kill me.”
No, not even the machine gun of commercial publishing, it appears. It is enough to make one start believing in Ganesh and Saraswati again—and in publishers, or at least those like Pras Prakashan.
Born in St Kitts and now living in London and New York (such dual location being as much a signifier of success in literary life as a Booker), Caryl Phillips has been described as “one of the literary giants of our times”. His latest novel, In the Falling Snow, sustains this reputation. Through an account of Keith, a black social worker estranged from his English wife and teenage son because of a rash affair, Phillips provides a penetrating portrait of multicultural, contemporary London, a world where one can feel vulnerable both as a black man and as a white-collar, middle-aged father. It is also a touching story of what parents, despite their individual differences, owe to their children, and the pressures thereof.
Tabish Khair is the Denmark-based, Bihar-born author of Filming.
Write to Tabish at firstname.lastname@example.org