If there is something the chi-chi babu class uses to distinguish itself from all other classes (ranging from the nouveau-babu to the servant-coolie), it is the perfumed and marbled state of its toilets. One could do a precise study of social classes in India through a pictorial depiction of where their members go when they gotta go! Obviously, at the bottom of this class heh-heh-rarchy squat the many who use the free outdoors. Indian English writers pause in their narratives to point them out as authentic colour (and smell); true-blue babus go chi-chi when they drive their foreign guests past such obdurate nature lovers.
Perhaps all this is going to change. The performance that comes so naturally to so many of us in India is being taught as something close to an art in a best-selling book by an American. As the home page informs us, How to Shit in the Woods is Kathleen Meyer’s “ground-breaking book, which has become the international best-selling outdoor guide, with more than 1.5 million copies in print, in seven languages”. First published in 1989, with a second edition published more recently, this book is commonly referred to as the “backpacker’s Bible”, we are told.
Not having read the book, I am unable to comment on its literary qualities, though I am sure it cannot be worse than most best-sellers. But I do suggest that the next time you have a chi-chi guest, foreign or desi, hand him a copy of the book and point him towards the exit.
In the limelight: (from left) Amit Chaudhuri, Tina Brown, Andrey Kurkov and Jane Smiley at the Man Booker reception last year. Andrew H Walker/Getty Images/AFP
Consciously or not, literary prizes compete for media attention. For how can a prize put its winners in the limelight if it is not itself the focus of flashbulbs?
The Booker has always been good at this. Now, after the “Booker of Bookers Award”, etc., just when one thought the prize must have run out of flashy ideas, what do we have? Yes, another surprise Booker: a “lost Man Booker prize”.
No, this is not a Booker that will be awarded to Indiana Jones. In 1971, just two years after it began, the Booker Prize was “adjusted” and, as a result, some fiction published in 1970 fell through the Net and was never considered for the prize. The long list, revived now, includes books by little-known names, as well as big ones such as David Lodge, Patrick White, Ruth Rendell and Iris Murdoch.
Prizes are fun; and the more, the merrier. But what, one wonders, is the point of giving a prize to an author who has been or become big since 1970? On the other hand, if they are ignored in favour of some less lucky author, would it be a fair evaluation? And if we have to go back and do justice to unjustly overlooked names, why not do the years all over again, and perhaps go even further back? I would have a long list for “Bookers from the Past”, starting with Henry Green, Earl Lovelace and R.K. Narayan.
Most recent books on Afghanistan and adjoining regions seem to be written by people whose prejudices match their ignorance. Jason Burke—like our own Pankaj Mishra—is an exception.
Burke’s fascinating On the Road to Kandahar: Travels through Conflict in the Islamic World is better than any of the popular novels that claim to paint a picture of the region. Given the pressures of journalism, Burke’s competent language sometimes falls short of the best of British travel writing from the past—such as Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands. But in terms of scope, adventure, perception and openness, Burke is their equal—and he obviously exceeds them in topicality.
Tabish Khair is the Denmark-based author of Filming. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org