Wednesday, 31 May 2017

#11 A book written by a male author

Bookless in Baghdad by Sashi Tharoor

This category was very vague – a book written by a male author, doesn’t help narrow down that easily. So, I decided to forge a connection between this and another book I will be reading soon (under the condition – a book written by a female author). The book I intend to read as a parallel is Reading Lolita in Tehran. Now, what connects these two books?

Both are exemplars of a new literary genre on the block – the bibliomemoir.  Defined by Joyce Carol Oates in her 2014 New York Times article as “a subspecies of literature combining criticism and biography with the intimate, confessional tone of autobiography.” Basically, a book on books! Belonging to the world of non-fiction, but essentially about fiction, this is a genre bending genre which I thought would be interesting to juxtapose between a male author and a female author. So, let’s look at this particular bibliomemoir.

 Sashi Tharoor is no stranger to the public – equally prominent as a charming diplomat, eloquent speaker, best-selling author as well as a politician. In this collection of essays (one was a speech he delivered), all on literary topics, Tharoor discusses the many books, authors, global issues, literary trends etc. that he has taken a personal interest in. The book is divided into five sections, intriguingly termed; inspirations, reconsiderations, the literary life, appropriations and interrogations. He begins with his affirmation on his life-long love of books which started at a very young age. Providing glimpses into his private life and treasured memories at times, recalls how he used to read voraciously as a child.  As he recalls,

“One year I kept a list of the volumes I'd finished (comics didn't count), hoping to reach 365 before the calendar did. I made it before Christmas.”

This sets the tone for his later life where he has gone on to become one of the most erudite and creative artist of the English language as we know it.

Tharoor through his essays pays tribute to a number of writers who have influenced him – his ode to P.G.Wodehouse is delightful as well as an eye-opener. Apparently India is the only place where there seems to be cult following of Wodehouse. It shocked Tharoor when he found out the trifling manner in which Wodehouse was viewed in a literary festival he was a part of. His experiences on reading other authors are also very insightful. He talks in length about one writer in particular though – whom he calls the “head of his profession”. It is none other than Salman Rushdie. Tharoor has great admiration for the work of Rushdie and that is visible through the many ways in which he professes his solidarity for Rushdie. 

He also talks about V.S. Naipaul, R.K. Narayan, Pablo Neruda, Le Carré, Pushkin among others. Being a bit autobiographical in nature , this book also delves into certain personal moments where he discusses his own books , mainly – The Great Indian Novel, Show Business and Riot. He brings in reviews of his books by others, justifies what he wrote, why he wrote it and how he wrote it. This would be interesting if you have read all these works by him, and even otherwise it provides a glimpse into the mind of an author and his role in both the writing of his novels as well as its aftermath.

Tharoor comments on his direct experiences with the functional illiteracy he finds in many American cities, his observations on how France pays tribute to writers and artists and how India has a rich literary depository of talent that is mind-boggling in its sheer diversity. He effectively argues how writing in English , the language of our once upon a time colonizers, is the only way he knows to unite the experiences of India. In short he offers a complete world view of the literary scene.
At times his references to his St. Stephen college days are a bit tedious and uninteresting, but he is trying to bring up what has mattered the most to him, and how his undergraduate years spent there has shaped him into what he is today. 

My favourite essay would have to be the title essay ‘Bookless in Baghdad’ which comes in the final section. In it, he describes what he sees in Baghdad on a trip as part of his job as a UN Ambassador. He visits a book bazaar there and is immediately saddened by the reality of what he comes to understand. Crippled with US sanctions and with their greatly diminished currency, many Iraqi families were selling off their precious books,  thousands of books at unbelievably low prices. It also showed how Iraqis are great bibliophiles and very highly literate (quite shocking, considering the condition of the country at the moment). As a bystander, and a book lover himself, he understands how much pain the owners of these books would have in parting with their precious copies.

Located within each essay are interesting insights and impeccable language that will leave you with newly learned facts, words as well as ideas on what you would like to read next. Though it isn’t entirely fiction nor non-fiction, this is a literary chronicle that could inspire both the writer and reader in you.   

[P.S. Do check out this list of bibliomemoirs if you are interested in reading one - click here

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