Saturday, December 17, 2011

In defence of a reviewer, reviews and reviewing

This post concerns a topic that is close to my heart, both personally and professionally, and one that I am certain will resonate with reviewers - and writers too - everywhere.

Before I say anything more, here's a link to one of my latest reviews, Salil Desai's 'The Body in the Backseat', touted as India's first 'police procedural'. Some of you may have read it earlier, as I usually post all my reviews on Facebook. At the end, you will see a response by the author. Please read that carefully too. I would like your comments - honest, critical remarks, please, I like to think of myself as someone who can take criticism, as long as it isn't directed at my person; that prerogative is limited to only a few people - on both my review, and on the author's remarks.

Right. To answer any unasked questions - yes, the book really was as dreadful as I made it out to be. It's not the first bad book I've read, and it certainly won't be the last. When BW informed me of the author's ranting, I read his response, but chose to not answer because (i) There didn't seem to be any space left for engagement, as the author clearly didn't want to talk, he wanted to accuse; (ii) The author was as certain of the superior quality of his work as he was of the complete irrelevance of my review, and that isn't a place you can begin a discussion from; and (ii) He got personal, and I do not like personal attacks, especially when they come from people who do not know me. Reviewers, whether of books or films, are routinely attacked by the people whose work they critique, and I am not the first book reviewer an author has taken umbrage at; I share that dubious distinction with people far more qualified and experienced than I. So I didn't really mind - Mr Desai is as entitled to his opinion as I am to mine. Increasingly, though, I am beginning to think that perhaps I should respond, a polite reply answering the various points he has raised, just so readers of the publication get an idea of both points of view.

Matters should have ended there - in fact, I thought they had, and I had put it out of my mind - but they didn't. Because a couple of days ago, Mr Desai's publisher, Gyaana Books, run by Ms Divya Dubey, decided to join the fray, in a thinly veiled attack in a column published in, an online platform for entrepreneurs ( So now please, all of you kind enough to read this piece, read this article too.

Once you've done that, you might see why this bothered me. Part of the reason is undoubtedly my irritation at veiled attacks, which to me are tantamount to talking behind my back - if you have a problem with something I have written, why not say it to my face? Why not vent your ire on me, why not give us both a chance to talk something through? And a veiled attack also means (i) The writer safeguards himself/herself by couching the article in general terms, naming no names, thereby disassociating herself/himself from the person/event that triggered it off; and (ii) it gives the person at the heart of the affair no chance to respond (or respond at the risk of being accused of paranoia), while ensuring that all the barbs hidden under the otherwise reasonable tone in which the article is written hit home.

Besides, the hypocrisy of a publisher writing a prescriptive piece on 'how to write a review' is one that is far greater than any hypocrisy that that said publisher has imputed to me. And let me make it clear - as a reviewer, I do not engage with publishers. I am open to discussions with authors - in fact, I welcome them, however vitriolic that response might be (and they're often not; the writer of a book I reviewed recently wanted to talk to me about the critical remarks I had made. She was happy with my review all told, and we are now Facebook friends!).

And so while I definitely do not want to engage with any publisher regarding a review of mine, I choose to respond just to make clear what my role as a reviewer is here - a role as an arbiter of writing, and one that begins where the publisher's ends. Also, the publisher has nothing to do with my review; Gyaana Books might be a small publisher, but had a bigger publishing house published this book, my review would have been exactly the same. As anyone who has read my previous reviews would know. I have given better (better-known, certainly) authors and bigger publishers bad reviews, and never got such a response.

Now, my response, which also sums up my views on reviewing, and my - responsibility, shall we say? - as a reviewer.

First, to take the one (rather perplexing) aspect that seems to have raised everyone's hackles - the issue of giving out a bit of information that added to the suspense in the book, the homosexuality angle. People, it's called a spoiler warning/alert. It's a known, much-used, and perfectly acceptable method while reviewing books and films. You might not like it, you might hate people who use it, you might never use it yourself, but you cannot deny that it's a globally accepted practice. I did the usual and placed the warning right before I began my review, as I have seen done by reviewers all over the world, in various publications. I draw the line at going all the way, which I have actually seen some others do - nowhere did I even hint at the identity of the murderer, or what the motive behind the murder was. Calling me 'unethical', or my writing in 'bad taste' because there were spoilers, which appeared after a clear spoiler warning, is ridiculous - and baffling.

Second, the rules which apparently one should follow while writing reviews, and all of which I have clearly flouted. Who makes these rules? Are there clearly laid-out guidelines issued by a reviewers' forum or a publishers guild stating the parameters within which reviews ought to be written? Or are these rules we make up every time we encounter a review that doesn't meet our expectations? I must have read countless reviews all my life, and every review was as different as the person writing it. I've read reviews that merely rattled off the story; ones that provided an honest opinion; ones that did everything but talk about the book; ones that were more about the reviewer than the work being reviewed; ones that were factually incorrect, showing how little the reviewer actually knew of the work s/he was talking about. We make our own rules, we decide where our responsibility lies, and we give readers our opinion on the work in question.

Two of my rules: I never, ever criticise the author. It would be stupid to do so, since nine times out of ten I do not know the person. My focus is just on the book I have been given to read.
And second, I give my honest opinion on the work at hand. An opinion I am fairly certain of and qualified to provide after decades of reading, writing, and one full decade of working as an editor (and no, regardless of what anyone might say, working in the non-fiction, academic world does in no way mean you do not develop an appreciation of good writing. Some of the best academics manage to combine both terrific writing and research).

It is not my job to provide 'examples and parallels', to 'gently show the hows and whys'. I am not the author's friend, confidant, or publisher. That is their job. What I have with me is a published book, one that demands to be placed alongside quality - and some not so quality - books on shelves, which forms part of the category of 'Indian writing in English', which hopes to be bought and read. It is my job to state whether the book qualifies, whether (in my opinion) readers should spend a part of their precious time on this book, of all the millions they have to choose from. No, I'm sorry, I do not have a responsibility to the author, or the publisher - I'm sure they can commission their own reviews, should they choose. I do have a responsibility to the publication entrusting me with the review, and to the reader, and I try and do my best there by presenting an honest, unbiased opinion.

So yes, if I don't like a book, I will say so. Unequivocally. I don't hold back the praise when I come across a good book, and I will not make any allowances when I encounter a book that does not meet my standards. And I don't feel the need to apologise for this. As I said, my critique is always focused on the work, NEVER on the creator of that work, and I am always open to being questioned, challenged and argued with - provided it's done openly, and with a certain degree of civility.

There is a very good, reasoned argument behind my refusal to accord 'The Body in the Backseat' the status of a police procedural, which is one of the sub-genres of crime fiction, texts within which can, to use Roland Barthes' terminology, be classified as 'writerly texts', as opposed to 'readerly texts', which this one is - a bit of which I have mentioned in my review - but that can wait for later.

To continue with Barthes' thought - is it possible to be entirely objective when reading, especially for an active reader, even when the text in question is a 'readerly' one? Perhaps not. But does that mean that one should excuse oneself from reviewing a book merely because it has moved one to extreme emotion, whether it be distaste or pleasure? I doubt that - I suspect a large number of reviews would never be written if one followed a rule that stated, 'Thou shalt not review a text that thou hast disliked - or loved.' And why, pray, does this debate never come up when the review in question is favourable? Surely good reviews are just as susceptible to biases and authorial subjectivity?

It is all too easy to dismiss a bad review as an example of 'malevolence', 'wild ranting' and 'hysteria'. It is even easier to strip the reviewer who has given the book a bad review of all independent, objective thought and agency by demonising her as 'a biased judge, a failed writer, a disgruntled non-professional, a malicious human being or simply a green-eyed one'. And sometimes that might just be true - sometimes a bad review might simply reflect an inadequate person, an envious, miserable loser.

But sometimes, all it says is that the book in question is a very flawed one indeed.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Andaman ramblings II - Port Blair

We reached Port Blair late in the evening, past 7.30 PM. K and I stood at a port hole at one end of the corridor outside our cabin, and watched the Nicobar dock at Haddo jetty, saw the scurrying of dock workers as they ran up to the ship, waited for a crane to come up with a couple of what looked like unsteady gangplanks, and then fixed them in place. Disembarking then began, and we retrieved our luggage from our cabin and trooped downstairs to join the queue, sorry to say goodbye to the big ship that had been our home the past three days. The dock, predictably enough, was chaotic beyond belief - WHY do Indians not understand the meaning of 'queues'? - but we squirmed our way along the sides of a seething mass of people, all talking and waving identification papers of some sort as irate policemen manning the gates yelled and shoved back. One of them caught sight of my peering face and took pity on me, letting us through after a quick look at our passports and a beady-eyed stare at K with his huge rucksack (everyone, but everyone, in the Andamans took him for a foreigner, for reasons best known to themselves, remaining unconvinced even after he spoke to them in Hindi or, as was most often the case, Bengali). We hurriedly made our way out, only to be greeted by another mass of people, this time mostly auto drivers, taxi drivers, and the ubiquitous touts. We found an auto, gave them the address of our hotel, haggled about five minutes, and then set off.

The first thing that struck me a couple of minutes into the journey was - it was cold. All over the Andamans, however hot and humid the days might be, the temperature plummets as soon as the sun sets, and the late evening air felt chilly. The marketplaces we went through seemed much like any marketplace in any Indian small town, with one possible exception - the traffic was very light. I put it down to it being past 8 PM, but later realised that that's the way it is, even in Port Blair - you might even drive a few minutes at a stretch without meeting any other vehicle! Very refreshing, that is, for a city dweller. As K chatted away with the auto driver, asking him all sorts of questions, I stared out trying to take in as much as I could; and soon enough, we left the town proper and made our way down a dark, winding road with no streetlights, no people, and no cars of any sort. We occasionally passed a house or three, lights glimmering through leafy trees - and Prabhu, the auto driver wanted to know why we were staying at a resort located so far away from the town proper. Because we didn't want to stay bang in the middle of the city, we said. Why? he asked in a tone of great bewilderment. Because we live in a city all the time, we said. He said nothing more, but we could see him mentally shaking his head, and going 'These tourists are crazy!' much like Obelix might have. He stopped to ask for directions a couple of times, and in about half an hour or so, we were there, at the Palm Grove Eco Resort.

Palm Grove

All one could make out of Palm Grove that late were a dimly lit path, fluttering moths, lots of trees, and little cottages situated on either side of the path. We were shown to our cottage by a young boy who happened to be Bengali, and after checking out the very cute and spacious bamboo cottage, complete with AC (which didn't work too well), attached bathroom (which was nice and large, although the tap was leaky, much like our tap at home, so we didn't mind), television set (which was promptly switched on) and telephone, we ordered a large pot of coffee (the staff soon learned what inveterate coffee drinkers we are; the little pot was soon replaced with large flasks), and soon thereafter, called it an early night. It is only when you're out of the city that you realise how unaccustomed you are to complete silence; there is always some sound or the other in a city, even in the dead of night, and total quiet, broken only by the relentless humming of cicadas, can be very unnerving. It took me a while to fall asleep that night.

When I woke up and opened the window, though, I was delighted. We seemed to have been transported into a quiet, rural suburb, almost a village - our window looked out onto a little pond, lots of trees flanking it, with hilly fields stretching beyond. As I gazed out happily, I spotted a huge gecko making its stately way down the path beside the pond, while some chickens fluttering around stood aside respectfully. After breakfast, we met the owner-manager Shibu Varghese, a very friendly, warm man, with a phenomenal knowledge of the flora and fauna inhabiting the Andaman Islands. He blamed his knowledge on the fact that his sister was a botanist and his brother-in-law a wildlife conservation officer; but his love for plants, trees and animals was all his own. Palm Grove is covered with trees, bushes and shrubs, all of which Shibu has planted himself, each of which he knows: cinnamon trees, pepper bushes, all-spice plants, bamboo trees, and his joy at our delight was apparent. We were soon firm friends, and our many conversations with him made our stay there all the more enjoyable.

Viper Island

Our first day in Port Blair, we decided to take a boat ride down to Viper Island, which was home to one of the first prisons built by the British for troublesome Indian political prisoners. The name comes from the boat that carried the British officer who actually built the prison - it was called The Viper. While the ride there and back was lovely - clear sky, emerald seas (which changed colour every minute), islands of varying sizes dotting the sea, a few inhabited, most not, covered with dense foliage - Viper Island itself isn't much to write home about. It didn't help that the boat man/guide threatened to leave us behind if we weren't back on the boat in 15 minutes, which is just enough time to race up steep steps to a crumbly red building, stare at a blackened beam which was where prisoners were hanged from, take a quick peek into another room which didn't seem to have much purpose, and race down again. Half an hour later we were back at Aberdeen Jetty, just as the lights were coming on in Port Blair. The next couple of hours were spent rambling around Aberdeen Bazaar, and having a very satisfying dinner at Gagan Restaurant, which was once owned by Bengalis, but now serves the ubiquitous north Indian fare. The food was good though, the place clean, the service quick, so I'd recommend it.

Cellular Jail

Easily the most popular and well-known tourist spot in Port Blair. However, if a love of history, and a desire to see one of the most horrifying monuments to colonial brutality is what calls you there, you'd return disappointed. The Indian government's idea of preserving historical monuments - when they do preserve them, that is - is effacing every bit of history from the bricks and the structures themselves; well-manicured lawns, topiaries, pretty flowering shrubs, and brick structures that had been painted white greeted us. This was definitely not the sight that had greeted political prisoners in the early twentieth century, some of them jailed for offences as minor as 'breaking a police cordon'. It was hard to imagine the horror of it all in the face of such determined white-washing; although little could be done to mitigate the darkness of the claustrophobic cells, the terror you could imagine the prisoners locked in feeling. As we wandered around with cheerful, loud tourists, we tried to find spots that retained their original grimness; and parts of the building, difficult to reach because of the dense shrubbery, gave us just that. I realised I'm getting older when a bunch of loudly laughing - braying, rather - young men by one of the cells filled me with sudden fury - people had died here so you lot could have the freedom to laugh at the site of their misery one day, I wanted to yell. Do people laugh at the things they see in Auschwitz? If they don't, does their respect stem from the fact that the place has been left exactly as it was, and not prettified, thereby leaching it of all horror and shame? Or is it just us Indians who have no sense of history, no respect for the past?

A couple of interesting things about Port Blair: there are no beggars in the city. Not one.
Everyone's uniformly polite and friendly, even the cops. And the traffic police are all women.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Andaman ramblings I - M.V. Nicobar

While planning a much-needed, much-awaited vacation early in September this year, we narrowed down the choice of places to either Sri Lanka, or the Andaman Islands. While embarking on the next step, figuring out dates and modes of travel, we came across something interesting during our research on the net - ships (cargo-cum-passenger ones) leave Calcutta twice a month for Port Blair. That led us to call the offices of the Shipping Corporation of India, where, miraculously, someone answered the phone and told us that yes, ships do travel between Cal and Port Blair, and that the journey takes a full four days. And call after the 20th for more details.

Four days on a ship! Sri Lanka didn't stand a chance after that.

Much headache and anxious moments later (the SCI is, after all, a government office, and as such cannot possibly do anything on time, or smoothly; a phone call on the 21st told us they still did not have the October schedule for ships, and to call a couple of days later. Which we did, to be told that the ship would leave on 7 October, and call a couple more days later to find out about tickets. And then one day went by listening to the phone ring away at the other end; the next day someone did pick up, and the day after K went and got us tickets for a deluxe cabin.) we finally had the tickets; but since it was already so late, we got into a tizzy making hotel reservations in Port Blair, doing some (very) last moment shopping, finishing up our Pujo shopping, trying to snatch some moments with family during the Pujo days, all the while finishing up as much office work as I could before leaving. Finally, the 7th arrived, and I phoned the SCI that morning to find out when the ship would sail (everyone K had spoken to out there had been blissfully vague), to be told that sailing time was 4 PM, and we were to be at the Kidderpore docks at 2.30 PM. Panic promptly ensued as there was still a lot to be done to get ourselves ready; K was remarkably calm throughout while I hyper-ventilated - he said the people at the SCI offices had apparently told him 'Eta to ar hawai jahaj noi, lokera shobai to ar thik shomoy ashte pare na, jahaj dariye thake' ('This isn't an aeroplane; not everyone can come on time, but the ship waits for every passenger!'). Somewhat reassured by this, we left around 2 PM - the roads were empty, this being the day after Dashami, and we made it by 3 PM, to be greeted by the longest, serpentine queue I have ever seen, in the largest, most cavernous hangar I'll probably ever be in, at the docks.

After standing in the queue for an hour (it began moving, oh so slowly, about 20 minutes after we joined it), we finally found ourselves at the baggage X-ray, and soon after that climbed a rickety wooden gangplank and found ourselves inside the ship, the M.V. Nicobar (I had only managed a fleeting look at it while coming on board and it seemed massive - although, as ships went, it was a fairly small one, apparently); and several confusing twists and turns took us to the Information counter, where a friendly pursar (whose name we later learnt was Suresh Kumar) asked someone to show us to our cabin.

The cabin was lovely, neat and clean and comfortable, with two bunks and a large sofa; and a tiny TV set, a little fridge, a writing table and an adorable, very small bathroom. And two huge portholes, which we promptly stationed ourselves at. And all the day's panic could have been avoided - the ship moved only at 6 PM, and stopped soon after, finally sailing past 8 PM. Exhausted with the turmoil and activity of the last few days - weeks, rather - we had an early dinner and fell into our bunks (which were super comfortable) and were fast asleep in no time at all. Waking up the next morning was a delightful experience - waking up on a ship!! - we were woken at 6.30 AM by a friendly attendant bearing cups of tea, an unearthly hour where I'm concerned, but who wants to waste time sleeping on the first day on board a ship? We soon realised that the ship's routine was to be our own for the next three days: bed tea at 6.30 AM, breakfast at 8.30 AM, lunch at 12.30 PM, tea again at 3.30 PM, and dinner at 6.30 PM. We had to present ourselves at the dining saloon as soon as the announcement was made; and those in charge clearly believed in stuffing us so full of food that we could barely move afterwards. Slow, lazy, sleepy days those were; all we had to do was eat, sleep, take an occasional stroll on deck, stare at the ceaseless, restless, ever-changing waves in the middle of the Indian Ocean, read, talk - and, of course, K was all over the Nicobar with his camera, taking endless shots.

We learnt during one of our explorations that the Nicobar was 20 years old, originally a Polish ship; it was, as Suresh Kumar told us, a cargo ship which was meant to carry passengers and be a cruise ship of sorts. However, it had over the years turned into a ship that ferried mostly the 'labour class'; 'they make it so difficult to maintain any discpline,' he lamented. Signs exhorting one to not spit or smoke went merrily unheeded, as did signs (which would have shocked the politically correct) asking 'bunk passengers' to not move beyond the third deck. We were supposed to have the 'sun deck' to ourselves, but found it full of the bunk people; which would have been fine, had they not been smoking, taking up all the space, and leching incessantly, desperately. I kept to our cabin for the most part, and went on deck just a couple of times - in any case, it was too hot during the day to sit outside.

On our tour of the ship on the last day, we discovered that the ship had a well-stocked dispensary, and mini hospital wards for men and women, of which the ship's doctor, Dr Mani, was very proud. During that private tour, made possible because of K's journalistic credentials, and the fact that he'd become friendly with everyone on board by the end of day 1, Suresh Kumar told us mournfully, 'My ship has been made according to international standards. Unfortunately, our passengers are not up to those standards', while we giggled helplessly. We were also taken (along with passengers from the first and second-class cabins) to the communications and navigation rooms, where we stared solemnly at various gadgets and thoughts of Captain Haddock went through my mind. We had reached the Andaman seas by then, and watched Suresh Kumar show us just where we were on the chart; I studied a very interesting chart about waves and wind speed, and thereafter spoke very knowledgeably about the wind speed being 'at least a Force 5-6 - look at the white horses!' on a couple of our many boat rides!

And I made a delightful discovery - I do not get sea-sick. Not even remotely. In fact, the choppier the boat, the more fun it is. I would think it difficult to get sea sick on a ship as large as the Nicobar - besides, its maximum speed goes only up to 16 knots. Also, the sea was calm all through, the sky a brilliant blue, the sunshine blinding; I daresay it would have been a different experience had we encountered rough weather. 'The Nicobar is built to withstand wind speeds up to Force 20,' Suresh Kumar informed us, but I'm rather glad she wasn't put to the test.

For people wishing to travel to the Andamans, do consider taking a ship - but only if you like quiet, lazy days, if you love the sea, if watching the restless waves and catching sight of leaping silvery fish fill you with joy. The Nicobar - or any of the SCI ships - isn't a cruise ship; there's no on-board entertainment, the television, if it works, shows one Hindi film and one English, depending on the DVDs the ship has - if you're not travelling with congenial companions and are not readers, you'd probably die of boredom. We loved it, though - loved looking out of the portholes, wandering along twisty, narrow passages lined with green baize, reading all the signs, even the ancient, 20-year plans of the ship, curling up on the bunks to read, laughing at an old tyre which I think was meant to serve as a life belt, feeling the dip and swell of the sea beneath our feet as we walked. I hated saying goodbye to the ship - it had become home for us. And it took days - literally - for the ground to stop rolling beneath my feet.