HT Picks: The most interesting books of the week
A novel that features an essay on Compassion for the Communist Party, a book on historical journeys into Tibet, and two ‘anti-novels’
A SECRET HISTORY OF COMPASSION BY PAUL ZACHARIA
The art of lying reaches the zenith of its glory as Lord Spider, famous author of popular fiction, JL Pillai, eminent executioner, aspiring writer, shape-shifter and meditative voyeur, and Rosi, Spider’s wife and freelancing philosopher, get together to write an essay on Compassion for the Communist Party.
God herself is here. So is Stalin (whose real identity is now revealed.) And Satan (whose true nature is finally discovered). As also a Gandhi doppelganger. And making a guest appearance in this pre-truth tale about a post–truth literary partnership is Jesus in his 37th incarnation. Other personalities include Brother Dog, the cynic of the household, Tarzan , a well-known stud bull, and Pretty Man, a snake-father.
Flying and shape-changing flourish in this wordy world. There’s virginity in the air. If there’s madness, there’s no evidence of it. And far away waits the Valley of Lost Songs.
By one of India’s foremost writers, widely known for his wicked turn of phrase and unfailing irreverence for the Establishment, this is a novel in brilliant, irresistible free fall.*
BELLS OF SHANGRI-LA BY PARIMAL BHATTACHARYA
Almost all the Himalaya had been mapped by the time the Great Game – in which the British and Russian Empires fought for control of Central and Southern Asia – reached its zenith in the latter half of the 19th century. Only Tibet remained unknown and unexplored, zealously guarded and closed off to everyone. Britain sent a number of spies into this forbidden land, disguised as pilgrims and wanderers, outfitted with secret survey equipment and not much else. These intrepid explorers were tasked with collecting topographical knowledge, and any information about the culture and customs of Tibet.
Among the many who were sent was Kinthu, a tailor who went as a monk’s companion to confirm that the Tsangpo and the Brahmaputra were the same river. In an arduous mission that lasted four years, Kinthup had many adventures – he was even sold as a slave by the monk – before he returned, having succeeded, only to find that the officers who had sent him, and the family he left behind, were all dead.
Sarat Chandra Das, a school master, also went on a clandestine mission. He came back in two years, having compiled extensive data and carrying a trove of ancient manuscripts and documents. He went on to become a renowned Tibetologist and Buddhist scholar. All the people who had helped and hosted him in Tibet were either imprisoned or put to death.
Bells of Shangri-La brings to vivid life the journeys and adventures of Kinthup, Sarat Chandra Das and others, including Eric Baley, an officer who was part of the British invasion of Tibet in 1903, and who later followed in Kinthup’s footsteps to the Tsangpo. Weaving biography with precise historical knowledge, and the memories of his own treks over some of the trails covered by these travelers, Parimal Bhattacharya writes in the great tradition of Peter Hopkirk and Peter Matthiessen to create a sparkling unprecedented work of non-fiction.*
TWO ANTI-NOVELS BY SUBIMAL MISRA
Subimal Misra – anarchist, activist, anti-establishment, experimental ‘anti-writer’ – is a contemporary master, and among India’s greatest living writers. Misra’s works are confrontational, and meant to challenge and provoke readers – morally, politically, and also in terms of what they expect from ‘literature’. This Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar’s Tale is a novella about trying to write a novella about a tea estate worker turned Naxalite named Ramayan Chamar, who gets arrested during a workers’ strike and is beaten up and killed in custody. But every time the author attempts to write that story, reality intrudes in various forms to create a picture of a nation and society that is broken down and where systemic inequalities are perpetuated by the middle and upper classes, which are either indifferent or actively malignant. Where Colour Is A Warning Sign goes even further in its experimentation, abandoning the barest pretence of narrative and composed entirely as a collage of vignette and snippets of dialogue, reportage, autobiography, etc.
Together these Two Anti-Novels are a direct assault on the ‘vast conspiracy of not seeing’ that makes us look away from the realities of our socio-political order. In V Ramaswamy’s translation, they make for difficult, challenging but ultimately immensely powerful reading.*
*All copy from book flap.