Read On

“Actually, Dilip couldn’t make it, he ate too much paaya last night, and his stomach’s upset.” Those were the words preceding my introduction to Shobha Dé this past weekend, at a book-launch for a new author from Karachi, someone named Nadya A.R. (like E. E. Cummings, only the other way around), who has written what promises to be yet another opus to my home-town. This one, since Kamila Shamsie seems to have used up all the other referential titles, is entitled Kolachi Dreams. I haven’t read the book just yet, nor have I been able to find myself arsed enough to look up reviews, but I’m working on the premise that more desi writers is a good thing, so I’m hoping it’ll be a good read. I’m a little annoyed by the elements that went into the publication, but we’ll get to that in a second.What’s important about this however, other than the fact that I’m about to throw the book across the room at one of the cats I’m babysitting in order to get it off my nice new suits, is that of all the attendees at the launch party, maybe only a dozen (of about seventy or more) knew that there was actually a book being launched. As far as almost everyone else was concerned, the dinner was an excuse to be seen with a “celebrity author”, have their (very recently purchased) copies of her books autographed, and otherwise schmooze mightily. [Amusing side-note: I’m good friends with the managers of a few bookstores here in Karachi, and they were telling me the other day how almost every copy of every Shobha Dé book they had was sold out over the weekend that she was in town, with aunty-jis battling each other to the (social) death in order to get their hands on the last copy of Socialite Evenings. Even better was the flustered aunty-ji who, obviously late to the retail party, held up a copy of Stardust, exclaiming in disgust, “I can’t find anything written by her in here, what sort of author is she?”]

So Shobha Dé was nice enough, although slightly exhausted-looking. It seemed to be a let-down for one of the hosts, who commented to someone else within earshot of me: “I was rather looking forward to seeing Pakistan’s bitchiest man meet India’s cattiest woman, but they’re both just too civil for this to be any fun.” There were entertaining moments as well, not the least of which involved my pretending to have read all of Ms. Dé’s works. The conversation went something like this:

Flustered Hostess: “Oh, meet [Sin], he’s read ALL your books.” dragging Sin into the conversation with a vice-like grip on one arm

Shobha: “Oh, which did you like the best?”

Sin: lying maniacally “I couldn’t possibly choose, they’re all so powerful in their own ways.”

Shobha: “Really, you think so?” preening just a little bit

Sin: improvising madly “Absolutely, yes, they’re so…revealing, yes, they bare the cultural tumults inherent in the sub-continent, and your social insights!”

What I wish I’d said was “You write soft porn, woman, give it up already!”

Anyway, to return to the source of my angst, I was actually rather surprised at how the book launch had been publicised, i.e. as a Shobha Dé-related party than an actual book launch. If it hadnÂ’t been for the stack of Kolachi Dreams over by the chicken tikkas, I wouldnÂ’t even have know that Dé’s presence was meant to be anything other than some sort of vague social coup. I was also surprised at the pricing for the book, which made it fairly expensive to purchase; it cost more than a number of imported English books, and I felt that for a relatively unknown writerÂ’s work to command as much money as it did was rather foolish. Half the reason I try to support local publishers and authors is because I think itÂ’s important to have a home-grown reader base, with literature widely available at cheap prices, so that anyone can get their hands on it. We do have a handful of local publishing houses, but they tend to publish work thatÂ’s either deathly dull (yet another not-so-scathing indictment of corruption in politics, or yet another never-ending book of Indo-Pak history), or of interest to three-and-a-half economic statisticians over at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. And when I see stuff like The Simoquin Prophecies (fiction? SCIENCE-fiction? That doesn’t cost a thousand rupees? Holy crap!) coming out for almost half the price that Kolachi Dreams is listed at, just across the border, I donÂ’t really know what to make of it. Is it that we just donÂ’t have enough good writers? Or is it that our publishing industry is so far gone that itÂ’s hallucinating? IÂ’ve heard arguments that the English-speaking masses are a niche market, but IÂ’ve also heard arguments from people who wouldnÂ’t traditionally fall under “English speaker”, that they would buy more local books in English if only they were (a) affordable, and (b) more interesting.

In the meanwhile, I continue to add items to my Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com wishlists, and not-so-subtly remind my friends coming in from the UK and the US to bring me books. Lots and lots of them.

38 thoughts on “Read On

  1. “Actually, Dilip couldn’t make it, he ate too much paaya last night, and his stomach’s upset.”

    I presume that’s her shipping-magnate consort. Poor baby.

    As for Shobha, she’s a punster’s wet-dream: the Dé of atonement, every dog has his Dé, that’ll be the Dé, Dé light come and me wan go home…editors at Bombay gossip rags surely thank God for the Dé she was born.

    Something to be said, though, for the way she plays the role of catty society queen to a hilt. She knows she’s no Narayan. Her thing is, “But why would I want to be, darling?”

  2. Sin, excellent point about the need for paperbacks to be priced in the right range. I have not bought a novel at book price for years — always pick them up in second hand bookshops or cheapo off amazon or abebooks.com.

    However, perhaps what Pakistan needs is for the market to be cultivated more by producing mass market work, giving revenue to publishers who can then bring in, and subsidise more ‘literary writers’. As much as we criticise trash novels, I think a pulp reading culture is needed to keep the industry moving and in cashflow, to lubricate and sustain at least a basic reading culture. That’s why Shoba De and her Pakistani equivalent have their place.

  3. I presume that’s her shipping-magnate consort. Poor baby.

    I’m actually related to Dilip through some labyrinthine family connection that I’d need to ask my father to explain to me. I don’t recall ever meeting Shobha though I probably did at some point long ago, but I’ve sure heard a lot of anecdotes. I was wondering when she’d make it to Sepia. Thanks Sin for another fine post.

  4. I’m actually related to Dilip through some labyrinthine family connection

    Mr Mitter: please investigate that. I’d love to live like a heartless aristocrat next time I’m in Bombay, and this could be my in. “Is Dilip home? I’m friends with the son of his third cousin twice removed. Said I could crash here for a while.”

    Mr Snapper: I agree with you about pulp fiction and its, er, lubricative role. In her cheesy way, Ms Dé has done great service to publishing in India. And surely, some of that has converted into increased readership for more serious authors. “But darling, whatever do you mean? I am serious!”

  5. I make no claims to be part of the informed literati, as evidenced by the fact that I’ve never even heard of this author, but I’ve been enjoying your posts, Sin.

  6. the Dé of atonement, every dog has his Dé, that’ll be the Dé, Dé light come and me wan go home…editors at Bombay gossip rags surely thank God for the Dé she was born

    Kobayashi I missed you man. We need the above every now and Dén!

    OK this an ignorant question. I have never read Shobha De. I know she writes soft porn and is quite popular in India or is she? Other than being a socialite I find something quite empowering about that. Is anyone else doing this in India? The role of sexuality in the Indian society where the book has a heroin and not a hero and is catered to women makes me think ‘about time’. Your thoughts?

  7. Sub-con authors writing in English need a home grown reading base and they have to stop writing for the west with their eyes on the Booker. This results in re-hashing the same old themes with rarely a new insight. We need a range of voices and there is plenty of room for pulp and the literary works.

    I am guessing the Urdu fiction scene in Pak thrives well as does regional literature of all stripes in India. If only we could have more of that among the English language writers. I think much of it (Eng writing) becomes elitist and the prose is so purple!

    De was a guilty pleasure though along with Harold Robbins. But that was when I was 10. I don’t understand why aunties still dig it. Or pose with it.

  8. If Dan Brown had chicken tikka at his next book launch stateside, I might be persuaded to go.

    So, Sin, on a scale of 1-10 what is De’s fag hag score? She seems like a 10 to me ;-)

  9. JOAT De began her career as a copywriter. Moved on to Stardust, the prime source of Bollywood gossip and hinglish. She also had a profitable line in society columns. A lot of that stuff was hilarious as her aim was true and the targets were the usual biggies nobody dared to mess with.

    Her books suck. Hard. Some of the characters are claimed to be based on real life socialites. I am too tapori to verify those claims.

    Mumbai street kids sell them at half the original price.

  10. Aw shucks, JoAT, that’s sweet.

    And, Lord no, I haven’t actually read Dé. Life’s too short. William Dalrymple does have a delightful and perceptive essay on her though, in his book “The Age of Kali.” He too, thinks she’s a plus, of a spectacularly garish sort.

    The best thing about this Dé is her self-awareness. Let me type out a passage from Dalrymple’s profile that struck me:

    “As I see it, ballsy women have a hard time here,” she said. “That’s just the way it is.” There was no self-pity in the way she spoke, just resignation. She had left herself wide open to all the flak, of course, had courted it even, but still you couldn’t help feeling a certain sympathy. In a culture which has elevated sycophancy into an art form, Shobha Dé doesn’t play the game. In what is still a rigidly conventional and conformist society, she has stood out of line, and has always been prepared to pay the price. Certainly her writing is no great shakes, but that’s not the issue. The real problem is that Shobha has guts.

    “I detest subterfuge and hypocrisy,” she said. “I live my life openly, and in my writing I describe what really happens in this town–I tell it how it is. My attitude exacts a price.”

    “Is it Bombay that’s the problem?” I asked.

    “No. I love this town. At least here I can live on my own terms. I wouldn’t be able to function anywhere else.”

    She shrugged her shoulders: “I don’t think Shobha Dé would be allowed to exist anywhere else in India. Another city,” she said, “would have crushed me.”
  11. Any of you etymologists want to throw light on “Kolachi”? Which has nothing to do w/ kolache. The book based on Pakistani society, the book party in Pakistan and all, my best guess is that it has to do with the old name of the city of Karachi. Neat!

  12. Please, just in case there’s any confusion, I’m not comparing Nadya with Shobha, simply because I have yet to read her book. I don’t think it’s quite as pulp-lit as Shobha’s stuff (not that I’ve done more than skim a few pages of Bombay Nights at the age of eight, feeling very daring in the school library), but I’m also not sure that it’s good enough to be worth the price. I think the problem is that local publishers feel that any English book that deserves to be out in print also needs to hit Booker-worthy themes from inception. I think that Sama Publishers is going to do a good job with stuff, but if you look through one or two of the other fiction titles they have, the general subject-matter seems very hackneyed. I’m all about the pulp mass market paperbacks!

    The Indo-Pak science-fiction? Well, it’s not utterly brilliant, but The Simoquin Prophecies actually isn’t half bad. Has some funny lines, e.g. an excerpt from one part in which the Hero (capital H!) is training to Rescue a Maiden:

    Most of the rescues in the legends were, Gaam said, either fictitious or pre-arranged, and hardly ever sheer coincidence or fact. In the end a grumbling Maya had let herself be tied to a rock while Asvin, sword in hand, prowled the beach. The fact that the serpentÂ’ arrival had created a huge wave that had swept Gaam and Asvin far away and Maya had had to burn off her ropes and kill the monster on her own was, they all agreed, best kept secret.
  13. Not to threadjack, but Indo-Pak Science Fiction?!?! Does such a thing actually exist? Is it any good?

    Amardeep had a couple of great posts up about South Asian sci-fi; you’d probably find them if you looked in the archives. A desi sci-fi novel that I personally enjoyed is Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Calcutta Chromosome’ – it was a lot more fun and intellectually adventurous than the family sagas/overwrought magic realism that a lot of desi writers churn out.

  14. Sin, Even better was the flustered aunty-ji who, obviously late to the retail party, held up a copy of Stardust, exclaiming in disgust, “I can’t find anything written by her in here, what sort of author is she?” Perhaps the lady was just being witty :) Shobha De was one of the early writers in Stardust, and editors of many society magazines in Bombay before it becaome Mumbai.

    I haven’t read anything but short extracts from the books of the De. Her writing – not too shabby as long as you are not looking for anything beyond a bodice ripper, her columns … Bad with a capital B.

    I can’t help noticing that it is a little unusual that there is a lot of men reading the bodice rippers. Men are supposed to be more, ahem, picture oriented.

  15. Forgot to add. De was a successful model before all that. Maiden name Rajadhyaksha. Cousin of celeb photographer Gautam Rajadhyaksha. Current desi pulp paperback writers have a lot to thank her for. She pretty much created the genre. I am referring to sales figures. Not trying to open “So & so existed before her” discussion.

  16. Oops. The quoted section extends to the end of my last message.

    Never fear. The monkeys have taken care of it.

  17. Never fear. The monkeys have taken care of it.

    Dzenkuje! Three bottles of feni have been FedExed to the bunker.

  18. I was going to say Ms De was responsible for the Stardust ‘isstyle’ of writing typified in her “Neeta’s Natter” column, but somebody beat me to it. The “Hinglish” spoken there has now become so commonplace we regularly take it for granted. She can also be hysterically funny when she puts her mind to it. Her interview of Mark Tully actually had me Laughing Out Loud. And her defence of the uber-nouveau-riche (“Now, yaar what so bad about having money?” is sidesplittingly funny. Pity about the pulp she’s churned out.

  19. Guys, she FOUNDED Stardust, she didn’t JUST write for it! Big difference since it is one of the biggest Bollywood Celeb magazines on the market. And though I’ve never read her books, I love her columns and her absolute fearlessness when it comes to writing. Sin, I’m so jealous you got to meet her. She’s beautiful and always so put together. In a word: Fierce.

  20. In the meanwhile, I continue to add items to my Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com wishlists, and not-so-subtly remind my friends coming in from the UK and the US to bring me books. Lots and lots of them.

    Sin, I wouldn’t mind getting you a few. I could even lob them across the border from Delhi.

  21. met her a few times. even gave her tips on child-rearing. was good friends with her son and step-daughter who were my classmates in school and are still friends.

    in addition to her having propositioned several people i know in exchange for an interview while she was a journalist (and when i say journalist, i use the term loosely), there’s a ton of other gossip out there. just ask any bombayite.

    still, she has us all talking about her. and she was one of the few indian “authors” (again: use term loosely) who got written up about in time magazine pretty early on, in the late 80s, before indian fiction became trendy. i mean post-rushdie, of course. i think they called her the jackie collins of india or something to that effect. well, i call her that anyway. a reasonable analogy, i think.

  22. Guys, she FOUNDED Stardust, she didn’t JUST write for it! Big difference

    That would be Nari Hira. De was his protege who also worked at Nari Hira’s ad agency.

  23. I was going to say Ms De was responsible for the Stardust ‘isstyle’ of writing typified in her “Neeta’s Natter” column, but somebody beat me to it. I think she has copied her style as well, but anyway, my point is : as one of the “top columnists” in the Times of India (doesn’t she have a regular column that appears in the centerspread?), Shobha De doesn’t do the informed, thoughtful sort of writing that you would expect from a top columnist in a newspaper. Infotainment, perhaps. Quality journalism, no.

    I know that it is often difficult for newspapers in India to pay big bucks for columnists, but still. The Hindu has done a much, much better job with the middle pages than the Times of India given the same sort of constraints. Even if I disagree with the columnists in the Hindu, I respect their opinions. Why have a socialite taking up space when that space could instead be used nurturing talent?

    I would agree with the Jackie Collins analogy. She has opened up Indian society with all that soft pr0n, fo’ sho.

  24. DDiA, thanks for the offer! I may well take you up on that but I suspect any packages lobbed across from Delhi will be subject to strict laser-sighted sniper fire. :-/

  25. Then there’s the non-fiction she’s written; most recently Spouse, her take on the ups and downs of a long-term marriage.

    While her novels do fit well in the shopping and —-ing genre, I think she’s a fun read now and then. Paperback timepass.

  26. One good thing from De’s visit. I found this blog. Great fun to read.

    By the way I have my first write of the English novel ready for edit by self. But damn writers block; can’t get myself to do it. Would it help if I read Shobha De’s novel.