Maximum Summer Nerdery [UPDATED]

Maximum Cover.gif

UPDATE: In case you didn’t know, you got a 48 hour extension– discussion regarding section one commences WEDNESDAY, the 4th.

A few of you have inquired about SM’s newest misadventure, namely the endeavor I promised to start several years ago, so that the four of you who haven’t read my favorite book of all time could do so, with my fervent encouragement.

Alas, we will NOT be starting off our Brown Book Club with a “suitable” anything, our first book is Maximum City and in case you missed the various comments scattered about the blog regarding it, section one of it is “due” this Monday, July 2 this Wednesday, July 4. You were warned. 🙂

Why are we doing this, you might not ask? Well, if you’ve spent any amount of time avoiding work, school or familial obligations with the Mutiny, you’ve probably noticed that many of our commenters are an intelligent, well-read bunch. Ek problem: the books that many of us “take for granted” and assume everyone has read, like A Suitable Boy or Interpreter of Maladies or, indeed, Maximum City HAVEN’T been digested. Well, it’s okay to admit that you had your nose buried in For Matrimonial Purposes (or is it?) instead of a tome which won a prestigious prize. There are others who have avoided literature and significant works of non-fiction, just like you. And all of us are going to get through these gosh-darned “important” books together.

On July 2 4th, I’ll put up a post about part one of Maximum City, and then you can each chime in with your thoughts on what we’ve just read. We’ll finish the two remaining sections by the week after, by July 9. It’s roughly the same number of pages, per week.

Thank you to Chachaji, who inspired this brief, yet necessary post with this comment:

BTW, is this still on, or have we moved it forward by a week? I just got my copy of Maximum City yesterday, and read a few random pages out of order last night. Just now I discovered it does have 3 sections! Anna, will you be flagging us off, and give us a suggested reading schedule, so we can get started in earnest? 🙂 [link city]

Do I need to “move it forward by a week?” SLACKERS. 😀

No, really, let’s hash out details below, so all of our planning and disagreement occurs on ONE thread.

79 thoughts on “Maximum Summer Nerdery [UPDATED]

  1. It is the writing style that threw me off this book, esp. reading right after vik c.

    As to JKR, for me, it is not just the story and brilliance contained that fascinates, but also all the research that went behind it. I am too involved with the plot to worry about her style.

    Chitra DB is another that I am not too taken with, stylewise.

  2. Damnit, Gaurav made the Kundera reference, not Rahul. I am dazed and contused. Sorrrry.

  3. Yes, I did make the Kundera reference. Do you heart me too? 🙂

    I will have a lot to say when the discussion opens up. Do add “City of Djinns” in the list too. Such a yummy book. And very neglected, in my humble opinion.

  4. I am dazed and contused.

    Contused? Was there an unsuccessful snuff attempt, or other boisterousness, at the meetup that we need to be aware of?

  5. Was there an unsuccessful snuff attempt, or other boisterousness, at the meetup that we need to be aware of?

    Yes and yes, but neither were the source of my contusions. Reality is far less exciting. 😉

    Gaurav, of course I heart you, too. 😀

  6. Do add “City of Djinns” in the list too.

    I second that. Actually I have never been disappointed by a Dalrymple book. Mehta has a completely different style even though he’s writing about a city, so I wouldn’t compare them. COD is much shorter and punchier while MC drags on in bits (I was tired of the dance-bar girls by the end of that section).

  7. My guess is, many if not most Bombayites feel the same way about Maximum City. For an outsider who doesn’t know much about the city, it may seem fascinating. But for those of us who lived there, a scrapbook of newspaper articles about the underworld, dance bars, riots, and bollywood will seem as appealing as Suketu Mehta’s book.

    So what do I care if Bombayites were merely bemused/bored by the book? I LOVED it as an outsider. I am sorry he didn’t get the Pulitzer but then again, I haven’t actually read the one that did get it.

    In my life I have met countless Bombayites looking down on the rest of us Indians, pchch-pchching about how much we miss of the experience of Glorious Life in Bombay, and I never understood what the fascination was all about. In other words, in all that strutting-about, chest-thumping they failed to convey in their conversations why they love that city, what separates it from the rest of “boring” India or Indian cities. For better or for worse, the book managed to change some of my indifference towards the city, give me a glimpse of an excitement that may or may not be in Delhi, Chennai, Calcutta or Banglore. Admittedly, Mehta focuses on the underbelly of the city, not the middle-class, and I for one, am glad. Except for some loss of objectivity he seemed to have suffered from while writing about MonaLisa that troubled me, I was uncritical of and fascinated with his focus and writing all the way through.

    There’s a lot more to Bombay… heck there’s a lot more to riots/underworld/dance bars/bollywood…. but he barely skimmed the surface. And yet produced an inordinately thick book while doing so.

    Good. So now YOU can write another book on the beloved city. Maybe even a thicker book. And maybe even get that Pulitzer or its equivalent.

  8. I read this book probably about four times. I don’t know why, but I just ate it up. I’m curious to see what various Bombayite (and other Maharashtrian) family members think of it.

  9. Slightly off-topic, but related to the Dalrymple reference and the authenticity discussion on another post, Ramachandra Guha had a dust-up with William Dalrymple about Dalrymple’s statement in a review of one of Pankaj Mishra’s books about how urban authors couldn’t necessarily speak about the dusty villages of Bihar, or some such thing. Guha had a colorful riposte with allusions to “the British policy of divide and rule” and digs at Dalrymple’s scholarship. I don’t know what happened after this exchange though.

    The relevant articles are below:

    Outlook Magazine| Nov 08, 2004


    The Beatnik Before Christ

    Bin Laden to Borges, via a sleeping Buddha’s dreams. But has Mishra overreached in it all?

    WILLIAM DALRYMPLE In 1992, Pankaj Mishra, fresh from university, went to live in Mashobra, a small hill village an hour or so beyond Shimla. His balcony looked out onto the eternal snows of the high Himalayas, and Mishra soon found himself drawn to the Buddhist valleys of Kinnaur and Spiti. His travels in these remote regions, and his conversations with the monks he met there in turn sparked an intense interest in the Buddha and the religious philosophy he taught. A decade later, that interest has finally crystallised into a large, unusual, difficult and ambitious book, part memoir, part travelogue, part philosophical enquiry and part spiritual quest.

    The subtitle of An End to Suffering is The Buddha in the World which hints at the scale of Mishra’s undertaking. He aims not just to give an introduction to Buddhism and tell the story of his own quest for meaning, but also to show how the Buddha’s philosophy—moulded in a period of rapid change and social upheaval—is still relevant to our own troubled times, providing answers to the problems of personal identity, alienation and above all suffering which are as much a part of our world as they were to the Bihar of 3rd century BC. In the process, Mishra embarks on a major philosophical enquiry: the insubstantiality of the Self, the nature of the mind, the question of whether it is ever possible to renounce attachments and destroy desire—these are just some of the themes and questions that Mishra examines.

    Few writers are as well qualified—at least in a literary sense—to tackle the tricky task Mishra has set himself. Over the last few years he has established himself as one of the finest essayists of his generation. His reviews, political analysis and travel writing in Granta, the TLS and especially the New York Review of Books have revealed him to be a commentator who can write with equal skill on fiction, politics and history, and whose fine measured Naipaulian prose is backed with a restless intelligence and astonishingly wide reading. Yet while he can write with authority on the latest trends in international fiction and politics, he knows mofussil India with as much intimacy as any other major Indian writer in English.

    In a field still dominated by the St Stephen’s mafia and the Doon School diaspora, Mishra is an outsider. He was born in Jhansi and grew up in dusty railway colonies around Uttar Pradesh, before taking a degree in the decaying anarchy of Allahabad University. In contrast to the optimistic platitudes of a diaspora writer like, say, Sunil Khilnani—educated abroad and clearly knowing nothing of the grim reality of the boondocks of Bihar—Mishra does not lecture the world about South Asia from the sanitised safety of an East Coast campus. Instead, he writes as a man who really knows, from hard experience, the provincial India he writes about and in which he still lives for most of the year.

    Mishra has one other great virtue. He is a brave writer, frequently putting himself in danger to report from the frontlines in Pakistan, Afghanistan and especially Kashmir—about whose struggles and sufferings he has written some of the best and most honest pieces penned by any Indian writer.

    Many of these qualities are evident in An End to Suffering. The book covers an intimidatingly wide sweep of territory and moves rapidly from the period of the Vedas to that of the Enlightenment, then onto to the world of Osama bin Laden, stopping en route in the company of such diverse figures as Mahavira, Hieun Tsang, Hobbes, Nietzsche, Marx, Schopenhauer, Borges, Sayyid Qutb, Swami Vivekananda, various Buddhist missionaries and a mixed bag of Naga sadhus and gun-wielding Islamists.All this is interspersed with accounts of Mishra’s own travels so that in between learned disquisitions on the philosophy of the Upanishads or the Death of God, we find ourselves eating mixed dal in the dhabas of Mashobra, chatting with his elderly Sanskrit-reading landlord and his fortune-telling father (who had a penchant for carrying out elaborate fire sacrifices on his front lawn), or sipping butter tea in the gompas of the Sangla Valley.

    It is an eccentric construction, but there is a method to it, for Mishra aims to fuse his own journey of discovery to a wider philosophy of history in the manner not unlike Nirad Chaudhuri’s equally unusual Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, a book whose virtues, ambitions and flaws An End to Suffering mirrors. Like Chaudhuri, Mishra is a writer of exact and precise descriptive prose who can write with startling clarity about his physical surroundings and the world of sensation. Unfortunately, Mishra also shares Chaudhuri’s taste for meandering, earnest and slightly portentous theoretical passages where, with the unwise daring of the autodidact, he attempts to plumb the depths of the Hindu soul, to ask all the big questions about the human condition, and to examine the higher processes at work in world history. It is at these moments that, like Chaudhuri, Mishra occasionally slips over the boundary into straightforward pretentiousness.

    For these two very different writers share a weakness for showing off their erudition in a dam-burst of quoted authorities: just as Chaudhuri namechecks Rabelais, Plato, Tolstoy, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Cicero, Matthew Arnold, Lamb, Dostoevsky and Mirabeau within the opening pages of his autobiography, so Mishra has a tendency to bring in an academy-full of high-minded European thinkers and philosophers, some of whom seem to have a fairly tenuous relationship with his ostensible subject; I for one could certainly have done with more Buddha and a little less Nietzsche. It is in these passages that we long for some of the lightness of touch and humour that Mishra showed in his acclaimed debut, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana.

    There are also signs that this book was written and edited in a hurry. There are unresolved problems with the narrative structure and numerous small errors that should have been picked up: Hastinapura is not on the site of present-day Delhi; it is most unlikely that Aryan-speaking people sacked the cities of the Indus Valley; Manicheism is not “supposedly influenced by Buddhism”—instead in its Chinese Silk Route incarnation it almost fuses with Buddhism; the British of the East India Company did not all sneer at Buddhism (though I write here with a vested interest as a descendant of James Prinsep who made the crucial breakthrough of translating the Gupta Brahmi and Ashoka Brahmi script, and so revealing the long-forgotten world of Ashoka to scholarship); and Mishra greatly under-rates the achievement of scholars such as Brian Houghton Hodgson in the rediscovery of Indian Buddhism.

    Yet if An End to Suffering is a little untidy and can sometimes be hard work, it is worth the effort. Partly it is Mishra’s obstinate integrity. Partly it is the testament this book gives to the long years of lonely isolation reading and studying in the hills. Partly it is the naked earnestness with which Mishra presents himself and his quest, and the enthusiasm with which he describes the “counter-culture” Indian wanderers of the first millennium BC:

    “Like the Beats and hippies of a recent era, people left their homes and professions, dissatisfied with their regimented lives of work, and moved from one sramana sect to another. The men who led them were India’s first cosmopolitan thinkers, unhindered by caste boundaries or other parochial considerations, who became aware that human beings are united by certain shared dilemmas.These early dissenters…began the process, which the Buddha advanced greatly, of taking Indian thought from the speculative—the Vedas and Upanishads—to the ethical level.”

    As Mishra’s NYRB essays have shown, he is more than capable of writing a truly great non-fiction book about India—something of the scale and sweep of Naipaul’s Million Mutinies. An End to Suffering is not that book and Mishra’s fans can only hope that he will now get down to writing it. But the book is nonetheless a significant achievement and coming as it does a month after Suketu Mehta’s remarkable Maximum City and Amitava Kumar’s Husband of a Fanatic, it shows that Indian non-fiction is beginning to become as interesting and diverse as the astonishing outpouring of fiction we have seen from South Asia in recent years.


    Magazine| Nov 22, 2004


    The Djinns Of Conceit

    William Dalrymple’s elite-mofussil thesis is as specious as his knowledge of India

    RAMACHANDRA GUHA Divide-and-Rule is an old British sport. Once, Winston Churchill warned Indians against following Mahatma Gandhi on the grounds that Gandhi represented the Indian poor less reliably than did Churchill himself. Now comes William Dalrymple, who in his review of Pankaj Mishra’s An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World (Outlook, November 8) instructs us on which Indian writers we may trust and which not. He thus dismisses “the St Stephen’s mafia and the Doon School diaspora” who presume to “lecture the world about South Asia from the sanitised safety of an East Coast campus”. These elitists, says Dalrymple, must bow down before writers born in the mofussil who (in his colourful phrase) know the “grim reality of the boondocks of Bihar”.

    Born to privilege, you cannot understand India; reared in a humble home, you must. This is Dalrymple’s thesis, to buttress which he offers two names: Sunil Khilnani and Pankaj Mishra. He is pretty vicious about Khilnani, possibly in retaliation to a piece where his nemesis wittily described Dalrymple as having invented a new genre: ‘Bollywood history’. But the fact is that, whatever his class origins, Khilnani has given us The Idea of India, which illuminates India’s modern history more wonderfully than any other work of literature or scholarship.

    Which shouldn’t surprise us. For it is how a writer tackles his subject that is important, not where he studied or lives. Orwell went to Eton yet wrote with insight about the British working class; was an Indian police officer yet exposed the underbelly of imperialism. Birth in Brahmin homes didn’t prevent Mahasweta Devi or Shivarama Karanth from writing with searing honesty about the iniquities of caste.

    Dalrymple’s argument is mischievous as well as wrong-headed. His dig at the ‘Doon School diaspora’ is calculated to stimulate prejudice and envy among his readers, sentiments that would quickly disappear were the category made more specific. For the major diasporic writers who studied at the Doon School are Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh. Both have displayed in good measure the writerly qualities Dalrymple says he prizes: honesty, hard experience, intelligence and learning. (As well as others he does not consider: such as intellectual ambition, linguistic skill, and the ability to reach inside and understand a culture not your own.) No one who reads From Heaven Lake or In an Antique Land would know—or if he did, should care—that its author studied at an elite public school. If the school is relevant, it is only in the sense that Seth and Ghosh have so completely moved beyond the social biases commonly associated with it.

    I wonder if Dalrymple has considered the larger implications of his argument. If artistic merit is merely derivative of social class, then perhaps Satyajit Ray’s films should all be junked. And if you are more honest the more modest your beginnings, then Laloo Prasad Yadav must be a more trustworthy politician than (say) Jawaharlal Nehru.

    The Dalrymple thesis is also less than fair to its presumed beneficiaries. Pankaj Mishra now divides his time between London and New York. Since he is no longer a mofussil writer, must we then take his writing less seriously? Of course not. As before, we must judge his work only on the basis of what he writes and how he writes.

    It’s a bit rich to be lectured on what constitutes good scholarship by one whose own knowledge of this country is so superficial. For Dalrymple is no Verrier Elwin or Jean Dreze, a Western-born writer steeped in the culture, politics of the people he might critically write about. His writings on India are littered with errors. Thus the City of Djinns claims that the novelist Ahmed Ali desperately wanted to return to Delhi from Karachi, but was prevented by the Government of India from doing so.In fact, the borders were porous for several years after Partition, and many Muslims—Communist Sajjad Zaheer and classical vocalist Bade Ghulam Ali Khan among them—moved back after initially migrating to Pakistan. Again, in a recent essay in the Financial Times, Dalrymple claimed that the Indian Council of Historical Research was the desi equivalent of the British Academy. This is either a gratuitous insult to the British Academy or, more likely, betrays an ignorance of two intellectual cultures, one ours, the other his own.

    To the evidence of print I might be allowed to add a personal anecdote. When I first met Dalrymple, it soon became clear that this ‘India expert’ did not know who Dr B.R. Ambedkar was. Yet the media allows him to set himself up as the arbiter of literary taste in India. I suppose it is this combination of (their) arrogance and (our) deference that encouraged the British to claim an empire. It seems worth remembering that they also lost one.

  10. Malathi, such rancour! Relax. It’s just my opinion. As for your demand that I write a book too, I am touched. When I write one, I shall definitely send you an autographed copy.

  11. When I write one, I shall definitely send you an autographed copy.

    What the-?! Where is the love? I flirted with you first!

  12. Slightly off-topic, but related to the…

    Rahul, love means never having to say you’re off topic. 😉

  13. Anna, I wouldn’t insult your love with an autographed copy. You shall get the original manuscript, autographed of course!

  14. Rahul, love means never having to say you’re off topic. 😉

    Oh, I thought you were going to say always being off-topic means never having to say you’re off topic.

  15. As for overkill, a recent read that I found really difficult to get through the first part of was Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

    Yes! Unfortunately I don’t have the same patience if I don’t like the prose. This is why it took me 2 months just to start reading Ulysses in high school.

    I actually quite like the Harry Potter series. I concede that the writing is not earth-shattering, and I think the prose has gotten worse as the series has progressed (starting going downhill right around halfway through book 4). That said, I also read children’s books alll the time (I can’t believe I just admitted to that) — not that that excuses bad writing, but maybe I crave it?

    I have two requests about when we start formal discussion tomorrow: 1. Would it be possible to consider brainstorming guiding questions? If not for this book, perhaps for the next book we choose someone who has read and suggested it would not mind facilitating a conversation? I don’t mean to argue for an overly-structured discussion, but I think some guidance could help people enter at different avenues. It may also help guide reading.

    1. I’m with Rahul; I would love to hear folks break down what they like most in a book. Of course, this is probably going to be a mix. For me it’s writing, plot (i.e. complete dramatic event), and character development, in that order for most books.
    Rahul, love means never having to say you’re off topic. 😉

    ANNA, in this moment my love for you is infinite. Despite all my better judgment I LOVE Love Story.

  16. Yes! Unfortunately I don’t have the same patience if I don’t like the prose.

    Yeah, I worked through the initial part because I felt that the author was doing it consciously (unlike with Harry Potter), so I figured I’d give it more of a chance. Sort of how it was with White Jazz, although I internalized that style within the first 10 pages. The same is true of Ulysses but the prose is much much more challenging.

    Despite all my better judgment I LOVE Love Story.

    Well, Camille, what can you say about a 20-something girl who doesn’t drink, is a bleeding heart liberal, and admits to LOVING love story? That she has a martyr complex? Seriously, that was an act of unparalleled bravery to admit that you still love the book. I thought it was the greatest thing ever when I first read it in middle school, and went on to consume almost all of Segal’s oeuvre. Including Oliver’s Story. Although my infatuation with his work didn’t last as long as with the ideal (and idealist) man among men, Howard Roark, in that other crowning embarrassment, Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand. Thankfully, I didn’t get started with her other book club. Who is John Galt? Who cares??? With a 1000 page weight on his shoulders, no wonder Atlas Shrugged!

  17. Well, Camille, what can you say about a 20-something girl who doesn’t drink, is a bleeding heart liberal, and admits to LOVING love story?

    That she is a consummate geek and sucker for (some) tear-jerker romances? I also love The Princess Bride. Yes, still. Now all my dirty little nerd-secrets are out 🙂 I actually am not especially moved by the writing in Love Story the book — although I will confess to shedding a single tear in the hospital. Yup, just one. At any rate, I like the movie. Wasn’t the book written after the movie? (I thought it was adapted into a novel based on the screen play). I have never seen/read Oliver’s Story. I know, who am I??

  18. At any rate, I like the movie.

    Thanks for bringing back the memories of the acute letdown I felt when I rented Love Story with so much anticipation, and then had to deal with an hour and a half of AliMacGraw’s woodenness. Don’t worry, even my prepubescent avatar did not feel that Oliver’s Story recreated the magic of Love Story.

    As for Princess Bride, as you wish. Unfortunately, I’ve only seen the movie – which I loved – but have never read the book. But it seems like one of those books that could really work with children and adults alike.

  19. You didn’t think Ryan O’Neal was wooden!? Rahul, I don’t know if we can be SepiaDestiny friends any longer.

    Princess Bride the book is actually quite funny, but the movie follows it closely. I didn’t feel like I lost/gained anything by watching the movie instead of reading the book. It’s kind of in that category of children’s novels that have enough double-talk that it appeals to children and adults (a la Wizard of Oz or Peter Pan).

  20. I was just listening to the song from the movie soundtrack 🙂 Eerie. It is a bang up movie, though it’s true.

  21. hey when are you starting the discussion. its supposed to be on today but i cant see anyone into it. have u postponed it?

  22. hey when are you starting the discussion. its supposed to be on today but i cant see anyone into it. have u postponed it?

    ria, you might have missed the following comment from me:

    The post about Part I goes up Wednesday. Please don’t confuse (and discourage) people.

    As well as this portion of the post:

    On July 2 4th, I’ll put up a post about part one of Maximum City, and then you can each chime in with your thoughts on what we’ve just read. We’ll finish the two remaining sections by the week after, by July 9. It’s roughly the same number of pages, per week.

    At some point today, a new post will go up. Discussion won’t occur here, on this thread.

  23. Just browsed through the comments and…


    I think I’m in nerd heaven 😉

    As for the overprepared ones all ready to go with their tabbed copies of Section 1 to read (when? today? tomorrow? now?)…that just makes it brown nerd heaven.

  24. Umm…does anybody else feel like the depth of involvement with the mafia seems a little too deep? It just didn’t seem believable.

    I second the poor writing bit, but Mehta is a very good observer/transcriber of human nature and interactions. Hints of Proust, although he doesn’t go on for pages about a single theme.

  25. At some point today, a new post will go up. Discussion won’t occur here, on this thread. Hopefully the post will go up before the fireworks start…

  26. At some point today, a new post will go up. Discussion won’t occur here, on this thread. Hopefully the post will go up before the fireworks start…

    Wait. This post is entitled ‘Maximum Summer Nerdery’, not ‘Maximum Summer Ass-holery’. I can’t believe the sense of entitlement on display here. First ria, now you. I know, you can claim you were referring to the metaphorical fireworks that might start here. Choose your words carefully, or you’ll end up starting some yourself. For crying out loud, it’s the Fourth of July! Relax. Get outside. Watch the real fireworks.

    And Anna, please, you relax too, and take your time over this one. You just wrote such a powerful post yesterday. So even if it’s tomorrow that this next one comes out, or even later in the weekend, don’t sweat it, we’ll be fine.

  27. Dear chachaji: Please don’t be cross. Just keen on reading her thoughts before we all head out to the barbecue and works (meaning the ones in the sky, no metaphor was meant and certainly no assholery for sure) is all. Happy Fourth to you too!