Monday, January 21, 2008

stale news, or cult classic?

I thought no reviewer could outdo the Hindustan Times' Elizabeth Kuruvilla, but someone actually has. Here’s Sonya Dutta Choudhury’s one column hatchet job on my book in the latest issue of India Today. She just doesn’t like the book. The review is all about her rarefied scorn for it. “Definitely not a book I would read,” she sniffs. Her reason for not liking it? As far as I could tell from the review, it’s for one reason alone: my “stereotyped images of ‘chinks’ on bikes in search of beef and beer,” which “fails to capture the tragic splendour of the beautiful land (the north-east) and its people”.

If you’ve read the book, you’ll know that it’s primarily about a woman and the city of Delhi. The narrator’s life at Delhi University and his trips back home to Shillong form the backdrop to that story. I’ve had a lot of people tell me how much they’ve liked reading about places like Indra Vihar and Laitumkhrah in a novel, places they know well but haven’t come across in fiction till now. I’ve written about what I’ve seen honestly. I know what i'm writing about; Dutta Choudhury appears to have no clue about the same though.

In accusing me of stereotyping, she does the worst kind of stereotyping herself: my title’s 'Saikia', so therefore I must write about the “tragic splendour” of the north-east, even if I’m writing a book about a woman and the city of Delhi. I’ve grown up in the north-east, and I know its people well, but I don’t know what Dutta Choudhury is talking about when she mentions its “tragic splendour”. Her whole idea of the north-east seem to have been formed from stray newspaper reports about the region in newspapers in the metros.

Going by her logic, with the title that she has, she should be writing about the “tragic splendour” of Nandigram and Kolkata’s Barabazar market instead of writing admiring profiles of German and Scottish CEOs (notice the complete absence of criticism in those articles). Does the problem lie therein I wonder? Dutta Choudhury’s last review for India Today was of Timeri N. Murari’s The Small House (published by Penguin India): after that, after the meetings with German and Scottish CEOs, India Today gives her an unknown writer’s slim first novel that’s been published by a very ‘Indian’ publishing house. She can’t say anything to India Today, so she takes out her spleen on the book. Just a theory! Whatever her views about my book, her evident inability to imaginatively enter the book’s terrain is a massive failure on her part as a reviewer.

Amitabha Bagchi, who teaches computer science at IIT Delhi, and is the author of the campus novel Above Average, recently reviewed my book for the tehelka website. He thinks it may in time go on to attain “cult status”! Though I found the review a bit muddled at places (again, someone focusing on the “north-east” instead of telling readers what he thought of, say, Naina’s character), and Bagchi too has some of the usual gripes (“…his prose does not rise to the challenge and his storytelling is clunky.”), he has at least made an honest attempt to understand Jet City Woman.

At one point Bagchi’s review says, “There are several radical possibilities inherent in a novel about an immigrant group coming from the periphery of the Indian imagination to the centre of the Indian nation. Saikia has staked a claim to these possibilities by being an early mover.” This had me wondering … maybe a couple of decades from now some university will have a Department or School of NEIWE (North-East Indian Writing in English) … maybe a professor there will say to the students in his classroom, “Ankush Saikia’s Jet City Woman was one of the pioneering works in the field of NEIWE. He was someone ahead of his time, but sadly we can only speculate about what he could have written after his first novel. Disheartened by the extremely negative reviews of his book in the Hindustan Times and India Today, and by anonymous comments on his blog accusing him of being a third-rate writer running a self-obsessed and narcissistic blog, he tragically ended his life by jumping into the tigers’ enclosure at Guwahati Zoo.” Amen.

Whatever my reviewers might say, I have the satisfaction of knowing that the book is selling well, as well as a first novel can be expected to do in India. It seems to be doing especially well at Bangalore’s Crossword outlets, for some reason. So, at the end of the day, any review might well be better than no review, and for that I am grateful to Sonya Dutta Choudhury/India Today and Elizabeth Kuruvilla/Hindustan Times. Thank you!

The book launch is on for the 6th of February at 4 p.m. at the Rupa & Co. stall during the Delhi World Book Fair. We’re looking for a ‘chief guest’, so if you’re someone important, please feel free to volunteer your services!


kulkul said...


stop reviewing your reviewers...its leaving a bad taste.Get along in life and start on your next book ...u cant expect everybody to like it.If you wanted a flawless review without a single word of criticism you should have paid someone to do it.You are now a public figure and you have to be able to take the bouquets as well as the quit WHINING!!

Ankush Saikia said...

you're right, even i'm getting tired of reviewing the reviewers! time to move on, like you say. but so far it's been more of brickbats than bouquets! evidently the reviewers are people of superior intelligence compared to someone like you and me.

parismita said...

Hey, Just got some internet time to go through your blog and catch up with the travails of your book. And am extremely glad you're reviewing the reviews. I've been sorely tempted to start a publication 'reviewing reviews'...I read reviews all the time( I can't help it!) and I think its fine to do a 'brickbat ' thing , but at least take the time to figure out what the hell's happening in the book. Like I didn't find in the reviews that I have read of your book -any mention of the whole delhi-encounters-migrant theme, or the whole idea of DU subcultures .. or a coming of age novel - And how many novels do you have that actually talks of ' chinks' and 'wannabe chinks' ...Its a whole world out there !
Okay - as for 'authenticity ' - which itself is problematic (how tragic/ how northeastern etc)- what are the measures ? A young person I know wanted to lend her copy of Jet city woman to her undergrad professor to give her a better idea of what students are up to! How well do the reviewers know this world?

But I think it is important to review the reviewers , because the whole reviewing and critiquing business should not just be the final word on anything...
Its a pity though that people I know who did enjoy the book - or could say a sensible thing or two about it - are too busy with their parties and beer , to review books!!