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I'd write more, like you said I should. If only, there was more to me.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

This Soul Will Live On

The news reached me when I was at my Dad's house in Dehra Dun. Somehow, I knew when I met him on the evening of February the 25th, it would be for the last time. But little did I know that the end would be so near.

Mr Ramasamy, as I called him, responded to my annual call, with the usual warmth: "Deepika, the doors to my house are open for you, come any time." My husband and I reached in the evening and there he was, busy at work, editing a copy, which after nearly 20 minutes of chatting with us, he told the office, would reach them in "two minutes".

Work for him always came first and I knew instinctively it was time for us to leave. He told me to visit him again the next day, "no more copies to edit tomorrow," he said, but we were to leave town, to complete our holiday which like the rest of our days is one that wraps itself up in a flurry.

As my aunt told me he'd passed away, I cursed myself for not having gone back again. As tears overwhelmed me, memories of our relationship that began way back in 1990 came rushing back.

It all started with a book review I did. Mr Ramasamy read it, liked it, published it and did something few people of his stature would ever care to do. He made an effort to contact me. In the first meeting, he told me my writing had potential. Of course, there were several points that needed to brushed up.

That's when he first lesson that's bound to last a lifetime was delivered. "To be a good writer you have to have the courage to write, getting rid of fear is the first step towards becoming a writer," he told me. He then took the time to assess what was my first attempt at real writing to show me where fear had had the better of me.

Then there were two others reviews that I did and on the third one it all came undone. Perhaps it was a case of writers block or quite simply the lazy way of reviewing. I picked up a book on advertising, did a hurried review and sent it to him. The next thing I knew he'd called to see me. This time it was an angry Mr Ramasamy. "Why did you write this?" he asked me. Deep down of course, it was for the money that for a struggling Masters student, is oh so precious. And that's something he knew.

He took my review, ripped it apart - literally, looked me straight in the eye and left me with my second major lesson: "Never, ever write for the sake of writing alone. Writing has a larger purpose to serve," he told me "and that's to educate and inform." He wasn't in a mood for polite conversation, but he was still gracious enough to offer me a cup of chai.

I left his cabin, with a tinge of regret of having failed as a writer, which he reminded me is something that would be a reality if I didn't take my writing seriously.

Since that day, it was a slight element of fear that I met him at The Tribune office. Then professional commitments took over, a Ford Foundation Fellowship was quickly followed by a job at The Times of India. Each timeI was on holiday, I would make it a point to visit him. We would discuss my work, the stories that excited me as opposed to the ones that failed to enthrall. Over the years our friendship evolved and one of the high points of my trips to Chandigarh, in addition to meeting up with my family, would be meeting Mr Ramasamy.

Even when I wasn't reviewing books due to my professional commitments, Mr Ramasamy made the time to meet me each time I was in town.

Before moving on to my publishing job in Singapore, we met again and he asked to start reviewing books again. I told him I had to do justice to the reviews I attempted and if I did a review maybe once in two months would that be fine with him? He agreed and at times it took me a lot more than two months to complete a review. But each time I attempted something, I did it with the utmost seriousness.

At our annual darshans, he would tell me which of reviews had made an impact and which ones hadn't. This feedback proved invaluable in my growth as a writer.

On February the 25th, for the first time, he told me how my reviews had moved to a much deeper level, how my analysis was getting more succinct. And he highlighted the fact that I was now able to make connections between different bodies of work, which can "only happen when one reads a lot. Don't stop," he urged me.

We talked about the reach of the book section in The Tribune, which was significant. And then it was about his health, which he insisted was perfectly fine. "Main billkul thik hoon", he maintained as we took our leave.

Today, I make a living as a broadcast journalist, a job in which writing is my bread and butter. Each day I contend with issues relating to South Asia, which is now my area of specialisation. I do book reviews that do not essentially pertain to this field, but review works that in an increasingly competitive and busy world deserve our attention. And as I look back at my fledgling career, I realise that it just wouldn't have been, if Mr Ramasamy hadn't held my hand way back in 1990.

To my mentor, my guide, my friend, who's spirit is bound to live on in the work he has truly inspired

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Bellow Remembered

IN MEMORIAM: Saul Bellow

By Deepika Shetty

The literary world is mourning the death of noted author Saul Bellow. He died of natural causes at the age of 89. The master of comic melancholy was hailed as one of America's greatest novelists.

The son of Russian immigrants, he was born Solomon Bellows on July 10, 1915, in Lachine, Quebec. When he was 9, his family moved from Montreal to Chicago. He dropped the final "s" from his last name and changed his first name to Saul when he began publishing his writing in the 1940s.

A trained anthropologist he went from writing book reviews for 10 US dollars a piece to winning the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize in 1976, and three National Book Awards. Among his critically acclaimed works were "Humboldt's Gift" and "Herzog".

"Humboldt's Gift" has been hailed as one of his most personal novels. Bellow described it as "a comic book about death." It culminates in a graveyard scene. The novel was also personal in other ways. The main character, Charlie Citrine, is an aging Chicago writer chasing a younger woman while trying to keep a former wife from ruining him financially.

Critics say like his characters, his life was an evolution from the unbearable, but comic passion of the Old World, to the unbearable, but comic alienation of the New World. Remembering him, noted writer Philip Roth said: "The backbone of 20th-century American literature has been provided by two novelists - William Faulkner and Saul Bellow."

Undeterred by the Nobel, Literature's highest honour, Bellow kept writing even in his 80s. His more recent work included "The Actual," a sentimental novella published in 1997, and in 2000 he published "Ravelstein" - a novel based on the life of his late friend, Allan Bloom, author of "The Closing of the American Mind."

Bellow had five wives, three sons and, at age 84, a daughter.

Books Awarded

From Pulitzer to Kiriyama
By Deepika Shetty
The first of April, is the season for the prestigious Pulitzer Prizes in the US. The Annual Awards by Columbia University recognise the best work published in the US and the recognition crosses several genres of writing right from fiction, biography, general non-fiction, history, poetry to journalism and letters.

As expected the competition is intense and making their mark this year in the Letters and Drama Prizes was Oscar-winning writer John Patrick Shanley. He won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for 'Doubt' which also happens to be his first Broadway play. Shanley, who has written a number of successful plays, had won the Academy Award for best screenplay for "Moonstruck" in 1988.

The Pulitzer for fiction went to Marilynne Robinson for "Gilead," her poetic, modern-day tale of a dying Iowa preacher. While Professor David Hackett Fischer, won the prize for history for his work "Washington's Crossing."

Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan won in the biography category for "de Kooning: An American Master." Their sweeping biography of the artist took 10 years to finish. It follows de Kooning, the man drawing from his work as an abstract expressionist right through his battles with alcoholism and Alzheimer's. Stevens is currently the art critic for New York magazine, while Swan is a veteran magazine writer who has worked for Time and Newsweek.

National poet laureate Ted Kooser won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for "Delights and Shadows." And Steve Coll collected his second Pulitzer, winning in general nonfiction for "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001." In 1990, while serving as South Asia bureau chief for The Washington Post, Coll captured a Pulitzer for explanatory journalism. The author of four books, is now an associate editor at the Post.

In the Journalism and Letters category, The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal each picked up two Pulitzers.

Another notable literary contest is the Kiriyama Prize. Two South Asian immigrants were declared joint winners of this prestigious award. Both wrote about emotion and desperation underlying racial and religious conflicts.

Pacific Rim voices, the San Francisco-based independent group which gives out this prize strives to promote greater understanding among the people of Asia and the Pacific. And it believes both books will 'spark a dialogue that is crucial for our times'.

Pakistan-born Nadeem Aslam's novel, 'Maps for Lost Lovers,' was the fiction winner, while India-born Suketu Mehta's 'Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found' swept the non-fiction category of the annual awards. Aslam and Mehta will share the 30,000 dollar cash prize.

London-based Aslam's novel took eleven years to complete. Critics say it is both a moving love story and a sophisticated murder mystery set against the backdrop of a poor South Asian enclave in a British city.

'In Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found', New York-based journalist Mehta returns to Bombay, the city of his birth, only to find it drastically altered from the city he knew as a young boy. And the transformation has taken place largely due to religious differences between Hindus and Muslims.

To put a human face on the world's third largest city, Mehta offers his own experiences and impressions together with a series of personal interviews with a variety of Bombays citizens. These include top cops, rich entertainers, gangsters and their victims, Bollywood stars, journalists and prostitutes alike. Gripping in parts, distressing in others, it is a compelling read of a city that continues to draw thousands of people into its fold each year.