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

Friday, March 16, 2007


A comment made by American media pundit Tom Plate has made me thinking for the past couple of days. When I first met him, his comment was "I'm touched you've read my book." The book in question was his recently launched 'Confessions of an American Media Man.' Deep down, I thought it can't be any other way, when one has an interview to prep. Look at the people who are serious about their books, they read their stuff, they tell you about the good from the bad, they tell you what worked, what didn't. Yes, their opinions are subjective, but you can't deny they are often spot on.

Going back to Plate, in his recent column he spoke of "neglected authors" and their books being read. The question I have is, why is it that some authors are neglected, others ignored while still others continue to grow? You can't always blame the publishing machinery for it. To be fair to the publishers, they try their best to push the books and authors take on. But there is only so much that the spin doctors can do for a book and for authors at large.

To borrow Tarun Tejpal's phrase, publicity overdrives are all the "fluff of art." In an interview I'd done with him when 'The Alchemy of Desire' was launched, he'd said: "The only real judge is time - if three years from now or five years from now, it still resonates with readers, then you can be sure you've got something there."

That's the thing about great books, they need to resonate, only then do they work. One of the books (and my favourite) that has travelled this way has been 'Shantaram.' It was an Australian couple who I'd met for the first time at Janet's place who first told me about the greatness of the book. It's one of those things that stayed in my end and that word of mouth did it for me. True, it took me several months before I actually got down to reading it, but the nuances, the turn of phrase, the spirit of India that we'd talked about by the poolside is something that had stuck in my head.

The conversion to the book had been so subtle that I hadn't even noticed it. And that's way it is with great books. The true test is in making that connection that will withstand the test of time. The internet may have made its demands, online books made their way but the hunger for the real thing persists. As long as that remains, great books will continue to be read and great authors will continue to born and reborn.

As I mull over all of that, I'm going to start my own little journey that'll take me back to some of the books that have moved and touched me over the years starting with Ali & Nino.

Bala first read about this book, in where else but The Economist, of course. He launched a mammoth hunt for it, before finding success online. He surprised with a copy of the book - at that time I hadn't even heard of it. Soon as I started reading it, I knew this was going into my stash of 'can't borrow' books. Let me try and explain, briefly I can, why....

Kurban Said's Ali and Nino, was first published in 1937. It went out of print for a couple of decades before being reprinted in 1999. At 282 pages, its not too a long read.

Said's masterpiece is a timeless classic of love in the face of war. It's a captivating novel that is as evocative of the desert landscape it's set in as it is of the passion between its two central characters - Ali and Nino.

This relatively short book with an epic sweep has been hailed as one of the enduring romantic novels of the century. Often compared to Romeo and Juliet, Gone with the Wind, Dr Zhivago and the story of Laila and Majnu - it is as much a story of love as it is a portrait of two exotic cultures.

It attracted rave reviews even when it went out of print:
"One feels as if one had dug up buried treasure... an epic of cultural change that seems more immediate than this morning's headlines," said a review in The New York Times.

It's a book that like all great literature retains its appeal years after it was first published. Set in the years surrounding the Russian Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union, Said's tale of an Azerbaijani Muslim boy in love with a Georgian Christian girl is both tender and disturbing. The novel, begins as Ali Khan Shirvanshir is finishing his last year of high school:
"We were a very mixed lot, we forty schoolboys who were having a Geography lesson one hot afternoon in the Imperial Russian Humanistic High School of Baku, Transcaucasia: thirty Mohammedans, four Armenians, two Poles, three Sectarians, and one Russian."

The multi-ethnic Baku, stands at a crossroads between West and East. As the smug Russian Professor informs his pupils, it is their responsibility to decide "whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia."

For Ali Khan there is no doubt--he belongs to the East. His beloved Nino, however, is "a Christian, who eats with knife and fork, has laughing eyes and wears filmy silk stockings" - in short she epitomises the best of the West for Ali.

But in the far away West, there are rumblings of war. When the Russian Revolution begins, Ali chooses not to fight. While the Czar's fate is of little interest to him, the young man senses that another, greater danger is gathering on his country's borders. It is that of an "invisible hand" trying to force his world into new ways - the ways of the West.

As those disturbing developments continue, he courts Nino and eventually marries her despite the growing scandal and opposition to the match. This union of the East and West is a difficult one as Ali Khan finds himself lured increasingly into more European ways. When Soviet troops invade, however, he must choose once and for all whether to stand - to back Asia or Europe.

One of the many pleasures 'Ali and Nino' offers is Said's portrayal of different world and cultures. Another is his compassionate portrait of the protagonists' difficult but profound relationship. There are cautionary moments in this little chronicle of cultures colliding and a way of life brutally destroyed. It is all of this that works collectively to lift Said's only novel into literature's highest ranks.

To avert a spoiler, I'm not even going to go into the ending, all I'll say is, it's one that lasts forever.

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