30 Mar 2006

Outstanding Nonfiction - I

In an Antique Land
By: Amitav Ghosh

I came across this book during my undergraduate days. My mother, then working in the post-graduate library of the University of Delhi, got the book issued on her staff card. I had heard some nice things about the author and asked her to get one of his books for me to read. In an Antique Land was her random pick. There couldn't have been a better choice in so far as creating a first impression about the writer was concerned.

The book's subtitle is: History in the guise of a traveller's tale, and it is just that. What starts off as an unassuming yet highly entertaining travelogue told in first person by Ghosh, who finds himself in Egypt as an anthropology research scholar, gradually winds its way through the alleyways of history going back to 7oo years. How so? Well, we are introduced to the story of Bomma, an Indian slave, who had travelled to the Middle East, and lived along the coast of Nile, all those centuries ago. From this point, the book shifts between the two narratives--that of Ghosh, the research scholar-traveller, who records his observations on modern Egyptian life with fascinating detail and curiosity; and of the history of Bomma, the slave. Then at some point, the two narratives find a common ground, and for the reader, it becomes as gripping as a well-plotted detective story. As Ghosh pieces together history, travel and the cultural conflict in the Egyptian society (the tug between conservative values and modern-day desires), he crosses boundaries of genre and emerges a trailblazer of a writer.

The manner in which Ghosh juxtaposes history with travel narrative in this book is outstanding. To keep readers engaged on two different story tracks without confusing them requires finesse of the highest order, and Ghosh displays that in a most effortless way. The book, while being non-fiction, has some fictional elements and is only richer on that account. What's more, in the atmosphere the author creates for the reader, history, present-day facts, and fiction, all blur and merge together a lot of times in the book, making it intriguing.

Like I said, this was the first of Amitav Ghosh books I read, and I was simply blown over. I would easily rate him amongst the finest of modern-day English writers. I am yet to read his fiction, but even as I write, I am spending my reading time getting engrossed in a section of his book The Imam and the Indian, reprinted in a Granta Book of Travel edition. Once again, I am not disappointed.

Amitav Ghosh belongs to a rare breed of writers. The main characteristic of these writers is, once you read one of their books and get charmed, you expect them to repeat the act in other works. The good news is, they always deliver.

Note: This is the first of my posts on some top-quality non-fiction books I have read. It is a follow up to my post Not Fiction? Not a Bore.

27 Mar 2006

Not Fiction? Not a Bore ;)

Some years back when I joined an online writing community, the first for me, I noticed something interesting on the forums. Of the wide range of critique groups, based on different genres and parameters, there was one that elicited the least response. This was the nonfiction genre. The community had a good number of members, yet only a handful of takers for nonfiction. I wondered why. And found out the primary reason behind this lack of interest was the notion that non-fic is "plain boring." Now, those are not my words (hence the quote marks).

I was of course part of the handful of people who did form a non-fic critique group. And let me tell you loud and clear, reading the group's works was anything but boring. Quite the opposite. The pieces were interesting and made for a good deal of learning. From Christmas legends to war veteran's stories, from a fun-column on political correctness to a member's series of Encounters (that was the title of the series) with nature and animals, and from Native American traditions to humor columns, our group postings were what would be any reader's delight. The subject matters were mostly informative, the writing style inviting, affectionate, perky or intimate, as need be. Rarely, if ever, was it didactic so as to turn off the general reader.

My own limited reading repertoire includes some fine works of nonfiction, and I have been left satisfied and enriched as I turned the last page of each one of them. I will use this space for discussing some of these brilliant (yes, they do deserve that qualification) works and their masterly authors.

My point? Nonfiction need not be drab, eye-straining tomes filled with dry information. Just like good fiction, well-written non-fic brings places, people, cultures, and events to life. And what's more, it tells true stories. About real people.

24 Mar 2006

'Tis Home

As you grow up, a few things emerge as your friends for expressing yourself. For some it is art, for others, sport, and for yet others, cooking, stitching, or some sort of craft. For me it was music. From the moment it was discovered my voice could sing in tune, I started loving music. To be able to let my voice dance with the notes of the octave was amongst my greatest pleasures as a child. It still is.

So no, I wasn't the prodigious toddler who started scribbling amazing poems or stories. Writing emerged as a love much later--only in middle school. And this too, because my English teacher, easily the best I have come across so far (from school to master's education), started writing notes such as "good" and "well written" at the end of my essays. Now these were compliments to treasure. Our teacher, as good as she was in her job, was a strict taskmaster and wouldn't dish out compliments that easily. It was primarily because of her encouragement and wonderful teaching style that I began putting in a bit of extra effort in my writing. I was already a voracious reader, thanks to my upbringing at the hands of my grandma (a terrific writer herself), and the newfound joy in writing seemed to harmonize quite naturally.

And that simple joy is the reason behind the title of this blog. As a freelance writer, I do work from home, so the title may be stating the obvious. But there's a bit more to it. Writing is one of those dimensions of my life that flow with a natural ease. When I write, I am at home. It's like a song.

23 Mar 2006


I have a writer's blog now. That's good progress in a year of getting into blogdom. While I've been jotting down my forays into the world of food here, this is my first writerly blog. It was time to get one too. With my debut book in the publisher's hands, I do need a space to talk about writing, networking, and the whole jing bang lot of marketing. I do reckon blogging is one of the best ways to connect with other writers and learn from them. So here I am. Not to say this place is only open to other writers. This is for anyone who would like to drop by.

Come on in, share your wisdom and leave an imprint of your visit here (hint, hint, post a comment).

It's past midnight here, so I will write a proper post when the sun comes on. Until then, see you all :)
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