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Paperback Pickings

The humour and pity of things

Literary occasions: essays (Picador, Rs 395) by V.S. Naipaul is a slim volume of autobiographical and literary essays, edited and introduced by Pankaj Mishra. It makes a nice companion volume to The Writer and the World. Naipaul’s prose is a perfect combination of lucidity, elegance and gloom. There is a wonderfully funny chapter on Nirad C. Chaudhuri, whose passage on the “sob-chamber” of Hindu family life, in The Continent of Circe, is Naipaul’s favourite: “where the only competition is in gloom and people can legitimately consider themselves provoked if they are told they are looking well.” There are nuanced, personal readings of Kipling and Conrad, and the Nobel lecture, with beautiful passages from Proust’s early essays. But here is Naipaul: “I have moved by intuition alone. I have no system, literary or political. I have no guiding political idea...Perhaps it is because we have been so far from authority for many centuries. It gives us a special point of view. I feel we are more inclined to see the humour and pity of things.”

Unforgiving heights (Penguin, Rs 350) by Betsey Barnes is one of those endless succession of indifferent novels which keep popping out of Penguin India. It is a novel set in a small Himalayan kingdom, about a young American diplomat, her best friend who is also the embassy doctor, another diplomat’s wife, the Buddhist religious leader, the sister of the exiled ruler and the incoming American ambassador. Intrigue in high places. The writer is a “Foreign Service veteran”.

The thousand-petalled daisy (Maia, £ 7.99) by Norman Thomas attempts to combine offbeat humour and spirituality. Injured in a riot while travelling in India, 17-year-old Michael Flower is given shelter by a doctor in a white house on an island in a river. There, accompanied by his glove-puppet Mickey-Mack, he meets Om Prakash and his family, a tribe of holy monkeys, and Lila, the beautiful daughter of a diplomat. Unknown to him, the house is also the home of a holy woman. When she grants him an audience, Michael unwittingly incurs the jealousy of her devotee, Hari, and violence unfolds. The chapter headings sound like haikus and the author lives in Auroville, Pondicherry.

The elephant and the maruti: stories (Penguin, Rs 250) by Radhika Jha is a collection of shortish tales more or less about the contradictions of modern India. Apart from the eponymous animal and car, there are communal conflict, Parisian restaurants and a schoolgirl’s surreal encounter with the dark side of beauty. Jha’s first novel was Smell and it won the French Prix Guerlain.

Amarillo slim in a world full of fat people: the memoirs of the greatest gambler who ever lived (Yellow Jersey, £ 7.50) by “Amarillo Slim” Preston with Greg Dinkin is about Thomas Austin Preston, 6’4” and skinny as a rake. He has played poker with two American presidents and with the drug lord, Pablo Escobar, made a million dollars by the age of 19, and driven a golf ball a mile. Preston won the World Series of Poker in 1972, and is now a living legend and member of the four Halls of Fame: “If there’s anything worth arguing about, I’ll bet on it or shut up.”

Links in the chain (Katha, Rs 200) by Mahadevi Varma is Neera Kuckreja Sohoni’s translation of this celebrated Hindi poet’s eleven essays on the plight of Indian women. They were written in the Thirties and examine the status of the Indian woman in relation to her economic, civic, educational and legal circumstances. Her aim is to capture “the blurred outline of the Indian woman’s frightful conditions”.

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