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Since 1st March, 1999
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Paperback Pickings

Without becoming a jelly

Self (Faber, £ 4.99) by Yann Martel is an early novel by this Man Booker Prize winning author, written mercifully before his discovery of god in Life of Pi. As a result, this is a far more intelligent and complex novel, exploring with considerable sophistication the fluidities of the self and of the body, the former so prone to unpredictable transformations — linguistic, emotional, and sexual. There are some Shandian gimmicks with typography, which could have been avoided without compromising the links which the novel makes between multilingualism and sexual ambivalence, even androgyny. This book is quite consciously in the tradition of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Patrick White’s The Twyborn Affair, but unable to achieve the brilliant lightness of the former, or the tragic gravity of the latter. Martel’s protagonist lives out much of the indeterminacy of the self through the experience of “deliciously salacious” sex – shades of Myra Breckinridge here, but Martel is not as naturally wicked as Gore Vidal.

The war on terror (LeftWord, Rs 125) by Ninan Koshy is an analysis of the projects and doctrines of Bush’s War on Terror in response to the events of 9/11. Koshy deals primarily with the relationship between globalization and this war, as well as the imperial features of the “world order” projected by Bush and Blair . His perspective is largely Asian, given that the “theatre of the War” stretches from west Asia to northeast Asia. The main thesis and some of its elaborations are indeed valuable, but largely rehearses what is by now a well-established critique of American unilateralism: “The new doctrines and strategies show how US policy has moved from isolationism to Cold War containment to a mad rush by the US to become an overt military empire.”

Guru by your bedside: The teachings of a modern seer (Penguin, Rs 250) recollected by S.D. Pandey is about the charismatic spirituality of a “Vaishnav vairagi sadhu of Western extraction”. Snakebites and the India-China war set the writer, rather recollector, and his wife on the path to British-aircraft-engineer-turned guru Ashish Da’s “sanctum sanctorum” in the Kumaon hills. Ashish Da’s sadhana jivan is built on the idea of “transcendence through acceptance”, but “without becoming a jelly”, as the master puts it intriguingly. A pious combination of syncretic mysticism and dream analysis is used to arrive at such profundities as the path which is endless must also be “beginningless”.

Identity, hegemony, resistance: towards a social history of conversions in Orissa, 1800-2000 (Three Essays Collective, Rs 90) by Biswamoy Pati explores the problem of religious conversion through a study of the evolution of the caste system in colonial and post-colonial Orissa. The relationship between the consolidation of Brahminism and the gradual disappearance of adivasis in Orissa is elaborated by Pati into a condensed critique of Hindutva. This is a learned and incisive monograph, although full of grammatical and printing errors.

Journey to Persia and Iraq: 1932 (Visva- Bharati, Rs 150) by Rabindranath Tagore is the first full translation of Parasya-Yatri, Tagore’s account of his visit to Persia on the invitation of the king of Iran, Reza Shah Pehlavi. Tagore flew the Dutch Air Mail Service, and stopped for lunch in Karachi. The extent to which the Islamic and Zoroastrian civilizations were integral to Tagore’s cosmopolitan intellectual and political being becomes clear in this travelogue. His route took in Bushire, Shiraz, Persepolis, Teheran and then Iraq, the last stop being Baghdad.

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