The Carpet Wars, Christopher Kremmer (2002)

I have a particular liking for travel reportage, and Christopher Kremmer’s The Carpet Wars is very enjoyable, though unsatisfying in several important ways.

The subtitle on the image I have posted (“Ten Years in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq”) differs from the one on my copy (“A journey across the Islamic Heartlands”), and I think this demonstrates how much the packaging and meta-textual aspects of a book can affect one’s reading of it. The Carpet Wars is not limited to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq at all, covering Tajikistan, Kashmir, a little bit of Delhi, and Iran as well. These latter places are not insignificant in Kremmer’s narrative, so why leave them out of the subtitle? I suspect the subtitle on this cover image is motivated by an attempt to tap into that lucrative market of books on the Middle East, post-9/11. This warps the real purpose of the book, and obscures the fact that this really is a travel account spanning the Middle East, Central and South Asia.

Keeping with my meta-textual criticisms, I found the title a bit misleading, too. Christopher Kremmer is a carpet collector, and on his various trips to these countries spent much time buying, researching and discussing carpets. Yet I don’t feel that I have finished this book knowing much more about carpets than I did before I started. Kremmer is a print and broadcast journalist, and visited most of these places on work assignments over a long span of time–the carpet business was fitted in whenever he had some personal time. Of course it’s fairly smart to combine work and pleasure, but I felt that the depth of the discussion about carpets was lacking because of the primary purposes of his travels. Basically, I think this would have been a richer book if Kremmer had set out to research carpets alone. Most of the discussion of carpets consists of him talking to sellers in their shops, and though the conversations he has are interesting, they didn’t seem all that different from the kinds of conversations anyone shopping in South Asia enters into as a matter of course. The combination of geo-political commentary, gained through Kremmer’s experience as a journalist, with a specific focus on a cultural symbol in the form of the carpet could have worked, but it didn’t quite. The geo-political aspects tended to dominate, which was a bit of a shame, as there are plenty of other books around doing the same thing.

As a travel account I found it very enjoyable, particularly the chapter on Tajikistan, a country I really know little about. Kremmer’s portrait of the Tajik capital Dushanbe made it sound quite sinister, with a little charm, and I must admit reading it and thinking how I should add Dushanbe to my list of places to avoid (though I do remember reading Simon Winchester’s Calcutta many years ago and being completely put off the city, which is now one of my favourite places in India, testament to the importance of keeping an open mind. And a recent conversation with some cousins who traveled through Tajikistan last year renewed my fledgling interest in the place!). An indication of the lawlessness and political instability of the country was the nickname given to the president Rahmonov: “Mayor of Dushanbe.” Kremmer’s descriptions contain a black, desolate humour, as is befitting of many (ex)Soviet places:

“The Hotel Tajikistan embodied the unique ennui of the socialist service establishment. Finding the particular restaurant serving your particular meal on a particular day was a treasureless hunt. Breakfast was in the basement bar, sometimes. Requiring a coupon, it consisted of yoghurt and sour blinchikis served on a genuine imitation snakeskin tablecloth. Dinner was on the ground floor near the lobby bar; I never found lunch. The horsemeat sausages were vile, the waiters refused to put meals on the room bill and were plagued by a mysterious lack of change, and one morning no one seemed to know where the coffee had gone. Yet there was something remarkably homely about the place, a sort of ‘We’re not trying anymore’ bonhomie. The floor lady happily listened to my execrable Russian, handled my laundry and made endless samovars of chai. The hotel’s rooms had balconies overlooking the snowcapped mountains to the south or, like mine, looked across Lenin Park, in which stood a statue of Vladimir Ilyich, eyes fixed on a future nobody else could see.” (p. 245)

(The conversation with the cousin backed up these descriptions of the food- he actually made it sound far worse!)

However, I think a real test of good travel writing is to read about a place you are familiar with and see whether it holds–Michael Palin’s accounts of New Zealand are completely cringe-worthy, for example; Paul Theroux’s observations of Dunedin are completely at odds with mine. Though I have not been to Kashmir, I have read a lot about it, and I ultimately found Kremmer’s account unsatisfying–it was repetitive of a lot of other writing on Kashmir and didn’t really add many new insights, aside from his experiences at carpet-making factories. I read his descriptions of the Dal Lake houseboats and the impoverishment of their owners in the past couple of decades, and had a strong sense of deja vu, wondering whether I had read this passage elsewhere, in a collection of writings on Kashmir. I don’t think I have, but this says a lot about the chapter, and the book as a whole, I think.

But I don’t mean to sound completely negative. It was an interesting and readable book, the type to read while travelling, perhaps. I have Kremmer’s Inhaling the Mahatma stashed away for this purpose.

Coconut Unlimited, Nikesh Shukla (2010)

British-Gujarati author Nikesh Shukla’s Coconut Unlimited is the funniest book I’ve read since Ngugi’s The Wizard of the Crow. It’s combines teenage-boy melodrama with second-generation British-Indian immigrant angst, racism and class commentary, and makes these heavy themes really, really funny along the way.

It is the mid-1990s and fourteen-year-old Amit lives in Harrow, on the outskirts of London. Unlike the other local Gujarati teenagers, he goes to a private school rather than the comprehensive. Being only one of three non-white boys at his school, he feels hemmed in and marginalised. With characteristic teenage obsession, he, Anand and Nishant, his other Asian school buddies, style themselves as hip-hop rappers. They are nerdy good-boys in reality, excelling at Latin, not daring to touch alcohol or weed, and wanting to live up to their parents’ expectations, yet imagine themselves to be black ghetto boys, rapping about guns and violence. Their Gujarati peers call them coconuts–brown on the outside, white on the inside–because of their private-school pretensions, while their white classmates mock them for being black-wannabes. They are experiencing the identity crisis of youth, compounded by being a minority within a minority. They aren’t exactly ashamed of their Gujarati heritage (though their parents’ Bollywood music makes them gag), but within school they aren’t given any room to be proud of it, being hounded by students and teachers alike for their difference. Their answer is to identify with the singers of their favourite rap music. Amit says:

“In our fictional social system we were the penniless, despite our privileged education, and thus aligned ourselves with the streets, in particular the streets of Compton and the Bronx. So, to prove to ourselves we weren’t coconuts, we tried to be brown on the outside and black in the middle. We knew we had soul, and hip-hop was our way of showing it. The worst thing for us, it seemed, was to be called wealthy and posh by our Asian peers, and equals by our white peers. We needed to be dirty and rugged, to maintain the oppression of our race, and hip-hop was perfect for that.” (p. 31)

All of this might sound a bit dark and sad if it wasn’t so hilarious. I suspect Shukla may have been writing about his own youth, as Amit’s awkwardness is sensitively and affectionately portrayed, the way that reminiscing about older versions of oneself calls for. You don’t really want to think about it, it makes you cringe (hell, I was of the Spice Girls generation!) but it makes for good comedy two decades later. Amit and co. name their hip-hop group Coconut Unlimited, in an attempt to embrace the stigmatised label and turn it into something positive. The trouble is, they really aren’t very good. When a white classmate of Amit’s shows an interest in rapping, Amit feels threatened and challenges him to a rap battle, 8-Mile style:

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHCOCONUTUNLIMITED

LISTEN

LISTEN

Listen

Listen

Yo, so Herman’s a munster, his mum’s a munter

Down the market he’s an ordinary punter

Who wants pizza? Herman’s got a pizza face

Herman always loses a race

Err…

Listen

YEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH COCONUT

Herman, Herman, you’re just a bit shit man

You got fingernails like you filed them with a flan

You can’t rap, you’re just crap

Who’s with me, feel me, BRRAAP

Yap, clap trap, dapper…

Map… lap COCONUT UNLIMITED”

(p. 146)

If this wasn’t humiliation enough, Herman replies:

“Mit Dogg, more like Shit Log

Take your skills outside into the thick fog

That your farting mouth just made

Look man, I’m getting paid and laid

And you’re just a whack little man

Who can’t rap, I’m like damn

Come on, these are the skills you’re bringing

That’s why everyday I’m winning…”

(p. 147)

I recommend Coconut Unlimited to teenagers of the 1990s, those who acutely remember the angst of youth (or need reminding), anyone who has ever felt like an outsider, or who just wants a good laugh.

Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil (2012)

The week my PhD scholarship ran out I thought I’d buy something memorable (but affordable) with my last pay cheque. I was expecting something along the lines of Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, or Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, and would have been quite happy with that, as I love those books. But Narcopolis was something a bit different.

Bombay grunge fiction is becoming a sub-genre in its own right. Fair enough, it’s a rather grungy city, though I do love it. Writers on Bombay have commented that it is a character in its own right, that it is impossible to just set a story or a novel there, that it must be given an existence of its own. I don’t think Thayil quite achieved this in Narcopolis, though it seems that this may have been his aim, in naming his book what he did. The city itself doesn’t really have much pull over the characters, it is just the backdrop for events–references to Colaba, the Haji Ali mosque, and so on.

I couldn’t quite get into Narcopolis, though I do not want to claim it’s a bad book, it’s just completely contrary to my personal tastes. There was something unpleasantly masculine about it. Novels revolving around drug addicts do have a tendency to alienate me, but it was more than that- the constant sexual violence was also very off-putting. I am not making the mistake of conflating Thayil’s personality with the personas he depicted, and I do think he is a good writer. I just didn’t like the story, the themes, or the characters. Reading this book was a bit like watching Pulp Fiction, and I don’t like that film. It just gives me the creeps.

Narcopolis has been short listed for this year’s Booker Prize. I can see the connections between this and The White Tiger, though they are very different books, and I’m not sure I like the implications. Are these novels really the best of contemporary Indian fiction in English? I am doubtful. But, perhaps they’re not looking for ‘best’, but interesting, off-beat. Narcopolis is certainly that.

Secret Places: New Writing from Nepal, ed. Frank Stewart, Samrat Upadhyay and Manjushree Thapa (2001)

Another gem courtesy of the Canberra Lifeline Book Sale. This special edition of Manoa, a literary journal produced by the University of Hawai’i, is one of the few collections of contemporary (well, reasonably) Nepali writing that I have come across. It contains essays, poetry, short stories, most in translation from Nepali, and photographs. I found it a refreshing collection because, for all my familiarity with Indian literature, Nepali literature has slipped beneath the radar.

Some of the reasons for this are outlined in Manjushree Thapa’s essay, meant as an introduction to this collection (and I’ll come to that again later), called “Reaching One’s Own People, Reaching the World.” Here she traces the progression of modern Nepali literature, which has a comparatively short history, having developed from the mid-nineteenth century. As a literary scholar I found this the most interesting piece in the collection. Literature is rarely something done by an isolated, brilliant intellect disconnected from the practicalities of the real world. Thapa outlines:

“The economic situation in Nepal, one of the poorest countries of the world, also works against the development of its literature. Nepal’s undeveloped and disorganized economy–a mix of agrarian and market systems that keep half the population below poverty level–provides scant reward for the literary writer. The few publishers who are willing to print fiction and poetry offer no royalty payments; more often than not, writers must subsidize their own publication. To support themselves, even the most established writers work as teachers, bankers, lawyers, newspaper columnists, accountants, and editors–or they must rely on patrons or family wealth. For most writers, the purchase of books is beyond their means, and in any case, few books are available in the country. It is humbling to think that almost all Nepali literature is still labouriously written and revised by hand on foolscap sheets.” (p. 68)

Humbling indeed, when one considers that next-door neighbour India is experiencing a publishing boom.

Other themes that emerge through the essays, short stories and poetry of Secret Places are the oppression of women, and the poverty of the countryside. Maya Thakuri’s short story “Trap,” translated from Nepali, is a particularly poignant and memorable story about the trafficking of women and girls for sex work, a major problem in Nepal.

The Nepali content of Secret Places is excellent, but the editing of the volume overall is simply baffling. Despite the sub-title “New Writing from Nepal,” the fact that a picture of a Nepali temple adorns the front page, and that beautiful black and white photographs of Nepal by Linda S. Connor are interspersed throughout the volume, Secret Places also contains some writing from Japan, Korea and elsewhere. Not in a separate section, but dispersed throughout the Nepali writing. Surely Special Issue means Special Issue, not partly-Special Issue? The worst aspect of this editorial decision was that Thapa’s essay mentioned above, that clearly acts as an introduction to the volume, appears on page 67. Some of the writing she introduces has already been read! Perhaps the editors weren’t anticipating anyone sitting down and reading this journal as a book, from front to back, as I did.

This layout was frustrating and annoying, but did not completely detract from the pleasure of being introduced to this varied literature from a place still under-represented on the world literary scene. It was published quite a long time ago now, in 2001, shortly after Nepal had been through a period of immense turmoil stemming from the murder of several members of its royal family. I hope this collection has not been, nor will be, a one-off.