Friday, September 28, 2007

The Solitude of Emperors by David Davidar and The 2007 Nuit Blanche in Toronto, Word On The Street!


Category: Fiction

Format: Hardcover, 256 pages

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart

Pub Date: September 4, 2007
Price: $32.99










With a title like "The Solitude of Emperors" and a publisher's blurb that went like this:
David Davidar’s unflinching novel is set among the Bombay riots of the 1990s. The Solitude of Emperors is about what drives fundamentalist beliefs and what makes someone driven, bold or mad enough to make a stand, I was expecting something grand, something larger than life from David Davidar's new book and although it fell somewhat short of my expectations, I was glad to have stuck with it until the end because it's the kind of book that rewards you

Before I go any further, here's a short history about the 1992-93 communal riots which provides the backdrop against which this story is played out (courtesy of the Guardian (UK)):

On December 6, 1992, Hindu fundamentalists pulled down a 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya, a town in Uttar Pradesh, and reclaimed the site as the birthplace of the god Ram. The communal riots that followed spread to other parts of India, with the most violent, and organized, taking place hundreds of miles south in Bombay

Vijay, our raconteur is eager to escape the caste biases of his small unnamed town in South India. After a chance letter to the magazine "The Indian Secularist" lands him a job in Bombay, he becomes a journalist and is rendered a spectator to the 1992-93 communal riots (in which he gets beaten up) after which we see him spiraling into a depression of sorts. The reason for his despondency? The sad state of secularism in India and the apathy of the public who seem wont to do anything about communal violence. By the way, Davidar is unflinching in his descriptions of the rioters and the cruelty and brutality they unleash upon their fellow Mumbaikars.
"...the left eyeball had been gouged out of its socket and the right eyeball had been slashed by a knife, and was cloudy and occluded by blood. The injuries hadn't killed him; below the chin, there was a surgically clean cut that had finally extinguished his life"

Seeing that his protege is depressed the kindly Parsi boss (Mr. Sorabjee) at the newspaper decides that a change of scene might do Vijay good and sends him to the blue hills of the Nilgiris to a town called Meham to report on some trouble brewing at a place of Christian worship called "Tower of Silence". Sorabjee also requests Vijay to read the manuscript of a textbook he (Sorabjee) has written for young students of history. Its title is "The Solitude of Emperors: Why Ashoka, Akbar and Gandhi Matter to Us" and in writing this textbook Sorabjee's goal is to acquaint and arm India's youth with the wisdom and values of their older and wiser rulers, especially in matters of religious tolerance. The use of this manuscript is a clever narrative ploy because it allows Davidar to write a polemic about religious fundamentalism and tolerance without seeming like he is preaching to his readers.

In Meham, Vijay discovers that there are plans being made to attack the shrine in a manner similar to Ayodhya by Rajan a local businessman, rightwing Hindu and a political activist. It is at this point you see Vijay make the transition from passive onlooker or reporter to activist, but does he succeed?

This sounds like a very engaging book doesn't it? So why didn't I enjoy it as much as I expected to? I think it's because the narrator lacked spirit and that seemed to drag the narrative down. I'm glad I didn't give up on it however because Davidar addresses some very important issues that I think are very relevant everywhere in the world today:

# The misuse of religion in politics

#The misinterpretation of religion to suit one's agenda

# Fundamentalism vs. Secularism

# Should a journalist ever get emotionally involved in an assisgnment he is sent to cover?

I laud Davidar for writing this book which I see essentially as a critique on contemporary India. For too long Indo-Anglian writers of fiction have focused on exotic India and few have taken on the challenge of writing about the problems facing the country today (exceptions are Kiran Desai's "The Inheritance of Loss", Altaf Tyrewala's "There is No God, Salman Rushie's "Shalimar"). I am thrilled to see David Davidar do the same.



About this Author



David Davidar is president and publisher of Penguin Canada and also a director on the board of Penguin India, of which he was a founding member. Davidar’s first novel, The House of Blue Mangoes, was published in sixteen countries and was an international bestseller.





************

Sep 29th, Toronto's "Nuit Blanche"

7:03 pm to sunrise


For one sleepless night, we Torontonians will get to experience Toronto transformed by artists. We are being asked to discover art in galleries, museums, alleyways and demolition sites to churches and squash courts....and in some other 195 destinations. One night only. All night long!!!

I really,really want to go! Museums, Art Galleries, Churches, Theatres, educational institutions, sports centers, you name it, are going to be open all night long! Anybody going?

(Toronto's Hotel Drake advertising their participation in Nuit Blanche)

(Toronto's night sky at last year's Nuit Blanche)
*****************************************************************



Then on Sunday, Sep 30th we have Toronto's THE WORD ON THE STREET.


This year's authors include:

Craig and Marc Kielburger
Vincent Lam
Kenneth Oppel
Melanie Watt
Richard B. Wright
M.G. Vassanji
David Suzuki

I really would love to go but at this point I am not sure I can. Cereal Girl and Nix are going so check their blogs for updates.



26 comments:

Nix said...

Ah - I was only waiting for someone to ask!
If you're wanting to go - let's hook up!

Orange Blossom Goddess (aka Heather) said...

I'm hoping to go to both events - we'll see.

Orange Blossom Goddess (aka Heather) said...

I'm hoping to go to both events - we'll see.

Sanjay said...

Lotus, I have to say a most wonderful post. You paint for us a wonderful picture of what “The solitude of emperors” is all about and also how the book spoke to you.

When I heard about this book, I wondered about where the title came from and your book review helps me understand that. Thank you. Was it the title of the book or the author’s previous works that made you expect something grander or larger than life?

It was truly horrifying to read about the cruelty of man against his fellow being. Even animals who hunt for sustenance look for a quick kill don’t they?

I loved the narrative ploy of using the manuscript the way the Davidar does. Neat indeed! It is also good to see this book written perhaps as a defense of secularism which is under assault at a lot of places the world over, in response to rising fundamentalism often causing misguided responses from majorities.

I think it's because the narrator lacked spirit and that seemed to drag the narrative down.

Is it possible that the perceived lack of spirit may be due to the nature of the narrator’s experiences? Traumatic events can be very debilitating to the spirit and ones psyche, perhaps the lack of spirit might have been meant deliberately to convey the burdens that Vijay bears due to what he witnesses and to find his beliefs being shaken to his very core?

Like you I am encouraged to see Indo-Anglian writers step outside the box so to say.

# Should a journalist ever get emotionally involved in an assignment he is sent to cover?

I think I might respond to that by saying it is very hard especially for journalists covering conflict and strife. When I heard Paul Watson (A Canadian) talk about his book “Where war lives”, he was asked this question, and he said it was very difficult to not be affected. His interview on NPR here says it all. So while he was able to document it professionally he was not untouched by it.

From that link Canadian journalist Paul Watson won the 1994 Pulitizer Prize for his photograph of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu,Somalia. His war-zone work leaves him suffering from chronic post-traumatic stress, and he says the Mogadishu photo still haunts him.

Thank you for telling us about this interesting book.

I do hope you get to go for “Nuit Blanche”, what a novel way to experience the city, it’s arts and culture!! Did the French come up with this idea? I also hope that you can go to “The Word On The Street” too and also tell us all about it. I wish they have something like this in our neck of the woods, maybe they do and I just have not looked.

Thank you again for an excellent post.

ML said...

Lotus, great review! You're right, it does sound like it would be an engaging book. I'm glad you stuck with it to then end and still got a lot out of the book. I would have given up :)

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Nix!

Man, I would give my right arm to be able to go to "Nuit Blanche" and to follow it up with "Word on the Street", but so much depends on what my two lovely daughters have planned for Saturday night! If I can make it I'll be sure to give you a shout, I hope you will take lots of pictures and blog about it, it looks soooooo good! Also, don't forget to add to the ongoing "Story of Toronto" the opening lines of which will be penned by none other than David Miller! The whole story will be online soon, I'd love to see your name there!

If a miracle occurs and I am able to come to "Word on the Street" I'll be sure to let you know!

Have fun Nix!

Hollydolly said...

Anjali:
So pleased to see your words on "Solitude". As you said:-

"This sounds like a very engaging book doesn't it? So why didn't I enjoy it as much as I expected to? I think it's because the narrator lacked spirit and that seemed to drag the narrative down. I'm glad I didn't give up on it however because Davidar addresses some very important issues that I think are very relevant everywhere in the world today"

I totally agree, Davidar does address important issues, but for me the narrator did not do them enough justice. I found myself wanting to give him (the narrator)"a slap up the side of the head". This could have been such a wonderful book. But sadly not for me.

Lotus Reads said...

@Heather ~ I hope you get to go to both events! If I do make it to "Word On the Street" you will most likely find me at the MG Vassanji reading.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sanjay!

Thank you for your engaging comment and for asking me questions! I'm glad you like the review, be warned though, "Solitude" is not an easy read, it can get dull in parts, but if you persevere I think you're in for a treat!

Yes, "Solitude of Emperors" came from the title of Sorabjee's manuscript, in which he explains that it is in solitude (the same solitude that we spend so much time running away from) that the worlds of Gods and men intersect. He tries to tell us that it is in solitude that we can find the answers to even the most difficult questions.

The narrative ploy of a 'book within a book' is a good one. Frankly, I preferred the manuscript to the main book for it contained nuggets of wisdom I will cherish for a long while.

Is it possible that the perceived lack of spirit may be due to the nature of the narrator’s experiences?Traumatic events can be very debilitating to the spirit and ones psyche, perhaps the lack of spirit might have been meant deliberately to convey the burdens that Vijay bears due to what he witnesses and to find his beliefs being shaken to his very core?

I think you're onto something here, Sanjay! It could be that Davidar deliberately sought understated prose to show us how being an eyewitness to the rioting had affected Vijay. I don't know. I wish I could ask him that, but I think your theory makes a lot of sense.

Oh my gosh, yes, I remember that interview with Paul Watson and yes, I guess even if you're a seasoned reporter there are times when it's difficult not to want to add an op-ed to the facts you are recording.

I do believe "Nuit Blanche" had its genesis in Paris and then went to Madrid, Toronto and some other European cities. If I go I promise to return with a bunch of pics!

Sanjay, thank you so much for your comment and for the interest in the review. It always makes for a fun discussion!

Sanjay said...

Thank you for your response Lotus, I enjoyed reading wat you had to say.

He tries to tell us that it is in solitude that we can find the answers to even the most difficult questions.

That is so well said.

How interesting that you preferred the "manuscript" within a book.

And maybe the Q about the character lack of spirit can be directed to the author if you go to a bookreading?

I do hope that you can go to both the events in Toronto.

Asha said...

I think I have one of his books, I have to go upstairs and check. This book sounds interesting too. We have so many Indian writers today, it feels wonderful.
Enjoy those events,looks like you have company too to go there!:))
Have a great weekend Lotus.

poodlerat said...

It looks like I'm going to both. I didn't go to Nuit Blanche last year, so I'm excited to check it out this time. And my best friend's mom is going to be helping out at a booth at Word on the Street, so of course I have to stop by and see her (and of course, that's the only reason I'm going!)

Lotus Reads said...

@ml ~ Hi! Usually when a book doesn't impress me in the first 50 pages or so, I pass it up. This time the first part of the book more than impressed me, it was the middle part that let it down, however, like I said, I am glad I persevered!

@Sylvia ~ I found myself wanting to give him (the narrator)"a slap up the side of the head". This could have been such a wonderful book. But sadly not for me.

I had a huge smile on my face as I read that. I agree with you, I found myself wanting to give the narrator a little shake myself. For me, Noah was a much more interesting character.

Dana said...

Lauren and I will be going to The Word on the Street. We love the event. unless.....

This cold Lauren has so generously shared with me gets worse. Heaven forbid!

I only hope that I can get away without buying any books. Doubt that will happen as I am a book buying addict HAHA

Lotus Reads said...

@Sanjay ~ I'd jump at the chance to listen to Davidar read. Unfortunately I just missed a reading that happened in Toronto on the 26th :(

@Asha ~ You must have "The House of Blue Mangoes", that was his first book and a really nice one I am told. Wishing you a wonderful weekend too, Asha!

@Poodlerat ~ Ahhh, you're going to have so much fun at "Nuit Blanche". I can't wait for my girls to grow up, get their driver's licenses etc. so they are no longer dependent on me to drop and pick them up on Saturday nights. I might just make it to "Word On The Street"

@Dana ~ You poor thing, hope your cold subsides, it's no fun being sick on a great weekend like this!

Book Closet said...

Lotus, I am not sure if I will read this one. But, I am definitely planning to read 'The House of Blue Mangoes'. Have you read it?
'Word on the Street sounds like an exciting event. Oh, I wish I could go :( Esp. I would love to go to Vassanji's reading event..
Hope you get to make it and tell us all about it!

Lotus Reads said...

hi, Chitts!

For a moment you threw me with "Book Closet", I am so used to seeing "Happy Reader" :)

I haven't read "The House of Blue Mangoes" but I have been told it's a winner. It was also set in the Nilgiris I believe.

starry nights said...

Thanks for the wonderful review Lotus.I have read The house of blue mangoes and enjoyed it.even though it was a bit long and slow.

Kerry said...

Hope your filled this weekend with good things, no matter which of the plethora of events you chose.

And may I underline the recommendations you received to read The Lizard Cage? It's stunning in its power, and absolutely beautiful.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Starry!

You're welcome! I really would like to read "House of Blue Mangoes", but, as you say, it is the length of it that keeps me from taking it down from my shelf where it has been languishing for a couple of years.

Lotus Reads said...

Hello, Kerry

Thank you for the good wishes, unfortunately I came down with a bug on the weekend and wasn't able to leave the house :(

There's always next year I suppose.

Appreciate your endorsement of "The Lizard's Cage", I will have to make sure I borrow it from the library soon.

diyadear said...

wow the night long event will be amusing.. do tell us how it turned out. As for the book, im yet to start on non fiction :( but will start soon .:)

Anali said...

Sounds like Toronto was the place to be this past weekend! I hope you were able to go and can report back for us! Enjoy your week!

hellomelissa said...

all art, all night long? it would be fantastic, but i need my sleep. all fun and no sleep makes melissa a crabby girl. :)

heather (errantdreams) said...

Sounds like a fascinating take on events, and a great way to learn about these issues. I hope you're able to make it to the art night next time!

david mcmahon said...

I'm having a busy week/ month as well. Look after yourself.....