Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Chai, Chai Chugs On

I am sure there are times when a writer, unless he has reached a stage when each word that comes off his laptop or typewriter is worth a hundred dollars, ponders over this question: Which is better -- a review that trashes your book, or no review at all? One is the fire, the other is the frying pan -- the choice is yours. I, however, believe that you should just blindfold yourself and take a long leap, without worrying about where you are going to land, the frying pan or the fire, and chances are that you might just find yourself on a bed or roses. In other words, just write, as honestly as you can, without worrying about the outcome.

One can write a full-length self-help book on this subject -- "100 ways to tide over criticism" or "50 things you can learn from bad reviews" -- but the truth is we are human, and criticism hurts, especially after you have invested two or three years of your precious life producing a book which would be the first thing you would run to save if there was a fire. Writing a bad review, even if it is justified, is like telling the mother of a newborn, "Oh, but how could you produce such an ugly child!" There are ways of conveying unpleasant things. In any case, what appears to be unpleasant to one could be the opposite for another.

I have always been disinclined to review books even though I worked with a Sunday paper for a very long time. I can count on my fingers the number of reviews I have written: and most of them were of books related to either travel, yoga or Bollywood -- books that interested me immensely and which I finished reading in one sitting. But nobody has ever been able to hold a gun to my head and say, "We are falling short by one review. Here's a new book, why don't you review it? So, 500 words, by 3 o' clock tomorrow?" You can't write a review like that: three years of labour judged in three hours or less, and the verdict written in 30 minutes!

That's precisely why I admire my friend Baradwaj Rangan. He is one of the few, if not the only, honest film critics we have today in the entire country. It is rare for him to give his verdict unless he has watched a movie at least twice and has heard a music album for at least two days in a row. It is not for nothing that today he is a celebrity reviewer: people actually look forward to what he has to say about a movie or a music album.

By now you must be wondering about the purpose of this post: has Chai, Chai been getting bad reviews? On the contrary. I must say I have been very lucky in spite of being a first-time writer. The book has not only earned some very good reviews but has also gone into reprint within four weeks of hitting the stands. There have been two unsavoury reviews as well. One of them I choose to ignore because the reviewer started off saying very nice things about me and the book and then, finally, in the last para, suddenly decided to turn hostile. Perhaps she wanted the review to be 'balanced.' I don't really have problems with that at all. As a trained journalist who has worked with highly demanding bosses, I have always received criticism as if it were a medal.

But there are times when you can sense that the reviewer has already made up his mind against you even without reading the book carefully. That's when it really hurts. Take, for example, the review of Chai, Chai in Outlook. The reviewer says, quite smugly:

"It’s a bit disorienting to have a man alight at 3:15 am and two pages later talk of being woken up at 4, still in the train!"

People who take book reviews appearing in Outlook seriously and who are yet to read Chai, Chai will think I am some jerk who can't even get the sequence of events right. They will never get to know that the real culprit is the reviewer who hasn't even read the book carefully. Nowhere in the book -- except in the reviewer's imagination -- does this anomaly occur.

Having made the damaging statement, the reviewer goes on:

"Ghosh works hard on the back stories (there’s a search for Lal Bahadur Shastri’s alma mater in Mughalsarai, and a visit to a dharamsala where Mahatma Gandhi once stayed). But he can’t quite pull off the trick of stripping small-town India’s facade of apparent mundaneness to find something more engaging. It’s a trick that arguably only Pankaj Mishra has pulled off with his Butter Chicken in Ludhiana. Chai, chai fails here, leaving travel writing fans unfulfilled and wondering what the fuss was all about."

Since I have the luxury of owning this blog, let me clarify that it was never my intention to carry out an academic study of the small towns covered in my book or "stripping them of their mundaneness to find something more engaging." My sole obligation was to present these towns to the reader the way I saw them -- the conclusions have been left to the reader. I was not at all aiming to pull off any trick, and I was certainly not aiming to be another Pankaj Mishra. Butter Chicken in Ludhiana is one book I am yet to read, and it is sad that the reviewer accused me of not matching up to it.

Can't blame the reviewer. He is someone called Hari Menon. Perhaps he was looking for depth. I feel really bad that I let him down.

Chai, Chai, meanwhile, chugs on. See you guys in Bangalore on November 28 and in Mumbai on December 10. Details in a day or two.


Anonymous said...

Wow! Welome home:)

Anonymous said...

Why is that always i tend an sympathetic ear to your words? I am even tempted to come to your book launch function in bangalore and buy a copy of "Chai Chai".

Lakshmi said...

Keats was always plagued by negative reports , but he is one of the best poets ..

Unknown said...

my editor told me that reviewers tend to write what they wish the book had been about rather than what the book is actually about. they sort of have an idea of what they want a book to be and if the book is not exactly that, they proceed to trash it. so, just don't bother. also, any review - whether it trashes or not - is good news simply because it's keeping your book in the news.

janani sampath said...

A film-maker once told me that he is happy as long as people come up with reactions about his works. He said, "It has affected them in some way. I can't please everyone". I guess the same applies to books too.
All publicity is good publicity......

Anonymous said...

Somewhat funny and even a tad irksome that the reviewer would assume that the author was trying to pull off a trick that apparently only a pankaj mishra could and perhaps can. Chai Chai is a thoroughly entertaining read, and it was never the author's intention, me supposes, that the book be regarded as a definitive treatise on the life and times of indian villages and small towns. maybe the reviewer desperately needed to lighten and loosen up before getting down to read ghosh's work... alas, all that butter chicken did him in.... a double chai too weak to clear all that grease. No thanks to Hari Menon, but can you hear the cries of 'chai chai' somewhere near you..... well, there's no stopping a good thing from going places...so, sip it, and make a noise about it :-)

josh said...

A writer's business is to write. So just write. My pennyworth: Promise yourself that never ever in your life you'd read reviews. Never. Ever. And that's it. There are successful authors around the world who stay away from reviews. Jhumpa is one of them. Cormac is another. William Trevor is yet another one.

Just write Ghosh. Your books will become a world of its own. Readers will slowly queue up to enter, one by one, two by two. Give yourself time. Immerse in working on another book and then another.

It's simpler than we fear ;-)

Anonymous said...

i really dont know why you must worry abt reviews. you shud've probably checked the edited draft before it went to print...but worrying abt what other ppl think abt your book isnt really what u should be doing as a writer. ur job stops the minute u put down your pen.

Anonymous said...

i absolutely agree the mr/ms anonymous. Don't let the criticism affect u GB. There'll be many more books and even more criticism. all u have to do is shrug it off and give in ur best..

Annie said...

Readers of Pankaj Misra is separate and Biswanath Gosh is separate. So they will consider the reviews also separately without comparing. The reviewer may be aiming at the promo of Pankaj Misra's work indirectly as it happens everywhere and he may be perhaps benefited by it. Why a good writer like you should bother about it? Go on writing on good themes like Chai, Chai. People will enjoy the essence/substance. A good criticism never can be valid with a comparison and wise reader neglects such reviews. My poem ARCHITECT is born from a comparitive criticism like this Vent your vindictive inspiration. That will also become a creation. All the best BG

Anonymous said...

Hi Mr.Ghosh,
It looks you are trying to mean that people from Kerala are the ones who look for 'Depth'.Be careful particularly as you are just a start-up writer not even one novel old yet to venture into dangerous terrains of regionalism.It can backlash your career.Afterall you should know that you are getting your bread and butter only from southern part of India which essentially means you had been chased out your own place Delhi/Kolkata.So take care