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.