Friday, December 25, 2009

Birthday Views And Reviews

So the shirt didn't come this year. Every year, for the past 10 years, my mother has been couriering me an expensive shirt on the eve of my birthday. I say expensive because what she'd shell out would usually be way beyond her means. Only a mother would do that.

The shirt would usually reach me the day before Christmas, and then the instruction would come on phone, "Make sure you wear it on your birthday. Even if for a short while." This year, I have no choice but to dig out one of the shirts she had sent me and wear it tomorrow -- even if for a short while.

Tomorrow, dear friends, I turn 39. My last birthday when the first digit of my age will still be '3'. The beginning of the last 365 days of my thirties. The countdown to turning 40. Middle-age, here I come! So my birthday and my New Year resolution: to make the most of these 365 days. If I make the most of these 365 days, my next 10 years should be taken care of and I shall be able to enter middle-age with grace and with a youthful stride.

But for that I need to be strong. The past four months, as most of you know, have been an emotional roller-coaster for me. Every day I have been drinking a cocktail whose ingredients are pain, joy, regret, excitement, anxiety, exultation, bitterness, jubilation and anger. Every few hours one emotion takes over from the other and my mood changes.

Yoga can be my only saviour now, as it has been in the past. Nothing beats a 90-minute session, starting with the sun salutations and ending with the headstand. It prepares you to take it easy, or take on the world, if required. So once am done with this post, I am going to wash my yoga mat and hang it in the balcony to dry. But there is something that I need to get out of my system before starting the detox process. It has been stuck in my throat like a fishbone and I shall now cough and spit it out.

India has two respectable newsmagazines, India Today and Outlook. Each of these magazines come out with monthly travel magazines, India Today Travel Plus and Outlook Traveller. Both these magazines have reviewed my book Chai, Chai. Both the reviewers happen to be women -- women I do not know. I am surprised that the judgments of two reviewers about a first-time writer's travel book should be poles apart.

Excerpts from the Outlook Traveller review:
It's hard to tell a good story even when you are writing about wildly interesting people and places. But it takes a very good, maybe a great writer, to elevate the ordinary to the extraordinary. Small town India is very definitely ordinary; but while journalist Bishwanath Ghosh is many things — including wry, nosey, dogged and conscientious — a very good writer he is not.

In Chai, chai he sets out to discover the towns that lie just outside major railway junctions, the nationally known place-names that nobody ever actually visits. Instead of merely changing trains at Itarsi or Jhansi or Guntakal, he asks, what if you were to get off and treat the town as its own destination?

It's an innovative, interesting question, fuelled by the urge to know what people's lives are like in tiny towns; towns that lie on the fringes of the traveller's consciousness, usually cloaked in a mist of homogenous anonymity. Sadly, Ghosh does not seem to like the towns much, which is fair enough, but he does not even dislike them interestingly. Knotted up in descriptions of goat-infested lanes and oily hotel sheets, lurching from bar to bar or drinking in his hotel room, he just seems lost. In attempting profundity, he achieves only the purely banal. Here, he is on Manju, a housewife-turned-prostitute in Itarsi: "This was a strange encounter: people usually spend an hour with a human being who had [sic] turned into a prostitute, but I had just spent an hour with a prostitute who was also a human being."

The bottom line is that in Ghosh's hands, a promising project fills with lead and sinks straight to the bottom.

Now, read what India Today Travel Plus has to say:
Chai, chai... The unmistakably nasal, shrill call of chai vendors at railway stations is something that I have always remembered. No wake-up call is more effective than this; no other tea more soul-stirring and energising. The picture is the same no matter which station you are at. Equally piercing and commanding is the whistle of the train, which urges you to file into the carriages and move on.

It is at this very moment -- when you are caught between a cup of steaming chai on the platform and the urgent hooting -- that the story of Chai, Chai begins. Picking seven railway junctions where trains stop, but people never seem to alight, Bishwanath Ghosh sets out to explore towns that have never been credited with more than being just railway junctions.

The result is as refreshing as the idea, just like the perky tea I can never do without on train journeys. The narrative begins with Mughal Sarai and takes you through Jhansi, Itarsi, Guntakal, Arakkonam, Jolarpettai and Shoranur. As he travels down south, right from the heartland of north India, Ghosh takes you along in the most casual yet engaging manner possible. He records every detail with honesty. That includes the smell of a rickety staircase in a decrepit hotel in Mughal Sarai, steel tumblers used for drinking whisky at a family dhaba in Jhansi and also the aroma of early-morning fresh idlis invading the compartment of a train to Guntakal. Just five pages down, and you begin to see that the story of Chai, Chai is in the details that the writer has registered and presented in simple, lucid prose. And it is this attention to detail that keeps you glued to the pages even when the pace slackens and all that Ghosh seems to be doing is walking down from one chowk the next chauraha.

The other thing I like about the book is the fact there are no surprises. Ghosh infuses colour and flavour in everyday life, describing seemingly mundane chores and happenings with a sincerity that gently persuades you into revisiting certain sections of the book. One such episode, in my opinion, is Ghosh's visit to a Mughal Sarai bar. Here, he strikes up many an alcohol-induced friendship, which promptly leads to invitations to be a family's guest and also imaginary trips being planned to Pondicherry and Bangalore... The following day, when his attempts at establishing contact with a 'coaching' teacher he met at the bar fail, Ghosh observes that 'promises made at a bar table, no matter how genuine while being made, are not to be taken seriously'. No rocket science, this; just another realisation that all of us have lived with. Yet, put in the context of Ghosh's narrative, it feels comforting to re-run such axioms in your mind.

Fortunately, neither of these reviews are going to decide the fate of Chai, Chai, which has silently launched itself into the orbit. The book is going for a second reprint next month and Landmark, the bookshop in Chennai I frequently visit, has put copies on the bestseller shelf. I shall, however, consider myself a bestselling author only when -- and if at all -- Chai, Chai sells close to 10,000 copies. I do not know if this will ever happen, but I am -- by and large --happy with the way things have turned out so far. Moreover, Chai, Chai is not my last book: two more are bound to see the light of the day by the end of next year. But since Chai, Chai is my first, I shall always be possessive and protective (though not irrationally) about it. And therefore, this question, dear reader:

If you happen to be someone who has never heard of me and has not read Chai, Chai either, which of the above-cited reviews would you go by? The one in Outlook Traveller or the one in India Today Travel Plus? I want an answer, please. I can hear my well-meaning friends berating me, "Don't worry about the reviews. Ignore them. Your job is to write, so just write." Which is all very fine. I could have ignored the Outlook Traveller review and even spat on it, but what do I do about Google search?

Every time I run a search for my book, which I am required to every once in a while, the offensive review shows up on the very first page. And of late, during the past two days, the link to this highly malicious review is being thrown up as the very first result during a search run for Chai, Chai. It is all very sinister. There seems to be someone mischievous out there who wants anyone curious about Chai, Chai to first read Mitali Saran's take on the book before proceeding to other reviews and views.

Mitali Saran is the woman who reviewed Chai, Chai for Outlook Traveller. I am really surprised that she should waste her precious time and the magazine's precious space in reviewing a book she thought was utter crap. I have no problem with criticism, which is more than welcome, but it is so easy to detect the malice in her review, as if she has a score to settle with either the writer or the publisher. Fortunately, other reviewers do not share Ms Saran's views about Chai, Chai. But how the fuck do I get this malicious review off Google search? Will my techie friends please help?


janani sampath said...

I have one words for Ms Saran, if ur purely banal then she is merely a 'citag'.
A reviewer should understand they are not messiahs of literature or prose. I am surprised that she has hardly substantiated her tirade against ur book. Looks like she is hand in glove with Mr Menon, her Outlook colleague, in trashing something because they doesn't understand it.
Sad review and a miserable reviewer..
Ms Sareen u suck, big time :(

Anonymous said...

ok, tell me how much will you pay me for getting this sorted out?

Sadhana Ramchander said...

It takes sensitivity to appreciate Chai Chai, and the Outlook reviewer clearly does not have it. She must be one of those pseudos who will go ga-ga over the streets of small-town France or Switzerland, but cannot bear to look at the small bylanes of charming India. of the most difficult things about writing a book is that once it printed, it no longer yours and is open to interpretation by every reader. You can no longer be possessive about is like letting a child cross the road for the first time.

The other thing is that the fact that a publisher spent money on your book shows that someone in the business thought you are good.

Hang in there...pretend that Saran doesn't exist. Only the India Today reviewer does...and what a fantastic review she wrote! Congratulations!...and to hell with Google search; no one Google-searches and then reads a book!

Anonymous said...

Its really funny that you place great significance on the review by outlook.
If someones comment has hurt you, it means they have spoken the truth.
It is after all the opinion of the reviewer and howsoever bad or prejudiced it is, you need to retain your cool.
Never react to a critic.Try to silence them.
You cant conceal a woman by hiding her panties:)

Visithra said...

"...No rocket science, this; just another realisation that all of us have lived with. Yet, put in the context of Ghosh's narrative, it feels comforting to re-run such axioms in your mind."

- u know the last line in that second review has to me always summed up your style of writing - taking the ordinary n giving it an extraordinary feel - bad press always tends to get more highlight - n seriously there seems to be much malice in the first review - google works on the popularity of an online site or by the fact it is a paid customer for google adds n highlights those sites - unfortunately u cant remove it unless u 2 become an advertiser n insist to be the first link to chai chai - though i feel it is not worth the time

i have always looked fwd to ur bday post - so fret not on this one reviewer - n cherish life as u always have - it will never be the same with a lost loved one - but u owe them the choice to live life as fully as possible

happy bday again ;)

Diptakirti Chaudhuri said...

Read 'Chai Chai' over one long reading session yesterday. And I loved it. Not for anything else but for the fact that I identified with most of it.

Because I have also spent nights fighting mosquitoes in Gooty station. Was in Benares the day bombs went off in the court. Looked forward to omelettes at Mughalsarai station.

I think most people will pick up Chai Chai not after doing homework on the 'net (on the best travel books to buy) but when they are browsing and find the premise interesting.
And many of them will be pleasantly surprised at the author's eye for detail and simple language.
One or two of them will also hate it. But such is life.

Just remember to mail the 10000th copy of your book to the Outlook reviewer!

And - happy birthday!

Deepika Munot said...

You have answered all your own questions - these reviews do not decide the fate of Chai, there will always be those that like and those that don't. There will always be those that look for the depth of Tagore in what essentially is a documentary of sorts, albeit one told with a lot of perceptive empathy. Saran obviously is doing her job as she ... perceives it - spewing vitriol when simple dislike would have sufficed. However, there is merit in your conspiracy theory and as you said a techie friend could be of help. In my opinion though, a good insider in the journalistic world will be of more help to reach the truth. And you, I'm sure has no dearth of such sources. So cheer up and forge ahead.

Vijay Dwivedi said...

Dear Bishwnath,

Two things strike me instantly while going through your posts (Ive read almost all in the archive now, in last 2-3 days)is the flow of your writing and secondly honesty in your approach. Hence, what ever your well wishers say for not paying attention to the reviews, you accept that you cant pretend to remain aloof. Be that ways, because these traits come only with due course of time.

Your writing is a flow of a stream fresh from mountains, pure and uncorrupt. Make your own path, the ocean of name, fame, adulation - you'll reach one day.

Now, my own view is that being a good journalist is like being a swimmer. Speed and stamina both are simultaneously required. Early (or timely) finish is the prime requisite. But, For being an author of a book you needs to have the patience and grit of a Diver. You intend to give an eternal thing - the book- to the world and not just an weakly article for the mental munching of the readers. However a good swimmer you are, you cant get the PEARL from the deep seas, unless you have the traits of a fine diver. I am sure you would succeed in that area also.

Now, that you have upgraded from a columnist to an author, I wish you give much more best sellers, the eternal best sellers, in coming days, years, decades.

Vijay Dwivedi

PS: Ive yet to read your Chai Chai, would finish it as soon as I get my hands on it. Nice to see Aunty's photo,

Rohit Mishra said...

I will go with India Today's review. Reviewers - the majority of them - love to write in a way which shows their great perception. I will buy your book the next time I see it, because I like the way you write your blog posts. I love reading about India, and am sure you would have written a good book. happy b'day!

Kasturi said...

Hey Ghosh, I am half way through Chai Chai and will certainly not agree to what Ms Saran has expressed. Particularly her statement that ``...a promising project fills with lead and sinks straight to the bottom.''' is crap. Let me tell you something, people here (my colleagues, most of whom are non-journalists and don't know you personally) read your blogs regularly and anxiously await for your posts, though they might not be sending you any comment. And all of them have a copy of Chai, Chai. And its basing on those people's comments that I booked my copy. And I am happy I did.

Bishwanath Ghosh said...

Anon@11.39 AM: Criticism (which is most welcome) is one thing, mischief quite another.

Frustrations Amalgamated said...

Thinking about it.. May be the reviwer was comparing you with dickens and writers of that league, so your writing wouldnt have impressed her. But you must be glad she put you on the same stage with him. :P Every negative thing has a positive side to it. And life is way too short to analyze a pathetic reviewer's review.

Anonymous said...

hey listen, mrs saran has been trying to write a book for ages, but has neither managed to garner the attention span to do it, nor find the depth to sustain writing more than the 500 words of nonsense she throws up every Sunday. She is a jealous and frustrated half-wit, and given half a chance to squash new talent, she will not hold back; you must understand that had you been someone that she could derive some "value" (not excluding sexual) from, she would have licked your ass.
don't fear, she will fall ... as she already has in life. i mean, have you seen her recently?!

Renuka Raj said...

A review is but an opinion. And an opinion is but feedback, which if viewed negatively becomes criticism. I think you should turn negativity off in your mind and take a look at Ms. Saran's perspective. It is often negativity within that tends to manifest outside of us. And in case you still don't find anything worth imbibing from the lady's review, just do not let it interfere with your own mindset. As a commentator says on this blog, it takes sensitivity to even understand Chai Chai. As for Google search, I don't think many book buyers read reviews before buying a book. Most do so based on reviews from their friends. So, let Google and Ms. Saran be. They cannot stop anyone from reading a book.

Anonymous said...

Well! What is critcism to her is mischief to you and vice versa.

An aspiring writer ought to learn to take things in his stride.

After all one rose does not make a garland.

Bhanu Reddy said...

Ms.Saran is right to an extent. I was a big fan of your blog and was visiting your pages for almost 4 years now. Off late, I have almost same kind of feeling that Mr.Saran had. Live with it.

Anonymous said...

kutch to log kahenge...:-)


NG said...

There is nothing malicious in Ms Saran's review.

Maybe 90 minutes yoga session is not helpful to you.

Increase the session to 180 minutes.

Anonymous said...

You don't know Mitali Saran and Mitli Saran doesn't know you.
You wrote a book and she reviewed it. You are "protective" about it and Saran didn't think it was anything great. It's as simple as that.
If a reviewer doesn't like a book and it is crappy, why shouldn't it make it to any of the magazines? What makes you think a reviewer only need to laud books for them to make it to the magazines? It surprises me that you are “surprised that the judgments of two reviewers about a first-time writer's travel book should be poles apart”. Why can’t they be Mr Ghosh?
If you happen to be someone who has never heard of me and has not read Chai, Chai either, which of the above-cited reviews would you go by? The one in Outlook Traveller or the one in India Today Travel Plus? I want an answer, please.
What is the damn deal if I want to go through the review that Outlook Traveller has published? What are you trying to say Mr Ghosh?
I actually enjoyed going through your book but after reading your post I think I’ll go back to really thinking if I did really enjoy your book!
It’s not the review, Mr Ghosh, it’s your insecurity that’s doing the damage. Help, I have a bad review on Google and whaaaahhh, who will buy my book if I have a bad review that shows up on the Net….Booooohoooo…
Stop being a cry baby dude. It’s a decent book and there will always be people who will like it (for good reason) and dislike it (for equally good reason, I’m sure). So take a chill pill and don’t fret so much.

Bishwanath Ghosh said...

Anon@7.07 pm: I admire your eloquence. It is not about insecurity, because just one negative review does not make you insecure when there are about 10 other that have nice things to say about your book.

It is also not about one's inability to take criticism because even some of the 'good' reviews have been critical as well. Criticism and praise are two sides of the same coin, and as a journalist who earns his living by writing, I know that better than many others. What one may find to be Booker Prize-worthy, the other may find as complete crap. Perfectly fine.

But a reviewer can't be driven entirely by personal whim while judging a book. It is one thing to dislike a book, and quite another to scream, rather unnecessarily, from the rooftop about how 'bad' the writer is. That makes you wonder what the reviewer is trying to achieve.

We are all human. We tend to get hurt. But we also learn and grow up. I did think of deleting this post a couple of days after I posted it. I realised I had overreacted and the overreaction, even if justified, was certainly not worth a blog post. But once something is already in public domain, it is not fair to withdraw it, especially when people have spent time reading and commenting on it.

But as far as I am concerned, the matter is closed. The review -- as well as the book -- are now a thing of the past. We are in 2010. It's time for new books, new reviews.

Alchemic Reaction said...

You got fans bee.. :) hehehe.. I laughed when I read Outlook review.. why so much of spite.. I haven't read that book but I am sure it's not that terrible...

SR said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

To the anonymouses on this page flinging acid on Ms Saran's face just because she did her job and spoke her mind : go jerk one another off, you pathetic, no-hope sexists.

To BG : I am sure your book is good. But don't call Ms Saran mischievous or spiteful just because she said what she thought - it's so rare among reviewers these days. You really ought to be more mature than that. Having said that, as a journalist myself, I shall have to admit that this prescription for maturity is horribly hard to swallow. Anyway, what you can content yourself with is that, as many people here point out, disapproving reviewers have nothing to do with the success or failure of a book. Buyers do! Two words for you: Chetan Bhagat. He's the most successful writer in all of India. But how many critics consider him "good"? Another thing: there is no single aribter of high culture sitting on a lofty mountaintop declaring anything Good or Bad. So don't lose heart.
Good luck with your next two books - T.B.

editor said...

I was also surprised when I read the Outlook review as it was absolutely one-sided and she appeared intent to run down...

...Such clear bias is possible only when someone is nursing an old grievance and when gets an opportunity, jumps for the kill. Reference to buxom women shouldn't be such a provocation.

Anonymous said...

Saran seems to nurse many a grievance at the same time, that is what she specializes in.

Anonymous said...

Um, no, she is not malicious or mischievous, you moron. why waste your copious bile on ad hominem attacks? if you're such a major fan, then address the CRITIQUE not the critiquer. why don't all of you mindless twits try to be in the public domain in some substantive way rather than jerk off to yourself and your personal band of sympathisers/enablers. we'll see how you fare. -T.B

Anubhuti said...

It's a shame that I write this so late. The book came to me about three years ago, my husband, incidently, who has a lot common with you, including being a bong raised in hindi land, had gifted it to me.I somehow never picked it up. I finally read it a few weeks ago, after finishing Tamarind city. Honestly, I like it more than the latter, simply because it had smell of my childhood, of Kanpur, Mughal sarai, sleeper class train journeys to Calcutta ! I am sure by now you have more than crossed 10,000 & moved far ahead. But still wanted you to know that everyone I know who's read the book, loved it,but I think I loved it the most.