Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Beautiful and the Deb-ed

Readers often confuse fiction for non-fiction and vice versa, with narrators resembling authors, fictional characters resembling real ones and real lives being story-fied. So how does one categorize a book that explores a country of one billion people by following five principal characters, a book whose first person narrative is not explicitly the author’s voice?

We settle into our chairs to listen to Siddhartha Deb read from such a book, his latest work, The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of New India, to try to answer these questions.

Deb does not preface his reading with much context, although book includes a touching Introduction about struggling with his slippery north-eastern Indian identity while growing up, “resident of the land that my father had left and that I had never lived in.” Today, he provides a bit of background about each passage he will read from, letting the prose take over from there.

And he does, with flair, turning the pages with the flourish of a piano player. Each excerpt is dramatized as Deb reads slowly, pausing, smiling and inflecting to give us a sense his exhausting and revealing travels throughout India:
Vijay brought his tiny car to a halt, and the man loomed up in front of the windscreen, a dark, stocky figure dressed in a T-shirt and jeans. He put his right hand down on the bonnet of our car. In his left hand, he held an automatic pistol, its barrel pointing up at an acute angle. His gaze, as it swept over our faces, was intense, scrutinizing us carefully, meeting our eyes for a few seconds.
Deb frequently takes his eyes off the page to look straight at us and off to the side, and his familiarity with the text makes his reading that much personal, the pistol that much more tangible. Describing this police checkpoint on a highway out of Hyderabad that Deb had driven on, he points out to us that not only was it illegal, it was also in vain. His writing renders this impromptu call to action utterly impotent in an impassive scene of oozing traffic and sense-numbing smog.

“The ‘I’ in the book is not a journalist ‘I’. It’s more a narrator ‘I’ who has a history, has memories,” he says. A combination that gives his characters histories and memories, too, such as the wife of one of the few wealthy farmers in rural Andhra Pradesh:
My attention was drawn to the woman in her thirties, everything about whom suggested that she was the mistress of the house. She was wearing a bright blue sari, from the fringes of which one foot displayed a gleaming golden toe ring. She was slightly plump, and light-skinned – attributes that declared the upward mobility of the man who had married her with as much clarity as the marble and teak fittings of the house.
Deb remarks a paragraph later that this woman does not seem fazed by the charred, dusty state of her house—recently set on fire by angry famers cheated out of their revenue by her husband—nor by her husband’s feckless behavior. The way she carries herself reflects her standing: a woman of higher social class than the farmers in the town, a woman with property, a woman with status and promise.

Less classily portrayed is the infamous and now defamed personality, Arindam Chaudhuri. People told Deb that he seemed “grotesquely fascinated” with Chaudhuri, that he explored—and exploited?—Chaudhuri’s life more critically than he did other characters in the book. Why? Deb argues that he took much care to respect the privacy of his characters, omitting details and changing names when asked. Chaudhuri, however, was already a grandiose figure in India, notoriously ubiquitous, dominating print advertisements and amplifying his voice to the masses. Such a persona could not expect already public information about him to be disguised for the sake of a book.

Deb boldly depicts Chaudhuri as the meretricious scammer that he is, sneaking snippets into his writing that wonder about his unexpected popularity and influence:
The mannerisms gave Arindam an everyday appeal, and it was the juxtaposition of this homeliness with his wealth, success and glamour that created a hold over the leadership aspirants in the audience…He was one of the audience, even if he represented the final stage in the evolution of the petite bourgeoisie…after about thirty minutes into the leadership session, as I began to be drawn into his patter, I felt that Arindam was telling the rising Indian middle class a story about itself, offering them an answer to the question of who they were.
Chaudhuri, a business man, business school founder, public speaker, entrepreneur, Bentley owner and global consultant—among other things—was outraged when Deb’s book was completed. He has since sued for defamation, insisting that the chapter about him is inaccurate and tainting. Quite creatively, Deb tells us, he has filed an injunction in Silchur, a dot of a city in Assam in north-eastern India, hundreds of miles away from the courts, publishing houses and newspapers of Delhi. Not only has Chaudhuri taken great pains to travel this far to file a lawsuit for Rs. 500 million, but he is filing it against four parties: Siddhartha Deb, Penguin Publishers, Caravan Magazine (that printed an excerpt from Deb’s book featuring—or exposing—Chaudhuri) and Google India!

Deb deadpans that Google India’s probably auto fills the word ‘fraud’ when someone types ‘Arindam Chaudhuri’ into the search bar, and this must make Chaudhuri very angry.

Anger is prevalent throughout the book, not surprisingly, as Deb talks to the marginalized, the invisible, the unpaid, the evicted, the toiling, the cheated, the rip-offs and the jaded. In the final section featuring a north-eastern girl working as a waitress in Delhi, the anger matures into gritty determination and hard-earned independence. Esther (not her real name) is optimistic about making a life for herself in a metropolis, but she tires of the superficial, ultimately inaccessible, glitz of her job in food and beverages (F&B) The redundancy of routine and responsibility wear her down.
‘I feel like a thief,’ she said. ‘When I come home, everyone’s sleeping. It’s a strange job that requires you to be up when everyone else is in bed.’
Esther’s section is sympathetic and admiring, prompting the reader to wonder, did Deb get more involved with her than with his other characters? The moderator says that many reviewers have suggested a romantic relationship, which Deb corrects: “One!”

Gesturing animatedly, Deb insists that there was no romance: his sole aim was to “dissolve the boundaries between the observed.”
These days Esther spoke differently about her job. ‘I wanted to be a doctor, not this F&B. Sometimes, I want to go back home, but what is there back home? If I go home, what will I do? But this job has no security, no pension.’…what Esther sometimes wanted, after all her independence, striving, exposure and mobility was a simple repetition of her mother’s life.
Questions follow his reading. Deb advocates for his narrator, who is “pretty angry and pretty skeptical about what he’s seeing.” This first-person narrator is a microphone for his characters, for the four years of research he has done all over the subcontinent. “I am not pretending to be objective,” he says.

Deb defends his preference for fiction over non-fiction. “I actually prefer the novel as a form,” he explains, but thought initially that non-fiction would be more effective for such a subject. He thought it would be quicker, too, and that he would “make a ton of money, come back to fiction.” So much for that, he laughs. “Here I am, six years later!”

When asked about the seamless transitions between characters, villages and personal contemplations, Deb describes the tiring, painstaking attention to detail a writer must have, especially since it yields richer, truer stories. “A lot of the shaping happens in the writing as well,” he says—the mark of a practiced and accomplished writer.

Writing a book of such ambitious scope takes commitment, curiosity and, ultimately, a profound need to capture the world in your own words. “If you hit it,” he promises, “it’s the most transcendent thing. It comes alive.” 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Anthony Shadid: A Man Of His Word(s)

“You think there’d be more people here,” an old man in the front row whispers to his friend. And he’s right: at a Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side, five minutes before the tribute to reporter Anthony Shadid begins, people are still trickling in. The empty grey chairs attract mostly grey heads, a gathering in monochrome amidst a rainbow of book covers and posters that seems suitably somber. But the burst of yellow from the vase of roses in the corner and the thick yellow lettering on the cover of Shadid’s memoir House of Stone reminds us that we are celebrating something today as well.

At exactly seven o’ clock the panelists take their seats: Deputy Foreign Editor at The New York Times Michael Slackman; Shadid’s wife Nada Bakri and Foreign Editor at The New York Times Susan Chira. Slackman is tall, bespectacled and wears a kind smile. Bakir is clad stylishly in black—still mourning, perhaps—and otherwise expressionless. Her black scarf, sweater, blouse, pants and flats hug her slim body and even the tattoo on her right ankle peeking through her sheer leggings is in silhouette. Only her hair is brown and cascades on either side of her face, revealing high cheekbones, thin lips, a small nose and piercing eyes in glimpses. Chira’s curly bob and shining eyes convey a warmth with which she begins the evening to remember Anthony Shadid on the page—of newspapers and in House of Stone—and off the page as a friend and colleague.

Chira watched Shadid hop from The Boston Globe to The Washington Post to The New York Times with growing admiration. By the time he was writing for her, she was “struck by the continuity of themes in his work.” A Lebanese-American who grew up in Oklahoma and went as an adult to his ancestral village in Lebanon to resurrect his great grandfather’s home, he relentlessly confronted the notion of identity—his own, and the people about whom he wrote. Identity is a profound question—is it “sect, religion, country,” something else?—and Shadid explored it from all angles. This made his writing deeply honest because it was all about “how ordinary people experience great, epical events; Anthony never lost that lens.”

After the Iraq War began in 2003, Shadid reported not on America’s strategies, successes and mishaps, but about the Iraqi citizens whose lives—and identities—were under attack. “Life is not lived in wartime,” Shadid writes in House of Stone, and whatever takes its place is what he sought to capture, article after article. Appropriately, this won him his first Pulitzer Prize in 2004. His second—a rare feat for any writer—was in 2010, for continued reporting from Iraq in all its searing truth.

Chira concludes by acknowledging the public’s reaction on the New York Times’ tribute webpage. Overwhelmingly, she says, people “felt a connection to his work; it lived for them.”

Michael Slackman continues in the same reverential tone. Shadid’s work was “driven by something missing or lost, something he was searching for in his own life.” Shadid undertakes this personal quest in House of Stone, doing in his novel and in his articles what so many writers and reporters aspire to do, which is to “connect the dots” between personal and global themes.

House of Stone blends the three things Shadid did best, which Slackman spells out for us:
  • Being “on the ground,”;
  • Painting a “larger picture of events that are happening” in the country and region;
  • “Anthony’s ruminations” on war, policy, diplomacy, individual narratives, and every other motif he wove through his book.

Shadid once said to him: “a lot of reporters’ notebooks are filled with drama but they often miss the impact.” He reads a small excerpt from House of Stone to demonstrate this.

During his reading, Bakri, who has maintained composure and taut body language until now, arms and legs crossed and no eye contact with the audience, begins to tear up. Squinting her eyes, she dips her head and lets her long hair cover her face. Her fingers search for a napkin for her eyes and a Barnes and Noble employee discretely places a box of tissues on the table next to her. She silently composes herself, dabbing her eyes several times before she can look up again.

Slackman intends to close with his comment that Shadid celebrated “the enduring nature of the human spirit” but Bakri is not yet ready to speak so he and Chira fill in the silence. Slackman offers the story of how Shadid first Bakri and Chira shares an anecdote about Shadid’s relentlessly polished pieces in spite of the horror and savagery around him in Iraq: “It was just unfurling in this incredibly engaging, seductive way.”

Bakri now looks confident enough to take over the microphone. She begins with a halting whisper, “um” and reads a few sentences from House of Stone, her smooth American speech accented by perfect Arabic pronunciation. This section reminds her of Shadid, who, like the character being described, was “a very generous man with his time and his knowledge.” With a tight, thin-lipped smile, she says, “I guess he just died trying to learn more.”

Now that all three panelists are warmed up, the memories and stories start flowing more forcefully. Slackman explains that “Anthony’s main objective was to get to the truth,” but he was never “an adrenaline junkie chasing after the gunfire.” Rather, he was a “grudging participant” and did whatever was required “in order to bear witness.” When an audience member asks Bakri, “tell us how you met Anthony,” Bakri is able to smile and describe a rally in 2006 when they first met. She turns to Slackman to clarify, showing us her sleek profile. “I think you were with me—you were with me, right? I don’t remember.”

“I remember,” Slackman replies, and even recalls her first words to him: “You’re not Anthony Shadid!” All three marvel at his humility and neighborly friendliness with friends, colleagues, mentees—no one was too small to be cherished, helped or advised.

What about the reporting he did in Syria, someone else asks. Bakri answers that she has Shadid’s four notebooks from his latest trip but “I haven’t the heart yet” to open and go through them. She promises she will, in time.

Inspired by a friend and journalist with Middle East reporting experience, I comment to the panelists on Shadid’s eye for detail. “If you go into a house, find out the type of sugar they use,” he had once told my friend, which she included in her tribute to Shadid in The Indian Express and which I bring up to them. Slackman nods vigorously. It was Shadid who taught him that the ceramic discs the Shiites pray with represent a drop of dirt from Ka’bah, something Slackman had seen for years but never noticed. When Slackman reported on the four American contractors killed in Fallujah in 2004, Shadid remarked to him that Falluja “has the best kebabs.” Slackman grins—only Shadid would know something like that; he typically “knew not more than just you, but more than everybody.”

House of Stone is a journey punctuated with the knowledge of experience, and experience of knowledge. Only someone as fearless and passionate as Anthony Shadid could have written it, and it is up to us to remember him through it.