Suddenly, A Knock on the Door (Etger Keret)l

Suddenly, A Knock on the Door (Vintage 2012)

I love this short story collection. Each one is just so brilliant and form-defying. These are the kind of stories that plague my dreams and nightmares each day. I wake up seeing these people, awaking to the call of their longings and threats, peeking from the edge of my seat in some miraculously acquired human condition. Etger Keret is Israeli, and he penned these stories in Hebrew originally. These have been translated by Miriam Shlesinger, Sondra Silverston, and Nathan Englander. My personal favourite is the title story.

The stories are set in his head, and the author prefers to be identified as Jewish than Israeli. His writing style reminds me very much of Ibn-e-Safi’s own witty parables that are as absurd as they are rational, goofy yet urgent in all their strangeness. Discerning is his ear for detail that clamours above the noise around us; his prose elevates rather than distracts from this noise:

“It all started with a dream. A short, fuzzy dream about his dead mother. In this dream the two of them were sitting on a straw mat in the middle of a clear white surface that seemed to have no beginning and no end. Next to them on this infinite white surface was a bubble gum machine with a bubble top, the old-fashioned kind where you put a coin in the slot, turn the handle – and out comes a bubble gum. And in his dream, Robbie’s mother told him that the afterworld was driving her up the wall, because the people were good, but there were no cigarettes. Not just no cigarettes, no coffee. No radio. Nothing.”

Lies have character and soul, and are full seeing sentient beings. Time has its nails bitten. Cheesus Christ is a restaurant that serves hamburgers without cheese and is run by a clinically depressed CEO who refuses to answer e-mails. The situation is absurd, but the problem real. Wisdom abounds the nonsense: “When a dedicated employee turns to her employer with a problem, especially one related to the workplace, the least he could do is acknowledge her existence.” There is a loner who breakfasts alone in the cafe but learns to vicariously through others. Needles prick less than a father’s touch in another. Everyone is going through a hundred and one dress rehearsals; each character is constantly improvising. (“The fish’s secretary asked her to wait until he’d finished an international conference call with his partners in Taiwan”). These are coming-alive stories — no flat characters or dull plot points — only honking until “your heart’s content.” Another story’s narrator eulogizes his dog his dear friend his lover who talks to him in his dreams wearing a grey suit advising in human barritone, “everyone knows there’s no real money in developing the human race. Or any other race, for that matter. But since it’s [ecology] a new field that’s wide open taxationally, there’s nothing to stop me from submitting a mountain of receipts.” Then there’s the story about a man with a zipper mouth. Taking advantage of the fact that her lover slept with his mouth open, Ella slips her finger under his tongue to find a zip! But when she pulls at it, her lover Tsiki opens up “like an oyster”, and inside is Jurgen, a far more alive character. “Work is like a moustache,” he says, “it went out of style long ago.” These are just few glimpses into the quirky world of this joyous collection. All these characters are inward looking and draw their hallucinatory powers and worldly knowledge from this skill. If there is a writer whose fiction style I might identify with, it would be Etgar Keret! Ibn-e-Safi and Edwidge Danticat are others. Rushdie started it (for me), although his prose is trenchant with politics and histories and epic (at its peak), way more verbose and magical nihilist in comparison to Keret’s clever yet contained, dense yet ticklish, deliberate yet no less invisible storytelling. Style stems from a writer’s morality and political axis perhaps. How and where he grew up and when. And although I have enjoyed a lot of postmodern fiction in life, those works have often brimmed with salient iron structures and heroes and heroines who eschewed those; I don’t see any of that resistance functioning as a plot device in Keret’s work. His work is almost post-resistance and by that I don’t by any stretch mean lazy. Like a book of intelligent jokes and riddles, it offers momentous wit and humour. One of Keret’s narrators describe this work best as “an amalgam of deep insights and aluminium. It won’t rust, it won’t bust, but it may wander. It’s super contemporary, and timelessly literary.” The true test of his storytelling however may lie in whether he is able to sustain an entire novel on the strings of his absurdo-realism and something I wonder often about, i.e., could Etgar Keret pull off a marathon?

The Wave of Grief

Wave: A Memoir of Life After the Tsunami by Sonali Deraniyagala

Wave: A Memoir of Life After the Tsunami
by Sonali Deraniyagala

I remember returning to Chennai for a winter break from college when the tsunami had struck. Both my grandparents were alive then. I remember strolling the ghost town a couple of days after the storm had gone. The roads were desolate stretches and fishermen’s boats had been swept off the shores, parked on the main road. The consequences were worse in the Andamans and further south in neighbouring Sri Lanka. Few mainstream international news channels covered the disaster with the verve or gumption reserved for the U.S. elections or the progressing war in Iraq then.

Colombo native, globe-trotting economist Sonali Deraniyagala tells a harrowing tale of loss as a survivor of the December 2004 tsunami when she was holidaying with her English husband, two sons, and parents. She loses them all to the “wave” which goes on to acquire treacherous import throughout the course of the book. The wave of her grief is the arc of this tale, one masterful account of a holiday gone wrong, a life that could have been, a life that was, and a life that stopped. Her life is divided into the two epochs of before the wave and after, seven years into her grief and she is still haunted, “I trip up constant, between this life and that… A rush of footsteps in the apartment above me is all it takes… I think it’s the boys, upstairs, another scuffle. ‘Knock it off,’ I almost shout. ‘I am trying to Mum’ I hear Vik, ribbing me as he aims a ball at his brother’s head. Then I have to accept that I don’t have them. I am in New York.”

London based economist Sonali’s narrative explodes with homesickness, forever present, drenched with mad, excruciating details of her routine whether she is reminiscing about Steve’s recipe of homemade raan (Indian lamb) and his preparation, her sons’ fights, smells, repartees, or dealing with the pressures of adjusting to her life after memory –addressing old enquiring neighbours to whom she presented a casual reserve or forgetfulness feigning the existence of her dead family somewhere.

And grief is entirely what constitutes her story, not her husbands’, not her sons’, not her country’s, but hers. She alternates often between memory and belief, “The more I remember, the more inconsolable I will be, I’ve told myself. But now increasingly I don’t tussle with my memories. I want to remember. I want to know. Perhaps I can better tolerate being inconsolable now. Perhaps I suspect that remembering won’t make me any more inconsolable. Or less.” Her grief is fed by catharsis, rage, anger, depression, resistance to fate, failed suicide attempts; this is her self-actualization moment. Others who have lost will find empathy here, those who have not will grapple with empathy humbly.

Events in history can sadden those unconnected with it. Man-made disasters evoke only slightly lesser awe than natural ones that defy expectation or odds provoking more fear than the former. The devastation wreaked by the tsunami acquired gothic proportions, became associated with myth, superstition, and rendered human beings powerless. It is this despair that seethes through the sparse, cutting prose of a woman who has lost everything except her spirit. This is the story of Sonali’s triumph over a storm, grief, and over every other shortcoming in faith. Witness searing wit, a breathtaking journey and a brave memoir that deserves every prize in the genre simply for its regenerative power. The next book I am reading The Siege about the Mumbai 26/11 terror attacks will also cover grief I know, but from a different footing.

Ithaca and the Roller Coaster that was (publishing)

Ithaca

Ithaca by David Davidar (Harper Collins 2011) is the story of international publishing today. Or yesterday. The novel does not, though, read like news. Is there a story that’s exclusively about publishing anymore? And, as an extremely smart gentleman friend queried a couple of years ago when I told him I was trying to “Master” Publishing at some fine school in the U.K., “What is publishing?” Is it about breaking the right revenues and making books contagious overreaching different target markets and hitting the right shelves at the right time? Or is it a painfully rewarding lifetime aesthetic! What is the scale and where’s the competition? If the market is out to fool its participants, or set up cliques and empires in what is a measly numbers game driven by sales, distribution, and supply-chain networks, nobody is prepared enough. Roles are undefined, and good leaders a rarity.

Ithaca cleverly advertises the stable of authors and books the author himself has groomed and or published over his career in publishing. The story touches on the by now trite if grim realities of a recessive industry. It’s not that books are not drowning, even as their creators are more empowered with access to better technologies or resources. Just that the story of publishing today, is not as relevant or pivotal anymore. Excitement is at an all time high only because connection is the buzzword—marketing having assumed unprecedented avatars, mergers leading the way. If strong independent retailers (epitomizing good taste) have been swallowed by giant monochrome corporations powered by big industry data and algorithms, it does not matter anymore. If good people have lost their jobs out of bad circumstances, there are only gains to be made. If bad people got famous leeching off others’ talents, it will never be made known (or matter).

Publishing at its best is a beautiful lie. Ithaca (no less enjoyable or addictive) is one nugget of ode to that reality.

Foreign: An urgent fiction

FOREIGN: fiction’s dark underbelly

Foreign by definition means alien/not native, but in Hindi it also refers to immediacy, an urgency that is this novel (Random House India 2013)

Foreign by definition means alien/not native, but in Hindi it also refers to immediacy, an urgency that is this novel (Random House India 2013)

Some contemporary books might call attention to being post-Obama literature, wherein a set of references to the milestone American black president becomes either the backdrop or a defining moment for characters within a novel. President Obama is barely referenced in the opening pages of Foreign as the subject of our protagonist’s latest book to demonstrate her own ease with the politics and identity of her adopted homeland, the place of her karma and terra firma, Dr. Katya (Katyaini) Misra.  Her American teenager perhaps takes after her in his own quest for identity and calling, as he breaks an ordinary vacation at his grandparents’ place in Mumbai, to set off in search of his long lost father, an activist in the hinterlands of drought ravaged Vidarbha.

Foreign follows Katya’s harrowing journey as she leaves the country to bring back her son to their home in rainy Seattle. What follows is a mature social drama about falling for one’s roots but also other niche identities that decide our place in the world, or as Katya might put it, “of whether one has a voice in society or one doesn’t.” Her attempt to bring back the hyperactive, curious son Kabir to their home in America and her fiancé Alec, is set against a deeper conflict of the farmers’ fight against bio-tyranny at the hands of corporations like Monsanto and local and political goons and bureaucrats seeking their own mileage in a drama that has played havoc for over a decade in the drought ravaged village of Vidarbha. So while our protagonists are busy fetching their own ends, the heart and soul of this novel is the social and moral issue of farmers getting the raw deal for their efforts, becoming bonded slaves to first world technology and being manipulated by politicians who evade their duty of doling out compensations to families of farmers who committed suicide – establishing a vague, inaccessible document of the 40 point criteria for a farmer’s death to qualify as suicide and for the victim’s family to be eligible for government compensation. The actors are all too familiar.

Katya is in search of her son Kabir who is in search of his real father, the well known Ammar Chaudhary, a hot blooded, self-respecting activist who left Katya years ago, under the shade of his cowardice but what he wields as his chastity card, wanting to avoid “moh and maya” (attachment and illusion). Orchestrated by the pious Mr. Chaudhry, almost immediately the mother and son are made at home by a host family of farmers to be embroiled in a series of events and suicides that change their lives and question their motives. Human weaknesses are overcome by human action, and that becomes the underlying strength of this novel: history cannot be overcome, but the future might reap harvest from a collective call to action.

Sonora Jha spins a taut tale between Seattle and Vidarbha, placing unexpected characters in a crisis zone a lot of us have only remotely heard referenced in news clippings and television. All the clichés about a returning “foreign” non-resident Indian woman are cleverly and economically communicated in her story, with two Americanised characters offset against the more rustic others, especially Anmar Chaudhary the blood father of Kabir, who stokes an unflinching love and hunger for his new found son.

Interestingly, Katya and Kabir are characters you may understand and empathise with, but not necessarily get under the skin of, at least not until you are more than halfway through the novel! This is because, the mother and son, like skillful reporters or vehicles, take you deep into lives and situations far more urgent, complex and foreign than theirs – the livelihoods of a family of farmers for whom the next meal could well mean selling their best kidney – where you meet Bajirao and Gayatribai, central characters of the farmers’ struggle, but also Katya and Kabir’s host family. Gayatribai and Bajirao’s problems become Katya and Kabir’s, but also the reader’s. The ease and agility with which the American teenager Kabir, adapts and innovates with adult calm, to the needs and cues of Gayatribai, the village, or his father, is slightly over remarkable, and also the catalyst for a life-changing decision taken by Katya towards the end.

There is one particularly brilliant chapter where the river assumes the metaphor of a bride, who in the wake of her groom’s arrival, the rain, is contemptuous of other human forms, deciding the arc of life for others who have grown up, consummated by her banks or been swallowed up in her. The hungry river continues flowing, avenging her hunger with a death toll of the old and wasted.

The story is consistently dark, intense, gripping and layered with societal tensions in the midst of an agricultural and economic crisis. The action is hectic, sometimes too much so, and for a plot that is realistic, there is never a dull moment of characters that are constantly transcending their identities or transiting different worlds between paragraphs.

Is Foreign the journalist’s approach to fiction? If so, how much journalism feeds good fiction, or how much journalism should depend on fiction for an issue to be advertised/conveyed to larger numbers? Foreign sits on years of primary and secondary research and groundwork undertaken in the region, and it shows. Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night was another successful, deeply interesting novel that treated an issue (female infanticide) among others, within the framework of a novel.

Foreign spans two countries (without parallel narratives, thankfully; nearly everyone is in the present tense), and protagonists you may not necessarily like or hate, but several heart-stopping moments of characters submitting to a range of conflicts and choices in a country that has witnessed the death of a staggering 2,70,000 farmers over a decade and a half at least, according to most sources. Is this immersive fiction like immersive journalism, or just journalism based fiction?

You feel slight relief on recalling this year’s ruling of Indian government rejecting the Monsanto patent in attempts to save the farmer from seed slavery and the more commonly known bio-rape. Foreign comes as a jolting reminder of the perils at the bottom of the pyramid, taking us through Bajirao and other farmers’ desperation, disputed or stalled land claims, chain funerals, widows farming, mass weddings, organ selling, ruthless moneylenders, vulgar and corrupt bureaucrats and law officials. To be a farmer is hard enough, to be a woman and a farmer, is to be political! This story unravels the farmer’s story, gives it cinematic scope, as an entire village protests its way out of seed dependence, chain suicides and continuing poverty with the reluctant heroine Gayatribai, at its helm.

This ambitious novel cleverly attempts to unite different worlds, across continents, economics, societies and technology divides, rife with uneasy encounters and life and death dilemmas that highlight the choices one makes, but also those implemented under the iron hand of society, circumstance, ideology and justice. Foreign offers some grim, enlightened reading to anyone in search of a good story.

“Americanah” is a racy romp through race structures in modern day America

Harper Collins (2013)

Harper Collins (2013)

Adichie is a brilliant entertainer, and I think she will take that as a compliment from her readers. True to her TED Talk, she does not stick with a single story for a certain person, or in other words, does not serve you down the stereotypes; although this does not mean you don’t relate with her characters, because, that you certainly do; it is just that the protagonist Ifemelu (by virtue of her creator) enjoys this sense of propriety, this Olympian outlook of having lived better, with so many other lives firmly kneaded into a strong fabric that weathers the uneven forces of nature and nurture, you emerge a richer reader.  The age old questions are tackled in Ifemelu’s story. Do you grow up as you intend to? Do you marry the one you love? What is your dream job, or thriving passion?

Independent young Ifemelu, who actually is quite an ordinary upper middle class Nigerian Igbo girl, is the apple of our eye, and we never forget that. After completing high school and attending college, interrupted frequently by university strikes in Nsukka, she is urged by her boyfriend Obinze and his lovely mother (who insists that Ifem inform her as soon as O and she become sexually active,  sowing the seeds of a special relationship between them), to take the SATs and apply for a foreign degree on scholarship, which she does and succeeds. Why Obinze does not follow her to America soon enough, is something we discover slowly along the way, without losing sight of the central character or plot.

Ifemelu’s arrival in America, is marked by the slew of familiar encounters: terrifying roommates, skepticism, the mantle of a new ‘black identity’ thrust on her, thanks to the fighting perceptions of race, and newly emergent discourses on ‘race relations’ in post civil-rights America. Race matters, she finds out hard enough. She is by turns exoticised, stereotyped, subtly and not so subtly discriminated against, embraced, accepted, but almost always challenged, by every rung of society in modern day America. And this is what makes the story so climactic! We follow her titillating journey (because yes, it’s racy as hell – including the nailbiting coverage of the countdown to Obama’s electoral win and milestone presidency) through her American citizenship, meeting other immigrants in her boat (legal and illegal), dealing with very real dilemmas of teenage suicide (affecting her nephew) and the Great American Depression hitting her in the peak and trough of every relationship. Ifemelu’s story seethes with hunger, quest and a love that is constantly learning, expanding itself as she learns and lives in America (this, especially when offset against Obinze’s own failing struggles with immigration in the UK draws quite a stark parallel, as it also reflects on differing political attitudes towards immigration and the cultural legacy of race and immigration in both continents). America for Ifemelu comes to signify want, desire, greed, the freedom to live with whom you want, the freedom to divorce (and maybe now, the freedom to even marry).

If this novel is satire, this satire is not what Americans normally seek through irony, but rather a delightful conjugation of simple and complex realities as reflected through Ifemelu’s deeply personal experiences. Here is a beautifully woven tale that not only pokes fun at Africanness, turning ‘Americanah’ or of the dilemmas of being a black immigrant in America and returning to one’s roots while making a fair share of references to the the late Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and (poking fun at) VS Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, but refuses to constrict a relationship (sexual or otherwise) or label it as one thing, treading along with an athlete’s patience and endeavour for the real thing. This story seethes with love, longing and a cultural desperation to understand and behold the other. 

Americanah should be deigned prescriptive reading to all college freshmen classes in all American colleges. Immediately, before we are superceded by the next technology wave. This novel could easily fit a course in cross-cultural communication, contemporary literature, or generic compulsory reading. Especially in an educational climate where on-campus diversity is something most colleges hope to gain mileage from.

I love how savvy this book is, and compared with her earliest novel ‘Purple Hibiscus’ I would definitely say, this book is more commercially aware, and does a tidy weave of brain and brawn candy drawing on the familiar habits of an American readership and a Nigerian and more global readership within a technologically relevant setting (without being intrusive at all her characters communicate through Facebook, Blogging, Blackberry, text messaging). Of course, what takes the cake, is Ifemulu’s entrepreneurial venture, her running blog on what she calls Raceteenth Century America, a wild romp through the everyday tussles of being a Non-American Black in  Post civil rights America.

Every blog post is a gentle and often fierce parody of inter-racial love, sex, advertising and lifestyle, as experienced by her. Hair is a hot button topic she returns to with liberal detail, something you don’t find in ‘regular’ consumer media.  Her blog becomes a popular forum for many distressed and  fashionably marginalised voices in pop culture. There is a soul searing scene where she takes down about twenty fashion magazines to prove that barely two or three even reference black skin, black hair, or black bodies for their consumership! Ifemelu’s cathartic blogging  not only reduces racial conversation to its roots, but becomes a basis for others to share their formal experiences, quickly bracketing her in the league of lifestyle entrepreneurs, leaving her a soaring (and this could be relative) commercial success!

A character in one of her several conversations about blackness in America says, “You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country.” Which is true. How do you write about a painful past without being specific, without being political! This book tries well, cutting across deep boundaries. Is Americanah that honest novel today? It certainly does feel spontaneous, raw and a book I wish I had read before enrolling at college.  The minefield of talk about race and relationships in this book, and unflagging idealism could well be fodder for endless college-level debates. Finally, this entire story was hard earned, including the gratifying end. And yes, Ms. Adichie, treats all her characters very very well.

What is Illicit Happiness?

Manu Joseph is a poster-boy father, if his book is anything to go by. He writes about a family in Madras and their soul searching quest to get to the bottom of their older son’s suicide three years ago. The story thoughtfully plods down memory lane in what is a rich rumination of thoughts, triggers and emotions aroused by a dead boy, who is as much the spine of this story as Ousep Chacko his father, the bare flesh.

There is something very contained about Mr. Joseph’s words.  “Controlled chaos” is how a friend once described my thoughts, “like a CERN experiment,” he explained. The same expressions return when  I read Illicit Happiness. Elements of controlled surprise, steer what could otherwise be a piece of artistic non-fiction. I am not suggesting he is me, or I am this author, for his prose is qualified by years of experience as the editor of a popular alternative mainstream newsweekly that comes out with GOOD quality newswriting way higher than what you see in other mags. (That said, I am also very interested in knowing OPEN’s circulation and sales figures). All I’m saying is that every once in a while or more, it is an honour to spot books of your liking and taste. The day book publishers begin to understand that buyers want to read books that are worthy of them, we (also “publishers”) will be closer to a watershed moment in publishing (and no, digital is hardly that moment, not even the mere excuse for a revolution). Subcontinental literature is the big idea all set to penetrate the middle-class consciousness like never before, offering a new kind of upward mobility. The rise of the mental aesthetes, not unique to their political or geographic communities but to an evolving metamorphosis. And when I spot a contagion of reading habits in traditionally non-reading households or offices, it lights my heart with hope.

So, the Chacko family is devastated by the death of their older, cartoonist son. Tales of his gorgeousness,  bravado, and goofiness are well afloat the school.  Ousep (father) Chacko goes through the excruciating process of  tracking down the clue to his son’s death through his final comic strip, as he cross-questions everybody Unni was close to or interacted with during those final days, including the Anglo-Indian teacher who harassed little boys in the lab. Three years later neighbours think Chacko is a lunatic, trapped in an ordinary past unable to overcome an ordinary, even mediocre suicide! If his death was so ordinary, why didn’t Unni leave his mother Mariamma Chacko a note? In normal circumstances, he would have, she insists. And if Mariamma suffers her own demons, their younger son Thoma is not spared either, the litany of ghosts that prey on his waking crush for a beautiful neighbour, a terrible node in a peer triangle. Is Thoma, Unni? Is Thoma good enough for Unni? Or better?

Illicit Happiness (Harper Collins 2012) India edition

Illicit Happiness (Harper Collins 2012) India edition

Those who haven’t read the book, will also ask, so what is Illicit Happiness? Illicit happiness is the freedom to be what you want to be, act how you want, be how you are, not caring whether you are standing in the male’s queue or female’s for some, or simply breaking home rules by  going out to the Marina beach at midnight as a defiant girl, to save the Olive Ridley turtle with other boys or committing your own death as pronouncing a verdict. Illicit happiness is like lying naked with a prostitute without touching her but is also the ability to maneuver others to execute your fantasies to foot your blame.

Illicit happiness is like gold. It is the fine line between friendship and enmity; one person’s joy is another’s misery and thus happiness dictates a certain discretion which also sometimes leads to injustice and death. Unni’s death was well-mourned but forgotten, until we find out otherwise. Neighbours remember him, even miss him. So do his friends, but retention is short, and people have themselves and their futures to worry about than recall the passing. Which is what this book is about: an absurd trenchant journey of a parent (or two parents and a son) down memory lane, which is  the only desperate scene of crime as they hunt for a turning point in Unni’s life.

Lots of little worldly gems from the book illuminate the motives and motivations of everyday men and women in our midst. Spitting on others is not as easy as you think! Bullying, on the other hand is an art. The only way to ensure witnesses keep shut about a crime is to “make them complicit”. The omniscient narrator is a force higher than Ousep, his own dead Unni who enters his conversations, and confronts the reader effortlessly. Unni sets the tenor and moral axis of this story:

It is the misanthrope alone who has clarity. By standing outside the huddles of man, he sees a lot, and what he often sees is the evidence that people are not as smart as dogs think they are. And he wants to see it time and again. In the fog of ambiguities and mysteries, he desperately searches for truths because truth usually shows humanity in a poor light. Balki and Unni are similar in that way. Unni, too, was exceptional, he was strong, so he did not need to belong. Unni, too, stood beyond the bonds of people because that was a good place to stand and watch. And Balki does not want to concede that such an endearing foe of the ordinary was ultimately defeated by the world. For that is what Unni’s death is until proven otherwise — a defeat. Balki will do all he can to take Ousep closer to the truth (182-3).

Was he depressed or in a hieghtened state of happiness all the time? (Was he a “corpse”, or an “anti-corpse”?) Was he schizophrenic, or just an ordinary gifted child with heightened powers of observation? Did he die over unrequited love like so many folks in Madras who fall in love and fall into “four types of suicide”? Unni’s narrative directs his father’s own, as the emotional superreporter tracks down his son’s wanderings.

Unni spoke to and observed his mother as often as his mother kept silent with her husband. Son would tell mother, “Truth is not consistent. It changes from brain to brain. The truth of every neurological system is unique and it cannot be transmitted. It cannot be told, it cannot be conveyed, it cannot be searched for and found. Delusion, on the other hand, is contagious and transmits from one brain to another in order to survive.” His mother his confidante, would have to digest his implication that two people were deluded together, but only one person knew the “unique, inconsistent truth.” Hectic conversations power this story in between plot points, as we are led to wonder at the philosophical genius that undercuts Unni’s err… folly of one. Was he at the helm of under-appreciated leadership?  We are what we once were. Childhood influences us in ways we may never fully realise. Thoma his brother, trudges along, just about in step with his time, free of the burden of genius, or expectation.

This story sits deeply in the recesses of the mind. Why do men who molest women get away? What is the best form of revenge? What is the fine bond between human beings that snaps free in times of desperation? This tale is as much about a boy getting to grips with the menace of manhood as his urgency to master the truths of mankind. As one of Unni’s surviving friends who is a scared simpleton and now recluse since Unni’s death, ends up confessing to Unni’s father, “I don’t want to know the truth. I don’t want to see beauty. I am just another boy in Madras who wants to escape to America.” You think the story stops here, but it has only just upped the mystery of Unni’s death, one notch higher. The Illicit Happiness of Other People is a deeply resonant, muscular satire that will be lifted off the shelf several times by men and women alike.

Starting Up is Hot in Chile

Everything you want to know about doing business in Chile

Everything you want to know about doing business in Chile

Businessmen and women friends. Go to Chile. Now. You could be a student or native entrepreneur. Go. South with your partners. Silicon Valley dreams are  giving way to the lure of Chilecon Valley, declared the Economist last year. According to an article, despite several other nations’ attempts to replicate a Silicon Valley and failing, Chile’s has been an incredible attempt to capitalise on the weak spot of the Silicon Valley dream — the murky waters of US immigration policy. In what has fast gained currency as the most disruptive initiative in public policy in recent years, Chile has opened its doors to the world, setting out to achieve a realistic goal of becoming the innovation and entrepreneurial hub of Latin America. I found out about StartUp Chile while surveying  story possibilities for a fabulous international education e-zine about the rise of foreign student entrepreneur migrants, a demographic that I felt existed even if it was not often written about or analysed outside of say, the Silicon Valley context.

Set up in 2010, Start Up Chile has now inducted over seven generations of foreign born entrepreneurs (not just students, even if the age of the typical SUPChile entrepreneur falls between 18-40) . The program is open to all/foreign entrepreneurs of any age, offering incentives to applicant winners of 40000$ equity free capital, office space and an initial year long visa in Chile (that is extendable, depending on how well you have capitalised your opportunities) and serves as an equal inspiration to locals too, who get tremendous exposure to some of the world’s most dynamic entrepreneurs and work ethos.

Nate Lustig is a prolific blogger who advocates Staying Out of the Cubicle for all, but started out as a superyoung entrepreneur who ended up in the pilot round of SUPChile and was so impressed by the experience that he wrote a book on his time there, hoping to help out several entrepreneurs and entrepreneur-aspirants wanting to test their dreams on new international shores. The beauty of his book is that it is exhaustive and yet so concise, sometimes he veers off so concentratedly into other aspects of Chilean life, you realise why finding a traditional mainstream publisher for such a book (or digest) would be very hard/pointless. He is candid about his observations but offers generous awe in return:

In my initial round, the Chilean government spent $ 920,000 on entrepreneurs, plus likely another $ 300k on offices, salaries, promoting the program and travel. So for $ 1.25m, Chile got three big things. First, it’s the best PR campaign in history … Chile appeared in The Economist, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, NY Times, BBC, Financial Times and every influential tech blog in the world as an innovative, safe, forward thinking, entrepreneurial country. A half page ad in the Wall Street Journal costs $ 250,000 for one day and that’s an ad! Chile got its money’s worth just from the good press alone. [Lustig, Nathan (2012-12-17). Start-Up Chile 101: Everything You Wanted to Know About Living, Working and Doing Business in Chile (p. 134). Nathan Lustig. Kindle Edition].

Personally as an ex-commerce student and having worked a lot with startups and private businesses, the topic of entrepreneurship is interesting if only to understand the complex relationship between businesses and the markets they serve and in observing how long ideas stay with the market before they change/pivot. StartUp Chile is appealing to the entrepreneur-tourist, the kind that may not necessarily think Chile is forever and may not necessarily stay on long enough to earn citizenship, but would love for a helipad for some whacky international venture in life. If you want to set up a publishing house/franchisee in Chile, though, you would think twice; digital publishing might be the only hope, yet if you’re thinking of setting up something with ebooks, you will have to consider the rampant piracy in a region where there is a very nascant (if non-existent) market for books, more so for non-Spanish language books. Keeping that in mind, ebooks for Indian literary fiction in Spanish language was the idea I pitched to Nathan Lustig. When I mentioned  Argentina or Brazil (a common guest of honour at recent international book fairs) both with a more thriving book publishing scene, I learned the connection was futile; Brazil was a different beast altogether being almost separate from the rest of LatAm owing to separate language and culture, Brazilians themselves got pretty rich attacking their own home market, leaving no proper place for foreigners. (In terms of the type of book publishing markets, would it be fair or naive to compare LatAm with India?)

When I asked Nathan why he chose to self-publish this eminently readable book, he said, it was the easiest most straightforward way out, as he expectedly reaped the good royalties Amazon offered on a book that was best discoverable online through algorithms. In fact, Nate intends to do another version of this book that talks about tourism and culture, rather than be specifically aimed at Chilean entrepreneurs.

A lot of my MBA friends are wondering what to do as their next big step. I am pointing them to Chile. And with some proud help from local and alumni partners, my friends may just find big success if not small relief. I’ve even tried talking my employers into setting up some operations in Chile and have me man it there. Although, for now, it would be a big thing if I even get to exhibit at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Such. is. Life.