Sixty-Four Chance Pieces: Machines, Mathematics, Organs and Pandas

I’ve just about finished the proofs for Sixty-Four Chance Pieces, my I Ching-based novel-of-sorts, ready to send off to Earnshaw Books. All being well, I’ll be launching the book in a few weeks at the Beijing Bookworm book festival. But just to whet the appetite, here’s an extract from the book’s index. All novels, I feel, should be equipped with an index…

I’ll post again when the book is finally published.

yijing_index

The library and the apocalypse

This evening I heard the news that Birmingham’s wonderful new library is going to be savagely cutting its opening hours, and laying off just under one hundred members of staff. This is a huge blow for the city that for many years I was proud to call my home, and it is part of a much wider horrible hollowing out of the public sphere that is happening across the country.

I don’t have much to say about this, except to register my enormous sadness at this development, and my utter contempt for the system that makes it seem ideologically uncontentious to claim that one of the richest countries on earth can no longer afford to provide public services such as libraries. In my recently published Complete Write a Novel Course, I wrote the following:

Libraries are wonderful and miraculous things. If libraries didn’t exist, and somebody said to you, “I’ve just come up with a brilliant idea for a massive book-house where you can go free of charge, and sit all day and read stuff, and take books home for short periods without paying a penny, and talk to knowledgeable, well-informed experts who will help you find just what you are looking for,” people would say that such an idea would never catch on, and that if it did, it would bring the entire capitalist world crashing down apocalyptically.

This book has only been published for a few weeks, but I wonder if this passage already makes it look quaint and old-fashioned. Because the apocalypse is taking place here and now. But it is not the capitalist world that is coming crashing down. It is the libraries. And the reason perhaps is this: when the logic of capitalism becomes the only game in town, it becomes unthinkable that such utopian spaces should be permitted to exist at all.

Some jet-lagged reflections on travel

I’m a bit jet-lagged and weary, after a long journey back from India that has involved (in this order) a rickshaw, a train, a taxi (one of Kolkata’s glorious yellow Ambassadors), a lift from a friend, a plane, another plane, two tube journeys, and now another train, after which it is just a quick hop in a taxi to find my way home once again.

I’ve only been away for a couple of weeks, but in truth it feels a lot longer. It seems to me that subjective time is measured, at least to some extent, by the experience of change; and this being so, it feels as if it was along time since I left the UK. The final few days in India were I spent in Rabindranath Tagore’s university town of Santiniketan, reading, thinking and making a great many new friends and connections; and it was a humbling experience to meet with so many warm and generous people, and to find myself engaged in so many fascinating and enriching conversations.

So—partly to stave off the jetlag a while longer, and to keep myself awake, so that I don’t end up falling asleep and finding myself missing my stop and ending up in Nottingham by mistake—I thought I’d write a few idle notes on the subject of the virtues of travel. Nothing that I’m writing here is particularly new or startling; but (the issue of staying awake on one side) I thought it worth saying at least as a reminder to myself.
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The Descent of the Lyre: Out Now in Paperback

For those of you waiting for the paperback edition of my novel, The Descent of the Lyre, now that it has been launched here in Kolkata, the handsome paperback is available and on general release.

If you are in the UK, you can get hold of it via hive.co.uk by following this link, or alternatively you can [amazon text=buy it through the Evil Empire&asin=9380905858]. In India, you can buy via FlipKart / Roman Books.

If you want to find out more about the book, this interview was published today in The Pioneer.

Thoughts on Writing and Politics in Kolkata

Yesterday I had the immense pleasure and privilege to teach a creative writing workshop with a group of students here in Kolkata at the British Council’s Teaching Centre. It was an absolute delight to spend a couple of hours working with students who had finished the British Council’s first two creative writing courses in the city, and I was hugely impressed by the students’ seriousness, their intellectual acuity, and their exuberance.

I find it is always good to teach outside of my home country, because it challenges certain assumptions that I have about what writing is or should be. And this was certainly the case yesterday. If there is one thing that stood out for me about the workshop, it was this: these were students many of whom had a very strong sense of what writing can—and perhaps should—do politically. At the beginning of the workshop, we did a short exercise on why writing matters. In response to this exercise, a large number of the students said that they were interested in using writing as a way of tackling questions of social justice, women’s rights, transgender issues, and so on. And what was particularly striking is that in many cases these were the first reasons that the writers in the group gave for writing.
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A few photos from Kolkata

I had a hugely enjoyable time at yesterday’s event at the Kolkata Book Fair, and the morning workshop at the British Council Teaching Centre. I’m going to write a bit more later, in particular, about the workshop, but I thought I’d just post this small gallery of images, to give a flavour of the events.

Turning About Once Again

I only have one more day in Bodhgaya, after which I fly back to Kolkata for the book fair; and it’s been absolutely delightful to be here. I’ve just been pedalling around, making the most of the local food, meditating when I feel like it, sleeping when the mood takes me, making new friends, sitting and thinking, reading things that come my way, and feeling pleasurably purposeless.

There is, however, one problem: in theory, I am in Bodhgaya do research. Before coming here, I filled in research proposals and even managed to get a modest amount of funding for this trip. These proposals were tied to a couple of book projects that I’m working on at the moment, both of which have some kinds of interesting connections with Buddhist themes, ideas and history. But as the days have passed, I have begun to realise that it doesn’t particularly look or feel as if what I am doing is research. Not only am I spending more time at tea stalls and in temple meditation halls than in libraries, but I also have to confess that I’m not even thinking about these books very hard.
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Thunk, thunk, thunk…

Bicycles are my favourite mode of transport. They are less grouchy than camels, they don’t have minds of their own the way horses do, they are cheaper than cars, and they are speedier than going on foot. So it was a pleasure today to borrow a bike from my guest-house here in Bodhgaya, and to set out to explore the outer reaches of the town.

I started out with some trepidation, as it’s a long time since I’ve cycled anywhere like India. Back in the day, when I was living in Pakistan, I used to regularly cycle across Lahore to my job as a school teacher. After miles of cycling through the choking fumes, jostling horse-carts, rickshaws, motorbikes, buses and cars, I developed style of cycling that combined fearlessness, justified caution, and a degree of panache. Today as I got on my bike on Bodhgaya, I found that old knowledge coming flooding back.
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The Whatever-it-is of Existence

It is seventeen years since I was last here in India. Back then, I was travelling around the Buddhist pilgrimage sites as a young and rather earnest aspiring Buddhist, making notes towards an excessively pious travelogue that I’m now rather glad was never published.

Now I find myself back in India to launch the paperback of my novel The Descent of the Lyre at the Kolkata Book Fair. As it’s a long trip for a book lauch alone, I’m taking advantage of being here to spend a short while doing some research towards various projects that I have in the works. And this has involved (for reasons that are still rather hazy in my mind) finding my way back to Bodhgaya, the foremost of India’s Buddhist sites, the place of the Buddha’s awakening.
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