Book Review: Known Turf by Annie Zaidi

(Considering the fact that I have been so sorely disappointed by books written by bloggers in recent times; yet I didn’t even blink when I spotted Annie Zadie’s book Known Turf at Crossword. I bought it immediately, forgetting I would get at least 20% discount if I bought it online and I already have too many new, unread books at home. Why? I have loved Annie Zadie’s blog, even if I discovered it tad too late.)

Known Turf

Known Turf is a collection of short essays – a mix of reportage (Annie is a professional journalist, has worked for Frontline) and personal memoir, which ranges from various interesting topics such as dacoits of India (really); hunger deaths, sexual harassment, casteism, Sufism to some inane, conversation subjects as drinking chai.

Book starts with the chapter about dacoits, replete with the comparisons of perceptions of dacoits as created by Hindi movies about dacoits. Annie draws heavily from Dev Anand starrer movie Dushman. [That’s another thing about Annie’s blog; her posts beautifully elucidate both overt and covert perceptions from hindi movies, some of them are at times, little known. I remember a post on her blog about how a rape victim is projected in movies. Either she’s hero’s sister who commits suicide. I do not remember other ‘or’ Annie mentioned; but I do remember a movie called Raja ki Ayegi Baarat where Rani Mukherjee asks the court that she be married to the rapist.  There are many more apt hindi movie references in the book. ]She wonders why Chambal is home to dacoits and discusses dacoits from Gadariya tribe, Nirbhay Gujjar and first female dacoit Putli Bai. (No, this chapter doesn’t mention Phoolan Devi, though she fleetingly discusses her in a latter chapter. If you are looking for a profile on Phoolan Devi, most memorable one I remember is from one of Khushwant Singh’s books.) In hindsight, this chapter could be smaller, though objective writing ensures that you do not have such complaint for rest of the book.

To me, most moving chapter in the book was about hunger deaths in Sahariya tribe in Madhya Pradesh. Only for this chapter, the book was worth it. It made the meaning behind words, ‘Reality Bites’ oh so apparent. Abysmal number of tribal children in MP die young due to malnutrition. These tribals were displaced and their suffering is ensured by cruel, heartless mix of inaction and corruption right from ground level. Here’s a paragraph where Annie sums up her observations: (Page 74-75).

I have been thinking ever since. About comments from administration officials on the Sahariya ‘culture’ of dying. About pregnant women who chew bits of gum plucked of gum trees trying to kill hunger pangs. About women who have not eaten for three days giving birth alone in dark hovels, knowing their breasts are dry. About the dismissive assistant in the nutritional rehabilitation center who said that Sahariya women hardly deserve the state’s help, because they smoke beedis. About Lakshmi, and how she was lighter than my purse. About a state that promises handouts to a group of people who are clearly on the brink, and then fails to deliver. Is this what you call being squeezed off the map?

Annie Zadie

Other two chapters that moved me are ‘Looped with Silk and Silver’ and ‘Prone to Bondage’.  The first one is about starving families of weavers and embroiderers of Benaras. Read it to know why you should not mind paying for the authentic but expensive embroidery, how much hard work that is. Second is the piece that breaks the stereotypes about affluence of Punjab. There are lot of landless, bonded labourers. Caste-ism exists, Annie recounts the story of a Dalit Bant Singh who his lost his three limbs because he refused to take his case back against rich landlords who raped his daughter.

There are chapters that discuss foeticide and infanticide in Punjab; some of which I too have written about in this angry post.  Be it corruption by affluent businessman or eternal punjabi ambition to flee a phoren country or opium-baazi, Annie has covered myriad aspects of Punjab.

There is much touted chapter about Sufism, which I found it bit self-indulgent (Writer is deeply influenced by Sufism) and bit off-track with rest of book. This chapter, however, is peppered with tales of fakirs and also throws light on recent Dera Sacha Sauda controversy. Later, Annie Zaidi self-consciously talks about being a Muslim in the country and the perceptions associated with it in a secular country. You can find most of that chapter here on her blog.

She notably concludes (Page 185): All prophets have been Kafir to the rest of the world, and so have all poets and most great readers. Gandhi must have been the biggest Kafir of the subcontinent according to the imperial masters, and he certainly was one for the people who eventually killed him. Touche.

I identified with Annie when she considers which place is home. I identify because my both parents belong to different states (grandparents too have interesting story of birth and upbringing in different states); I was born elsewhere where my father happened to work; grew up in different state and live elsewhere to make my living. I had lovely time wherever I lived. And when I lived there, I thought the place as home. I thought of contributing/improving the city as best as I could. So what or where is my home?

Last but not the least, Annie writes about being a woman in India: the ‘eve teasing’, molestations, myths and statistics. This part was familiar to me since on her blog I have read several of writings on the subject in association with Blank Noise Project. Also, because I am a woman who has lived in Delhi and travelled in Bombay locals. I know what it is like. Come to think of it, I was familiar with all the references, arguments she made in this chapter: Manish Jha’s movie Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women and Pooja Singh (or Chauhan) who stripped to her undergarments just to get an FIR.

[I am not sure if most of her book is collection of posts from her blog by same name. Though she says here, not quite. In case blog is book, then it would only have been fair to put that information over book lest a regular reader of blog buys and book and is disappointed. It has happened with Great Bong’s book May I Hebb Your Attention Please. Several of his blog readers complained after buying the book. The book itself offers no such disclaimers.  I think not telling your readers that some of it is pre-published  (like on your blog)  is dishonest.]

As P. Sainath, the eminent journalist,  says on book blurb, Annie writes with ‘gentle humor’. Humor lies in simple observations as advertisements of sex clinic when you travel in any train, a butcher shop place called Murga Mahal (translated as Cock Place), the regional dialects, and so on. The book is not fairy-tale; it is full of lamentable facts and stats about India. Book may appear sedentary at a glance but interspersed as it is with Anne’s personal experience, notes and interesting literal vignettes, it holds interest.

Rating: A mixed bag; but will recommend it.

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30 Responses to “Book Review: Known Turf by Annie Zaidi”


  1. 1 Ava May 24, 2010 at 7:33 am

    Hmm Sounds like an interesting book. Let me check out her blog first.

  2. 2 Radha May 24, 2010 at 11:46 am

    The book sounds interesting and your review is as articulate as ever :)
    I think I’ll buy it..

  3. 3 Poonam Sharma May 24, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    @Ava: Sure do check the blog. My guess is skeleton of this book can be found in the blog.

    @Radha: Thanks. :) Should you want to lend the book, I can get it to you. And if you buy, you must buy online because then you get at least 20% of the discount.

  4. 4 greatbong May 25, 2010 at 11:00 am

    Since you have called me dishonest, allow me to post my rebuttal.

    The posts that you read on my blog, you did not pay for. Did you? I think not. Where they were not published in any magazine or media product you paid for? They were not. I kept them online as a “free product” for you to read. I then chose to put them in a commercial product. If you think thats dishonesty, I would ask you to look at the definition of “open source software” wherein developers keep their code-base online, free for people to use, without taking away their rights to package it as a paid product with enhanced features (I also had many chapters that were never on my blog).

    It would be dishonest if you paid twice for a product. Which you did not.

    • 5 Poonam Sharma May 25, 2010 at 12:08 pm

      Hey Arnab. I have neither called you ‘dishonest’ as a person :grimace: nor did I complain selling blog posts as a book. Really, nothing wrong about that. I have, by choice, bought books that have been collection of pre-published columns and blog posts. All I find ‘dishonest’ is *not* telling a buyer that this book is collection of previously published blog posts (or at least a part of it.)

      To be honest, personally I didn’t mind buying your book. since I have not been a REGULAR reader of your blog (Sure, I have read some brilliant posts from your blog by word of mouth.), so the repetition of blogposts in book did not bother me. But it did, to your regular readers. (I know, because we had conversations on Twitter.) They could do with a disclaimer that there are some old posts in the book. Most probably, they would have still bought it. But now that the choice is taken out of their hands, they ‘feel’ cheated.

      I know popular blogs like Zen Habits routinely publish books out of their posts . But these blogs openly inform their readers about that. I take your word, as I did Annie’s, that book is not quite the blog. But since a part of it is, I think, your readers would appreciate knowing that before buying the book. That is, in keeping with the trust and relationship you have with them.

      I regret if it seemed that my comment was aimed personally at you. It isn’t. I merely meant to point to the trend, citing the example of your book. (I edited last sentence tho.) Apologies only for that.

      P.S: I read your book long before *Known Turf*, meant to write my review but procrastinated. (Hopefully I will).

  5. 6 greatbong May 25, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    >But it did, to your regular readers. (I know, because we had >conversations on Twitter.)

    Out of curiosity, how many of my “regular readers” did you have a conversation on Twitter with? There have been many readers, immensely regular readers for the past 5 years who have gone through every post and every comment, who have had no problems with the book. While I am sure that there may be some readers who may share your opinion, using a sentence like “It did to your regular readers” is an over-generalization is it not, considering the number of regular readers I have?

    Again I would ask you to look at the “open source” community and see if “disclaimers” are ever put there on commercial projects.

    My problem remains with the use of the word “dishonest”. If you had said that I should have given a disclaimer, that is one thing. But calling the act of not putting one as “dishonest” is surely, in my opinion, not justified as I did not make anyone pay twice for the same thing.

    Thank you.

    • 7 Soan May 26, 2010 at 12:57 am

      Let me jump in here. I buy your book because I heard good things about your blog. After reading the book, I find out it is essentially same as your blog posts. Considering, it could’ve been mentioned on the book back page and wasn’t. Wouldn’t we call it bit dishonest? After all, you did omit an important detail which is that I could’ve read most of it for free.
      And please stop comparing the whole thing with open source community. These are different issues. And just fyi, for commercial projects, if any open source code is used, it’s mentioned in credits. Or legal will come back to haunt you.

    • 8 Poonam Sharma May 26, 2010 at 6:38 pm

      @Soan:Thanks for the speaking your mind here. :)

      @GreatBong:

      Does the ‘number of people’ who-thought-what really matter. (I could also say, even conceding that you have large number of happy readers, it could be an over-generalization that ‘none had problems’ considering there has actually been no measurable survey. But I am not saying it, because, frankly, the number is pointless, important thing here is if the act (of not putting disclaimer) is fair .)

      If it is really about my use of word ‘dishonest’, then would it make it better if I said that not putting disclaimer is ‘unfair’/ ‘unethical’ and ‘misguiding’ (by omission of information)? Barring the choice of word (if we insist on nitpicking); I stand by my opinion.

      P.S: Since you insist on ‘open source’ analogy, I have to point out that comparing it with a book is really not same thing. I am no expert. But in my field (I design training programs), when we buy commercial products, we are aware that a open source version exists, albeit with lesser features. We make the informed CHOICE of buying that upgraded version. But here we are talking of buying a new book and when I do that I expect to read new content, ‘unless stated otherwise’. Why should I have to pay even once for the content that I have already read!

      And in this age when authors and publishers actually offer excerpts/detailed synopsis (I know many Indian bloggers did that upfront), not telling raders that, hey, a considerable part of my book is from blog that you have read, is not acceptable. Perhaps you would like to see another example of selling blogposts as book: http://zenhabits.net/new-e-book-the-zen-habits-handbook-for-life/

  6. 9 chrome story May 26, 2010 at 12:38 am

    Wondering why most of the books by bloggers disappoint us .. we expect something different on a book, compared to a blog ?

    • 10 Poonam Sharma May 26, 2010 at 6:44 pm

      I bought books by blogger mostly I was impressed by their writings on blog. For example, this Annie Zaidi’s book; I bought only because I loved her blog. We are disappointed if the book doesn’t live upto the expectations (that were formed due to blog) we had built up for the book. A classic term is ‘expectation failure’. :P (Some history associated with that term; will share sometime.)

      Which books by bloggers have you read? And your reactions?

  7. 11 greatbong May 26, 2010 at 3:20 am

    “And just fyi, for commercial projects, if any open source code is used, it’s mentioned in credits. Or legal will come back to haunt you.”

    When you use someone else’s open source. FYI. When Redhat has commercial distros, they dont have “disclaimers”. Today Pioneer carried an exact copy of a blogpost I wrote, with my permission. They are a for-profit newspaper. Yet they didnt have a disclaimer. In the past, my blog-posts have been carried by other media outlets. None of them had disclaimers.

    • 12 Jai_C June 2, 2010 at 12:46 pm

      first comment and straight into a fray!

      My sympathies were initially towards the “unethical” side of this debate but then the back cover of the book has:

      “…Having been a part of this chaotic revolution in popular culture, blogger Arnab Ray of greatbong.net takes a funny, sarcastic, politically incorrect and totally irreverent look at assorted random stuff including Bollywood C-grade revenge masalas, ribald songs of the people, movie punching, fake educational institutes, stubborn bathroom flushes [snip]…”

      So anybody who has heard of greatbong and has passing familiarity with the blog pretty much would know what he’s getting here.

      Somebody who absolutely did not know about the blog and **chose to NOT check out the URL provided on the back cover** would get Greatbong humor here that he/she did not know about but had opted to pay money for anyway(?).

      Candidates for sympathy are:

      - a small set of people who read the back blurb and **assumed** that greatbong.net was a paid site that they would have to pay to access, since nothing on the blurb mentions its free.

      - a (probably smaller) set of people who knew and followed GB and liked him enough to buy it, but **assumed** it was totally fresh maal inspite of the back cover blurb outright stating what it was about, and **so sure of it** that they didnt bother to flip through even a few pages.

      For these limited sets of people my vote goes in a limited way :-) to Alchemist Poonam. For the rest its greatbong.

      thanks,
      Jai

    • 13 Poonam Sharma June 2, 2010 at 1:31 pm

      Jai, the part that you have cited nowhere mentions that they are part of blog or are inspired from blog. I have a ‘passing familiarity’ with his blog, but unless told I wouldn’t think it is ‘stale’ mall. And Great Bong has been blogging for a long while, perhaps 5 years, who would remember about what he posted all the time. And the number of people who didn’t know doesn’t matter, as I answered to Great Bong, because in this age of information not informing something deliberately is not right. Even if one person felt that he was deceived, it is unfair. Check out my answer to Great Bong, check out link to Zen Habits. Check out another blogger Amit Varma’s page. Even Annie Zadie, whose book I review here, mentions in her post that though her book is compilation of thought process for her log, but not quite the blog. And I believe her, that is enough for me.

      I am sure Great Bong’s at least blog page could do with a disclaimer. But, never mind, thanks again for your ‘limited vote’. :P

      Here not even one tiny one-sentence disclaimer: Some of the posts in book are from blog.

  8. 14 praneshachar May 29, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    after such a long gap a post from poonam really happy to read. Yes the topics in book seems to be very interesting, yes as mentioned if you have not read them earlier. variety of subjects on social interests are covered as recommended it looks to be a must buy. review of the book is quite open and frank. I fully agree with you if it a reproduction of the blog posts, it is bounden duty of the author to declare it explicitly. Otherwise you are doing injustice
    to your loyal readers. Particularly if you posts are very much on social causes its more sad that the real fact is not brought out.
    Keeping that apart enjoyed reading the review thoroughly.
    Look forward for your posts.
    pranesh

    • 15 Poonam Sharma June 2, 2010 at 1:51 pm

      Thanks Praneshachar. Yours is one of the few comments that has actually commented commented on the review. Let me know how you find the book. :)

      And thanks for your vote of confidence on the ‘unethical debate’. It feels good to know that your one of the most revered readers supports it.

  9. 16 Liju Philip May 31, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    i wish i could compile at least 10 posts from my blog which would be worth publishing as a book ;)

  10. 18 Indian Homemaker June 1, 2010 at 5:38 pm

    I read Annie’s blog and often quote from it and link to it too. Will definitely get the book – I love the way she writes.

  11. 20 Indian Homemaker June 2, 2010 at 8:26 pm

    I bought the book yesterday… started reading about loaded guns not being allowed in buses :)

  12. 22 vishesh unni raghunathan June 8, 2010 at 1:44 pm

    Will follow her blog from now on, thanks :)

    And yes, I think I will read this book :)

  13. 24 sankarshan June 10, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    Thanks for reviewing the book. I was wondering as to whether I should try and get this included in the reading list for this month and your blog post was good enough for me to consider it. I am glad that I did.

    I don’t have much to say about bloggers writing books because the other way round – authors writing blogs haven’t disappointed me too much. The first block of people, or perhaps the subset of such folks whose books I’ve read have tended not to try and come out too much of the comfort zone. Fair enough, that is a choice they make and, their publishers and readers accept as a market-oriented choice.

    In this specific book, I’d not say that it was a good read throughout. But the author clearly writes with a voice that was compelling enough. That makes a lot of difference.

    • 25 Poonam Sharma June 11, 2010 at 11:35 am

      For me, this was the best book by a blogger I have read in recent times. Three others that I have read so far let me down. More so perhaps we had high expectations. I couldn’t bring myself to review those books, thinking what is a worthwhile criticism I can make. Now I am thinking, maybe I should write a post with notes on all three books, what say?

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. For a blogger, it is the reader comments that keep motivation alive. And a lazy one like me, needs a lot more than rest. :P

  14. 26 theevilp July 10, 2010 at 1:42 am

    I love Annie Zaidi’s writing. The first time I had gone through her blog, I had read most of it on an offline computer (5 years back, my first office :) ). I had to go to a net cafe, copy posts month by month and save it on USB drive, and then bring it back to that computer. I had enjoyed the writing back then as I did yesterday when I read the book.

    I did notice that the book was very much a rehash of stuff already in the book. Two points

    1. When I picked up the book, I did not know that it already is a collection of material I have read. In a sense, I feel this is dishonest of the writer. Dishonest and kinda cheap.

    2. Knowing 1) above would not have stopped me from getting the book. I love the collection anyway.

    I believe this would be a publishing/ marketing strategy rather than the author trying something this doh. I know Annie personally, have been part of the brilliant Caferati network that she has helped fuel all these years. I refuse to believe this comes from the mind of the authors.

    Publishing houses still haven’t grown out of the thought process of the traditional business model. If only the production houses really followed the open source models to the T that greatbong keeps mentioning. Alas!

    • 27 Poonam Sharma July 10, 2010 at 1:48 am

      @thevilp Yes, I agree, I would still buy the book if I liked it on blog. All I demand is fair information or I feel cheated just as you mentioned. On that note, I have no grouse with Annie Zaidi, she does publicly mention on her blog that tho book is inspired from the blog, it is not quite it. I accept her word, that is enough.

      Great Bong’s book page or blog reveals no such information.

      And hey, you didn’t comment anything abt the review?

  15. 28 theevilp July 10, 2010 at 2:13 am

    The review wasn’t as alive as I would have wanted to. Didn’t much bring about the wonder of the writing. Or why you loved the writing. Yes, because she writes of very “aala” subjects, yes, but there is also something beyond, a very disarming sense of earnestness, an honest innocence about her writing. I found that part quite missing in the review. Of why should I read the book.

    Every place you have mentioned having identified with the author, you forget that the reader of your review does not enjoy that instant connection. A bit more of the why could have made the review more enjoyable.

    Also, your review didn’t mention my favourite part of the blog/the book. The writing on chai!

    But I am glad you have written about the book and have had so many people interested in it. That is a good thing.

    • 29 Poonam Sharma July 10, 2010 at 2:22 am

      :D :D I had a hearty laugh at your honest, sonorous reply; I especially loved the last sentence of concession you gave me. ;)

      Chai is not *my* favorite part. I have drunk it only four times in my life. And that chai chapter, to me as a reader, was off-mark in collection of that reportage.

      Writing style you are right is hook to read the author (as was in my case), but to me when I read such a book, I look for issues. Hence, I concentrated on that. You could have a point there I maybe took it as granted.

      P.S: Why I connected to an issue is *very much there* but yes (despite it being called review on blog) it is not meant to be a professional analysis rather my own personal reactions as a reader.

  16. 30 Booklover July 20, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    To be honest, I didn’t know of Annie before I read this. I’m glad i did :)


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