Alter, Stephen 1956–
Alter, Stephen 1956–
Born 1956, in Mussoorie, Uttar Pradesh, India; son of American missionaries; married; wife's name Ameeta. Education: Wesleyan University, B.A., 1977.
Home—Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, India.
Writer and writing instructor. East-West Center, HI, writer-in-residence, 1986-87; American University in Cairo, Cairo, Egypt, director of writing program, c. 1987-95; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, writer-in-residence, beginning 1995. Organizer, Mussoorie International Writers' Festival, 2007.
Honorary M.A., Wesleyan University, 1982; Guggenheim fellowship, 2002-03, for Elephas Maximus.
Neglected Lives, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1978.
Silk and Steel, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1980.
The Godchild, David & Charles (Devon, England), 1987.
Renuka, David & Charles (Devon, England), 1989.
Aranyani, the Courtesan's Lament: A Romance of Ancient India, Rupa & Company (New Delhi, India), 2006.
The Phantom Isles (young-adult novel), Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 2007.
Ghost Letters (young-adult novel), Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 2008.
All the Way to Heaven: An American Boyhood in the Himalayas, Holt (New York, NY), 1998.
Amritsar to Lahore: A Journey across the India-Pakistan Border, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, PA), 2000.
Sacred Waters: A Pilgrimage up the Ganges River to the Source of Hindu Culture, Harcourt (New York, NY), 2001.
Elephas Maximus: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant, Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2004.
Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief: Inside the World of Indian Moviemaking, Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2007.
(Editor) Great Indian Hunting Stories, Penguin (New York, NY), 1988.
(Editor with Wimal Dissanayake) The Penguin Book of Modern Indian Short Stories, Penguin (New York, NY), 1989, second edition, 2000.
Aripan and Other Stories, Rupa & Company (New Dehli, India), 2005.
Also author of screenplays, articles, and book reviews.
Stephen Alter, an American author who was born and raised in India, is the author of a number of critically acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction, including All the Way to Heaven: An American Boyhood in the Himalayas, an autobiographical work, and The Phantom Isles, a novel for teens. In addition, Alter has served as the director of the writing program at American University in Cairo, Egypt, as well as a writer-in-residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Alter's first two novels are set in India and illuminate the lives of the mixed-race descendants of India's British raj. The raj (India's period of British rule) lasted from 1757 to 1947. The Anglo-Indian people who feature in Alter's fiction are, according to a Time contributor, "strangers in their own skins, exiles in their own country … half-castes yearn[ing] for some homeland that does not exist." Neglected Lives, for example, is the story of Lionel, a young Anglo-Indian man living in contemporary India who is exiled to an isolated hill station in Debrakot because he had an affair with a Hindu girl. Like others who share his heritage, Lionel is a victim of racism, noted Peter S. Prescott in a review for Newsweek. However, Prescott qualified, "Alter seems to intend us to think of Lionel as a survivor [who] will endure by bringing an Anglo-Indian bride to the hill and thereby reaffirming the life of the community." A Time reviewer called Neglected Lives "one of the most unusual replies" to the questions writer E.M. Forster (1879-1970) raised about British colonialism in his novel A Passage to India. In addition, Holly Eley commented in the Times Literary Supplement that Neglected Lives shows "an understanding of present-day India as impressive as [screenwriter and author] Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's: from the first assured pages one could feel the oppressive limitations of caste barriers and of the English Victorian tradition."
Alter's second novel, Silk and Steel, focuses on the early nineteenth-century expansion of British landholdings in India and, according to John Calvin Batchelor in the Village Voice, "can be regarded as Alter's attempt to investigate the subjugation, organization, and dislocation of the Indian subcontinent by the British Empire." Reviewing the book in the Washington Post, Joan Aiken suggested that Alter "made a shrewd choice of historical period" for his second novel. Through the novelist's historical perspective, Aiken contended, "the reader is made aware of the inexorable, insensitive advance of the British across the continent that will presently toss them out again; history motivates the hero, that is its function."
After writing two more novels and editing several books, Alter branched out into narrative nonfiction with the childhood memoir All the Way to Heaven. Alter's parents were Presbyterian missionaries in the town of Mussoorie, India, in the Himalaya mountains, and he lived and went to school there until he left for college in the United States. Despite its physical isolation, the community of missionaries was affected by the vast social changes occurring in both American and globally during the 1960s and early 1970s, as Alter describes. Richard Bernstein, writing in the New York Times, of- fered qualified praise for the book, calling it "an enjoyable if not very deep reminiscence" and noting that "while Mr. Alter's boyhood in the Indian Himalayas was certainly unusual, his account of it is far more anecdotal than searching." Other reviewers offered more positive assessments of the work. All the Way to Heaven makes "remarkably engaging and smooth reading," Harold M. Otness observed in Library Journal, and a Publishers Weekly contributor deemed the work a "graceful memoir."
Amritsar to Lahore: A Journey across the India-Pakistan Border is, to quote Otness, "an informal but highly informative" travelogue describing Alter's 1997 trip to areas along the India-Pakistan frontier. That year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the border, which was drawn in 1947 to separate British India's primarily Muslim territories (which became Pakistan) from its primarily Hindu ones. This border has always been disputed—with Pakistan and India fighting three wars over it—and it can be difficult to cross for average Pakistanis and Indians. As Alter found, despite the large minority communities on each side of the border and the many things inhabitants of the border regions have in common, the governments of India and Pakistan have generally succeeded in imposing a strong sense of national identity on residents of this frontier. As Alter traveled, he chatted and conducted interviews with numerous Indians and Pakistanis. "Alongside these diverse and vivid interviews, chance conversations and oral histories, Alter provides informed commentary to raise questions about national and individual identity, and the insidious mythology of borders," noted Nikki Matharoo in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.
Sacred Waters: A Pilgrimage up the Ganges River to the Source of Hindu Culture is another meditation on the Indian way of life that is encased in a travelogue. This volume examines Hinduism, the dominant religion of India, through the prism of Alter's travels along that faith's most sacred river. Alter undertook to make the Char Dham Yatra, the traditional journey traveled by Hindu pilgrims, whereby followers reach the four Himalayan spots that are the sources of the Ganges. While spiritual seeking was a major motivation for Alter's trip (he had long since abandoned his parents' Christianity), he also discusses the environmental degradation occurring in these remote mountain areas—caused in part, ironically, by the many pilgrims who wish to visit the sources of the Ganges and the roads built to accommodate them. Anita Mathias wrote in Commonweal that "Sacred Waters is a lovely, tranquil account of a spiritual journey" that "is full of the serendipity and the peace of the wilderness."
Elephas Maximus: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant examines the place of the pachyderm in Indian myth, history, and culture, as well as the creature's precarious future. Once again Alter frames his analysis with descriptions of his own travels around India, which included seeing real elephants in nature preserves, religious
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ceremonies featuring elephant icons, and an elephant auction. "Alter's readable study … will be enjoyed by anyone fascinated by these large animals and concerned about their survival," Edell Schaefer concluded in Library Journal. A contributor to Publishers Weekly similarly noted that Alter's "book is an elegant paean to the Indian elephant and a Wake-up call for its protection."
Alter takes a look at India's prolific, multi-billion-dollar film industry in Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief: Inside the World of Indian Moviemaking, To research this work, he followed the production of Omkara, an adaptation of William Shakespeare's Othello by Indian director Vishal Bhardwaj. "I don't think I could have picked a better film, because it is different than a lot of other things being made in Mumbai," Alter told Deccan Herald contributor Utpal Borpujari. "I think I was also fortunate that Vishal allowed me to follow the process through writing the script, narrating the story to the stars, composing the music, pre-production work, shooting—all this happened within one year, which makes following easier for a writer." A critic in Kirkus Reviews applauded Alter's "analysis of how Indian filmmakers combine the classics of Western literature … and Indian folk traditions to create the uniquely vibrant and tirelessly crowd-pleasing thrust of the typical Bollywood epic." Barry X. Miller, writing in Library Journal, stated that the author "proves to be a singularly intelligent and insightful guide through Indian cinema."
In 2007 Alter published The Phantom Isles, his first novel for young adults. The work concerns three New England sixth graders—Courtney, Orion, and Ming—who discover a mysterious book titled The Compleat Necromancer hidden in their local library. After reciting an incantation, the trio spies a number of ghostly images on the book's pages, and they learn that the volume serves as a prison for the long-dead residents of Prithvideep, an island nation hidden in the middle of the Indian Ocean. "Told from several points of view, including the spirits trapped within the pages of obscure texts, The Phantom Isles succeeds as an entertaining, informative and engaging novel," concluded Teenreads.com contributor Donna Volkenannt. According to a Pub-
lishers Weekly reviewer, "lovers of atmospheric chills will embrace this tasteful bit of haunting."
Alter's second young-adult novel, Ghost Letters, centers on the relationship between contemporary seventh grader Gilbert Mendelson-Finch and calligrapher's apprentice Sikander Khan, a boy who lived more than one hundred years earlier. Communicating across time with the help of a ghostly postman and an English genie, Gilbert and Sikander attempt to prevent a war and solve a kidnapping. "Alternating between centuries," remarked a Kirkus Reviews critic, "Alter weaves these disparate elements into an unusual and suspenseful ghost story."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, October 15, 2001, Bryce Christensen, review of Sacred Waters: A Pilgrimage up the Ganges River to the Source of Hindu Culture, p. 376; February 1, 2007, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Phantom Isles, p. 44.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, April, 2007, April Spisak, review of The Phantom Isles, p. 322.
Children's Bookwatch, April, 2007, review of The Phantom Isles.
Commonweal, February 8, 2002, Anita Mathias, review of Sacred Waters, p. 20.
International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January, 2000, Jonathan S. Addleton, "Missionary Kid Memoirs: A Review Essay," p. 30.
Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, July, 2003, Nikki Matharoo, review of Amritsar to Lahore: A Journey across the India-Pakistan Border, p. 769.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2007, review of Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief: Inside the World of Indian Moviemaking; December 1, 2007, review of Ghost Letters.
Library Journal, March 1, 1998, Harold M. Otness, review of All the Way to Heaven: An American Boyhood in the Himalayas, p. 98; November 1, 2000, Harold M. Otness, review of Amritsar to Lahore, p. 120; November 1, 2001, Harold M. Otness, review of Sacred Waters, p. 123; March 1, 2004, Edell Schaefer, review of Elephas Maximus: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant, p. 100; July 1, 2007, Barry X. Miller, review of Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief, p. 93.
Newsweek, October 2, 1978, Peter S. Prescott, review of Neglected Lives; May 26, 1980, Jean Strouse, review of Silk and Steel, p. 86.
New Yorker, September 4, 1978, review of Neglected Lives.
New York Times, February 9, 1998, Richard Bernstein, "Wide-eyed Wonder in the Himalayas," review of All the Way to Heaven.
New York Times Book Review, July 27, 1980, John Yohalem, review of Silk and Steel, p. 70.
Publishers Weekly, February 9, 1998, review of All the Way to Heaven, p. 85; February 23, 2004, review of Elephas Maximus, p. 59; January 29, 2007, review of The Phantom Isles, p. 72; May 7, 2007, review of Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief, p. 52.
Saturday Review, June, 1980, Alan Cheuse, review of Silk and Steel, p. 82.
School Library Journal, March, 2007, Kristin Anderson, review of The Phantom Isles, p. 203.
Science News, September 25, 2004, review of Elephas Maximus, p. 207.
Time, October 30, 1978, review of Neglected Lives.
Times Literary Supplement, July 25, 1980, Holly Eley, review of Neglected Lives.
Village Voice, August 20, 1980, John Calvin Batchelor, review of Silk and Steel.
Washington Post, July 8, 1980, Joan Aiken, review of Silk and Steel.
Deccan Herald Web site,http://www.deccanherald.com/ (November 14, 2007), Utpal Borpujari, "Bollywood Has Caught the Global Imagination."
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Web site,http://web.mit.edu/ (February 1, 2008), "MIT Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies: Stephen Alter."
Teenreads.com,http://www.teenreads.com/ (February 1, 2008), Donna Volkenannt, review of The Phantom Isles.