April 2014 Posts

Siddharth Mukherjee, 27 April 2014

Siddharth Mukherjee, 27 April 2014

Siddharth Mukherjee, 27 April 2014Last night I attended a public lecture at the India International Centre, New Delhi. It was delivered by Siddharth Mukherjee entitled “First they came for Rushdie: Scientific Ambitions in an Age of Censorship”. It was organised by Penguin Books India to celebrate the occasion of Siddharth Mukherjee having received the Padma Shri.  He is a physician, scientist and writer. His book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize. He is currently an assistant professor medicine at Columbia University in New York. Chiki Sarkar, Publisher, Penguin Random House India, announced that her firm would be publishing his forthcoming book–on genes. Penguin invite

The lecture consisted of three distinct sections. He read out two papers. An essay, “The Perfect Last Days of Mr Sengupta”, published in Granta 124: Travel (http://www.granta.com/Archive/124/The-Perfect-Last-Days-of-Mr-Sengupta). It is about his visit to the Cancer centre of All India Institute of Medical Sciences ( AIIMS) based in New Delhi, where he meets a terminally ill patient Mr Sengupta. A precisely written, sensitive and thought-provoking essay about mortality, disease, care giving, and death.

( L-R) Chiki Sarkar, Siddharth Mukherjee, Nirmala George and Jaya Bhattacharji RoseHe followed it up by reading an extract from an unpublished essay. ( I suspect it is from his forthcoming book.) It was about science, scientific thought and research, especially genetics, in Nazi Germany. In a measured manner, calmly Siddharth Mukherjee read out his paper. Not once did his voice waver while he patiently retold the well-known facts of medicine as practiced in Germany.  He talked about Berlin in 1931 and the close link between science and literature. He spoke of the Nazi scientists such as eugenicist Alfred Ploetz who coined the term Rassenhygiene or racial hygiene, Josef Mengel or the Angel of Death who was responsible for the gas chambers in the Auschwitz concentration camps, physicist and Nobel Prize winner ( 1905) Philipp Eduard Anton von Lenard who advocated “Deutsche Physik” as opposed to the ideas of “Jewish physics”, by which he meant chiefly the theories of Albert Einstein, including “the Jewish fraud” of relativity. He spoke of the influence many of these scientists had upon Hitler, even when he was in prison and he wrote of his admiration of them in Mein Kampf. He commented upon the close relationship between the legal wheels that were constantly turning to justify and legitimize these absurdly illogical “scientific” theories, resulting in the enactment of the anti-Jewish statutes called the Nuremberg Race Laws ( 5 Sept 1935) institutionalizing many of the racial theories prevalent in Nazi ideaology. He mentioned the establishment of the Aktion T4 or the euthanasia programme that led to the establishment of  extermination centres where inmates were gassed in carbon monoxide chambers. He cited examples and read out extracts of contemporary accounts by scientists and men of letters such as Christopher Isherwood, of how slowly German society was being slowly and steadily cleansed, sloughing of genetic detritus. He argued that there was sufficient evidence of how this young science propped up a totalitarian regime and the cycle was completed by producing junk science. He  documented the muzzling of free expression, books, media, radio, cabaret were slowly brought under Nazi doctrine. Music such as jazz and swing or the “negro noise” were stopped. There was a slow and methodical decimation of intellectual and cultural freedom. Audience at the Siddharth Mukherjee public lecture

The concluding part of the lecture, Siddharth Mukherjee cited the example of Salman Rushdie not being permitted to attend or even speak via satellite link at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2012. He received death threats. At the time three writers — Hari Kunzro, Ruchir Joshi and Jeet Thayil — tried reading out extracts from the banned text The Satanic Verses but were not permitted to do so. Instead they were advised to leave Jaipur immediately. At the time this episode was met by a “galacial silence” by the powers that be. It was as “all realism without magic”. Since then this kind of literary censorship, a capitulation to bullying, according to Siddharth Mukherjee has become a predictable pattern in Indian society. Wendy Doniger  is the latest victim of literary censorship. For Siddharth Mukherjee there is a symbiotic relationship between science and literature since they co-exist in the same ecosystem. “Science happens in the same fragile place where books happen and plays are enacted. You spoil the ecology of one, you tarnish the soil of the other.”

28 April 2014 

“Junior Premier League”, Joy Bhattacharjya

“Junior Premier League”, Joy Bhattacharjya

Junior Premier LeagueA slim novel for ten-year-olds. Written by Joy Bhattacharjya and his twelve-year-old son, Vivek. The story is about Sachin, Neel and a bunch of boys who are competing to join the Delhi team of the Junior Premier League. The story is from the time they are selected, trained and compete in the championship. I enjoyed reading the book. It is very clear from the story, irrespective of the format of the game being played, cricket is like any other sport — it is gruelling in the training and discipline that is required.

While reading the story, I kept getting the feeling that the story was reading well, since there were details about organising a cricket tournament, preparing the players for it — in terms of practice, nourishment, mental strength etc. Details about time management, slowly changing the players from thinking only about themselves to behaving like a team player, while retaining their individual traits and strengths.  In an email conversation with Joy Bhattacharjya, he said that the series arc will develop slowly. For now he  is trying to establish and build the JPL universe and follow Sachin, Neel and a couple of the other characters as  the league goes into another year. The frequency of the books will be twice a year, with the next one due to be published in November and Book 3 to coincide with the next IPL.

My only quibble with the story is that the brutal competitiveness that children and young adults are capable of is lacking in this story. The focus is on cricket but the characters are comparatively tame. Contemporary young adult literature can be at times horrifyingly honest and sharp in the violence and harsh world it depicts. Young adults are still on the cusp of adulthood, so have not completely lost that clarity of behaviour that exists in childhood, of being who they are, seeing the world in black and white. Even though Joy Bhattacharjya had taken the help of his son to get into the mind of a twelve-year-old and they have worked on the plot together, I felt that they fell a little short. Maybe once Joy and his son settle into the skin of the characters, they will be able to express themselves more confidently.

Writing about sports and literature is never easy. IPL or the Junior Premier League which is the focus of the novel is a new Here and Now, 2008- 2011version of an old sport. Tailor-made for the speed age, part-entertainment, part-sports, but a business that involves huge amounts of money. So creating a story that is trying to yoke together the IPL version of cricket and create a good story for young readers is a tough balancing act. There is a lovely portion in the correspondence between Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee published in Here and Now: Letters ( 2008 – 2011) about sports. Coetzee says in his letter of 11 May 2009, “What strikes me is how difficult it is to invent and launch a thoroughly new sport ( not just a variant of an old one), or perhaps I should say launch a new game ( sports being selected out of the repertoire of games).” To which Paul Auster replies, “…essentially you are right. Nothing new has been made to impact for generations. When you think about how quickly various technologies have altered daily life ( trains, cars, airplanes, movies, radios, televisions, computers), the intractability of sports is at first glance mystifying. There has to be a reason for it…So much is at stake now in professional sports, so much money is involved , there is so much profit to be gained by fielding a successful team that the men who control soccer, basketball, and all other major sports are as powerful as the heads of the largest corporations, the heads of governments. There is simply no room to introduce a new game. The market is saturated, and the games that already exist have become monopolies that will do everything possible to crush any upstart competitor. That doesn’t mean that people don’t invent new games ( children do it every day), but children don’t have the wherewithal to launch multi-million-dollar commercial enterprises.” ( p.65, p.68-69)

For Joy Bhattacharjya, who is associated with Kolkota Knight Riders, it is such an integral part of his professional life, he is able to infuse the story with details about the team, give the children like Sachin and Neel  dreams to be like their heroes, all of which ring true and important for accurate  storytelling but it needs to soar higher than the particulars of the game. While providing insightful tidbits about the game and championship, the story at the same time has to be in step with good children’s literature that will continue to be read and sell beyond the current IPL season; well after heroes like Sunil Narine have quit professional cricket. For now much of reading pleasure stems from the familiarity with the media buzz about the game.

There is promise in the first book. Hence the expectations. I have no doubt the series will live up to these expectations.

Joy Bhattacharjya The First XI Junior Premier League Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2014. Pb. pp. 176. Rs. 199.

RIP Bindia Thapar

RIP Bindia Thapar

Bindia Thapar 2The first time I met Bindia was when I was curating Poster Women for Zubaan.  It was a visual mapping of the women’s movement in India. ( http://www.posterwomen.org/Posterwomen/?page_id=2) We had collected over 1500 posters from around the country, in different languages and different formats. Some were in a pretty rotten condition too. In order to make it easier to create an archive, every single document was catalogued and professionally photographed in a studio. After the exercise was completed, large postcard size photographs were printed and filed for easy reference. At this point Bindia was invited to spend the day with us at office. She has been involved for many years in making posters for different organisations, various campaigns etc.

Bindia Thapar, literacyWith a twinkle in her eye, Bindia gurgled with delight at spotting how her posters had been adapted, adopted, translated and sometimes only a visual imagery “borrowed” into a new poster. It was a fascinating insight into how the women’s movement gained momentum in India, as people become more aware of issues concerning women, but also the need to develop and create communication tools that would be easily understood across the spectrum — languages, regions, socio-economic classes, literate and illiterate alike. Some of her posters on domestic violence were used as non-text communication material in other regions too. Bindia was one of the first artists to make trilingual posters, in Hindi, Urdu and English. These were part of Jagori’s literacy campaign. Later her posters became more elaborate and sumptuous. A favourite poster of mine is a blue and gold illustration she created for a Jagori poster in the 1990s. Unfortunately I am unable to locate an image of it online.

Bindia 3Bindia was also known for her work in children’s literature. She was a fantastic illustrator. There was always a burst of colours in every frame she drew. When I took four-month-old Sarah to meet Bindia, she told me to always ensure the child is exposed to visual imagery. It is equally important as learning a language or any other skill. Slowly as the child grows she will learn to react, respond, and grow. She was insistent that the immediate environment of the child should be filled with colour, tickle the child’s senses and let them blossom.

20140419_224846Bindia worked upon many children’s books. One of the first books she created was for Tulika Books. It was introducing the Hindi alphabet or the letters of the Devnagari script. Each page is a delight. Every letter or akshar is embedded in a drawing that tells a story. More importantly, the child is able to discover images tucked into the drawing beginning with the relevant letter on the page. I love it. Sarah loves it. She is as yet to learn the Devnagari script but she firmly believes that it is a storybook. Bindia wrote this book when her own daughter was in primary school and discovering alphabets.

Bindia Thapar will be missed. A rare human being. Full of warmth and generosity. Ever willing to share her knowledge, extremely humble and always alive to new experiences.

Rest in peace.

21 April 2014 

 

Sanjaya Baru, “The Accidental Prime Minister”

Sanjaya Baru, “The Accidental Prime Minister”

I never planned to write a book about my eventful time in the PMO as Dr Manmohan Singh’s media adviser from 2004 to 2008. Sanjaya BaruThat is why I never kept a diary, though I did make notes on key events during my tenure. Right up to the end of 2012, I was clear in my mind that I would not write a book about that phase in my life, despite being coaxed by friends in the media and pursued by friends in the publishing world. …I have combined personal, admittedly subjective, accounts of what I regard as important events with an analysis, hopefully objective, of policies and issues. While the notes I have kept have come in handy, much of what I have written is based on memory, refurbished by newspaper archives I used to get my dates and facts right. I have also spoken to a few key players of that period– who will remain anonymous–to refresh my memory and I thank them for their time. All the quotations in the book are substantially correct but some may not be verbatim. 

(p. x, xiv-xv)

For a man “who never kept a diary” Sanjay Baru’s book, The Accidental Prime Minister, is packed with detail. Its a fascinating retelling of a period in history, but not written absorbingly unless you are a political analyst. As with any memoir it is a fine line between presenting the facts as it happened and putting it together in a readable form, even if it requires a bit of polishing. Frankly there is far better narrative nonfiction being published in book form or as digital long reads. Yet this will go down in history as a seminal book since it is written by Sanjaya Baru who had access to the Prime Minister of India, Dr Manmohan Singh, who was also the architect of the liberalised economy introduced in 1991.

Sanjaya Baru The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh Viking, Penguin Books India, 2014. Hb. pp. 300. Rs. 599. ( E-book available.)

17 April 2014

Kamila Shamsie, ” A God in Every Stone”

Kamila Shamsie, ” A God in Every Stone”

Kamila Shamsie, A God in Every StoneA God in Every Stone is Kamila Shamsie’s fifth novel.  It is set at the time of World War I and before the partition of the Indian sub-continent into India and Pakistan. It is about an Englishwoman archaeologist, Vivian Rose Spencer, and her meeting with her discovery of the Temple of Zeus and Ypres war veteran, twenty-two-year-old Qayyum Gul who is returning home to Peshawar. But the story is much, much more than that.

A God in Every Stone will be classified as “Pakistani Literature”. It may have been written by Kamila Shamsie but it could even work as literature of the subcontinent or South Asian literature, with sufficient sprinkling of historical facts that makes it intriguing and interesting for a global audience. It is so clearly positioned in a time of history that it is sufficiently far removed from the present times for the writer to be able to present, analyse, teach and comment–uninhibited. Placing the story during World War 1 and in undivided India is fascinating. It is a story based on some historical facts like the massacre of Qissa Khawani Bazaar (the Storytellers Market) on 23 April 1930, the Khudai Khidmatgars and of the freedom fighter, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. More importantly I liked the placing of it in a time of history when people of undivided India are shown fighting together against the British. ( In this telling of history/fiction, it is immaterial whether they were Pakistanis or Indians, they are fighting against the colonial rulers.) It is as if the novel is showing a “history from below” much like Subaltern Studies did in academics. For instance giving characters such as Najeeb, the assistant at the Peshawar museum; the soldiers hired by the British to figure in the Great War such as Lance-Naik Qayyum Gul; the young prostitutes–girls of mixed lineage; the storytellers; the letter-writer — are people who would barely have figured in previous fictional narratives.

It is a story set so firmly in the city of Peshawar, but makes the wonderful connect of this region with Greece, the rich history of Peshawar and Gandhara art. The forays into Europe of World War 1, the “betrayal” of Tahsin Bey by Viv, the recuperation of soldiers of Indian origin in Brighton, the VAD etc. Even the subtle transformation of Viv’s mother from being horrified by her daughter dispatched to an archaeological dig in Turkey to encouraging her to make a trip to Peshawar. ( ” The truth was, the war had sloughed off so many rules that no one seemed to know any more what counted as unacceptable behaviour in women.” p.75)

Positioning the story in Peshawar is stunning since much of the problems of early twentieth century such as tribal warfare, being a part of NWFP, Swat valley continue to be relevant in the twenty-first century. What also shines through in the novel is that this region has been alive, settled and of crucial geo-political significance for centuries, something that locals tend to forget or maybe are too absorbed in their daily life. What comes through in the novel is that the locals may be active participants ( willing or unwilling is not the question right now) but local dynamics have a powerful impact on their lives. This is evident through the fascinating badalas that are shared. Of these the one that attracts the most crowd is that of the Haji. Well it could be just a comment of the times but it assumes a different dimension if read with a knowledge of what is happening today in world politics –the Islamisation of Terror.

Even the descriptions of the Gandhara artifacts, the archaeological digs etc criss-cross history marvelously. They bring to play not only the political significance of important regimes of the past such as Darius, the Mauryan empire, Alexander etc but of more recent developments such as what is happening in Afghanistan and the Taliban ( i.e. blasting of the Bamiyan Buddhas). But the inextricable link between culture/cultural expressions and politics. The politicians and kingmakers may no longer be alive but their presence is marked by sculptures, pottery shards, etc that have been left behind or excavated. The connection between Gandhara and non-violence is also striking when one recalls that Ashoka who quit fighting after the battle of Kalinga, became a Buddhist and a staunch believer of non-violence, his first “posting” was at Gandhara. Whereas this novel involves Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who too believed in non-violent forms of action. Centuries apart sharing similar beliefs in the same region.

The flitting between the imagined and real worlds. Creating the myth of circlet of Scylax so convincingly could only have been done by a person who is passionate  about Greek mythology and loves research. It meshes beautifully in this story.

A God in Every Stone is exquisite. With this novel Kamila Shamsie has set a very high benchmark for literary fiction–worldwide.

                                     *****
( After reading A God in Every Stone I posed some questions to Kamila Shamsie via e-mail. )

Q1 Have the film rights been sold to this book? Who chose the extract for the Granta special?
No. And I chose the extract.

Q2 How did do you decide upon this story?

I didn’t. I had decided on a very different story which started with the massacre in Qissa Khwani/the Street of Storytellers in 1930 and continues until 2009. But my plans for novels always end up going astray. It did have both archaeology and the anti-colonial resistance in Peshawar as elements right from the start so the germ of the novel was always there but finding the story was a slow winding process which involved lots of deleting and quite a bit of re-writing.

Q3 Where was the research for this book done?

Mostly in the British Library where they keep colonial records – and also have a wonderful photography collection. I also went to some of the novel’s locations in Peshawar. And the Internet is an invaluable tool for research, of course.

Q4 How did the idea of a woman archaeologist,  Vivian Rose Spencer, strike you? I wish she had more of a presence in the book.

The idea of an English archaeologist struck me first – originally the archaeologist was going to be male but while reading a piece of travel writing by the Englishwoman Rosita Forbes who was in Peshawar in the 30’s I became interested in the experience of Englishwoman in Peshawar. At that point the structure of the novel was very different and there were more primary characters. I’m pretty sure that, regardless of Rosita Forbes, I would have made the archaeologist female once it became clear that the soldier and archaeologist were the two primary characters. I wasn’t about to write a novel in which both the main characters are male. Male writers do more than enough of that!

As for wanting her to be more of a presence – she has more pages in the novel then anyone else. But her story is more the focus of the first half of the book. The anti-colonial story has to shift it’s focus to the Peshawaris.

Q5 How much history did you delve into? Did the historical research come before the writing or specific research happened after the story took root?

Lots. And lots. I research and write as parallel processes – and the research doesn’t really stop until I’ve finished the book.

Q6 This is literary fiction similar to what Subaltern Studies is in academics–telling the histories from “below”. You made heroes of figures who were considered rebels in “mainstream” narratives. Did this happen consciously?

Whose mainstream?, would be my first response to that.
What I am interested in, which relates to your question, is the stories that have received less attention than other stories. Whether it’s women archaeologists rather than men archaeologists, Indian soldiers in WWI rather than English soldiers, the non-violent Pashtun rather than the one who picks up a gun.

Q7 What is the difference between literary fiction, historical fiction and fiction set in history?  Would  A God in Every Stone even fit into any of these categories?

It’s not something to which I give any thought when writing a novel. Which category will make people want to read it?

Q8  There are many women characters in your novel, who only serve purpose for that particular moment in the story, no more. Yet their fleeting appearances are powerful, almost like a painting, they leave a deep imprint on one’s mind. For instance the infant bride and the teenage prostitute, are they figments of imagination or based upon sketches that you came across?

I certainly see then serving a purpose beyond a single moment. Everything in a novel has to serve the entire novel. (The infant bride grows up to be a very important part of the novel – she’s the green-eyed woman.) They aren’t based on sketches. I know there were prostitutes in the Old City and I know very young girls were given away in marriage. Beyond that, I worked out the particular stories that best suited my purpose.

Q9 Why did you choose to write about Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan or “Frontier Gandhi” ?

I grew up barely even hearing his name which is why I wanted to write about him. He’s been written out of Pakistan’s history, except in KP, which is a terrible shame. Also, he was such an important figure in his own right that it seems only correct that we should call him by his own name or honorific – Ghaffar Khan or Bacha Khan – rather than by reference to anyone else, regardless of who that anyone else is.

Q10 Are the badalas yours or recorded?

Mine.

Q11 Have you ever worn a burqa. The confusion that you show the young girl to be in can only come from an experienced moment.

No I haven’t. Novelists imaginations fortunately often thrive quite happily without experienced moments!

Q12 Now that you have British citizenship, how do you see yourself? British-Pakistani writer, Pakistani writer, of South Asian origin?

Pakistani. I’ve only been British for 6 months!

13 April 2014

RIP Urs Widmer

RIP Urs Widmer

Urs Widmer, (C) Bishan SamaddarFor there are a few stories that have been told for ever and — hardly altered at all — have been passed on through the millennia because something about them — something beyond all trends — gets to people so powerfully, they cannot get them out of their heads, and so the stories have to be told, over and over. These stories are called myths, they are something approximating cultrual fossils, whose roots are not known, even if it can be assumed that they represent memory traces of something that happened — not in this way, of course, but not completely differently either — in a concrete place at a concrete point in time. 

“On Oedipus the King and Sophocles”, Lecture 6, On Life, Death, and This and That of the Rest

Urs Widmer (May 21, 1938 – April 2, 2014) was a Swiss novelist, playwright, an essayist and a short story writer.  In 2007 he delivered the Lectures on Poetics Series at the University of Franklin VI. ( Previous speakers have included Ingeborg Bachmann, Theodor Adorno and Heinrich Boll.) On Life, Death, and This and That of the Rest: The Frankfurt Lectures on Poetics consists of six lectures translated by Donal McLaughlin. It is a slim book but these lectures are meant to be read over and over again. It is incredibly packed with insights that make you pause and reflect. At a time when publishing is rapidly becoming a writer’s space and there is an information load with articles readily available on the Internet pontificating about the craft of writing, it is important to hear, read and listen to thinkers like Urs Widmer. Here is another extract ( p.29) from his second lecture, “On the suffering of writers”:

The writer who suffers creates his works because without these confessions he’d implode — the gods have shown him mercy in permitting him this possibility; and also because a positive reception helps to integrate him into the community. Suffering, famously, isolates people and the — perhaps even enthusiastic — acceptance of his black confessions allows the writer to see that these black confessions cannot be entirely foreign to the readers. For the writer arrives every day anew at the banal insight that being wounded really does hurt. In order not to be swamped by the pain, he is forced to create distance, distance between himself and the material, and distance between himself and the reader. No writing — I know this experience is my equivalent of ceterum censeo —ever just suddenly emerges, straight out of seething emotions — of necessity — transform into a concentrated observation of the material and, in the end, can barely be felt by the writer. As if a sheet of glass were between them and him. The writing even of the most terrible thing, especially of the most terrible thing, happens in an oddly cold fashion. Were we to feel exactly what we write or want to write, we wouldn’t be able to do it. The pain would tear us apart and we wouldn’t write another word. Yes, it is even the case that the feeling experienced while writing is often the diametrical opposite of that in the text. I describe a painful death and the feeling while writing is not of mourning but joy. Triumph. In Walter Muschg’s words: “The most wonderful sheen on a masterpiece is the pain that no longer pains the author. A perfect piece of work must no longer bear a single trace of the suffering.” 

It was very sad that Urs Widmer passed away on 2 April 2014. RIP.

Urs Widmer On Life, Death, and This and That of the Rest: The Frankfurt Lectures on Poetics English translation by Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2013. Hb. pp. 120 $21 / £ 13.50 / Rs 425

Column on publishing and book news for the Hindu Literary Review

Column on publishing and book news for the Hindu Literary Review

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose I will be starting a monthly column from May 2014 with the Hindu Literary Review  on news, comments and information about publishing within India and globally. It could be trade, academic, children and young adult literature. It will consist of news about trends, mergers, new book releases, author news, what is happening in the regional languages, snippets and comments about books etc. So if you would like to share information that would be of interest to me please let me know.

The Hindu Literary Review is probably the only space left in print media that has a dedicated supplement to literature. It is published on the first Sunday of every month but has a substantial archive online. Here is the link: http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/

Email id: jayabhattacharjirose at gmail dot com  

3 April 2014