December 2014 Posts

Priya Parmar “Vanessa & her Sister”

Vanessa and her Sister26 April 1905 – 46, Gordon Square, Bloomsbury

The exhibition opens today. I submitted my portrait of Nelly to the New Gallery over a month ago but never heard whether it was accepted. Mr Bell says that if it had been rejected, they would have sent it back. … .

Later

Virginia set out after breakfast to get a catalogue for the New Gallery. This is Virginia at her best: loving, rational, engaged, sincere. 

It was there. We stood in the gallery. Watching people watch the painting. It was exhilarating but mixed with an elusive bittersweet I could not place. Nelly looked lovelier hanging on that wall than she ever did resting on my easel, but she had grown unfamiliar in the weeks since I handed her over to the gallery. It is true that we do not understand the boundaries and dimensions of what we have created until it is consumed by another. I loved being an artist today. (p.28-29)

25 August 1906 – Blo’Norton Hall

Now she is writing. Every morning she stands and smokes and writes. She is using her travel desk from home. The wood is worn on the left top corner, where she pulls and paws when she cannot find the right word. Writing settles her. It gives her day a shape, a tempo. I hope she is working on the novel and so can keep her drumbeat rhythm for months and years instead of watching it eddy away as it does after a short article or review. 

Priya Parmar’s novel Vanessa and her Sister is about Vanessa Bell and her younger sister Virginia Woolf. It spans a period of seven years ( 1905-12). The four Stephen siblings — Vanessa, Julian, Virginia and Thoby are living together after the recent demise of their parents. Ever so often, Thoby would bring over his friends from Cambridge for a weekly dinner at home in London. Many of these were Cambridge Apostles too who later became better known as members of the Bloomsbury Group. It consisted of Clive Bell, Lytton Stratchey, John Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry et al.  During these few years, the Bloomsbury Group was established, the first show of Post-Impressionist paintings was curated by Roger Fry in London ( 1910), Vanessa married Clive Bell and discovered what it means to be in a “modern” marriage, Virginia began writing and by 1912 was married to Leonard Woolf who returned to London after his stint as a Civil Servant in Ceylon.

Vanessa and her Sister is written from Vanessa’s point of view. It is in the form of a diary — not an easy mode of writing. It requires the author to be extremely close and familiar with the sensibilities of the person, i.e. Vanessa, writing the diary. As Priya Parmar says about the Bloomsbury Group, “…their lives are so well documented. They were prolific correspondents and diarists, and there is a wealth of existing primary material.” But Vanessa never maintained a diary. This is fiction. In fact the difficulty for the author was to “find enough room for fiction in the negative spaces they left behind”.

Initially Vanessa and  her Sister feels like it is a primer about the Bloomsbury group. But then it slowly and very effectively draws you into this The Nursery Tea, Vanessa Bellintimate circle of these individuals. A hundred years later these people are still looked up to for their pioneering efforts in art, literature, academics etc. Yet without feeling like an intruder the reader is like a fly on the wall, privy to their conversations, correspondence, emotional outbursts, and affairs/heartbreak. Through it all, slowly and steadily Vanessa plots the professional ( and significant) milestones Virginia and their friends achieve. But what comes through is the quiet “blossoming” of Vanessa, from being the reliable and competent elder sister/wife/mother who is constantly being leaned upon to being professionally successful as a painter. The book closes with her participating with The Nursery Tea in the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition curated by Roger Fry at the Grafton Galleries, London, 1912.

2014 has had some spectacular bio-fiction published. Vanessa and her Sister is a good addition to the list. Worth reading!

Priya Parmar Vanessa and her Sister ( In India it is published by Bloomsbury.)

31 Dec 2014 

Ruzbeh Bharucha “Rabda: My Sai…My Sigh”

Rabda‘Baba, there are so many who are going through hell. the Hindus believe that there are thirty-three crore Gods and Goddesses and there are so many Masters. I mean there are more Gods in heaven than there are people in a few countries down here on Mother Earth. Why can’t you all just work something out and tell those going through their private hell?’

‘You are such a classical idiot, my daft child. The answer is simple, Rabda. Either you believe that God does not exist, there is no Supreme Power running this grand show, or you believe in a just God. You cannot believe in a God who exists but is unjust. God is completely just. S(H)e loves each and every being, no matter how seemingly insignificant it may be to others. God exists and throbs in a worm just as S(H)e breathes and works through a perfect Master and archangels.’ ( p.52)

I am not a regular reader of spiritual books but a lot of people I know are devout followers of Sai Baba of Shirdi. So when I spotted Rabda: My Sai…My Sigh  I was intrigued. Ruzbeh N. Bharucha too one had heard of. The book is about Rabda who has attempted suicide and Sai Baba of Shirdi who enters the hospital room and awakens the spirit body of Rabda. From then on, it is a conversation that flips back and forth in time. For once, the book blurb says it well: “Set in the present, Rabda takes the reader to the past, to when the Sai lived in His physical body. The life and philosophy of Sai Baba of Shirdi are revealed, often in His own words, and questions pertaining to Him and spirituality are answered.” What I found fascinating while reading this book was the stress on establishing the Sufi principles of the Sai Baba are very clear. Till I read this book, I had no idea that the Sai Baba was a spiritual leader for communities across religions. Otherwise the saffronisation of the Sai Baba is the dominant image in public discourse. ( The book jacket is in saffron.) I strongly suspect this book will be a sleeper hit. It is not the publicity buzz but word-of-mouth recommendations that will propel book sales.

After reading the book, I emailed Ruzbeh Bharucha a bunch of questions. Here is the edited version:

How long did this book take you to write?
It took me forty days to write the book. I researched for two months prior that but most of the conversations and ideology of BABA has come through naturally while writing the book. Trust me. The book wrote itself or if I don’t sound too preachy, BABA must have for some reason known best to HIM, wrote the book, as HE couldn’t leave something so important to a dork like me.

What prompted you to write a history about the Sai Baba? Are they not enough books published on the Sai Baba?

No amount of books can do justice to a Master. I also wanted to bring about three things from Rabda. First and foremost I wanted to focus on BABA’s ideology and not the innumerable miracles performed by BABA. Most books focus on the miracles. HE is a Master so HE better perform miracles. No big deal :-). Secondly I wanted to bring forth BABA’s spiritual Oneness and HIS sufism. His words and conversations with Abdul, HIS disciple, who recorded BABA’s preachings are rarely spoken or written about. Thirdly, I wanted BABA’s schedule, style of speaking, HIS Divine madness and HIS humaneness and sense of humour and HIS flowery abusive language to flow through which not many books bring forth. BABA was GOD in man. I wanted both GOD and man to come forth.

The writing makes me feel as if you are a medium for Sai Baba. I may be wrong and my apologies for asking this. I know little about spiritual writing or even different beliefs. But are you a medium? Your website describes you as a “Channel”? What is the difference?

I really don’t know if BABA comes through me. And if HE does I have no idea why. I certainly am flawed nice and proper. Medium or Channel or Instrument are merely words. They mean the same thing that the grace and love and wisdom and guidance of the Master flows through the individual. But I believe we all are mediums when we do something right, humane, compassionate.

There is a line in Mike Dooley’s The Top Ten Things Dead People Want to Tell You which says ” Religion needs spirituality. Spirituality does not need religion.” What do you think?

Religion now is used to bring forth duality and discord while spirituality, then, now and for eternity will always bring forth Oneness. Relgion is a code of rules. Spirituality is the breath of the Divine.

How did you venture into writing books about spirituality? 

Since a child I have always been fascinated with the paranormal. I have always seen the futility of existence as we know it. Have been taken to innumerable sages, sufis, mediums, since a child, with the hope that I would behave like a rational human being and They have for some reason always treated me with lot of love and humour. At the age of seventeen yoga brought forth the sanity of going within and The Autobiography of a Yogi, which I read at the age of eighteen made me realise that the world of the spirit was far more real and fascinating than our so called real but mundane world. And then of course researching for The Last Marathon, my first book on spirit communication and life after death made me realise that I love spirits; both the paranormal and the drinking type like absinthe and sake and fenny. Spirits rock. Apart from this, as I channel and people come from all over, I have realised that if I can write about the world of spirits, channeling, Masters, may be my existence and burden on mother Earth, could be partially justified. Also I like to believe, that most Zoroastrians are either paranormal or abnormal. I chose the former hee hee.

Ruzbeh N. Bharucha Rabda: My Sai . . . My Sigh Penguin Ananda, an imprint of Penguin Books, Gurgaon, India. Pb. pp.278 Rs 299 

29 December 2014 

Guest post: Nabina Das on poetry in 2014

Nabina Das( I asked a few friends to write about the books they had read and wished to recommend. Here is the first post. It is by Nabina Das, a poet and a writer. Nabina Das, a 2012 Charles Wallace Fellow, University of Stirling, UK, and a 2012 Sangam House Fiction Fellow, has a recent poetry collection Into the Migrant City and a short fiction collection The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped. Her debut poetry collection Blue Vessel was listed as one of best of 2012 and her first novel Footprints in the Bajra, was long-listed in the 2011 Vodafone-Crossword prize. A 2011 Rutgers University MFA, a 2007 Joan Jakobson (Wesleyan University) and a Julio Lobo fiction scholar (Lesley University), and a mediaperson for about 10 years, Nabina teaches Creative Writing in classrooms and workshops.

Poetry listing 2014—NABINA DAS

If writing poetry is a compulsion then reading the same becomes an obsession. And there’s almost no day or night I don’t read a poetry book or at least a single poem or even the fragment of a poem. At times, I read one or two lines and shut the poem or the magazine or the online site just to ponder what I read. Now that the year 2014 is rushing past like a busy moth, its silk turning to wintry woolen weaves, busy against the bright light of events and incidents and festivals that loom in our hearts and fates, I’ve been reading poetry each day and night to keep myself alive on a very metaphysical level. Below is a glimpse of my endeavor. Not all of this poetry is published in 2014. I tend to live by old and new, poetry found and retraced, given and sent away.

Reading Keki N Daruwalla is retracing poetry in Indian English writing. His work is an arc of the beginning and what is now shaping up. Reading lines like

Does the world need maps, where sign and symbol,
standing as proxies, get worked into scrolls? (Map-Maker)

I know the world still remains stratified in layers of time and space, and we grapple with its manifold schemes. Daruwalla’s prayer-like voice rings true for me as I read:

Though there were no words,
fear had a voice with many echoes.
Worship was quieter, adoration
spoke only through the eyes or knees. (Before the Word)

For those that have not yet read Keki N Daruwalla, do pick up his Collected Poems (1970-2005) for a wholesome treat.

Uddipana Goswami’s book Green Tin Trunk (Authorspress, 2014) was a good read this year. The poems crackle like coal fire on winter nights. I could relate to several, being from Assam. There’re a few others I’m still mulling over. Lines such as these bring my Guwahati back to me:

did not know I had to love you then, Guwahati,
When I lived, walked, danced, played, breathed/
In your streets. (Guwahati)

The crisis of identity is mine too, but we know in Goswami’s verse how the poet deals with it:

On the other shore
I am shorn of my identity
I stand half naked
‘You eat human flesh don’t you?’
Nowadays I do not protest
Quietly I pay the price of being
What they are not. (Exile I)
Vijay Sheshadri made news as his 3 Sections: Poems (2013) won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. I’ve been reading bits and pieces of Sheshadri even earlier. Although I hunted for this book in India and couldn’t find it right after he became much celebrated in India too, I recently found this Indian edition of 3 Sections: Poems (http://www.amazon.in/Sections-Pulitzer-Letters-Poetry-Winner/dp/155597662X) folks might like to buy. Having ordered it, I went back to reading this below. Mainly because the poet whose book eluded me this long, Sheshadri represented himself in these lines:

I’ve been excited about him as an individual.

I’ve met him as a person, emerging from his own shadow.

Indeed it is remarkable. (Life of a Savage)

 

And of course, his translation of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib’s No, I wasn’t meant to love and be loved (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/185277) had captured my attention because of my love for Ghalib in the Devnagri script; Ghalib, a poet I thought I saw close to my poetics.

Famous poets, prize winning poets, and commended poets abound easily. What does not abound easily is a lucid poet’s gift of her own book that comes as a promise of freshness in voice and tenor. Daya Bhat of Bangalore, in her A Maiden of 29 (Writers Workshop, 2009), effortlessly mixes the high voice of sarcasm with the low intensity cheekiness of an observer of a folly:

I no more care for I am no more me,
Call me by any name; it hardly matters.
It’s your call; it’s your fantasy! (Custom-made)

Bhat’s style is a good application of the vocative case I barely get to see in Indian English writing. It makes her poetry an apt purveyor of both satire and depth.

Elaine Terranova has been my mentor at Rutgers University, Camden, NJ, from 2010-2011. Usually, one reads one’s teacher sparingly. At least I did in high school and college. Much of the student-ness was about smirking and thinking – oh she’s telling me to write the way she does. But I have to confess, Terranova’s poetry and teaching were two different ballgames for me. They overlap as well as go right past themselves. In her Damages (Copper Canyon Press, 1995), a book she gave me as I left for home, I revisited her concern about the body, childhood experiences, and the turmoil of the ‘interior’ – things I thought were unavoidable especially when I saw my daughter growing up to a toddler:

 

I pass easily where he
is not allowed. Like her, I’m chilled
in my thin gown. There is
a fineness, a definiteness
to her face. This beauty
is her own decision. A TV screen
plays a loop of film, women circling
their breasts with their fingertips,
women staring into a mirror. (Self-examination)

Nilim Kumar is an Assamese poet who has been translated into English by various people, ace poets themselves or novices. The first time I came across his poetry was in The Dhauli Review. Kumar charts a territory in language that is hard reality. Not harsh, rather, lyrical and down to earth:

Whoever has prepared lunch washing and rubbing the blood smeared hands this midday
That meal would’ve been the just match with the dirtiest hunger in the earth
But
The irony is
Hunger is on someone’s stomach (A Poem, tr. Bibekanand Chaudhury)

But the fragrance of a soil and light that his work conveyed to me – not because again, he is from Assam – fascinated me with their juxtaposition with the romantic and the political, particularly, in Five Poems:

Her heart
A tall hill
I caress her
in the form of clouds.
Sometimes
I collide
on her stony bosom
And come down
drenching the trees, foliages,
fields and houses
People say
it is raining (Rain)

I hope to grab a copy of his original collection/s soon.

Having myself been published by Writers Workshop, Calcutta, in 2014, I’m aware how I share space with veteran poets. My own publication prompted me to pick up a 2010 WW volume by Hoshang Merchant, my mentor poet from Hyderabad. Titled Hyderabad Quartet, this is a special volume of Merchant’s collected works. Also special because, this volume acknowledges the demise of P Lal, the main intellectual driver of WW, in 2010. Merchant is fierce and coy both, a quality not very well known in modern Indian English poetry:

Walking down the street of banglesellers
Pleases the woman in me (Holi in Hyderabad)

Reading Merchant is a fresh-mint feeling on the tongue, although I’m not sure he’d approve of the analogy. His urbane chagrin made me wonder why I don’t get to read more lines like this:

Each one has his own dream over coffee
The chef dreams America
The waiter dreams custom
I dream about the waiter (Coffee 6/8/91)

In 2014, one of the loveliest events that happened is that I was privy to a book launch of and poetry reading in honor of Wang Ping, creative writing professor at Macalester, in Hyderabad. Ping’s latest book in its Indian edition was brought to us poets by young Linda Ashok of Raedleafpoetry India. Ten Thousand Waves felt good in my hands. Although as a principle I read new poetry books only after the launch and hype passes away, I took a look inside and didn’t seem to give up reading. Ping’s poetry made me comfortable as someone who mixes registers and images. China or America, hovering spirits or the living, water or its dream, identity or its duct-taping and re-duct-taping – all of that seemed close to what I’ve been doing so far.

And here we are, in the waist-deep sludge
A sac of mud – a tail of greed
Leaching in our stove. (A Hakka Man Farms Rare Earth in South China)

Her metaphors cling to dirt and dust, the imagery dances like coal fire, and the themes of the book read to me like prayers for rice and potato and all that sustains. In prose, dialogues, chorus and verse, this book stunned me at every page:

We know the tolls: twenty-three—Rockaway, NY, fifty-
eight—Dover, England, eighteen—Shenzhen, twenty-
five—South Korea and many more

We know we may end up in the same boat (Lin Zhi Fang, Yu Hui: Ten Thousand Waves)

Almost throughout the second part of 2014, I’ve been reading new writing by Seb Doubinsky, professor in Aarhus University, Denmark. But guess where I read most of his new work: it was on Facebook! My reading happened surreptitiously, as though I didn’t want to let anyone know I was reading these little verses – a series – on the social media. Not a bias, just a curious registering of the fact that Doubinsky’s new work was blooming with feedback and quips from his acquaintances on Facebook, an exercise not many poets would undertake and face the rigor of. Consider these:

this poem doesn’t believe
in poetry anymore
it thinks it is vain
pointless and limited
this poem, like Rimbaud in Aden,
wants to stop being written
***

this poem is 100% artificial
absolutely no natural images,
sugar or color added
***

(for Matthew Lippman)

this poem thinks it’s Jewish
but isn’t sure – it might be
Muslim, gypsy or gay
it might even be a woman or
a nine year old working in a textile factory
this poem could be anything
with a sad story to tell
but it sure has a big nose

The good news I got just now is that Doubinsky’s “this poem” bunch would be published by Leaky boot Press in early 2015. I guess from my side, that’s a big “like”!

Even before I‘d met Kazim Ali, who teaches in Oberlin University, at Hyderabad Literary Festival 2012 (HLF), I’ve been reading his poetry here and there. The same continued in 2014. Especially in the light of several  global crises – change of governments, such as the deeply rightwing power sweep in India, fundamentalist religious forces like the IS wreaking havoc in the Middle East, women’s and gay issues continuing to receive bashing at home and abroad – Ali’s poetry lifted me up to a zone of light this year. I read from his old and new.  Far Mosque (Alice James Books, 2005) and The Fortieth Day (BOA Editions, 2008). Reading Ramadan made my atheist self genuflect again to the cardinal values in human. Compassion for and reflection on life wasn’t ever more meaningful to me:

If the ground-water is too scarce one can stretch nets

into the air and harvest the fog.

 

Hunger opens you to illiteracy,

thirst makes clear the starving pattern,

 

the thick night is so quiet, the spinning spider pauses,

the angel stops whispering for a moment—

Kazim Ali will be publishing his new collection All One’s Blue: New and Selected Poems in India soon.

Another poet friend I’d met for the first time in HLF 2012 and shared the stage with, is Robert Bohm. I was familiar with his name but had never read his work earlier. While at the fest we exchanged notes and ideas and I brought back a couple of chapbooks by Bohm – especially, the much acclaimed Uz Um War Moan Ode – in 2014 I merely kept contemplating reading him but never thoroughly did barring a glimpse now and then. All this while, I kept writing to him and his wonderful wife Suman asking about their health and another possible India visit. He even contributed a blurb for my latest poetry collection. It’s only when recently Bohm sent me his latest book Closing the Hotel Kitchen (West End Press, 2011) that I found myself going through this scintillating collection. Bohm said in his Afterword that the poems here had grown out of his experiences with a complex smorgasbord of life: Beat life, army service, Indian connection by marriage, US hypocrisy in war and conflict mongering, Buddhism, brush with life in rural India, death and the façade of divinity.

Don’t ask me the color of the peach blossoms here.
when they fall, they flutter, pale and weightless
like thoughts in a sedated man’s mind,
toward whatever’s below. (Dear Mommy in your Grave at Nassau Knolls)

I’m glad I read Bohm finally – closely, intimately – to feel in my guts the words he had uttered at HLF 2012, during our meeting. The tragic in his voice is stridently upright, seeking a justice in this world:

“Where the fuck is my Bayonet?”
Brown once asked somewhere else.
Can’t think about that now.
Yesterday morning the Guptas saw me in the bus station.
“Are you wanting a place to rest for the night?” the husband asked.
She looked away. (Hospitality)

I’m a frugal and slow reader by disposition. In between all this, in 2014, I also re-read Sudeep Sen’s translation Aria and Billy Collins’ 180 More. Not to forget the timeless modern classic Madhushala. There’s so much to read. The list would get even longer and especially in poetry, one word leads to another, one metaphor leads to a new revelation, and that one poem will only prod me to think for days how language and realization come together to form a brilliant combination we all can cherish and share. Hope you had your own great poetry time in 2014!

(C) Nabina Das

29 December 2014

 

Zafar Futehally ” The Song of the Magpie Robin – a memoir”

Zafar FutehallyZafar Futehally was a well-known birder, naturalist and writer. He was one of the pioneers of the conservation movement in India and was instrumental in making it an important middle class concern. For instance getting an advertisement for WWF in a popular magazine of those days.

We had no scruples in ‘using’ any of our friends to advance our work; Khushwant Singh was the editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India in those days, and he promised Shama a full-page advertisement for the WWF in the Weekly if she wrote a completely original article on sparrows. Shama wrote it, and we got our first big advertisement for the Indian appeal. It was designed by Alyque Padamsee, and showed a tiger with the caption ‘Born Free, Sentenced to Death’. ( p.138)

Zafar Futehally’s fascination for bird watching began when accompanied Salim Ali on his expeditions. There are some fabulous memories he recalls of those expeditions. This book was written in collaboration with Shanthi Chandola and Ashish Chandola. They persuaded Zafar Futehally to email them short articles/notes recalling his life, especially related to conservation. All though charmingly written and a little uneven, it is a valuable addition to the history of conservation in India. As George B. Schaller says in his foreword:

Wildlife was little studied or appreciated in India during the 1960s, other than along the sight of a gun. But Zafar already had a vision, as he expressed in 1969 in a keynote speech at the General Assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature ( IUCN) held in Delhi, an event I also attended. ‘What I came to do is to reflect the concern of the ordinary citizen about our deteriorating environment.’ And he turned this thought superbly into action. With tenacity and tact, he built bridges between organizations, nurturing their conservation efforts, whether it was promoting green areas in Bangalore ( now Bengaluru), establishing the Karnala Bird Sanctuary or other initiatives that revealed his deep concern and respect for the natural world. He knew that unrestricted development would deprive India of a healthy environment and a secure future, a message he delivered persistently and with the quiet authority of someone who was a high-ranking member of every major conservation organization in the country and a Founder of World Wildlife Fund ( WWF)-India. He,  more than anyone in India, helped forge awareness that the environment, with all its species of animals and plants, must be protected. That is his lasting legacy. ( p.xiii)

Zafar Futehally’s wife, Laeeq Futehally, was a notable writer about nature herself. She wrote many books, including co-authoring some with Salim Ali. But A Sahib’s Manual for the Mali of articles edited by her is an all-time favourite of mine. ( http://permanent-black.blogspot.in/2008/08/cricket-music-gardening-new-paperbacks.html )

Zafar Futehally The Song of the Magpie Robin: A Memoir Rainlight, Rupa, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. p.200 Rs. 500

Some of the other books and essays related to Nature that I came across in 2014 were:

1. George Schaller Deki, the Adventures of  a Dog and a Boy in Tibet A lovely, moving and brilliant story about a boy and his dog also an Dekiintroduction to the environment. It is scrumptiously illustrated by an artist from the Tibetan art collective, Gyurmey Dorjee. According to the publisher, Permanent Black, on their blog,

DEKI is a magical book that will have you instantly under its spell. It is a blend of great story-telling and acute observation of nature and animals. As you read it you travel the stark, barren plateau of Tibet and discover its animals, monasteries, birds, nomads. Thrilling chases and cliff-hanger moments decide the battle between good and evil as the book explores the question: freedom or security, which do you choose? ( http://permanent-black.blogspot.in/2014/05/the-story-of-book.html )

I agree. I read it slowly. Savoured it.

It has been jointly published by Black Kite and Hachette India.

Indian Mammals_bookcover_website2. Vivek Menon Indian Mammals: A Field Guide It is described a reference and exceptionally usable guide to the mammals of India. It is four-colour with more than 400 species of both land and water mammals.

3. George Monbiot’s essay “Back to Nature”. The first article in BBC Earth’s ‘A World of View’ series of essays by leading environmental authors. ( http://www.bbc.com/earth/bespoke/story/20141203-back-to-nature/index.html )wild_wisdom_quiz_book

4. The Wild Wisdom Quiz Book published by Puffin India and WWF India. It consists of questions, trivia and illustrations compiled from India’s only national level quiz on wildlife.

29 Dec 2014 

Kitaabnama: Books and beyond, Ep#60

Jaya Bhattacharji RoseConceived by writer and literary activist Namita Gokhale, Kitaabnama has a participatory and inclusive format and showcase the multilingual diversity of Indian Literature. Addressing literary issues of contemporary through dialogue and conversation, Kitaabnama shall feature books, readings and encounters with writers from the spheres of Hindi, English and various Indian languages, as well as guest appearances from International names and voices. The programme is telecast by the Indian government television channel, Doordarshan.

In June 2014 Ravi Singh, Publishing, Speaking Tiger and I were interviewed by Jasleen Vohra on the world of publishing and literature. The programme was aired on 15 November 2014 and uploaded on YouTube on 5 December 2014. Here is the link:

The second half of this episode has an interview with Reza Aslan.

7 December 2014

“Idris” by Anita Nair, book review ( 6 December 2014, The Hindu)

Idris( My review of Anita Nair’s Idris was published in the online edition of the Hindu Literary Review on 6 December 2014. Here is the url: http://www.thehindu.com/features/lit-for-life/journeys-galore/article6667608.ece . It will be published in the print edition on 7 December 2014. This novel has been shortlisted for the Hindu Lit Awards 2014 as well. The winner will be announced in January 2015.)

He knew the folly of having friends. Friendship was a responsibility; it demanded making an effort to nurture relations and never asking why. It meant expectations and subsequent disappointments. A lone traveller needed no friends; what he needed to cultivate were acquaintances. (p.21)

Idris Maymoon Samataar Guleed is from Dikhil, a small place between Abyssinia and Somalia. He is a middleman who facilitates trade in anything — textiles, camels, spices, pearls, diamonds — but draws the line at the lucrative business of slaves. He arrives in Kozhikode, on the Malabar Coast, on the persuasion of a Yemeni merchant to attend the biggest cattle fair in the world—Vaniamkulam chanda. He gets separated from the Yemeni group and decides to wait the night out by a pond in a home. As it happens, it belongs to a Nair. He meets Kuttimalu, mother of his son, Vattoli Kandavar Menavan. When the boy is born, the midwife reminds the family the infant is the image of Kuttimalu’s grandfather. Otherwise Kandavar — who was as black as the night like his father — and his mother are in danger of losing their caste and being excommunicated.

Ten years later, in 1659, Idris returns to Kozhikode to witness the Mamangam festival at Thirunavaya. At the Mamangam, the Chaver Pada or Suicide Squad wants to ambush the bodyguards of Aswathi Thirunal, the new Zamorin. Unknown to the Chavers, Kandavar is following them since he wants to join them since he is eager to participate like his older cousin, Kesavan, a Chaver and trained at Kalari. Idris spots the boy hiding behind a tree and prevents him from proceeding further. He realises that Kandavar is his son andwhisks him away from the place, but not before they witness Kesavan (Kandavar’s cousin) being dismembered. Discovering he has a son Idris readily accepts Chandu Nair’s offer to be their guest and show Kandavar “how to think of other things, rather than grooming himself for certain death 12years from now”.

Idris takes his son under his wing. At Nair’s behest, Idris enrolls Kandavar in a different Chaver to the one the family traditionally went to—to prevent his head from being filled with “stuffed with nonsense like honour and pride in death”. But Idris gets restless and wants to proceed with his voyage. Persuaded by the Nair clan, he takes his son along too. They travel to Serendippo, contemplate trading in silk since the Dutch pay a good price for it, go pearl diving at Tharangambadi, but the ultimate aim is to reach Golconda diamond mines. Idris is curious about the “stones that turned men into hyenas…ready to lie and betray; worse, to kill and plunder”. It takes them over a year to travel and explore before returning home to Kozhikode.

In Keeper of the Light, the first of a trilogy, the recurring themes of Anita Nair’s fiction —gender and caste — are explored once more with competence. The rigid caste structures are challenged by the existence of the “family” of Idris, Kuttimalu and Kandavar. The objectification and identity of a woman in relation to the presence of a man in their life, even in Kerala’s matriarchal society, are challenged in the story, leave a powerful impression. The four women —Kuttimalu, Margarida (a child prostitute), Madinat al-Yasmin (a widow) and Thilothamma (a wealthy farmer) — are all seen briefly, usually as Idris’s lovers, yet they are strong and independent women. As Thilothama says “Women should be like trees. Growing towards the light, shaped by the wind…” Even Kuttimalu’s Brahmin teacher “… didn’t think education was to be decided by gender; it was the mind that he sought to fill.” A sentiment that echoes Anita Nair’s firm belief in promoting literacy irrespective of gender, as exemplified in her officiating as a guru at a Vidyarambham ceremony at Bangalore on Vijayadasami day.

Literary fiction can be challenging to read. Its complexity comes from the sophisticated, layered, and nuanced writing. In Idris, the reader’s patience is tested as one has to grapple with a bewildering storyline in the opening pages, not made any easier by the liberal sprinkling of Malayalam words. Also some issues such as the rivalry between the Zamorin and Chavers is never explained. Yet Idris is a pleasure to read.

Anita Nair Idris: Keeper of the Light Fourth Estate, HarperCollins, Hb. Rs. 599.

6 December 2014

Interview with David Davidar, 6 December 2014, The Hindu

With David Davidar

(In December 2014 David Davidar’s A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces, published by Aleph Book Company will be released. I interviewed him for the Hindu Literary Review. My review of the book is forthcoming. The online version was published on 6 December 2014. Here is the url: http://www.thehindu.com/features/lit-for-life/not-so-tall-tales/article6667709.ece . A shorter version will be published in the print edition of the Hindu Literary Review on 7 December 2014.)

David Davidar on his fascination with short stories and how he put together “A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces”

Apart from being a well-known publisher, David Davidar is also a novelist, editor and anthologist. He has been an attentive reader of Indian fiction from the time he was a teenager. His latest anthology, A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces, has 39 short stories from across Indian fiction selected by Davidar. From Khushwant Singh, Munshi Premchand, Chugtai and Vaikom Muhammed Basheer and Ruskin Bond to new voices like Shahnaz Bashir and Kanishk Tharoor, the volume covers a spectrum of Indian fiction. In this interview, Davidar talks about the short story and the making of the anthology.

Excerpts:

What makes a short story?

R. K. Narayan, one of the world’s greatest writers, tells an amusing story about creative writing in general and the short story in particular. He writes: Once I was present at a lecture on creative writing. The lecturer began with: “All writing may be divided into two groups—good writing and bad writing. Good books come out of good writing while bad writing produces failures.” When touching on the subject of the short story, the lecturer said: “A short story must be short and have a story.” At this point I left unobtrusively, sympathizing with the man’s predicament. The story is amusing but when you come down to it, the short story is devilishly difficult to define if you exclude length as a criterion. Dictionary definitions are banal in the extreme. Here is one example: “A story with a fully developed theme but significantly shorter and less elaborate than a novel.” A creative writing class instructor may say your story would need to have the following elements — exposition (the setting up of the story, its backdrop, main characters etc.), conflict, plot, theme, climax and so on. If s/he was of a Chekhovian bent of mind, s/he might tell you to write a ‘slice of life’ story that was relatively loosely constructed when compared to tightly plotted stories that hinged on events and turning points. There are many other categories that short stories are classified under but I think one should never be too prescriptive or didactic. Great literary short stories should have an electrifying impact on the reader because of their complexity, mystery, layering, and special effects. And because they can usually be read at one sitting, their impact is different from that of a novel, which usually immerses the reader in a world which it has created. William Boyd, the British writer, provided one take on the form: “Short stories are snapshots of the human condition and of human nature, and when they work well, and work on us, we are given the rare chance to see in them more ‘than in real life’.” That’s as good a description as any.

What was the principle of selection?

I decided to pull this anthology together on the basis of a very simple premise: it would only include stories that I loved, stories that had made their mark on me in the 40 years or so that I had been attentively reading serious Indian literature. Like the Chekhov quote I’ve used as an epigraph to the book, the basic criterion for featuring stories in this book would be whether I liked them or not. I decided to leave out commercial fiction because there would then be no focus to the anthology. There would be no other exclusions. It wouldn’t matter to me whether the writer was Dalit or Brahmin, old master or 21st century star, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Parsi or Sikh, man or woman, straight or gay, Tamil or Kashmiri, Punjabi or Malayali. Nor would it matter if the writers wrote in English or in any of the other Indian languages, whether they lived here and carried the blue passport with the Ashok Chakra, or plied their trade in foreign lands… no, the only thing that would influence the selection would be whether or not they were — in my subjective view — breathtakingly good Indian stories. What did I mean by Indian? Either the stories would have to be about India or they would have to be written by an Indian or someone of Indian origin. Necessarily, they would need to possess an ‘Indian sensibility’.

Now, there are learned tomes on ‘the Indian sensibility’, a sensibility that is rooted in Indian culture, history, society, language, but that is not what I am trying to get at here. No, what I am trying to define is that elusive, ineffable quality to ‘serious’ poetry and prose that is unmistakably Indian. If you learn this quality from books, or by over-flying the subcontinent, all you will be able to produce is a variant of the Inspector Ghote mysteries — entertaining but shallowly-rooted writing and without any great insight into anything of consequence. I do not think an Indian sensibility is to be found only in writers who are Indian by nationality or domicile or language. Rather I think it is inherent to writers who were born here, or have lived here for enough time, for distinctive aspects of this country, this civilisation, to shape their view of the world, their creative consciousness, and their style. Their writing, whether about India or elsewhere, is informed by this ‘Indian sensibility’ — when their subject matter is India, they tend not to exoticise, but deepen our understanding of the country.

Having figured out the basic qualifications any story would need to have in order to be included, I refined the criteria for selection. Every story that made the cut would need to be a proper short story. (Vikram Seth’s ‘The Elephant and the Tragopan’ is a short story, although it is told in verse.) This meant I wasn’t going to be able to include any extracts from novels, or works in progress. It was also important that none of the stories had dated, or appear quaint to today’s reader. And, finally, every story would need to work perfectly in English, as the anthology was aimed squarely at the reader in English. Other than these qualifications I wouldn’t be excluding any writer.

Are you creating a canon of literature with this collection?

I don’t think any single anthology can canonise a writer. Not that the majority of these writers need ‘canonising’; they are already among the greats of Indian literature. I am hoping that these stories will whet the appetite of readers to explore more of the work of these writers, and other Indian fiction writers.

Do you think there is a “return” to the short story with technological developments?

I don’t think so. We have always had accomplished literary short story writers and novelists and I’m delighted to see new stars working in both these areas.

Why did you commission new translations of well-known stories that were already available in English? Does the flavour of translation change with every generation of readers?

Two reasons. The first is because, as you point out, the great classics do deserve a new translation every generation (20 years) or so to make them work for contemporary readers. The second reason was because, to be honest, a number of the existing translations were appalling. I believe this anthology features some of our greatest ever translators.

 What do you like about a short story collection?

In terms of anthologies that range across multiple genres and languages I like the fact that you are transported to different destinations with every story — the voices, subjects, the styles all change. It’s quite overwhelming, rather like taking a slow train through a variety of breath-taking landscapes.

How was this anthology arranged?

We decided to adopt the simplest possible arrangement, and ordered these stories according to the date of birth of the authors, because it was difficult to find the date of first publication of many of the stories, which would have been the other option. As a result of this arrangement, there were a number of unexpected and delightful pairings and juxtapositions — a mystery story from Bengal would be followed by a darkly comic story set in the cow belt, followed by a poignant story about a dog trapped in floods, followed by a ghost story, for example. The reader will be surprised and delighted at every turn I hope.

Why do you call it a “clutch” of Indian masterpieces?

No particular reason, except it sounded nice when you spoke the title out aloud. Also, it seemed an unusual and apposite collective noun for this particular bunch of stories.

What were the stories you excluded?

Stories that fell into four categories: Stories I didn’t like; great stories from Indian languages other than English that didn’t travel well into English; stories that were not literary; stories that I didn’t know about. Given that Indian short stories have been written for over 100 years in 30 different languages (a lot more if you include the less ‘major’ languages and dialects), I think we should all agree that, no matter how well read we are, we are all ignorant to a greater or lesser degree about aspects of modern Indian literature.

Many readers say short stories are ‘easy to read’? Do you agree? 

No, I don’t think so. Certainly, most of them can be read at one sitting, but to absorb and appreciate their richness, complexity and brilliance, it is incumbent on the reader to engage deeply and as fully as possible with them.

6 December 2014

Literati – “Storytelling” ( 6 Dec 2014, The Hindu)


Jaya Bhattacharji Rose( My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 6 December 2014) and will be in print ( 7 December 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati-a-look-at-the-world-of-books-publishing-and-writers/article6667631.ece . I am also c&p the text below. )

Watching Ameen Haque of The Storywallahs perform at the Kahani Tree, Bookaroo, was a treat. He wove stories, poetry and music together and had the audience singing and laughing along with him. In the short interaction, the children were introduced to the radical idea that crying is perfectly normal for boys and grown men.

Telling tales

Even when adults communicate, it is inevitably through stories. We call it conversation. Break up the conversation and analyse it. It is anecdotal, replete with stories and vignettes. The impact of a well-told story is immeasurable. Similarly a book allows a quiet engagement between the author and a reader. Books make you see the world afresh. It works for all age groups.

This relationship between books and young readers was apparent at an event organised by SCWBI India in partnership with Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan and the Bookaroo Childrens’ Literature Festival. The topic was “LSD: Love, Sex and Darkness in Books for Children” and the participants were educationist Dr. Shalini Advani, author Samina Mishra, illustrator Priya Kuriyan, and publisher Sayoni Basu.

“Should children’s books only deal with happy things? What about death, violence and sexuality? What about darkness and ugliness?” These were some of the questions raised.

Dr. Advani pointed out that adults tend to be more uncomfortable than children. “For adults, our role is to drag these issues out into the clear light of day. To normalise them as a part of the circle of life so that children — who think about them anyway — learn healthy ways of talking about them and thinking about them. It’s not happy worlds that young people seek. So it is not about whether a book has death or perfidious adults or parental divorce or pain. But more about how it is done — young people don’t like to be lectured to or even gently educated.”

Some recently YA books — Talking of Muskaan by Himanjali Sankar about a teen who may be a lesbian;Smitten by Ranjit Lal about a teen who is molested by a family member and Jobless Clueless Reckless by Revathi Suresh about a pregnant teen — have tackled these tricky topics.

***

Fiction relies upon storytelling to represent experiences, although its impact depends on the author’s magic with words. At times the storytelling has visible weaknesses but the reader persists, usually out of curiosity about a new topic. For instance, Sonora Jha’s Foreign (farmer suicides in Vidarbha); Pia Padukone’s Where Earth Meets Water (9/11 and the 2004 tsumani), Gaiutra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman(indentured labourers on sugar plantations in British Guiana), Mira Jacob’s The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing (Syrian Christian family in New Mexico), and Robert Allison’s The Letter Bearer (WWII, amnesia).

Inclusive fiction

Exquisite storytelling and its impact is apparent by the recent online conversation between Amitav Ghosh and Raghu Karnad regarding Flanagan’s 2014 ManBooker Prize-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The two Indian writers discussed the inclusive capacity of historical fiction and the “duty” of a novelist but also gave insightful comments about a moment in history that had been made accessible through contemporary fiction.

The legendary publisher Gordon Graham puts it prophetically in a 1980 essay reprinted in As I was Saying: Essays on the International Book Business, “Creative composition in the electronic age will not happen at the moment when the author and the publisher decide it is releasable.” It will happen with the active participation of the reader. A statement that holds true 35 years later.

Irrespective of age groups and formats, the importance of storytelling can never be negated since it is an important module of communication and transmission of information, requiring the active participation of all stakeholders.

Update ( 6 December 2014):

In the paragraph listing the debut writers I should have clarified that it is not only fiction, but also nonfiction by relies upon the art of storytelling. Hence I have included Gaiutra Bahadur. My original list was much longer than was finally published.

6 December 2014 

#bookadayindia

#bookadayindia

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Every day in December, Penguin Random House will be dedicating its @rhindia and @penguinindia Twitter handles to a discussion about books, characters and authors with a #bookadayindia campaign – and is encouraging everyone to join in!

Already hugely successful in both the UK and US, the Book A Day hashtag gives the chance for book lovers to share thoughts about their favourite writing and writers on Twitter. Every day has a different theme and readers can share their thoughts and suggestions – and debate with fellow bibliophiles – simply by answering with the hashtag.

Coming towards the end of 2014 some of the topics will include a look back over people’s favourite reads of 2014, their anxiously anticipated books for 2015 and their perennial favourites. Each day’s topics are:

PRH Book a Day

So please be in touch and join the debate!

Check out @rhindia and @penguinindia every day to find out the day’s topic – then tweet your thoughts including the hashtag #bookadayindia

Caroline Newbury
VP Marketing and Corporate Communications
Random House India
Penguin Random House