March 2015 Posts

Tulsi Badrinath, “Madras, Chennai and the Self: Conversations with the city”

Madras launchMadras and Chennai came into existence almost simultaneously in 1639, as two contiguous areas. While Madras went on to lend its name to the larger southern peninsula or Madras Presidency, it also absorbed Chennai into its fold as it grew. Debate over the origins of the words Madras and Chennai continues long after the Tamil Nadu government’s decision in 1996 to officially change the capital city’s name. 

 Madras, Chennai and the Self: Conversations with the city by Tulsi Badrinath was commissioned to commemorate Chennai’s 375th birthday. The twelve people she chose to profile lived in different parts of the city. Each chapter is delightful, since it immerses you in the city — sharing her thoughts, reflections, observations and being alive to the sensuous experience. Every single person profiled is done very well, with the author allowing the personality of the subject to shine through. Two of the profiles really stayed with me after I had read the book — M Krishnan, naturalist and Kiruba Shankar, digital evangelist. Without being overly inquisitive and making the reader a voyeur in the process, Tulsi Badrinath balances her profiles of individuals by giving select insights into this character, personality and life, not necessarily compromising their privacy. For instance, M Krishnan cooking as his wife did not particularly care for it or Kiruba Shankar recounting how he came to be a digital expert and a farmer as he is known today. If publishers shared their material then the chapter by Tulsi Badrinath on M Krishnan could be included in a revised edition of Aleph’s Of Birds and Birdsong, a selection of writings by the naturalist–it would add immensely to it.

The last book on Chennai which was super was by Nirmala Lakshman, Degree Coffee by the Yard, an insider’s account of the city. Tulsi Badrinath’s book is a good companion to it. It is immensely likeable.

Tulsi Badrinath Madras, Chennai and the Self: Conversations with the City Pan Macmillan India, New Delhi, 2015. Pb. pp. 230. 

30 March 2015

Kazuo Ishiguro, “The Buried Giant”

The Buried GiantKazuo Ishiguro’s novel, The Buried Giant is set in medieval England, Arthurian England. It is about an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice who set off on a quest to search for their son of whom they only have a foggy memory.  Along the way they meet Sir Gawain, a Knight of the Round Table and King Arthur’s nephew; Winstan, a Saxon warrior; Edwin, a young Saxon boy and the Boatman who flits in and out of the story. Not to forget Querig the ageing dragon, upon whom Merlin cast a magic spell. Her breath would cause a fog to form over the land, its sole purpose being to make the Britons and Saxons forget they were ever at war. Unfortunately it does away with all memory. Oh, there is also a visit to a monastery thrown in for good measure, a very depressing interlude reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story “The Birds”.

Having spent a decade writing this novel, especially when it is a refashioning of the better known Romance cycle stories, there are details in it that are accurate — references to the tin trade, the war between Britons and Saxons, details about Sir Gawain and the quests the people are sent on. Yet there are details in The Buried Giant such as the references to practicing Christians which is never delineated very clearly in any of the stories of the Romance cycle. Even in the well-known retelling by Malory of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table — Morte D’Arthur  the confusion about some parts of the story lie in the influence Christianity has begun to have on these oral tales. So elements are borrowed and interwoven but never sit well yet Morte D’Arthur is immensely readable for its highly charged atmosphere, the quests, the stories etc. Similarly in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, two-thirds of it are absorbing to read, but one keeps hoping that despite the bland and detached manner of telling a story involving monsters, knights, wars, and dragons, the diverse elements and characters will come together for a satisfactory end. Unfortunately it is not the case. Neil Gaiman’s review in The New York Times says it is “a novel that’s easy to admire, to respect and to enjoy, but difficult to love.” It is a balanced, constructive and informed critique by the superstar of contemporary mythographers of another exceptional storyteller. ( http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/books/review/kazuo-ishiguros-the-buried-giant.html?_r=0)

The Buried Giant is an oddly fascinating novel. I am glad I read it.

Kazuo Ishiguro The Buried Giant Faber & Faber, London, 2015. Pb. pp.350 Rs 799

 

Dharamvir Bharti, ” Chander & Sudha”, translated by Poonam Saxena

Poonam Saxena reading "Chander & Sudha".

Poonam Saxena reading “Chander & Sudha”.

When he could school his mind to stay calm, when he could endure everything with a smile, why couldn’t Sudha? He was the one who, with his every breath, had fashioned Sudha into what she was. He had, bit by bit, constructed her, polished her, embellished her. She was his work, his creation. How, then, could she exhibit his weakness? ( p.143)

The house shone like silk. But within every ball of bright, colourful silk there is always a little silkworm–sad, silent, holding its breath, waiting every second for its imminent death. In the middle of all the hectic activity, the preparations, the excitement, there was one person whose lifebreath seemed to be ebbing away, whose eyes were slowly losing their sheen and mischievous sparkle, whose heart was emptying itself of all joy and happiness — Sudha. ( p.161)

Dharamvir Bharti’s popular novel Gunahon ka Devta or Chander & Sudha has been translated into English by prominent journalist Poonam Saxena. It is a story set in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh in the 1940s.  Sudha is the daughter of Dr Shukla and Chander is his student. Chander spends a lot of time at his teacher’s home, practically lives in it and moves in after Sudha gets married and leaves.  Chander & Sudha is a “love story” more than a romance, told ever so lovingly by the 23-year-old Dharamvir Bharti. The gentleness with which it is recounted is absorbing to read, never dull; all though the storytelling and the ending is reminiscent of Bollywood films of the 1950s. Nor does the language sound stilted even though Chander is prone to intense self-reflection and being privy to a lovestruck Romeo can get quite painful to read if not written about deftly–probably a large part of the credit for a readable story goes to the translator, Poonam Saxena.

Chander & Sudha is a novel which will probably make it to the longlist, even the shortlist, for any award instituted for translated literature in India. It is a book that tends to occupy one’s mind for a long time after it is over. Time well spent.

I am posting excerpts of an email interview conducted with Poonam Saxena earlier this week.

1 What are the sales figures of this novel in Hindi? You say it is still in print and selling well. Who is the publisher?

I don’t have any exact sales figures for the novel but I do know that it was written in 1949 and has never been out of print. I have two copies with me. One is a 20th reprint 1986 hardcover that was first published by Bharatiya Jnanpith in 1959. (I don’t know who the earlier publisher was). Then I have a paperback copy also printed by Bharatiya Jnanpith in 2014 which is the 70th reprint. Hardcover + paperback from 1949 to today — I don’t even know how many copies it must have sold, but the numbers must be huge. I do know it is widely considered to be Hindi’s biggest bestseller.

2 Was the author only 23-years-old when he wrote it? Does it not make him similar to the young authors we have today, who commercially success — Ravinder Singh, Durjoy Dutta etc?

In Hindi and Urdu writing, many authors did finish very successful works when they were very young. For example, Rajendra Yadav wrote Sara Akash at 21, Sahir Ludhianvi wrote Talkhiyan at 22.

3 What was the purpose of your translations when you began it — be true to the source text or reader friendly to a modern reader?

My translation is not literal. It is not true to the text in the sense that I haven’t translated every single line as it is written in Hindi. The idea was to be true to the characters, emotions and feelings in the book and to make it work as a novel in English. I didn’t want it to sound stilted. I kept some things in mind — for example, the book is written in 1949, so I tried to avoid casual, modern words and terms like ‘stressed’ or ‘hassled.’ (I also felt that people hardly write great love stories any more — but here was one which still touched your heart even though it was written so many years ago. It needed to be translated.

I didn’t skip over passages, I didn’t omit chunks. I retained what the writer had said – the metaphors he had used (for example, the temple, the oil lamp – these are the images he has used throughout the book when writing about Chander and Sudha’s love). There are long passages of reflection, philosophy, all of which I have retained. I have tried to keep them as true to the book but at the same time I have tried to make them work in English. Also, just to give you another small example, there is a long passage early in the book when Chander is wandering about in Beritie’s rose garden, where there is a detailed description of flowers. I could have cut that passage but I didn’t. I kept it. On the whole I tried to be true to the writer’s voice and way of expression while making it fluid when translated into English.

4 Why did you change the title of the novel from Gunahon Ka Devta to Chander and Sudha? What would you have translated Gunahon ka Devta as? Isn’t the title in Hindi far more apt than the one chosen by you for the English translation?

The Hindi title is absolutely beautiful. Gunahon Ka Devta is an incomparable title. But when you translate it in a literal way, it becomes ‘Lord of Sins’ or ‘God of Sins’, which doesn’t sound right at all. My editor and I went through about 20 titles and somehow none sounded okay. We finally settled on Chander & Sudha because really the book is also a great love story. I guess there was some inspiration from titles like Romeo & Juliet which are based on the two lead characters’ names.

5 How old were you when you first read this novel and fell in love with it?

I first read the novel in my twenties and fell in love with it.

6 The article you wrote in Scroll ( 15 March 2015,  http://scroll.in/article/713676/why-a-66-year-old-hindi-love-story-needed-to-be-translated-into-english ) was adapted from the afterword published in the book, was it not?

Yes it was. They wanted the piece quickly, literally overnight. They were okay with an extract from the Afterword too, but I adapted it and sent it. The Afterword as it is gives out the whole story, so obviously I didn’t want that.

Dharamvir Bharti Chander & Sudha ( Translated by Poonam Saxena) Viking, Penguin Group, Gurgaon, India, 2015. Hb. pp. 330. Rs. 499

21 March 2015

Rabih Alameddine, ” An Unnecessary Woman”

An Unnecessary WomanWhen I read a book, I try my best, not always successfully, to let the wall crumble just a bit, the barricade that separates me from the book. I try to be involved. (p.100)

Mine are translations of translations, which by definition means that they are less faithful to the original. (p.104)

I understood from the beginning what what I do isn’t publishable. There’s never been a market for it, and I doubt there ever will be. Literature in the Arab world, in and of itself, isn’t sought after. Literature in translation? Translation of a translation? Why bother? (p.107)

Rabih Alameddine’s novel, An Unnecessary Woman is primarily about translator Aaliya Saleh. She lives alone in her apartment in Beirut, quietly translating novels from English and French into Arabic, only for her pleasure. Once done, she puts the manuscript in to a crate, seals it and pastes the English and French editions on either side of the box, lest she forget the contents of the box. In this manner she has translated thirty-seven books over a period of fifty years. It is an eclectic collection of books, consisting of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Danilo Kis’s The Encyclopedia of the Dead, and W.G.Sebald’s Austerlitz and is contemplating whether to translate Roberto Bolano’s unfinished novel 2666 but is “nurturing doubts”. Divorced at a very young age, Aaliya continues to live in the apartment that her ex-husband and she had rented. It is mostly to the generosity of her landlady, Fadia, that Aaliya has been able to live peacefully, despite Aaliya’s mother and brothers clamouring for it. They are unable to understand why a single woman needs so much space to herself, little realising it is stocked with books.

The story of An Unnecessary Woman may revolve around Aaliya Saleh, but it seems to be equally about the women in her building — Fadia, Marie-Therese and Joumana; her mother; her niece, and Hannah — the woman who nearly became Aaliya’s sister-in-law, instead with the untimely death of her brother-in-law, Hannah became the daughter “their” mother-in-law never had! All these women come across as strong, colourful, lively, outspoken and determined women but remain “unnecessary women” to the people in their families, usually it is because these women do not seem to conform to rules set by society. In short, they are independent. At the same time, the plot of An Unnecessary Woman is a brilliant excuse to write an ode to literature. Rabih Alameddine does it well. Hence it is not surprising earlier this week, the novel was longlisted for the 2015 PEN Literary Awards in America.

Read it.

Rabih Alameddine An Unnecessary Woman Corsair Press, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, London, 2014. Pb. pp. 300. Rs. 399 ( Distributed in India by Hachette India) 

20 March 2015

Alpha Maths, Scholastic India

alpha-mathematics-1-practice-book-250x250The following blog post is an extract from a letter I wrote to my cousin describing my delight at discovering Alpha Maths, published by Scholastic India. Read on.) 

My five-year-old daughter who is in kindergarten is learning numbers 1-100, number bonds, reading time and drawing it on the face of a clock, simple addition and subtraction, story sums/word problems, etc. It is quite a lot for a small child of five, but she is learning. It needs her to practice regularly, but then maths cannot be learned overnight. Maths is slightly challenging for my daughter as opposed to say learning music. Whereas I love maths. I have browsed through many workbooks in print, downloaded worksheets available online, installed apps on my iPad, but none have been very satisfactory. Instead I have been creating problems to explain the basics to my daughter. Recently, I came across a wonderful set of books introduced by Scholastic India called Alpha Maths ( http://scholastic.co.in/en/alpha-maths ). The Alpha Maths series are a set of books created by Scholastic India for Classes 1 – 5. Each set consists of a teacher’s manual ( with worksheet templates provided), coursebook and practice book. The idea is to introduce a child to the beauty and design of this discipline, rather than create mathsphobia. As Neeraj Jain, MD, Scholastic India told me, “These are a prescription product, cutting across different boards of school education present in India”. He used the word “product” carefully, since he is not very keen to see books as products, but in this case it is true. These books have been created after inputs from various educational departments and scanning documents, including the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) of the Government of India outline for the primary school Maths syllabus. Then yesterday my daughter returned from school, triumphantly waving her school diary. Her class teacher had commended her for doing the addition sums on her own. The latter I attribute to working regularly with her, making up sums as we go along + introducing her to the Alpha Maths books. I never thought in my wildest dreams I would latch on to a “prescription product” so dearly.

Take for instance the books my daughter is using for now. These are meant for Form 1, but many of the units of inquiry are in-step with what she is being taught in Kindergarten. So the Teacher’s Manual explains the concepts and illustrates it with a few examples, cross-referencing it to the other two books in the set. The Coursebook is what the student is expected to use in class while the teacher is introducing a new concept in Maths. It is in four-colour with each section slowly explaining to the child how to proceed with the sum. What I truly appreciate about this layout is the visual representation of the mathematical problem, thus making the logic and application of the discipline self-evident, without obscuring it in a bewildering forest of numbers. I also like the approach to a problem from multiple angles, rather than restricting it to looking at it only one way. There is so much more! Then they offer a Practice book, printed in black and white, but for the student to use for homework. It is basically a bunch of multiple worksheets.

I also discovered that Scholastic India is working on creating an implementation guide to be made available to schools and educators, to
help students and teachers transition from one particular style of studying/school board to adopting these maths books. I have not been so excited about a maths course book for a very long time. I wish we had had such textbooks when we were studying. I realise that these books would work for CBSE, state boards and even for students of International Baccalaureate since it is a pedagogical approach.

What I also like very much about these books is the multi-cultural dimension apparent in the number sums. For instance, names are Indian, alpha-mathematics-3-practice-book-250x250Asian, American, Chinese etc. Plus the references to Indian currency, rather than American Dollar is a huge relief. So there is minimal cultural alienation to the child and educator, something we keep coming up against when accessing maths books being sold in the market or downloading apps on the iPad. Unfortunately these books are not available at all bookstores unlike the horrendous repackaged maths workbooks or remaindered workbooks flooding our markets. Instead Scholastic is willing to provide these books to the school stores they usually work with. Given how reasonably priced the course and practice books are, I can only hope they will be soon available everywhere. The Teacher’s Manuals are provided complimentary by the publishing house to the schools.

I like the fact that these books dwell on the fundamentals required to understand maths, its applications and then slowly building upon it, without the student even realising how much they have imbibed.

18 March 2015

Helen Macdonald, “H is for Hawk”

H is for HawkThe archaeology of grief is not ordered. ( p.199)

Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk is about her relationship with her goshawk, Mabel. Grieving for the Mabel on her first day at homesudden loss of her father, a well-known Fleet Street photographer, Helen Macdonald decides to buy a goshawk for eight hundred pounds sterling and train it — in the hope it will help her deal with her sadness. Her love for the bird stems from a lifelong passion for the wild birds of prey. As a child she scoured bookshops with her father to buy books on the subject. It is during one of those missions she came across T.H. White’s The Goshawk. With time and repeated readings, her understanding of the book and of the writer evolved too. Helen is an experienced falconer but never an austringer. Yet, she decided to buy Mabel and train her on the outskirts of Cambridge but as she discovers, “the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.” ( p.218)

According to her literary agency, Marsh Agency, Helen Macdonald is a writer, poet, illustrator, historian, and naturalist, and an affiliated research scholar at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, where she teaches to graduate level. Over the years she’s also worked as a Research Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge, as a professional falconer, assisted with the management of raptor research and conservation projects across Eurasia, and bred hunting falcons for Arab royalty. She’s also sold paintings, worked as an antiquarian bookseller, organised academic conferences, shepherded a flock of fifty ewes and once attended an arms fair by mistake. Helen’s blog Fretmarks contains short essays on subjects as various as wild boar, Brighton, pop culture, World War II, golden orioles, solar eclipses, travels in Central Asia, falconry, and many of her experiences with Mabel. www.fretmarks.blogspot.com Helen can be found on twitter as @HelenJMacdonald. (http://www.marsh-agency.co.uk/authors/?id=3513)

New_H-and-mabel-wa_2987055cH is for Hawk is a beautiful meditation on nature, loneliness and mourning.  The exquisite manner in which it is written, making extraordinary use of the English language is breathtaking. Helen Macdonald deservedly won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2014 and Costa Book of the Year 2014. Many  reviewers have commended it for it being a memoir, albeit a misery memoir. For me, H is for Hawk, H is for T.H.White, H is for Helen, and H is for her father. If it is the only book you  have time for this year, read it. It wont be time or money wasted. It will be an enriching experience.

Read an extract from her book:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10989164/H-is-for-Hawk-Helen-Macdonalds-intense-relationship-with-her-goshawk-Mabel.html .

Some reviews

1. Janette Curie, “Grief and the goshawk” TLS, 29 Oct 2014 ( http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1476820.ece )

2. Kathryn Schulz, “Rapt: Grieving with your goshawk.” The New Yorker, 9 March 2015 ( http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/09/rapt )

3.   Nick Willoughby “You can’t tame grief”: Helen Macdonald on her bestselling memoir “H Is for Hawk” Salon, 10 March 2015 (http://www.salon.com/2015/03/09/you_can%E2%80%99t_tame_grief_helen_macdonald_on_her_bestselling_memoir_h_is_for_hawk/ )

4. Marck Cocker,  “H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald” The Guardian, 23 July 2014 ( http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/23/h-is-for-hawk-helen-macdonald-review )

A few notable meditations on Nature published in recent months:

1. George Monbiot ” Back to Nature” http://www.bbc.com/earth/bespoke/story/20141203-back-to-nature/index.html

2. George Macfarlane “The word-hoard: Robert Macfarlane on rewilding our language of landscape”, 27 February 2015 (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/27/robert-macfarlane-word-hoard-rewilding-landscape?CMP=share_btn_fb )

3. Anand Vivek Taneja, ” A city without time: Anand Vivek Taneja remembers a dead river in a Delhi that has turned its back on it, just as it has on a language that was its own” March 2015 (http://indianquarterly.com/a-city-without-time/)

4. Ruskin Bond A Book of Simple Living Speaking Tiger Books, New Delhi, India. Hb. 2015

( Note: The images used in this blog post are off the internet, discovered using Google images. I do not hold the copyright to these photographs.)

Helen Macdonald H is for Hawk Vintage Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, London, 2014. Pb. pp.300 £8.99 

Kiran Nagarkar, “Bedtime Story”

 
Bedtime Story coverDraupadi: You have all gone stark, raving mad. You’re going to share me just because Mummy said so? And you expect me to turn myself into a five-day roster to please you? I’m supposed to divide myself into five portions? Listen to me, Arjun, and listen well. If I stay here, I stay as your wife, not as the mistress of five brothers. Are you coming with me or aren’t you?  ( p. 38) 
 

Kiran Nagarkar’s Bedtime Story is a play in four acts. Each  of the acts is based on a well-known episode from the Mahabharata. These are of Eklavya cutting off his thumb for Dronacharya as guru dakshina; the swaymvara of Draupadi where every suitor had to try and shoot an arrow in the eye of a fish overhead that revolved from a high pole — not looking at the target directly but at its reflection in a cauldron of oil; the infamous dice game where the Pandavas lost their kingdom to the Kauravas and they attempted to disrobe Draupadi, if it were not for Krishna who miraculously restored her garments to save her from shame and finally, on the eve of the battle between Kaurava and Pandavas, when Lord Krishna preached the doctrine of dharma to Arjuna which is enshrined in the most famous of Hindu texts, the Bhagvad Gita. This last act also has a conversation between Gandhari, mother of the Kauravas and Krishna.

Bedtime Story was written soon after the Emergency ( 1975-77), but it has been published for the first time, thirty-seven years later in 2015. The first time there was an attempt to perform it was actor and theatre director Dr Shreeram Lagoo. As Kiran Nagarkar writes in the introduction:

He [ Dr Lagoo] realized that the play was provocative and controversial material. He invited all the experimental theatre groups in Bombay for a reading in 1978 because he wanted the whole amateur theatre movement behind the play. In the meantime, the play had been sent to the censor board for certification, as the law in Maharashtra demands. It came back with seventy-eight cuts, some of them a page long, so that barely the jacket-covers were left. Eminent academics, M.P. Rege, Pushpa Bhave, and a couple of others argued the case for Bedtime Story at a meeting of the censor board. Many of the excisions the board demanded were risible ( e.g. drop the names of the Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi), some questions did not make any sense (e.g. why are you distorting the original myths?). I must admit I was hoping that the board would have at least some members from the Marathi literary elite who would have understood the thrust of the play. But I soon realized that I was deluding myself. The board was convinced that the play was a stain on our culture and needed to be severely sanitized. …When the director of the play finally got a letter from the board, the cuts had been reduced to twenty-four. But by then almost all the actors had withdrawn from the rehearsals because fundamentalist Hindu parties and organizations in Bombay, as it was known then, threatened the director, producer, actors and me, and even the first rehearsal was not allowed to take place. It helped enormously that none of these vociferous guardians of our culture had read Bedtime Story. ( p 6-7) 

The play was finally staged in 1995 by Rekha Sabnis’s theatre group, Abhivyakti, directed by Achyut Deshingkar. But it ran for only twenty-five performances. “The actors had such fun with the firecracker dialogue and the energy within the play and the difficult questions it raised that they pooled their money and revived the play two years later, this time in Hindi, and it had a few more performances. Sometime later, Vasant Nath staged the play in Cambridge, UK, and at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh.” ( p.7) Noted journalist, Salil Tripathi wrote an excellent piece in The Mint about his first encounter with Bedtime Story. ( Salil Tripathi, “When Kiran Nagarkar said the unsayable” 28 February 2015, Live Mint, http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/2izXvQjOpQm0hFGPz0vdIK/When-Kiran-Nagarkar-said-the-unsayable.html)

I first came across Bedtime Story in 1982. The Emergency was still fresh in our minds, and the collapse of the Janata administration in 1979 and the triumphant return of Indira Gandhi in 1980 had chilled the mood, crumbling the illusion that the Janata years had represented, of being the harbinger of a cultural renaissance. Nagarkar’s play was drawn from the Mahabharata, “the living epic in the subcontinent”, as he describes it, because the epic became the “medium to drive home my point about the malaise from which most of us suffer: apathy.” The play shows how the good guys—the Pandavas—are weak and subject to human follies, and the bad guys—the Kauravas—are no better. The choice is between dark and darker. …. 

I saw the play in 1982—or heard it, that’s more like it—at a private reading at the home of Rekha Sabnis, the actor (her group Abhivyakti would later stage the play, directed by Achyut Deshingkar in 1995, and it would have a limited run of 25 shows). But that Sunday morning at Sabnis’ home, we were spellbound as she read the script, along with writer and artist Manjula Padmanabhan, researcher Tulsi Vatsal, and Nagarkar himself. I was young then, fresh out of college, but I realized what it must have felt like in Eastern Europe, where samizdat performances of cutting-edge, political plays took place just that way. I wrote about it a week later in the now-defunct Sunday Observer.

Even though it is the twenty-first century, it is commendable this play has finally been published, given as Romila Thapar points out that India is, “…a highly patriarchal society such as our present-day society”. ( Romila Thapar, “The Real Reasons for Hurt Sentiments”, 13 March 2015 http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-real-reasons-for-hurt-sentiments/article6987156.ece ) In the recent past there have been innumerable instances of attempts censor literary works that can only be attributed to plain bullying by fundamentalist groups and the muzzling of free speech by powers that be, actions that are unacceptable in a thriving democracy like India. 

A play like Bedtime Story must have been revolutionary in its ideas when it was first presented in the mid-1970s. All though in 1975 the first Committee on the Status of Women in India had brought out the path-breaking report on the condition of women in the country, Towards Equality: The Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India, written by legendary feminist-activists such as Vina Mazumdar and Latika Sarkar.  Yet the notion of having women in the play like Draupadi and Gandhari questioning the men’s actions and asserting themselves, rather than meekly accepting decisions made on their behalf could not have gone down easily with many people in 1970s. All the women portrayed in the play come across as strong women, who are on an equal footing with the men. The men, whether they are princes, kings or even gods, are strong too, but have their fair share of faults too. Such ideas continue to generate a debate among men and women, but at least these ideas are no longer uncommon or unheard of. Plus, after the hugely commercial success of books such as Chitra Divakurni’s Palace of Illusions, a fabulous retelling of the Mahabharata from the point-of-view of Draupadi, a play like Bedtime Story will be more than acceptable to the reading public. All though the recent furore over the telecast and ultimately imposing a ban of Leslee Udwin’s documentary, “India’s Daughter” shows that these patriarchal notions  of how much space, identity and freedom can a woman be given are deeply entrenched in this society, it will be a long while before the idea of equality between men and women become reality in India.

Bedtime StoryIt is befitting then that the first launch of this book was by noted feminist-activist-publisher, Urvashi Butalia in New Delhi on 11 March 2015, three days after Women’s Day.

Buy this book now. Who knows, a few months or years down the line Bedtime Story will be banned again. We live in uncertain times. If it comes to pass that this play too is pulled off the shelves, it will not be the first time. Just as was done with Perumal Murugan’s novel, One Part Woman, which was withdrawn by the author after being intimidated by fundamentalists, nearly two years after the English translation and four years after it had been published in Tamil. And many other authors/texts in recent Indian publishing history.

Buy it also for the fantastic dust jacket. It is stupendous. The cover concept is Kiran Nagarkar’s and the cover design is by Prashant Godbole.

Kiran Nagarkar Bedtime Story and Black Tulip Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Noida, India. Hb, pp. 300. Rs. 695 

16 March 2015 

Jip and Janneke – two kids from Holland

Yip & Yanka English CoverI received a beautiful book in the post last week. The moment I opened the parcel, my five-year-old Yip & Yanka Hindi Coverdaughter took the book away from me and said triumphantly, “This is mine!” Sarah was charmed by the beautiful illustrations and insisted I read the story out aloud immediately. So I did. Jip and Janneke – Two kids from Holland is about two children introducing Holland to an international audience.

Supported by the embassy of the Netherlands, the book has been made available in India by A&A Book Trust. They are pleased to offer Jip and Janneke – Two kids from Holland by Fiep Westendorp, in English or Hindi, to NGOs promoting literacy through libraries, schools and centers for underprivileged children.

Jip and Janneke (pronounced Yip and Yannaka) are the Netherland’s most famous kids. From 1952 right up to now, generations of Dutch children have grown up with them. Parents read these stories to their children, just as these were read to them by their parents when they were young.

Jip and Janneke - 1In this hardbound book full of colour plates, Fiep Westendorp’s illustrations – among theJip and Janneke - 2 most beautiful that she ever made – are the starting point of a journey through the Netherlands in which Jip and Janneke show children from other countries a number of typical events in the lives of Dutch children.

NGOs promoting literacy amongst children are invited to express their interest in this pictorial introduction to the Netherlands by writing to A&A Book Trust at aabooktrust@gmail.com

9 March 2015 

Ruskin Bond “A Book of Simple Living: Brief Notes from the Hills”

Ruskin BondLove your art, poor as it may be, which you have learned, and be content with it; and pass through the rest of life like one who has entrusted to the gods with his whole soul and all that he has, making yourself neither the tyrant nor the slave of any man. – Marcus Aurelius

‘Love your art, poor as it may be…’ I have never regretted following this precept, despite the fact that it was sometimes difficult to make ends meet as a writer. The gift for putting together words and sentences to make stories or poems or essays has carried me through life with a certain serenity and inner harmony, which could not have come from any unloved vocation.

Within my own ‘art’ I think I have known my limitations and worked within them, thus sparing myself the bitter disappointment that comes to those whose ambitions stretch far beyond their talents. To know one’s limitations and to do good work within them: more is achieved that way than by overreaching oneself. It is no use trying to write a masterpiece every year if you are so made as to write only one in ten or twenty. In between, there are other good things that can be written — smaller things but satisfying in their own way. 

Do what you know best, and do it well. Act impeccably. Everything will then fall into place. 

Because I have loved my art, I think I have been able to pass through life without being any man’s slave or tyrant. I doubt I have ever written a story or essay or workaday article unless I have really wanted to write it. And in this way I have probably suffered materially, because I have never attempted a blockbuster of a novel, or a biography of a celebrity, or a soap opera. But in the end things have worked out well. I am a writer without regrets, and that is no small achievement! 

(p.73-75)

Ruskin Bond is well known in India for his stories and essays about childhood, the time he spent with his grandparents, schooldays, descriptions of life and nature in Mussorie and of course, his innumerable short stories such as “The Blue Umbrella”. A Book of Simple Living: Brief Notes from the Hills is a compilation of years of wisdom distilled and offered simply. These range from reflections upon life, to what constitutes love, learning to be at peace with yourself, observations on Nature. There is plenty to mull over in this slim book. What comes through extraordinary well in this book is how beautifully intertwined the concepts of nurturing and honing one’s art are. In life, nurturing requires immense amounts of patience, huge dollops of love, observation, reflection and judicious amounts of nourishment to ensure a healthy life. Similarly with one’s craft –slowly and steadily with time it improves. One of my favourite passages from the book is:

The wild ginger was in flower. So was agrimony, lady’s lace, wild geranium. The ferns were turning yellow. The fruit of the snake lily had turned red, signifying an end to the rains. A thrush whistled on the branch of a dead walnut tree. A tiny swarm of butterflies rose from behind a lime-green bush. ( p.28)

Evocative.

A Book of Simple Living is Speaking Tiger’s inaugural title. Speaking Tiger (http://speakingtigerbooks.com/ and on 20150303_113530Twitter @speakingtiger14 ) is a division of FEEL Books Private Limited, a book publishing and distribution company based in Delhi. It was founded in September 2014 by Manas Saikia and Ravi Singh. Publishing primarily in English, Speaking Tiger will build a diverse and inclusive list, with no fixed agenda other than to bring to readers quality fiction and non-fiction across genres.

20150303_113545Ruskin Bond’s A Book of Simple Living is a fine book. A great blessing from a well-established writer to a fledgling publishing house. Having thoroughly enjoyed this book, one to treasure too, I cannot help but feel that these are the slim pickings from a memoir.  Ruskin Bond is working upon it. It will be published by Speaking Tiger in December 2015. I look forward to it.

Ruskin Bond A Book of Simple Living: Brief Notes from the Hills Speaking Tiger, an imprint of FEEL Books Pvt. Ltd, New Delhi, 2015. Hb. pp. 160 Rs 350 

3 March 2015

An interview with Devashish Makhija

ForgettingDevashish Makhija’s debut collection of stories, Forgetting, has been published by HarperCollins India. It consists of  49 “stories”. After reading the book, I posed  some questions to the author via email. His responses were fascinating, so I am reproducing it as is.

 1.Over how many years were these stories written?

I always find it difficult to answer such a question. There are so many ways to measure the time taken to ‘create’ a body of work. Least of all is the time taken to physically ‘write’ the stories. So I’ll attempt a two-tiered response.

Literally speaking, these stories were written sporadically over a 6-8 year period. Creating stories in some form or the other keeps me alive. And it was in this time period that most of the screenplays I’d been writing (for myself to direct as well as for other filmmakers, from Anurag Kashyap to M.F. Husain) were not seeing the light of day. For some reason or the other those films weren’t getting made. So in the slim spaces in between finishing a draft of one screenplay and starting to battle with the next, I kept writing – short stories, flash fiction, children’s books, poetry, essays, anything. I didn’t have a plan for any of these back then. I wrote just so I wouldn’t slit my throat out of frustration!

But this writing turned out to be my most honest, brutal, personal, (dare I say) original. Because, here I wasn’t answerable to anyone – not producers, not directors, not audiences, not peers, no one. So as the years passed, and the shelved films kept piling up, my non-film writing output began growing exponentially. My personal pieces came together in my self-published Occupying Silence. Then a story (“By/Two”) got published in Mumbai Noir. Another (“The Fag End”) came out in Penguin First Proof 7. A third story (Red, 17) published multiple times in several Scholastic anthologies. Two children’s books (When Ali became Bajrangbali and Why Paploo was perplexed) became bestsellers with Tulika Publishers. My flash fiction found a dedicated readership with Terribly Tiny Tales ( http://terriblytinytales.com/author/devashish/ ). And before I knew it a ‘collection’ of sorts had formed. So if I have to put a fairer timeline to the creation of ‘Forgetting’ I will mostly be unable to because this unapologetic, personal story-writing found its seeds in writing I’ve been doing since my teenage years, and most of the themes / motifs in these stories have formed / accumulated within me over the last 20 years perhaps.

  1. Are these stories purely fictional? There is such a range, I find it hard to believe that they are not based or inspired by real situations you have encountered. 

That is a most acute observation. Although these stories have been placed in contexts fictionalized, often these are almost all lived experiences. In fact most of the first drafts of these stories were written in first person. When I began to see them as a ‘collection’ of sorts I went back to most of them and rewrote them as third person narratives, often fleshing out a central character removed from myself. It has been an interesting experiment, to have written something first as my own point of view of a very personal experience, then gone back and shifted the pieces around to see how the same would appear / sound / read if I were to be merely an observer, looking at this experience from the outside, in.

But this is not the case with all stories. Some of these stories were first film ideas / stories / screenplays that I couldn’t find producers for. I rewrote them as prose fiction pieces to attempt turning them into films once they found an audience of some sort through this book. I’m sure you can detect which these were… ‘By/Two’, ‘Red 17’, ‘Butterflies on strings’ – the larger, more intricate narratives in this collection. If I’m not too off the mark these particular stories read more visually too, since they were conceived visually first.

  1. How did you select the stories to be published? I suspect you write furiously, regularly and need to do so very often. So your body of work is probably much larger than you let on. 

That is yet another acute observation. You’re scaring me. It’s like you’re peeking into my very soul here, through this book. I used to (till last year) write ‘furiously’ and ‘regularly’, quite like you put it. Every time I’ve wanted to (for example) kill myself, kill someone else, start a violent revolution, tell a married woman that I love her (or experienced any such extreme anti-social urges) I’ve just sat myself down and WRITTEN. I have unleashed my inner beasts, exorcised my demons, counseled my dark side, purged myself of illicit desire by Writing. So yes, I have much, much more material than this anthology betrays.

But when a book had to be formed from the hundreds of diverse pieces I had ended up creating, a ‘theme’ emerged. And I used that theme as a guiding light to help me select what would stay in this book and what would have to wait for another day to find readership.

This ‘theme’ was ‘Forgetting’.

I found in some of my stories that they were about people (mostly myself reflected in my characters) trying to break out of a status quo / a pattern / a life choice that they’re now tired of / done with / tortured by. The selected stories are all about people trying to break loose of a ‘past’. And these stories – although frighteningly diverse in mood, intent, sometimes even narrative style – seemed to come together under this umbrella theme.

  1. Who made the illustrations to the book? Why are all of them full page? Why did you not use details of illustrations sprinkled through the text? Judging by your short films available on YouTube, every little detail in an arrangement is crucial to you. So the medium is immaterial. Yet, when you choose the medium, you want to exploit it to the hilt. So why did you shy away from playing with the illustrations more confidently than you have done?

I am now thoroughly exposed. You caught this out. All those illustrations are by me. Some of them are adapted from my own self-published coffee table book from 2008 –Occupying Silence (www.nakedindianfakir.com). That book had served as a catalogue of sorts for the solo show I’d had in a gallery in Calcutta of my graphic-verse work. Some of the writing from that book found its way into Forgetting as well. I hadn’t planned on putting these illustrations in. It was my editor Arcopol Chaudhuri’s idea. The anthology was ready, the stories all lined up, ready to go into print, when it struck him that some visuals might provide a welcome sort of linkage between the various sections of the book. And I jumped at the chance to insert some of my graphic illustrations. I did wonder later that if I had more time I might have worked the illustrations in more intricately. Perhaps even created some new work to complement the stories. But it was a last minute idea. And perhaps that slight fracture in the intent shows. Perhaps it doesn’t. But your sharp eye did catch it out.

What you suggest of detailed illustrations sprinkled right through the text is something I have done in Occupying Silence (http://www.flipkart.com/occupying-silence/p/itmdz4zfanzpcgg7?pid=RBKDHDVKJHW4QEAQ&icmpid=reco_bp_historyFooter__1). I’m a big one for details. It’s always the details that linger in our consciousness. We might be experiencing the larger picture during the consumption of a piece of art, but when time has passed and the experience has been confined to the museum of our memory, it is always the little details that return, never the larger motifs. And I thoroughly enjoy creating those details. In some subconscious way it always makes the creative experience richer / more layered for the reader / audience / viewer. And gives the piece of art / literature / cinema ‘repeat value’. And ‘repeat value’ is what I think leads to a relationship being forged between the creation and its audience. With no repeat value there is no ‘relationship’, there is merely an acquaintance.

So yes, I wish I could have worked the illustrative material into the book more intricately. Next time I promise to.

  1. In this fascinating interview you refer to the influences on your writing, your journeys  but little about copyright. Why? Are there any concerns about copyright to your written and film material? (  http://astray.in/interviews/devashish-makhija )

Always. Film writing almost always presupposes more than one participant in the process. Even if I write a screenplay alone, there will eventually be a director (even if that is myself) and a producer (amongst many, many others) who will append themselves to the final product. Unless I spend every last paisa on making that film from my own pocket (which happens very rarely, and mostly with those filmmakers who have deep pockets, unlike the rest of us) the final product will never be mine alone to own. Where this copyright begins, where it ends; what is the proportion this ownership is divided in; who protects such rights; and for what reasons – are all ambiguous issues, without any clear-cut rules and regulations. I, like everyone else, did face much inner conflict about whether I should go around sharing my written material with people I barely knew, considering idea-thievery is rampant in an industry as disorganized and profit-driven as ‘film’. But soon enough I gave up on that struggle. If my stories were to see themselves as films then they would have to be shared with as many (and as often) as possible, with little or no concern for their security.

What I started doing instead was dabbling in all these other forms of storytelling as well where the written word is the FINAL form, unlike in film, where the written word is merely the first stage, and where the final form is the audio-visual product. And the more output I created on the side that was MINE, the less insecure I felt about sharing the film-writing output I was freely doling out to the world at large.

Shedding the insecurity of copyright made me more prolific I think. Because I had one less (big) thing to worry about.

Also, I believe this whole battle to ‘own’ what you create is a modern capitalistic phenomenon. To explain what I mean let’s consider for a moment our Indian storytelling tradition of many thousands of years. We seldom know who first told any story (folktales for example). They were told orally, never written down. And every storyteller had his/her own unique way to tell it. They never concerned themselves with copyright issues. Our modern world insists that we do. Because today the end result of every creative endeavor is PROFIT. And we are made to believe that someone else profiting from our hard work is a crime. But for a moment if you take away ‘profit’ from the equation, the other big parameter left that we can earn is – SATISFACTION. And that can’t be stolen from us, by anybody. So what I might have lost in monetary terms, I more than made up by the satisfaction of being able to keep churning out stories consistently for almost a decade now.

Every time ‘copyright’ and ‘profit’ enters the storytelling discourse, I don’t have much to contribute in the matter.

 

  1. In this interview, I like the way you talk about imagination and films. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1ViW0qLvlo&feature=youtu.be&a Have you read the debut novel by David Duchony, Holy Cow and a collection of short stories by Bollywood actors called Faction? I think you may like it. Both of you share this common trait of being closely associated with the film world, but it has a tremendous impact on your scripts. There is a clarity in the simplicity with which you write, without dumbing down, but is very powerful. 

Yes, it is the only reason I considered film as a medium to express myself through. I wasn’t a film buff growing up. As I’ve said in that IFFK interview I in fact had a problem with my ‘imagination’ not being allowed free rein while watching a film. Everything was imagined for me. It was stifling. Unlike reading a book, or listening to music, where my imagination took full flight. I considered film only because I wanted to do everything simultaneously – write, visualize, choreograph, create music, play with sound, perform, everything. And, to my dismay(!) I realized only this medium that I had reviled all these years would actually allow me that.

You are right about the cross-effect prose and film writing has if done simultaneously. Not only have I seen my prose writing become more visual –  and hence less reliant on descriptors / adjectives / turns of phrase – but I’ve seen my screenwriting become less reliant on exposition through dialogue, because I find myself more able to express mood and a character’s inner processes through silent action. It’s a very personal epiphany, but it seems to be serving me well in both media.

I haven’t read Holy Cow or Faction but I will do so now.

Interestingly though I think I’ve learnt a lot from another medium – one that inhabits the space between prose and cinema – the graphic novel. Some American author-artists – David Mazzuchelli, Frank Miller; the Japanese socio-political manga master Yoshihiro Tatsumi; Craig Thompson; the French Marc-Antoine Mathieu – these are storytellers whose prose marries itself to the image to convey powerful ideas in a third form. They’re all master prose writers, but their visuals complement their prose, hence their prose is sparse. And since their prose does half the work, their images are powerful in the choices they make. Their work has gone some way in shaping my crossover journeys between film and prose, or vice-versa.

  1. Is it fair to ask how much has the film world influenced your writing? 

I think I have in some way answered this question. My film-writing has affected my writing yes. But since even today I’m not a quintessential film buff, very little cinema has really ‘influenced’ me. To date I have a conflicted relationship with the watching of films. Because a film is so complete in its creating of the world, and I have absolutely nothing left to imagine / add on my own while ‘watching’ a film, I’m left feeling cheated every time I watch a film. Even if it is a film I love. So cinema doesn’t inspire me. I consume it sparely. I respect what it can help a storyteller achieve. But it almost never influences my choices.

Instead, art, poetry, music, real life experiences, love lost, death, inequality, conversation, comics, illustration, the look on people’s faces when they are eating, fucking, killing someone, being denied, discovering a devastating secret, the looks in animals’ eyes when they’re startled by the brutality of man – these are some of my influences.

  1. Will you try your hand at writing a novel? 

Of course! I have to finish at least one before I die. I’m some way into it already. It is, once again, an adaptation of a screenplay I wrote 7-8 years ago, for a film that got partly shot, but might never see the light of day. On the surface of it it’s a story of three boys – one from Assam, one from Kashmir, one from Sitamarhi, Bihar (one of the earliest entry points into India for the Nepali Maoist ideology) – at times in the history of these regions when separatist movements are gaining momentum. Through their lives I seek to explore whether the nation-state we call India even deserves to be. Or are we better off as a collection of several small independent nation-states. It’s very experimental in form, jumping several first person perspectives as the story progresses and gradually explodes outwards. I don’t know yet when I’ll complete it. But I do want to. It’s the only other mission I have of my life. The first being to see my feature-length film release on cinema screens nation-wide. Don’t ask me why. I just do. I’ve tried too hard and waited too long to not want that very, very badly.

But if someone shows interest in my novel I’m willing to put everything else on hold to finish it first.

I guess everything’s a battle in some form or another. It’s about which one we choose to fight today, and which we leave for the days to come.

Devashish Makhija Forgetting HarperCollins Publishers India, Noida, 2014. Pb. pp. 240 Rs.350

1 March 2015