August 2015 Posts

Saikat Majumdar, “The Firebird”

LR

LR

(Saikat Majumdar’s second novel, The Firebird, was published recently by Hachette India. I enjoyed reading it. Saikat and I exchanged a few emails. With the author’s permission, I am publishing an extract from the correspondence.) 

Dear Saikat,

I realised in my mail of the morning I did not specify how much I enjoyed reading your novel. I liked it for the sparing use of words but just enough to keep the story moving on. Yet it was packed with sufficient information to create an atmosphere. I would be careful not to use the word ‘detail’, since it does not have much, only that which is required. The story is evocative. And for many of us who may not have lived in Calcutta but were familiar with the Naxal movement and rise of the Communist Party, it does bring memories of stories conveyed by eyewitnesses. I particularly liked the way you wove in a decaying theatre with the determination of a young actress to work. Obviously given the set up at home there was no crying urgency for her to step out. Women were looked after. But I liked the steely resolve of this woman to step out every evening to perform, irrespective of the comments made at home, snide remarks directed at her in public and later the interference of the party members. She was trying to do the balancing act with no help from her husband. He really comes across as a weak man. In the slim novel, you take one through a range of conflicting emotions. I was not even very sure at the end whether to feel sorry or plain angry at the madman who strangled the young girl. I did feel very sad for the young girl and empathised with the young man when he left his mother’s apartment, years later. As for the father and aunt, no chance. Painful creatures.

It is a sad, sad novel with a claustrophobic air to it. But it gets the spirit of Calcutta and Bengali families ever so well. While reading it, my senses were tickled. I could get the smell and visualise much of Calcutta, even though it was not etched in as many words by you.

And yet, it is a wonderful story. Memorable.

One day, you must tell me more about it. How did you begin to write it? What inspired it? 8 years is a long time to spend writing it. Did it involve a lot of research?

I hope it sells well.

Warmly,

JAYA

Dear Jaya,

Thank you so much for your lovely words on The Firebird! It means the world to me! I wrote it after having done a novel and a book of criticism, as it were, getting the ‘firsts’ out of the way, after which I felt ready to write the ‘first’ real book! It sounds strange, but if you have read my first novel, Silverfish, you will perhaps know what I mean. I’m happy I wrote Silverfish and yet it obviously feels like a first novel now, and no, not one of the magical first novels that some writers produce either!

It took me about five and a half years to write this novel. I started this in August 2010, after abandoning about 80 or so pages of a novel that I realized was not going to work. Also, this was the period when I wrote most of Prose of the World, my book of criticism, so my attention was somewhat divided, especially during the early part of this period.

I think the most important that happened between my first and second novels is that I learnt, or rather unlearnt, the shadow of the intellectual, the metafictional, all that clever stuff that stays with us from our engagement with much 20th century fiction. Silverfish was similar to The Firebird in setting and even time period, but for all its attempt to evoke the local, there was something ethnographic about it, which is why, I think, the emotions did not pack the punch they should have. This one came out more viscerally, with more raw, physical power, almost beyond my control. However,  I worked hard to get the ‘spareness’ that you point out so well. I’ve always been a descriptive writer, something of a sensualist, but in The Firebird I learnt to achieve effect with minimal words, a hard lesson for a writer who grew up on Joyce and Woolf. Sometimes the narrative instinct and the descriptive instinct, I think, work against each other – one moves through time and the other through space – and description can slow down narrative. One of the most satisfying things about this novel for me is narration and description seems to have found a mutual equilibrium, and one has not hindered the other. People seem to be taking from it what they like. While most say they are gripped by the narrative, there are also those who have told me that the larger arc of the narrative seems – happily – overwhelmed by the fragrance of Chinese food or the odour of rum with Coke, or the blistering dust of burgeoning suburbs, whatever, and they didn’t even care about the narrative at those points. Completely paradoxical reactions, but I’m happy that the novel has evoked both.

Warmly,

Saikat

31 August 2015

Saikat Majumdar The Firebird Hachette India, Gurgaon, India, 2015. Hb. 

Saad Z. Hossain, “Escape from Baghdad!”

EFB-front

( Aleph sent me an advance reading copy of Saad Z. Hossain’s debut novel, Escape from Baghdad!  Upon reading it, Saad and I exchanged emails furiously. Here is an extract from the correspondence, published with the author’s permission.

I read your novel in more or less one sitting.  The idea of Dagr, an ex-economics professor, and Kinza, a black marketeer, make a very odd couple. To top it when they discover they have been handed over a former aide of Saddam Hussein who persuades them with the promise of gold if they help him escape from Baghdad is downright ridiculous. But given the absurdity of war, it is a plausible plot too. Anything can happen. Escape from Baghdad! is a satirical novel that is outrageously funny in parts, disconcerting too and quite, quite bizarre. I do not know why I kept thinking of that particular episode of Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce and his colleagues trying to make gin in their tent while the Korean War reached a miserable crescendo around them. The micro-detailing of a few characters, inevitably male save for the chic Sabeen, is so well done. It is also so characteristic of war where there are more men to be seen, women are in the background and play a more active role at the time of post-conflict reconstruction. They do exist but not necessarily in the areas of combat. It is a rare Sabeen who ventures forth. Sure women combatants are to be seen more now in contemporary warfare, but it was probably still rare at the time of Operation Desert Storm. Yet it is as if these characters are at peace with themselves, happy to survive playing along with the evolving rules (does war have any rules?), not caring about emotions and learning to quell any sensitivity they had like Dagr remembering his wife’s hand on her deathbed.

Saad: Thanks for the kind words, and for getting through the book so fast. Aleph has been amazingly easy to work with, they are clearly good people 🙂

JBR: Why did you choose to write a novel about the Gulf War?
When I started writing this, it was before Isis, or Syria, or the Arab Spring. The Gulf War was really the big war of our times, and looking back at Iraq now, I feel that it still is. I wanted to tell a war story, and the history of Baghdad, with all the great mythology, and just the location next to the Tigris and Euphrates was really attractive. I think I started it around 2010. I wasn’t very serious about it at first. The book was first published in Dhaka in 2013 by Bengal Publications.
According to an interview you did with LARB, you never went to Baghdad, and yet this story? Why?

I wrote the story as more of a fantasy than an outright satire or war history. For me, large parts of it existed outside of time and logic. Much of it too, was set in closed spaces, like safe houses and alley ways, and this was just how it turned out. In the very first chapter I had actually envisioned a sweeping, circuitous journey from Baghdad to Mosul, but I couldn’t even get them past two neighborhoods.

But isn’t that exactly what war does to a society/civilization? 

Yes, that’s why I prefer using fantasy elements/techniques to deal with war itself. The surreal quality represents also the mental state of the observer, who is himself altered by the horrible things he is experiencing. I’m also now beginning to appreciate the long term after effects of war on a population’s psyche. For example Bangladesh is still so firmly rooted in the past of our 1971 War, almost every aspect of life, including literature is somehow tied to it. The damage is not short lived.

Bangladesh fiction in English is very mature and sophisticated. Much of it is set in the country itself, focused on political violence, so why not write about Bangladesh? Not that I want to bracket you to a localised space but someone like you who obviously has such a strong and nuanced grasp of the English language could produce some fantastic literary satirical commentary on the present. In India Shovon Choudhary has produced a remarkable satirical novel — The Competent Authority, also published by Aleph.

You are right, of course, Bangladesh is ripe for satire, as are most third world countries. I’m a bit afraid because I want to do it right, and I know that if certain things don’t ring true, I’ll face a lot of criticism at home for it 🙂 Technically, I am still struggling to develop a voice that I’m comfortable with. I need my Bengali characters to operate in a certain way, yet I still want them to be authentic, and plausible. I also rely on mythology and fantasy a lot, and this poses a linguistic challenge. I’ve found that sometimes the flavor of mythology doesn’t really translate very well. Each language has a lot of mythology built into it, like English uses a lot of Norse and Greek mythology, for example in the way the days of the week are named after Odin, Freya, Tue. There are situations where you are trying to describe an Asian fantasy element in English, and it doesn’t quite work. It is necessary, in a way, to rewrite mythology from the ground up, which is a very big job.

Fascinating point. Now why do you feel this? Is there an example you can share? 

Well just the word djinn, for example. The English word is genie. A genie is a cute girl wearing harem pants granting wishes to Larry Hagman. How can I get across the menace, the fear, the hundreds of years of dread our people have of djinns? How much space do I have to waste on paper trying to erase the bubble gum connotation of genie? Will it be successful in the end, or will the English reader just be confused? What about a word like Ravan, which has an instant connotation for us, a name like a bomb on a page, but in English, it’s just a foreign sounding word that requires a footnote, something alien that the eye just blips over. For me to convey the weight of Ravan, I’d have to build that up, to recreate the mythology for the reader, to act out everything.

Isn’t the purpose of a writer to disturb the equanimity?  Will there be a second book? If so, what? Btw, have you read The Black Coat by Neamat Imam?

I haven’t read it. I just googled it, it looks good, I’m going to find a copy. There isn’t a second book, this was not designed to have a serial, the ending is left open to allow the readers to make their own judgments for the surviving characters. I am writing a second novel on Djinns, which is set in Dhaka, so I hope to address some of the issues facing us there.

The story you choose to etch is a fine line between a dystopian world and a war novel. Is that how it is meant to be?

Yes, in my mind there is not one specific reality, but rather many versions which exist at the same time, and if we consider war as a pocket reality, it would certainly reflect a very dystopian nature. While we do not live in a dystopia, there are certainly pockets of time and space in this world which very strongly resemble it.

It is particularly devastating to consider a people who believed in economics, and GDP growth, education, houses, mortgages, retirements and pensions to suddenly be pitched into a new existence that has neither hope, nor logic, nor any use for their civilian skills.

True. I often think we are living a scifi life. It makes me wonder on what is reality?

My understanding is that the human brain uses sensory input to create a simulation of the world, which is essentially the ‘reality’ we are carrying around in our minds. This is a formidable tool since it allows us to analyze situations, recall and recalibrate the model, and even to run mental games to predict the outcome of various actions. For a hunter gatherer, the brain must have been an extremely powerful tool, like having a computer in the Stone Age. But at the same time, because these mental simulations are just approximations of what is actually there I can see that reality for everyone can be subtly different, and if we stretch that a little bit, it makes sense that many different worlds exist in this one.

The Indian subcontinent is a hotbed for political nationalism and neverending skirmishes, with peace not in sight. Living in Dhaka and writing this novel at the back of car while commuting in the hellish traffic Escape from Baghdad! seems like a strong indictment of war but also builds a case for pacifism. Was that intentional?

War is a complex thing. It’s easy to say that we are anti-war, and for the most part, who would actually be pro-war? I mean what lunatic would give up the normalcy of their existence to go and bleed and die in the mud? Even for wars of aggression, the math often doesn’t work out: the cost of conquering and pacifying another country isn’t worth the consequences of doing so. Yet, for all that, war has been a constant companion of humanity from ancient times. It is, I think, tied into our pack animal mentality. The very quality which allows us to freely collaborate, to collectively build large projects, is the same thing which leads to organized violence as a response to certain trigger situations. I believe that the causes of wars have all been minutely parsed and analyzed, broken down into the actions and motivations of different pressure groups, but all of this still does not explain the reality of battalions of ordinary people willing to strap on swords and guns and armor and commit to slaughtering each other. That willingness is a psychological problem for the entire human race to contend with, I think.

JB: As long as you raise questions or leave situations ambiguous, forcing readers to ask questions about war, the novel will survive for a long time.

The creation of old women especially Mother Davala are very reminiscent of those found in mythology across the world. It is an interesting literary technique to introduce in a war novel.

Mother Davala is one of the three furies of Greek myth, the fates whom even the Gods are afraid of. They are also in charge of retribution, which was apt for this particular scenario. This was one of the things I was talking about earlier, with the mythology built into the language. The Furies have such a resonance in English, such a long history in literature, that they carry a hefty weight. I could have used, instead, someone like Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love and conflict, but that name has no real oomph in English, and so it would be a wasted reference.

So if you find it challenging to work mythological elements from other cultures into your fiction, how were The Furies easy to work with? 

I think the challenge is to use non English mythology while writing in English. English mythology kind of covers Norse, Greek, Arthurian, as well as Christian mythology, of course. To use elements of any of those is very easy because there is a lot of precedent, and the words already exist in the lexicon. The problem arises when you are writing in English about a non western culture. Then you are forced to describe gods, goddesses, demons, etc, which sound childish and irrational, because they have no linguistic resonance in English. If I say the words Christ and crucifixion, there is an instant emotional response from the reader. If I describe the story of the falcon god Horus who was born in a strange way from his mother Osiris, and performed magical acts in the desert and then eventually died and returned to life, it just sounds quaint, and peculiar.

Have you written fiction before this novel?

I’ve been writing for a long time, since I was in middle school, and my earlier efforts have produced a vast quantity of bad science fiction and fantasy. It started with a bunch of friends trying to collaborate on a story for some class. We each picked a character, and made a race, history, etc for them. The idea was to create a kind of mainstream fantasy story. I remember we all used to read a lot of David Eddings back then. The others all dropped out, but I just kept going. Writing a lot of bad genre fiction helps you though, because you lose the fear of finishing things, plus all that writing actually hones your skills.

How long did it take you to write this story and how did you get a publication deal? Was it an uphill task as is often made out to be?

I took a couple of years to write this. It started when I joined a writers group, and I had to submit something. That was when I wrote the first chapter. The group was very serious and we had strict deadlines, so I just kept writing the story to appease them, and then I was ten chapters in and growing attached to the characters, so I decided to go ahead and finish it. This was a group in Dhaka, it was offline, we used to physically meet and critique stuff. A lot of good work was published out of that. It’s definitely one of the critical things an author needs.

Publishing seemed impossibly daunting at first, but when it happened, it was easy, and through word of mouth. I knew my publisher in Bangladesh, and when they started a new English imprint, they were looking for new titles, and I was selected. Some of my friends knew the US publisher, Unnamed Press, and I got introduced, they liked it, and decided to print. Aleph, too, happened similarly. You can spend years querying and filling up random people’s slush piles, and sometimes things just happen without effort. My philosophy is that I am writing for myself, with a readership of half a dozen people in mind, and I am happy if I can improve my craft and produce something clever. The subsequent success or failure of it isn’t something I can necessarily control.

Saad Z Hossain Escape from Baghdad! Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2015. Pb. pp 286. Rs. 399

28 August 2015

 

Sunjeev Sahota, “The Year of the Runaways”

Sunjeev Sahota‘It really is a pathetic thing. To mourn a past you never had. Don’t you think?’ 

p.216

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is his second novel. According to Granta in 2014, he was one of the promising writers from Britain. I have liked his writing ever since I reviewed his debut novel, Ours are the Streets, for DNA in 2011. The first chapter of The Year of the Runaways was extracted in Granta, Best of British novelists. It is about a few men from India who choose to migrate to the UK. They are from different socio-economic classes. Tochi is a chamar, an “untouchable”, from Bihar who had gone to Punjab in search of a job, but with his father falling ill, returned to the village. Unfortunately during the massacres perpetrated by the upper castes his family was destroyed too. So he gathered his life-savings and left India. The other men who leave around the same time are Avtar and Randeep, migrants from Punjab. Randeep is from a “better” social class since his father is a government officer and he is able to migrate using the “visa-wife” route. But when these young men get to Britain, they are “equal”. It is immaterial whether they are working as bonded labour or on construction sites or cooking or even cleaning drains. They are willing to do any task as long as it allows them to stay on in the country. Apparently living a life of uncertainty and in constant fear of raids by the immigration officers is far preferable to life at home.

The women characters of Narinder, Baba Jeet Kaur and Savraj are annoying. Maybe they are meant to be. Given how much effort and time has been spent figuring out the male characters, the women come across as flat characters. Narinder, Randeep’s visa-wife, seems to have the maximum social mobility in society as well as amongst these migrants but she remains a mystery. It is only towards the end of the novel that just as she begins to find her voice and asserts herself, the story comes to an abrupt end.

I like Sunjeev Sahota’s writing for the language and sensual descriptions. He makes visible what usually lurks in the shadows, confined to the margins. He makes it come alive. It is remarkable to see the lengths a storyteller can go to tell a story that has a visceral reaction in the reader. Also it is admirable that while living in Leeds, UK, Sunjeev Sahota has written a powerful example of South Asian fiction that is set in Britain without ever really showing a white except for the old man Randeep had befriended while working at the call centre. Sunjeev Sahota admires Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. ( It was also the first novel he read as he admits in the YouTube interview on Granta’s channel.) Rushdie too has given a glowing endorsement to The Year of the Runaways saying, “All you can do is surrender, happily, to its power”. ( http://granta.com/Salman-Rushdie-on-Sunjeev-Sahota/) True. The only way to read this novel is to surrender to it. But has Sunjeev Sahota broken new ground as his literary idol, Rushdie did with his award-winning novel? The purpose of literary fiction is to make the reader unsettled rather than just hold a mirror up to the reality. As a tiny insight into the hardships economic migrants experience this novel is astounding. But it falls short of being thought-provoking and disturbing or breaking new ground in literary fiction. I doubt it.

Sunjeev Sahota’s gaze on India is an example of poverty porn in literature. He has got the migration patterns, the hostility at ground level in Bihar and Punjab and the nasty descriptions of the Ranvir Sena or the Maheshwar Sena as they are referred to in the novel accurately. ( I think the novel alludes to these massacres as described in this wonderful article by G. Sampath in the Hindu, published on 22 August 2015 http://www.thehindu.com/sunday-anchor/sunday-anchor-g-sampaths-article-on-children-of-a-different-law/article7569719.ece ) Disappointingly Sunjev Sahota’s voice is clunky at times and comes across as well-researched but a trifle jagged in the Indian parts. The British bits are brilliant as if to the Manor born, which Sunjeev Sahota is! Much is explained by what he hopes to explore in this novel in an interview he gave Granta ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65mtLCbODCk : 23 April 2013) :

What does it mean being unmoored from your homeland and what does that do to a person and subsequent generations? What happens to that hold that is created? What fills it? Then where does one go from there? 

This is a strong and fresh voice. Sunjeev Sahota must be read even if this novel ends with a bit of a convenient ending. This is an author whose trajectory in contemporary literature will be worth mapping.

The Year of the Runaway is wholly deserving to be on the ManBooker longlist 2015 but I will be pleasantly surprised to see it on the shortlist.

Sunjeev Sahota The Year of the Runaways Picador India, Pan Macmillan India, New Delhi, 2015. Hb. pp. 480 Rs 599 

27 August 2015

Twinkle Khanna and Brigid Keenan

MRS FUNNYBONES_webI have had immense good fortune of reading Twinkle Khanna’s Mrs Funnybones and Brigid Keenan’s Packing Up back-to-back.

Mrs Funnybones is Twinkle Khanna’s debut as an author. It is based upon her immensely popular and delightfully irreverent column of the same name published in Mumbai newspaper, DNA. It is a sharp, witty and tongue-in-cheek commentary on the many roles a modern woman fulfils — career woman, housekeeper, mother, wife, counsellor, daughter, daughter-in-law, accountant, Man Friday etc. Many would be sceptical that a famous star like Twinkle Khanna is able to write on her own without the assistance of a ghost writer, but there is an authenticity about the book which rings true. I would not term it as “chick lit” but many would view it so. It is hard to put one’s finger on it but reading it from cover-to-cover followed by listening to her at the book launch convince one about Mrs Funnybones being wholly original. Twinkle Khanna had been an actress but is a more accomplished interior designer, voracious reader especially of scifi literature and if her friends at the book launch are to be believed, always known for her wit.

A sample of her writing on her observations on Karva Chauth, an annual ritual in the Hindu calendar when north Indian women fast for the day, ostensibly for seeking better health of their husbands. The day ends with the wife looking at the reflection of the moon through a sieve to secure the lunar deity’s blessings, then she turns to her husband and views his face indirectly in the same manner. This is what Twinkle Khanna has to say:

We Indians are a strange race; we send MOM to Mars, but listen to mom-in-law and look for the moon. One of the better qualities we possess is that most of us will follow traditions and rituals as long as they do not demean or harm us, or cause us to do the same to another, while making our elders happy. We simply do it rather than prove a point as to how liberated and independent we truly are. Perhaps, this is how we harmoniously hold our large families together as we celebrate different aspects of our lives.  ( p.101)

Here is a link to the star-studded book launch organised earlier this week in Mumbai. The conversation with Karan Johar, Aamir Khan, etc are worth watching. Apparently her husband, the mega-Bollywood star, Akshay Kumar reads every single word she spins out and is her first editor. In recent times as mentioned in the YouTube link, he has gently advised her to not use the word “Pakistan” on a few occasions.

 

Brigid Keenan’s Packing Up she suggests falls into the category of “decreplit” or books written by older Packing Upwomen. Packing Up is a hilarious account of her travels as a diplomat’s wife, retirement and grandmotherhood. When she is not mending her tarantula ( seriously! a souvenir collected in Trinidad, after her husband squashed it), Brigid Keenan’s keen eye observes life around her whether it is in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Suffolk, London, Brussels, Jaipur or Sri Lanka. She is one of the co-founders of the Palestinian Festival of Literature. Whatever she does, it is with passion.

With both these women writers it is the frank honesty with which they write, the ability to laugh at themselves and gaily comment on the world around them. The facetiousness with which they seemingly write, garbs the brutal and sharp understanding of reality they have. Mrs Funnybones and Packing Up are excellent examples of using one’s wit with panache.

These books are a must buy.

Twinkle Khanna Mrs Funnybones Penguin Books, Gurgaon, India, 2015. Pb. pp. 240 Rs. 299

Brigid Keenan Packing Up: Further Adventures of a Trailing Spouse Bloomsbury, London, 2014. Pb. pp. 320 Rs 399

21 August 2015

Press Release: Rupa Publications turns 80!

INDIA’S LARGEST INDEPENDENT PUBLISHING HOUSE TURNS 80!

RupaRupa Publications turns 80 this August, and reiterates its continuing commitment to books, authors and the industry.

Rupa Publications’ journey began eighty years ago, when an enterprising young man, D. Mehra, managed to impress an English bookseller by his salesmanship and became his representative.

From Jawaharlal Nehru’s letter to Indira GandhiNehru's letter to Indira Gandhi

While we have come a long way since, that enterprising spirit has remained a constant, and the company has creatively and strategically expanded the scope of publishing in India to emerge as India’s largest independent publishing house, registering robust year-on-year top line growth over the years, at a level unparalleled in the publishing industry.

Success is a function of a combination of things: passion and energy, innovation and expertise, teams and leaders. All of which exemplifies Rupa Publications. It is no wonder it’s the House of Bestsellers. Happy 80th to my publisher.—RONNIE SCREWVALA

The company has been at the forefront of Indian publishing throughout its existence, finding and promoting the most exciting writing talent the country has to offer. Over the years, the company has published numerous acclaimed novelists, and non-fiction writers including well-known sportsmen, politicians, economists, journalists, actors, entrepreneurs and industrialists.

I am what I am because of Rupa Publications. They were the first people to have believed in me and, after more than a decade, remain my publisher. Together we have a mission to make India read, and we are still as enthusiastic about it as ever.—CHETAN BHAGAT

In recent times, the company’s non-fiction publishing has captured the country’s imagination, among them Jaswant Singh’s Jinnah, which raised serious questions about Partition; The Dramatic Decade, the first of a three-volume autobiography by the first citizen of India, President Pranab Mukherjee; the provocative memoir of well-known politician and diplomat K. Natwar Singh, One Life Is Not Enough; the former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Bimal Jalan’s volume on the interface between politics and economics, Politics Trumps Economy; A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s wonderfully inspirational and educative The Guiding Light; popular actor Ayushmann Khurrana’s experiential guide to making it in Bollywood, Cracking the Code; top media professional and serial entrepreneur Ronnie Screwvala’s Dream With Your Eyes Open; the straight-talking memoir of the former Comptroller and Auditor General of India, Vinod Rai, Not Just an Accountant; and former Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi’s deeply analytical study of the Indian elections, An Undocumented Wonder. The backlist includes many other heavyweight writers such as Wytze Keuning, Acharya Kripalani, L.K. Advani, J.R.D. Tata, Maharani Gayatri Devi and Mark Tully, to name a few.

In fiction, Rupa Publications continues to publish some of the country’s biggest writers of commercial fiction, most notably Chetan Bhagat, the No. 1 bestselling novelist in India. His latest novel, Half Girlfriend, and his just released work of non-fiction, Making India Awesome, have had the largest ever first print run, where English language trade publishing in India is concerned. Another notable bestselling author has been Varun Agarwal with his How I Braved Anu Aunty and Co-founded a Million Dollar Company.

I’d be forever grateful to Rupa for believing in me and backing me up in spite of [my] being a first-time writer. I still remember the excitement when I got a mail from Rupa saying my book would be published. Not only do I think Rupa is one the finest publishing houses in the country, it’s also one of the most disruptive. I’d like to thank Rupa for changing my life and also making Anu Aunty a household name.

I wish you guys all the best for the future. Like always, keep kicking ass.—VARUN AGARWAL

Other popular writers on Rupa’s list include Samrat Upadhyay, Nitasha Kaul (who was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize for her debut novel Residue), Siddhartha Gigoo (nominated for the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize), Gulzar, Ruskin Bond, Kavita Kané, Damodar Mauzo, Anuja Chandramouli and Madhuri Banerjee.

Rupa is my ‘home’ publishing house, given my long-standing and fruitful relationship with the group. Thanks, Rupa. Wish you a thousand returns of the day.—GULZAR

Rupa’s publishing has been innovative and designed to meet the needs of the fast-changing Indian marketplace. In 2012, the company launched Red Turtle, the premier children’s imprint which has brought out beautifully illustrated and designed books such as Babayan by Kiku Adatto; The Tigers of Taboo Valley by Ranjit Lal; and translations from Satyajit Ray, The Magic Moonlight Flower and Other Stories.

In 2015, Rupa Publications celebrated India’s business and entrepreneurial spirit by launching its business imprint, Maven, with marketing wizard Suhel Seth’s Mantras for Success: India’s Greatest CEOs Tell You How to Win, profiling the czars of Indian business and HSBC honcho Naina Lal Kidwai’s 30 Women in Power, featuring the struggle and successes of India’s extraordinary women achievers.

Rupa completes 80 years not just of being one of India’s most revered publishers but more than that one of India’s foremost knowledge disseminators. Rupa combines a rare understanding of the Indian psyche and has, over the years, honed its tremendous insights into creating books which have had the greatest impact on the Indian mind.—SUHEL SETH

The strength of its publishing apart, Rupa has ensured that its titles are sold and distributed effectively by owning its own distribution network—the only major publishing house in India with such an asset. In addition, it has been at the forefront of pioneering marketing and publicity initiatives. Some of these innovations include managing to place, in association with Flipkart, front-page advertising for Chetan Bhagat’s novel in the country’s highest circulated English language newspaper, and strategizing massive media as well as trade support for the President’s memoirs.

Rupa Publications have been my publishers since 1998. A formidable and dynamic entity, its reach is unsurpassed, as I discovered during my promotional travels related to One Life Is Not Enough. An outstanding publisher, I congratulate them on their achievement and dedication.                             —K. NATWAR SINGH

Constantly pushing the boundaries of possibilities to leverage the best for its books and its authors, Rupa Publications has redefined the rules of publishing by understanding and seizing the opportunity of the middle of the pyramid of the 400 million inhabiting ‘middle’ India. Rupa has been pioneering in its attempt to reach this untapped audience—by packaging good content with affordable pricing and extended distribution—and this is evident not only in its core frontlist but also in terms of sales of regional language rights.

And, never sitting on its laurels, Rupa Publications is now focusing on how it can leverage the digital space, and is readying to exploit the opportunities arising from the digitization of content made possible by the advances in hard technology over the last ten years.

Kapish Mehra, managing director, Rupa Publications, expressed his delight at crossing the 80-year milestone, and said “Breaking new ground has been our constant focus, and we will continue to do so in the days, months and years to come so as to contribute to the growth of the industry and provide an enhanced reading experience for all.”

Rupa Publications. Eight decades of being in your good books.

 

For further information please contact:

Vasundhara Raj Baigra, Head of Marketing and Publicity, Rupa Publications India.

Email: vasundhara@rupapublications.com | Tel: 011 4922 6627

 

Literati – “The library as social experience” ( 16 August 2015)

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 15 August 2015) and will be in print ( 16 August 2015). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-the-relevance-of-libraries-today/article7539673.ece#. I am also c&p the text below. 

Buying books the traditional way is a cherished subjective experience, heavily dependent on the curating abilities of the book buyer.

My five-year-old daughter asked me, “Why can’t libraries be like bookshops? If we like a book, why must we return it to the library? Why can we not buy and keep it?” I was stumped. It was a perceptive observation.

***

“You either see it or you don’t” was an eccentric American Dennis Severs’ mantra,who converted his Georgian home in London into a time capsule with pieces collected from the 17th century till Edwardian times. Brian Selznick’s absolutely ‘scrumdiddlyumptious’ forthcoming book, The Marvels, is heavily inspired by Dennis Severs’ imaginative lifestyle. To my mind, this mantra aptly marks the rapid disappearance of brick-and-mortar bookstores and at the same time provides a possible solution for their survival.

In Delhi, two iconic bookshops — Fact & Fiction and Galgotia — are closing. There are many factors responsible globally for closure of bookstores, such as rising rents, fewer customers and an increasing use of e-readers like Kindle, iPads and smartphones. Buying books the traditional way is a cherished subjective experience, heavily dependent on the curating abilities of the book buyer. Obviously, a regular customer is wistful at the announcement of their favourite bookstore closing. On the other hand, online retailers have to innovate, evolve and work constantly at providing customer satisfaction without ever knowing who is buying from their portal.

For most readers, it is like being in a dream spell. Having read about a book, many readers want instant gratification and engage in impulsive buying, usually possible only with online retail. It is a human behaviour that has evolved with access to the Internet 24×7 for more than a generation.

Recently, I read a bunch of absolutely delightful titles from the TED Books that take off from where TED talks leave off, such as Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness, Chip Kidd’s Judge This and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should all be Feminists. I also read a devastatingly moving novel, The Blue between Sky and Water, by Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa; a delightful anthology, The Pleasure of Reading,edited by Antonia Fraser; and an excellent collection of commentaries, Nehru’s India, edited by Nayantara Sahgal. War novel Escape from Baghdad! by Bangladeshi Saad Hossain and The Word at War made it to the list. When I discuss these books animatedly with friends, many automatically order these online. This change in human behaviour has affected the lifeline of bookstores.

In a possible model for a bookstore of the future, non-profit Pioneer Works in Red Hook, U.S., opened a ‘remarkably small’ bookstore. It stocks new and used books, local zines, lit mags, children’s books conveniently located at their height and a modest wall spotlighting a rotating small press. Also, the shop clerk assures customers that if they do not find the book title they are looking for, he will order it for them.

Then there is Trilogy in Mumbai, founded by Meethil Momaya and Ahalya Naidu in December 2014. It houses a library and a bookstore; though they are under the same roof they do not share shelf space. Titles are available in Hindi, English and Marathi. The library functions like any old-school library and the bookstore works like (almost) any other bookstore in the world. The very idea of having a bookstore and a library together in the same place without a wall dividing the two was to allow members the freedom to read books without owning them (library) and when they love a book they would like to own, they always have the option of buying it (bookstore). There is a symbiotic relationship between the two spaces. Borrowers very often want to buy the book they have either issued or find in the library. If it is available in the bookstore they can buy it immediately.

There is also the model that legislator Dr. T.M. Thomas Isaac has suggested in Kerala wherein libraries turn into centres for students to gather and study together in the evenings.

These examples illustrate a recommendation made at the Indian Public Libraries Conference 2015 held on March 17-19, 2015 in New Delhi. Recommendation on refurbishment of public libraries, point 8f, states, “Facilities in public libraries should include, ‘multi-purpose social space’ for use by the community extending services beyond the provision of reading facilities.”

Paul X. McCarthy, in Online Gravity: The Unseen Force Driving the Way You Live, Earn, and Learn, illustrates how a new set of economic rules, very different from those in the physical world, are governing businesses. According to him, one of the fundamental consequences of gravity-giant formation is the way in which it is influencing the shape of products, companies and ultimately the whole economy online. But I wonder if the cross-filtering and influencing of experiences across mediums has not already begun? What is the future of libraries and bookstores if they don’t evolve by catering to community demands and expectations? Libraries and bookstores die because they fail to fulfil this. Reading may be a personal experience, but libraries and bookstores are social experiences. Somewhere the customised experiences of individuals increasingly created by blending digital and real services have begun to spill over into the physical world.

15 August 2015

Literati – “The Critic” ( 19 July 2015)

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 18 July 2015) and was in print ( 19 July 2015). Here is the http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-the-world-of-books/article7429521.ece. I am also c&p the text below. 

In a column on January 11, 2015, The New York Times published Michiko Kakutani’s review of Harper Lee’s much-awaited Go Set A Watchman(@GSAWatchmanBook ) — on the front page, no less. There have been energetic nitpicking conversations about this review. But the truth is that any space given by a mainstream newspaper to a book review is unusual. For, despite the 50-year gap between To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman, the latter has a two million print run. Lee’s resurrection of Atticus Finch has excited readers. According to Bloomberg, US, “it is the most pre-ordered book in her publisher’s history.” (July 9, 2015, http://bloom.bg/1HXxgij )

This pre-publication hype is any writer’s publicity dream. Space for reviewing books in print media is fast dwindling while rapidly gaining momentum on social media, prompting many writers to be creative in getting their books discovered. Popular writer, Ravi Subramanian has launched an app to help promote his books. Booksellers too have to be innovative — curating literary engagements or as the portly owner of Haji Suleiman and Sons tells Hafiz in Anis Shivani’s lengthy debut novel, Karachi Raj “Shelving is an art. Mixing the old and the new on the same subject is more important than getting the alphabetical order just right.”

An important part of the publishing ecosystem is the critic. The few well-read critics like James Wood, Amitava Kumar, Tim Parks and John Freeman are known and greatly valued for their honest, straightforward and informed observations. Whether in print or virtual space, by critics or others (publishing professionals use their Facebook walls to air frank opinions), a good review should generate conversation. Recently, Daniel Menaker — writer and former Editor-in-Chief, Random House Publishing Group — said of the new Harper Lee novel : “Here’s the thing: it is natural and inevitable for readers and experts to compare these two Harper Lee books to each other. But the comparisons have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of each book. They are two different objects. You can get historical perspective about an artist by comparing an early landscape to a late one, but the value of both remains entirely independent of their relation to each other. Rembrandt’s series of self-portraits is an excellent source of historical, biographical comparison, but as works of art they must be judged on their own merits. [Alexander] Alter’s piece in The Times is where it should be — outside the review arena. Kakutani’s “review” should have given no more than a nod to TKAM in discussing GSAW, if you ask me. The rest of the review would have been actually more useful if it had addressed the merits and problems with GSAW on its own terms. Seems to me.” (Quote reproduced with permission.)

With this, Menakar sparked off a crackling literary conversation about the merits of reviewing. To be a professional critic is never painless. It is particularly tough when the critic is an integral part of the literary set of concerned editors, publishers and authors; some of whom have acquired demi-god status. Thus Shamsar Rahman Faruqui’s The Mirror of Beauty and The Sun that Rose from the Earth, and Amitav Ghosh’s Flood of Fire, which are rich longwinded tapestries of the past, have had reasonably good sales and glowing critical acclaim. In his Afterword to Mantonama, Saadat Hasan Manto declares: “know-it-all pundits” can have a powerful impact on an author, but solace lies in realising that “literature…is a self-existent entity. …Literature is as alive and exuberant today as it was before it was discovered.” (My Name is Radha: The Essential Manto, translated by Muhammad Umar Memon.)

In ‘Bad News’, an essay in his splendid book, Lunch with a Bigot, Amitava Kumar sums it: “With all their beauty and artifice, novels often hide the ordinary grit of reality. …It is the irrepressible bubbling-up of the everyday, not the unbending demand of a rigid aesthetic, that makes a novel satisfying, that connects it to life.” Saikat Mazumdar’s exquisite The Firebird and K. R. Meera’s disturbing novella And Slowly Forgetting that Tree (translated from Malayalam by J. Devika) are fine examples of such satisfying literature.

15 August 2015 

Abeer Y. Hoque “The Lovers and the Leavers”

Abeer HoqueBut it hadn’t been the smell of Indian food that had offended Sailan. It was Appa. Gabriel had never considered their father’s post-work rituals consciously until that day. Upon returning home, Appa would go upstairs and remove his suit, uniformly grey or navy, leave on a thin white singlet that stretched over his ballooning waist, and tie on a well-worn lungi. Downstairs, he would gather the newspapers from the hall table where his mother had discarded them, and get an apple from the kitchen. Then he’d squat in the corner of the living room, eat the apple, and read the papers. What was wrong with wearing pants? Sailan had asked. Or maybe squatting in the study instead of the living room? 

‘The study is crowded,’ Appa said mildly, choosing to reply to the second query, combing through the few remaining hairs on top of his head. 

‘Because you use it for storage,’ Sailan said. 

Appa shrugged. ‘There’s enough space in the living room for all of us.’

‘The space is not the point. We can’t use the living room for entertaining. I’d just like to bring my friends over without feeling as if we’re entering a television programme about displaced immigrants.’

It was true that their living room didn’t look like any Catalan living room Gabriel had been in. The paisley print curtains didn’t match the plastic-covered furniture, and there were piles of papers in all the corners. Appa never cared for how things appeared, but his contempt for Sailan’s tone overcame his disregard. 

‘We are displaced immigrants,’ he said, in an uncharacteristically sharp way. 

( p.125-7)

Abeer Y. Hoque’s first book, The Lovers and the Leavers, is a collection of twelve interlinked short stories with photographs and poetry interspersed. The stories revolve around a bunch of characters, spanning a few years, though it is never let on in numbers. You can only gauge time by the different points of life the characters are at. Some were toddlers but when the book comes to an end, they are married. These are stories told from different gendered and social perspectives. These stories are about different kinds of love and inevitably the pain of being rejected that are at the crux of the stories. But it is the manner in which these are told that is so refreshing.

About a decade ago, fiction written by the subcontinent diaspora, especially of those settled in America was popularly referred to as ABCD or “American Born Confused Desi”.  A story had to be told by the immigrants. There are many writers who have established their name doing it but there is a new generation of writers emerging. Writers who are poised, at ease with their dual identity — of being Americans and of belonging to the land they originated from, it shows in their confident style of writing and the wonderful ability to blend the various cultures they are privy to. Abeer Y. Hoque belongs to this category. Gently, forcefully and with grace she is able to flit between cultures evident in the use of language — “sophomoric sexuality”, “old-fashioned bideshi manners”,  and “coloured monkeyboy”. To be able to talk about different cultural experiences without being patronising and yet, with searing insight she communicates the feeling of alienation apparent at times. For instance the reference to “their ‘gora’ meals as they called them, more for the pale shade of the food than the race of people. Bags of potato chips, popcorn, rolls of cookie dough on special occasions.” (p.206)

The Lovers and the Leavers is a fine example of stylish storytelling. It is by a writer who seems to be at peace with being identified as a Bangladeshi American writer, born in Nigeria, and with no qualms about discussing life as she has experienced it — a mixed bag of cultural influences. I love it.

Abeer Y. Hoque The Lovers and the Leavers Fourth Estate, HarperCollins Publishers, 2015. Hb, pp. 240. Rs. 499

14 August 2015 

Alex Bellos, “Alex Through the Looking Glass”

9781408845721I spent the better part of a morning reading bestselling author Alex Bellos’s absolutely delightful book Alex Through the Looking Glass: How Life Reflects Numbers, and Numbers Reflect Life. ( The American edition is called The Grapes of Math.) He uses anecdotes and examples from real life but neatly dovetails it with the history of modern mathematics, interweaving it with accounts of legendary mathematicians. Some of the text is very technical but is still accessible. This book is written for the layperson, not a specialist. But golly, this man is informative. I love the way he has strung together maths trivia with crucial bits of knowledge effortlessly. I admire the way he talk about eminent mathematicians as if they were his buddies but very respectfully places them in context. It could be Newton, Leibniz, Archimedes, Brahmagupta et al. He makes you chuckle when making reference’s to Euclid’s Elements reads like a recipe book.

And then I discovered this tweet. The book has been shortlisted for an award.

Alex Bellos (@alexbellos) tweeted at 3:22 PM on Wed, Aug 05, 2015:
Thrilled to make @royalsociety Winton Prize shortlist w @matthewcobb @WanderingGaia @jimalkhalili @jonmbutterworth +https://t.co/5y2aKNm7VP
(https://twitter.com/alexbellos/status/628866049467940864?s=03)

His previous book, Alex’s Adventures in Numberland was shortlisted for the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize. Alex Bellos writes a blog for The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/profile/alexbellos It is worth browsing through. He makes maths fun!

He helps rearrange one’s muddled significance and timeline of eminent mathematicians through the ages but contextualises them very well, it won’t be easy to dismiss as “boring maths”.  For instance, “Thales is ..the first person to have a specific mathematical discovery named after him: Thale’s Theorem, which states that the triangle inscribed inside a semicircle has a right angle. He also used his deductive powers to predict the solar eclipse of 585 BCE, and improve after a few bad years. He bought all the olive presses he could at rock bottom prices and when the upturn came he got rich. A century later, the comic playwright Aristophanes made fun of the great sage by having him fall in a ditch because he was lost in thought, gazing at the sky. Thales is not just remembered as history’s first mathematician and philosopher, but also as history’s first absent-minded professor.” (p.59)

Or the story about The Scottish Book

Between the First and Second World Wars, a clique of mathematicians in Lwow, Poland, met regularly in a coffee shop, the Scottish Cafe, to discuss mathematical morsels such as the pancake theorem. Hugo Steinhaus, a principal member of the group, wondered whether the theorem could be extended into three dimensions. ‘Can we place a piece of ham under a meat cutter so that meat, bone and fat are cut in halves?’ he asked. His friend Stefan Banach proved that such a cut is possible, using a theorem attributed to two others in a group, Stanislaw Ulam and Karol Borsuk. Banach’s result has subsequently been popularized as the ‘ham sandwich theorem’, because it is equivalent to stating that one can divide a ham sandwich in two with a single slice that cuts each slice of bread and the ham into two equal sizes, no matter how each piece is positioned and whatever is shape.

The mathematicians who gathered in the Scottish Cafe kept a thick notebook of all the questions they asked each other, which they entrusted to the care of the head waiter when they went home. Eventually known as The Scottish Book, it is a unique collaborative work, and not just because of how it was written. ( It was never published as a book, but some of its problems appeared later in journals.) 

(p.236-7)

Ulam later joined the Manhattan Project.

I would strongly recommend buying this book. It is the kind of nonfiction book you dip into and come away feeling time has been well spent. It would also be a useful addition to the reference section of a library, particularly of schools.

Alex Bellos Alex Through the Looking Glass: How Life Reflects Numbers, and Numbers Reflect Life Bloomsbury, London, 2014, rpt 2015. Pb. pp. 340 Rs 399.

13 August 2015 

“A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces”, an interview with David Davidar, Kitaabnama

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Episode 85, Kitaabnama, 10 April 2015An interview with writer, publisher and anthologist, David Davidar regarding his new book, A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces. It is a collection of 39 short stories by Indian writers. It consists of translations and those written originally in English and has been published by Aleph Book 20150811_090538Company. This episode of Kitaabnama was recorded on 10 April 2015.

Kitaabnama is a weekly programme on national television, Doordarshan. Conceived by writer and literary activist Namita Gokhale, the programme will have a participatory and inclusive format and showcase the multilingual diversity of Indian Literature. Addressing literary issues of contemporary through dialogue and conversation, Kitaabnama features 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.

11 August 2015