May 2016 Posts

Katherine Applegate, “The One and Only Ivan” and “Crenshaw”

applegateKatherine Applegate’s Newberry award-winning book The One and Only Ivan (2012) is a stunningly beautiful book and a must read for children and adults alike. The New York Times wrote “It was based, loosely, on a true story; it addressed the issue of animal cruelty honestly, but in a manner that children could handle; it was technically original, telling the story from Ivan’s perspective, in short chapters that read like prose poems. But the primary reason “Ivan” has become such a beloved book is Ivan himself. His frank wisdom about life, both human and animal, provokes laughter and thought; his aspirations — to become an artist, and to liberate himself through art — feel universal.” ( 6 Nov 2015 http://nyti.ms/1TH2ehd )

Ivan is a gorilla in captivity. He lives in a mall with a bunch of other retired circus animals including Stella, an elephant and Bob the stray dog who has adopted him. After the humans have left for the night, Ivan and Stella converse with Bob usually napping on Ivan’s large tummy. One day Ivan requests Stella to recount the Jambo story. It is about Jambo a gorilla into whose zoo enclosure falls a human baby. Read on…

****


‘Tell us the Jambo story,” I say. It’s a favourite of mine but I don’t think Bob has ever heard it.

Because she remembers everything, Stella knows many stories. I like colourful tales with black beginnings and stormy middles and cloudless blue-sky endings. But any story will do.

I’m not in a position to be picky.

“Once upon a time,” Stella begins, “there was a human boy. He was visiting a gorilla family at a place called a zoo.”

“What’s a zoo?” Bob asks. He’s a street-smart dog, but there’s much he hasn’t seen.

“A good zoo,” Stella says, “is a large domain. A wild cage. A safe place to be. It has room to roam and humans who don’t hurt.” She pauses, considering her words. “A good zoo is how humans make amends.”

Stella moves a bit, groaning softly. “The boy stood on a wall,” she continues, “watching, pointing, but he lost his balance and fell into the wild cage.”

“Humans are clumsy,” I interrupt. “If only they would knuckle walk, they wouldn’t topple so often.”

Stella nods. “A good point, Ivan. In any case, the boy lay in a motionless heap, while the humans gasped and cried. The silverback, whose name was Jambo, examined the boy, as was his duty, while his troop watched from a safe distance.

“Jambo stroked the child gently. He smelled the boy’s pain, and then he stood watch.

“When the boy woke, his humans cried out, ‘Stay still! Don’t move!’ because they were certain – humans are always certain about things – that Jambo would crush the boy’s life from him.

“The boy moaned. The crowd waited, hushed, expecting the worst.

“Jambo led his troop away.

“Men came down on ropes and whisked the child to waiting arms.”

“Was the boy all right?” Bob asks.

“He wasn’t hurt,” Stella says, “although I wouldn’t be surprised if his parents hugged him many times that night, in between their scoldings.”

Bob, who had been chewing his tail, pauses, tilting his head. “Is that a true story?”

“I always  tell the truth,” Stella replies. “Although I sometimes confuse the facts.”

( p.59-61)

***

Unfortunately reality is harsher.

Harambe, infant, courtesy Charles AlexanderOn  28 May 2016, seventeen-year-old Harambe was shot dead in Cincinnati zoo. Here is the account by Charles Alexander (https://www.facebook.com/wildlifeartist?fref=photo&qsefr=1 )

Harambe died today, one day after his 17th birthday. Son of Moja, he was born and raised at the Gladys Porter Zoo here in South Texas– a magnificent western lowland gorilla. Everyone loved him here. Last year, the big guy was sent to Cincinnati Zoo to meet some girls. This afternoon, Harambe was shot dead when a small child crossed a railing, got through a fence, past thick Pyrecantha bushes and a 12″ thick concrete wall– and fell into the gorilla moat. Where were the parents of the child? Looking at their cell phones? I see kids running wild all the time at the Gladys Porter Zoo, at every zoo I visit. Chasing 13266097_10154273745777276_1182632249269177653_npeacocks, yelling at the animals, feeding animals, throwing stuff into exhibits, often totally unsupervised and undisciplined. Adults do the same crap. Ignorant and self-entitled to do what they please, here in this very special place that many endangered species call home, they couldn’t care less about the consequences of their behavior. Now Harambe is dead. Great work people! Animals lose again.

RIP Harambe.

Katherine Applegate has recently published an equally moving book for children Crenshaw. Both books are published by HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Reality IS stranger than fiction.

Read these two novels. Share them. Live them. Avert such unnecessary tragedies in future.

Katherine Applegate The One and Only Ivan HarperCollins Children’s Books, London, 2012. Pb. Pp.260. 

Katherine Applegate Crenshaw HarperCollins Children’s Books, London, 2015. Pb. Pp.254. 

30 May 2016

Kindle Instant Preview launched in India, 24 May 2016

The Kindle Instant Preview ( or #KindleInstantPreviews) was launched in USA in January 2016. It is a new feature instituted by Amazon that lets third-party blogs, sites and apps give their users the ability to browse excerpts from books without leaving their sites or apps. The idea behind it being if you give readers a little taster of what to expect in the book they are reading about online there is a greater chance of impulse buying. The application is installed as a widget in the article or blog post that allows the reader alighting on the icon to “flip” through the book and if they like it, then they can move to the “buy” button and make an instant purchase. The feature is integrated with the Kindle so it is available only for those books available on Kindle + Amazon. Here are a couple of articles on the application from January 2016:

http://www.geekwire.com/2016/embed-a-book-amazon-starts-offering-kindle-book-previews-for-third-party-websites/ and http://jwikert.typepad.com/the_average_joe/2016/01/kindle-instant-preview-reinforces-amazons-dominance.html .

On 24 May 2016, the Kindle Instant Preview application was launched in India too. The press release is here: http://amzn.to/1OKIeIm . Amazon India has partnered with my blog. Some of the blog posts that have been integrated with the widget for the launch are visible on Ashwin Sanghi’s The Sialkot Saga ( http://bit.ly/1UEe1lq ),

Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome ( http://bit.ly/1RDJvFr ) ,

Paro Anand’s Like Smoke ( http://bit.ly/1XDbxSF ) ,

Molly Crabapple’s Drawing Blood ( http://bit.ly/27R434L )
Sunil Khilnani’s Incarnations ( http://bit.ly/1OKqAEt ) ,

Meg Rosoff’s Jonathan Unleashed ( http://bit.ly/1paBhcw )

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s Before We Visit The Goddess ( http://bit.ly/1NBeYsC ),

Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life (http://bit.ly/1YV1jxd)   and
LEGO books published by Scholastic India such as Lego Movie (http://bit.ly/1UaS9v2)

I am happy to partner with Amazon India for the Kindle Instant Preview application particularly if it helps in strengthening the publishing industry by benefiting the ecosystem. IMHO it gives readers a taster of what they can hope to read and offers authors & publishers the opportunities for more platforms to sell their books.

Support for my blog/website is by Akhil Namboothiri (http://akhilnamboothiri.com/ )

24 May 2016 

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni, “Before We Visit the Goddess”


Earlier this week I interviewed Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni via email about her latest novel, Before We Visit the Goddess, published by Simon & Schuster. The review-cum-interview article has been published by newly launched literary website, Bookwitty.com on 20 May 2016. Here is the original url: https://www.bookwitty.com/text/573df5efacd0d0353bea32f7 . I am c&p the text below. One of the things I did not point out in the review but continues to bewilder me is the use of a Rajasthani woman on the book cover when all the books by the author focus on Bengali women.

 

One day, in the kitchen at the back of the store, I held in my hand a new recipe I had perfected, the sweet I would go on to name after my dead mother. I took a bite of the conch-shaped dessert, the palest, most elegant mango color. The smooth, creamy flavor of fruit and milk, sugar and saffron mingled and melted on my tongue. Satisfaction overwhelmed me. This was something I had achieved myself, without having to depend on anyone. No one could take it away…

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni occupies a capital place in global publishing as is evident in her moves between publishers from Picador to Penguin Random House and now to Simon & Schuster. She may be of Indian origin and her stories are very Bengali oriented but they have far greater international appeal. She moved to the USA in the 1970s but remains culturally sensitive to Bengali women’s stories. For years now she has worked with women’s organizations that help survivors of domestic abuse and trafficking. As she told me, “I am on the advisory board of Maitri in the San Francisco area and Daya in Houston. Maybe for this reason, it is important for me to write about strong women who go through difficult situations and are strengthened further by them. This is certainly true of my newest book, Before We Visit the Goddess. I never use the stories I come across in my activist work – those are confidential. But I am sure on some level they have influenced me as a writer and a human being.”

Her early works focused on the known world of Bengali women in the villages and cities, interpersonal relationships, on the home, inside the kitchen, women to women, and the importance of gossip. One such work, Mistress of Spices (1997) was turned into a film in 2005 with noted Bollywood actress and former Miss World, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan.

A decade later, the path breaking The Palace of Illusions ( 2008) was published. It is a feminist retelling of the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata from the point of view of the King of Panchala’s daughter. It was a bestseller and according to Pan Macmillan India, now years after publication it continues to sell steadily at around 15,000 copies every year. This was a watershed moment in Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee’s life as a writer. The Palace of Illusions is now to be made into a film directed by the legendary Aparna Sen, which Divakaruni says she is very excited about. She also began to write young adult fiction such as Brotherhood of the Conch series (2003), in reaction, she told me at the time, to racist abuse she experienced with her sons in the US post 9/11.

She quickly returned to writing her trademark literature. Her later novels are written with a stronger voice and with an assertion of her multi-cultural makeup. As she says, “I have many identities, but ultimately labels are just that – labels. My sensibility as a writer has been shaped by living in India and America, Bengal and Assam and California and Texas. … I would like to think of myself as a global, multicultural writer with roots deep in India – and now Houston.”

She writes with great sensitivity to youth especially immigrants coming to the US. The confusion they face, the hostility, the racism, negotiating their way through life but also the unexpected benevolence of humankind that exists.

Before We Visit the Goddess is Divakaruni’s latest novel and sixteenth publication. In the fashionable mold of contemporary fiction with a five-generation saga, it predominantly details the lives of the second, third and fourth generation of women, Bela, Sabitri and Tara. But there is always much, much more tucked into the stories about the grandmother, mother and daughter. A strong characteristic of Divakaruni’s novels is the exploration of relationships between women, the inter-generational gap, the challenges and victories woman experience and the cultural differences of living in India and the US.

“My sensibility as a writer has been shaped by living in India and America, Bengal and Assam and California and Texas.”

To her credit, Divakaruni creates charmingly and deceptively simple women-centric novels. She never presents a utopian scenario focusing only on women and excluding any engagement with men and society. Instead she details the daily negotiations and choices women face that slowly help them develop into strong personalities:

“I believe in the right of women to live a life of dignity and make their own choices about important decisions in their lives. Therefore, I believe in women’s education, empowerment, and financial independence. These themes are all very important in Before We Visit the Goddess.”

It could be, for instance, the timid homemaker Bela’s insistence on taking her late husband’s firm to court to seek compensation for his death in a factory fire and to everyone’s surprise, winning, or Sabitri’s warm friendship with her gay neighbor, Kenneth, who helps her to establish herself successfully as a food blogger. Without being over-sentimental, Kenneth is tender and radiates pure love.

Divakaruni wrote about her character, “The young gay Caucasian male, Ken, became one of my favorite characters as I was writing him. I hope his unusual relationship with Bela will surprise and delight readers.”

Even the bright Tara who, besides a stray phone call or two, disappears from her family’s life after her parents’ divorce lives an adventurous decade. This includes working at a second-hand shop, becoming a drug addict, being sacked from jobs, babysitting an Indian grandmother transplanted to America who feels as if she is “being buried alive”, or driving an Indian academic to a temple in Texas with equally catastrophic and cathartic consequences. What is admirable about these women is that despite humiliation and hardship, they strive to get ahead.

The stories also work beautifully if read aloud. To my delight, I discovered that Divakaruni does just that with passages from her stories while drafting them, since “you become aware of the rhythm of the language you use”.

The structure of her prose is like a fluid stream of consciousness, evident in the manner in which she plays with the epistolary form and breaks it up in the first chapter when Sabitri is writing a letter to her granddaughter, Tara. Divakaruni believes that with women, “our thought-connections are often emotional ones.”

It is exactly this emotional resonance she wishes to explore and exploit in Before We meet the Goddess, deeming it a “novel-in-stories”. It is “a form that allows me to go through three generations of lives, their ups and downs, in an agile and swift manner, a non-chronological manner. This is important for me, because in some ways this is a novel about memory and how it colors and shapes our understanding of our life. Each chapter in the novel is a stand-alone story, focusing on a moment in the lives of these women, an emotionally significant moment, perhaps a moment of transformation – either good or bad. The stories have many narrators – not just the three women, but the man important in their lives – even if just for one day. Such a structure allows me to organize the novel according to emotional resonance.”

In Before We Visit the Goddess the author takes the different phases of life in her stride without making any of the experiences sentimental, such as young Bela’s pain, or the loneliness, and whimsical and wretched behavior of Leelamoyi, Bela’s wealthy benefactress. Her trademark fiction of the world of Bengali women remains steadfast but she also develops the inter-generational differences magnificently. She did her research, she said, by conversing with young Indians including those who have moved to or are studying in the US, and speaks via Skype to classes in colleges that teach her books. She is active on social media and “loves interacting with her readers”.

At a time when debate rages in the US as to whether the word “India” should be replaced with “South Asia” in school history textbooks, Divakaruni’s novel is more than auspicious. According to The New York Times, “The dispute centers on whether the region that includes modern-day India, Pakistan and Nepal should be referred to as India or as South Asia, to represent the plurality of cultures there — particularly because India was not a nation-state until 1947. It also touches on how the culture of the region is portrayed, including women’s role in society and the vestiges of the caste system. It might seem somewhat arcane. But it has prompted petition drives, as well as a #DontEraseIndia social media campaign and a battle of opinion pieces.

Divakaruni’s books have always elegantly examined multi-cultural identities and what it means to be an Indian, an American or a desi (people from the Indian sub-continent or South Asia who live abroad). In her masterfully crafted Before We Visit the Goddess, young Tara epitomizes the new generation of American-Indians — not ABCD (American Born Confused Desis) anymore but with a distinct identity of their own. As a diplomat told me recently, she may be of Indian origin but has no roots or family in the country and has not had any for generations. So a posting to India is as much of an exciting new adventure as it would be for anyone else visiting the country for the first time. Divakaruni’s latest novel examines these many layers of cultures, interweaving the traditional and contemporary.

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni Before We Visit the Goddess Simon & Schuster, London, 2016. Hb. Pp. 210. Rs 499 / £ 16.99

20 May 2016

Garth Greenwell, “What Belongs to You”

Garth Greenwell…more and more I took refuge in books, not serious or significant books but books that offered an escape from myself, and it was these books, or rather our shared love for them, that bound me to the few friends I had… 

Garth Greenwell’s debut novel What Belongs to You is about a nameless American schoolteacher who is based in Bulgaria. Funnily enough even though the narrator remains nameless the two cultural landscapes that influence him are very much fixed in a period —the Republican conservative homophobic Kansas and Bulgaria emerging from the Soviet era, detritus of which are still visible in the dilapidated buildings and in the attitude of the people. The novel is divided into three parts — Mitko, A Grave and Pox. In fact “Mitko” won the Miami University Press Novella Prize. What Belongs to You begins with the narrator looking to have sex and comes across Mitko in a public bathroom and from then on they forge a curious relationship. The second section is about the narrator receiving news about his father’s hospitalisation and the flood of memories it unleashes. The final section is about his mother’s arrival in Bulgaria and due to a concatenation of events primarily the fleeting return of Mitko in the narrator’s life, there is a sudden unyoking of himself from his past–immediate and childhood. It is an epiphany that liberates him paradoxically leaving him in despair too. It seems to happen subconsciously while recalling his experience of a severe earthquake.

…the first time I had known that absolute disorientation and helplessness, the first time I had felt in that incontrovertible way the minuteness of my will, so that underlying my fear, or coming just an instant after it, was total abandon, a feeling that wasn’t entirely unpleasant, a kind of weightlessness. 

At Jaipur Literature Festival 2016, Colm Toibin said while researching for The Master, his novel/tribute on/to Henry James, he realised gay fiction was a 21st century phenomenon. He also observed that “fiction contains many mansions” a comment apt for Garth Greenwell’s debut novel. What Belongs to You is much more than a fine example of gay fiction with its extraordinarily bold voice; it is a Künstlerroman, a narrative about the artist’s growth to maturity. What Belongs to You is in the same category as James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or even Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Fun Home. It is evident in the experimentation of form in “A Grave” such as the long unbroken paragraphs sometimes running on for pages and pages that fit snugly with the literary device of interior monologue. The lyrical prose of “A Grave” is structured as magnificently as Isabel Archer’s reflection in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady.  In both novels the interior monologues by the central characters are pivotal not only to the structure of the plot but also to the radical transformation they wrought in the narrator and Isabel and to the chain of events to follow.

At one level What Belongs to You is reading a story about a young man living in a new land and yet it is also recognising what belongs to you are who you are, what you make yourself. This could be by rejection such as the narrator’s complicated relationship with his father or by accepting new influences as the narrator says by “thinking it half in Bulgarian and half in my own language, which I returned to as if stepping onto more solid ground.”

One of the best interviews published so far with Garth Greenwell has been with Paul McVeigh. “The world according to Garth Greenwell” (The Irish Times, 25 April 2016. http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/the-world-according-to-garth-greenwell-1.2623753)

Garth Greenwell is a boldly confident youthful writer who writes extraordinarily beautiful prose with panache. Hopefully one day the following writers will be together on a panel discussing the art of blending truth and fiction, writing a memoir-novel: Damian Barr, Paul McVeigh, Sandip Roy, Roxane Gay, Garth Greenwell and Alison Bechdel.

What Belongs to You is a debut that will be talked about for a long time to come!

Garth Greenwell What Belongs To You Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2016. Hb. pp. 196. Rs 550

18 May 2016

 

Robert Seethaler, “A Whole Life”

A Whole LifeYou can buy a man’s hours off him, you can steal his days from him, or you can rob him of his whole life, but no one can take away from any man so much as a single moment. That’s the way it is. ( p.37)

Robert Seethaler’s novel A Whole Life is about Andreas Egger, who never grumbled about work and did it diligently through all seasons. He was “considered a cripple, but he was strong”. He was orphaned at two but sent to live with his uncle, farmer Hubert Kranzstocker. At eighteen his uncle threw him out of the house and Andreas began working for Bitterman & Sons construction teams which were setting up cable cars in the mountains. Later he was conscripted during the war, became prisoner of war at a Serbian camp, Voroshilovgrad, for eight years, and returned home to discover the construction firm had gone bankrupt and he earned his living as a tourist guide. There is hardship. There is immense loneliness. There is brutal violence like flogging of the young Andreas Egger by his uncle and breaking his leg earning him the nickname in the village “Gammy Leg”. Despite being a nondescript novel at one level there are moments of pure earthy tenderness such as his proposal to Marie. Adapting the tradition of Sacred Heart Fires — huge fire pictures that were lit on summer solstice, illuminating the mountain by night. He enlisted the help of his co-workers and emblazoned on the Austrian mountainside “For you, Marie”. Unfortunately after her untimely death in an avalanche Andreas Egger remains a widower for the rest of his life.

A Whole Life is a seemingly nondescript novel but comes alive upon second reading with the tiny details embedded in it that illuminate it much like the summer solstice fires emblazoning the rugged mountainside with moments of extraordinary beauty. The deep loneliness of Andreas Egger is enhanced by the story being very masculine not because it is about a male protagonist but for a man who chooses to be a loner and hardly anyone is inquisitive about it.  ( For a woman it would be an entirely different story!) It is no wonder that the slim novella exquisitely translated by Charlotte Collins from German has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016.

A Whole Life is like old gold. It will become a modern classic.

Robert Seethaler A Whole Life Picador, London, 2015. 

( Originally published in German 2014 as Ein ganzes Leben  by Hanser Berlin, an imprint of Carl Hanser Verlag, Berlin.)

15 May 2016

 

Saadat Hasan Manto, 11 May

11 May is Saadat Hasan Manto’s birthday. He is remembered for his short fiction, his commentaries, his Manto, Penguin Indiajournalistic pieces including those on filmmakers and much more. He is one of the few writers who is associated with subcontinent writing about the social, cultural and political milieu. There is no doubt he was a deeply political writer who had a fraught relationship with the Progressive Writer’s Association. Decades after his death he continues to be read, translated and discussed with passion. It has something to do with the crisp, clear, straight-from-the-heart manner of writing. Apparently he wrote furiously and in large quantities.

 

Lallantop, MantoIn recent years much of his body of work has been made available inManto and Ravish English — jottings on cinema and actors, on Bombay, short fiction etc. Take for instance the Hindi website, thelallantop.com, celebrating a month of  Manto (  http://www.thelallantop.com/tehkhana/saadat-hasan-manto-best-stories-in-hindi-thanda-gosht/ ) and Rajkamal Prakashan Group, a highly respected Hindi publishing firm has collaborated with an FM radio channel and has RJ Sayema reading out stories Manto 3every Friday night. Leftword recently brought out an incredible collection of Manto’s essays — Saadat Hasan Manto: The Armchair Revolutionary and Other Sketches which has an introduction by Nandita Das. ( http://bit.ly/23H6IsQ ). Penguin Random House, India has for some time been publishing a lot of Manto books. Some of these are:

PRH 1PRH 4
PRH 3

PRH 2

11 May 2016

Scholastic India presents LEGO (R) books!

LEGO

 

 

RedBarLogo_CMYK (1)

From 30 May 2016, Scholastic India will be selling LEGO (R) books in India. Some of the highlights include —

LEGO CityLEGO (R) City,

LEGO Friends

 

 

 

LEGO (R) Friends and books related to the

LEGO (R) movie. The Indian editions will be reasonably priced. Some examples are:

Lego Book 2Lego Book 1LEGO Book 3Lego Book 4Lego Book 5

For more information contact:

Shailee Chauhan: schauhan@scholastic.co.in

and

Shantanu Duttagupta: sduttagupta@scholastic.co.in

The books can be bought at :https://www.amazon.in/l/10227604031

11 May 2016

Ashwin Sanghi’s fascinating story from self-publishing to traditional publishing

 


Earlier in 2016, Amazon bought a significant minority stake in Westland.  
 ( Ashwin Sanghi and I were discussing publishing, his pseudonymn “Shawn Higins” and his own amazing success story. His first novel The Rozabal Line was published by Lulu.com. Later an Indian publishing house based in Chennai, Westland, offered to publish his book. His latest novel Sialkot Saga has recently been released. http://bit.ly/1UEe1lq

Read on about Ashwin’s incredible story. This extract is from the first draft of 13 Steps to Bloody Good Luck and has been reproduced with permission. )

Extract from original manuscript of “13 Steps to Bloody Good Luck”

After being rejected by most publishers, I had self-published my first novel The Rozabal Line via a US-based self-publishing platform called Lulu.com which had just set up shop. The year was 2007. There was no Kindle and self-publishing meant POD (Print on Demand) in which the book is listed on websites and a customer order triggers a printing and delivery of the book. I designed my own book cover and hired a freelance editor to work on the manuscript before I uploaded the PDF to Lulu’s server.
The average self-published book sells 57 copies during its lifetime (the long tail is very long indeed). I started blogging and became active on social media. I created a YouTube trailer for the book and managed to sell 900 copies in the first year. I was one of Lulu’s best selling authors even with those meagre numbers!
I soon realized that the platform was selling my books only via American online retail channels such as Amazon.com (the India channel did not exist) and BN.com. My titles remained unavailable in India. My attempts to get published the traditional way in India had come to nought and I was at a dead end.
I started visiting bookstores to find out if they would be willing to stock my books but they refused. They said that they would only deal with distributors. Unfortunately I knew none of the distributors. My mother knew someone at a publishing company and was happy to introduce us. Unfortunately that person’s company had already decided to decline my work (like many others), but she introduced me to Vivek Ahuja, who had worked for eighteen years with a large book distribution entity in India, UBSPD.
The incredibly helpful Vivek advised that I would have to import my books from the US and supply them on consignment basis to a few Indian distributors. Giving me a list of some 75 Indian distributors, he advised me to write to each of them individually, enclosing a copy of my book. One of the distributors on that list was East West Books. No one called or replied to my letters and books.
Months later, I received a call from a lady who introduced herself as Hemu Ramaiah. I did not know it at that time, but she was the founder of Landmark Book Stores and her company had just created a joint venture called Westland with East West Books. Hemu said that she had loved The Rozabal Line that I had sent to East West, but it would be impossible to import the book from America and then expect to sell it in the Indian market at a reasonable price. Would I be willing to republish it in India? I jumped with joy at her question. I had been turned down by almost every publisher on the planet by then.
Hemu then introduced me to Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO of Westland (my current publisher). Gautam liked the book but was not sure about its commercial viability. He created a target group of ten readers (including his own father) to read the book and give feedback. Luckily for me, the majority opinion was favourable.
We signed a contract two weeks later. There were two conditions attached. One: that we do a fresh edit of the book. Two: that I drop my pseudonym.
The first print run was 2000 copies and we sold that lot in four weeks. We went into a second print run and have not stopped ordering reprints since then.
11 May 2016

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni “Before We Visit the Goddess”

ChitraOne day, in the kitchen at the back of the store, I held in my  hand a new recipe I had perfected, the sweet I would go on to name after my dead mother. I took a bite of the conch-shaped dessert, the palest, most elegant mango color. The smooth, creamy flavor of fruit and milk, sugar and saffron mingled and melted on my tongue. Satisfaction overwhelmed me. This was something I had achieved myself, without having to depend on anyone. No one could take it away. … That’s what it really means to be a fortunate lamp. 

Before We Visit the Goddess is Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s latest novel and sixteenth publication. Simply put it is in the fashionable mould of contemporary fiction to have a five-generation saga. It predominantly details the lives of the second, third and fourth generation of women — Bela, Sabitri and Tara. But there is always much much more tucked into the stories about the grandmother, mother and daughter. A strong characteristic of Divakurni’s novels are the exploration of relationships between women, the inter-generational gap, the challenges and victories every woman experiences and the cultural differences of living in India and USA.

To her credit Divakurni creates charmingly and deceptively “simple” women-centric novels. A utopian scenario is never presented which focuses only upon women at the exclusion of any engagement with men and society. Instead she details the daily negotiations and choices women face that slowly develop their strong personalities. For instance, it could be timid homemaker Bela’s insistence of taking her late husband’s firm to court to seek compensation for his death in a factory fire and to everyone’s surprise winning. With the earnings she established a sweet shop in her mother’s name — Durga Sweets. Or Sabitri’s warm friendship with her gay neighbour, Kevin, who by just being a good person helps her to establish herself as a food blogger successfully. Even bright Tara who disappears from her family’s life after her parents divorce except for a stray phone call or two has quite an adventurous decade. It includes working at a secondhand store called Nearly New Necessities, becoming a drug addict, being sacked from jobs for being a kleptomaniac, babysitting an Indian grandmother transplanted to America who feels as if she is “being buried alive” or driving an Indian academic to a temple in Pearland to equally catastrophic and cathartic consequences. Yet what is admirable about these women is despite the humiliations and hardships they have borne, they strive on.

In Before We Visit the Goddess the author takes the different phases of life in her stride without blunting or sentimentalising any of the experiences. For instance the hurt and pain of the young Bela is searing. So is the loneliness, whimsical and wretched behaviour of Leelamoyi, her wealthy benefactress. As with many successful writers they evolve with each book written. In Divakurni’s case her trademark fiction of the world of Bengali women remains steadfast but in this sixteenth book the inter-generational differences are created magnificently. Her book is also timely for it being published when a debate rages in USA whether to replace the word “India” with “South Asia” in school history textbooks. According to New York Times, “The dispute centers on whether the region that includes modern-day India, Pakistan and Nepal should be referred to as India or as South Asia, to represent the plurality of cultures there — particularly because India was not a nation-state until 1947. It also touches on how the culture of the region is portrayed, including women’s role in society and the vestiges of the caste system. It might seem somewhat arcane. But it has prompted petition drives, as well as a #DontEraseIndia social media campaign and a battle of opinion pieces.” ( 4 May 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/06/us/debate-erupts-over-californias-india-history-curriculum.html?_r=0 ) Whereas Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s books elegantly examine identity — what it means to be an Indian, an American or a desi. In Before We Visit the Goddess young Tara epitomizes the new generation of American-Indians– not ABCD any more but with a distinct identity of their own. As a diplomat told me recently she may be of Indian origin but has no roots or family in the country and has not had for generations. So a posting in this country is as much of an exciting new adventure as it is for anyone else visiting India for the first time.

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s stories are ageing gracefully with her. Read Before We Visit the Goddess. 

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni Before We Visit the Goddess Simon & Schuster, London, 2016. Hb. Pp. 210. Rs 499 / £ 16.99

8 May 2016

 

Kannada, Konkani, English: Memories, Texts and Distances

On 23 April 2016 Vivek Shanbhag and I were invited by Namita Gokhale, co-director, Jaipur Literature Festival to be in conversation at the Apeejay Languages Festival 2016, Oxford Bookstore, Connaught Place, New Delhi. We were to discuss his recently translated novel from Kannada to English, Ghachar Ghochar, as part of the topic, “Kannada, Konkani, English: Memories, Texts and Distances”. Before we began the discussion I read out a note contextualising the conversation. I realised that Vivek Shanbhag and I had spent a while chatting a few days earlier and would happily fall into a chat easily. Hence the note which was passed by Vivek Shanbhag too. With his permission I am publishing it here. 

Kannada, Konkani, English: Memories, Texts and Distances 

Vivek Shanbhag 1Vivek Shanbhag is a noted writer, editor and translator. For seven years while holding a busy day job he edited a literary journal of Kannada writing called Desh Kala. It was phenomenal in the impact it had in discovering new writers. It is probably the only contemporary journal in an Indian regional language that continues to be talked about in English and now edited excerpts of it are to be published.

Although he has been a name in Kannada and other literary circles for a while, few probably know his mother tongue is Konkani. A language that can be written in five different scripts –Devanagari, Roman, Kannada, Malayalam, and Persian.  (Now it is the Devnagari script that is accepted officially by state governments. )Yet Vivek Shanbhag chooses to write in Kannada. And he is not alone in this comfortable oscillation between mother tongue and the language of professional writing. I gather from him it is common practice among the Kannada, Marathi, Telugu writers. For instance, one of the finest Marathi short story writers G. A. Kulkarni was a Kannadiga; Girish Karnad’s mother tongue is Konkani but he writes Vivek Shanbhag 2in Kannada and the list goes on.

Earlier this year the English translation of Vivek’s fine novella Ghachar Ghochar was published by HarperCollins India. It has been translated by Srinath Perur. It was the only translated text from an Indian regional language included in the special edition of Granta on India ( 2015) edited by Ian Jack. “Ghachar Ghochar” is a nonsensical phrase yet the story is an impressively crafted vignette of a middle class family in Karnataka. Peppered with sufficient local characteristics for it to be representative of a Kannadiga family with universal issues such as socio-eco mobility & status of women. It is no wonder that this novella has caught the English readers by storm.

And yet,

Ghachar GhocharWhen you read Ghachar Ghochar it reads like the finest example of world literature. By world literature I mean translations of literary fiction from various cultures. It reads smoothly in the destination language of English but translation purists tell me exasperatedly that it does not retain the “flavour” of the original Kannada text.

One last point. I believe that “cultures” are not necessarily defined by political boundaries but geo-political formations. Under the British this region fell under the Bombay and Madras presidencies. Today it is bordered by the Arabian Sea, Goa, Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Kannada is the official language of Karnataka and spoken by about 66.26% of the people as of 2001. Other linguistic minorities in the state are Urdu (10.54%), Telugu (7.03%), Tamil (3.57%), Marathi (3.6%), Tulu (3.0%), Hindi (2.56%), Konkani (1.46%), Malayalam (1.33%) and Kodava Takk (0.3%).

With this note Vivek and I launched into our conversation. It touched upon various aspects of translation, Kannada literature, how is Kannada literature defined, the significance of literary awards, the process of translation, etc. 

6 May 2016