May 2017 Posts

Of two memoirs — A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi” and “Man Alive”

“You have to fight for yourself,” Parker had said when we first got together, and again, and again. “Wherever you are,” she’d said, “whoever you are, you have a right to be here.” 

( p.82 Man Alive)


Within the past few weeks two powerful memoirs have been published. Coincidentally both are by transgenders — Manobi Bandhopadhyay’s  A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi ( Penguin Books India) and Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive ( Canongate). Manobi Bandhopadhyay’s life history as recounted to Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey charts her transformation from a man to a woman and of her pathbreaking appointment to a college as its principal. Along the way Manobi describes the very conservative family she was born into and how very difficult it was to survive. In fact many people in her family and the village recognised her for being gender fluid and would taunt her as well as sexually abuse her. It was horrific. The Mint’assessment of the biography in its own way documenting the queer Indian history particularly from the mid-1990s is a fair one. Sometimes it is biographies such as this that give insights into the rapid socio-historical transformations taking place in society but being still too near in recent past to accord any objectivity.

Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive is equally disturbing. He writes mostly in first person not only about the transformation from being a woman to a man but also the regular sexual abuse he suffered in childhood from his mother’s husband. As an adult he experiences happiness in love and ultimately marriage too but its deeply painful as it seems to be getting to the core of the writer. Its almost as if this process of writing these chapters were part of some cathartic process. He did for some years have a column in the Rumpus called Self-Made Man. Here is a brilliant interview in the Guernica too.

Conversations about gender fluidity even today continue to be challenging to have; this despite so many conversations, publicity campaigns, changes to laws worldwide etc. So personal journeys like these memoirs are a crucial contribution to the public discourse. There are commonalities in the two transgenders experiences of sexual abuse, violence and opting to make the decision to undergo a physical transformation from the gender assigned at birth to the one of their choice. These are not easy. Apart from the obvious physical transformation there are many psychological and emotional consequences that too need to be addressed for the individual and their immediate family. But the stark differences lie in the narrative style of the two memoirs. Manobi Bandhopadhyay’s A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi though a remarkable biography for its subject matter including the legal cases she is battling are worth reading about but it is cautious in tone. Whereas Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive is far more absorbing though at times terrifying to read for its direct approach; at times it is impossible to read and the book has to be put down before resuming it once more.

According to filmmaker Paromita Vohra and founder of the Agents of Ishq  17 May is International Day Against Homophobia Biphobia and Transphobia ( #IDAHOBIT ). To commemorate it she published an article worth reading about transgenders dating where five people talked about love and dating.

Despite all the violence directed towards them and denial by conservatives that transgenders exist in society the fact these memoirs have been published is a step in the positive direction — it is opening room for conversations and hopefully, change.

17 May 2017 

Ruskin Bond

Last year I spotted Ruskin Bond at a literary festival but it was impossible to see him clearly. It was also the first time I saw an author in India encircled by large security men, more like bouncers seen outside clubs. They not only towered over Ruskin Bond but were very well built and were an extraordinary sight to behold. A testimony too the fan following Ruskin Bond has in India. He needed protection from his fans. Children flocked to him in droves. Parents prostrated themselves in front of the literary festival oragnisers to allow their children into the hall even though it was filled to capacity. Astounding indeed when you realise that Ruskin Bond prefers his solitude, tucked away up in his beloved hill town of Mussorie.

On 19 May 2017, Ruskin Bond turns 83. To celebrate it his publishers have scheduled a bunch of publications. Puffin India has released Looking for the Rainbow — a memoir he has written for young readers describing the time he spent with his father in Delhi. It was during the second world war. His father was with the Royal Air Force ( RAF), stationed at Delhi. Ruskin Bond’s parents were divorced and his mother was about to get married for the second time. His father decided Ruskin Bond could stay with him for a year in Delhi where he had some rooms rented — at first off Humayun Road and then later nearer to Connaught Place. Ruskin Bond remembers this time spent in Delhi fondly even later when he was sent off to boarding school in Simla. In fact decades later he recalls with a hint of sadness that Mr Priestly, his teacher, did not approve of young Ruskin poring over his dad’s letters so suggested he keep them away for safekeeping. At end of term when Ruskin Bond went to ask for his letters his teacher was clueless. Now in his eighties forgiving and generous as is his want Ruskin Bond remarks that Mr Priestly probably “meant well” but all that remains of that pile of letters is the one that the young boy spirited away — and still retains all these years later. Looking for Rainbow is a beautiful edition made richer by Mihir Joglekar’s illustrations.

Looking for Rainbow serves as a wonderful introduction and is probably the slim pickings of the larger project memoir Ruskin Bond will eventually publish with Speaking Tiger Books. It is as his publisher, Ravi Singh, told me the longest book Ruskin Bond has ever written — nearly a 100,000 words. It is “hugely readable. Moving, too, in parts.” Lone Fox Dancing is scheduled for June 2017. Earlier this year Scholastic India released a biography of his written by Shamim Padamsee in their Great Lives series.

 

His long-standing publisher, Rupa, with whom Ruskin Bond has a special relationship for decades now has also brought out two volumes of his works. The Wise Parrot is a collection of folktales retold by Ruskin Bond. He says in the introduction:

I may be no Scherazade, and that is a relief, for it would be rather difficult for me to think of stories knowing my head may be chopped off the next day, yet I have found some ancient legends that are as enthralling as hers and presented them here. There are creatures who have lived in our collective imaginations for ages. There are stories of wit and stories of immense stupidity. And in all this, what shines forth is the power of human imagination that has thrived for millions of years. From the first cave paintings, to today’s novels, the thrill of telling a story has never died down. And here’s wishing that it may live long, bringing people, animals, fairies and ghosts to life forever. 

The Elephant and the Cassowary is an anthology of his favourite stories about wild animals and birds and the jungle. The title story is a perennial favourite and is utterly delightful. A master storyteller and a voracious reader like Ruskin Bond when become a brand name like no other have the luxury of also being tastemakers. As well-known prolific scifi writer and anthologist Isaac Asimov says in his splendid memoir I.Asimov : [An anthology] performs the same function as a collection does, bringing to the reader stories he may be glad to have a chance to read again or stories he may have missed altogether. New readers are able to read the more notable stories of the past.” Another anthology that Ruskin Bond has put together and is being released this week  by Viking, an imprint of Penguin, is Confessions of a Book Lover. Both these anthologies between them contain previously published works by writers such as Rudyard Kipling, F.W. Champion, Henry Astebury Leveson, Joseph Conrad, Laurence Sterne, H.G. Wells, William Saroyan, Stacy Aumonier, and J.B. Priestley. Anthologies are a splendid way to discover new material even though some people think otherwise. Ruskin Bond has it right with these two eclectic anthologies. They jump centuries but the underlying principle of a good story is what matters. It is no wonder then to discover the delightful publishing connection between legendary publisher Diana Athill and Ruskin Bond. She gave him his first break as a writer while still at Andre Deutsch. She certainly knew how to spot talent!

Happy birthday, Mr Bond!

17 May 2017 

 

 

“The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi” by Vicki Mackenzie

The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi by Vicki Mackenzie is an account of an extraordinary Derby-born woman Freda Houlston. Born in 1911, educated at Oxford and married in 1933 to Baba Bedi bringing her to India at the height of the freedom struggle for Independence. She met her husband during the local meetings of the Majlis, the Indian students’ society, and listened to debates about Gandhi and India’s quest for freedom. According to Andrew Whitehead ( who too is working on a biography of Freda Bedi ; Derby Telegraph & The Wire ) “she went to the more tumultuous October Club, where left-wing students gathered to oppose fascism and cheer on the hunger marchers. At lectures, she came across a well-built student – he was a champion hammer thrower – from Punjab, BPL (Baba) Bedi. He invited her to tea. Freda went along with a friend as a chaperone, as the rules required, and was charmed.”

Along with her husband she became a left-wing activist — her socialist spirit was never to leave her even in later years upon conversion to Buddhism. Her marriage took her through Lahore ( in undivided India), Kashmir, Delhi, and Dalhousie. She witnessed Partition and though a firm follower of Gandhi and his non-violent means of struggle when in Kashmir she joined the women’s militia — the Women’s Self Defence Corps — started by some feisty members of the Communist Party affiliated with Sheikh Abdullah’s National Conference Party. Her husband was close to Sheikh Abdullah. Baba Bedi worked in the Kashmir administration “doing his part in promoting counterpropaganda” writing articles both in Kashmir and Delhi. The Bedi family spent five years in the state before the two men fell out in 1952 over their views on the Kashmir plebiscite, a political decision to let the people of Kashmir decide whether they wanted to join Pakistan or accede to India. She returned to Delhi to take on a government job as editor of Social Welfare, publication of the Central Social Welfare Board, part of the Ministry of Education. Social Welfare was written in English and translated into Hindi to reach as many people as possible. According to Vicki Mackenzie, Freda Bedi “chose with her heart — still wanting to help the poor and needy. The pay was low, but with her job came a government apartment”.

It was during a United Nations assignment to Burma that she had an epiphanic experience concerning Buddhism and decided to convert. She soon began to drift away from her material existence and in 1960s moved to Dalhousie where she established the Young Lamas Home School. She also gave shelter to the many Buddhist nuns who had fled Tibet after the Dalai Lama escaped. She created a system which went against the severely hierarchical and patriarchal structure of Buddhist monasteries but allowed the nuns to have a more democratic and responsible way of functioning.

Vicki Mackenzie documents this period of Freda Bedi’s life relying on extensive interviews with her three children — Ranga, the film actor Kabir Bedi and daughter, Guli — along with innumerable people who knew Freda. In fact she is unable to mask her surprise at how forthcoming everyone was with their recollections of Freda Bedi, sharing pictures and documents  making Vicki remark that it was if this book was wanting to be written. Most importantly Vicki Mackenzie heard that the Dalai Lama himself would wonder why no book had ever been written as yet on Freda Bedi. Ever since going on a Buddhist retreat in 1976, Vicki Mackenzie’s writings have focused on Buddhism, reincarnation and role of women.

Even though Freda Bedi devoted the last twenty years of her life to Buddhism and left the family to work for its cause she remained extremely close to her children and husband. Her young daughter, Guli, who had been put into boarding school aged five recalls that every week punctually a letter would arrive from “mummy”. Even her sons knew that though they may have had an unorthodox upbringing, rich in experience but in financially straitened circumstances, they knew they could rely on their mother. For instance Kabir Bedi recounts he needed money to pay his fees at St. Stephen’s College and his mother advised him to ask a friend of theirs who readily gave the required amount. Her love for her family is also evident in a charming collection of poems she wrote for her eldest son, Ranga, called Rhymes for RangaIt was published as a collection of rhymes in 2010.

Freda Bedi was the first European woman to convert to Buddhism. She was ordained in 1965. She is also credited with being the first nun to bring Tibetan Buddhism to the West. She was known as Sister Kechong Palmo although many Tibetans believed Freda to be an “emanation” of Tara, the female Buddha of Compassion in Action or the Divine Mother. Significantly whereever Freda went she was well-connected to the powers that be so was always able to get her way. In India, for instance, she knew politicians like the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira, diplomats and other prominent citizens. In England she counted among her friends Barbara Castle, a fiery left-wing cabinet minister in the 1960s and 70s. In fact when Freda returned to Delhi in 1979 to attend a world buddhist congress she stayed as a guest of the hoteliers Oberois at their five star luxury property. It was here that she passed away aged sixty-six years and was cremated on the Oberoi farm. It is believed that a couple of years later Freda Bedi was “reincarnated as a Tibetan girl, Jamyang Dolma Lama, the daughter of His Eminence Beru Khyentse Rinpoche, a respected lineage holder enthroned by the Sixteenth Karmapa. Born in Tibet, Beru Khyentse Rinpoche had known Freda Bedi well, and had set up his own center in Bodhgaya”.

Today it may seem commonplace to discuss Buddhism and encounter many celebrity converts such as Freda Bedi. But historically her contribution to Buddhism is extraordinarly. Her conversion and single-minded focus to do good constructively by the Tibetan Buddhists, soon after their spiritual leader — the Dalai Lama — fled Tibet for India was unusual for the day. As she was not only committed to the cause but would do anything in her power including calling upon her friends in senior positions to help her.  Her persistence paid off and she was able to leave a well-defined legacy as is apparent in the Buddhist institutions she created at Dalhousie.

More than a century after she was born the important influence Freda Bedi had on Buddhists is slowly gaining traction. For instance Beyond Mud Walls  a short documentary by a distant relative of hers, Nalini Paul, discusses the theatre performance she has conceptualised based Freda Bedi’s book.

Vicki Mackenzie’s biography of Freda Bedi is readable and well-researched. The effort to collect information to build a portrait of a formidable woman so many years after her death could not have been easy. Yet she did it. Despite Vicki Mackenzie’s fascinating account of an Englishwoman who made India her home during the Indian freedom struggle, it is quickly overshadowed by the stronger and better narrated time of Freda Bedi’s life as a Buddhist nun.

Vicki Mackenzie The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi: British Feminist, Indian Nationalist, Buddhist Nun Shambala Publications, Boulder, USA, 2017. Pb. pp.190 $16.95

13 May 2017

Samantha Schweblin

It was late in 2016 that the cyber-whispers about a magnificent new novel in translation began. Then in January 2017 The New Yorker published a review-article about Argentinian Samantha Schweblin’s debut novel Fever Dream.  Shortly thereafter this slim novel was longlisted ( later to be shortlisted too) for the Man Booker International Prize 2017. Fever Dream is about Amanda who is blind and dying. She is conversing with a young boy David. Amanda and David’s mother, Carla, became friends when Amanda moved into the neighbourhood. It was a peculiar relationship which had an unnatural intensity to it evident in the heart-to-heart talks the women had. At times it almost seems as if Carla has taken on the mother’s role to Amanda and yet there are flashes when it seems as if Carla is speaking to Amanda in a confessional mode. Most of the conversations revolved around Carla’s bewilderment about David’s transformation, almost as if he was a changeling.

“Amanda, when I find my real David,” your mother says, “I won’t have any doubts it’s him.”

Surprisingly the conversations between David and Amanda are of the same tenor as that of Carla and Amanda though eerily David sounds the most mature “adult” of the three. He is constantly interrupting Amanda saying “You’re wasting time“,

We need to go faster“,

I’ll tell you when its important to know the details“,

But you always miss the important thing“,

“I’m not interested in this anymore” and

Amanda, I need you to concentrate“.

Its as if the little boy is editing and slowly controlling Amanda’s narrative as if he is privy to more information than she is. There is a sense of urgency to the conversations probably because Amanda is burning with a fever on her death bed.

Amanda has a daughter called Nina. Under Amanda’s watchful eye Nina is never allowed to wander far. The safe distance is measured by what Amanda refers to “rescue distance”. Crossing the imaginary line of this perceived safe distance can catapult Nina into danger given that her mother will not be able to reach in time to rescue her. According to the Guardian, “the phrase is the original, and better, title of the book in Spanish”. And this is the distance that is played upon constantly to fathom what exactly transpired to cause Amanda’s trauma.

“When does it start to go bad, exactly?“,

We’re almost there“,

This is the most important thing. This is everything we need to know.” ,

It is important, but it’s not what we need to understand. Amanda, this is the moment, don’t get distracted. We’re looking for the exact moment because we want to know how it starts.”, 

It’s very gradual.” and “No, no. It’s not about worms. It feels like worms, at first, in your body. But Amanda, we’ve been through all this, too. We’ve already talked about the poison, the contamination. You’ve already told me four times how you got here.”  

Fever Dream may be about mothering and the anxieties that are the defining undercurrents of motherhood.  It also explores that grey area when an adult behaves child-like and vice versa. It happens. It comes through in the conversations. It is further accentuated by the structure of the novel which opens with Amanda and David conversing briefly — this becomes like the framing text. Then there are long passages of Amanda recalling her time with Carla and sequence of events which resulted in her hospitalisation but as the novel progresses these are steadily punctuated by David’s remarks. So what begins like a conversation seemingly between two adults one realises a little later is between a child and an adult but framing the text in this manner juxtapositioning conversations blurs the lines too.

There are always those flashes of adult behaviour apparent in a child which is understandable as they are evolving, also basing their actions on the role models around them. Curiously enough this very fact for which there is a logical explanation can also be disconcerting and challenging for the reader. The powerfully mesmerising writing style which gets carried over in translation as well is commendable but also has echoes of the legendary Brazilian writer Raduan Nassar. He has been hugely influential on contemporary Latin American literature with his two books — A Cup of Rage and Ancient Tillage ( translated by Stefan Tobler). Fever Dreams is the closest to A Cup of Rage in its feverish pace of writing, explosive action and bewildering consequences. Also these two stories create a strong urge to read them from the start upon finishing the last page — as if in a cyclical manner.

Reading Fever Dreams is an exciting exercise by itself but then I came across Valerie Miles recommendation for Samanta Schweblin’s story, “My Parents, My Children” ( translated by Kit Maude) at The Short Story Project . She says : “Let’s face it, the matter of our every day lives is of strange stuff made. When viewed apprehensively, when the strings of family are stretched taut over the Nabokovian abyss to nestle a rocking cradle, or coddle an aging parent whose mind is failing, what’s normal can quickly turn downright bizarre.” It may be too early to say but this exploration of how the young and old seem to behave inexplicably like each other at different stages of life may become a characteristic trait of Samanta Schweblin’s magnificently disturbing but beautifully crafted writing. It is a wonderful compliment to the translation skills of Megan McDowell for having retained the force of the original text and transmitted it equally forcefully in the destination language.

As with Man Booker International Prize 2016 winner The Vegetarian ( translated by Deborah Smith), Fever Dream too raises the bar for literary fiction. Both these novels are extraordinary examples of confident writing whereby the novelists challenge the “traditional” styles of plot, dialogue, structure of text all the while capturing the reader’s imagination. A year on The Vegetarian continues to sell. Fever Dream, whether it wins the prize or not, will also be a steady seller in years to come.

Samanta Schweblin Fever Dream ( Translated by Megan McDowell) Oneworld, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 150 Rs 399 ( Distributed by PanMacmillan India) 

12 May 2017 

 

Saint Teresa

Saint Teresa or Mother Teresa (as she was known till 4 September 2016) and her Missionaries of Charity are known for their care of the poor and establishment of hospices worldwide. Many considered her to be a living saint in her lifetime and after her death miracles were attributed to her. By the time she died in September 1997 her Missionaries of Charity had 610 missions spread across 123 countries.

There are plenty of books written about Saint Teresa. The first is Saint Teresa of Calcutta: A Celebration of her Life & Legacy , a beautiful collection of photographs by Raghu Rai. He has an impressive collection of pictures taken while he would shadow her at work and some of her canonisation ceremony in Rome. The few anecdotes he shares of his interactions with her confirm her gentle, charitable nature and her overwhelming desire to do good by people especially those who are suffering. There is a particularly revelatory episode he shares about casteism and caregiving.

Her love was for humanity and was not limited to any one faith, which was why some of her detractors, who accused her of using her work to convert people, did not make much of an impression on the many millions who were utterly devoted to her. It did not matter to her if you were a Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, believer, agnostic, atheist or Communist — she treated everyone equally. She loved those who needed her without the slightest regard to creed or caste. I am reminded here of an incident that illustrates this aspect of life. Mother’s credo was that she was not a special worker but a mother who took care of all those who needed her. Once, an old Brahmin lady was dying on the streets of Calcutta. The sisters of the Missionaries of Charity wanted to pick her up and bring her to their home for the aged. The woman, however, insisted that she couldn’t be touched by anyone but a Brahmin. When Mother heard about this, she decided she would personally minister unto the woman. As she was about to touch her, the dying woman asked her if she was a Brahmin. While recounting the episode, Mother said she asked herself: ‘Who is a Brahmin?’, to which she felt that anyone who served His people was a good Brahmin, and so she said to the dying woman, ‘Yes, I’m a Brahmin.’ And she picked her up and brought her home.

This anecdote illustrates beautifully her focus on caregiving while ensuring the patient has a dignified closure to their life. It was this generosity of spirit and kindness which enabled her to set up missions around the world. Everywhere she went she was welcomed. Sure she had her fair share of critics. She was accused of siphoning of funds. She was accused of conversions. She was accused of not really investing in improving the health of the people she brought in but focused her energies on tending to them till their death. The fact is she and her sisters of charity offer a social service for the marginalised and the poor, many of whom are shunned by their families and society. This is a stunning photobook from a photographer who in a sense is not only paying his respects to a beloved subject and mentor but is also making  a crucial contribution to history by publicising some of the rare images he was privileged to take. Photography by its very art form can be intrusive and disruptive, yet there is an almost magical quality to the images included in the book as if the subject and photographer had a special relationship.

Conferring the sainthood on Mother Teresa is possibly the reason why Puffin India has launched their  new series, Junior Lives, with a biography of Saint Teresa — Mother Teresa. Junior Lives is a version of the successful Puffin Lives series meant for older children. Junior Lives is meant to be a series of illustrated books created for young readers ( 8+) to acquaint them with world heroes. Unfortunately despite all good intentions at heart the inaugural title of Junior Lives fails to live up to expectations. Beginning with the book title itself launched eight months after sainthood has been conferred by the Pope — how can it continue to be termed as Mother Teresa, why not Saint Teresa? Terminologies have to keep pace with historical changes. Secondly even if this book is meant for younger readers why are facts not spelled out clearly rather than diluted as with the following passage  (Chapter 8):

There are many other examples of how Mother Teresa came to help during a dangerous crisis. In 1984, in Bhopal in India, a large company that manufactured pesticides made a terrible mistake. A dangerous gas leaked out from the factory at night and killed thousands of people. …[Mother Teresa helped raise funds and take care of the injured]. 

Why is Union Carbide as the offending company not mentioned clearly? By soft-pedalling the monstrous manmade Bhopal Gas Tragedy and terming it as a “terrible mistake” by way of an explanation to children is wrong. Children tend to see the world in black and white so why not tell them the truth? Share facts. Not judgements. By swiftly rearranging historical narrative in this manner will contribute in the creation of a new generation who won’t in future see the gas tragedy for the horror it was. This is the converse of what children are taught early that just as every action has an equal and opposite reaction so must children learn that every action of theirs has a consequence and they must behave responsibly. Even if it is a biography about Mother Teresa this passage implies that it was an accident and the corporation is not really to blame but don’t worry a charitable soul like Mother Teresa is ever present to tend to the needy. It is teaching an unforgiveable lesson that mistakes happen and people directly responsible for it are not necessarily to be blamed instead there will be others to pick up the pieces.

Another example of poor writing and editing is a few lines later when she travelled “she went to a country called Ethiopia“. Feeling the need to describe Ethiopia as a country especially when Italy, America, Germany and Switzerland were not qualified in a similar fashion in Chapter 7 is cringe-worthy. This smacks of a cultural prejudice that is inadvertantly being passed on to the next generation and at a time when racial diversity and inclusiveness are the buzz words. It is ironical that such unforgiveable errors have been permitted in a biography of a woman who was loved by millions around the world, irrespective of their caste, colour or creed.

Texts for children are to be put together with great deal of care and thought. Every little aspect needs to be taken into account and anticipated. Young readers tend to engage with the text minutely and every little element in it — whether text or illustration — is scrutinised, queried and discussed threadbare before being imbibed and becoming a critical part of their mental furniture. One can only hope that the future titles meant in this series are created with due care.

Raghu Rai Saint Teresa of Calcutta Aleph Book Company, 2017.  Hb. Rs 1499

Sonia Mehta Mother Teresa Puffin Books, Penguin Random House, India, 2017. Pb. Rs 150 

11 May 2017 

 

 

Pakistani Author Maha Khan Phillips on her New Novel, “The Curse of the Mohenjodaro”

This interview with Maha Khan Phillips was published on Bookwitty on 7 March 2017. 

Maha Khan Phillips is the author of Beautiful from this Angle and The Mystery of the Aagnee Ruby. She is a financial journalist and the editor of Professional Investor Magazine in the UK, where she lives part of the year, the rest of the time she spends in Karachi.

Her novels are set in Pakistan and her fiction is unusual in its portrayal of the economic basis that defines relationships and her astute observation of social dynamics make her fictional landscapes absolutely believable. Her books show women are empowered if financially sound, irrespective of the socio-economic strata they inhabit.

In her latest novel The Curse of the Mohenjadaro, Maha Khan Phillips has taken her literary skills to a new level by venturing into myth-making and exploring the alternative social spaces of cults which ultimately tend to imitate conservative patriarchal structures globally. She kindly answered questions for Bookwitty about her new book:

Mohenjodaro © CRA-terre Pascal Maitre
Mohenjodaro © CRA-terre Pascal Maitre

Why this story? Why Mohenjodaro?

I visited the ancient civilization of Mohenjodaro a couple of times when I was a child on school trips. I was enthralled by it. The thing that resonated most was that nobody knew what happened to its people, or how the civilization declined. I remember being bored and surfing the web one day and idly typing in “Mohenjodaro Mystery”. I wanted to see if there was information out there about the decline of the civilization. Instead, I was astounded to discover the so-called Forbidden History/Forbidden Archaeology movement. I learnt that an archaeologist named David Davenport had written a book entitled Atomic Destruction in 2000 BC (Italian, 1979) and that Mohenjodaro was the epicentre of many conspiracy theories about ancient technologies. I decided it would be a great premise for a thriller. In those days, I wasn’t writing at all, so I sort of forgot about it, for a few years, and then picked it up after Beautiful from this Angle.

How long did the research for this book take?

In reality, researching Mohenjodaro was the easiest bit, because there is so little known about the Indus Valley Civilization. I spent some time learning about archaeology in general, and had some help from a couple of brilliant archaeologists. I also researched Mesopotamia and Egypt in an attempt to get inspiration when creating my imaginary Mohenjodaro. But mostly, I researched cults, the psychology of cults, and the Forbidden History movement.

The Forbidden History movement is a term that derived from conspiracy theorists who believe that any artefacts or discoveries which question mainstream history or current theories of evolution are either dismissed, or covered up. They believe in ancient technologies, in humankind being older than we think, in alien influence on pre-historic earth.

Your fascination with trying to understand cults is evident in the ruthless characters of Iaf and Sohail. Why cults?

I could talk about this for hours… I’ve always been fascinated by cults. How do they work? Why on earth do people fall for charismatic leaders, giving up everything, even their lives in some cases? I suppose in my mind, there’s a resonance with the political world now. People have started positioning themselves with these myopic identities and ideologies and aren’t willing to broaden their thinking. Cults are very much about ‘Us and Them’ and I feel the world is heading in that direction too. Look at all the fake news we have been seeing, and how quickly it’s being disseminated as gospel through social media. Look at religious extremism. And, perhaps the best example – was there ever a cult leader as successful as Donald Trump? I don’t know what’s in the Kool-Aid he’s been handing out, but he’s tweeted his way to cult like devotion amongst his followers, in my opinion – providing them with an ideology that will not help them, and yet spinning the tale so well that they believe life will get better.

How did the creation of the Shakari, Goddess-Blessed and the Bloodstone myth-making come about?

I knew I had to have something – some supernatural force that would cause the chaos which occurs at the beginning of a novel, when the archaeologists go missing and are set on fire. I probably spent more time on trying to figure out what that would be than I did on anything else. In the end, I settled on a stone, because I liked the physicality of having something that could be held in someone’s hand. As for Shakari, many icons of goddesses were found in Mohenjodaro, and so I liked the idea of a matriarchal society which had been corrupted, but which believed in a Mother Goddess. I knew there would be priests and priestesses, and the Goddess-Blessed emerged as those priestesses, for want of a better name for them.

The icons of Goddesses were clay figurines. Numerous kinds have been found in the Indus Valley, wearing headdresses, for example. These could just be images of women, but archaeologists believe they are goddesses .

To my mind the character Jaya’s story was far stronger and tautly told compared to the Nadia & Layla story. Yet how do you occupy two dimensions/time and write two powerful stories?

For ages, I resisted the idea of setting anything in the ancient Mohenjodaro/Meluhha. I felt I couldn’t do it justice or make it credible, not without knowing more about the place. But that information simply wasn’t available. Eventually, I realised that it was the not knowing that was liberating. It meant I could let my imagination go wild. With so little information out there, I had a blank canvas to make up whatever I wanted. But before I made that realization, I had written an entire novel in the present day. It didn’t work, and so I tried other things. I initially wrote a couple of the ancient scenes as dreams that Nadia had, as a way to give context to some of the modern day plot. I quite liked those scenes, and they were so easy to write, they came pouring out. So I started writing more. And soon, I realised I wanted to intertwine the two narratives.

Why interweave stories? How did you decide to break one story with the other while retaining the reader’s interest?

I’m not sure I consciously thought about it. I’m a big fan of the novels of Kate Mosse, and she did this so effectively in Labyrinth. But more than that I didn’t want to give up either story, I felt emotionally invested in both. I let the writing decide when it was going to break from one story to another – I just did it when it felt like a chapter was finished.

The financial details of your novels are always so fascinating. For instance in this case “River trout which was bartered” and even the activities of Giving of Light Foundation have a clear economic basis which are outlined logically. Do you work out the economic intricacies along with the fictional landscape? 

I suppose that’s the financial journalist in me! I’m really aware of how economic realities affect our lives. I would argue that the Financial Crisis brought about Donald Trump and Brexit, for instance. I didn’t feel like the decline/destruction of my ancient Mohenjodaro/Meluhha was credible without a bit of an understanding of why the civilization’s economic system may have failed them, particularly since the character Iaf is driven by greed and power. I was also quite interested in how the people in this ancient civilization would have traded with one another. I loved the cubes they discovered on the site, and the weighing scales, it was such an advanced approach to trading.

The defiant assertion of independence by Jaya, Layla and Nadia against Iaf and later, Sohail, are very well etched. How challenging was it to create these women characters fighting “patriarchal” structures?

I think the challenge for me, at least early on, was actually to make them less assertive and bolshy! I needed, at least initially, for them to be reactive. For example, I needed to justify Jaya’s decision to remain in Meluhha, despite the loss of her parents, to passively accept her fate. I needed Nadia to go to Pakistan without asking too many questions. It was later that the characters all started to fight back, once they realised what they were up against. That was a more comfortable place for me to be in! Some of what happened in the ancient city is mirrored by patriarchal societies which still exist, which we see all around the world. That was deliberate, on my part. I liked that my characters were strong enough to take those on. I am a feminist, and my family is full of strong women who have never let anyone stop them from achieving whatever they set out to achieve, so I enjoyed writing these kick ass women!

“I set up the Foundation after 2001, after the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. I’d been a banker then, but I have always been passionate about antiquity. Our history often defines our future, don’t you think?” It may be unfair to read the personal in fiction you create but somewhere does this novel stem from what you too feel – maybe the importance of getting to know the past better and how it informs our present?

Trust you to find the one sentence in the entire novel that means the most to me personally! Yes, I passionately believe this. History gets lost, but without it, we don’t know who we are. How can we learn from our mistakes, if we haven’t understood when and how we made them? Mohenjodaro belongs to the world – we’ve seen people in Scotland trace their roots back to Mohenjodaro, for instance. There is a worrying trend, as I mentioned, for myopic ideologies, and we have seen what ISIS does to pre-Islamic history and how they want to abolish the past. In their mind, there’s a good reason for their actions. The past can be dangerous. It shows us that we are smaller than we think we are. We will all, eventually, belong to history ourselves. And so we should not seek to impose our ideologies on others because no ideology, no civilization, no one culture, can withstand the sands of time. Instead, we should celebrate our extraordinary heritage and be made richer by what we learn from it.

Maha Khan Phillips The Curse of the Mohenjodaro PanMacmillan India, 2017. Pb.

9 May 2017 

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows: an Interview with Balli Kaur Jaswal

My interview with Balli Kaur Jaiswal on her new novel Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows has been published on Bookwitty today, 8 May 2017. The interview is reproduced below. 

Balli Kaur Jaswal is a Singaporean-based author of Indian origin. She is the author of Inheritance, which won the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist Award in 2014, and Sugarbread, a finalist for the 2015 inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is her third novel, for which film rights have been acquired. The novel’s premise is a young girl under the impression she will be leading a creative writing workshop at a gurdwara, or Sikh place of worship, in Southall, London. Instead, she is confronted with a room full of mostly bored Punjabi widows, some barely literate, who have enrolled in classes to pass the time. In an unexpected turn of events, the women discover they are able to narrate and share raunchy stories which are quickly transcribed by a young educated widow amongst their midst. Before anyone realizes it, the stories are being copied and circulated around London. Exploring the Punjabi Indian diaspora community via this vibrant group of women unearths a Pandora’s box of social mores. Despite its incredible title, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is a fascinating exploration of how women fight for their space and how feminism is lived within the community today. Balli Kaur Jaswal kindly answered the following questions for Bookwitty:

What sparked this story?

I’ve had a lifelong fascination with questions surrounding identity, migration, women’s sexuality and notions of honor in close-knit communities, among other things. Those themes are prevalent in all of my writing. About ten years ago, I spent some time in Southall, London’s Punjabi enclave and I knew it was the perfect setting for a novel which explored these ideas. I was particularly interested in how elderly traditional women experienced and expressed desire in these male-dominated communities, and I started questioning what would happen if I got those women together and gave them a space to talk freely about what they wanted.

Bringing together the concept of the Brothers, a young band of men who have been indoctrinated with a militant version of religion, along with the rising confidence of women in the local Sikh community is well done. Was it inspired by real events?

This is one of the strangest things about writing – you create a fictional character or scenario and then you see it play out in real life and you’re either thrilled or horrified. In my case, it’s the latter. I made up the Brothers, and through multiple drafts of the novel, I kept pausing and thinking, “Would Sikh men do this? Has the policing gotten this zealous and organized?” I decided that I could afford to ask the reader to take that leap with me. Then, a few months after the novel sold, I read reports in The Guardian about groups of British-born Sikh extremists in the UK protesting interfaith weddings in the gurdwara and intimidating the family members. I remember thinking, “Oh my goodness, it’s the Brothers.” It was heartening to read responses from moderate Sikhs in the UK decrying these acts and calling upon these people to focus on the important issues that need urgent addressing in the community, like domestic violence and alcoholism.

Linking the deaths of Maya, Karina and Gulshan to honor killings in the story is impressive. Was the subject difficult to research?

It did hit a raw nerve. I actually read about honor killings when I lived in the UK because around that time, Jasvinder Sanghera’s memoir Shame had just come out and there was a lot of talk about it. What she went through to escape a forced marriage, and the advocacy work that she so bravely pioneered, are remarkable and inspiring. A few years later, she published a memoir of her experiences in supporting honor crime victims. The stories were heartbreaking, and they served as a reminder that her experience was part of a wider problem that still affects girls in this generation. I think what struck me most was the idea that loyalty to the community overrode common sense and conscience. In one of her books, she recalled giving a speech in a Punjabi community in England about being a victim of forced marriage, and she mentioned her work in raising awareness about honor crimes. Afterwards, women lined up to meet her and a few whispered into her ear that they had stayed silent while rebellious daughters or nieces had been sent to India and “taken care of.” I thought about this moment a lot when I wrote this thread into the narrative – it made sense to me that once the women found their voice to discuss their suppressed desires, they’d also find the courage to speak up and act on bigger injustices.

Offering different perspectives of women—modern, young and confident (Nikki), young and conservative (Mindi), young widow (Sheena), distraught mother and lonely wife ( Kulwinder), is a fascinating journey in understanding how women operate in a conservative patriarchal structure. How did you achieve this? Did you need to work on separate character sketches or did they all come together as you were working on the novel?

The best way to create a character is to think about how others would react to them. Nikki was easy enough to conceive because she was a lot like me and so many women I knew in my early twenties. For Mindi, I wanted a character from that same generation to counter Nikki and introduce us to the conservative and traditional “going back to our roots” subset. Mindi calls out Nikki on her one-sided take on social justice and liberalism, and actually reveals herself as somebody with more autonomy than we initially think. Sheena was a sort of bridge from Nikki to the widows. Quite literally: she did some translating, but also she was young and accessible and they developed a friendship which brought Nikki into the fold. Kulwinder was the anathema to Nikki, and I enjoyed alternating their perspectives because it really felt like a cat and mouse game between the protagonist and the antagonist. I would say all of the characters pivoted off Nikki, which is how I usually write – start with the main character and work out who everybody else is and how they help or hinder her.

Your novel seems to represent the second wave of feminism very well. From its references to Fem Fighters and feistiness as displayed by Nikki to the more moderate opinions offered by her sister who focuses on exercising her choice, even if it veers towards conservatism. Even with the bibis, the band of widows, different shades of women exist but they represent a range of women’s voices that could be representative of feminist movements. Did this involve research or did it happen naturally as a consequence of living your feminism?

The research in this area was experiential and anecdotal. I didn’t read up on feminist theory while writing this novel—it was definitely more about the day-to-day applications and how they become complicated by other facts of life. I attended a liberal arts women’s college as an undergraduate which forever changed the way I looked at the world. I found that in the years after, and even now, I’m drawn to people who have that perspective as well. I’m a little surprised when I meet people (women and men) who flinch when you bring women’s rights to the conversation because it’s 2017; who is still regarding “feminist” as a taboo word?

The contrast between the open-mindedness of the widows compared to the more politically correct and careful opinions offered by the younger women such as Mindi is striking. Were these at any point modeled on real conversations and experiences you may have witnessed?

I really wanted to convey the idea that feminism comes in different forms and that one character can be conservative in some ways but quite progressive in others. We can also define modernity and independence depending on our contexts and what balance works for our circumstances. There isn’t a prescribed way to be a feminist; this is the major lesson for Nikki in the novel. Mindi and Nikki have differing definitions of “choice” and they exercise their independence in ways that put them at odds with each other. The widows come from an interesting perspective because they have been marginalized by patriarchal structures but they are also powerful matriarchal figures in a culture that respects and fears mothers. This is why there is room for them to speak up through these classes. I can’t pinpoint any actual conversations or experiences but I know that throughout my adult years, I have observed the various ways in which the same women who command respect are also silenced when their voices become too inconvenient for people in power.

A classic straitjacketing comment often used by women to ensure no one strays from the flock is “Women like us”. You use it sparingly but well in the novel. How well does the phrase sit with you?

I find it worrying when women buy into this narrative about how they should behave, but even more so when they start reprimanding other women. It’s an insidious way to maintain compliancy, and it has its roots in the larger policing carried out by men, especially in conservative communities. The fathers, brothers and uncles who want to keep “their women” in line are aware that there are spaces exclusively for women that they cannot enter, so certain self-appointed women do their bidding for them. “Women like us” sounds deceptively inclusive as well but it’s still about ownership – you can be part of the club but we’ll be charge of what you wear and how you speak.

Given how you show widows as women with real feelings and not individuals to be ignored, silenced and discarded, do you think that writing this novel will have repercussions on your personal life?

So far, I’ve received very positive responses from readers. The only repercussion I’ve faced is becoming a confessional for other people’s secrets, especially Indian women. They come to book signings and then they lean in and whisper these stories from their lives about their mothers doing special prayers after finding their birth control pills or their husbands being turned on by some of the saucier scenes in the novel. But I’m happy to listen!

What are the challenges that lie ahead for women’s movements?

Awareness of intersectionality is an issue. That’s the idea that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to feminism and especially that women from certain backgrounds are vulnerable to other forms of oppression which influence and compound their experience of sexism as well. I’ve experienced this firsthand; people who rally for feminist causes being quite ignorant of the hurdles faced by women from minority races. I know some feminists who will say, “I didn’t get that promotion because I’m a woman” but if you said, “I didn’t get that promotion because I’m a woman and I’m a minority,” they are dismissive or they say you’re playing the race card. I’m not sure where this glitch in the system came from—where if someone mentions suffering from more than one kind of institutional oppression, instead of empathizing, people get indignant and protective over their own stake in the issue. I hope we can resolve it with more open and judgment-free conversations.

Do you think diaspora fiction needs to be pinned down in the “thingyness of things” such as illustrated by Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows and those of the Bengali women as seen in Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s novels to resonate effectively with readers across the world or would a more general form of literary fiction be equally powerful? 

Readers connect to novels that they can identify with, and I think the days of navel-gazing singular “who am I” narratives are probably over. That element exists in all diaspora fiction of course (and arguably in all literary fiction regardless of the audience or the cultural background of the characters) but it needs to converge with a larger narrative. I think it’s an exciting time for diaspora fiction because readers want to be challenged and they’re open to nuance. Some exoticism still exists but readers have a more savvy experience of other worlds now.

Who are the writers and other creative people who have influenced your writing? 

The list keeps growing but a very early influence was Judy Blume because she told those stories that we needed to know. Like most people who grew up with her novels, I felt as if there was finally an adult in my corner, somebody who understood and didn’t judge the confusion of growing up. A number of writers exploring the migrant experience in the UK have shaped my perspective as well – Andrea Levy, Nikita Lalwani, Zadie Smith, Sathnam Sanghera and Meera Syal to name a few.

Balli Kaur Jaiswal Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows HarperCollins 

8 May 2017 

An Interview with Deepak Unnikrishnan, Author of the Debut Short Story Collection “Temporary People”

My interview with debut writer, Deepak Unnikrishnan, was published in Bookwitty on 13 April 2017. The interview is reproduced below. 

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – May 24, 2016: ( Photo by Philip Cheung )

Deepak Unnikrishnan is a writer from Abu Dhabi and has lived in various cities in the United States. He studied and taught at the Art Institute of Chicago and at present teaches at New York University in Abu Dhabi. His extraordinary, kaleidoscopic collection of short stories, Temporary People vary in style from magic realism to the surreal, and curiously enough, to a list of jobs available to immigrant labor. There is a rich texture to the stories not just for the magical plot lines such as the one of a woman who goes around at night “fixing” the broken limbs of migrants with glue, but the strong rhythm underlying them. This is his first book, which has received wide critical acclaim and was also the inaugural winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. Unnikrishnan generously took the time to answer questions for Bookwitty here:

Why these stories?

Personally, there was a need for the tales to get out. I think the question to ask would be why these people. Why linger on them the way I do, be they man, woman or child. I suppose a part of me wanted to resurrect the city that raised me. Couldn’t do that without thinking about people. And once your mind grants refuge to the folks you’ve imagined, uncles and aunties and friends and strangers, they take over your mind. But after years of lugging them around in my head I wanted to be rid of them, and the only way I could manage that was to write them out of my system. But I knew, as I began to write this thing I began, I wanted the work to be populated by individuals from different age groups: the young, the old, and those in between. So you could say I’d pocketed these people like children pocketing marbles. When I was young I didn’t understand remembering people was my method of making them immortal. When I left the Gulf, they – such people – became my souvenirs. And I wanted them in the book. As realization hit about what I was writing about, I found myself wondering for the first time whether I was writing about my people. Or people like me, whatever “me” meant. It was one thing to claim a place, another to claim people. But it’s also the strangest thing to write about a place like the Khaleej (Arabic for Gulf) when you’re not there anymore. Abu Dhabi felt different from afar. In New York and Chicago, Abu Dhabi could only be distant. Yet because I thought of home often enough, the city I left drifted close enough for me to miss it. As well as engage with my version of what I believed the city to be.

You seem to be fascinated by the form of a story — soliloquy, interior monologue, poetry, short story, prose, etc. Is the power of a story dependent on its form? 

I’m not terribly old, but I’ve been told tales, in bars, cabs, rooms, at night, twilight, past midnight. Men, women, and children have told me stories sitting in a chair, nursing a drink, minutes after a kiss. They’ve all been different, these tales. Sometimes the delivery was off; other times the tales fizzed and popped like firecrackers. I don’t remember them all, but I do recall the care these people (especially children) took with their tales, even if the world could have been breaking outside, why saying something mattered so much to them, why being listened to mattered so much to them. And they all went about reciting their pieces differently. Their tales/fables/anecdotes were wedded to their personalities. And on good days, I’d hear (and read) stories that bobbed and weaved in between forms I adored. As someone who writes, I still hesitate to tell people I write. I’m not sure what that means yet but I’ve always been fascinated by the possibilities of narrative form. I want my work to count. I’ve thought about the text. I wish to be heard. But I’m not toying with form because I want you (“you” being the reader) to know I can do this and that and juggle mandarins while I’m at it. Temporary People needed chapters that operated like players in an orchestra. Everything mattered, everything counted. And why experiment? Well, sometimes I’m bored, so I try things.

Men, women, and children have told me stories sitting in a chair, nursing a drink, minutes after a kiss

Why depict so much violence that produces a visceral reaction in one while reading it?

I ran into someone I went to high school with at a reading in New York. So I’ve read thirty pages, he said. And, he continued, I am miserable. That broke my heart a little. So you haven’t seen/found any joy yet? I wanted to ask him. You’re right, the book’s doused in violence. But conversations about the book can be steered in multiple directions depending on what kind of violence you’re interested in talking about. If it’s physical violence, graphic descriptions of beatings and punishments, by men, women and children, then sure, there’s a lot of that. But if you’ve responded to any of these moments of chaos, I’m also grinning a little, because that means I’ve taken you somewhere and left you there to think over what’s been written, especially since some of the violence pays more homage to Tom & Jerry than Tarantino. But if you’re referencing another kind of violence, this one more mental, because you’re reading about children of [temporary people] pravasis fending off people who pick on them because of what they represent, and pravasis grappling with what they’ve become, then you’re more in tune with what the book’s attempting to do, figuring out what kind of mythologies develop over time in a city populated primarily by people from elsewhere.

Which was the first story in this collection and how did the rest develop?

“Mushtibushi” is the oldest chapter in the book. I started it in 2003. I finished it in the fall of 2012 or the spring of 2013. The rest arrived in stages. “Gulf Return”, that opens the book, was written in 2013. Back in the day, when the tales began to populate notebooks and Word and Open Office documents, I was convinced I was working on a collection. But over time, I realized I was interested in architecture too, how text looked and operated on the page, how one flawed piece could piggy back on top of something whole to produce an effect neither could manage on their own. Now see, novels are allowed to fiddle with form and do all sorts of fun things. Few people blink. A collection on the other hand is rarely allowed much room to maneuver. It’s either supposed to be a bunch of disparate tales or linked stories, if I were dip into clichés. But I wanted my work to do something more. I wanted my work to question things. Not fuck genre, but camouflage it. I knew I wanted to capture the din and growl of my city but I also instinctively knew that the stories needed each other to not only breathe and communicate with one another, but to create and flesh out another animal, something I couldn’t define, but wanted to make. I can also make a case that the book is primarily about language. The people are incidental, but it’s through them that the book negotiates the city and languages that raised me.

How did you decide upon the titles?

Mostly: trial and error. You get lucky too. Some titles write themselves, like “Fone”, and “Mustibushi”. Others, like “Kloon”, took more time, since the original title, “The Clown Confessions”, was terrible. The titles were signposts, calling out to readers. Urging them to dip into the unknown. But you know, when you’ve got over a decade to work on a project, you name and rename things so often that you’ve got time to make stuff sound interesting. At least that’s what you tell yourself.

Are you fascinated by languages, rules of grammar and how far can these be explored or challenged?

In school (pre, middle and high) I struggled with English syntax. My poor teachers would pull out their Wren & Martins. Whenever they did, I’d shudder because grammar didn’t make sense. The Brits and the Yankees couldn’t agree on stuff: spellings, slang, idioms, sentence lengths. Then throw in the desi accent and watch mayhem ensue. It was a bit much, all these rules, because I didn’t speak like the BBC. Or Hollywood. Yet I’d snigger at my father who didn’t sound cool, or hide his Malayaleeness, although his command of English far outweighed mine. He’d ask me how to pronounce certain words sometimes, my [father] acchan, and I’d ask him to repeat them so I could laugh at him. We had a huge row once about the word “coup”. I kept telling him to pronounce the “p.” You don’t, he said. As if you’d know, I yelled back. But even back then, I knew language was power. English that sounded white, coming out of the tongue of a brown boy/man, confused people. But English wasn’t the only language in play. In Kerala, my cousins could’ve ripped me to shreds because my Malayalam was below par. They never did because they were kind and wanted to communicate, but my friends in Abu Dhabi made fun of my Malayalam all the time. In fact there was one dude who always made it a point to pick on my accent. And I wanted to pick on his English because mine sounded better. But we could both communicate in different tongues. That should have been enough, but it wasn’t. There was this need to highlight our superiority over certain languages, because we wanted to feel better about ourselves, because we thought we were better than other people who weren’t smart enough to sound sophisticated. And I suppose I used whatever English I knew to balance the Arabic I didn’t know, even though I learned Arabic in school for over a decade. But if there’s anything Abu Dhabi taught me, it’s that misspellings or bad grammar didn’t mean you couldn’t communicate. The menu in some cafeteria down the street may say “chiken mayonnaise”, but you knew what that was. Or when your Arabic teacher asked one of your classmates to “open the AC”, you knew what he wanted. And English, I instinctively knew, was malleable. And open to marrying other words from other worlds. “You understand, w’allah?” But language to me has always been synonymous with experimentation. The book is therefore an extension of my mind. If I were to put it simply, I don’t like being told what to do. I’m also saying don’t tell me what words ought to come out of my mouth. If you tell me something foreign must be italicized because it’s not English or English enough. I say no. Respectfully. No!

If you tell me something foreign must be italicized because it’s not English or English enough. I say no. Respectfully. No!

Your stories are like performance poetry. There is a very strong sense of rhythm. Was it from the word “go” or did you work upon it while editing the manuscript?

Rhythm’s absolutely crucial to the work. If language constitutes the book’s blood and bone, rhythm’s its spine. I wanted the reader to hear things. I wanted my words to grab hold of people. And not let go. I suppose another reason the book reads the way it does is because I’ve got characters that don’t/won’t shut up. Whether it’s Taxi Man, or little Maya. They want to be heard, these characters I made. And it’s fascinating you claiming the work channels performance poetry. You know, I remember watching Wim Wenders’ Pina, his documentary about Pina Bausch. Early on in the film, you’ve got her dancers marching to Louis Armstrong’s West End blues. And they’re miming seasons marching single file: spring, summer, autumn, winter. After they mimed winter, I remember, my favorite season, I experienced unadulterated bliss. I couldn’t believe it someone had managed to reinvent winter for me even though I assumed I knew what winter felt like. As a writer, I’m interested in stuff like that, in how readers respond to what I’ve managed to do on the page. After watching Pina, I remember thinking: I want my book to do THAT. The work should dance.

Despite being surrounded by people there is a terrible sense of loneliness in the stories. Did this emotion emanate from the stories of their own accord or was it a conscious decision on your part to tease it out?

Sure, some characters in the book address various states of loneliness. You’ve got the isolation that stems from feeling cut away from family, especially if you’re on your own in the Khaleej. There is also the fear of being misunderstood, of wanting to be seen as something worthy, something beyond skin or nationality. Then we’ve got the paranoia of children and teens, creatures of perpetual angst. But we’re also talking about individuals trying to negotiate a city like Abu Dhabi. And cities – take your pick: New York, Mumbai, Sao Paolo – can be tough. When you’re temporary, a proverbial transient, you’ve got your own language and register. And your sense of time is perpetually ten minutes or ten years ahead. But then you’ve got characters like the cabbie in “Taxi Man”. He’s fine, his world’s fine, but he’s also hyper aware of his surroundings, like everyone else who populate the book. I’d like to think the book isn’t all about loneliness. Like I stated earlier, it’s about language, and memories, people letting you into their thoughts.

Most debut writers find it very challenging to place a short story collection with publishers. Yet you not only were published but won the Restless Books Immigrant Prize as well. How did this come about?

I found my agent, the wonderful and tenacious Anna Ghosh, in the fall of 2014. She shopped the book around in the States for over a year. We came close. Some publishers wanted to know if I had a novel, something more traditional, which they’d put out first of course. Others weren’t sure how to see the book. Difficult to market was one comment. Not everyone got what I was trying to do. But mostly, the editors were kind and encouraging, but no one would commit. Then we tried India. Again, crickets. In fact, we didn’t even get close, and that upset me because I was looking for an excuse to vent. Then in October or November of 2015, Anna sent me a note about an inaugural book prize. The press was Restless Books. Submit the work, she suggested. By then I had pretty much downed several cocktails of self-pity and passive-aggressive woe-is-me soliloquies, but I trusted Anna. So I cleaned up the manuscript, included a cover letter, sent everything out. And pretended I forgot about my submission, but noted the date when the short list was going to be announced, the spring of 2016. The rest, well, you know the rest.

Who are the writers you most admire?

There are far too many to list them all. I gave a talk/reading at the Seminary Co-Op bookstore in Chicago. After committing to the event, I was asked if I could provide a critical reading list that could inform readers about my various influences. Making that list took me well over an hour. There are names on there that will be familiar: J. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Arundhati Roy, Primo Levi, Salman Rushdie, George Saunders. But there are also other names that may be less familiar to some readers (even though they shouldn’t be): A. Sivananthan, Daniil Kharms, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Beth Nugent, Kuzhali Manickavel. There are poets and non-fiction writers on that list too, like Inger Christensen and Marco D’eramo. Then there are works and artists who blend genres, artists/writers like Chris Ware, and books like The Photographer (by Didier Lefevre, Emmanuel Guibert and Frederic Lemercier). But some names, like Charlie Kaufman, or the filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski (his Dekalog was extremely instrumental in how I saw architecture in stories), didn’t appear. Much music, by Gil Scott Heron, Nina Simone, or bands like The Verve, didn’t appear either. And they matter too to my practice, even though you were mainly asking about writers. But since you asked about writers, let me end with writers. I remember being floored after reading Dorthe Nors’s “The Heron” in The New Yorker. I read it on the train. Probably mouthed, Man that was dope. I also experienced a similar sense of respect and admiration after reading and hearing the writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri. He’s dope too.

 

8 May 2017 

Kunskapsskolan Book Week ( 1-5 May 2017)

I was invited by Kunskapsskolan Gurgaon to curate their book week. They have nearly 1200 students. The book week had to be created for all grades from pre-Nursery to Form 10. Since it has been recently established in India the classes are bottom-heavy with a larger number of students in primary school. Also the teaching staff is young, energetic and eager to learn new ways of learning particularly using technology.

Kunskapsskolan has been established in India via a joint venture partnership between Sweden and India. The schools follow the KED programme whose motto is: “Personalize each student’s education according to their individual needs and abilities. All resources in the school are carefully designed and organized around the student in a complete and coherent system.” Another characteristic of Kunskapsskolan schools is to align themselves with the educational system approved by the government of the country they are establishing schools in. So in India they are recognised by the CBSE board. Having said that they implement the curriculum using theme-based learning and from grades 3-8 it is primarily using digital resources. A unique aspect of Kunskapsskolan is its inclusive policy to have students with behavioural and learning challenges. There is a department that has skilled educators and councillors who are instrumental in the integration of these special children with rest of the school community.

Given the interesting mix of students with varying capabilities and incorporating the simple mandate of the school management — “By making a qualitative difference to the school community by immersing everyone in a world of books. It is also to introduce children to the love of reading via various methodologies and a well-curated book exhibition.” It was decided to hold the book week along with Scholastic India. With ninety-five years experience of publishing for children worldwide, of those twenty in India, Scholastic India is equipped to meet the requirements of the school. For instance putting together a theme-based book fair, introduction to audiobooks, ebooks and levelled readers for students such as Book Flix ( primary) and LitPro ( middle and secondary).

Teacher’s workshop led by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, 29 April 2017

The book week began with a workshop for the school teachers on the “promotion of reading and digital resources”. I led two workshops. First for early years and primary school teachers. The second one was for middle and secondary school teachers. The emphasis was on importance of reading as a lifelong skill to acquire and not just to complete school curriculum. Given that this is the information age where its imperative to know how to read and glean

Anu Singh Chowdhary

knowledge, reading as an activity has to be enjoyable. It has to inculcate a love for reading without making it a chore. Today there are multiple formats by which children can access books for pleasure and information. According to Kids & Family Reading Report 2016 (KFRR ) children prefer reading for fun and helps develop a fondness for the activity. Parents too agreed that reading is important.

  • 86% of kids interviewed said their favourite books – the ones they were likely to finish – were the ones they pick out themselves. This is close to the USA average of 93%.
  • Across all ages, an overwhelming majority of children (87%) say they would read more if they could find more books that they like.
  • Children and parents prefer curated selections as it is easier to discover books. The top sources of books are the school book fairs, book clubs and word-of-mouth recommendations.  Libraries and bookshops are a close second.

    Anupa Lal

A primary school teacher’s feedback on the sessions and book fair, 5 May 2017

The teachers were introduced to online digital resources ( free and subscription based) that were age-appropriate and supported their curriculum. The workshops had been customised to align with KED methodology. So though the focuse was on resources available online many scrumptious examples of print books were also shared to gasps of astonished delight. A teacher who works primarily with children who have learning disabilities wrote in later to say “I simply loved the session!”

Something similar was witnessed at the Kunskapsskolan Book Week.

A student’s enthusiastic response to the book fair.

On the first day two little tiddlers hurtled down the stairs breathless with excitement, ” This book fair is awesome! The collection is so good!”

Paro Anand reading out aloud “Wingless”

Every single day there were sessions with authors, illustrators, storytellers, dramatists, cartoonists and editors. The idea being to introduce children to different aspects of books and reading. There were even sessions planned around audio books and animations based on popular stories as with Book Flix. Unfortunately due to privacy issues I am unable to upload some of the magnificent pictures taken during the events. Children, irrespective of whether they were toddlers or young adults, were mesmerised by the sessions. I have pictures of children who were trooped into the sessions and sat very quietly not knowing what to expect. Within minutes of the resource people beginning we had children absorbed listening to the stories in wide-eyed wonder, small or big the students were sprawled across the carpets, some were sitting under classroom desks and peering out, others were clapping their hands in glee and yet others body language was a delight to watch.  Inevitably within minutes the students would surround the resource person and it was absolutely marvellous to watch the adult engulfed in a sea of blue with loud chirrups of happiness from the children.

Simi Srivastava, storyteller

Simi Srivastava told a deliciously onomatopoeic tale about a bear. It was narrated accompanied to music. It went down very well with the toddlers. After the session a little boy came and gave her a tight hug while planting a slurpy wet kiss of appreciation on her cheek. Another girl came up politely and said “It was nice” but her twinkling eyes noted her deep appreciation of the storytelling performance.

Paro Anand, an exceptional storyteller, read out aloud her brilliant fable Wingless to a mesmerised audience of 9 and 10 year olds. ( According to KFRR, across all ages, the overwhelming majority of kids (85%) say they love(d) being read books aloud.) When she said she had written 27 books for children, a tiny little hand went up and a solemn little child said, “It means you are ‘experienced'” much to Paro’s delight.

Later Paro Anand had a session with the senior children around her recently launched graphic novel 2. It is the first Indo-Swedish collaborative book and it was apt that the first school event was held at an Indo-Swedish school. Paro Anand has written this book with Swedish writer, Örjan Persson. Her session was converted into a writing workshop too. The children were broken up into teams of two and given the task of writing stories together, aping the collaboration between the authors of 2. They were given two days to work on the stories. Three winning teams were awarded prizes along with notes of appreciation by Paro Anand.

There were sessions planned with renowned storytellers like Anupa Lal, Anu

(L-R) Anu Singh Chowdhury, Anupa Lal and Blossom D’Souza

Singh Chowdhury conducted a session in Hindi introducing children to Gulzar’s poetry and stories, seasoned publisher-cum-author Arthy Muthana led a workshop on editing and book production wherein the children looked astonished upon hearing of the “small pile” of manuscripts waiting to be read on her desk, dramatist Vanessa Ohri had the children spellbound, and cartoonist Ajit Narayan’s infectious enthusiasm for drawing characters was palpable as children quickly sketched in their art books while he demonstrated. He was provocative with his remarks like “I still have not found the right picture” but it only spurred the children on to improve. They drew furiously and clucked around him for appreciation.

Ajit Narayan

Arthy Muthana

While the book week was on a team of student volunteers had banded together to form a temporary editorial team. These four senior school students were entrusted with the task of creating “books” documenting the book week. They could choose any form of narrative as long as it contained highlights of the sessions and brought in different perspectives. For this they interviewed the resource people, students and teachers to get their views too. The students chose to illustrate with line drawings and soon took photographs to accompany the text. The books are to be placed in the school library. The exercise helped give an insight into the team effort, creativity and patience required to put a book together.

By the last day I too had students smiling and greeting me. The primary school students would give a broad smile or a hug. The senior school students were a little more reserved but it did not prevent them from lurking behind pillars and popping out unexpectedly to waylay me for a chat. It was a tremendous experience and I look forward to many more such occasions.

8 May 2017

*All the pictures except for the one of the school entrance have been taken by me and posted with permission of the school management.