I enjoyed reading Blue Sky White Cloudby Nirmal Ghosh. So much so, as soon as I finished reading it, I tagged a friend, tea-estate owner and an ardent conservationist, who has created an elephant pathway through her tea gardens in Nuxalbari, West Bengal. This is what I wrote on Facebook:
Sonia Jabbar, I kept thinking of you while reading Blue Sky White Cloud. The first novella, “River Storm” is gorgeous. It is about a tusker whose natural habitat is being encroached upon by humans, especially tea plantations in the North East of India. Whereas, in recent years, you have managed to reverse this trend and created elephant corridors through your tea estate. Someday, I hope, you will be in conversation with the author, Nirmal Ghosh, about wildlife conservation.
Although this book has been announced in the inaugural list of Aleph Book Company’s children’s literature imprint, it was first published in 2020. At that time, my then ten-year-old daughter, Sarah Rose, was asked to record this video by the publishing firm. It was to celebrate Ruskin Bond’s birthday in May 2020.
What is not to like in this book! It is utterly brilliant. Stupendous!
With offerings from sonnets in iambic pentameter, to limericks, acrostics, and villanelles, It’s Time to Rhymeis the perfect introduction to the joys of poetry for readers of all ages. Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan should consider writing a long poem for children. A story well told is heard far and wide. Format does not matter. The few poems collected in this slim volume are a guarded taster of what she is capable of! It is high time publishers broke shackles of the staid expectations of educators and parents and brought the fun back in storytelling. Let it be wild. Let it be nonsensical. Let it be joyous!
On 30 March 2022, Aleph Book Company announced the launch of its children literature imprint. Stephen Alter’s edited volume of Great Indian Children’s Stories is part of the inaugural offering. The other two are Shobha Tharoor Srinivasana’s delightful It’s Time to Rhyme and Ruskin Bond’s Miracle at Happy Bazaar.
This is a fine anthology. It makes for a lovely gift. Also, the collection of stories heark back to a more secular and diverse past of India that we were/are proud of — it touches upon its soul. Today, it still exists but we need constant reminders that this is still a very strong feature of our nation. It is a great way to inaugurate this children’s literature list but it is also a fine balancing act as this is also how canonisation of a genre begins. Selection of good stories by established writers/translators. In all likelihood, this was a relatively “easy” volume to put together since the copyright permission was manageable. Some of these stories have been previously published in other volumes of short stories published by Aleph. Ideally, given that Aleph is increasingly getting known for its excellent list of short stories, then perhaps an anthology consisting of a wider selection of short stories for children could have been created. Perhaps in a similar fashion to the seminal volume of Indian short stories, David Davidar’s (ed.), A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces: Extraordinary Short Stories from the 19th Century to the Present. Aleph publications such as The Owl Delivered the Good News All Night Long or Teaching a Horse to Sing: Tales of Uncommon Sense from India and elsewhere are a great selection but not enough. One expects Aleph to set a high standard in children’s literature just as it has done for trade literature.
Nevertheless, I liked Great Indian Children’s Stories.
I am deeply unhappy with this storybook for children. In Search of a River is about the friendship between a tribal boy, Hanumant, and a city boy, Bharat. A significant angle in the story is that Hanumant is portrayed befriending a wild snake, so much so, he even gives the reptile milk to drink! In Hinduism, snakes are venerated. The concept of Nag is age-old. Even Western writers of children’s literature such as Rowling borrowed the idea of a Nag and used it in her Harry Potter series. At so many levels this story is absolutely wrong. First of all, it is a myth that snakes drink milk. Snakes drink water when dehydrated, not milk. In fact, drinking milk may even kill the reptiles. Secondly, I am afraid in the age of the Internet, when selfies and tricks on camera are recorded for nanoseconds of social media fame, a story for little children revolving around snakes is unacceptable. Also, at a time when there are innumerable conversations about inclusivity, diversity, and representation, in literature, the idea of playing fearlessly with wild snakes is a dangerous idea. Inadvertently, it borders on validating the notion that it is fine to touch reptiles in the wild. No, it is not. There are sufficient examples on the Internet of individuals trying insane tricks with snakes and many reptile experts/herpetologists cautioning people from such antics. Primarily, to safeguard the human’s life from a snake bite as many are unable to distinguish between a poisonous and a harmless snake. Lastly, disturbing a snake in the wild is not advisable. Many campaigns across the world warn humans from the danger as well as to let the reptiles alone, in their habitat.
A storybook such as In Search of a River is not recommended. Perhaps, if the author, Saroj Mukherjee, and her daughter, Tilottama Tharoor, who has translated the story from Hindi, had chosen to write a short note distinguishing between fiction and reality, then maybe the book could be circulated. As of now, NO. The only reason that I can think it was even published and had a book launch at a prime children’s literature bookstore in Delhi is because every literary mind involved in the creation of the story, belongs to a prominent writer’s family. If true, it is unfortunate. One would have expected a tad more awareness, particularly from a family with a rich literary lineage, in making a story written for an older generation, acceptable to a contemporary reader.
Next time, I hope there will be a little more sensitivity and accuracy shown in writing fiction for children. It is imperative that children’s literature is written with the seriousness that it demands.
Accessing micro-histories via fiction is probably “easy” for the reader but challenging for the writer to produce. Inserting characters and creating bridges between fact and fiction requires a focussed determination to share an account. Beasts Of A Little Land is a historical fiction debut by Korean-American writer Juhea Kim. The author was born in Cheon, Korea, and moved to Portland when she was nine. She is a Princeton University graduate and her writing has been oubkished in numerous literary magazines.
The novel spans the historical period of 1917 – 1965. It is a turbulent time for Korea. There is sufficient historical evidence and witness accounts that document the changes. But to do such a broad sweep of the country/ies is a Herculean task. It requires minute attention to detail. Perhaps it is possible because of the perspective Juhea Kim has by living in the USA. This is a book that takes a while to read. It is not a “quickie”, but like the other wonderful books on the Oneworld imprint, this too is stupendous.
Now to await Juhea Kim’s second novel. What will it be on?
Beasts of a Little Land is being distributed in India by HarperCollins India.
I finally finished reading this fabulous book. Most of the essays in award-winning Chilean writer, Benjamin Labatut’s incredible book, When We Cease to Understand the World ( Pushkin Press) are fantastic; all except the title essay — it left me unmoved. It was slipping and sliding into spaces that were unwieldy. Nevertheless, I can understand why this slim book, translated from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, made it to the shortlist of the 2021 International Booker Prize. This is powerful writing. It is telling stories of the past, with acute attention to historical detail and with immense confidence. Almost as if the author witnessed the events he recounts. Interesting style, worth emulating perhaps by other writers. But the danger will always exist in such writing — where do facts end, and fiction begins? What is the truth? Can even those who witness events ever know what is the truth? Much to think about.
Frankly, I am glad I finally read this book. I will be mulling over it for a long time to come.
Guarded by Dragons: Encounters withRare Books and Rare Peopleis an excellent collection of essays/memoir by well-known rare books collector, Rick Gekoski. There is an essay about his early forays into book collecting with special editions of D. H. Lawrence. A moment of self-dohbt when he is unsure whether he is a collector or a dealer. Soon enough it is clarified when his rare books begin to sell at good prices. There are essays about his encounters with publishers regarding publishing histories and archival material. One of them is regarding Toby Faber and their long drawn “discussion” on the former chairman, Charles Monteith’s correspondence with poet Philip Larkin. For a while, it involved legal counsel too. Another one involves the publishing legacy of the legendary Victor Gollancz. His firm had decided to dispose of the volumes of books, letters with authors, and files that were lying in a warehouse. The slow process of disposing of the collection in bits and pieces rather than its entirety hurts to read . Another essay involves Gekoski being asked by Ted Hughes to return a precious book once owned by his late wife, Sylvia Plath. There are many other instances recorded in this book of Gekoski’s attempt to trade in rare books or even manage a charity auction for PEN.
It is fascinating to read the book for its stories but also for the sharp understanding that commercial interests are never too far away from cultural predilection of publishing books. One of the throwaway lines in an essay is how hardback literary fiction is of little value to rare book collectors. The books are only appreciated at the time of publication and then on a reader’s bookshelf. Value accorded to rare books comes from a variety of factors such as limited print run, circumstances under which the book was published, rarity of the event, uniqueness of the manuscript, or even ensuring the provenance of the book is confirmed by the author and publisher at the time of printing and not later, scribbled in ink. Value of the books also rises if units are customised by the author. Excellent insights about business of book publishing. PS I have a copy of the autobiography that Victor Gollancz wrote to his grandson in the early 1950s.