Jaya Posts

Sarah Rose’s “A Very Naughty Dragon” reviewed, two years later

This is very nice. Two years after my daughter, Sarah Rose, and Paro Anand co-authored an illustrated storybook, A Very Naughty Dragon, it is still being read. It is about a young komodo dragon called, “Draco”. This young reviewer/vlogger (ahanastoryteller) on Instagram says that she learned five important lessons from it. She then proceeds to list them.

Meanwhile, Sarah grins with pleasure upon seeing the video and remarks, “I did not think that Draco’s story would influence others.”

16 Jan 2022

“Tender Bar” and reading

Tender Bar that is currently streaming on Amazon Prime is a wonderful adaptation of award-winning author, J. R. Moehringer’s memoir (2005) of the same name. It has been directed by George Clooney and has Ben Affleck acting in it. It is a wonderful film that shows the tender relationship between an uncle and a nephew, but also of the immediate clan and close circle of his uncle’s friends. Somehow the writer manages the fine balancing act between masculinity and tenderness without it becoming toxic. J. R. Moehringer’s mother is a single parent who returns to live with her parents and her brother. It is a full house at home. The mother is restless and despite living many years in it finds it hard to call it home whereas her son has no difficulty in doing so.

There are many scenes in the film that are worth discussing but my favourite scene is when the uncle, played brilliantly by Ben Affleck, recognises the talent his nephew has for writing. Uncle encourages nephew to read and does so by throwing open the cupboard that houses his book collection and simply says, “Read”. At no point does the uncle ever say to his nephew that this is inappropriate for you or is not at your reading level. Incredibly liberating! The reading/writing bug big bit the nephew. Ultimately, he got a place at full-sponsored seat at Yale University.

It is not a mushy film. Just about right in its tenor. No wonder Ben Affleck has been shortlisted for some awards such as the Screen Actors Guild. He has been nominated in the category: “Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role”.

J. R. Moehringer won the Pulitzer Prize (2000; shortlisted in 1998) for journalism and subsequently co-authored tennis star, Andre Agassi’s “Open: An Autobiography” ( 2009). He also ghostwrote Nike co-founder, Phil Knight’s “Shoe Dog” (2015). He has now been asked by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, to collaborate on the Duke’s forthcoming memoir that is to be published in late 2022.

Watch Tender Bar

16 Jan 2022

DK Encyclopaedias

I cannot recommend the DK  encyclopaedias enough — The Science of the Ocean: The Secrets of the Sea Revealed , The Science of Animals: Inside their Secret World and Flora: Inside the Secret World of Plants. The DK books must be a part of every school ready  reference section. If the school or parents can afford it, then the DK encyclopaedias must exist in  classroom libraries and personal  libraries.

Children learn through a variety of ways.  Pictorial recognition is a critical aspect of their learning. More than learning, it opens the eyes and minds of munchkins to the wonders of our world. DK books are a mix of science, excellent knowledge base, generous layout and aesthetics.  Children’s literature tends to dumb down learning tools for kids by creating books appropriate for their age. So parents and educators buy multiple levels of the same kind of book but graded according to the chronological age and educational level of the learner. Frankly, it makes no sense. Conserve the money that is being frittered away in a variety of editions and spend it on what is construed as an expensive encyclopaedia and see how much joy it gives — for years. The learning achieved through osmosis is phenomenal. These big books — in terms of size and ideas — have scrumptious layouts. A great deal of attention is given to every detail on the page. The three encyclopaedias in this photograph are made in collaboration with The Natural History Museum and  Kew: Royal Botanical Gardens. No expense is spared in accessing top class information. The coming together of textual and pictorial information in the design is superb. It is impossible to tell where the child’s eye is resting or what their mind is absorbing. The beauty on every page coupled with a high standard of knowledge ensures that the child’s curiosity is tickled. The child wants to know more. Heck, even adults are absorbed by these books. Leave these books lying around and the peaceful silence that engulfs the house with a child happily reading is magical.

With the ongoing pandemic (third year!), kids need to be provided resources for home-based learning. Online classes implies that the syllabus had to be greatly reduced and the children have no access to their school libraries or resources. DK Books are worth their investment in gold. They are treasures. They entice the child away from electronic engagement ( and the harmful aspects of EMR) but at the same time provide a magnificent blend of infotainment and visuals.

13 January 2022

All India Radio / historic moment

This morning I finished recording a panel discussion on “Children’s literature in India” at All India Radio, the national radio channel. After the fabulously animated session was over, the producer informed us about the magnificent history of the table that we were recording at.

This table is where the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, made his “Tryst of Destiny” speech.

This table is where Mahatma Gandhi appealed to the nation to stop rioting. It was the one and only time that he visited the AIR studios — 12 Nov 1947.

This table is where Emergency was declared.

All India Radio has ensured that it is preserved and used. In all these decades they have never changed the bar from which the microphones hang.

Needless to say, all of us had goosebumps, by the time the producer finished his story.

Perhaps the producer was so pleased with the outcome of the recording. He really liked it. Truly, I am glad he did not tell us earlier. The moment he did, all of us jumped out of our seats. It just seemed surreal to be at the same desk where so many defining moments of our country’s history had played out. Apparently, most of the AIR employees are told this when they are training for their posts. But most do not share it with their guests as they are usually in a tearing hurry to leave after the recording.

Or

Perhaps it has something to do with the nature of our conversation where I shared a lot of our publishing history with reference to children’s literature. Made a point to connect it with developments in modern India. Maybe the producer was responding to the histories we were sharing? I do not know. It just happened so spontaneously.

I have no idea why were singled out for this precious piece of news. But this is a privilege indeed to be at the same table that has witnessed so much of modern Indian history.

Below are photographs of display cabinets in the foyer of AIR showcasing sound recording equipment.


25 Nov 2021

Shikhandin “After Grief”

Shikhandin never ceases to amaze me. She writes. That’s it. She is unafraid of experimenting with forms that are most suitable to her expression. She is impossible to slot as a writer belonging to a specific category. Her creativity gushes forth. She commands the reader to engage. Her observation is acute. Her commentary perceptive. She is unique. Using the feminine pronoun is probably a disservice to her since she consciously chose the nom de plume to mask any gendered reading of her works. Nevertheless, I can only urge you to read her works. Her short stories, novels, and now her poetry in this exquisite volume published by Dibyajyoti Sarma, RedRiver. Sarma’s sensitivity towards Shikhandin’s poems is evident in the care with which he has laid out her poems on the page. There is something magical about the reading experience of “AfterGrief”, poetry about mourning but the period in which she revised the poems, the pandemic, the poems took on a different hue. Instead of dissecting her poems, here are a few samples:

Death is the violence of silence
tearing up your day
with an unscrambled scream
“Death”


There is a man standing on the shore, looking
past the waves, frisky, frothy and white.
He is looking towards the brightening
horizon. He is weeping.
He is weeping silently
with an oddly self-conscious sort
of abandon. He is holding on
to a plastic bag crammed with indecipherable
things and a motor cycle helmet.
His sandals feet are digging,
making washable prints on the wet sand.
He is pretending to flick off the grit from his cheeks.
“Man on the Shore”


After death’s ceremony there is numbness
After funeral’s festivity there is stillness
Afterwards, when the house has emptied, they arrive
A Long and loyal line of days, to follow you around
Twilight days to softly follow you around, mother
Sentries of quietude — a river of boundless, soundless solitude.

Tell me, how much of grief can a human heart
Store beneath the liquid of a tranquil face?
“After the passing of father”


In the aftermath, when fire’s rage
has cooled to skin-scorching Ash,
the wood ones of dawn will break
your heart with their absences.
No deluge can dampen the spirits
of free creatures, but fires are fierce
opponents of joy . . . .

She was a woman who had loved
the natural world. Speaking
in hushed tones
of the miracle of snakes birthing
in a grove. After the garden
was gone, she took
to growing cacti and succulents. A dark
green one with cylindrical shoots
still remains. Growing from one pot
into another, passing from house
to house, but never yours, until now.
“Woodnotes”


But it is the penultimate poem in this collection, “Crossing”, that is worth reading, sharing and discussing. (Photographed below.) I truly hope that one day, one day, Tishani Doshi and Shikhandin will be in conversation with each other about the crying need to be poets especially in these times. Perhaps, Ranjit Hoskote can be asked to be in conversation too. All three poets have published collections of poems in 2021 that will stand out for years to come; it is not just a witnessing, it is as if they are fulfilling their roles of poets as has been inherited from Classical times — their poems are recording history, telling stories and bordering almost on a prayer, urging people to remember their rich past and live in hope for the future, but not be passive agents in the present.

24 Nov 2021

Jonathan Franzen “Crossroads”

I have liked Jonathan Franzen’s writings ever since I began reading his essays in the National Geographic and some other random places. Also, my admiration for him rose immensely once I discovered he had mentored a writer like Nell Zink. I have never understood why he was detested since he does not seem to brook fools. This new novel of his – Crossroads ( HarperCollins India)– is very good simply because it is not pretentious. His historical details like in the off-the-cuff references to music, life, clothes, etc. He also makes it clear in the speech formulations, sometimes in the slang used. I have not marked any passages in the book but when I was reading it, I thought to myself, oh this is so outdated but fits with the age. The whole point of the novel seems to be to focus on this middle-class white Christian family, a pastor’s family, the Hilderbrandts. As Marion constantly reminds herself and everyone that she is a Pastor’s wife, so many of her skills such as remembering useless details about individuals is her strength, a quality that marks a pastor’s family as it is expected of you. Franzen chooses to share exactly what he wishes to. The NYRB review questions the historical fiction aspect of the novel. The examples the reviewer takes out to highlight the lack of historicity are exactly what caught my eye as clever acts by Franzen. The reviewer misses out completely all the references to music, the slow intermingling of the white and black congregations, the silent pacts that the white and black pastors have, understanding how their flock has to be managed, the Navajo community etc. While reading Crossroads, I kept thinking about The Cross and the Switchblade.

It requires extraordinary talent required to create the back stories of individuals. Marion may be the flimsiest and vaguest woman but hers is amongst the strongest portrayals in the book. It is brilliant. Her descent into a nervous breakdown is stupendous. The novel is so much about the white middle class crisis, a family saga, a Christian family, the huge hold of the church upon its congregation and the way life revolves around the church – the idea of community. Recent reviews have dismissed the party at the main pastor’s house in one line but it is a crucial part of the story. The guests were from different denominations and religions, there was even a rabbi, and the smattering of conversations one hears, is a pretty good analysis of faith and the questions it raises – the importance of religion in modern society. The manic-depressive junkie son, Perry Hildebrandt, brings this party to a halt with his statements about what it means to be good or not, especially in the eyes of these men, leaders of their flock.

Franzen is playing on the title of the Key to all Mythologies, a reference to Casaubon’s unfinished book in Middlemarch, and mocking modern readers for their high falutin, obnoxious takes on being woke about various issues esp. black and minority cultures. He is just sharing as is. Franzen is achieving two things:

  1. He is calling out all this pretentiousness of liberals today of genuflecting towards minorities and giving them their dues. With this story he is trying to say, look you choose to see what you chose but whites did culturally appropriate much of the black culture in their lives and called it their own, such as Cream’s Crossroads lifting Robert Johnson’s song, but then Crossroads is also the name of the Youth Fellowship in the church – confusion galore! So Franzen is really showing his exasperation.
  2. In the pandemic, literature about the pandemic and other anxieties are being much lauded, but by displaying the ordinariness of family and church life, he is making people rethink the value of family, community and simple pleasures. Although there is enough drama in each individual’s life to merit a book by itself.

Crossroads is more than just an American novel. It is an incredible master class in the art of writing good literary fiction. It is also a way of sharing memories, histories and incredibly delving into the microcosm of a family. Usually, family saga novels tend to focus on a single character and then all the other relatives pale into insignificance. Or family sagas take generations to play out, with the novelist devoting many pages to each generation. In this case, he has written over 600 pages to cover a very short period of time, giving everyone due weightage — and yet not. The varying lengths of each backstory for every individual is a testament to Franzen’s craftsmanship. He is not out to prove that he can do great literary writing. He is giving every character as much is their due. He is so right in saying that he puts down what he sees. Heavens this man is quite the observer and listener. Much of the time, I feel like screaming and saying, “Yes, yes, he got this so well!” The whole idea of creating a mythical town that is really in the suburbs of Chicago, but is a conservative Christian community is done so well. Franzen too spent time in a Church Youth Fellowship. Anyone who is even remotely familiar with church communities and their groups, may realise that these gatherings can get so claustrophobic and stifling and develop their own inner dynamics that then spill out in other parts of life. Franzen gets this really well — the power of the church, the idea of the spiritual and how much of it is really driven by mortal, base and materialistic desires. Also, how much of the outer world preoccupations do not make any dent on this small community. They seem to sail on as before till the cracks begin to develop. The outside world makes its presence felt only because Franzen makes it happen as an external force that is affecting the lives of the characters. Beginning with Clem Hildebrandt, the eldest son of the pastor. A privileged white male who has the option of pursuing University but chooses to give it up to join the Vietnam war. His sister who falls in love with a musician, Tanner, who too nurses an ambition to cut a commercially successful record, but is aware that it can only happen if he leaves this small town. Or even the pastor, the shepherd of the flock, who does all this good work but is bored of his wife and is eyeing the young widow, Frances. It is so complicated. So ordinary. So mundane. But Franzen does not make it so. And so much focus on Russ, the priest, and mocking him but also justifying the choices he makes is an interesting take on a man who is supposed to be a shepherd, a leader but is so out of touch with the youngsters. The idea of a community is very critical to Franzen. He mentioned it in one of his recent essays as an aside. He is keen to give to his community and does his best for it too. So, it is an ideal central to his thinking in this book too.

With the title Crossroads Franzen gives the reader multiple interpretations for the word. Beginning with the Cream album of the same name, that was actually a cover version of the blues musician Robert Johnson’s original composition to many of the characters in the book being at the moral crossroads of a situation to being at the crossroads of life. So many layers to the word. It is utterly fascinating. The crisis that Franzen depicts in the lives of these characters is no different to many other ordinary lives. It is no wonder that Crossroads has taken many people by surprise and is getting fantastic reviews everywhere because there is no pretension; it is up front and Franzen says it like he means.

Links to some reviews:
Guardian ; Slate ; The Bookseller ; https://www.avclub.com/jonathan-franzen-sticks-with-what-works-and-loses-what-1847751729 ; BBC ; https://www.vulture.com/article/interview-jonathan-franzen-crossroads.html?utm_source=tw

I look forward to Parts 2 & 3.

4 October 2021

In conversation with 2021 International Booker Prize winners David Diop and Anna Moschovakis, 3 Sept 2021

On 3 Sept 2021, I moderated a conversation with the 2021 International Booker winners David Diop and his translator from French to English, Anna Moschovakis for the book At Night All Blood is Black. It was conducted in two languages — French and English. This was organised in collaboration with the French Embassy in India/ French Book Office and UPES University. It was the inaugural event for Espace France at UPES. It was also an exclusive as this was the first ( and so far the only) event that had been organised in India/South Asia with David Diop and Anna Moschovakis. This event assumed significance for another special reason: France is the Guest of Honour at the New Delhi World Book Fair, Jan 2022 and India at the Paris Book Fair, April 2022.

The International Booker Prize is one of the most prestigious and richest literary prizes in the world @ US$ 50,000. It is meant exclusively for literature in translation/world literature. The author and the translator share the prize equally.

David Diop is a French-Senegalese writer who spent most of his childhood in Senegal before returning to France for his studies. In 1998, he became a professor of literature at the Université de Pau et des pays de l’Adour. In 2018, he won the prestigious French literary award, Prix Goncourt des lycéens, for his first novel, Frère d’ame. It was published by the renowned French publishing firm, Éditions du Seuil. In 2021, he won the International Booker Prize. The English translation, At Night All Blood Is Black. has been published by the fabulous independent press Pushkin Press, UK.

Anna Moschovakis is a Greek American poet, author, and translator. She divides her time between the USA and Greece. Moschovakis is a founding member of Bushel Collective and the publishing collective Ugly Duckling Presse. She is a faculty member of Bard College’s Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts, as well as an adjunct associate professor in the Writing MFA program at Pratt Institute. Her writing has appeared in eminent literary journals such as The Paris Review, The Believer and The Iowa Review. Moschovakis’ book of poetry, You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, won the James Laughlin Award in 2011. Her first novel, Eleanor, or, The Rejection of the Progress of Love, was published in 2018.

It turned out to be a phenomenal success! We had over 500+ registerations on Zoom for the event. As happens with these events, ultimately only a smaller proportion sign in and attend the event. So approximately 150+ people logged in to watch the conversation in real time. Interestingly enough we discovered that except for about 5 or 6 people, everyone stayed glued to their screens for the entire duration of the discussion. This is unusual given that internet fatigue has set in during the pandemic. We had participants joining across time zones in real time —Canada, USA, UK, France, Germany, Nepal, India and Australia. For the next few days, the organisers were getting correspondence from a wide range of people lauding them. The impact factor was fantastic as the remarks were coming in from academics, institution heads, students, translators, journalists, readers, publishers etc. It was cutting across communities. In fact, while we were on air, the French Institute in India received a request to translate the novel into Hindi! This, after it was announced at the event that under the Publication Assistance Programme (PAP Tagore) of the IFI, the novel is already being translated into Malayalam ( DC Books) and Tamil ( Kalachuvadu)

Here are some comments:

Vidya Vencatesan à Conférenciers et participants (6:31 PM)
M. Diop vous êtes au programme de maîtrise depuis deux ans, succès inouï
Excellante initiative par IFI. FELICITATIONS!!
Sukrita Paul Kumar à Conférenciers (6:52 PM)
Very perceptive questions, Jaya
Jyotsna Paliwal à Conférenciers et participants (7:07 PM)
émerveillant, Merci bcp!
Carol Barreto Miranda à Conférenciers et participants (7:07 PM)
Superbe!!! Extraordinaire!!
Jayanti Pandey à Conférenciers (7:07 PM)
Merci beaucoup
Prof. Dipa Chakrabarti à Conférenciers et participants (7:07 PM)
Super David et Anna!!!
Preeti Bhutani à Conférenciers (7:07 PM)
très intense. Super!
Rohit Kumar à Conférenciers et participants (7:08 PM)

it’s the best catchy Title I ever encountered!!
HARSHALI Harshali à Conférenciers et participants (7:09 PM)
Bravo!! émerveillant
Dhritiman Das à Conférenciers (7:09 PM)
Thank you for this extraordinary opportunity to get introduced to the stream of consciousness method.
Gaurav Arya à Conférenciers (7:14 PM)
Fabulously put together panel, with so many varied perspectives are threading so seamlessly
Surely the experiences of men and women for WW I will be different, since women were not recruited as soldiers then. Women were left behind, caring for the sick and wounded, or grieving for loved ones lost.
Aslam Khan à Conférenciers et participants (7:23 PM)
what a wonderful discussion, thanks to the writer, translator and specially the organisers ❤
Shauna Singh Baldwin à Conférenciers (7:25 PM)
The senegalese soldiers were going into a battle for their colonial masters — this has not been documented before. Did you know the major differences between the Senegalese soldiers feelings in contrast to their French masters before or was that revealed by your research?
Mandira Sen à Conférenciers et participants (7:34 PM)
Fascinating, much to learn and think about
Thanks for organizing this. Mandira Sen
Anaheeta Irani à Conférenciers et participants (7:34 PM)
Merci.C’etait excellent
Chandan Kumar à Conférenciers et participants (7:34 PM)
Very informative session ..Merci de vous
Maitrayi Nag à Conférenciers (7:35 PM)
Oui, j’ai beaucoup aimé.
Nidhi Singh à Conférenciers (7:35 PM)
excellent session.. thankyou to organisers
Kamala Narasimhan à Conférenciers et participants (7:36 PM)
Thanks to David and Anna for their interaction and also to Jaya for moderating brilliantly. A special thanks to Uma for interpreting so wonderfully David! And thanks also to IFI for organising this!
Namrata Singhvi à Conférenciers et participants (7:37 PM)
Merci beaucoup ! Une discussion très intéressante !
Carol Barreto Miranda à Conférenciers et participants (7:37 PM)
Recit bouleversant! Grande impatience de lire le roman prochainement.
Chris Raja à Conférenciers et participants (7:38 PM)
Thank you very much David and Jaya. Best wishes from Melbourne
My Anglo Indian grandfather was involved in WW1
Elsa mathews à Conférenciers et participants (7:41 PM)
beautiful discussion!
lot to learn
Ena Panda à Conférenciers et participants (7:41 PM)
Very interesting discussion since we got to explore the book through the writer and the translator! Thank you Insititut Français
Prof. Dipa Chakrabarti à Conférenciers et participants (7:41 PM)
Merci Christine pour avoir organise cet evenement!!

Some messages that came in separately:

Very interesting discussion since we got to explore the book through the writer and the translator! Thank you Insititut Français!

Good morning. It was a wonderful conversation last evening. You steered it along very well. I really enjoyed it. 🙂

I enjoyed this conversation. I wish it could have gone on for another hour!

fantastic event it was. and was so accomodating for a naive like me. simple english. understandable; felt the connect wth author/ Translator and more with the audience. swift as breeze. i many time dont get converstaions but this was so easy and right from the heart. bulls eye it was.

More power to you and such wonderful lectures. God knows the poor students need such knowledge that frees them and gives them joy. I also liked Anna and her candid unaffected responses. So lovely! A five-star event overall, in my most humble opinion!! 👍👍

***

Watch the conversation on Facebook. The panelists include David Diop, Anna Moschokovis, Uma Sridhar (translator), Dr. Christine Cornet, Attachée Livre et débat d’idées, Institut français India/Embassy of France and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, co-founder, ACE Literary Consulting and Associate Professor, School of Modern Media Studies, UPES University.

The UPES University posted a fabulous blog post on the conversation by Ekta Kashyap, “David Diop’s guide to writing an award-winning novel” (15 September 2021). It is an account of the conversation with an edited version of the transcript. Well worth reading!

This was a tremendous event as we spoke in two languages, it moved seamlessly between the languages even though I do not speak French but we had Uma Sridhar translating for us brilliantly. It seemed as if we were having an excellent in-depth conversation about war literature, the canon of war literature, whether the gender of the writer makes a difference to the style of storytelling, translations, working with nonfiction material and converting it into fiction, use of folklore and magic realism etc. I am not listing the questions here but it is best that you hear the recording on Facebook. We covered a fair bit of ground and if time had permitted us, we would have spoken longer. Alas, it was not to be! Perhaps another time.

Many thanks to the French Institute in India, the French Embassy in India, UPES University, and Editions du Seuil for collaborating to organise this exclusive event in South Asia.

27 Sept 2021

Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s “Lahore”, part of the Partition Trilogy

…If religion was the basis of nationality, why there would be multiple nations in India. These nations exist in most villages, in varying proportions, with no boundaries. A Bengali Hindu and a Bengali Muslim live together, speak the same language, share the same customs. In Panjab, it is not uncommon in Hindu homes for the eldest son to be brought up a Sikh. Would that therefore mean two nations in one home? p.159

The first volume of “The Partition Trilogy” by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar , entitled Lahore is to be released very soon. When it is available in the market, buy it. Read it. It is excellent.

The publicity blurb states the following:

Set in the months leading up to and following India obtaining freedom in 1947, this trilogy is an exploration of events, exigencies and decisions that led to the independence of India, its concomitant partition, and the accession of princely states alongside. A literary political thriller that captures the frenzy of the time, the series is set in Delhi, Lahore, Hyderabad and Kashmir. Covering a vast canvas, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhai Patel and Lord Mountbatten [ the text rather disparagingly refers to him as “Dickie” instead of “Lord”] share space in the trilogy with the ordinary people from the cities that were affected by the partition and the reorganization of the states.

Lahore is a very well-told story, delineating step-by-step the events that led to the subcontinent’s independence from its British colonial rulers and the heavy cost in terms of human lives. The story also focusses on the irrational hatred that consumed people. The author attempts a fine balance between the political events that were taking place at a rapid pace, sometimes leaving the politicians and administrators bewildered at the speed at which it was all happening, with that of the events engulfing common people. She offers insights into the macro- and micro- levels of decisions that needed to be taken by the British, and incoming Indian and Pakistani governments. The story moves extremely fast, aping the historical events. Lahore seems to based on extensive research involving historical documents, accounts, testimonies, more contemporary analysis that has been unearthed of the events that took place nearly seventy-five years ago. It is perceptible in the tenor of writing. It seeps through in the descriptions of the real and imagined characters — the state-level decisions that were being taken to manage the handing over of governance by the British to the Indians/Pakistanis, albeit the narrative focusses more on the Indian side; the brutal hacking of people on the streets simply because they were of the opposite community (“Communal rioting was spreading,as if by chain reaction”); the unreasonable acts of violence in neighbourhoods towards the “other” such as the fictionalised account of the Muslim fruit seller being shunted out of a predominantly Hindu colony ( eerily echoing present day India where a few days ago a similar act occurred towards a Muslim bangle seller in Indore); or the vicious assault, kidnapping and raping of women where often they were left to their fate ( “Nobody moved in pursuit, nobody seemed to have noticed her disappearance— or nobody had the energy left to care.”).

There is much, much more to absorb. It requires a keen historian’s eye to verify if the facts portrayed in this novel are as close to the truth as possible. In terms of the broader arc, the depiction of the events is close to what is evident in history books and the many oral testimonies that came tumbling out in the older generations as they recalled 1947 while witnessing the communal riots that had broken out in Delhi in 1984. The chilling parallels between the two were unmistakable. For instance, my grandfather, who was the last ICS officer, suddenly began to remember the 1947 horrors that he saw as a young officer. So much of what Manreet Sodhi Someshwar documents of the officers making lists of divvying up office furniture, watching people being slaughtered in the streets, or houses being burnt to the ground with families inside it are much of what my grandfather has recorded in his oral testimony at the Teen Murti Library. Apparently it is the longest oral testimony (4vols) ever recorded. It is also very familiar to those of us who have seen these riots. It is as if we as a nation cannot get rid of these violent memories and have made violence part and parcel of our lives. Today, with social media, recordings of such incidents spread like wildfire, igniting even more in other regions. It is incumbent upon us as responsible citizens of a democracy to remember the horrendous events of the past and learn to move on, rather than nurse communal hatred and replicate pogroms.

More than forty percent of the 1.4 billion Indian population was born after 1991, many of whom are unfamiliar with modern Indian history. But it can be accessed through various ways. By reading historical fiction such as Lahore in conjunction with history books such as Bipan Chandra’s History of Modern India and of course watching the classic film by Richard Attenborough, Gandhi, available in English and Hindi.

Lahore is truly magnificent. Although it is inexplicable why the book title is Lahore when the chapters spell it as “Laur”. It should be submitted for historical fiction literary prizes such as “Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize” that is open to books published in the previous year in the Commonwealth. It would also be interesting to see a conversation between British writer Jamila Gavin who wrote the “Surya Trilogy” and Manreet Sodhi Someshwar as they both grapple with the events of 1947. Ideally Salman Rushdie should be invited to participate too given how his recent collection of essays dwells upon many of the themes that the other two writers tackle. Having said that there are many more writers who can be invited but this trio in conversation would make for a phenomenal conversation.

Buy it once it is available.

28 August 2021

PS I had posted this review on Facebook. Later Manreet Sodhi Someshwar shared it as her Facebook story. Here is a screenshot of it.

“A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes: A Son’s Memoir” by Rodrigo Garcia

In March 2014, Gabriel Garcia Marquez came down with a cold. He was eighty-seven-years-old. His wife was not hopeful about him surviving and phoned her sons, based in Los Angeles and Paris, respectively, to tell them. Rodrigo Garcia reached Mexico City before his brother and realised that his father needed hospitalisation. It was then that he also discovered their mother’s resistance to admitting her husband to hospital as she did not think he would make it. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was diagnosed with pneumonia and in the course of medical investigations, cancerous patches on his lung and liver were also detected. The chances of recovery were bleak given his frailty and his ill-health. It was decided that the Nobel Prize winning author would be taken home and made comfortable. The doctors were not sure about how much time he had. It could range from a few weeks to a few months. 

A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes: A Son’s Memoir is by Rodrigo Garcia ( HarperVia). His son realised that this was the end game for his illustrious father and he should write about Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s final moments on earth.

Writing about the death of loved ones must be about as old as writing itself, and yet the inclination to do it instantly ties me up in knots. I am appalled that I am thinking of taking notes, ashamed as I take notes, disappointed in myself as I revise notes. What makes matters emotionally turbulent is the fact that my father is a famous person. Beneath the need to write may lurk the temptation to advance one’s own fame in the age of vulgarity. Perhaps it might be better to resist the call and to stay humble. Humility is, after all, my favorite form of vanity. But as with most writing, the subject matter chooses you, and so resistance could be futile.

Paris Review, “A Great Storyteller Loses His Memory”, 2 August 2021

Rodrigo Garcia chose to publish it after both his parents had passed away. “I know I will not publish this memoir until she is unable to read it.” His mother passed away in August 2020. Hence, the memoir has been published in 2021. Rodrigo Garcia is a filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He is a screenwriter and director. His theatrical films include Nine Lives, Albert Nobbs, and Last Days in the Desert, and he has directed episodes of Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, and the pilot of Big Love, for which he received an Emmy nomination. Obviously, his career has helped him hone his skills as a storyteller. Although nothing can prepare you to tell the story of your parent’s declining health and eventual death. To maintain a clear-eyed perspective on the events that occurred in quick succession from the time Gabriel Garcia Marquez fell seriously ill requires immense amounts of self-will and training as a skilled and sensitive narrator.

Standing near the foot of the bed, I look at him, diminished as he is, and I feel like both his son (his little son) and his father. I am acutely aware that I have a unique overview of his eighty-seven years. The beginning, the middle, and the end are all there in front of me, unfolding like an accordion book.

I fly to Los Angeles again to spend a few more days in the cutting room. My second night at home, I go to bed early, but after I turn out the lights I’m worried that the phone will ring in the middle of the night and scare the wits out of me. It does both. I hear my brother’s voice on the other end, sounding deliberately calm.

“Hey. He has a high fever. The doctor says you better come back.”

After I hang up, I book an early flight on my phone . . . 

****

Later a gerontologist of about forty stops by to advise on end-stage care. (He is himself is in remission from lymphoma. He has advice for us on the last stages, vis-à-vis hydration and sedation.) …We listen in silence, like we’re watching a strange monologue in an experimental play. The ideas are intriguing and absurd. Practical, compassionate, murderous.

****

Yet, while preoccupied with his father and the arrangements it would take to organise home care, the author is able to spare a thought on the nurse:

The beauty of witnessing someone who is outstanding at what she does, in conjunction with the comfort brought about by the support of an empathetic health worker, makes her a compelling presence.

There are many instances in the memoir when he comments upon the staff busying themselves with their chores but it is never written as if there is a divide between “us” and “them”. He does it with great poise. There is an exquisite moment in the book when the staff come to pay their last respects Gabriel Garcia Marquez as he is laid out on his bed.

Rodrigo Garcia then goes on to describe the funeral arrangements followed by the memorial service. His mother had insisted that the cremation take place on the same day itself. There were chaotic scenes outside their home but they managed to conduct the funeral on time. It was a very private affair. Four days later the Mexican and Colombian presidents held a joint memorial service at Mexico City. Marquez had been born in Colombia but chose to spend more than fifty years of his life in Mexico City. It was a grand affair.

This beautiful memoir is peppered with references to his father’s craftsmanship as a writer. Memories come flooding back. One of these is a poignant episode the son recalls of his father appreciating songwriters and singers for their techniques.

My dad greatly admired and envied songwriters for their ability to say so much and so eloquently with so few words. While writing Love in the Time of Cholera, he submitted himself to a steady diet of Latin pop songs of love lost or unrequited. He said to me that the novel would be nowhere so melodramatic as many of those songs, but that he could learn much from them about the techniques with which they evoked feelings. He was never a snob about art forms and enjoyed the work of people as diverse as Béla Bartók and Richard Clayderman. He once walked by as I was watching Elton John playing his best songs on television, alone at the piano. My dad was only vaguely aware of him, but the music stopped him in his tracks, and he eventually sat down and watched all of it, enthralled. “Carajo, this guy is an incredible bolerista,” he said. A singer of boleros. It was very much like him to refer something back to his own culture. He was never intimidated by Eurocentric references that were common everywhere. He knew that great art could blossom in an apartment building in Kyoto or in a rural country in Mississippi, and he had the unwavering conviction that any remote and rickety corner of Latin America or the Caribbean could stand in powerfully for the human experience.

He was an omnivorous reader . . .

A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes: A Son’s Memoir is a very touching tribute to a larger-than-life father who was venerated by millions around the world. But it is also an equally moving account of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s wife, Mercedes. They had met when they were little children as ten and fourteen-year-olds. From the moment he met her, Marquez knew he would marry Mercedes. But she had her own space and identity and was respected for it. So, when the Mexican president referred to her at the memorial service as “the widow”, she was infuriated, saying rightly so, “I have an identity. I am not just the widow.”


Read the book. Weep, but also celebrate life as Rodrigo Garcia does.

18 August 2021

Essay on Independence Day literature, 15 Aug 2021

15 Aug 2021 is the 74th Independence Day of India. In 1947, the subcontinent gained its independence from the British. On that day, two nations were created — India and Pakistan. So, while there is every reason to celebrate this joyous occasion, it is also remembered for the partitioning of British India and the terrible communal riots and mass migration of people that ensued.

The historic events of 1947 have never been forgotten by those living in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (in 1947, it was East Pakistan). Within two years of Independence, India got its constitution — the longest written constitution in the world. It is a magnificent document that gave the Indian citizens many rights. India was a fledgling democracy and yet there was much to celebrate this “new India” and the mantra of “self-reliance”. But as Suchitra Vijayan points out in her absolutely stunning book, Midnight’s Borders, that with the three significant pogroms of 1984, 1992 and 2002, much of India’s character changed. In Midnight’s Borders, she spent seven years travelling along India’s borders that had been hastily drawn in the 1940s by Radcliffe. The more she travelled, the clearer it became to her that local history and memory bear no resemblance to the political history of the nation that claims these lands and peoples. A barrister by training, she previously worked for the United Nations war crimes tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda before co-founding the Resettlement Legal Aid Project in Cairo, which gives legal aid to Iraqi refugees. Yet, as her travels along India’s borders proved, that nothing really prepared her for what she encountered. Some of these stories are documented.

The collection of books showcased in the images are a tiny representation of the literature (fiction, nonfiction, and poetry) that is about India’s Independence or as many now like to refer to it as Partition. Lesser and lesser people remember it as “independence” from colonial rule but prefer to commemorate the horrors of partition. While both narratives are true, the increasing emphasis on the division of the subcontinent along communal lines has resulted in many generations perpetuating the hatred and anger for the other. It is now playing out in our daily lives as many of these books bear testimony. It also wades into the exceedingly complicated terrain of the importance of memory, oral histories, subjective/objective perspectives, violence and preservation of stories for future generations — is it meant to be a reminder to not repeat these unforgettable mistakes of the past or do they serve the purpose of stoking more communal flames? No one will ever know the truth but three of the recently published novels — Savie Karnel’s The Nameless God, Chandan Pandey’s Legal Fiction (translated from Hindi into English by Bharatbhooshan Tiwari), and Siddharth Chowdhury’s The Time of the Peacock are sobering reminders of the fallout of our violent history.

Partition has become such an important narrative in Indian / South Asian/ desi literature, especially after the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 which for many recalled the events of 1947, that many new stories are continue to be published on the subject. Take for instance, the young adult novels of Swapna Haddow’s exquisite Torn Apart: The Partition of India and Veera Hirandani’s riveting The Night Diary. Torn Apart is a slim novel. It is focused upon the two young boys, Ibrahim and Amar. It is October 1947. The two young boys are thrown together, in the aftermath of India gaining Independence from the British. It resulted in the partition of the subcontinent into two nations – India and Pakistan. This resulted in terrible bloodshed and what has been considered to be one of the largest migrations of humans in living memory. Ibrahim, a wealthy young Muslim, has been separated from his family after an attack. Lost and alone in Delhi, Ibrahim meets Amar, a street child and a Hindu, and asks for his help to reach Pakistan safely. Swapna Haddow does not spend too much time fretting about families torn apart or relationships being fragile. She shows the violence and ways out of the violence. She does not in any way lighten any blows. The abrupt manner in which the friendship draws to a close at the refugee camp is so realistic. Astonishingly there is no sense of hope offered to the young readers. It is what it is. Even Michael Morpurgo who dishes out very sad books, with there always being one painful twist in the plot, ends his books on positivity. Always hope. But not Swapna. Yet, the lean writing, with not a word out of place is utterly stupendous. And here is my 2018 interview with Veera Hiranandani.  Supriya Kelkar’s second novel, Strong as Fire, Fierce as Flame is not about 1947 but of 1857. The fact that it is listed here is because the novel is set at the time of the Uprising of 1857 when the colonial ruler’s policy of Divide and Rule was evident. Hindu and Muslim soldiers united to revolt against the British rulers. There were strong rumours circulating that the bullets that the soldiers had to bite with their mouths were wrapped in paper greased with cow and pig grease that affected the religious sensibilities of the Hindu and Muslim soldiers, respectively. It caused a massive furore and rapidly spreads from the epicentre in Meerut to towns and villages across India. Supriya Kelkar’s second novel is remarkable too for her insights into British India and creating historical fiction for middle grade readers. Her first novel Ahimsa was fabulous. Her strength is creating these strong adolescent girls as the protagonists and using them as the point of entry into the past. The heroine of this novel is thirteen-year-old Meera. The story opens with her being readied for her departure to her marital home. It was a fairly common practice at the time to encourage child marriage. Her husband Krishna lived in the same village. On the eve of her departure, riots break out and in the violence that ensued Krishna was killed. Meera is terrified that she will be made to commit Sati, the practice of widows burning on their husband’s funeral pyre. Terrified at the prospect, Meera runs away from home. By doing so, she gets involved in a series of events that are linked to the soldiers’ uprising against the colonial rulers.

Some of the stupendous literature published recently that either directly or indirectly focusses upon independence/communal repercussions on modern India include translations of poetry and short stories such as that of Kunwar Narain ( translated by his son, Apurva Narain in No Other World 2008, The Play of Dolls: Stories 2020 & Witnesses of Remembrance: Selected Newer Poems 2021); the anguish about contemporary events movingly expressed by poet  Tishani Doshi in her collection of poems A God at the Door; Farah Bashir‘s memoir about growing up in 1990s Kashmir in Rumours of Spring; and debut writer Sonal Kohli’s disquieting inter-linked short stories House Next to the Factory which are about the post-Partition immigrant experience between 1980-2020 in Delhi. The forthcoming Partition trilogy by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar is definitely something to look out for. The first volume, Lahore is to be released soon but it is a book that will be talked about for years to come. In all likelihood it will be turned into a TV series or a film. It is a triumphant example of historical fiction with a balanced account of historical events and fictional characters that provides insights into the events of 1947. The other two volumes in the trilogy are called Hyderabad and Kashmir. These books have been written after intensive research and it shows. Fortunately, the author wears her knowledge lightly and it is a gripping tale she has to tell. Debut novelist Melody Razak attempted to do something similar with Moth and has been recognised by The Observer as one of the promising novelists of 2021. It too is historical fiction set in and around August 1947.

Journalist M. Rajshekhar’s Despite the State has been included in this list of books as it is a brilliant example of reportage. Rajshekhar spent thirty-three months travelling through six states of India, investigating the deep crisis that affects Indian democracy. He records the distressing account of democratic failure. It is a sobering read given the enthusiasm with which the first government after Independence laid out the blueprint for a planned economy, construction of temples of modern India such as hydropower dams and setting up many schemes for the welfare of its citizens. Rajshekhar shows how much of those dreams have crumbled, the state in many instances has abdicated responsibility, leaving the citizens to fend for themselves. It is a cruel reality. It is precisely why a selection of Aleph Book Company titles have also been displayed. The publishing firm is doing a sterling job of creating relevant literature, looking at history, facts, evidence and preventing the corruption of historical narratives by a single discourse. The titles on display are a minute selection of what has been published in recent years by eminent academics, writers, and social activists.

Unfortunately, is a sad truth that much of the literature that is being published nowadays focusses more and more on the “partition” rather than the euphoria of becoming an independent nation. Literature at the best of times, especially for the young, when based upon historical events should be based on facts with of course the liberty to be creative rather than being biased in their perspective. The communal clashes that erupted after Independence were despicable and their ramifications are being felt more than seven decades later with the resurgence of hate politics and fundamentalism. It is the truth. But we should never forget and certainly not let the younger generations forget, as we move further in time away from 15 August 1947, that the euphoria of winning our Independence from the British was tremendous. We were free. Finally. Stories can be and should be created against the backdrop of Independence and of course the violence that followed thereafter. But the growing emphasis on remembering the violent past, erecting memorials to the victims, setting up Partition museums and war memorials, is one way of forever remembering the injustices of the past. Yet, it is also a clever way of ensuring that the wounds remain raw. Remember but with facts and not with selective memory – that is plain dangerous and perpetuates violence and hatred.

At such a time it is perhaps worth reading humanist and experimental poet and writer the late Kunwar Narain’s “Poetry of Dark Times”.

****

“Poetry of Dark Times”

Remembering Brecht

How should be
the poetry of dark times
like this?

Poets change, poems change,
but dark times
just don’t seem to change.

So much misery
keeps looking for words in artless languages,
keeps wishing that they arise
drop by drop
like vapour from abyssal oceans
collide with mountains
like nimbus clouds
girdle the earth and rain down on it
like tempest thunder lightning . . .

             

and so let the poetry of dark times inundate
and wash away the dark times.

              and wash away the dark times.

How can the poetry
of dark times
be . . .

Kunwar Narain (1927-2017), translated by Apurva Narain

Note: These are only a sample of books published on Independence/Partition. There are many, many more equally good books being published that have not been included in this post.

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