Qabar or grave, is a novella by award-winning writer K. R. Meera ( published by Westland Books). It is a curious story. Is it possible to share the story briefly. No. Suffice to say that the dark parallels drawn between a woman’s existence and that of a Muslim in a very patriarchal and Hindu-dominated society, respectively, are very disconcerting. For the characters, it is akin to being dead while alive, confined to their qabar. Resorting to elements of magic realism or preying upon classic myths of witches and djinns, does not in any way ease the reader while trying to comprehend Qabar. The competent translation by journalist/author, Nisha Susan is very good. She achieves the balancing act by slipping in Malayalam words into the English translation without making the text jarring to read.
Blue Skinned Gods by S J Sindhu is the memoir of a childgod, Kalki, who is blueskinned and thus perceived as an avatar of Vishnu. It is a coming-of-age novel that calls out the hypocrisy of religion, castesim and the shocking attitudes towards women that persist; while dissecting sharply other aspects of society, especially patriarchy and the manner in which it controls, constructs, imbues, destroys society and relationships. It is heartbreaking to see how the young Kalki is constantly looking at his Ayya for approval but it is not easily forthcoming. Ultimately, religion is the opiate of the masses and this book delves deep into it. It is definitely a bildungsroman too as Kalki grows, develops and goes into adulthood. Sexuality too is like an electric undercurrent in the novel as Kalki experiments. There are moments when the much older Kalki reflects back upon his life, and much has happened. He has learned to break shackles and move ahead. He lives. He experiments. He travels — metaphorically and literally. It is a pretty sharply told story.
It is a novel that exoticises India in the same manner as Raghubir Singh did with his photographs many years ago. It presents an India to the world that they associate with India. It is a book that will appeal to foreigners as it checks many boxes regarding India especially wrt Hinduism, spirituality, a way of life etc. It is saleable.A vast number of these novels are emerging from overseas markets that offer a perspective on India. In many ways they sound dated as the writers are distanced — physically and in time — from India. Whereas the country is changing so rapidly that it is unkind to present India in a specific light. Even the protagonist, Kalki, who promises to be an interesting person as he learns to defy authority, ultimately feels very wooden. While it is essential for desi literature to expand its horizons and have more and more writers contributing to this space, perhaps it is equally prudent to have more engagements, like cross-pollination of experiences, between writers based in and writing out of India with those of the diaspora.
Ideally speaking, a panel discussion between S J Sindhu and Saikat Majumdar would be fascinating. Perhaps, it can be organised?
Once upon a time, I too had dogs. They were an integral part of my life. They would sit at my feet while I studied. We travelled by road for lovely, long trips. Dad would ensure that we were booked into accommodation that welcomed the dogs. In our family, dogs were and are a part of our lives and this has been true across generations. A lot of memories came flooding back while reading the stories in The Book Of Dog edited by Hemali Sodhi ( published by HarperCollins India). And most certainly one of the memories being that of calming a petrified Hemali when she spotted a pet dog across a vast hall at an event. So her transformation into an ardent doglover is the stuff that myths are made up of. If I had not witnessed it for myself, it would have been hard to believe what she narrates in her introduction. But it is true. The kindness, gentleness, warmth, unconditional love that the animals offer has to be experienced at least once and I am glad Hemali Sodhi has. Sadly, with the joy comes the pain, grief and the gaping hole in one’s heart that the dog’s departure leaves. The Book of Dog is a gorgeous collection of essays, photographs, poems, and illustrations by pawrents. And you know it is a winner when munchkins adopt it by slipping in notes, appropriating it as their own.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.