Academic Posts

India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today

I wrote a long essay on India’s women writers from the early 20th century to today for Bookwitty. Here is an extract from the essay:  

India has a tradition of fine women writers, and some of the earliest established names among them were also pioneers in fields beyond literature. Roekya Sakhawat Hossein (1880-1932) was a leading Bengali feminist in at the turn of the 20th century. Her sci-fi utopian novella, Sultana’s Dream (1905), was decades before her time and is a delight to read even now. Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954) was both the first woman to read law at Oxford, and the first Indian national to study at a British university. During her career as the first female lawyer in India, she advocated for women in purdah and children. She wrote a dozen books including her memoirs, India Calling (1934). Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) known as the “Nightingale of India,” was not only a poet, but also the first female governor of an Indian state, and the first woman president of the Indian National Congress. Her debut collection of poetry, The Golden Threshold, was published in 1905.

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Sarojini Naidu with Mahatma Gandhi

at the 1942 All India Congress Committee Session

Despite our strong tradition of women writers in the early 20th century, to my mind it was the 1974 publication of the “Towards Equality” Status of Women in India Report that marked a watershed moment for women’s movements, and in turn, women’s literature. Though Indira Gandhi, the first woman prime minister, had been in power for years, it was the Report that gave more women a voice and an opportunity to express themselves.

Another literary turning point came in 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and thousands of Sikhs were massacred in retaliation. For the older generations, this violence brought back memories of the 1947 Partition of India; young writers and social activists including Urvashi Butalia began recording their stories. Butalia eventually wrote a seminal book, Other Side of Silence (2000), based on these oral histories as well as her own family’s story of moving to India from Lahore, now in Pakistan. Around the same time Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin’s groundbreaking Borders and Boundaries (1998) was published, documenting women’s experiences of Partition, about which until then it seemed a collective amnesia had existed.

To continue reading the essay please visit:  “India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today” , published on Bookwitty ( 3 August 2017) 

10 August 2017 

“Create, Copyright and Disrupt”

23 April is celebrated as World Book and Copyright Day. According to UNESCO  “23 April is a symbolic date for world literature. It is on this date in 1616 that Cervantes, Shakespeare and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega all died. It is also the date of birth or death of other prominent authors, such as Maurice Druon, Haldor K.Laxness, Vladimir Nabokov, Josep Pla and Manuel Mejía Vallejo. It was a natural choice for UNESCO’s General Conference, held in Paris in 1995, to pay a world-wide tribute to books and authors on this date, encouraging everyone, and in particular young people, to discover the pleasure of reading and gain a renewed respect for the irreplaceable contributions of those, who have furthered the social and cultural progress of humanity.”

It is befitting to mention Create, Copyright and Disrupt: India’s Intellectual Property Dilemmas by Prashant Reddy T. and Sumathi Chandrashekharan. The title itself a play on the slogan “Create, Protect, Innovate” that has been adopted by IP agencies and IP conferences worldwide. It gives a good overview on the patent history in India particularly for the pharmaceutical industry, the impact of the Berne Convention the publishing industry in India to the recent amendment to the Copyright Act ( 2012) brought about at the insistence of ex-Parliamentarian and prominent lyricist Javed Akhtar and finally the Geographical Indications of Goods Act [Registeration and Protection] Act, 1999 illustrated with the famous Neem and Basmati rice  cases.  The essays are written lucidly with a view to being accessed by the lay person and not necessarily mired in legal speak.

This is a good manual to have handy to understand how IPR works particularly since it revolves around the discussion and recognition of copyright as being a right to reproduce the work, communicate the work to the public or to the right to incorporate the work in another format such as a sound recording. This is dependant on recognising the author’s intellectual capital and compensating them adequately for it through licensing fees, time period of which varies from nation to nation. There are variations to this in the issue of first ownership of the copyrights particularly in the case of music and lyrics where the creator has been in the employment of the firm and been compensated for the work done. IPR conversations are critical since they link the creativity of a human mind to that of a right, the protection of whose onus falls upon the State, thereby ensuring the author/creator can earn some money of it. And it gains more significance when so much information is available digitally and where content is viewed as the oil of twenty-first century!

Prashant Reddy T. and Sumathi Chandrashekharan Create, Copyright and Disrupt: India’s Intellectual Property Dilemmas ( Foreword by Shamnad Basheer) Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2017. Hb. pp. 372 Rs. 850 

23 April 2017 

Censorship, state and formation of literature

A Stasi official observing the interrogation of the lover of an East German playwright whose loyalty to the state is questioned, in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others, 2006

An extract from the New York Review of Books review by Timothy Garton Ash of Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature by Robert Darnton” ( 23 October 2014)

I have only once met a censor on active duty. In the spring of 1989, my friends at the newly founded Polish opposition newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza let me take a cartoon up to the in-house censor at the printing house of the main Communist Party daily, on whose weary old presses Solidarity’s organ for the dismantlement of communism was now being produced. I knocked on the door, only to find a bored-looking woman in a floral dress, with a cigarette on her lip and a glass of tea at hand. She slowly scanned the cartoon and the article to which it related, as if to demonstrate that she could read, and then stamped her approval on the back of the cartoon.

My taskmistress showed few obvious signs of being an intellectual, but one of the leitmotifs of Robert Darnton’s new book is how intellectually sophisticated censors have often been. Drawing on original archival research, he offers three fine-grained, ethnographic (his word) studies of censors at work: in Bourbon France, British India, and Communist East Germany. In eighteenth-century France, the censors were not just writers manqués; many were writers themselves. They included men like F.-A. Paradis de Moncrif, a playwright, poet, and member of the Académie française. To be listed as a Censeur du Roi in the Almanach royal was a badge of honor. These royal censors initialed every page of a manuscript as they perused it, making helpful suggestions along the way, like a publisher’s editor. Their reports often read like literary reviews. One of them, M. Secousse, solicitously approved an anthology of legal texts that he himself had edited—thus giving a whole new meaning to the term “self-censorship.”

In British India, the censors—not formally so called—were scholars and gentlemen, either British members of the elite Indian Civil Service (the “heaven born”) or their learned Indian colleagues. Harinath De, a candidate for the post of imperial librarian in Calcutta in 1906,

had mastered Latin, Greek, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Sanskrit, Pali, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Oriya, Marathi and Guzerati, along with some Provençal, Portuguese, Romanian, Dutch, Danish, Anglo-Saxon, Old and Middle High German, and a smattering of Hebrew, Turkish and Chinese. He got the job.

Besides being a librarian, that job involved contributing summary reviews to an extraordinary printed catalog of every book published in the Raj from 1868 onward. It included more than 200,000 titles by 1905. Although given to describing anything with erotic content, including the hanky-panky of Hindu gods, as “filthy,” these literary monitors were often highly appreciative of the works under review, especially when the authors showed some virtuosity of style and depth of scholarship.

In the summer of 1990, Darnton, the lifelong historian of books and censorship, had the thrill of finally meeting two real-life censors. In East Berlin, the capital of the soon-to-be-history German Democratic Republic, he found Frau Horn and Herr Wesener, both holders of advanced degrees in German literature, eager to explain how they had struggled to defend their writers against oppressive, narrow-minded higher-ups in the Party, including an apparent dragon woman called Ursula Ragwitz. The censors even justified the already defunct Berlin Wall on the grounds that it had preserved the GDR as a Leseland, a land of readers and reading. Darnton then plunges with gusto into the Communist Party archives, to discover “how literature was managed at the highest levels of the GDR.”

He gives instances of harsh repression from all three places and times. Thus, an eighteenth-century chapter of English PEN could have taken up the case of Marie-Madeleine Bonafon, a princess’s chambermaid, who was walled up, first in the Bastille and then in a convent, for a total of thirteen and a half years. Her crime? To have written Tanastès, a book about the king’s love life, thinly disguised as a fairy tale. In 1759, major works of the Enlightenment, including Voltaire’s poem on natural religion and Diderot’s Pensées philosophiques, were “lacerated and burned by the public hangman at the foot of the great staircase of the Parlement” in Paris.

In British India, civilized tolerance of native literature turned to oppression in the early years of the twentieth century, as Indian nationalist protests grew following the partition of Bengal. A wandering minstrel called Mukanda Lal Das was sentenced to three years’ “rigorous imprisonment” for singing his subversive “White Rat Song,” with lyrics that come out in the official British translation like this:

Do you know, Deputy Babu, now your head is under the boots of the Feringhees, that they have ruined your caste and honor and carried away your riches cleverly?

In East Germany, Walter Janka suffered five years of solitary confinement for being too much involved with György Lukacs in 1956.

Yet such outright persecution is not Darnton’s main theme. As his subtitle suggests, what really interests him is “how states shaped literature.” They have generally done so, he argues, through processes of complex negotiation. In eighteenth-century France, censors made suggestions on grounds of taste and literary form; they also ensured that no well-placed aristocrats received unwelcome attention and that compliments to the king were sufficiently euphuistic. Different levels of authorization were available, from the full royal privilege to a “tacit permission.”

In East Germany, elaborate quadrilles were danced by censors, high-level apparatchiks, editors, and, not least, writers. The celebrated novelist Christa Wolf had sufficient clout to insist that a very exceptional ellipsis in square brackets be printed at seven points in her 1983 novel Kassandra, indicating censored passages. This of course sent readers scurrying to the West German edition, which visitors smuggled into the country. Having found the offending words, they typed them up on paper slips and gave these to friends for insertion at the correct place. Among its scattering of striking illustrations, Censors at Work reproduces one such ellipsis on the East German printed page and corresponding typewritten slip.

Klaus Höpcke, the deputy minister for publishing and the book trade (a state position, and therefore subordinated to higher Party authorities), seems to have spent almost as much time in the 1980s fending off the Party leaders above him as he did curbing the writers below. He received an official Party reprimand for allowing Volker Braun’s Hinze-Kunze-Roman, the scabrous story of an apparatchik and his chauffeur, to be published, albeit in a carefully “negotiated” form. Finally, in a flash of late defiance, Deputy Minister Höpcke even supported an East German PEN resolution protesting against the arrest of one Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1989.

Some celebrated writers do not emerge trailing clouds of glory from the cold-eyed files of censorship. Voltaire, that legendary champion of free speech, apparently tried to get the royal censors to suppress the works of his enemies. It was the censor-in-chief who, while he might not have agreed with what Voltaire’s enemies said, defended their right to say it.

The office of the East German Politburo member responsible for culture, Kurt Hager, “kept long lists of writers who sent in requests for visas, cars, better living conditions, and intervention to get their children into universities.” A plea by the writer Volker Braun to be allowed a subscription to the leading West German liberal weekly Die Zeit went all the way up to Hager, with a supportive letter from the deputy minister, who argued that this would provide Braun with materials for a novel satirizing capitalism. In the course of tough negotiations with senior cultural apparatchiks in the mid-1970s, Braun is even recorded as saying that Hager was “a kind of idol for him.” Can we credit him with irony? Perhaps. Writers who have never faced such pressures should not be too quick to judge. And yet one feels a distinct spasm of disgust.

17 March 2017 

“Beowulf” A translation and commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien

“Beowulf” is the longest Anglo-Saxon epic poem in Old English, and is dated to the early 11th century. It is about Geatish prince Beowulf who comes to the aid of Danish king Hroðgar, slaying the monster Grendel and his mother and fifty years later a dragon guarding treasure. Tolkien’s date for the poem is the 8th century. In 1920 Tolkien began teaching Old English at the University of Leeds. He finished translating the poem in 1926 but never published it. He was thirty-four.  He was in a dilemma which he expressed in a letter to Rayner Unwin of November 1965 concerning his inability to compose the ‘editorial’ matter to accompany his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

 I am finding the selection of notes, and compressing them, and the introduction, difficult. Too much to say, and not sure of my target. The main target is, of course, the general reader of literary bent but with no knowledge of Middle English; but it cannot be doubted that the book will be read by students, and by academic folk of ‘English Departments’. Some of the latter have their pistols loose in their holsters. 

Forty years after his death Tolkien’s third son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien, decided to publish the translation along with his father’s series of lectures given at Oxford about the poem in the 1930s and the unpublished ballad Sellic Spell — an imagined story of Beowulf in an early form. Also included in the book are two versions of Lay of Beowulf. As Christopher recalls in the Preface: “His singing of the Lay remains for me a clear memory after more than eighty years, my first acquaintance with Beowulf and the golden hall of Heorot.”

For years now there has been speculation about the translation. In fact in 1999 Seamus Heaney published a brilliant translation of the poem which won the Whitbread prize too. In 2014 Tolkien’s estate announced the publication of Beowulf. Tolkien has in his translation retained the spirit of the poem, its descriptions and rawness but changed the alliteration in the original to run-on lines — a prose translation. There is considerable debate about this dramatic restructuring of the form in the “modern-day” translation by Tolkien. The majority view is that the clunkiness of Old English forced an alliterative structure to the poem for it to be narrated but this was no longer a necessity with modern English. It was possible to create a story in a nuanced fashion and hence Tolkien’s preference ( or presumably ease) with a prose version. Yet the shift in structure does little to spoil the beauty of the poem. There is a wonderful review-article of the book in the New Yorker by Joan Acocella. It was published within weeks of the book’s release in 2014. She gives a brilliant background to the possible compulsions ( read monetary) that drove Tolkien to consider a translation of this long poem before embarking upon an exquisite textual analysis of the poem. She compares the new translation with the original while comparing it to the Seamus Heaney translation. At the same time Joan Acocella brings in Tolkien’s fascination with languages — already told to fabricating new ones as he did famously for the Hobbit series with Elvish or the private language, Nevbosh, that he shared only with his cousin Mary. All these talents of Tolkien go into making the wonderful new translation of Beowulf.

It is a delicious translation enriched further by the endnotes and lectures. This volume is a keeper.

Beowulf ( Translated by J. R. R. Tolkien) Edited by Christopher Tolkien. HarperCollinsPublishers , London, 2014. Hb. pp. 430 Rs. 799 

“The Communist Manifesto” and its publishing history

While browsing through the fine collection of titles of Penguin Little Black Classics I was interested to note that title 20 was The Communist Manifesto ( 1948). Of the entire collection which is a magnificent sweep of literature through the ages and different nations it is curious to see the manifesto included. It was probably included for its impact globally as it is amongst the most widely read and disseminated texts worldwide even a 170 years after it was first published. In fact Leftword Books published a collection of essays on the manifesto called A World To Win  (1999). One of the essays is on the publishing history of the manifesto in India ( available at this link  for free download with the publisher’s permission). It is a fascinating account of how the manifesto was first published in British India. The first Indian translator of the Manifesto had an interesting career. Soumyendranath was the grand nephew of Rabindranath Tagore. It is fitting that the Manifesto got published first in Bengali, Urdu, Marathi, and Tamil, as it is in the centres where these languages predominate that the Communist movement first struck roots. The early Communist groups were based in Calcutta, Bombay, Lahore and Madras. Later it was translated into Malayalam, Gujarati, Oriya, Hindi and Punjabi. In the fifties and later, the Manifesto was published regularly in different Indian languages by Progress Publishers, Moscow.

 

No wonder Penguin Random House included The Communist Manifesto in its Little Black Classics series.

27 February 2017 

 

 

2017 Reading Order, Asian Age

My annual feature in Asian Age which highlights the forthcoming titles of the year was published on 8 January 2017

2017 is going to be a fascinating year for books with big names too. 2016 was extraordinary for the number of strong debuts, overabundance of thrillers, revisionist accounts of history and established names releasing new books. There is a tremendous list of books to look out for – Amitava Kumar (The Lovers), Elif Shafak (The Three Daughters for Eve), Balli Kaur Jaswal (Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows), Jeet Thayil (The Book of Chocolate Saints), Mohsin Hamid (Exit West), Kamila Shamsie (Home Fire), Arundhati Roy (The Ministry of Utmost Happiness), Nadeem Aslam (The Golden Legend), Irwin Allan Sealy (Zelaldinus: A Masque and a travelogue called The China Sketchbook), S.V. Sujatha (The Demon-hunter of Chottanikkara), Sami Shah (Boy), Neil Gaiman’sCinnamon illustrated by Divya Srinivasan, Namita Roy Ghose’s historical fiction (The Wrong Turn: Love and Betrayal in the time of Netaji) and The Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica by Amrita Narayanan.

Debut novelists slated for 2017 that are already being spoken of highly include Prayaag Akbar’sLeila, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, Tor Udall’s A Thousand Paper Birds, Torsa Ghoshal’s Open Couplets and Devi Yashodharan’s novel, Empire.

 

natasha badhwar

Mythology continues to be hugely popular (backbone of local publishing) with its innumerable retellings. For instance the eagerly expected Devdutt Pattanaik’s The Illustrated Mahabharata: The Definitive Guide to India’s Greatest Epic and Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. Others include Mandakranta Bose’s The Ramayana in Bengali Folk Paintings, The Panchatantra by Vishnu Sharma (Translated by Rohini Chowdhury) and popular storyteller Krishna Udayasankarreturns with The Aryavarta Chronicles (4). A curious one to watch out for would be Jaya Misra’sKama: The Chronicles of Vatsyayana — a fictionalised biography of the author of The Kama Sutra(illustrated by Harshvardhan Kadam). Then there is Keerthik Sasidharan’s The Kurukshetra War: A Reconstruction and the ever-prolific Ashok Banker who has been commissioned by PanMacmillan India to write The Shakti Trilogy and by Amaryllis to deliver The Shivaji Trilogy.

The winning genre of thrillers is set to burgeon with some new and some established writers, such as Karachi-based police officer Omar Shahid Hamid’s third novel, The Party Worker, award-winning writer Jerry Pinto’s first detective fiction, Murder in Mahim, Bhaskar Chattopadhyay’s Here Falls the Shadow, Sanjay Bahadur’s Bite of the Black Dog, Sabyn Javeri’s Nobody Killed Her,Nikita Singh’s Every Time It Rains and long-awaited Pradeep Sebastian’s The Book Hunters. The bestselling duo Ashwin Sanghi and Dan Patterson are back with Private Delhi. Three intriguing books based on investigative reporting by prominent journalists are in the offing: The Nanavati Case by Bachi Karkaria, Sheena Bora Trail by Manish Pachouly and Who Killed Osho? by Abhay Vaidya.

Women’s writing continues to be a popular segment and has firmly established itself as a well-defined market. Some of the anticipated non-fiction titles are Status Single by the sharply perceptive Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults by the extraordinary feminist Laurie Penny, fabulous writer and columnist Natasha Badhwar’s memoir My Daughters’ Mum: Essays and popular mommygolightly blogger Lalita Iyer’s The Whole Shebang: Stick Bits of Being a Woman. Finally significant women in history and myth will be highlighted with books like Women Rulers in Indian History by Archana Garodia, Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History by Ira Mukhoty.  Some of the other significant titles planned are Tripti Lahiri’s Maid in India: Stories of Opportunity and Inequality Inside our Homes, Sanam Maher’s The Short Life and Tragic Death of Qandeel Baloch and Priyanka Dubey’s No Nation for Women: Ground Reportage on Rape from the World’s Largest Democracy.

Translations are slowly expanding reading horizons by becoming a robust addition to the local imprint. Some prominent translations expected in 2017 are well-known Malayalam writer, Sethu Madhavan’s novels The Saga of Muziris (translated by Prema Jayakumar) and Aliyah (translated by Catherine Thankamma) which is about the migration of Kerala’s black Jews to the promised land of Israel. Rakshanda Jalil’s translation of Ghaddaar by Krishan Chander is titled Traitor, and there’s also the magnificent 900+ page novel Against the World by Jan Brandt (translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire), award-winning writer Perumal Murugan’s Seasons of the Palm andThe Collected Stories of Saadat Hasan Manto (Vol I, translated by Nasreen Rehman) to look forward to.

Evidence of a mature Indian publishing and a stable nation are the increasing number of academic analysis of the literary traditions. For instance two volumes edited by Rakhshanda Jalil — An Uncivil Woman: Writings on Ismat Chughtai and Looking Back: The Partition of India 70 Years On (with eds.Tarun Saint and Debjani Sengupta).

The Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections will take place in 2017. Plenty of books are in the pipeline. Sudhai Pai’s Uttar Pradesh: A Political Biography, Sajjan Kumar’s The Ailing Heartland: Communal Politics in Uttar Pradesh Since Independence and Venkatish Ramakrishnan’s Dateline Ayodhya. Coincidentally, 2017 is Indira Gandhi’s birth centenary year too and her constituency was Allahabad, home of the Nehrus. Two biographies planned are Sagarika Ghose’s Indira Gandhi: Her Life and Afterlife and Jairam Ramesh’s Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature. Ashoka University’s Rudranghsu Mukherjee’s The Nehru Reader is also slated for release.

2017 is also the 70th year of Indian Independence. Some of the books slated straddle academia and lay readership. For instance  Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, Barney White-Spunner’s Partition, Sheela Reddy’s long-awaited Mr and Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage That Shook India, Bertil Lintner China’s India War, Nikhila Henry’sThe Ferment and Aruna Roy’s The RTI Story. Journalist Poonam Snigdha’s Dreamers: The Heart of Modern India is a much-anticipated title for it focuses on the majority of India

Paddy Rangappa

which is under the age of 25. Another title bound to cause ripples with its publication is Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra, a polemic on the Western intellectual origins of Islamic fundamentalist. Delhi, seat of political power of the subcontinent for centuries, continues to be the favourite city for writers. Three books due are — Delhi: Power Politics Destiny by Sheila Dikshit, Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi by historian Swapna Liddle and Maps of Delhi by Pilar Maria Guerrieri.

Business books continue to be bestsellers. Two prominent titles are Paddy Rangappa’s Spark: The Insight to Growing Brands and financial journalist Pravin Palande’s The Fundamentalists: Czars of India’s Financial Markets — which has been a long time in the making.

14 February 2017 

Dalit Literature in English

Justice for JishaOn 29 April 2016, Jisha, a dalit student of Government Law College, Ernakulam, Kerala, was raped and murdered. Jisha was found at her home which stands on Purambokku Bhumi (PDW land) in Iringol Rayamangalam Kanalbund, in Perumbavur district in Kerala. As per the post-mortem and primary police investigation, 30 stab wounds were found on the law student’s body. Investigation has shown that the wounds were made by a sharp object which which the rapists brutalised her face, chin, neck and also her stomach. Her body was found with her entrails exposed as the assailants had cut open her stomach. It is a fatal injury to the back of her head that caused the death, post-mortem report reveals. Jisha’s body was discovered by her mother, Rajeswari when she returned from her work as a house-help at 8.30 pm on April 28. Jisha has been a regular student at the Government law college and was preparing for examination when she was murdered. (The hashtag #JusticeForJisha has been created but it has not begun to trend so far on Twitter.)

This is horrific news. The horror of the rape. The horror of sexual violence. The horror of violence. What is far worse is the visceral hatred directed towards Dalits — a section of society that continue to be ostracised by caste-conscious Indians. Many consider it to be a politically incorrect term but there is no denying that the practise of untouchability exists. Humiliation on a daily basis against dalits is not unheard of. It could be physical, social, economic, mental, health/nourishment or denying access to resources. The myriad ways in which it is perpetrated on dalits defeats imagination. Consider a small example. The recent banning of beef in India also deprives Dalits of their primary source of protein. Beef is cheap and easily available. The dalits belong to a section of society that cuts across religions. What is astounding is that the quantum ( and relentlessness) of violence against this community is impossible for any sane individual to comprehend and yet it is practised daily.

“Fortunately” now texts exist by and about Dalits. An introduction to Thunderstorm by Ratan Kumar ThunderstormSambharia ( Hachette India, 2016) explains it was the concatenation of events — printing technology + freedom struggle for Indian Independence from the colonial rulers which played a vital role in the social awakening of communities. This made a significant contribution to the creation of a specific literary genre that eventually came to be identified as Dalit Literature. As a result over the years a decent body of work has been made available in the form of songs, poetry, fiction ( short stories and novels), memoirs Hatred in the Bellyand biographies. Some publishing houses in India have been actively publishing this literature and commentaries of it– Macmillan India (in the 1990s with Bama’s memoir Karukku), Orient Longman/ OBS, OUP India, Zubaan, Navayana, Adivaani, Speaking Tiger and Penguin Random House. And then there are the incredible successes of self-published books such as Hatred in the Belly ( http://amzn.to/1Y7zhy7 ). It sold out within few days of it being made available online. Even the recently released novel Pyre by Perumal Murugan ( translated Pyreby Aniruddhan Vasudevan) carefully sidesteps naming castes but there are enough cultural indicators embedded in the story to make it apparent that Saroja, the bride, is a Dalit and hence the hostile reception she receives in her husband’s village. Noted Kannada writer and editor of the short-lived literary magazine Desh Kala, Vivek Shanbhag, told me at the Oxford Apeejay Languages Festival ( 23 April 2016) that in Karnataka the second-generation of Dalit writers are evident now. This literature represents part of the diversity Indian publishing has to offer.

Recently a bunch of dalit literature texts have been creating quite an impact on contemporary Indian Literature. To give a bird’s-eye view of this specific literary landscape, some random examples:

  1. ZubaanThe Oxford India Anthology of Telugu Dalit Writing ( edited by K. Purushotham, Gita Ramaswamy, and Gogu Shyamala), OUP India
  2. The Oxford India Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing ( edited by Ravikumar and R. Azhagarasan), OUP India
  3. The Oxford India Anthology of Malayalam Dalit Writing ( edited by M. Dasan, V. Pratibha, Pradeepan Pampirikunnu and C.S. Chandrika), OUP IndiaJerry Pinto
  4. Ratan Kumar Sambharia Thunderstorm: Dalit Stories ( translated by Mridul Bhasin), Hachette India
  5. Daya Pawar Baluta ( translated by Jerry Pinto and winner of 2016 Windham-Campbell Prize), Speaking Tiger
  6. Nirupama Dutt The Ballad of Bant Singh: A Qissa of Courage, Speaking Tiger
  7. Perumal Murugan Pyre ( translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan), Penguin Random House India
  8. Sharmila Rege Writing Caste, Writing Gender: Narrating Dalit Woman’s Testimonios, Zubaan

Telugu DalitTamil Dalit LiteratureMalayalam Dalit LiteratureQissaIn this context it is worth reading what the well-known second-generation Dalit politician, Mrs. Meira Kumar, former Lok Sabha Speaker, Parliament of India, had to say about Dalit Literature.

Great literature, the classics, is time-tested, invariably painted on large canvases and are stories that have shaped generations. And then there are books like Amritlal Nagar’s Nachyo Bahut Gopal, which are revolutionary and made a significant impact on me. I object to the classification of literature like this as Dalit Literature. It is the sort of label designed to keep a book in its so-called place. By assigning labels to writing as anarchists, we try to push them further out into the fringe.  ( In Tehelka, 2012.  http://www.tehelka.com/2012/12/i-am-drawn-to-strong-women-characters-jane-austen-made-a-huge-impact-on-me/ )

Dalit Literature Festival

The first edition of Dalit Literature Festival will be held on 6-7 December, 2016 in New Delhi. ( http://dalitliteraturefestival.com/ ).

Sadly with all these active dialogues, the growing awareness, cultural extravaganzas, the hostility towards Dalits continues to be deeply embedded in society and violent attacks such as on Jisha are a dark reality. What is far worse is the deafening silence against many of these acts that are unrecorded.

4 May 2016

Mary Beard, “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome”


I have spent a good deal of the past fifty years of my life with these ‘first millennium Romans’. I have learnt their languages as well as I can. I have read a good deal of the literature they have left us ( no one has read it all), and I have studied some of the hundreds of thousands of books and papers written over the centuries about them, from Machiavelli and Gibbon to Gore Vidal and beyond. I have tried to decipher the words they carved into stone, and I have dug them up, quite literally, on wet, windy and unglamourous archaeological sites in Roman Britain. And I have wondered for a long time about how best to tell Rome’s story and to explain why I think it matters. … .

I no longer think, as I once naively did, that we have much to learn directly from the Romans — or, for that matter, from the ancient Greeks, or from any other ancient civilisation. We do not need to read of the difficulties of the Roman legions in Mesopotamia or against the Parthians to understand why modern military interventions in western Asia might be ill advised. … .

But I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amount to learn — as much about ourselves as about the past — by engaging with the history of the Romans, their poetry and prose, their controversies and arguments. Western culture has a varied inheritance. Happily, we are not the heirs of the classical past alone. Nevertheless, since the Renaissance at least, many of our fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans and their writing. 

We do not want to follow Cicero’s example, but this clash with the bankrupt aristocrat, or popular revolutionary, with which I started this book still underlies our views of the rights of the citizen and still provides a language for political dissent: “Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?’ The idea of ‘desolation’ masquerading as ‘peace’, as Tacitus put into the mouths of Rome’s British enemies, still echoes in modern critiques of imperialism. And the lurid voices that are attributed to the most memorable Roman emperors have always raised the question of where autocratic excess ends and a reign of terror begins. 

(Mary Beard, SPQR, p. 534-6)

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard takes its title from a famous Roman Romecatchphrase, Senatus PopulusQue Romanus, ‘The Senate and People of SPQRRome’. For a scholar who has lived with her subject for nearly half a century to produce a clean narrative and create a thoroughly readable book, not packing it with jargon is indeed very commendable. As she says in the opening pages of the book her intention is to write a story that “has to be a bold work of reconstruction, which must squeeze individual pieces of evidence — a single fragment of pottery, or a few letters inscribed on stone”. What is truly incredible with crystal clear clarity she make innumerable connections with the literature (written material, myths and oral legends) left by the Romans to the evidence found at archaeological sites and linking it to contemporary politics. Not for a moment does it become dull. One of my favourite examples is how she analyses the founding myth or legend of Rome to the legend of Romulus and Remus, linking it to Cicero, and interestingly enough to Benito Mussolini. Apparently the nurturing wolf was an addition made in the fifteenth century explicitly to capture the founding myth Wolf and baby twinsand baby twins. But copies of the famous image are found all over the world thanks to Mussolini who distributed them far and wide as a symbol of Romanita. Later she adds that Livy was one of the Roman sceptics who tried to rationalise this particularly implausible aspect of the tale. “The Latin word for ‘wolf’ ( lupa) was also used as a colloquial term for ‘prostitute’ ( lupanare was one standard term for ‘brothel’). Could it be that a local whore rather than a local wild beast had found and tended the twins?” ( p.59) Similarly throughout the book there are many more examples of such absorbing detail. Whether it be about marriage, politics, elections, citizenship, status of women, adoption, warfare, military, trade, migration etc.

For those in Italy and Britain who live surrounded by Roman ruins and have constant engagement with Roman history this book must be utterly fascinating. Mary Beard has a wonderful agreeable style of writing that makes the history of ancient Rome accessible to everyone. It is not a prerequisite that a fair understanding of the history is required. And yet she has packed SPQR with a detailed bibliography, a timeline, an index and plenty of illustrations/photographs that it can work for the lay reader or the scholar.

In India most Indians go about their daily lives doing exactly what this book is spelling out — talking about the huge impact mythology and ancient literature has had through the ages and in modern times. Indians do it all the time with their oral traditions, myths, folklore and ancient texts. A testimony to this is the immensely successful commercial fiction. It is a fine art by contemporary storytellers to create fantastical stories that blend the modern with the ancient and myth with history. Since these writers are not historians like Mary Beard they take full advantage of their creative license to spin imaginative yarns. Whereas Mary Beard points out in the utterly fascinating SPQR that there is sufficient empirical evidence at ancient Roman archaeological sites whether in Italy or abroad to prove much of the written records inherited over two millennia is more or less authentic.

SPQR has been on the list for many literary prizes including the inaugural British Book Industry Awards, in the adult category for the 10th IBW Book Award and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle — deservedly so!

Mary Beard SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome Profile Books, London, 2015. Hb. pp. 600 Rs 2250 ( Distributed in India by Hachette India) 

5 April 2016

 

 

 

 

 

Sunil Khilnani’s “Incarnations”


Even the terms used to describe the famous Indian uprising against the British in 1857 are political positions. Was it a mutiny, or India’s First War of Independence? Rebellion or uprising? A nationalist movement or a string of local protests?

p.243, “Lakshmi Bai, Rani of Jhansi: Bad-ass Queen (1828-1858)”

‘A society, almost necessarily, begins every success story with the chapter that most advantages itself,’ the American public intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates recently argued regarding mythic constructions of liberation all over the world. ‘[C]hapters are almost always rendered as the singular action of exceptional individuals.’ In modern India’s myth of finally, formally confronting its brutal history of case, Bhimrao Ambedkar is that exceptional individual. But every Great Man story is also a story of circumstance. Had India not been devastated by Partition, the formidable lawyer and scholar who led the untouchables might not have become the founding father most meaningful to ordinary Indians today.

p.468 “Ambedkar: Building Palaces on Dung Heaps (1891-1956)”

Sikri’s battlements, palaces, shrines proclaim imperial grandeur. But its airy pavilions and halls share little in common with the heavy monumentalism of Versaille or the Habsburg seats of power. Parts of the city have the feeling of a tent encampment, except that the animal skins and wood frames have been replaced by stone and marble, carved with great skill by local craftsmen. Walking through this now desolate cityscape in the dry heat, you might feel, at certain turns, as if you were in one of M.C. Escher’s drawing, reworked with the stark surrealism of Giorgio de Chirico. It’s like touring the physical manifestation of a mind — the expansive, syncretic mind of its creator: Akbar, the greatest of the Mughal emperors. 

p. 165 “Akbar: The World and the Bridge ( 1542-1605)

Sunil Khilnani’s magnificent Incarnations: India in 50 Lives gives a bird’s-eye view of history via the short account of people through their ages. The fifty people profiled are those who left a significant stamp in the socio-cultural-political and economic make-up of this land evident in modern India –a nation state that is very complicated, multi-layered. These biographical accounts written like “non-fiction short stories” detail the life and achievements of the person being profiled while placing them neatly in their historical and contemporary context. Incarnations has been published to coincide with the BBC Radio 4 series http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05rptbv. The principle of arrangement of this book is probably borrowed from another extremely popular BBC Radio 4 series + sumptiously produced book by Neil MacGregor, then director of the British Museum, on A History of the World in 100 Objects  ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00nrtd2/episodes/downloads ).

Yet Incarnations is very much in the tradition of books written trying to make history accessible to the lay reader. To document history in this fashion probably began with Jawaharlal Nehru’s Glimpses of World History to many accounts at chronicling this fascinating sub-continent by authors like Amartya Sen, Jean Dreze, Shashi Tharoor, Ramachandra Guha, Patrick French, Bipin Chandra, Romila Thapar, Percival Spear, Narayani Gupta, Subhadra Sen Gupta ( for children) et al. There were many volumes that were published to coincide with the fiftieth year of Independence but it is for the first time that a historian like Sunil Khilnani has put together an account that incorporates even lesser known individuals such as Malik Ambar the African slave who become powerful political force to contend with.

We live in a noisy, reactionary and surprisingly ahistorical world where lies and misinterpretations get amplified rapidly using social media platforms. So to have a book recount landmark moments in history through well-written biographies is a crucial and much appreciated contribution to social discourse. The style of writing is wonderfully catchy beginning with the chapter headings. For instance, Rani Lakshmi Bai, the queen who is almost revered for her resistance to the British colonial rulers in the nineteenth century with Indian school children even today being taught to memorise poems extolling her heroism; she is simply referred to as the “Bad-Ass Queen”. The list of contents is a delight to read. Similarly are the introductory paragraphs to every chapter –packed with facts, information and incorporating the broad spectrum of views on how the moment in history being discussed in the chapter has been perceived. It is a remarkable example of immense scholarship with a fine sensibility of being able to communicate with a non-academic audience. Peppered in the book are cross-references to other chapters illustrated by the names being marked in bold, a neat technique taken from academic publications and inserted into a trade title.

Outlook magazine’s 19 February 2016 issue focussed on Sunil Khilnani’s book with generous extracts from the book along with an in-depth interview by Satish Padmanabhan. Here is a link to the special issue and interview: http://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/issue/11449 and http://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/self-criticism-and-not-glib-self-congratulation-is-the-deepest-form-of-patriotis/296684 .

For all the stupendous historical detailing in each biography there are some disturbingly jallianwala-baghpuzzling glossing over historical facts. For instance not referring to General Dyer by name instead saying “the officer” ( p.437) or referring to the campaign of installing Gandhi’s statue in London ( 2015) led by Lord Meghnad Desai and his wife, Lady Kishwar Desai but once again not pinning it in history by taking any names. Baffling since General Dyer is well-remembered in India and the 14 March 2015topiary at Jallianwala Bagh nevers allows anyone to forget the dastardly massacre. Similarly, the campaign to instal Gandhi’s statue was a very political and public event splashed across worldwide media with David Cameron PM, UK and Arun Jaitley, Union Finance Minister, India, Gopal Krishna Gandhi, Amitabh Bachchan,  Lord Meghnad Desai and Lady Kishwar Desai attending the unveiling of the statue. So it does leaves a tiny lingering of doubt about the other bits of history that may have been silenced. Even so, this is is a splendid book and must be read.

Sunil Khilnani Incarnations: India in 50 Lives Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, Penguin Random House, UK, 2016. Hb. pp. 636 Rs. 999

9 March 2016

 

2016: Reading Order ( Asian Age, 3 January 2016)

books_32016 is an exciting year for books in India. Aravind Adiga, William Dalrymple, Aman Sethi and Romila Thapar will return in 2016 with new offerings, along with some exciting biographies and memoirs, including by Pranab Mukherjee, Karan Johar, Bhimsen Joshi. By Jaya Bhattacharji Rose ( The url for this story is available at: http://www.asianage.com/books/2016-reading-order-009 and it was published in print on Sunday, 3 January 2016)

The 2016 reading list is a wonderful balance between print, digital and self-published books. 2015 saw the launch of two publishing houses — Speaking Tiger and Juggernaut Books, with the latter focusing primarily on phonebooks. 2015 also saw the launch of new imprints like Aleph spotlight which features short books by India’s greatest writers and thinkers on current issues in the country; Harper Black focuses on criminal fiction; Seagull Books announced its Arab List; Juggernaut Books is the digital partner for some of Tulika Books children’s titles and Mapin has a Rethinking Conservation Series in association with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

According to the Nielsen Book Market Report on India 2015 trade publishing by genre is divided by 30 per cent adult fiction; 45 per cent adult non-fiction and 25 per cent children and young adults. Readers’ preferences are contemporary fiction, children’s fiction, crime, thriller and adventure, fiction. The 2016 highlights represent these categories.

Non-fiction
There is a very strong collection of non-fiction titles. Two unusual collections focus on an India not heard of regularly: Landscapes of Unequal India, edited by Jyotsna Singh and Akshay Deshmane where Indian journalists write medium form essays of original reportage about contemporary India and First Hand: Graphic Non-Fiction from India (edited by Orijit Sen) is an anthology of non-fiction comics, featuring works by reporters, activists, artists, anthropologists and oral historians based in India. The authors use the medium of comics to reflect upon experiences of displacement, consumption, activism, legal history and more. India in 50 Lives by Sunil Khilnani published to accompany his BBC series explores the lives of 50 Indians from Buddha to Dhirubhai Ambani. Noted journalist and Hindi writer Mrinal Pande’s Dhvanion ke Alok Main Stree by is about the vast contribution of professional women musicians (largely tawaifs till the mid-20th century) to Hindustani classical and semi-classical music in post-1857 India. Red Light Dispatches: Survivor Stories from India Brothels edited By Anuradha Joshi; The Gender of Caste by Charu Gupta; Beyond Caste by Sumit Guha, India’s Polity in the Age of Akbar by Iqtidar Alam Khan and The Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court by Audrey Truschke which documents the fascinating exchange between the Persian-speaking Islamic elite of the early Mughal empire and traditional Sanskrit scholars. Paper Jewels: Postcards from the Raj by Omar Khan is the story of some of the most beautiful and popular postcards during the Raj and it talks about the first postcard publishers between 1892 and 1947.
Curation by Michael Bhaskar is on the art of selecting useful information to form meaningful collections.
With so much digital immersion happening, Cyberpsyched: the impact of human technology on Human Behaviour by Mary Aiken has to be read just as Prabir Purkayastha on net neutrality and the Internet. Some other must reads include Michael Denning’s Noise Uprising: The Audio Politics of a World Musical Revolution with an introduction by Naresh Fernandes; Kohinoor by William Dalrymple; Bad News by journalist Anjan Sundaram is an account of the battle for free speech in modern Rwanda. In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri is about a writer’s passion for another language, in this case, Italian. Invisible Libraries by Lawrence Liang, Monica James and Danish Sheikh where the authors explore various aspects of bibliophilia, especially in the way it manifests itself via our love affair with libraries.

Biography/Memoir
Biographies always enthral readers. They are also a time capsule captured in the account of a personality’s life consisting mostly of politicians, film idols and successful businesspeople. Look out for Gandhi: An illustrated Biography by Pramod Kapoor, The Turbulent Years (1980-96) by Pranab Mukherjee, Vol. 2; memoirs by Margaret Alva, P. Chidambaram and Teesta Setalvad; Turnaround by Tarun Gogoi, Ebrahim Alkazi: Directing Art, edited by Dr Parul Dave-Mukherjee; The Biography on Sunil Dutt by Priya Dutt; The Unsuitable Boy by filmmaker Karan Johar; Emraan Hashmi Memoirs by Emraan Hashmi with Bilal Siddiqi; Memoirs of a Singer’s Son: Bhimsen Joshi, My Father by Raghavendra Bhimsen Joshi (Translated by Shirish Chindhade); Shashi Kapoor: A Biography by Aseem Chhabra, Rishi Kapoor: Autobiography and Leonard by William Shatner and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw: Biography by Seema Singh, Anand Kumar: The Man Behind Super 30 by Anand Kumar, First and Last Loves: An Autobiography by Ruskin Bond, Pallavi Iyer’s Motherhood Memoir and an unusual biography of the mango — Mangifera Indica.

Politics
Politics is a subject of enduring interest in India. AAP and Kejriwal: The Promise and Pitfalls by Venkitesh Ramakrishnan explores what this party and its leadership means to India. Modi and His Challenges by Rajiv Kumar explores the efficacy of the Prime Minister’s approach to structural reforms and governance. Rana Ayyub’s self-published investigation of the expose of the Gujarat fake encounters will be the one to watch out for. And then there is Prashant Kishor, a key strategist in the landslide victories of Mr Modi and Nitish Kumar. Kishor dissects what influences Indian voters today, their aspirations and what they now demand of their leaders. Aman Sethi’s The Making of Riot, Violence Studies edited by Kalpana Kannabiran and Tabish Khair’s The New Xenophobia will be good additions too.

Business/Academics
Politics is closely intertwined with the world of business. So noted economist Kaushik Basu’s An Economist in the Real World: The Art of Policymaking in India, Ruchir Joshi’s The Rise and Fall of Nations and business journalist Pravin Palande’s The Fundamentalists: Czars of India’s Financial Markets should be interesting.
Academic publications that can easily crossover into layman’s reading would be the fabulous The Historian and her craft: Romila Thapar (4 vols) which provides her complete trajectory as a scholar. and historian. Other titles in this strain are Literary Activism: A Collection of Essays edited by Amit Chaudhuri and Intimate Class Act: Friendship and Desire in Indian and Pakistani Women’s Fiction in English by Maryam Mirza, An Uncivil Woman: Critical Readings of Ismat Chughtai by Rakhshanda Jalil, Modern Indian by Giles Tillotson, 100 Design Classics by Jahnvi Dameron Nandan and The Oxford Readings in Indian Art edited by B.N. Goswamy.

Translations
Translations are rapidly acquiring a niche that sells well. Translating Bharat by Yatra Books in collaboration with Oxford Bookstore is a collection of essays that focuses on the specifics of translation. Some other titles to look out for are Love in Chakiwara and Other Misadventures by Muhammad Khalid Akhtar (translated by Bilal Tanweer). Dilli Tha Jiska Naam by Intizar Husain is an evocative tale about Delhi translated for the first time into English (Ghazala Jamil) and Hindi (Shubham Mishra) simultaneously. Tamas translated by Daisy Rockwell commemorates the centenary celebrations of Bhisham Sahni. Then there is Pyre (Tamil) by Perumal Murugan, translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan; The Fire of Aoling by Anurag Mahanta, translated by Manjeet Baruah; Death Anniversary by K.P. Ramanunni, translated by Yaseen Ashraf; Indira Goswami’s Three Novellas: Breaking the Begging Bowl, The Blood of Devipeeth and Delhi: 5 November 1991 translated by Dibjyoti Sarma.
Narratives of Healing: Partition Memories from the Two Punjabs translated by Jasbir Jain and Tripti Jain; Bara: Drought (translated by Chandan Gowda) and Hindutva or Hind Svaraj by U.R. Ananthamurthy, Shahenshah by N. S. Inamdar, Zindaginama by Krishna Sobti, Shah Muhammad’s Tonga by Ali Akbar Natiq and The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, Vol 3, edited by Rakesh Khanna. A&A have some wonderful titles translated from Norwegian like Wafflehearts by Maria Parr as Meri Best Friend Aur Main and the Pim & Pom stories by Mies Bouhuis, illustrated by Fiep Westendorp.

Children’s Books
Children’s literature is growing by leaps and bounds. Tara Books continues to publish titles that make handicrafts a relevant art for children such as The Cloth of the Mother Goddess. Red Turtle’s Exploring India series by Subhadra Sen Gupta, illustrated by Tapas Guha, will interest readers who want to know more about various facets of India.
The Ray Collection translated by Arunava Sinha et al is a collection of the best stories by the Ray family writers: Upendra Kishore, Sukumar Ray and Satyajit Ray and The Fox’s Wedding by Harindranath Chattopadhyay is illustrated by Atanu Roy. They are also publishing Monkey Trouble and Other Stories: The Ruskin Bond Comics Book 1.

Duckbill will publish for children Invisible People: Stories of Courage from India’s Streets by Harsh Mander. Excavating History by Devika Cariappa for children delves into stories about archaeological sites. Duckbill will publish Special Agent Nanju by Zainab Suliaman, an unusual and action-packed book set in an integrated school for children with special needs. Scholastic will continue with its diverse fare but particularly exciting are the travelogues for children written by Jerry Pinto and Parineeta Shetty and Malgudi-style stories of growing up by Lalita Iyer called When Appa Bought a Buffalo and Other Stories. HarperCollins India is launching its Beebop series of graded reading and publishing Wattpad star Estelle Maskame’s Did I mention I Need You? And Did I mention I Miss You? Tota Books and Mango Books have a delicious collection of picture books lined up for 2016.

Fiction
Fiction, as always, is overflowing with choices. Debut writers Kanishk Tharoor, Shubha Mudgal and Sunny Leone will publish short story collections. Other well-known authors who will return with new books are Mridula Koshy, Aravind Adiga, China Mieville, Don Delillo, Helen Oyeyemi, Maha Khan Philips, Tahmima Anam, Meg Rosoff, Graham Swift, Samantha Shannon, Lucia Berlin and Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni. Hindu mythology is being retold: The Story of Hanuman by Mala Dayal, illustrated by Taposhi Ghoshal, Arshia Sattar’s Hanuman, a beautifully illustrated edition of the Mahabharata by Devdutt Pattanaik, The Oxford Mahabharatha Series: Women (Vol. 1) by Nrishina Bhaduri.

6 Jan 2016