Biography Posts

“Suragi” by U. R. Ananthamurthy

The  distinguished Kannada writer and public intellectual U. R. Ananthamurthy ( 1932-2014) dictated his “memoir”, rather memories to Ja Na Tejashri, Kannada poet and professor, in the last few months of his life. He was extremely ill and was being dialysed regularly. The notes were structured in U. R. Ananthamurthy’s lifetime under his guidance. Initially his preference had been for a conversational and informal approach. When he saw the first few trasnscribed pages, he found the style difficult to read and called for a more formal approach. Eventually, Tejashri helped him find a balance he was comfortable with: she recorded him, scribbled notes, touched up her trasnscriptions, and rearranged the episodes in chronological order. Ananthamurthy was keen to see this work translated in English. It only happened a year and a half after he passed away when at the behest of his son-in-law and novelist Vivek Shanbhag who requested S. R. Ramakrishna to translate the 450-page book Suragi. Shanbhag was merely reiterating the request Ananthamurthy had asked of Ramakrishna. 

U. R. Ananthamurthy was honoured with the Jnanpith Award in 1994 adn Padma Bhushan in 1998, and was one of the finalists of the Man Booker International Prize in 2013. 

Suragi has now been published by Oxford University Press India. The memoir is so named after the flower Ananthamurthy loved which gives out more fragrance as it fades. This is an incredible book recounting his life as a writer and a public intellectual through India and England. It is an exceptionally absorbing read given how he acutely witnesses, observes and reflects often upon the role of a writer, particularly that of an Indian writer, in society. There are many parts of this book that are worth reflecting upon given their relevance even today. The section on “the Indian writer’s dilemmas” is particularly powerful. For instance while commenting upon the role of writers during the Emergency his statements assume wider ramifications, echoing into modern India, decades later:

India’s biggest problem is hypocrisy. Intellectual hypocirsy has taken root deeper than we imagine. …A mind that hesitates to what must be said becomes corrupt. …The spirit of the times is such that we have compromised with everything. Nothing troubles us. We feel no psychological torment. …We are not troubled as we should be. The reason is that our spirit is feeble. There is no connection between our convictions, our actions, and our truths. …That is why speech is devalued.

Ananthamurthy’s confidently outspoken voice is to be treasured and is deeply missed. Take for instance the following extract “Moment Transcending Time and Space” which is being reproduced here with the explicit permission of the publishers, Oxford University Press India. 

Moment Transcending Time and Space

On the rare occasions we go beyond time and space, we see truths not just from the past but also those relevant to the present. I experienced this one night in Nepal. In 1996, some Indian writers spent three days with writers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. A Himalayan range loomed behind the resort where we were staying. The snow-clad mountains could be seen from the lounge and also from our rooms. It was an informal meeting, with no agenda, where the idea was to sit and chat and share our thoughts and feelings. This was after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The anxiety of whether our nations could rise above communal hatred had brought us all together.
Siddhartha, a friend from Bengaluru, had organized this conclave. He has set up an ashram called Firefl ies in Bengaluru. Born a Christian, Siddhartha was drawn to Buddhism. He blends thought with action. Another writer at the conclave was my dear departed friend D.R. Nagaraj (1954–1998). He was drawn to two extremes—the Buddhist vision of emptiness that rejects even the idea of the soul, and the Nietzschean assertion of the intellect against the Christian concept of sin.

I will only name one participant who had come from elsewhere: Urdu writer Intizar Hussain (1923–2016). Each writer spoke openly about the truths of their experience, without trying to justify themselves. They spoke of things they couldn’t speak about in their countries. Women writers had come from Pakistan and Bangladesh, and I feel I should only convey what they expressed, keeping them anonymous.

Among the writers from Bangladesh was a Hindu. We gathered he was a big poet there. He was fidgeting with a palmtop he had bought in the Nepal black market. It was a device on which one could take notes. He was trying to fi gure out how it worked, and muttering in frustration when he couldn’t. He said the moment the Babri Masjid was demolished, several Kali temples in Dhaka had been brought down. ‘Why don’t any of you speak about it? I am no Kali devotee but I don’t like the hypocrisy of your secular position.’ No one argued with him. The other Bangla writers said he was speaking from the heart. Everyone was keen to break the vicious cycle of blaming the other to justify one’s own actions. Having said his bit, the Hindu writer from Bangladesh shared in our anxieties.

It has become a politically correct ritual for us to talk about Muslim violence when we want to condemn Hindu violence, and Hindu violence when we want to condemn Muslim violence. We respond with cleverness when we lose the ability to see the victims as humans like us. The objective of this meeting, with both Hindus and Muslims, was to rid ourselves of such self-justification. I share a conversation that suggests we were successful.

We were lounging around comfortably, resting on mats and lolling on cushions. A middle-aged woman writer from Bangladesh began her tale softly, with her friendly, smiling eyes closed. She was the only woman writer wearing a sari. Her luxuriant, uncombed hair cascaded on her breasts. Perhaps she was secure in the confi dence that all of us were looking at her with compassion.

When she began, she addressed everyone. As she progressed, she seemed to be directing her words to the male writers from Pakistan. Towards the end, her voice became tremulous. She was an ordinary woman speaking about the war Pakistan had fought with her country, then called East Pakistan. Her husband had been a professor at Dhaka University. He had campaigned for Bengali as a second official language. One day he routinely left for the university and didn’t return. The evening turned to night. A day passed, then two. Their two children didn’t go to school. They
stayed at home, awaiting his return. They couldn’t venture out— Pakistani soldiers were everywhere, brandishing their guns.

After two days she went to the university with other women looking for their husbands. What did they fi nd? A heap of corpses. They had to sift through the heap to fi nd their respective husbands. The writer must have told this story several times. But it was perhaps for the fi rst time she was telling it in the presence of writers from Pakistan, whose soldiers had killed her husband. I was sitting beside Intizar Hussain’s. Like his friend Bhutto, he had stood by Jinnah, believing a separate country was necessary to practise and promote Islam without let or hindrance. He had
migrated from his native place to become a Pakistani. He was a big writer in Urdu, and earned a living from writing for the Dawn. The Bangladeshi writer said, ‘Tell me, where is Islam in all this? What is the use of what the Quran says? My husband was a Muslim too but they killed him in the name of Islam. Can you imagine what I went through as I searched for him among hundreds of corpses?’

The sharp-nosed Intizar Hussain had placed his hands on his lap, in a meditative pose, and was listening to her. When the Bangladeshi writer concluded, a young woman writer from Pakistan began to sob uncontrollably. Intizar Hussain slowly raised his head. His eyes were moist, and tears rolled down his cheeks. ‘On behalf of my country I apologize to you,’ he said in English. ‘What can I say but that we are all unwittingly implicated in the murder of your husband?’ He looked at the other Pakistani writers for approval. The three women writers bowed their heads,
endorsing his words with tears.

This is an incident I will never forget. The human is dwarfed by the idea of the nation state. He loses his sense of right and wrong, and becomes a nationalist. In the Second World War, such nationalism made monsters of the Japanese and the Germans. Even ordinary folks turn blind. The atom bomb dropped by the Americans on Hiroshima and Nagasaki destroyed everything. Communist nations can justify their crimes using the words of Marx. Muslim nations can justify their crimes using the Prophet. It is equally true that Christian nations can use the Bible to justify
their actions. Those hiding behind nationalism wreak a lot of damage before we wake up and criticize them.

To escape the mass hysteria of nationalism, we must always fearlessly keep extending a hand of friendship to other humane thinkers. I recall an incident. When we met in Berlin, I mooted with Intizar Hussain the idea of our Sahitya Akademi publishing an anthology of Pakistani literature to mark the fi ftieth anniversary of our two countries attaining Independence. Like India, Pakistan has a diversity of languages: Punjabi, Sindhi, and others. I wrote to
Intizar Hussain asking if he could edit an anthology of stories from all such languages in Urdu translation.

At the Sahitya Akademi’s executive committee meeting, some friends expressed their reservations. How could we publish a story that might speak against India? I said, ‘Intizar is a sensitive writer. He will never choose anything that promotes hatred. Leave it to me. I will take the risk.’ As the book was being finalized for publication, we faced another problem. How do we pay the writers? The two nations had no agreement to make payments possible. I
explained this to Intizar, who then spoke to the contributors to the anthology. We got letters from them, with some saying they were honoured the Sahitya Akademi, which gets grants from the Indian government, was publishing them. Just send us some copies. We don’t expect any money. Our country didn’t have the vision that Nehru did. We don’t have an independent academy, they wrote. When I met Intizar at a SAARC literary conference in Delhi, he said, ‘We have no other book in Urdu with writing from other Pakistani languages. The anthology you published is now a
textbook in our colleges.’

U. R. Anathamurthy Suragi ( Transcribed and compiled by Ja Na Tejashri. Translated from Kannada by S. R. Ramakrishna ) Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2018. Pb, pp.380 Rs.650

16 February 2018 

 

2018: All set to sparkle with new voices

( On Sunday, 7 January 2018, Asian Age published my article on the highlights of 2018. Unfortunately due to the constraints of space the sections on commercial fiction and children and young adult literature was dropped from the published article. So while I am reposting the original article, I have also included the sections that were dropped by highlighting the portions in red. )

The Indian book market, worth $6.76 billion, is perhaps one of the few where English language books sell well. As expected, 2018 is all set to sparkle — with new books and voices.

Among the prominent narrative non-fiction is the much-anticipated debut of Dreamers written by journalist Snigdha Poonam. It is a remarkable cultural study of the unlikeliest of fortune hawkers’ travels through the small towns of northern India to investigate the phenomenon that is India’s Generation Y. The other equally anticipated titles are Why I am a Hindu? by Shashi Tharoor; The Gujaratis: A Portrait of a Community by award-winning journalist Salil Tripathi; Him, Me, Muhammad Ali by Randa Jarrar, a collection of stories depicting the lives of Arab women, ranging from hypnotic fables to gritty realism; Legendary Maps from the Himalayan Club by mountaineer and Himalayan Journal editor, Harish Kapadia.

Devdutt Pattanaik’s The Book of Numbers: An Indian Perspective, about the significance of numbers in Indian culture, also delves into Vedic and Puranic connotations of each key number.

Some quirky titles to look forward to are Jadoo-wallahs, Jugglers and Djinns: A Magical History of India by John Zubrzycki which tells the extraordinary story of how Indian magic descended from the gods and came to be a part of daily rituals and popular entertainment. Also on the shelves this year will be Showtime: A Spectacular History of the Indian Circus by Anirban Ghosh, which tells the incredible story of the circus in India from the 19th century to the present.

It would be interesting, and topical, to read Past, Present and Future; Dissent, Despair, Dreams: Student Activism in India by Anirban Bandhopadhyay and Umar Khalid; Economics for Political Change: The Collected works of Manmohan Singh; Demonetisation and Black Money by C. Rammanohar Reddy.

Power by Barkha Dutt is about the twinned stories of the changing fortunes of the Congress Party and the rise of the BJP through the men and women who shaped events before 2014, and after.

Then there is Note by Note: The Great Indian Playlist by Seema Chishti, Sushant Singh and Ankur Bhardwaj that uses one song from each year, accompanied by a brief essay, and tells the story of India since 1947.

Two critical books on free speech include The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation by Ravish Kumar in which he examines while debate and dialogue have given way to hate and intolerance in India, how elected representatives, the media and other institutions are failing us, and looks at ways to repair the damage to our democracy; as will be Why India Needs a Free Press by N. Ram.

Biographies
Some of the biographies/ memoirs to look forward to in 2018 are on film actors — Sanjay Dutt by Yaseer Usman, Sanjay Khan, Priyanka Chopra by Aseem Chhabra – and politicians. There’s veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar’s Close Encounters: The People I have Known and Biography of Mohan Bhagwat by Kingshuk Nag. The life stories of musicians Ilyaraja, Asha Bhonsle, S.D. Burman and Zakir Hussain (with Nasreen Munni Kabeer); spiritual leaders Dalai Lama (by Raghu Rai), Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (authorised biography, Gurudev, by his younger sister) and Shankaracharya (by Pavan Varma) and Amrita Sher-Gil will also be out this year.

Celebrity memoirs this year include actress Manisha Koirala’s cancer memoir and model-turned-health enthusiast Milind Soman’s book and Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason by her close friend and former husband Chiddanand Rajghatta. Mentor by Hussain Zaidi about Dawood Ibrahim’s mentor, Khalid Pehelwan, who was instrumental in the formation and success of the D-gang are going to be the highlights of 2018.

Other notable books to look forward to are Nalini Jameela’s Romantic Encounters of a Sex Worker; Yashica Dutt’s Coming out as Dalit: A Memoir and The Idol Thief by S. Vijay Kumar, the shocking true story of one idol thief, Subhash Kapoor, behind the most outrageous thefts of Indian antiquities.

Literary memoirs not to be missed are Rosy Thomas’ memoir about her husband He, My Beloved CJ (translated from Malayalam by G. Arunima) and Na Bairi Na Koi Begana by crime fiction writer Surendra Mohan Pathak. It is the first in the three-volume autobiography of crime fiction writer Surender Mohan Pathak and chronicles his childhood in Lahore. The Hungrialists by Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury tells the remarkable story about how a generation of Bangla poets braved state censorship, loss of income and even imprisonment, and went on to transform literary culture in Bengal.

Fiction
Established writers too are coming up with their new books this year. These include Anita Nair’s Eating Wasps, Esther David’s Bombay Brides, Tabish Khair’s Night of Happiness, Rita Chowdhury’s Chinatown Days, Shandana Minhas’ Rafina, Anuradha Roy’s All the Lives We Never Lived, Mirza Waheed’s In His Hands, Amitabh Bagchi’s Half the Night Is Gone, Mahesh Rao’s Polite Society and Chandrahas Choudhury’s Clouds.

Travails with the Alien: The Film that Was Never Made and Other Adventures with Science Fiction by filmmaker Satyajit Ray brings together a collection of his many writings on the subject, including the script he wrote in the 1960s, based on a short story of his, for a science fiction film called The Alien. On being prompted by Arthur C. Clarke, who found the screenplay promising, Ray sent the script to an agent in Hollywood, who happened to represent Peter Sellers. Then started the “Ordeal of the Alien”, as some 20 years later, Ray watched Steven Spielberg’s film Close Encounters of the Third Kind and realised its bore and uncanny resemblance to his script The Alien, including the way the ET was designed! The book includes Ray’s detailed essay on the project with the full script of The Alien, as well as the original short story on which the screenplay was based, apart from some of his most celebrated writings on science fiction.

Commercial fiction writers like Nikita Singh, Yashodhara Lal, Trisha Das, Ravi Subramanian, Ira Trivedi and Sachin Bhatia, Ashwin Sanghi, Amish Tripathi, Durjoy Dutta, Ravinder Singh, Novoneel Chakraborty, Kevin Missal have books lined up in the new year. Also expected is the debut novel by Shweta Bachchan (Paradise Towers) and short stories by Shubha Mudgal.

Political narratives scheduled for 2018 include The Aadhar Effect by N.S. Ramnath and Charles Assisi; The RTI Story: The People’s Movement for Transparency by activist and main architect of Right to Information movement, Aruna Roy; AAP & Down: An Insider’s Account of India’s Most Controversial Party by Mayank Gandhi with Shrey Shah; and BJP: From Vajpayee to Modi by Saba Naqvi.

Equally fascinating should be Strongmen: Trump-Modi-Erdogan-Duterte, essays by Eve Ensler, Danish Husain, Burhan Sonmez and Ninotschka Rosca. An account of Kashmir by historian Radha Kumar and another one by former chief minister Omar Abdullah should be worth waiting for. At a time when “talaq” is being discussed, two timely books slated are by Salman Khurshid’s Three Times Unlucky and Ziya Us Salam’s Till Talaq Do Us Part.

Graphic novels
Graphic novels are steady sellers with a well-defined market too. Some of the titles anticipated are: Long Form Annual: The Best of Graphic Fiction & Non-Fiction edited by Sarabjit Sen, Debkumar Mitra, Sekhar Mukherjee and Pinaki De. It consists of stories about ordinary people, autobiographies, travel tales etc. As yet unnamed graphic novel about a teenager in America trying to come to terms with her Indian roots by new voice — Nidhi Chanani. Also to watch out for are First Hand 2: Graphic Nonfiction from India and Lotus and the Snake by Appupen.

Translations
Rich translation works worth a read include The Book of Mordechai and Lazarus: Two Novels by Gábor Schein (translated from the Hungarian by Adam Z. Levy and Ottilie Mulzet and Very Close to Pleasure, There Is a Sick Cat and Other Poems by Shakti Chattopadhyay (translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha). Some other notable titles slated in 2018 are: Chandni Begum: A Novel by Qurratulain Hyder (translated from the original Urdu by Saleem Kidwai); Tiger Women by Sirsho Bandhopadhyay (translated by Arunava Sinha) — it is the fictionalised story of Sushila Sundari, the first woman to perform in Indian circuses and gain immense popularity, Moisture Trapped in Stone: An Anthology of Modern Telugu Short Stories, translated by K. N. Rao; Timeless Tales from Bengal edited by Dipankar Roy and Saurav Dasthakur; Perumal Murugan’s double-sequel to One Part Woman; Jasmine Days by Benyamin.

Sahitya Akademi award-winning book If a River and Other Stories by Kula Saikia, currently DGP, Assam; On a River’s Bank by A. Madhavan (translated from Tamil by M. Vijayalakshmi); Here I am and Other Stories by P. Sathyavathi (translated from Telugu); Echoes of the Veena and other Stories by P. Sathyavathi (translated from Tamil); Havan by Mallikarjun Hiremath (translated from Kannada by S. Mohanraj) — this novel focusses on one of India’s most colourful wandering tribe, the Lambanis, who are found in large numbers in Karnataka and Maharashtra.

Some of the important women-centric publications of 2018 are: The Short Life and Tragic Death of Qandeel Baloch by Sanam Maher. The 25-year-old Qandeel Baloch who was Pakistan’s first celebrity-by-social media, shot to fame when she uploaded a video on Facebook mocking a presidential “warning” not to celebrate Valentine’s Day — a “Western” holiday. At the time, the Valentine’s Day video had been seen 830,000 times. Five months later, Qandeel Baloch would be dead. Her brother would strangle her in their family home, in what would be described as an “honour killing” — a murder to restore the respect and honour Qandeel’s behaviour online robbed him of.

Other titles are: Civilisations how do we look/ Eye of Faith by Mary Beard; Women Rulers of India by Archana Garodia; Tiger Women: Profile of Women Militants in India by Rashmi Saxena; Being “Her” in New India by Rana Ayyub; Like a Girl by Aparna Jain; Feminist Rani by Shaili Chopra and Meghna Pant; Daughters of the sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire by Ira Mukhoty; A Legal Handbook for Women by Nivedita Guhathakurta and Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan by Ruby Lal, a historical biography. The Bourbans and Begums of Bhopal: The Forgotten History by Indira Iyengar, a descendant of Jean Philippe de Bourbon, who arrived in India in the 1560s and was appointed a senior official by the Mughal Emperor Akbar, at his court in Delhi.

Children and young adult literature 

Children’s and young adult literature is a vibrant space with the healthiest growth rate. Some of the titles planned are a poetry and song collection by Gulzar; Vaishali Shroff on a journey of the Narmada to learn about the dinosaurs of India; a new Hill School Girls series by A. Coven; Timeless Biography series of HCI launches with Amrita Sher-Gil, a painter whose biography has also been released by Alka Pande for Tota Books. DK India has a phenomenal collection of heavily illustrated titles planned – The Ultimate Children’s EncyclopaediaDK Indian Icons are their easy-to-use biographies, Birds about Delhi, 3D Printing, Robot. Indian myths for children by the brilliant storyteller Arshia Sattar; a delightful picture book The Cloud Eater by Chewang Dorji Bhutia and Prankenstein: The Book of Crazy Mischief edited by Ruskin Bond and Jerry Pinto. YA literature has some extraordinary titles such as The Other by Paro Anand; When Morning Comes by Arushi Raina in Duckbill’s ‘Not Our War’ series and is set in South Africa. It is about teenagers during the Soweto uprising of 1976. Why I Lie by Himanjali Sankar is a YA novel about mental health issues. Fireflies in the Dark by Shazaf Fatima , a young adult fantasy title that takes the reader deep into the world of jinns and shape changers and hidden family secrets. The Legend of the Wolf by Andaleeb Wajid , a fantasy horror novel for young adults.Refugee by Alan Grantz; The Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel Fattah and A very, Very Bad Thing by Jeffery Self. 

2018 will sparkle with new books and voices!

7 January 2018 

 

Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski / Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness remains one of the most widely read novels in English; and the movie adaptation Apocalypse Now has brought Conrad’s story to still more. The very phrase has taken on a life of its own. Conrad’s book has become a touchstone for thinking about Africa and Europe, civilization and savagery, imperalism, genocide, insanity — about human nature itself. 

It’s also become a flashpoint. In the 1970s, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe declared Heart of Darkness “an offensive and totally deplorable book,” rife with degrading stereotypes of Africa and Africans. Conrad said Achebe, was a “bloody racist.” Not long afterward, a half-Kenyan college student named Barack Obama was challenged by his friends to explain why he was reading “this racist tract.” “Because…,” Obama stammered, “Because the book teaches me things. . . .About white people, I mean. See, the book’s not really about Africa. Or black people. It’s about the man who wrote it. The European. The American. A particular way of looking at the world.”

I spent many happy days as an undergraduate student of literature reading whatever I could by Joseph Conrad. I even read his diaries. His minor works. Thoroughly enjoyed reading his novels. So imagine my delight when I discovered historian Maya Jasanof’s enlightening The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World . It is written in the characteristic modern style of writing biographies; heavily influenced by Richard Holmes’s methodology of the biographer following in the footsteps of their subject — combining a deep understanding of their subject’s context while maintaining a modern travelogue. With the informed perspective of “two worlds” ( if you will) and the advantage of time, the biographer is also able to put together a fascinating analysis. In this particular book Maya Jasanof’s argument is that Conrad’s own life reveals him as a “prophet of globalization“.

Joseph Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, to Polish parents in the Russian Empire. At sixteen he left the landlocked heart of Europe to become a sailor, and for the next twenty years travelled the world’s oceans before settling permanently in England as an author. He saw the surging, competitive “new imperialism” that planted a flag in almost every populated part of the globe. He got a close look, too, at the places “beyond the end of telegraph cables and mail-boat lines,” and the hypocrisy of the west’s most cherished ideals.

In fact 2017 has been declared as the Year of Conrad by the Polish Parliament. To commemorate this occasion the Polish Institute New Delhi in collaboration with the Center for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, is celebrating this incomparable author’s life and works through a series of lectures by two experts on the author, one from Poland and one from India, who will analyse the critical elements and themes of his writings which make them one of a kind. The lectures will be complemented by the screening of ‘The Secret Sharer’, Peter Fudakowski’s cinematic adaptation of one of Conrad’s most renowned writings .

Prof. Andrzej Juszczyk, the Director of the Joseph Conrad Research Centre of the Jagiellonian University will deliver a lecture on “Twixt ‘East and West’, ‘Empire and Colony’, ‘Me and Myself'”. Prof. Juszczyk will share the stage with Prof. Supriya Chaudhuri, Professor Emerita, Department of English, Jadavpur University, who will deliver a lecture on “Fables of Identity: The Deleted Hyphen in Conrad’s The Secret Sharer”. The event will be held at the School of Languages 2, Room 131, Jawaharlal Nehru University on 3rd November 2017 from 10:30 am onwards.

Joseph Conrad The Dawn Watch HarperCollins India, 2017. Hb. pp. 370 

2 November 2017 

Diwali 2017!

In June 2017 while inaugurating the National Reading Mission programme the prime minister of India said that instead of presenting bouquets people should gift books. A great idea! During Diwali, festival of lights associated with the arrival of Goddess Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity, folks gift presents to each other. Why not books?

Here are my recommendations of some beautiful books. It is an eclectic list of books meant for readers of all ages. Diwali is an excuse to indulge oneself. Why not buy delicious books as gifts?!

Dayanita Singh: Museum Bhavan   An extraordinary publishing achievement is to package the mind-blowing exhibition curated by photographer Dayanita Singh into this nifty, limited edition, box. Every piece is unique. A timeless treasure!

The Illustrated Mahabharata This has to be one of the most scrumptious books ever available. It is a retelling of the Hindu epic with beautiful illustrations and layouts.

The Chocolate Book

Scholastic Book of Hindu Gods and Goddesses

Hungry to Read

Diwali Stories

Bloomsbury Academic’s Object Lessons list is fantastic. For instance, BookshelfVeil, Dust, Cigarette Lighter, Silence etc.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vikas Khanna’s richly produced collection of recipes My First Kitchen 

Rehearsing Freedom : The Story Of A Theatre In Palestine 

Words from the Hills  A beautifully illustrated diary combining the talents of Ruskin Bond’s remarkable words with the stunning watercolours of Gunjan Ahlawat. A must have!

Of books tackling medical science

Of late there have been a deluge of books making exploring medical science accessible to the lay reader too. This recognition of making technical knowledge available to the public in manageable morsels is a remarkable feat.

Maylis de Kerangal’s  Mend the Living is a novel about a young man who goes into an irreversible coma after a car accident. His organs, including the heart, are to be harvested. Mend the Living is primarily about the heart being transplanted. It is a haunting book for sharing different perspectives of all those affected by the death of Simon Limbeau. It is not only his immediate family — his parents, younger sister and girlfriend, but also the medical personnel responsible for Simon and the patients who would be receiving his organs. It is an extraordinarily mesmerising story, almost poetic in its narration, which has been translated fluidly from French into English by Jessica Moore. Here is a fabulous interview of the author by the translator published in Bomb magazine who insists “I have a strong conviction: I consider the translator as a writer, an author. I always have the feeling of being a translator myself, translating French into another language, which is the French of my books. All this nomadism of texts, the movement from one language to another, I find it so stimulating and rich. I don’t want to say at all that books’ themes, subjects, and stories don’t interest me, but for me what comes first is how a book provokes an experience of the world via language. So all these foreign languages remind me of the fact that I feel like a translator myself, and that translators, in a way, are the authors of these books.” Mend the Living, a work of fiction, won the Wellcome Book Prize 2017 — a surprising choice given that most often it is awarded to non-fiction.

Poorna Bell’s memoir Chase the Rainbow  is a tribute to her husband who committed suicide. He was a journalist who was able to mask effectively his acute depression and heroin addiction from everyone including his bride! It was only some years after her wedding did Poorna discover the truth by which time they had not only lost their home but were deep in debt. Mental health issues plague many but it is rarely discussed openly for the social stigma attached to it. Slowly there is a perceptible shift in this discourse too as more and more people are sharing their experiences of grappling with mental health issues or with their loved ones. This is critical since the caregivers too need support. It always helps to share information and challenging moments with caregivers in a similar situation without being judged — something those on the outside inevitably do.

Another fashionable trend in narrative non-fiction is to write histories of a significant medical occurrence. In this case Speaking Tiger Books has published the doctors-cum-writers team Kalpish Ratna’s competently told The Secret Life of Zika Virus . 


Bloomsbury has published a former consumption patient and scientist Kathryn Loughreed’s packed-with-information account Catching Breath: The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis  

Many, many more have been published. Many are readable. Many are not. It is a fine balancing act between an overdose of specialist information and storytelling. The fact is ever since access to information using digital tools became so accessible there been a noticeable explosion of science-based texts in publishing worldwide and it is not a bad thing at all!

An article worth reading is by Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee in NYT “The Rules of the Doctor’s Heart“, published on 24 October 2017. It is about his experience as a senior resident at a hospital in Boston in the Cardiac Care Unit, a quasi I.C.U. where some of the most acutely ill patients were hospitalized. One of his patients was a fifty-two-year-old doctor and scientist who had been admitted to await a heart transplant. It is an incredible essay!

Maylis de Kerangal  Mend the Living ( Translated by Jessica Moore) Maclehose Press, 2017. Distributed by Hachette India 

Poorna Bell Chase the Rainbow Simon and Schuster India 

Kalpish Ratna The Secret Life of Zika Virus Speaking Tiger Books 

Kathryn Loughreed Catching Breath: The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis Bloomsbury 

6 Oct 2017 , updated on 30 Oct 2017 

Pramod Kapoor’s “Gandhi: An Illustrated Biography”

Well known publisher Pramod Kapoor, founder, Roli Books, has published his first book as author — Gandhi: An Illustrated BiographyIt is a scrumptiously designed edition with plenty of photographs laid out throughout the book. More importantly it is lucidly written and immediately immerses the reader into the narrative. Writing biographies is not an easy nor an enviable task as the author is always trying to balance the narrative between being in the footsteps of their subject or stressing on only a few aspects leaving out large chunks of facts. Pramod Kapoor in his book Gandhi achieves the fine balance with panache. There is a grace with which he documents Gandhi’s life as well delves into uncomfortable subjects such as Gandhi’s sexuality, troubled relationship with his eldest son or even the vow he took of celibacy aged 37 and yet opted to sleep naked at night with young women including his beloved niece in his bed.  Historian Sunil Khilnani has endorsed the book saying ” Pramod Kapoor’s book is a personal and wonderfully intimate photographic journey through Gandhi’s life. Even those familiar with Gandhi’s story will disocver things with surprise, delight, and inform them in this moving book.”

As of 22 September 2017 the book will be released internationally with editions available in Russian, German, French, Italian, Dutch, UK, and USA. Here is a longish book trailer of 11 minutes but its time well spent watching it:

Pramod Kapoor Gandhi: An Illustrated Biography Lustre Press, Roli Books, New Delhi, 2016. Hb. pp 326

24 Sept 2017 

 

Of holy men like Rasputin

Douglas Smith’s Rasputin is a detailed and a fascinating biography of a holy man who was extremely close to Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra. It is a slow but satisfying to read for it describes Russia at the turn of the twentieth century, decline of the Russian empire, rise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks etc. Rasputin was also shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize 2017. Here is an excellent review of the book in The Guardian.

Of all the lines in the book it was a description of him in the opening pages which are gripping since it could be a description of any other holy man in a different time, nation and culture. Read on:

Pokrovskoe was the home of the most notorious Russian of the day, a man who in the spring of 1912 became the focus of a scandal that shook Nicholas’s reign like nothing before. Rumors had been circulating about him for years, but it was then that the tsar’s minists and the politicians of the State Duma, Russia’s legislative assembly, first dared to call him out by name and demand that the palace tell the country who precisely this man was and clarify his relationship to the throne. It was said that this man belonged to a bizarre religious sect that embraced the most wicked forms of sexual perversion, that he was a phony holy man who had duped the emperor and empress into embracing him as their spiritual leader, that he had taken over the Russian Orthodox Church and was bending it to his own immoral designs, that he was a filthy peasant who managed not only to worm his way into the palace, but through deceit and cunning was quickly becoming the true power behind the throne. This man, many were beginning to believe, presented a real danger to the church, to the monarchy, and even to Russia itself. This man was Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin. 

Even before his gruesome murder in a Petrograd cellar in the final days of 1916, Rasputin had become in the eyes of much of the world personification of evil. His wickedness was said to recognize no bounds, just like his sexual drive that could never be sated no matter how many women he took to his bed. A brutish, drunken satyr with the manners of a barnyard animal, Rasputin had the inborn cunning of the Russian peasant and knew how to play the simple man of God when in front of the tsar and tsarita. 

Douglas Smith Rasputin Macmillan, London, 2016. Pb. pp. Rs 599

11 Sept 2017 

An extract from “The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta” by Kushanava Choudhury

The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta by Kushanava Choudhury is a memoir of his time spent in Calcutta. It is the city of his parents and he has strong familial ties. Despite studying at Yale University he moves to Calcutta to join The Statesman as a reporter. After two years he quits and returns to do his doctorate from Princeton University. There are incredible descriptions recreating a city which is an odd mix of laid back, sometimes busy, always crowded, crumbling juxtaposed with the shiny new concrete jungles. The language is breathtakingly astonishing for in the tiny descriptions lie the multi-layered character of Calcutta. As William Dalrymple observes in the Guardian that The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta  is “a beautifully observed and even more beautifully written new study of Calcutta”. All true.  Yet it is impossible not to recall the late photographer Raghubir Singh’s book Calcutta, a collection of photographs that sharply document details of a city where the old and new co-exist and continue to charm the outsider. Both the books by Kushanava Choudhury and Raghubir Singh are seminal for the way they capture an old but living city but with a foreigner’s perspective that is refreshing. For instance the following excerpt about little magazines and literary movements encapsulates the hyper-local while giving the global perspective.

The excerpt is taken from The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta by Kushanava Choudhury published with permission from the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing India.

****

From Tamer Lane, along the gully that leads to the phantom urinal, there is a house with a mosaic mural of two birds with Bengali lettering. The letters read: ‘Little Magazine Library’.

Sandip Dutta sat in the front room of his family home. He looked a bit glum, half asleep, just like a Calcutta doctor in his chamber. Not one of those hotshot cardiologists who rake in millions, but more like the para homeopath without much business.

Surrounding him were bookshelves piled high with stacks of documents. Behind them was a glass showcase covered with pasted magazine clippings, like in a teenager’s room. They included cut-out pictures of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Ingmar Bergman, Vincent Van Gogh, Jibanananda Das, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, two big red lips, one big eye, Salvador Dalí and Che Guevara. A cartoon read, in rhyming Bengali: ‘Policeman, take off your helmet when you see a poet.’

On one wall was a taped computer printout: ‘‘‘I have been following the grim events (in Nandigram) and their consequences for the victims and am worried.” Noam Chomsky, Nov 13, 2007. 4:18:17 a.m. by email.’

Curios from local fairs were indiscriminately piled high on the desk. Cucumbers made of clay, pencils carved into nudes, tubes of cream that were actually pens, pens with craning rubber necks like swans, bronze statues from South Africa, masks from rural Bengal, a porcelain dancing girl from America. Behind them, Dutta looked like an alchemist in his lair.

‘I went to the National Library in 1971 and I saw that they were throwing away a bunch of little magazines,’ he said. ‘I had a little magazine of my own then, and I took it as a personal affront.’

No one was archiving little magazines at the time. No libraries kept them. When Dutta finished his masters, he started collecting them. At first he had a job that paid fifty rupees a month, then another for one hundred rupees, teaching three days a week in a remote rural school. ‘They were funny jobs,’ he said. ‘Jobs basically to buy magazines.’

In 1978, he got a teaching job down the road at City College School, he told me. That same year, in the two front rooms of his house, he began the Little Magazine Library. Since then he has been running this operation by himself – a bit like those heroes in Bollywood films who take on a whole band of ruffians single-handedly, he likes to say. His is a one-man effort to save the ephemeral present.

Every afternoon he came home from school and set to work at his library. A couple of days were devoted to maintenance, spraying to prevent bookworms and termites. The rest of the afternoons, he kept the library open to the public.

In Bengal, literary movements were usually connected to one little magazine or another. The heyday of the Bengali little magazine was probably the 1960s, when the poets Sunil, Shakti and Sandipan brought out Krittibas. No magazine today packs the same literary punch. Yet people keep publishing Bengali little magazines. By Sandip’s count, each year 500–600 little magazines are still published.

The little magazine originated in early-twentieth century America. Many of the radical strands of modernism – like James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was first serialised in the Chicago based Little Review – first appeared in little magazines before anyone bet on their viability in the capitalist market. The early works of T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston, Tennessee Williams, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner and many others were all published in the little magazines of their day. Unlike regular magazines, they relied on patrons and modest sales rather than advertising. Shielded from market pressures, they provided a place for writers to be read, even if by a small number of people, and they gave intrepid readers a way to discover new writers. In Calcutta, like so many other aspects of life taken from the West – the tram, homeopathy, Communism – once adopted, little magazines then took on a life of their own and became central to how we understood ourselves. In a proper capitalist system, these magazines would have vanished long ago, taking with them thousands of writers. But like those 1950s Chevrolets in Havana, the Bengali little magazine rolls on, patched up, creaky, a source of local pride, as if it were uniquely ours and as integral to Bengali-ness as a fish curry and rice lunch.

***

Kushanava Choudhury The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta  Trade Paperback | 272 pp | INR 499

21 August 2017 

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 

David J. Garrow “Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama”

Pulitzer-prize winning biographer David J. Garrow spent nearly nine years researching and writing Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama. Garrow interviewed more than a 1000 people for the biography of Obama. It is a voluminous 1400 pages with nearly 300 pages of footnotes and bibliography.

Rising Star is true to its name as in excrutiating detail it documents minutely facts about Obama’s life , mostly before he became president of USA. It is a biography that is probably going to be referred to for many years to come for the extensive research put in but the veracity of its authencity will forever be questioned, as pointed out by the Guardian and the New York Times book reviews. Both the articles criticise Garrow for relying far too much on Obama’s ex-girlfriend Sheila Miyoshi Jager for information.

Richard Holmes in an article published in the NYRB, “A Quest for the Real Coleridge”( 18 Dec 2014,  )  explained the two principles that govern the methodology for the biographies he writes. According to him these are –the footsteps principle ( “the serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or traveled or dreamed. Not just the birthplace, or the blue-plaque place, but the temporary places, the passing places, the lost places, the dream places.”) and the two-sided notebook concept ( “It seemed to me that a serious research notebook must always have a form of “double accounting.” There should be a distinct, conscious divide between the objective and the subjective sides of the project. This meant keeping a double-entry record of all research as it progressed (or as frequently, digressed). Put schematically, there must be a right-hand side and a left-hand side to every notebook page spread.”).  Richard Holmes adds, “He [the biographer] must examine them as intelligently as possible, looking for clues, for the visible and the invisible, for the history, the geography, and the atmosphere. He must feel how they once were; must imagine what impact they might once have had. He must be alert to “unknown modes of being.” He must step back, step down, step inside.”

Garrow won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986).  But since the 1980s till today there has been a tectonic shift in how biographies are written. A good example is the beautifully written biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Unfortunately it seems Garrow with this particular biography of Obama has been unable to evolve from the stodgy 1980s style of writing biographies.  In Rising Star Garrow fails to do precisely what Richard Holmes delineated — “step back, step down, step inside”. Hence it is easier to read the book in morsels rather than from beginning to end. Rising Star is outdated and dull for modern readers who prefer zippy, well-written narratives that are nuanced with analysis. Though in an interview in Longreads Garrow says it is the  “self-creation” or living a life of
“re-invention” of an individual that fascinates him the most. Undoubetedly it is this mission that comes through clearly except making it very tedious to read.

The nine years spent by Garrow researching this book more or less coincide with the two terms Obama spent at the White House. The book itself was published within months of Obama demiting office indicating a slight haste to reach the market quickly. But given the wealth of information garnered Garrow would have done well if he had spent a little longer editing Rising Star and gaining an objective perspective on his subject. He probably would have had a timeless classic.

Despite it being a dreary read Rising Star will prove to be a seminal book in time to come. It will be the go-to biography of Obama for its meticulous documentation particularly the endnotes and extensive bibliography.

David J. Garrow Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama William Collins, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, London, 2017. Pb. pp.1460 Rs 799

28 June 2017