debut Posts

Luke Kennard “The Transition”

‘Maybe,’ she said. ‘Maybe there is something wrong. Something wrong with you which The Transition can’t fix. Your parents could take some responsibility there. They could have given you more of a sense of enterprise and self-reliance instead of coddling you into believing that the world owes you a living. They could have set you up with the basics in life, but then I suppose they were the sort of people to have five kids without thinking about it.’

Award winning British poet and critic Luke Kennard’s debut novel The Transition is about a young man, Karl, who after running up a tremendous credit card debt along with online fraud and tax infraction faces either imprisonment in a low security prison for fifteen months or has to join a programme called The Transition run by the government.

The Transition was founded, the notary public had explained to him, because there had been a steep increase in cases such as Karl’s. A generation who had benefited from unrivalled educational opportunities and decades of peacetime, who nonetheless seemed determined to self-destruct through petty crime, alcohol abuse and financial incompetence; a generation who didn’t vote; who had given up on making any kind of contribution to society and blamed anyone but themselves for it. 

Karl was considered to be an ideal candidate for admission to the programme since he had been “conditioned into total indifference”. He is required to move into his new home with his wife, Genevieve, as soon as possible.

The Transition is set in a dystopic world in the near future but it is unsettling for the scenario it etches is plausible. The seemingly middle class bonhomie presented in the pamphlets advertising the scheme is carried through with happy, smiley individuals and yet the mentors selected for every new couple moving in can resort to some particularly horrendous ways of disciplining their wards. The correction systems may have graduated from the poor workhouses of the nineteenth century to be transformed into genteel homes situated in middle class suburbs yet little else has changed in terms of measure of punishment meted out.

Karl tries to rebel against the system especially when it dawns upon him that he is probably part of an “exploitative social-engineering experiment”. He also wants to protect his wife who is mentally fragile and needs to be cared for, he is also good at recognising the signs of her spiralling downwards, except that his mentors who are so focused on the correction aspect fail to see Genevieve’s deterioration.

The Transition is a rare debut novel where the simple plot haunts one for days after having read it. As the Financial Times said it is “too real for comfort” yet entertaining.

Luke Kennard The Transition 4th Estate, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 328. 

28 Sept 2017 

 

Cathy Rentzenbrink

Reading Cathy Rentzenbrink’s memoir The Last Act of Love and the companion to it A Manual for Heartache is a gut wrenching experience. The Last Act of Love was shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize 2016   for its an account of how Cathy Rentzenbrink’s younger brother Matt had a head injury and was for eight long years in a coma. The medical term for it is PVS or “permanent vegetative state” or as their mother says of Matt “living corpse”. Matt was a teenager in his prime when he met with an accident that left him in this horrific state. The Last Act of Love is a compassionate account of a sister trying to understand what her brother must be going through if he can feel anything. More importantly it is an account of how much of themselves caregivers have to give to ensure that a patient is cared for well.

Caregiving can be a thankless task since it is repititive with no breaks whatsoever. After a while the sympathetic circle of friends and relatives return to their lives but the immediate family of the patient is responsible for the daily courageous and relentless task of caregiving. At times it can become exceedingly lonely, stressful and mentally debilitating. For Cathy Rentzenbrick her escape mechanism was reading.

Reading was still my friend, though. I read continuously and compulsively, drowning out sounds of my own thoughts with the noise of other people’s stories. I no longer turned out the light before going to sleep — I had to read until the moment my eyes closed. There could be no gap for the demons to jump into. 

Most caregivers are caught in a cycle of maintaining systems that they forget to take care of themselves or share experiences about the roles they inhabit. These involve a bunch of questions about the quality of life the patient has to how effective are advancements in medical technology.

The Last Act of Love written  many years after her brother passed away takes its title from a phrase the author’s mother used in her sworn affidavit to the court seeking legal permission to discontinue nutrition and hydration given how poorly Matt was with a chest infection and recurring epileptic fits.

I have known for some time that there is nothing I can do for Matthew to enrich his life in any way. He needs to die. We had hoped it would happen with an infection and without the need to approach the court. But the sad irony is that his poor body, unable to do anything else, seems capable of fighting infection. So we are asking the court’s permission to cease nutrition and hydration so that Matthew can be released from his hopeless state. It is our last act of love for him. 

Writing The Last Act of Love may have been thereapeutic for Cathy Rentzenbrick but it certainly provides a much needed account of hope and a way of managing caregiving at home, many times the dilemma it presents. Sharing of stories is a relief for many in a similar situation but few have time to do so. Reading an account is possible.

Within months of the successful publishing of The Last Act of Love, Cathy Rentzenbrick wrote A Manual for Heartache which can be viewed as a sequel to her memoir but works very well as a manual for managing grief and loss. It is full of wisdom and gently with big dollops of kindness shares wisdom garnered over the years of caregiving for Matt.

 

Here are some invaluable excerpts from the book

On grief

What I now wish someone had told me is this: life will never be the same again. The old one is gone and you can’t have it back. What you might at some point be able to encourage yourself to do, and time will be an ally in this, is work out how to adjust to your new world. You can patch up your raggedy heart and start thinking and feeling your way towards how you want to live. That’s what I wish someone had told me and that’s what I want to tell you. I think I’m finally doing it.

On etiquette of bad news

It seems ridiculous that in the face of someone else’s misfortune we spend time worrying about our own behavious, but it’s only human and is particularly true when it comes to death and grief. I’m sure it was easier in Victorian times when there were prescribed rules, when society and the Church provided a framework. There was guidance on what to wear, how to communicate with people, how much time should elapse before everyone rejoined the business of life. Visible signs such as black crepe and mourning brooches made of jet acted as clues to the rest of the world. Like a version of the “Baby on Board” sign stuck in the back windscreen of a car, the blackness served as a warning that an individual needed to be treated kindly. All cultures have rituals around death and mourning but, in our increasingly secular society, it’s easy find ourselves unsure of what to do. 

….

I have come to see there is a beauty in simply being present for someone who is struggling wiht a heavy burden. The best thing you can offer is unlimited kindness. People to whom the worst has happened can be out-of-control sad and unable to obey the normal rules of life. It mught be all they can do to hold on. If they are mean or cruel or temporarily incapable of good manners, we need to suspend our expectations around them and give them space and compassion as they splinter and behave badly and say the wrong thing. If they are behaving perfectly and holding themselves together, then that’s OK, too. 

Reading both the books together is highly recommended. Share, share, share these books.

Update ( 5 Sept 2017)

The Guardian Longreads published a fascinating account of “How science found a way to help coma patients communicate“. It is worth reading!

Cathy Rentzenbrick The Last Act of Love Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2015. Pb. pp.248 Rs 450

Cathy Rentzenbrick A Manual for Heartache Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 150 Rs 499 

31 August 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 

M.G. Leonard Talks Beetles with Bookwitty

I interviewed the fabulous award-winning writer M G Leonard for literary website, Bookwitty. It was published on 1 August 2017. The original url is here but I am also c&p the text below. 

M. G. Leonard is the award-winning, bestselling writer of the Beetle Trilogy. So far, Beetle Boy and Beetle Queen have been published to a resounding welcome from readers worldwide. These are delightfully told stories about Darkus and his father Dr Bartholomew Cuttle who get mixed up in Lucretia Cutter’s mad, hair-brained, bordering-on-dangerous scheme. The two novels published have a big dollop of the fantastic but are an utterly delicious blend of modern science and imaginative storytelling that explores the plausible but so far speculative limits of life as we know it. The stories are meant for middle-graders, and deftly etch the grey area children and adults cohabit, as children enter their teens. M. G. Leonard spent her early career working in the music industry, and then trained as an actor, dabbling in directing and producing as well as performing, before deciding to write stories. Maya Leonard lives in Brighton with her husband and two sons.

Why write a trilogy about beetles? Was the trilogy worked out as one composite plan or did the stories develop as you wrote them?

Beetles are so interesting, that it would have been impossible to fit everything I wanted to say into one book. It was always going to be a trilogy because I like tightly structured stories, and didn’t want to write an open ended series that went on until readers were bored of the concept or characters. I had a loose outline for each of the three books, but these developed as I wrote them. One thing I’ve always known is the ending for each book in the trilogy.

How did you get into storytelling? The blend of science and stories come together so nicely.

I became a storyteller by working in the theatre. I have worked at some of the best theatres in the UK for nearly twenty years, and had the honour to share a working space with some of the greatest writers and performers in the world. This has been both a joy and an education, and given me the confidence to start telling my own stories. I have never been a scientist, but a playwright that I respect once told me that you should write about what you want to learn about, because the joy of discovery and the wonder of understanding will infuse your work. This is what I have done. At the beginning, I knew nothing about beetles and was afraid of all insects.

How did you get into writing for children? What is your routine?

I did not make a decision to write for children, but I knew my protagonists had to be children because they have open minds, hearts and are curious about the world. More often than not, Adults have made up their mind what they think about the world. An adult could not experience the same journey as Darkus, because they already know what they think about beetles. Of course, now that I am writing for children, I’ve also realised that my inner age is around twelve, I don’t feel like I’m a grown up. I don’t know many adults that do.

If I’m on the road, promoting, then I will write on trains, in hotels or in airport department lounges. If I’m at home, my writing routine is to get up early, before my children wake and write as much as I can. Then I must begin the day and take them to school. Once I return I will edit something else and take care of admin. I write best in the early hours.

Although Beetle Boy and Beetle Queen are meant for children, these stories address a range of “adult-like” issues: environmental disasters, evolution, genetics and transgenics, funeral rituals etc. It seems if you have been concerned about these for a very long time. Is that so?

I am a mother and a gardener, and I fear our attitude to the planet is abusive and will ultimately lead to great suffering and perhaps our own extinction. I mourn the number of creatures who have become extinct because of our attitudes to their habitats, and hope that by writing about these things I may inspire children to care about insects and the environment. Once a person cares about something, they are more likely to protect it.

What is the most interesting aspect of genetics for you?

The debate about when it is right to interfere with the genetics of a creature and when is it not goes back as far as Frankenstein, which is one of my favourite books. I do not have an opinion on what is right or wrong, as I don’t understand the complexities of the science or the implications of the act, but I know that humans have modified fruit flies and mosquitos. It is only a matter of time before someone modifies a beetle, and they are the most evolutionarily successful creatures on the planet. This both terrifies and fascinates me.

This story is worthy of good speculative fiction. Do you enjoy reading sci-fi? If so who are the writers you admire?

I do enjoy sci-fi, but have not read it exhaustively. My favourite sci-fi book, and one of my favourite books ever, is Dune by Frank Herbert. There is so much to be admired about this book. A great sci-fi book marries philosophical thought with science and Frank Herbert does precisely this. As I mentioned above, I am a huge fan of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is possibly the greatest science fiction book ever written. The third science fiction writer I have to take my hat off to is Douglas Adams, because I like to laugh and I find humour a wonderful digestive aid when it comes to facts. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a delight and ferociously clever. All three books I have mentioned I’ve read more than three times, which is a testament to how good a book they are.

What are your views on the debate about environment versus evolution?

Several well-respected scientists have suggested that there is no intelligent life form on other planets capable of communicating with us because whilst there will be life in the universe, intelligent life evolves to a point where it causes its own extinction. I suspect, unless we alter the way we live, putting the environment first and preserving the balance of the ecosystem, this is what will happen to humanity. There can be no positive evolution without protecting the environment.

Will Beetle Boy and Beetle Queen be optioned for film or an animation series? These seem to be stories that would work very well in the edutainment space.

I will do everything in my power to create a film or animated version of the books, because I wrote them with this in mind, however I feel very strongly that the central message and educational content of the books not be thrown out in a desire to make it commercial. I am searching for producers who will honour these important elements of the stories as well as having the clout to get a production off the ground.

Your writing is very visual. Do you draw as well?

I do draw, but not well. I think the visual element of my stories comes from being a producer and working with film, which I’ve done on and off for over twenty years.

What are some of the more interesting questions children have asked you?

I get asked all sorts of questions about writing but mostly about beetles, and I can usually answer them, but, after explaining about the short life span of some adult beetles, one child asked me if beetles experienced time at the same speed as humans, and I was flummoxed! Other than saying that time was a human construct, there was no real way for me to answer, and I think it is a wonderful question. I often sit and think about it.

Both the books are originally published by Chicken House and distributed in India by Scholastic India. 

2 August 2017

Scaachi Koul “One Day We’ll Be Dead And None of This Will Matter”

For those of us who are not in a position of power — us women, us non-white people, those who are trans or queer or whatever it is that identifies us inherently different — the internet means the world has a place to scream at us. The arguments range from the casually rude — people who want me to lose my job, or who accuse my father of leaving me and my mother, which would explain all my issues with authority — to comments deeply disturbing, ones that even my greatest enemises wouldn’t verbalize to my face. 

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter  Scaachi Koul’s debut is a collection of essays. These are mostly about being a Kashmiri Pundit immigrant from Jammu and Kashmir in Canada. Unlike her family Scaachi Koul was born and brought up in Canada. Her family moved to Canada when her brother was a toddler.

Being an immigrant and a fiesty feminist makes Scaachi Koul’s razor sharp wit a pure delight to read. For example her delightful breezy style of writing as as illustrated in the essay “Aus-piss-ee-ous” which is about her cousin’s arranged wedding in Jammu. “There are prison sentences that run shorter than Indian weddings.” She is smart and sassy in her quick repartee on social media too, a quality that endears her to many while exposing her to trolls as well. One of the incidents she focuses upon is particularly horrifying. Realising the need for diverse voices in the media and as the cultural editor of a prominent online magazine and an immigrant herself she put out a call for more writing from “non-white non-male writers”. It was a conscious decision on her part for some affirmative action. She was wholly unprepared for what followed. The online harassment unleashed a tsunami of angry trolls.

…several days of rape threats, death threats, encouragement of suicide, racial slurs, sexist remarks, comments on my weight and appearance, attempts to get me fired or blacklisted…Nothing was unique, nothing was new, nothing unheard of. 

She felt she had to engage as she had encouraged conversation at first but it was relentless till her boss advised her “You shouldn’t feel like you have to play.” She was fuming and very upset at being targetted for being a non-white woman with an opinion till she she deactivated her Twitter upon listening to reason offered by her boss. “…you don’t owe anyone anything. You don’t have to be available to everyone. You can stop.”

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter  is a brilliant collection of essays by a feminist. She represents the new generation of young women who are using the freedoms won for them by previous generation of women’s movements cleverly. Women like Scaachi Koul are able to see clearly the patriarchal double-standards by which most of today’s world continues to operate by and yet true to a twenty-first century feminist she knows her rights and expects to be treated at par with her male counterparts. This self-confident poise shines through the essays even when Scaachi is testing her ideas with her father despite getting his silent treatment.

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter is a collection of essays seething with controlled rage at the innumerable examples of embedded patriarchy. While sharing her testimonies of her firsthand experience of some of the funnier and nastier episodes this memoir also charts her growth as a young well-protected non-white girl to a maturer, sure-of-her-mind woman. This book will resonate at many levels with readers globally for there is universality in these experiences — immigration, forming a sense of identity especially while at loggerheads with patriarchy, learning to articulate your own feelings without feeling guilty and taking action rather than retreating from life.

Read it! This book is meant for all genders!

Scaachi Koul One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter Penguin Books, Penguin Random House, Gurgaon, 2017. Pb. pp.246  Rs 399

25 July 2017 

Theme of Independence in children’s literature in India

(The following article was commissioned in 2015 by Sarah Odedina for the Read Quarterly. With her permission I am posting it here.  On 15 August 2017  India celebrates it’s seventieth anniversary of independence from the British. )

15 August 1947 India won its independence from the British. It had been a long freedom struggle. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, “Father of the Nation”, is recognised as one of its leaders especially with his non-violent method of protest. His birthday, 2 October, is a national holiday. When the British decided to leave the subcontinent they did so after partitioning it into two nations—India and Pakistan.

The uprising of 1857[1] was influential in instilling in the Indians “a rudimentary sense of national unity” that when a genuine Indian freedom movement began within a few decades later it inspired the leaders with the hope that their British masters could be defeated. Significant highlights were the Partition of Bengal, new words such as Swaraj ( “self-rule”), Swadeshi (self-reliance) and Boycott ( of all foreign goods and products), Satyagraha, Jallianwala Bagh ( massacre of peaceful protestors by General Dyer in Amritsar), Chauri Chaura ( burning of a police station, killing 22 policemen on duty), rise of communalism with “parties based on religion like the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh …these parties only cared for their own communities, it was to their advantage if they could divide the country around religion.”[2]The Dandi March or the salt satyagraha, the Civil Disobedience Movement, Quit India Movement, and Independence.

It is now nearly 70 years since Independence, three generations removed from the momentous events. The freedom struggle still exists in living memory as it is not too far back in time. Yet for children, history is a mish-mash in their minds — the Harappan civilisation, the Mughals, Mauryan Empire and British India/freedom struggle are a blur. This is where literature plays a crucial role in offering perspectives.

****

Globally children’s literature is understood to include fiction and non-fiction, a category distinct from literature used as textbooks and supplementary readers in schools. In India these fine lines are blurred. For the toddlers and primary school students there is variety of material available – fiction, folktales, mythology, non-fiction. As the pressure of school curriculum increases on students the focus shifts from reading for pleasure to textbooks. Till recently this attitude was deeply ingrained in society. Now the slow shift to reading for pleasure is perceptible. It is a coalescing of multiple factors –an increase in income of parents allowing disposable income available for purchase of books, a rise in publishing and retailing for children, establishment of specialist bookshops, increase in direct marketing efforts by publishers like book fairs and book clubs in schools and growth in popularity of children’s literature festivals like Bookaroo[3] has made the category of children and young adult book publishing the fastest growing and lucrative category in India. (It also helps when the target audience/market of less than 25 year olds constitutes 40% of the 1.3 billion Indians.)

Children’s literature with the theme of independence is found in school material and trade lists. In the 40s (actually from 30s onward if not earlier) the best children’s literature came out in Bal Sakha – a Hindi Magazine brought out by Bengalis settled in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. Some of the best writers, including Premchand, were first published here. This magazine dealt with the issue of independence, presenting it to children in what still seems a fairly contemporary way[4]. In 1957 two publishing houses were established – National Book Trust ( NBT) [5]and Children’s Book Trust ( CBT)[6]. According to Navin Menon, editor, CBT, every year in August Children’s World “publish[es] content related to Independence either written by children or stories/ articles contributed by adults.” Amar Chitra Katha (ACK)[7], specialise in comics, usually the first introduction to children on folktales, Indian mythology and stories about the freedom struggle published its first title on freedom struggle, Rani of Jhansi[8] on 1 Feb 1974, around the 25th anniversary of Independence. Historical accounts by writer and niece of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Nayantara Sahgal’s The Story of India’s Freedom Movement (1970) continues to be in print[9]. As she told me in an email, “The freedom movement is part of our modern history. Obviously it is important for young people to know their country’s history.”


Writing for children about the independence movement began to pick up pace in the early 1980s when CBT published writers like Nilima Sinha’s Adventure before Midnight[10]. In 1984 after the assassination of the prime minister, Delhi saw terrible communal clashes. It led to writers like Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon and Amitav Ghosh drawing parallels between their experiences with that of Partition. In the 1990s preparations for the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of Indian independence began. To commemorate it there were a deluge of books. For instance, Shashi Deshpande’s novel The Narayanpur Incident and Macmillan published The First Patriots (series editor, Mini Krishnan) consisting of short illustrated biographies[11]. Biographies, bordering on hagiographies, are the most popular genre for introducing children to this period in history. These books sell extremely well since it supplements school textbooks. Scholastic India with its Great Lives[12], Puffin India with Puffin Lives and Hachette India with What they did, What they Said? series have profiled freedom fighters registering steady sales too. Gandhi is a popular subject of biographies. From picture books ( A Man Called Bapu and We call her Ba on his wife, Kasturba), standard biographical accounts, profusely illustrated with photographs like DK India’s Eyewitness Gandhi and graphic novels like Gandhi: My Life is my message ( Gandhi – Mera Jeevan Hi Mera Sandesh). [13] An unusual book is Everyone’s Gandhi by Subir Shukla[14] which looked at Gandhi from children’s point of view. It asked provocative questions. It was syndicated in some 75 newspapers (English and regional languages) and the author used to get 500 postcards every week from children across the country, proving that it is possible to approach independence in a manner that generates serious response. Paro Anand, writer and founder, Literature in Action[15] says “I loved this book because it brought me closer to Gandhi. It took the capital letter out of it because made me see him like a human being who I could be not a saint or god who I could never aspire to be. I have used the book often with kids urging them to be a Gandhi for 5 minutes every day, in a single act of kindness or a single act of care. To me empathy is a very important component of kid lit.”

Now there are a variety of books available in terms of writing styles and formats. For instance late Justice Leila Seth’s fabulous book on the Preamble of the Indian Constitution – We, The Children of India[16]; graded readers with pictures like Bharati Jagannathan’s movingly told One Day in August[17], Nina Sabnani’s heart-warming animation film (later book) based on a true story Mukund and Riaz [18]and Samina Mishra’s Hina in the Old City[19] — all focused on Partition and Ruby Hembrom’s award-winning picture book Disaibon Hul on the Santhal Rebellion of 1855[20]. Young adult fiction inevitably has the story of one person caught up in the dynamics of the movement. So the author tries to take a micro level view and build upon that. For instance, Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s Neela: A Victory Song[21], Jamila Gavin’s Surya trilogy — The Wheel of Surya (1992), The Eye of the Horse (1994) and The Track of the Wind (1997)[22], Irfan Master’s A Beautiful Lie[23],[24] Siddharth Sharma’s award-winning debut novel The Grasshopper’s Run[25] which focuses on the Kohima war and Mathangi Subramanian’s Dear Mrs. Naidu[26] about a young girl who corresponds with Sarojini Naidu through her diary. Forthcoming is the retelling in English of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s Bharat Mata ke Paanch Roop ( Urdu) by his niece Syeeda Hameed[27]. Award winning historian-turned-writer, Subhadra Sen Gupta has written a clutch of biographies, historical fiction, picture books and nonfiction titles with the freedom struggle as the literary backdrop[28]. Roshen Dalal has published India at 70 ( 2017) chronicling the seven decades since Independence.

Some other examples of literature are listed by writer Deepa Agarwal, “Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s popular poem Jhansi ki Rani and Makhanlal Chaturvedi’s Pushp ki Abhilasha. Outstanding historical novels on patriotic themes were written by Manhar Chauhan, like Lucknow ki Loot (The looting of Lucknow) and Bihar ke Bahadur (Brave men of Bihar) both published by National Publishing Company in 1978. His series of sixteen novels about British rule Angrez Aaye aur Gaye (The British came and went) is a monumental work with each book standing alone and yet connected with the others. In Urdu Allama Iqbal’s collection Hindustani Bacchon ke Qaumi Geet and Zakir Hussain’s Abbu Khan ki Bakri are on the theme of freedom. Pandit Brij Narain Chakbast’s patriotic poems,  Hamara Watan dil se Pyara, Watan Ko Hum Watan Humo Mubarak, from the collection Subhe Watan were meant for children. In Marathi V.H. Hadap wrote patriotic stories ranging from historical to modern times; his Sattavanachi Satyakatha is about the heroes of the 1857 revolution like Mangal Pande, Tatya Tope and Rani Laxmibai. In fact the centenary … was celebrated in 1957 with many books for children about the people who participated. Vasant Varkhedkar’s Sattavancha Senani is a novel on the life of Tatya Tope.” In Telugu Komuram Bheem: A children’s Novel on a Tribal Hero by Bhupal is about the tribal rebel from Telengana, published by Vennela Prachuranalu (Telugu)[29]. CBT also has a book on Gunda Dhar/ Bhumkal revolt of the Bastar tribal area.

Apart from written literature in India oral histories play a very important role too. Target, a popular children’s magazine, started a comic strip in the mid-eighties called “Freedom’s Children”, where a freedom fighter was profiled based upon extensive interviews. Prominent writers and illustrators collaborated for this project. At the end of each strip a photograph of the actual person was published. Now some schools organise interactions between grandparents with students to recount their memories of independence movement. Many times it is discovered that the children are unaware of the trauma the older generation experienced as if the elders want to protect the younger generation from the horrors they witnessed.

Vatsala Kaul-Banerjee, Publisher, Children & Reference Books, Hachette India says, “General response to these books is quite good. Our children take their cues from USA/ UK, so they do not look at India too much. … I do not think there is enough experimentation in children’s writing to create fiction in this area, so far.” Tina Narang, publisher, Scholastic India adds “Since this is a period in our recent history for which a wealth of detail is available, relevant research material is easy to come by for authors[30] who have written Independence-themed stories. But that I think is the biggest stumbling block. Most such stories tend to become stereotypical in their portrayal of that period and of independence as a valiant struggle by a group of noble and brave souls. There is little or no independent analysis of this struggle or attempt to question the motives, methods or outcomes (partition included).” Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, (then) Editorial Director, Red Turtle echoes this, “We do need to do more books that present a more diverse view of  the independence movement and that talks about the role of women or tribals or gives other kinds of alternate views.” Radhika Menon, founder, Tulika Books agrees, “Now we would like to do something that includes the contemporary discourses on the freedom struggle. Something that reflects a more inclusive idea of the freedom struggle with all its complexities so that the reader is urged to think and question rather than be left with certainties about history in her/his mind which tend to be rigid. The challenge is of course to make such a book reader friendly for the pre-teen age group.” Ruby Hembrom, publisher, Adivaani is clear when she says, “If we were to do a book on this period, I wouldn’t feature the Indian Nationalists who have been done to death in textbooks first and have hijacked the ‘independence’ space. I would do Jaipal Singh Munda and his eclipsed role in the constituent Assembly for example.”

Writing about Indian independence and the freedom movement for children is a tricky area since it raises more questions than helps map it. There is an apparent shift in the styles of writing over the generations of writers. From the writer like their subject (usually evident in biographies) have a sense of pride at being an independent and self-reliant nation to contemporary writers whose fiction is based research for using history to comment upon the present politics and social status of marginalised groups. Disaibon Hul is ostensibly about the revolt as mentioned in the book, the introduction refers to “outsiders”, and the story is about the fight against the British. It concludes with “Almost 160 years have passed since the Hul. We are alive but still not the owners of our lives? What will it take for us to be really free?” The term “outsider” is left open-ended. Siddhartha Sharma says he wrote The Grasshopper Run because “I wanted to explain how the Assamese and Nagas got along earlier, unlike today. To contemporary Indians, I wanted to show what the people of the region are like, and how history turned out for us.” [31] Mathangi began writing Dear Mrs Naidu when working in government schools and angadwadis and discovered Sarojini Naidu whose letters she was reading. Mathani realised that Naidu was so human compared to the “demigods of independence” students learned about. She adds, “I think there is a lot of literature on the theme of independence that focuses on a couple of the male freedom fighters, and I’d like to see this change. History is such a powerful force: it shapes the way we think about ourselves, and the way we think about the possibilities for our futures. I want to see more histories of women freedom fighters, and freedom fighters who were not elite. I want to see more literature that helps children understands that heroes are just people with a lot of guts and passion, and that everyone has the capacity for greatness.”[32]

I asked eminent historian Romila Thapar, “What are the events/perspectives and aspects of the freedom struggle that you would recommend are also included in the narratives of the freedom movement?” She replied via email, “You have posed a difficult question. My reaction would be that we need to acquaint children with situations that went into the making of what one may call a ‘wholesome’ society. Not the stories that encourage divisiveness and violence but stories that underline in subtle ways the values of a plural society that we once were. This is disappearing fast and it will be an uphill task to retrieve this as we shall have to do in future years. The goal of the national movement was such that communities came together for a cause and set aside what separated them. It is these moments that need to be remembered in the present times. Often they can be more easily seen in activities related to regional and local history. It may be worth doing a little investigation into how people in rural areas and small towns remember the recent past.”

This observation gains significant urgency when a Muslim man is lynched by a mob on the outskirts of Delhi for his food habits[33]. Noted Hindi journalist Ravish Kumar’s who met a young man, Prashant, at the site says he showed no remorse at the death of Akhlaq, “Instead, he asked us that after the partition, when it had been decided that Hindus will stay here and Muslims will go to Pakistan, why did Gandhi and Nehru ask Muslims stay back in India?… These are the typical beliefs that keep the pot of communalism boiling.” Ravish says he lost the heated argument and could only wonder dismayed, “Who are those people who have left young men like Prashant to be misled by the purveyors of false histories?” Ironically this happened on 2 October, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, a man recognised worldwide for his belief in nonviolence.

[1] In A Children’s History of India Subhadra Sen Gupta refers to the events of 1857 and the widespread anger that ensued being an eye-opener for the British “who believed that they were ruling over a peaceful society reconciled to British rule”.

[2] – ibid-

[3] Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival 

[4] Email correspondence with Subir Shukla, Principal Coordinator, IGNUS-erg and formerly associated with NBT. He wrote a few books at this time too.

[5] National Book Trust (NBT), India is a part of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India. It was established in 1957 and publishes in English, Hindi and some other Indian languages. It also organizes the annual World Book Fair, New Delhi to which publishers gravitate from around the world and country.  NBT and CBT between them have published many books, many continue to be in demand such as The Story of Swarajya by Vishnu Prabhakar (Hindi), Jawaharlal Nehru by Tara Ali Baig, Stories From Bapu’s Life by Uma Shankar Joshi (Gujarati), Jallianwala Bagh by Bhisham Sahni (Hindi), Bapu by FC Fretus and How India Won Freedom by Krishna Chaitanya. Email from Rubin DCruz, Editor, NBT. He has also put together an invaluable annotated catalogue of select children’s books in India, Children’s Books 2014, published by National Centre for Children’s Literature, NBT.

[6] Children’s Book Trust ( CBT) established by cartoonist Shankar in 1957. Its objective is the promotion and production of well-written, well-illustrated and well-designed books for children at prices within the reach of the average Indian child. CBT publications include an illustrated monthly magazine in English, Children’s World. Shankar also set up the Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children (AWIC). Shankar started the Shankar’s International Children’s Competition in 1949, and as a part of it, the Shankar’s On-the-Spot Painting Competition for Children in 1952. He instituted an annual Competition for Writers of Children’s Books in 1978. Some of the CBT titles are Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose by Dr. Lakshmi Sahgal  & Col. P.K. Sahgal, Adventure before Midnight  by Nilima Sinha, The Return Home by Sarojini Sinha, The  Treasure Box by Sarojini Sinha, Kamla’s Story: The Saga Of Our Freedom by Surekha Panandiker, Ira Saxena, & Nilima Sinha,  A Pinch Of Salt Rocks an Empire by Sarojini Sinha and Operation Polo by A. K. Srikumar and the 12 volumes on freedom fighters Our Leaders or Mahan Vyaktitwa ( English and Hindi). Some of the original titles in Hindi are Aprajita, Hamare Yuva Balidani and Barah Baras ka Vijeta. Email sent by Navin Menon

[7] Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) founded by Anant Pai or Uncle Pai specializes in publishing comics. These comics are usually the first introduction to children about stories of the freedom struggle stories. The ACK titles are Rani of Jhansi (date of publication, 1 Feb 1974), Subhash Chandra Bose (1 March 1975), Chandrashekhar Azad (15 August 1977), the Rani of Kittur ( 1 July 1978), Bhagat Singh ( 15 March 1981), Rash Behari Bose ( 15 May 1982), Veer Savarkar ( 15 May 1984), Mangal Pande ( 1 June 1985), Jallianwala Bagh ( 1 June 1986), Beni Madho and Pir Ali (1st Sept.1983), Velu Thampi (1st May 1980), Senapati Bapat ( 1 February 1984), Surjya Sen (October 2010), Vivekananda (15th October 1977), Rabindranath Tagore (20th may 1977), Babasaheb Ambedkar (15th April 1979), Lokmanya Tilak (1st August 1980), Lal Bahadur Shastri (1st October 1982), Mahatma Gandhi – The Early days (1st June 1989), Jayaprakash Narayan (15th January 1980), Jawaharlal Nehru (November 1991), Subramania Bharati (1st December 1982), Deshbandhu Chitaranjan Das         (1st November 1985), The Story of the Freedom Struggle (August 1997)

[8] Rani Lakshmibai was one of the leaders of the uprising of 1857. She also became a symbol of the resistance to British Rule.

[9] Nayantara Sahgal The Story of India’s Freedom Red Turtle, an imprint of Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2013. First published 1970.

[10] Midnight refers to the coming of Freedom and this book describes the events that preceded it. It is about a group of teenagers who participated in the Quit India movement and tried to hoist the tricolour in Patna. It was selected for the International White Raven List for libraries.

[11] Tipu Sultan, The Rani of Jhansi, Kattabomman (the rebel of Pudukottai), Pazhassi Raja (Kerala) and Bhagat Singh. The idea for these series was to write about various legendary heroes and heroines who played a pioneering part in the un-enslaving of the country. According to biographer Shreekumar Varma, “Pazhassi Raja Kerala Varma was one of the earliest such freedom fighters. He fought the marauding armies of both the British and Tipu Sultan. His story is full of adventure and thrill, intrigue and treachery, a case-book of bravery. The book is profusely illustrated. It was heavily researched. The surviving members of the Raja’s family were interviewed at Pazhassi and information was gathered from many books and historical records. The text in the book is but a fraction of the material actually obtained.”

[12] Aditi De’s Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and illustrated by Pooja Pootenkulam in the Great Lives series published by Scholastic India has been released this month.

[13] Gandhi: My life is my message by Jason Quinn, illustrated by Sachin Nagar. It is available in English and Hindi. The translator is Ashok Chakradhar. It is part of Campfire Graphic Novels’s  Heroes Series that introduces readers to historical figures who led lives worth knowing, and whose stories are true life adventures.

[14] It is available freely for circulation since “Mahatma Gandhi cannot be any one person’s property, there is no ‎copyright of this publication.” First edition 1997.

[15] Literature in Action is a programme started by Paro Anand that seeks to bring young people and books together.

[16] It was co-authored by her writer-son, Vikram Seth and illustrated by the late Bindia Thapar, published by Puffin India ( English) and Pratham Books ( Hindi).

[17] Published by Pratham Books

[18]  In an email Nina Sabnani wrote, “Mukand and Riaz was initially an animated film that later became a book. It is a true story about my father Mukand and his friend Riaz. There were several things that brought this project together. My father told me the story of his life very late, close to his death. I wanted to share this with my siblings so I just wrote it up like a story and shared it with them and some friends. My friends persuaded me to think about it as a film. I was quite disturbed by the frequent riots in Ahmedabad that happened and me as a designer did not respond in any way. I thought it maybe  my way of protesting. But protests always forget children. So I wanted to reach children. Fortunately I also received some funds at NID as students were working towards making films on the rights of children for a UNESCO Israel project, Big Small People. Since my father had repeatedly said how much he missed his best friend and how the partition separated them, I thought I would create a film that focused on the rights to home and friendship. I also had a fond hope that if the film was made and Riaz happened to see it he would contact my dad. Of course that did not happen but my father was able to see the film one week before he passed away. I used cloth because he worked in the Textile Mills and was passionate about fabric and prints.” Mukund and Riaz  is published by Tulika Books.

[19] The reader shares moments with 10-year old Hina who lives in Purani Dilli, the walled city of Delhi. She comes from a family of zardozi embroiderers. This exquisite craft is, however, slowly dying as craftspeople find fewer takers for their work or are forced to compromise on care and quality to meet the prosaic demands of the times. Along the way, we get glimpses of life in Old Delhi – its lanes, its ancient mohallas which have seen the pain of Partition. Hina loves where she lives, and warm colour photographs take us right into her world. Guides for projects / discussions and a reading list are provided at the end as further avenues for exploring.

[20] To me it is an example of using history to comment on the present. It is ostensibly about the revolt (and the story calls it a revolt too whereas an uprising would be more accurate given it is written from the perspective of the adivasi), the introduction refers to the “outsiders”, the story is about the fight against the British and then it concludes with “Almost 160 years have passed since the Hul. We are alive but still not the owners of our lives? What will it take for us to be really free?” The term “outsider” is left open-ended. Ruby is the founder-publisher of Adivaani, a publishing house that focuses on  producing literature for an by the adivasis.

[21] Neela: A Victory Song is published by Puffin Books India.

[22] Jamila Gavin’s Surya Trilogy is published by Egmont.

[23] Beautiful Lie was published by Bloomsbury

[24] A book review article I wrote on Partition and Children’s Literature and I interviewed Jamila Gavin and Irfan Master.

[25] The Grasshopper’s Run was first published by Scholastic India and worldwide by Bloomsbury.

[26] Dear Mrs Naidu ( 2015) is a Young Zubaan publication.

[27] Forthcoming by Pratham Books is Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s Bharat Mata ke Paanch Roop ( The Five Forms of Bharat Mata) which are character sketches of five ordinary women whom he considered as the true faces of the Bharat Mata trope. These are originally in Urdu but have been done for us by his niece Syeda Hameed. According to Manisha Chowdhury, Editorial Head, Pratham Books “we see this as a good way to introduce the idea of subaltern narratives to children and expand the idea of history.”

[28] For instance, Saffron, White and Green: the amazing story of India’s independenceA Flag, A Song and a Pinch of Salt: Freedom Fighters of IndiaPuffin Lives: Mahatma GandhiLet’s Go Time Travelling; fictional biographies of Jahanara and Jodh Bai; a short story collection called History, Mystery, Dal Biryani and a novel called Give us Freedom and most recently the bestseller, A Children’s History of India, published by Red Turtle. Email from Subhadra Sen Gupta.

[29] There is also a book on Alluri Seetharama Raju in Telugu.  He led the ill-fated “Rampa Rebellion” of 1922–24, during which a band of tribal leaders and other sympathizers fought against the British Raj. He was referred to as “Manyam Veerudu” (“Hero of the Jungles”) by the local people

[30] It explains why authors like Deepak Dalal and Nandini Nayar have been able to write historical fiction set in 1857. Research is easy to come by. Deepak Dalal’s historical fiction set in the time of 1857 Sahyadri Adventure series – Anirudh Dreams and Koleshwars Secret. He says, “I have received good feedback about the books. Demand is ok, but nothing to thump my back about. We are into the 3rd edition now. Schools love the books and many have used them as readers. But then most of my books are picked up as readers.” Nandini Nayar’s When children make history: Stories of 1857 is a novel about two Indian children who befriend an English boy who considers India his real home. The three of them chance upon a bunch of soldiers making rotis and help them. So, basically, the novel ends with the beginning of the Uprising. In an email to me she wrote, “I wrote the book [since] I was reading a lot about 1857 and the British Raj and began thinking about how it would be if some Indian children were to befriend an English boy. “ The book was first published as an ebook, then print and has recently been translated into Malayalam by Mango Books, the children’s imprint of DC Books.

[31] In an email to me.

[32] In an email to me.

[33] According to rumours that spread like wildfire, fifty-year-old Akhlaq had stored beef (cow’s meat) in his fridge. The cow is sacred to Hindus. A mob gathered and lynched him and injuring many members of the family. On 2 October 2015, two days after the incident in a village in Dadri, 35 kms from Delhi, Ravish Kumar went to report. “A Sewing Machine, Murder, and The Absence of Regret”  (Published and accessed on 2 Oct 2015)

15 August 2017 

Diksha Basu’s “The Windfall”

“How come Americans get called expats but if we move to America, we’re called immigrants?” Mrs Jha asked. 

Diksha Basu’s debut novel The Windfall is about Mr Jha and his family. He belongs to a middle class family and stayed in East Delhi. One fine day a website he had made was bought by an American company for $20 million. This windfall suddenly gave Mr Jha an opportunity to fulfil his ambitions. He moved to a bungalow in the wealthier and leafy neighbourhood of Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi, abandoning the crowded apartment complexes of Mayur Palli where it was possible to overhear conversations from a neighbour’s home. He was able to buy himself a snazzy Mercedes and indulged in buying all kinds of clothes. He had a wife and a son too. Mrs Jha has a small business of ordering clothes from craftspersons and supplying them to her clients in Delhi. But once her husband had the windfall she suspended her career to help make the transition to Gurgaon. Their son, Rupak, was studying for his MBA in Ithaca University but was faring so poorly at it. He very soon returned to India without completing his degree.

The Windfall is about these socio-economic transitions that the Jha family made except moving into a neighbourhood and a culture that was as alien to them as visiting a foreign land. There are details about their acquisitions such as sofa from Japan embedded with Swarovski crystals which must be displayed however uncomfortable it is to sit upon or buying a machine to shine his shoes as seen in five star hotels only to embarassingly find it is frowned upon in the new social class Mr Jha aspires to be a part of.  Yet as they discover despite trying hard to keep up with the expectations of their new neighbours these material gains do not put the Jhas at ease.

The Windfall is a readable, pleasantly told tale which starts off promisingly well for its nuanced understanding of economic relationships –many of which are starkly apparent in modern India. It is a fair start for Diksha Basu’s literary career but it is her second, probably her third book, which will be truly worth waiting for.

Diksha Basu The Windfall Bloomsbury, New Delhi, India, 2017. Pb. 

11 July 2017 

 

 

An interview with Xan Brooks ( 5 June 2017)

(I interviewed film journalist Xan Brooks on his debut novel The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times for Bookwitty. It was published on 5 June 2017. Here is the text. ) 

Xan Brooks began his career as part of the founding editorial team at the Big Issue magazine, which is one of the UK’s leading social investment businesses. He then worked at the Guardian newspaper, first as a film editor and later as associate editor, before going freelance in 2015. He published his first novel in 2017, The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times. He kindly answered questions for Bookwitty:

Your novel focuses sharply on the darker side of society in the 1920s. It’s so sinister and the plot line is devastating. How did this story come about?

In October 2014, my father recounted a conversation he’d had with his aunt, shortly before her death. She told him that, as a girl, she’d been transported to Epping Forest, outside London, to see (in her words) “the funny men from the war”. My father had the impression that she had never told this to anyone before and she seemed so traumatised by saying it that he didn’t feel he could press her on the details. The novel came out of that conversation. It was an attempt to understand what might have happened to her and why. I would stress that the whole thing is made-up. It’s fiction. It is emphatically not the story of my great-aunt (who I only met three or four times in my life). That said, this made-up story has a kernel of truth.

To create historical fiction did you have to research the period or not? For example the fabled Eye of Thoth Amon, Amulet in the 1920s and 30s, the time of the expeditions to Egypt…

Ideally, you conduct lots of research that you then wear very lightly. I should have spent longer preparing, but I was too eager to start writing. So I only researched for about two weeks (on 1920s Britain and the effects of World War One) and then would just check details as I went along (how much did a pint of beer cost in 1923? How fast would a car typically go?). I’m not sure I’d recommend this as the best approach. There are a few historical inaccuracies in the book and these (genuinely) keep me awake at night. With regards to the Eye of Thoth Amon – yes, the news at the time would have been full of Howard Carter and Tutankhamen. It seemed likely that a fraud like Uriah – the fake spiritualist – would have tried to capitalise on that public fascination by claiming to possess an ancient artifact of fabulous powers.

Did the research extend to getting the language and expressions accurate as far as possible or were you keen to make the story relevant to a modern reader?

That’s an interesting question. On reading back over the first draft of the book, I realised that some of the dialogue was too self-consciously antiquated, almost mytho-poetic, like a parody of how one imagines people would talk “in olden times”. On the second draft, I tried to loosen the speech, roughen its edges; make it more natural and easy – possibly more modern, although I’m not altogether convinced people spoke very differently one hundred years ago anyway. By and large, I trusted my ear. If some phrase or piece of slang sounded too modern, I’d take it out.

Commonplace names like “Uriah Smith” and “Lucy Marsh” are chilling. They lull you into an ease that is horribly shaken by the story. How did you achieve this outwardly placid tone of the story with its violent undercurrents?

I knew from the start that the tone would be crucial. The story is horrible. It’s a thing of darkness and cruelty and it also has a thick vein of operatic wildness, in that it contains masked monsters and flaky magicians and debauched house parties and fiery airplanes. The danger with such ingredients is that the tale risks overheating, becomes hysterical and ludicrous. I had a faint terror of the book turning out like a bad Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, with lots of wafting dry ice and plastic foliage, masked dancers and anguished show-tunes. The best way to counter this threat was to downplay everything and observe the events very matter-of-factly, without fuss. Lucy’s perspective was crucial in this regard. She sees and questions but does not rush to judgment – partly because she is still establishing a moral framework to measure all these crimes against.

The Yellow Brick Road is meant to lead to something happy and comforting instead it is dark and twisted in your novel. Why develop a story dwelling on the nightmarish aspect to a beloved children’s tale The Wizard of Oz?

The yellow-brick road leads to The Wizard of Oz but, while not actively evil, the Wizard is a lie, an arrangement of smoke-and-mirrors, so there are some immediate parallels there. Plus I like the idea of false sanctuaries in fiction; the safe haven that isn’t. If the first half of the book is about the abuse and exploitation of childhood innocence, the second is about the gaining of wisdom, a coming to terms with an adult world that sustains and replenishes itself by exploiting the weak and the innocent. In a more traditional fairytale, the girl would survive the ordeals of terrifying forest to find a happy ending at the big house with the handsome prince. I liked the notion that the people in the big house are—at least tangentially—responsible for what has occurred in the forest. Instead of finding safety, Lucy finds herself behind the scenes at the sausage factory.

Trying to read this book, as a straightforward novel does not necessarily work although the opening pages are written in a classical manner. It’s only when one orients the mind to read the text as if it were a film camera in motion, focusing upon some details and panning out in others, that it becomes easier to engage with the story. Do you think being a film journalist has inadvertently affected your literary style of writing?

No doubt about it—but I think I’m only now realising the extent to which it has. I’ve never written a feature-length screenplay and have no desire to. That said, the story primarily came to me as a series of images and bursts of dialogue. I’m aware that I’ve framed it using what might be termed as the traditional tools of film grammar, with the occasional flashback and plenty of cutting between parallel story lines, especially during the opening half. I would stress that I didn’t want to write a sort of flat prose-blueprint for a movie. I wanted to write a novel filled with beautiful writing, interior monologues and shadowy mysteries. But I do recognise that the writing is very visual—and that this reveals my journalist background and my love of cinema. I basically saw and heard the book as I was writing it.

“Terrible things happen all the time and there is nothing to do but hope that whatever comes next will be brighter and better.” Is this what you hope to illustrate with your novel?

Well, that’s specifically Lucy’s feeling at a specific point of the book, when she is arguably at her lowest ebb. I think it’s a decent ethos so far as it goes, but it risks being a little passive—hoping for something better as opposed to actively taking steps to make it so. My opinion is that Lucy eventually does take those steps—although perhaps not entirely consciously—and that her situation improves as a result. But yes, terrible things happen all the time, there’s no arguing with that. Cruelty, abuse and hypocrisy are the constants in any era.

The use of masks by the “Happy Men” illustrates the historical fact of prosthetics being made for injured soldiers from tin and copper. Why did you decide to weave in this little-known aspect of the Great War into your story instead of just having a group of ordinary men?

Again, it goes back to my great-aunt’s account of what happened to her as a child. But it also nicely muddies the moral waters of the story. Yes, the children are the obvious victims. But then (without ever excusing their actions) you realise that the abusers are themselves victims. That they have been made into monsters, that they are cogs in the wheel of a wider, industrialised pattern of abuse. Hopefully the masks serve to make the abusers more frightening – and then more tragic too.

It’s set at the time immediately after the Victorian era and the beginning of the 20th century when there is a perceptible shift in how children are treated. Reading The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times today with the dreadfulness of the sexual abuse of children during the Great War is very disturbing. It is captured dramatically in the conversation between Lucy Marsh and her grandfather. Was this section difficult to write?

Yes, very. I felt it was important that Lucy confronts her grandfather directly about what he is doing. Except that then—in the way characters sometimes have of surprising you with their responses—it suddenly seemed equally important that he didn’t break down and plead for forgiveness. If anything, his primary emotion is irritation at being challenged by a child. Now, partly that’s a self-defense mechanism, him not wanting to admit any guilt. But it also says something about an admittedly fairly ill-educated, un-principled man of that era and class. One, children were often viewed as just a rung or two above livestock on the social scale. Two, evidence suggests that the war had this incredible desensitising effect on the people of Britain (and Germany, France etc.). So although he’s ashamed of his actions, he’s able to brush them aside, or explain them away. Would it have even been described as sexual abuse in those days? I suppose it would—assuming anybody bothered to investigate the crime and deliver a verdict. But would it have even reached that stage? Growing up in the 1980s, I vividly recall the way that sex abusers were typically referred to in jokey, derogatory terms, as though they were pathetic little clowns—with the implication being that the actual abuse was somehow pathetic and clownish, too; some dirty embarrassment that it was best to ignore. If that was how sexual abuse was presented in the 80s, I imagine it was even more easily dismissed in the 1920s. So long as the children came back alive at the end of each day, it was possible to avoid asking too many awkward questions.

Why did you make the leap from film journalism to novel writing?

Partly it was circumstantial. My job (which I loved) was being dismantled and I figured I’d better get out quick, before the situation got any worse. Thinking back on it now, this book came out of a very strange and stressful period. In the space of six months, we had a baby, my wife fell ill, my father suffered a stroke and my job came under threat. Also, we had no money. And so at some point you just find yourself living in a perpetual state of fear and uncertainty; it becomes the water that you’re swimming in. So you think, “Forget trying to do the right thing, the sensible thing. Forget trying to play the percentages, because that clearly hasn’t worked out”. Writing a novel, then, could be seen as the equivalent of doubling down, of embracing the fear, of diving even deeper. And yes, that’s partly what it was. But it was also something I’d always wanted to try. I’ve always read voraciously and I love writing too. I loved writing features, news stories and reviews and am still able to earn money doing so. But writing a novel is a richer, more frightening, more exhilarating adventure. It was a wonderful experience. Everyone should try it.

How did you select the intriguing title: The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times?

Actually, it was something my wife said. We were sitting in the living room, midway through writing the book, and she made this throwaway remark, which stuck in my head. I used it as the opening line of the chapter I was writing—but then we started thinking of it as a good, resonant working title for the whole book. I didn’t think it would survive because it’s too long and strange; I thought we’d certainly end up calling the book something else. But my publisher (Salt) either came around to the idea, or generously decided to give me the benefit of the doubt. Now, of course, I can’t imagine it being called anything else.

Who are the storytellers (in any form) who have influenced you?

I’m going to stick with novelists otherwise I’ll still be coming up with names in November. Off the top of my head and in no particular order: EL Doctorow, Flannery O’Connor, Robert Stone, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, Joseph Roth, John Steinbeck, Richmal Crompton, Stephen King, Nathanael West, Willa Cather, Denis Johnson, Bernard Malamud.

Xan Brooks The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times Salt Publishing, London, 2017. 
11 June 2017 

Sarvat Hasin, “This Wide Night”

They lived across the road from me for fifteen years without us ever having a conversation, something that seems impossible to me now. I’d built up the Malik sisters in my head before I really knew them. The combination of being at a boys’ school and Dada’s dislike for other people meant that these were the only real girls I ever saw. From the window in my bedroom, you could look through the trees and into their garden. I learned valuable things about the girls: how Maria played cards every evening with her mother, or that Ayesha always read and Bina sewed, and that the littlest, Leila liked to draw.

Jimmy lives with his paternal grandfather who is a prosperous export businessman. He is alone and spends a lot of his time watching the Malik house. The Malik family consists of four sisters- Maria, Bina, Leila and Ayesha/Ash . Their father is “a navy captain, whose name was on the silver plaque outside their gate, spent most of his time away from home”.  Their mother Mehrunissa supervises the home and by all accounts is quite lenient in her daughters’ upbringing. It is never spelled out by Sarvat Hasin in her debut novel The Wide Night but there is a shift in dynamics from the freedoms available in a women-only home as compared to one in which there is a man’s presence. For instance when the Captain returns from the war – it is a challenging period of adjustment for both sexes:

How could her father come home to a place that did not feel like it belonged to him? The switch of energy during his visits, the house worked into a dark frenzy. It could only work in small bursts, the spikes of energy of reordered lives. There was no space for him in the larger sweep of their lives – how long could Ash keep wearing her dupatta over one shoulder and pinning back the tufts of her hair that escaped from their short nest. How many nights could Leila hold her tongue at the dinner table and bite it against her usual chatter of boys and money and pretty things. In her father’s presence she was washed out, a paler version of herself, hands folded in her lap and her voice only murmuring to ask for more roti, a glass of water. Even Bina was required to modify herself: fewer hours spent volunteering, and no more bringing her stitching into the living room to sit cross-legged on the carpet by her mother’s feet, listening to her stories with the soft brush of her hand against her hair. The sitting room would become a man’s world.

Mehrunissa is primarily responsible for the family and allows her daughters freedom such as reading.  whenever and whatever they desired. She does not subscribe to the belief that books and ideas were harmful for girls and that daughters were meant to be groomed for marriage. Jimmy describes the Malik home with fascination: “It was the first house I had ever been in with books in every room. Even in a room with no shelves, there were books under cups or hidden behind pots; Barbara Cartland novels tucked in the slots of the swings. Books in other houses were rare, precious thing, tucked out of reach or behind walls of glass, leather-bound and glossy. These tangible tattered things with dog-eared pages and tea stains were remarkable. I shifted my cup of tea on its coaster, knocking over a mystery novel that Mehrunissa kept beside her sewing.” Mehrunissa’s determined stand against social norms and even in the presence of her husband, in an overtly patriarchal society, is exemplified by refusing to slaughter goats for Eid: “Mehrunissa and her daughters were particularly sensitive about the slaughters. They never participated, had not done so even on the rare holidays when Captain Malik was home. On Eid, theirs was the only house with no goats or cows lined up outside—another thing among many that set them apart from everyone else he knew, another thing about them that people thought was strange.”

People called the Maliks “strange” because of it being primarily a female household living alone, happily, unheard of in an otherwise overtly patriarchal society. It was also odd that the father “permitted” the women to have their say as in the case of doing away with the practise of getting a sacrificial goat as it was an inhumane act.  But love runs deep as testified by the Captain while recounting to Jimmy the kindly advice he had received about the challenges his marriage may pose: “These things are meant to work better when the differences aren’t so big, your families should come from the same place, you should speak the same languages and pray the same way – you’ll have heard all this, I know. They’d even chosen a girl for me. I never told Mehrunissa that. Baat pake se pehle—I saw her. And that was it.”

 Their mother’s strong personality had a deep influence on the four daughters. They grew up with distinct identities. Maria who as a teacher’s assistant in the school mesmerised the boys: “The trick was not in her words, but the way she spoke them. She was not lightning but slow honey, womanliness pouring into the classroom, making us all sit up a little straighter.” Ayesha, the voracious reader who fantasised about her European trip with her aunt was the most level headed and practical of the sisters. For example, her unsentimental detached views on death is revelatory, “Death isn’t this big drama everybody makes it out to be… It’s – a person being there one minute, and not the next. It’s the passing of a second.” The laidback Bina’s “wishes were never for herself”. And finally Leila, who, “built her houses in gold. She wanted a rich husband, a studio of her own. I want a wardrobe the size of Marie Antoinette’s, she would say. Decadence was the only thing she took away from history lessons. She was a tiny Cleopatra, Nur Jehan, a queen in a miniature.” After Maria’s wedding “the house shrank without her, tightening around the family. There are some people who leave the room and you stop thinking about them right away. None of the Malik sisters were like that. Their absence took up room, a seat at the table.”

This Wide Night although a novel is structured like a three-act play with a shift in the voice from first person of Jimmy to the third of the authorial narrator in the second section and back to Jimmy. It is a curious literary technique to employ for it is not fully exploited by the author providing little insight such as in the sisters suicide pact.  Usually the narrator brings in a perspective giving the reader a little more information than the characters are aware of but nothing of that sort happens here.

Renowned writer and critic Muneeza Shamsie says in Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English ( OUP, Pakistan, 2017, p 601)  that in today’s globalised world the new generation of Pakistani writers have either “lived, or been educated in, Pakistan and the West, and often divided their time between the two. … As a result, the distinction between diaspora and non-diaspora began to blur too.” This underlying desire to be accepted globally as a new South Asian writer who is extremely familiar with Western canons of literature is evident in This Wide Night too for its adaptation of Little Women albeit in a desi setting. Pakistan-born now living in UK Sarvat Hasin wrote This Wide Night after enrolling in a creative writing workshop project wherein she transplanted the characters created in nineteenth century America into modern-day Karachi. So Amir, Maria’s husband, is a mujahir who lost his parents during Partition but he comes across as a flat character who, “seemed to just appear, a sum of all the stories people told about him” with little else being said about him. Whereas if a little bit of the socio-historical background was woven into the novel it would have made a significant difference to the quality of storytelling. This is illustrated further in the sanitised “literary” description of the 1971 War, a conflict zone: The way tensions rose in our house and in the city, the way the whole country seemed to teem with a dull thickening heat – the days before monsoon storms. By the time war broke out, we were almost relieved. It gave the feeling a name; something that couldn’t be quantified when it was just curfews and military men stationed outside schools or people sent back past the border. Contrast this with contemporary literature worldwide which creates a rich texture filled with details taking care to not culturally alienate the reader too much but at the same time retaining a strong regional character — acceptable traits of a global novel.

Sarvat Hasin is a writer with promise. This Wide Night is a commendable first effort.

 Sarvat Hasin This Wide Night Hamish Hamilton/ Penguin Random House India, 2016, 312 pp., Rs 499 (HB) 

 

Samantha Schweblin

It was late in 2016 that the cyber-whispers about a magnificent new novel in translation began. Then in January 2017 The New Yorker published a review-article about Argentinian Samantha Schweblin’s debut novel Fever Dream.  Shortly thereafter this slim novel was longlisted ( later to be shortlisted too) for the Man Booker International Prize 2017. Fever Dream is about Amanda who is blind and dying. She is conversing with a young boy David. Amanda and David’s mother, Carla, became friends when Amanda moved into the neighbourhood. It was a peculiar relationship which had an unnatural intensity to it evident in the heart-to-heart talks the women had. At times it almost seems as if Carla has taken on the mother’s role to Amanda and yet there are flashes when it seems as if Carla is speaking to Amanda in a confessional mode. Most of the conversations revolved around Carla’s bewilderment about David’s transformation, almost as if he was a changeling.

“Amanda, when I find my real David,” your mother says, “I won’t have any doubts it’s him.”

Surprisingly the conversations between David and Amanda are of the same tenor as that of Carla and Amanda though eerily David sounds the most mature “adult” of the three. He is constantly interrupting Amanda saying “You’re wasting time“,

We need to go faster“,

I’ll tell you when its important to know the details“,

But you always miss the important thing“,

“I’m not interested in this anymore” and

Amanda, I need you to concentrate“.

Its as if the little boy is editing and slowly controlling Amanda’s narrative as if he is privy to more information than she is. There is a sense of urgency to the conversations probably because Amanda is burning with a fever on her death bed.

Amanda has a daughter called Nina. Under Amanda’s watchful eye Nina is never allowed to wander far. The safe distance is measured by what Amanda refers to “rescue distance”. Crossing the imaginary line of this perceived safe distance can catapult Nina into danger given that her mother will not be able to reach in time to rescue her. According to the Guardian, “the phrase is the original, and better, title of the book in Spanish”. And this is the distance that is played upon constantly to fathom what exactly transpired to cause Amanda’s trauma.

“When does it start to go bad, exactly?“,

We’re almost there“,

This is the most important thing. This is everything we need to know.” ,

It is important, but it’s not what we need to understand. Amanda, this is the moment, don’t get distracted. We’re looking for the exact moment because we want to know how it starts.”, 

It’s very gradual.” and “No, no. It’s not about worms. It feels like worms, at first, in your body. But Amanda, we’ve been through all this, too. We’ve already talked about the poison, the contamination. You’ve already told me four times how you got here.”  

Fever Dream may be about mothering and the anxieties that are the defining undercurrents of motherhood.  It also explores that grey area when an adult behaves child-like and vice versa. It happens. It comes through in the conversations. It is further accentuated by the structure of the novel which opens with Amanda and David conversing briefly — this becomes like the framing text. Then there are long passages of Amanda recalling her time with Carla and sequence of events which resulted in her hospitalisation but as the novel progresses these are steadily punctuated by David’s remarks. So what begins like a conversation seemingly between two adults one realises a little later is between a child and an adult but framing the text in this manner juxtapositioning conversations blurs the lines too.

There are always those flashes of adult behaviour apparent in a child which is understandable as they are evolving, also basing their actions on the role models around them. Curiously enough this very fact for which there is a logical explanation can also be disconcerting and challenging for the reader. The powerfully mesmerising writing style which gets carried over in translation as well is commendable but also has echoes of the legendary Brazilian writer Raduan Nassar. He has been hugely influential on contemporary Latin American literature with his two books — A Cup of Rage and Ancient Tillage ( translated by Stefan Tobler). Fever Dreams is the closest to A Cup of Rage in its feverish pace of writing, explosive action and bewildering consequences. Also these two stories create a strong urge to read them from the start upon finishing the last page — as if in a cyclical manner.

Reading Fever Dreams is an exciting exercise by itself but then I came across Valerie Miles recommendation for Samanta Schweblin’s story, “My Parents, My Children” ( translated by Kit Maude) at The Short Story Project . She says : “Let’s face it, the matter of our every day lives is of strange stuff made. When viewed apprehensively, when the strings of family are stretched taut over the Nabokovian abyss to nestle a rocking cradle, or coddle an aging parent whose mind is failing, what’s normal can quickly turn downright bizarre.” It may be too early to say but this exploration of how the young and old seem to behave inexplicably like each other at different stages of life may become a characteristic trait of Samanta Schweblin’s magnificently disturbing but beautifully crafted writing. It is a wonderful compliment to the translation skills of Megan McDowell for having retained the force of the original text and transmitted it equally forcefully in the destination language.

As with Man Booker International Prize 2016 winner The Vegetarian ( translated by Deborah Smith), Fever Dream too raises the bar for literary fiction. Both these novels are extraordinary examples of confident writing whereby the novelists challenge the “traditional” styles of plot, dialogue, structure of text all the while capturing the reader’s imagination. A year on The Vegetarian continues to sell. Fever Dream, whether it wins the prize or not, will also be a steady seller in years to come.

Samanta Schweblin Fever Dream ( Translated by Megan McDowell) Oneworld, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 150 Rs 399 ( Distributed by PanMacmillan India) 

12 May 2017