Essay Posts

The Erotic in the Indian Imagination

Amrita Narayanan has edited Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica , an anthology consisting of extracts from literature published in India over centuries. There are pieces from Rig Veda; the Tamil Sangam poets; Bhakti poets Antal and Mahadeviyakka, who describe women’s fantasies of men (whether human or godly); short stories by Kamala Das that have been out of print for decades; excerpts from the work of contemporary writers like Mridula Garg, Ginu Kamani, Tarun Tejpal, Deepti Kapoor, Sudhir Kakar et al. It is not as comprehensive in its survey as say the two volumes of Women Writing in India were and thus falls short of one’s expectations. Having said that Parrots of Desire is a start maybe to be added to later in a revised edition? 

Here is an extract from the opening pages of the well-written introduction published with permission. This section is “Erotic in the Indian Imagination”. 

To read centuries of voices writing on the erotic is to become keenly aware of a deep argument that exists in the geography of the subcontinent, an argument between literary romantics—who embrace the erotic for the gloss it adds to life—and religious traditionalists[1]—who caution against the erotic, for its disorderly nature and potential to cause chaos. While romantic and traditionalist voices are unanimous in their belief that the erotic holds an extraordinary power and attraction for human beings, each does something very different with that belief. Romantics are erotically positive: they believe life is made worthwhile by its erotic aspects, that the best life is one in which our understanding and awareness of the erotic are maximally enhanced. Traditionalists, on the other hand, are erotically anxious: they believe that a worthwhile life is one in which the four goals of life[2] are in balance; they do not favour the promotion of the erotic, worrying that if not tightly controlled, the erotic could undermine the other three goals of life. Aficionados of the romantic project used the arts as a vehicle of articulation; their literature, music, drama, even grammar, was thought to be imbued with the erotic and capable of enhancing our understanding of the erotic. Traditionalists used both religious writing and the social contract to articulate the dangers of the erotic, believing that the erotic must be kept on the sidelines, aside from its necessary use as a vehicle for reproduction. Romantics believe that coupling is a central life force, and they appreciate the energy that comes from all couplings, whether man-woman, woman-woman, men who identify as women (and are fantasizing about male gods), or (wo)men with God. Traditionalists believe in the notion of an ‘ideal couple’: heterosexually and monogamously married, with children and extended family in the foreground and a willingness and ability to keep the erotic in the background.

To further understand the argument between traditionalists and romantics, consider a brief history of the time that traditionalism and romanticism have held sway. The purview of this anthology begins about 1000 BCE in ancient India. For the first 800 years or so of this time period, that is, beginning with the Vedas, traditionalist sentiments prevail. During this time, the destabilizing dangers of the erotic are far better articulated in the literature than are its pleasures. From the Vedas onwards, traditionalist literature, which is largely in the form of religious texts, is squarely articulate on the need to manage the destablizing potential of the erotic. Beginning in 200 BCE, however, and continuing for several centuries, literary voices sang the glories of the erotic and their dedication to it—in Tamil, Sanskrit, and Maharashtrian Prakrit. From the second to the sixth century, an Indian literary-erotic-nature idiom was spelt out from Tamil Nadu to Maharashtra and up to Madhya Pradesh. Here the poets embraced the erotic along with its problems, accepting that though the erotic often brought anger, grief and shame, it was still worth embracing for its pleasures. During this medieval period emerged the Tamil Sangam poets and the Maharashtrian Prakrit Gatha Saptasati, the prose and poetry of Kalidasa and Bhartrihari, as well as the Kama Sutra itself. After this golden age of the Romantics, puritanism once again holds sway and the next major erotic work—at least the one that has survived—is the collection of romantic poems known as the Amarusataka, written in Sanskrit in the seventh or eighth century and attributed to King Amaru of Kashmir. From the eighth century onwards there is again a long period in which very few important works have survived, the next set being from the Bhakti poets who compose discontinuously from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries in praise of erotic love with God himself. The fact that Bhakti poets praise erotic love only in language that involves a deity suggests that this was considered the most elegant and refined expression of romanticism at that time. Alternatively, perhaps, the social climate—which by this time included both Hindu and Muslim puritans—did not support an articulation of a more explicit person-to-person erotic love. The taboos on self-expression of erotic love might have impinged particularly on women poets and the re-direction of this love to the divine might have spared them the censorship that might have otherwise been forthcoming. Another way of thinking about it is that, dispirited with the limitations of romantic love between humans, some of these poets were able to find a more elevated idiom with the gods.

Following the Bhakti period, the proliferation of the Urdu language and the culture of refinement associated with Islamic courtly love played an important pro-romantic influence; but as the Hindu and Muslim puritans were joined by the British puritans in the seventeenth century, one has the sense that romanticism was very much in the dark ages. Nevertheless, important works continued to emerge in a more scattered fashion. Amongst these individual works are those written by courtesans, such as the Telugu Radhika Santawanam (The Appeasement of Radhika) by Muddupalani, in the eighteenth century. Another is the erotic proponent of the Lucknow school of poetry, Qalandar Bakhsh Jur’at, known for his bawdy yet spiritual imaginings of women in sexual union. As the reader advances towards and past the twentieth century, individual writers offer an exploration of contemporary erotic problems alternating with the past. Contemporary Indian writers who match and build on the efforts of their ancestors write in, among other languages, English, Tamil and Malayalam, and continue to shed profound light on the erotic. In this anthology the contemporary writers I have chosen include those who have made a searing commentary on the relationship between kama and society: Perumal Murugan, Kamala Das; those whose reverential treatment of the erotic couple recalls the glorious medieval period: Pritish Nandy, K. Satchidanandan, Tarun Tejpal; writers like Manto and Ambai whose erotic-nostalgic writings make us feel lustful and tender at once; modern Bhakti poets like Arundhathi Subramaniam and Kala Krishnan Ramesh; and those who have treated in great depth the extraordinary conflicts that the erotic poses for an individual life: here found in the works of Mridula Garg, Deepti Kapoor and Ginu Kamani

[1]I chose the word traditionalist and not puritan because of the historical origins of puritanism that are not pertinent to India. However I thought it worth mentioning that the traditionalist argument is close in nature to the puritan argument. Here puritan is used in the sense of against pleasure, see for example, H. L. Mencken, who sardonically defined Puritanism as ‘the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy’.

[2]The four aims of life (purusharthas): artha (wealth), kama (desire), dharma (duty) and moksha (salvation from the cycle of life and death).

Amrita Narayanan ( ed.) Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2017. Hb. pp. 304 

8 Sept 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 

Jacqueline Woodson “Another Brooklyn”

For a long time, my mother wasn’t dead yet. Mine could have been a more tragic story. My father could have given in to the bottle or the needle or a woman and left my brother and me to care for ourselves — or worse, in the care of New York City Children’s Services, where, my father said, there was seldom a happy ending. But this didn’t happen. I know now that what is tragic isn’t the moment. It is the memory. 

Jacquline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn is about August, her younger brother and her father. Their mother was unable to grapple with reality after her younger brother, Clyde, was killed in the Vietnam war. They used to live in Tennessee. Soon August and her sibling were relocated to Brooklyn by their father as it was the place he grew up. The story begins with August returning for her father’s funeral after twenty years of leaving Brooklyn.

It is almost like a stream-of-consciousness outpouring of memories unlocked by August’s visit to Brooklyn to bury her father — the journey her family made physically and spiritually to become somebody better than they already were to the four schoolfriends she made and out grew quickly and the transformation of her younger brother to a devout Muslim. A tale told hauntingly almost as if it were poetry in prose.

Another Brooklyn is a stunning novel. No wonder it was a Time Magazine Top 10 Novel of 2016 and shortlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction 2016.

Soon after I read journalist and writer Amrita Tripathi’s tribute to her late father and could not help but draw comparisons between the texts, to their poignancy and lyrical beauty, despite Another Brooklyn being fictional.

Jacqueline Woodson Another Brooklyn Oneworld Publications, London 2016. Pb. pp. 180 

7 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 

“Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers On The Decision Not To Have Kids”

When I think of the people among whom I grew up, it’s as I were looking back not to fifty but more than a hundred years, to an era before modern beliefs in the sacredness of childhood and children’s rights had emerged, before childhood had come to be seen as a time of innocence deserving protection, the part of every person’s life that should be carefree and full of fun. 

Sigrid Nunez “The Most Important Thing”

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers On The Decision Not To Have Kids is a collection of essays edited by Meghan Daum. It is a fairly absorbing range of perspectives offered by a group of writers — predominantly women with the exception of Geoff Dyer and Tim Kreider— as to why they chose to remain childless. Everyone has their own set of reasons ranging from genuinely unable to bear children to a fierce sense of independence and their right to choose on how to live their life. Not a single writer included in this rather fabulous collection of essays feels guilty about the decision made/for them and in no way has it robbed them of any pleasure of having children of their own. Some of them confess that they love being the doting aunt/uncle and look forward to the time they spend with the youngsters in their circle of family and friends.

In every essay there is a gem or two worth sharing. Most often than not there is a searing perspective these essayists offer ranging from the fear and inability to raising kids well, sufficient financial security, loss of personal freedom, whether they will have the compassion and patience to nurture a child, no respite from the daily rigour of raising a family, the challenges of trying to have it all — family and profession or the inability to offer stability of putting down one’s roots in a place. It is quite fascinating to read how childless adults perceive parenting and family structures.

Here is an extract from an essay by Laura Kipnis that neatly encapsulates the history of motherhood and the stress of modern childhood.

I don’t believe in maternal instincts because as anyone who’s perused the literature on the subject knows, it’s an invented concept that arises at a particular point in history ( I’m speaking of Western history here) –circa the Industrial Revolution, just as the new industrial-era sexual division of labor was being negotiated, the one where men go to work and women stay home raising kids. ( Befoer that, pretty much everyone worked at home.) The new line was that such arrangements were handed down by nature. As family historians tell us, this is also when the romance of the child begins — ironically it was only when children’s actual economic value declined, because they were no longer necessary additions to the household labor force, that they became the priceless little treasures we know them as today. Once they started costing more to raise than they contributed to the household economy, there had to be some justification for having them, which is when the story that having children was a big emotionally fulfilling thing started taking hold. 

It also took a decline in infant-mortality rates for mothers to start regarding their offspring with much affection. When infant deaths were high ( in England before 1800 mortality rates were 15 to 30 percent in the first year of life), maternal attachment understandably ran low. As historian Lawrence Stone pointed out, giving a newborn child the same name as a dead sibling was a common practice; in other words, children were barely regarded as distinct individuals. They were also typically sent to wet nurses following birth — so much for the mother-child bond — and when economic circumstances were dire, farmed out to foundling hospitals or workhouses ( “little more than licensed death camps,” said Stone). But then childhood as such really didn’t exist, or at least it wasn’t a recognizable concept, as historian Philippe Aries documented; this, too, is a social invention. Children were viewed as small adults’ apprenticed out to work at age five. It was only as families began getting smaller — birthrates declined steeply in the ninenteenth century — that the emotional value of each child increased. Which is where we find the origin point for most of our current ideas about maternal fulfillment. 

All I’m saying is that what we’re calling biological instinct is a historical artifact — a culturally specific development, not a fact of nature. An invented instinct can feel entirely read (I’m sure it can feel profound), though before we get too sentimental, let’s not forget that human maternity has also had a fairly checkered history over the ages, including such maternal traditions as infanticide, child abandonment, cruelty, and abuse. 

…the real reason I’m agains the romance about maternal instincts is that what gets lost amid this fealty to nature is that nature hasn’t been  particularly kind to women, and I say we owe it no favors in return. If women have been “ensnared by nature” as Simone de Beauvoir ( no fan of maternity herself) put it, if it’s so far been our biological situation that we’re the ones stuck bearing the children, then there should be a lot more social recompense and reparations for this inequity than there are. The reason these have been slow in coming? Because women keep forgetting to demand them, so convinced are we that these social arrangements are the “natural” order of things. The willingness to call an inequitable situation “natural”  puts us on the royal path to being society’s chumps. 

Laura Kipnis “Maternal Instincts” ( p.33-35)

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed is definitely an anthology worth possessing.

Meghan Daum ( edited) Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers On The Decision Not To Have Kids Picador, New York, 2015. Pb. pp. 282 Rs 599 

29 June 2017 

“Is Writing a Way of Life”

Recently I have come across two articles about what is a writerly life. The first one is by well-known Australian writer, Frank Moorhouse, in Meanjin entitled : “Is Writing a Way of Life …and if so, what is the writerly life?” He has been a published author for more than fifty years.  It is behind a paywall but here are a few relevant lines from it. It is a long article, well worth paying to read it.

Literary writers who eschew sales as an ultimate validation live by the legends of those writers who were wrongly dismissed by critics, whose first book was rejected by 100 publishers, and cherish the belief that their talent will be recognised after death. It is also a characteristic of many literary writers to be ignorant of the economics of our
vocation—some have a disdain for concerns with copyright, even publishing contracts or publicity.

The objective in all writing is to connect with an authentic readership (this may not happen quickly). Another characteristic of the literary author is the influence of the work on other writers and on other art forms because the literary author is sometimes working at the innovative edge either in thought or form and has a degree of
originality either in form or coming from the personality of the author expressed through unusual style. How-ever, some important writers work within the recognisable conventions of form and genre.

Ultimately writers and readers accept that in writing there are many different categories of ‘success’. Some of these categories sound better in French: succès d’estime (reviews, scholarly interest); succès de commerce (sales); succès de scandale; succès de culte. Others include: to be named as a leading regional writer; ‘best of her generation’; best gay, best Greek-Australian; ‘our most interesting young writer’; best ‘emerging
writer’; one of our ‘eminent’ writers; a ‘much loved’ writer; and as a serious writer with a small but devoted readership. There is nothing we can do to determine how we are evaluated at any given time.
It is a bona-fide, continuous, affined readership (not necessarily a large one) that the literary tradition seeks. And of course, some books remain as a valued part of the reading life of the society and ultimately go on, over a lifetime or longer, to outsell the sometimes ephemeral bestsellers of the day (although not all bestsellers are ephemeral
and some are considered literary). As Milton put it in Paradise Lost, ‘Fit audience find, though few.’ But how few?

He argues for public patronage to encourage writers.

Some form of public funding will always remain necessary not only for the encouragement of new talent but also for mid-career and late-career talents—older writers sometimes also require ‘encouragement’ along with financial support. The concept of social rights relating to the special nature of serious writing was absent until the introduction of public lending right (PLR) for payment to authors for the use of their books in public libraries (in 1974, through the initiative of Colin Simpson and the Australian Society of Authors); the reform of the Copyright Act to provide payment for multiple copying of their work and the establishment of the Copyright Agency Limited in 1986 through the initiative of Gus O’Donnell and the ASA; and education lending right in 2001 through the initiative of Libby Gleeson and the ASA for the use of their books in educational libraries. The beauty of these payments is that they are directly tied to the use of the author’s work by the community: the ugliness is that the rates paid are decided by the government of the day and have depreciated over time. Most authors would be happier with the funding of writing if it depended less on schemes ultimately controlled by the government of the day and committees and was based instead on a legislated economic mechanism out of reach of those in power. These sorts of payments, by their nature, protect the author from political discrimination, the problems of peer review and from attacks by those opposed to public funding of the arts.

The place we give the book as a culturally important artefact is evident in our strange economic arrangements for it—a treatment unlike other ‘products’. First, 70 years after the death of the author the work enters the public domain. Second, through compulsory licensing, setting in examinations and teaching by educational institutions
and other uses can occur without the author’s consent (though, now, not without eventual payment by one mechanism or another). Third, the fair dealing provisions of the Copyright Act allow people to quote from and copy the author’s work for scholarship and research work without payment. Finally, the work is available to the
community free of charge through the free library system. 

The book is important because so much of the activity of the world and the other arts depends upon the book for knowledge and ideas, for the exploration of intricacy, and we depend upon the telling of stories for our personal growth through imaginative delight, enquiry and engagement and for our stability as a person and as a society.

Nine years ago Indian writer, Madhulika Liddle, who gave up her 9-5 job to devote herself to full time writing says in

SM

Author-ity, or What Do Writers Really Do?

This fact – that you do not require a certificate to call yourself a writer – gives the average non-writer the impression that this isn’t a profession to be taken seriously. But, given that literature festivals multiply like rabbits and every year throws up yet another clutch of celebrity writers, it seems obvious (to those not writers themselves) that writers make a lot of money.

The reality, though, is far more mundane and far less glorious. Writing is hard work (and rework – there’s a lot of rework involved). Research is time consuming, creativity is hard to sustain and the entire process needs a lot of discipline. It takes years to write a book, and more to edit it up to the level that you would like to see in print.

What’s more, for the bulk of writers, the earnings from books are abysmal. Let me offer an example: my Muzaffar Jang series, launched in 2008, has so far sold only about 6,500 copies. That includes all four titles, and it includes physical copies and e-books. If you take into account the fact that I get a royalty of 7.5% on each physical book and each book costs somewhere between Rs 300-400, you can easily calculate how little money I’ve made off these books. Also, piracy has drained away some of my potential earnings.

Most of us have to find avenues other than just writing books in order to stay afloat. Articles for publications, both paper and digital, can bring in income. So can editing assignments, contributions to anthologies and the sharing – through lectures and workshops – of the skill and craft of creative writing. Self-publishing, despite the flak it often draws, can pay significantly higher returns than traditional publishing. Plus, a book with staying power can, as long as it is in print, go on bringing in royalties.

All of that helps me keep writing. That, and the knowledge that the greater my body of work, the greater my chances of increasing my readership. The more books I write, the more I get recognised. Most of all, though, the more I write, the more I realise that my decision to leave the corporate world wasn’t a bad one. Writing is fulfilling in ways it is hard to fully communicate. The research itself is intriguing, digging into a world that you thought you knew, but can still surprise you. Then there is the creation of characters, and the world that they inhabit. It becomes a part of you, and you fall in love with it to a certain degree. It is that love that you share with your readers. I will never be rolling in wealth, and making ends meet will probably be difficult for as long as I only write, but at least I will be content.

The bottomline is that a writer’s profession is a hard one, usually without the advantage of a regular income to keep body and soul together. It may seem glamorous but it is not. Yet as is evident from the two articles that writers make their choices.

Two more articles of interest about the writerly life:

Elizabeth Strout ( ‘If I ever return to a small town, I want you to kill me’ The Guardian, 7 June 2017 )

Laila Lalami ( ‘Laila Lalami on the public writer vs. the private self’ Los Angeles Time, 30 March 2017)

Colson Whitehead ( “Write the book that scares you shitless” LitHub, 23 November 2016)

9 June 2017 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie “Dear Ijeawele”

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a slim little book which developed out of a letter she wrote to her friend. It contains advice to Ijeawele on how to raise her daughter as a feminist. There are some fine pearls of wisdom such as “Teach Chizalum to read.” Or ” Teach her that the idea of ‘gender roles’ is absolute nonsense”. Chimamanda Adichie selects fifteen of the classic arguments associated with feminism that are bandied about which are primarily internalising patriarchal arguments. For instance, mixing up feminism and femininity, choice of dress being confused with morality,  perceiving marriage as an achievement and using the language of ‘allowing’ which encapsulates the power equations, learning about gender-neutral roles instead of capitulating to definitions that are primarily patriarchal constructs, rejecting the idea of gender roles, appreciating to identify yourself as an individual who is composed of many parts to make the whole — motherhood is not the sole definition of a woman’s identity, talking about female sexuality and celebrating it rather than being ashamed of it, and finally not to be caught in biological arguments that ultimately constrict a woman’s movement and ambitions.

But, but, but…Dear Ijeawele  reads too much like a primer for feminism. Agreed it is a good starting point for those who want to understand what feminism is about, the exercising of choice and all genders being equal. Adichie does warn against generalisations from one’s personal experience and does try and encompass various aspects of the feminist spectrum. Yet it is too simple and reductive. For instance it is all very well to stress on the independence of a woman and how to negotiate for her spaces in the world but how can she do it if she does not have financial independence? Adichie touches upon it but specifically within the context of Igbo culture being materialistic so “while money is important — because money means self-reliance — you must not value people based on who has money and who does not”. Whereas this is the crux of feminism and a woman’s identity for economics is the basis of any relationship. Most cultures around the world are deeply embedded in patriarchal structures that essentially clip a woman’s financial means by domesticating her and reminding her of her primary responsibilities being towards the family and children. But if women are taught to be financially sound to earn their independence it will be the first step in “correcting” the social imbalances which exists today in relationships. Otherwise all the good advice which a commercially successful author such as Adichie gives on feminism will sound hollow. ( Brittle Paper, 27 March 2017 “As Sales Approach the Million Mark, Is Americanah Now Adichie’s Signature Novel?” . Also see “New Yorkers just selected a book for the entire city to read in America’s biggest book club“, a “One Book One New York” programme started by NYPL. )

Ultimately feminism like any other ideological language has to be lived daily. The basic tenets can be taught and shared but it varies from individual to individual on how to practise it and thus bring about the social change is aims for. As for bringing up children and introducing them to feminism — the best way is by the parent/s being role models. Children learn best through action and not instructions.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions 4th Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 68 Rs 250 

 

“What the Nation Really Needs to Know: The JNU Nationalism Lectures”

On 12 February 2016, the elected president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union ( JNUSU) , Kanhaiya Kumar, was picked up by the police from the campus. The arrest of two more students followed. During the three weeks that the arrested students, including Kanhaiya Kumar, remained in jail before securing bail, the JNUSU president, teachers and media persons faced physical attacks and intimidation at the court premises, even in the presence of the police. All this was perpetuated in the name of ‘nationalism’. 

…With each passing day, more and more citizens came out to ‘Stand with JNU’ to defend the ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘autonomy of academic institutions’. These two became the rallying points for the protest movement that continues in one form or the other. 

( From the Acknowledgements to the book)

What the Nation Really Needs to Know: The JNU Nationalism Lectures consists of the set of public lectures organised by the JNU Teachers Association (JNUTA) on various perspectives on nationalism and on different meanings of freedom to defend the heterogenous intellectual tradition that is today under threat. Hundreds of students and teachers from different disciplines gathered in the evening at the protest site, called Freedom Square, to listen to scientists, philosophers and social scientists speaking on issues of nationalism, academic autonomy and freedom of speech. Some of the contributors were Shashi Tharoor, Prabhat Patnaik, Gopal Guru, Achin Vanaik, Tanika Sarkar, Lawrence Liang, A. Mangai, G. Arunima, Nivedita Menon, Suvir Kaul, Jayati Ghosh et al.

The lectures were uploaded on YouTube and the transcripts were published by HarperCollins India. Interestingly the lectures were printed as they were delivered  — in English or Hindi. Also for a seminal collection such as this the paperback is reasonably priced at Rs 299 making it within accessible reach of many readers. There are many fascinating lecturers. One of those invited was eminent historian and founder members of JNU — Prof. Romila Thapar. She spoke on ” The Past as Seen as Ideologies Claiming to be a Nationalist” ( 6 March 2016).

Here is an extract:

…the reading and interpretation of the past requires a trained understanding of the sources and a sensitivity to understanding what has been written. The political requirements of today cannot be imposed on the history of the past. To maintain a generalized statement that the period of the last thousand years was one of the victimization and enslavement of the Hindus by the Muslims is historically unacceptable. This kind of generalization feeds communal nationalism. That is why I am cautioning against it. Unfounded generalizations have to be replaced by analytical history. 

At the time of Independence and soon after ( when none of you were born!), we had no problems defining nationalism and the definition was widely accepted. Nationalism meant declaring every Indian as an equal citizen of India and upholding the rights of every citizen to that equality. Today, efforts are being made to obfuscate it. Nationalism draws on reliable history and not on the contorted history that feeds communal ideologies. Reliable history demands critical enquiry which, as we all know, is essential to the advancement of knowledge. It is expected of a university to critically enquire into what  publicly may be claimed. Nationalism gives an identity to the citizen. The citizen is pre-eminent but no citizen or group of citizens can claim superiority over others as citizens, irrespective of what may be the basis of the claim. Citizenship is founded on the equality of all and the equal rights of all. Incisive debates on this are part of the nationalist enterprise, and this is an ongoing enterprise in the relationship between history and nationalism. Universities are the obvious places for such debates. We in India have had a head start due to our Constitution and with our commitment to making the nation a secular democracy. This is what we are committed to as Indians and what we are committed to when we became independent, and this commitment has to continue as the hallmark of our nationalism. 

This is a fascinating anthology which will be a keeper. Amazon India has termed it as a “bestseller” but at the time of writing print editions of the book were unavailable on the website. Anyhow it is worth possessing and mulling over the lectures delivered. Ideas can only begat more ideas — for better or for worse, only time will tell.

12 March 2017 

 

Brahmaputra Literary Festival, Guwahati, Assam ( 28-30 Jan 2017)

In late January the National Book Trust of India, Government of India and the government of Assam decided to jointly organise the Brahmaputra Literary Festival in Guwahati. There were over 60 panel discussions, book launches, cultural events etc organised. More than a 150 writers, artists, thinkers and publishing professionals were invited to participate. The focus was on the “languages, literature, culture, society, politics, performance traditions, music, identity, media of the northeastern region of the country but also national and international elements packages in the three-day event”.

Shatrugan Sinha, Bollywood actor, speaking about his memoir published by Om Books

Given how hectic the litfest season can become in India this particular edition of the festival was a refreshing change. It was not the predictable handful of authors doing a Bharat darshan and along the way halting to make appearances at literary festivals. This festival was different. It had a crackling good mix of regional writers from all over India along with a few international delegates. It was heartening to note how all the guests were treated at par. The hospitality arrangements made by the organising committee were impeccable. Although this festival had been put together in less than a month it was commendable how well it had been curated.  Irrespective of ideological positions a range of people had been invited highlighting the flourishing Indian literary scene as well encouragement of literature instead of extending invitation to drawing room coteries. The sessions were engaging with intense conversations. The strength of the audience varied but irrespective of the numbers they were focused, courteous and listening attentively. There was pin drop silence. The Kalakshetra venue was well suited for being centrally located and vast. The venues were far apart making it trifle inconvenient for having to walk large distances but a big plus point was it was possible to hear panelists without being disturbed by other parallel sessions.

Panel discussion on “Demystifying publishing”. The panelists were ( L-R) Ravi Singh, Co-founder and publisher, Speaking Tiger Books, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Bhaskar Dutta-Baruah, Publisher, and Preeti Gill, Literary Agent.

Sanjoy Hazarika’s panel discussion which included Francois Gautier.

Though the focus was on showcasing Assam and other north eastern states of India the programming was impressive. There were poets, writers, dramatists, activists, cinematographers, essayists, translators, performance poets, singers, actors, publishers from across India giving a rich insight into the vibrant diversity of Indian literature.  From the hyper-local to the broader literary landscapes were represented. For instance ranging from a session on the local poets whose ancestors migrated from Bengal so now speak a mix of Assamese and particular kind of Bengali which makes them a distinct community to sessions on conflict and literature showcasing incidents such as the incarceration of the Indian-Chinese community by the Indian government in the 1960s to more recent instances have been preserved in contemporary literature. There were panel discussions on publishing such as children’s literature and understanding the publishing process. A testament to the crackling literary milieu was the heated discussions that took place between Sanjoy Hazarika and Francois Gautier during their panel discussion “The word in public space”. Sanjoy Hazarika posted a note about it on Facebook.

Lit Mart introduced by Dr Rita Chowdhury, Director, National Book Trust. Panelists included Preeti Gill, Nabin Baruah, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Bhaskar Dutta-Baruah, Ravi Singh and Srutimala Duara.

A fascinating experiment called Lit Mart was also inaugurated and conceived by the director of NBT, Dr Rita Chowdhury. It consisted of a panel of Assamese and English publishers, literary agents and publishing professionals  who listened to manuscript ideas and synopsis. The authors ranged from school children to experienced writers, translators, professionals who were also engaged in writing and even ex-insurgents. And yes, some contracts — mostly Assamese but one English too– were offered by the time the session was over.

There was a festive air and the locals had come dressed as if it were a special occasion especially on Sunday. Even when the school expeditions were organised the students were well behaved and trooping into listen to the panelists. There was little fidgeting and definitely no mobile phones ringing or flashing.

NBT book mobile

Sure there were teething problems — co-ordination glitches, lack of golf carts/ vans to fetch and carry people as is done at the world book fair held annually at pragati maidan, the food court was at the far end instead of being midst of hustle-bustle and since the dinners held for delegates were not well lubricated the participation was thin as people made their own arrangements.  Having said that this litfest was organised by NBT within two weeks of the conclusion of the world book fair. Hence the effort put in to put together this show by the team was impressive. In fact the undercurrents were positive and indicate potential in subsequent editions if the literary festival is managed well. Already there were understanding touches to the organising such as parking an NBT bookmobile at the venue where an entire row was dedicated to literature translated in to Assamese, having an independent bookshop that sold titles of participating authors and publishers, and author signing sessions.  There is a strong local reading culture with a thriving literary tradition in the north east. There is no reason why this festival cannot succeed.

6 February 2017 

On “Dying” and “In Gratitude”

jenni-diski51hmou4betl-_sx311_bo1204203200_I’m writing a memoir, a form that in my mind plays hide-and-seek with the truth. It contains what I imagine and what I remember being told. Absolute veracity is what I am after. 

Jenni Diski In Gratitude 

Two women writers, Jenni Diski and Cory Taylor, are diagnosed with cancer and its inoperable. Trying to come to terms with the doctor’s grim prognosis is not easy. Suddenly time takes on a different meaning. Jenni Diski began a column for the London Review of Books once her cancer was diagnosed. It was a series a essays that were published reflecting on her life, her birth family, her writing, her school and most significantly her complicated relationship with the Nobel Prize winner, Doris Lessing, who took fifteen-year-old Jennifer Simmonds under her wing. The Australian writer Cory Taylor too spends a while in her memoir, Dying, remembering her mother and the choices she made. In both the memoirs what comes across clearly is that the two dying writers are reflecting upon their past but are also hugely influenced by and acknowledge the presence of the women who made the writers what they are. Jenni Diski had always nursed a desire to be a writer but had not been very focused about it till she met Doris Lessing and was introduced to her world of writers and other creative minds who always made interesting conversation and had ideas to offer. Cory Taylor discovered that her mother had had a dream to be a writer but never achieved it. She writes in Dying : “Writing, even if most of the time you are only doing it in your head, shapes the world, and makes it bearable. …I’m never happier than when I’m writing, or thinking about writing, or watching the world as a writer, and it has been this way from the start.” Three Australian writers including Benjamin Law wrote a beautiful obituary for Cory Taylor in the Guardian terming Dying as a “remarkable gift” for providing a vocabulary and invitation to speak about that “unmentionable thing”, a “monstrous silence” — death. ( 6 July 2016, http://bit.ly/2dPq0Mx ) These sentiments on writing and the gift of the memoir can probably be extended to Jenni Diski and In Gratitude too.

Apart from Jenni Diski’s and Cory Taylor’s preoccupation with writing and their evolution as writers what comes 41vdphgesjlthrough strongly in both memoirs is the tussle between secular and religious modes of coping with death and its rituals. Also how ill-prepared a secular upbringing makes an individual in understanding burial rites or managing one’s grief once a loved one departs. How does one mourn? The structures of religious rituals seem to take care of the moments of sorrow. There is much to do. Yet the challenge of speaking of death and the process of dying is not easy. Cory Taylor had even contemplated euthanasia and ultimately passed away in hospice care.

In Gratitude and Dying: A memoir put the spotlight on the magnificent leaps medicine and technology have made, in many cases it has prolonged life but with it is the baggage of ethics — whether it is possible to go through the agony of pain while dying a slow death or to end it all swiftly by assisted suicide or euthanasia. These are critical issues not necessarily the focus areas of both books although Cory Taylor confesses in having contemplated euthanasia. While reading the memoirs innumerable questions inevitably arise in a reader’s mind.

Some of the literature  published recently has been seminal in contributing to the growing awareness and need to discuss death increasingly in modern times when advancement in medical technology seems to prolong human suffering. Also in an increasingly polarised world between the secular and religious domains bring to the fore the disturbed confusion that reigns in every individual on how to deal with the dying, the finality of death, disposal of the mortal remains and the despair it leaves the distraught survivors in. Some links are:

  1. “Daughters of Australian scientists who took their own lives reflect on their parents’ plan” http://bit.ly/2dDfvc8 ( Jan 2016)
  2. Amitava Kumar’s essay “Pyre” published in Granta ( https://granta.com/pyre/ ) and recently republished in Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen.
  3. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal ( 2015)
  4. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air ( 2016)
  5. Aleksander Hemon’s moving essay on his infant daughter’s brain cancer ( “The Aquarium: A Child’s Isolating Illness” JUNE 13 & 20, 2011 ISSUE http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/06/13/the-aquarium )
  6. Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture  ( 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji5_MqicxSo )
  7. Andrew Solomon’s essay on his mother’s decision to opt for euthanasia ( “A  Death of One’s Own” 22 May 1995 http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1995/05/22/a-death-of-ones-own )

In Gratitude and Dying are strangely comforting while being thought provoking in raising uncomfortable questions about mortality, importance of time, maintenance of familial ties and doing that which pleases or gives the individual peace. Both the memoirs have a confident writing style as if by capturing memories in words the writers are involved a therapeutic process of facing their mortality while the urgency to their writing has an unmistakable strength to its tenor as if no one will have the time to dispute their published words.

Read these books.

Jenni Diski In Gratitude Bloomsbury, London, 2016. Pb. pp. 250 £12.99 

Cory Taylor Dying: A Memoir Canongate, London, 2016. Pb. pp. £12.99 

24 Oct 2016