Essay Posts

Ruskin Bond “A Time for All Things: Collected Essays and Sketches”

Ruskin Bond’s latest book — A Time For All Things is a collection of his essays and sketches or he would prefer to refer to them as “short prose pieces”.  It is the perfect bedtime reading book. Short, pleasantly written essays, in gentle English, evocative of a period gone by without being wistful. I do not know how to put it except to say that within each essay ( that I have read so far) I find in it resides a wonderful mix of happiness and pure joy. Such a peaceful, meditative quality to the essays that they are the perfect end to a hectic and busy day. I love the manner in which the essays are wonderful reminders of how we must pause and appreciate the beauty around us. Of course not all of us are as fortunate as Mr Bond is to live up in the mountains but even so we can pause and appreciate. I love the way he merges the sacred and the secular without underlining faith crudely as has become fashionable today. It is such a pleasure to experience. Many of these pieces will be familiar as having been anthologised in other collections for young and old, but it does not matter since it is a pleasure to have them gathered in one place.

Here are a few extracts to illustrate:

…the other day, taking a narrow path that left the dry Mussorie ridge to link up with Pari Tibba ( Fairy Hill), I ran across a path of lush green grass, and I knew there had to be water there.

The grass was soft and springy, spotted with the crimson of small, wild strawberries. Delicate maidenhair, my favourite fern, grew from a cluster of moist, glistening rocks. Moving the ferns a little, I discovered the spring, a freshlet of clear sparkling water.

I never cease to wonder at the tenacity of water — its ability to make its way through various strata of rock, zigzagging, back tracking, finding space, cunningly discovering faults and fissures in the mountain, and sometimes travelling underground for great distances before emerging into the open. Of course, there’s no stopping water. for no matter how tiny that little trickle, it has to go somewhere!

“A Marriage of the Waters”

****

In May and June, when the hills were brown and dry, it was always cool and green near the stream, where ferns and maidenhair and long grasses continued to thrive. Downstream I found a small pool where I could bathe, and a cave with water dripping from the roof, the water spangled gold and silver in the shafts of sunlight that pushed through the slits in the cave roof. ‘He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside still waters.’ Perhaps David had discovered a similar paradise when he wrote those words; perhaps I too would write good words. The hill station’s summer visitors had not discovered this haven of wild and green things, I was beginning to feel that the place belonged to me, that dominion was mine.

“A Time for All Things”

****

When I was a boy I would occasionally visit Hardwar, sometimes in the company of my lost friend Kishen. In my first novel, The Room on the Roof, I have described how we crossed the Ganga in a small boat accompanied by a number of pilgrims, all chanting ‘Ganga-mai ki jai!’ It was a moving experience, both in my story and in reality. And whenever I visited Hardwar, I would sing out ‘Ganga-mai ki jai’ with whoever was with me.

I am not a religious person, but I have always been moved by the devotion of others. Every evening, after Beena ( my grand-daughter) has done her pooja, she brings me prasad, and I accept it humbly and gratefully because it is the symbol of her goodness and devotion. to light a candle is better than to curse the darkness.

And so here I am, in my eighties, trying to gather my thoughts and to see if I have any great thoughts. But none come to me. You must do your own thinking, dear reader.

“Thoughts on Passing Eighty”

( These extracts have been published with permission from Speaking Tiger)

Buy the book. Treasure it. Share it. You will not regret it.

Ruskin Bond A Time for All Things: Collected Essays and Sketches Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2018. Pb. pp. 400. Rs. 499

26 March 2018

“The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation” by Ravish Kumar

The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation by renowned journalist Ravish Kumar is a collection of his essays on the state of the nation and he stresses the importance of how citizens of a functioning democracy must use every space available to them to speak out. Otherwise the new normal is that “the socialization of fear is complete. To be afraid is to be civilised in this new democracy”. Every single essay deserves to be read over and over again but there is a particularly chilling one which he wrote called “Wherever a Mob Gathers Is Hitler’s Germany” drawing parallels between the propoganda by right wing fundamentalists in Nazi Germany and conservative politicians of today, many of whom have a history of being responsibile for pogroms. “Any other narrative was allowed no existence at all. People were steadily moulded by the propoganda and they did not realize they had been transformed into a weapon. Propaganda has only one purpose — the construction of a mob. It is the mob which carries out the killings and blood splatters the clothes of those who make  up the mob. the government and the leaders all appear blameless. No one questions the role of propaganda in bringing mobs together.”

These essays have been translated from Hindi by Chitra Padmanabhan, Anurag Basnet and Ravi Singh. These essays are going to be discussed for a long time to come. Ideally the book should be released with the audio version of these essays being narrated in Hindi by Ravish Kumar. Or release the audio clips online.

The following is an extract from “Being the People” being published here with permission. It is an essay that encourages people to be active citizens of a democracy if they wish to protect their rights. “It is time to stop looking for all sorts of excuses for our ‘lack of strength’, or powerlessness, and face teh reality that this enfeeblement of citizens has come about because we have abandoned dissent and turned to supplication.”

*****

Now once again there is a move to drag history-writing back to the chronicles of kings and queens. It is reckless myth-making, fuelled by the idea of retribution—the ‘faithful’, the ‘true Hindus’, will avenge the deeds, real and imagined, of those who are no longer in our midst. The idea of vengeance persists even though those who exist in the present have nothing to do with that history and are not responsible for any of it.

Through these narratives of the new national curriculum, young hearts are being filled with the flames of hatred; they are being transformed into human bombs walking in our midst. Communalism turns human beings into bombs—we will see this change not just in our neighbour’s child but also in our own. When a youth filled with pure hatred chances upon an ordinary quarrel between two individuals who happen to be from different faiths, he can only see the incident with a communal eye and explode, human bomb that he is. He becomes a participant in the act of killing; part of the crowd that kills a Pehlu Khan or Muhammad Akhlaq or Junaid Khan, knowing he will never be punished by the powers that be. This is the kind of human bomb we have in our midst today. We are no longer a weak-hearted people; now that 1,200 years of slavery and sixty years of sickularism and bad governance are behind us, we have produced our own Jihadi John, who hacks and burns a man to death and releases the video on the internet.

As these human bombs increase in numbers in any society or nation, it is not the state that stands to lose but all of us—our status and power as citizens will correspondingly shrink. When we watch television images of a person beaten to pulp by a crowd—he may be of any religion—the moment at which the victim is overpowered by the crowd leaves us shaken and afraid even though we are watching the news in the safety of our home. We are wary of sharing our feelings on Facebook and hesitate to step out of the house at certain times. We feel intimidated and our civil rights as citizens get eroded.

Our minds are being filled with hatred not only for the sole purpose of perpetuating the hold of a particular party or ideology on power but to ensure the complete decimation of the power that comes with being the citizens of a democracy. I earnestly urge you to keep your child safe from the ill-effects of the new national curriculum on social media and prime-time television, and keep yourself out of its reach as well. The national curriculum is virulent in its theme, and unrelenting. It has a predictable pattern—wherever there is an election, it makes its presence felt. All of us need to have the self-confidence that is part of the consciousness of being the people of a strong civilization, a rich and diverse culture. Just as justice and injustice are part of our present, so it was in the past. We need to learn to deal with it. We should know how to negotiate history. But these debates are pushing us to the farthest extremes; consequently, we are moving inexorably towards communalization—an ever-widening gulf of mistrust with regard to a particular community.

In schools all over Germany, children are educated on how to deal with the blot on their past because of Hitler and his Nazi regime, one of the most evil in all history. This is a stigma that cannot be removed either by tearing out or burning those pages of history, or by running away and hiding from it. I once asked a German journalist if they were overcome by a sense of guilt.

Mentioning that politicians in my country didn’t think twice about casually branding anybody as Hitler, I asked her if that were so in Germany as well. She replied, ‘We are very careful about how we bring Hitler’s name into any debate; only an individual who loses the ability to offer a reasoned and human argument is thought to possess a Hitlerian streak.’

She recalled that around the time the film Schindler’s List, set in Nazi Germany, was released, their teacher spoke to them. This is what the teacher said: ‘The film dwells on the darkest chapter in the history of our nation. Yes, it did happen, but we are not to blame—neither your father nor mine. We ought to be ashamed of this dark chapter of our history and we are, but when we watch the film we shall not be wracked by guilt or anger. Rather, we shall experience a sense of self-confidence that we are no longer trapped in that time; we have come a long way from that juncture and are living in a new age.’

We in India have not educated our citizens on ways to negotiate history. On the contrary, the narrative that is being created as a ‘tradition’, especially through our television channels, is one of inhumanity. Perhaps many will dismiss these words of caution, calling me alarmist. But there will come a time when we will recall these words in distress—if not for ourselves, then for our children, for no one among us wants to see our child pick up a sword to kill a neighbour. Our child may well be saved by the party he owes allegiance to, but we will not get a moment’s sleep knowing that our child is a murderer.

When Pehlu Khan was lynched in Alwar, there was little reaction on the part of society and none from the government. When Junaid Khan was killed on a crowded railway platform, no one came to his aid, and later there were no witnesses, everyone claimed to have been somewhere else, or busy with something so consuming that the cries of a man being butchered and his brothers did not reach them. Examine the damage that was done: two men died, in terror and unimaginable pain. If that does not matter to us, do we think of those who killed and will not be punished? How many were they? Eight? Ten? Twenty? We don’t know, we make no effort to know. Those men, they must have gone home after they killed. What food did they eat that evening? Who cooked it for them? How many greeted them in their mohallas the next morning? There are eight, ten, twenty murderers roaming freely in our society. In another year there may be eight hundred, or twenty thousand. Murder will be normal then. It will be like any other job—like weaving a beautiful carpet or sari, driving a car, tending a garden, writing software or nursing the sick. Killers will emerge among us, kill and come back home after a day’s work. They might be our children, our siblings, our husbands or wives. Have we agreed to this? When we cast our vote, was this the world we chose?

Let us not turn away from what is happening. The future is grim. Due to the ongoing poisonous Hindu-Muslim discourse, human bombs are being prepared in large numbers, out of hatred among the Hindus and out of sheer fear among the Muslims. Our society is poised to reach its nadir. In places with dense populations, communalism will incubate more human bombs.

Ravish Kumar The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2018. Hb. pp. 180 Rs.499

11 March 2018 

Romila Thapar “Indian Cultures as Heritage: Contemporary Pasts”

Renowned historian Romila Thapar has recently published an extremely relevant Indian Cultures as Heritage: Contemporary Pasts.  Her premise is how the centuries texts and monuments are mostly historical records of elite cultures that “received larger patronage and symbolized the patterns of life of dominant groups”. These over time were conveyed and became readily available symbols of heritage as opposed to the objects of the socially lower groups “whose less durable cultural manifestations often do not survive. This also predisposed people to associate culture as essentially that of the elite”.

According to her most early societies register inequalities. All men and women may be said to be equal in the eyes of God but they may at the same time be differentiated in the eyes of men and women. She argues that societies are not static and change their forms and rules of functioning. Cultures are a reflection of these social patterns, so they also change. Culture is constructed, determined, and preserved by institutions and social codes.  It is within this framework she spends a chapter discussing how perceptions of women in Indian society and the role of caste in providing contexts to determining attitudes to Indian culture. Ultimately there is a process of socialisation which makes these codes of conduct acceptable and then are more or less cast in stone, being passed on as tradition. She examines how “the single category of ‘women’ is no longer viable, since women, like men, perform a variety of social functions. These conform to the section of society they belong, detemining much of their activity and their articulation, both of which are now seen as a crucial aspect of the larger pattern of living”. Prof. Thapar makes a fascinating case for how the “history of what was often described as ‘women in ancient India’, was a reiteration of what was said about the role of women in society, in the Dharmashastras. These were heavily male-oriented and not much attention was given to women other than unnerlining their subservience to men.” Whereas she argues that the position of women in society which was usually defined by rules of caste and patriarchy, in part revolving around their sexuality, would at times be subverted. This was particularly noticeable in their modes of  renouncing the world as documented by non-Brahmanical and secular literature.

These outstanding essays discuss history as heritage and the “Indian culture” that we extrapolate from this inheritance. This need to understand and discuss culture is from how the study of the past has changed in the few decades particularly with the upsurgence of nationalism as evident in its desire to focus on charting history through objects.  Listen to this talk where she clearly states that true nationalism is inclusive of all traditions and does not occur at the cost of one or the other religion. She recorded this a year before this book was released — “Our Shared Cultural Heritage”History as Heritage”  ( Anhad India, 26 Feb 2017).  As she says in this interview to journalist Manjula Narayan “The secularization of society is essential to ensure the existence of democracy. The need for the secular is not just to enable us to say that we are not a theocratic state, but is essential to the functioning of democracy. Democratic systems cannot exist where there are predetermined religious majority and minority groups that are treated as fundamental to the functioning of democratic institutions, such as in elections to the Lok Sabha. We have been combining religion and politics by observing laws that claim religious sanctity as the basis of civil laws. This is an impediment in a multi-religious society.” ( Hindustan Times, 9 March 2018)

Read and share this book widely. It is imperative to do so in these times.

Romila Thapar Indian Cultures As  Heritage: Contemporary Pasts Aleph Book Company, Delhi, 2018. Hb. pp. 222 Rs 599 

11 March 2018 

 

 

On readership by Philip Pullman

Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman is a selection of his essays and speeches delivered during the course of his career. There is a lot of wisdom buried amongst these pages. A book to dip into and think about. For instance the following extract is from his essay “Intention” discussing the author’s intention on when he embarks upon writing a book. A question he says that is usually reserved for authors at literary festivals where the audiences need to be entertained. He illustrates the problematic nature of such a question by extending the argument to that of labelling books with an age figure.

The final aspect of ‘intention’ I shall look at here is to do with audience. ‘What age of reader is this book written for?’ is a question that different authors feel differently about. Some are quite happy to say, ‘It’s for sixth and seventh graders’, or, ‘It’s for thirteen and upwards.’ Others are decidedly not. In 2008 most publishers of children’s books in teh UK announced that in an attempt to increase sales they were going to put an age-figure on the cover of every book, of the form 5+, 7+, 9+, and so on, to help adult purchasers in non-specialist bookstores decide whether a particular book would make a suitable present for a particular child. They met a passionate and determined resistance from many authors, who felt that their efforts to write books that would welcome readers of a wide age-range were being undermined by their own publishers, and that the age-figure would actively discourage many children from reading books they might otherwise enjoy. The argument continues, but again it shows the problematic nature of ‘intention’. Does age-guidance of any sort imply that the book is intended for a particular kind of a reader? My own view is that the only appropriate verb to use is, again, hope rather than intend. We have no right to expect any audience at all; the idea of sorting our readers out before they’ve seen the first sentence to me presumptious in the extreme. 

I too have my reservations about this given that this principle is increasingly being turned on its head by bracketing the child’s reading to what is deemed as “age appropriate” rather than allowing them a free run of book collections whether at the school library or at bookshops/ bookfairs. Off late this basic principle is being turned on its head by adults discouraging children to pick up a book that has been labelled in this manner as not being age appropriate. Horrific turn of events given that this was not the intention at all. Age-guidance numbers were merely that — guiding principles. These numbers are not meant to bracket the child’s reading and thereby curtail their enthusiasm in reading. Children ( like adults) test themselves constantly and evolve in their reading habits by flitting between easy and challenging books. Whereas emprical evidence as collected in the bi-annual Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Reports ( KFRR) show that if children are allowed to pick up books for themselves there are greater chances of them becoming lifelong readers. ( These reports have been published across continents including India after conducting surveys in various cities, tier 2, and tier 3 towns too.) So it is not a good idea to prevent children from accessing books. If they do not understand something they will ask or drop it and return to the book later. But don’t straitjacket their reading in this manner.  Philip Pullman is absolutely correct in expressing his reservations about the intention of publishers on printing age-guidance numbers on the back cover of children’s literature.

Philip Pullman Daemon Voices ( ed. Simon Mason) David Fickling Books, Oxford, 2017. Hb. pp. £20

27 February 2018 

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.

1984’s violence and revisiting of the past coincided with a maturation of the Indian publishing industry. In that year, Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon set up the first independent women’s publishing firm in India (and indeed, in all of Asia), Kali for Women. They looked at a range of literature from fiction to non-fiction, including reportage and oral histories. Kali for Women, and its founders’ subsequent projects, Zubaan Books and Women Unlimited, have published many women writers in original English and in translation, such as the brilliant short story and spec-fic writer Manjula Padmanabhan (Three Virgins, 2013) food and nature writer-cum-illustrator and delightful storyteller, Bulbul Sharma (Eating Women, Telling Tales, 2009), environmentalist Vandana Shiva (Staying Alive, 1998), and numerous other writers, historians and freedom fighters.

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Vandana Shiva at the 2009 Save the World Awards

Along with independent publishers, little magazines were on the rise, while multinational publishers like HarperCollins and Penguin also began establishing offices in India. Meanwhile, a growing recognition that the work of women writers had sales potential meant more opportunities for them to be published. In 1992, Oxford University Press (OUP) India published an unprecedented memoir by a Tamil Dalit Catholic nun, Bama, who had left the order and returned home. Karukku proved to be a bestseller, and has remained in print. At this time OUP India also published the seminal volumes on Women Writing in India: Volume 1: 600 B.C. to the Early Twentieth Century(1991) and Volume 2: The Twentieth Century (1993), a collection of hundreds of texts representing the rich variety of regions and languages in India.

Indian women’s writing hit a new high when Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for her 1997 debut novel, The God of Small Thingsexploring forbidden love in Kerala. (Roy’s second novel, 2017’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, addresses some of the most devastating events in India’s modern history. It has enjoyed a global release with enviable media hype, further demonstrating the remarkable progress in how women’s writing is received by critics and the public).

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Arundhati Roy in 2012

Soon, an increasing body of women writers representative of groups that have been marginalised on the basis of sexuality, language, caste, and religion began to be published. These included Urmila Pawar(The Weave of My Life, 2009), and Tamil Muslim poet Salma whose memoir The Hour Past Midnight (2009) was made into a documentary (Salma) and screened at the Sundance festival. Once housemaid Baby Haldar’s memoir, published in English 2006 as A Life Less Ordinarybecame an international bestseller, many more memoirs and biographies began to be published—including those of novelist and entrepreneur Prabha Khaitan, academic and activist Vina Mazumdar, actress and singer Kana Devi, trans activist A. Revathy, and activist and actress Shaukat Kaifi.

Such robust publishing by and for women has ensured that the contemporary generation of writers is far more confident of their voices, experimenting with form as they explore a range of issues.

In particular, these writers are exploring and interrogating the concept of the strong woman. Most of these stories depict an ordinary woman negotiating her daily space, thus defining herself and by extension living her feminism, whether she chooses to acknowledge it or not. Just a few of the modern writers who are contributing to this conversation in English are: Namita Gokhale (Things to Leave Behind, 2016), (Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni (Palace of Illusions, 2008), Balli Kaur Jaswal (Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, 2017), Scaachi Koul (The One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, 2017), and Ratika Kapur (The Private Life of Mrs Sharma, 2015).

Adding to this conversation, there are many relevant writers now becoming available in translation, including Malika Amar Shaikh (I Want to Destroy Myself, 2016—more on this memoir below), and Nabaneeta Dev Sen (Sheet Sahasik Hemantolok: Defying Winter, 2013).

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Nabaneeta Dev Sen in 2013

A number of women writers are addressing family and domestic issues with humor, notably Manju Kapur with Home (2006), her Jane Austen-like novel about family dynamics; Andaleeb Wajid with My Brother’s Wedding (2013), a gorgeous novel about the shenanigans of organising a Muslim wedding; celebrity Twinkle Khanna with Mrs Funnybones (2015), based on her delightful newspaper column; and Veena Venugopal with a powerful collection about The Mother-in-Law: The Other Woman in your Marriage (2014).

Meanwhile, other authors have been exploring the theme of the strong woman in harrowing—though by no means unusual—circumstances. Samhita Arni retells the Mahabharata war saga from a woman’s point of view in Sita’s Ramayana (2011). K R Meera’s multi-layered novel Hangwoman (published in English in 2014) is about a woman executioner who inherited the job from her father. Meena Kandaswamy’s autobiographical novel When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (2017) reveals devastating and isolating violence in a marriage. In the same vein, Malika Amar Shaikh’s aforementioned I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir explores the horror of living with a man who in his public life spoke out for the rights of the oppressed, but showed none of this humanity at home.

Building on the tradition of more than a century, today there is a long list of women writers in the Indian sub-continent who are feisty, nuanced in their writing and yet universal in many of the issues they share. They are fully engaged with themes such as independence, domesticity, domestic violence, professional commitments, motherhood, parenting, sexual harassment, politics, and identity. This is undoubtedly a vibrant space of publishing, and this article has just about explored tip of the proverbial iceberg.

For more recommendations, please explore the Related Books carousel below. And as always, please join the conversation: use the comments section to add any further books to the list.

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