Fiction Posts

Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski / Joseph Conrad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 November 2017 

Diwali 2017!

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

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

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

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

The Chocolate Book

Scholastic Book of Hindu Gods and Goddesses

Hungry to Read

Diwali Stories

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Rehearsing Freedom : The Story Of A Theatre In Palestine 

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

Of books tackling medical science

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Poorna Bell Chase the Rainbow Simon and Schuster India 

Kalpish Ratna The Secret Life of Zika Virus Speaking Tiger Books 

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

6 Oct 2017 , updated on 30 Oct 2017 

“How to Disappear” and “Project Semicolon”

Mental health issues at the best of times are rarely discussed. It continues to be a socially taboo subject despite it affecting millions of people across the world and of all ages. Despite it being an information rich world now where there are myriad ways of being able to communicate with people 24×7, loneliness and severe mental stress is on the rise. Recently I read a young adult novel How to Disappear and Project Semicolon: Your Story Isn’t Over published by Project Semicolon that consists of  testimonies by people affected by or have witnessed those suffering with mental health issues.

How to Disappear is about a shy and reserved young girl, Vecky Decker, who rarely meets or interacts with anyone, even with her classmates. The only person she is fond of is an old schoolfriend, Jenna, who has now moved to another city. The novel is about her discovering a new life through her virtual life by creating an Instagram account which belies her reality. She accrues more than 2 million followers. Yet ironically she continues to be a fairly lonely girl in real life. Later of course the plot morphs into a predictable sugary conclusion with Jenna becoming a local heroine for her good deed. She uses her vast social media network to find her lost friend, Jenna, whom she suspects is on her way to a cliff to kill herself.

Project Semicolon is an equally disconcerting book for the varied number of testimonies it has gathered. It not only gives an insight into the minds of people crumbling internally though outwardly all may seem well but it also helps in imparting a message of hope. For many of these accounts are by people who have survived a particularly rough patch in their lives either tackling their own mental health issues or of their loved ones.

Both the books are worth considering for a library where these can be shared widely. Mental health issues are not to be taken lightly and must be discussed frankly.

Sharon Huss Roat How to Disappear Harper Teen, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, NYC, 2017. Hb. pp. 380 

Project Semicolon: Your Story Isn’t Over Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers , NYC, 2017. Pb. pp. 

 

 

 

Luke Kennard “The Transition”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

28 Sept 2017 

 

Guest Post: Juggi Bhasin “Different roads, one destination”

 

Juggi Bhasin is a successful writer who ” living out fulfilling a lifelong ambition: to become a writer”.  Earlier this month he began serialising a graphic novel in the popular national daily, Times of India. Recognising this as a new and innovative experiement in creative storytelling I requested Juggi Bhasin to contribute a blog post on what it means to experiment in form, is there any difference to his storytelling etc. Here is his lovely note. Read on. 

Late at night when I climb into bed, I set the alarm to wake me up, sharp at seven, next morning. It is that time of the day when I get up to sip some green tea, chew a couple of almonds and review in The Times of India, my graphic novel and daily feature, ‘Agent Rana’.

It’s a good time for me to review not just the novel but my entire journey through various art forms to reach that one common goal. And that goal is undoubtedly the production and dissemination of creative content that gives pleasure to my readers and me.

Every writer in a sense has had a long journey whether in years or in the mind. My journey began as a TV journalist and in my mind’s eye I can still see myself as the only Indian TV journalist that went to North Korea to meet old man Kim, the father of the present infamous dictator running that unfortunate country. Or that morning of Dec 6th, 1992, when I stood at the Babri Masjid with my TV crew and watched and recorded the structure being razed to the ground. I wanted to write a book about those earth shaking experiences but I did not have the words or the syntax or even the drive then to express my thoughts and emotions. The only weapon I had then at my command was what is popularly called in journalese —a ‘good copy’ ability. Many journalists write good copy but it does not make them into great writers. I had a good eye though, an active imagination and a great visual sense.

In the years after the events of Babri Masjid, I worked on stage, in serials and a couple of films and developed my visual imagination and sharpened my emotional outreach. The words to match my visuals also came to me and became a part of my development. By 2012, I felt I was ready to strike out as a writer. The passion in me to write something was overbearing and I felt I had developed a syntax which in a sense was a very different life form from ‘good copy.’

It resulted in my first book The Terrorist which was a national bestseller. The unusual element in The Terrorist was not only its theme but its usage of highly, evocative, visual imagery almost as if the reader was looking at breathtaking visuals from an Akira Kurosawa war film. The combination of intense passion and a visualised style of writing became the key notes of my writing. Many found it unusual, far removed from the traditional ‘bookish’ qualities, whatever they might be, that they felt a book should have. But it were my real life dramatic experiences of news reporting in Kashmir, insurgency hit areas and forbidden lands helped me to sculpt an intense, visually enriching writing style. My visualised writing style compels me to open a window in the reader’s mind. It is the gateway to explore the imagination; which is a desired goal for any author. My successive three novels after the The Terrorist incorporate this style which now has become an article of faith for me.

TOI, 18 Sept 2017

So when I was asked to write a graphic novel for the Times of India, a commission no one has ever done before in this country, it struck me that it would flow all so naturally for me. I had to produce text that was economic in its choice of words and length. It would have to write a text which supported powerful visuals but was also evocative and stirring. This is what Agent Rana accomplishes day after day in the Times of India.

This brings me to my thesis that all art forms are interconnected to create a single, living organism that pulsates with life and passion. The end goal is to explore the human condition. I, believe, that there is no such thing as a purist style of writing. All creative output is the result of myriad experiences, both stylistic and cerebral. In December, this year, my fifth book, Fear is the Key which has a female protagonist, will be released by Penguin Random House. It is perhaps my most challenging work to date. It is a psychological thriller and tells the story of a man conflicted in his mind.

So, that then is the challenge for me. How do you show the conflicts of the mind as evocative imagery? Writing for different genres is like a seven course meal; each course releasing different flavours at the tip of your tongue. But it all leads to that simple but profound thought at the end of it. ‘I really enjoyed myself. It was a great meal.’

Different roads, one destination. There is really no contradiction in that!

© Juggi Bhasin

18 September 2017 

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 

Interview with Shikhandin

My interview with Shikhandin was published in Scroll on Sunday, 10 September 2017 as “‘The writer in me doesn’t have a gender, or is made up of all the genders’: Shikhandin“. 

Immoderate Men by Shikhandin is a remarkable collection of stories published by Speaking Tiger Books. These stories meander through the minds of men giving a perspective on daily life which would ordinarily be dismissed. For instance stories like  “Room Full of Presents”, “Salted Pinkies”, “Hijras on the Highway” and “Old Man Sitting on a South Kolkata Park Bench, Ruminating” if taken at face-value are regular stories with a mild twist. On the other hand these stories also dissect with finesse the preconceived notion of “What is masculinity?”  By delving into the mental makeup of the protagonists the author explores bewildering scenarios; thereby brilliantly subverting notions of patriarchical norms by blurring gender lines as often this confused state of mind is attributed to women and not men.

Here are edited excerpts of an interview with the author:

  1. How did these stories come about?

Mostly from the world around me, past and present. A couple are from dreams and visions. Some from newspaper articles, photographs, a conversation overheard, a person observed in a crowd, and so on. My stories usually come from life itself, whether dreamt or experienced or watched. “Room Full of Presents” came to me in a pre-dawn dream, all of it, more than a decade ago. I still remember waking from it, the sensations of the dream falling off me like water droplets as I sat up on my bed, trying to stay still, just feeling the story over me, around me. Dreams have their roots in reality, regardless of their form and shape. I was sure I had seen/met the characters somewhere, sometime. “Ahalya” came from a vision of a girl with cascading black hair running up a hill. I was half asleep, but I could see her clearly; the hill felt mysterious; this story crept up on me at first without any specific shape, smoky, yet tangible. Most of my stories run like little movies on a little screen before my eyes – that is my first sighting of the story. I write what I see and hear in that mental screen. This is how it has always been for me, even when I wrote press ads and ad films for a living, years ago.

  1. How long did it take to write these stories?

The stories in this collection, and others too, were written over a period of almost two decades. I love short stories (and novellas and novelettes), but everybody keeps saying there isn’t a market for them. So for many years I didn’t put together a manuscript of short stories, though I continued to submit and be published in journals, mostly abroad. The earliest story in this collection was written in 2002 and first published in an American Magazine the same year. Individual stories have their own pace. Some, like “Mail for Dadubhai,” was written in one sitting. Ditto for “Ducklings”, “The Vanishing Man” and “Black Prince”. They were edited/fine-tuned after what I call the resting/roosting period. In general, a single story may take me anything from one or two days to a week. I leave them alone after that for as long as it takes, before I revisit. Some may take longer, like “Salted Pinkies”. I was inhabiting the minds of young men, the kind who loiter in Calcutta’s cheap cafes. Even though I was confident of their language and mannerisms, I kept stopping to check, which was difficult because I no longer lived in Calcutta. At times I literally had to mentally transport myself to North Calcutta, walk the streets in my mind. Watching the boys and men all over again. The writing time, I would say, really depends on the story. There is a story that I have left incomplete for almost two decades, because I have imagined several alternative endings for it; one will rise up and push out the others I know. For me, it’s the story that dictates. I am merely the conduit.

  1. Are they pure figments of imagination or are borrowed heavily from life or inspired by events? (I ask because there is a tone to them that makes me feel as if there is a pinch of reality infused in the stories)

They are both and neither. Like dreams, our imaginings are also based on reality, grounded in the material world. Even a fantasy-scifi movie like Avatar, is at the end of the day, a story about thwarting colonial intrusion. If my stories are relatable, I have succeeded in writing a true one. By true I don’t mean factually correct or historically acceptable. Truth, as I see it, in fiction is about emotional sincerity, that kernel that makes you weep, laugh, sing or rage with or against the character or situation; the narrative that makes you walk through to the end, because it is probable, plausible, relatable, even when the world the story brings forth seems impossible or in the case of literary stories, unfamiliar and totally strange or even shocking. Having said all of the above, yes, there are stories that were inspired by something almost physical. Like “Ducklings” for instance, which is from a photograph I had seen in a newspaper. Avian flu was sweeping across Bengal and Orissa and also Bihar. It was around 2006 I think. There was this black and white photograph of a Bengali woman, weeping as she clutched ducklings, her pets, to her breast. The ducklings were looking innocently back at the camera/photographer. Having grown up with many animals and birds, and experienced the pain of loss, I am not ashamed to say that I wept for that woman, mourned her loss for days. And then I re-imagined her life.  “Old Man Sitting on a South Kolkata Park Bench, Ruminating” is inspired from an actual conversation, part of it, that I had heard while passing through a similar park in that city. A few old men were gossiping, about the young girls they had seen or knew, and their daughters-in-law. An incident in the story (kissing a baby boy in the crotch) was actually witnessed by me during my college days in the early eighties, and it is still practised. These traditional Bengali men didn’t/don’t think they were/are doing anything wrong. Saluting a baby boy like that is acceptable; displaying a boy baby is a matter of pride. I stitched that incident into my story. And I became an old man in my head when I wrote it.

  1. Curiously you chose to write about the world of men while inhabiting their minds. With this technique it is fascinating the multiple layers of reading it lends itself to. How did you train yourself to write in this manner?

For this I really must thank my rigorous advertising training. One of the exercises copywriting entailed was mentally switching places with the consumer. I discovered it works quite well for fiction when you are writing as someone else, seeing things from another’s perspective. My short experience with theatre also helps. That apart, since my childhood, I’ve had this tendency to feel things intensely- be inside the book I am reading or the music I am listening or the movie I am watching, the food I am cooking. Once my mother tore my drawing book into shreds because I hadn’t replied when she’d called me. I wasn’t ignoring her or being disrespectful, I actually hadn’t heard, but of course I wasn’t believed. Similar problems would crop up in school too. Be that as it may, it’s great fun becoming someone or something else even momentarily! Adventure and action, madness and mayhem all in the safety of your own mind. It helps that I am mostly by myself on any week day. I can laugh or cry without being seen as a lunatic! Right now, a part of my head is a dog, doing doggie things; two dogs actually in two totally different stories, so I had to apportion off my grey cells!

  1. Why use a nom de plume?

Actually in my case, it is not so much as a nom de plume, as acknowledging to myself and everyone, that the writer in me doesn’t have a gender or is made up of all the genders. I ought to have used Shikhandin right at the beginning, but felt shy about it; didn’t want to come across as pretentious. It’s hard enough replying “I write” when folks ask me what I do.

I could have picked up any other gender nonspecific name or initials. There are several versions to the Shikhandin narrative in the Mahabharata. The common thread running through all is that Shikhandin, who was princess Amba of Kashi, in a previous birth, through deep penance and austerities and after several rebirths and a Yaksha’s boon, became a male, Shikhandin, and succeeded in destroying the man (Bhishma) who was responsible for her humiliation and ruin in her first life. Whichever version you read, Shikhandin’s life is a fascinating story of grit, determination and resolve against all odds. For most people Shikhandin represents members of the LGBT community, or those who have rejected gender stereotypes. For me, Shikhandin represents a mind so strong that it can overcome physical boundaries and frailties. It doesn’t matter what you are born as, but who you can become.

I had heard about Shikhandin as a young child listening to tales from the epics. Later, while still in school, I read a bit. Shikhandin has been with me for decades. And because of Shikhandin I questioned male-female roles as dictated by society, and the kind of character and personality ascribed to each as acceptable. I wondered then, and still do, how gender specific are we in the purely intellectual or cerebral sense. How much of our gendered lives are in fact centuries of conditioning. I think it is nonsense that only women can understand women and likewise for men. Physical violence is not a male characteristic, just as daintiness is not a female thing. As a writer, I don’t want to belong to any specific place or slot. I don’t matter, the story does. At the time of writing, I should have the freedom to become whatever is necessary, whatever is required of me, for the story to unfurl as truly as it can.

  1. When did you gravitate from writing children’s stories to stories for adults?

It’s the other way round actually. I have been writing for adults ever since I can remember.  I wish I had started writing children’s stories earlier. That’s another regret, and hope I can make up for lost time now. I was afraid I wouldn’t be good enough. But the Children’s First Contest curated by Duckbill, Parag (an initiative of Tata Trust) and Vidya Sagar School has boosted my confidence . I enjoy reading children’s fiction a lot, even today, after my own children have grown up. And every time I have written a story or poem for children I’ve come away feeling so euphoric – the sheer joy of being a child is like an elixir. I enjoy listening to children’s patter too. Their sense of logic and observation astounds me. They also know more than many grownups about many things.

  1. Do you think there is any difference in your methodology while writing for children or adults?

Yes, certainly. There is a poem that I’d written and published several years ago, which I think can give you an idea about the kind of heart needed when writing for children:

WHAT THE CHILD DOES

When gossamer tufts come cascading down

From the silk-cotton tree’s bright scarlet crown

Who chases the tufts? Say who does?

The child does

When plump raven clouds thundering their refrain

Suddenly shed weight in vast feathers of rain

Who raises a fountain? Say who does?

The child does

When dew beads strung across blades of new grass

Glisten like rows and rows of glowing elfin glass

Who sees the rainbow? Say who does?

The child does

When within that pupa clinging to a tree

A butterfly softly struggles to be free

Who hears the cry? Say who does?

The child does

When deep down in winter’s icy waters

A timid sun’s shy white ray quivers

Who feels the arrow? Say who does?

The child does

Ah! Everywhere in this world, a new world unfolds

And unwraps and unfurls, expands and grows

Who stands in wonder, then? Say who does?

We do! We do! Yes. But first the child does!

  1. At times you hold yourself back from describing in greater detail the surroundings or situations. Why?

In short stories less is more – usually, because there are always exceptions to prove the rule! The best are those that without shouting, slip inside your head and start to niggle, urging you, the reader, to create possible endings and solutions, extend the surroundings or simply stay on with the story. I try to emulate that standard. I try.

Shikhandin Immoderate Men: Stories Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2017. Pb. pp. 190 Rs 299 

12 Sept 2017 

David Walliams’s “The World’s Worst Children 2”

My review-article of David Walliams’s The World’s Worst Children 2 was published in The Hindu Literary Review on 3 September 2017 titled “The boy who never did his homework“. I am c&p the text here as well: 

David Walliams’s The World’s Worst Children 2 is a fabulous collection of short stories about 10 obnoxious little brats. There is Cruel Clarissa, Harry who never ever did his homework, Competitive Colin, Trish the Troll, Spoiled Brad, Gruesome Griselda and others. The scrumptious book has been “illustratred in glorious colour” by Tony Ross. (The very Tony Ross, who, statistics show, is the most borrowed illustrator from U.K. libraries. In 2016, his books were borrowed more than 1 million times.) Walliams and Ross have been collaborating on books for children and young adults for quite a few years now.

Walliams is often considered to be the modern Roald Dahl. Incidentally, Walliams’s first book for children was illustrated by Quentin Blake, who is known for his illustrations of Roald Dahl’s books. Along with Ross, Walliams insists there be a picture on every page. The two books of the TheWorld’s Worst Children is sumptuously produced, with embossed lettering on the cover, gilt foil worked in to the design, and four-colour illustrations with a fascinating play of fonts throughout the text. Every page has the illustration carefully

placed in such a manner that it perfectly complements the text.

Climb a mountain

It works beautifully for young readers as well as for readers who require assisted learning. “It’s about hooking them in and not making reading seem like a chore,” Walliams says. “I think reading is important because not only do you miss out on great literature if you don’t do it, but also you miss out on finding out about new ideas and the opportunity to use your own imagination.”

Walliams is otherwise famous as a stand-up comedian. His comic talent has found its way into writing. His stories are often about children of the kind we encounter everyday — ordinary, privileged, gentle, horrendous. Without being patronising, but with humour, he writes about the world as the child sees it — a stark place, in black and white.

Even his caricatures make one chuckle with delight for they hold up a mirror to the child’s world, serving the dual purpose of telling a story while delivering a message. He compares the process of writing his manuscripts to that of climbing up a mountain. He perseveres despite the effort because, “I really like the simplicity of children’s literature. It’s a challenge because often you’ve got quite complex ideas you’ve got to put into very simple terms.”

Spoilt brats

This is apparent in his novels. For instance, in Billionaire Boya rich spoilt kid is also very lonely for he lacks a friend; Midnight Gang is about patients in a children’s hospital whose parents never visit them and who are left at the mercy of a harsh and unsympathetic matron; Mr Stink narrates the unlikely friendship between a lonely girl Chloe and the local stinky tramp Mr Stink, the only person who’s ever been nice to her. Gangsta Granny and Grandpa’s Great Escape are about grandparents and help create concern among children for the ailments and idiosyncrasies of old age. Controversy tails successful writers: some years ago, Anthony Horowitz had accused Walliams of creating “dumbed down books” for children.

But the criticism does not seem to be fair. Walliams’s stories are empathetic towards children: he has the knack of capturing the authoritarian and at times unreasonable voice of the adult. Hope exists in the form of a good soul lurking nearby, usually an adult who too has been marginalised by society.

To know what happens to the world’s worst children, read the book. A treat awaits!

David Walliams The World’s Worst Children 2 HarperCollins Children’s Books, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 300 

3 September 2017 

Interview: Kamila Shamsie on her Bold and Heart-Breaking New Novel, “Home Fire”

My interview with Man Booker Prize 2017 longlisted writer Kamila Shamsie has been published in Bookwitty on 29 August 2017. Here is

Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel Home Fire was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017 within days of its release. Home Fire explores the complicated relationship Isma has with her younger twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz. It is also a modern retelling of Antigone in which Isma, whose mother has died, works hard to raise her brother and sister. When they reach adulthood, Isma leaves for the US to study at university while her brother, Parvaiz, who has unfortunately become radicalised in Britain, leaves to join ISIS, following in the footsteps of their jihadist father. Aneeka, meanwhile, is torn between her love for her older sister and her twin. The idea of two sisters where one is conventional, bordering on timid but keeps the home fire burning while the other leaves home and enters the world of men with far reaching consequences has been encapsulated in myths and legends. There is Antigone and her sister Ismene from the Greek myth, and Mary and Martha in the New Testament. The Sophoclean chorus giving a background and a perspective on the “tricky” position British Muslims occupy is provided by the character of a Muslim MP and Home Secretary, Karamat Lone, and his son, Eamonn.

Following, are excerpts of an interview with Kamila Shamsie.

….

John McCormack’s song, Keep the home fires burning, was hugely popular during World War I, why did you choose as the title Home Fire and not Home Fires for your book?

Fire, not Fires, simply because there was both a TV series and another novel already out there with the name Home Fires. But actually, once I’d decided on ‘Fire’ I realized I preferred it because it moved away from the WWI song, and I didn’t want people assuming it was a First World War novel.

The title plays on the two meanings of Home Fire: it can mean welcome and warmth, as in ‘keep the home fires burning’ or it can mean a house on fire. I wanted both those meanings in there since this is a novel that has within it both intimacy/love and conflagration.

To read the full interview please visit Bookwitty.

30 August 2017