Fiction Posts

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 

Interview with Katy Derbyshire

I interviewed the fantastic translator Katy Derbyshire on her work for Bookwitty. The interview “Loving German Books” was published on Monday, 28 August 2017. Here is a snippet of the interview:

Katy Derbyshire comes from London and has lived in Berlin for more than twenty years. She translates contemporary German fiction. She was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017 for her translation of Clemens Meyer’s Bricks and Mortar. She has translated 23 books of fiction so far, by writers such as Inka Parei, Helene Hegemann, Christa Wolf, Simon Urban, and Annett Gröschner. She usually manages two or three books in a year, depending on the length. She also maintains an informative blog that focuses on “biased and unprofessional reports on German books, translation issues and life in Berlin”.

Are translations “ageless” or, to use Haruki Murakami’s phrase, do they need to be “rewashed” depending on the time they are published?

I think books that stand the test of time usually benefit from new translations. As a craft, literary translation passes through fashions but we’ve also got better at it as new resources have become available to us. It’s far easier for us to research on the word level now, and we can communicate readily with our writers. Scholars have teased out meanings that might have been missed previously. Editors are no longer as brutal with translations as they were in the 1950s and 60s, either, when whole passages were cut. So new translations often sparkle in a way earlier ones didn’t, yes, to pick up on the washing metaphor.

For more please visit the link on Bookwitty.

28 August 2017 

Amitava Kumar’s “The Lovers”

My review of Amitava Kumar’s The Lovers was published in OPEN Magazine on 25 August 2017. Here is the original url titled “A Passage to America” . I am also c&p the text below. 

An immigrant finds his place of mind—like the author himself

The Lovers | Amitava Kumar | Aleph | 255 Pages | Rs 599

AMITAVA KUMAR’S The Lovers is about Kailash, born in Ara, Bihar, who moved to the US in 1990. At college he met his mentor Ehsaan Ali when Kailash enrolled in his ‘Colonial Encounters’ class. To earn a few extra dollars, Kailash worked in a university bookshop. Some of the women he met on campus became good friends, some his lovers. With every woman— Jennifer, Nina, Laura, Maya and Cai Yan—he learned a little more about himself as a man, a lover, a student, a reader and of his culture, whichever one it may be at a given moment. The Lovers works at multiple levels. Superficially the novel explores different shades of love— puppy love, sexual love and marital. At another level it is the platonic and nurturing love between teacher (Ehsaan Ali) and student (Kailash) that is the bedrock of the novel. Ever so slowly and gently, the promising student Kailash blossoms as a teaching assistant and later, writer. ‘The main questions now were about the fiction of the past, the idea I had of myself as a person, and what it meant for me to become a writer.’ The narrator relies heavily upon memory to plot his journey and define his identity—tough since ‘he had become a translated man, no longer able to connect completely with his past.’

The Lovers is an autobiographical novel documenting the trajectory of Kailash aka Kalashnikov or AK47 or AK from the burning plains of India to an intellectual in America, a path very similar to that of the author himself. Kailash may not be Stephen Dedalus but he certainly grows in confidence, wherein his tastes in literature are concerned. It is evident in the structure of the novel. Over the years, from being an Indian student unsure about the literary canon he grew up with, Kailash becomes familiar with examples of international literature such as Gramsci, Tagore, Wittgenstein, Hanif Kureishi, Luis Borges, Agnes Smedley, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Judith Butler, Virginia Woolf, Nazım Hikmet et al. Slowly he incorporates desi writers such as Ismat Chughtai too. He realises that the India he left in the 1990s has changed to become a new India which is disconcertingly unrecognisable and is now part of the global village.

The immigrant novel is in a category of literary fiction which straddles two cultures—the author’s land of birth and adopted country. In The Lovers, despite having had the privilege of getting an American citizenship, Kailash continues to feel lost in his adopted country. ‘My father had grown up in a hut. I knew in my heart that I was closer to a family of peasants than I was to a couple of intellectuals sitting in a restaurant in New York.’ He tries to fit in, but falters at times. Even world literature that exposes him to various cultures fails to help, and leaves him yearning for the holy grail of the ‘hybrid culture that groups of people scattered across the world, removed from their roots, have created in response to alienation and a kind of collective loneliness?’ This is unlike his adventurous friend Pushkin Krishnagrahi, a Brahmin from Gwalior, a member of the new India who was now at home anywhere in the world.

It is significant that The Lovers has been released in the 70th year of Independence for India and Pakistan. As with two lovers, there is an intensely passionate relationship between the two countries which has historically been hostile. In the novel the two countries are represented by its citizens —Ehsan Ali (Pakistan) and Kailash (India) who away from their countries do not harbour any ill feelings towards each other and live in harmony. Ehsan Ali is probably modelled upon the intellectual Eqbal Ahmed, a prominent anti-war activist.

The Lovers is extraordinary craftsmanship, charting the blossoming of a timid new immigrant into a confident writer.

25 August 2017

Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories

Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories by P. L. Travers is defined as “autobiographical notes” in her the book blurb. It may be so but are absolutely delightful vignettes of childhood spent in Australia in the early twentieth century. These three stories were written probably as gifts to be shared at Christmas time, printed privately, and are about people — fiesty Aunt Sass or Christina Saraset her great-aunt, loyal and ever resourceful Ah Wong their Chinese cook and colourful Johnny Delaney a farm hand — all of whom had a lifetime influence upon the writer. P. L. Travers is better known as the author of the Mary Poppins stories. Of her great-aunt Travers writes:

…with her died something that the world will not gladly lose, something strong and faithful and tender. A human being that had cast off its rough outer skin to stand forth at last in beauty. A mind that was proud and incorruptible and a heart compact of love. 

When I heard of it, I thought to myself, ‘Someday, inspite of her, I shall commit the “disrespectful vulgarity” of putting Aunt Sass in a book.’

And then it occured to me that this had already been done, though unconsciously and without intent. We write more than we know we are writing. We do not guess at the roots that made our fruit. I suddenly realised that there is a book through which Aunt Sass, stern and tender, secret and proud, anonymous and loving, stalks with her silent feet. 

You will find her occasionally in the pages of Mary Poppins

In her introduction to the book Victoria Coren Mitchell says:

These stories should be a delight for any reader, but particularly magical for fans of P.L. Travers’ great masterpiece, the Mary Poppins stories. Many of the preoccupations of those wonderful novels appear in these pages: merry-go-rounds, gorgon nurses, small dogs, smart hats, suns and moons and comets and constellations. 

The spirit is there too, and many of the ideas: predominantly, that children know darkness. P.L. Travers disliked the Disney version of Mary Poppins because she found it too cartoonish and sunny. Her own books made room for the fear and sadness of children, their natural and tragic awareness of impermanence. As she says here, in the story of Johnny Delaney: ‘Children have strong and deep emotions but not mechanism to deal with them.’ 

Written in the 1940s but a pleasure to read now seven decades later. Worth getting!

P. L. Travers  Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories Virago Modern Classics, London, 1941, rpt 2014. Hb. pp. Rs 599 

16 August 2017 

India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today

I wrote a long essay on India’s women writers from the early 20th century to today for Bookwitty. Here is an extract from the essay:  

India has a tradition of fine women writers, and some of the earliest established names among them were also pioneers in fields beyond literature. Roekya Sakhawat Hossein (1880-1932) was a leading Bengali feminist in at the turn of the 20th century. Her sci-fi utopian novella, Sultana’s Dream (1905), was decades before her time and is a delight to read even now. Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954) was both the first woman to read law at Oxford, and the first Indian national to study at a British university. During her career as the first female lawyer in India, she advocated for women in purdah and children. She wrote a dozen books including her memoirs, India Calling (1934). Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) known as the “Nightingale of India,” was not only a poet, but also the first female governor of an Indian state, and the first woman president of the Indian National Congress. Her debut collection of poetry, The Golden Threshold, was published in 1905.

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Sarojini Naidu with Mahatma Gandhi

at the 1942 All India Congress Committee Session

Despite our strong tradition of women writers in the early 20th century, to my mind it was the 1974 publication of the “Towards Equality” Status of Women in India Report that marked a watershed moment for women’s movements, and in turn, women’s literature. Though Indira Gandhi, the first woman prime minister, had been in power for years, it was the Report that gave more women a voice and an opportunity to express themselves.

Another literary turning point came in 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and thousands of Sikhs were massacred in retaliation. For the older generations, this violence brought back memories of the 1947 Partition of India; young writers and social activists including Urvashi Butalia began recording their stories. Butalia eventually wrote a seminal book, Other Side of Silence (2000), based on these oral histories as well as her own family’s story of moving to India from Lahore, now in Pakistan. Around the same time Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin’s groundbreaking Borders and Boundaries (1998) was published, documenting women’s experiences of Partition, about which until then it seemed a collective amnesia had existed.

To continue reading the essay please visit:  “India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today” , published on Bookwitty ( 3 August 2017) 

10 August 2017 

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