Fiction Posts

Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West”

We are all migrants through time. 

Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel Exit West published nearly a year ago in spring 2017 was received positively worldwide to rapturous reviews. Despite the extremely long and breathless sentences with innumerable sub-clauses the story itself moves smoothly while unveiling a bleak yet monstrously fragile world of migrants, violence and lawlessness. It is told through the lives of Saeed and Nadia but the narrator remains in complete control, much like a cameraman choosing to tell the story through selected frames. The prose is structured almost like a slow dance fusing reality with elements of speculative fiction. Take the black doors for instance which open like portals to another land, not necessarily another dimension of time, leading refugees away from one physical space to the next.

This aspect of the story has in fact resulted in an incredible art installation in London. It can be viewed till 20 February 2018. According to The Bookseller, Penguin Random House UK has teamed up with Audible and Jack Arts to celebrate the paperback launch of Exit West. To quote the article:

Penguin is partnering with Jack Arts and Audible to celebrate the paperback publication of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (Hamish Hamilton) with an interactive poster installation on Commercial Street, London.

Working with Jack Arts, themes explored by the Man Booker shortlisted novel such as movement and migration – and, as Penguin puts it, “the thin boundaries that exist in our world” and “the doors between neighbours” – will be “brought to life” in the form of poster art.

Taking a recessed wall space on Commercial Street, Penguin and Jack Arts have replicated the book jacket artwork of Exit West and installed posters with book extracts and cityscapes from locations in the book. Functioning doors open onto the posters, inviting people to engage with the story and to “rethink what the doors around them might mean”, according to Penguin. The campaign strapline reads: “You sometimes need a way out. You always need a way in.”

Penguin also teamed up with Audible, identifying the Commercial Street site profile as “directly overlapping” with Audible’s audience. The audiobook retailer is tagged on the installation and will promote the audio edition of the book to its four million UK social followers. Exit West will be an Audible Editorial pick and a recorded interview with author Mohsin Hamid will be available as an Audible Session.

The book’s author, Hamid said: “It was kind of magical for me to see the black doors on Commercial Street, to discover they could open, and to find words from Exit West inside.”

It is very exciting to see how many forms a good story will take. More so in this information age when readers have very high expectations and there are behavioural changes apparent in how people approach a book. With the blending of formats making it available in physical reality is truly marvellous — just as this unique book.

Read it if you have not already done so!

Mohsin Hamid Exit West Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2017. Hb.pp. 230 Rs 599

18 February 2018 

“Time Shifters” by Chris Grine

Time Shifters by Chris Grine is about young Luke who is devastated after a day in the forest spent with his brother. Due to an unfortunate encounter with a bunch of bullies Luke’s beloved brother drowns. Luke is heartbroken just as is his mother. One day while sitting on the back porch he spots a blue light in the forest behind his home. He ventures closer to take a look and before he knows it he is pulled into an adventure that involves time travel, a bunch of strangers and a dinosaur. When in the forest strangest of devices gets clamped on to his forearm. Apparently it enables time travel through the multiverse. It had been accidentally dropped by an odd bunch consisting of a mummy, a skeleton in a spacesuit, and “vampire Napoleon”. Luke is given chase by this extraordinary team who want the device back otherwise they will incur the wrath of their evil master. Fortunately Luke is rescued by an equally odd team: a robot Abe Lincoln, an Asian-featured ghost named Artemis, a dinosaur named Zinc, and Doc—the white inventor who looks a lot like a caricature of Einstein and as it turns out had invented the device on Luke’s arm. To escape from the clutches of the evil creatures Luke and his new friends shift to an alternate Earth where spiders the size of humans inhabit what looks like the Old West. It is a very engrossing read even though the evil folks come across at times like pantomine characters. A spellbinding adventure that works well for young readers particularly for introducing the concept of time travel. The unexpectedly though-provoking conclusion imaginatively opens many conversation spaces with youngsters and old alike!

Highly recommended!

Chris Grine Time Shifters Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., 2017. Pb. pp. 270 

19 February 2018 

Marius Gabriel’s “The Designer”

Marius Grabriel’s The Designer is a novel about the fashion designer, Christian Dior, in Paris in 1944. At this time Dior was still with the fashion house of Lucien Lelong, designing dresses for the wives of Nazi officers and French collaborators. His sister Catherine was a member of the French Resistance, captured by the Gestapo, and sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. She was released in May 1945. The Designer is narrated by a twenty-six-year-old American journalist, Oona or “Copper” as she is universally known. She is stepping out of a short lived, messy marriage to an American and decides to set base in Paris as a fashion journalist. It helps that she is part of the inner circle of Dior.  It is about Paris, the war and the nascent fashion industry that blossomed into the multi-million dollar empire after the war.

The Designer is a pacy read for the first half of the book.  This was probably written to coincide with the 70th year celebrations of the Dior company. It is interesting how Marius Gabriel selects elements of historical truth for his literary backdrop, otherwise the story could be like that of any other commercial fiction novel. Once Marius Gabriel has made the literary setting with Christian Dior and his circle of friends including Suzy Solidor, usually to be found at the then fashionable La Vie Parisienne, he abandons all pretence of writing historical fiction. Instead the plot zips along purely on the basis of conversations which after a while become tiresome. Also his character, Copper, admirable as she may be comes across as too modern a woman fitting better in the twenty-first century than during the 1940s! Quite unlike Georgette Heyer who wrote with finesse a brand of historical fiction that today would be recognised as commercial fiction, Marius Gabriel’s story begins to jar. Having said that he does introduce concepts like Le Petit Théâtre Dior which ostensibly was conceptualised to create 2′ high dolls to showcase Dior’s creations, to avoid splurging on silk which was hard to come by in the war years. Obviously it is a trademark style that has survived within the firm judging by the gorgeous clips illustrating how perfectly these miniature mannequins are made. Be that as it may Marius Gabriel is considered to be a highly successful author who has also written romance novels under the nom de plume Madeleine Ker.

The Designer is a part of Westland ( an Amazon company) attempts to introduce in India original fiction published by Amazon abroad at reasonable prices.

Marius Gabriel The Designer Lake Union Publishing, Seattle. Pb. pp. 330 Rs. 399 

“The Crystal Ribbon” by Celeste Lim and “Untwine” by Edwidge Danticat

Strength of character is never with those who blindly follow. You need to be able to make your own choices and walk your own path. 

The Crystal Ribbon

Celeste Lim’s The Crystal Ribbon is about Jing who belongs to an extremely poor family. In order to have some food on the table the eleven-year-old Jing is sold for five silver pieces to a wealthy Guo family as a bride to their three-year-old son but her primarily role is to be his nursemaid. It is a cruel life and from this household she is sold to a courtesan.  She slowly with the help of a spider and a nightingale she escapes and returns home to her delighted father. She soon finds happiness in being an apprentice to Shenpopo, the shamaness at the local village shrine.

The Crystal Ribbon is historical fantasy with the characters, incidents, and certain places in the story being purely fictional. The story is set in AD 1102, during the Northern Song dynasty in the Taiyuan province of Medieval China and according to the author’s note in the book “much of the detail in the story, such as the practice of tongyang xi, traditional rituals, and the invention of paper money, are historically accurate”. She adds:

“Although the magical elements in the story are fictional, that isn’t to say that the people in those days didn’t believe in such magical creatures and deities; some of the Chinese beliefs, practices, and rituals mentioned in the novel still exist, and certain characters, such as the huli jing, spide jing, and baigu jing, are drawn from classical Chinese literature and compilations such as the Shanhai Jing, Journey to the West, Soushen Li, and Liaozhai Zhiyi.

What I especially hope to bring to attention is the tradition of the tongyang xi. Although the Chinese Communist Party ( CCP) banned this after its establishment, it is still practiced in rural areas, generally among poorer communities. My ama ( grandmother) used to tell us many such horror stories, including one about how our great-grandmother bravely fled China during the great famine and came to settle in Malaysia.” 

Award-winning writer Edwidge Danticat’s Untwine is another stunning book for middle-graders. It is about sixteen-year-old identical twins Giselle and Isabelle Boyer. They are talented musicians and live life like any other teenager except for the strong bond uniting the sisters. Also their life is a bit topsy-turvy for now as their parents have announced their separation though continue to live under the same roof. En route to a concert the family is involved in a horrific accident that rips their family apart. Just as the girls had to be untwined at birth from each other during the C-section performed on their mother, after the accident, Giselle has to learn to untwine herself in every sense of the word from her sister, Isabelle, who is no more. It is an excrutiating process as Giselle feels the absence of her twin sister very strongly.

“Split in half sometimes, and at other times walking, living, breathing for two. Two hearts are beating in one chest,but it feels like no heart at all.”

It is an extremely moving tale for any reader but if you are a twin ( as I am) the searing pain experienced upon reading the story is unforgettable.

Both the books —The Crystal Ribbon and Untwine –are written for young adult readers expressly but they are both such magnificently exquisite stories told ever so elegantly that they will be forever treasured.

Celeste Lim The Crystal Ribbon Scholastic Press, New York, 2017. Hb. pp.340 

Edwidge Danticat Untwine: A Novel Scholastic Press, New York, 2015. Hb. pp. 310

( Both the books are available in India courtesy Scholastic India as well.)

16 February 2018 

Interview with Ishaan Jajodia, co-founder Bombaykala Books

While conversing with Kiran Manral I discovered that her new book is to be published by a fledgling publishing house called Bombaykala. They sounded passionate about their publishing programme. On 16 Sept 2017, The Hindu had profiled them. I was curious to know more. So I emailed Ishaan Jajodia. Here are excerpts of an interview with him. 

L-R, Raj Chabbria (Business Development), Kabeer Khurana (Design Head), Mrinalini Harchandrai (editor-at-large), Ishaan Jajodia (commissioning editor and jack of all trades), Tanay Punjabi (Logistics Director)

Bombaykala has published three books of poetry within six months of publishing. It started with Ek Chotisi Dibiya, a book of Hindi poetry, and then published When Home Is An Idea by Rochelle D’Silva. In December 2017, they launched Mrinalini Harchandrai’s A Bombay In My Beat. They are constantly trying to get the word out to more and more poets about publishing opportunities in the landscape.

Kabeer and Ishaan have known each other for a long time. Turns out, when they were around seven or eight, Kabeer’s mom taught them animation. Ishaan reconnected with Kabeer in early 2016 through a friend, and they worked on The Mumbai Art Collective together, a non-profit venture dedicated towards promoting and preserving the art of Bombay. Tanay was also part of this.

Kabeer and Tanay went to school together between Grade 1 and 10, and Kabeer and Raj went to school together in Grade 11 and 12. Kabeer and Ishaan worked on a film, Religion for Dummies, that Ishaan produced along with Kabeer’s father, and that Kabeer directed. Raj was an Assistant Director on the shoot, and also helped with casting. It was a quirky, avant-garde stop motion film (view online here). 

Ishaan met Mrinalini initially because Bombaykala was interested in publishing her book of jazz poetry, A Bombay In My Beat.  They landed up publishing her book, by the way! The team really enjoyed working with her, and she seemed to be the right fit as the team expanded at Bombaykala Books. “She’s really passionate and knows exactly what goes where. She handles poetry (or anything to do with literature) with such poise and grace. Mrinalini is curating a series of anthologies and commissioning a slew of books for Bombaykala Books. She’s also got great experience in dealing with the genre we call creative nonfiction now in her many years as a magazine editor.” What Ishaan also likes about Mrinalini’s poetic practice is that it is innovation that is not built on provocation. Provocation is the staple of avant-gardists throughout, from Hugo Ball’s poetry of nonsense to José Clemente Orozco’s The Epic of American Civilization. This is similar to what Ishaan want for Bombaykala Books- “for us to change, without unnecessary provocation, and in a manner that is decidedly less brash and more systematic. It requires a certain personality and demeanour to do that, one that is far less based off sentimentality and knee-jerk reactions, and more focused on a developed and more heightened sense of working and writing.”

How and why did you establish Bombaykala Books?

Bombaykala Books came out of a desire to read more of what I wanted to read. I was unhappy with the current publishing landscape, and the way that commercial pressures shaped the way that publishers looked at books. I’m a bibliophile, not a writer, so it was never about finding an outlet for my own work. There are more forms of capital than just financial capital for a publisher- human, social, symbolic, and intellectual, if we are to take the model that is found in Merchants of Culture (John B. Thompson). Another impetus for the course we’re taking is a class I took while at college on the History of the Book, by Prof. Alexandra Halasz. It opened up a whole new world, a new way of thinking.

Another thing that I found missing was an initiative to create a literature around the city. While efforts to immortalize the city have been in progress since we can remember our art and cinema, I felt that we needed to be more conscious of the city we live in. I identify more closely as someone who’s lived in Bombay all my life. That facet of the Indian ‘identity’ is one that I became more conscious off as I grew up, and that’s another reason why Bombaykala Books came into being. 

What is the focus?

The focus is to create a literature around a city, but also to publish stories that pique our interest. I’m looking for stories that are authentic, and in some way, have a go at the epistemological roots of what we know. To that end, I’ve published collections of war poetry from a former consular officer for Bosnia during the Yugoslav wars, who saw what was happen first hand. Tomorrow It Will All Run Backwards is the story of war told through poetry, which makes for far more emotive reading than, let’s say, AJP Taylor, who’s as close as we get to great writing in History.

How many founders are there?

There are three- Kabeer Khurana, Tanay Punjabi, and me. Kabeer handles all the design work, Tanay the operations, and me the editorial work. Additionally, we have Raj Chhabria, who, although not a founder, takes care of Business Development and Marketing, and is a partner along with the three of us.

Who edits your books?

I do, and now Mrinalini Harchandrai does as well. She’s our new Editor-at-Large.

What are your plans for the next few years?

We want to publish a book a fortnight this year without diluting quality of any kind. I think that’s the most important part. We’re also exploring other ways to bring books to readers- audio books, multimedia expansions. I think at this point in time, planning wise the sky is the limit, but only time will tell what we can do.

Now that Mrinalini and I are both commissioning, there should be a lot more diversity in the approach to books, yielding some interesting stuff.

 How do you source manuscripts and distribute your books?

We have an open channel of submissions available via our website. People can simply go ahead and email us their work after going through the submission guidelines. We’ve been talking with agents here and there too.

In terms of distribution- we do Amazon Kindle for all our e-books. We also have an international distributor for the USA, UK, EU, Canada, and Australia, catering to the needs of our international clientele.

How many languages do you publish in?

Hindi and English for now.

Who are your authors? 

Queenie Sukhadia, Vishakha Sharma Dubey, Rochelle D’Silva, Michael Brett, Mrinalini Harchandrai, Kiran Manral, Joe and Brenda Rodrigues, Pragya Bhagat, Ramneek Singh, Mamta Chitnis Sen, Stalin Dayanand, Sreemay Rath, Anushka Gupta, Andrew Rooney, Ranjit Dahiya, Sundeep Narwani and Ishita Mehra, Mallika Iyer, Gouri Nilakantan

 Why did you decide to publish poetry apart from mainstream literature?

For me it was never an either-or situation. We launched Bombaykala Books with a book of Hindi poetry, Ek Chotisi Dibiya, and a set of short stories that works as a novel, A City of Sungazers. I’ve never looked at poetry as anything lesser than or different to mainstream literature. It is ultimately a form of literature, one that tells stories in a way that can be as visceral (or more) than “mainstream literature.”

Will you explore translations as well?

Certainly. We’re working with Dr. Jitendra Pandey to expand our repertoire of Hindi translations.

Do you publish in digital and print formats or only print?

We do digital and print.

5 February 2018 

“Amulet” series by Kazu Kibuishi

The Amulet series is about two siblings Emily and Navin who after losing their father in a car accident move into an old house that belonged to their great-grandfather. While browsing through the dusty library of their ancestor the children discover an amulet which Emily promptly puts on. She soon discovers it has magical powers. It is in this house that their adventures begin once their mother is kidnapped by an odd tentacled creature. The set of seven books is about the children giving chase to the creature, coming upon their dying great grandfather, rescuing their mother but also stumbling across a parallel fantasy world which is a cross between steampunk and the fantastic. Classically there is the tussle between the good and the evil that the children have to combat but it is also about the importance of an individual’s will power against external forces. In this case it is Emily not only leading the motley group of creatures and her brother into battle while simultaneously battling the force  of the Amulet which is trying to overpower her and control her.

It is a series of books that will appeal to 8+ readers onwards. The illustrations are complex and crowd every page. At times there are frames that would work ideally as a flip book and not necessarily as a segment of a graphic novel. Kazu Kibuishi is primarily an animator who abandoned the comic form to become a professional animation artist. After a few years he returned to the comic book form — telling stories through words and still pictures on the printed page. It is fascinating to see how the artist/storyteller attempts to bring his experiences on to the page. Undoubtedly it is a long series with the eighth volume expected later in 2018. Yet I could not help but feel that the artist is experimenting by converting his animation skills to a comic strip. At times this works at a disadvantage for the books since the storytelling becomes thin at times in favour of the fancy foot work of the artist.

Having said that the young readers are utterly charmed by the books and this series is a steady seller. It was evident at the World Book Fair, New Delhi, Jan 2018 with youngsters crowding around the graphic novel section. Copies of this particular series were flying off the shelves.

 

Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi, Scholastic India, Pb. 

5 February 2018 

“First Person” by Richard Flanagan

My review of award winning Australian writer Richard Flanagan’s latest novel First Person was published in The Hindu on Sunday, 4 February 2018. I am also c&p the text below. 

Flanagan examines the art and artifice of autobiography writing

Kif Kehlmann, a writer struggling to write his first book, is approached by his childhood friend Ray to ghost-write a memoir of Ray’s boss. The said boss is Australia’s most notorious conman Siegfried Heidl or Ziggy, who had swindled banks of 700 million dollars. Ziggy is out on bail.

This gives his publisher, Gene Paley of Schlegel Trans-Pacific Publishing, about six weeks to commission a “page-turner” and have it published in time for the trial.

For this Ziggy is to be paid the handsome sum of $250,000 whereas Kif is offered $10,000, with no royalties, to be paid in equal instalments upon submission of the manuscript and the publication of the book. If Kif failed to deliver he would be paid only the termination fee of $500.

Faustian pact

The book is about Kif attempting to get Ziggy to share incidents from his life which he could then convert into a saleable story. This Faustian pact is a soul-sapping task for Kif as Ziggy is evasive or spins incredibly fantastic tales that are impossible to verify.

There are rumours of Ziggy’s links to the CIA in Laos in the early 1970s, of him being hired by NASA to establish a rocket facility in the southern hemisphere, being involved in the deposition of Australian Prime Minister Whitlam and his alleged role in the Allende-Chile affair. Kif’s description of Ziggy is apt: “Even working with him it was hard to see him. I remember he didn’t have much hair and he was of indeterminate age, small, slightly stout, [a] hobgoblin… little sorcerer… From the beginning he was always there and never to be found.”

The novel traces Kif’s growing frustration with his elusive subject. Kif had hoped that the book would be his ticket out of writerly poverty and perhaps fetch him a better publishing contract. While those possibilities seem to recede, his current publisher becomes more and more difficult.

Paley dispels any notion Kif may have had about artistic freedom by mentioning that in France ghost-writers are called Nègres or slaves.

With such limiting conditions, Kif sets to work, inventing where he cannot find facts. He delivers the page-turner within the stipulated time by “learning to distract from the truth by amusing the reader; to flatter the reader by playing on what they believed to be their virtues — their idea of goodness and decency — whilst leading them even further into an alien darkness that was the real world and, perhaps, the real them; and, on occasion, I feared, the real me.”

In the early 1990s, Richard Flanagan had been hired by the fraudster John Friedrich to ghost-write his autobiography in six weeks as he awaited trial for a 300 million dollar fraud. Friedrich died during those six weeks, as does Siegfried in the story.

Writing the self

Although First Person is promoted as a novel, it closely follows Flanagan’s experience of ghost-writing a novel for a criminal. It brings into focus much-debated issues of craftsmanship, of remaining true to one’s art or capitulating to market forces.

Flanagan also questions the premise of autobiography as an art form. Autobiographies are trending now as they go well with the general preference for reality shows and intimate confessions made in the first person.

For Flanagan, an autobiography is a literary selfie.

When Kif dwells on the fine balance between truth and storytelling in an autobiography, he too concludes that “a memoir was a series of selected lies”. Kif is a nom de plume, a short for “keefer” — a substance, especially cannabis, smoked to produce a drowsy state.

Isn’t the reader expected to suspend her disbelief while reading the novel?

First Person; Richard Flanagan, Chatto & Windus, ₹599

Debate: Aniruddhan Vasudevan declines the Sahitya Akademi Translation Prize, 2016 and response by jury member, Githa Hariharan

Aniruddhan Vasudevan, the writer who translated  Perumal Murugan’s Tamil novel  Madhorubagan into English on Monday 29 Jan 2018 declined the Sahitya Akademi Translation Prize, 2016.

Madhorubagan, translated into English as One Part Woman, is the story of a couple from Tiruchengode city in Tamil Nadu who face social discrimination due to their inability to bear a child. The novel had led to outrage from Hindutva groups in 2014. A number of cases were filed in the Madras High Court, but the court quashed them in 2016.

In 2016, when the Sahitya Akademi announced the award to Vasudevan for the English translation of Perumal’s book, opponents filed a plea in the Madras High Court. The court allowed the award ceremony to go ahead, but imposed a stay on the prize for English translation, until further notice.

Kannan Sundaram, of  Kalachuvadu Publications, which published Madhorubagan, told The News Minute on Wednesday that Vasudevan did not want to fight a legal battle. “He also does not want eminent writers like Githa Hariharan, Koyamparambath Satchidanandan [who were the jury for the award] and others being scrutinised.”

“He sees this [the case against the prize] as part of the ongoing problem of hounding Perumal Murugan, and does not want to be a part of it,” Sundaram added.

*****

Githa Hariharan’s Response to Aniruddhan Vasudevan Declining the Sahitya Akademi Prize for Translation

Aniruddhan Vasudevan, who was a recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Prize for Translation 2016, for his translation of Perumal Murugan’s novel, Madhorubhagan, has now written to the Akademi declining the award.

Kongu Kalvi Valarchi Arakattalai, the same group that hounded author Perumal Murugan, also filed a petition in the Madras High Court against his translator, Vasudevan, and the jury that gave him the Sahitya Akademi Award for One Part Woman, the English translation of Madhorubhagan. M Loganathan, who had filed the petition, also alleged that the jury members, in selecting the English translation for the award, were “prejudiced” and “biased.” In December last year, the High Court put an interim stay on the award. The Indian Express quoted the High Court bench’s observation, “…prima facie it appears that the translation is both incorrect and inaccurate.”  Vasudevan, in his letter, stated that he is declining the award as he does not want to start a fresh chapter of controversy around the novel.

Jury Member Githa Hariharan spoke to Newsclick and the Indian Cultural Forum about this development.

What is your response to Aniruddhan Vasudevan declining the Sahitya Academy award?

I wish Vasudevan had not declined the prize. He deserves it. And, in our multilingual country, translation is essential and needs all the support it can get. In this case too, the jury took into consideration the critical function of translation in a multilingual country like ours. As responsible writers and critics, we need to ensure that readers have access to translations of a high quality, particularly of works that we, as well as other critics and scholars, have recognised as an important part of our rich and diverse literary practice. The only considerations before the jury, in this case, were the quality of the translation, and the literary merit of the work being translated.

Why do you think this group filed the petition opposing the Sahitya Akademi Prize for Translation?

This petition is not about the translation prize. It seeks, instead, to raise an issue that has already been dealt with effectively by the Madras High Court in its Judgement delivered on 5/7/2016 on the original publication. The Judgement observed that the writer should continue to “do what he does best”, i.e., write; and that both the writers and his opponents should move on “as citizens of an advancing and vibrant democracy”. In view of this sound advice, raking up the same issue is a waste of the valuable time of our Courts, as well as a mischievous attempt to impede the free practice of imaginative endeavour that sustains our culture with multiple narratives and viewpoints.

In addition to wasting the valuable time of our Courts, who have a considerable load of genuine petitions, this petition undermines the free practice of literature by writers, critics, publishers and readers, by ascribing to itself the role of judging the merit of literary texts. I would like to remind the petitioners of Jawaharlal Nehru’s views on the individual freedom of the writer. “As soon as writing is put in a straight-jacket,” he said, “it is bound to lose and suffer.”  He added, “A State cannot produce good writing. It can provide conditions where good writing can be encouraged.” Any attack on these conditions — of freedom to imagine, write, translate, judge, discuss, and debate — would hinder our citizens from producing and partaking of varied and critical literary perspectives.

What is your response to the accusation in the above petition that the jury was “prejudiced” and “biased” in their selection?

No award norm was breached. The Sahitya Akademi prepared a short list from the books entered for the prize and sent the short list to the jury members. Each member was not aware of who the other jury members were till we met for the final decision. When the jury members met, they had read all the shortlisted books carefully, and prepared notes on the merits of each translation. All ten books were discussed, and there was detailed discussion on those considered prize-worthy. Based on the criteria of a good translation into the English language, the jury members reached a consensus that Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s translation, One Part Woman, deserved the award. The book falls within the eligibility period. It is a complete and unabridged translation, and the quality of both the translation and the novel has been acknowledged by critics, scholars, reviewers, and award juries. The jury members for the Sahitya Akademi prize agreed that this translation achieved the difficult task of rendering a specific cultural context and language into a highly readable translation that sounded “natural” in the target language, something every good translation aspires to. Specific mention was made of the skill with which words, phrases, expressions, and songs that are hard to translate were handled by the translator. In short, our discussion of One Part Woman, as well as our choice of the book as the award winner, was based purely on literary indices, i.e. the literary merits of the translation.

The petition alleges that this is not a “true” translation of the work. May I suggest that debates about the quality of a translation belong in classrooms, seminars and the printed page, and not in petitions or Courts? Debates on literary merits are informed and meaningful when conducted by the community of literary practitioners, students of literature and scholars. Such debates are not based on sentiment.

The translation was chosen for the award in good faith, and for valid reasons, free from any sort of bias. Members of the jury had written earlier about the book, and the attack on the book, in our capacity as writers, reviewers and cultural commentators. I must point out that the three members of this jury are by no means the only people who have written about the “controversy”. Across India, a large number of writers have taken part in protests against the attack on the book and its author Perumal Murugan, not because they were “canvassing” for the book; but because of their deep concern for freedom of expression, essential to any form of literary work. Again, the three members of the jury are not alone in admiring the novel. Reviews, articles in the media, and the large number of readers in India and elsewhere, bear testimony to the interest in the book, as literature, by discriminating readers.

The petition further alleged that the three members of the jury have been acknowledged by Perumal Murugan in the Preface of his novel. First, he has acknowledged only one of the three members, A.R. Venkatachalapathy, as a friend. Second, acknowledgements in a literary work do not imply that those thanked for support are in any way responsible for the actual work. Writing a novel is a solitary task, neither planned nor “conspired” by a group. It is ridiculous to imply that any “conflict of interest” applies to a friend or relative who may be acknowledged by a writer as having provided any sort of support during the lonely period of writing a novel.

Petitions such as these are part of the insidious process of misusing the Courts, in the name of hurt sentiment, to harass writers, critics and artists. My submission to the Court — if the case continues — would be to dismiss this and other similar petitions, and lay down a principle that such harassment is an attack on two of our cherished values: critical thinking and freedom of expression.

Such petitions are frivolous at best; and, at worst, a danger to the practice of the arts, as well as the diversity of opinion and critical thinking guaranteed by our Constitution, and upheld a number of times by our Courts.

2 February 2018 

Interview with Randa Abdel-Fattah, The Mint ( 18 Nov 2017)

My interview with the fabulous Australian writer Randa Abdel-Fattah was published in The Mint on 18 Nov 2017. 

Randa Abdel-Fattah’s debut novel, Does My Head Look Big In This? (2005), is narrated in first person by a teenager, Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim, who lives in a trendy suburb of Melbourne. Her parents were born in Bethlehem, studied medicine in Monash University and became Australian citizens. Her father Mohamed is under the “misguided delusion” that he is still young and cool and drives a metallic-red convertible blasting Italian opera or Palestinian folk songs from his car stereo system. Her mother, Jamila, is a dentist who is obsessive about cleanliness and is loud and energetic. The novel is about Amal’s decision to don a hijab as “I feel like my passion and conviction in Islam are bursting inside me and I want to prove to myself that I’m strong enough to wear a badge of my faith”. Her parents are concerned about the reaction it will elicit in public, not least being called a “nappy head”.

It’s a tremendous coming-of-age novel written immediately post 9/11, which has now been re-released in India, given its relevance in our times. The Australia-based, 38-year-old author’s next novel, themed on immigration, The Lines We Cross, will be published in January 2018 by Scholastic India. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

What prompted you to write this book—a chick lit with a twist on religious expression and the importance of choice?

When I wrote Does My Head Look Big In This? and was searching for an agent, I spoke to one agent at length, explaining the basic plot of the novel. After my pitch, she had the audacity to joke: “Is there an honour killing in it?” This was the stock standard narrative space for the Muslim novel and that kind of lazy, dehumanizing genre of writing about Muslim women was what fired me up in the first place to want to write something that challenged such tropes. I wanted to offer readers a feisty, free-spirited adolescent Muslim girl speaking on her own terms and, importantly, delivering a story written by a Muslim female.

It is believed that debut novels tend to be autobiographical. Would it be an accurate statement to make with regard to ‘Does My Head Look Big In This?’ Or is it an amalgamation of stories you have heard as a human rights lawyer?

I actually wrote the first draft when I was a teenager, 15 years old, and it was, at that time, very autobiographical. I was “coming of age” during the first Gulf War (1990-91), at a time when suddenly being Muslim and Arab was no longer an identity description but an accusation. Not only was I dealing with the demonization in the media and political discourse of my Muslim and Arab heritage, but I was also dealing with gendered stereotypes which reduced Muslim women to oppressed and passive victims of faith and culture. That made me want to speak back, and for me writing has always been craft and activism. I returned to the manuscript post 9/11, and realized that the story was even more urgent. So I rewrote the first draft.

How did you decide upon creating the narrator as an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian teen? Did it take some effort to get the nuances right?

That part was easy. I drew on my own life, my experiences navigating multiple identities. The nuance was basically my own lived experience so it was never difficult to do!

It has been 12 years since this book was first published. What are the reactions that you get? Have these changed over time?

It amazes and humbles me that all these years later I still have people reaching out to me about the book to tell me that it was transformative in terms of their understanding of Muslims/Islam. Of all my novels, this has been my most popular work, taught in schools, staged as a play in the US, and currently being adapted into a feature film. My Muslim readers around the world tell me that the novel validates their experiences and empowers them to embrace their faith choices. For the majority of my readers—who are, in fact, not Muslims—I am told that the book has changed their perceptions about Muslims, particularly Muslim women who wear the veil. I still have girls contact me to say they read my book and were inspired to wear hijab or that it gave them that final edge of confidence to go through with their decision. The most touching feedback I’ve received was from a teacher in Canada who told me that on Christmas Eve, an elderly, non-Muslim man was handing out free copies of my book to people passing by a main shopping precinct because, he said, he felt it promoted a message of peace and harmony. It was one of the most beautiful and heart-warming stories I had ever heard.

The issues the book raised immediately after 9/11, about identity, race, immigrants, Islamophobia, are still relevant. Has this book been pivotal in opening conversations about faith, feminism, identity politics and social justice with teenagers?

Indeed it has. When I visit schools and writer festivals, these are the exact topics I address with students, talking to them about how writing can be such a powerful medium for speaking back to injustice, racism, sexism, and how they too can use their writing to navigate these issues.

Has this book been accessed by people across cultures and religions rather than being bracketed as a Muslim book?

Oh yes, definitely. In fact, the majority of my readers are not Muslim. So many of the people who write to me say that the book has helped them through their own identity, family and friendship challenges, and not necessarily from a Muslim perspective.

Does My Head Look Big In This?: By Randa Abdel-Fattah, Scholastic, 353 pages, Rs350.

Does My Head Look Big In This?: By Randa Abdel-Fattah, Scholastic, 353 pages, Rs350.
23 January 2018 

New imprints launched in India

In the past few months new imprints have been announced by publishing houses in India.

The first was Niyogi Books launching  their three imprints — Thornbird for translation ( H S Shivprakash), Olive Turtle for Original Fiction ( Keki Daruwalla) and Paper Missile for Non fiction ( Udaya Narayan Singh).

The second was the translation programme announced by Ratna Sagar led by Dinesh Sinha. They have launched with three titles and have a few more planned in 2018.

The third is the children’s imprint launched by Readomania.

This afternoon Westland ( an Amazon company) announced the launch of a new literary imprint called “Context”. It will include serious, thoughtful, politically engaged fiction and non-fiction, mostly in hardback, by writers from the Indian subcontinent.

And if the rumours are true then there are some more to be announced later this year.

16 January 2018