Illustrations Posts

Pramod Kapoor’s “Gandhi: An Illustrated Biography”

Well known publisher Pramod Kapoor, founder, Roli Books, has published his first book as author — Gandhi: An Illustrated BiographyIt is a scrumptiously designed edition with plenty of photographs laid out throughout the book. More importantly it is lucidly written and immediately immerses the reader into the narrative. Writing biographies is not an easy nor an enviable task as the author is always trying to balance the narrative between being in the footsteps of their subject or stressing on only a few aspects leaving out large chunks of facts. Pramod Kapoor in his book Gandhi achieves the fine balance with panache. There is a grace with which he documents Gandhi’s life as well delves into uncomfortable subjects such as Gandhi’s sexuality, troubled relationship with his eldest son or even the vow he took of celibacy aged 37 and yet opted to sleep naked at night with young women including his beloved niece in his bed.  Historian Sunil Khilnani has endorsed the book saying ” Pramod Kapoor’s book is a personal and wonderfully intimate photographic journey through Gandhi’s life. Even those familiar with Gandhi’s story will disocver things with surprise, delight, and inform them in this moving book.”

As of 22 September 2017 the book will be released internationally with editions available in Russian, German, French, Italian, Dutch, UK, and USA. Here is a longish book trailer of 11 minutes but its time well spent watching it:

Pramod Kapoor Gandhi: An Illustrated Biography Lustre Press, Roli Books, New Delhi, 2016. Hb. pp 326

24 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 

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 

“Mahabharata”

DK India has published an incredibly sumptious edition of the classic epic Mahabharata. It was put together by a large in-house team working along with well-known mythologists and Mahabharata experts. It has resulted in this extraordinarily beautiful edition, impressive design, detailed page layouts where the text and illustrations complement each other well and incredible layers of information. In a sense the publishers have achieved practically the impossible of transfering the layered and embellished narrative style of oral storytelling into the fixed printed form.

The story is told through the 18 parvas as is in the familiar arrangement of the oral epic. As far as possible the structure of the oral narrative tradition has been adhered to in this print version. Every page a small portion of the story is narrated in simple English making it accessible to other cultures too. To accompany the text every page has been specially designed with different elements relevant to that particular context. These could vary from boxes on cultural details, mythology and folklore associated with the particular story, prayers and rituals passed through the ages, references to the versions of the epic/characters in art and literature, photographs of modern-day dance and theatre interpretations of the stories and a liberal sprinkling of historical artefacts and monuments that may help illustrate the text.

I interviewed Alka Ranjan, Managing Editor, Local Publishing, DK India who led the team which put together this book. Here follow edited excerpts of an interview published by Scroll.in on 20 August 2017:

1. Which version of the epic did you refer to?
We were keen to tell the entire story of the Mahabharata, including the Harivamsa, and, wherever possible, dip into the regional versions as well. To be true to the classical version, we referred to Bibek Debroy’s ten volumes of the Mahabharata, from where came some of the details of the stories and also the quotes. Ultimately for DK India it was the visual rendering of the epic which was more important, something that was not attempted before, and something that makes our book unique, setting it apart from the other books available in the market.

2. How long did this project take to execute from start to finish?
It took us almost 8 months to put together this book. To this we could also add 3 months of production. The entire team, including the technical members, reached 15, in some stages of the book.

3. Does DK have other religious texts illustrated in a similar fashion? Was there anything unique as a publishing experiment in this book?
DK has brought out the Illustrated Bible in the past. This book is in the same series style. Unlike our other reference books which work mostly like non-fiction with their dry, neutral tone, our version of the Mahabharata is yet another retelling of the epic. It was a challenge for the editorial team to adapt their skills to storytelling, to ensure the text flowed like a tale, weave in dialogues wherever needed, and inject drama to create impact.

4. It seems to be meant for the general market but the stories are easily told that a child too can read them. If that is the case then how did you manage such a gentle and easy style?
Our aim was to keep the stories accessible for a large readership, and in a lot of ways that is DK style. While we segregate our books in adult and children categories, depending on subject matter, comprehension level, interests, so on and so forth, the text for the adult ones is almost always aimed at ages 14 and above.

5. If you could have a section on “Mahabharata in art” why not have a section on the history of texts through the publication of this epic through the ages?

We could have done so many things with our book, but because it was going to be a visual retelling we decided to focus on art, showcasing the pervasive reach of the epic in our daily lives, and which made more sense, although a lot of our “boxes” talk about the different versions of the epic, including drawing parallels with Greek mythos.

6. This epic has been translated in other languages. Why not have images of those texts at well?

It was not always possible to get all images that we wanted, but we have used a couple of book covers to make the point about translations or different takes on the epic – mostly for latter. I can think of a book on Yudhishthira and Draupadi by Pavan K Varma which we used to discuss their relationship. We also used Mrityunjaya’s cover (Shivaji Sawant’s much celebrated book on Karna) on Karna’s profile. The choice of other retellings of Mahabharata invariably depended on the context of the stories we wanted to tell and the point we wanted to make and not the other way around. Some of the other books that find mention in ours are:

Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakuntalam
Tagore’s Chitrangada (with cover image)
Pavan K Varama’s Yudhisthira and Draupadi (with cover image)
Krushnaji Prabhakar Khadilkar’s play Kichaka-Vadha
Dinkar’s Kurukshetra and Rashmirathi
Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjaya (with cover image)
Bhasa’s play performance by Japanese students – Urubhangam

7. It would have been fascinating if a chapter on myth-making in this epic had been included as a standalone chapter rather than inserting boxes in various chapters. Why not address myth-making?

I take your point, and it would have been certainly interesting to have such a chapter now that you point it out. However, when we conceptualized the book, we were sure that we wanted the focus of the book to be on retelling the epic and layering them by adding side stories in boxes. We also wanted to have a few chapters/spreads on Hindu gods and goddesses, and philosophies, mainly to facilitate the understanding of the non-Indian readers, people not familiar with our cultural ethos.

8. How did you standardise the spelling of the names? What’s the back story to it?
We wanted us to use the more common spellings of the popular characters (Draupadi instead of Droupadi), although we did finally add the vowel sound at the end of some names, for instance “Arjuna” instead of “Arjun”, “Bhima” instead of “Bhim”, which takes the names closer to their Sanskrit pronunciation, but stuck to “Sanjay” not “Sanjaya” because it was a more common spelling.

9. Does the text of the books mentioned conform to the original text or have some creative license liberties been taken to retell it for the modern reader?

While most of our stories came from the original, classical text, we also dipped into the regional versions to borrow a few. For instance, Iravan’s story (A Human Sacrifice) came from the Tamil Mahabharata. Few other stories borrowed from regional versions are : Pururava’s Obsession

Draupadi’s Secret, Gaya Beheaded, Divine Vessel, News of Home, The Talking Head

10. Would you be creating special pocket book editions of relevant chapters? For instance I see potential in the section on women. If you had to resize it to a pocket edition with an introduction +original shlokas, the sales would be phenomenal.

Thank you so much for the suggestions. The book does lend itself to several spinoffs, and we have thought of a few. However, we wanted the current book to run its course before bringing out another one.

20 August 2017

“No Touch” A picture book on child sexual abuse ( CSA)

Not a day goes by without the morning newspapers reporting the horrendous sexual attacks upon children. It is frightening and deeply disturbing. In a manner of speaking CSA ( child sexual abuse) has replaced the news about dowry deaths which used to fill the papers in the 1980s.

It becomes extremely difficult to discuss child sexual abuse particularly in a society like India where any conversation remotely linked to sex is considered moral taboo. It is not uncommon to hear of young couples getting married and clueless about how babies are born! In such a scenario teaching a child to recognise and articulate uncomfortable scenarios which are probably in the purview of CSA becomes challenging. Hence a picture book like No Touch published by Scholastic India is relevant and useful.

In fact an innovative way of getting this book read has been by having copies of the book dropped off by book fairies on the Delhi metro.

Child sexual abuse is absolutely horrific and what is truly alarming is the perpetrators are mostly known to the children abused. There have been many concerted campaigns such as this animated video on child sexual abuse made in English and Hindi by CHILDLINEIndia. In 2014 noted filmmaker Pankaj Butalia published Dark Room: Child Sexuality in India with the hope to open this conversation outside of the specialized, academic circles. Another brilliant attempt was made by Scholastic India author Ken Spillman in his short story “A bubble of shared knowing”. After the December 2013 dastardly act of raping a young girl in Delhi the conversations about child sexual abuse and rape opened up and for the first time these filtered into public spaces and collective consciousnesses. As a result the case of writer and rape survivor Sohaila Abdulali who had been gang-raped in the 1980s began to be discussed once more. In fact she was brave enough to write about the incident in an NYT article “I Was Wounded; My Honor Wasn’t” ( 7 Jan 2013). A few months later she co-authored a forceful article in the Guardian asking for children to be made aware of rape and sexual assault, the discourse must be brought home. ( “To protect our children, we must talk to them about rape” 26 April 2013).

No Touch a picture book is a step in the right direction. The book needs to be read, shared and disseminated widely. These difficult conversations must be had in every household and schools.

No Touch published by Scholastic India. Hb. 2017 

3 August 2017 

Happy birthday J. K. Rowling and Harry Potter!

31 July 2017. It is J. K. Rowling’s birthday. So also Harry Potter as decided by J. K. Rowling. The Harry Potter books have been in existence for twenty years or the equivalent of one entire generation. The first time I heard of Harry Potter was when a friend based in Chicago wrote asking if I had read this marvellous fantasy book for children. At the time I had not but very soon a copy arrived from a England. Everyone in the family devoured it. At the time I was guest-editor of the special issue on children and young adult literature of a literary magazine. It was the first time that these issues were being put together. The history of modern publishing, particularly children’s literature, can be traced through the history of the seven volumes of Harry Potter.

When Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone ( US edition published by Scholastic) and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone ( UK edition published by Bloomsbury) was published J.K. Rowling was an unknown and struggling author. She was single mother writing the book, which she had plotted minutely, in cafes around Edinburgh. Despite her agent’s wise advice “you will never make money selling children’s books” her manuscript was circulated amongst publishers. Most publishers rejected the book. Then it arrived at a fairly recent independent press called Bloomsbury, London. Bloomsbury had been established in 1986 by four people, including legendary editor Liz Calder whose authors include Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Joanna Trollope and John Irving. As Liz Calder narrated in a conversation to me while conducting a master class the British Council, Delhi, she has always been interested in authors. The arrival of the first Harry Potter manuscript was an uneventful day. Till she discovered a group of people sitting around a table absorbed in reading the manuscript, sharing it by passing each page of the manuscript to their neighbour as if they were playing passing the parcel! Bloomsbury decided to publish the debut novel by an unknown author. She was offered $4,000 as an advance against royalties by Bloomsbury. The first print run was for 500 copies. Bloomsbury was also afraid that young boys won’t want to read a book by a woman, they suggested she use her initials. Joanne added her grandmother’s name, Kathleen, to her own, producing “J.K. Rowling.” Soon after it was published she attended her first Edinburgh Literary Festival where a special tent had been set up to promote the book but if stories are to be believed there were only a few people who wanted to meet the author. In USA Scholastic Books won the auction for the U.S. rights to the series, giving Rowling an advance over $100,000, a record for a foreign children’s book. This enabled her to quit her teaching job and devote her time to writing.

The first book went on to win many prizes and catapulted J. K. Rowling to fame. It influenced children’s reading habits tremendously. It became evident to publishers fairly soon that this was a market to be taken notice of. Yet by the time Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was published the print run had risen to 10,000 copies and the book was still only available in UK and slowly reached other countries. By the time Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was released Pottermania had begun to take root and the publishers were more than willing to ship review copies across the world. I got my copy directly from the London office albeit a few weeks after publication date. With the subsequent volumes ( Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) the fame of Rowling was sealed. She became a global phenomenon. By the time the seventh and last volume, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, was published she had sold millions of copies of her books. Her publisher, Bloomsbury, had become cash-rich and were able to offer handsome advances against royalties to other authors. In fact the seventh title was released simultaneously across the world and I received my copy of the book on publication day, 31 July 2007. (I reviewed it for Outlook magazine.) It is believed that Rowling has so far sold more than 400 million copies of her books worldwide.

This is what Sarah Odedina, now Editor-at-Large, Pushkin Children’s Books wrote in an email to me about publishing Rowling. At the time Sarah was Publisher of Bloomsbury Children’s Books 1997-2011.

I was there for publication of the first book all the way through to the last book.

It was an amazing thing to be part of and yes the in-house love for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was strong. Particularly led by the wonderful marketing and PR person Rosamund de la Hey who never ever missed an opportunity to let people know just how brilliant the book was and how talented the author was. We were ambitious for the book from the get-go and knew it had great potential to win prizes and sell well – but little could we imagine what that ended up meaning.

Publication of the first book passed fairly normally – like most other books – without anything huge happening but within a few weeks we knew it was different as we started to get letters from children saying how much they loved the book and how the had shared it with their friend and all sorts of reactions from them as readers to the characters and the plot and definitely asking for more. It was really later books in which publication day became a huge focus. At the beginning it was about getting the book out in the shops and seeing how quickly J K Rowling built a loving and loyal readership.

In 2012 Rowling launched Pottermore. It was an incredibly bold move into the world of digital publishing by offering ebook versions of the Potter series. At the time there were multiple ereaders and extensions. Rowling made Pottermore as a one-stop halt to purchase any format ( print or digital) and get extra Potter-related news too. Her first CEO was Charlie Redmayne, now the HarperCollins UK CEO, who for the first time brought the author/publisher in direct contact with the consumer/reader using digital technology innovatively. ( Eddie Redmayne who acted in the movie Fantastic Beasts  is Charlie Redmayne’s brother.) Rowling’s close watch on the film adaptations of her books to screen are legendary as well with accounts of detailed storyboard discussions happening at her home in Scotland. ( Here is a link to Jim Cornish, storyboard artist, talks about his work on the Harry Potter films. )

It is twenty years since Harry Potter and his friends came into existence. Bloomsbury is celebrating it with the release of special editions of the first book in the four house colours — Red, Blue, Green and Yellow. They are utterly splendiferous and a joy to behold! The impact of Pottermania on publishing worldwide is that the healthiest growth rate is amongst children’s and young adult literature, across genres.

31 July 2017 

 

Ocean creatures and books

When my brother and I were kids every Sunday morning ritual included watching Jacques Cousteau on the black-and-white television diving deep down into the depths of various oceans to marvel at the magnificent creatures to be found there. In fact this Daily Beast article profiling Cousteau reveals how many firsts he was responsible for, including the aqualung which is now an essential part of any diver’s gear.

Today’s children are so fortunate to be able to access books that illuminate the depths of the ocean beautifully. Take for example DK’s Sharks and Other Deadly Ocean Creatures (Visual Encyclopedia).

It is an incredible book with a single page devoted to every creature while giving a data file. It consists of facts such as their predator power, size, distribution and diet. The photographs are stunningly clear allowing a child to pore over them in fascinated silence observing and absorbing details. Buy it!

25 July 2017 

 

Maid in India

On 12 July 2017 a terrible incident happened in Noida, a suburb of Delhi. It involved the alleged illegal confinement overnight of a maid, Zohra, accused of having stolen money from her employers living in one of the recently constructed gated communities.  Early next morning people from the village where Zohra lived surrounded the housing complex where she was supposed to be. After that it became ugly — events on the ground and the narratives being circulated and published. One version says she says her employers had not paid her for months. Another one says she asked for a loan against her unpaid wages. Another version says the employers had suspected her of stealing earlier but were only able to confront her now and Zohra had confessed. Whatever the truth in this case ( as it is still under police investigation) the fact is such events expose the vast socio-economic divide which exists between employers and domestic staff, particularly the maids. There are many stories such as this that happen every day, most of which go unreported.

With growing demands and increasing number of nuclear families there is an exponential rise in the demand for maids. Also women from poorer families are being sent to work in middle-class homes as it is perceived as a “win-win” situation where the woman not only earns an income, saves money since her food is taken care of by the employer and she is also “safe” in the employer’s home. But it is far, far more complicated than that; impossible to analyse in one article or book.

Of late there have been books and articles published in India exploring the status of maids. These range from memoir, non-fiction to fiction. The first of these books about maids was Baby Haldar’s memoir A Life Less Ordinary. Baby was working as a maid in Delhi when her employer gave her a notebook and pen to write her story. She wrote it in Bengali and it was translated from Hindi to English by Urvashi Butalia to resounding international acclaim in 2006. Earlier this year Speaking Tiger Books published Pooranam Elayathamby’s Perhaps Tomorrow: The Memoir of a Sri Lankan Housemaid in the Middle East. Pooranam has co-authored it with her husband Richard Anderson.

Recently there have been other perspectives published as well. A seminal book is Tripti Lahiri’s Maid in India just published by Aleph. It is a sobering and disturbing account of maids. It is based on innumerable interviews.

Award-winning fashion designer Wendell Roderick’s extraordinary collection of short stories Poskem: Goans in the Shadows It is about the Poskim of Goa. These were young children taken in by wealthy families and retained most often as servants. Through a bunch of short stories focused on events which he says are “all tragically true” though the names and characters are his creations Wendell Rodericks shows another side to this complicated relationship.  In the Winter 2015, Granta 130 issue which focused on writing from India, Deepti Kapoor wrote a hard-to-forget story, A Double-Income Family,  about a Mrs Mehra and her domestic living in a gated community. And then there is award-winning children’s literature writer Payal Kapadia’s first “grown-up” book Maidless in MumbaiIt has been published by Bloomsbury India and promoted with the blurb: “A funny, irreverent, tongue-in-cheek look at the maid-memsahib relationship on the cusp of social change: the horrifying prospect of being wholly dependent on those we employ; the terrifying notion that maids are a dying breed; and the spectre of surviving in a world without them!”

It is an extremely tangled socio-economic relationship that exists in Indian society today. As Veena Venugopal, journalist and author, wrote recently in “Pop goes the class bubble” ( Hindu Blink, 30 June 2017) :

Class and caste difference are, of course, endemic to India. Yet, never before in our history have so many people managed to employ so many others in their service. Predictably, we are unsure about the exact terms of that engagement. An Indian upbringing instinctively teaches us to negotiate for everything. And so we do, browbeating the maid to take ₹1,000 less in her salary, offering the driver an overtime and then arguing about the calculation of it. And then we go shopping, and hey! everything’s on sale, and we don’t even realise when the bill gets to ₹15,000. The maid sees this. She knows enough mathematics to calculate how many months’ salary that is. But we carry on — consumption is our entitlement, social parity is not our problem. Until, one day, we turn around and find two decades of resentment standing in our kitchen, bearing a knife that is not intended to be used for dicing potatoes. “Shocking”, we’ll all say when we hear that account.

For a while, a couple of years ago, with the intention of writing a book, I researched stories of housemaids in India. The accounts of employers — people like us — that I heard were horrific. No holidays, no food, no increments, no healthcare and, more often than you’d think, no pay even. In an ad that was running on television those days, Amitabh Bachchan scolded his help for buying the wrong brand of bulb, and said, “Please stop this habit of thinking”. Several helps I spoke to referred to this ad. “It’s bad for you when we think,” one said, “because in your hearts you know that you haven’t done anything to deserve happy thoughts from us.”

In this uneasy, mutually suspicious cohabitation lies the real future of the country’s social fabric. 

13 July 2017 

 

J.R.R. Tolkien, legal battle with Warner Bros and two new books

On 3 July 2017 news broke that HarperCollins and Tolkien estate have settled a £62m or $80 million lawsuit against Warner Bros, filed in November 2012. According to The Bookseller  it was “over the licensing of online games, apps, slot machines and other types of gambling merchandise based on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings following a five-year dispute, Warner Bros has confirmed”. According to the Telegraph, Tolkien’s estate had accused the defendants of violating a 1969 agreement allowing the sale of “tangible” merchandise, by associating the books with the “morally-questionable (and decidedly non-literary) world of online and casino gambling”. The estate claimed this “outraged Tolkien’s devoted fan base” and irreparably harmed the legacy of the English author and Oxford English professor who died in 1973 at the age of 81. Curiously the estate was alerted to this fact when a SPAM email selling this merchandise landed in the Tolkien’s lawyer’s inbox!


The settlement could not have been better timed given that Tolkien’s third son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien has just published Beren and Lúthien. It is a new book by JRR Tolkien published for the first time a 100 years after it was first written. It has been described as a “very personal story” that the Oxford professor thought up after returning from the Battle of the Somme. It is edited by Christopher Tolkien and contains versions of a tale that became part of The Silmarillion. The book features exquisite book illustrations by Alan Lee, who won an Academy Award for his work on Peter Jackson’s film trilogy. Tolkien specialist John Garth, who wrote Tolkien And The Great War, said the Hobbit author used his writing like an “exorcism” of the horrors he witnessed in World War One. John Garth reviewed the book for New Statesman . He writes:

Beren and Lúthien contains one thread, woven in turn from strands as diverse as the Welsh Culhwch and Olwen and the German “Rapunzel”. Tolkien’s big idea was that his “Lost Tales” were the pure, ungarbled originals of such oral stories. Aided by his storytelling verve, and embedded in his matrix of invented history, geography and language, it rises far above pastiche. A wild, ragged wanderer and an elf princess meet by unlikely chance and fall in love. Her scornful father sets what seems an impossible marriage condition – regaining one of the Silmarils from the iron crown of the satanic enemy Morgoth.

That inspirational moment in the wood at Roos, Yorkshire, was central both to Tolkien’s creative and to his personal lives. The names Beren and Lúthien are carved under his name (1973) and Edith’s (1971) on their Oxford headstone. So this book – with watercolours and pencil sketches by the veteran Tolkien artist Alan Lee – is presented by its editor, their third child, Christopher, as a memorial to his parents. And it is the capstone to a job Christopher began with The Silmarillion, published in 1977 – a seamless editorial construct from a bewilderment of posthumous papers, which he gave the full scholarly treatment in his later, 12-volume History of Middle-earth.

Isolating the thread of the Beren and Lúthien story, Christopher (now 92) walks a difficult line, but successfully conveys its evolution by making generous selections from Tolkien’s own versions, with some bridging comments of his own. The book includes the early “Lost Tales” plus nearly 3,000 lines of a verse version begun in 1925 and abandoned in 1931, The Lay of Leithian. Interspersed are portions of chronicle-style retellings from successive Silmarillions written in 1926, 1930 and 1937 – the last of these abandoned in mid-flow when a publisher demanded a sequel to the newly published Hobbit instead.

A couple of years ago Christopher Tolkien had also released his father’s delicious translation of Beowulf. It is enriched by the endnotes and lectures.

Given this context and that good content in the twenty-first century is considered as valuable as oil then the legal battle won by the Tolkien estate and his daughter is absolutely stupendous. These books are still not out of copyright and certainly not the recent ones published by Tolkien’s children. So the estate stands to gain.

In March 2017 it was revealed that Oxford University’s Bodleian Library will release a title featuring illustrations, letters and other material from Tolkien’s archives that have never before been seen by the public, to coincide with a major exhibition on The Lord of the Rings author in 2018. It will open in June 2018.

( Both the books have been published by HarperCollins.)

4 July 2017