Literary Prizes Posts

The JCB Prize for Literature

 

Creative installation at the launch of The JCB Prize for Literature

Lord Bamford, Chairman, JCB

Recently the Rs 25 lakh JCB Prize for Literature was announced. It is not the first literary prize in India nor is it the first of such a large value. Before this the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature offered a cash prize of $50,000 which was drastically cut by 50% to $25,000 in 2017.  The generous JCB Prize will focus on a distinguished work of fiction and consider translations too. Self-published works will not be eligible. Authors must be Indian citizens. The longlist of ten will be announced in September, and a shortlist of five in October, with the winner to be declared at an awards ceremony on November 3. Each shortlisted author will receive Rs 1 lakh ($1500). The winning author will receive a further Rs 25 lakhs (approx. $38000). An additional Rs 5 lakhs ($7700) will be awarded to the translator if the winning work is a translation.

The Literary Director is award-winning author Rana Dasgupta. The advisory council consists of businessman Tarun Das (Chairperson), Rana Dasgupta, art historian Pheroza Godrej, award winning writer Amitava Ghosh and academic and translator Prof. Harish Trivedi. The jury for 2018 consists of filmmaker Deepa Mehta (Chairperson), novelist and playwright Vivek Shanbhag, translator Arshia Sattar, entrepreneur and scholar Rohan Murty, and theoretical astrophysicist and author Priyanka Natarajan.

Rana Dasgupta, Literary Director, The JCB Prize for Literature

To formally announce the prize an elegant launch was organised at The Imperial, New Delhi on 4 April 2018 where the who’s who of the literary world gathered. It was by invitation only. Those who spoke at the event were Lord Bramford, Chairman, JCB, and Rana Dasgupta, Literary Director.  Lord Bramford spoke of the fond memories he had of his travels through India in the 1960s. Rana Dasgupta underlined the fact that most of the prestigious literary awards are not always open to Indian writers and especially not for translations, a gap that the JCB Prize wishes to address. He also announced a tie-up with the Jaipur Literature Festival (details to be announced later). In fact, all three directors of JLF were present – Namita Gokhale, William Dalrymple and Sanjoy Roy.

Namita Gokhale, writer and publisher; Rajni Malhotra, books division head, Bahrisons with Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, International publishing consultant

Literary awards are very welcome for they always have an impact. They help sell books, authors are “discovered” by readers and the prize money offers financial assistance to a writer. Prizes also influence publishers’ commissioning strategies. The biggest prize in terms of its impact factor are the two prizes organised by the Man Booker – for fiction and translation.

Lady Bamford, founder of Daylesford and Bamford with William Dalrymple, art historian and writer

Keki N. Daruwalla, poet, with David Davidar, co-founder, Aleph Books

Amitabha Bagchi, novelist with Vipin Sondhi, CEO, JCB India

Recognising the importance of financial security for a writer Lord Bramford told the Indian Express “Money often is a good motivator…Creative people like writers or artists often don’t get much reward. And we wanted to reward them.” This is borne out by award-winning writer Sarah Perry who wrote in The Guardian recently about winning the East Anglian book of the year award in 2014, it gave her not only legitimacy for her work but enabled her to afford a better computer to write upon; she “felt suddenly at ease. … I felt like an apprentice carpenter given the tools of the trade by a benevolent guild.” Poet and novelist Jeet Thayil too echoed similar feelings on stage when he won the $50,000 DSC Prize in 2013 for Narcopolis. Just as novelist Jerry Pinto did when he won the 2016 Windham-Campbell Prize of $150,000.

Ira Pande, editor and translator; Diya Kar, publisher, HarperCollins India with professor Harish Trivedi, member, Advisory Council, The JCB Prize for Literature

Lord Bamford, Chairman of JCB; Neelima Adhar, poet and novelist, Arvind Mewar, 76th custodian of Mewar dynasty

The JCB Prize for Literature is a tremendous initiative! It will undoubtedly impact the Indian publishing ecosystem. If publishers do not have eligible entries to send immediately particularly in the translation category, they will commission new titles. The domino effect this action will be of discovering “new” literature in translation and encouraging literary fiction by Indian writers, which for now is dwindling. By making literature available in English and giving it prominence there has to be a positive spin-off especially in terms of increased rights sales across book territories and greater visibility for the authors and translators.

( Pictures used with permission of the JCB Prize for Literature)

3 May 2018 

Patti Smith “Devotion”

In 2016 Patti Smith was invited to deliver the Windham-Campbell Lecture, delivered annually to commemorate the awarding of the Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prizes at Yale University. It has now been published in an expanded form, Devotion, by Yale University Press with an essay on writing, an unsettling short story ( which in a way illustrates her musings of the opening essay) and finally, her lecture. Here is an extract: 

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Why is one compelled to write? To set oneself apart, cocooned, rapt in solitude, despite the wants of others. Virginia Woolf had her room. Proust his shuttered windows. Marguerite Duras her muted house. Dylan Thomas his modest shed. All seeking an emptiness to imbue with words. the words that will penetrate virgin territory, crack unclaimed combinations, articulate the infinite. The words that formed LolitaThe Lover, Our Lady of the Flowers.

There are stacks of notebooks that speak of years of aborted efforts, deflated euphoria, a relentless pacing of the boards. We must write, engaging in a myriad of struggles, as if breaking in a willful foal. We must write, but not without consistent effort and a measure of sacrifice: to channel the future, to revisit childhood, and to rein in the follies and horrors of the imagination for a pulsating race of readers.

Things are slow moving. There is a pencil stub in my pocket.

What is the task? To compose a work that communicates on several levels, as in a parable, devoid of the stain of cleverness.

What is the dream? To write something fine, that would be better than I am, and that would justify my trials and indiscretions. To offer proof, through a scramble of words, that God exists.

Why do I write? My finger, as a stylus, traces the question in the blank air.  A familiar riddle posed since youth, withdrawing from play, comrades and the valley of love, girded with words, a beat outside.

Why do we write? A chorus erupts.

Because we cannot simply love.

Patti Smith Devotion: The 2016 Windham-Campbell Lecture Yale University Press, New Haven, 2017. Hb. pp.

28 April 2018 

Kit de Waal’s “The Trick to Time”

‘One day,’ he says, and his voice is kind so Mona knows she isn’t getting a telling-off, ‘one day, you will want these hours back, my girl. You will wonder how you lost them and you will want to get them back. There’s a trick to time.’

‘What’s the trick, Dadda?’

He likes to explain things so Mona expects a good long answer that might delay them getting back home.

‘You can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or make it longer,’ he says. 

Kit de Waal’s second novel The Trick to Time is about a young Irish girl Desdemona usually called Mona who leaves Ireland to work in Birmingham. It is the 1970s. On her first night in the city she meets William, an Irish lad, and soon after a whirlwind romance they are married. She is not even twenty. Mona had left her father and the tiny Irish village she grew up in to get a job. While in Birmingham she enrolled herself in evening classes to be a seamstress. William and she are extraordinarily happy with each other till a terrible tragedy shatters their world. It is compounded by the fact that William is caught in the ghastly IRA bombings that happened in Birmingham on 21 November 1974.

When the novel opens Mona, now nearly sixty, is an established doll-maker, mostly heirloom pieces, an exquisite seamstress of dolls clothes and sells beautiful wooden dolls, some fitted out in vintage wear. Dresses she painstakingly puts together by scouring thrift shops and flea markets for fabric and pieces of clothing which if need be she carefully pulls apart to recreate the clothes for her dolls. She relies upon a carpenter to make her wooden dolls. Ever so often her door will ring and a lone woman will walk in with the words “Gayle sent me.” A very peaceful air envelops the two women, strangers, while they converse engulfing the “howling grief” of the customer but Mona with immense tenderness seeks the relevant information about weight and fixes the next appointment. It all happens civilly without adding to the trauma of the grieving mother.

The Trick to Time is an extraordinary novel suffused with extreme tenderness, gentleness, understanding and kindness even though there is pain and misery. Its focus is on living life joyfully, considering each moment as blessed,  without ignoring or forgetting that which hurts, is what comes through beautifully particularly in the poised manner in which Mona conducts herself. While being an efficient seamstress who sells exquisite dolls, she quietly helps keening mothers deal with the loss of their newborns, sometimes many years after the birth of the stillborn. Her healing sessions are unusual. She requests the carpenter to carve and polish a block of wood equal in weight to that of the grieving mother’s lost newborn. Then tucking the woman into a comfortable chair holding the piece of wood draped in a garment belonging to the beloved child, Mona weaves a magnificently hypnotic tale involving shared moments between mother and child through adulthood.  The pained grief the reader feels too in these private moments are movingly created by the writer and yet there is an abundance of kindness and sympathy present.

The Trick to Time is definitely literary fiction that is recognizably working class in its themes, language, characters and stories. For instance it is not only a history of the changes in maternal care and attitude towards stillborn from the gruesomely cold attitude of the 1970s nurses to a more caring and understanding attitude including of setting up support groups for mothers in today’s day and age. The novel is a sensitive study of not only how women are affected but also men as evident in William’s reaction to the loss of his daughter. Kit de Waal also talks about the working class thereby subverting that which is even today considered acceptable in contemporary literary fiction — this at a time when the conversations about inclusive or diversity in publishing are increasing rapidly. In a fabulous talk “Where are all the working class writers?” on BBC 4 Radio broadcast on 23 Nov 2017 she said  “The more we reinforce the stereotypes of who writes and who reads, the more the notion of exclusivity is reinforced. It takes balls to gatecrash a party.” She reiterates talking about class is still an awkward conversation to have. In an interview with Boundless she was asked about Lionel Shriver’s ( now infamous remark) about “cultural appropriation” and if a writer should only write from their point of view; to which Kit de Waal said she concurred with Lionel Shriver but added wisely: “I have written to some extent about certain experiences I have had or have been close to. I would certainly write about experiences I haven’t had – I probably will do in future novels – provided I was certain of three things – and this is especially true where the experience was a sensitive subject (as is race, racism, adoption, mental health and stillbirth, as in my first two novels) a) that I was going to say something new or different to what had already been said on the subject, b) that I had done as much research as I possibly could including talking to people who had had the experience or were from the community, reading, watching films and so forth until I was immersed in that experience, certain of my facts, had paid the subject sufficient attention and had taken no shortcuts, c) that if someone criticised me for writing about that subject or experience I would be able to take that criticism.All of this is a question of respect. Lionel Shriver is completely right that we can write about whatever we want. Whether or not we are entitled to write whatever we want is an entirely different matter. Entitlement is a dangerous attitude, bringing with it notions of privilege, possession and exclusion. We only own our story and then only from our point of view – which one of us agrees with our siblings about every detail of our childhood? Stray from our narrow experience and we trespass on someone else’s, potentially. Yes, write whatever you want but interrogate yourself as to what you bring that is different, that is new, that is unique and whether or not you are best placed to be the one to tell that story. And always guard against arrogance and disrespect.”

Although Kit de Waal reiterates in an essay in the Guardian “…without talking about the upper- or middle-class white men and women who wrote the classics and some of the masterpieces of literature. I love their writing, respect – no, envy – their skill and craft, and cherish those books that tell us so much about the world and what it is to be human. These are works that, as Italo Calvino says, haven’t finished saying what they have to say. This isn’t a plea to take them off the shelf. It isn’t a case of us or them; it’s a case of us and them. Shove all those other books up a bit and make room on the shelf for stories from all of the communities that make up the working class. We do literature and ourselves a disservice if we don’t.” ( “Kit de Waal: ‘Make room for working class writers’ ” 10 Feb 2018, The Guardian). In fact she crowdfunded Common People: An Anthology of Working Class Writers — a collection of essays, poems and pieces of personal memoir, bringing together sixteen well-known writers from working class backgrounds.

Kit de Waal has this incredible talent of making visible particularly that of female experience which is usually not seen in mainstream literary fiction especially when it comes to working class fiction. She is the 21C version of Charles Dickens. With her memorable and absolutely stupendous debut novel My Name is Leon she focused upon growing up as a child in early 1980s in a working class neighbourhood and related issues of fostering, childcare, angry children and looking out for one another. Kit de Waal has worked in family and criminal law for many years, has been a magistrate and written training manuals on fostering and adoption; she also grew up with a mother who fostered children. In The Trick to Time she makes visible tiny but crucial details such as Mona looking after the carpenter, her kindness extending itself to warmly embrace the grieving mothers without letting on that she herself would like to keen for her stillborn child, or simply the descriptions of her living alone at home peacefully and pottering. These tiny actions are liberating as most often than not women’s actions are either dictated or circumscribed by a man in their lives, who loves to colonise their time. This is evident in how the German Karl tries to woo Mona largely by disrupting her peaceful schedule. All these details that would otherwise be considered too pedantic for literary fiction are in an ever so gentle manner brought into focus.

With the generous publishing advance the author received for her first novel she set up the Kit de Waal Creative Writing Fellowship to help improve working-class representation in the arts. Launched in October 2016 at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities, the scholarship provides a fully funded place for one student to study on the Birkbeck Creative Writing MA, and also includes a generous travel bursary to allow the student to travel into London for classes and Waterstones’ vouchers to allow the student to buy books on the reading list. The inaugural scholarship was awarded to former Birmingham poet laureate Stephen Morrison-Burke.

The Trick to Time was on the longlist of the Women’s Prize 2018 and it is a pity it never made it to the shortlist. Nevertheless it is a book meant to be read and shared. It will be a sleeper hit for it is bound to be read by book clubs worldwide as well has great potential of being adapted for cable television or cinemas. The Trick to Time is a book that will endear itself to many as it justifiably should!

Read it.

Kit de Waal The Trick To Time Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books, London, UK, 2018. Pb. pp.260 

27 April 2018 

 

 

 

 

Lindsey Fitzharris “The Butchering Art”

Lister came to the vital realization that he couldn’t prevent a wound from having contact with germs in the atmosphere. So he turned his attention to finding a means of destroying microorganisms within the wound itself, before infection could set in. Pasteur had conducted a number of experiments that demonstrated that germs could be destroyed in three ways: by heat, by filtration, or by antiseptics. Lister ruled out the first two because neither were applicable to the treatment of wounds. Instead, he focused on finding the most effective antiseptic for killing germs without causing injury: When I read Pasteur’s article, I said to myself: just as we can destroy lice on the nit-filled head of a child by applying a poison that causes a lesion to the scalp, so I believe that we can apply to a patient’s wounds toxic products that will destroy the bacteria without harming the soft parts of this tissue.” 

British surgeon Joseph Lister ( 5 April 1827 – 10 February 1912) was a pioneer of antiseptic surgery. He was born in a devout Quaker family. Simplicity was the Quaker way of life. Lister was not allowed to hunt, participate in sports, or attend the theater. “Life was a gift to be employed in honoring God and helping one’s neighbor, not in the pursuit of frivolities. Because of this, many Quakers turned to scientific endeavors, one of the few past times allowed by their faith.” His father, Joseph Jackson Lister, managed the centuries old family business of being wine merchants  but it was his discovery of the achromatic lens to eliminate the distracting halo in the compound microscope that earned him worldwide fame. This lens was showcased in 1830. His son, Joseph Lister, grew up in such a home where the spirit of inquiry was encouraged as was exploring miniature worlds with the microscope.

The very first time he looked down the barrel of a microscope, Lister marveled at the intricate world that had previously been hidden from his sight. He delighted in the fact that the objects he could observe under the magnifying lens were seemingly infinite. Once, he plucked a shrimp from the sea and watched in awe at “the heart beating very rapidly” and “the aorta pulsating.” He noticed how the blood slowly circulated through the surface of the limbs and over the back of the heart as the creature wriggled under his gaze. 

Yet Lister’s decision to become a surgeon was met with surprise by his family as it was a job that involved physically intervening in God’s handiwork.

And surgery, in particular, carried with a certain social stigma even for those outside the Quaker community. The surgeon was very much viewed as a manual laborer who used his hands to make his living, much like a key cutter or plumber of today. Nothing better demonstrated the inferiority of surgeons than their relative poverty. Before 1848, no major hospital had a salaried surgeon on its staff, and most surgeons ( with the exception of a notable few) made very little money from their private practices. 

Lister had an insatiable curiosity about the world and was forever creating slides to view under his microscope. Later in Edinburgh he would convert a portion of his study at home into a laboratory where there were always perched tubes filled with different materials, plugged with balls of cotton. Next to it would be his microscope and slides he made. He was also a proficient artist — a skill that would help him document in startling detail his observations made during his medical career. Yet all through his life Lister also battled depression, a “garment of darkness”, which would often descend upon him. Despite these odds he would work in the hospital and later return home to do his research. Many would marvel at his dedication and diligence.

The early training to use a microscope was to stand Joseph Lister in good stead throughout his career as he pondered over the crucial question as to why wounds that were open inevitably festered and proved fatal for the patient whereas internal injuries such as broken bones healed and the patient recovered normally. Years later his supervisor would recall that while working together at the University College Hospital in 1851, Lister “had a better microscope than any man in college”. It was the microscope that would eventually help Lister unlock the medical mystery that had been plaguing his profession for centuries. This was at a time in the nineteenth century when surgeons believed pus was a natural part of the healing process rather than a sinister sign of sepsis, so most deaths were due to postoperative infections. Operation theaters were gateways to death. Infections were frequent in hospitals. They were filthy institutions as exemplified by an anecdote where a patient lay on a hospital bed completely unaware that the mushrooms growing on his damp bed sheet was not normal. The four major infections to plague hospitals in the nineteenth century were erysipelas or St. Anthony’s Fire ( an acute skin infection which turned the skin bright red and shiny), hospital gangrene ( ulcers that lead to decay of flesh, muscle, and bone), septicemia ( blood poisoning), and pyemia ( development of pus-filled abscesses). the increase in infection and suppuration brought on by the “big four” later became known as hospitalism.

The best that can be said about Victorian hospitals is that they were a slight improvement over their Georgian predecessors. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement when one considers that a hospital’s “Chief Bug-Catcher” — whose job it was to rid the mattresses of lice—was paid more than its surgeons. 

Nineteenth century doctors had multiple theories for why infections occurred although they were clueless about how infectious diseases spread. Many surgeons believed pus was a natural part of the healing process rather than a sinister sign of sepsis. Another theory was that patients were infected by miasma arising from corrupt wounds. Between the 1850s and 1860s there was a shift from miasma being the root cause of infections towards contagion theories. Some doctors believed that contagious diseases were transmitted via a chemical or even small “invisible bullets”. Others thought it might be transmitted via an “animalcule”, a catchall term for small organisms.

The Butchering Art’s  graphic descriptions of surgical procedures in nineteenth century are horrific. They were a spectacle with the surgery taking place in a theatre packed to the gills mostly with students, physicians and few curious onlookers. Most surgeries before the discovery of choloroform were conducted with the patient wide awake through the painful procedure. The crude surgical instruments used were by today’s standards basic such as a saw. ( See image) Unfortunately most patients died in post-operative care inevitable due to infection setting in. Popular belief held it was due to the bad air in the vicinity of patient resulting in infection and ultimately death.

With the discovery of chloroform by the Scottish obstetrician James Y. Simpson and advent of anesthesia in 1846 the number of operations increased as surgeons were more comfortable operating knowing that their patients would no longer feel the pain of the knife cutting through them.  Although hospitals in Victorian England were being rebuilt with more wards the high rate of mortality continued to grow as number of patients also increased and it became near impossible to keep hospitals clean and contain the infections. Primarily also because infection control was unheard of and hospitals were known by the public as “Houses of Death”. In Victorian England population also grew dramatically from one million to over six million with at times more than thirty people living in one room. There was dirt and filth with absolute no sense of public hygiene; infections were bound to spread.

Completing his education in London, Lister moved to Edinburgh, the city which had established itself as the city of surgery. He went to work with Professor James Syme, surgeon at Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary. Syme’s colleagues called him “the Napoleon of Surgery”. He was lightning fast as was his equally legendary cousin in London, Robert Liston, whose surgeries too Lister had witnessed. In fact Liston designed an amputation knife with a blade fourteen inches long and and a quarter inches wide. The dagger’s point, the last two inches of which were razor-sharp, was created to cut through the skin, thick muscles, tendons, and tissues of the thigh with a single slice. The “Liston knife” was Jack the Ripper’s weapon of choice for gutting his victims when he went on his killing spree in 1888.

While working in Edinburgh Lister realized his patients continued to die due to hospitalism. Frustrated Lister began taking tissue samples of his patients to study under the lens of his microscope so he could better understand what was happening at the cellular level. He was determined to understand the mechanisms behind inflammation trying to figure out the connection between inflammation and hospital gangrene. He and other surgeons tried many “solutions” such as using vellum to cover the wound to control inflammation and “water dressings” or wet bandages which they believed counteracted the heat of inflammation by keeping the wound cool. But there was no consensus as to why this occurred in the first place.

In the 1860s Lister was convinced cleanliness would help reduce mortality rates in hospitals due to hospitalism. Prior to this three doctors — Scotsman Alexander Gordon ( 1789), American essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes ( 1843) and Ignaz Semmelweis in Vienna (1847) — had tried making a similar connection between transmission of morbid substances from doctor to patient. Lister was so obsessed by this puzzle that his house surgeon said of him that a “divine discontent” possessed him.

His mind, he said, “worked ceaselessly in an effort to see clearly the nature of the problem to be solved.” Lister’s exasperation spilled over into the classroom, where he turned to his students with the question that had been haunting him for some time: “It is a common observation that, when some injury is received without the skin being broken, the patient inevitably recovers and that without any severe illness. On the other hand trouble of the gravest kind is always apt to follow, even in trivial injuries, when a wound of the skin is present. How is this? The man who is able to explain this problem will gain undying fame.” 

It was the behest of his colleague and chemistry professor, Thomas Anderson, that Lister became familiar with the research on fermentation and putrefaction  of French microbiologist and chemist Louis Pasteur. Upon reading Pasteur’s publications on the decomposition of organic material Lister began replicating the French scientist’s experiments in his laboratory at home. Pasteur’s experiments confirmed that fermentation was a biological process and that the yeast that helped produce wine was a living organism. His experiments established what is now considered a cornerstone of biology: Only life begets life. Soon the word “germ” was being used to describe these protean microbes. Pasteur began making the connection between putrefaction and fermentation as he was convinced both processes were caused by the growth of minute microorganisms. Lister too was now of the opinion that it was not the air as such but its constituent of microbial life that was the source of hospital infection.

Lister came to the vital realization that he couldn’t prevent a wound from having contact with germs in the atmosphere. So he turned his attention to finding a means of destroying microorganisms within the wound itself, before infection could set in. Pasteur had conducted a number of experiments that demonstrated that germs could be destroyed in three ways: by heat, by filtration, or by antiseptics. Lister ruled out the first two since neither were applicable to the treatment of wounds. Instead he focused on finding the most effective antiseptic for killing germs without causing further injury. 

Many substances considered to be antiseptic such as wine, quinine, iodine and turpentine, had proved ineffective or caused further damage to the tissue, making the wound vulnerable to infection. Lister tried many solutions including the popular Condy’s fluid or potassium permanganate. None worked. Then Lister remembered reading that engineers at a sewage works in Carlisle had used carbolic acid to counteract the smell of rotting garbage and to render odorless nearby pastures that were irrigated with liquid waste. An unexpected benefit of the carbolic acid was that it also killed the protozoan parasites that had caused outbreaks of cattle plague in the livestock that grazed in these fields.  Carbolic acid, also known as phenol, is a derivative of coal tar and was first discovered in 1834. Lister obtained samples of crude acid and observed its properties under the microscope. Soon he began experimenting with it on his patients but realized he needed to be a little more disciplined and methodical in his approach. So after a few trials he suspended using carbolic acid as a disinfectant for wounds in hospitals and waited for a patient with a compound fracture to show up.

…compound fractures [are] injuries in which splintered bone lacerated the skin. This particular kind of break had a high rate of infection and frequently led to amputation. From an ethical standpoint, testing carbolic acid on compound fractures was sound. If the antiseptic failed, the leg could still be amputated — something that would have likely occurred anyway. But if the carbolic acid worked, then the parent’s limb would be saved. 

In early August 1865 Lister had the opportunity to work upon the compound fracture of eleven-year-old James Greenlees whose leg had been crushed by a the metal-rimmed wheels of a cart. Lister tended to the wound by creating a space in the putty cast in to which he poured carbolic acid. He looked after the boy himself for the next few days. After the initial few days inflammation began to set in and no amount of diluted carbolic acid could stem the redness. It was then Lister created a new solution of carbolic acid with olive oil. It worked. Six weeks and two days after the cart had shattered his lower leg, James Greenlees walked out of the Royal Infirmary.

Although Lister was evangelical about antiseptic methods there were few adopters of this method. In fact his critics were greater in number and began to write even in respected medical journals like The Lancet. For a while Lister was caught in a terrible wrangle with his contemporaries about the benefits of using antiseptics and it was proving impossible for hospitals to consider using carbolic acid despite statistics proving the dramatic fall of mortality rates in which Lister had enforced antiseptics be used. That is until 4 September 1871 when Lister was summoned to Balmoral Castle to attend to Queen Victoria who was gravelly ill with an abscess in her armpit that had grown to the size of an orange. Lister chose to lance the boil and used carbolic spray to disinfect the room. The next day when he came to dress the wound he realized that pus was forming once more. He needed to quickly stem the spread of infection. Spotting the atomizer he removed the rubber tubing of the apparatus, soaked it overnight in carbolic acid, and inserted it into the wound the following morning in order to drain the pus. It worked. Queen Victoria recovered.

With the royal stamp of approval to Lister’s antiseptic system the surgeon’s fame spread far and wide. His methods were accepted as far as in London. In 1876 Joseph Lister was invited to defend his methods at the International Medical Congress in Philadelphia. The American tour was a success. It also resulted in spreading awareness as well as popularizing personal hygiene products. One of these was  Listerine invented by Dr. Joseph Joshua Lawrence in 1879 who had attended Lister’s lecture in Philadelphia, “which inspired him to begin manufacturing his own antiseptic concoction in the back of an old cigar factory in St. Louis shortly thereafter. ” Other products that sprang up were carbolic soap and toothpaste. Astonishingly one of the most surprising offshoots of this tour was the establishment of a corporation recognizable even today — Johnson & Johnson. Robert Wood Johnson upon hearing Lister speak joined forces with his two brothers, James and Edward, and founded a company to manufacture the first sterile surgical dressings and sutures mass-produced according to Lister’s methods. Lister died in 1912 after having been knighted by Queen Victoria and winning many other awards and recognition for his work.

Dr. Lindsay Fitzharris who received her doctorate in the history of medicine, science and technology from the University of Oxford embarked upon educating and engaging with the public during her post-doctoral research. She was fatigued by academia and tenure-track and was far more keen to maintain her blog The Chirurgeons Apprentice and later her videos — Under the Knife .

The Butchering Art is a fantastic history of surgery in the Victorian Age. It is a perfect balance between facts and storytelling without making the subject dull. Dr Fitzharris’s love for the subject shines through. She uses the methodology and discipline of writing academic works in presenting a highly technical subject for the lay reader. The text is well annotated with end notes for every single chapter but not disturbing the design of every page. In fact she has been accused of “bastardizing” the discipline.  To which she replies:

I think there is a misconception that writing popular history is easier than writing academic history. Both have their challenges, and just because a person can write one doesn’t necessarily mean that same person can write the other. I’m a storyteller first and foremost, and an historian second. I don’t apologize for this. Unfortunately, some academics don’t see a value in what I do. But the past doesn’t belong to scholars alone. It belongs to everyone. My hope is that I can bridge the gap between academia and popular history, and open up new and interesting subjects to a curious public.

( History of Science Society @Work interview with Dr Lindsey Fitzharris, April 2018)

 

Even though some of the academics may be disapproving of her style of making the history of medicine available, Dr. Fitzharris has won the 2018 PEN/E.O. Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing and has been shortlisted for the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize. The Butchering Art was also featured in the Top 10 Science Book of Fall 2017, Publishers Weekly and the Best History Book of 2017, The Guardian.

Undoubtedly The Butchering Art is not for the faint-hearted for its gory descriptions of Victorian hospitals, operation theatres and death houses. Nevertheless it is an unusual page-turner for it is purely about scientific progress in Victorian England  and the remarkable discovery of Joseph Lister.

Lindsey Fitzharris The Butchering Art Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, Penguin Random  House, UK, 2017. Hb. pp. 

25 April 2018 

“With the End in Mind: Dying, Death and Wisdom in an Age of Denial” by Kathryn Mannix

Bereaved people, even those who have witnessed the apparently peaceful death of a loved one, ofen need to tell their story repeatedly, and that is an important part of transfering the experience they endured into a memory, instead of reliving it like a parallel reality every time they think about it. 

And those of us who look after very sick people sometimes need to debrief too. It keeps us well, and able to go back to the workplace to be reqounded in the line of duty. 

….

Cognitive therapist and palliative medicine pioneer Kathryn Mannix’s With the End In Mind is a collection of medico-narrative stories which focus on the stages of dying. Usually the stories focus on terminally ill patients as it is in such scenarios the patients and their families are anxious and fearful of impending death. The stories are based on decades of her experience with the NHS in UK. They are stories which work equally well as case studies and for the benefit of getting the point across well at times Dr Mannix has clubbed together experiences of more than one patient in one narrative. These are grouped in sections such as “Patterns”, “My Way”, “Naming Death”, “Looking Beyond the Now”, “Legacy” and “Transcendance”.

The stories included in the volume are extraordinary. It is not only the magical quality to the storytelling of experiences while sitting by a patient’s deathbed but it is the calm sense of peace and kindness that pervades every single story. Undoubtedly the crippling anxiety that grips every patient and their families as death approaches has its impact on the families. Every one has a different response mechanism in managing the situation. These may be defined by an individual’s choice of the cultural codes of behaviour they have learned to adopt while processing the dastardly news. The stories are about the experiences of all ages of patients including those who have died in hospitals or those who have died at home surrounded by family. It is always the conversations about dying with every person and their caregivers that may never be easy but has to be conducted.

Notice how often you hear euphemisms like ‘passed’, ‘passed away’, ‘lost’, in conversations and in the media. How can we talk about dying, plan our care or support those we love during dying, theirs or ours, if we are not prepared to name death?

There are many conversations recounted that are memorable for demonstrating to a lay person and the medical professional that certain bedside manners with a large dose of humility, patience, honesty, level headedness, cultural sensitivity, and empathy are required when on a death watch whether offering solace to keening mothers who have lost their babies or even the elderly.  There is one particularly straightforward conversation the “leader” ( head of the hospice where Dr Mannix worked as a young physician) had with a WWII French resistance woman called Sabine who wears her Resistance Medal and who withstood the terror of war and yet was afraid of death. She was an elegant eighty-year-old inmate who was always well mannered and well turned out. Kathryn Mannix was a young trainee in the new speciality of palliative medicine. Her trainer was the consultant in charge of the hospice who had a good rapport with Sabine as he was bilingual and would at times converse with her in French. So when he decided to have the conversation about dying with her in the presence of the nurse to whom she had confided her fears and the young physician Kathryn Mannix, no one was prepared for how the conversation would develop. For the young Kathryn Mannix this particular episode was transformative and has lived with her throughout her career as if on a cinema reel. It formed the basis of her future practice, teaching her to be calm in the face of other people’s storms of fear and “to be confident that the more we understand about the way dying proceeds, the better we will manage it”. She realised over decades of clinical practice that:

The process of dying is recognisable. There are clear stages, a predictable sequence of events. In the generations of humanity before dying was hijacked into hospitals, the process was common knowledge and had been seen many times by anyone who lived into their thirties or forties. Most communities relied on local wise women to support patient and family during and after a death, much as they did ( and still do) during and after a birth. The art of dying has become a forgotten wisdom, but every deathbed is an opportunity to restore that wisdom to those who will live, to benefit from it as they face other deaths in the future, including their own. 

It is curious that Dr Mannix refers to the “art of dying being a forgotten wisdom” as coincidentally historian and chronicler of Delhi and accomplished Urdu translator Rana Safvi mentioned that she has read an account of daily life within the Red Fort during Mughal times where existed a category of women called khair salla waaliyan. They were employed in the Red Fort presumably by the noble families. Their job was to look after well being of the family. They weren’t necessarily nurses or care givers but who could make people feel good.  She thinks their job was to look after the emotional well being of the people being left behind the dying person. None exist now. It is only the professional mourners like the rudalis who continue to exist in Indian society.

Preparation for death is culturally specific too as with the Swedish ‘Döstädning’, or ‘death cleaning’ which is the focus of Margareta Magnusson’s The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning discussed beautifully in Christina Patterson’s essay “The ‘new hygge’: downshifting for death“. Journalist Arifa Akbar in her interview with Dr Mannix asked a pertinent question noticeable by its absence in the book itself:

AA: The people whose stories you tell in the book do not ever talk about God or an afterlife. Did you edit out these discussions? (You have said that you didn’t want to discuss religion in the context of end-of-life as it can be polarising and unhelpful.) Could you say if some patients do talk about this aspect and if it is helpful to them?

KM: People’s spirituality manifests in different ways. Where this is a religious faith, then people do discuss God and their hopes, anxieties and desires for an afterlife, as well as measuring their personal worth against the constructs of their faith. I’ve met people hopeful for heaven, fearful of hell, anticipating reincarnation, angry with God, or leaving their fate entirely in Divine hands; I’ve met people with no belief and at peace with the idea of oblivion, and others feeling sad at the ending of self-awareness; I’ve met people who have lost their longstanding faith in the face of the perceived injustice of illness; I’ve met people who discover a faith amidst the emotional storms of terminal decline.

Dr Mannix offers some thought provoking options to initiate conversations about dying as well as a way for the mourners to come to terms with their grief such as death cafes where people in similar situations could gather and share their experiences. She also provides template of a letter with possible points to consider for having a conversation about dying. She shares a list of resources that can be considered to prepare for this ultimate stage of life and recommends watching Australian intensive care specialist Dr Peter Saul’s TED Talk “Let’s Talk about Dying” ( Nov 2011). She also acknowledges Dr Atul Gawande’s books too.

With the End in Mind is a devastatingly powerful book of which extracts must be made available freely. It is certainly a book to be read cover to cover and take its learnings to heart, make them your own.  Persuade those who are anxious about the deteriorating health of their loved ones to read it. It is going to be a near-impossible task, but try nevertheless.  It is unsurprising that this book is on the Wellcome Book Prize 2018 longlist. Well deserved recognition!

Kathryn Mannix With the End in Mind: Dying, Death and Wisdom in an Age of Denial ( William Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2017. Pb. pp.340 Rs 599 

12 March 2018 

 

Zoe Gilbert’s “Folk”

Zoe Gilbert’s debut collection of short stories Folk as the title suggests been inspired by folklore and oral tradition of storytelling. The stories are set in the fictional land of Neverness, a community of fishermen. The stories are not interlinked but stories revolve around the villagers and their rituals such as the gorse bush kissing game between the adolescents followed by the burning of the vegetation by the elders. Passing of time is measured by the ageing folk whose stories are told. It is a world where there is little difference between reality as most know it and that which exists within folklore. For instance the presence of Verlyn Webbe with his one human arm and one winged arm is unusual but not sufficiently enough to merit comment. When his son Marram is born with down on one hand his mother is agitated and keeps trimming it, otherwise no one else is particularly perturbed. This is life.

Folk is part of Zoe Gilbert’s Ph. D dissertation on the short story at the University of Chichester. Her guide is Alison MacLeod, a remarkable short story writer herself. Zoe Gilbert won the Costa Short Story Award 2014 for her story ‘Fishskin, Hareskin’ which is won when the public votes for the best story from a shortlist. It is about a deeply sad fishwife Ervet, newly married, who yearns for her former life. It is probably also about post-partum depression but what comes through is the intense repulsion Ervet feels for fisherfolk despite being one of them herself. Even her unborn child is constantly referred to as fish. It is a melancholic yet hypnotic story. Zoe Gilbert’s admiration for Angela Carter style of writing and her “adult interest in folktales and more-Grimm-less-Disney fairy tales” are brought together with elegance in Folk.

The fine magical beauty of folklore blossoms in Folk. Zoe Gilbert is a writer to watch out for in coming years.

Zoe Gilbert Folk Bloomsbury, London, 2018. 

28 February 2018 

A. F. Harrold’s “The Song from Somewhere Else”

It was music of a short she’d never heard before.

She was suddenly filled with shoals of fish, darting and moving like one great whole, darting and flowing this way and that, darting and flashing, hundreds and hudnreds of silver fish all moving as if they shared one brain. That was what she saw as she heard this faint, distant music. 

No piece of music she’d ever heard on the radio or in the background of a TV show had ever made her feel so special, had made her feel so cared for, so improved.

The smell of the house, the foresty smell, was stronger now. The air was cool on her face. She heard birdsong, smelt moss, rivers, evening. 

But it was unfair, wasn’t it, keeping such beautiful music, such kind and forgiving music, such perfect and clear and mysterious music, to himself? 

It wasn’t his music now though, was it? It was hers. It was in her ears, in her brain, sparking electricity through synapses in ways that made her unable to resist it. She was hooked like a fish.  

A. F. Harrold’s The Song from Elsewhere is about Francesca Patel or Frank as she is often called and her unlikely friendship with her classmate Nick Underbridge, who is often shunned by others for various reasons, probably because he is a large child, quiet and smells odd.  During the summer break Nick rescues Frank from a bunch of boys who have been bullying her for more than a year now. Afterwards Frank accompanies Nick to his house where she encounters this extraordinarily soothing piece of music.

The Song from Elsewhere may be about fantastical creatures and wormholes or leechways opening a passage to another dimension but is also about friendships, exploring boundaries, relationships and bullies. It is an astonishing novel for young readers with a touch of magic realism. Although having said that the novel is positioned well in that space for impressionable minds for whom imaginary friends, elements of the fantastic and other dimensions run in continuum with their reality. It is beautifullly illustrated by Levi Pinfold.

The longlisting of this book for the CILIP Award 2018 is well deserved.

A. F. Harrold The Song from Somewhere Else ( Illustrated by Levi Pinfold) Bloomsbury, London, 2016. Pb. pp. Rs 299

22 February 2018 

 

An interview with Venita Coelho, “Boy No. 32”

Venita Coelho works with images, words and paint. She is a writer who has worked in film, television and literature. Her published work includes  Dead as a Dodo  which won the Hindu Award for the Best Fiction for Children 2016.  The Washer of the Dead  was long listed for the Frank O’Connor award. She is a screenwriter with films for Dharma Productions and Sanjay Leela Bhansali Productions to her credit. As an artist she works with charcoal and with acrylic paint on glass. She is about to set off on a great adventure – having converted a Tempo traveller into a caravan, she and her daughter are off to travel across India.

Venita Coelho’s recent young adult novel Boy No. 32 is an incredibly gripping book about Battees, an orphan named so after the number given to him — 32. ( In Hindi, the number 32 is called “battees”.) The story is about Battees winessing the presence of a dreaded terrorist, Kashmiri Lall, in his city, Mumbai, and he is now the only one who can help put him behind bars. It is a tremendously well-paced and tautly written book. Impossible to put down once you begin it. Also for the fact Venita Coelho never for an instant “talks down” to youngsters, nor is ever apologetic about the violence around us. Absolutely fantastic!

In this novel intermixing the orphans’ quest for locating Kashmiri Lall with encounters with the eunuchs, the Beggar King, and the horrific complicity of even the adults responsible for them such as Aunty and the cop, is done crisply. The “traditional” bad guys of literature like the eunuch are actually shown to be humane with a little more insight on how their community operates. Equally well-made are the cop and the “aunty” who are so incredibly corrupt, they would do anything for a few extra bucks. Venita Coelho is constantly challenging pre-conceived notions about characters. For instance, instead of giving the warden of the orphanage a name, she is referred to as “Aunty” — a big learning curve for Indian readers who are taught to practically revere an older woman, inevitably calling her “Aunty”, sort of seals this relationship.

Boy No. 32 is highly recommended!

Here are excerpts from an email interview:

I could not help wonder how you came upon this idea? Why?
It came out of the years I spent in Mumbai. The many times I caught the last train out of Churchgate and chatted with all the urchins in the compartment. It came out of all the stories they gave me and the adventures that the city gave.

How long did it take to write? How many revisions did it require?
I am a three draft writer. Knocked the first draft out across one November ” Nanowrimo”. That is ‘National Novel Writing Month’. You sign up at the website and for one month you get cheerleaders who push you along as you frantically write. People around the world are racing to finish their novels and the collect energy is quite astounding. The next two drafts took about eight months. But that was along side being a single mum, earning my living, and surviving Hindi films.

I can see it easily adapted for a school theatre performance — was that your intention?
It’s a movie! We don’t make children’s films in India. Every Hindi film with its songs and dances is essentially a children’s film. There is never a budget to make a ‘children’s film’. So I just put it in a book – Item number and all.

How did these characters come about? Which one struck you first?
Definitely Battees. He’s based on all the cocky little boys who sat down next to me at stations and launched into long stories. I so deeply admire the sheer courage and unputdownability these kids display, and I really wanted one of them to tell his story in his voice. And I have a very big soft spot for Item. Such courage. Such a diva!

Has your day job of writing scripts for the Indian film industry help craft young adult novels?
Not really. Hindi films have no idea of how to talk to young adults. All they ever offer them are mushy love stories. In fact to switch from writing films to books I normally have to do a couple of weeks ‘detox’ when I consciously switch from writing scenes and move to writing descriptions. Another level is moving from the superficial level of films to a deeper emotional level for books.

What has been the response of the kids who have read the book? Have you encountered them at your sessions in different cities?
We’ve had riotous sessions. The kids always love the elephant story – and it gets them thinking about real patriotism. And I always tell them that only one thing separates them from the kid on the street – sheer luck. They could have been born anywhere. And it is their duty to pass that luck on. It always makes for lively discussions.

Do you get different responses to your stories from boys and girls or does a gendered reading not matter?
I haven’t found that gender makes much difference to the response. Girls tend to ask more questions though.

Do you write with a specific reader/audience in mind?
Nope. Never do that. You can never tell how a story is going to turn out. An adult story might find it’s own way to be a children’s story. A writer can’t really predict how pitch and tone will finally tune itself. I let the story find it’s own audience. I try to write interestingly enough for anyone at all to be able to read the story.

Before publishing, do you “test” the story out or go with your instinct. I ask since I found the novel pitch perfect.
I did have three readers for the final round. It was a first for me. I got some good feedback and I will try it. again. But basically I have had so much damn writing practice doing television that it’s finally coming easy. When you do a daily soap you write 5 episodes a week. That’s ten hours of TV a month. That’s a heck of a lot of writing!

What is next on the cards?
I’m working on three different books. I tend to bounce between books. The one closest to my heart is a story based on my growing up in Kolkata. I grew up in a building that the Indian government had acquired to house the jews that it rehabilitated after the holocaust. I grew up hearing stories of the concentration camps. Now I’m finally ready to write them down.

Would you ever consider writing a series arc for young adults?
Of course. Just finished the first book of what is meant to be three books in total. I love the space that ‘Fault in our Stars’ occupies. Now that is really young adult space. So I have done a book that is for really young people, with a love story at the heart of it – but also the issues of terrorism, violence and ahimsa. Let’s see how it does!

Venita Coelho Boy No. 32 Scholastic India, Gurgaon, India, 2017. Pb. pp.186 Rs. 295 

Cathy Rentzenbrink

Reading Cathy Rentzenbrink’s memoir The Last Act of Love and the companion to it A Manual for Heartache is a gut wrenching experience. The Last Act of Love was shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize 2016   for its an account of how Cathy Rentzenbrink’s younger brother Matt had a head injury and was for eight long years in a coma. The medical term for it is PVS or “permanent vegetative state” or as their mother says of Matt “living corpse”. Matt was a teenager in his prime when he met with an accident that left him in this horrific state. The Last Act of Love is a compassionate account of a sister trying to understand what her brother must be going through if he can feel anything. More importantly it is an account of how much of themselves caregivers have to give to ensure that a patient is cared for well.

Caregiving can be a thankless task since it is repititive with no breaks whatsoever. After a while the sympathetic circle of friends and relatives return to their lives but the immediate family of the patient is responsible for the daily courageous and relentless task of caregiving. At times it can become exceedingly lonely, stressful and mentally debilitating. For Cathy Rentzenbrick her escape mechanism was reading.

Reading was still my friend, though. I read continuously and compulsively, drowning out sounds of my own thoughts with the noise of other people’s stories. I no longer turned out the light before going to sleep — I had to read until the moment my eyes closed. There could be no gap for the demons to jump into. 

Most caregivers are caught in a cycle of maintaining systems that they forget to take care of themselves or share experiences about the roles they inhabit. These involve a bunch of questions about the quality of life the patient has to how effective are advancements in medical technology.

The Last Act of Love written  many years after her brother passed away takes its title from a phrase the author’s mother used in her sworn affidavit to the court seeking legal permission to discontinue nutrition and hydration given how poorly Matt was with a chest infection and recurring epileptic fits.

I have known for some time that there is nothing I can do for Matthew to enrich his life in any way. He needs to die. We had hoped it would happen with an infection and without the need to approach the court. But the sad irony is that his poor body, unable to do anything else, seems capable of fighting infection. So we are asking the court’s permission to cease nutrition and hydration so that Matthew can be released from his hopeless state. It is our last act of love for him. 

Writing The Last Act of Love may have been thereapeutic for Cathy Rentzenbrick but it certainly provides a much needed account of hope and a way of managing caregiving at home, many times the dilemma it presents. Sharing of stories is a relief for many in a similar situation but few have time to do so. Reading an account is possible.

Within months of the successful publishing of The Last Act of Love, Cathy Rentzenbrick wrote A Manual for Heartache which can be viewed as a sequel to her memoir but works very well as a manual for managing grief and loss. It is full of wisdom and gently with big dollops of kindness shares wisdom garnered over the years of caregiving for Matt.

 

Here are some invaluable excerpts from the book

On grief

What I now wish someone had told me is this: life will never be the same again. The old one is gone and you can’t have it back. What you might at some point be able to encourage yourself to do, and time will be an ally in this, is work out how to adjust to your new world. You can patch up your raggedy heart and start thinking and feeling your way towards how you want to live. That’s what I wish someone had told me and that’s what I want to tell you. I think I’m finally doing it.

On etiquette of bad news

It seems ridiculous that in the face of someone else’s misfortune we spend time worrying about our own behavious, but it’s only human and is particularly true when it comes to death and grief. I’m sure it was easier in Victorian times when there were prescribed rules, when society and the Church provided a framework. There was guidance on what to wear, how to communicate with people, how much time should elapse before everyone rejoined the business of life. Visible signs such as black crepe and mourning brooches made of jet acted as clues to the rest of the world. Like a version of the “Baby on Board” sign stuck in the back windscreen of a car, the blackness served as a warning that an individual needed to be treated kindly. All cultures have rituals around death and mourning but, in our increasingly secular society, it’s easy find ourselves unsure of what to do. 

….

I have come to see there is a beauty in simply being present for someone who is struggling wiht a heavy burden. The best thing you can offer is unlimited kindness. People to whom the worst has happened can be out-of-control sad and unable to obey the normal rules of life. It mught be all they can do to hold on. If they are mean or cruel or temporarily incapable of good manners, we need to suspend our expectations around them and give them space and compassion as they splinter and behave badly and say the wrong thing. If they are behaving perfectly and holding themselves together, then that’s OK, too. 

Reading both the books together is highly recommended. Share, share, share these books.

Update ( 5 Sept 2017)

The Guardian Longreads published a fascinating account of “How science found a way to help coma patients communicate“. It is worth reading!

Cathy Rentzenbrick The Last Act of Love Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2015. Pb. pp.248 Rs 450

Cathy Rentzenbrick A Manual for Heartache Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 150 Rs 499 

31 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.

Https%3a%2f%2fs3.amazonaws.com%2fuploads.bookwitty.com%2fa43991b7 4453 4607 ab48 c9b60e498d5b inline original.jpeg?ixlib=rails 2.1
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