Memoir Posts

An extract from Zahir Dehlvi’s Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny ( transl: Rana Safvi)

Rana Safvi’s translation from the Urdu into English of Zahir Dehlvi’s memoir Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny was published by Penguin Random House India in 2017. Zahir’s full name was Sayyid Zah­iruddin Husain, ‘Zahir’ being his poetic nom de plume.  Zahir Dehlvi was in his early twenties, newly married, and living in what is now called the walled city of Delhi. He like his father was in the service of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and they would report to work at the Red Fort. Dastan-e-Ghadar is an eyewitness’s accounts of the events that happened during the uprising of May 1857 when Indian troops employed by the British army revolted. There were many reasons for the soldiers anger but the immediate reason were that their cartridges were laced with cow and pig fat. For the Hindu soldiers, the cow is a sacred animal. For the Muslim soldiers, pigs are taboo. On 10 May 1857 the soldiers first attacked their British masters in Meerut and then marched to the city of Delhi. For decades this event under British Rule was referred to as the “Mutiny of 1857” or by many Indians as “the First War of Independence”, depending from whose perspective the events were being narrated. Now more commonly it is referred to as the “Uprising of 1857” and this is what is usually adopted by historians as well. But as Rana Safvi clarifies in her introduction that “I have used the words ‘mutiny’ and ‘rebels’ in my notes and comments, as those are the words used by Zahir.”

Dastan-e-Ghadar  is meant to be a testimony to the events of 1857 and was written decades later. It is a sequence of events strung together but because it was written close to the event there are details in it that are fascinating. The chaos in the city, the confusion amongst the common people, the rumour mongering, the manner in which people fled to save themselves, the capture of the Emperor etc. All these are now well-known facts but to read the events in a contemporary account adds a different dimension to the experience of the historical event. According to historian Narayani Gupta in her review of the book in the Hindu “…it has an immediacy, and is deeply moving”. She also points out that the memoir was originally “Titled Taraz-e-Zahiri, it was called Dastan-e-Ghadar when first published in 1914. ” The book was printed posthumously from Lahore in (or about) 1914. A second edition appeared from Lahore in 1955 (an edition of which is with Irfan Habib who reviewed the book for Outlook magazine).

Yet there are liberties that the translator Rana Safvi has taken with the text which she acknowledges: “I have used my discretion to edit the text in places to keep the flow and drama of the narrative intact. ” Having said that there are some critical points about this seminal translation that are raised in the review by Irfan Habib: words like “Ghadar” and “Ghadr” have been translated inaccurately at the behest of the editors, not the translator. Later he adds:

Rana Safvi’s decision to translate the work into English is, therefore, to be welcomed. It seems a pity, however, that her rendering bears sign of some haste, so that the author’s statements in even his preface (‘Prelude’) are misunderstood. He did not indulge in “ang­­uishing over the past and spending my time in prayer”, but “considering the past to be past and holding what had happened in the past to be just mercies from God, I let pass time in worldly ways of conduct”. He was now not ind­uced to write because “I had [gained] access to letters and documents”, as the translation tells us, but because of the persuasions of his sincere friends and “a multitude of letters [containing such requests] having accumulated” (Urdu ed., Lahore, 1955 p. 17).

Both the academics who reviewed the English translation are of the agreement that the second half of the book where Zahir’s service in the states of Alwar, Jaipur and Tonk are possibly of greater interest than that of the events of 1857. Nevertheless Dastan-e-Ghadar is a fascinating testimony for those reading first source material about 1857 for the first time. Rana Safvi’s translation is an important contribution to Indian literature.

Following is an extract from the book published with the permission of the publishers.

 

****

The Surprise Attack

Just a few days had passed when another event took place. Half a mile from Kashmiri Darwaza, there was a yellow kothi near the ridge, where the purbias had set up a front and put up big guns and cannons. They were using them to inflict considerable damage on the British forces. They had two platoons and people to man the artillery present at all times. Everyone had to stay there for two watches.

One day, as luck would have it, the soldiers departing after day duty told their replacements to be careful, just in case the enemy attacked at night. The night guards took their places. Now let me tell you a few things about the night guard. It was these very men who had looted the bakshikhana and the bank. They were often in a state of stupor thanks to drinking bhang and eating kalakand and laddu peda during the day.

When they reached the kothi, they were alert at first, but when the night came and a cool breeze started blowing, they were unable to stay awake. They kept the guns at an angle and, spreading their dhotis, fell into deep sleep.

Drink bhang in such a manner that you empty all the stores 

All your family is lying dead and you lie inebriated

These people were snoring away to glory. The spies took this news to the British. They informed them that the front was abandoned, the soldiers were all fast asleep and it was the right time to attack.

The British officers took two platoons of Gurkhas, one of Majwi and one of the British themselves, and rushed
barefoot down the ridge. They carried away the guns, captured the cannons and only then woke the sleeping soldiers, saying, ‘Get up, people of the faith, the goras are here.’

One soldier got up, rubbing his eyes. The Gurkhas shot his head off.

They started attacking with swords and sabres. There was tumult and crying from every side and the few who were not killed ran in a state of panic towards the city.

The Nasirabad Platoon, which had changed duty with these men, had found the city gates locked when they tried
to enter the city, as it wasn’t safe to leave them open at night. They were resting on the patri outside Kashmiri Darwaza when the ambushed soldiers reached them. After abusing and scolding them, the Nasirabad platoon told these fleeing soldiers to lie with them and they themselves lay down silently but with loaded guns.

Meanwhile, the British force came chasing them, hoping to enter the city behind them. They were unaware
of the Nasirabad platoon lying in wait. A volley of firing began and the soldiers manning the cannons on the
parapet of Kashmiri Darwaza and Siyah Burj also joined in when they saw the British forces. The situation can be best described as Khuda de bande le—only divine intervention could help.

It was difficult to save oneself from the volleys of fire. There were heaps of corpses all over.

The British troops retreated. They rushed back and took over the yellow kothi they had attacked earlier and turned their guns towards the city. These guns were now fired incessantly at the city. This continued for the whole night.

Cannons and artillery were being fired from both sides, but the Indians lost the front they had set up in the kothi,
which was now under British control. The British forces were also reinforced by troops from outside.

A senior British officer was killed in this battle and his corpse was left lying between the two forces. In the morning,
both sides tried to pick up the dead body. Cannons and artillery were firing from both sides with the purbias hellbent
on acquiring the valuable weapons that were on the dead officer.

The dead body was lying a short distance before the Kashmiri Darwaza. The two sides fought a day and a half for
the officer’s corpse. It was a matter of prestige for both of them.

The guns fired day and night and thousands of people were killed.

At last, as the sun set, one purbia reached the body by rolling on the ground. He tied one end of his turban to the
dead body and slowly pulled it behind him. He and his fellows took the officer’s pistols and sword, and, after stripping the body of valuables, left it there.

In the morning, the British saw that the body had disappeared. The battle was stopped.

The purbia brought the weapons taken from the officer and showed them to everyone in the Qila. He brought it to the house of the royal steward. He showed them to Ahsanullah Khan and told him they had fought over these  weapons for two days.

I saw the weapons with my own eyes. The pair of pistols was good but the sword was invaluable. There was golden
carving on its hilt and the scabbard was black. Its colour was like the neck of a peacock, with something written on it in gold.

( Extract from pgs. 119-122)

Zahir Dehlvi Dastan-e-Ghadar: The Tale of the Mutiny ( translated from the Urdu by Rana Safvi ) Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House India, Gurgaon, India. 2017. Hb. pp. 340 Rs 599 

 

William Fiennes “The Snow Geese” and “The Music Room”

Best selling author William Fiennes The Snow Geese and The Music Room are two incredibly stunning pieces of literature. They are both meditative in quality.  The Snow Geese was written soon after he had been convalescing from a then unnamed disease but in his later book he reveals as Crohn’s Disease. While staying with his parents and taking long walks with his father, an avid birdwatcher, William Fiennes develops this urge to follow the snow geese on their migration to the Tundra. There is a slow, methodical and precise quality to the book which is extremely peaceful and restorative. It is as if the tiredness and exhaustion of this noisy daily existence slowly drains itself from one and is replaced by calmness, peace and quiet.

A similar reflective quality is found in The Music Room except that it is a very personal account of his family particularly of his brother Richard who has epilepsy. Richard is eleven years older to William.  Richard finally succumbs to it at the age of 41 when he is unable to breathe during an epileptic fit at night. William is overseas and receives a short message from his brother Martin to inform him of Richard’s death.  It is a deeply moving book about living with an epileptic patient. Anyone who has lived with an epileptic patient knows how to deal with the episodes of absence attacks and convulsions although Richard’s form of epilepsy was particularly violent and abusive. Despite the strong medication consisting mostly of sedatives Richard managed to be violent. In one instance he physically attacked a nurse at his epilepsy centre and a case had to be filed. When Richard and his mother went to the police station for the interview and was asked for details of the incident, Richard said truthfully he could not remember.  The Music Room is a moving testimony to having an epileptic brother while trying to live together as a family. Constantly the love and caring for the brother is what comes through in the book. Although they live in a medieval castle with plenty of rooms at times the family has to hide from Richard especially when is on a violent spree. Once William recalls he was locked up in a bathroom with his mother while Richard was on the other side of the door. Another time William spotted his father leaning against the wall of the house and when asked what he was doing, the older Fiennes said “seeking strength”.

After the success of these two magnificent books William Fiennes co-founded a charity with Katie Waldegrave — First Story: Changing lives through writing.

The charity runs writing workshops in schools across UK, hoping to encourage that revelatory process of ‘finding one’s own voice.’ Fiennes thinks that we all have our own unique voice, and he quotes Philip Pullman on the importance of discovering it: “Real writing can liberate and strengthen young people’s sense of themselves as almost nothing else can.”

So true!

Both the books have been published by Picador and continue to be available years after their publication.

7 May 2018 

Allen Say “Silent Days, Silent Dreams”

Caldecott medalist Allen Say’s Silent Days, Silent Dreamis a biography of self-taught artist James Castle (1899-1977).  It is a “memoir” as narrated by a fictionalized nephew of Castle who shares details about his deaf, mute, autistic and dyslexic uncle who was completely closed in himself and yet learned how to draw. Castle’s father was the postmaster for a small community they lived in Idaho. The family’s drawing room doubled up as the postmaster’s official space so it was cluttered with parcels, catalogues, paper etc. The little James Castle probably taught himself to draw while whiling away his time in this room. Over time he was found to be of absolutely no help to his family on their farm or other household chores so he was left to himself. He slowly found quiet in the attic of an old barn which he converted into his “studio” which in subsequent shifts was the chicken coop in an empty barn. He drew and drew and drew. For lack of sophisticated art materials he drew using the soot of wood combined with spit and used junk paper. When he was about seven his parents sent him off along with his older sister to the Idaho School for Deaf and Blind. There too he tried to draw in secret ( only girls were permitted to learn drawing, not boys) and punished if discovered. He never did learn to read and write and was sent home when he was fifteen years old. While at the school he did discover the joy of being in the library, surrounded by books and watching his teachers “create and stitch new books for their students. Years later his drawings were “discovered” and he did one-man shows. Upon his death he left more than 15,000 pieces of work that are estimated to be less than one-third of his productivity during his lifetime, as every time Castle’s family moved, all his paintings were left behind and lost.

The research Allen Say did for this book was intensive. He even tried to recreate the illustrations for Silent Days, Silent Dreams using the soot from the wood fireplace in his home. He tried to emulate the drawing style of James Castle to create as “authentic” an account of Castle’s life. Most of Castle’s drawings were made from reclaimed trash he found on the property such as junk paper, construction materials, and rags. Allen Say was assisted by his wife in creating the toys in a similar fashion for this book.

In Allen Say’s graphic novel memoir The Inker’s Shadow Kyusuke, Allen Say’s cartoon double, advises him to draw what’s around you”; much like what James Castle later become famous for too. Allen Say like James Castle had a room to call his own, a retreat, a studio, that was given to him first by his mother in Japan and later when he moved to America by his guardian Major Bill at the American military school he was studying at.  In his part memoir, part graphic novel Drawing From Memory which is about his relationship with his sensei, spiritual father, and well-known cartoonist Noro Shinpei, Allen Say says about his childhood “I drew what I saw and what I imagined,  and I copied from comic books. When I was drawing, I was happy. I didn’t toys or friends or parents.’

The story of James Castle probably resonated with Allen Say who too became an artist against all odds as his father was convinced his son had to learn English to “become a success in life” and was shunned for his artistic leanings. Both the artists’ artistic temperament was not appreciated by their families and they were shunned; so they “withdrew” to draw in makeshift studios. For Allen Say “Art is like translating my dream world, put that on paper”, much as it was for James Castle who drew all that he wished for. No wonder Allen Say says “my discovery about Castle’s art was that the act of drawing was an act of possession”.

What a treat it is to discover these books! Biographies as picture books are a fine art form. It is an excellent way to introduce an eminent person to a younger generation. It is not an easy form to tackle but if done well it is purely magical. In the case of Silent Days, Silent Dreams there is something extra special for one artist describing another’s life and discovering the many similarities.

Dream books to possess!

Allen Say Silent Days, Silent Dreams Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, New York, 2017. Hb. 

Allen Say Drawing From Memory Scholastic Press, New York, 2011. Hb. 

Allen Say The Inker’s Shadow Scholastic Press, New York, 2015. Hb. 

6 May 2018 

 

“Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit” by Manoranjan Byapari

Manoranjan Byapari’s Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit  is about the author documenting his life from life in East Pakistan to moving to India. When he arrived in India with his family he lived in Shiromanipur refugee camp. They try and make a life for themselves in Bengal but they lived in abject poverty and unable to feed themselves regularly. They were also at a social disadvantage for being Dalits. To escape these straitened circumstances Manoranjan Byapari ran away from home as a teenager in search of work. He got caught in the 1970s Naxalite movement in Calcutta. He was imprisoned. It was while in prison as a twenty four year old that he learned to how to read and write.

So from 1977 till 1981, my time was spent reading Katha literatures, folk literatures, translated literatures, travelogues, religious books. Some praised my dedication to books, some taunted me. I ‘bypassed’ all. None of their words many impact on me. 

Once released he still had to earn his bread and butter, so began pulling a rickshaw. He would inevitably carry a book to read while waiting for passengers. One day he was parked outside the college where Mahashweta Devi taught. She emerged and sought a rickshaw and it happened to be Manoranjan Byapari. He had to quickly put aside the book he was reading — Agnigarba ( The Fire Womb).

A collection of short stories where every character was a known and familiar face to me. Every story had at its centre a protagonist who was a labouring man, who was a representative of the protest of that class, who was unwilling to accept defeat and who fought till death, then rose again to continue the fight. I had a particular affection for this author. Having been once accidentally drawn into the Naxalite movement, I had spent much time with them and heard the story of the martyred Brati, a character in her novel Hajar Chaurasir Ma ( The Mother of 1084). This book had endeared the writer to the Naxalites, who spoke of her as a maternal figure to them. Engrossed in reading, I suddenly awoke to the fact that my turn at the rickshaw line had come. The familiar figure of a teacher whom we all knew by sight stepped out of the college and approached us. 

As luck would have it, the passenger was none other than Mahashweta Devi. Manoranjan Byapari still had not a clue but it was during the course of the journey that he asked her the meaning of a word he had read in the book — jijibisha ( the will to live) and struck up a conversation. Mahashweta Devi was impressed at how he had taught himself to read while incarcerated in Presidency Jail under the tutelage of mastermashai. She asked him to contribute to her journal “where working people like you write”. Just as she was leaving she gave him her address, to the shocked amazement of Manoranjan Byapari. He could not believe it that his passenger was the famous writer Mahashweta Devi.

The rest they say is history. Mahashweta Devi gave him his writing break. Since then he has published many novels, short stories, essays, and his autobiography, of two volumes, the first volume which has been translated and published by Sage-Samya. He has won the Anaya Samman given by the television channel 24 Ghanta, 2013, and the Suprabha Majumdar Smarak Puraskar of the Bangla Akademi of West Bengali in 2014.

In January 2018 he was invited to attend the World Book Fair (WBF) held in New Delhi and the Jaipur Literature Festival. At the WBF he was in conversation with Sanjeev Chandan*, journalist, author and social activist, and Anita Bharti**, teacher, writer and Dalit rights activist.

At the Jaipur Literature Festival 2018, Manoranjan Byapari was on a panel “Dr. Ambedkar and his Legacy” along with Chintan Chandrachud, Christophe Jaffrelot, and Sukhadeo Thorat. They were in conversation with Pragya Tiwari.

According to the translator, Sipra Mukherjee,

Byapari’s prose is urban and modern. Translating the language used by Byapari, therefore, did nto pose the many problems that are often faced when translating Dalit literature, where the language embodies its marginalization palpably in the earthiness of its dialect which cannot be kept in translation, which tends to be standard English. His prose is often driven more by action than by emotions. . . .

The English translation is shorter than 25,000-30,000 words than the original Bengali version but this has been done with the concurrence of the writer.

Now Manoranjan Byapari is so well-known as a writer that he shares an anecdote that happened in Hyderabad.

Once on an invitation I journeyed to the University of Hyderabad. I boarded an autorickshaw from the station, bound for the University Guest House. The driver of the auto was educated and well-informed. Upon hearing that I was from Calcutta, he wanted to know if I had heard of this writer from my city who drives a rickshaw, has never been to school, but who writes books. 

Read an extract from the autobiography on making a bomb.

Interrogating my Chandal Life will undoubtedly be a significant book in the landscape of Dalit literature. This despite the storytelling being written with a flourish that can prove to be fairly distracting with its verbosity. It is much like the writer himself who when speaking on a public forum is full of wisdom and fascinating insights but ever the performer— perhaps some of it has seeped into the written word too. Nevertheless read this seminal book for the history of Bengal and the plight of dalits it charts through Manoranjan Byapari’s testimony.

Manoranjan Byapari Interrogating my Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit ( Translated by Sipra Mukherjee) SAGE Samya, New Delhi, 2018. Pb. pp. Rs 550 

 

*Sanjeev Chandan is Editor of the leading feminist magazine Streekaal and founder of Marginalised Publications, an independent publisher that publishes Dalit-Bahujan literature and academic works on cultural and political issues. Formerly, Mr. Chandan was Hindi Editor at Forward Press, a bilingual magazine that looks at issues and interests from a Dalit-Bahujan perspective. His collection of stories, 546veen Seat ke Stree, was published recently.

**Anita Bharti is an author, a teacher and a well-known critic of Dalit literature. One of her important contributions is the book Samkaleen Nariwaad aur Dalit Stree ka Pratirodh, which received the ‘Savitribai Phule Vaichariki Samman’ award from Streekaal magazine in 2016. Another important work is the collection of poetry that she has edited – Yathastithi se Takraate Hue Dalit Stree Jeewan se Judi Kavitaayein. Ms. Bharti has been honoured with several awards, which include the Indira Gandhi Shikshak Samman and Delhi Rajya Shikshak Samman.

 

1 May 2018 

Ruskin Bond “A Time for All Things: Collected Essays and Sketches”

Ruskin Bond’s latest book — A Time For All Things is a collection of his essays and sketches or he would prefer to refer to them as “short prose pieces”.  It is the perfect bedtime reading book. Short, pleasantly written essays, in gentle English, evocative of a period gone by without being wistful. I do not know how to put it except to say that within each essay ( that I have read so far) I find in it resides a wonderful mix of happiness and pure joy. Such a peaceful, meditative quality to the essays that they are the perfect end to a hectic and busy day. I love the manner in which the essays are wonderful reminders of how we must pause and appreciate the beauty around us. Of course not all of us are as fortunate as Mr Bond is to live up in the mountains but even so we can pause and appreciate. I love the way he merges the sacred and the secular without underlining faith crudely as has become fashionable today. It is such a pleasure to experience. Many of these pieces will be familiar as having been anthologised in other collections for young and old, but it does not matter since it is a pleasure to have them gathered in one place.

Here are a few extracts to illustrate:

…the other day, taking a narrow path that left the dry Mussorie ridge to link up with Pari Tibba ( Fairy Hill), I ran across a path of lush green grass, and I knew there had to be water there.

The grass was soft and springy, spotted with the crimson of small, wild strawberries. Delicate maidenhair, my favourite fern, grew from a cluster of moist, glistening rocks. Moving the ferns a little, I discovered the spring, a freshlet of clear sparkling water.

I never cease to wonder at the tenacity of water — its ability to make its way through various strata of rock, zigzagging, back tracking, finding space, cunningly discovering faults and fissures in the mountain, and sometimes travelling underground for great distances before emerging into the open. Of course, there’s no stopping water. for no matter how tiny that little trickle, it has to go somewhere!

“A Marriage of the Waters”

****

In May and June, when the hills were brown and dry, it was always cool and green near the stream, where ferns and maidenhair and long grasses continued to thrive. Downstream I found a small pool where I could bathe, and a cave with water dripping from the roof, the water spangled gold and silver in the shafts of sunlight that pushed through the slits in the cave roof. ‘He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside still waters.’ Perhaps David had discovered a similar paradise when he wrote those words; perhaps I too would write good words. The hill station’s summer visitors had not discovered this haven of wild and green things, I was beginning to feel that the place belonged to me, that dominion was mine.

“A Time for All Things”

****

When I was a boy I would occasionally visit Hardwar, sometimes in the company of my lost friend Kishen. In my first novel, The Room on the Roof, I have described how we crossed the Ganga in a small boat accompanied by a number of pilgrims, all chanting ‘Ganga-mai ki jai!’ It was a moving experience, both in my story and in reality. And whenever I visited Hardwar, I would sing out ‘Ganga-mai ki jai’ with whoever was with me.

I am not a religious person, but I have always been moved by the devotion of others. Every evening, after Beena ( my grand-daughter) has done her pooja, she brings me prasad, and I accept it humbly and gratefully because it is the symbol of her goodness and devotion. to light a candle is better than to curse the darkness.

And so here I am, in my eighties, trying to gather my thoughts and to see if I have any great thoughts. But none come to me. You must do your own thinking, dear reader.

“Thoughts on Passing Eighty”

( These extracts have been published with permission from Speaking Tiger)

Buy the book. Treasure it. Share it. You will not regret it.

Ruskin Bond A Time for All Things: Collected Essays and Sketches Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2018. Pb. pp. 400. Rs. 499

26 March 2018

Taslima Nasrin’s “Split: A Life”

…the director general [ of the Bangla Academy] raised his eyebrows and turned to me…’Despite being a woman why do you try and write like a man?….’

‘Why should I write like a man? I write what I feel,’ I countered immediately. 

This exchange between the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin and the Bangla Academy director general Harunur Rashi takes place at a book fair where a procession had been organised by the Taslima Nasrin Suppression Committee, “to quash the nefarious ‘sex writer’ Taslima Nasrin”. This incident happened on 17 February 1992.

On 6 December 1992 after the destruction of the Babri Masjid there were communal clashes in India and Bangladesh. Taslima Nasrin was deeply disturbed by the riots and wrote Lajja ( Shame). It was a book which made her an international name even though it was banned in Bangladesh shortly thereafter.

Her memoir Dwikhondito ( 2003) now translated as Split: In Two by Maharghya Chakraborty met a similar fate when it was banned in West Bengal, India. It was banned by the West Bengal government for allegedly hurting sentiments of the Muslim community. The government lifted injunction after the ban was struck down by the Calcutta High Court in 2005. Yet in the English edition of the memoir published by Penguin Random House India there is a blank page with a note by the author.

Split is a memoir by an author who achieved fame fairly early on in her literary career. It is not very clear if the memoir was written at one go or over a period of time. There is no author’s note or a translator’s note in the book making it a little challenging to figure out the context. The memoir is presented as more or less a chronological narrative of a writer’s awakening, not necessarily an autobiographical account of Taslima Nasrin. Reading it from cover to cover a confident tenor to the writing is discernible particularly after Taslima Nasrin wins the Ananda Puraskar in early 1990s. It is a watershed moment in her literary career not least because she was the first writer from Bangladesh to have been awarded what is considered to be the Nobel Prize of Bengali literature. Writers senior to her in age and work had been ignored. The change in her writing style is apparent not only in the manner in which she asserts herself in company with other writers, shares her views on a variety of subjects and takes the social responsibility of an author seriously. She is at the same time grappling with the very serious threat to her life on the basis of her writing and despite her mother’s pleas Taslima Nasrin never tempers her tone.

A snippet from her acceptance speech of the Ananda Puraskar illustrates why her feminist views were not being tolerated in an increasingly conservative society.

Our scriptures and ther rules governing our society would like to reinforce one primary fact: that women cannot have independence. But a woman who is not physically and mentally independent cannot claim to be a complete human being either. Freedom is primary and a woman’s freedom has now been put under arrest by the state, with religion being the chief impediment to her natural growth. Because religion is there most women are still illiterate, deprived of property, more are married off when they are children and are victims of polygamy, talaq and widowhood. Because men wish to serve only their own ends, they have defined and valourized a woman’s feministy, chastity and maternal instincts. 

There are many sections in the book that are fascinating to read for the insight it offers in the evolution of a woman writer particuarly when Taslima Nasrin chooses to reflect. There is an almost meditative quality to her writing in those passages that haunt her writing. These are the better parts in Split as compared to the long sections about her relationships and her family which tend to meander. These instances are significant for her growth as an individual and as a writer since with each relationship she realises what exactly she desires, and it is not always male companionship. Unfortunately these sections are not as well written as those in which she comments upon literature, Bengali literary society in Bangladesh and West Bengal and reflects upon what interests her as a writer.

Split will probably be viewed in coming years as seminal as the writing by other women writers from the subcontinent such as Salma’s Hour Past Midnight and Bama’s Karukku. Taslima Nasrin’s Split‘s relevance to contemporary politics in the subcontinent and not just Bangladesh for the issues it raises about censorship, women’s rights, religious intolerance, freedom of speech, right to live and equality among men and women are critical particularly in this age of religious fundamentalism blowing across nations.

Spare some time and read it.

Taslima Nasrin Split: A Life ( translated by Maharghya Chakraborty) Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House India, 2018. Hb. pp. 502. Rs. 599

19 March 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 

 

Ruskin Bond “Till the Clouds Roll by”

The following is an extract from Ruskin Bond’s delicious new book Till the Clouds Roll By. It is a gently told, haunting memoir of his childhood, recounting incidents soon after his father passed away. He was lonely despite spending his holidays with his mother and her new family. The following extract has been used with permission from the publishers, Puffin Books.

The following day, when the hunting party headed for the jungle, I had the rest house to myself—except for Mohan, the boy assistant, who had been left in charge of the kitchen.

Exploring the old bungalow, I discovered a storeroom at the rear—a room full of old and broken furniture: a settee with the stuffing coming out, a bed with broken springs, a cupboard with a missing door. The remaining door swung open at my touch to reveal a treasure trove of books—books that were in good condition because they hadn’t been touched for years, the collection of some bygone forest officer perhaps.

Here I found enough reading to keep me occupied for the rest of the week. Here I discovered the ghost stories of M.R. James, that master of the supernatural tale, scholarly and convincing. Here I discovered an early P.G. Wodehouse novel, Love among the Chickens, featuring Ukridge, that happy optimist, who was to become my favourite Wodehouse

character. Ukridge always addresses everyone as ‘old horse’—‘And how are you, old horse?’or ‘Lend me a fiver, old horse!’—and for several months I found myself addressing friends and families in the same manner, until one day, back in school, I addressed my headmaster as ‘old horse’ and received a caning for my pains.

In the forest bungalow I also discovered Agatha Christie’s first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, John Buchan’s spy thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps and the short stories of O. Henry and W.W. Jacobs. There were some children’s books in that cupboard too—and I have to confess that I read very few children’s books as a boy. I had gone straight from comic papers to adult fiction!

The front veranda of the bungalow had a very comfortable armchair, and I spent most of the day stretched out in it with one of those books for company. Instead of becoming a great shikari, as my mother and stepfather might have wished, I had become an incurable bookworm, and was to remain one for the rest of my life.

Mohan would bring me bread and butter and a glass of hot tea, and I was quite content with this spartan lunch. The cook and the food baskets would go along with the shikar party, who would be enjoying mutton koftas and pilau rice whenever they tired of following an elusive tiger. But I was having an adventure of my own.

The shikar party decided to make one last rumble through the jungle in search of the fabled tiger. It was literally a rumble, because Mr Hari had engaged some thirty to forty villagers from across the river to ‘beat’ the jungle—that is, to advance in a line through the forest, beating drums, or kerosene tins, and blowing on horns, or home-made trumpets, in a bid to drive the forest creatures out of their lairs and into the open.

This they succeeded in doing, but in the wrong direction.

While the hunters waited for their quarry at the edge of the forest, the villagers—confused by the trumpeting of the elephants—took another route, in effect driving the animals to safety, and in the direction of the rest house.

I was sitting in the veranda, a book on my knee, when I heard a lot of grunting and squealing. I looked up to see a number of wild boars streaming across the clearing in front of me!

They emerged from one side of the jungle and disappeared into the thickets on the other side.

Now they were followed by a herd of deer—beautiful spotted chital, and then handsome, tall sambar. All emerging from the trees, moving swiftly across the clearing and making their way into the forest.

Peacocks and junglefowl, also disturbed by the village orchestra, flew across the clearing, exchanging sal for shisham.

Fascinated by this sudden appearance of birds and beasts, I remained sitting in my armchair—not in the least alarmed—because it was obvious that the animals were intent on getting as far away from humans as possible.

And presently I was rewarded with the sight of a lithe and sinewy leopard slinking past the bungalow. It may have been looking out for its own safety or it may have been following the

deer, but there it was—all black and gold in the late afternoon sun.

And then it vanished into the dense green foliage.

Hours later, the hunters returned, grumpy and empty-handed except for an unfortunate barking deer.

‘I saw a leopard while you were away,’ I told my mother and stepfather.

They were not impressed.

‘He’s making it up,’ said Mr Hari.

‘Well, he does have a vivid imagination,’ said my mother. ‘It must be all those books he’s been reading.’

I did not argue with them. You don’t argue with adults who have made up their minds about you.

The tiger had eluded them, but I had seen a leopard. So I had achieved a small victory.

Excerpted from Till the Clouds Roll by, authored by Ruskin Bond, published by Puffin Books (An imprint of Penguin Random House). MRP:250/-

8 March 2018 

 

“Suragi” by U. R. Ananthamurthy

The  distinguished Kannada writer and public intellectual U. R. Ananthamurthy ( 1932-2014) dictated his “memoir”, rather memories to Ja Na Tejashri, Kannada poet and professor, in the last few months of his life. He was extremely ill and was being dialysed regularly. The notes were structured in U. R. Ananthamurthy’s lifetime under his guidance. Initially his preference had been for a conversational and informal approach. When he saw the first few trasnscribed pages, he found the style difficult to read and called for a more formal approach. Eventually, Tejashri helped him find a balance he was comfortable with: she recorded him, scribbled notes, touched up her trasnscriptions, and rearranged the episodes in chronological order. Ananthamurthy was keen to see this work translated in English. It only happened a year and a half after he passed away when at the behest of his son-in-law and novelist Vivek Shanbhag who requested S. R. Ramakrishna to translate the 450-page book Suragi. Shanbhag was merely reiterating the request Ananthamurthy had asked of Ramakrishna. 

U. R. Ananthamurthy was honoured with the Jnanpith Award in 1994 adn Padma Bhushan in 1998, and was one of the finalists of the Man Booker International Prize in 2013. 

Suragi has now been published by Oxford University Press India. The memoir is so named after the flower Ananthamurthy loved which gives out more fragrance as it fades. This is an incredible book recounting his life as a writer and a public intellectual through India and England. It is an exceptionally absorbing read given how he acutely witnesses, observes and reflects often upon the role of a writer, particularly that of an Indian writer, in society. There are many parts of this book that are worth reflecting upon given their relevance even today. The section on “the Indian writer’s dilemmas” is particularly powerful. For instance while commenting upon the role of writers during the Emergency his statements assume wider ramifications, echoing into modern India, decades later:

India’s biggest problem is hypocrisy. Intellectual hypocirsy has taken root deeper than we imagine. …A mind that hesitates to what must be said becomes corrupt. …The spirit of the times is such that we have compromised with everything. Nothing troubles us. We feel no psychological torment. …We are not troubled as we should be. The reason is that our spirit is feeble. There is no connection between our convictions, our actions, and our truths. …That is why speech is devalued.

Ananthamurthy’s confidently outspoken voice is to be treasured and is deeply missed. Take for instance the following extract “Moment Transcending Time and Space” which is being reproduced here with the explicit permission of the publishers, Oxford University Press India. 

Moment Transcending Time and Space

On the rare occasions we go beyond time and space, we see truths not just from the past but also those relevant to the present. I experienced this one night in Nepal. In 1996, some Indian writers spent three days with writers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. A Himalayan range loomed behind the resort where we were staying. The snow-clad mountains could be seen from the lounge and also from our rooms. It was an informal meeting, with no agenda, where the idea was to sit and chat and share our thoughts and feelings. This was after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The anxiety of whether our nations could rise above communal hatred had brought us all together.
Siddhartha, a friend from Bengaluru, had organized this conclave. He has set up an ashram called Firefl ies in Bengaluru. Born a Christian, Siddhartha was drawn to Buddhism. He blends thought with action. Another writer at the conclave was my dear departed friend D.R. Nagaraj (1954–1998). He was drawn to two extremes—the Buddhist vision of emptiness that rejects even the idea of the soul, and the Nietzschean assertion of the intellect against the Christian concept of sin.

I will only name one participant who had come from elsewhere: Urdu writer Intizar Hussain (1923–2016). Each writer spoke openly about the truths of their experience, without trying to justify themselves. They spoke of things they couldn’t speak about in their countries. Women writers had come from Pakistan and Bangladesh, and I feel I should only convey what they expressed, keeping them anonymous.

Among the writers from Bangladesh was a Hindu. We gathered he was a big poet there. He was fidgeting with a palmtop he had bought in the Nepal black market. It was a device on which one could take notes. He was trying to fi gure out how it worked, and muttering in frustration when he couldn’t. He said the moment the Babri Masjid was demolished, several Kali temples in Dhaka had been brought down. ‘Why don’t any of you speak about it? I am no Kali devotee but I don’t like the hypocrisy of your secular position.’ No one argued with him. The other Bangla writers said he was speaking from the heart. Everyone was keen to break the vicious cycle of blaming the other to justify one’s own actions. Having said his bit, the Hindu writer from Bangladesh shared in our anxieties.

It has become a politically correct ritual for us to talk about Muslim violence when we want to condemn Hindu violence, and Hindu violence when we want to condemn Muslim violence. We respond with cleverness when we lose the ability to see the victims as humans like us. The objective of this meeting, with both Hindus and Muslims, was to rid ourselves of such self-justification. I share a conversation that suggests we were successful.

We were lounging around comfortably, resting on mats and lolling on cushions. A middle-aged woman writer from Bangladesh began her tale softly, with her friendly, smiling eyes closed. She was the only woman writer wearing a sari. Her luxuriant, uncombed hair cascaded on her breasts. Perhaps she was secure in the confi dence that all of us were looking at her with compassion.

When she began, she addressed everyone. As she progressed, she seemed to be directing her words to the male writers from Pakistan. Towards the end, her voice became tremulous. She was an ordinary woman speaking about the war Pakistan had fought with her country, then called East Pakistan. Her husband had been a professor at Dhaka University. He had campaigned for Bengali as a second official language. One day he routinely left for the university and didn’t return. The evening turned to night. A day passed, then two. Their two children didn’t go to school. They
stayed at home, awaiting his return. They couldn’t venture out— Pakistani soldiers were everywhere, brandishing their guns.

After two days she went to the university with other women looking for their husbands. What did they fi nd? A heap of corpses. They had to sift through the heap to fi nd their respective husbands. The writer must have told this story several times. But it was perhaps for the fi rst time she was telling it in the presence of writers from Pakistan, whose soldiers had killed her husband. I was sitting beside Intizar Hussain’s. Like his friend Bhutto, he had stood by Jinnah, believing a separate country was necessary to practise and promote Islam without let or hindrance. He had
migrated from his native place to become a Pakistani. He was a big writer in Urdu, and earned a living from writing for the Dawn. The Bangladeshi writer said, ‘Tell me, where is Islam in all this? What is the use of what the Quran says? My husband was a Muslim too but they killed him in the name of Islam. Can you imagine what I went through as I searched for him among hundreds of corpses?’

The sharp-nosed Intizar Hussain had placed his hands on his lap, in a meditative pose, and was listening to her. When the Bangladeshi writer concluded, a young woman writer from Pakistan began to sob uncontrollably. Intizar Hussain slowly raised his head. His eyes were moist, and tears rolled down his cheeks. ‘On behalf of my country I apologize to you,’ he said in English. ‘What can I say but that we are all unwittingly implicated in the murder of your husband?’ He looked at the other Pakistani writers for approval. The three women writers bowed their heads,
endorsing his words with tears.

This is an incident I will never forget. The human is dwarfed by the idea of the nation state. He loses his sense of right and wrong, and becomes a nationalist. In the Second World War, such nationalism made monsters of the Japanese and the Germans. Even ordinary folks turn blind. The atom bomb dropped by the Americans on Hiroshima and Nagasaki destroyed everything. Communist nations can justify their crimes using the words of Marx. Muslim nations can justify their crimes using the Prophet. It is equally true that Christian nations can use the Bible to justify
their actions. Those hiding behind nationalism wreak a lot of damage before we wake up and criticize them.

To escape the mass hysteria of nationalism, we must always fearlessly keep extending a hand of friendship to other humane thinkers. I recall an incident. When we met in Berlin, I mooted with Intizar Hussain the idea of our Sahitya Akademi publishing an anthology of Pakistani literature to mark the fi ftieth anniversary of our two countries attaining Independence. Like India, Pakistan has a diversity of languages: Punjabi, Sindhi, and others. I wrote to
Intizar Hussain asking if he could edit an anthology of stories from all such languages in Urdu translation.

At the Sahitya Akademi’s executive committee meeting, some friends expressed their reservations. How could we publish a story that might speak against India? I said, ‘Intizar is a sensitive writer. He will never choose anything that promotes hatred. Leave it to me. I will take the risk.’ As the book was being finalized for publication, we faced another problem. How do we pay the writers? The two nations had no agreement to make payments possible. I
explained this to Intizar, who then spoke to the contributors to the anthology. We got letters from them, with some saying they were honoured the Sahitya Akademi, which gets grants from the Indian government, was publishing them. Just send us some copies. We don’t expect any money. Our country didn’t have the vision that Nehru did. We don’t have an independent academy, they wrote. When I met Intizar at a SAARC literary conference in Delhi, he said, ‘We have no other book in Urdu with writing from other Pakistani languages. The anthology you published is now a
textbook in our colleges.’

U. R. Anathamurthy Suragi ( Transcribed and compiled by Ja Na Tejashri. Translated from Kannada by S. R. Ramakrishna ) Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2018. Pb, pp.380 Rs.650

16 February 2018 

 

Judith Kerr

Since the Nazis came, we haven’t belonged in any place, only with refugees like ourselves. And we do what we can. I make soup and bake cakes. Your mother plays bridge and counts the miles of Konrad’s car. And Konrad — he likes to help people and to feel that they love him. It’s not wonderful, but it’s better than Finchley, and it’s a lot better than Theresienstadt. 

Judith Kerr A Small Person Far Away 


The Out of the Hitler Time trilogy by award-winning children’s writer Judith Kerr are novels that recount her escape from Berlin, days before Hitler came to power, their move to Switzerland, Paris and finally London.

She began writing these books — When Hitler Stole Pink RabbitBombs on Aunt Dainty, and A Small Person Far Away — for her children to give them some idea of her childhood and the challenges of living in war zones. Her children had been born and brought up in peaceful times  and were monolingual, absolutely different to their mother’s experience.  While writing the books she realised it was impossible to put herself as the central character and write about Nazi Germany and World War II, so she created the character of Anna. It is a literary device often used — consciously or unconsciously– by writers, particularly women, when trying to describe particularly traumatic events. They prefer to use the third person narrative voice. Reading the three volumes in quick succession is an interesting experiment. Although she wrote these once her kids were in their adolescence, its remarkable to see how the tenor of her writing is influenced by her memory. The first volume,  When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit , is about her as a nine-year-old escaping Nazi Germany and it has a gentle pace to it with an almost childlike wonderment to it. The second volume, Bombs on Aunt Dainty, is set in war-time London, where she witnessed the bombing and her beloved elder brother was taken away from Cambridge University and interned at a camp as he was still not a naturalised British citizen. The tone of this book is of a bewildered teenager who has plenty of her own opinions to share, though not always readily shared. It also marks her transition from a child to a responsible young woman who joins the workforce. The final book, A Small Person Far Away , is about the newly married Judith Kerr visiting her sick mother in Berlin and revisiting the places she grew up in. Since it was still soon after the war, links and memories to Nazi Germany are still fresh as evident in the drapes of the decrepit hotel she was staying in. It was a hotel, probably once upon a time a lively household, managed by an elderly woman who had presumably fallen on hard times. Despite having lived in the room for more than a week while visiting her ailing mother, Judith Kerr had not realised that the design woven in the drapes was of tiny swastikas — a chilling reminiscent of Nazi Germany which to her relief she discovered only on the day of her departure home.  A Small Person Far Away is the most mature in tone with a greater control of her prose as by this time she had become a professional writer too.

Like her successful writer father and her screen writer husband, Judith Kerr, too went on to become a successful writer when the picture book she wrote for her daughter sold favourably — The Tiger Who Came to Tea. Years later it continues to sell. In fact, now at the age of ninety-four she is still writing. Her latest publication is a picture book about her eleven-year-old cat Katinka’s Tail ( to be published by HarperCollins) . In fact she describes her writing day in a recent issue of The Guardian “Judith Kerr: ‘I’m still surprised at the success of The Tiger Who Came to Tea’” ( 25 November 2017).

I would be very sad and lonely if I didn’t work. I finished this book a few weeks after the last one was published, which is unlike me, and I’m already thinking about the next one. There is a new urgency to my working. Maybe it is like the disease, honey fungus, that trees get when they have an incredible display one year and look better than they ever have before. And then it kills them. Perhaps you get something like that at the age of 94, because, after all, I can’t rely on going on and on. 

Her joi de vivre is magical and infectious!

29 November 2017