Short stories Posts

2018: All set to sparkle with new voices

( On Sunday, 7 January 2018, Asian Age published my article on the highlights of 2018. Unfortunately due to the constraints of space the sections on commercial fiction and children and young adult literature was dropped from the published article. So while I am reposting the original article, I have also included the sections that were dropped by highlighting the portions in red. )

The Indian book market, worth $6.76 billion, is perhaps one of the few where English language books sell well. As expected, 2018 is all set to sparkle — with new books and voices.

Among the prominent narrative non-fiction is the much-anticipated debut of Dreamers written by journalist Snigdha Poonam. It is a remarkable cultural study of the unlikeliest of fortune hawkers’ travels through the small towns of northern India to investigate the phenomenon that is India’s Generation Y. The other equally anticipated titles are Why I am a Hindu? by Shashi Tharoor; The Gujaratis: A Portrait of a Community by award-winning journalist Salil Tripathi; Him, Me, Muhammad Ali by Randa Jarrar, a collection of stories depicting the lives of Arab women, ranging from hypnotic fables to gritty realism; Legendary Maps from the Himalayan Club by mountaineer and Himalayan Journal editor, Harish Kapadia.

Devdutt Pattanaik’s The Book of Numbers: An Indian Perspective, about the significance of numbers in Indian culture, also delves into Vedic and Puranic connotations of each key number.

Some quirky titles to look forward to are Jadoo-wallahs, Jugglers and Djinns: A Magical History of India by John Zubrzycki which tells the extraordinary story of how Indian magic descended from the gods and came to be a part of daily rituals and popular entertainment. Also on the shelves this year will be Showtime: A Spectacular History of the Indian Circus by Anirban Ghosh, which tells the incredible story of the circus in India from the 19th century to the present.

It would be interesting, and topical, to read Past, Present and Future; Dissent, Despair, Dreams: Student Activism in India by Anirban Bandhopadhyay and Umar Khalid; Economics for Political Change: The Collected works of Manmohan Singh; Demonetisation and Black Money by C. Rammanohar Reddy.

Power by Barkha Dutt is about the twinned stories of the changing fortunes of the Congress Party and the rise of the BJP through the men and women who shaped events before 2014, and after.

Then there is Note by Note: The Great Indian Playlist by Seema Chishti, Sushant Singh and Ankur Bhardwaj that uses one song from each year, accompanied by a brief essay, and tells the story of India since 1947.

Two critical books on free speech include The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation by Ravish Kumar in which he examines while debate and dialogue have given way to hate and intolerance in India, how elected representatives, the media and other institutions are failing us, and looks at ways to repair the damage to our democracy; as will be Why India Needs a Free Press by N. Ram.

Biographies
Some of the biographies/ memoirs to look forward to in 2018 are on film actors — Sanjay Dutt by Yaseer Usman, Sanjay Khan, Priyanka Chopra by Aseem Chhabra – and politicians. There’s veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar’s Close Encounters: The People I have Known and Biography of Mohan Bhagwat by Kingshuk Nag. The life stories of musicians Ilyaraja, Asha Bhonsle, S.D. Burman and Zakir Hussain (with Nasreen Munni Kabeer); spiritual leaders Dalai Lama (by Raghu Rai), Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (authorised biography, Gurudev, by his younger sister) and Shankaracharya (by Pavan Varma) and Amrita Sher-Gil will also be out this year.

Celebrity memoirs this year include actress Manisha Koirala’s cancer memoir and model-turned-health enthusiast Milind Soman’s book and Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason by her close friend and former husband Chiddanand Rajghatta. Mentor by Hussain Zaidi about Dawood Ibrahim’s mentor, Khalid Pehelwan, who was instrumental in the formation and success of the D-gang are going to be the highlights of 2018.

Other notable books to look forward to are Nalini Jameela’s Romantic Encounters of a Sex Worker; Yashica Dutt’s Coming out as Dalit: A Memoir and The Idol Thief by S. Vijay Kumar, the shocking true story of one idol thief, Subhash Kapoor, behind the most outrageous thefts of Indian antiquities.

Literary memoirs not to be missed are Rosy Thomas’ memoir about her husband He, My Beloved CJ (translated from Malayalam by G. Arunima) and Na Bairi Na Koi Begana by crime fiction writer Surendra Mohan Pathak. It is the first in the three-volume autobiography of crime fiction writer Surender Mohan Pathak and chronicles his childhood in Lahore. The Hungrialists by Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury tells the remarkable story about how a generation of Bangla poets braved state censorship, loss of income and even imprisonment, and went on to transform literary culture in Bengal.

Fiction
Established writers too are coming up with their new books this year. These include Anita Nair’s Eating Wasps, Esther David’s Bombay Brides, Tabish Khair’s Night of Happiness, Rita Chowdhury’s Chinatown Days, Shandana Minhas’ Rafina, Anuradha Roy’s All the Lives We Never Lived, Mirza Waheed’s In His Hands, Amitabh Bagchi’s Half the Night Is Gone, Mahesh Rao’s Polite Society and Chandrahas Choudhury’s Clouds.

Travails with the Alien: The Film that Was Never Made and Other Adventures with Science Fiction by filmmaker Satyajit Ray brings together a collection of his many writings on the subject, including the script he wrote in the 1960s, based on a short story of his, for a science fiction film called The Alien. On being prompted by Arthur C. Clarke, who found the screenplay promising, Ray sent the script to an agent in Hollywood, who happened to represent Peter Sellers. Then started the “Ordeal of the Alien”, as some 20 years later, Ray watched Steven Spielberg’s film Close Encounters of the Third Kind and realised its bore and uncanny resemblance to his script The Alien, including the way the ET was designed! The book includes Ray’s detailed essay on the project with the full script of The Alien, as well as the original short story on which the screenplay was based, apart from some of his most celebrated writings on science fiction.

Commercial fiction writers like Nikita Singh, Yashodhara Lal, Trisha Das, Ravi Subramanian, Ira Trivedi and Sachin Bhatia, Ashwin Sanghi, Amish Tripathi, Durjoy Dutta, Ravinder Singh, Novoneel Chakraborty, Kevin Missal have books lined up in the new year. Also expected is the debut novel by Shweta Bachchan (Paradise Towers) and short stories by Shubha Mudgal.

Political narratives scheduled for 2018 include The Aadhar Effect by N.S. Ramnath and Charles Assisi; The RTI Story: The People’s Movement for Transparency by activist and main architect of Right to Information movement, Aruna Roy; AAP & Down: An Insider’s Account of India’s Most Controversial Party by Mayank Gandhi with Shrey Shah; and BJP: From Vajpayee to Modi by Saba Naqvi.

Equally fascinating should be Strongmen: Trump-Modi-Erdogan-Duterte, essays by Eve Ensler, Danish Husain, Burhan Sonmez and Ninotschka Rosca. An account of Kashmir by historian Radha Kumar and another one by former chief minister Omar Abdullah should be worth waiting for. At a time when “talaq” is being discussed, two timely books slated are by Salman Khurshid’s Three Times Unlucky and Ziya Us Salam’s Till Talaq Do Us Part.

Graphic novels
Graphic novels are steady sellers with a well-defined market too. Some of the titles anticipated are: Long Form Annual: The Best of Graphic Fiction & Non-Fiction edited by Sarabjit Sen, Debkumar Mitra, Sekhar Mukherjee and Pinaki De. It consists of stories about ordinary people, autobiographies, travel tales etc. As yet unnamed graphic novel about a teenager in America trying to come to terms with her Indian roots by new voice — Nidhi Chanani. Also to watch out for are First Hand 2: Graphic Nonfiction from India and Lotus and the Snake by Appupen.

Translations
Rich translation works worth a read include The Book of Mordechai and Lazarus: Two Novels by Gábor Schein (translated from the Hungarian by Adam Z. Levy and Ottilie Mulzet and Very Close to Pleasure, There Is a Sick Cat and Other Poems by Shakti Chattopadhyay (translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha). Some other notable titles slated in 2018 are: Chandni Begum: A Novel by Qurratulain Hyder (translated from the original Urdu by Saleem Kidwai); Tiger Women by Sirsho Bandhopadhyay (translated by Arunava Sinha) — it is the fictionalised story of Sushila Sundari, the first woman to perform in Indian circuses and gain immense popularity, Moisture Trapped in Stone: An Anthology of Modern Telugu Short Stories, translated by K. N. Rao; Timeless Tales from Bengal edited by Dipankar Roy and Saurav Dasthakur; Perumal Murugan’s double-sequel to One Part Woman; Jasmine Days by Benyamin.

Sahitya Akademi award-winning book If a River and Other Stories by Kula Saikia, currently DGP, Assam; On a River’s Bank by A. Madhavan (translated from Tamil by M. Vijayalakshmi); Here I am and Other Stories by P. Sathyavathi (translated from Telugu); Echoes of the Veena and other Stories by P. Sathyavathi (translated from Tamil); Havan by Mallikarjun Hiremath (translated from Kannada by S. Mohanraj) — this novel focusses on one of India’s most colourful wandering tribe, the Lambanis, who are found in large numbers in Karnataka and Maharashtra.

Some of the important women-centric publications of 2018 are: The Short Life and Tragic Death of Qandeel Baloch by Sanam Maher. The 25-year-old Qandeel Baloch who was Pakistan’s first celebrity-by-social media, shot to fame when she uploaded a video on Facebook mocking a presidential “warning” not to celebrate Valentine’s Day — a “Western” holiday. At the time, the Valentine’s Day video had been seen 830,000 times. Five months later, Qandeel Baloch would be dead. Her brother would strangle her in their family home, in what would be described as an “honour killing” — a murder to restore the respect and honour Qandeel’s behaviour online robbed him of.

Other titles are: Civilisations how do we look/ Eye of Faith by Mary Beard; Women Rulers of India by Archana Garodia; Tiger Women: Profile of Women Militants in India by Rashmi Saxena; Being “Her” in New India by Rana Ayyub; Like a Girl by Aparna Jain; Feminist Rani by Shaili Chopra and Meghna Pant; Daughters of the sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire by Ira Mukhoty; A Legal Handbook for Women by Nivedita Guhathakurta and Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan by Ruby Lal, a historical biography. The Bourbans and Begums of Bhopal: The Forgotten History by Indira Iyengar, a descendant of Jean Philippe de Bourbon, who arrived in India in the 1560s and was appointed a senior official by the Mughal Emperor Akbar, at his court in Delhi.

Children and young adult literature 

Children’s and young adult literature is a vibrant space with the healthiest growth rate. Some of the titles planned are a poetry and song collection by Gulzar; Vaishali Shroff on a journey of the Narmada to learn about the dinosaurs of India; a new Hill School Girls series by A. Coven; Timeless Biography series of HCI launches with Amrita Sher-Gil, a painter whose biography has also been released by Alka Pande for Tota Books. DK India has a phenomenal collection of heavily illustrated titles planned – The Ultimate Children’s EncyclopaediaDK Indian Icons are their easy-to-use biographies, Birds about Delhi, 3D Printing, Robot. Indian myths for children by the brilliant storyteller Arshia Sattar; a delightful picture book The Cloud Eater by Chewang Dorji Bhutia and Prankenstein: The Book of Crazy Mischief edited by Ruskin Bond and Jerry Pinto. YA literature has some extraordinary titles such as The Other by Paro Anand; When Morning Comes by Arushi Raina in Duckbill’s ‘Not Our War’ series and is set in South Africa. It is about teenagers during the Soweto uprising of 1976. Why I Lie by Himanjali Sankar is a YA novel about mental health issues. Fireflies in the Dark by Shazaf Fatima , a young adult fantasy title that takes the reader deep into the world of jinns and shape changers and hidden family secrets. The Legend of the Wolf by Andaleeb Wajid , a fantasy horror novel for young adults.Refugee by Alan Grantz; The Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel Fattah and A very, Very Bad Thing by Jeffery Self. 

2018 will sparkle with new books and voices!

7 January 2018 

 

Amazon for Authors, KDP in Delhi, 30 November 2017

Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing Author Academy is hosting an event over lunch at Hotel Le Meredien, New Delhi . It is to introduce and discuss their self-publishing programme– Kindle Direct Publishing or KDP.  The panel will include Sanjeev Jha, Director for Kindle Content, India, Amazon. I will moderate the conversation.

Anyone who is interested in selfpublishing their book online is welcome to attend. It could be a book or a manual ranging from fiction, non-fiction, self-help, parenting, career advice, spirituality, horoscopes, philosophy, first aid manuals, medicine, science, gardening, cooking, collection of recipes, automobiles, sports, finance, memoir, biographies, histories, children’s literature, textbooks, science articles, on Nature, poetry, translations, drama, interviews, essays, travel, religion, hospitality, narrative non-fiction, reportage, short stories, education, teaching, yoga etc. Any form of text that is to be made available as an ebook using Amazon’s Kindle programme.

In December 2016 Amazon announced that Kindle books would be available in five regional languages in India — Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati and Malayalam. This is a game changing move as it enables writers in other languages apart from English to have access to a worldwide platform such as the Kindle. Best-selling author Ashwin Sanghi called it an “outstanding initiative by Amazon India. It’s about time that vernacular writing moved out from the confines of paperback. It will also enable out-of-print books to be made available now.” Another best-selling author, Amish Tripathi, said this will address the inadequate distribution and marketing of Indian language books, for the much larger market is the one in Indian languages. “I am personally committed to this and am very happy that of the 3.5 million copies that have been sold of my books, a good 500,000 of them are in Indian languages.” Others remarked upon the best global practices it would bring to local publishing.

Sanjeev Jha
Director for Kindle Content, India, Amazon

cordially invites you for a session on

Amazon for Authors:

Navigating the Road to Self-Publishing Success

Hear how Indian authors have used Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) to build and reach audiences across a variety of genres

Date: Thursday, 30 November 2017

Time: 12 -1pm (followed by lunch)

Venue: Hotel Le Meredien, Delhi

This event is free. Registration is mandatory. Please email to confirm participation: jayabhattacharjirose1@gmail.com .

 

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose
International publishing consultant

 

The Erotic in the Indian Imagination

Amrita Narayanan has edited Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica , an anthology consisting of extracts from literature published in India over centuries. There are pieces from Rig Veda; the Tamil Sangam poets; Bhakti poets Antal and Mahadeviyakka, who describe women’s fantasies of men (whether human or godly); short stories by Kamala Das that have been out of print for decades; excerpts from the work of contemporary writers like Mridula Garg, Ginu Kamani, Tarun Tejpal, Deepti Kapoor, Sudhir Kakar et al. It is not as comprehensive in its survey as say the two volumes of Women Writing in India were and thus falls short of one’s expectations. Having said that Parrots of Desire is a start maybe to be added to later in a revised edition? 

Here is an extract from the opening pages of the well-written introduction published with permission. This section is “Erotic in the Indian Imagination”. 

To read centuries of voices writing on the erotic is to become keenly aware of a deep argument that exists in the geography of the subcontinent, an argument between literary romantics—who embrace the erotic for the gloss it adds to life—and religious traditionalists[1]—who caution against the erotic, for its disorderly nature and potential to cause chaos. While romantic and traditionalist voices are unanimous in their belief that the erotic holds an extraordinary power and attraction for human beings, each does something very different with that belief. Romantics are erotically positive: they believe life is made worthwhile by its erotic aspects, that the best life is one in which our understanding and awareness of the erotic are maximally enhanced. Traditionalists, on the other hand, are erotically anxious: they believe that a worthwhile life is one in which the four goals of life[2] are in balance; they do not favour the promotion of the erotic, worrying that if not tightly controlled, the erotic could undermine the other three goals of life. Aficionados of the romantic project used the arts as a vehicle of articulation; their literature, music, drama, even grammar, was thought to be imbued with the erotic and capable of enhancing our understanding of the erotic. Traditionalists used both religious writing and the social contract to articulate the dangers of the erotic, believing that the erotic must be kept on the sidelines, aside from its necessary use as a vehicle for reproduction. Romantics believe that coupling is a central life force, and they appreciate the energy that comes from all couplings, whether man-woman, woman-woman, men who identify as women (and are fantasizing about male gods), or (wo)men with God. Traditionalists believe in the notion of an ‘ideal couple’: heterosexually and monogamously married, with children and extended family in the foreground and a willingness and ability to keep the erotic in the background.

To further understand the argument between traditionalists and romantics, consider a brief history of the time that traditionalism and romanticism have held sway. The purview of this anthology begins about 1000 BCE in ancient India. For the first 800 years or so of this time period, that is, beginning with the Vedas, traditionalist sentiments prevail. During this time, the destabilizing dangers of the erotic are far better articulated in the literature than are its pleasures. From the Vedas onwards, traditionalist literature, which is largely in the form of religious texts, is squarely articulate on the need to manage the destablizing potential of the erotic. Beginning in 200 BCE, however, and continuing for several centuries, literary voices sang the glories of the erotic and their dedication to it—in Tamil, Sanskrit, and Maharashtrian Prakrit. From the second to the sixth century, an Indian literary-erotic-nature idiom was spelt out from Tamil Nadu to Maharashtra and up to Madhya Pradesh. Here the poets embraced the erotic along with its problems, accepting that though the erotic often brought anger, grief and shame, it was still worth embracing for its pleasures. During this medieval period emerged the Tamil Sangam poets and the Maharashtrian Prakrit Gatha Saptasati, the prose and poetry of Kalidasa and Bhartrihari, as well as the Kama Sutra itself. After this golden age of the Romantics, puritanism once again holds sway and the next major erotic work—at least the one that has survived—is the collection of romantic poems known as the Amarusataka, written in Sanskrit in the seventh or eighth century and attributed to King Amaru of Kashmir. From the eighth century onwards there is again a long period in which very few important works have survived, the next set being from the Bhakti poets who compose discontinuously from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries in praise of erotic love with God himself. The fact that Bhakti poets praise erotic love only in language that involves a deity suggests that this was considered the most elegant and refined expression of romanticism at that time. Alternatively, perhaps, the social climate—which by this time included both Hindu and Muslim puritans—did not support an articulation of a more explicit person-to-person erotic love. The taboos on self-expression of erotic love might have impinged particularly on women poets and the re-direction of this love to the divine might have spared them the censorship that might have otherwise been forthcoming. Another way of thinking about it is that, dispirited with the limitations of romantic love between humans, some of these poets were able to find a more elevated idiom with the gods.

Following the Bhakti period, the proliferation of the Urdu language and the culture of refinement associated with Islamic courtly love played an important pro-romantic influence; but as the Hindu and Muslim puritans were joined by the British puritans in the seventeenth century, one has the sense that romanticism was very much in the dark ages. Nevertheless, important works continued to emerge in a more scattered fashion. Amongst these individual works are those written by courtesans, such as the Telugu Radhika Santawanam (The Appeasement of Radhika) by Muddupalani, in the eighteenth century. Another is the erotic proponent of the Lucknow school of poetry, Qalandar Bakhsh Jur’at, known for his bawdy yet spiritual imaginings of women in sexual union. As the reader advances towards and past the twentieth century, individual writers offer an exploration of contemporary erotic problems alternating with the past. Contemporary Indian writers who match and build on the efforts of their ancestors write in, among other languages, English, Tamil and Malayalam, and continue to shed profound light on the erotic. In this anthology the contemporary writers I have chosen include those who have made a searing commentary on the relationship between kama and society: Perumal Murugan, Kamala Das; those whose reverential treatment of the erotic couple recalls the glorious medieval period: Pritish Nandy, K. Satchidanandan, Tarun Tejpal; writers like Manto and Ambai whose erotic-nostalgic writings make us feel lustful and tender at once; modern Bhakti poets like Arundhathi Subramaniam and Kala Krishnan Ramesh; and those who have treated in great depth the extraordinary conflicts that the erotic poses for an individual life: here found in the works of Mridula Garg, Deepti Kapoor and Ginu Kamani

[1]I chose the word traditionalist and not puritan because of the historical origins of puritanism that are not pertinent to India. However I thought it worth mentioning that the traditionalist argument is close in nature to the puritan argument. Here puritan is used in the sense of against pleasure, see for example, H. L. Mencken, who sardonically defined Puritanism as ‘the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy’.

[2]The four aims of life (purusharthas): artha (wealth), kama (desire), dharma (duty) and moksha (salvation from the cycle of life and death).

Amrita Narayanan ( ed.) Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2017. Hb. pp. 304 

8 Sept 2017 

Interview with Shikhandin

My interview with Shikhandin was published in Scroll on Sunday, 10 September 2017 as “‘The writer in me doesn’t have a gender, or is made up of all the genders’: Shikhandin“. 

Immoderate Men by Shikhandin is a remarkable collection of stories published by Speaking Tiger Books. These stories meander through the minds of men giving a perspective on daily life which would ordinarily be dismissed. For instance stories like  “Room Full of Presents”, “Salted Pinkies”, “Hijras on the Highway” and “Old Man Sitting on a South Kolkata Park Bench, Ruminating” if taken at face-value are regular stories with a mild twist. On the other hand these stories also dissect with finesse the preconceived notion of “What is masculinity?”  By delving into the mental makeup of the protagonists the author explores bewildering scenarios; thereby brilliantly subverting notions of patriarchical norms by blurring gender lines as often this confused state of mind is attributed to women and not men.

Here are edited excerpts of an interview with the author:

  1. How did these stories come about?

Mostly from the world around me, past and present. A couple are from dreams and visions. Some from newspaper articles, photographs, a conversation overheard, a person observed in a crowd, and so on. My stories usually come from life itself, whether dreamt or experienced or watched. “Room Full of Presents” came to me in a pre-dawn dream, all of it, more than a decade ago. I still remember waking from it, the sensations of the dream falling off me like water droplets as I sat up on my bed, trying to stay still, just feeling the story over me, around me. Dreams have their roots in reality, regardless of their form and shape. I was sure I had seen/met the characters somewhere, sometime. “Ahalya” came from a vision of a girl with cascading black hair running up a hill. I was half asleep, but I could see her clearly; the hill felt mysterious; this story crept up on me at first without any specific shape, smoky, yet tangible. Most of my stories run like little movies on a little screen before my eyes – that is my first sighting of the story. I write what I see and hear in that mental screen. This is how it has always been for me, even when I wrote press ads and ad films for a living, years ago.

  1. How long did it take to write these stories?

The stories in this collection, and others too, were written over a period of almost two decades. I love short stories (and novellas and novelettes), but everybody keeps saying there isn’t a market for them. So for many years I didn’t put together a manuscript of short stories, though I continued to submit and be published in journals, mostly abroad. The earliest story in this collection was written in 2002 and first published in an American Magazine the same year. Individual stories have their own pace. Some, like “Mail for Dadubhai,” was written in one sitting. Ditto for “Ducklings”, “The Vanishing Man” and “Black Prince”. They were edited/fine-tuned after what I call the resting/roosting period. In general, a single story may take me anything from one or two days to a week. I leave them alone after that for as long as it takes, before I revisit. Some may take longer, like “Salted Pinkies”. I was inhabiting the minds of young men, the kind who loiter in Calcutta’s cheap cafes. Even though I was confident of their language and mannerisms, I kept stopping to check, which was difficult because I no longer lived in Calcutta. At times I literally had to mentally transport myself to North Calcutta, walk the streets in my mind. Watching the boys and men all over again. The writing time, I would say, really depends on the story. There is a story that I have left incomplete for almost two decades, because I have imagined several alternative endings for it; one will rise up and push out the others I know. For me, it’s the story that dictates. I am merely the conduit.

  1. Are they pure figments of imagination or are borrowed heavily from life or inspired by events? (I ask because there is a tone to them that makes me feel as if there is a pinch of reality infused in the stories)

They are both and neither. Like dreams, our imaginings are also based on reality, grounded in the material world. Even a fantasy-scifi movie like Avatar, is at the end of the day, a story about thwarting colonial intrusion. If my stories are relatable, I have succeeded in writing a true one. By true I don’t mean factually correct or historically acceptable. Truth, as I see it, in fiction is about emotional sincerity, that kernel that makes you weep, laugh, sing or rage with or against the character or situation; the narrative that makes you walk through to the end, because it is probable, plausible, relatable, even when the world the story brings forth seems impossible or in the case of literary stories, unfamiliar and totally strange or even shocking. Having said all of the above, yes, there are stories that were inspired by something almost physical. Like “Ducklings” for instance, which is from a photograph I had seen in a newspaper. Avian flu was sweeping across Bengal and Orissa and also Bihar. It was around 2006 I think. There was this black and white photograph of a Bengali woman, weeping as she clutched ducklings, her pets, to her breast. The ducklings were looking innocently back at the camera/photographer. Having grown up with many animals and birds, and experienced the pain of loss, I am not ashamed to say that I wept for that woman, mourned her loss for days. And then I re-imagined her life.  “Old Man Sitting on a South Kolkata Park Bench, Ruminating” is inspired from an actual conversation, part of it, that I had heard while passing through a similar park in that city. A few old men were gossiping, about the young girls they had seen or knew, and their daughters-in-law. An incident in the story (kissing a baby boy in the crotch) was actually witnessed by me during my college days in the early eighties, and it is still practised. These traditional Bengali men didn’t/don’t think they were/are doing anything wrong. Saluting a baby boy like that is acceptable; displaying a boy baby is a matter of pride. I stitched that incident into my story. And I became an old man in my head when I wrote it.

  1. Curiously you chose to write about the world of men while inhabiting their minds. With this technique it is fascinating the multiple layers of reading it lends itself to. How did you train yourself to write in this manner?

For this I really must thank my rigorous advertising training. One of the exercises copywriting entailed was mentally switching places with the consumer. I discovered it works quite well for fiction when you are writing as someone else, seeing things from another’s perspective. My short experience with theatre also helps. That apart, since my childhood, I’ve had this tendency to feel things intensely- be inside the book I am reading or the music I am listening or the movie I am watching, the food I am cooking. Once my mother tore my drawing book into shreds because I hadn’t replied when she’d called me. I wasn’t ignoring her or being disrespectful, I actually hadn’t heard, but of course I wasn’t believed. Similar problems would crop up in school too. Be that as it may, it’s great fun becoming someone or something else even momentarily! Adventure and action, madness and mayhem all in the safety of your own mind. It helps that I am mostly by myself on any week day. I can laugh or cry without being seen as a lunatic! Right now, a part of my head is a dog, doing doggie things; two dogs actually in two totally different stories, so I had to apportion off my grey cells!

  1. Why use a nom de plume?

Actually in my case, it is not so much as a nom de plume, as acknowledging to myself and everyone, that the writer in me doesn’t have a gender or is made up of all the genders. I ought to have used Shikhandin right at the beginning, but felt shy about it; didn’t want to come across as pretentious. It’s hard enough replying “I write” when folks ask me what I do.

I could have picked up any other gender nonspecific name or initials. There are several versions to the Shikhandin narrative in the Mahabharata. The common thread running through all is that Shikhandin, who was princess Amba of Kashi, in a previous birth, through deep penance and austerities and after several rebirths and a Yaksha’s boon, became a male, Shikhandin, and succeeded in destroying the man (Bhishma) who was responsible for her humiliation and ruin in her first life. Whichever version you read, Shikhandin’s life is a fascinating story of grit, determination and resolve against all odds. For most people Shikhandin represents members of the LGBT community, or those who have rejected gender stereotypes. For me, Shikhandin represents a mind so strong that it can overcome physical boundaries and frailties. It doesn’t matter what you are born as, but who you can become.

I had heard about Shikhandin as a young child listening to tales from the epics. Later, while still in school, I read a bit. Shikhandin has been with me for decades. And because of Shikhandin I questioned male-female roles as dictated by society, and the kind of character and personality ascribed to each as acceptable. I wondered then, and still do, how gender specific are we in the purely intellectual or cerebral sense. How much of our gendered lives are in fact centuries of conditioning. I think it is nonsense that only women can understand women and likewise for men. Physical violence is not a male characteristic, just as daintiness is not a female thing. As a writer, I don’t want to belong to any specific place or slot. I don’t matter, the story does. At the time of writing, I should have the freedom to become whatever is necessary, whatever is required of me, for the story to unfurl as truly as it can.

  1. When did you gravitate from writing children’s stories to stories for adults?

It’s the other way round actually. I have been writing for adults ever since I can remember.  I wish I had started writing children’s stories earlier. That’s another regret, and hope I can make up for lost time now. I was afraid I wouldn’t be good enough. But the Children’s First Contest curated by Duckbill, Parag (an initiative of Tata Trust) and Vidya Sagar School has boosted my confidence . I enjoy reading children’s fiction a lot, even today, after my own children have grown up. And every time I have written a story or poem for children I’ve come away feeling so euphoric – the sheer joy of being a child is like an elixir. I enjoy listening to children’s patter too. Their sense of logic and observation astounds me. They also know more than many grownups about many things.

  1. Do you think there is any difference in your methodology while writing for children or adults?

Yes, certainly. There is a poem that I’d written and published several years ago, which I think can give you an idea about the kind of heart needed when writing for children:

WHAT THE CHILD DOES

When gossamer tufts come cascading down

From the silk-cotton tree’s bright scarlet crown

Who chases the tufts? Say who does?

The child does

When plump raven clouds thundering their refrain

Suddenly shed weight in vast feathers of rain

Who raises a fountain? Say who does?

The child does

When dew beads strung across blades of new grass

Glisten like rows and rows of glowing elfin glass

Who sees the rainbow? Say who does?

The child does

When within that pupa clinging to a tree

A butterfly softly struggles to be free

Who hears the cry? Say who does?

The child does

When deep down in winter’s icy waters

A timid sun’s shy white ray quivers

Who feels the arrow? Say who does?

The child does

Ah! Everywhere in this world, a new world unfolds

And unwraps and unfurls, expands and grows

Who stands in wonder, then? Say who does?

We do! We do! Yes. But first the child does!

  1. At times you hold yourself back from describing in greater detail the surroundings or situations. Why?

In short stories less is more – usually, because there are always exceptions to prove the rule! The best are those that without shouting, slip inside your head and start to niggle, urging you, the reader, to create possible endings and solutions, extend the surroundings or simply stay on with the story. I try to emulate that standard. I try.

Shikhandin Immoderate Men: Stories Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2017. Pb. pp. 190 Rs 299 

12 Sept 2017 

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

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

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

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Sarojini Naidu with Mahatma Gandhi

at the 1942 All India Congress Committee Session

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

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

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

10 August 2017 

Maid in India

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 July 2017 

 

Paro Anand wins the Sahitya Akademi Puraskar for “Wild Child”

In 2010 well-known children’s writer Paro Anand and I began working on a collection of stories. I had commissioned the manuscript as a publishing consultant for Puffin India. It was a slow creative process which was hugely rewarding for the calibre of stories Paro Anand wrote. We worked at it patiently ignoring schedules focused on quality. Wild Child and Other Stories was published in December 2011. It sold in vast numbers. It was so popular that in 2015 Penguin India revised the edition. Paro Anand added a few more stories to the volume. It was rejacketed and relaunched with a new title — Like Smoke. The book in its various avatars has been in circulation for six years and continues to sell well.

Interestingly earlier this month Paro Anand wrote an article in The Indian Express ( 2 June 2017) on how at least two of her books, No Guns at My Son’s Funeral and Like Smoke , are being banned by schools in India.

She writes:

In recent months, these two books have been taken off reading lists. In one school, teachers decided that they were “inappropriate”; in another, parents apparently objected to their children being made to read such “improper” children’s books. The school authorities have withdrawn them.

This, after years of being taught to class nine and ten students. I am now being invited to talk in schools on the condition that I don’t bring up these titles under any circumstances. I am told that I should stick to some of my “safe” ones.

Is this happening out of fear? Is it the worry that, in these black and white times, a mob will find out about these books and come at the school, guns blazing? Is it a “better safe than sorry” thing? The “suppose something happens” factor? In a way, I can understand this — after all, young children are involved.

But, on the other hand, aren’t we robbing our young of open debate and critical thinking? Of late, we have been repeatedly giving in to a handful of people with easily hurt sentiments. But is our children’s curriculum to be decided by the mob? By khap panchayats? Are young people to stay forever within the safety of the lakshman rekha drawn by Cinderella? When the mob infantilises even adults with violent censorship — think Ramjas College — it’s no surprise that children’s literature is in the firing line, too. The only surprise is that it didn’t happen earlier.

Acknowledgements page of “Like Smoke” by Paro Anand

Being awarded the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Puraskar 2017 for Wild Child and Other Stories and her contribution to children’s literature is a validation of Paro Anand’s decades of work in this field. Here is an example of the fan mail she receives for the book. This letter came in a couple of weeks ago.

Hi.I don’t know if you remember me. I wanted to thank you. I was in class 8th when I first met you and i still am in awe of you to this day. It was a beautiful memory that I long to revisit. You were in my school for an author meet. …It was you, who made me realise that life is worth when you live for others. It was you who inspired me to become who I am. It’s been nearly 5 years. You autographed on my copy of wild child that you’d hope to get my autograph one day and trust me that was day I aimed to be the best so as in to prove my mettle and I gave my best to be the school’s literary president. I owe that badge to you, mam. The day you signed that book was such a proud moment for me. I went to my class with a big grin and all my peers were jealous. My parents were very proud of me. Not that I’ve never won anything before, but that day I won respect. I was more than a role model to my sibling, more than just an achiever to my parents. Your words filled my heart with optimism and hope. I’ve had quite a few lows in my life. But somehow your words flashed back this one time and I’ve been strong ever since. I really want to thank you. It is these little things that actually affect a person’s life and I, from that very day tried to be a person like you. You’ve helped me in a way I never thought of. Your words have always been heart wrenching yet so inspiring. Thank you, I’ll never forget how you appreciated my innocence back then and answered all my questions tirelessly. Thank you for that beautiful afternoon. Wild child will forever be my book and you shall always be a tender, loving yet fearless inspiration to me. Thank you for being a part of my childhood. This isn’t Shabir Karam… Haha this is ….. I’ll have my kids(if I ever do that is), tell them about fats or bela’s troubles or about pepper. Thank you, I guess it is never too late. 

Yours gratuitously, 
XYZ
As her commissioning editor for the book my joy at Paro Anand winning this award is indescribable. I am truly delighted our constructive energies and hard work resulted in her being recognised in this manner.
Congratulations Paro!
26 June 2017 

An Interview with Deepak Unnikrishnan, Author of the Debut Short Story Collection “Temporary People”

My interview with debut writer, Deepak Unnikrishnan, was published in Bookwitty on 13 April 2017. The interview is reproduced below. 

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – May 24, 2016: ( Photo by Philip Cheung )

Deepak Unnikrishnan is a writer from Abu Dhabi and has lived in various cities in the United States. He studied and taught at the Art Institute of Chicago and at present teaches at New York University in Abu Dhabi. His extraordinary, kaleidoscopic collection of short stories, Temporary People vary in style from magic realism to the surreal, and curiously enough, to a list of jobs available to immigrant labor. There is a rich texture to the stories not just for the magical plot lines such as the one of a woman who goes around at night “fixing” the broken limbs of migrants with glue, but the strong rhythm underlying them. This is his first book, which has received wide critical acclaim and was also the inaugural winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. Unnikrishnan generously took the time to answer questions for Bookwitty here:

Why these stories?

Personally, there was a need for the tales to get out. I think the question to ask would be why these people. Why linger on them the way I do, be they man, woman or child. I suppose a part of me wanted to resurrect the city that raised me. Couldn’t do that without thinking about people. And once your mind grants refuge to the folks you’ve imagined, uncles and aunties and friends and strangers, they take over your mind. But after years of lugging them around in my head I wanted to be rid of them, and the only way I could manage that was to write them out of my system. But I knew, as I began to write this thing I began, I wanted the work to be populated by individuals from different age groups: the young, the old, and those in between. So you could say I’d pocketed these people like children pocketing marbles. When I was young I didn’t understand remembering people was my method of making them immortal. When I left the Gulf, they – such people – became my souvenirs. And I wanted them in the book. As realization hit about what I was writing about, I found myself wondering for the first time whether I was writing about my people. Or people like me, whatever “me” meant. It was one thing to claim a place, another to claim people. But it’s also the strangest thing to write about a place like the Khaleej (Arabic for Gulf) when you’re not there anymore. Abu Dhabi felt different from afar. In New York and Chicago, Abu Dhabi could only be distant. Yet because I thought of home often enough, the city I left drifted close enough for me to miss it. As well as engage with my version of what I believed the city to be.

You seem to be fascinated by the form of a story — soliloquy, interior monologue, poetry, short story, prose, etc. Is the power of a story dependent on its form? 

I’m not terribly old, but I’ve been told tales, in bars, cabs, rooms, at night, twilight, past midnight. Men, women, and children have told me stories sitting in a chair, nursing a drink, minutes after a kiss. They’ve all been different, these tales. Sometimes the delivery was off; other times the tales fizzed and popped like firecrackers. I don’t remember them all, but I do recall the care these people (especially children) took with their tales, even if the world could have been breaking outside, why saying something mattered so much to them, why being listened to mattered so much to them. And they all went about reciting their pieces differently. Their tales/fables/anecdotes were wedded to their personalities. And on good days, I’d hear (and read) stories that bobbed and weaved in between forms I adored. As someone who writes, I still hesitate to tell people I write. I’m not sure what that means yet but I’ve always been fascinated by the possibilities of narrative form. I want my work to count. I’ve thought about the text. I wish to be heard. But I’m not toying with form because I want you (“you” being the reader) to know I can do this and that and juggle mandarins while I’m at it. Temporary People needed chapters that operated like players in an orchestra. Everything mattered, everything counted. And why experiment? Well, sometimes I’m bored, so I try things.

Men, women, and children have told me stories sitting in a chair, nursing a drink, minutes after a kiss

Why depict so much violence that produces a visceral reaction in one while reading it?

I ran into someone I went to high school with at a reading in New York. So I’ve read thirty pages, he said. And, he continued, I am miserable. That broke my heart a little. So you haven’t seen/found any joy yet? I wanted to ask him. You’re right, the book’s doused in violence. But conversations about the book can be steered in multiple directions depending on what kind of violence you’re interested in talking about. If it’s physical violence, graphic descriptions of beatings and punishments, by men, women and children, then sure, there’s a lot of that. But if you’ve responded to any of these moments of chaos, I’m also grinning a little, because that means I’ve taken you somewhere and left you there to think over what’s been written, especially since some of the violence pays more homage to Tom & Jerry than Tarantino. But if you’re referencing another kind of violence, this one more mental, because you’re reading about children of [temporary people] pravasis fending off people who pick on them because of what they represent, and pravasis grappling with what they’ve become, then you’re more in tune with what the book’s attempting to do, figuring out what kind of mythologies develop over time in a city populated primarily by people from elsewhere.

Which was the first story in this collection and how did the rest develop?

“Mushtibushi” is the oldest chapter in the book. I started it in 2003. I finished it in the fall of 2012 or the spring of 2013. The rest arrived in stages. “Gulf Return”, that opens the book, was written in 2013. Back in the day, when the tales began to populate notebooks and Word and Open Office documents, I was convinced I was working on a collection. But over time, I realized I was interested in architecture too, how text looked and operated on the page, how one flawed piece could piggy back on top of something whole to produce an effect neither could manage on their own. Now see, novels are allowed to fiddle with form and do all sorts of fun things. Few people blink. A collection on the other hand is rarely allowed much room to maneuver. It’s either supposed to be a bunch of disparate tales or linked stories, if I were dip into clichés. But I wanted my work to do something more. I wanted my work to question things. Not fuck genre, but camouflage it. I knew I wanted to capture the din and growl of my city but I also instinctively knew that the stories needed each other to not only breathe and communicate with one another, but to create and flesh out another animal, something I couldn’t define, but wanted to make. I can also make a case that the book is primarily about language. The people are incidental, but it’s through them that the book negotiates the city and languages that raised me.

How did you decide upon the titles?

Mostly: trial and error. You get lucky too. Some titles write themselves, like “Fone”, and “Mustibushi”. Others, like “Kloon”, took more time, since the original title, “The Clown Confessions”, was terrible. The titles were signposts, calling out to readers. Urging them to dip into the unknown. But you know, when you’ve got over a decade to work on a project, you name and rename things so often that you’ve got time to make stuff sound interesting. At least that’s what you tell yourself.

Are you fascinated by languages, rules of grammar and how far can these be explored or challenged?

In school (pre, middle and high) I struggled with English syntax. My poor teachers would pull out their Wren & Martins. Whenever they did, I’d shudder because grammar didn’t make sense. The Brits and the Yankees couldn’t agree on stuff: spellings, slang, idioms, sentence lengths. Then throw in the desi accent and watch mayhem ensue. It was a bit much, all these rules, because I didn’t speak like the BBC. Or Hollywood. Yet I’d snigger at my father who didn’t sound cool, or hide his Malayaleeness, although his command of English far outweighed mine. He’d ask me how to pronounce certain words sometimes, my [father] acchan, and I’d ask him to repeat them so I could laugh at him. We had a huge row once about the word “coup”. I kept telling him to pronounce the “p.” You don’t, he said. As if you’d know, I yelled back. But even back then, I knew language was power. English that sounded white, coming out of the tongue of a brown boy/man, confused people. But English wasn’t the only language in play. In Kerala, my cousins could’ve ripped me to shreds because my Malayalam was below par. They never did because they were kind and wanted to communicate, but my friends in Abu Dhabi made fun of my Malayalam all the time. In fact there was one dude who always made it a point to pick on my accent. And I wanted to pick on his English because mine sounded better. But we could both communicate in different tongues. That should have been enough, but it wasn’t. There was this need to highlight our superiority over certain languages, because we wanted to feel better about ourselves, because we thought we were better than other people who weren’t smart enough to sound sophisticated. And I suppose I used whatever English I knew to balance the Arabic I didn’t know, even though I learned Arabic in school for over a decade. But if there’s anything Abu Dhabi taught me, it’s that misspellings or bad grammar didn’t mean you couldn’t communicate. The menu in some cafeteria down the street may say “chiken mayonnaise”, but you knew what that was. Or when your Arabic teacher asked one of your classmates to “open the AC”, you knew what he wanted. And English, I instinctively knew, was malleable. And open to marrying other words from other worlds. “You understand, w’allah?” But language to me has always been synonymous with experimentation. The book is therefore an extension of my mind. If I were to put it simply, I don’t like being told what to do. I’m also saying don’t tell me what words ought to come out of my mouth. If you tell me something foreign must be italicized because it’s not English or English enough. I say no. Respectfully. No!

If you tell me something foreign must be italicized because it’s not English or English enough. I say no. Respectfully. No!

Your stories are like performance poetry. There is a very strong sense of rhythm. Was it from the word “go” or did you work upon it while editing the manuscript?

Rhythm’s absolutely crucial to the work. If language constitutes the book’s blood and bone, rhythm’s its spine. I wanted the reader to hear things. I wanted my words to grab hold of people. And not let go. I suppose another reason the book reads the way it does is because I’ve got characters that don’t/won’t shut up. Whether it’s Taxi Man, or little Maya. They want to be heard, these characters I made. And it’s fascinating you claiming the work channels performance poetry. You know, I remember watching Wim Wenders’ Pina, his documentary about Pina Bausch. Early on in the film, you’ve got her dancers marching to Louis Armstrong’s West End blues. And they’re miming seasons marching single file: spring, summer, autumn, winter. After they mimed winter, I remember, my favorite season, I experienced unadulterated bliss. I couldn’t believe it someone had managed to reinvent winter for me even though I assumed I knew what winter felt like. As a writer, I’m interested in stuff like that, in how readers respond to what I’ve managed to do on the page. After watching Pina, I remember thinking: I want my book to do THAT. The work should dance.

Despite being surrounded by people there is a terrible sense of loneliness in the stories. Did this emotion emanate from the stories of their own accord or was it a conscious decision on your part to tease it out?

Sure, some characters in the book address various states of loneliness. You’ve got the isolation that stems from feeling cut away from family, especially if you’re on your own in the Khaleej. There is also the fear of being misunderstood, of wanting to be seen as something worthy, something beyond skin or nationality. Then we’ve got the paranoia of children and teens, creatures of perpetual angst. But we’re also talking about individuals trying to negotiate a city like Abu Dhabi. And cities – take your pick: New York, Mumbai, Sao Paolo – can be tough. When you’re temporary, a proverbial transient, you’ve got your own language and register. And your sense of time is perpetually ten minutes or ten years ahead. But then you’ve got characters like the cabbie in “Taxi Man”. He’s fine, his world’s fine, but he’s also hyper aware of his surroundings, like everyone else who populate the book. I’d like to think the book isn’t all about loneliness. Like I stated earlier, it’s about language, and memories, people letting you into their thoughts.

Most debut writers find it very challenging to place a short story collection with publishers. Yet you not only were published but won the Restless Books Immigrant Prize as well. How did this come about?

I found my agent, the wonderful and tenacious Anna Ghosh, in the fall of 2014. She shopped the book around in the States for over a year. We came close. Some publishers wanted to know if I had a novel, something more traditional, which they’d put out first of course. Others weren’t sure how to see the book. Difficult to market was one comment. Not everyone got what I was trying to do. But mostly, the editors were kind and encouraging, but no one would commit. Then we tried India. Again, crickets. In fact, we didn’t even get close, and that upset me because I was looking for an excuse to vent. Then in October or November of 2015, Anna sent me a note about an inaugural book prize. The press was Restless Books. Submit the work, she suggested. By then I had pretty much downed several cocktails of self-pity and passive-aggressive woe-is-me soliloquies, but I trusted Anna. So I cleaned up the manuscript, included a cover letter, sent everything out. And pretended I forgot about my submission, but noted the date when the short list was going to be announced, the spring of 2016. The rest, well, you know the rest.

Who are the writers you most admire?

There are far too many to list them all. I gave a talk/reading at the Seminary Co-Op bookstore in Chicago. After committing to the event, I was asked if I could provide a critical reading list that could inform readers about my various influences. Making that list took me well over an hour. There are names on there that will be familiar: J. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Arundhati Roy, Primo Levi, Salman Rushdie, George Saunders. But there are also other names that may be less familiar to some readers (even though they shouldn’t be): A. Sivananthan, Daniil Kharms, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Beth Nugent, Kuzhali Manickavel. There are poets and non-fiction writers on that list too, like Inger Christensen and Marco D’eramo. Then there are works and artists who blend genres, artists/writers like Chris Ware, and books like The Photographer (by Didier Lefevre, Emmanuel Guibert and Frederic Lemercier). But some names, like Charlie Kaufman, or the filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski (his Dekalog was extremely instrumental in how I saw architecture in stories), didn’t appear. Much music, by Gil Scott Heron, Nina Simone, or bands like The Verve, didn’t appear either. And they matter too to my practice, even though you were mainly asking about writers. But since you asked about writers, let me end with writers. I remember being floored after reading Dorthe Nors’s “The Heron” in The New Yorker. I read it on the train. Probably mouthed, Man that was dope. I also experienced a similar sense of respect and admiration after reading and hearing the writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri. He’s dope too.

 

8 May 2017 

“The Puffin Book of Hindu Gods and Goddesses”

The Puffin Book of Hindu Gods and Goddesses is a nifty introduction to the prominent gods of the Hindu pantheon. It is a peppy reference to the gods and goddesses one encounters often in Hindu mythology. These are the ones such as Vishwakarma, Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu, Saraswati, Parvati, Lakshmi, Ganeshea, Hanuman, Durga and Kali whom one hears of often. There is a neat catalogue with short descriptions of the prominent gods and their avatars such as Shakti/Sati ( Durga, Kali and Meenakshi); Vishnu ( Matsaya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Rama, Krishna, Balrama, Kalki, Jagannatha ); Shiva ( Rudra, Bhairava, Nataraja, Lingam)  and Ardhanareshwari ( Shiva + Shakti). In the opening pages describing the Vedic gods the authors — Neelima P. Aryan and Ameya Nagarajan — have tried drawing parallels between the gods of Hindu and Greek mythology. For instance, Akash with Zeus — both are considered to be the father of gods. Each description is accompanied by a full-page illustration created in bright colours by Priyankar Gupta that are charming but have done little to break out of the mould created by Anant Pai decades ago.

The Puffin Book of Hindu Gods and Goddesses is the kind of book which will forever be in demand. It is a beautifully produced four-colour book printed on good art paper allowing for rich reading experience in print. A good production will also ensure that despite being flipped through often the book will withstand any rough use. Creating a reasonably priced book as an in-house department product by the Puffin team will definitely ensure a steady stream of revenue for the firm — a classic formula used often by other firms as well. It is also a fine example of sharp commissioning that straddles the hyper-local and diaspora markets.

Having said that there are a few more examples of illustrated books on the Hindu gods and goddesses that have proven to be extremely popular — Bhakti Mathur, Pixar’s Sanjay Patel‘s series, a wonderful series of cut out board books for children by Om Books editorial team and splendid books on Hanuman and Krishna by
Mala Dayal and on Shiva by Subhadra Sen Gupta published by Red Turtle.

Now for some enterprising publishing firm to create books on gods and goddesses of other religions as well. Puffin India, Juggernaut and Om Books have opened the innings with collection of stories from the Quran and the Bible with their retellings. Goodword books creates phenomenal Islamic books for children. In the past Penguin India had also published a beautiful anthology of greatest stories ever told from various faiths edited by Sampurna Chattarji ( 2004). Maybe it is time to revive some of the backlist publications once more.

16 March 2017 

“Mohanaswamy” by Vasudhendra: a First Collection of Gay Stories Translated from Kannada

( My review article on Vasudhendra’s fantastic short story collection, Mohanaswamy, was published in Bookwitty.) 

Recently translated into English, Mohanaswamy, by the Kannada-language author Vasudhendra, is a collection of short stories that revolve around the central character, Mohanaswamy, who is gay.

Vasudhendra, who has published more than 12 books on a variety of subjects with impressive print runs of 12-18,000, had never before written openly about homosexuality. Mohanaswamy is his first collection of gay stories, which, he admits, was a courageous act that he undertook while tackling depression. It took him more than three years to write, but turned out to be therapeutic. He said, “I am very happy these days that I wrote Mohanaswamy. It was a kind of liberation for me. No other book has given me such joy.”

Over five years ago, Desha Kala, the Kannada literary magazine edited by noted writer Vivek Shanbhag, ran a 6,500-word story titled “Mohanaswamy” by an author whose pseudonym was ‘Shanmukha S’. In an article that appeared in the Hindustan Times, Shanbhag says the story was fascinating, and not because it spoke of gay love. “The central aspect of ‘love and longing’ was well beyond the social and anatomical construct in the story. Its emotional energy was very high because it was deeply autobiographical,” he said. Several years later Shanmukha S revealed himself to be Vasudhendra.

Vasudhendra quit working as a software professional to become a full time writer. He also founded a publishing house called Chanda Pustaka which has developed a formidable reputation for encouraging new writing in Kannada. So far, Chanda Pustaka has published more than 70 books garnering more than 100 literary prizes, including the National Academy of Letters Sahitya Akademi award, in the process.

Mohanaswamy is a young man from a village in Karanataka who has been considered a misfit since his childhood when he preferred playing with his sister and her friends than with boys his age. The stories are not arranged chronologically but roughly cover the lifespan of Mohanswamy from early adolescence to middle age.

The collection opens with a heartrending story, ‘The Gordian Knot’. Mohanswamy has been living with Karthik for five years when he discovers unexpectedly that Karthik is getting married to a woman and moving to another city. Another powerful story is, “Bed Bug” which explores the challenges of being gender fluid and the devastating consequences of trying to live one’s true identity in a firmly patriarchal world. When the protagonist, Shankar Gowda, a childhood friend of Mohanaswamy’s, disappears from his village, it transpires that Shankar was a victim of an honor killing carried out by his father and brothers. The title does not hint at the tragedy to come but when the story ends it’s easy to draw a parallel with the discomfort a bed bug causes and the similar effect Shankar’s presence has on his family. The story is even more powerful when one discovers that the character is based on a real-life classmate of Vasudhendra’s. The anguish a gay Indian male lives is once again illustrated when Mohanaswamy, while struggling to come to terms with his own sexuality in college, hardly ever discusses homosexuality with other students. He chooses not to reveal his true self, fearing “that would give rise to unnecessary doubts in his friends’ minds. So when gay sex did come up in their conversations, he would pass a snide remark as a defence mechanism.”

Story after story addresses a different challenge of being gay while living in a conservative, patriarchal society such as India. It is worthwhile to note that the Delhi High Court, in 2009, decriminalized homosexuality between consenting adults, to the joy of the LGBTQ community. Ironically, on December 11, 2013, the day the original Kannada edition of Mohanaswamy was published, the Supreme Court overturned the previous judgement of the Delhi High Court, leaving the matter of amending or repealing the Act to the Parliament. It has yet to be resolved.

Mohanaswamy is a remarkably bold debut collection not only for writing explicit scenes of gay sex in India but also for a wise commentary via fiction of how homosexuals are perceived and treated in India. There is a quiet dignity in the tenor without a shrill activist voice. The arrangement of the stories with the carefully selected titles is admirable in marking the life of Mohanaswamy from adolescence to middle age, repeatedly facing social ostracization, his exploration for love, and coming to terms with the transition from lust to companionship. Mohanaswamy is an extraordinary collection of fiction which will hopefully travel far especially if it helps speak to parents of the LGBTQ community and farther.