War Posts

“Eclectic Response”

My article “Eclectic Response” on Partition literature was published in the Hindu on 6 August 2011. I am c&p the text below. 

Each successive generation has confronted the collective guilt of the Partition in its own different way…

August 14/15, 1947 carved the Indian subcontinent into two nations, Pakistan and India. In a second partition in 1971, Bangladesh was created. 1947 saw the largest mass migration, accompanied by genocide. It uprooted and displaced people of all communities — Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs. But, as Pakistani literary journalist Muneeza Shamsie says, in literature “the response of South English novelists to an event of such magnitude has been comparatively limited. One of the problems is that Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were both perpetrators and the victims. Therefore, unlike the Holocaust victims, their moral stand, as individual communities, has been eroded. This has led to a collective guilt, which South Asians find difficult to confront” (Dawn, August 14, 2001).

We know that the literary repercussions of the French Revolution were different on successive generations. The first generation of British romantic poets, for example, was preoccupied with the events as they happened. Similarly, the virtual canon of Partition literature by those who knew undivided India is a moving documentation — Atia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column; Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan; Saadat Hasan Manto’s “Toba Tek Singh”; Chaman Nahal’s Azadi; Bhishm Sahni’s Tamas; Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi; Mumtaz Shahnawaz’s The Heart Divided; Aangan by Khadija Mastur; Akhteruzzaman Elias’s Khoabnama; Surja-Dighal Bari by Abu Ishaque, and Shahidullah Kaiser’s Sangsaptak.

The first post-Partition generation of Indian writers in English was silent for a time. Then, from about the 1970s to the 1990s, there was a surge of Partition memoirs and oral history projects. Seminal examples of these are Stern Reckoning: A Survey of the Events Leading Up to and following the Partition of India, G.D. Khosla; Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition, (eds.) Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin; The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, Urvashi Butalia; India’s Partition: Process, Strategy and Mobilization, (Ed.) Mushirul Hasan; Stories about the Partition of India (Ed.) Alok Bhalla, 3 volumes; Pangs of Partition, Volume I: The Parting of Ways and Volume II: The Human Dimension, (Eds.) S. Settar and Indira B. Gupta. In India, the Teen Murti Library’s Oral History programme began to be enriched with recordings of those who had witnessed Partition and/or had been administratively/politically involved in it — a rich source of empirical data preserved for posterity. The small crop of Partition fiction in English included Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie; Clear Light of Day, Anita Desai; What the Body Remembers, Shauna Singh Baldwin; Looking Through Glass, Mukul Kesavan; Shadow Lines, Amitav Ghosh; Ice-Candy Man, Bapsi Sidhwa; Padma Meghna Jamuna, Abu Jafar Shamsuddin. In many of these, realism is replaced by formal and linguistic displays, and individual memory replaces actual events of Partition — a measure of the writers’ distance from actual events.

The literature of the third post-Partition generation is markedly different in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The two partitions of 1947 and 1971 resonate in the literature from Pakistan and Bangladesh. The treatment is sophisticated and nuanced in works like Salt and Saffron, Kamila Shamsie; A Golden Age and The Good Muslim, Tahmima Anam; The Search, Shaheen Akhtar; Ojogor and Mohajer by Haripada Dutta; Agunpakhi, Hasan Azizul Huq; Rain and the Rebels, Syed Shamsul Haq, and Agun Pakhi, Hasan Azizul Haq. In Bangladesh, all genres, poetry, drama, short stories and other forms of prose, are equally important for a discussion of ideas and history. India, however, has little or no fiction from the third post-Partition generation, but much non-fiction documentation of the past. Some examples: Partition Dialogues: Memories of a Lost Home, Alok Bhalla; The Trauma and the Triumph: Gender and Partition in Eastern India, (Eds.) Jasodhara Bagchi and Subhoranjan Dasgupta; The Partitions of Memory: The Afterlife of the Division of India (Ed.) Suvir Kaul; Translating Partition, (Eds.) Ravi Kant and Tarun K. Saint; Amritsar to Lahore: A Journey Across the India-Pakistan Border, Stephen Alter; Witnessing Partition: Memory, History, Fiction, Tarun Saint; and Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India, Neeti Nair.

But, as writer Shauna Singh Baldwin said in an e-mail to me, “We need more exploration and translations of books on Partition, by fiction and non-fiction writers from all over the world, by people of Indo-Pak and British descent and those who wish to understand modern genocides and imagine alternatives for individuals to resist the descent into group-think spirals. Imagination is our one possession that is truly free.”

Future forms

At present, literature from, on or about Partition is not in the printed word alone. The Internet is a vast repository of video and audio clips, online discussion forums, blogs, and photographs. There’s new historical fiction, particularly for young adults, about Partition and surrounding debates by authors like Irfan Master, Jamila Gavin, Anwara Syed Haq, and Selina Hossain, while professional story tellers Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain have a newly created dastango on Partition, dastan taqseem-e hind ki. Fourth post-Partition generation literature may well be born here.

“Mahabharata”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 August 2017

Theme of Independence in children’s literature in India

(The following article was commissioned in 2015 by Sarah Odedina for the Read Quarterly. With her permission I am posting it here.  On 15 August 2017  India celebrates it’s seventieth anniversary of independence from the British. )

15 August 1947 India won its independence from the British. It had been a long freedom struggle. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, “Father of the Nation”, is recognised as one of its leaders especially with his non-violent method of protest. His birthday, 2 October, is a national holiday. When the British decided to leave the subcontinent they did so after partitioning it into two nations—India and Pakistan.

The uprising of 1857[1] was influential in instilling in the Indians “a rudimentary sense of national unity” that when a genuine Indian freedom movement began within a few decades later it inspired the leaders with the hope that their British masters could be defeated. Significant highlights were the Partition of Bengal, new words such as Swaraj ( “self-rule”), Swadeshi (self-reliance) and Boycott ( of all foreign goods and products), Satyagraha, Jallianwala Bagh ( massacre of peaceful protestors by General Dyer in Amritsar), Chauri Chaura ( burning of a police station, killing 22 policemen on duty), rise of communalism with “parties based on religion like the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh …these parties only cared for their own communities, it was to their advantage if they could divide the country around religion.”[2]The Dandi March or the salt satyagraha, the Civil Disobedience Movement, Quit India Movement, and Independence.

It is now nearly 70 years since Independence, three generations removed from the momentous events. The freedom struggle still exists in living memory as it is not too far back in time. Yet for children, history is a mish-mash in their minds — the Harappan civilisation, the Mughals, Mauryan Empire and British India/freedom struggle are a blur. This is where literature plays a crucial role in offering perspectives.

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Globally children’s literature is understood to include fiction and non-fiction, a category distinct from literature used as textbooks and supplementary readers in schools. In India these fine lines are blurred. For the toddlers and primary school students there is variety of material available – fiction, folktales, mythology, non-fiction. As the pressure of school curriculum increases on students the focus shifts from reading for pleasure to textbooks. Till recently this attitude was deeply ingrained in society. Now the slow shift to reading for pleasure is perceptible. It is a coalescing of multiple factors –an increase in income of parents allowing disposable income available for purchase of books, a rise in publishing and retailing for children, establishment of specialist bookshops, increase in direct marketing efforts by publishers like book fairs and book clubs in schools and growth in popularity of children’s literature festivals like Bookaroo[3] has made the category of children and young adult book publishing the fastest growing and lucrative category in India. (It also helps when the target audience/market of less than 25 year olds constitutes 40% of the 1.3 billion Indians.)

Children’s literature with the theme of independence is found in school material and trade lists. In the 40s (actually from 30s onward if not earlier) the best children’s literature came out in Bal Sakha – a Hindi Magazine brought out by Bengalis settled in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. Some of the best writers, including Premchand, were first published here. This magazine dealt with the issue of independence, presenting it to children in what still seems a fairly contemporary way[4]. In 1957 two publishing houses were established – National Book Trust ( NBT) [5]and Children’s Book Trust ( CBT)[6]. According to Navin Menon, editor, CBT, every year in August Children’s World “publish[es] content related to Independence either written by children or stories/ articles contributed by adults.” Amar Chitra Katha (ACK)[7], specialise in comics, usually the first introduction to children on folktales, Indian mythology and stories about the freedom struggle published its first title on freedom struggle, Rani of Jhansi[8] on 1 Feb 1974, around the 25th anniversary of Independence. Historical accounts by writer and niece of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Nayantara Sahgal’s The Story of India’s Freedom Movement (1970) continues to be in print[9]. As she told me in an email, “The freedom movement is part of our modern history. Obviously it is important for young people to know their country’s history.”


Writing for children about the independence movement began to pick up pace in the early 1980s when CBT published writers like Nilima Sinha’s Adventure before Midnight[10]. In 1984 after the assassination of the prime minister, Delhi saw terrible communal clashes. It led to writers like Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon and Amitav Ghosh drawing parallels between their experiences with that of Partition. In the 1990s preparations for the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of Indian independence began. To commemorate it there were a deluge of books. For instance, Shashi Deshpande’s novel The Narayanpur Incident and Macmillan published The First Patriots (series editor, Mini Krishnan) consisting of short illustrated biographies[11]. Biographies, bordering on hagiographies, are the most popular genre for introducing children to this period in history. These books sell extremely well since it supplements school textbooks. Scholastic India with its Great Lives[12], Puffin India with Puffin Lives and Hachette India with What they did, What they Said? series have profiled freedom fighters registering steady sales too. Gandhi is a popular subject of biographies. From picture books ( A Man Called Bapu and We call her Ba on his wife, Kasturba), standard biographical accounts, profusely illustrated with photographs like DK India’s Eyewitness Gandhi and graphic novels like Gandhi: My Life is my message ( Gandhi – Mera Jeevan Hi Mera Sandesh). [13] An unusual book is Everyone’s Gandhi by Subir Shukla[14] which looked at Gandhi from children’s point of view. It asked provocative questions. It was syndicated in some 75 newspapers (English and regional languages) and the author used to get 500 postcards every week from children across the country, proving that it is possible to approach independence in a manner that generates serious response. Paro Anand, writer and founder, Literature in Action[15] says “I loved this book because it brought me closer to Gandhi. It took the capital letter out of it because made me see him like a human being who I could be not a saint or god who I could never aspire to be. I have used the book often with kids urging them to be a Gandhi for 5 minutes every day, in a single act of kindness or a single act of care. To me empathy is a very important component of kid lit.”

Now there are a variety of books available in terms of writing styles and formats. For instance late Justice Leila Seth’s fabulous book on the Preamble of the Indian Constitution – We, The Children of India[16]; graded readers with pictures like Bharati Jagannathan’s movingly told One Day in August[17], Nina Sabnani’s heart-warming animation film (later book) based on a true story Mukund and Riaz [18]and Samina Mishra’s Hina in the Old City[19] — all focused on Partition and Ruby Hembrom’s award-winning picture book Disaibon Hul on the Santhal Rebellion of 1855[20]. Young adult fiction inevitably has the story of one person caught up in the dynamics of the movement. So the author tries to take a micro level view and build upon that. For instance, Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s Neela: A Victory Song[21], Jamila Gavin’s Surya trilogy — The Wheel of Surya (1992), The Eye of the Horse (1994) and The Track of the Wind (1997)[22], Irfan Master’s A Beautiful Lie[23],[24] Siddharth Sharma’s award-winning debut novel The Grasshopper’s Run[25] which focuses on the Kohima war and Mathangi Subramanian’s Dear Mrs. Naidu[26] about a young girl who corresponds with Sarojini Naidu through her diary. Forthcoming is the retelling in English of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s Bharat Mata ke Paanch Roop ( Urdu) by his niece Syeeda Hameed[27]. Award winning historian-turned-writer, Subhadra Sen Gupta has written a clutch of biographies, historical fiction, picture books and nonfiction titles with the freedom struggle as the literary backdrop[28]. Roshen Dalal has published India at 70 ( 2017) chronicling the seven decades since Independence.

Some other examples of literature are listed by writer Deepa Agarwal, “Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s popular poem Jhansi ki Rani and Makhanlal Chaturvedi’s Pushp ki Abhilasha. Outstanding historical novels on patriotic themes were written by Manhar Chauhan, like Lucknow ki Loot (The looting of Lucknow) and Bihar ke Bahadur (Brave men of Bihar) both published by National Publishing Company in 1978. His series of sixteen novels about British rule Angrez Aaye aur Gaye (The British came and went) is a monumental work with each book standing alone and yet connected with the others. In Urdu Allama Iqbal’s collection Hindustani Bacchon ke Qaumi Geet and Zakir Hussain’s Abbu Khan ki Bakri are on the theme of freedom. Pandit Brij Narain Chakbast’s patriotic poems,  Hamara Watan dil se Pyara, Watan Ko Hum Watan Humo Mubarak, from the collection Subhe Watan were meant for children. In Marathi V.H. Hadap wrote patriotic stories ranging from historical to modern times; his Sattavanachi Satyakatha is about the heroes of the 1857 revolution like Mangal Pande, Tatya Tope and Rani Laxmibai. In fact the centenary … was celebrated in 1957 with many books for children about the people who participated. Vasant Varkhedkar’s Sattavancha Senani is a novel on the life of Tatya Tope.” In Telugu Komuram Bheem: A children’s Novel on a Tribal Hero by Bhupal is about the tribal rebel from Telengana, published by Vennela Prachuranalu (Telugu)[29]. CBT also has a book on Gunda Dhar/ Bhumkal revolt of the Bastar tribal area.

Apart from written literature in India oral histories play a very important role too. Target, a popular children’s magazine, started a comic strip in the mid-eighties called “Freedom’s Children”, where a freedom fighter was profiled based upon extensive interviews. Prominent writers and illustrators collaborated for this project. At the end of each strip a photograph of the actual person was published. Now some schools organise interactions between grandparents with students to recount their memories of independence movement. Many times it is discovered that the children are unaware of the trauma the older generation experienced as if the elders want to protect the younger generation from the horrors they witnessed.

Vatsala Kaul-Banerjee, Publisher, Children & Reference Books, Hachette India says, “General response to these books is quite good. Our children take their cues from USA/ UK, so they do not look at India too much. … I do not think there is enough experimentation in children’s writing to create fiction in this area, so far.” Tina Narang, publisher, Scholastic India adds “Since this is a period in our recent history for which a wealth of detail is available, relevant research material is easy to come by for authors[30] who have written Independence-themed stories. But that I think is the biggest stumbling block. Most such stories tend to become stereotypical in their portrayal of that period and of independence as a valiant struggle by a group of noble and brave souls. There is little or no independent analysis of this struggle or attempt to question the motives, methods or outcomes (partition included).” Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, (then) Editorial Director, Red Turtle echoes this, “We do need to do more books that present a more diverse view of  the independence movement and that talks about the role of women or tribals or gives other kinds of alternate views.” Radhika Menon, founder, Tulika Books agrees, “Now we would like to do something that includes the contemporary discourses on the freedom struggle. Something that reflects a more inclusive idea of the freedom struggle with all its complexities so that the reader is urged to think and question rather than be left with certainties about history in her/his mind which tend to be rigid. The challenge is of course to make such a book reader friendly for the pre-teen age group.” Ruby Hembrom, publisher, Adivaani is clear when she says, “If we were to do a book on this period, I wouldn’t feature the Indian Nationalists who have been done to death in textbooks first and have hijacked the ‘independence’ space. I would do Jaipal Singh Munda and his eclipsed role in the constituent Assembly for example.”

Writing about Indian independence and the freedom movement for children is a tricky area since it raises more questions than helps map it. There is an apparent shift in the styles of writing over the generations of writers. From the writer like their subject (usually evident in biographies) have a sense of pride at being an independent and self-reliant nation to contemporary writers whose fiction is based research for using history to comment upon the present politics and social status of marginalised groups. Disaibon Hul is ostensibly about the revolt as mentioned in the book, the introduction refers to “outsiders”, and the story is about the fight against the British. It concludes with “Almost 160 years have passed since the Hul. We are alive but still not the owners of our lives? What will it take for us to be really free?” The term “outsider” is left open-ended. Siddhartha Sharma says he wrote The Grasshopper Run because “I wanted to explain how the Assamese and Nagas got along earlier, unlike today. To contemporary Indians, I wanted to show what the people of the region are like, and how history turned out for us.” [31] Mathangi began writing Dear Mrs Naidu when working in government schools and angadwadis and discovered Sarojini Naidu whose letters she was reading. Mathani realised that Naidu was so human compared to the “demigods of independence” students learned about. She adds, “I think there is a lot of literature on the theme of independence that focuses on a couple of the male freedom fighters, and I’d like to see this change. History is such a powerful force: it shapes the way we think about ourselves, and the way we think about the possibilities for our futures. I want to see more histories of women freedom fighters, and freedom fighters who were not elite. I want to see more literature that helps children understands that heroes are just people with a lot of guts and passion, and that everyone has the capacity for greatness.”[32]

I asked eminent historian Romila Thapar, “What are the events/perspectives and aspects of the freedom struggle that you would recommend are also included in the narratives of the freedom movement?” She replied via email, “You have posed a difficult question. My reaction would be that we need to acquaint children with situations that went into the making of what one may call a ‘wholesome’ society. Not the stories that encourage divisiveness and violence but stories that underline in subtle ways the values of a plural society that we once were. This is disappearing fast and it will be an uphill task to retrieve this as we shall have to do in future years. The goal of the national movement was such that communities came together for a cause and set aside what separated them. It is these moments that need to be remembered in the present times. Often they can be more easily seen in activities related to regional and local history. It may be worth doing a little investigation into how people in rural areas and small towns remember the recent past.”

This observation gains significant urgency when a Muslim man is lynched by a mob on the outskirts of Delhi for his food habits[33]. Noted Hindi journalist Ravish Kumar’s who met a young man, Prashant, at the site says he showed no remorse at the death of Akhlaq, “Instead, he asked us that after the partition, when it had been decided that Hindus will stay here and Muslims will go to Pakistan, why did Gandhi and Nehru ask Muslims stay back in India?… These are the typical beliefs that keep the pot of communalism boiling.” Ravish says he lost the heated argument and could only wonder dismayed, “Who are those people who have left young men like Prashant to be misled by the purveyors of false histories?” Ironically this happened on 2 October, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, a man recognised worldwide for his belief in nonviolence.

[1] In A Children’s History of India Subhadra Sen Gupta refers to the events of 1857 and the widespread anger that ensued being an eye-opener for the British “who believed that they were ruling over a peaceful society reconciled to British rule”.

[2] – ibid-

[3] Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival 

[4] Email correspondence with Subir Shukla, Principal Coordinator, IGNUS-erg and formerly associated with NBT. He wrote a few books at this time too.

[5] National Book Trust (NBT), India is a part of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India. It was established in 1957 and publishes in English, Hindi and some other Indian languages. It also organizes the annual World Book Fair, New Delhi to which publishers gravitate from around the world and country.  NBT and CBT between them have published many books, many continue to be in demand such as The Story of Swarajya by Vishnu Prabhakar (Hindi), Jawaharlal Nehru by Tara Ali Baig, Stories From Bapu’s Life by Uma Shankar Joshi (Gujarati), Jallianwala Bagh by Bhisham Sahni (Hindi), Bapu by FC Fretus and How India Won Freedom by Krishna Chaitanya. Email from Rubin DCruz, Editor, NBT. He has also put together an invaluable annotated catalogue of select children’s books in India, Children’s Books 2014, published by National Centre for Children’s Literature, NBT.

[6] Children’s Book Trust ( CBT) established by cartoonist Shankar in 1957. Its objective is the promotion and production of well-written, well-illustrated and well-designed books for children at prices within the reach of the average Indian child. CBT publications include an illustrated monthly magazine in English, Children’s World. Shankar also set up the Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children (AWIC). Shankar started the Shankar’s International Children’s Competition in 1949, and as a part of it, the Shankar’s On-the-Spot Painting Competition for Children in 1952. He instituted an annual Competition for Writers of Children’s Books in 1978. Some of the CBT titles are Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose by Dr. Lakshmi Sahgal  & Col. P.K. Sahgal, Adventure before Midnight  by Nilima Sinha, The Return Home by Sarojini Sinha, The  Treasure Box by Sarojini Sinha, Kamla’s Story: The Saga Of Our Freedom by Surekha Panandiker, Ira Saxena, & Nilima Sinha,  A Pinch Of Salt Rocks an Empire by Sarojini Sinha and Operation Polo by A. K. Srikumar and the 12 volumes on freedom fighters Our Leaders or Mahan Vyaktitwa ( English and Hindi). Some of the original titles in Hindi are Aprajita, Hamare Yuva Balidani and Barah Baras ka Vijeta. Email sent by Navin Menon

[7] Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) founded by Anant Pai or Uncle Pai specializes in publishing comics. These comics are usually the first introduction to children about stories of the freedom struggle stories. The ACK titles are Rani of Jhansi (date of publication, 1 Feb 1974), Subhash Chandra Bose (1 March 1975), Chandrashekhar Azad (15 August 1977), the Rani of Kittur ( 1 July 1978), Bhagat Singh ( 15 March 1981), Rash Behari Bose ( 15 May 1982), Veer Savarkar ( 15 May 1984), Mangal Pande ( 1 June 1985), Jallianwala Bagh ( 1 June 1986), Beni Madho and Pir Ali (1st Sept.1983), Velu Thampi (1st May 1980), Senapati Bapat ( 1 February 1984), Surjya Sen (October 2010), Vivekananda (15th October 1977), Rabindranath Tagore (20th may 1977), Babasaheb Ambedkar (15th April 1979), Lokmanya Tilak (1st August 1980), Lal Bahadur Shastri (1st October 1982), Mahatma Gandhi – The Early days (1st June 1989), Jayaprakash Narayan (15th January 1980), Jawaharlal Nehru (November 1991), Subramania Bharati (1st December 1982), Deshbandhu Chitaranjan Das         (1st November 1985), The Story of the Freedom Struggle (August 1997)

[8] Rani Lakshmibai was one of the leaders of the uprising of 1857. She also became a symbol of the resistance to British Rule.

[9] Nayantara Sahgal The Story of India’s Freedom Red Turtle, an imprint of Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2013. First published 1970.

[10] Midnight refers to the coming of Freedom and this book describes the events that preceded it. It is about a group of teenagers who participated in the Quit India movement and tried to hoist the tricolour in Patna. It was selected for the International White Raven List for libraries.

[11] Tipu Sultan, The Rani of Jhansi, Kattabomman (the rebel of Pudukottai), Pazhassi Raja (Kerala) and Bhagat Singh. The idea for these series was to write about various legendary heroes and heroines who played a pioneering part in the un-enslaving of the country. According to biographer Shreekumar Varma, “Pazhassi Raja Kerala Varma was one of the earliest such freedom fighters. He fought the marauding armies of both the British and Tipu Sultan. His story is full of adventure and thrill, intrigue and treachery, a case-book of bravery. The book is profusely illustrated. It was heavily researched. The surviving members of the Raja’s family were interviewed at Pazhassi and information was gathered from many books and historical records. The text in the book is but a fraction of the material actually obtained.”

[12] Aditi De’s Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and illustrated by Pooja Pootenkulam in the Great Lives series published by Scholastic India has been released this month.

[13] Gandhi: My life is my message by Jason Quinn, illustrated by Sachin Nagar. It is available in English and Hindi. The translator is Ashok Chakradhar. It is part of Campfire Graphic Novels’s  Heroes Series that introduces readers to historical figures who led lives worth knowing, and whose stories are true life adventures.

[14] It is available freely for circulation since “Mahatma Gandhi cannot be any one person’s property, there is no ‎copyright of this publication.” First edition 1997.

[15] Literature in Action is a programme started by Paro Anand that seeks to bring young people and books together.

[16] It was co-authored by her writer-son, Vikram Seth and illustrated by the late Bindia Thapar, published by Puffin India ( English) and Pratham Books ( Hindi).

[17] Published by Pratham Books

[18]  In an email Nina Sabnani wrote, “Mukand and Riaz was initially an animated film that later became a book. It is a true story about my father Mukand and his friend Riaz. There were several things that brought this project together. My father told me the story of his life very late, close to his death. I wanted to share this with my siblings so I just wrote it up like a story and shared it with them and some friends. My friends persuaded me to think about it as a film. I was quite disturbed by the frequent riots in Ahmedabad that happened and me as a designer did not respond in any way. I thought it maybe  my way of protesting. But protests always forget children. So I wanted to reach children. Fortunately I also received some funds at NID as students were working towards making films on the rights of children for a UNESCO Israel project, Big Small People. Since my father had repeatedly said how much he missed his best friend and how the partition separated them, I thought I would create a film that focused on the rights to home and friendship. I also had a fond hope that if the film was made and Riaz happened to see it he would contact my dad. Of course that did not happen but my father was able to see the film one week before he passed away. I used cloth because he worked in the Textile Mills and was passionate about fabric and prints.” Mukund and Riaz  is published by Tulika Books.

[19] The reader shares moments with 10-year old Hina who lives in Purani Dilli, the walled city of Delhi. She comes from a family of zardozi embroiderers. This exquisite craft is, however, slowly dying as craftspeople find fewer takers for their work or are forced to compromise on care and quality to meet the prosaic demands of the times. Along the way, we get glimpses of life in Old Delhi – its lanes, its ancient mohallas which have seen the pain of Partition. Hina loves where she lives, and warm colour photographs take us right into her world. Guides for projects / discussions and a reading list are provided at the end as further avenues for exploring.

[20] To me it is an example of using history to comment on the present. It is ostensibly about the revolt (and the story calls it a revolt too whereas an uprising would be more accurate given it is written from the perspective of the adivasi), the introduction refers to the “outsiders”, the story is about the fight against the British and then it concludes with “Almost 160 years have passed since the Hul. We are alive but still not the owners of our lives? What will it take for us to be really free?” The term “outsider” is left open-ended. Ruby is the founder-publisher of Adivaani, a publishing house that focuses on  producing literature for an by the adivasis.

[21] Neela: A Victory Song is published by Puffin Books India.

[22] Jamila Gavin’s Surya Trilogy is published by Egmont.

[23] Beautiful Lie was published by Bloomsbury

[24] A book review article I wrote on Partition and Children’s Literature and I interviewed Jamila Gavin and Irfan Master.

[25] The Grasshopper’s Run was first published by Scholastic India and worldwide by Bloomsbury.

[26] Dear Mrs Naidu ( 2015) is a Young Zubaan publication.

[27] Forthcoming by Pratham Books is Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s Bharat Mata ke Paanch Roop ( The Five Forms of Bharat Mata) which are character sketches of five ordinary women whom he considered as the true faces of the Bharat Mata trope. These are originally in Urdu but have been done for us by his niece Syeda Hameed. According to Manisha Chowdhury, Editorial Head, Pratham Books “we see this as a good way to introduce the idea of subaltern narratives to children and expand the idea of history.”

[28] For instance, Saffron, White and Green: the amazing story of India’s independenceA Flag, A Song and a Pinch of Salt: Freedom Fighters of IndiaPuffin Lives: Mahatma GandhiLet’s Go Time Travelling; fictional biographies of Jahanara and Jodh Bai; a short story collection called History, Mystery, Dal Biryani and a novel called Give us Freedom and most recently the bestseller, A Children’s History of India, published by Red Turtle. Email from Subhadra Sen Gupta.

[29] There is also a book on Alluri Seetharama Raju in Telugu.  He led the ill-fated “Rampa Rebellion” of 1922–24, during which a band of tribal leaders and other sympathizers fought against the British Raj. He was referred to as “Manyam Veerudu” (“Hero of the Jungles”) by the local people

[30] It explains why authors like Deepak Dalal and Nandini Nayar have been able to write historical fiction set in 1857. Research is easy to come by. Deepak Dalal’s historical fiction set in the time of 1857 Sahyadri Adventure series – Anirudh Dreams and Koleshwars Secret. He says, “I have received good feedback about the books. Demand is ok, but nothing to thump my back about. We are into the 3rd edition now. Schools love the books and many have used them as readers. But then most of my books are picked up as readers.” Nandini Nayar’s When children make history: Stories of 1857 is a novel about two Indian children who befriend an English boy who considers India his real home. The three of them chance upon a bunch of soldiers making rotis and help them. So, basically, the novel ends with the beginning of the Uprising. In an email to me she wrote, “I wrote the book [since] I was reading a lot about 1857 and the British Raj and began thinking about how it would be if some Indian children were to befriend an English boy. “ The book was first published as an ebook, then print and has recently been translated into Malayalam by Mango Books, the children’s imprint of DC Books.

[31] In an email to me.

[32] In an email to me.

[33] According to rumours that spread like wildfire, fifty-year-old Akhlaq had stored beef (cow’s meat) in his fridge. The cow is sacred to Hindus. A mob gathered and lynched him and injuring many members of the family. On 2 October 2015, two days after the incident in a village in Dadri, 35 kms from Delhi, Ravish Kumar went to report. “A Sewing Machine, Murder, and The Absence of Regret”  (Published and accessed on 2 Oct 2015)

15 August 2017 

Sarvat Hasin, “This Wide Night”

They lived across the road from me for fifteen years without us ever having a conversation, something that seems impossible to me now. I’d built up the Malik sisters in my head before I really knew them. The combination of being at a boys’ school and Dada’s dislike for other people meant that these were the only real girls I ever saw. From the window in my bedroom, you could look through the trees and into their garden. I learned valuable things about the girls: how Maria played cards every evening with her mother, or that Ayesha always read and Bina sewed, and that the littlest, Leila liked to draw.

Jimmy lives with his paternal grandfather who is a prosperous export businessman. He is alone and spends a lot of his time watching the Malik house. The Malik family consists of four sisters- Maria, Bina, Leila and Ayesha/Ash . Their father is “a navy captain, whose name was on the silver plaque outside their gate, spent most of his time away from home”.  Their mother Mehrunissa supervises the home and by all accounts is quite lenient in her daughters’ upbringing. It is never spelled out by Sarvat Hasin in her debut novel The Wide Night but there is a shift in dynamics from the freedoms available in a women-only home as compared to one in which there is a man’s presence. For instance when the Captain returns from the war – it is a challenging period of adjustment for both sexes:

How could her father come home to a place that did not feel like it belonged to him? The switch of energy during his visits, the house worked into a dark frenzy. It could only work in small bursts, the spikes of energy of reordered lives. There was no space for him in the larger sweep of their lives – how long could Ash keep wearing her dupatta over one shoulder and pinning back the tufts of her hair that escaped from their short nest. How many nights could Leila hold her tongue at the dinner table and bite it against her usual chatter of boys and money and pretty things. In her father’s presence she was washed out, a paler version of herself, hands folded in her lap and her voice only murmuring to ask for more roti, a glass of water. Even Bina was required to modify herself: fewer hours spent volunteering, and no more bringing her stitching into the living room to sit cross-legged on the carpet by her mother’s feet, listening to her stories with the soft brush of her hand against her hair. The sitting room would become a man’s world.

Mehrunissa is primarily responsible for the family and allows her daughters freedom such as reading.  whenever and whatever they desired. She does not subscribe to the belief that books and ideas were harmful for girls and that daughters were meant to be groomed for marriage. Jimmy describes the Malik home with fascination: “It was the first house I had ever been in with books in every room. Even in a room with no shelves, there were books under cups or hidden behind pots; Barbara Cartland novels tucked in the slots of the swings. Books in other houses were rare, precious thing, tucked out of reach or behind walls of glass, leather-bound and glossy. These tangible tattered things with dog-eared pages and tea stains were remarkable. I shifted my cup of tea on its coaster, knocking over a mystery novel that Mehrunissa kept beside her sewing.” Mehrunissa’s determined stand against social norms and even in the presence of her husband, in an overtly patriarchal society, is exemplified by refusing to slaughter goats for Eid: “Mehrunissa and her daughters were particularly sensitive about the slaughters. They never participated, had not done so even on the rare holidays when Captain Malik was home. On Eid, theirs was the only house with no goats or cows lined up outside—another thing among many that set them apart from everyone else he knew, another thing about them that people thought was strange.”

People called the Maliks “strange” because of it being primarily a female household living alone, happily, unheard of in an otherwise overtly patriarchal society. It was also odd that the father “permitted” the women to have their say as in the case of doing away with the practise of getting a sacrificial goat as it was an inhumane act.  But love runs deep as testified by the Captain while recounting to Jimmy the kindly advice he had received about the challenges his marriage may pose: “These things are meant to work better when the differences aren’t so big, your families should come from the same place, you should speak the same languages and pray the same way – you’ll have heard all this, I know. They’d even chosen a girl for me. I never told Mehrunissa that. Baat pake se pehle—I saw her. And that was it.”

 Their mother’s strong personality had a deep influence on the four daughters. They grew up with distinct identities. Maria who as a teacher’s assistant in the school mesmerised the boys: “The trick was not in her words, but the way she spoke them. She was not lightning but slow honey, womanliness pouring into the classroom, making us all sit up a little straighter.” Ayesha, the voracious reader who fantasised about her European trip with her aunt was the most level headed and practical of the sisters. For example, her unsentimental detached views on death is revelatory, “Death isn’t this big drama everybody makes it out to be… It’s – a person being there one minute, and not the next. It’s the passing of a second.” The laidback Bina’s “wishes were never for herself”. And finally Leila, who, “built her houses in gold. She wanted a rich husband, a studio of her own. I want a wardrobe the size of Marie Antoinette’s, she would say. Decadence was the only thing she took away from history lessons. She was a tiny Cleopatra, Nur Jehan, a queen in a miniature.” After Maria’s wedding “the house shrank without her, tightening around the family. There are some people who leave the room and you stop thinking about them right away. None of the Malik sisters were like that. Their absence took up room, a seat at the table.”

This Wide Night although a novel is structured like a three-act play with a shift in the voice from first person of Jimmy to the third of the authorial narrator in the second section and back to Jimmy. It is a curious literary technique to employ for it is not fully exploited by the author providing little insight such as in the sisters suicide pact.  Usually the narrator brings in a perspective giving the reader a little more information than the characters are aware of but nothing of that sort happens here.

Renowned writer and critic Muneeza Shamsie says in Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English ( OUP, Pakistan, 2017, p 601)  that in today’s globalised world the new generation of Pakistani writers have either “lived, or been educated in, Pakistan and the West, and often divided their time between the two. … As a result, the distinction between diaspora and non-diaspora began to blur too.” This underlying desire to be accepted globally as a new South Asian writer who is extremely familiar with Western canons of literature is evident in This Wide Night too for its adaptation of Little Women albeit in a desi setting. Pakistan-born now living in UK Sarvat Hasin wrote This Wide Night after enrolling in a creative writing workshop project wherein she transplanted the characters created in nineteenth century America into modern-day Karachi. So Amir, Maria’s husband, is a mujahir who lost his parents during Partition but he comes across as a flat character who, “seemed to just appear, a sum of all the stories people told about him” with little else being said about him. Whereas if a little bit of the socio-historical background was woven into the novel it would have made a significant difference to the quality of storytelling. This is illustrated further in the sanitised “literary” description of the 1971 War, a conflict zone: The way tensions rose in our house and in the city, the way the whole country seemed to teem with a dull thickening heat – the days before monsoon storms. By the time war broke out, we were almost relieved. It gave the feeling a name; something that couldn’t be quantified when it was just curfews and military men stationed outside schools or people sent back past the border. Contrast this with contemporary literature worldwide which creates a rich texture filled with details taking care to not culturally alienate the reader too much but at the same time retaining a strong regional character — acceptable traits of a global novel.

Sarvat Hasin is a writer with promise. This Wide Night is a commendable first effort.

 Sarvat Hasin This Wide Night Hamish Hamilton/ Penguin Random House India, 2016, 312 pp., Rs 499 (HB) 

 

Teresa Rehman “The Mothers of Manipur: Twelve Women Who Made History”

On 15 July 2004, Imphal ( Manipur), twelve women strip in front of Kangla Fort, the headquarters of the Assam Rifles, a unit of the Indian army. Soldiers and officers watched aghast as the women, all in their sixties and seventies, positioned themselves in front of the gates and then, one by one, stripped themselves naked. The imas, the mothers of Manipur, are in a cold fury, protesting the custodial rape and murder, by the army, of Thangjam Manorama, a 32-year-old woman suspected of being a militant. The women hold aloft banners and shout, ‘Indian Army Rape Us’, ‘Take Our Flesh’. Never has this happened before: the army is appalled.

Award-winning journalist Teresa Rehman’s The Mothers of Manipur is about the mothers and grandmothers who protested boldly. The trigger was the abduction and murder of Manorama but it was also against the Armed Forces ( Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) which gives the army extraordinary powers. Manorama, a weaver, was known in the local community for being a hardworking woman who had been supporting her family ever since her father had died while she was a young teenager. She had chosen not to marry but on 10 July 2004 troops of the 17th Assam Rifles barged into her home, accusing her of being a militant, questioned her and then took her away. The next morning her body was found. She had been raped, her vagina stuffed with cloth and bullets riddled into her genitals. Yet the army said she was shot while attempting to run away but there was no evidence to prove it.

Angered by this incident some of the local women who were also active members of the Meira Paibis (women torch bearers of Manipur) movement decided to do something about it. Some of the women had visited the morgue to see Manorama’s body. They were horrified by what they witnessed. Hurriedly and yet secretly the women put together a plan to disrobe at Kangla Fort. They had two banners painted ( the painter was sworn to secrecy) displaying the words “Indian Army Rape Us”. On the morning of 15 July 2004 they removed their undergarments but wore their phanek ( sarong) and shawls. Once at the gates of the fort they stripped and shouted. It immediately caused a stir. Within hours curfew had been clamped and there was a blackout across television channels. At the time the incident made headlines and was covered extensively but years later too it is viewed as a seminal form of protest by women in a conflict zone as in this BBC report ( March 2017).

More than a decade later Teresa Rehman decided to interview these women of whom all save one survived. What emerges from the interviews is that though these women were mostly from an impoverished background they were strong and had a firm idea of justice. The anger of the older women in the group was fuelled by their childhood memories of the occupation of Manipur by Japanese forces during World War II. At the time too the unannounced arrival of Japanese soldiers at their homes asking for young girls, particularly at night, made their families anxious. The imposition of AFSPA in Manipur decades later brought back those very same feelings of anxiety and fear for their daughters. During the course of the interviews it becomes evident that the women in July 2004 were only concerned with how to display their anger and frustration at the Indian Army and the inexplicable irrational violence it perpetrated upon the locals. Not a single woman thought of the consequences. Years later it becomes apparent that the twelve women had diverse experiences. From being shunned by their families to being idolised by their community. Yet the common factor amongst them all was the anxiety and fear had not abated and now they worried about the safety of their daughters and granddaughters.

The Mothers of Manipur documents the role of these women in an active conflict zone and the consequences of their actions. Yet it comes across as a book that is also a testimony of Teresa Rehman’s own growth as a feminist journalist. She does the balancing act well of being sensitive to the women and their issues without being an over zealous journalist who pries too much into the personal lives of their subjects. It also inadvertantly becomes a part-memoir of Teresa Rehman as she visits Manipur regularly from the neighbouring state of Assam.

Undoubtedly it is a gripping book to read but there is also some dissatisfaction. The fact is mothers forming groups to work within conflict zones or in fragile societies being reconstructed after war is a part of gender and conflict studies. The role of women in conflict zones across geographies is well-documented. Also it has been discovered that these groups share many characteristics. Though there is a competent introduction by renowned journalist Pamela Philipose giving the background to AFSPA and Meira Paibis there is little context given either by her or Teresa Rahman to the Kangla Fort incident in gender and conflict narratives. It has to be extrapolated from the various interviews included. For a newcomer to gender and conflict the book would be fascinating to read but they would miss completely the cues of sisterhood which form in war zones. For now these details are scattered through the interviews. An overarching essay that explained the methodology of how these oral history interviews were conducted, contextualising the action in the women’s movement and the active role mothers/women play in conflict zones would have definitely enriched the book.

Despite its shortcomings The Mothers of Manipur will be referred to for a long time as it not only documents the shocking incident of 15 July 2004 at Kangla Fort but also neatly encapsulates the troubled history of conflict-torn Manipur particularly since World War II.

Teresa Rehman The Mothers of Manipur: Twelve Women who Made History Zubaan, New Delhi, 2017. Pb. pp. 152 Rs. 325 

Brian Van Reet “Spoils”

The war had turned for the worse — everyone knew that — but we didn’t know just how bad it would get. Like going over a big hump on a roller coaster, the feeling of everything hanging in midair and about to fall — that’s how it was. No one, not even Higher, knew if our deployment would last a few more weeks or forever. Rumors spread like the flu, and possible redeployment dates for our unit were tossed around, but when those dates came and went, and nothing happened, we were like a cult that’d expected the world to end on a certain day, but it didn’t. The world is always still there in the morning, and you can only take so much disappointment. After a while most of us stopped obsessing about when we’d go home, fooling ourselves into believing home didn’t exist, the entire idea of it was a lie, or worse, this place was home.

(p.192)

Debut author Brian Van Reet’s Spoils is a novel narrated from three perspectives — Specialist Cassandra Wigheard (a gunner on a Humvee) and tank crewman Private Sleed, American soldiers and Abu al-Hool, a middle-aged veteran jihadist who has fought in Chechnya too. These three lives intersect on the battlefield in the early days of the invasion of Iraq (2003).  The story is set in approximately two months coinciding with nineteen-year-old Cassandra’s captivity. Cassandra, like the author himself, is part of a team that operates tanks. Unfortunately with her two colleagues, McGinnis and Crump, they are captured by the mujahideens.  Once Specialist Wigheard is captured her point of view of the war, her experiences as a prisoner and all that she witnesses including the beheading of her colleagues are horrific. Even though she is a disciplined soldier who made the deliberate choice to maintain a certain untethered distance to home and the people there cannot help but miss her crew whom she loved and hated like family — a rare moment when she displays emotion. 

Spoils tells the story of the war from three perspectives where everyone is convinced they are right. The Americans believe firmly they are fighting for justice. The mujahideens too feel they are correct in forming their brotherhood, a religious obligation. After 9/11 there was rejoicing in the camp with lambs being slaughtered and juices and sweets distributed. But as Abu al-Hool cautiously observes:

Now is the evening of the next day, and we have only begun to prepare for the counterattack. We didn’t sign on for this offensive. Regardless, I suffer no illusions that our ignorance or prior restraint will mitigate what the future holds. Blood must have blood. We are Muslims training in Afghanistan, and for the Americans that will be enough. Only a fool would deny we are now enemies. (p.29)

A little later while watching his colleagues take photographs with charred bodies in the desert  as if they were tourists by going in for a close-up and not soldiers that Sleed realises “That was the first time in my life I’d ever seen anything like that, and the war felt really fucking real all of a sudden. I got this complicated feeling that has bothered me ever since. It’s hard to describe…Like everything matters so much, it’s pointless to worry about anything.” ( p.46)

In a video introducing his work Brian van Reet says that of the three main characters Sleed’s view is similar to his own. In another YouTube clip the author introduces the book as being a war novel for people who don’t read war novels. It is based on his experience as a soldier during the Iraq war. Yet it is a work of fiction that goes pretty far in his own field of experience. As he clarifies Spoils is not a book about fighting but mostly a book about people and how they adapt to and are shaped by extreme experiences.

Brian Van Reet ( @brianvanreet) is the recipient of a James Michener Fellowship and the Gulf Coast Prize in Fiction. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, and elsewhere. He enlisted in the U.S. Army as a tank crewman, served in Iraq under stop-loss orders, achieved the rank of sergeant, and was awarded a Bronze Star for with ‘V’ Device for actions in Sadr City. Spoils had a magnificent sale in 2015 when rights to it were sold to Little, Brown and Company, Jonathan Cape ( UK and Commonwealth), and deals were confirmed with Éditions de L’Olivier (France), Rowohlt (Germany), Guanda (Italy) and Atlas Contact (the Netherlands).

Being a war veteran himself Brian Van Reet dispassionate but minute description of a typical American army camp is startling for the close relationship between the army and corporates. It should not be a surprise since it is universally known that being at war is a profitable business.

An hour past sundown, the final wispy trails of lavender and blue fade from the expansive desert sky. The stars are magnificent, the Milky Way a smear of bioluminescence, but inside the bunker is only blackness, all the soldiers masked up, drawing labored breaths through biochem filters. In addition to the masks, they’re also encumbered with charcoal-lined chemical suits, plastic hoods, rubber gloves, rubber overboots, forty pounds of Kevlar and ceramic-plate body armor, a combat load of smoke grenades, frag grenades, and seven MI6 magazines, and some are carrying light machine guns or radios or combat lifesaver bags, but even lugging around the heaviest piece of gear is no match for the sheer stifling annoyance of the mask, which, she must admit, does possess at least one redeeming quality: sparing her from the body odor of the men nearby. No doubt many skipped showers that morning, refusing to wait in the long line for personal-hygiene trailers. 

The army camp is overcrowded, but, thanks to the ingenuity of Kellogg Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, it’s eminently expandable. Off-loaded piece by peice from ships in the Persian Gulf, trucked through Kuwait City and into the deep desert, all of Camp New York’s assemblages are modular. Steel eyelets the size of a fist, sunk into the top face of the bunker, allow it to be hoisted with a crane, loaded onto a flatbed, and hauled into all tomorrow’s war zones. 

Erected in a matter of weeks and in its character not unlike a boomtown, the camp houses more than five thousand American soldiers — all but a few hundred are men — imaptiently living out the last days of peace in large air-conditioned tents like those were especially well-cared-for refugees might stay.  Portable buildings flank the hardpack road that spans the center of camp: double-wide trailers painted a drab eggshell white and modified to fill every organizational purpose. Trailers to sort and receive mail; trailers to treat soldiers on sick call’ to house VIPs and KBR employees; a trailer stocked with a flimsy bench press, a squat rack, some dumbbells, and a treadmill so clogged with sand, the mechanism makes a sound like a coffee grinder whenever some clueless new arrival tries to jog on it. There are trailers to shower in, trailers to command troops from, refrigerator trailers to store perishables in, and the most popular on camp, a Morale, Welfare and Recreation phone trailer ( corporate sponsorship by AT&T), subdivided into fourteen obscenely well-grattified cubicles, each with a pay phone, accepting only calling cards, no coin. For reasons of efficiency the army doesn’t ship U.S. specie into theater. 

Spoils is a disturbing book for it challenges the notion of good and evil as being black and white definitions. The novel blurs the lines by portraying these as subjective perspectives, which is exactly what they are.  Brian Van Reet puts the spotlight on combat trauma narratives that are far more complicated than they seem. Going to war is not merely a battle between two sides. The stakes are far higher involving individuals with their own notion of why they are fighting and what shape the battle should take. But as Specialist Cassandra Wigheard knows it is best to not get involved in histories as “When dealing with other people’s targedies, there’s the risk of taking on more grief than is appropriate, of lapsing into benevolent voyeurism, of making it all about you.

Spoils will be on a few literary prize lists in the coming year for its vividly disconcerting commentary of conflict. Read it.

Brian Van Reet Spoils Jonathan Cape, an imprint of Penguin Random House, Pb. pp. 270 £14.99 

11 April 2017 

“She Came from Mariupol” by Natscha Wodinwas ( an extract)

Sie Kam Aus Mariupol by Natscha Wodinwas ( published by Rowohlt Verlag) which has been shortlisted for the 2017 Leipzig Book Fair Prize is by the daughter of deported Ukrainian labourers to Germany. Natscha Wodinwas is based in Berlin.

The following translated English excerpts were sent by Rachel Hildebrandt, translator and publisher, Weyward Sisters Publishing. The English translation of She Came from Mariupol is as yet unpublished.

These passages are being published with permission.

(p.38) The more research I did, the more atrocities I encountered about which hardly anyone seemed to be aware. I was not the only one who was learning about these for the first time. None of my German friends, many of whom I considered enlightened, historically knowledgeable individuals, had any idea how many Nazi camps had once existed within the boundaries of the former German Reich. Some of them guessed around twenty, while others estimated two hundred, a few up to two thousand. According to a study by the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the number is actually closer to 42,500, not including the smaller and the satellite camps. In an interview with ZEIT published on March 4, 2013, the American historian Geoffrey Megargee, who had contributed to the study, remarked that the horrific number of camps confirmed that almost every German had to have known about the existence of these camps, even if they had not comprehended the extent of the camps or the conditions within them. It was the old story: Nobody knew a thing, despite the fact that with over 42,500 camps the entire country must have functioned like a single gulag.

****

 (pgs 248 to 251) The large-scale deportation of the Ukrainians to Germany was accompanied by a pervasive propaganda effort on the part of the occupiers. At every turn, the Soviet citizens were called to report for work duty in Germany. They were promised paradise there. The brainwashing occurred everywhere: during the opening programs at the cinemas, over all of the radio stations, in the workplaces, at the train stations, in the theaters, on public squares and streets. Large, colorful posters depicted happy Ukrainians working at progressive German workbenches. Smartly dressed Ukrainian domestic servants were pictured whipping up German Sunday cakes. Ukrainian women were especially popular as maids. In 1942, Hitler ordered that half a million of them be employed in German households, which resulted in many German women losing their jobs. The press circulated daily pleas, like this one:

UKRAINIAN WOMEN AND MEN

The Bolshevik commissioners have destroyed your factories and workplaces, and are cutting you off from work and bread. Germany is offering you useful, well-paid employment. In Germany, you will find excellent work and living conditions, and you will be paid according to the tariff and based on your productivity. We take especially good care of the Ukrainian workers. So that they can live in conditions that are suitable to them and can retain their cultural distinctness, separate settlements are being constructed for them. They will provide everything that you would need to live: cinemas, theaters, hospitals, radio stations, swimming pools, etc. The Ukrainians are living in bright, nicely furnished rooms, and they are given the same things to eat as the German workers. Furthermore, the factory canteens cook the specialties of all nations, which is why the Ukrainian workers will find Wareniki, Galuschki, Kwas, etc. on the menus.

Germany is waiting for you! Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are already working in free, happy Germany. What about you? During your stay in Germany, we will take good care of your family back home.

(reprinted from a Ukrainian newspaper)

The propaganda was initially effective. Not all of the so-called Ostarbeiter were forcibly deported. At the beginning, many of them reported voluntarily. Gradually the truth about the downright nightmarish work and living conditions in the German Reich trickled back home. At first, letters conveyed hidden messages, for example, in the form of flowers drawn in a letter from a sixteen-year-old to his mother. The flower was the agreed-upon signal that things were not going well for him. As time passed, more and more deported Ukrainians returned from Germany, physically destroyed and shoved off back home, because in their condition they were no longer useful. Their stories quickly cut off the hopeful rush of those volunteering for work duty: a serious problem for the German war industry, since the German men were at the front and no longer there to fill the workplaces.

Meanwhile, the war was requiring a sharp, unrelenting increase in productivity. Germany’s victory would rise or fall on the imported slave laborers from all over Europe, especially from the Soviet Union and particularly from Ukraine. Hitler appointed his model Gauleiter Fritz Sauckel as the General Plenipotentiary for Labor Deployment. The son of a Frankish postal worker and a seamstress, who was later described at the Nuremberg trials as the “greatest and cruelest slaver since the pharaohs,” Sauckel issued the order to “finally shake off the last dregs of sentimental humanitarianism.” And with this command, the human hunt began. Ukraine was the favorite region of operations for the hunters. The Ukrainians, who composed the largest percentage of the “Ostarbeiter,” were perceived as the Slavs of the lowest possible value. The only groups under them in the racial hierarchy were the Sinti, the Roma, and the Jews. They were attacked on the streets, in cinemas and cafes, at streetcar stops, in post offices, anywhere where they could be easily caught. They were hauled out of the homes in raids, dragged from the cellars and sheds where they had tried to hide. They were driven to the train station and transported to Germany in cattle cars. A countless number of them disappeared without a trace with nothing except the clothes on their backs. Able-bodied young men were particularly desirable – entire freight trains full of Ukrainian teenagers rolled daily toward the Reich. After a while, though, the forty- and fifty-year-olds were taken, and eventually, the elderly and weak. The populations of entire villages were deported, including the grandmothers with their grandchildren. The emptied villages were then burnt to the ground. At first, the minimal slave laborer age was twelve, but then it was dropped to ten. And not only that, but in the summer of 1942, all young people in Ukraine between the ages of eighteen and twenty were forced to serve two years of compulsory service in the Reich. Up to ten thousand future forced laborers were shipped to Germany on a daily basis, and according to Fritz Sauckel’s orders, all of these people had to be fed, housed, and treated as cheaply as possible in order to yield the highest possible productivity.

25 February 2017 

“The Bicycle Spy” & “Brave Like My Brother”

Of late there has been an increase in the amount of historical fiction set during the second world war by contemporary writers. These are two wonderful examples. The Bicycle Spy introduces young readers to the Resistance and German occupation of France. It is a story told from the perspective of a young boy who discovers his classmate is a Jew from Paris and needs protection. With the help of his parents he sets out on his mission. Likewise Brave Like My Brother is about a young American soldier who is recruited and within three days packed off to England and later, France. The story is told via letters he exchanges with his younger brother. As the writer says he did take some creative license to tell it but it’s embedded in facts such as Eisenhower’s visit to the Allied troops in Europe and the use of inflatable armoured vehicles to be used as decoy before D-day.

Both the books, published by Scholastic, are immensely readable and a great way to introduce children to different aspects of the war. Now for similar yalit fiction about conflict situations in other geographies.

17 February 2017 

2017 Reading Order, Asian Age

My annual feature in Asian Age which highlights the forthcoming titles of the year was published on 8 January 2017

2017 is going to be a fascinating year for books with big names too. 2016 was extraordinary for the number of strong debuts, overabundance of thrillers, revisionist accounts of history and established names releasing new books. There is a tremendous list of books to look out for – Amitava Kumar (The Lovers), Elif Shafak (The Three Daughters for Eve), Balli Kaur Jaswal (Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows), Jeet Thayil (The Book of Chocolate Saints), Mohsin Hamid (Exit West), Kamila Shamsie (Home Fire), Arundhati Roy (The Ministry of Utmost Happiness), Nadeem Aslam (The Golden Legend), Irwin Allan Sealy (Zelaldinus: A Masque and a travelogue called The China Sketchbook), S.V. Sujatha (The Demon-hunter of Chottanikkara), Sami Shah (Boy), Neil Gaiman’sCinnamon illustrated by Divya Srinivasan, Namita Roy Ghose’s historical fiction (The Wrong Turn: Love and Betrayal in the time of Netaji) and The Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica by Amrita Narayanan.

Debut novelists slated for 2017 that are already being spoken of highly include Prayaag Akbar’sLeila, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, Tor Udall’s A Thousand Paper Birds, Torsa Ghoshal’s Open Couplets and Devi Yashodharan’s novel, Empire.

 

natasha badhwar

Mythology continues to be hugely popular (backbone of local publishing) with its innumerable retellings. For instance the eagerly expected Devdutt Pattanaik’s The Illustrated Mahabharata: The Definitive Guide to India’s Greatest Epic and Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. Others include Mandakranta Bose’s The Ramayana in Bengali Folk Paintings, The Panchatantra by Vishnu Sharma (Translated by Rohini Chowdhury) and popular storyteller Krishna Udayasankarreturns with The Aryavarta Chronicles (4). A curious one to watch out for would be Jaya Misra’sKama: The Chronicles of Vatsyayana — a fictionalised biography of the author of The Kama Sutra(illustrated by Harshvardhan Kadam). Then there is Keerthik Sasidharan’s The Kurukshetra War: A Reconstruction and the ever-prolific Ashok Banker who has been commissioned by PanMacmillan India to write The Shakti Trilogy and by Amaryllis to deliver The Shivaji Trilogy.

The winning genre of thrillers is set to burgeon with some new and some established writers, such as Karachi-based police officer Omar Shahid Hamid’s third novel, The Party Worker, award-winning writer Jerry Pinto’s first detective fiction, Murder in Mahim, Bhaskar Chattopadhyay’s Here Falls the Shadow, Sanjay Bahadur’s Bite of the Black Dog, Sabyn Javeri’s Nobody Killed Her,Nikita Singh’s Every Time It Rains and long-awaited Pradeep Sebastian’s The Book Hunters. The bestselling duo Ashwin Sanghi and Dan Patterson are back with Private Delhi. Three intriguing books based on investigative reporting by prominent journalists are in the offing: The Nanavati Case by Bachi Karkaria, Sheena Bora Trail by Manish Pachouly and Who Killed Osho? by Abhay Vaidya.

Women’s writing continues to be a popular segment and has firmly established itself as a well-defined market. Some of the anticipated non-fiction titles are Status Single by the sharply perceptive Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults by the extraordinary feminist Laurie Penny, fabulous writer and columnist Natasha Badhwar’s memoir My Daughters’ Mum: Essays and popular mommygolightly blogger Lalita Iyer’s The Whole Shebang: Stick Bits of Being a Woman. Finally significant women in history and myth will be highlighted with books like Women Rulers in Indian History by Archana Garodia, Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History by Ira Mukhoty.  Some of the other significant titles planned are Tripti Lahiri’s Maid in India: Stories of Opportunity and Inequality Inside our Homes, Sanam Maher’s The Short Life and Tragic Death of Qandeel Baloch and Priyanka Dubey’s No Nation for Women: Ground Reportage on Rape from the World’s Largest Democracy.

Translations are slowly expanding reading horizons by becoming a robust addition to the local imprint. Some prominent translations expected in 2017 are well-known Malayalam writer, Sethu Madhavan’s novels The Saga of Muziris (translated by Prema Jayakumar) and Aliyah (translated by Catherine Thankamma) which is about the migration of Kerala’s black Jews to the promised land of Israel. Rakshanda Jalil’s translation of Ghaddaar by Krishan Chander is titled Traitor, and there’s also the magnificent 900+ page novel Against the World by Jan Brandt (translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire), award-winning writer Perumal Murugan’s Seasons of the Palm andThe Collected Stories of Saadat Hasan Manto (Vol I, translated by Nasreen Rehman) to look forward to.

Evidence of a mature Indian publishing and a stable nation are the increasing number of academic analysis of the literary traditions. For instance two volumes edited by Rakhshanda Jalil — An Uncivil Woman: Writings on Ismat Chughtai and Looking Back: The Partition of India 70 Years On (with eds.Tarun Saint and Debjani Sengupta).

The Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections will take place in 2017. Plenty of books are in the pipeline. Sudhai Pai’s Uttar Pradesh: A Political Biography, Sajjan Kumar’s The Ailing Heartland: Communal Politics in Uttar Pradesh Since Independence and Venkatish Ramakrishnan’s Dateline Ayodhya. Coincidentally, 2017 is Indira Gandhi’s birth centenary year too and her constituency was Allahabad, home of the Nehrus. Two biographies planned are Sagarika Ghose’s Indira Gandhi: Her Life and Afterlife and Jairam Ramesh’s Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature. Ashoka University’s Rudranghsu Mukherjee’s The Nehru Reader is also slated for release.

2017 is also the 70th year of Indian Independence. Some of the books slated straddle academia and lay readership. For instance  Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, Barney White-Spunner’s Partition, Sheela Reddy’s long-awaited Mr and Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage That Shook India, Bertil Lintner China’s India War, Nikhila Henry’sThe Ferment and Aruna Roy’s The RTI Story. Journalist Poonam Snigdha’s Dreamers: The Heart of Modern India is a much-anticipated title for it focuses on the majority of India

Paddy Rangappa

which is under the age of 25. Another title bound to cause ripples with its publication is Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra, a polemic on the Western intellectual origins of Islamic fundamentalist. Delhi, seat of political power of the subcontinent for centuries, continues to be the favourite city for writers. Three books due are — Delhi: Power Politics Destiny by Sheila Dikshit, Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi by historian Swapna Liddle and Maps of Delhi by Pilar Maria Guerrieri.

Business books continue to be bestsellers. Two prominent titles are Paddy Rangappa’s Spark: The Insight to Growing Brands and financial journalist Pravin Palande’s The Fundamentalists: Czars of India’s Financial Markets — which has been a long time in the making.

14 February 2017 

Life after “The Clifton Chronicles”: An Interview with Lord Archer

( My interview with popular writer Jeffrey Archer was published on literary website Bookwitty on 6 February 2017. The Clifton Chronicles are published in India by PanMacmillan India. ) 

The Clifton Chronicles by Lord Archer is about Harry Clifton, a dockyard worker’s son who rises to become a very successful author and hold a respectable position in society. The series arc is set across three generations in 20th century Britain. It begins during the First World War and ends with the Thatcher era.

While reading the Clifton series, I could not help but draw comparisons between Charles Dickens and Jeffrey Archer as extraordinarily popular authors of their times. Later I discovered that in an an interview Lord Archer acknowledged Dickens as one of his literary heroes. Each portrays characters embedded deeply in socio-economic divisions, while creating an atmosphere with their language, expressions and manner of engagement. Unlike in literary fiction, where much of the time is spent detailing dress and manners and manner of accents, The Clifton Chronicles focus on how to operate within specific socio-economic divisions. There is a nuanced reflection of what society was like. The character building does not happen much with authorial intervention, with long expositions about an individual, but is achieved through their engagement with the surroundings. The way Lord Archer captures the manners and speech reflecting the class of an individual may not be something to mention in polite society, but it is most certainly a discreet cultural language everyone is acutely aware of.

Dickens may be very popular now and is the darling of academics worldwide, but soon after his death he was not much talked about. It was a while after his death, probably in the early 20th century, when it became fashionable to read and discuss him. Similarly, with Lord Archer’s novels there is a very deep silence amongst the literary establishment that exists in acknowledging him as a storyteller (in fact he makes some astute observations on the big literary fiction prizes in these novels). Surely commercial fiction like his has a reason to exist? Certainly the numbers of units sold worldwide, including in India, tell a pretty good story too – it is the kind of success literary fiction writers aspire to. So this deep distaste for popular literature is unfathomable? Probably the classical divide between “high” and “low” art continues to be deeply entrenched. Hence popular fiction like The Clifton Chronicles is seldom considered for literary prizes.

On finishing the series I corresponded with Lord Archer, facilitated kindly by his publishers, Pan MacMillan India. Below are edited excerpts of our correspondence.

Before you began writing The Clifton Chronicles did you broadly plot out a series arc?

No, initially I envisioned only three books, then five, but as I wrote, the characters grew and changed, and I needed to keep going in order to get them to where I wanted the saga to end. I rarely map out the whole plot of a book, although I do always have an idea of how I want it to end – though it sometimes takes a different direction half-way through!

Dickens and you serialised stories – he in Household Words and you with The Clifton Chronicles novels. Both have had the effect of keeping readers waiting in great anticipation for the next instalment. Why did you choose to write a series and not a single fat doorstop of a novel chronicling the Clifton and Barrington saga?

I looked on this as a new challenge as I’d never written a series before.

Creating and sustaining the plot for 3000 pages spread over so many decades must have required tremendous research and fact-checking. How did you do it? Do you work with a team of people?

I don’t have a team of people – I read a lot beforehand, and I have a researcher who helps me with some background research, and along the way I will speak to different experts in their fields if I’m writing about a particular subject or place for example.

How often do you revise your manuscripts?

I will write out a chapter maybe three times during the first draft, and then when my PA has typed up my handwritten pages, I’ll then work on them for several more drafts. I then discuss this with my editor and revise it again. So it could be revised a dozen times.

How do you name your characters? (There are so many!)

I’m always looking for new names to use – I might be watching TV and as the film credits roll, think ah, that surname is interesting, or be reading a newspaper and spot a name I haven’t used before which would suit a particular character. They could come from anywhere – I think I may even have used a couple of names from my local rugby team.

You have been publishing for more than four decades now. What are the transformations in this industry that you have witnessed?

The biggest change is of course the incredible rise in eBooks. But I think this has only changed the industry for the better – encouraging more people to read.

Have these in any way affected your style of storytelling and its productivity? How has it in particular affected the author-reader relationship? Has the demographic of your reader changed or remained constant?

My readership has grown with The Clifton Chronicles, and my fans might be 9 or 90!

Many claim your books to be inspirational for their stories of triumph, yet you portray society as it is. It makes me wonder if these books are semi-autobiographical. Are they?

Some of the characters and the events within The Clifton Chronicles series are certainly inspired by my own life and even people I knew. I was brought up in the West Country of England, so have always wanted to set a novel in that area. There is a little bit of me in Harry Clifton – we’re both authors for a start, and certainly Emma was based on my wife Mary.

Who is your favourite character in the book?

Lady Virginia, without a doubt. She turned into a fan favourite. I was going to kill her off after book three, but she demanded to continue!

What kind of books do you like to read?

I read many different genres including biographies and non-fiction for research, but my favourite is fiction, from the likes of Dickens, Dumas, H H Munro and Stefan Zweig.

Will you have these books optioned for a period drama?

I would love to see The Clifton Chronicles as a TV drama series.

What next after The Clifton Chronicles?

I have a new book of short stories coming out this year, and am currently working on my new novel.

7 February 2017