Women Posts

Of Bitches

11 October 2017 is International Girl Child’s Day, declared by the United Nations. The idea is to raise awareness of issues facing girls internationally surrounding education, nutrition, child marriage, legal and medical rights. The celebration of the day also “reflects the successful emergence of girls and young women as a distinct cohort in development policy, programming, campaigning and research.”

But what happens when the young woman gains consciousness in a world where many of the structures are still very patriarchal; they inform and dictate many relationships and policies. Feminism, particularly women’s movements, of the 1960s onwards have influenced young girls world over. Women learned how to express themselves in a manner that enabled them to be heard. Slowly and steadily the impact was discernible in different spheres. In publishing too for the first time women’s presses were being set up. Virago and  Kali for Women were established. The magazine Ms was launched by Gloria Steinem. Women in Publishing was established at this time by Liz Calder, one of the co-founders of Bloomsbury. In India for the first time Status of Women Report ( 1975) was released. There was definitely a shift in perceptions and constructive action was being taken. Soon publishers worldwide recognised the growing importance of giving a space in their lists to women’s books — either by women or for women.  In living memory there has been a dramatic shift with now there being more and more women authors being published.

In this context there are three collections of essays that I read recently — Bad Feminist ( Roxane Gay), Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults ( Laurie Penny) and The Bitch is Back ( ed. Cathi Hanauer). These three books can be yoked together not only for their feminism but also that they mark the manner in which the feminists conduct themselves, the choices they make and how they evolve as individuals. Some of the older feminists as those sharing their experiences in their essays included in The Bitch is Back comment upon living their feminism by negotiating their spaces regularly and thereafter making peace with the decisions made. The common thread running through all these essays is how challenging at times it can be to find the same sense of equality and entitlement that men of diverse backgrounds seem to have in all societies. Women have to negotiate their spaces and stand by their choices, at times it is not easy, but feminism has granted this at least — the space to negotiate and as some of the older women discover it is also about making peace with having your own identity. There are two particularly fine essays that encapsulate and address many of these issues in The Bitch is Back — “Trading Places: We both wanted to stay home. He won. But so did I.” by Julianna Baggott and “Beyond the Myth of Co-Parenting: What we lost — and gained — by abandoning equality” by Hope Edelman.

These books are meant for everyone and not necessarily for feminists. Read them. Discuss them. Share them and not just with the girls in your circle as they come of age. It is a way of seeing. Hopefully reading about alternative gendered perspectives will enable a healthy debate in society and contribute to the transformation of traditional patriarchal structures of thinking.

11 October 2017 

 

“The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman’s Life”

Ann Burack-Weiss’s The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman’s Life is a slim volume where she explores through women writer’s prose what it means to them getting old. For decades she herself has been a social work practitioner who focused from day one of her career on the caregiving of the elderly. It was unusual when she chose this vocation in the 1960s but four decades later it is not. ” I became a social worker with the aged because I was afraid for my life.” It gives her a perspective and an understanding in a particular phase of a woman’s life when she is inevitably relegated to grandparent duties whereas continuity theory states that as people age they do not change their patterns of thought or action but continue to approach life in the same way as they always have.

Ann Burack-Weiss has been fascinated with the memoir/ autobiography or the essentials of life-writing experience. It encompasses a range of forms such as the transcribed interview, dictation, journal, letter and auto-fiction. According to her since the 1960s feminist scholars have been explored the woman’s “agency” ( the ability to speak and act on her own behalf) or the lack thereof. “They note that, through the ages, most of the writing about women, in fiction and nonfiction, has been by men, and that the male lens inevitably leads to distortion.” But as she discovers that many of her quoted authors in the book — Colette, Fisher, Sarton, Florida Scott-Maxwell– had published compelling life writing well before the editors determined what was worthy of inclusion in their collections. “The only possible explanation for their exclusion is that the editors themselves had little interest in what the old women had to say.”

The writers included in this book are categorised according to arbitrary time divisions:

1862-1909 (Fin de Siecle) — Colette, Simone de Beauvoir, M.F.K. Fisher, Anai Nin, Florida Scott-Maxwell, Eudora Welty, Edith Wharton

1910-1929 (Progressive Era) — Diana Athill, Maya Angelou, Marguerite Duras, Marilyn French, Doris Grumbach, Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Madeline L’Engle, Gerda Lerner, Doris Lessing, Adrienne Rich, May Sarton

1930-1943 (Great Depression- World War II) — Isabel Allende, Mary Catherine Bateson, Joan Didion, Margaret Drabble, Annie Ernaux, Vivian Gornick, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Edna O’Brien, Mary Oliver, Marge Piercy, Anne Ropihe, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Alix Kates Shulman

1944-1960 (Baby Boomers) — Diane Ackerman, Alison Bechdel, Terry Castle, Mary Gordon, Kay Redfield Jamison, Nancy Mairs, Nancy K. Miller, Alice Walker

It is interesting Ann Burack-Weiss chooses to quote Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize for Literature ( 2002) acceptance speech where Morrison focuses on “word-work” and being an old woman. Toni Morrison’s last novel God Help the Child ( 2015) which began life as a memoir but transformed into a slim novel explores these very themes. It reflects upon the cycle of life from the perspective of an older writer. What truly struck me at the end of 2015 was that none of the “Best of 2015” lists included this novel even though it was “Toni Morrison”. Perhaps old age is too stark a reminder of one’s mortality.

It is a slim volume but gives one much to think about.

Ann Burack-Weiss The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman’s Life Columbia University Press, New York, 2015. Pb. pp.190 

27 Sept 2017 

 

“Reading with Patrick: A True Story”

“Ms. Kuo,” he said. “Things I see ain’t nothing worth talking about.” 

Reading with Patrick: A True Story  by Michelle Kuo is an moving memoir of her efforts at teaching American history through black literature in the Mississippi Delta. She is convinced that book therapy “could change the lives” of her students. She was twenty-two. She sets about her task with evangelical fervour.

“We all front,” I said. “You know why I love to read? It’s because books don’t front.”

They were listening — it was working.

“You can hear what people are thinking in books,” I continued. “They do crazy things, but you can figure out how they feel. You get to figure out what’s happening to them on the inside.”

We talked about what it meant to see only the outside of people. I asked, “Why do people keep their insides hidden?” The responses were painfully insightful, and the most common was a variation on this one: “People are afraid that if they’re honest about what they want, they won’t get it.”

I realized that I needed also to give them a sense of ownership over the people and stories in these books. I researched black writers for teenagers: Walter Dean Myers, Sharon Flake, Sharon Draper, Sister Souljah, Nikki Grimes, Jacqueline Woodson. I ordered these books and then I read them. I felt these writers knew better than I did what stories teh kids needed. The heroes were people who looked like them, talked like them, and faced the problems they faced. In Tears of a Tiger, by Sharon Draper, Andy, a teenager blames himself for his best friend’s death. In Jazmin’s Notebook, by Nikki Grimes, Jazmin, fourteen, is her mother’s primary caregiver. In Begging for Change, by Sharon Flake, Raspberry has to decide whether or not to welcome her estranged father back in her life. A state fund for new teachers had given me eight hundred dollars for the classroom, and I spent it all on these books. 

While teaching at the school she came across a lot of children who were existing but no one really cared about them. There was one particular student she was concerned about — Patrick. She persuaded him to return to school and be regular. He slowly picked up reading and writing. A couple of years later she had to leave to join law school. Two years after that she got a call to say that Patrick had been arrested for a murder. She was horrified and flew back to meet him in prison. She discovered he had stabbed a drunk who had brought his simple-minded sister home on a school night. The drunk had been aggressive at first and without realising what he was doing Patrick had stabbed him probably in the arm but a few steps from the house the victim stumbled and died. The police charged Patrick with manslaughter though months after the crime had been committed. All the while the young man languished in a prison. Around the time Michelle Kuo finished her law degree, passed her bar exam and decided to return to the delta. She also decided to set Patrick daily homework in prison of reading and writing while he awaited to go on trial. Reading with Patrick is about this extraordinary relationship of teacher and student. It is very reminiscent of the 1962 classic The Cross and the Switchblade in which the priest “saves” the young gang leader ultimately converting him to Christianity. In Reading with Patrick Michelle Kuo manages a similar transformation by gently persuading and teaching Patrick so that by the time he is released on parole for good behaviour he is able to apply to the local community college for further studies. He is able to get through the admissions test as his scores are good much to the astonishment of the official.

Years later when Michelle Kuo met a consultant who recognised her from Richard Wormser’s documentary Delta Dreams he remarked, “You have a gift for children, a real gift. For speaking with them. And speaking about them.” While writing this book Michelle Kuo told Patrick about her project but was not sure if she should use his real name or not. His reply:

“You can use my name,” he says. “I believe in testimony; I believe in God.”

I feel relieved. But I am thinking to myself, this is not his testimony: it is mine.” 

Michelle Kuo Reading with Patrick: A True Story Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2017. 

24 Sept 2017 

*Note: All images are off the Internet. If you know who is the copyright holder please let me know.

“Lab Girl: A Story of trees, science and love” by Hope Jahren


My strongest memory of our garden is not how it smelled or even looked, but how it sounded. It might strike you as fantastic, but you really can hear plants growing in the Midwest. At its peak, sweet corn grows a whole inch every single day and as the layers of husk shift slightly to accommodate this expansion, you can hear it as a low continuous rustle if you stand inside the rows of a cornfield on a perfectly still August day. As we dug in our garden, I listened to the lazy buzzing of bees as they staggered drunkenly from flower to flower, the petty sniping chirps of the cardinals remarking upon our bird feeder, the scraping our trowels through the dirt, and the authoritative whistle of the factory, blown each day at noon. 

Award-winning scientist Hope Jahren’s memoir Lab Girl: A Story of trees, science and love is a poignant, almost lyrical tribute to her love for science and some special relationships. It is also a meditation on her absolutely passionate dedication to her subject, it shines through every word written with loving care as if she wants to share with mankind the precious magical secrets she has acquired from the Universe over the years. The last time I read such a beautiful piece of literature dwelling upon the intricate beauty of plants was Gerard Manley Hopkins essay on bluebells which he wrote as a Jesuit priest.  In the humble bluebell Hopkins saw the very glory of god. Hope Jahren has far more sophisticated tools at her disposal to understand and describe her plants unlike Hopkins who only had to rely on his naked eye. There is a great sense of peace which radiates through Lab Girl as if keeping herself occupied in her lab day in and day out even after the birth of her son keeps her centred and happy.

My lab is a place where my guilt over what I haven’t done is supplanted by all of the things that I am getting done. My uncalled parents, unpaid credit cards, unwashed dishes, and unshaved legs pale in compairson to the nobel breakthrough under pursuit. My lab is a place where I can be the child that I still am. It is the place where I play with my best friend. I can laugh in my lab and be ridiculous. I can work all night to analyze a rock that’s a hundred million years old, because I need to know what it’s made of before morning. All the baffling that arrived unwelcome with adulthood — tax returns and car insurance and Pap smears — none of them matter when I am in the lab. There is no phone and so it doesn’t hurt when someone doesn’t call me. The door is locked and I know everyone who has a key. Because the outside world cannot come into the lab, the lab has become the place where I can be the real me. 

My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe. 

A fact recognised by her colleague Bill and her husband Clint.

They let her be.

The combination of freedom and love is a potent one, and it made me more productive than ever.

Lab Girl  is a book that will stay with you for a long time after having read it.

Hope Jahren Lab Girl: A Story of trees, science and love  Fleet, Great Britain, London, 2017. Pb. Pp. 370

9 Sept 2017

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 

Cathy Rentzenbrink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Here are some invaluable excerpts from the book

On grief

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

On etiquette of bad news

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

….

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

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

Update ( 5 Sept 2017)

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

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

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

31 August 2017 

 

Interview with Katy Derbyshire

I interviewed the fantastic translator Katy Derbyshire on her work for Bookwitty. The interview “Loving German Books” was published on Monday, 28 August 2017. Here is a snippet of the interview:

Katy Derbyshire comes from London and has lived in Berlin for more than twenty years. She translates contemporary German fiction. She was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017 for her translation of Clemens Meyer’s Bricks and Mortar. She has translated 23 books of fiction so far, by writers such as Inka Parei, Helene Hegemann, Christa Wolf, Simon Urban, and Annett Gröschner. She usually manages two or three books in a year, depending on the length. She also maintains an informative blog that focuses on “biased and unprofessional reports on German books, translation issues and life in Berlin”.

Are translations “ageless” or, to use Haruki Murakami’s phrase, do they need to be “rewashed” depending on the time they are published?

I think books that stand the test of time usually benefit from new translations. As a craft, literary translation passes through fashions but we’ve also got better at it as new resources have become available to us. It’s far easier for us to research on the word level now, and we can communicate readily with our writers. Scholars have teased out meanings that might have been missed previously. Editors are no longer as brutal with translations as they were in the 1950s and 60s, either, when whole passages were cut. So new translations often sparkle in a way earlier ones didn’t, yes, to pick up on the washing metaphor.

For more please visit the link on Bookwitty.

28 August 2017 

Books on advice for women

Three books of advice for women spread across more than a century is a great way of mapping the enormous strides women have made over the decades. Don’ts for Wives by Blanche Ebbutt ( 1913) is a list of instructions to women advising them on how to survive, particularly on how to manage their husbands. Tucked away in it are some gems like this:

Don’t forget that you have a right to some money to spend as you like; you earn it as wife, and mother, and housekeeper. Very likely you will spend it on the house or the children when you get it; but that doesn’t matter — it is yours to spend as you like. 

Published in 2017 are Little Black Book by Otegha Uwagba ( HarperCollins)  and The Whole Shebang: Sticky Bits of Being a Woman  by Lalita Iyer ( Bloomsbury India) are two handybooks on what it takes to be a professional woman while juggling a million other responsibilities. There is plenty of sound advice offered by Otegha Uwagba whereas Lalita Iyer imparts similar nuggets of information but in a more personal way through anecdotes. There are many, many more books of a similar nature being published and of late there is practically a deluge of these books since the women reader market is burgeoning. Suddenly from a niche area it has become a mainstream market so there is a range of information available. All said and done all the books advise that women need to focus on self-preservation, maintaining their sanity, identity and self-respect and not necessarily capitulating to all that is expected of them. Sharing stories is one way of being able to get through to other women.

16 August 2017 

Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories

Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories by P. L. Travers is defined as “autobiographical notes” in her the book blurb. It may be so but are absolutely delightful vignettes of childhood spent in Australia in the early twentieth century. These three stories were written probably as gifts to be shared at Christmas time, printed privately, and are about people — fiesty Aunt Sass or Christina Saraset her great-aunt, loyal and ever resourceful Ah Wong their Chinese cook and colourful Johnny Delaney a farm hand — all of whom had a lifetime influence upon the writer. P. L. Travers is better known as the author of the Mary Poppins stories. Of her great-aunt Travers writes:

…with her died something that the world will not gladly lose, something strong and faithful and tender. A human being that had cast off its rough outer skin to stand forth at last in beauty. A mind that was proud and incorruptible and a heart compact of love. 

When I heard of it, I thought to myself, ‘Someday, inspite of her, I shall commit the “disrespectful vulgarity” of putting Aunt Sass in a book.’

And then it occured to me that this had already been done, though unconsciously and without intent. We write more than we know we are writing. We do not guess at the roots that made our fruit. I suddenly realised that there is a book through which Aunt Sass, stern and tender, secret and proud, anonymous and loving, stalks with her silent feet. 

You will find her occasionally in the pages of Mary Poppins

In her introduction to the book Victoria Coren Mitchell says:

These stories should be a delight for any reader, but particularly magical for fans of P.L. Travers’ great masterpiece, the Mary Poppins stories. Many of the preoccupations of those wonderful novels appear in these pages: merry-go-rounds, gorgon nurses, small dogs, smart hats, suns and moons and comets and constellations. 

The spirit is there too, and many of the ideas: predominantly, that children know darkness. P.L. Travers disliked the Disney version of Mary Poppins because she found it too cartoonish and sunny. Her own books made room for the fear and sadness of children, their natural and tragic awareness of impermanence. As she says here, in the story of Johnny Delaney: ‘Children have strong and deep emotions but not mechanism to deal with them.’ 

Written in the 1940s but a pleasure to read now seven decades later. Worth getting!

P. L. Travers  Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories Virago Modern Classics, London, 1941, rpt 2014. Hb. pp. Rs 599 

16 August 2017 

“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.