Afghanistan Posts

Interview with Debasmita Dasgupta on her debut graphic novel, “Nadya”

Nadya is a stunningly powerful graphic novel about thirteen-year-old Nadya who witnesses her parent’s marriage deteriorate. The story and the art work are devastating. The artist-cum-author Debasmita Dasgupta has created a very moving portrait of a family falling apart at the seams but also how the little girl, at the cusp of adulthood, is witness to a catastrophic set of circumstances. Her secure world crumbles and she feels helpless. Yet the staid portrait of the professional at her desk on the dust jacket belies the confused and anxious teenager portrayed on the hard cover — a fact that is revealed once the dust jacked is slipped off. It is an incredible play of images, a sleight of the hand creates a “flashback”, a movement, as well as a progress, that seemingly comes together in the calm and composed portrait of Nadya at her desk, tapping away at the computer, with her back to a wall on which are hung framed pictures. Many of these images are images of her past — pictures of her with her parents in happier times as well as when the family broke apart. A sobering reminder and yet a reason to move on as exemplified in the narrative itself too with the peace that Nadya discovers, a renewal, a faith within herself to soar. Scroll sums it up well “Teenagers may read this story of a nuclear family living in the hills for relatability, but for everyone there is the poetry of the form that this graphic novel poignantly evokes.” Nadya is an impressive debut by Debasmita Dasgupta as a graphic novelist. Nadya, is releasing on 30 September 2019 by Scholastic India. 

Debasmita Dasgupta is a Singapore-based, internationally published Kirkus-Prize-nominated picture book illustrator and graphic novel artist. She enjoys drawing both fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. Working closely with publishers across the world, she has illustrated over 10 picture books, comics and poems. Widely known as an art-for-change advocate, Debasmita tells stories of changemakers from around the world partnering with global non-profits. Her art is exhibited in Italy, Singapore, Thailand, Denmark and more than 40 international media outlets have featured it.

Here are excerpts of an interview conducted via email:

  1. How did the story of Nadya and its publication come about? Was it the story that came first or the illustrations? What is the backstory?

I am a visual thinker. Words don’t come to me naturally. The story of Nadya was with me in bits and pieces for a very long time. I needed some time and space to weave it all together. It happened exactly a year ago when I went for an illustrators residency near Burgos (in Spain). That’s when I completed the story and illustrated a few key frames, which finally expanded to become this 64-page graphic novel.

When I was in primary school, I had a very close friend (can’t disclose her name). I have faint memories of us spending time together and quite a vivid memory of her fading away from my life after her parents went through a divorce. I was too young to understand the significance of the word “divorce”. All I could understand, deeply, was that it changed the course of my friend’s life. She became more and more quiet and then one day never came back to school. There were rumours that perhaps she went to a different school or a different city. Years later, another very close friend of mine went through a divorce. She has a daughter and at that time she was eight. This time I realised the thing that bothered me the most in my childhood was that I couldn’t make an attempt to complement the loss in my friend’s life with my friendship. Simply because I didn’t know how to deal with it. Finally, I found an answer in my art and the story of Nadya began. 

2. While the story is about Nadya witnessing her parents marriage fall apart, it is interesting how you also focus on the relationships of the individuals with each other. Is that intentional? 

Absolutely! I don’t see Nadya as a story of separation. On the surface it is a story of a fractured family but underneath it is about our fractured emotions. In fact to me it is the story of finding your inner strength at the time of crisis. You just have to face your fear. Nothing and no one except you can do that for you. 

3. Nadya seems to collapse the boundaries between traditional artwork for comic frames and literary devices. For instance, while every picture frame is complete in itself as it should be in a comic book, there is also a reliance on imagery and metaphors such as Nadya being lost in the forest and finding the fawn at the bottom of a pit is akin to her being lost in reality too. Surprisingly these ellisions create a magical dimension to the story. Was the plot planned or did it happen spontaneously? [ There is just something else in this Debasmita that I find hard to believe is a pure methodical creation. It seems to well up from you from elsewhere.] 

Thank you Jaya!

You are right that it is not a pure methodical creation. In fact, what fascinates me is that you could feel that the borders are blurred. When I was creating the story of Nadya, I felt that there were many crossovers between borders. Like emotional borders (grief and renewal) and timeline borders (past and present, with a hint of future). And I think these crossovers resulted in the form of an amalgamation of narrative forms, textures and colour palettes. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why I felt the story is set in the mountains where you cannot define the lines between two mountains or the distinctions between the trees in the forest when there is a mist. They all overlap each other like human emotions. It’s never all black and white. 

4. How important do you think is the role of a father in a daughter’s life?

Let me tell you the story behind “My Father illustrations” – It was on a Sunday afternoon when the idea came to me after I heard a TED talk by Shabana Basij from Afghanistan. It was a moving experience. I felt something had permanently changed inside me. Over the next few days, I watched that talk over and over. Her honesty, her simplicity and power of narration moved me. Shabana grew up in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime. Despite all odds, her father never lost the courage to fight for her education. He used to say, “People can take away everything from you except your knowledge”. Shabana’s story gave me a strong impulse to do something but I didn’t know ‘what’ and ‘how’. That’s when my red sketchbook and pencil caught my eye. Before I’d even realized it, I had taken my first step. I illustrated Shabana’s story and posted it on Facebook. It was an impulsive reaction. I found Shabana’s contact and shared the illustration with her. Shabana was so touched that she forwarded it to her students, and then I started getting emails from a lot of other Afghan men! The emails were a note of thanks as they felt someone was trying to showcase Afghan men in a positive light. I realized that if there are so many positive father–daughter stories in Afghanistan, just imagine the positive stories across the world! My journey had started. I started looking for moving father-daughter stories from across the globe. Some I found, some found me. With every discovery, my desire to create art for people kept growing.

5. With Nadya you challenge many gender stereotypes such as the daughter’s relationship with her parents. It is not the standard portrayal seen in “traditional” literature. Here Nadya seems happier with her father rather than mother. The breaking down of Nadya’s relationship with her mother has been illustrated beautifully with the picture frames “echoing” Nadya’s loneliness and sadness. Even the colours used are mostly brown tints. This is an uneasy balance to achieve between text and illustration to create an evocative scene. How many iterations did it take before you hit a satisfactory note in your artwork? And were all these iterations in terms of art work or did it involve a lot of research to understand the nuances of a crumbling relationship?

I often say “Preparation is Power”. And I have always learnt from great creators in the world that there are no shortcuts to create any good art. However, the process of preparation varies from artist to artist. To me, this is not a process, it’s a journey. It starts with a seed of an idea and then it stays with me for a long, long time before I could finally express it my way. There is a lot of seeing, listening and spending time with my thoughts. Breaking of the stereotypes, whether they are gender stereotypes or stereotypical formats, were not intentional but I guess embedded in my thinking. It’s not that someone from outside is telling me to break those norms but it’s a voice, deep inside, constantly questioning. Not to find the right answers but to ask the right questions.

There were many versions of character sketches and colour palettes before the finals were decided for Nadya. Even though the initial characters and colours were similar to the finals, the textures and tones are distinctively different. Since the story runs in different timelines with varied emotional arcs, I wanted to integrate separate tonalities in the frames. In the end, a graphic novel is not just about telling a story with words. If my images can’t speak, if their colours don’t evoke any emotion then my storytelling is incomplete. 

6. Did you find it challenging to convey divorce, loneliness, relationships etc through a graphic novel? Why not create a heavily illustrated picture book, albeit for older readers?   

I am a bit of an unconventional thinker in this regard. I can’t follow the rules of length and structure when it comes to visual storytelling. That’s why many of my illustrated books are crossovers between picture books and graphic novels. To me, when I know the story I want to tell, it finds its form, naturally. 

7. As an established artist, what is your opinion of the popular phrase “art for art’s sake”? 

I am an advocate of “art for change”, more precisely a positive change. I strongly believe (which is also the genesis of ArtsPositive) that art (of any form) has the ability to create a climate in which change is possible to happen. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But eventually it will.

8. Graphic novels have become popular worldwide. Mostly the trend seems to be tell personal stories or memoirs or a lot of fantasy. To create a novel for social activism is still unusual though it is happening more and more. What do you hope to achieve with Nadya

I admire those books (graphic novels) that I can read several times, because it’s not about the length of the book, instead it is the depth that intrigues me to re-visit it more and more. Books that help start a conversation. A conversation with yourself or with someone else. I want Nadya to be that conversation starter.

9. Although it is early days as yet, what has been the reception to Nadya, especially from adolescent readers?  

The book is releasing in India on 30th September and I can’t wait to see what young adults have to say. Before that we had a soft launch in Singapore during the 10th Asian Festival of Children’s Content, where Nadya received a very warm welcome. All festival copies were sold out but my biggest reward was when I met this young artist from Indonesia, who told me that he could see himself in little Nadya. His parents separated when he was very young. I also met a teacher, who said that he is going through a divorce and would appreciate if I could speak to his children with this book. His eyes moistened when he was speaking to me.

10. Who are the artists and graphic novelists you admire? 

That’s a long list! But surely the work of Marjane Satrapi, Paco Roca, Riad Sattouf, and Shaun Tan inspire me a lot. The way they present complex subjects with simplicity, is genius!

11. What motivated you to establish your NGO, ArtsPositive? What are the kind of projects you undertake and the impact you wish to make?

About a decade ago, when I started my journey as an artist / art-for-change advocate, there was not much awareness about this concept. It was a very lonely journey for me, helping people understand what I do and what I aspire to do. So when I had the opportunity to start an initiative, I decided to develop ArtsPositive to contribute to the art-for-change ecosystem by supporting artists who create art-for-change stories. 

At ArtsPositive, we create in-house art-for-change campaigns such as #MoreThanSkinDeep* (the most recent campaign). We have also launched a quarterly ArtsPositive digital magazine to showcase art-for-change projects and enablers from around the world, collaborate with artists, and share artistic opportunities.

* More Than Skin Deep is an illustrated poetry campaign by poet, Claire Rosslyn Wilson and artist, Debasmita Dasgupta, through which we are amplifying the voice of fifteen fearless acid attack survivors (from 13 countries), who are much more than their scars.

National Geographics and audio books

For many decades my paternal grandparents would subscribe to the National Geographic magazine. Given that they were tucked away in a small town, Meerut, it was remarkable. The magazine would arrive regularly. In fact when my brother and I visited them for our summer break we would pore over the wonderful collection they had amassed. Once my grandmother started her school many of these magazines were sent off to the library.

Last year my 101-year-old grandfather passed away. Now my father and his siblings are slowly sifting through the papers my grandfather had collected. From it has emerged a treasure of National Geographic magazines. Some are dating as far back to 1933. On the right is an image from an article published in 1933 about the advancement at Hamburg port where now steam ships instead of sail ships were visible. There are random issues from the “in-between” decades till recently. There is an article about  Afghanistan in 1968. My father has gifted this collection to my seven-year-old daughter who is thrilled. She is ecstatic since she loves the magazine and already has her own subscription to it.

While flipping through the magazines I came across a description of what could be the earliest form of an audio book. It is an article reviewing a book about birds. Apparently to accompany it were a set of LPs ( long playing records). Depending upon the bird you were reading about and wished to hear the sound it made then you placed the book on the LP on the record turntable, placed the needle at the hole on the page and voila! the birds chirruped. Absolutely fascinating description of an “audio book” from the 1960s.  Imagine even then people were trying to experiment with books and technology!

3 July 2017

Pakistani Author Maha Khan Phillips on her New Novel, “The Curse of the Mohenjodaro”

This interview with Maha Khan Phillips was published on Bookwitty on 7 March 2017. 

Maha Khan Phillips is the author of Beautiful from this Angle and The Mystery of the Aagnee Ruby. She is a financial journalist and the editor of Professional Investor Magazine in the UK, where she lives part of the year, the rest of the time she spends in Karachi.

Her novels are set in Pakistan and her fiction is unusual in its portrayal of the economic basis that defines relationships and her astute observation of social dynamics make her fictional landscapes absolutely believable. Her books show women are empowered if financially sound, irrespective of the socio-economic strata they inhabit.

In her latest novel The Curse of the Mohenjadaro, Maha Khan Phillips has taken her literary skills to a new level by venturing into myth-making and exploring the alternative social spaces of cults which ultimately tend to imitate conservative patriarchal structures globally. She kindly answered questions for Bookwitty about her new book:

Mohenjodaro © CRA-terre Pascal Maitre
Mohenjodaro © CRA-terre Pascal Maitre

Why this story? Why Mohenjodaro?

I visited the ancient civilization of Mohenjodaro a couple of times when I was a child on school trips. I was enthralled by it. The thing that resonated most was that nobody knew what happened to its people, or how the civilization declined. I remember being bored and surfing the web one day and idly typing in “Mohenjodaro Mystery”. I wanted to see if there was information out there about the decline of the civilization. Instead, I was astounded to discover the so-called Forbidden History/Forbidden Archaeology movement. I learnt that an archaeologist named David Davenport had written a book entitled Atomic Destruction in 2000 BC (Italian, 1979) and that Mohenjodaro was the epicentre of many conspiracy theories about ancient technologies. I decided it would be a great premise for a thriller. In those days, I wasn’t writing at all, so I sort of forgot about it, for a few years, and then picked it up after Beautiful from this Angle.

How long did the research for this book take?

In reality, researching Mohenjodaro was the easiest bit, because there is so little known about the Indus Valley Civilization. I spent some time learning about archaeology in general, and had some help from a couple of brilliant archaeologists. I also researched Mesopotamia and Egypt in an attempt to get inspiration when creating my imaginary Mohenjodaro. But mostly, I researched cults, the psychology of cults, and the Forbidden History movement.

The Forbidden History movement is a term that derived from conspiracy theorists who believe that any artefacts or discoveries which question mainstream history or current theories of evolution are either dismissed, or covered up. They believe in ancient technologies, in humankind being older than we think, in alien influence on pre-historic earth.

Your fascination with trying to understand cults is evident in the ruthless characters of Iaf and Sohail. Why cults?

I could talk about this for hours… I’ve always been fascinated by cults. How do they work? Why on earth do people fall for charismatic leaders, giving up everything, even their lives in some cases? I suppose in my mind, there’s a resonance with the political world now. People have started positioning themselves with these myopic identities and ideologies and aren’t willing to broaden their thinking. Cults are very much about ‘Us and Them’ and I feel the world is heading in that direction too. Look at all the fake news we have been seeing, and how quickly it’s being disseminated as gospel through social media. Look at religious extremism. And, perhaps the best example – was there ever a cult leader as successful as Donald Trump? I don’t know what’s in the Kool-Aid he’s been handing out, but he’s tweeted his way to cult like devotion amongst his followers, in my opinion – providing them with an ideology that will not help them, and yet spinning the tale so well that they believe life will get better.

How did the creation of the Shakari, Goddess-Blessed and the Bloodstone myth-making come about?

I knew I had to have something – some supernatural force that would cause the chaos which occurs at the beginning of a novel, when the archaeologists go missing and are set on fire. I probably spent more time on trying to figure out what that would be than I did on anything else. In the end, I settled on a stone, because I liked the physicality of having something that could be held in someone’s hand. As for Shakari, many icons of goddesses were found in Mohenjodaro, and so I liked the idea of a matriarchal society which had been corrupted, but which believed in a Mother Goddess. I knew there would be priests and priestesses, and the Goddess-Blessed emerged as those priestesses, for want of a better name for them.

The icons of Goddesses were clay figurines. Numerous kinds have been found in the Indus Valley, wearing headdresses, for example. These could just be images of women, but archaeologists believe they are goddesses .

To my mind the character Jaya’s story was far stronger and tautly told compared to the Nadia & Layla story. Yet how do you occupy two dimensions/time and write two powerful stories?

For ages, I resisted the idea of setting anything in the ancient Mohenjodaro/Meluhha. I felt I couldn’t do it justice or make it credible, not without knowing more about the place. But that information simply wasn’t available. Eventually, I realised that it was the not knowing that was liberating. It meant I could let my imagination go wild. With so little information out there, I had a blank canvas to make up whatever I wanted. But before I made that realization, I had written an entire novel in the present day. It didn’t work, and so I tried other things. I initially wrote a couple of the ancient scenes as dreams that Nadia had, as a way to give context to some of the modern day plot. I quite liked those scenes, and they were so easy to write, they came pouring out. So I started writing more. And soon, I realised I wanted to intertwine the two narratives.

Why interweave stories? How did you decide to break one story with the other while retaining the reader’s interest?

I’m not sure I consciously thought about it. I’m a big fan of the novels of Kate Mosse, and she did this so effectively in Labyrinth. But more than that I didn’t want to give up either story, I felt emotionally invested in both. I let the writing decide when it was going to break from one story to another – I just did it when it felt like a chapter was finished.

The financial details of your novels are always so fascinating. For instance in this case “River trout which was bartered” and even the activities of Giving of Light Foundation have a clear economic basis which are outlined logically. Do you work out the economic intricacies along with the fictional landscape? 

I suppose that’s the financial journalist in me! I’m really aware of how economic realities affect our lives. I would argue that the Financial Crisis brought about Donald Trump and Brexit, for instance. I didn’t feel like the decline/destruction of my ancient Mohenjodaro/Meluhha was credible without a bit of an understanding of why the civilization’s economic system may have failed them, particularly since the character Iaf is driven by greed and power. I was also quite interested in how the people in this ancient civilization would have traded with one another. I loved the cubes they discovered on the site, and the weighing scales, it was such an advanced approach to trading.

The defiant assertion of independence by Jaya, Layla and Nadia against Iaf and later, Sohail, are very well etched. How challenging was it to create these women characters fighting “patriarchal” structures?

I think the challenge for me, at least early on, was actually to make them less assertive and bolshy! I needed, at least initially, for them to be reactive. For example, I needed to justify Jaya’s decision to remain in Meluhha, despite the loss of her parents, to passively accept her fate. I needed Nadia to go to Pakistan without asking too many questions. It was later that the characters all started to fight back, once they realised what they were up against. That was a more comfortable place for me to be in! Some of what happened in the ancient city is mirrored by patriarchal societies which still exist, which we see all around the world. That was deliberate, on my part. I liked that my characters were strong enough to take those on. I am a feminist, and my family is full of strong women who have never let anyone stop them from achieving whatever they set out to achieve, so I enjoyed writing these kick ass women!

“I set up the Foundation after 2001, after the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. I’d been a banker then, but I have always been passionate about antiquity. Our history often defines our future, don’t you think?” It may be unfair to read the personal in fiction you create but somewhere does this novel stem from what you too feel – maybe the importance of getting to know the past better and how it informs our present?

Trust you to find the one sentence in the entire novel that means the most to me personally! Yes, I passionately believe this. History gets lost, but without it, we don’t know who we are. How can we learn from our mistakes, if we haven’t understood when and how we made them? Mohenjodaro belongs to the world – we’ve seen people in Scotland trace their roots back to Mohenjodaro, for instance. There is a worrying trend, as I mentioned, for myopic ideologies, and we have seen what ISIS does to pre-Islamic history and how they want to abolish the past. In their mind, there’s a good reason for their actions. The past can be dangerous. It shows us that we are smaller than we think we are. We will all, eventually, belong to history ourselves. And so we should not seek to impose our ideologies on others because no ideology, no civilization, no one culture, can withstand the sands of time. Instead, we should celebrate our extraordinary heritage and be made richer by what we learn from it.

Maha Khan Phillips The Curse of the Mohenjodaro PanMacmillan India, 2017. Pb.

9 May 2017 

Svetlana Alexievich Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Translated by Bela Shayevich)

38077-vnmgcbvbbz-1469206831Second-Hand-Time_150_RGB-682x1024(My review of Nobel winner Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time was published in Scroll on 23 July 2016 with the title” Imagine the tragedy of abandoning Communism without knowing how to live with capitalism”. Here is the link: http://scroll.in/article/812306/imagine-the-tragedy-of-abandoning-communism-without-knowing-how-to-live-with-capitalism. I am c&p the text below too. )

Nobel Prize winner (2015) Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets explores what the aftermath of the fall of USSR meant for ordinary folks. Svetlana is a Belarusian journalist who was born in Ukraine, writes in Russian and lived in Paris for nearly 11 years before returning to Minsk to be with her daughter and granddaughter. According to the New York Times, “she had left to protest the regime of the Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and curtailed press freedom. She said she planned to remain in Minsk and hoped the Nobel would give her some protection and freedom to speak her mind.” Based on interviews carried out between 1991 and 2012, the book was published in Russian in 2013, with the first English edition coming out in 2016.

By the little people consists of a series of transcripts of interviews. Sometimes these are structured thoughts, sometimes ramblings and sometimes monologues. Rarely does Alexievich intrude with comments or even an introduction to the speaker. At most, a reference to the person or the memory being recorded will be acknowledged in the chapter heading, such as “On Romeo and Juliet…except their names were Margarita and Abulfaz”. No wonder Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen calls the 2015 Nobel Prize winner a “memory keeper”.

According to Bela Shayevich, the translator of Second-Hand Time, the book is “an update of 19th-century Russian literature for the 21st century.” People read Russian novels not for the happy endings, she added, but “because there is great catharsis in great pain and then something that is sublime.” Listing it as part of her Summer Reads 2016 in The Guardian, Marina Warner called it “a Greek tragic chorus of memories about the Soviet Union”.

The stories we hear add up to something close to a dystopia created by Communist indoctrination. Having subjected the former Soviet citizens to almost an artificial reality, the regime incapacitated them from understanding the transformation of their society after 1989, when Communism began to fade.

“My mother is not going to help raise my daughter…I won’t let her. If she had her way, my child would only watch Socialist cartoons because they’re ‘humane’. But when the cartoon is over, you have to go out on the street, into a completely different world.” As an ex-Army officer who had fought in Afghanistan told Alexievich, “It’s important to write it down while there are still people around who remember it…we’d work the night shift, unloading train cars, or as security guards. Laying asphalt. The people working alongside me were PhDs, doctors, surgeons. I even remember a pianist from the symphony. …socialism is alchemy.”

What also emerges tragically from these accounts is the fact that ordinary people did not even have the skills to survive in the post-Soviet landscape, after the disintegration of the USSR. They had been brought up to believe in dreams such as the motherland. This is a constant lament in the book – the inability of many people to understand basics, such as what is real money, how it operates, and the value of it. Many did not know how to earn a living in the new socio-economic system, and rapidly sank into poverty.

Distilled testimonies

In an interview to the Dalkey Archive Press when her book Voices from Chernobyl was published, Alexievich said she sees her work as witnessing. She repeated this in her interview to The Millions: “I’m interested in little people. The little, great people, is how I would put it, because suffering expands people. In my books these people tell their own, little histories, and big history is told along the way. We haven’t had time to comprehend what already has and is still happening to us, we just need to say it. To begin with, we must at least articulate what happened.”

In the opening chapter of Second-Hand Time, Alexievich writes of her intent to document the Communist collective memory, which recalls Pravda, Little Octoberists, parades, Solzhenitsyn, Komsomol, and allegiance to the motherland: “In writing, I’m piecing together the history of ‘domestic’, ‘interior’ socialism. As it existed in a person’s soul. I’ve always been drawn to this miniature expanse: one person, the individual. It’s where everything really happens…It never ceases to amaze me how interesting everyday life really is. There are endless number of human truths. History is concerned solely with the facts; emotions are outside of its realm of interest. In fact, it’s considered improper to admit feelings into history. But I look at the world as a writer and not a historian. I am fascinated by people.”

An insight into her fascinating methodology reveals a practice not uncommon amongst those who document oral histories. According to Alexievich, she “selects one out of five interviews, and that one makes it into the published book. For each person I record four tapes or more, making 100-150 printed pages, depending on the voice, timbre and the pace of the oral story, and then only about ten pages remain…”

So the seeming chaos of individual narratives has a strong underlying sense of structure, much like the ordered chaos of Darcy’s garden in Pride and Prejudice. These stream of consciousness testimonials are the common form of recording oral narratives, particularly of women survivors, of a traumatic experience. The form is a testament to the writer’s sensitivity as a listener, allowing the interviewee to speak openly and without fear. These are experiences that, Alexievich is quick to remind us, formed “a large part of our lives – more, even, than love. Thus, the Russian experience of suffering acquires particular value.”

“I grew up in a dissident family…in a dissident kitchen…My parents knew Andrei Sakharov, they distributed Samizdat. Along with them, I read Vassily Grossman, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Dovlatov, listened to Radio Liberty. In 1991, I was, of course, in front of the White House, in a human chain, prepared to sacrifice my life to prevent the return of Communism. Not a single one of my friends were Communists. For us, Communism was inextricably linked with the Terror, the Gulag. A cage. We thought it was dead. Gone forever. Twenty years have passed…I go into my son’s room, and what do I see but a copy of Marx’s Das Kapital on his desk, and Trotsky’s My Life on his bookshelf…I can’t believe my eyes! Is Marx making a comeback? Is this a nightmare? Am I awake or am I dreaming? My son studies at the university, he has a lot of friends, and I’ve started eavesdropping on their conversations. They drink tea in our kitchen and argue about The Communist Manifesto …Marxism is legal again, on trend, a brand. They wear T-shirts with pictures of Che Guevara and Lenin on them. [ Despairingly] Nothing has taken root. It was all for naught.”

The blurb on the dust jacket begins: “What if you could tell history through the countless voices of ordinary people who lived through it?” It is as if in one fell swoop the editors have negated the very existence of the discipline of subaltern history while using the very same idea. Maybe Alexievich’s preferred definition of “witness” would have been more appropriate.

Svetlana Alexievich Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Translated by Bela Shayevich) Juggernaut Books, New Delhi, 2016. Hb. Pp. 570. Rs 699

A paragraph that could not be included in the published article for reasons of length is reproduced below: 

In the case of Soviet society, in seven decades, they went from the Romanov era, Bolshevik Revolution, CommunismRussia-Putin-sworn-in-again ( Stalin et al) and then post-1989 hurtled completely unprepared into a capitalist economy society soon to be dominated by Putin. As Simon Sebag Montefiore says in his magnificently detailed and stupendously rich history of The Romanovs: 1613-1918 says: It is ironic that now, two centuries after the Romanovs finally agreed a law of succession, Russian presidents still effectively nominate their successors just as Peter the Great did.” ( pxx-xi). And yet Putin, the Russian president’s state symbol is the two-headed eagle that was of the Romanovs too. This direct linkage to the royal period of Russian history refuses to acknowledge the communist era except for the trifle detail of Putin having been an ex-KGB officer, the secret police of the Soviet Union.

Simon Sebag Montefiore The Romanovs: 1613-1918 Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2016. Hb. Pp. 746. Rs 1299 ( Distributed by Hachette India)

Literati – “On translations” ( 7 June 2015)

Jaya Bhattacharji RoseMy monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 6 June 2015) and will be in print ( 7 June 2015). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/a-look-at-the-world-of-books-publishing-and-writers/article7286177.ece. I am also c&p the text below. 

Reading two travelogues about Afghanistan in the 1920s — when the reformist King Amanullah tried to steer his country towards modernity by encouraging education for girls — is an enriching experience. Both Desh Bideshe by Syed Mujtaba Ali (translated from Bengali as In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan by Nazes Afroz, Speaking Tiger Books) and All the Roads are Open: The Afghan Journey by Annermarie Schwarzenbach (translated from German by Isabel Fargo Cole, Seagull Books) offer an absorbing account of Afghan society. The writers had access across various strata of society; a privilege they did not abuse but handled with dignity. 

 

Texts translated competently into the destination language give the reader an intimate

KRASZNAHORKAI_AP_2_2430230faccess to a new culture. Many of the new translations are usually in English — a language of socio-political, economic and legal importance. Even literary prizes recognise the significance. For instance, Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai won the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, which is awarded once in two years. Lauding his translators — George Szirtes and Ottilie Mulzet — Krasznahorkai said, “In each language, the relationship is different.” He uses unusually long sentences and admits, “The task was to somehow find a new Krasznahorkai English”. He continues, “In China once, I was speaking at a university about my books and said that, unfortunately, you couldn’t read them there, and someone in the audience put their hand up and said that there was a translation of Satantango on the net that had been done chapter by chapter by people who loved it. Of course, I was delighted.” (http://bit.ly/1Kx4R1g )

Readers matter

At BookExpo America 2015, New York, Michael Bhasker, Publishing Director, Canelo Digital Publishing said, “Readers are the power brokers who matter most. Readers are the primary filters.” This is immediately discernible on social media platforms — extraordinarily powerful in disseminating information, raising profiles of authors, creating individual brands rapidly circumventing geo-political boundaries, transcending linguistic hurdles and straddling diverse cultures. According to Kannan Sundaram, Publisher, Kalachuvadu, “Indian language writers are as good as or often better than their contemporaries writing in English. Often they are not proficient in English and savvy in handling social media, limiting their exposure on the national and international stage and media. I represent many such writers in Tamil like Salma and Perumal Murugan and have managed to get many of their works published in English, Indian and world languages.”

‘India@Digital.Bharat’, a report by BCG and IAMAI, forecasts India becoming a $200 billion Internet economy by 2018. The use of vernacular content online is estimated to increase from 45 per cent in 2013 to more than 60 per cent in 2018. (http://bit.ly/1Kx9ZCv). Osama Manzar, Founder, Digital Empowerment Foundation says, “The Internet is English centric by its invention, character and culture. It has been growing virally and openly because it is brutally democratic and open. Yet, it is highly driven through the medium of writing as means of participation, a challenge for Indians who are more at ease with oral communication than written. Plus, they are fascinated by English as a language. More so, responsiveness and real-time dynamism of various applications is making people join the Internet even if they don’t know the language of prevailing practices. And because of multi-diversity oriented people joining the Internet, application providers are turning their apps and web multilingual to grab the eyeballs of people and their active participation.”

Writer and technologist Anshumani Ruddra asks pointedly, “If India is to hit 550 Million Internet users by 2018, where are the vernacular apps for more than 350 million (non-English speaking) users?” (http://bit.ly/1Kxa4Gx ) Venkatesh Hariharan, Director, Alchemy Business Solutions LLP, adds “the time is right for Indian language computing using Unicode, especially since the government of India is actively promoting e-governance”.

A constructive engagement across linguistic and cultural boundaries is essential. An international funder once told me supporting writers is a cost-effective way of fostering international bilateral relations. It is easier, in the long run, to negotiate business partnerships as the two nations would already be familiar with each other culturally via literary cross-pollination programmes.

EXCLUSIVE: OxyGene Films (U.K.) has announced a film project based on Tabish Khair’s recent novel, How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position. Details of the Danish-British collaboration, with possible Bollywood connections, are to be announced later.

13 June 2015

On travel writing and translations

Between WorldsIn recent months I have read two books of travel writing translated from Urdu and Bengali respectively. They were first written a century apart but the English translations were made available six months of each other. The two books are:

1. Yusuf Khan Kambalposh Between Worlds: The Travels of Yusuf Khan Kambalposh, translated and edited by Mushirul Hasan and Nishat Zaidi, published by Oxford University Press ( 2014). Original title: Tarikh-i-Yusufi (1837-38), first published by Naval Kishore Press ( 1898)

2. Syed Mujtaba Ali In a land far from home: A Bengali in Afghanistan translated by Nazes Afroz, published by Speaking Tiger ( 2015). Original title: Deshe Bidishe, first published in 1948

There is something fascinating about accessing the past through contemporary literature. Making translations of such texts available to a modern audience is a commendable effort since many such texts are tucked away in personal collections, archives, and libraries. Selecting an “appropriate” text for a 21-century reader is dependant on a variety of factors — not just on the book’s own merit. It is probably relevance of the text being translated. For instance, Between Worlds, is about thirty-three-year-old Yusuf Khan Kambalposh who decides to visit England. He had no patronage, was not dependent on anyone for financial support or for social contracts but made the journey on his own. He was in London to see Queen Victoria being coronated. All though he often wrote in Persian, this travelogue was written in Urdu, a fascinating choice given the time it was written in. But it also shows the impact the Delhi Vernacular Translation Society ( 1843) had in popularising the language among the masses of readers in North India. Most translations were made available in Urdu. It is also a significant travelogue since it is a rare perspective offered by an Indian and not necessarily from a Colonial perspective. It is also about Victorian England at a time when modern literature about Queen Victoria is gaining importance.

With In a land far from home there is a firsthand account of a non-Afghan, a Bengali traveller, having travelled so far North, living in land_far_from_home_coverAfghanistan, witnessing a tumultuous period of history. It is when the reformist King Amanullah tried to steer his country towards modernity by encouraging education for girls and giving them the choice of removing the burqa. Branded a ‘kafir’, Amanullah was overthrown by the bandit leader Bacha-e-Saqao. ( An extract from the book may be read on Caravan magazine’s website: http://www.caravanmagazine.in/vantage/why-bengali-traveller-was-flummoxed-afghani-hospitality . )

Both the translated texts are worth reading from an academic point of view. They are footnoted and with plenty of prefatory material. Fascinating for the old world they reveal especially when seen through the prism of contemporary socio-political-economic conditions in these regions. Otherwise not easy to read. Somehow I found a few travelogues written by women easier to read particularly a lovely one All the Roads are Open: the Afghan journey by Annermarie Schwarzenbach (translated by Isabel Fargo Cole). She too is in Afghanistan at the time of Amanullah’s reign but her account is easier to relate to, probably because these were meant as regular dispatches to various newspapers in Germany. ( http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/blog/of-women-travellers-and-writing/ )

Having said that the anecdote about the massacre of sunbathing turtles on the high seas to be later made into a feast of kebabs in Between Worlds is just the reason why one picks up travel books. To get a random detail that is not commonly heard of but will forever remain embedded in one’s brain as a piece of trivial but astounding information.

6 May 2015

 

 

Donna Tartt, “The Goldfinch”

Donna Tartt, “The Goldfinch”

 

Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt can afford to spend years doing her research on art history, the underworld of antique and art sales, insights into high society, what it means to be tripping on drugs, some (peculiar) notions of love, etc. After having read the novel I am not surprised to read she can spend hours and days fidgeting with a comma or looking for a precise word. The craftsmanship is incredible. The long wordy descriptions about situations, rooms, people, etc. The novel is quite difficult to put down.

Read the book for understanding restoration of antique wood furniture. Read it for understanding the variety of drugs easily available. Read it for a peep into high society of New York.

A question that buzzed through my mind constantly was how do you spend over a decade tinkering with a story, without any part of it sounding dated. Well I am not sure of the answer. I can only offer a possibility. The answer probably lies in the details. Donna Tartt gets so absorbed in her descriptions of the school, the museum, the paintings, the restoration of antiques, antique trade, the underworld, that the story of Theo Decker remains bit of an excuse in the novel to keep the story going ahead. There is nothing in the story that will place it in a moment of time. Initially I thought that these were literary detours, well-crafted and well-researched vignettes, delicately put together to build the backdrop of the story. After all Donna Tartt is known to create male characters, with pithy psychological insghts into the character. It is not a Henry Jamesian kind of interior monologue. It is much more complicated than that, but at times I began to get a little stressed out with these vast passages, they seemed more self-indulgent than anything else.

In an interview with the Telegraph ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10505597/Donna-Tartt-If-Im-not-working-Im-not-happy.html) she referred to the destruction of the sixth-century Buddhist carvings in Afghanistan by the Taliban. This incident gave her the idea of writing a story that connected terrorism with the destruction of art, merging it with the obsession a child has with a painting. The result more than a decade later was The Goldfinch.

An author friend remarked the other day, after having read a big fat book, the reader tends to be biased towards the novel. I beg to differ. I would like to say, I enjoyed the experience of reading The Goldfinch immensely, but it was hard not read it with a critical eye. Also this novel requires the reader to be in a time and mental space that is peaceful and tranquil, before being immersed in the story. Otherwise it will miss you completely. I had so many false starts to the novel. Finally I made it.

I was left asking “Is it a modern day version of Catcher in the Rye?” This is a book that is definitely not a bildungsroman. All said and done, this is a book to be read. I can quite understand why it won the Pulitzer or why it is being discussed so much.  It is original in its “content”. It opens new vistas that are beyond the familiar domain of contemporary literature — family, college, diaspora/immigrant fiction, WW1, bio-fic etc. The Goldfinch is a bit of art history + family drama + young adolescent.

Read it.

Donna Tartt The Goldfinch Little, Brown, London, 2013. Pb. Rs. 799. pgs 775

 

Kamila Shamsie, ” A God in Every Stone”

Kamila Shamsie, ” A God in Every Stone”

Kamila Shamsie, A God in Every StoneA God in Every Stone is Kamila Shamsie’s fifth novel.  It is set at the time of World War I and before the partition of the Indian sub-continent into India and Pakistan. It is about an Englishwoman archaeologist, Vivian Rose Spencer, and her meeting with her discovery of the Temple of Zeus and Ypres war veteran, twenty-two-year-old Qayyum Gul who is returning home to Peshawar. But the story is much, much more than that.

A God in Every Stone will be classified as “Pakistani Literature”. It may have been written by Kamila Shamsie but it could even work as literature of the subcontinent or South Asian literature, with sufficient sprinkling of historical facts that makes it intriguing and interesting for a global audience. It is so clearly positioned in a time of history that it is sufficiently far removed from the present times for the writer to be able to present, analyse, teach and comment–uninhibited. Placing the story during World War 1 and in undivided India is fascinating. It is a story based on some historical facts like the massacre of Qissa Khawani Bazaar (the Storytellers Market) on 23 April 1930, the Khudai Khidmatgars and of the freedom fighter, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. More importantly I liked the placing of it in a time of history when people of undivided India are shown fighting together against the British. ( In this telling of history/fiction, it is immaterial whether they were Pakistanis or Indians, they are fighting against the colonial rulers.) It is as if the novel is showing a “history from below” much like Subaltern Studies did in academics. For instance giving characters such as Najeeb, the assistant at the Peshawar museum; the soldiers hired by the British to figure in the Great War such as Lance-Naik Qayyum Gul; the young prostitutes–girls of mixed lineage; the storytellers; the letter-writer — are people who would barely have figured in previous fictional narratives.

It is a story set so firmly in the city of Peshawar, but makes the wonderful connect of this region with Greece, the rich history of Peshawar and Gandhara art. The forays into Europe of World War 1, the “betrayal” of Tahsin Bey by Viv, the recuperation of soldiers of Indian origin in Brighton, the VAD etc. Even the subtle transformation of Viv’s mother from being horrified by her daughter dispatched to an archaeological dig in Turkey to encouraging her to make a trip to Peshawar. ( ” The truth was, the war had sloughed off so many rules that no one seemed to know any more what counted as unacceptable behaviour in women.” p.75)

Positioning the story in Peshawar is stunning since much of the problems of early twentieth century such as tribal warfare, being a part of NWFP, Swat valley continue to be relevant in the twenty-first century. What also shines through in the novel is that this region has been alive, settled and of crucial geo-political significance for centuries, something that locals tend to forget or maybe are too absorbed in their daily life. What comes through in the novel is that the locals may be active participants ( willing or unwilling is not the question right now) but local dynamics have a powerful impact on their lives. This is evident through the fascinating badalas that are shared. Of these the one that attracts the most crowd is that of the Haji. Well it could be just a comment of the times but it assumes a different dimension if read with a knowledge of what is happening today in world politics –the Islamisation of Terror.

Even the descriptions of the Gandhara artifacts, the archaeological digs etc criss-cross history marvelously. They bring to play not only the political significance of important regimes of the past such as Darius, the Mauryan empire, Alexander etc but of more recent developments such as what is happening in Afghanistan and the Taliban ( i.e. blasting of the Bamiyan Buddhas). But the inextricable link between culture/cultural expressions and politics. The politicians and kingmakers may no longer be alive but their presence is marked by sculptures, pottery shards, etc that have been left behind or excavated. The connection between Gandhara and non-violence is also striking when one recalls that Ashoka who quit fighting after the battle of Kalinga, became a Buddhist and a staunch believer of non-violence, his first “posting” was at Gandhara. Whereas this novel involves Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who too believed in non-violent forms of action. Centuries apart sharing similar beliefs in the same region.

The flitting between the imagined and real worlds. Creating the myth of circlet of Scylax so convincingly could only have been done by a person who is passionate  about Greek mythology and loves research. It meshes beautifully in this story.

A God in Every Stone is exquisite. With this novel Kamila Shamsie has set a very high benchmark for literary fiction–worldwide.

                                     *****
( After reading A God in Every Stone I posed some questions to Kamila Shamsie via e-mail. )

Q1 Have the film rights been sold to this book? Who chose the extract for the Granta special?
No. And I chose the extract.

Q2 How did do you decide upon this story?

I didn’t. I had decided on a very different story which started with the massacre in Qissa Khwani/the Street of Storytellers in 1930 and continues until 2009. But my plans for novels always end up going astray. It did have both archaeology and the anti-colonial resistance in Peshawar as elements right from the start so the germ of the novel was always there but finding the story was a slow winding process which involved lots of deleting and quite a bit of re-writing.

Q3 Where was the research for this book done?

Mostly in the British Library where they keep colonial records – and also have a wonderful photography collection. I also went to some of the novel’s locations in Peshawar. And the Internet is an invaluable tool for research, of course.

Q4 How did the idea of a woman archaeologist,  Vivian Rose Spencer, strike you? I wish she had more of a presence in the book.

The idea of an English archaeologist struck me first – originally the archaeologist was going to be male but while reading a piece of travel writing by the Englishwoman Rosita Forbes who was in Peshawar in the 30’s I became interested in the experience of Englishwoman in Peshawar. At that point the structure of the novel was very different and there were more primary characters. I’m pretty sure that, regardless of Rosita Forbes, I would have made the archaeologist female once it became clear that the soldier and archaeologist were the two primary characters. I wasn’t about to write a novel in which both the main characters are male. Male writers do more than enough of that!

As for wanting her to be more of a presence – she has more pages in the novel then anyone else. But her story is more the focus of the first half of the book. The anti-colonial story has to shift it’s focus to the Peshawaris.

Q5 How much history did you delve into? Did the historical research come before the writing or specific research happened after the story took root?

Lots. And lots. I research and write as parallel processes – and the research doesn’t really stop until I’ve finished the book.

Q6 This is literary fiction similar to what Subaltern Studies is in academics–telling the histories from “below”. You made heroes of figures who were considered rebels in “mainstream” narratives. Did this happen consciously?

Whose mainstream?, would be my first response to that.
What I am interested in, which relates to your question, is the stories that have received less attention than other stories. Whether it’s women archaeologists rather than men archaeologists, Indian soldiers in WWI rather than English soldiers, the non-violent Pashtun rather than the one who picks up a gun.

Q7 What is the difference between literary fiction, historical fiction and fiction set in history?  Would  A God in Every Stone even fit into any of these categories?

It’s not something to which I give any thought when writing a novel. Which category will make people want to read it?

Q8  There are many women characters in your novel, who only serve purpose for that particular moment in the story, no more. Yet their fleeting appearances are powerful, almost like a painting, they leave a deep imprint on one’s mind. For instance the infant bride and the teenage prostitute, are they figments of imagination or based upon sketches that you came across?

I certainly see then serving a purpose beyond a single moment. Everything in a novel has to serve the entire novel. (The infant bride grows up to be a very important part of the novel – she’s the green-eyed woman.) They aren’t based on sketches. I know there were prostitutes in the Old City and I know very young girls were given away in marriage. Beyond that, I worked out the particular stories that best suited my purpose.

Q9 Why did you choose to write about Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan or “Frontier Gandhi” ?

I grew up barely even hearing his name which is why I wanted to write about him. He’s been written out of Pakistan’s history, except in KP, which is a terrible shame. Also, he was such an important figure in his own right that it seems only correct that we should call him by his own name or honorific – Ghaffar Khan or Bacha Khan – rather than by reference to anyone else, regardless of who that anyone else is.

Q10 Are the badalas yours or recorded?

Mine.

Q11 Have you ever worn a burqa. The confusion that you show the young girl to be in can only come from an experienced moment.

No I haven’t. Novelists imaginations fortunately often thrive quite happily without experienced moments!

Q12 Now that you have British citizenship, how do you see yourself? British-Pakistani writer, Pakistani writer, of South Asian origin?

Pakistani. I’ve only been British for 6 months!

13 April 2014

Landays

Landays

pix by Seamus Murphy, Landays, Poetry Foundation, 2013In my dream, I was the president. 

When I awoke, I was the world’s beggar. 

In Afghan culture, poetry is revered, particularly the high literary forms that derive from Persian or Arabic. But the poem above is a folk couplet – a landay – an oral and often anonymous scrap of song created by and for mostly illiterate people: the more than twenty million Pashtun women who span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Traditionally, landays are sung aloud, often to the beat of a hand drum, which, along with other kinds of music, was banned by the Taliban from 1996 to 2001, and in some places, still is.

A landay is a kind of poetry that has few formal properties. Each has twenty-two syllables: nine in the first line, thirteen in the second. The poem ends with the sound “ma” or “na”. Sometimes they rhyme, but more often not. In Pashto, they lilt internally from word to word in a kind of two-line lullaby that belies the sharpness of their content, which is distinctive not only for its beauty, bawdiness, and wit, but also for the piercing ability to articulate a common truth about war, separation, homeland, grief, or love. Within these five main tropes, the couplets express a collective fury, a lament, an earthy joke, a love of home, a longing for the end of separation, a call to arms, all of which frustrate any facile image of a Pashtun woman as nothing but a mute ghost beneath a blue burqa.

Landays began among nomads and farmers. They were shared around a fire, sung after a day in the fields or at a wedding. More than three decades of war has diluted culture and displaced millons of people who can’t return safely to their villages. Conflict has also contributed to globalization. Now people share landays virtually via the internet, Facebook, text messages, and the radio. It’s not only the subject matter that makes them risque. Landays are mostly sung, ….women singers are viewed as prostitutes. Women get around this by singing in secret — in front of only close family …Usually in a village or a family one woman is more skilled at singing landays than others, yet men have no idea who she is. … . (p.195-6)

One leading theory of landays’ origin traces back to the Bronze Age arrival of Indo-Aryan caravans to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India around 1700 BCE. These poems could have evolved out of a communication through call and response back and forth over a long caravan train. Many of the poems refer back to this nomadic way of life, as well as to the moon, flowers, nature. As ancient songs, they are thought to be related to the Vedas, the Hindu scriptures at least five thousand years old and comprised of couplets called slokas, not unlike landays, except that they are sixteen rather than twenty-two syllables long. (p.221)

The call and response nature of landays has morphed into teasing and sparring love poems between men and women; a kind of stichomythia that rivals that of ancient Greece. Although it’s possible that a woman might sing one part and a man another, they’re not really antiphonal. …

These opening paragraphs are extracts from the special issue of Poetry ( http://www.poetryfoundation.org/media/landays.html) put together by Eliza Griswold with the help of Ilya Kaminsky and the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute, Catherine Halley and poetryfoundation.org, Jonathan Galassi and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and the Pulitzer Centre. It is a slim volume that consists of many examples of landays, but is a wonderful account of Eliza Griswold’s attempts at gathering the landays, interacting with a women’s literary group on the radio in Afghanistan called Mirman Baheer and a generous amount of pictures taken by Seamus Murphy. As she notes in the introduction ” finding, collecting, recording, and translating these little poems word by word posed an extraordinary challenge. Gathering them led Seamus and me through the pages of out-of-print collections, and in secret into refugee camps, private homes, a horse farm, and several weddings. Since landays belong to the hidden world of Afghan women, many won’t share them in front of one another out of fear that they’d later be gossiped about. Some requested that their names be changed or that I not record how I came by the landays that they whispered to me. One husband hurried up to me after I’d had tea  with his wife and asked the subject of the landay that she’d given me. ‘Separation’, I told him. The poem was about sex.” (p.198-9)

Her description of the translation process is also fascinating. This is what she has to say on p.200-1

“Translating these poems was an intricate process. I collected most of them in person with two native Pashto speakers, both of whom were, of necessity, young women. Over gallons of green tea …we transcribed the poems in Pashto, which has the same characters and sounds as Arabic, so I could sound out words although I had no clue of their meaning. On the fly, we’d rough out an English version in the car or during lunch to gauge whether the landay merited the time it would take to render properly in English. Then, along with a translator, I translated the selected poems word by word into English. Working from that frequently nonsensical literal translation, I sat with a handful of native Pashto speakers — academics, writers, journalists, and ordinary women — and went over each poem to make certain the translations made sense. My versions rhyme more often than the originals do, because the English folk tradition of rhyme proved more effective way of carrying the lilt of the Pashto cover into English. The most useful note on translation came from Mustafa Salik, one of Afghanistan’s leading novelists: “Don’t worry so much about being faithful to the Pashto. Get them right in English so that people can enjoy them.”

If you can, buy this slim volume of Poetry. It is well worth every penny spent. A treasure. A document that will exist for a long time. I have to thank Dipika Mukherjee for having sent this edition to me from Chicago. I am so glad she did!

1 Oct 2013 

Poetry ( vol CCII, No 3, June 2013) Poetryfoundation.org

$3.75 USA $5.00 CAN £3.00

Of women travellers and writing

Of women travellers and writing

All the Roads are Open

In recent weeks I have read three books. All the Roads are Open: the Afghan journey by Annermarie Schwarzenbach (translated by Isabel Fargo Cole); The Nanologues: 10,000 kms across India in the world’s cheapest car by Vanessa Able and Almost Intrepid by Anjaly Thomas. Except for All the Roads are Open, the other two are contemporary accounts by women travellers — Vanessa’s account of travelling in a Nano across India and Anjaly Thomas backpacking across the world. As for Annermarie Schwarzenbach, she travelled in a new Ford across Afghanistan with Ella Maillart from 1939-1940. The translated text contains snippets of her writings and dispatches to various newspapers describing the country, the exquisite gardens, the reception that they received etc. A comment made “In the garden of the beautiful girls of Qaiser” is about the “young King Ammanullah, upon returning from a trip to Europe, had instituted hasty reforms in Afghanistan, attempting to follow Turkey’s example in particular. He had moved too quickly. More than anything else he was reproached for emancipating women. For a few weeks the chador had fallen in the capital of Kabul; then the revolution broke out,women returned to the harem, to their strictly cloistered domestic life and from then on they could not show themselves on the street without a veil.”

51VPtVJer4L._SL500_AA300_
For Vanessa Able travelling in her Nano, whom she affectionately refers to as “Abhilasha”, winding her way through India, its crowds, is a frank account of her drive through India. It is a challenge to be a driver on the roads of India, but to be a woman and a foreigner at that, can be a challenge indeed! Vanessa Able braves it well, making some good friends along the way, but also getting a firsthand experience of they way men view/treat women. For instance, the young men loitering on the streets or the cab drivers misbehaving. At times she would worry about the fast roads and the sanitised lodgings were killing the spirit of the journey, but then the images of the Ambassadors and the over-zealous chaperones would remind her of the reasons for being on this trip. When Ratan Tata met her, he remarked that it was very enterprising of her to have driven the Nano through India. But Nanologues is a mixed bag of a traveller’s account with plenty of anecdotes, all though it could have done with a few photographs. Though she did blog regularly – http://www.nanodiaries.com/ and http://www.vanessaable.com/

Almost Intrepid
Anjaly Thomas’s comes across a feisty young woman, who is game for any sort of adventure. All her trips have been impulsive decisions. She has travelled through Tanzania, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, Indonesia, and India. Her account is of the kind that would be useful for women to use as a checklist, also take a leaf or two from her book of being fiercely independent, determined and focused about her goals. The common fears/questions that would prey upon any woman traveller’s mind came to her often. Such as afraid of being robbed/mugged/raped? did she have her parents approval? did she sleep alone in the hotels? how did she cope with female issues of dealing with her periods to washing underwear? where did she get her money from? did she ever get any help? was she scared of being labelled? She comes to the conclusion that these questions, including that of danger lurking, can even happen to a woman comfortably ensconced at home. It really depends upon the individual and the circumstances. To her surprise and relief she actually found a lot of help on the road. A few lessons she learned from travelling solo were confidence, self-dependence, patience, responsibility, love and compassion, prioritizing, letting go, and dreaming.

Women travelling alone is not a new feat. It has been done umpteen times before. Many wrote about it too. Lady Mary Whortley Montague and Alexandra David-Neel come immediately to mind, but there were many more. Yet the fascination that travellers hold, definitely when they are women, always make for captivating accounts.

19 July 2013

Annermarie Schwarzenbach All the Roads are Open: the Afghan journey Translated by Isabel Fargo Cole. Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2011. Hb. pg. 140.

Vanessa Able The Nanologues: 10,000 kms across India in the world’s cheapest car Hachette India, Delhi, 2013. Pb. pp. 324. Rs. 399

Anjaly Thomas Almost Intrepid Konark Publishers, New Delhi, 2013. Pb. pp.220 Rs. 299