This is my land, this is my country. No one can come between us. Neither saffron nor green can come in our way.
But, they try to.
Debut author Sabin Iqbal’s The Cliffhangeris about a group of friends Usma, Thaha, Jahangir and Moosa. They are in their late teens and early twenties. Moosa is nineteen years old. The ages of the other friends are not mentioned but it is presumed that they are more or less the same age. They are not very well educated. Inevitably have failed school and are hanging around the cliff near their village. There is little for them to do. They are considered kafirs for their free lifestyle and friendships with foreigners and Hindus like Balannan and Vivekannan. They belong to impoverished homes that rely upon remittances sent home from the Middle East. It is mostly the men of these families that have gone to Dubai in search of work. They occupy the lowest rungs of society abroad as drivers, shop assistants, messengers etc. Work which is unappealing to the younger men in India but who realise that it is a matter of time before they too have to join the expat workforce in the Middle East. It helps bring in a regular income and is any day preferable to the backbreaking task of fishing — the only skill their village of fishermen has known for as long as they can recall.
The Cliffhangers have chosen the middle path. We don’t wear symbols of any faith or religion. We don’t tie threads around our wrists or biceps. We wear trainers, sweatpants or tracksuits or polos, which are brought by our relatives from the Gulf.
It is a village on the coast of Kerala where the population lives in relative peace and harmony though the settlement is distinctly according to communal lines. The Muslims on one side and the Hindus on the other. There are no Christians in this village. This is how it has been; till now.
Our village also has religious and political divisions — though they seem blurred and harmless to an outsider, they are as distinct as right and left, and potentially as harmful to both.
So far, the two communities in our village have lived in peace and harmony. It is a delicate peace, which any moment, could crumble like papadums.
The Cliffhangers is a fictional account of how close to the precipice this village is from being torn apart along communal lines. The simmering hatred that manifests itself in by the police picking up the Cliffhanger boys for questioning even if they are innocent. It is just that the shroud of suspicion falls upon these boys most of the time because of their faith. It is never said explicitly but it is understood. A frightening prospect. The boys most often are seen whiling away their time hanging out with tourists, ostensibly to improve their English. So if anything happens to a tourist such as the rape of a young girl or the inexplicable death of an unapologetic HRS supporter like Vishwanathan Thampi, the boys are immediately picked up for questioning. As the Cliffhangers are well aware that as young men with Muslim names, they are a soft target for the police and primary enemies of the HRS ( Hindu Rasthra Sangh). It is a tough and uncertain life. None of this uncertainty is helped by the harrowing news from North India about the lynching of a man suspected of storing beef in his fridge. The Cliffhanger gang is stunned into a worrying silence. Unable to fathom what to make of this dystopic world where you are condemned for your food habits, you are persecuted for your religion –whether observing it or not as the boys discovered for having being caught eating during the day when they should have been fasting during Ramzan, you are lynched if you belong to the “other” in terms of colour, ideology and faith. It is a peculiar world.
Hatred is when you think the other has to be eliminated because of the difference of opinion in faith, customs and ways of life. Or, being the axis of evil as Bush, one of the presidents of America, said.
The Cliffhangers want to be the voice of sanity, albeit our patchy English, in the cacophony of communal insanity that our state has fallen into. As you know, we are not adequately educated to sound profound but we are glad that we are not wrongly educated either to hate the ones under the rival flag. We bear Muslim names and maybe we go to the mosque on Fridays and on Eid, but that’s it. You can cut our vein anyway, I swear to you, none of us have any strain of hatred in us.
This free will is something that the Cliffhangers are beginning to discover they are unable to exercise freely. So much so even SI Devan who would pick them up routinely for questioning ultimately decided to “help” them out in an unsolved case of the rape of a foreign tourist. SI Devan had uncovered the truth that the perpetrator, Balannan, a vendor who sold lemonade but was closely affiliated to the HRS. So recognising the terrifying consequences of arresting the member of the Hindu shaka and the horrific prospect of ripping the social fabric of the fishing village across communal lines, the SI chooses to take the rap himself by the senior police officials. SI Devan closes the file as “inconclusive”. His parting words to the Cliffhangers is the truth but with sinister underpinnings.
Remember, we are living in strange times . . .and, your identity is your enemy!” he said….
When the impetus for a story is the growing hatred of the “other” and the heightened communal tension it unleashes, it becomes frighteningly tough to articulate those fears. Fiction helps in unlocking some of those unnamed fears. Whether as a writer or a reader. But as a writer it helps to be crystal clear in channeling one’s anger and distress at the rapid turn of events. For instance to witness the political machinations of hardliners to further their interests despite locals recognising the foolhardiness of encouraging polarisation among communities. A recognition of each other’s differences is sufficient but to underline it on a daily basis and enforce it using state machinery is a dangerous thought and development. It finally rests upon the free will of the citizens of a democracy to subvert this self-consuming destructive hatred.
“The Cliffhangers” is a name given to the four boys but it works metaphorically too for the precipitous situation Indian democracy finds itself in — whether to retreat from the life-threatening crisis or to take the plunge into the depths of the unknown waters and be destroyed. Despite sagging a bit in the middle of the novel The Cliffhangers is a powerful story for the issues it raises. It would be fascinating to hear a freewheeling conversation between Sabin Iqbal, Tabish Khair, Amitava Kumar and Rana Ayyub on writing fiction and non-fiction in these times.
The Women in Translation (#WiT) month is celebrated annually in August. There was a flurry of activity online with a number of gems being unearthed and discussed. It is a really fascinating time to discover new writers, new translators, new publishers etc. Whilst I enjoyed reading the various articles, interviews, profiles and even book extracts that were made available online, I realised there was a deafening silence from the Indian subcontinent.
Another fascinating aspect of the Indian publishing industry is that as it grows, the market grows, and so does the interest in the craft of writing. For long writers have written and published their works in various literary magazines, “women’s magazines”, newspapers etc. Of course there are now online literary spaces, discussion forums and sometimes even in the print media where writers are interviewed and their craft discussed. But interviewing writers, especially women, is an art unto itself. Women writers inevitably have to find the time to write amongst the rhythm of many other duties and commitments they need to fulfil. This was more so in the past than now when increasingly there are more and more “professional writers”. Even so, reading about the craft of writing by women writers continus to be an exciting world since irrespective of socio-economic class, many writers share the same concerns and have similar pressures. Women Unlimited, an associate of Kali for Women, has for years published interviews with women writers. Their latest publication is Lifescapes: Interviews with Contemporary Women Writers from Tamil Nadu. The Tamil publishing landscape is not an easy one to understand with many interesting threads running through it, all of which were influential upon the seventeen women writers interviewed by the editors — K. Srilata and Swarnlatha Rangarajan. While the interviews themselves are insightful, it is the structural arrangement of each entry that is fascinating for it has the mandatory biography about the author, a sample of her writing, a head note by the editors introducing the writer and why they chose her specifically to be included in the anthology and finally, the interview. Every detail adds just sufficient information creating an image of the writer that the reader definitely wants to know more about.
Ever since World Literature began to open new publishing horizons in the Anglo-American book market as well as the growth of the desi diaspora as a lucrative readership, did the spotlight on translations from regional languages into English become an attractive proposition for many firms. As a result there is a feast of offerings particularly as the multi-national publishers expand their fare. Be that as it may there are some fabulous publishers such as Women Unlimited, Zubaan, Orient Black Swan, Speaking Tiger, Permanent Black ( on occasion), Aleph Book Company, Yoda Press, Westland/Amazon and Oxford University Press that have been publishing translations for a while. It is impossible to list all but here some of the wonderful titles published recently.
The Solitary Sprout: Selected Stories of R. Chudamani ( translated from Tamil by C.T. Indra and T. Sriraman) is a fabulous collection of short stories. In fact, R. Chudamani (1931-2010) has often been considered as an early feminist among Tamil writers. The Solitary Sprout is a wonderful selection of Chudamani’s short stories with “No fury like a mother’s”, “Herself” and “Not a stepfather” standing out as very modern stories. It is hard to believe that these were written many decades ago. The sharp insight and clear ideas that the writer shares can take one’s breath away even now. For instance, “No fury like a mother’s” is about three mothers of young schoolgirls who are furious at how their daughters are ill-treated by their school teacher. The punishment meted out to the young girls by the teacher is to strip the girls publicly. The three mothers team up and pressurise the teacher to resign otherwise they threaten to mete out the same treatment to her as she did to their daughters. “Herself” is about a mother who once her children are married and settled with families of their own, discovers her trueself and becomes a music teacher as well is a voluntary worker at the Primary Health Centre in her village. Much to her visiting daughter’s dismay who had expected a month’s vacation at her parent’s home free from all responsibilities including babysitting her own son. Instead the daughter discovers she has to pitch in with household chores at her parents home and continue to look after her own son. She is deeply disappointed and upset as her memories of her mother was one who was always free and available for the family. It rattles the daughter. More so as her father supports his wife’s actions and sees no wrong. “Not a stepfather” addresses issues like widow remarriage, single parenting, stepfather etc. It is beautifully told from the perspective of the disgruntled mother of the bride who is not amused that her daugther has remarried and expects the new husband also to take care of her young son. It is complicated but within the first visit of the newly married couple to the mother’s house, the son warms up to his new father and gets the blessings of his mother-in-law too. It is a powerful story as it raises so many questions about gendered and social expectations of a woman and a man. The Solitary Sprout is worth reading, sharing and discussing in more forums. These are stories that need to be told more often.
Prolific and powerful writer K. R. Meera has a new collection of three novellas called The Angel’s Beauty Spots. As often is the case with K. R. Meera’s stories, she explores love and its various angles. Sometimes well meaning and powerful love for all intents and purposes can go horribly wrong as in the title novella. K. R. Meera’s stories have this remarkable quality of taking the wind out of the reader’s sails with the horrific and at times inexplicable sequence of events except that some bizarre form of love propelled many of the decisions taken by her characters. Somehow the team of author and translator, K. R. Meera and J. Devika, works well. It is difficult to pinpoint an exact reason but the translation reads smoothly without losing any of the cultural characteristics of sharing a story set in Kerala and written in Malayalam. It just feels perfectly satisfying to read.
The Diary of Manu Gandhi ( 1943 – 44) are the diaries written by Manubehn ( Mridula) Gandhi, who was the youngest daughter of Mahatma Gandhi’s nephew, Jaisukhlal Amritlal Gandhi and Kasumba. These diaries are preserved in the National Archives of India and for the first time are being translated and edited from Gujarati into English by Tridip Suhrud. Manu Gandhi as a young girl had been encouraged by Mahatma Gandhi to maintain a diary. Manu Gandhi was the one walking beside Mahatma Gandhi at Birla House before his would-be assassin, Nathuram Godse, pushed her aside, so as to be able to shoot his target.
Diary-keeping of Gandhi was an essential duty for all those engaged in pursuit of truth and hence obligatory for Ashramites and satyagrahis. He constantly urged the Ashram community and constructive workers to maintain one. ….A daily diary,he believed, was a mode of self-examination and self-purification; he made it an obligatory observance for all those who walked with him on the Salt march.
While The Diary of Manu Gandhi ( 1943 – 44) is of more academic and historical interest to many readers, it is accompanied by a fine commentary by Gandhian scholar Tridip Suhrud. He offers insights about maintenance of a diary, the translation process, making available critical empirical material such as these diaries which till now many knew of its existence but not many could access. It also documents the growth of a young, under-confident girl to a mature person as evident in the style of her writing, longer sentences, more time spent describing incidents rather than restricting it to scribbles as many of the early entries are. Interestingly, as Tridip Suhrud points out in his introduction, Mahatma Gandhi or Bapu as he was known, would often read and scribble his thoughts in the margins of Manu Gandhi’s diaries. Ideally though it would have been a preferable if in this volume an interview with Tridip Suhrud with a leading gender/oral history expert had been included. It would then give some critical insights in what it means to translate a young girl’s diary many decades later by a highly reputed Gandhian scholar. With due respect even the best academic scholars tend to gloss over certain gender issues that irrespective of how many times they are repeated continue to be important and need to be highilghted. At the same time it would be fascinating to see what emerges from the conversation of a Gandhian expert with a gender expert to see how much Gandhian ways of living influenced the minds and hearts of those in the Ashram or did the basic gendered ways of seeing also get scrubbed away.
Speaking of memoirs, Rosy Thomas’s He, My Beloved CJ about her life with her husband and well-known Malayalam writer and critic, C. J. Thomas. It has been translated by G. Arunima. C.J. Thomas died young. His wife wrote this memoir much later. While it is a very personal account of her courtship, her marriage and the brief time she spent with her husband during which he opposed her desire to seek employment. Apparently in the Malayalam text, Rosy Thomas often refers to her husband as moorachi ( a colloquial term for conservative). Hence within this context it is quite amazing to read an account of a life that does not necessarily romanticise the couple’s love but is able to subvert the prevalent notions of wifehood. It has descriptions of their homes, their families, their circle of friends and at times some of their discussions on art, creativity and politics. At least in the memoir she comes across at times an equal participant despite his conservative mindset on having a wife who earned a living. Be that as it may, the monotone pitch at which the memoir is written or has been translated in —it is difficult to discern the difference — does not make He, My Beloved CJ easy to read. Of course it is a seminal book and will for a long time be referred to by many scholars interested in knowing more about the literary movement in Kerala or about the legend himself, C. J. Thomas — a man who seems to have acquired mythical proportions in Kerala. How many will access it for being a woman’s witnessing of a fascinating moment in history, only time will tell. Meanwhile the translator’s note is worth reading. G. Arunima writes:
…this biography is as much about C J Thomas and their marriage, as it is about Rosy as a writer. The act of remembrance is also about fashioning her own self and subjectivity, both as a ‘loving’ subject, and as a ‘writer’ and raconteur, observing, weighing, annotating and narrating their life as a text. Rosy Thomas grew up in a literary home; her father, M P Paul, was an intrinsic part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, the Sahitya Pravarthaka Sahakarna Sangham ( Literary Workers’ Cooperative Society) and had also set up the tutorial college that was named after him. Writers, books and a culture of reading were a central part of her life. Even though these reminiscences do not dwell too much on her own literary or political formation, it is evident that CJ’s world wasn’t alien to her. In her later life she was to become a published writer and translator in her own right; such creativity is obvious even in this text where the nuances of a remembered life are testament to her wit and literary flair.
There are many, many more titles that one can discuss such as Sharmila Seyyid’s Ummath: A Novel of Community and Conflict. It is set during the three decades of the Sri Lanka’s civil war. It is told through the lives of three women, Thawakkul, Yoga and Theivanai — one a social activist, the other a Tamil Tiger forced into joining the movement as a child, and the third a disillusioned fighter for the Eelam. The novel has been translated from Tamil by Gita Subramaniam. While it immerses one immediately into the strife torn landscape, it is also puzzling as sometimes the voices of the three main characters seem to acquire the same pitch, making it seem as if the author’s own devastating firsthand experiences of the conflict are making their presence felt throughout the narrative. It is impossible for the English readers to ever solve this puzzle but there is something that comes through in the translation and is not easy to pinpoint. While promoted as fiction, it is easy to see that Ummath with the insights it offers, nature of conversations documented and descriptions of the landscape make this novel a lived experience. This is a challenging story to read but is worth doing so as the conversations about women/gender and conflict are relatively new in public discourse and need to be share more widely.
The final book in this roundup is a translation from Bengali of Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s The Children’s Ramayana by first-time translator Tilottama Shome. It is the Ramayana told with its basic story sans the many digressions and minor tales. It is the epic with many of the popular stories retold that many generations of Indians are familiar with. It does not come across as a novice’s attempt at translation. In fact as she says in her translator’s note, “I have tried to retain that delightful quirky tone and the hint of humour told with a straight face that has endeared Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s works to readers for generations” seems to be true. Again it is impossible for English readers to confirm this fact or not but there is something about the zippy pace, ease of reading, a rhythm to the storytelling, making it immensely attractive to read. Perhaps Tilottama Shome being a trained singer ably assisted her in finding the rhythm to this translation. There is something to be said for a trained musical ear and discovering the cadences of a written text making the translation from one language/culture to the next a pleasurable experience!
No big colonial sword needs to come down and slash the fabric of the nation,” …. “Muscle by muscle, atom by atom, we are being torn from within. We are our own bomb.”
Forces of history are at work, he says. Forces too big to fight. He reels off dates. 1947, 1857, 1799. I slapped my head. Spare me. I don’t understand kings and queens. I am a simple man.
Slathered on the walls, wrapping all the way around the street. Every shutter, all the way up to the white mosque. It is true. That puffed-up face, like mouldy pastry. The fellow has called us aliens in our own land. He lost the election and we thought, that would teach him. Now here was, his face pasted on my wall.
Award-winning novelist and playwright Annie Zaidi’s novella No Prelude to a Riot is a disturbing, hard-hitting story set in a nameless city. It is about the rising communal tensions and the anxiety of living under constant siege. What comes across equally poignantly is the writer’s own attempts at writing a story that is extremely close to the reality of today. To be writing under a sense of constant siege, where the lines between the fictional characters and plot are blurred, is not an easy task. Sometimes it seems as if the voices of the characters are not strong enough, probably due to the circumstances they live in, yet they do manage to slip in what they have to say, jolting the reader with their pronouncements. It leaves a sinking feeling in the stomach.
Earlier this year Annie Zaidi won the $100,000 Nine Dots Prize for her essay Bread, Cement, Cactus. It will be expanded and published as a short book by Cambridge University Press in 2020. The Nine Dots Prize is a book prize for creative thinking that tackles contemporary societal issues. Entrants for the prize are asked to respond to a question in 3,000 words and the winner receives $100,000 (Rs 69.83 lakh) to write a short book expanding on the essay’s idea. The question this year was “Is there still no place like home?” “Zaidi’s entry, ‘Bread, Cement, Cactus’, combines memoir and reportage to explore concepts of home and belonging rooted in her experience of contemporary life in India, where migration – within the country, especially from villages to cities – is high,” the Nine Dots Prize said in a statement.
Prelude to a Riot is a novella that explores similar concepts of home and belonging while rooted in the very real and disturbing issues of communal violence, a growing intolerance of the other and crumbling of democracy. It is shattering to realise that Prelude to a Riot, Tabish Khair’s Night of Happiness, Nayantara Sahgal’s The Fate of Butterflies and Ravish Kumar’s The Free Voice are critical contributions to contemporary literature, offering perspectives while bearing witness to the current socio-political events.
Book Post 43 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.
Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter. In today’s Book Post 26 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks as well as bought and are worth mentioning.
Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter. Today’s Book Post 25 is after a gap of two weeks as January is an exceedingly busy month with the Jaipur Literature Festival, Jaipur BookMark and related events.
In today’s Book Post 25 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks as well as bought at the literature festival and are worth mentioning.
Renowned historian Romila Thapar has recently published an extremely relevant Indian Cultures as Heritage: Contemporary Pasts. Her premise is how the centuries texts and monuments are mostly historical records of elite cultures that “received larger patronage and symbolized the patterns of life of dominant groups”. These over time were conveyed and became readily available symbols of heritage as opposed to the objects of the socially lower groups “whose less durable cultural manifestations often do not survive. This also predisposed people to associate culture as essentially that of the elite”.
According to her most early societies register inequalities. All men and women may be said to be equal in the eyes of God but they may at the same time be differentiated in the eyes of men and women. She argues that societies are not static and change their forms and rules of functioning. Cultures are a reflection of these social patterns, so they also change. Culture is constructed, determined, and preserved by institutions and social codes. It is within this framework she spends a chapter discussing how perceptions of women in Indian society and the role of caste in providing contexts to determining attitudes to Indian culture. Ultimately there is a process of socialisation which makes these codes of conduct acceptable and then are more or less cast in stone, being passed on as tradition. She examines how “the single category of ‘women’ is no longer viable, since women, like men, perform a variety of social functions. These conform to the section of society they belong, detemining much of their activity and their articulation, both of which are now seen as a crucial aspect of the larger pattern of living”. Prof. Thapar makes a fascinating case for how the “history of what was often described as ‘women in ancient India’, was a reiteration of what was said about the role of women in society, in the Dharmashastras. These were heavily male-oriented and not much attention was given to women other than unnerlining their subservience to men.” Whereas she argues that the position of women in society which was usually defined by rules of caste and patriarchy, in part revolving around their sexuality, would at times be subverted. This was particularly noticeable in their modes of renouncing the world as documented by non-Brahmanical and secular literature.
These outstanding essays discuss history as heritage and the “Indian culture” that we extrapolate from this inheritance. This need to understand and discuss culture is from how the study of the past has changed in the few decades particularly with the upsurgence of nationalism as evident in its desire to focus on charting history through objects. Listen to this talk where she clearly states that true nationalism is inclusive of all traditions and does not occur at the cost of one or the other religion. She recorded this a year before this book was released — “Our Shared Cultural Heritage”History as Heritage” ( Anhad India, 26 Feb 2017). As she says in this interview to journalist Manjula Narayan “The secularization of society is essential to ensure the existence of democracy. The need for the secular is not just to enable us to say that we are not a theocratic state, but is essential to the functioning of democracy. Democratic systems cannot exist where there are predetermined religious majority and minority groups that are treated as fundamental to the functioning of democratic institutions, such as in elections to the Lok Sabha. We have been combining religion and politics by observing laws that claim religious sanctity as the basis of civil laws. This is an impediment in a multi-religious society.” ( Hindustan Times, 9 March 2018)
Read and share this book widely. It is imperative to do so in these times.
Romila Thapar Indian Cultures As Heritage: Contemporary Pasts Aleph Book Company, Delhi, 2018. Hb. pp. 222 Rs 599