Aleph Book Company Posts

The Erotic in the Indian Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 Sept 2017 

Amitava Kumar’s “The Lovers”

My review of Amitava Kumar’s The Lovers was published in OPEN Magazine on 25 August 2017. Here is the original url titled “A Passage to America” . I am also c&p the text below. 

An immigrant finds his place of mind—like the author himself

The Lovers | Amitava Kumar | Aleph | 255 Pages | Rs 599

AMITAVA KUMAR’S The Lovers is about Kailash, born in Ara, Bihar, who moved to the US in 1990. At college he met his mentor Ehsaan Ali when Kailash enrolled in his ‘Colonial Encounters’ class. To earn a few extra dollars, Kailash worked in a university bookshop. Some of the women he met on campus became good friends, some his lovers. With every woman— Jennifer, Nina, Laura, Maya and Cai Yan—he learned a little more about himself as a man, a lover, a student, a reader and of his culture, whichever one it may be at a given moment. The Lovers works at multiple levels. Superficially the novel explores different shades of love— puppy love, sexual love and marital. At another level it is the platonic and nurturing love between teacher (Ehsaan Ali) and student (Kailash) that is the bedrock of the novel. Ever so slowly and gently, the promising student Kailash blossoms as a teaching assistant and later, writer. ‘The main questions now were about the fiction of the past, the idea I had of myself as a person, and what it meant for me to become a writer.’ The narrator relies heavily upon memory to plot his journey and define his identity—tough since ‘he had become a translated man, no longer able to connect completely with his past.’

The Lovers is an autobiographical novel documenting the trajectory of Kailash aka Kalashnikov or AK47 or AK from the burning plains of India to an intellectual in America, a path very similar to that of the author himself. Kailash may not be Stephen Dedalus but he certainly grows in confidence, wherein his tastes in literature are concerned. It is evident in the structure of the novel. Over the years, from being an Indian student unsure about the literary canon he grew up with, Kailash becomes familiar with examples of international literature such as Gramsci, Tagore, Wittgenstein, Hanif Kureishi, Luis Borges, Agnes Smedley, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Judith Butler, Virginia Woolf, Nazım Hikmet et al. Slowly he incorporates desi writers such as Ismat Chughtai too. He realises that the India he left in the 1990s has changed to become a new India which is disconcertingly unrecognisable and is now part of the global village.

The immigrant novel is in a category of literary fiction which straddles two cultures—the author’s land of birth and adopted country. In The Lovers, despite having had the privilege of getting an American citizenship, Kailash continues to feel lost in his adopted country. ‘My father had grown up in a hut. I knew in my heart that I was closer to a family of peasants than I was to a couple of intellectuals sitting in a restaurant in New York.’ He tries to fit in, but falters at times. Even world literature that exposes him to various cultures fails to help, and leaves him yearning for the holy grail of the ‘hybrid culture that groups of people scattered across the world, removed from their roots, have created in response to alienation and a kind of collective loneliness?’ This is unlike his adventurous friend Pushkin Krishnagrahi, a Brahmin from Gwalior, a member of the new India who was now at home anywhere in the world.

It is significant that The Lovers has been released in the 70th year of Independence for India and Pakistan. As with two lovers, there is an intensely passionate relationship between the two countries which has historically been hostile. In the novel the two countries are represented by its citizens —Ehsan Ali (Pakistan) and Kailash (India) who away from their countries do not harbour any ill feelings towards each other and live in harmony. Ehsan Ali is probably modelled upon the intellectual Eqbal Ahmed, a prominent anti-war activist.

The Lovers is extraordinary craftsmanship, charting the blossoming of a timid new immigrant into a confident writer.

25 August 2017

Maid in India

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 July 2017 

 

“The Book of Indian Dogs” by S. Theodore Bhaskaran

The Book of Indian Dogs by well-known naturalist and conservationist Theodore Bhaskaran is a testimony to the importance of preserving Indian breeds. Apparently in the eighteenth century a Frenchman travelling around the country recorded more than fifty distinct breeds. But now only a handful survive — Bakharwal, Himalayan mastiffs, Himalayan sheepdog, Jonangi, Kombai, Koochee, Sindhi, Pandikona, Patti, Lhasa Apso, Tibetan spaniel, Tibetan terrier, Alaknoori, Banjara, Caravan hounds, Chippiparais, Kaikadi, Kanni, Kurumalai, Mudhol, Pashmis, Rajapalayams, Rampur hounds and Vaghari hounds.

In The Book of Indian Dogs the author builds upon his vast experience as a dog-lover, owner, naturalist, conservationist and an active member of the Kennel Club of India ( KCI) to focus on the importance of preserving these indigenous breeds. These require active patronage from governments and individuals if these species have to survive. A major reason for their disappearance from public view is attributed to the import of breeds by the British during colonial rule and the subsequent apathy by successive governements in independent India. Apparently there have been attempts to revive indigenous breeds. For instance in 1981 at the Kolhapur Canine Dog show forty Caravan hounds were shown. By 1984 standards were established and at least ten breeds — including the Rampur hounds, Caravan hound, Rajapalayam and Himalayan mastiff — were accorded recognition in the country. And yet as late as 2014 the KCI had not as yet accepted the Jonangi, one of the pristine indigenous breeds, to be recognised. The challenges in according to recognition to Indian breeds exists despite it being proven as happened during the IPKF operations in Sri Lanka ( 1987-1990) when the dogs contracted tick fever leading to anaemia and needed transfusions that the Chippiparai dogs are safe and universal donors. A good way of preserving Indian breeds ( that are also considered to be a distant relative of the Australian dingoes) is by introducing them in the canine breeding programmes of the Indian Army. For now the two breeding centres managed by the Indian Army at Meerut and Tekanpur focus primarily on Alsatians and Labradors. The lineage of these dogs can still be traced back to families in Europe. As for their health management — it is another big challenge.

While reading the book I was reminded of some of the dogs we have had in the family. One of them was Jasper — a mix between a Tibetan mastiff and a cocker spaniel. He had a foul temper ( attributed to the mastiff blood) but was utterly indulgent and adorable towards my brother and I. We loved him dearly. Another one was the extraordinarily beautiful grey alsation Pasha. He had the most magnificent cowl. But it was with his arrival in the family that my grandparents bought their first desert cooler in 1970. Then we received a couple of narcotic sniffer dogs who had been trained at Tekanpur. They were siblings — Shiva and Sangha— named by their vets. Stupendous examples of yellow labradors whose lineage could be traced to Germany. Their grandparents had been brought to India by the vets at Tekanpur for the breeding programme. Though the sniffer did some tremendous work with the department they were attached to they were delicate creatures and needed a lot of caregiving. My father has also owned dogs brought in from the Meerut RVC particularly gun shy dogs who were being disposed off. Now my parents own desi dogs picked up off the streets apart from the many they look after in their colony. The foreign breeds have required a lot of care but remarkably enough one of the desis living at home — Chhoti — requires intensive caregiving and is a very delicate dog.

Theodore Bhaskaran’s well documented and passionate account of desi dogs is probably the first of its kind in the country. It gives a bird’s-eye view of the importance dogs have played in history to present times. Despite there being reservations about dogs amongst many Indians and that every half hour a person succumbs to rabies in India there is a great demand for dogs to be kept as pets. If these expectations are managed by introducing indigenous breeds it may help in their preservation.

The publishers Aleph too need to be commended for creating a niche and well-curated list of nature writings. These document as well as focus with urgency upon the work required to preserve different species. The Book of Indian Dogs is an essential part of this seminal list.

S. Theodore Bhaskaran The Book of Indian Dogs Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2017. Hb. pp. 120 Rs. 399

Press Release: Jeet Thayil announces a new book with Aleph

aleph-logo

Aleph Book Company is delighted to announce that it will be publishing Jeet Thayil’s new novel, The Book of  Chocolate Saints, in 2017. This book is a follow-up to his celebrated novel Narcopolis which won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2012 and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, the Man Asian Prize and the Commonwealth Prize.

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jeet-thayil_web_46In incandescent prose, award-winning novelist Jeet Thayil tells the story of Newton Francis Xavier, blocked poet, serial seducer of young women, reformed alcoholic (but only just), philosopher, recluse, all-round wild man, and India’s greatest living painter. At the age of sixty-six, Xavier, who has been living in New York, is getting ready to return to the land of his birth to stage one final show of his work (accompanied by a mad bacchanal). As we accompany Xavier and his partner and muse Goody on their unsteady, and frequently sidetracked, journey from New York to New Delhi, the venue of the final show, we meet a host of memorable characters—journalists, conmen, alcoholics, addicts, artists, poets, whores, society ladies, thugs—and are also given unforgettable (and sometimes unbearable) insights into love, madness, poetry, sex, painting, saints, death, God and the savagery that fuels all great art.

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Jeet Thayil was born in Mamalasserie, Kerala, and educated in Bombay, Hong Kong and New York. His first novel Narcopolis won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2012 and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, the Man Asian Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. His five poetry collections include Collected Poems, English and These Errors Are Correct, which won the 2013 Sahitya Akademi Award for poetry. He is the editor of 60 Indian Poets and The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets. Jeet Thayil wrote the libretto for Babur in London, which toured Switzerland and the United Kingdom in 2012.

For further information please contact:

Vasundhara Raj Baigra, Director, Marketing and Publicity, Aleph Book Company

Email: vasundhara@alephbookcompany.com

‘A sponge of history’ An interview with Kanishk Tharoor

Swimmer among the stars

(I interviewed Kanishk Tharoor on his collection of short stories — Swimmer Among the Stars, published by Aleph. The interview was published online on 30 January 2016 and will be in print on 31 January 2016. Here is the original url: http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/kanishktharoor-talks-to-jaya-bhattacharji-rose-about-his-book-swimmer-among-the-stars-stories/article8171724.ece )

Kanishk Tharoor about writing in his pyjamas in the company of many cups of tea.

Kanishk Tharoor’s debut book Swimmer among the Stars: Stories is a magnificent collection of short fiction. It transports one into a different world, especially with its minute details, achieving the near-impossible with words. Tharoor’s short fiction was nominated for a National Magazine Award in the U.S. He writes the ‘Cosmopolis’ column for The Hindu Business Line’s BLink. He is currently at work on a radio series to be aired on BBC Radio in the spring of 2016, and on a novel. He lives in New York City.

Excerpts:

How did these stories grow? Out of a line, character or a memory?

The stories have quite separate points of origin. Some — like ‘Elephant at Sea’ — sprang from a real life story told to me when I was younger. Others were sparked by observations, an experience, sometimes just a line or an image. The work of the story would become justifying that line or image.

How many years were they in the making were these stories? Kanishk Tharoor

About a decade. The oldest story in the collection, ‘The Loss of Muzafar’, was written when I was 19. Most of the stories in the collection were written in the last five years.

How do you start a story? Do you plan in detail?

I begin with an image or idea or adventurous premise. I rarely plan — you can get away with that in short stories more easily than you can in a novel. I find that I do my best thinking as I write, so the story takes shape in the midst of its writing.

These stories are not historical fiction yet have a strong whiff of history in them. How much research does each story require?

‘Research’ makes it sound like a kind of deliberate project. The truth is I’m a helpless sponge of all sorts of historical material, particularly of rather obscure or little-known moments in history. The only research I really did was for the last story in the collection, ‘The Mirrors of Iskandar’, which retells episodes from legends about Alexander the Great that were known in the medieval world from Scotland to the Straits of Malacca.

I get the impression upon reading Your stories seem that it is like a fine blend of political news reporting and fiction, as in ‘The Fall of an Eyelash’ about refugees or the conversations in ‘A United Nations in Space’ revolving around international diplomacy. Is this intentional?

I don’t know if I’d call it a blend of political reporting and fiction… this is all very much fiction! But I am interested in political and social issues, and that interest filters into my fiction.

What is your writing routine?

I don’t really have a routine, as I inconsistently have time to devote to my fiction. When I write, it’s often in my pyjamas and in the company of many cups of tea.

In this collection you have very distinct voices and stories revolving around languages including the title story. This fascination with linguistic abilities that you capture so well in the diction makes me wonder if at times you write in public spaces too to capture the variety of languages? Was NYC with it being a repository of many languages an inspiration?

I actually do almost all my writing at home. But yes NYC was a source of inspiration for the story even though it wasn’t set there. NYC is actually a repository of dying languages that have survived in diaspora even as they have disappeared in their countries of origin. I think, more generally, there is a lot of NYC in the spirit of the collection, a city that in many ways has as its jurisdiction the world.

What writer do you admire the most and what would you like to ask them? 

I’ll say the Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago. I’d ask him about where in Lisbon his ghost likes to wander.

How do you read? In print or digitally or both? Are you an eclectic reader? 

I read literature almost solely in print. I do not own an e-reader.

I read news mostly online, though I have subscriptions to a few journals. In terms of books, I read mostly fiction but I also consume  history, politics, and other non-fiction subjects.

Who are the authors you admire and who have influenced you? 

Too many to list. Perhaps predictably, the likes of Toni Morrison, Saramago, Italo Calvino, Borges, Amitav Ghosh and so on. But also the 19th century collectors of folklore, medieval Persian poets, and ancient tellers of epic around the world.

30 January 2016

Vikram Seth, “Summer Requiem”

Vikram SethVikram Seth’s poetry is exquisite. Always was and is. Years ago I recall my mother being handed a copy of The Golden Gate by a friend, a journalist, who had interviewed Seth. Mum received an autographed copy of a paperback edition. It had a boring blue cover with a photograph of the Golden Gate but the excitement about reading a novel in verse by an Indian was far greater than nitpicking about the ordinary production quality of the book.  It was the nineteen eighties when Indians were barely recognised globally for writing original fiction and poetry in English. Literary discussions were still confined to the legacies of R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao and the emerging “St Stephens School of Writing” to which male writers such as Amitav Ghosh, Shashi Tharoor, Rukun Advani and Mukul Kesavan belonged. Arundhati Roy’s Booker success with her debut novel, The God of Small Things, was still a few years away. Since then Vikram Seth, his aforementioned contemporaries and a handful of others have been elevated to the literary elite of the subcontinent and for good reason too — their creative ingenuity in making literature that is a pure delight to immerse oneself in for its craft and its gravitas.

Vikram Seth’s new collection of poetry Summer Requiem validates his status as being a well-deserved member of Vikram and Davidthis exclusive club of writers. In this slim offering of poems published by Aleph Books Vikram Seth experiments with the poetic form. Try scanning the lines and you will be constantly surprised by what you glean. From the traditional form to blank verse of the title poem to translations of poems to creating an extraordinary sonnet in No Further War. The latter poem is not only technically sound but is absorbing to read for its devastating critique of modern day politicians who create mayhem with war, destroying Nature and the beauty of earth, leaving artists a wasteland. In this collection of poems Vikram Seth touches upon a range of issues — commentary, reflecting upon his own body of work including working on a novel ( a reference perhaps to the work-in-progress A Suitable Girl? ), engaging in literary criticism such as discussing the importance of translations  and discovering new writers. Coincidentally when I was reading Summer Requiem I had T. S. Eliot reciting The Wasteland in the background. ( Here is the link:  http://www.openculture.com/2009/11/ts_eliot_reads_the_wasteland.html ) . It is a powerful experience. Two poets, writing decades apart, commenting on the deeply disturbing man-made catastrophes.  A couple of toxic madmen sting mankind. (Vikram Seth “No Further War”) .

With the permission of Aleph Book Company, I am reproducing some lines of poetry from Vikram Seth’s new collection Summer Requiem.

 

The liberated generation lives a restrained youth.

Memory is a poison; it has sickened my body.

The cleavage of attachment has frayed my mind.

( Summer Requiem)

 

Abstractions have their place, the concrete too.

(A Cryptic Reply)

Two oval portraits, prints in black and white,

Lean on a shelf; one of them, Pushkin, who

Never stepped out of Russia in his life,

Let alone roamed around this town, but who

Belongs to you who know his works by heart

And, yes, to me, who, though I cannot read

A word of his by eye, know him by soul.

I wouldn’t be here, we’re it not for him.

He gave me me….

Translation though it was, though every Russian

Yes, you included, when I met you first,

Before the concert in that cavernous room 

Shakes her head slowly when I mention this 

In wistful sympathy ( ‘What can they get 

From Pushkin who can’t understand our tongue?’),

Yet what I got, I got — and it got me

Out of myself, into myself, and made me

Set everything aside I’d set my thoughts on,

And grasp my time, live in his rooms and write

What even today puzzles me by its birth,

The Golden Gate, that sad and happy thing,

Child of my youth, my first wild fictive fling.

(In a Small Garden in Venice)

 

Vikram Seth Summer Requiem Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2015. Hb. pp.66. Rs 399

Literati: “Ink on the Brink”

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300(My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 17 October 2015) and will be in print ( 18 October 2015). Here is the http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-india-coping-with-book-bans/article7770216.ece. I am also c&p the text below. )

It remains to be seen how India, despite its business potential, copes with cultural policing, muzzling of free speech, and book bans

According to Nielsen’s The India Book Market Report 2015, released at Frankfurt Book Fair on October 14, the print book market in India is worth Rs. 261bn (£2.5bn), making it the sixth largest in the world, and the second largest of the English language markets. U.K. publishers’ revenues, including e-books, home and exports, are worth £3.3bn. India is the second most populous country in the world, with 1.28 billion people. The literacy rate is rising rapidly, from 65 per cent in 2001 to 74 per cent in 2011; it is predicted to reach 90 per cent in 2020. One quarter of young people define themselves as book readers, comprising by themselves a larger group than the population of the U.K. which is 65 million.

It explains why, for some time now, publishers worldwide are keen to explore strategic partnerships with their Indian counterparts in English and regional languages. According to a 2010-12 report Rebalancing the Economy from the House of Commons, Parliament of Great Britain, “40 per cent of U.K. publishing revenues are derived from exports”. Though the statistic is three years old, it will hold validity in 2015 since the links between British publishers and India are amongst the oldest given the colonial past.

But what happens when a market like India with huge business potential mutates into a territory synonymous with cultural policing, muzzling of free speech, book bans and intolerance of ideas? Does it still remain an attractive market to invest in? Increasing number of writers from various Indian languages are returning their Sahitya Akademi awards and Punjabi writer Dalip Kaur Tiwana returned her Padma Shri in protest against the assassination of rationalist scholars like Kalburgi. For some writers, this form of intellectual censorship is linked to the horrific lynching incident in Dadri. Noted Hindi writer, 90-year-old Krishna Sobti, said while returning her award that India did not need any more “Dadri or Babri”.

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I have contributed an article on the theme of Independence in Indian Children’s Literature for the inaugural issue of
The Read QuarterlyThe Read Quarterly
. It is a journal on children’s literature, founded by Sarah Odedina and Kate Manning; the Kickstarter campaign has been endorsed by Neil Gaiman. Some of the other contributors include Nury Vittachi, Eoin Colfer, Gita Wolf (Tara Books) and Daniel Hahn. My article maps the literary inheritance of independence/partition of Romila Thaparsubcontinent. Much of it is inadvertently focused on hagiographies written to suit a specific ideological position, reinforcing communal Public Intellectual in Indiapoints of view that took root in British India. Fortunately, there are noticeable positive shifts in contemporary fiction, but as Romila Thapar, the eminent historian, wrote to me, “The goal of the national movement was such that communities came together for a cause and set aside what separated them. It is these moments that need to be remembered in the present times.”

Pigeons of the DomeCultural pluralism, democracy and secularism, the defining traits of India, are now under severe threat. Two collections of short stories published this past month address the complexities of Indian culture and ethos being intimidated by communal forces. Deeply disturbing but essential reading is the Pigeons of the Domes: Stories on Communalism edited by Rakhshanda Jalil (Niyogi Books). It was put together with the sole intention of “tracing the secular thread in the fabric of modern India, a thread that goes back many centuries.” It consists of stories by Gulzar, Ajeet Caur, Asghar Wajahat, Deepak Budki and Keki Daruwalla.

‘They Eat Meat!’ is the opening story in Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, 2015 winner,the-adivasi-will-not-dance-cover-for-kitaab-interview Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s new short story collection The Adivasi Will Not Dance. In ‘They Eat Meat!’ Panmuni and Biram Soren go to live in Gujarat, and are surprised to learn that they would have to stop eating non-vegetarian food to be accepted as citizens. According to the author, “The impetus behind the short story was the experience a Santhal family had in Vadodara during 2000-02. …the things I have mentioned are all as they were told to me by this family. I just changed the names. I wasn’t there in Gujarat in 2002 when the riots happened, but I was curious to know what happened, the insider-outsider equation, the pure-impure thing, the veg-non-veg thing, and so I wanted to write this story….This story first appeared in the literary magazine from Kathmandu, La.Lit. Prawin Adhkari and Rabi Thapa, the editors, published it in August 2014 with the title, ‘DON’T MIX WITH THEM, THEY EAT MEAT!’…It read more like an eyewitness report (in the third person) than a fiction based on facts. For the Speaking Tiger version, my editors and I took the report-like feel out and turned it into more story-like. … In the La.Lit version, imagination was minimum; in the Speaking Tiger version, there is more imagination.”

tram_83_301This fine line between fact and fiction is well summed up in the astounding debut novel, Tram 83 by performance artist and poet, Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated from the French by Roland Glasser, published by Deep Vellum Publishing. Lucien, the protagonist, while reflecting upon his work, asks: “Is there a limit to the imagination of a writer who takes real facts and uses them to construct a world where truth and fiction coexist?” It is not surprising that Indian writers are protesting intellectual censorship by returning state awards.

17 October 2015 

“A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces”, an interview with David Davidar, Kitaabnama

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Episode 85, Kitaabnama, 10 April 2015An interview with writer, publisher and anthologist, David Davidar regarding his new book, A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces. It is a collection of 39 short stories by Indian writers. It consists of translations and those written originally in English and has been published by Aleph Book 20150811_090538Company. This episode of Kitaabnama was recorded on 10 April 2015.

Kitaabnama is a weekly programme on national television, Doordarshan. Conceived by writer and literary activist Namita Gokhale, the programme will have a participatory and inclusive format and showcase the multilingual diversity of Indian Literature. Addressing literary issues of contemporary through dialogue and conversation, Kitaabnama features books, readings and encounters with writers from the spheres of Hindi, English and various Indian languages, as well as guest appearances from International names and voices.

11 August 2015

Ruskin Bond, ” A Gathering of Friends”

Ruskin BondEarlier this month, Aleph Book Company, published Ruskin Bond’s A Gathering of Friends. It is a collection of twenty-one short stories. These have been chosen by the author himself, from a body of work written over a period of fifty years. The well-known and much loved stories include “The Blue Umbrella”, “Panther’s Moon”, “The Cherry Tree”, “The Night Train at Deoli”. “Susanna’s Seven Husbands”, “The Night Train at Deoli” and “The Prospect of Flowers”. This book has been published to coincide with the 81st birthday celebrations of Ruskin Bond. 

“Rust-free fiction”, the foreword by David Davidar, Publisher, Aleph is a wonderful List of contentssnapshot of fifty years of publishing and storytelling. I was delighted to discover the connection between legendary publisher, Diana Athill, and legendary storyteller, Ruskin Bond. When Diana Athill was at Andre Deutsch she gave Ruskin Bond his earliest break as a writer. Both of them are admirable. Today Diana Athill is ninety-seven years old and writing. Ruskin Bond is in his eighties and writing.  Ruskin Bond’s introduction to the book can be read at the DailyO

Given the number of books Ruskin Bond has written it is impossible to read them all. A Gathering of Friends is a fine introduction to this fantabulous storyteller who excels in detailing the ordinary like an exquisite miniaturist. This book is for keeps, to be passed on from generation to generation.

 With the permission of the publishers, I am reprinting the foreword.

Rust-free Fiction

by David Davidar

Over fifty years ago, in a world that no longer exists, a young man in India decided that he wanted to be a writer, a novelist to be precise. At the time, if you wrote in English, and belonged to the erstwhile colonies, in order to be taken seriously you had to publish in London, so our would-be-man-of letters set sail for England.  The English publishing world of those decades could have been lifted from the pages of a P.G. Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh novel. Men (and the occasional woman) from the English upper classes, with plummy accents, would decide the fate of would-be-writers over long, bibulous lunches at their clubs or restaurants like Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, with scant regard for the nuances of profit and loss accounts and, more discouragingly, the work of writers outside their ken. Unsurprisingly, it was a closed world, and one that was difficult to break into. The young man from India would soon discover this, when the rejection slips began to mount. However, there was a chink in the closed ranks of British publishing – a resourceful maverick of Hungarian origin called Andre Deutsch. The eponymous publishing house he owned, and Diana Athill the brilliant editor who worked for him, soon became a major force in the London publishing world. They launched the careers of several brilliant ‘foreign’ literary novelists, Wole Soyinka and V.S. Naipaul among them.  They would provide a home for The Room on the Roof, the first novel of the young Indian writer we’ve been following, Ruskin Bond.

Today, British publishing is no longer the force it once was, bleeding as it is from a thousand tiny cuts, but the star of the author of The Room on the Roof continues to be in the ascendant. The publishing firm Andre Deutsch no longer exists as an independent entity, but Ruskin Bond, the recipient of multiple honours and awards, has over a hundred books in print and can legitimately claim to be India’s best-loved author. And, to the great good fortune of readers, even though he is now in his eighties, he shows no signs of slowing down.

What is it about Ruskin’s work that gives it its extraordinary vitality, clarity, and what can only be called luminosity? From the oldest work to the most recent, his stories shine with a brightness that rises from what the great American novelist, Ernest Hemingway, called  ‘true sentences’—creative prose of weight, distinction, honesty and insight that does not strive for effect by being unnecessarily clever, showy or pretentious. Ruskin’s fiction never seems to rust or date, and seems as fresh today as the day on which it was first written. Impervious to the dictates of literary fashion or changing trends, it continues to ensnare generation after generation of readers.  I asked him why he thought his writing held up so well, why it didn’t lose its lustre, decade after decade, reading after reading.  ‘I’m flattered that you think that,’ he said with a chuckle. ‘But I never think about any of that. I have always approached my writing with the wide-eyed curiosity of a kid. It’s the same today as it was in the beginning, and if there is any secret ingredient to my writing that would be it. I hope I never lose that.’

 

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This piece is adapted from the foreword to Ruskin Bond’s latest book, A Gathering of Friends, published to commemorate his 81st birthday

Ruskin Bond A gathering of friends: My favourite stories Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2015. Hb. pp.250. Rs 395