Aleph Book Company Posts

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar “The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey”

Rupi Bhaskey“…We are living in a free country now. Don’t we have the right to demand what is good for us?” ( p.71)

A debut writer inevitably strives to observe and write about a landscape that they are familiar with, but otherwise is little known about in fiction already available. It also helps in getting the book discovered once published. After all it is a new story, new voice and not necessarily new treatment of an oft-repeated theme. In The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar writes about Jharkhand, the Baskeys. It is about Rupi Baskey over a period of time, her relationship with the family and villagers, but what shines through is her fortitude and the choices she makes — many that seem to go against popular opinion, yet she stands by her decision. The book details a terrain, customs, people, beliefs, superstitions, faith healers and local history that Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is very well acquainted with, since he is a working as a doctor in the region. In fact the matter-of-fact descriptions of bodily functions including birthing can only have been written by a medical professional. Stories like these are revelatory since they give a perspective of which is little known at the national level like the impact of the Kharsawan massacre of 1948 , but is of significance to the locals.

The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2014. A well-deserved spotlight for Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar but an award will have to wait.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar  The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2014. Pb. pp. 220 Rs. 295

 

Interview with David Davidar, 6 December 2014, The Hindu

With David Davidar

(In December 2014 David Davidar’s A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces, published by Aleph Book Company will be released. I interviewed him for the Hindu Literary Review. My review of the book is forthcoming. The online version was published on 6 December 2014. Here is the url: http://www.thehindu.com/features/lit-for-life/not-so-tall-tales/article6667709.ece . A shorter version will be published in the print edition of the Hindu Literary Review on 7 December 2014.)

David Davidar on his fascination with short stories and how he put together “A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces”

Apart from being a well-known publisher, David Davidar is also a novelist, editor and anthologist. He has been an attentive reader of Indian fiction from the time he was a teenager. His latest anthology, A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces, has 39 short stories from across Indian fiction selected by Davidar. From Khushwant Singh, Munshi Premchand, Chugtai and Vaikom Muhammed Basheer and Ruskin Bond to new voices like Shahnaz Bashir and Kanishk Tharoor, the volume covers a spectrum of Indian fiction. In this interview, Davidar talks about the short story and the making of the anthology.

Excerpts:

What makes a short story?

R. K. Narayan, one of the world’s greatest writers, tells an amusing story about creative writing in general and the short story in particular. He writes: Once I was present at a lecture on creative writing. The lecturer began with: “All writing may be divided into two groups—good writing and bad writing. Good books come out of good writing while bad writing produces failures.” When touching on the subject of the short story, the lecturer said: “A short story must be short and have a story.” At this point I left unobtrusively, sympathizing with the man’s predicament. The story is amusing but when you come down to it, the short story is devilishly difficult to define if you exclude length as a criterion. Dictionary definitions are banal in the extreme. Here is one example: “A story with a fully developed theme but significantly shorter and less elaborate than a novel.” A creative writing class instructor may say your story would need to have the following elements — exposition (the setting up of the story, its backdrop, main characters etc.), conflict, plot, theme, climax and so on. If s/he was of a Chekhovian bent of mind, s/he might tell you to write a ‘slice of life’ story that was relatively loosely constructed when compared to tightly plotted stories that hinged on events and turning points. There are many other categories that short stories are classified under but I think one should never be too prescriptive or didactic. Great literary short stories should have an electrifying impact on the reader because of their complexity, mystery, layering, and special effects. And because they can usually be read at one sitting, their impact is different from that of a novel, which usually immerses the reader in a world which it has created. William Boyd, the British writer, provided one take on the form: “Short stories are snapshots of the human condition and of human nature, and when they work well, and work on us, we are given the rare chance to see in them more ‘than in real life’.” That’s as good a description as any.

What was the principle of selection?

I decided to pull this anthology together on the basis of a very simple premise: it would only include stories that I loved, stories that had made their mark on me in the 40 years or so that I had been attentively reading serious Indian literature. Like the Chekhov quote I’ve used as an epigraph to the book, the basic criterion for featuring stories in this book would be whether I liked them or not. I decided to leave out commercial fiction because there would then be no focus to the anthology. There would be no other exclusions. It wouldn’t matter to me whether the writer was Dalit or Brahmin, old master or 21st century star, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Parsi or Sikh, man or woman, straight or gay, Tamil or Kashmiri, Punjabi or Malayali. Nor would it matter if the writers wrote in English or in any of the other Indian languages, whether they lived here and carried the blue passport with the Ashok Chakra, or plied their trade in foreign lands… no, the only thing that would influence the selection would be whether or not they were — in my subjective view — breathtakingly good Indian stories. What did I mean by Indian? Either the stories would have to be about India or they would have to be written by an Indian or someone of Indian origin. Necessarily, they would need to possess an ‘Indian sensibility’.

Now, there are learned tomes on ‘the Indian sensibility’, a sensibility that is rooted in Indian culture, history, society, language, but that is not what I am trying to get at here. No, what I am trying to define is that elusive, ineffable quality to ‘serious’ poetry and prose that is unmistakably Indian. If you learn this quality from books, or by over-flying the subcontinent, all you will be able to produce is a variant of the Inspector Ghote mysteries — entertaining but shallowly-rooted writing and without any great insight into anything of consequence. I do not think an Indian sensibility is to be found only in writers who are Indian by nationality or domicile or language. Rather I think it is inherent to writers who were born here, or have lived here for enough time, for distinctive aspects of this country, this civilisation, to shape their view of the world, their creative consciousness, and their style. Their writing, whether about India or elsewhere, is informed by this ‘Indian sensibility’ — when their subject matter is India, they tend not to exoticise, but deepen our understanding of the country.

Having figured out the basic qualifications any story would need to have in order to be included, I refined the criteria for selection. Every story that made the cut would need to be a proper short story. (Vikram Seth’s ‘The Elephant and the Tragopan’ is a short story, although it is told in verse.) This meant I wasn’t going to be able to include any extracts from novels, or works in progress. It was also important that none of the stories had dated, or appear quaint to today’s reader. And, finally, every story would need to work perfectly in English, as the anthology was aimed squarely at the reader in English. Other than these qualifications I wouldn’t be excluding any writer.

Are you creating a canon of literature with this collection?

I don’t think any single anthology can canonise a writer. Not that the majority of these writers need ‘canonising’; they are already among the greats of Indian literature. I am hoping that these stories will whet the appetite of readers to explore more of the work of these writers, and other Indian fiction writers.

Do you think there is a “return” to the short story with technological developments?

I don’t think so. We have always had accomplished literary short story writers and novelists and I’m delighted to see new stars working in both these areas.

Why did you commission new translations of well-known stories that were already available in English? Does the flavour of translation change with every generation of readers?

Two reasons. The first is because, as you point out, the great classics do deserve a new translation every generation (20 years) or so to make them work for contemporary readers. The second reason was because, to be honest, a number of the existing translations were appalling. I believe this anthology features some of our greatest ever translators.

 What do you like about a short story collection?

In terms of anthologies that range across multiple genres and languages I like the fact that you are transported to different destinations with every story — the voices, subjects, the styles all change. It’s quite overwhelming, rather like taking a slow train through a variety of breath-taking landscapes.

How was this anthology arranged?

We decided to adopt the simplest possible arrangement, and ordered these stories according to the date of birth of the authors, because it was difficult to find the date of first publication of many of the stories, which would have been the other option. As a result of this arrangement, there were a number of unexpected and delightful pairings and juxtapositions — a mystery story from Bengal would be followed by a darkly comic story set in the cow belt, followed by a poignant story about a dog trapped in floods, followed by a ghost story, for example. The reader will be surprised and delighted at every turn I hope.

Why do you call it a “clutch” of Indian masterpieces?

No particular reason, except it sounded nice when you spoke the title out aloud. Also, it seemed an unusual and apposite collective noun for this particular bunch of stories.

What were the stories you excluded?

Stories that fell into four categories: Stories I didn’t like; great stories from Indian languages other than English that didn’t travel well into English; stories that were not literary; stories that I didn’t know about. Given that Indian short stories have been written for over 100 years in 30 different languages (a lot more if you include the less ‘major’ languages and dialects), I think we should all agree that, no matter how well read we are, we are all ignorant to a greater or lesser degree about aspects of modern Indian literature.

Many readers say short stories are ‘easy to read’? Do you agree? 

No, I don’t think so. Certainly, most of them can be read at one sitting, but to absorb and appreciate their richness, complexity and brilliance, it is incumbent on the reader to engage deeply and as fully as possible with them.

6 December 2014

99 Khushwant Singh

99 Khushwant Singh

99 Khushwant Singh Front CoverThe first time I met Khushwant Singh was when I drove my grandfather, Mr N. K. Mukarji, across to Sujan Singh Park to meet him. It was a meeting between old college friends. Khushwant Singh and my grandfather’s eldest brother became friends in St. Stephen’s College and remained very close. Unfortunately my granduncle Atul was diagnosed with galloping cancer at a very young age. The first person Uncle Atul informed of the doctor’s diagnosis was Khushwant Singh. They were posted in London– Uncle Atul was a Customs officer and Khushwant Singh was with the Indian High Commission. Within a few months my granduncle had passed away. Recounting the conversation decades later, the events of the late 1950s were crystal clear to Khushwant Singh. By the time the two men finished reminiscing they were both crying. I was stunned to see these two legendary men weeping. But what stayed with me from that morning meeting were not the tears as much as the lucidity with which the two men recalled events as if it had happened only yesterday. In a way it also made history come alive for me.

I get a similar feeling of history being told in an accessible way when reading 99: Unforgettable fiction, non-fiction, poetry and humour by Khushwant Singh. You can read the book cover to cover or dip into it. The non-fiction essays are particularly fascinating for encapsulating a moment in time but in a breezy way, without being dull. Khushwant Singh was always very confident of what he wrote and said. He never minced words. It showed in his writing. Lucid. Sharp. Even if he went against public opinion (famously when he supported the imposition of Emergency in India by Mrs Indira Gandhi), he said what he had to say clearly. The language he uses too is simple, conversational and never highfalutin. He was in the business of communication and he did it well. The translations included in this book especially the two spectacular ones of “Toba Tek Singh” by Saadat Hasan Manto and “The Night of the Full Moon” by K. S. Duggal are excellent examples of this philosophy. He knew the language of origination and destination very well, so was able to create translations that are not clunky to read.

In his tribute (it is the introduction to the book) David Davidar says “…’All human beings have three lives–public, private and secret.’ These three lives of Khushwant Singh infused every aspect of his writing. They gave it its honesty, originality, humour, immediacy, accessibility, pugnacity and brilliance. Heightening the impact of the content was the fact that quite early on in his career he decided to write clear, simple prose, abjuring flowery phrases, clever wordplay, or pretentious words. It was a combination of all this that made it impossible to mistake his work, either good or ordinary, for that of any other writer.”

Khushwant Singh will be missed. Fortunately Aleph has published this anthology that gives a wonderful bird’s-eye view of this legendary man’s writing. It is worth buying.

Edited by David Davidar and Mala Dayal Khushwant Singh 99:Unforgettable Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetry and Humour Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 430. Rs. 699. 

17 August 2014

Play with Me

Play with Me

Ananth 1Today, Ananth Padmanabhan’s debut novel, Play with Me, goes on sale. It is a slim novel
about a successful photographer, Sid, in a boutique ad agency. He is focused on his job, till he meets Cara, who has applied to be an intern at the agency, specifically working with Sid. Cara has relocated to India from New York. Her father is an Indian diplomat and her Turkish mother is the Islamic Art Consultant at the Met. Cara and Sid have a rollicking affair. They are sexually obsessed with each other, but slowly the relationship evolves. Cara introduces her girlfriend, Rhea to Sid too. But Sid discovers he is falling in love with another women altogether–Nat. It does make for a complicated situation. Play with Me

In a recent interview, Ananth Padmanabhan said “One day, when we were discussing EL James [author of the notorious S&M fantasy novel Fifty Shades of Grey] and commissioning erotic fiction, Chiki [ Sarkar] said, ‘A, you have to write this’; R Sivapriya [Penguin’s managing editor] had seen my work and told her about it. I said I’d give it a shot. On my commute from Gurgaon to Delhi every day, I would think about what I would do,” says the publisher’s unlikely erotica debut, Ananth, senior vice-president of sales. “It’s very difficult to get it right.” He couldn’t have picked a better or more difficult place to try his hand at writing about pleasure; your average head of sales is both perfectly placed to understand his market and new to playing the role of author. ( Rajni George, “Between the sheets”, OPEN, 31 July
2014  http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/books/between-the-sheets ) 

Ananth Padmanabhan, is Vice-President, Sales, Penguin Random House India. He has been with the firm since 1997 when David Davidar, then Penguin publisher offered him a job. As an experienced book salesman, he has a sharp sense of what it requires for a book to sell. At the same time he has a keen eye for detail as his passion for photography shows. In fact, two years ago he held an
exhibition of his black and white photographs called ‘Calcutta Walking in the City’–each frame had a story to tell. He blends his professional and personal interests well in his debut novel, Play with me. The book may have been commissioned out of a need to look for the Indian middle-class English reader of Fifty Shades of Grey, but as is the wont with good debut novelists, they tell a story with a fresh voice, anchored in details that they are usually most comfortable with. Ananth’s love for photography makes Play with me work at many levels– erotic fiction with competent and nuanced storytelling.

AranyaniPlay with Me is one of the few books published by prominent Indian publishers that deals with the genre of erotic fiction. Some of the others are A Pleasant Kind of Heavy and Other Erotic Stories by Aranyani ( Aleph Book Company, http://alephbookcompany.com/pleasant-kind-heavy-and-other-erotic-stories ) and Blue: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Short Stories from Sri Lanka, edited by Ameena Hussein ( Tranquebar Press, Westland, http://www.westlandbooks.in/book_details.php?cat_id=4&book_id=304 ). Over  a year ago, Rupa Publications launched the Confession series of low-priced books written by ordinary folks, sometimes anonymously, of sexual encounters that they had experienced  in their daily lives. Apparently these were “true” accounts written by tutors, housewives, young office workers etc. Unfortunately I am unable to locate the link to these stories now.Blue

The publishing success of Fifty Shades of Grey also attracted Hindi publishers such as Mr Narendra Verma, Chairman, Diamond Books. In an interview to me last year he said, “…we translated Fifty Shades of Grey, but it has been a trying experience with this book. As this book is written in English, translating it into Hindi first was not an easy task. It was primarily because all the words could not be translated, nor were they appropriate to be published in Hindi. The main hurdle was to not offend the middle-class reader’s sentiments. The translated text had to be edited many times before it could be released for publishing. The translation was done in-house with one of our empanelled translators. The first volume was released into the market with a print-run of 5,000, and was soon sent in for a reprint. It has been priced at Rs. 175. We are not expecting sales as phenomenal as those in English.” ( p.55, Narendra Verma, “We publish one book everyday”, PrintWeek India Book Special 2013.)

Back cover of Play with meErotic fiction is a genre that is slowly developing a space in the mainstream Indian market. As I write this, there is talk of one more eagerly-awaited for book, a memoir. A collection of erotic short stories by women which has been slated for publication for a while now has been stalled due to legal hassles. So erotic fiction continues to be a niche book market but in India it needs to be handled sensitively if it needs to sell well. As Mary Anne Mohanraj, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois, Chicago told me, “good erotica should be held to the same standards as any other good fiction, but in addition, it should also set an erotic mood, much as horror sets a horrific mood.” Hence it is not surprise then that Ananth Padmanabhan’s Play with me is already being spoken of as a sleeper-hit.

Ananth Padmanbhan Play with me Penguin Books India, 2014. Pb. pp. 250. Rs. 250

7 August 2014 

“Accidental India”, Shankkar Aiyar

“Accidental India”, Shankkar Aiyar

Accidental-India-cover-pdf_0

I read Accidental India last year. I enjoyed it since it visited parts of Indian history, linking it to the present. A narrative that can be done over and over again, to be in step with contemporary issues. The chapters were easy to read and accessible. I particularly liked the chapter on Verghese Kurien, father of the White Revolution who set up Operation Flood. (He passed away last year. This was his last interview.) A gentleman whom I met some years ago, but this chapter brings out the unwavering support Kurien had despite the blocks set up by politicians ( and academics). Kurien managed to negotiate this minefield and made his project a success. When he began the Amul story, at the time in India it was impossible to get fresh milk, butter and baby food. Stories of having to eat rancid butter, better still making white butter at home was the norm. Today pasteurized milk and the milk trains are taken for granted. This is an extraordinary story. One of the biggest success stories of post-Independence India. It needs to be told over and over again.

Shankkar Aiyar was with the Indian Express when he broke the news in July 1991 that “crates of gold were being furtively unloaded from the dull grey vans of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) into the loading bays of a heavy-bellied cargo aircraft. The country had only enough foreign exchange to pay for seven days of imports and had therefore secretly pledged 47 tons of gold from its reserves to the Bank of England to borrow $400 million to pay its creditors.” This low point in the history of India, let to the then finance minister, Manmohan Singh announcing the New Economic Policy. The author’s premise in this book is that it is a concatenation of events that resulted in the big success stories of post-Independent India. Curiously his chapter titles are borrowed from books that have been bestsellers worldwide — Das Kapital (nationalisation of banks); The Hunger Games ( the Kamraj Plan and the Green Revolution); the Milky Way (Operation Flood); the Da Vinci Code ( RTI Act and Aruna Roy’s Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan movement) etc.

My only reservation is with the title. It left me a little uncomfortable. It has a negative ring to it. It remindes me of what I used to hear many years ago, “Oh India. It is not worth it. We can never achieve anything. Look at what those abroad are doing.” It was only when I began to read vast amounts of our history, engage in research, speak to people etc that I realized we were not exactly so bad as a nation. We did good. Despite the rampant corruption and mistakes made, we also have had amazing visionaries steering it through. Seriously, sometimes when I read the Constitution of India or read the policies instituted at the time of Independence, I am stunned at the immense vision of those who conceived these documents. When I mentioned this to the author in an e-mail exchange, this is what he wrote:”The title has ruffled quite a few feathers but its my informed thought that India cannot blunder along with over one billion hopes waiting for fruction. My quarrel with the political leadership is not about what India could not do but what it could do but did not do.” (Reproduced with permission.)

Here is an interview between the author and publisher, David Davidar, Aleph Book Company. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTTXgqeynM0&feature=player_embedded

It is a book that I liked dipping into. Maybe it should be pitched at schools for their libraries too.

5 June 2013

Shankkar Aiyar Accidental India Aleph Book Company, An independent publishing firm promoted by Rupa Publications India, New Delhi, 2012. Hb. pp. 360 Rs. 695