Aleph Posts

“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

Jaya’s Newsletter 4 (19 November 2016)



(L-R) Carolyn Reidy, Simon & Schuster Inc., Jaya Bhattacharji Rose and Rahul Srivastava, MD, S&S India

The business of publishing continues to be fascinating. Simon & Schuster India celebrated its 5th year and announced its inaugural list at a wonderful reception attended by prominent publishing professionals. Authors on the list include Natasha Badhwar, Jairam Ramesh, Keki Daruwalla, Samanth Subramanian , Prayaag Akbar , Jagdeep Chokhar, Priyanka Dubey, Paddy Rangappa et al. Fascinatingly local authors signed by the Indian office will be offered a global platform. Meanwhile in USA, AmazonCrossing, Amazon’s publishing imprint which focuses on translations, continues to surpass all other publishers in the number of titles it’s doing per year. Their target is to publish between 60-100 titles / year. This emphasis on making world literature visible especially through translations is bound to have a significant impact on global publishing.

Award-winning publisher Seagull Books’s Correspondence  by Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann and translated by correspondenceWieland Hoban has been turned into a critically acclaimed film. Paul Celan (1920-70) is one of the best-known German poets of the Holocaust; many of his poems, admired for their spare, precise diction, deal directly with its stark themes. Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-73) is recognized as one of post-World War II German literature’s most important novelists, poets, and playwrights.

The 2016 National Book Award winners were announced with Colson Whitehead winning the fiction category for The Underground Railroad.

jeffrey-archerThe dates for the Jeffrey Archer book tour to launch the final volume of Clifton Chronicles have been announced:

21 Nov – 7pm at Amphitheater, Cyberhub, Gurugram

22 Nov – 7 pm at Amphitheater, VR Bengaluru, Bengaluru

23 Nov – 7pm at Crossword bookstore, Phoenix Market City, Pune

24 Nov – 6pm at Crossword Bookstore, Kemps Corner, Mumbai

Entry is free. It is on first come first serve basis.

Jaya Recommends

New arrivals

Jaya’s newsletter – 2

(Thank you for the response to my inaugural newsletter. Please feel free to write: jayabhattacharjirose1 at gmail dot com )

westland-332pxThe biggest news in terms of business deals has been the acquisition of TATA-owned publishers Westland by Amazon. ( Earlier this year Amazon had a bought a significant minority stake in Westland but last week they bought the company for a purportedly Rs 39.8 crores or approximately $6.5 million. ( ) Westland has a history of over 50 years in retail, distribution and publishing. It is an amalgamation of two companies, Westland Books and EastWest Books (Madras). “Amazon’s roots are in books and we are excited to be part of that team in the next phase of our journey,” Westland CEO Gautam Padmanabhan said. The publishing list of Westland, its imprints Tranquebar and EastWest, and imprint extension Mikros, include bestselling authors Amish Tripathi, Ashwin Sanghi, Rashmi Bansal, Rujuta Diwekar, Preeti Shenoy, Devdutt Pattanaik, Anuja Chauhan and Ravi Subramanian, among others. This deal highlights the growing significance of India book markets — the third largest English language and with each regional language being of a substantial size too. It will also have an effect on how publishers realign themselves to create strategically good content which makes for good cultural capital but also astute business sense.

For more on the significance of such an acquisition read Bharat Anand’s analysis of AT&T & Time Warner merger incontent-trap HBR. ( ) It is a marriage between content and distribution, organizations and tech companies. “Content is an increasingly important complement for every one of the tech companies.” Bharat Anand is the Henry R. Byers Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, where he’s taught media and corporate strategy for 19 years. He is the author of the recently released The Content Trap: A Strategist’s Guide to Digital Change.

Publishing business strategies will be bolstered by the GOI announcement as part of the Digital India movement that “Handsets mandated to support Indian language keyboards July 1st 2017”  All handsets being manufactured, stored, sold and distributed in India will have to support the inputting of text in English, Hindi and at least one more official Indian language (of 22), and support reading of text in all these languages. ( ) In Medianama’s analysis this will speed up the switch in India to smartphones (and featurephones), because they have that capability to use Indic languages using the operating system. ( ) In the long run, good news for publishers if their content is gold.

14 November is celebrated as Children’s Day in India. Nearly 50% of the 1.3 bn population in India is below the age of 25 years –a sizeable reading market. As the first-ever Kids & Family Reading Report, India edition by Scholastic India notes that 86% children read the books they select but points out that 71 per cent of kids were currently reading a book for fun. This is the way it should be to create a new generation of readers. ( )

Jaya Recommends

ann-patchettAnn Patchett’s incredibly stunning novel of families and the writing experience Commonwealth madeleine-thien(Bloomsbury)

Jonathan Eig’s fascinating account of The Birth of the Pill (Pan Books, Pan MacMillan India)the-birth-of-the-pill

Translating Bharat Reading India edited by Neeta Gupta. A collection of essays discussing the art of translating and what constitutes a good translation. (Yatra Books)

translating-bharatMadeleine Thien’s extraordinary novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing  ( My interview with the author:  )

On literature and inclusiveness ( )

Legendary publisher 97-year-old Diana Athill’s latest volume memoir, a delicious diana-athilloffering Alive, Alive Oh!

Book launches:

Amruta Patil  ( HarperCollins India)amruta-patil

Shashi Tharoor ( Aleph)shashi-tharoor

Ritu Menon’s Loitering with Intent: Diary of a Happy Traveller  on 5th November 2016, IHC (Speaking Tiger)ritu-menon-book-launch

Craig Mod’s book launch in Tokyo:

Lit fests: ILF Samanvay: The IHC Indian Languages Festival‎ ( 5-7 Nov 2016)ilf


Literary Prize:  Haruki Murakami wins this year’s Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award ($74,000).    The Hans Christian Andersen Literary Award is not to be confused with the Hans Christian Andersen Award (or medal)— often regarded as the “Little Nobel Prize”— instituted in 1956 to recognize lasting contributions in the field of children’s literature. ( ) In his acceptance speech he warned against excluding outsiders ( )

World Literature Today, the award-winning magazine of international literature and culture, announced Marilyn Nelson as the winner of the 2017 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature. Awarded in alternating years with the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the biennial NSK Prize ( $25,000) recognizes great achievements in the world of children’s and young-adult storytelling.  ( )

jai-arjun-singhJai Arjun Singh’s The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee has been given the Book Award for Excellence in Writing on Cinema (English) at the Mumbai Film Festival.

Interesting book links:

A Phone Call from Paul , literary podcast for @LitHub done by Paul Holdengraber, NYPL is worth listening to. Here is the latest episode where Paul is in conversation with Junot Diaz. ( )

On the Jaffna library:

Iran and Serbia sign MOU to enhance book publishing:

How one Kiwi author is making $200,000 a year publishing romance novels online:

Bengaluru barber popularises Kannada literature:

Literary River, Literature vs Traffic installation:

Six wonderful ways feminist publisher Virago shook up the world of books

Turkish Government closes 29 publishers

3 November 2016 

World Wildlife Day, 3 March 2016 / Some books

On 20 December 2013, at its 68th session, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) decided to proclaim 3 March, the day of the adoption of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), as World Wildlife Day. In its resolution,[2] the General Assembly reaffirmed the intrinsic value of wildlife and its various contributions, including ecological, genetic, social, economic, scientific, educational, cultural, recreational and aesthetic, to sustainable development and human well-being.

Winged Fire -Photo Credit Dhritiman Mukherjee

Winged Fire -Photo Credit Dhritiman Mukherjee

Winged Fire -Photo Credit Nirav Bhatt

Winged Fire -Photo Credit Nirav Bhatt

To commemorate this day, I am posting pictures of some of the wildlife books that I have enjoyed. The absolutely scrumptious trilogy published by renowned wildlife conservationist Valmik Thapar lead the list. The books are– Tiger FireWild Fire and Winged Fire. These are a “must have” not only for the stupendous production, quality of photographs but also for the amount of research that has been presented. It is probably the first time such an ambitious task has been undertaken in India wherein an extensive selection of historical accounts in writing and paintings, brilliant photographs with never before seen images of wildlife ( much like the pioneering work done by Jacques Cousteau’s photo-documentation of ocean life) and an overview of the conservation efforts made by governments with an informed and critical understanding by Valmik Thapar.

Winged Fire -Photo Credit Arpit Deomurary

Winged Fire -Photo Credit Arpit Deomurary



Jim Corbett

Jim Corbett 2








Speaking Tiger too has republished a couple of books by Jim Corbett.

Last year Hachette India published Vivek Menon’s IMG_20160303_103545incredibly detailed guide to Indian Mammals which even game wardens consider as their Bible! A fact we discovered while on a trip to a wildlife sanctuary last year. It was being sold at the entrance of the park and the guides were encouraging the tourists to buy it for its authentic and accurate information.

There are also a bunch of books for children discussing wildlife conservation by not demonising the unknown, instead respecting other species and learning to live in harmony. ( Finally!) We need many more books like these given how there are hunts organised as new tourism packages. I am posting pictures of a few examples from National Book Trust ( NBT) and Puffin but there are many more available in the market now.

Arefa Tehsin










3 March 2016 

Saad Z. Hossain, “Escape from Baghdad!”


( Aleph sent me an advance reading copy of Saad Z. Hossain’s debut novel, Escape from Baghdad!  Upon reading it, Saad and I exchanged emails furiously. Here is an extract from the correspondence, published with the author’s permission.

I read your novel in more or less one sitting.  The idea of Dagr, an ex-economics professor, and Kinza, a black marketeer, make a very odd couple. To top it when they discover they have been handed over a former aide of Saddam Hussein who persuades them with the promise of gold if they help him escape from Baghdad is downright ridiculous. But given the absurdity of war, it is a plausible plot too. Anything can happen. Escape from Baghdad! is a satirical novel that is outrageously funny in parts, disconcerting too and quite, quite bizarre. I do not know why I kept thinking of that particular episode of Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce and his colleagues trying to make gin in their tent while the Korean War reached a miserable crescendo around them. The micro-detailing of a few characters, inevitably male save for the chic Sabeen, is so well done. It is also so characteristic of war where there are more men to be seen, women are in the background and play a more active role at the time of post-conflict reconstruction. They do exist but not necessarily in the areas of combat. It is a rare Sabeen who ventures forth. Sure women combatants are to be seen more now in contemporary warfare, but it was probably still rare at the time of Operation Desert Storm. Yet it is as if these characters are at peace with themselves, happy to survive playing along with the evolving rules (does war have any rules?), not caring about emotions and learning to quell any sensitivity they had like Dagr remembering his wife’s hand on her deathbed.

Saad: Thanks for the kind words, and for getting through the book so fast. Aleph has been amazingly easy to work with, they are clearly good people 🙂

JBR: Why did you choose to write a novel about the Gulf War?
When I started writing this, it was before Isis, or Syria, or the Arab Spring. The Gulf War was really the big war of our times, and looking back at Iraq now, I feel that it still is. I wanted to tell a war story, and the history of Baghdad, with all the great mythology, and just the location next to the Tigris and Euphrates was really attractive. I think I started it around 2010. I wasn’t very serious about it at first. The book was first published in Dhaka in 2013 by Bengal Publications.
According to an interview you did with LARB, you never went to Baghdad, and yet this story? Why?

I wrote the story as more of a fantasy than an outright satire or war history. For me, large parts of it existed outside of time and logic. Much of it too, was set in closed spaces, like safe houses and alley ways, and this was just how it turned out. In the very first chapter I had actually envisioned a sweeping, circuitous journey from Baghdad to Mosul, but I couldn’t even get them past two neighborhoods.

But isn’t that exactly what war does to a society/civilization? 

Yes, that’s why I prefer using fantasy elements/techniques to deal with war itself. The surreal quality represents also the mental state of the observer, who is himself altered by the horrible things he is experiencing. I’m also now beginning to appreciate the long term after effects of war on a population’s psyche. For example Bangladesh is still so firmly rooted in the past of our 1971 War, almost every aspect of life, including literature is somehow tied to it. The damage is not short lived.

Bangladesh fiction in English is very mature and sophisticated. Much of it is set in the country itself, focused on political violence, so why not write about Bangladesh? Not that I want to bracket you to a localised space but someone like you who obviously has such a strong and nuanced grasp of the English language could produce some fantastic literary satirical commentary on the present. In India Shovon Choudhary has produced a remarkable satirical novel — The Competent Authority, also published by Aleph.

You are right, of course, Bangladesh is ripe for satire, as are most third world countries. I’m a bit afraid because I want to do it right, and I know that if certain things don’t ring true, I’ll face a lot of criticism at home for it 🙂 Technically, I am still struggling to develop a voice that I’m comfortable with. I need my Bengali characters to operate in a certain way, yet I still want them to be authentic, and plausible. I also rely on mythology and fantasy a lot, and this poses a linguistic challenge. I’ve found that sometimes the flavor of mythology doesn’t really translate very well. Each language has a lot of mythology built into it, like English uses a lot of Norse and Greek mythology, for example in the way the days of the week are named after Odin, Freya, Tue. There are situations where you are trying to describe an Asian fantasy element in English, and it doesn’t quite work. It is necessary, in a way, to rewrite mythology from the ground up, which is a very big job.

Fascinating point. Now why do you feel this? Is there an example you can share? 

Well just the word djinn, for example. The English word is genie. A genie is a cute girl wearing harem pants granting wishes to Larry Hagman. How can I get across the menace, the fear, the hundreds of years of dread our people have of djinns? How much space do I have to waste on paper trying to erase the bubble gum connotation of genie? Will it be successful in the end, or will the English reader just be confused? What about a word like Ravan, which has an instant connotation for us, a name like a bomb on a page, but in English, it’s just a foreign sounding word that requires a footnote, something alien that the eye just blips over. For me to convey the weight of Ravan, I’d have to build that up, to recreate the mythology for the reader, to act out everything.

Isn’t the purpose of a writer to disturb the equanimity?  Will there be a second book? If so, what? Btw, have you read The Black Coat by Neamat Imam?

I haven’t read it. I just googled it, it looks good, I’m going to find a copy. There isn’t a second book, this was not designed to have a serial, the ending is left open to allow the readers to make their own judgments for the surviving characters. I am writing a second novel on Djinns, which is set in Dhaka, so I hope to address some of the issues facing us there.

The story you choose to etch is a fine line between a dystopian world and a war novel. Is that how it is meant to be?

Yes, in my mind there is not one specific reality, but rather many versions which exist at the same time, and if we consider war as a pocket reality, it would certainly reflect a very dystopian nature. While we do not live in a dystopia, there are certainly pockets of time and space in this world which very strongly resemble it.

It is particularly devastating to consider a people who believed in economics, and GDP growth, education, houses, mortgages, retirements and pensions to suddenly be pitched into a new existence that has neither hope, nor logic, nor any use for their civilian skills.

True. I often think we are living a scifi life. It makes me wonder on what is reality?

My understanding is that the human brain uses sensory input to create a simulation of the world, which is essentially the ‘reality’ we are carrying around in our minds. This is a formidable tool since it allows us to analyze situations, recall and recalibrate the model, and even to run mental games to predict the outcome of various actions. For a hunter gatherer, the brain must have been an extremely powerful tool, like having a computer in the Stone Age. But at the same time, because these mental simulations are just approximations of what is actually there I can see that reality for everyone can be subtly different, and if we stretch that a little bit, it makes sense that many different worlds exist in this one.

The Indian subcontinent is a hotbed for political nationalism and neverending skirmishes, with peace not in sight. Living in Dhaka and writing this novel at the back of car while commuting in the hellish traffic Escape from Baghdad! seems like a strong indictment of war but also builds a case for pacifism. Was that intentional?

War is a complex thing. It’s easy to say that we are anti-war, and for the most part, who would actually be pro-war? I mean what lunatic would give up the normalcy of their existence to go and bleed and die in the mud? Even for wars of aggression, the math often doesn’t work out: the cost of conquering and pacifying another country isn’t worth the consequences of doing so. Yet, for all that, war has been a constant companion of humanity from ancient times. It is, I think, tied into our pack animal mentality. The very quality which allows us to freely collaborate, to collectively build large projects, is the same thing which leads to organized violence as a response to certain trigger situations. I believe that the causes of wars have all been minutely parsed and analyzed, broken down into the actions and motivations of different pressure groups, but all of this still does not explain the reality of battalions of ordinary people willing to strap on swords and guns and armor and commit to slaughtering each other. That willingness is a psychological problem for the entire human race to contend with, I think.

JB: As long as you raise questions or leave situations ambiguous, forcing readers to ask questions about war, the novel will survive for a long time.

The creation of old women especially Mother Davala are very reminiscent of those found in mythology across the world. It is an interesting literary technique to introduce in a war novel.

Mother Davala is one of the three furies of Greek myth, the fates whom even the Gods are afraid of. They are also in charge of retribution, which was apt for this particular scenario. This was one of the things I was talking about earlier, with the mythology built into the language. The Furies have such a resonance in English, such a long history in literature, that they carry a hefty weight. I could have used, instead, someone like Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love and conflict, but that name has no real oomph in English, and so it would be a wasted reference.

So if you find it challenging to work mythological elements from other cultures into your fiction, how were The Furies easy to work with? 

I think the challenge is to use non English mythology while writing in English. English mythology kind of covers Norse, Greek, Arthurian, as well as Christian mythology, of course. To use elements of any of those is very easy because there is a lot of precedent, and the words already exist in the lexicon. The problem arises when you are writing in English about a non western culture. Then you are forced to describe gods, goddesses, demons, etc, which sound childish and irrational, because they have no linguistic resonance in English. If I say the words Christ and crucifixion, there is an instant emotional response from the reader. If I describe the story of the falcon god Horus who was born in a strange way from his mother Osiris, and performed magical acts in the desert and then eventually died and returned to life, it just sounds quaint, and peculiar.

Have you written fiction before this novel?

I’ve been writing for a long time, since I was in middle school, and my earlier efforts have produced a vast quantity of bad science fiction and fantasy. It started with a bunch of friends trying to collaborate on a story for some class. We each picked a character, and made a race, history, etc for them. The idea was to create a kind of mainstream fantasy story. I remember we all used to read a lot of David Eddings back then. The others all dropped out, but I just kept going. Writing a lot of bad genre fiction helps you though, because you lose the fear of finishing things, plus all that writing actually hones your skills.

How long did it take you to write this story and how did you get a publication deal? Was it an uphill task as is often made out to be?

I took a couple of years to write this. It started when I joined a writers group, and I had to submit something. That was when I wrote the first chapter. The group was very serious and we had strict deadlines, so I just kept writing the story to appease them, and then I was ten chapters in and growing attached to the characters, so I decided to go ahead and finish it. This was a group in Dhaka, it was offline, we used to physically meet and critique stuff. A lot of good work was published out of that. It’s definitely one of the critical things an author needs.

Publishing seemed impossibly daunting at first, but when it happened, it was easy, and through word of mouth. I knew my publisher in Bangladesh, and when they started a new English imprint, they were looking for new titles, and I was selected. Some of my friends knew the US publisher, Unnamed Press, and I got introduced, they liked it, and decided to print. Aleph, too, happened similarly. You can spend years querying and filling up random people’s slush piles, and sometimes things just happen without effort. My philosophy is that I am writing for myself, with a readership of half a dozen people in mind, and I am happy if I can improve my craft and produce something clever. The subsequent success or failure of it isn’t something I can necessarily control.

Saad Z Hossain Escape from Baghdad! Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2015. Pb. pp 286. Rs. 399

28 August 2015


Tulsi Badrinath, “Madras, Chennai and the Self: Conversations with the city”

Madras launchMadras and Chennai came into existence almost simultaneously in 1639, as two contiguous areas. While Madras went on to lend its name to the larger southern peninsula or Madras Presidency, it also absorbed Chennai into its fold as it grew. Debate over the origins of the words Madras and Chennai continues long after the Tamil Nadu government’s decision in 1996 to officially change the capital city’s name. 

 Madras, Chennai and the Self: Conversations with the city by Tulsi Badrinath was commissioned to commemorate Chennai’s 375th birthday. The twelve people she chose to profile lived in different parts of the city. Each chapter is delightful, since it immerses you in the city — sharing her thoughts, reflections, observations and being alive to the sensuous experience. Every single person profiled is done very well, with the author allowing the personality of the subject to shine through. Two of the profiles really stayed with me after I had read the book — M Krishnan, naturalist and Kiruba Shankar, digital evangelist. Without being overly inquisitive and making the reader a voyeur in the process, Tulsi Badrinath balances her profiles of individuals by giving select insights into this character, personality and life, not necessarily compromising their privacy. For instance, M Krishnan cooking as his wife did not particularly care for it or Kiruba Shankar recounting how he came to be a digital expert and a farmer as he is known today. If publishers shared their material then the chapter by Tulsi Badrinath on M Krishnan could be included in a revised edition of Aleph’s Of Birds and Birdsong, a selection of writings by the naturalist–it would add immensely to it.

The last book on Chennai which was super was by Nirmala Lakshman, Degree Coffee by the Yard, an insider’s account of the city. Tulsi Badrinath’s book is a good companion to it. It is immensely likeable.

Tulsi Badrinath Madras, Chennai and the Self: Conversations with the City Pan Macmillan India, New Delhi, 2015. Pb. pp. 230. 

30 March 2015

Guest post: Why “The Lives of Others” makes me afraid, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

Guest post: Why “The Lives of Others” makes me afraid, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

( While reading ManBooker shortlisted novel, Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others, I began to discuss it with Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. He is an avid reader. Initially he was happy with the novel, it was well written, but then there was this long silence from him. A few days ago, I got a message from him at 2am to say he was not very comfortable at the portrayal of Santhals in the book. He should know. It is his community. So I asked him to contribute a guest post for my blog. I am posting it as he sent it. )


Neel Mukherjee

When  I  first  saw  the  Indian  hardcover  edition  of  Neel  Mukherjee’s  second  novel,  The  Lives  of  Others,  at  a  book  store  in  Kolkata  in  June  2014,  I  was  struck  by  the  familiarity  of  the  contents  of  the  book.  Having  grown  up  and  lived  all  my  life  in  a  southern  corner  of  the  state  of  Jharkhand,  the  complexities  of  a  Bengali  joint  family  and  the  Naxalite  movement  were  familiar  issues.  However,  what  was  even  more  familiar – and  striking – was  the  map  at  the  beginning  of  the  novel;  for  inset  in  that  map  were  all  the  places  that  remind  me  of  home.  They  are  not  big  or  famous  places.  They  are  small,  district  towns  and  villages.  They  do  not  find  a  regular  mention  in  the  media  like  bigger  cities  like  Kolkata  or  Delhi  do.  An  incident  that  takes  place  in  these  places  has  to  be  very  big,  remarkable  in  every  way  to  have  people  talk  about  these  places.  Even  if  these  places  find  a  mention  in  the  front  pages  of  The  Telegraph  or  The  Statesman,  I  am  quite  sure  that  many  readers  won’t  remember  their  names  just  a  mere  24  hours  after  having  read  about  them.  Yet,  these  are  the  places  whose  names  I  have  been  hearing  ever  since  I  developed  the  ability  to  listen  to  and  understand  words  and  names;  maybe,  since  when  I  was  2  or  3  years  old.  I  am  31  now,  and  the  names  of  these  places  fill  me  with  a  desire  to  just  run  back  to  my  ancestral  village  or  my  hometown  at  the  first  given  opportunity.

I  can  vouch  for  the  actuality  of  three  places  in  that  inset:  Belpahari,  Binpur,  and  Jhargram.  I  am  not  too  sure  of  Gidighati  and  Majgeria.  Perhaps,  they,  too,  are  real.  Perhaps,  they  are  a  creation  of  the  author’s  imagination.  But  Belpahari,  Binpur  and  Jhargram  are  real.  They  exist.  There  is  another  place  mentioned  a  number  of  times  in  the  novel,  giving  that  place  a  certain  importance,  although  it  does  not  appear  in  the  map:  Gidhni.

The  name  of  my  village  is  Kishoripur.  It  is  the  village  of  my  ancestors;  the  place  where  my  father,  grandfather,  and  all  those  who  came  before  were  born  and  raised.  Kishoripur  is  a  village  in  Chakulia  block  of  East  Singbhum  district  of  Jharkhand,  a  mere  10  km  from  the  border  with  West  Bengal.  Both  Gidhni  and  Belpahari  are  some  10-15  km  from  Kishoripur,  in  two  different  directions—Gidhni,  towards  the  east;  Belpahari,  towards  the  north.  Jhargram  is  some  30-35  km  from  Kishoripur,  towards  the  east.  Binpur  is  some  20-25  km  from  Kishoripur,  towards  the  north-east.  I  remember  a  saying  I  have  grown  up  with.  Choluk  gaadi  Belpahari—Let  the  vehicle  go  to  Belpahari.  This  is  a  cry  of  excitement  that  village  people,  who,  in  earlier  times,  didn’t  usually  get  to  see  a  car  or  bus  or  other  automobile,  used  to  make  when  they  boarded  a  gaadi.  The  poetry  in  this  simple  cry  of  excitement  cannot  be  missed.  Gaadi  and  Belpahari  rhyme  with  one  another.  Somewhere  in  the  book,  Ghatshila  has  been  mentioned.  Ghatshila,  the  place  famous  for  its  copper  factory,  and  for  being  a  favourite  weekend  getaway  among  the  Bengalis  from  Kolkata,  is  the  place  where  my  parents  used  to  work  and  where  I  have  grown  up.  Ghatshila  is  my  hometown.  Belpahari,  Binpur,  and  Jhargram  were  the  reasons  that  drew  me – and,  ultimately,  made  me  read – The Lives of Others;  while  Gidhni  and  Ghatshila  filled  me  with  a  feeling  of  pride  that  the  places  I  am  so  familiar  with – one  of  those  being  my  hometown,  no  less – are  being  read  about  by  people  all  over  the  world.

As  I  progressed  with  the  novel  and  the  ups  and  downs  in  the  Ghoshes’  lives,  I  came  across  many  other  familiar  places,  like,  Bali,  Nalhati,  and  Memari.  I  am  working  with  the  government  of  Jharkhand  and  am  posted  in  Pakur.  Pakur  is  a  district  in  the  Santhal  Pargana  division  of  Jharkhand.  When  I  came  to  join  my  job  in  Pakur,  I  had  no  idea  about  the  route.  So  my  father  accompanied  me  and  we  came  from  Ghatshila  to  Pakur  by  road.  We  passed  through  four  districts  in  West  Bengal – Pashchim  Medinipur  (western  Medinipur,  mentioned  in  the  book),  Bankura,  Bardhaman,  and  Birbhum – before  we  entered  Jharkhand  again  and  reached  Pakur.  Nalhati  and  Memari  were  two  places  we  passed  through.  Now,  I  travel  from  Ghatshila  to  Pakur  by  train.  I  first  travel  from  Ghatshila  to  Howrah,  from  where  I  catch  the  train  to  Pakur.  Bali  and  Nalhati  are  two  stations  I  pass  through.  The  familiarity  provided  by  these  places  further  drew  me  into  The Lives of Others.  I  wasn’t  reading  the  book  because  I  wanted  to  know  what  happened  with  the  Ghoshes.  I  was  reading  The Lives of Others  because  it  was  so  familiar,  because  it  told  me  things  I  knew,  because  I  hoped to  find  another  familiar  point  in  one  of  its  pages,  because  it  seemed  to  speak  to  me.

I  wasn’t  disappointed.  The book threw up the names of other  familiar  places.  Jamshedpur,  Giridih,  Latehar,  Chhipodohar,  McCluskieganj.  I  had  goose  flesh  as  I  read  the  names  of  these  places  and  realised  that  many  like  me,  all  over  the  world,  were  reading  these  names.

Not  only  places,  The Lives of Others  was  familiar  also  with  regards  certain  terms  that  I  have  grown  up  with.  For  example,  munish.  Our  family  owns  land  in  our  village.  When  I  was  very  little,  my  grandfather  used  to  talk  about  letting  the  munish  farm  our  fields.  At  that  time,  I  understood  that  munish  meant  workers.  Men  who  work  in  the  fields.  As  I  grew  up,  I  learnt  that  munish  meant  the  sharecroppers  who  worked  our  fields  for  us.  This,  exactly,  is  the  meaning  The Lives of Others  gives  for  the  word  munish.

Then  there  were  the  familiar  Bengali  sayings.  “fourteen  forefathers”.  When  I  read  this  term  in  Chapter  18,  I,  despite  the  sad  and  fearful  context  of  this  chapter,  couldn’t  help  smiling.  That  is  because  I  have  heard  people  saying  the  original  term:  Choddo  gushti—and  also  the  comic  implications  of  this  term  when  it  is  said  in  anger.  Another  saying  was:  “a  case  of  the  sieve  saying  to  the  colander, “Why  do  you  have  so  many  holes  in  your  arse?””,  in  Chapter  10.  I  know  the  Bengali  of  this  one  too,  although  that  has  the  sieve  with  a  needle.  The  sieve  is  riddled  with  holes,  but  it  accuses  the  needle  of  having  a  hole!

The Lives of Others  was,  indeed,  speaking  to  me.  I  don’t  think  I  need  to  write  about  how  meticulous  this  book  is.  I  came  to  know  of  the  politics  in  West  Bengal,  as  well  as  about  the  processes  involved  in  the  manufacture  of  paper—this  shows  how  good  the  research,  the  work  on  the  background,  has  been.  Finally,  when  the  narrative  reached  the  villages  of  West  Medinipur,  and  Santhal  characters  entered  the  story,  I  found  myself  turning  the  pages  in  sheer  delight.  I  wanted  to  read  what  had  been  written  about  Santhals,  how  they  had  been  presented.

And  this  undid  everything.

Maybe  I  had  had  too  high  expectations  of  The Lives of Others.  Just  because  a  book  seemed  so  familiar,  and  was  well-researched  and  well-written,  I  had  felt  that  it  would  be  entirely  satisfactory.  I  was  wrong.  The  description  of  the  Santhals  in  The Lives of Others  is  anything  but  satisfactory.  At  the  most,  it  is  stereotypical,  one  dimensional,  and  whatever  the  author  has  written  about  Santhals  has  been  drawn  so  heavily  from  whatever  opinion  the  world,  in  general,  holds  about  Santhals – about  the  Adivasis,  in  fact – that  it  all  seems  like  a  cliché.

First,  there  is  this  violent  scene  in  Chapter  10—a  moneylender  called  Senapati  Nayek  being  hacked  to  death  with  tangi  (an  axe).  The  men  who  wielded  the  tangis  were  Dhiren,  a  young  man  from  Kolkata  who  has  turned  to  Naxalism,  and  Shankar  Soren,  a  Santhal  man  from  the  village  Majgeria.  Senapati  Nayek  was  hacked  twice,  and  it  has  not  been  mentioned  who  hacked  him,  whether  Dhiren  or  Shankar.  It  could  be  that  each  of  them  hacked  him  once.  It  could  also  be  that  either  Dhiren  or  Shankar  hacked  him  twice.  In  Dhiren’s  case,  it  could  be  understood  that  he  was  driven  by  his  Naxalite  ideal  to  kill  the  landlord.  He  had  something  to  prove.  In  Shankar’s  case,  he  only  had  his  poverty,  and  the  fact  that  Senapati  Nayek  was  cheating  him  out  of  what  he  produced  on  his  land.  The  novel  tells  us  that  Senapati  Nayek  cheated  Shankar  Soren,  that  Shankar  Soren  sought  revenge.  The  novel  does  not  tell  us  what  kind  of  person  Shankar  Soren  was.  He  could  have  been  a  good  man,  but  he  could  have  also  been  a  bad,  a  cruel  man.  For,  the  novel  tells  us  that  he  beat  his  wife.  He  beat  his  wife,  the  novel  informs  us,  out  of  frustration,  but  that  could  also  mean  that  Shankar  was  depressed,  that  there  was  something  going  on  in  his  mind.  The  novel  further  tells  us  that  Shankar  was  drawn  by  Dhiren  into  the  plot  to  kill  Senapati.  Shankar  agrees  to  it.  But,  sadly,  whatever  the  novel  tells  us  about  Shankar,  it  does  not  give  us  a  detailed  insight  into  his  back  story,  it  does  not  give  Shankar  a  redeeming  story.  Shankar,  here,  represents  the  Santhals,  and  what  we  come  to  know  about  Santhals  through  the  character  of  Shankar  is  that  Santhals  are  naïve,  helpless,  frustrated,  angry,  yield  easily  to  incitement,  and  violent—in  this  order.  I  don’t  understand  if  this  description  of  Santhals – through  the  character  of  Shankar – does  any  good  to  Santhals.  Chances  are  that  readers  who  are  not  familiar  with  Santhals  might  take  Santhals  to  be  fools  who  tend  to  lose  whatever  they  own  and  repent  for  it,  and  then  turn  to  violence  to  get  their  possessions  back.  Perhaps,  Santhals  might  be  seen  as  a  bunch  of  psychos.

Second,  there  is  this  scene  in  Chapter  15,  in  which  a  drunk  man  called  Ajit  tells  his  friend  Somnath:  “…I  find  these  tribal  people  really  innocent  and  pure.  Qualities  we  city-dwellers  have  lost.”  Fine,  this  could  be  true.  But  let  us  consider  the  scene  in  its  entirety.  Ajit  is  drunk.  How  much  weight  do  the  proclamations  of  a  drunk  man  hold?  Next,  there  is  one  more  friend,  Shekhar,  he  too  is  drunk,  who  adds:  “[The  tribals]  have  no  money,  no  jobs,  no  solid  houses,  yet  look  how  happy  they  are.  They  sing,  dance,  laugh  all  the  time,  drink  alcohol,  all  as  if  they  didn’t  have  a  single  care  in  the  world.”  Now,  isn’t  this  stereotyping?  It  has  been  taken  for  granted  that  tribals  “have  no  money,  no  jobs,  no  solid  houses”,  and  they  “sing,  dance,  laugh  all  the  time,  drink  alcohol”.  Even  if  it  is  assumed  that  it  is  the  voice  of  that  particular  character – and  not  the  voice  of  the  author  who  wrote  this  book – what  positive  thing  do  these  lines  hold  for  tribals?  A  reader  who  does  not  know  tribals  will  assume  that  all  tribals  do  are  “sing,  dance,  laugh  all  the  time,  drink  alcohol”.

Third,  and  this  really  irritated  me.  Chapter  15,  just  before  that  drunken  discussion  about  tribals.  Somnath,  who  is  a  complete  lecher,  is  attracted  to  a  young  Santhal woman  and  goes  to  ask  her  the  name  of  the  flower  she  has  put  in  her  hair.  The  woman  behaves  coquettishly,  and  asks  Somnath:  “Babu,  you  give  me  money  if  I  tell  you  the  name  of  the  flower?”  At  this  point,  I  can’t  help  noticing,  The Lives of Others  turns  into  Satyajit  Ray’s  film  adaptation  of  Sunil  Gangopadhyay’s  novel,  Aranyer  Din  Ratri.  The  young  Santhal  woman  could  very  well  be  Duli,  the  Santhal  woman  in  the  film  Aranyer  Din  Ratri,  played  by  Simi  Garewal;  while  Somnath  of  The Lives of Others  could  be  the  city-bred  Hari,  played  by  Samit  Bhanja  in  the  film  Aranyer  Din  Ratri.  In  fact,  there  is  a  scene  in  Aranyer  Din  Ratri,  set  in  a  small  rural  joint  selling  hooch,  in  which  a  drunk  Duli  comes  to  a  drunk  Hari  and  asks  him  to  give  her  money  to  buy  more  hooch.  “E  babu,  de  na.  Paisa  de  na”—Duli’s  lines  from  the  film  are  still  clear  in  my  mind,  not  because  I  liked  those  lines,  but  because,  being  a  Santhal,  I  found  those  lines  terribly  embarrassing,  and  the  character  of  Duli – played  by  Simi  Garewal – absolutely  unreal  and  a  caricature.  The  same  feeling  of  embarrassment  came  over  me  when  I  read  about  the  Santhal  woman  in  The Lives of Others  asking  for  money  from  a  city-bred  man.  Simi  Garewal  in  Aranyer  Din  Ratri  might  have  looked  very  glamorous  to  some  people,  but  I  cannot  forgive  Satyajit  Ray  for  making  a  complete  hash  of  a  Santhal  character.  Similarly,  I  cannot  forgive  Neel  Mukherjee  for  Aranyer  Din  Ratri-fication – or  Simi  Garewal-isation – of  a  Santhal  woman  in  his  novel.

Further,  in  the  same  chapter,  Somnath  has  successfully  seduced  that  Santhal  woman,  promising  to  buy  her  liquor,  and  was  leading  her  towards  the  forest  to,  apparently,  make  out  with  her.  This  is  what  has  been  written  in  the  novel:  “He  had  heard  that  these  promiscuous  tribal  women  had  insatiable  desires;  they  were  at  it  all  the  time,  with  whoever  approached  them”.  Promiscuous?  I  wonder  if  the  author  was  trying  to  count  the  qualities  of  tribal  women  or  just  generalizing  things.  If  a  woman  drinks  alcohol,  does  that  make  her  promiscuous?  Was  it  necessary  to  portray  “tribal  women”  as  “promiscuous”  and  with  “insatiable  desires”?  This,  together  with  lines  like,  “You  think  we  didn’t  see  you  unable  to  take  your  eyes  off  the  ripe  tits  of  these  Santhal  women?”,  “Ufff,  those  tits!  You’re  absolutely  correct,  Somu,  they’re  exactly  like  ripe  fruit.  The  only  thing  you  want  to  do  when  you  see  them  is  pluck  and  shove  into  your  mouth”,  and  “[Santhal  women]  fill  every  single  sense.  But  not  only  tits,  have  you  noticed  their  waists?  The  way  they  wind  that  cloth  around  themselves,  it  hardly  covers  anything,  leaves  nothing  really  to  imagination.  High-blood-pressure  stuff”  (all  lines  from  Chapter  15)  seem  to  only  further  the  Simi  Garewal-isation  of  Santhal  women.  Santhal  women  have  been  presented  as  objects  of  fantasy,  what  spoilt,  city-bred  men  desire.  While  there  might  be  some  truth  in  men  lusting  after  Santhal  women,  is  it  that  difficult  to  accept  Santhal  women  as  real  persons  and  not  merely  as  objects  lustful  men  fantasize  about?

Finally,  in  Chapter  3,  there  is  a  mention  of  “the  burial  grounds  of  the  Santhals”.  I  wonder,  what  burial  grounds?  I  am  a  Santhal.  I  know  that  we  Santhals  do  not  bury  our  dead.  We  cremate  them.  So  where  did  these  “burial  grounds  of  the  Santhals”  come  from?

The  “burial  grounds  of  the  Santhals”  part  did  put  me  off  a  bit.  But  it  was  still  quite  early  in  the  novel,  and  I  was  ready  to  overlook  this  error  because  I  had  started  falling  in  love  with  this  novel.  I  found  one  more  error:  “Gidhni  Junction”,  in  Chapter  2.  Gidhni  is  an  actual  place,  and  the  railway  station  at  Gidhni  is  not  a  junction.  If  one  travels  to  Gidhni  from  Howrah,  one  would  reach  Jhargram  first  and  then  Gidhni.  So  why  would  “the  railtrack  [become]  a  loop-line”  and  why  would  “the  train  [leave]  the  main  railway  line  and  [go]  over  the  cutting”?  If  one  travelling  from  Howrah  needed  to  get  down  at  Jhargram,  he  could  easily  get  down  at  Jhargram  without  needing  to  travel  all  the  way  to  Gidhni.  I  overlooked  “Gidhni  Junction”,  initially,  thinking  it  to  be  a  creative  freedom  the  author  took.  The  type  of  creative  freedom  that  Jhumpa  Lahiri  took  in  The  Namesake  when  she  made  the  young  Ashoke  Ganguly  travel  from  Howrah  to  Tatanagar  in  an  overnight  train  instead  of  in  one  of  the  many  trains  that  ran  during  the  daytime  so  that  the  overnight  train  could  have  an  accident  near  Dhalbhumgarh  and  Ashoke  Ganguly’s  life  be  changed  forever.  I  tried  overlooking  both  “Gidhni  Junction”  and  “the  burial  grounds  of  the  Santhals”.  But  what  else  was  written  about  Santhals  crushed  all  my  hopes  in  such  a  way  that  The Lives of Others,  a  book  I  had  found  so  familiar,  stopped  working  for  me.

I  am  happy  that  a  novel  which  has  a  few  Santhal  characters  is  being  received  so  well  all  over  the  world;  but  that  is  exactly  what  makes  me  afraid—that  readers  all  over  the  world  are  reading  about  Santhals  in  The Lives of Others.  Some  readers  might  even  believe  in  what  The Lives of Others  tells  them  about  Santhals,  and  this  does  not  make  me  happy  at  all,  because  the  actual  lives  of  the  Santhals  is  somewhat  different  from  what  The Lives of Others  tells  us.

25 September 2014

Neel Mukherjee The Lives of Others Random House India, London, 2014. Hb. pp. 514 Rs. 399








HANSDA SOWVENDRA SHEKHAR is the author of the novel, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, published by Aleph Book Company. He is a Santhal, a native of Ghatsila subdivision of Jharkhand; and he is currently living in Pakur in the Santhal Pargana division of Jharkhand, where he is working as a medical officer with the government of Jharkhand. ( )

Damon Galgut, “Arctic Summer”

Damon Galgut, “Arctic Summer”

Arctic Summer, AlephThe closer he came to those caves, the more he began to falter. He knew that something took place in the dark, a sexual attack across racial lines. The caves held that kind of power. But it wasn’t simply a question of the action; it was what the action arose from — what it meant. The problem was fundamental. No matter how he tried it, the words sat on top of the deed; they had no soil and no roots. There was something wrong with how he had imagined it, something essentially dishonest and out of balance, and as his narrative crept toward the threshold, the rock refused to open for him. ( p.142)

E. M. Forster is known for his novels Howards End and A Passage to India. He also left an unfinished novel Arctic Summer. He began writing it in 1909 but it was never published. More than a century later, South African writer, Damon Galgut has written a fictional biography of E. M. Forster. He says, “I have used actual dialogue recorded by Forster ( and others) in letters or diaries, I have sometimes altered the words a little, on the assumption that nobody recalls conversations, even their own, with complete certainty.”

Arctic Summer begins with a journey that Forster makes to India in October 1912. He was following a young Indian whom he had met in England — Syed Ross Masood, associated with the Aligarh Muslim University. The book is a well-researched account of E. M. Forster’s life, his search for love, living under the shadow of his mother even though he was beginning to be recognised as a successful author. Yet the novel is written so gently and with a great deal of sensitivity, it is also difficult to distinguish between the real and imagined worlds, a credit to Damon Galgut’s fine craftsmanship.

A bio-fic is one of the best ways to know a historical period, apart from getting to know the protagonist/figure intimately. It is probably one of the most demanding genres to be dabbling in. The author has to do extensive research to get the facts right, then creatively build a story, suitable for contemporary readers, bordering on historical fiction but focused upon one person ( in this case Forster) to carry the story forward. Prior to Arctic Summer the seminal biography of Forster was written by P. N. Furbank ( whom Damon Galgut met as well). Arctic Summer though accurate about many details of Forster’s life tends to make details public about his homosexual relationships than probably Forster would not want to acknowledge so openly; though many of his close friends knew of these liaisons.  Maybe Damon Galgut has the good fortune of being able to write Arctic Summer at a point of time when conversations about same-sex relationships are recognised and being discussed regularly in society, albeit some people continue to view such alliances with hostility, anger and outrage. So to take a respected author such as Forster, to discuss his sexual life as being an inextricable part of his career ( since for love he travelled to India the first time), Damon Galgut has taken on a bold aspect of Forster’s life — homosexuality— and created a fantastic story. It is also appropriate to publish Arctic Summer in 2014 when there is  a flood of literature on World War I; this will be top of that heap, probably even on the list of some literary awards. 

Damon Galgut Arctic Summer Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 360 Rs. 595

Maria Aurora Couto “Filomena’s Journeys”

Maria Aurora Couto “Filomena’s Journeys”


Maria Couto book coverFilomena loved the house, and the company of her avo and sisters and the cook and maids. It was just that the strict discipline of indoor life, especially the indoor life expected of the women of her class, did not interest her very much. She would watch Avo and her elder sisters sitting upright for hours with their embroidery baskets, crochet needles and hairpins to produce fine  lace, but she was restless, she disliked the stillness. 

(p. 23 Filomena’s Journeys)

Filomena’s Journeys is about Maria Aurora Couto’s mother. It is a memoir that has been many years in the making. Filomena had a life that was not easy. She had been orphaned by the age of seven years old, married young, had seven children and had a fairly useless husband who ultimately abandoned the family. 

Putting together a woman’s life is never an easy task, especially within a family. It is like a patchwork quilt. Pieces of the woman’s life need to put together skillfully to create a narrative. There is a narrative that dominates family lore; plus many other experiences and stories that create an image of the person. Much of the life that she leads disappears into a silence, but to create a narrative requires immense patience, hard work and the author has to be prepared for an emotional roller coaster since it may involve unearthing stories that are disconcerting, apart from ruffling the feathers of some relatives. For instance while writing this book Maria Aurora Couto discovered that her father had practically handed over the family home to his brother in the selection of lots; her mother had somehow rustled up the required three thousand rupees to retain the property but it was too late — the deed was done. Surprisingly, whenever the author wishes to refer to herself in the book, it is always in the third person. Yet not an unheard of literary technique. It helps provide a distance and a perspective to the narrative being constructed. 

With Maria Aurora Couto, Goa, Aug 2013

In Filomena’s Journeys Maria Couto weaves together biographical details with the socio-political and cultural context of Goa admirably. The memoir is reads like a story, peppered with facts and analysis about Goa under Portuguese rule and post-Independence.There are details about the structure of Goan society and the transformations, details about cooking, village life etc that are fascinating. It makes an excellent companion to Goa: A Daughter’s Story published over a decade ago.

When Filomena’s Journeys was published I had a posed a few questions to Maria Couto via email. Here are extracts from the conversation:

Which point of the book did you begin the manuscript with?

Very difficult to write and I gave up when trying to write in the first person. After some months, tried the third person narrative and that worked better. It helped to divide the book into four sections each devoted to a period in time, Began with imagining Filomena’s childhood, tragic loss of parents, support from strong women in the family, grandmother and aunt, the bedrock of faith, tradition in an agricultural community.

How many revisions did it undergo?

Countless revisions

How did you achieve the balance between fact and telling a good story, for it to be accessible?

It was not a conscious effort. Rewriting must have smoothed the narrative.  

How many years in the making was it?

Three years.  But as my closest friends tell me, I have talked about their lives, their society for years….TRYING to understand through conversation over years—Goan society rather than just my parents. 

How has the family received it?

They are happy it has been so well received.

How did it, if at all, transform you as a writer and impact your relationship with your family?

We are very bonded, five sisters. So there has been discussion, argument and general acceptance of my narrative. Being the eldest, I have usually had my way!! 

Did you have to dig deep in archives for historical facts or is this reconstructed from family documents and memory?

Much time spent with Portuguese newspapers—1900-50 of the first five decades . Some gazetteers, conversations with 70- and 80-year-olds from the villages of my parents, along with memories shared by members of the family. 

Writing about women, especially ancestors, is never easy. They leave very little paper trails or even photo documentation. Much of the info of their lives is tucked into personal correspondence, cookbooks, and some photographs. Otherwise the impression that they leave in family lore. Many times reconstructing the real woman is tougher and at variance with what the subsequent generations recall. Did you also find it to be so?

No I did not because my mother’s life had such a strong impact on me—as the eldest, sharing and observing, it has been a questioning approach all my life. Trying to understand her modernity within a tradition which she respected and observed; within a faith that was so grounded in rigour at one level and yet so open to respect for all faith; her joy in life in the midst of unendurable experience—phenomenal. 

Maria Aurora Couto Filomena’s Journeys: A portrait of a marriage, a family & a culture Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 290 Rs. 495

4 March 2014

“Eye on the tiger”, an interview with Valmik Thapar, The Hindu, 23 Nov 2013

“Eye on the tiger”, an interview with Valmik Thapar, The Hindu, 23 Nov 2013

Tiger Fire, Valmik Thapar, Aleph, Nov 2013Later this month Aleph will be releasing Tiger Fire by Valmik Thapar. It is a fantabulous book with rare pictures and documentation. It is worth buying. I interviewed the author for The Hindu. The interview has been published online on 23 Nov 2013 – – and it will be available in print tomorrow, 24 Nov 2013. I am c&p the interview below.) 

Valmik Thapar, whose new book will be out on December 3, talks about how he got involved with the big cat.

Valmik Thapar has spent several decades serving the wild tigers of India. During this time, he has written more than 20 books and made or presented nearly a dozen films for the BBC and several other television networks on the tiger and Indian flora and fauna. He has also established the Ranthambhore Foundation, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to conserving wildlife. Despite having served on government panels and committees relating to nature conservation, he is today a fierce critic of government policy and continues to campaign and fight for new ways to save wild tigers and nature in India. This, he feels, requires partnerships with civil society in villages, towns and cities and a change in the mindset of governments. His latest book, Tiger Fire, brings together the best non-fiction writing, photography and art on the Indian tiger and is also the first time he writes on the tiger from a historical perspective. Excerpts from an interview:

How did you fall in love with tigers?

That is not easily explained, as the power of that emotion is beyond words. In 1976, I was probably open to such an experience but could never have imagined that my love for the tiger would have continued over my lifetime. Basically watching tigers, fighting for them, and looking at their history fills up my senses like nothing else… it has a power over me. This book has been a labour of love and just over three years in the making.

Tiger Fire details your experience in the Ranthambore Park. What unusual facts about tigers have you discovered in the many years of observing them?

In nearly 38 years of a life spent with tigers, I believe that the tigers of Ranthambore rewrote their natural history for the world to read, see and record. The first records of kin links among tigers were established here as were the first records of the male tiger in the role of a father and looking after cubs. This has also been established by Kim Sullivan’s recording of the baby sitter in Bandhavgarh and, more recently, Balendu Singh’s record of the male tiger bringing up cubs after the tigress died. Earlier most believed that the male killed the cubs. Ranthambore also gave us the first pictures of tigers killing in water, fighting crocodiles, eating pythons and porcupines, of a bear attacking a tiger, of the secret life of mother and cubs in the first six months of the cubs’ existence…

Towards the end of Tiger Fire,  you sound disappointed by the government’s efforts made to save the tiger. What are the current initiatives (nationally and globally) to help save the tiger?

So far as current initiatives are concerned, I find them pathetic and encouraging of lip service rather than of field action. I advocate that the bureaucracies of the world — especially in India where 50 per cent of the world’s population of tigers live — should share power and decision making with committed people in villages, towns, and cities, with scientists, NGOs and conservationists.

In Africa, countries like Kenya, South Africa and Botswana allow all kinds of models from local people managing the conserved area to resort hotels managing it to partnerships between resorts, locals and the government. As a result, large and new areas have been added to wildlifescapes. In the Masai Mara, the locals get more than $100 million a year from revenues generated from tourism. In some areas, only locals manage both the area and tourism.

In India, the government takes on this role and it is least talented. We need to reform our levels of governance, change our rules and accommodate the young and the talented in the effort to save the tiger.We need a landscape approach with innovative tourism models. (Landscape means all categories of land: government, private, revenue and includes local people who may choose to live within it.) Our government must also partner with locals in villages to create a mindset change if the tiger is to survive.

In saving the tiger, what are the other animals that are also being saved from extinction? 

With the tiger, you save leopards, bears, rhinos and elephants and all the deer and grass eaters right down to the birds and insects. If you fail, it strikes them all. There should be special schemes for snow leopards, wolves, brown bears, sharks, whales… all of which represent their ecosystems. This requires immense political will and action.

The section “Tiger in Time” brings together the finest writing on the tiger by a variety of writers from the 16th to the early 20th centuries.  But most are foreigners. Are there no accounts in Indian languages?

I could not find any with the kind of detail that the foreign travellers brought to the table. May be from the 16th to the 19th centuries, India’s forests were so thick and inaccessible that, till the British entered to plunder them, there were written records by locals who lived outside. It was the tribals who lived in the forests and I could not find their written narratives. I think there were two worlds in those times — the tame one outside the forest where the kings and emperors ruled and the wild forest where the tribals ruled. Very few ventured into each other’s worlds till the British came in. There is a lot of visual material on paper and stone and a rich folklore. I have given a short summary of it in the section “The Cult of the Tiger”. A book of the same name and The Tiger: Soul of India, both published earlier by Oxford University Press, also deal with that aspect.

After the Ranthambore National Park was created, it meant that villagers — whose ancestors had for centuries lived within the environs of the Park — had to lose their homes and all access to wood, water and traditional farming lands. An initiative to support these villagers was taken when the Ranthambore Foundation was created with the objective of acting as a catalyst in resettling the displaced communities. The Ranthambore Foundation was created to help resettle the villagers displaced when the Ranthambore National Park was created. Presumably this model helped the people to look for alternate sources of income and livelihood and thus help conserve the natural habitat of the tiger. Do you think such a model has been successful? Would you advocate it for other sanctuaries? 

Personally, I see the model as a failure because it did not do enough. In the 1990s, we had a rigid and uninterested forest bureaucracy who did not know how to partner and hold hands. Many believed that Ranthambore would have been in a mess without the creation of the foundation. There should be site-specific models in every tiger forest but the forest bureaucracy has to change their mindset and start working with locals first.

Excerpt from Tiger Fire —

“The Secret Life of the Tiger”

Strange as it may seem, it was on my last night that I had the encounter I always longed for. After dinner that night, I slipped into the jeep with the two trackers, Laddu and Badyaya, and the driver, Prahlad Singh. … The sky was pitch black with a brilliant array of stars. Our first job was to check two live baits that had been put out to attract the tiger …. The first bait that we went to check was tied to a large banyan tree at Singh Dwar. It had been killed. My heart missed a beat, but I could see nothing around the dead animal. As I flashed my torch around, I spotted a leopard curled up in the banyan tree watching the carcass.

Other than the crickets playing their orchestra, there were no other sounds. Suddenly, the booming alarm call of a sambar deer rent the air. I knew instinctively that a tiger had killed and the sound of our jeep had forced it to flee. … I waited for a while but the tiger was not coming. Our presence discouraged it. I did not realize it then but it would be years before the Ranthambhore tigers would lose their fear of man.

I quickly drove off to the second bait. Gone. Not a sign of it anywhere. I tried to search the area thoroughly but an old ruined wall hampered my visibility. I was sure the tiger feasted behind it. I was desperate to see it and the only person I could think of who might help was Fateh Singh Rathore. I raced out of the park to Sawai Madhopur where he lived. It was nearly 11 p.m. when I arrived at his house. On banging on the door, I found Fateh a little groggy but awake. When I explained the situation to him, I caught a glint in his eyes. He picked up his Stetson hat and jacket and we raced back into the park. With Fateh at the wheel, we reached the old wall at the edge of the lake close to midnight. He drove all around the wall, cramming the jeep into every crevice and corner. We directed our searchlights into every conceivable place we could think of. I was sure that the elusive tiger of Ranthambhore would have fled the scene because of all the pandemonium.

As I had suspected, we found nothing, but as Fateh reversed I saw the rear wheels of the jeep entering the water and soon the back of the vehicle was in danger of being submerged. I shouted to Fateh that we would soon be afloat and all he said was to keep the torch trained on the wall. And that is how I saw my first tiger in Ranthambhore— from a floating jeep while I flashed the searchlight around. There was a sudden sharp cough and snarl. Framed in front of me and watching the commotion with its huge head above the wall was the tiger. …

Excerpted with permission from Aleph Book Company

Tiger Fire; Valmik Thapar, Aleph Book Company, Rs.2995.