Allahabad Posts

An extract from “Indian Genre Fiction”

Indian Genre Fiction: Pasts and Present Futures (eds. Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, Aakriti Mandhwani and Anwesha Maity) is a fascinating collection of essays. There are articles on popular fiction in late colonial Tamil Nadu, to novels of Urdu, 19th-century Bengali chapbooks, science fantasy of Leela Majumdar and Sukumar Ray, Hindi pulp literature, retelling of the Mahabharata in Krishna Udaysankar’s The Aryavarta Chronicles and Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva. But the essay that I read and re-read was Ira Pande’s tremendous “Hearts and homes: A perspective on women writers in Hindi”. Being the daughter of the very popular Hindi writer Shivani and a fluent speaker in English and Hindi, Ira Pande shares her fascinating perspective on inhabiting the Hindi literary world and what it means being bilingual.

With the permission of the publishers, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, here are two extracts from this brilliant essay. (pps. 94-95 and 96-97)

Allahabad in the ’60s was home to some of the greatest writers of those times. Harivansh Rai Bachchan had left Allahabad for Delhi by then, but there were other more famous chhayavad poets still around (Sumitranandan Pant, Mahadevi Verma and Nirala), Firaq Gorakh-puri, Amrit and Sripat Rai (Premchand’s sons, both writers and publishers), Ilachandra Joshi, VDN Sahi and Usha Priyamvada, to name just a few. And of course, there was Shivani. However, along with others of her tribe, such as Salma Siddiqi and Mannu Bhandari, her kind of writing was passed off as romantic fluff or domestic sagas that housewives ordered by mail as part of a gharelu (domestic) library scheme. The very popularity of these women writers became a weapon to use against their literary output. To the supercilious self-styled critics who pronounced judgment on what was to be considered accept-able as literature, this space was only meant for those who wrote for a different audience, one that had a sophisticated palate developed on the ‘modern’ fare of European and contemporary American fiction. Certain subjects were taboo in this high-minded world: romance and bourgeois lives headed this list.

Somewhere by the ’70s, then, the small town became an object of ridicule: it was valourised in romantic literature and cinema but actually hated and mocked at in the real. Small wonder then, that its inhabitants (who suffered from a crippling form of low self-esteem since birth) ran into hiding and tried to ape the big-city culture by writing, speaking and dressing like the metropolitan sophisticates they yearned to become. When this happened, the country lost all those delightful rivulets that fed the creative river of the Grand National Dream. The homogenisation of culture took over: slogans replaced feelings. The joy went out of fun as its definition changed into something wrought by high-minded nationalist agendas. Political correctness has a lot to answer for.

Upon reflection, it appears to me that Shivani’s most prolific literary output and some of her most memorable and popular novels date to the years when Hindi magazines were avidly read across North India. Among these, Dharmyug (edited then by the formidable Dharmvir Bharati, a widely respected novelist and dramatist) occupied pride of place. Published by Bennett and Coleman (referred to henceforth as B&C), its owners (Sahu Jain and Rama Jain) promoted creative writing and later endowed the Gyanpeeth Award, the first privately endowed prestigious literary award for writers in various Indian languages. The Bennett and Coleman Group (later known as the Times of India group) also brought out a clutch of other magazines. Among these were Sarika (contemporary Hindi writing, edited by Kamleshwar) and Dinaman (a political and economic weekly, edited by Agyeya), both respected for their content and editorial gravitas. Filmfare, a film magazine, and the Illustrated Weekly of India were their popular English-language publications. The Hindustan Times group, owned by the Birlas, published Saptahik Hindustan (as a rival to Dharmyug), Kadambari (as an alternative to Sarika) and vied with each otherto publish serials by the most popular Hindi writers of those days. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, there was not a single library or reader in North India that did not subscribe to these magazines.

Almost all of Shivani’s novels – certainly her most popular ones – were first published as serials in one or the other magazines mentioned above. Her most well-known novel, Krishnakali, published as a serial in Dharmyug in the ’60s, was later published as a novel by Gyanpeeth (the publishing house run by the B&C group). In addition to these magazines, two others (Navneet and Gyanoday) I can recall from then were modelled on the popular American publication, Reader’s Digest. Shivani’s travelogues, essays and memorial tributes were regularly published in these Hindi digests.

….

Naturally, the serialised novel had its own effect on the writing it spawned. Fans wrote furious letters to Shivani when she betrayed their hopes (such as by killing off a character) or when she did not spend enough time on a particular strand of the narrative. This close bond between writer and reader was perhaps what contributed to the intimacy that readers developed over the years with their favourite writers. My sister Mrinal Pande (who edited Saptahik Hindustan in the ’90s) recalls how typists vied with each other to type out Shivani’s (always) handwritten manuscript when she sent in a fresh instalment so that he/she would be the first to read it! The circulation of magazines jumped by as much as 55 per cent when her novels were being serialised and siblings fought with each other to grab the magazine to read it first when it was delivered to private homes. Often they tore the pages out so that they could share it among themselves.

What gave this genre its enormous reach and popularity was that these stories were significant documentaries. I would say that that it was reality fiction based on real-life characters and episodes and invisible to the writers based in our up-and-coming metros who consciously distanced themselves from these provincial lives to become more acceptable to a wider, international literary world. This is a fact often overlooked when tracing the evolution of Hindi writing. As Vasudha Dalmia’s book on fiction and history reveals, novels located in Allahabad, Agra, Aligarh, Banaras or Lucknow give us an insight into the social landscapes that were shaping middle-class lives in the ’50s and ’60s.2 Beneath the romantic tales of young women and men were rich subplots that reveal the gradual breakup of orthodox joint families, the effect of education on the emancipation of women in provincial India and the effect of migration from small towns to industrial cities. The language of everyday conversation in middle-class homes and amongst families, the social terms of exchange between men and women, workers and employers are important markers of a world we seek today and cannot find because it no longer exists. What are often dismissed as kitchen tales and romantic fiction stood firm on a foundation because it was supported by religion and ritual, food and taboos, folk remedies and aphorisms that nourished clans and villages. In the tightly packed houses of our old shahars that were separated by narrow lanes, the smells and sounds that travelled across neighbours became rich lodes of narratives that had the authenticity of real lives. The bonds between Hindu and Muslim homes, or between upper- and lower-caste settlements were strong threads that wove the fabric of our social communities. A deep suspicion of the other community was balanced by an equally strong love for individual men and women. Look for these common narrative strains and you will find them in all writers who lived and thrived in little India.

3 Feb 2019

Ashim Choudhury’s “The Sergeant’s Son”, Review, publ in The Hindu Literary Supplement

Ashim Choudhury’s “The Sergeant’s Son”, Review, publ in The Hindu Literary Supplement

The Sergeant's Son, Ashim Choudhury( My review of Ashim Choudhury’s The Sergeant’s Son has been published in the print edition of the Hindu Literary Supplement today. Here is the link: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-literaryreview/narrow-little-lives/article5080469.ece . The review is also given below.)

There came a time when the Biswas children were tired of living in Miltry Camp, particularly after Ashok and Nimmi moved out to another part of the camp, far away from where they lived. After that Major Xavier was posted out, taking with him Peter and Benny, the only officers’ children whom they played with. … By now they were among the oldest residents of the camp, but with so many newcomers they sometimes felt like strangers.

The Sergeant’s Son is exactly what the title suggests; the story of Kalu, Sergeant Samar Biswas’s son. Narrated by Kalu, the third of four brothers, the book details his life from his birth in Barrackpore till his departure to Kanpur to join the Air Force as a Radio Telephone Operator. The book, set between mid-1960s and 1977, is about an ordinary life in the Air Force. The children study in the nearest school; their mother, Basanti imposes a strict routine supervising their grooming, meal times, and homework every single day and insisting on prayers every Thursday evening. Their dour father is the disciplinarian whom they dread since he is not averse to beating the sons mercilessly, especially the renegade eldest Taposh or Borda, with a “shoe that was handy or a leather belt that been specially ordered for the purpose.”

The story documents the narrow little lives that the Biswases share with the other “migratory birds” of the Air Force station. A bunch of characters waft in and out of the book, never to appear again — many of the playmates at the station, other personnel like Corporal Dhar and his wife, Kakima, Mathew Uncle, the Vermas, the Anglo-Indian family called Sampios or the teachers like “Blanch teacher” and “Karachi teacher”, and the women who clean the bathrooms. Kalu even describes the few early sexual encounters with Bimla Devi, the maid who seduced him when he was alone at home and with his classmate Amit. Later the Std. IX geometry teacher, Mr. Shankar, assaults Kalu in a drunken stupor.

For someone who speaks and writes English well, a fact acknowledged even by his teachers, Kalu’s obsession with the language is trying. His discomfort presumably stems from the fact that his competence at the language masks his social class but his origins still make him insecure. In Bombay, Kalu and his siblings feel inferior to the five Sampio children even though they never went to school. Since they “spoke the Queen’s Language no one could think poorly of them.” In Allahabad, Kalu “was never truly part of the English-speaking gang. He hovered on its periphery — a low-caste pretending to be a Brahmin; or more appropriately, a soldier’s son trying to mix with officers’ children. The gang mostly consisted of defence officers’ children.” But he realises that his ability to speak fluent English “gave him a passport”, probably to improve his status in life.

A first novel tends to have autobiographical elements in it but the preoccupation with that seems to be the trademark of much Indian fiction in English, with the writer inevitably getting absorbed in minute details. The Sergeant’s Son is no different but it is a story told competently.

1 Sept 2013