Amitava Kumar Posts

“The Cliffhangers” by Sabin Iqbal

This is my land, this is my country. No one can come between us. Neither saffron nor green can come in our way.

But, they try to.

Debut author Sabin Iqbal’s The Cliffhanger is about a group of friends Usma, Thaha, Jahangir and Moosa. They are in their late teens and early twenties. Moosa is nineteen years old. The ages of the other friends are not mentioned but it is presumed that they are more or less the same age. They are not very well educated. Inevitably have failed school and are hanging around the cliff near their village. There is little for them to do. They are considered kafirs for their free lifestyle and friendships with foreigners and Hindus like Balannan and Vivekannan. They belong to impoverished homes that rely upon remittances sent home from the Middle East. It is mostly the men of these families that have gone to Dubai in search of work. They occupy the lowest rungs of society abroad as drivers, shop assistants, messengers etc. Work which is unappealing to the younger men in India but who realise that it is a matter of time before they too have to join the expat workforce in the Middle East. It helps bring in a regular income and is any day preferable to the backbreaking task of fishing — the only skill their village of fishermen has known for as long as they can recall.

The Cliffhangers have chosen the middle path. We don’t wear symbols of any faith or religion. We don’t tie threads around our wrists or biceps. We wear trainers, sweatpants or tracksuits or polos, which are brought by our relatives from the Gulf.

It is a village on the coast of Kerala where the population lives in relative peace and harmony though the settlement is distinctly according to communal lines. The Muslims on one side and the Hindus on the other. There are no Christians in this village. This is how it has been; till now.

Our village also has religious and political divisions — though they seem blurred and harmless to an outsider, they are as distinct as right and left, and potentially as harmful to both.

So far, the two communities in our village have lived in peace and harmony. It is a delicate peace, which any moment, could crumble like papadums.

The Cliffhangers is a fictional account of how close to the precipice this village is from being torn apart along communal lines. The simmering hatred that manifests itself in by the police picking up the Cliffhanger boys for questioning even if they are innocent. It is just that the shroud of suspicion falls upon these boys most of the time because of their faith. It is never said explicitly but it is understood. A frightening prospect. The boys most often are seen whiling away their time hanging out with tourists, ostensibly to improve their English. So if anything happens to a tourist such as the rape of a young girl or the inexplicable death of an unapologetic HRS supporter like Vishwanathan Thampi, the boys are immediately picked up for questioning. As the Cliffhangers are well aware that as young men with Muslim names, they are a soft target for the police and primary enemies of the HRS ( Hindu Rasthra Sangh). It is a tough and uncertain life. None of this uncertainty is helped by the harrowing news from North India about the lynching of a man suspected of storing beef in his fridge. The Cliffhanger gang is stunned into a worrying silence. Unable to fathom what to make of this dystopic world where you are condemned for your food habits, you are persecuted for your religion –whether observing it or not as the boys discovered for having being caught eating during the day when they should have been fasting during Ramzan, you are lynched if you belong to the “other” in terms of colour, ideology and faith. It is a peculiar world.

Hatred is when you think the other has to be eliminated because of the difference of opinion in faith, customs and ways of life. Or, being the axis of evil as Bush, one of the presidents of America, said.

The Cliffhangers want to be the voice of sanity, albeit our patchy English, in the cacophony of communal insanity that our state has fallen into. As you know, we are not adequately educated to sound profound but we are glad that we are not wrongly educated either to hate the ones under the rival flag. We bear Muslim names and maybe we go to the mosque on Fridays and on Eid, but that’s it. You can cut our vein anyway, I swear to you, none of us have any strain of hatred in us.

This free will is something that the Cliffhangers are beginning to discover they are unable to exercise freely. So much so even SI Devan who would pick them up routinely for questioning ultimately decided to “help” them out in an unsolved case of the rape of a foreign tourist. SI Devan had uncovered the truth that the perpetrator, Balannan, a vendor who sold lemonade but was closely affiliated to the HRS. So recognising the terrifying consequences of arresting the member of the Hindu shaka and the horrific prospect of ripping the social fabric of the fishing village across communal lines, the SI chooses to take the rap himself by the senior police officials. SI Devan closes the file as “inconclusive”. His parting words to the Cliffhangers is the truth but with sinister underpinnings.

Remember, we are living in strange times . . .and, your identity is your enemy!” he said….

When the impetus for a story is the growing hatred of the “other” and the heightened communal tension it unleashes, it becomes frighteningly tough to articulate those fears. Fiction helps in unlocking some of those unnamed fears. Whether as a writer or a reader. But as a writer it helps to be crystal clear in channeling one’s anger and distress at the rapid turn of events. For instance to witness the political machinations of hardliners to further their interests despite locals recognising the foolhardiness of encouraging polarisation among communities. A recognition of each other’s differences is sufficient but to underline it on a daily basis and enforce it using state machinery is a dangerous thought and development. It finally rests upon the free will of the citizens of a democracy to subvert this self-consuming destructive hatred.

“The Cliffhangers” is a name given to the four boys but it works metaphorically too for the precipitous situation Indian democracy finds itself in — whether to retreat from the life-threatening crisis or to take the plunge into the depths of the unknown waters and be destroyed. Despite sagging a bit in the middle of the novel The Cliffhangers is a powerful story for the issues it raises. It would be fascinating to hear a freewheeling conversation between Sabin Iqbal, Tabish Khair, Amitava Kumar and Rana Ayyub on writing fiction and non-fiction in these times.

Till then read The Cliffhangers.

14 February 2020

Book Post 34: 14-20 April 2019

Every week I post some of the books I have received recently. In today’s Book Post 34 included are some of the titles I have received in the past few weeks.

22 April 2019

Amitava Kumar’s “The Lovers”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 August 2017

JLF 2017 Preview

My article on the preview for JLF 2017 was published on Bookwitty.com on 30 December 2016.)

Get Ready for the 10th Anniversary of the Jaipur Literature Festival  - Image 1

The first time I attended the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) at Diggi Palace Grounds, Jaipur it was small enough so that once could drive the car straight up to the main steps of the building. Today, the parking is a fair distance from the palace and the only way to reach the venue is through multiple barricades and a screening counter. Once inside though, there is a wonderful, festive air with an explosion of colours in the décor, the happy buzz of excited people milling about and conversations streaming through various marquees. Termed one of the greatest literary events, it is also a free one. Since it began, the JLF has welcomed 846,000 visitors, 1874 speakers, conducted 1272 sessions and partnered with more than 1400 organisations.

The JLF is also crucial because it is situated in a geographical space that is at the heart of a significant book market. It is planned soon after the Christmas break and a few months after the Frankfurt Book Fair (FBF) so publishing professionals flying in from around the world can follow up on their FBF conversations and combine them with a holiday in India.

In January 2017, it will be the 10th anniversary of the Jaipur Literature Festival. The three directors since its inception are Sanjoy Roy, Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple. The festival has evolved over the years to include different elements such as Jaipur BookMark – a B2B platform for publishers, a children’s section and a cultural event every evening. The Festival has expanded internationally to host annual events at London’s Southbank Centre (2014 onwards) and Boulder, Colorado (2015 onwards). In 2017 the Jaipur BookMark will launch a new scheme to support emerging writers and budding authors are invited to apply for a New Writers’ Mentorship Programme: The First Book Club.

The Festival has celebrated and hosted writers from across the globe, ranging from Nobel Laureates and Man Booker Prize winners to debut writers, including Amish Tripathi, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Eleanor Catton, Hanif Kureishi, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Ian McEwan, JM Coetzee, Margaret Atwood, Mohammed Hanif, Oprah Winfrey, Orhan Pamuk, Pico Iyer, Salman Rushdie, Stephen Fry, Thomas Piketty, Vikram Seth and Wole Soyinka, as well as renowned Indian language writers such as Girish Karnad, Gulzar, Javed Akhtar, MT Vasudevan Nair, Uday Prakash, the late Mahasweta Devi and U.R. Ananthamurthy.

Get Ready for the 10th Anniversary of the Jaipur Literature Festival  - Image 2

This January, the Jaipur Literature Festival expects to welcome over 250 authors, thinkers, politicians, journalists, and popular culture icons to Jaipur. Sanjoy Roy said “Our prime focus is on history of the world, given that it was the 70 years of India’s Independence [in 2016]. In a new collaboration with the British Library they have loaned us a version of the 1215 AD Magna Carta which will be on view at Diggi Palace. A series of sessions on freedom to dream will look at inspiration for the future. We have a new partnership with The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) that will look at sessions on art and migration.”

Namita Gokhale added that at the JLF “We are always trying to listen in as many languages as possible. This time there will be speakers from all over Europe and more than 20 Indian regional languages will be showcased.”

Controversies and the JLF also seem to go hand in hand. In 2012 Hari Kunzru, Ruchir Joshi, Amitava Kumar and Jeet Thayil read out passages from Salman Rushdie’s banned book The Satanic Verses and had to leave Jaipur hurriedly before the police arrived to arrest them. Another time the Shell oil company was one of the sponsors, which created a stir since, among other things, it is infamously associated with the tragic execution of Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. At the time, the JLF administration said they do not look at the color of money. This year too, there is disappointment already being expressed at representatives of the Hindu fundamentalist group RSS being invited to speak at JLF but as the organizers point out they stand for diversity.

Be that as it may, the 2017 edition of JLF promises to be as exciting as ever. The magnificent line-up of authors includes Paul Beatty, Alan Hollinghurst, Valmik Thapar, Amruta Patil, AN Wilson, Alice Walker, Mark Haddon, Ajay Navaria, Mrinal Pande, Richard Flanagan, Arshia Sattar, Arefa Tehsin, Eka Kurniawan, Tahmima Anam, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Marcos Giralt Torrente, Kyoko Yoshida, David Hare, Margo Jefferson, Deborah Smith, Jeremy Paxman, Hyeonseo Lee, Francesca Orsini, John Keay, Jon Wilson, Kate Tempest, Mihir S. Sharma, Neil MacGregor, Rishi Kapoor, Sholeh Wolpé, Sunil Khilnani, and Vivek Shanbhag. Sessions have been planned on translations, revisiting history, conflict, politics, memoirs, biographies, nature, poetry, spirituality, mythmaking, women writing, travel writing, freedom of expression, children’s literature and book releases.

Some of the prominent sessions are:

Writing the Self: The Art of Memoir: Bee Rowlatt, Brigid Keenan Emma Sky and Hyeonseo Lee in conversation with Samanth Subramanian

Lost in Translation: Francesca Orsini, Deborah Smith, Paulo Lemos Horta and Sholeh Wolpé in conversation with Adam Thirlwell

Migrations: Lila Azam Zanganeh, NoViolet Bulawayo, Sholeh Wolpé and Valzhyna Mort in conversation with Tishani Doshi

The Tamil Story: Imayam Annamalai and Subhashree Krishnaswamy in conversation with Sudha Sadhanand

In Search of a Muse: On Writing Poetry: Anne Waldman, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Ishion Hutchinson, Kate Tempest, Tishani Doshi and Vladimir Lucien in conversation with Ruth Padel

Lost Kingdoms: The Hindu and Buddhist Golden Age in South East Asia: John Guy introduced by Kavita Singh

Before We Visit the Goddess: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni in conversation with Shrabani Basu

Kohinoor: Anita Anand and William Dalrymple introduced by Swapan Dasgupta

The Dishonourable Company: How the East India Company Took Over India: Giles Milton, John Keay, Jon Wilson, Linda Colley and Shashi Tharoor in conversation with William Dalrymple

Brexit: A.N. Wilson, Andrew Roberts,, Linda Colley, Surjit Bhalla and Timothy Garton Ash in conversation with Jonathan Shainin

Rewriting History: The Art of Historical Fiction: Adam Thirlwell, Alan Hollinghurst and Shazia Omar in conversation with Raghu Karnad

Civil Wars: From Antiquity to ISIS: David Armitage introduced by Raghu Karnad

The Biographer’s Ball: A.N. Wilson, Andrew Roberts, David Cannadine, Lucinda Hawksley, Roy Foster and Suzannah Lipscomb in conversation with Anita Anand

Ardor: On the Vedas: Roberto Calasso in conversation with Devdutt Pattanaik

Things to Leave Behind: Namita Gokhale in conversation with Mrinal Pande and Sunil Sethi

That Which Cannot be Said: Hyeonseo Lee, Kanak Dixit, Sadaf Saaz and Timothy Garton Ash and in conversation with Salil Tripathi

The Art of the Novel: On Writing Fiction: Adam Thirlwell, Alan Hollinghurst, NoViolet Bulawayo and Richard Flanagan in conversation with Manu Joseph

Footloose: The Travel Session: Aarathi Prasad, Bee Rowlatt, Brigid Keenan, Nidhi Dugar and Simon Winchester in conversation with William Dalrymple

The JLF 2017 will run from January 19-23rd.

    On “Dying” and “In Gratitude”

    jenni-diski51hmou4betl-_sx311_bo1204203200_I’m writing a memoir, a form that in my mind plays hide-and-seek with the truth. It contains what I imagine and what I remember being told. Absolute veracity is what I am after. 

    Jenni Diski In Gratitude 

    Two women writers, Jenni Diski and Cory Taylor, are diagnosed with cancer and its inoperable. Trying to come to terms with the doctor’s grim prognosis is not easy. Suddenly time takes on a different meaning. Jenni Diski began a column for the London Review of Books once her cancer was diagnosed. It was a series a essays that were published reflecting on her life, her birth family, her writing, her school and most significantly her complicated relationship with the Nobel Prize winner, Doris Lessing, who took fifteen-year-old Jennifer Simmonds under her wing. The Australian writer Cory Taylor too spends a while in her memoir, Dying, remembering her mother and the choices she made. In both the memoirs what comes across clearly is that the two dying writers are reflecting upon their past but are also hugely influenced by and acknowledge the presence of the women who made the writers what they are. Jenni Diski had always nursed a desire to be a writer but had not been very focused about it till she met Doris Lessing and was introduced to her world of writers and other creative minds who always made interesting conversation and had ideas to offer. Cory Taylor discovered that her mother had had a dream to be a writer but never achieved it. She writes in Dying : “Writing, even if most of the time you are only doing it in your head, shapes the world, and makes it bearable. …I’m never happier than when I’m writing, or thinking about writing, or watching the world as a writer, and it has been this way from the start.” Three Australian writers including Benjamin Law wrote a beautiful obituary for Cory Taylor in the Guardian terming Dying as a “remarkable gift” for providing a vocabulary and invitation to speak about that “unmentionable thing”, a “monstrous silence” — death. ( 6 July 2016, http://bit.ly/2dPq0Mx ) These sentiments on writing and the gift of the memoir can probably be extended to Jenni Diski and In Gratitude too.

    Apart from Jenni Diski’s and Cory Taylor’s preoccupation with writing and their evolution as writers what comes 41vdphgesjlthrough strongly in both memoirs is the tussle between secular and religious modes of coping with death and its rituals. Also how ill-prepared a secular upbringing makes an individual in understanding burial rites or managing one’s grief once a loved one departs. How does one mourn? The structures of religious rituals seem to take care of the moments of sorrow. There is much to do. Yet the challenge of speaking of death and the process of dying is not easy. Cory Taylor had even contemplated euthanasia and ultimately passed away in hospice care.

    In Gratitude and Dying: A memoir put the spotlight on the magnificent leaps medicine and technology have made, in many cases it has prolonged life but with it is the baggage of ethics — whether it is possible to go through the agony of pain while dying a slow death or to end it all swiftly by assisted suicide or euthanasia. These are critical issues not necessarily the focus areas of both books although Cory Taylor confesses in having contemplated euthanasia. While reading the memoirs innumerable questions inevitably arise in a reader’s mind.

    Some of the literature  published recently has been seminal in contributing to the growing awareness and need to discuss death increasingly in modern times when advancement in medical technology seems to prolong human suffering. Also in an increasingly polarised world between the secular and religious domains bring to the fore the disturbed confusion that reigns in every individual on how to deal with the dying, the finality of death, disposal of the mortal remains and the despair it leaves the distraught survivors in. Some links are:

    1. “Daughters of Australian scientists who took their own lives reflect on their parents’ plan” http://bit.ly/2dDfvc8 ( Jan 2016)
    2. Amitava Kumar’s essay “Pyre” published in Granta ( https://granta.com/pyre/ ) and recently republished in Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen.
    3. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal ( 2015)
    4. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air ( 2016)
    5. Aleksander Hemon’s moving essay on his infant daughter’s brain cancer ( “The Aquarium: A Child’s Isolating Illness” JUNE 13 & 20, 2011 ISSUE http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/06/13/the-aquarium )
    6. Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture  ( 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji5_MqicxSo )
    7. Andrew Solomon’s essay on his mother’s decision to opt for euthanasia ( “A  Death of One’s Own” 22 May 1995 http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1995/05/22/a-death-of-ones-own )

    In Gratitude and Dying are strangely comforting while being thought provoking in raising uncomfortable questions about mortality, importance of time, maintenance of familial ties and doing that which pleases or gives the individual peace. Both the memoirs have a confident writing style as if by capturing memories in words the writers are involved a therapeutic process of facing their mortality while the urgency to their writing has an unmistakable strength to its tenor as if no one will have the time to dispute their published words.

    Read these books.

    Jenni Diski In Gratitude Bloomsbury, London, 2016. Pb. pp. 250 £12.99 

    Cory Taylor Dying: A Memoir Canongate, London, 2016. Pb. pp. £12.99 

    24 Oct 2016 

     

     

    Literati – “The Critic” ( 19 July 2015)

    jaya_bhattacharji-300x300My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 18 July 2015) and was in print ( 19 July 2015). Here is the http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-the-world-of-books/article7429521.ece. I am also c&p the text below. 

    In a column on January 11, 2015, The New York Times published Michiko Kakutani’s review of Harper Lee’s much-awaited Go Set A Watchman(@GSAWatchmanBook ) — on the front page, no less. There have been energetic nitpicking conversations about this review. But the truth is that any space given by a mainstream newspaper to a book review is unusual. For, despite the 50-year gap between To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman, the latter has a two million print run. Lee’s resurrection of Atticus Finch has excited readers. According to Bloomberg, US, “it is the most pre-ordered book in her publisher’s history.” (July 9, 2015, http://bloom.bg/1HXxgij )

    This pre-publication hype is any writer’s publicity dream. Space for reviewing books in print media is fast dwindling while rapidly gaining momentum on social media, prompting many writers to be creative in getting their books discovered. Popular writer, Ravi Subramanian has launched an app to help promote his books. Booksellers too have to be innovative — curating literary engagements or as the portly owner of Haji Suleiman and Sons tells Hafiz in Anis Shivani’s lengthy debut novel, Karachi Raj “Shelving is an art. Mixing the old and the new on the same subject is more important than getting the alphabetical order just right.”

    An important part of the publishing ecosystem is the critic. The few well-read critics like James Wood, Amitava Kumar, Tim Parks and John Freeman are known and greatly valued for their honest, straightforward and informed observations. Whether in print or virtual space, by critics or others (publishing professionals use their Facebook walls to air frank opinions), a good review should generate conversation. Recently, Daniel Menaker — writer and former Editor-in-Chief, Random House Publishing Group — said of the new Harper Lee novel : “Here’s the thing: it is natural and inevitable for readers and experts to compare these two Harper Lee books to each other. But the comparisons have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of each book. They are two different objects. You can get historical perspective about an artist by comparing an early landscape to a late one, but the value of both remains entirely independent of their relation to each other. Rembrandt’s series of self-portraits is an excellent source of historical, biographical comparison, but as works of art they must be judged on their own merits. [Alexander] Alter’s piece in The Times is where it should be — outside the review arena. Kakutani’s “review” should have given no more than a nod to TKAM in discussing GSAW, if you ask me. The rest of the review would have been actually more useful if it had addressed the merits and problems with GSAW on its own terms. Seems to me.” (Quote reproduced with permission.)

    With this, Menakar sparked off a crackling literary conversation about the merits of reviewing. To be a professional critic is never painless. It is particularly tough when the critic is an integral part of the literary set of concerned editors, publishers and authors; some of whom have acquired demi-god status. Thus Shamsar Rahman Faruqui’s The Mirror of Beauty and The Sun that Rose from the Earth, and Amitav Ghosh’s Flood of Fire, which are rich longwinded tapestries of the past, have had reasonably good sales and glowing critical acclaim. In his Afterword to Mantonama, Saadat Hasan Manto declares: “know-it-all pundits” can have a powerful impact on an author, but solace lies in realising that “literature…is a self-existent entity. …Literature is as alive and exuberant today as it was before it was discovered.” (My Name is Radha: The Essential Manto, translated by Muhammad Umar Memon.)

    In ‘Bad News’, an essay in his splendid book, Lunch with a Bigot, Amitava Kumar sums it: “With all their beauty and artifice, novels often hide the ordinary grit of reality. …It is the irrepressible bubbling-up of the everyday, not the unbending demand of a rigid aesthetic, that makes a novel satisfying, that connects it to life.” Saikat Mazumdar’s exquisite The Firebird and K. R. Meera’s disturbing novella And Slowly Forgetting that Tree (translated from Malayalam by J. Devika) are fine examples of such satisfying literature.

    15 August 2015 

    Sumeet Shetty, Literati, SAP Labs book club

    Sumeet Shetty, Literati, SAP Labs book club

    Print

     

    Literati is the book-club at SAP Labs India, and India’s largest corporate book-club.

    Headquartered in Walldorf, Germany, with locations in more than 130 countries, SAP is the world leader in enterprise software and software-related services. SAP logo

     

    Literati aims to bring together books, readers and writers. Here’s a list of authors who have spoken at Literati:

    • Amit Chaudhuri
    • Alex Rutherford
    • Alice Albinia
    • Amish Tripathi
    • Amitabha Bagchi
    • Amitava Kumar
    • Anand Giridharadas
    • Anjum Hasan
    • Anita Nair
    • Anuja Chauhan
    • Anuradha Roy
    • Arun Shourie
    • Ashok Ferrey
    • C P Surendran
    • Chetan Bhagat
    • Geeta Anand
    • Harsha Bhogle
    • James Astill
    • Kiran Nagarkar
    • Manil Suri
    • Mark Tully
    • M J Akbar
    • Mita Kapur
    • Mridula Koshy
    • Mukul Kesavan
    • Musharraf Ali Farooqi
    • Namita Devidayal
    • Navtej Sarna
    • Omair Ahmad
    • Pallavi Aiyar
    • Pankaj Mishra
    • Partha Basu
    • Pavan K Varma
    • Peter James
    • Poile Sengupta
    • Raghunathan V
    • Rana Dasgupta
    • Sam Miller
    • Samantha Shannon
    • Samit Basu
    • Samhita Arni
    • Sarnath Banerjee
    • Shashi Deshpande
    • Shashi Tharoor
    • Shehan Karunatilaka
    • Shobhaa Dé
    • Sudha Murthy
    • Suhel Seth
    • Sunil Gupta
    • Sudhir Kakar
    • Tabish Khair
    • Tarun J Tejpal
    • Tishani Doshi
    • Vikas Swarup
    • Vinod Mehta
    • Vikram Chandra
    • William Dalrymple
    • Yasmeen Premji
    • Zac O’Yeah 

    Contact: Sumeet Shetty (sumeet.shetty@sap.com)

    Sumeet Shetty is a Development Manager at SAP Labs India, and is the President of Literati, India’s largest

    corporate book-club.

     

    Akhil Sharma, “Family Life”

    Akhil Sharma, “Family Life”

    Before we came to America, I had never read a book just to read it. When I began doing so, at first, whatever I read seemed obviously a lie. If a book said a boy walked into a room, I was aware that there was no boy and there was no room. Still, I read so much that often I imagined myself in the book. (p.30)

    I was always lost in a book, whether I was actually reading or imagining myself as a character. If bad things happened, like Birju developing pneumonia and having to wear an oxygen mask, I would think that soon I would be able to go back to my reading and then time would vanish and when I reentered the world, the difficult thing would be gone or changed. ( p.153)

    Akhil Sharma, Family Lif eFamily Life is Akhil Sharma’s second novel. It took nearly a decade to write, but the wait has been well worth it. Family Life is about his family moving to America in mid-1970s. Unfortunately his brother with a promising future, hit his head n a swimming pool, and slipped in to a coma. This incident changed the life of the family.

    It is a stunning novel. Not a spare word is used. The flashbacks  to their time spent in India are recorded faithfully, yet referred to in such a manner that an international reader would not get lost. For instance a description from his early days in America recounts how they received ads on coloured paper in their mailbox regularly. But “in India coloured paper could be sold to the recycler for more money than newsprint.” It is rare to find a writer of Indian origin who writes painfully accurately on what it means to be an Indian living in America. He captures the bewilderment and confusion marvellously and it is not necessarily having the god men visit them at home, in the hope of looking for a cure for his sick brother. It is in everyday life.

    It is a pleasure to read Family Life since it tells a story, also observes and analyses in a matter-of-fact tone. Yet the clarity of writing, the manner in which it resonates with the reader, does not always mask the anguish and torment Akhil Sharma must have put himself through, to write this brilliant book. And then I read  this article he wrote in The New York Times, “The Trick of Life” where talks about the agonizing experience of writing this novel:     http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/06/opinion/sunday/the-trick-of-life.html .  Well it was worth it.

    It is a novel worth reading.

    Here are a few more related links:

    9ihttp://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/97jan/9701fict/sharma.htm ( “Cosmopolitan”, short story, The Atlantic, 1997)

    http://www.guernicamag.com/daily/akhil-sharma-when-despair-and-tenderness-collide/

    http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/04/book-review-podcast-akhil-sharmas-family-life/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/04/akhil-sharma-on-writing-family-life.html&mbid=social_twitter

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/01/this-week-in-fiction-akhil-sharma.html

    https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/akhil-sharma/

    http://www.londonreviewbookshop.co.uk/blog/2014/4/tender-and-funny-em-family-life-em-by-akhil-sharma

    On 20 June 2014, it was included in a list of the 54 best novels from India published by Brunch, Hindustan Times: http://www.hindustantimes.com/brunch/brunch-stories/greatest-indian-novels-ever-part-i/article1-1231662.aspx The jury members were Amitava Kumar, Chiki Sarkar, David Davidar, Harish Trivedi, Jeet Thayil, Jerry Pinto, Ravi Singh and Sunil Sethi.

    Akhil Sharma Family Life Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 240. Rs. 499 

    <strong>Mind your words: Who decides what we should read?</strong>

    Mind your words: Who decides what we should read?

    Mind your words: Who decides what we should read?

    The Jaipur Literature Festival 2012 did not slink by unnoticed. It is a literary extravaganza which reaches out to the masses, rather than being reserved for the upper echelons of society or the intelligentsia. Everybody is welcome to mingle and rub shoulders with the glitterati of literature. It is easy to spot Gulzar, along with Tom Stoppard or as this year proved, even Oprah! The one event that overshadowed the entire festival and its rumbles continue to be heard even now, was the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie’s presence — will he, won’t he come was the question on everyone’s lips. What were the legal repercussions for the four writers—Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil, Hari Kunzro and Ruchir Joshi — who attempted to read out passages from Satanic Verses? When it was finally announced that Rushdie will not attend in person, but will address the gathering via a video conference, it was little consolation. But then that too was scuttled, leaving a fuming Rushdie having to address a television audience later that evening, via a link up with NDTV.

    Curiously the ban on Satanic Verses is a customs ban that does not allow the book to be imported into the country. The larger question then left for everyone to tussle with – was this a form of censorship? Are we not at a liberty to read what we like? Do we have the freedom to read what we like? Or shall there be those who sit in judgment upon what we can or should not read? Questions that are not always easy to answer. It has spawned various forms of protests, signing of online petitions to most notably “flash reads” which included reading passages from works on 14 Feb – the day, 23 years ago, when the fatwa against Rushdie was announced. Plus a day in that has in recent times become synonymous with the harassment inflicted upon young lovers by vigilantes, based upon the absurd argument that Valentine’s Day is a Western intrusion upon Indian culture. According to Salil Tripathi, one of the participants of flash reads, it was organized “at different locations in five cities, Bangalore, Kochi, Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi, about a hundred people—readers, writers, artists, engineers, lawyers, professionals, students, and consultants—came with sheets filled with words and ideas that someone somewhere wanted suppressed. We were at Lodhi Gardens, on the bridge overlooking the duck pond, in the shadow of the ruins of another era, where writers who defied the state and those in power often met a ghastly end.”

    But bear in mind the reception to a book in different countries. In Germany, more than sixty years after World War II is over, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf is a banned text. It is not available in bookstores. If anyone wishes to read it, it can only be accessed by special permission, providing a valid reason, from a library. Unlike in India, where for many years it is a bestseller. It is always amongst the most popular titles in pirated editions, and only recently has begun to be visible in bookstores. It is available in English and other regional languages.
    Today, India is the largest democracy in the world, but it is also considered to be a large book market, with a voracious appetite in print and electronic formats and in any language, not just English. Controversies like those surrounding Satanic Verses open larger debates like pertaining to censorship, how far can one go without hurting the religious sentiments of another group, the impact of such an action on institutions and of course being responsible for the consequences of one’s action — is it to be those who are the catalysts of such change or the festival that inadvertently provided a platform for these readings? With the Internet, many of these bans become counter-productive as exemplified by Oscar-nominated director Ashvin Kumar who uploaded his latest film, Inshallah, Kashmir: Living Terror, on 26 Jan 2012, within 24 hours, he struck 50,000 views. In Dec 2011, it was estimated that India is the third largest Internet user population in the world, with over 120 million users. So it is ironical there is such a hullaballo around Satanic Verses being read in public, since the entire text is available online.

    (This article was first published in Books & More, April-May 2012, p.58

    Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing and literary consultant. She may be contacted at jayabhattacharjirose@gmail.com Her twitter handle is @JBhattacharji