Bengali Posts

An extract from Manoranjan Byapari’s memoir: “Making a bomb”

Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit by Manoranjan Byapari is about the author documenting his life from life in East Pakistan to moving to India. When he arrived in India with his family he lived in Shiromanipur refugee camp. They try and make a life for themselves in Bengal but they lived in abject poverty and unable to feed themselves regularly. They were also at a social disadvantage for being Dalits. To escape these straitened circumstances Manoranjan Byapari ran away from home as a teenager in search of work. He got caught in the 1970s Naxalite movement in Calcutta. He was imprisoned. It was while in prison as a twenty four year old that he learned to how to read and write.

Here is an extract from the book describing the time he made a bomb. This is being published with the permission of the publishers.

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Next morning, after our breakfast of parched rice, onions and chillies, Ahbali looked at me and said, ‘It’s your responsibility now. The powder is ready for the bombs. Tie up as many as you can.’

I stared at Ahbali in amazement. How had he known that I could tie bombs? Had I told Meghnad at some time? And then he had told Ahbali? I looked at the raw materials brought in and, making a quick calculation, I said, ‘This should make about twenty, I think. But how will I make so many alone?’

‘There is nobody else here who can do this,’ he said in a pleading voice. ‘You must try and do it. This is a job that will need bombs. We could have two thousand flies buzzing around us. The sound of the bombs will help to keep them away.’

I said, ‘But you told me the man was a scoundrel. Why should others come to help him?’

‘He is a scoundrel,’ replied Ahbali. ‘And they will not come to help. But we have seen, the richer the person, the more powerful the person, the more the people who surround them. Once we reach there, though, all of these people will vanish. They will stand at a distance and shout. At the most they will throw a few stones. We have seen this time and again. But it will not do to be too confident and go unprepared. We have to be careful. I have brought about fifty cartridges. With these twenty bombs, we can handle five thousand people.’ He paused for some time and said, ‘I have made a recce of the place. If we can just collect the jewellery worn by the women, it will add up to about a kilo.’

Bhuto’s sister had prepared the powder and Bhuto had sieved it through a piece torn from a mosquito net. Bhuto’s wife had neatly laid out a seat for me in a corner of the stable. Not just Bhuto’s family, but the whole village was now pushing towards a single yearned for goal. They had just had dedicated their minds, their hearts, their bodies to a dream. None of them knew anything about politics. Political philosophy and political theory about villages surrounding the city and the need to destroy class enemies were unknown to them. But they did know that they wanted to kill those who had stripped their women and brutalized them. In some sense, their desire appeared to me to be similar to that of the Naxals.

No hesitation or indecision clouded my mind any longer. If it were a sin to help so many people concretize their dream of revenge, so be it. I was willing to commit this sin again and again. I sat down to the job with a crowd of villagers standing or perched on the haystack as my audience, mixing the seemingly harmless reddish and white powders to construct a deadly instrument, one that when hurled at the enemy, would tear their bodies apart with a thunderous sound. In a large enamelled plate, I mixed the powders together with shards of glass, tiny sticks from fishing nets and iron ball bearings. As they watched me at my job, I could sense their intoxication mounting. Will kill them all. They have a lot to answer for. All I had taken was a bunch of bananas, and they beat me for a whole day. And then threw me in jail. I rotted there for two years. My wife ran away unable to bear the hunger. Will get them now.

Livid with anger, he struck a match to light a bidi. He did not get to the bidi. A spark flew onto the plate before me. There was an ear-splitting sound, and a huge ball of fire went up in billowing white smoke. The thatched roof of the stable was engulfed in blazing flames and splinters flew. Some who had been sitting on the haystack watching me were hurt. Their hurt was slight but people panicked and tried to rush out. The bomb that I had been holding in my hand fell to the ground and exploded. If the seven prepared bombs lined up at a distance caught fire, the blast would destroy all. There was complete pandemonium.

I managed to run out with difficulty and collapsed outside the stable. My right side which had been near the plate was charred. Burnt skin hung from my face and my hands and, peeping through the burnt skin, white as egg in colour, was my flesh. The acrid smell of burnt gunpowder hit my nostrils.

Hearing the sound of the explosion and the shouts, Bhuto, Meghnad and Ahbali rushed out of the house. I was thrashing about on the ground, screaming in pain. But they had no time to tend to me right then. They rushed for water with whatever they could lay their hands on. Thankfully, the pond was right next to the stable. The fire was controlled before it spread any further. They picked me up then and lay me on a mat inside the house. Someone shouted for alcohol to be brought. They held it to my lips, ‘Drink. The pain will subside.’ I gulped down a large mugful of country liquor. The pain did subside, for within ten minutes, I lost consciousness.

Manoranjan Byapari  Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit (Translated by Sipra Mukherjee) SAGE Samya, New Delhi, 2018. Pb. pp. Rs 550 

World Book Fair, 6-14 January 2018

Ever since the World Book Fair moved to January instead of the second week of February there has been a tremendous growth in the number of visitors. Year-on-year there are long queues of people waiting patiently to enter the enter the fair grounds at Pragati Maidan. This year the fair was held in only a small area of the exhibition grounds as much of Pragati Maidan has been demolished. It will be a few years before the new buildings are built. Meanwhile the publishers were placed in some halls and tents. The visitors to the fair walked alongside workers in hard hats and enormous Caterpillar diggers shovelling earth to create mountains taller than the exhibition halls. There were potholes in the roads and a general mess everywhere. Yet it did not seem to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm to buy books. As in previous years there were buyers trailing suitcases on wheels to pack in the books they would buy. In fact a senior publisher I met during the fair said that the shift to January has been a boon for them as their sales grow better and better with every year.

The World Book Fair is organised by the National Book Trust. It began in the early 1970s when it was a bi-annual affair before being made an annual feature. It began with the intention of making books accessible and popularising reading. Over the years it has slowly acquired some characteristics of a trade fair with its specific B2B meetings, a Rights Table, panel discussions, an increasing number of international visitors etc. This year the guest of honour was the European Union. The business collaborations that happen unexpectedly at the fair are incredible. Such as this of third-generation publisher Raphael Israel. An Indian Jew who met his Palestinian clients at the fair couple of years. It is now one of the happiest business relationships! 

Yet at the heart of it the book fair remains a B2C fair with visitors coming from around the country to buy books. In India there are bookshops but not enough to cater to the vast multi-lingual population. The presence of online retailers over the past few years has helped foster the reading habit among many especially in tier-2 and tier-3 towns. This was a sentiment expressed by many publishers participating in the fair. This time there were definitely larger number of customers many of whom were browsing through the shelves to discover more for themselves. While browsing online is convenient and helpful, algorithm driven searches do not necessarily help in discovering a variety of books for the readers. This is where the display cases at fairs and bookshops help tremendously.

There were visitors of all ages and even people using walking sticks or in wheel chairs braving the potholes and dust swirling around. It did help greatly that the winter break of schools had been extended due to the excessive chill. So families came to spend their day at the book fair, browsing, buying and having a picnic. Surprisingly the crowds came even during the designated business hours so that by the afternoon it was impossible to walk through the crush of people. Over the weekends the crowds were incredible. Publishers of children’s and young adult literature were delighted with the response. Sales were unprecedented for many whereas others managed to break even. Comments such as this were often overheard: Child telling parent “Don’t say you will buy the book online. Buy it now!” Sales of the trade and academic publishers were brisk as well but some reported poorer sales than last year citing the poor location as the major reason for lack of visitors. The Hindi publishers were satisfied with the response with some saying that the usual growth of sales of 15-20% which is commensurate with the growth of their publishing y-o-y was evident. Interestingly enough this year there was a significant presence of self-publishers. Sadly though this year there was a very low turnout of Indian regional language publishers. Curiously enough the stalls of the few who participated such as the Bengali, Marathi and Urdu publishers, their signboards were written in Hindi!

This was the first time that audio books made their presence felt. For example, the Swedish firm Storytel is partnering with publishers in Hindi, English and Marathi. An audio tower had been placed in the stall of Hindi publishers, Rajkamal Prakashan, where 60 audio books could be sampled. Apart from this there was evidence of newcomers who had put up stalls showcasing their storytelling websites/apps/storycards that had a digital audio version too. These were individual efforts. It was also rumoured that other bigger players could be expected to make an entrance into the Indian publishing ecosystem. Perhaps they will announce their presence at the next world book fair, January 2019?

Undoubtedly the local book market is growing as there are still many first generation buyers of books in India. Despite the vast variety of books on display it was the backlist of most publishers which was moving rapidly. Pan Macmillan India for instance had a corner dedicated to their Macmillan Classics that were very popular. Interestingly the branded authors such as Enid Blyton, Bear Grylls and J. K. Rowling had entire shelves dedicated to their works. At a time when most authors are jostling for space to be seen and heard, these generous displays by publishers for a single author were a testimony to the significance and influence they wield with readers. Obviously the long tail of backlists are good business. Repro is collaborating with Ingram to offer Print On Demand ( POD) services. These work well for those with significant backlists that need to be kept alive for customers but to avoid excessive warehousing costs and tying up cash in stock, it is best to offer POD services to customers. The demand for  a backlist title of a specific publishing house is fulfilled by vendors who use the marketplaces offered by online retailers. The cost of the title purchased is higher than if it had been part of a print run but this arrangement works favourably for everyone concerned.

While browsing through the bookshelves it was not uncommon to notice readers either standing absorbed in reading or sitting peacefully crosslegged on the floor reading through the books they had shortlisted. What was remarkable was how serenely they sat despite the crowds milling around them. If there were displays on tables as at the DK India stall and the regional language stalls, people were standing and reading calmly.

 

Happily a large number of younger customers thronged the fair and buying. Even though some publishers said that few people haggled for discounts the crowds at the secondhand and remaindered stalls had to be seen. There was such a melee. Books were being sold for as little as 3 for Rs 100! While publishers were not amused at the presence of these remaindered stalls doing brisk business, customers were delighted that for a small amount of money they could buy a pile of books.

All said and done it was a satisfying book fair. Hats off to the National Book Trust team for running it so smoothly and efficiently every year!

 

30 January 2018 

 

 

 

Interview with Sugata Ghosh on OUP India’s Indian Language Publishing programme

I interviewed Sugata Ghosh, Director, Global Academic Publishing, Oxford University Press on their newly launched Indian Languages Publishing Programme.

Please tell me more newly launched Indian Language Publishing programme? Who is the target audience — academics or general readers? How many titles / year will you consider publishing? 

The Indian Languages Publishing Programme was initiated with OUP’s desire to expand its product offerings to an audience whose primary language is not English. OUP’s existence in India as an established academic press spans more than 100 years. In this long span of its existence it has published a pool of formidable authors and widely acclaimed academic and knowledge-based resources. Our only limitation in a diverse country such as ourselves was language –– though we have been doing the dictionaries and in other Indian languages. In a glocalized world however, limiting ourselves is not an option. As readers change, so should publishers. The increasing demand for resources in Indian languages is not so new; the changing economic and socio-political climate has long been the harbinger of this change. Today we are only heeding its call by beginning publications in these languages. In the first phase of the programme, we have shortlisted two major Indian languages Hindi and Bengali, and a basket of our classics for translation into Hindi and Bengali. We aim to hit the market with 12 such titles by January of 2018. Our target is around 15-20 titles per year to begin with.

Does this imply it is a separate editorial team? Will you have in-house translators? Over time will the list expand to include contemporary stories from regional languages?

We currently do not have any extra resource helping us with the programme. We plan to have new editorial members for both the languages, they will be on board by next year, depending on how well the programme takes off. We do not plan to have in-house translators. We are only working with freelancers and individuals and plan to do so in the future. We might collaborate with other publishers to help seek translators and develop the translation programme further. We have no plans of expanding into fiction at the moment. We are sticking to non-fiction, academic, and general interest titles.

The first phase is of course translation heavy as we begin to establish ourselves in the market, however, there are new acquisitions currently underway for the coming years. As the programme develops, a healthy mix of translations and new books in Indian languages will be made available in both print and digital formats. While beginning with these two languages were accessible, given our resources, our long-term plan is to venture into new Indian languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Marathi etc. For now we are  taking one step at a time to build this programme with the mature languages. When the time comes to include new languages, we will do so.

Our core audience remain the same as our English language books, mostly students, teachers, scholars, researchers, civil society activists, think tanks, as well as general readers. While researching the market for Hindi and Bengali books, we realized that reading habits differ from one to the other. While the Hindi heartland is more inclined towards reading books that are lucidly written around a given issue, free from academic jargon, Bengali readers are more accustomed to reading academic titles spanning multiple disciplines.

Our publication lists will be tailor made to suit its respective audience. To customise specific language lists we will select titles for each market on the basis of the theme of the book, its appeal to readers in the respective language, style of translation, etc. Also, as our books start selling from next calendar year, we will begin accumulating and analyzing appropriate sales data. This data will help us understand what we are doing right and what not – in some ways at least. We will accordingly make decisions on the titles we are doing for each group.

However, we are always ready to experiment and jazz things up a little if the need be. It is in the themes, topics, subjects etc. of the books we will publish and the forms with which we will experiment.

What is the focus of the Oxford Global Languages project and how long has it been running?

The Oxford Global Languages (OGL) project aims to build lexical resources for 100 of the world’s languages and make them available online. The OGL programme targets learners of all age groups. In short, it is a digital dictionary of diverse languages. OGL is part of OUP’s core publication programme –   the programme aims to build lexical resources for 100 of the world’s languages and make them available wildly, digitally. It includes curating large quantities of quality lexical information for a wide range of languages in a single, linked repository for use by speakers, learners, and developers. This project began in 2014 and launched its first two language sites, isiZulu and Northern Sotho, in 2015, followed by Malay, Urdu, Setswana, Indonesian, Romanian, Latvian, Hindi, and Swahili. Many more will be added over the next few years.

How are these two programmes linked as well as maintain their distinct identities?

The global languages programme is aimed at building large lexical repositories for diverse language speakers across the world. Our programme will feed into this programme by helping coin new terms and as well as borrow terms from the resources that would have already been developed and stored in these repositories by experts in different languages. The two programmes thus seamlessly merge into each other as they together help develop a given language. We expect that these two projects would also help multiple stakeholders, for instance, translators, new authors, students, researchers, speakers, etc. in constantly enriching their reading and writing skills.

 

The new terms will be initially in Hindi and Bengali (such as say post-modern, ecology etc. ) that are being coined by translators or new authors, over time with frequent use, will get incorporated in dictionaries such as OGL as well as borrow terms from the resources. Similarly, terms that will be developed by OGL could be borrowed by translators or new authors in their works.

OUP India for many years ran a very successful translations programme that published regional language authors in to English such as Karukku and then the monographs (?). How will this newly launched programme be any different? What are the learnings from the previous programme which are going to be incorporated into this new launch?

The existing translations programme from Indian Languages to English was aimed at enriching the English speaking and reading world with the diversity in our regional literature. This programme translates works of fiction and non-fiction from diverse languages to English and it has been immensely successful in creatively rethinking our societies through exceptional works of regional and folk literature.  We will not create any new imprint, all books in all languages will be included under the Oxford banner.

The Indian languages publishing programme does not aim to publish fiction or poetry at all. It will only publish non-fiction/academic works both in translation and new works in Indian languages. Our core and traditional strength has been — academic, nonfiction and general reads titles, also a bit of translations into English. This is a mandate that we follow in every part of the Press, globally – and we do not see any change during the immediate future. We will definitely do books on Film studies, yet again only non-fiction titles.

The take away from the earlier programme is that translations are always tricky business. Translations of academic titles are tricky for multiple reasons, including:

  • Unlike English, formal writing styles for Hindi and Bengali are still being developed.
  • Lack of terms for new concepts in Indian Languages.
  • Essence of the original is at times lost in translation, retaining authenticity is tricky.

It is true that some things are always lost in translation, there is no way around it. We are trying to compensate this loss by rigorously reviewing our manuscripts by external peer reviewers —- scholars, academics, researchers, journalists, translators, who are well versed in English and Hindi or English and Bengali, with background knowledge in the disciplines of the books they are reviewing.

Such reviews are helping us develop the language further, making it lucid, readable, and accessible. Similarly, for the new books that we plan to publish under the Indian languages programme will be reviewed for their academic authenticity, clarity in expressions etc.

How many languages are you launching it in? What is to be the focus — academic, trade and children or is will OUP stick to the niche area of academic titles?

As already mentioned earlier, we are beginning with two languages, Hindi and Bengali. The focus will be serious non-fiction and academic. We are breaking the boundaries of our usual core competencies and planning to attract readers that fall outside it as well.

As an academic publisher whose business model relies considerably upon peer review, will such a rigorous process also be instituted for this project?

Yes of course, we plan to stick to our professionalism and ethical way of doing business. Language no bar. Quality is our top most priority and from our experiences in the English language programme, we understand and appreciate the value of peer reviews. The time and effort that goes into developing each manuscript in such a way is worthwhile.

How will OUP India create a demand for these titles as you are venturing into a territory that is not easily identified by readers and institutions with OUP’s mandate?

OUP as an academic press and publisher of quality knowledge resources is well identified by students, researchers, scholars, teachers across the length and the breadth of the country. Not only our academic books but our school and higher education books are frequently refereed to and stand out in quality from the rest. To say the least, we are a household name in the country. Also, we already cater to a group of readers whose primary language is not English by publishing classic texts such as those by Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, Veena Das, Austin Granville, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Ramachandra Guha to name a few, which are used by students and teachers and readers across disciplines. Indian language editions of these rare classics are not easily available and students end up either reading from summary notes made by teachers or poorly done translations. Therefore an audience for our books already exists, we only need fill the gap by doing what we do best, publish quality content.

Our plans for attracting new readers have also already been discussed above. There does not exist much resources, academic and otherwise in Indian languages, as publishers we should be encouraging new authors to read and write in their native languages. We hope that our enthusiasm for this programme will also enthuse our stakeholders, mostly readers, writers, thinkers, learners, distributors. Our aim through this programme is to create new and diverse public spheres and reach out to as many readers as possible in its wake.

Will these books only be offered in print or will there also be a digital version available too?

Digital versions of our books will also be made available along with print versions and we are ensuring that we are able to launch the two simultaneously – to start with in Hindi.

If  you are making classical texts from the regional languages available in English will OUP India also encourage translations from its English list into the local languages? If so, how will these projects be funded or will also these be fostered by OUP?

Our programme involves translating English titles into Hindi and Bengali within the programme. We also have plans to translate from Hindi and Bengali to English thereby ensuring that there exists a free flow of thoughts and knowledge between languages. We also hope that as we establish this translation programme, we are able to encourage close associations with groups of individual experts, institutions, and organization to develop a network of people enriched in the art of translation, such that our native languages are not lost to oblivion. We aspire to give diverse languages a new lease of life in the long-term.

Will you explore co-publishing arrangements with local publishers to drive this programme?

We are open to ideas and appropriate opportunities – that fit our quality aspirations, as well as the mission of the Press.

To maintain a quality and a standard in the translations will OUP consider empanelling translators whose skills will be upgraded regularly or will you commission work depending on the nature of every book?

We empanel translators based on their subject and language competencies and these are constantly developed in the process of translation itself with the help of continuous reviews.

What are your expectations of this project? How will you measure the success of this new project?

We expect this project to enrich readers, writers, speakers, and learners of diverse languages in our country. We also hope for it to become as successful as our English language publication and to be recognized as formidable publishers of quality books across languages and disciplines. The long-term plan is to grow and develop in these languages simultaneously with our own growth as a truly global and diverse publisher.  We believe that success for such programmes can be measured in the publishing world by the kind of impact we have on our users and readers. If we inspire new and existing readership and help grow interest in good and quality content, we think we will have succeeded.

24 Oct 2017 

Meeting Arundhati Roy at The Bookshop, Jor Bagh, New Delhi, 25 Aug 2017

On Friday 25 August 2017 The Bookshop held a lovely interaction with award winning writer Arundhati Roy. The Bookshop is a warm space that magically transforms a literary evening into an electric engagement. Personal invitations had been sent to the select audience. There was no structure to the event which was a pleasure.

Arundhati Roy plunged straight into a conversation. She began the evening remembering the late owner and legendary bookseller K. D. Singh. She then read a long passage out of her novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness . Hearing an author read out from their own novels is an unpredictable experience but in this case turned out to be extraordinary. Despite the novel being varied and politically charged in many places, reading it alone, a reader tends to respond to the text. Listening to Arundhati Roy narrate it last night was revelatory as she has a soft lilt to her voice which brings out the rhythm and structure of the storytelling, softpedalling to some extent the political punch, but never undermining. Hearing her read out aloud was like being lulled into a level of consciousness where the magic of storytelling overtook one and yet once it is was over it was the politically charged experience of the episode from Kashmir which she chose to narrate that lingered on. It probably would be worth getting the audiobook which the novelist has recorded herself. On the left is a picture taken by Mayank Austen Soofi and tweeted on 17 May 2017 by Simon Prosser, Publisher, Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House.  On 24 August 2017 a digital companion to the novel was released called the Re: Reader. It is being hosted on a website of its own. According to the report in the Hindu, “The Re:Reader can be accessed on a smart phone by logging on to its website. The visitor is greeted by a ‘floating menu’ of different chapters, each with its own set of animated icons, sound effects, music, and a carefully chosen excerpt.

“Re:Reader has snippets of text from the 12 chapters of the book. Animations show the text in a new light; music brings the period to life, and with portions read by Arundhati Roy, it makes for a dreamy, heady ride. But none of these bits of ‘media’ are presented as ‘content’ for independent consumption. They are there to tempt, to intrigue, to transport the viewer to the Utmost world, not to reveal or substantially replace it.” Later this innovative reading experience may be converted into an app.

At The Bookshop interaction Arundhati Roy mentioned how when she writes fiction she does not let anyone, including her literary agent David Godwin, know that there is a work in progress as she is unable to handle the questions about when it will be ready for submission. Also knowing full well that once she hands over a manuscript there is frenzied activity and she needs to be prepared for it. Interestingly when the manuscript of this novel was finally completed to her satisfaction she lay down on her couch and wept for hours.

Given the small group sitting in a circle around and at the feet of the author made for a lovely intimate gathering allowing for conversation to flow easily. Sure there were many in the audience who were awe-struck by the celebrity they were enagaging with and yet the vibes were peaceful. It was an evening where Arundhati Roy shared insights about her writing and editing process, some of which I scribbled down in my edition of the novel.

There are many parts of the book which need a book of their own. 

This book is fiction as much as my first novel The God of Small Things was. I use every part of myself to write fiction. Experience informs your writing. Fiction is trying to create a universe which if it were unreal what would be the point of creating it? 

When asked if it was an “autobiographical novel” she said “What is an autobiography? These questions do not matter if this autobiographical or the truth. The character in fiction is more real and eternal than the real person.” 

While writing fiction my body feels very different. With non-fiction there is a sense of urgency. In fiction I am just at my own speed. It is almost like cooking — it takes as much time as it takes. 

When asked about editing her manuscripts she replied “ I don’t draft and redraft sentences which some people attribute to arrogance. I think of structure and characters take their own time to deepen. These are people I want to be able to spend rest of my life with. I don’t write sequentially. I already have a sense of it. It is a combination of control and release.” 

On the structure of this novel she said: “This book is much more complexly structured. It is like a big metropolis in the fluid world. It has its old parts and its pathways. It has its democracy. The crowds have faces in it. When you see the narrative as a city then you are going down blind alleys.”

On writing: “The way things are here and now I would not want to write it scared. Just write.” She added ” Factual knowledge has to be charged. My instinctiveness works the best for fiction.” 

On the parallels being drawn between Anjum and Mona ( made famous by Dayanita Singh’s photographs), she said “Anjum is not Mona but she is in Mona’s situation. Mona is definitely not a political person unlike Anjum.

Arunava Sinha, journalist and established Bengali to English translator, posed an interesting question to Arundhati Roy. He asked if she had had any interesting questions from her translators. Apparently the Polish translator has been flummoxed by sentences such as “evil weevil always make the cut” whereas the French translator has found the “Acknowledgements” the toughest such as “who queered my pitch”. As for the Hindi and Urdu translations she is working upon them line by line.

While discussing her author tours as was done over summer she says she felt as if she herself was a tourist living in Jannat for she visited 20 cities in the space of 24 days. Surprisingly she returned home with no jet lag whatsoever! The reception to her book has been tremendous and she has been reading and promoting the book to packed audiences. In Buffalo, for instance, she was to address a 1000-strong audience and surprisingly not a single copy of the book was sold at the venue since every single member of the audience was carrying their very own dog-eared copy of the novel. Another anecdote was about Kashmir which forms a large part of this novel since “you cannot tell the story of Kashmir in a footnote”.  She has recently returned from a visit to the state where she met Khan Sahib, an old friend, who had scribbled in his copy of the book extensively with comments trying to figure out the references in the book. What was even more incredulous were the visitors she had coming by all night asking her to autograph their editions of the book.

All in all it was a fabulously magical gathering.

26 August 2017 

 

Censorship, state and formation of literature

A Stasi official observing the interrogation of the lover of an East German playwright whose loyalty to the state is questioned, in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others, 2006

An extract from the New York Review of Books review by Timothy Garton Ash of Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature by Robert Darnton” ( 23 October 2014)

I have only once met a censor on active duty. In the spring of 1989, my friends at the newly founded Polish opposition newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza let me take a cartoon up to the in-house censor at the printing house of the main Communist Party daily, on whose weary old presses Solidarity’s organ for the dismantlement of communism was now being produced. I knocked on the door, only to find a bored-looking woman in a floral dress, with a cigarette on her lip and a glass of tea at hand. She slowly scanned the cartoon and the article to which it related, as if to demonstrate that she could read, and then stamped her approval on the back of the cartoon.

My taskmistress showed few obvious signs of being an intellectual, but one of the leitmotifs of Robert Darnton’s new book is how intellectually sophisticated censors have often been. Drawing on original archival research, he offers three fine-grained, ethnographic (his word) studies of censors at work: in Bourbon France, British India, and Communist East Germany. In eighteenth-century France, the censors were not just writers manqués; many were writers themselves. They included men like F.-A. Paradis de Moncrif, a playwright, poet, and member of the Académie française. To be listed as a Censeur du Roi in the Almanach royal was a badge of honor. These royal censors initialed every page of a manuscript as they perused it, making helpful suggestions along the way, like a publisher’s editor. Their reports often read like literary reviews. One of them, M. Secousse, solicitously approved an anthology of legal texts that he himself had edited—thus giving a whole new meaning to the term “self-censorship.”

In British India, the censors—not formally so called—were scholars and gentlemen, either British members of the elite Indian Civil Service (the “heaven born”) or their learned Indian colleagues. Harinath De, a candidate for the post of imperial librarian in Calcutta in 1906,

had mastered Latin, Greek, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Sanskrit, Pali, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Oriya, Marathi and Guzerati, along with some Provençal, Portuguese, Romanian, Dutch, Danish, Anglo-Saxon, Old and Middle High German, and a smattering of Hebrew, Turkish and Chinese. He got the job.

Besides being a librarian, that job involved contributing summary reviews to an extraordinary printed catalog of every book published in the Raj from 1868 onward. It included more than 200,000 titles by 1905. Although given to describing anything with erotic content, including the hanky-panky of Hindu gods, as “filthy,” these literary monitors were often highly appreciative of the works under review, especially when the authors showed some virtuosity of style and depth of scholarship.

In the summer of 1990, Darnton, the lifelong historian of books and censorship, had the thrill of finally meeting two real-life censors. In East Berlin, the capital of the soon-to-be-history German Democratic Republic, he found Frau Horn and Herr Wesener, both holders of advanced degrees in German literature, eager to explain how they had struggled to defend their writers against oppressive, narrow-minded higher-ups in the Party, including an apparent dragon woman called Ursula Ragwitz. The censors even justified the already defunct Berlin Wall on the grounds that it had preserved the GDR as a Leseland, a land of readers and reading. Darnton then plunges with gusto into the Communist Party archives, to discover “how literature was managed at the highest levels of the GDR.”

He gives instances of harsh repression from all three places and times. Thus, an eighteenth-century chapter of English PEN could have taken up the case of Marie-Madeleine Bonafon, a princess’s chambermaid, who was walled up, first in the Bastille and then in a convent, for a total of thirteen and a half years. Her crime? To have written Tanastès, a book about the king’s love life, thinly disguised as a fairy tale. In 1759, major works of the Enlightenment, including Voltaire’s poem on natural religion and Diderot’s Pensées philosophiques, were “lacerated and burned by the public hangman at the foot of the great staircase of the Parlement” in Paris.

In British India, civilized tolerance of native literature turned to oppression in the early years of the twentieth century, as Indian nationalist protests grew following the partition of Bengal. A wandering minstrel called Mukanda Lal Das was sentenced to three years’ “rigorous imprisonment” for singing his subversive “White Rat Song,” with lyrics that come out in the official British translation like this:

Do you know, Deputy Babu, now your head is under the boots of the Feringhees, that they have ruined your caste and honor and carried away your riches cleverly?

In East Germany, Walter Janka suffered five years of solitary confinement for being too much involved with György Lukacs in 1956.

Yet such outright persecution is not Darnton’s main theme. As his subtitle suggests, what really interests him is “how states shaped literature.” They have generally done so, he argues, through processes of complex negotiation. In eighteenth-century France, censors made suggestions on grounds of taste and literary form; they also ensured that no well-placed aristocrats received unwelcome attention and that compliments to the king were sufficiently euphuistic. Different levels of authorization were available, from the full royal privilege to a “tacit permission.”

In East Germany, elaborate quadrilles were danced by censors, high-level apparatchiks, editors, and, not least, writers. The celebrated novelist Christa Wolf had sufficient clout to insist that a very exceptional ellipsis in square brackets be printed at seven points in her 1983 novel Kassandra, indicating censored passages. This of course sent readers scurrying to the West German edition, which visitors smuggled into the country. Having found the offending words, they typed them up on paper slips and gave these to friends for insertion at the correct place. Among its scattering of striking illustrations, Censors at Work reproduces one such ellipsis on the East German printed page and corresponding typewritten slip.

Klaus Höpcke, the deputy minister for publishing and the book trade (a state position, and therefore subordinated to higher Party authorities), seems to have spent almost as much time in the 1980s fending off the Party leaders above him as he did curbing the writers below. He received an official Party reprimand for allowing Volker Braun’s Hinze-Kunze-Roman, the scabrous story of an apparatchik and his chauffeur, to be published, albeit in a carefully “negotiated” form. Finally, in a flash of late defiance, Deputy Minister Höpcke even supported an East German PEN resolution protesting against the arrest of one Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1989.

Some celebrated writers do not emerge trailing clouds of glory from the cold-eyed files of censorship. Voltaire, that legendary champion of free speech, apparently tried to get the royal censors to suppress the works of his enemies. It was the censor-in-chief who, while he might not have agreed with what Voltaire’s enemies said, defended their right to say it.

The office of the East German Politburo member responsible for culture, Kurt Hager, “kept long lists of writers who sent in requests for visas, cars, better living conditions, and intervention to get their children into universities.” A plea by the writer Volker Braun to be allowed a subscription to the leading West German liberal weekly Die Zeit went all the way up to Hager, with a supportive letter from the deputy minister, who argued that this would provide Braun with materials for a novel satirizing capitalism. In the course of tough negotiations with senior cultural apparatchiks in the mid-1970s, Braun is even recorded as saying that Hager was “a kind of idol for him.” Can we credit him with irony? Perhaps. Writers who have never faced such pressures should not be too quick to judge. And yet one feels a distinct spasm of disgust.

17 March 2017 

“The Communist Manifesto” and its publishing history

While browsing through the fine collection of titles of Penguin Little Black Classics I was interested to note that title 20 was The Communist Manifesto ( 1948). Of the entire collection which is a magnificent sweep of literature through the ages and different nations it is curious to see the manifesto included. It was probably included for its impact globally as it is amongst the most widely read and disseminated texts worldwide even a 170 years after it was first published. In fact Leftword Books published a collection of essays on the manifesto called A World To Win  (1999). One of the essays is on the publishing history of the manifesto in India ( available at this link  for free download with the publisher’s permission). It is a fascinating account of how the manifesto was first published in British India. The first Indian translator of the Manifesto had an interesting career. Soumyendranath was the grand nephew of Rabindranath Tagore. It is fitting that the Manifesto got published first in Bengali, Urdu, Marathi, and Tamil, as it is in the centres where these languages predominate that the Communist movement first struck roots. The early Communist groups were based in Calcutta, Bombay, Lahore and Madras. Later it was translated into Malayalam, Gujarati, Oriya, Hindi and Punjabi. In the fifties and later, the Manifesto was published regularly in different Indian languages by Progress Publishers, Moscow.

 

No wonder Penguin Random House included The Communist Manifesto in its Little Black Classics series.

27 February 2017 

 

 

Jaya’s newsletter 8 ( 14 Feb 2017)

It has been a hectic few weeks as January is peak season for book-related activities such as the immensely successful world book fair held in New Delhi, literary festivals and book launches. The National Book Trust launched what promises to be a great platform — Brahmaputra Literary Festival, Guwahati. An important announcements was by Jacks Thomas, Director, London Book Fair wherein she announced a spotlight on India at the fair, March 2017.  In fact, the Bookaroo Trust – Festival of Children’s Literature (India) has been nominated in the category of The Literary Festival Award of International Excellence Awards 2017. (It is an incredible list with fantabulous publishing professionals such as Marcia Lynx Qualey for her blog, Arablit; Anna Soler-Pontas for her literary agency and many, many more!) Meanwhile in publishing news from India, Durga Raghunath, co-founder and CEO, Juggernaut Books has quit within months of the launch of the phone book app.

In other exciting news new Dead Sea Scrolls caves have been discovered; in an antiquarian heist books worth more than £2 m have been stolen; incredible foresight State Library of Western Australia has acquired the complete set of research documents preliminary sketches and 17 original artworks from Frane Lessac’s Simpson and his Donkey, Uruena, a small town in Spain that has a bookstore for every 16 people  and community libraries are thriving in India!

Some of the notable literary prize announcements made were the longlist for the 2017 International Dylan Thomas Prize, the longlist for the richest short story prize by The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award and the highest Moroccan cultural award has been given to Chinese novelist, Liu Zhenyun.

Since it has been a few weeks since the last newsletter the links have piled up. Here goes:

  1. 2017 Reading Order, Asian Age
  2. There’s a pair of bills that aim to create a copyright small claims court in the U.S. Here’s a breakdown of one
  3. Lord Jeffery Archer on his Clifton Chronicles
  4. An interview with award-winning Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan
  5. Pakistani Author Bilal Tanweer on his recent translation of the classic Love in Chakiwara
  6. Book review of Kohinoor by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand
  7. An article on the award-winning book Eye Spy: On Indian Modern Art
  8. Michael Bhaskar, co-founder, Canelo, on the power of Curation
  9. Faber CEO speaks out after winning indie trade publisher of the year
  10. Scott Esposito’s tribute to John Berger in LitHub
  11. An interview with Charlie Redmayne, Harper Collins CEO
  12. Obituary by Rakhshanda Jalil for Salma Siddiqui, the Last of the Bombay Progressive Writers.
  13. Wonderful article by Mary Beard on “The public voice of women
  14. Enter the madcap fictional world of Lithuanian illustrator Egle Zvirblyte
  15. Salil Tripathi on “Illuminating evening with Prabodh Parikh at Farbas Gujarati Sabha
  16. The World Is Never Just Politics: A Conversation with Javier Marías
  17. George Szirtes on “Translation – and migration – is the lifeblood of culture
  18. Syrian writer Nadine Kaadan on welcoming refugees and diverse books
  19. Zhou Youguang, Who Made Writing Chinese as Simple as ABC, Dies at 111
  20. Legendary manga creator Jiro Taniguchi dies
  21. Pakistani fire fighter Mohammed Ayub has been quietly working in his spare time to give children from Islamabad’s slums an education and a better chance at life.
  22. #booktofilm
    1. Lion the memoir written by Saroo Brierley has been nominated for six Oscars. I met Saroo Brierley at the Australian High Commission on 3 February 2017. 
    2. Rachel Weisz to play real-life gender-fluid Victorian doctor based on Rachel Holmes book
    3. Robert Redford and Jane Fonda to star in Netflix’s adaptation of Kent Haruf’s incredibly magnificent book Our Souls at Night
    4. Saikat Majumdar says “Exciting news for 2017! #TheFirebird, due out in paperback this February, will be made into a film by #BedabrataPain, the National Award winning director of Chittagong, starring #ManojBajpayee and #NawazuddinSiddiqi. As the writing of the screenplay gets underway, we debate the ideal language for the film. Hindi, Bengali, English? A mix? Dubbed? Voice over?
    5. 7-hour audio book that feels like a movie: Julianne Moore, Ben Stiller and 166 Other People Will Narrate George Saunders’ New Book – Lincoln in the Bardo.
    6. Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson on creating those jaw-dropping visual effects

New Arrivals ( Personal and review copies acquired)

  • Jerry Pinto Murder in Mahim 
  • Guru T. Ladakhi Monk on a Hill 
  • Bhaswati Bhattacharya Much Ado over Coffee: Indian Coffee House Then and Now 
  • George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo 
  • Katie Hickman The House at Bishopsgate 
  • Joanna Cannon The Trouble with Goats and Sheep 
  • Herman Koch Dear Mr M 
  • Sudha Menon She, Diva or She-Devil: The Smart Career Woman’s Survival Guide 
  • Zuni Chopra The House that Spoke 
  • Neelima Dalmia Adhar The Secret Diary of Kasturba 
  • Haroon Khalid Walking with Nanak 
  • Manobi Bandhopadhyay A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi: A Candid Biography of India’s First Transgender Principal 
  • Ira Mukhopadhyay Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth & History 
  • Sumana Roy How I Became A Tree 
  • Invisible Libraries 

14 February 2017 

Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”, translated by Deborah Smith

image

Deborah Smith (left), translator of the winning book, The Vegetarian, with author Han Kang at the Man Booker International Prize in London. Photograph: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images. ( Taken from the Internet)

She was crouching, still wearing her nightclothes, her dishevelled, tangled hair a shapeless mass around her face. Around her,  the kitchen floor was covered with plastic bags and airtight containers, scattered all over so that there was nowhere I could put my feet without treading on them. Beef for shab-shabu, belly pork, two sides of black beef shin, some squid in a vacuum-packed bag, sliced eel that my mother-in-law had sent us form the countryside ages ago, dried croaker tied with yellow string, unopened packs of frozen dumplings and endless bundles of unidentified stuff dragged from the depths of the fridge. There was a rustling sound; my wife was busy putting the things around her one by one into black rubbish bags. …She kept on putting the parcels of meat into the rubbish bags, seemingly no more aware of my existence than she had been last night. Beef and pork, pieces of chicken, at least 200,000 –won of saltwater eel.

The Vegetarian or Chaesikjuuija by Han Kang was published in Korean in 2007. The Vegetarian is about Yeong-hye who decides to become a vegetarian. She is discovered by her husband quietly and methodically removing all the meat products from their refrigerator and putting them into garbage bags. A horrifying proposition as her father points out, “It’s preposterous, everyone eats meat!” Yeong-hye is reserved and rarely speaks even to her husband. She prefers to remain confined to a room in their apartment reading and reflecting. After deciding to turn vegetarian despite being more than a competent cook she inexplicably imposes the dietary restriction on her husband too. He seeks assistance from his in-laws in the hope they will be able to get some sense in to their daughter but to no avail. Slowly the mental well-being of Yeong-hye deteriorates when she begins to believe that she is photosynthesising like a plant and has to be institutionalised.

The Vegetarian sub-heading declares it to be a novel. But the published version consists of three interlinked stories told from three different points-of-view: Yeon-hye’s husband, brother-in-law and sister. While they tell the story there are marginal overlaps of the narrative but slowly and steadily the plot does move ahead in time. It covers the time from the moment Yeon-hye decides to turn vegetarian to her institutionalisation, abandoned by her husband, returns to society to live alone albeit under the supervision of her sister and then back again in an institution. During the course of this time supposedly in the name of an art installation she agrees to her brother-in-law’s suggestion to have her body covered in paint and then filmed having sex with him only to be discovered by her sister. Despite the betrayal by her sister, In-hye, does not stop caring for Yeon-hye and regularly visits her, “despite the probing gazes, that mix of suspicion, caution, repugnance, and curiousity” that she encounters from her fellow passengers en route to Ch’ukseong Psychiatric Hospital, Maseok.

It was first published as three separate “novelettes” and then compiled into a “novel” as described on the copyright page of the English edition. This is how it was published in English too in 2015. An early version of the story that developed into The Vegetarian can be read on the Granta website:http://granta.com/the-fruit-of-my-woman/ .  This curiously mesmerising example of a contemporary magic realism novel went on to win the Man Booker International Prize, the first after it had been combined with the Independent Prize for Foreign Fiction.  Han Kang beat other powerful contenders such as Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk, Elena Ferrante and Kenzaburō Ōe. From this year the prize is now awarded to a single foreign novel translated into English, the money involved—£50,000 ($72,000)—being shared equally by author and translator. Till the win Han Kang and Deborah Smith were little known in international literary circles. Interestingly enough translating this book was one of Deborah Smith’s first professional attempts and she literally struck gold. She has said many times on social media since the win that she was translating the book while learning Korean. It was pure luck that this particular book went on to achieve international acclaim. In an interview, Smith explains how, having completed a degree in English literature, she decided to become a translator. Monolingual until then, she chose Korean “pragmatically,” because she had heard there was a lively literary scene in Korea and far fewer translators than for European languages. But she also very graciously acknowledged in an article how publishing is an industry and translation is a community – “nobody’s in it for the money, largely because there usually isn’t any”. (http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/deborah-smith-publishing-is-an-industry-but-translation-is-a-community-1.2688760) She herself proposed The Vegetarian to an English publisher who accepted it. It is the first novel she has translated. Yet there has been criticism regarding the quality of translation from critics such as Tim Parks who refers to them as “translation niggles”.  (http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/06/20/raw-and-cooked-translation-why-the-vegetarian-wins/ )

For someone so passionate about the translated literature it is apt Smith has inaugurated her independent publishing press, Tilted Axis Press, with Bengali writer Sangeeta Bandhopadhyay’s Panty, translated by Arunava Sinha. To commemorate Women in Translation Month* ‪ (#‎WITMonth ) observed in August, Deborah Smith published the second title, a South Korean novel One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun, translated by Jung Yewon.

*The Women in Translation month is an annual ritual started as recently as three years ago to address the gender imbalances in literature by blogger Meytal Radzinski at Biblibio.  (http://biblibio.blogspot.in/2016/08/witmonth-2016-day-1-ready-set-go.html )

Han Kang The Vegetarian: A Novel ( Translated by Deborah Smith) Portobello Books, London, 2015. Pb. Pp. 184 Rs 499

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni, “Before We Visit the Goddess”


Earlier this week I interviewed Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni via email about her latest novel, Before We Visit the Goddess, published by Simon & Schuster. The review-cum-interview article has been published by newly launched literary website, Bookwitty.com on 20 May 2016. Here is the original url: https://www.bookwitty.com/text/573df5efacd0d0353bea32f7 . I am c&p the text below. One of the things I did not point out in the review but continues to bewilder me is the use of a Rajasthani woman on the book cover when all the books by the author focus on Bengali women.

 

One day, in the kitchen at the back of the store, I held in my hand a new recipe I had perfected, the sweet I would go on to name after my dead mother. I took a bite of the conch-shaped dessert, the palest, most elegant mango color. The smooth, creamy flavor of fruit and milk, sugar and saffron mingled and melted on my tongue. Satisfaction overwhelmed me. This was something I had achieved myself, without having to depend on anyone. No one could take it away…

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni occupies a capital place in global publishing as is evident in her moves between publishers from Picador to Penguin Random House and now to Simon & Schuster. She may be of Indian origin and her stories are very Bengali oriented but they have far greater international appeal. She moved to the USA in the 1970s but remains culturally sensitive to Bengali women’s stories. For years now she has worked with women’s organizations that help survivors of domestic abuse and trafficking. As she told me, “I am on the advisory board of Maitri in the San Francisco area and Daya in Houston. Maybe for this reason, it is important for me to write about strong women who go through difficult situations and are strengthened further by them. This is certainly true of my newest book, Before We Visit the Goddess. I never use the stories I come across in my activist work – those are confidential. But I am sure on some level they have influenced me as a writer and a human being.”

Her early works focused on the known world of Bengali women in the villages and cities, interpersonal relationships, on the home, inside the kitchen, women to women, and the importance of gossip. One such work, Mistress of Spices (1997) was turned into a film in 2005 with noted Bollywood actress and former Miss World, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan.

A decade later, the path breaking The Palace of Illusions ( 2008) was published. It is a feminist retelling of the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata from the point of view of the King of Panchala’s daughter. It was a bestseller and according to Pan Macmillan India, now years after publication it continues to sell steadily at around 15,000 copies every year. This was a watershed moment in Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee’s life as a writer. The Palace of Illusions is now to be made into a film directed by the legendary Aparna Sen, which Divakaruni says she is very excited about. She also began to write young adult fiction such as Brotherhood of the Conch series (2003), in reaction, she told me at the time, to racist abuse she experienced with her sons in the US post 9/11.

She quickly returned to writing her trademark literature. Her later novels are written with a stronger voice and with an assertion of her multi-cultural makeup. As she says, “I have many identities, but ultimately labels are just that – labels. My sensibility as a writer has been shaped by living in India and America, Bengal and Assam and California and Texas. … I would like to think of myself as a global, multicultural writer with roots deep in India – and now Houston.”

She writes with great sensitivity to youth especially immigrants coming to the US. The confusion they face, the hostility, the racism, negotiating their way through life but also the unexpected benevolence of humankind that exists.

Before We Visit the Goddess is Divakaruni’s latest novel and sixteenth publication. In the fashionable mold of contemporary fiction with a five-generation saga, it predominantly details the lives of the second, third and fourth generation of women, Bela, Sabitri and Tara. But there is always much, much more tucked into the stories about the grandmother, mother and daughter. A strong characteristic of Divakaruni’s novels is the exploration of relationships between women, the inter-generational gap, the challenges and victories woman experience and the cultural differences of living in India and the US.

“My sensibility as a writer has been shaped by living in India and America, Bengal and Assam and California and Texas.”

To her credit, Divakaruni creates charmingly and deceptively simple women-centric novels. She never presents a utopian scenario focusing only on women and excluding any engagement with men and society. Instead she details the daily negotiations and choices women face that slowly help them develop into strong personalities:

“I believe in the right of women to live a life of dignity and make their own choices about important decisions in their lives. Therefore, I believe in women’s education, empowerment, and financial independence. These themes are all very important in Before We Visit the Goddess.”

It could be, for instance, the timid homemaker Bela’s insistence on taking her late husband’s firm to court to seek compensation for his death in a factory fire and to everyone’s surprise, winning, or Sabitri’s warm friendship with her gay neighbor, Kenneth, who helps her to establish herself successfully as a food blogger. Without being over-sentimental, Kenneth is tender and radiates pure love.

Divakaruni wrote about her character, “The young gay Caucasian male, Ken, became one of my favorite characters as I was writing him. I hope his unusual relationship with Bela will surprise and delight readers.”

Even the bright Tara who, besides a stray phone call or two, disappears from her family’s life after her parents’ divorce lives an adventurous decade. This includes working at a second-hand shop, becoming a drug addict, being sacked from jobs, babysitting an Indian grandmother transplanted to America who feels as if she is “being buried alive”, or driving an Indian academic to a temple in Texas with equally catastrophic and cathartic consequences. What is admirable about these women is that despite humiliation and hardship, they strive to get ahead.

The stories also work beautifully if read aloud. To my delight, I discovered that Divakaruni does just that with passages from her stories while drafting them, since “you become aware of the rhythm of the language you use”.

The structure of her prose is like a fluid stream of consciousness, evident in the manner in which she plays with the epistolary form and breaks it up in the first chapter when Sabitri is writing a letter to her granddaughter, Tara. Divakaruni believes that with women, “our thought-connections are often emotional ones.”

It is exactly this emotional resonance she wishes to explore and exploit in Before We meet the Goddess, deeming it a “novel-in-stories”. It is “a form that allows me to go through three generations of lives, their ups and downs, in an agile and swift manner, a non-chronological manner. This is important for me, because in some ways this is a novel about memory and how it colors and shapes our understanding of our life. Each chapter in the novel is a stand-alone story, focusing on a moment in the lives of these women, an emotionally significant moment, perhaps a moment of transformation – either good or bad. The stories have many narrators – not just the three women, but the man important in their lives – even if just for one day. Such a structure allows me to organize the novel according to emotional resonance.”

In Before We Visit the Goddess the author takes the different phases of life in her stride without making any of the experiences sentimental, such as young Bela’s pain, or the loneliness, and whimsical and wretched behavior of Leelamoyi, Bela’s wealthy benefactress. Her trademark fiction of the world of Bengali women remains steadfast but she also develops the inter-generational differences magnificently. She did her research, she said, by conversing with young Indians including those who have moved to or are studying in the US, and speaks via Skype to classes in colleges that teach her books. She is active on social media and “loves interacting with her readers”.

At a time when debate rages in the US as to whether the word “India” should be replaced with “South Asia” in school history textbooks, Divakaruni’s novel is more than auspicious. According to The New York Times, “The dispute centers on whether the region that includes modern-day India, Pakistan and Nepal should be referred to as India or as South Asia, to represent the plurality of cultures there — particularly because India was not a nation-state until 1947. It also touches on how the culture of the region is portrayed, including women’s role in society and the vestiges of the caste system. It might seem somewhat arcane. But it has prompted petition drives, as well as a #DontEraseIndia social media campaign and a battle of opinion pieces.

Divakaruni’s books have always elegantly examined multi-cultural identities and what it means to be an Indian, an American or a desi (people from the Indian sub-continent or South Asia who live abroad). In her masterfully crafted Before We Visit the Goddess, young Tara epitomizes the new generation of American-Indians — not ABCD (American Born Confused Desis) anymore but with a distinct identity of their own. As a diplomat told me recently, she may be of Indian origin but has no roots or family in the country and has not had any for generations. So a posting to India is as much of an exciting new adventure as it would be for anyone else visiting the country for the first time. Divakaruni’s latest novel examines these many layers of cultures, interweaving the traditional and contemporary.

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni Before We Visit the Goddess Simon & Schuster, London, 2016. Hb. Pp. 210. Rs 499 / £ 16.99

20 May 2016

“Alice in Wonderland” continues to inspire readers across the world

( My article on Alice in Wonderland has been published in Hindustan Times popular and widely circulated Sunday 20151018_065049supplement Brunch on 18 October 2015. It is a generous two-page spread in print20151018_065100 with the title “Curiouser And Curiouser”. I am c&p the text from the digital version here. The original url can be viewed at: http://www.hindustantimes.com/brunch/alice-in-wonderland-continues-to-inspire-readers-across-the-world/story-NKnM2TiOACiTMXQXtUI51M.html )

Scottish writer George MacDonald persuaded Carroll to self-publish Alice. It had been tested out on the MacDonald children by their mother – and the family loved it. (Above, Carroll with Mrs MacDonald and her children.) (Getty Images/Science Source)

Who’d have thought a self-published story written for the daughters of a friend would become a world classic, eagerly bought, borrowed and downloaded even now, 150 years later?

 Alice in Wonderland was written in 1865 by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematics professor at Oxford, better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll. He wrote it for Lorina, Alice and Edith, the three daughters of his friend, Reverend Henry Liddell.

Start of many things

Alice in Wonderland is about a girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole in pursuit of the White Rabbit and discovers a nonsensically delightful world with colourful characters like the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the March Hare. More writers, artists and creators all over the world have credited Alice as an inspiration than any other book, thanks to its imaginative world filled with fantastic linguistic acrobatics in rhyme and prose.

That the book should have emerged in the staid Victorian era of verbose and righteous prose says much for the power of creativity. Carroll was persuaded to publish Alice with his own illustrations, by Scottish author and poet, George MacDonald.

The story had been tested out on the MacDonald children by their mother. The family thoroughly enjoyed the tale, and Carroll self-published it. Then, it was edited and published by Alexander Macmillan.

Alice, coverLewis Carroll requested the well-known artist of Punch, Sir John Tenniel to create the illustrations, many of which were ultimately based on the original drawings made by the author. To commemorate the 150th year of its publication, Macmillan, the original publisher, has produced a scrumptious edition of The Complete Alice, with the original Tenniel illustrations in full colour. It is unusual for a publisher to be celebrating 150 years of a text, but Alice in Wonderland is perceived to be “a world text”.

Alice in Wonderland is about a girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole in pursuit of the White Rabbit. On the left is an illustration of the character by Carroll himself, and next to it (right) by Tenniel. (Photos: Stapleton Collection/Corbis, The Print Collector/Corbis)

“It’s one of those texts that IS, like Shakespeare,” says graphic novelist Samit Basu. “Its constant reinterpretations in everything, from zombie comics to action-fantasy novels, have kept the original text alive, and that’s the greatest thing that can happen to any book.”

This is evident by the text’s vast influence across creative platforms and genres – storytelling, play on words, visual arts, filmmakers, still photography and translations.

According to filmmaker and author Devashish Makhija, a lot of motifs from Alice have been uncannily replicated across the world. “Tweedledum and Tweedledee seem to have inspired Herge’s Thompson and Thomson in Tintin,” he says. “Batman’s Joker seems to have shades of the Mad Hatter, at least in his inexplicable (but profound) reliance on creating some sort of chaos in anything he communicates.”

And there’s more. When Alice fell down a rabbit hole to discover a topsy-turvy world, Makhija argues, she opened a clear story-telling device for creators of the future. “The ‘hole’ – although in existence before this book – was used pointedly for the first time as a portal connecting two dimensions through which a character ‘travels’.

It has since been used in versions in almost ALL of fantasy writing: the wardrobe in CS Lewis’s Narnia series, the square drawn with chalk in Pan’s Labyrinth, platform 93/4 inHarry Potter, the bridge of Terabithia, HG Wells’s time machine and even the bathtub in Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking.”

Follow that rabbit

“Every reader will leave with a different reading,” says Anil Menon, author of speculative fiction. “Fortunately, Alice in Wonderland has remained what it was intended to be: an invitation to play.”

Let loose in the imaginative world of Alice’s Wonderland, children often find their own wonderlands when they become adults, says photographer and musician Ed Valfre. “Several years ago, I wrote two children’s books about a boy in the backseat of a car who creates stories from all that he sees on the road. As Alice decides to go down the rabbit hole to discover the fantastical world of Wonderland, my hero goes down a similar path but it is inside his own head. The rabbit I follow is some ordinary thing we see every day. The rabbit hole is our imagination and we simply have to pay attention to discover it.”

Jeff VanderMeer, who won the Nebula 2014 for his novel, Annihilation, says that Alice “was such an influence. I Jeff Vandermeer, Southern Reach Trilogy, Rabbit Totem, illustrated by Jeremy Zerfossstarted a far-future novel when I was 13 in which a human-sized bio-engineered white rabbit is found murdered at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. What appealed to me was the surreal aspect of Carroll’s book, even more so than the kind of mathematical logic and the humour. I couldn’t escape Alice even if I tried. It’s one of those constants, or compass points, that for some odd reason draws out originality despite being riffed off again and again.”

There are no white rabbits in filmmaker Paromita Vohra’s work, Unlimited Girls, but Vohra says it is deeply influenced by Alice in Wonderland. In the film, a young woman is drawn into an Internet chat room – kind of like a rabbit hole – and then proceeds on a journey through the world of feminism where she meets all kinds of characters and undergoes all kinds of transformations.

“I think Alice is (like a good Bollywood film, almost) one of those works that gives you permission to make a work out of what you see, what you feel as one,” says Vohra.

In many ways, Alice is a nonsense book. Not in the sense that it is the product of a muddled mind, but because of its willingness to see more in the world than a single outward façade. That’s the aspect that influenced children’s author, known especially for nonsense writing, Anushka Ravishankar the most.

“I remember reading Alice as a child and being fascinated, but also really disturbed because of the strange creatures and the weird, unworldly goings-on,” she says. “It was only much later that I began to appreciate the other elements – the nonsense, the logical games and the clever theories which the nonsense hid. I studied mathematics, so I do believe that Carroll’s mathematical mind came up with things that seem nonsensical but are actually possible given a different mathematical frame.”

It is extraordinary that a story spun to entertain a six-year-old girl on a boating trip has continued to brighten the lives of generations spanning more than a century.

And so just like the way it began in the beginning, Alice in Wonderland remains what it is – a story to delight children.

“My greatest joy,” says Samit Basu, “was the completely context-free sizzle that went through my brain when I first read it as a child, and there’s nothing that can either truly explain or analyse that.”

**

Looking back through translations

On 4 October, 1866, Lewis Carroll wrote to his publisher Macmillan, stating, “Friends here [in Oxford] seem to think that the book is untranslatable.” But his friends were wrong as the editors of Alice in a World of Wonderlands: The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece, would tell Carroll if they could.

Alice in a World of Wonderlands: The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece documents the classic’s translations in 174 languages and over 9,000 editions and reprints. (Pictured in it is Alice Liddell, the little girl the book was written for)

This book, edited by Jon A Lindseth and Alan Tannenbaum, documents translations in 174 languages and over 9,000 editions and reprints of Alice in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass.

“There are nine translations of Alice into Tamil, plus an unpublished draft, a short story, a serialised story, and a graphic version,” says Dr Rajamanickam Azhagarasan, contributor to the book. “It was popular among those involved in the movement for children’s literature from the ’40s through the ’70s. Each translation was unique, depending on which aspect the translators wished to highlight.”

Alice has been translated in Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Konkani, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Nepali and Sinhala. Here (left to right) are translations in Malayalam (2000), Urdu (1981) and Oriya (2002).

Much like the way storytellers have always found new stories to weave out of the Indian epics, Alice’s translators in India have created different Wonderlands – for instance, by weaving mythological elements into the story.

“The Telugu translation of Alice was available as early as the mid-1950s,” says Suresh Kosaraju, trustee, Manchi Pustakam, Secunderabad.

Editor Sushama Sonak says, “Mugdhachi Rangit Goshta (The Many Coloured World of Mugdha) written in Marathi by short story writer GA Kulkarni was heavily influenced by Alice.”

In Malayalam, the first translation was published by Balan Publications. Lewis Carroll certainly influenced the well-known children’s nonsense writer in Bengali, Sukumar Ray, as well as Hemendra Kumar Roy, who wrote wonderful detective stories in Bangla and translated Alice in Wonderland: it is called Ajab Deshe Amala.

Even Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, translated Alice into Russian. According to translator Sergei Task, “By and large, [Nabokov] translated the text as is, except for Russifying the names (Alice/Anya, Mabel/Asya, and the Rabbit got a last name – Trusikov) and introducing pre-revolutionary forms of address such as barin (master) and vashe blagorodiye (your honour). Of course, with the playful verses, he had to take liberties – again, trying to adapt them for Russian readers.”

18 October 2015