biography Posts

“Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi” by Sudhanva Deshpande

Sudhanva Deshpande’s Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi is an account of the left activist Safdar Hashmi who was brutally murdered on 1 Jan 1989 at Jhandapur, Ghaziabad. Safdar Hashmi was 34 years old. Jan Natya Manch was staging a 30-minute play called “Halla Bol” on the road when the actors were interrupted by some politicians who wished to cross. Hashmi requested them to return in a little while. They seemed to listen and turn away except they returned bearing iron rods. They attacked the troupe leaving Safdar Hashmi very badly injured. He had been hit on the head many times. By the time of his death Hashmi had been hugely influential in street theatre with his group called Jan Natya Manch or Janam. He was a member of the CPI ( M).

In Halla Bol Sudhanva Deshpande recalls the earth-shattering events of the day. He was one of those who took the injured Safdar Hashmi to hospital. Working “backwards” from the opening scene of the murder of Hashmi, Sudhanva Deshpande recalls the main highlights of Safdar Hashmi’s life. Both men share similar qualities of being street theatre practitioners and a political activists. So while this book is promoted as a biography, it falls more into the category of a memoir and an unusual one at that — a collective memoir. Through much of the book Deshpande is able to rely upon memory as in many instances he bears witness to the events that occured but for many others he interviewed many people who knew Safdar Hashmi and/or had worked with him. There is a veritable army of people mentioned in the text and acknowledged at the end of the book too. It is a democratic inclusiveness of all those who knew Safdar Hashmi — as a man, a colleague, a relative, a theatreperson, a political activist etc. Deshpande’s account while highlighting that Hashmi used the arts for communicating his politics. As cultural critic Kunal Ray mentioned in his review of the book, “Street theatre is political. It began as a workers’ movement against capitalism. As a medium of performance, it facilitates direct conversation or confrontation with the audience or onlookers defying the restrictions and gentility of a proscenium space. It also undermines the hierarchy of the performer and the audience. Street theatre is democratic and Safdar Hashmi believed in a vision of the arts that is secular and people-oriented. He also believed in an art advocating social justice. It is therefore impossible or perhaps unpardonable to think of Safdar without his politics.” ( Kunal Ray, “Review: Halla Bol – The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi by Sudhanva Deshpande”, Hindustan Times, 24 April 2020) . Interestingly enough National Street Theatre is 12 April which is also Safdar Hashmi’s birthday.

Nandita Das, Sudhanva Deshpande, Moloyshree Hashmi et al reading out the first two scenes of Halla Bol in Mumbai, March 2020.

Halla Bol is an interesting testimony of a life well lived and rudely cut short by hooligans. It may be considered a biography but is more of a primer on theatre in India with a fascinating account of the evolution of street. More importantly an amalgamation of traditional forms of artistic expression that was combined with drama for a public performance. Today we take this for granted, whether watching a play, reading a book or even watching a film. In the 1980s it was still a brand new concept and had the desired impact upon the audience, mostly workers for Jan Natya Manch performances, and who suddenly did not feel alienated any more from cultural performances as plays like “Halla Bol” used vocabulary, situations, dialogue etc that was familiar — “Just like us”. Safdar Hashmi was undeniably sharp, intelligent, a hugely gifted artist, a visionary and knew how to combine smartly political acts with creative expression. Yet there are moments in the book which make it seem like a hagiography since all those interviewed or reminiscing about Safdar Hashmi continue to miss the man fiercely. In a biography one expects there to be a distancing between the author and his subject offering a perspective to the reader but this does not always happen in Halla Bol. Nevertheless this book is a treasure trove of memories, a people’s history of theatre movement in India, evolution of street theatre, documentation of various attitudes towards performing theatre, empowering future generations of theatrepersons by enabling them to be confident in borrowing elements from traditional forms of theatre/ folk art and making it their own. Within months of its publication the book has been translated into quite a few Indian languages. It is a seminal book on Indian theatre.

Read Halla Bol

4 May 2020

Of biographies

Twenty-first century is being touted in publishing as the age of memoirs/biographies. Everyone has a story to tell. People always have. Now with technology making it “easier” for people to share their personal stories, there is a deluge of the “I, me, myself” stories. These shifts in telling narratives are impacting the texture of stories being told. But what continues to stand out are extraordinarily well-researched, brilliantly told, almost meditative narratives that focus upon the particular but persaude the reader to look beyond, to think, to reflect. Two such books that I read recently are: Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women killed by Jack the Ripper and Samanth Subramanian’s A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J.B.S. Haldane

Historian Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women killed by Jack the Ripper is a fascinating account of building together biographies of Jack the Ripper’s victims. The canonical five — Mary Jane Kelly, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Ann Nichols, Elizabeth Stride and Annie Clapman. For more than a hundred and fifty years it was firmly believed that these victims were prostitutes. With her impeccable research and marshalling of empirical evidence by scouring police records, newspaper clippings of the time, witness testimonies, reviewing of historical socio-economic and political facts and consistently making it available to the modern reader in an immensely accesible narrative, makes Hallie Rubenhold’s book a dream to read. It is packed with information. Each woman has a section devoted to her, giving a birth-to-death biographical account, neatly interspersed with explanations from contemporary accounts of what could be the rational explanation for the woman’s behaviour or what was a reaction to socio-economic conditions prevailing at the time. More importantly Hallie Rubenhold teases out from history the despicable attitudes towards women that probably contributed to the social downfall of these women, ultimately making them vulnerable to criminals such as Jack the Ripper. Interestingly enough, not once, does she ever give a graphic description of the body disovered at the crime scene or shares details of the autopsy reports. Instead there are a few photographs and illustrations tipped into the book along with a seemingly mundane list of the possessions found upon the women’s bodies. A list that in most cases highlights that these were extremely poor women. Nevertheless these women were careful about appearances as is evident from the list of grooming articles found upon their persons. What is truly remarkable is that The Five is not just a historian delving into the past and putting together bits and pieces of information to create a clear narrative, a short biography of the women victims but it is also an attempt to recover the dignity and respect that these women deserved. The only time Hallie Rubenhold betrays her fury is in the concluding paragraph of the book.

It is only by bringing these women back to life that we can silence the Ripper and what he represents. By permitting them to speak, by attempting to understand their experiences and see their humanity, we can restore to them the respect and compassion to which they are entitled. The victims of Jack the Ripper were never ‘just prostitutes’; they were daughters, wives, mothers, sisters and lovers. They were women. They were human beings, and surely that, in itself, is enough.

Hallie Rubenhold won the 2019 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-fiction with The Five. It is a prize well deserved for historical research that unearths so many truths that were for so long masked in one-sided, most often imbued with patriarchal perspectives. It is modern day research arguing and bolstering every single observation about the victims by going far back in time and piecing it together meticulously. With The Five Hallie Rubenhold has done a great service not only for the five victims but also created a fresh way of looking at Victorian England and at historical research much in the way that Hobsbawm’s trilogy about the long nineteenth century did. ( Although Rubehold never cites Hobsbawm in her bibliography.) Revisting the past with the tools of the present to investigate and understand and get to the truth by assessing the facts for what they are rather than imposing one’s own modern judgements and reading. Read The Five. An immensely readable history book that reads like an astonishingly well-written nineteenth century novel.

Award-winning writer and journalist Samanth Subramanian’s biography of geneticist H.B.S Haldane has been long awaited. Every fortnight Samanth Subramanian also ran a podcast called The Intersection that melds culture, science and history in India. ( Shortly the backlist will be made available on Spotify. Worth listening to!) So it is no surprise that A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J.B.S. Haldane melds together cultural and historical contextual references along with Haldane’s scientific temperament. This is a biography that follows the classic definition of a biography of following step-by-step every major development of Haldane. Of course there is a sufficiently long preamble emphasising that Haldane was in many senses the product of the Victorian Age. His curiosity and asking innumerable questions was a trait very similar to that of his father, John Scott Haldane. Haldane Senior a physiologist was known to have gone on madcap experiments in the pursuit of science such as he entered, in the middle of the night, the crowded one-room tenements of slum dwellers where more than six or seven persons lay sleeping in a room holding a vial aloft to collect a sample of the air. Like his father, J.B.S. Haldane was not averse to experimenting upon himself. He had seen his father do it. He had also assisted his father in conducting these experiments such as checking the atmospheric pressure below water wearing a submarine suit. This methodology of self-experimentation became Haldane’s trademark. Some of his more outrageous experiments were to drink hydrocholoric acid or to enclose himself in an airtight space to monitor the effects of carbon dioxide in his blood stream — about which he complained bitterly for it having given him a terrible headache. Haldane was particularly gifted in being able to work with numbers. What comes through very clearly in this biography is that Haldane was known for his irascible temperament and did not suffer fools easily but was quite at peace absorbed in his world, fiddling with mathematical equations. For example Haldane estimated way back that the mutations in the haemophilia gene was equivalent to roughly one mutated nucleotide per 25 million. The full human genome contains roughly 6.4 billion nucleotides. In 2009, a study conducted by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in England using sequencing technology showed that there is one mutated nucleotide per 30 million. Incredibly Haldane with his pen and paper scribbles and before the structure of the DNA had been discovered had come within spitting distance of what is now believed to be the true figure.

Haldane was extremely bright. He learnt to read at the age of three, and at four, after injuring his forehead he famously asked the doctor, “Is this oxyhaemoglobin or carboxyhaemoglobin?” And as is the case with exceptionally gifted children, they keep their adults on their toes. Haldane was no exception. He found his stability at home. His mother particularly was his anchor. Later he had his ups and downs with his educational institutions including Eton College. It was evident that he required understanding and sympathetic adults around him otherwise he would lose his keel. He had cleared the Eton entrance exams easily, topping the list of successful candidates in that year. Yet his grades began to take a sharp dip as he was bullied for what was perceived as arrogant behaviour. Later his circle of acquaintances in Cambridge recognised this rudeness as merely his impatience with those around him as Haldane was constantly needy for stimulating conversationalists. Fascinatingly his circle of friends included Julian Huxley, brother of writer Aldous Huxley. While he was young Haldane could be contained and his excessive amounts of energy were (mostly) constructively channeled. In his adulthood he was more or less a loose canon. Doing as he pleased as long as it enabled him to focus on his passion — his work. It did not make him very popular with many people but he did not really care. Perhaps it was this obstinate trait in him that enabled him to believe wholeheartedly in communism. So much so that Haldane’s blind faith in the ideology clouded his scientific temper to see the merit of biologist and plant breeder Nikolay Vavilov who fell victim to Stalin’s purges. Instead as Subramanian recounts in his splendid biography, Haldane in the battle of the geneticists in Stalinist Russia batted for Lysenko, a Stalin favourite, vs Vavilov, a true scientist. In 1943, Haldane was invited to participate in a BBC symposium on the Lysenko controversy. According to Subramanian, Haldane “delicately” handled Lysenko’s primary claim to fame, “the vernalization of wheat” even though it invalidated Haldane’s own research and went against everything that Vavilov had proven via his experiments.

There are many more details in Haldane’s extraordinary life such as being a possible spy, being followed by the MI5 ( the poor suffering agents had to sit through long lectures on the sex life of extinct fungi or a Science for Peace meeting). In 1956 Haldane left London to take up a job as the head of the biometry unit at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. This was when renowned mathematician P. C. Mahalanobis was the director. Haldane moved lock, stock and barrel to India believing that the country shared his socialist beliefs. After a run-in with Mahalanobis, Haldane moved to a newly established biometry unit in Orissa. He died due to cancer on 1 December 1964 and as a true scientist he donated his body for medical research and teaching.

Samanth Subramanian takes the art of writing a biography to a new level. Packed with information. Detailed, impeccable research, with plenty of end notes and a select biography which runs into a few pages of fine print. A Dominant Character seems to be the new kind of biography where you delve into data as much as you can to recreate a life on paper, with all the highs and lows of the person being chronicled and with no judgement on the part of the author. It is a presentation of facts. It is an interesting balance to achieve as it could not have been easy to put down on paper. In it there is something for everyone — the lay reader, the scientist, the historian, the geneticist, the science historian, researchers etc. It is a form of resurrection in popular forums that is bound to be influential for years to come. In fact it would be fascinating to hear a conversation between Samanth Subramanian and Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee on the science of writing biographies. Till then read A Dominant Character!

Biographies are a useful access route into a slice of history. Through the lens of the personal they enable readers to get their bearings of historical events. It is a pleasurable learning experience if these texts are authenticated by facts as is the case with these two remarkable books.

8 February 2020

The art of biography, with Diarmaid MacCulloch and Ken Krimstein

Earlier this year I read two brilliant books. Both happened to be biographies. One is the long, detailed biography of Thomas Cromwell: A Life by Diarmaid MacCulloch which took the better part of a decade to put together. In it he has scoured empirical evidence, mostly documents, scattered in different libraries and collections to create a magnificent biography of a man who rose from being the son of a blacksmith in Putney to the chief minister of Henry VIII in London. It is detailed and rich and yet not tedious to read.

The second one is a graphic novel written and illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist Ken Krimstein. The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth was more than three years in the making but is one of the better introductions to Hannah Arendt that has been ever written. While the images and story frames continue to keep the plot moving in a straightforward narrative style, it is the layout consisting of footnotes and slowly increasing shades of green, till the last frame is soaked in the colour, that makes this a layered and textured reading.

Months after having read these two magnificent biographies, I came across the Guardian podcast where amazingly enough these two authors were speaking in quick succession. Have a listen:

8 November 2019

Women in Translation, Aug 2019

The Women in Translation (#WiT) month is celebrated annually in August. There was a flurry of activity online with a number of gems being unearthed and discussed. It is a really fascinating time to discover new writers, new translators, new publishers etc. Whilst I enjoyed reading the various articles, interviews, profiles and even book extracts that were made available online, I realised there was a deafening silence from the Indian subcontinent.

There is a thriving literary culture that has existed in the subcontinent for an exceptionally long time in all the regional languages. Of late many of these texts are being made available in English so as to be accessed by a larger readership. Sometimes new translations are commissioned such as Daisy Rockwell’s translation of Khadija Mastur’s The Women’s Courtyard although a translation by Neelam Hussain of Simorgh Collective exists too.

Another fascinating aspect of the Indian publishing industry is that as it grows, the market grows, and so does the interest in the craft of writing. For long writers have written and published their works in various literary magazines, “women’s magazines”, newspapers etc. Of course there are now online literary spaces, discussion forums and sometimes even in the print media where writers are interviewed and their craft discussed. But interviewing writers, especially women, is an art unto itself. Women writers inevitably have to find the time to write amongst the rhythm of many other duties and commitments they need to fulfil. This was more so in the past than now when increasingly there are more and more “professional writers”. Even so, reading about the craft of writing by women writers continus to be an exciting world since irrespective of socio-economic class, many writers share the same concerns and have similar pressures. Women Unlimited, an associate of Kali for Women, has for years published interviews with women writers. Their latest publication is Lifescapes: Interviews with Contemporary Women Writers from Tamil Nadu. The Tamil publishing landscape is not an easy one to understand with many interesting threads running through it, all of which were influential upon the seventeen women writers interviewed by the editors — K. Srilata and Swarnlatha Rangarajan. While the interviews themselves are insightful, it is the structural arrangement of each entry that is fascinating for it has the mandatory biography about the author, a sample of her writing, a head note by the editors introducing the writer and why they chose her specifically to be included in the anthology and finally, the interview. Every detail adds just sufficient information creating an image of the writer that the reader definitely wants to know more about.

Ever since World Literature began to open new publishing horizons in the Anglo-American book market as well as the growth of the desi diaspora as a lucrative readership, did the spotlight on translations from regional languages into English become an attractive proposition for many firms. As a result there is a feast of offerings particularly as the multi-national publishers expand their fare. Be that as it may there are some fabulous publishers such as Women Unlimited, Zubaan, Orient Black Swan, Speaking Tiger, Permanent Black ( on occasion), Aleph Book Company, Yoda Press, Westland/Amazon and Oxford University Press that have been publishing translations for a while. It is impossible to list all but here some of the wonderful titles published recently.

The Solitary Sprout: Selected Stories of R. Chudamani ( translated from Tamil by C.T. Indra and T. Sriraman) is a fabulous collection of short stories. In fact, R. Chudamani (1931-2010) has often been considered as an early feminist among Tamil writers. The Solitary Sprout is a wonderful selection of Chudamani’s short stories with “No fury like a mother’s”, “Herself” and “Not a stepfather” standing out as very modern stories. It is hard to believe that these were written many decades ago. The sharp insight and clear ideas that the writer shares can take one’s breath away even now. For instance, “No fury like a mother’s” is about three mothers of young schoolgirls who are furious at how their daughters are ill-treated by their school teacher. The punishment meted out to the young girls by the teacher is to strip the girls publicly. The three mothers team up and pressurise the teacher to resign otherwise they threaten to mete out the same treatment to her as she did to their daughters. “Herself” is about a mother who once her children are married and settled with families of their own, discovers her trueself and becomes a music teacher as well is a voluntary worker at the Primary Health Centre in her village. Much to her visiting daughter’s dismay who had expected a month’s vacation at her parent’s home free from all responsibilities including babysitting her own son. Instead the daughter discovers she has to pitch in with household chores at her parents home and continue to look after her own son. She is deeply disappointed and upset as her memories of her mother was one who was always free and available for the family. It rattles the daughter. More so as her father supports his wife’s actions and sees no wrong. “Not a stepfather” addresses issues like widow remarriage, single parenting, stepfather etc. It is beautifully told from the perspective of the disgruntled mother of the bride who is not amused that her daugther has remarried and expects the new husband also to take care of her young son. It is complicated but within the first visit of the newly married couple to the mother’s house, the son warms up to his new father and gets the blessings of his mother-in-law too. It is a powerful story as it raises so many questions about gendered and social expectations of a woman and a man. The Solitary Sprout is worth reading, sharing and discussing in more forums. These are stories that need to be told more often.

Prolific and powerful writer K. R. Meera has a new collection of three novellas called The Angel’s Beauty Spots. As often is the case with K. R. Meera’s stories, she explores love and its various angles. Sometimes well meaning and powerful love for all intents and purposes can go horribly wrong as in the title novella. K. R. Meera’s stories have this remarkable quality of taking the wind out of the reader’s sails with the horrific and at times inexplicable sequence of events except that some bizarre form of love propelled many of the decisions taken by her characters. Somehow the team of author and translator, K. R. Meera and J. Devika, works well. It is difficult to pinpoint an exact reason but the translation reads smoothly without losing any of the cultural characteristics of sharing a story set in Kerala and written in Malayalam. It just feels perfectly satisfying to read.

The Diary of Manu Gandhi ( 1943 – 44) are the diaries written by Manubehn ( Mridula) Gandhi, who was the youngest daughter of Mahatma Gandhi’s nephew, Jaisukhlal Amritlal Gandhi and Kasumba. These diaries are preserved in the National Archives of India and for the first time are being translated and edited from Gujarati into English by Tridip Suhrud. Manu Gandhi as a young girl had been encouraged by Mahatma Gandhi to maintain a diary. Manu Gandhi was the one walking beside Mahatma Gandhi at Birla House before his would-be assassin, Nathuram Godse, pushed her aside, so as to be able to shoot his target.

Diary-keeping of Gandhi was an essential duty for all those engaged in pursuit of truth and hence obligatory for Ashramites and satyagrahis. He constantly urged the Ashram community and constructive workers to maintain one. ….A daily diary,he believed, was a mode of self-examination and self-purification; he made it an obligatory observance for all those who walked with him on the Salt march.

While The Diary of Manu Gandhi ( 1943 – 44) is of more academic and historical interest to many readers, it is accompanied by a fine commentary by Gandhian scholar Tridip Suhrud. He offers insights about maintenance of a diary, the translation process, making available critical empirical material such as these diaries which till now many knew of its existence but not many could access. It also documents the growth of a young, under-confident girl to a mature person as evident in the style of her writing, longer sentences, more time spent describing incidents rather than restricting it to scribbles as many of the early entries are. Interestingly, as Tridip Suhrud points out in his introduction, Mahatma Gandhi or Bapu as he was known, would often read and scribble his thoughts in the margins of Manu Gandhi’s diaries. Ideally though it would have been a preferable if in this volume an interview with Tridip Suhrud with a leading gender/oral history expert had been included. It would then give some critical insights in what it means to translate a young girl’s diary many decades later by a highly reputed Gandhian scholar. With due respect even the best academic scholars tend to gloss over certain gender issues that irrespective of how many times they are repeated continue to be important and need to be highilghted. At the same time it would be fascinating to see what emerges from the conversation of a Gandhian expert with a gender expert to see how much Gandhian ways of living influenced the minds and hearts of those in the Ashram or did the basic gendered ways of seeing also get scrubbed away.

Speaking of memoirs, Rosy Thomas’s He, My Beloved CJ about her life with her husband and well-known Malayalam writer and critic, C. J. Thomas. It has been translated by G. Arunima. C.J. Thomas died young. His wife wrote this memoir much later. While it is a very personal account of her courtship, her marriage and the brief time she spent with her husband during which he opposed her desire to seek employment. Apparently in the Malayalam text, Rosy Thomas often refers to her husband as moorachi ( a colloquial term for conservative). Hence within this context it is quite amazing to read an account of a life that does not necessarily romanticise the couple’s love but is able to subvert the prevalent notions of wifehood. It has descriptions of their homes, their families, their circle of friends and at times some of their discussions on art, creativity and politics. At least in the memoir she comes across at times an equal participant despite his conservative mindset on having a wife who earned a living. Be that as it may, the monotone pitch at which the memoir is written or has been translated in —it is difficult to discern the difference — does not make He, My Beloved CJ easy to read. Of course it is a seminal book and will for a long time be referred to by many scholars interested in knowing more about the literary movement in Kerala or about the legend himself, C. J. Thomas — a man who seems to have acquired mythical proportions in Kerala. How many will access it for being a woman’s witnessing of a fascinating moment in history, only time will tell. Meanwhile the translator’s note is worth reading. G. Arunima writes:

…this biography is as much about C J Thomas and their marriage, as it is about Rosy as a writer. The act of remembrance is also about fashioning her own self and subjectivity, both as a ‘loving’ subject, and as a ‘writer’ and raconteur, observing, weighing, annotating and narrating their life as a text. Rosy Thomas grew up in a literary home; her father, M P Paul, was an intrinsic part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, the Sahitya Pravarthaka Sahakarna Sangham ( Literary Workers’ Cooperative Society) and had also set up the tutorial college that was named after him. Writers, books and a culture of reading were a central part of her life. Even though these reminiscences do not dwell too much on her own literary or political formation, it is evident that CJ’s world wasn’t alien to her. In her later life she was to become a published writer and translator in her own right; such creativity is obvious even in this text where the nuances of a remembered life are testament to her wit and literary flair.

There are many, many more titles that one can discuss such as Sharmila Seyyid’s Ummath: A Novel of Community and Conflict. It is set during the three decades of the Sri Lanka’s civil war. It is told through the lives of three women, Thawakkul, Yoga and Theivanai — one a social activist, the other a Tamil Tiger forced into joining the movement as a child, and the third a disillusioned fighter for the Eelam. The novel has been translated from Tamil by Gita Subramaniam. While it immerses one immediately into the strife torn landscape, it is also puzzling as sometimes the voices of the three main characters seem to acquire the same pitch, making it seem as if the author’s own devastating firsthand experiences of the conflict are making their presence felt throughout the narrative. It is impossible for the English readers to ever solve this puzzle but there is something that comes through in the translation and is not easy to pinpoint. While promoted as fiction, it is easy to see that Ummath with the insights it offers, nature of conversations documented and descriptions of the landscape make this novel a lived experience. This is a challenging story to read but is worth doing so as the conversations about women/gender and conflict are relatively new in public discourse and need to be share more widely.

The final book in this roundup is a translation from Bengali of Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s The Children’s Ramayana by first-time translator Tilottama Shome. It is the Ramayana told with its basic story sans the many digressions and minor tales. It is the epic with many of the popular stories retold that many generations of Indians are familiar with. It does not come across as a novice’s attempt at translation. In fact as she says in her translator’s note, “I have tried to retain that delightful quirky tone and the hint of humour told with a straight face that has endeared Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s works to readers for generations” seems to be true. Again it is impossible for English readers to confirm this fact or not but there is something about the zippy pace, ease of reading, a rhythm to the storytelling, making it immensely attractive to read. Perhaps Tilottama Shome being a trained singer ably assisted her in finding the rhythm to this translation. There is something to be said for a trained musical ear and discovering the cadences of a written text making the translation from one language/culture to the next a pleasurable experience!

18 September 2019

An interview with the fabulous YA writer Supriya Kelkar on her debut novel, “Ahimsa”

I interviewed Supriya Kelkar for Scroll on her debut novel Ahimsa published locally by Scholastic India — “How Supriya Kelkar wrote a novel about Indian independence that children around the world relate to“. It was published on 2 September 2018. I am c&p the interview here too. The link for the book on Amazon India is embedded in the book cover given below.

*****

Supriya Kelkar’s debut YA novel Ahimsa is about 10-year-old Anjali who is unexpectedly pulled into the Indian Freedom struggle in 1942 when her mother leaves the family to become a freedom fighter. A brisk pace and an alignment with current social sentiments makes the book particularly apt for our times. It highlights communal tensions, riots, lynchings, prison conditions, the Quit India movement, Gandhi, and the beginnings of Indian nationalist fervour. In the process, it also steps into the vacuum that is literature on the freedom struggle for children.

Supriya Kelkar was born and grew up in the USA, learning Hindi by watching Bollywood films. After college she got a job as a screenwriter for Hindi films. Ahimsa is inspired by her great-grandmother Anasuyabai Kale’s role in the Indian freedom movement. Kelkar spoke to Scroll.in about her book and her writing in general. Excerpts from an email interview:

Why did you choose to write an activist-oriented novel from the perspective of ten-year-old Anjali?
I actually first had the idea to write this story as a biopic screenplay of my great-grandmother’s story about fifteen years ago. I tried and the script just wasn’t working and then decided to try it as a fictional story. I realised the more interesting point of view in the story wasn’t that of someone who already believed in the cause. It was of someone who was privileged and not yet ready to confront that privilege.

So I decided to tell the story from the point of view of a ten-year-old girl whose mother joins the freedom movement. I’m really happy with the choice. It allowed Anjali to grow and change so much over the course of the story from a young girl who is happy with the status quo, who loves her fancy clothes, and who doesn’t really understand fully her relationship with her colonisers, to one who is ready to make personal sacrifices, be an ally, and stand up for what is right, strong and confident that her voice can make a difference. It’s a pretty big arc and big awakening for Anjali.

The title, Ahimsa, is synonymous with Gandhi and the Indian freedom struggle. Yet it resonates decades later with the younger generations. What made you think of it
The title was one of the first things that came to me when writing this story as a novel, and is one of the few things that has remained from the first draft I wrote back in 2003. Since it was one of the themes of the book, it was an easy choice as a title. But my hope is that the true meaning behind the word really resonates with young readers today, as they realise how powerful their voice is, and how they can make a difference through words and peaceful action and not violence.

What changes did you make in the book over these years?
I think other than the very first moment and the last paragraph, everything in the story has changed over the fourteen year-long journey to publication. It took me a long time to be able to figure out what the crux of the plot should be. And that’s the beauty of revision. Once I was able to become detached from my words and hit the backspace key with abandon, I was able to throw out large chunks of the story that weren’t working and figure out what was. I think my characters and their arcs became stronger with each draft, and they definitely became more realistic, as I worked hard to make sure Anjali was flawed and had a chance to grow, and Captain Brent was able to grow and change too. I write on the computer, but will initially brainstorm on paper by hand. But all my outlining and writing is done on the computer.

Navigating historical landscapes at the best of times is tricky and yet you do it with such deftness. How many revisions did this manuscript require?
I wrote the first draft of Ahimsa in 2003. It was terrible and I was ready to give up, so I set it aside and went back to working on screenplays. But every year, between screenplays and other novels I was writing, I would remember Ahimsa exists and go back to it, throwing subplots and characters and scenes out and adding new things in. This went on until 2016, when it got a publishing contract. And after those thirteen drafts, I did four more revisions with my editor, so there were seventeen drafts in total.

In her memoir Ants Among Elephants, Sujatha Gidla quotes her uncle, Satyam, remembering an incident soon after India achieved independence. “A short, chubby dark boy…had a strange question for Satyam, one that Satyam had no answer to: ‘Do you think this independence is for people like you and me?’” Do you think this question remains valid even today for Dalits?
That is a really powerful quote. While I cannot speak for the Dalit community, I can speak from my experiences growing up and living in America. Here, although equality is a right and on paper everyone should be equal, it is very clear things are not the same for everyone. Systemic racism exists. Discrimination against people based on the colour of their skin or sexual orientation or religion or zip code exists. Hate crimes exist. I think the same can be said in India and in many countries.

Privileged people have to work to confront their privilege and be allies to others. Young readers and older readers alike should be aware that not everyone has the same start in life because of centuries of oppression and discrimination be it based on their skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, last name, etc. When that basic premise is accepted, people can work to address and correct inequality and injustice.

The issues of untouchability, social exclusion and women empowerment are as relevant now as they were in 1942. How did writing historical fiction help you discuss modern instances of these?
It really wasn’t until about a decade into revisions that I realised just how relevant historical fiction can be. I was stunned when things I was writing about in 1942 India were being mirrored in 2016 in America. It made me realise we have come a long way and yet we haven’t.

Women are still not considered true equals everywhere, be it in the way girls and women are sometimes treated in India or how women still do not get paid the same amount as men for doing the same job in America. People are still writing narratives for their countries, be it India, America, or anywhere else, and deciding who is included and who is excluded in their nationalism, and who is being centered. And people are still being treated as less-than all over the world. For me, writing historical fiction helps bring light to all these issues, and it is really incredible to see young readers making these connections as they read Ahimsa and see how the story can be applied to their world.

How much research did Ahimsa require?
A whole lot! I read many books and went to academic websites for the timeline and historical facts. I used my great-grandmother’s biography, Anasuyabai Ani Me, to help me fill in the gaps for the way some people thought and how they acted at the time. I consulted professors. I spoke to older family members who lived through the time period. And I relied a lot on my parents to help me fill in cultural details. I actually have several of the pictures of the real-life people, places, and things that inspired parts of Ahimsa on my website for educators and readers.

Historical fiction as a genre requires a ton of research. You have to ensure your book works on a narrative level but you also have to make sure the clothing, the food, and the facts are right. And since India is so diverse, what may be true in one part of India for one family may not be true for their relatives in a different part of India. It was part of what made the editing process so challenging. I felt like we were constantly catching mistakes, which is good, because then they could be corrected. The fact-checking was a combination of my own research, my parents and other beta readers pointing things out, and my editor’s questions that helped navigate the fact-checking.

For instance, I had based Anjali’s house on my dad’s childhood house, because much of it was like it had been in the 1940s. But because my memories of that house were from my childhood visits in the 1980s and 1990s, there were mistakes. I had always described people standing to cook in that kitchen in the book. But my dad caught that mistake and told me although the stove was on a counter when I saw the house, back in the 1940s, the cooking was all done on the floor. So I went back and rewrote the kitchen scenes to reflect that.

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Writing historical fiction in the age of the internet and fake news can also be challenging because you have to make sure the online sources you use are real. It wasn’t until one of the last edits before publication, when I was double and triple checking everything, that I realised that the Gandhi quote I used in the book, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” was incorrect. There was no proof that he ever said that, but thanks to pop culture, the saying can be found all over America on T-shirts and mugs and written on school walls, attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. I had to research a lot to find a quote that there actually was a record of that could still work in the book.

It is well-documented that atrocities against Dalits persist in India. Ahimsa is not strident, however, leaving it to the judgement of the reader to form an opinion about Dalits. How critical do you think it is as a writer to exercise one’s artistic expression in making stories available that are of utmost social concern to sensitise young readers?
I think authors of children’s book authors have a great responsibility in presenting real world issues in an age-appropriate way. As parents, we often want to shield our children from the bad parts of life. But when they are old enough to handle the information, if we continue to shelter them from reality, I think we are doing a disservice to their generation.

In America, there was (and is) a prevailing way of thinking when I was growing up, called being “colour-blind.” We were taught in school that there is no difference between people based on their skin colour and it isn’t polite to talk about race because we shouldn’t see race.

Although that may seem like a really wonderful way to think about the world, studies have shown that teaching kids to be “colour-blind” leads to children who cannot accept that there is systemic racism, or that someone with a different skin colour than them would have a different life experience than them, be treated by the police differently, or be treated by society differently.

I have experienced that first hand, where so many of my classmates walked the same hallways in school as I did but were utterly unaware of racist incidents happening every day in school. And I witnessed those same kids being unable to accept that people who weren’t white got treated differently in America. So it’s actually doing children a disservice to not talk about race and how the colour of your skin in America does affect how you are treated and the opportunities you have.

That’s why I think it is really important for children’s book authors to not gloss over real-life issues. Young readers are smart and shaping their world view at the middle-grade reader level, so it is absolutely critical that we don’t talk down to them or ignore issues of social justice, and other important issues, in books for them.

What has the response of students been like? Have the reactions varied depending upon the audience? For instance, do Americans have a different response to that of Indians or the Indian diaspora? Or do all young readers respond to the book in similar ways?
I’ve actually found that readers in America, both from the diaspora and not, and readers in India have all been able to deeply connect to the story. Not only that, so many of them have been able to apply the themes of social justice in the book to the real world, regardless of where they live. I’ve had young readers in America tell me they have been inspired to speak up because of Anjali, that they have decided to get more involved in a cause they believe in because of her, and that the story has opened their eyes to injustice around them. And I have had young readers in India tell me they know they can use their voice to change the world because of Ahimsa.

One reader in Delhi told me that she had never really paid attention to how privileged she was until she read Ahimsa. She was chauffeured to school and often tuned out any suffering she saw outside her car window because she was so used to seeing it her whole life. She told me that, thanks to the book, she will no longer ignore others’ suffering and wants to make a difference and knows she will. So although the issues children in different parts of the world (or often the same country) can relate back to Ahimsa may be different, I have found they can all find a way to connect to the story.

Ahimsa moves at a crisp pace while being packed with details, many of which are noticed on a second reading. How did you develop a love for storytelling? Who are the storytellers who have influenced you?
Thank you very much. I developed a love for storytelling thanks to the hundreds of books I read as a child, and thanks to Hindi movies. With each book I read and movie I watched, I was learning about plot and pacing and what works in a story and what doesn’t. Being surrounded by books and movies as a child, I couldn’t think of doing anything else in life but telling stories.

There were several authors whose stories I loved and learned from, like Holly Keller and Beverly Cleary. But the first storyteller who influenced me in person was my dad. He is an engineer but also wrote a lot on the side and was always introducing me to the power of words through the plays he acted in and directed for the Indian-American community we lived in. When I was growing up I saw him writing a script weekly for his Indian radio programme which airs in America and now thanks to the internet worldwide. He also wrote stories and even wrote a couple of screenplays for Hindi movies decades ago.

The other storytellers who have influenced me are people I consider myself so lucky to have got the chance to learn from. I had the great fortune of being taught screenwriting at the University of Michigan by Jim Burnstein. He is a Hollywood screenwriter and incredible teacher who taught me everything I know about structure and outlining and making sure there is logic in your writing.

I had the privilege of working for Vinod Chopra Films right out of college. Vidhu Vinod Chopra taught me so much about making sure your stories are entertaining while saying something. It was through working with him that I learned to really be ruthless in revisions, and go from an impatient novice to a writer who knows the value of revising, even if it takes years to get things right. Abhijat Joshi taught me how to shape a story, and how to really dig deep to get to the crux of a scene and make sure it hits emotionally. And I learned from Rajkumar Hirani how to fill my writing with heart and do justice to each character’s arc, while always keeping the theme in mind.

Did writing for Bollywood films inform the very visual narrative of Ahimsa, or do writing styles vary? Do you find writing for young readers is vastly different to writing scripts for movies?
I actually had to unlearn some of my screenwriting training to write novels. In screenwriting you don’t waste time describing the way someone dresses or the way a room looks or the physical way a character responds unless it is absolutely vital to the plot. That’s because the screenplay isn’t the final product.

A costume designer will decide what clothes characters wear, a set designer will decide how rooms should look, and a director and the actor will decide how they physically react to moments. Because of this, through many drafts of the book, I did not describe how my characters interact with their world to show their emotions other than in basic ways like their shoulders slumping or their smile turning down. It was only in the later edits, when my editor pointed this out, that I was able to momentarily let go of the screenwriter in me and really describe what a character was doing physically.

Other than that, I don’t find writing children’s books that different from writing screenplays. I still use a three-act screenwriting structure in all my novels, and find that the basics of plot and character are really the same in both forms of writing.

Was it challenging to find a publisher, or was it an easier process with the “We Need More Diverse Books” movement?
It was challenging. I had tried for over a decade to get an agent in the publishing world for Ahimsa and other books but I just kept getting rejection after rejection, despite my screenwriting credits. Growing up never seeing myself in a book, I never really thought a children’s book set in India could get published in America. Other than Ahimsa, for almost fifteen years, I only wrote stories featuring white families because I thought that was all that could sell.

As an adult, I saw a couple of children’s books set in India being published and it gave me hope. I’m so grateful to We Need Diverse Books and everyone involved in speaking out for the importance of diverse stories. I was lucky Ahimsa was published by Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books, the largest multicultural publisher in America. And I’m lucky it’s been published in India by Scholastic. But there is still much work to be done to make sure every child gets to see their story reflected in a book.

How did the striking cover design come about? Unusually, both the American and Indian editions have used the same design. Did you have a say in it?
Yes! I love the gorgeous cover so much. It is by a UK-based artist named Kate Forrester. I love the way she uses intricate design and symbolism and hand-lettering in her book covers. I believe I mentioned that peacock feathers would be nice in the design because of their symbolism in the book and I just adore the way Kate worked them in. I also love Baba’s clenched fist, Ma holding the flag, the spinning wheel, and the plants and the reference to the garden and growth throughout the cover.

Supriya Kelkar Ahimsa Scholastic India, Gurgaon, India, 2018. Hb. pp. 308 Rs 295 

3 September 2018 

“Sight” by Jessie Greengrass

…the framing of a  radical scientific discovery in ordinary language, the ability to impart understanding without first having to construct a language in which to do so. Rontgen’s description of his work comes like the unravelling of a magician’s illusion which, explained quickens rather than diminishing, the understanding of its working conferring the illusion of complicity …

Jessie Greengrass’s debut novel Sight is about an unnamed narrator pondering whether to have a child or not.

I wanted a child fiercely but couldn’t imagine myself pregnant, or a mother, seeing only how I was now or how I thought I was: singular, centreless, afraid. 

It is a long reflection by the narrator split into three parts like a play with a short interlude.  Every section itself is structured with the long self-reflecting passages about by the narrator interspersed with interludes with factual historical content. The first section involves the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, and Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays; the second section is about psycho analyst Sigmud Freud and the final section is about Scottish surgeon John Hunter who was exceptionally well known for his knowledge of the anatomy, both human and animal. In fact John Hunter’s fine collection of over 14,000 specimens was acquired by the British government and even today exists at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. Interestingly every section while the narrator reflects it corresponds with a particular moment in her life. The first section while she tussles whether to get pregnant or not she also contemplates upon Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays whose experiments in the laboratory resulted in a big impact on medical science and society too. It was the intensely subjective moment that led to greater objectivity:

For seven weeks and three days Röntgen existed in a private world transformed for him and him alone, and perhaps this too was a part of his later bitterness: that despite this experience of revelation, the conferral on him of a scientific grace, afterward nothing was different at all, and although he had seen through metal and seen through flesh to what was hidden, and although he had known, or thought that he had known, its nature, what had been left afterwards was only so much quibbling on the bill. 

Similarly mothering her firstborn, remembering the death of her mother due to cancer while the narrator herself was in her early twenties leaving her an orphan,  sharing her fears with her partner Johannes whether to have the second baby or not, while wondering if she is capable of the responsibility — these are intensely personal experiences for any woman more so for the narrator. Pregnancy is a very female experience that is repeated number of times over with every mother-to-be and yet remains an intensely intimate and subjective experience. Towards the end of this section she realises she has “outdistanced her anxiety” and wants the second child.

In the second section the narrator introduces her grandmother, Doctor K, and Sigmund Freud — both psychoanalysts.  Her childhood memories of spending holidays with her grandmother who worked as a professional psychoanalyst while caring for her granddaughter and on those rare occasions for her own daughter. The narrator recalls her mother telling her how when she was a five year old girl her mother, Doctor K, would insist upon analyzing her dreams. Result was the little girl stopped dreaming! It is a jumble of memories shared by the narrator that are at once intimate and intertwined and yet involving distinct individuals and personalities, much as in the way the network of blood vessels connect the unborn baby in the womb to its mother. Similarly Sigmund Freud’s biography and analysis of his patients including daughter Anne are interspersed with that of the personal narrative.

…the past is as prosaic as the future and the facts about it only so much stuff. To pick through dusty boxes, to sift through memories which fray and tear like ageing paper in an effort to find out who we are, is to avoid the responsibility of choice, since when it comes to it we have only ourselves, now, and the ever-narrowing come of what we might enact. Growing up, I said, is a solitary process of disentanglement from those who made us and the reality of it cannot be avoided but only, perhaps, deferred … . 

Plate VI of “The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus” (1774) by William Hunter, engraving by Jan van Rymsdyk.

In the third section the narrator is pregnant and waiting to give birth so a lot of time is spent in hospital waiting rooms awaiting tests. She intersperses her reflections with that of the eighteenth century Scottish surgeon John Hunter who was also known for his phenomenal collection of specimens. He was very keen to know about anatomies and would pay gravediggers to get him bodies from fresh graves so that he could dissect them and study the anatomy.  He worked closely with his brother William Hunter who had in fact introduced him to the medical sciences. The dissections were conducted in the basement of William Hunter’s Convent Garden house where the brothers were inevitably accompanied by the artist Jan van Rymsdyk who rapidly sketched as evident in the illustration on the right.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of “Sight n. the faculty or power of seeing”. Jessie Greengrass studied philosophy in Cambridge and London. Her novel Sight is a literary example of psycho-geography — a combination of personal reminiscences and factual historical content. It is also an attempt to get at a further truth which is about how we see one another and we see ourselves especially the female experience which is most often taken away from human experience. ( Interview with BBC Radio 4, February 2018) It is a constantly evolving process of the individual’s subjectivity vs objectivity. It was first discussed in a similar meditative fashion by the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Biographia Literaria. It is unsurprising given that Coleridge  too like Jessie Greengrass was inspired by John Hunter’s work and its focus on the distinctions between life and matter. As Jessie Greengrass remarks in her BBC interview “having a subjective self is something which allows us privacy but also separates us even from the people we are closest to” and this is the angle she explores as a novelist in her powerful debut Sight.

Sight has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 and the winner will be announced on 6 June 2018. This will be a close finish since the other contenders for the prize are equally strong and experienced women writers.
Jessie Greengrass Sight John Murray ( Publishers), an Hachette UK Company, Edinburgh, 2018. Pb. pp. 
30 April 2018 
* All pictures are off the Internet.

Of holy men like Rasputin

Douglas Smith’s Rasputin is a detailed and a fascinating biography of a holy man who was extremely close to Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra. It is a slow but satisfying to read for it describes Russia at the turn of the twentieth century, decline of the Russian empire, rise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks etc. Rasputin was also shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize 2017. Here is an excellent review of the book in The Guardian.

Of all the lines in the book it was a description of him in the opening pages which are gripping since it could be a description of any other holy man in a different time, nation and culture. Read on:

Pokrovskoe was the home of the most notorious Russian of the day, a man who in the spring of 1912 became the focus of a scandal that shook Nicholas’s reign like nothing before. Rumors had been circulating about him for years, but it was then that the tsar’s minists and the politicians of the State Duma, Russia’s legislative assembly, first dared to call him out by name and demand that the palace tell the country who precisely this man was and clarify his relationship to the throne. It was said that this man belonged to a bizarre religious sect that embraced the most wicked forms of sexual perversion, that he was a phony holy man who had duped the emperor and empress into embracing him as their spiritual leader, that he had taken over the Russian Orthodox Church and was bending it to his own immoral designs, that he was a filthy peasant who managed not only to worm his way into the palace, but through deceit and cunning was quickly becoming the true power behind the throne. This man, many were beginning to believe, presented a real danger to the church, to the monarchy, and even to Russia itself. This man was Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin. 

Even before his gruesome murder in a Petrograd cellar in the final days of 1916, Rasputin had become in the eyes of much of the world personification of evil. His wickedness was said to recognize no bounds, just like his sexual drive that could never be sated no matter how many women he took to his bed. A brutish, drunken satyr with the manners of a barnyard animal, Rasputin had the inborn cunning of the Russian peasant and knew how to play the simple man of God when in front of the tsar and tsarita. 

Douglas Smith Rasputin Macmillan, London, 2016. Pb. pp. Rs 599

11 Sept 2017 

David J. Garrow “Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama”

Pulitzer-prize winning biographer David J. Garrow spent nearly nine years researching and writing Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama. Garrow interviewed more than a 1000 people for the biography of Obama. It is a voluminous 1400 pages with nearly 300 pages of footnotes and bibliography.

Rising Star is true to its name as in excrutiating detail it documents minutely facts about Obama’s life , mostly before he became president of USA. It is a biography that is probably going to be referred to for many years to come for the extensive research put in but the veracity of its authencity will forever be questioned, as pointed out by the Guardian and the New York Times book reviews. Both the articles criticise Garrow for relying far too much on Obama’s ex-girlfriend Sheila Miyoshi Jager for information.

Richard Holmes in an article published in the NYRB, “A Quest for the Real Coleridge”( 18 Dec 2014,  )  explained the two principles that govern the methodology for the biographies he writes. According to him these are –the footsteps principle ( “the serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or traveled or dreamed. Not just the birthplace, or the blue-plaque place, but the temporary places, the passing places, the lost places, the dream places.”) and the two-sided notebook concept ( “It seemed to me that a serious research notebook must always have a form of “double accounting.” There should be a distinct, conscious divide between the objective and the subjective sides of the project. This meant keeping a double-entry record of all research as it progressed (or as frequently, digressed). Put schematically, there must be a right-hand side and a left-hand side to every notebook page spread.”).  Richard Holmes adds, “He [the biographer] must examine them as intelligently as possible, looking for clues, for the visible and the invisible, for the history, the geography, and the atmosphere. He must feel how they once were; must imagine what impact they might once have had. He must be alert to “unknown modes of being.” He must step back, step down, step inside.”

Garrow won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986).  But since the 1980s till today there has been a tectonic shift in how biographies are written. A good example is the beautifully written biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Unfortunately it seems Garrow with this particular biography of Obama has been unable to evolve from the stodgy 1980s style of writing biographies.  In Rising Star Garrow fails to do precisely what Richard Holmes delineated — “step back, step down, step inside”. Hence it is easier to read the book in morsels rather than from beginning to end. Rising Star is outdated and dull for modern readers who prefer zippy, well-written narratives that are nuanced with analysis. Though in an interview in Longreads Garrow says it is the  “self-creation” or living a life of
“re-invention” of an individual that fascinates him the most. Undoubetedly it is this mission that comes through clearly except making it very tedious to read.

The nine years spent by Garrow researching this book more or less coincide with the two terms Obama spent at the White House. The book itself was published within months of Obama demiting office indicating a slight haste to reach the market quickly. But given the wealth of information garnered Garrow would have done well if he had spent a little longer editing Rising Star and gaining an objective perspective on his subject. He probably would have had a timeless classic.

Despite it being a dreary read Rising Star will prove to be a seminal book in time to come. It will be the go-to biography of Obama for its meticulous documentation particularly the endnotes and extensive bibliography.

David J. Garrow Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama William Collins, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, London, 2017. Pb. pp.1460 Rs 799

28 June 2017

Saint Teresa

Saint Teresa or Mother Teresa (as she was known till 4 September 2016) and her Missionaries of Charity are known for their care of the poor and establishment of hospices worldwide. Many considered her to be a living saint in her lifetime and after her death miracles were attributed to her. By the time she died in September 1997 her Missionaries of Charity had 610 missions spread across 123 countries.

There are plenty of books written about Saint Teresa. The first is Saint Teresa of Calcutta: A Celebration of her Life & Legacy , a beautiful collection of photographs by Raghu Rai. He has an impressive collection of pictures taken while he would shadow her at work and some of her canonisation ceremony in Rome. The few anecdotes he shares of his interactions with her confirm her gentle, charitable nature and her overwhelming desire to do good by people especially those who are suffering. There is a particularly revelatory episode he shares about casteism and caregiving.

Her love was for humanity and was not limited to any one faith, which was why some of her detractors, who accused her of using her work to convert people, did not make much of an impression on the many millions who were utterly devoted to her. It did not matter to her if you were a Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, believer, agnostic, atheist or Communist — she treated everyone equally. She loved those who needed her without the slightest regard to creed or caste. I am reminded here of an incident that illustrates this aspect of life. Mother’s credo was that she was not a special worker but a mother who took care of all those who needed her. Once, an old Brahmin lady was dying on the streets of Calcutta. The sisters of the Missionaries of Charity wanted to pick her up and bring her to their home for the aged. The woman, however, insisted that she couldn’t be touched by anyone but a Brahmin. When Mother heard about this, she decided she would personally minister unto the woman. As she was about to touch her, the dying woman asked her if she was a Brahmin. While recounting the episode, Mother said she asked herself: ‘Who is a Brahmin?’, to which she felt that anyone who served His people was a good Brahmin, and so she said to the dying woman, ‘Yes, I’m a Brahmin.’ And she picked her up and brought her home.

This anecdote illustrates beautifully her focus on caregiving while ensuring the patient has a dignified closure to their life. It was this generosity of spirit and kindness which enabled her to set up missions around the world. Everywhere she went she was welcomed. Sure she had her fair share of critics. She was accused of siphoning of funds. She was accused of conversions. She was accused of not really investing in improving the health of the people she brought in but focused her energies on tending to them till their death. The fact is she and her sisters of charity offer a social service for the marginalised and the poor, many of whom are shunned by their families and society. This is a stunning photobook from a photographer who in a sense is not only paying his respects to a beloved subject and mentor but is also making  a crucial contribution to history by publicising some of the rare images he was privileged to take. Photography by its very art form can be intrusive and disruptive, yet there is an almost magical quality to the images included in the book as if the subject and photographer had a special relationship.

Conferring the sainthood on Mother Teresa is possibly the reason why Puffin India has launched their  new series, Junior Lives, with a biography of Saint Teresa — Mother Teresa. Junior Lives is a version of the successful Puffin Lives series meant for older children. Junior Lives is meant to be a series of illustrated books created for young readers ( 8+) to acquaint them with world heroes. Unfortunately despite all good intentions at heart the inaugural title of Junior Lives fails to live up to expectations. Beginning with the book title itself launched eight months after sainthood has been conferred by the Pope — how can it continue to be termed as Mother Teresa, why not Saint Teresa? Terminologies have to keep pace with historical changes. Secondly even if this book is meant for younger readers why are facts not spelled out clearly rather than diluted as with the following passage  (Chapter 8):

There are many other examples of how Mother Teresa came to help during a dangerous crisis. In 1984, in Bhopal in India, a large company that manufactured pesticides made a terrible mistake. A dangerous gas leaked out from the factory at night and killed thousands of people. …[Mother Teresa helped raise funds and take care of the injured]. 

Why is Union Carbide as the offending company not mentioned clearly? By soft-pedalling the monstrous manmade Bhopal Gas Tragedy and terming it as a “terrible mistake” by way of an explanation to children is wrong. Children tend to see the world in black and white so why not tell them the truth? Share facts. Not judgements. By swiftly rearranging historical narrative in this manner will contribute in the creation of a new generation who won’t in future see the gas tragedy for the horror it was. This is the converse of what children are taught early that just as every action has an equal and opposite reaction so must children learn that every action of theirs has a consequence and they must behave responsibly. Even if it is a biography about Mother Teresa this passage implies that it was an accident and the corporation is not really to blame but don’t worry a charitable soul like Mother Teresa is ever present to tend to the needy. It is teaching an unforgiveable lesson that mistakes happen and people directly responsible for it are not necessarily to be blamed instead there will be others to pick up the pieces.

Another example of poor writing and editing is a few lines later when she travelled “she went to a country called Ethiopia“. Feeling the need to describe Ethiopia as a country especially when Italy, America, Germany and Switzerland were not qualified in a similar fashion in Chapter 7 is cringe-worthy. This smacks of a cultural prejudice that is inadvertantly being passed on to the next generation and at a time when racial diversity and inclusiveness are the buzz words. It is ironical that such unforgiveable errors have been permitted in a biography of a woman who was loved by millions around the world, irrespective of their caste, colour or creed.

Texts for children are to be put together with great deal of care and thought. Every little aspect needs to be taken into account and anticipated. Young readers tend to engage with the text minutely and every little element in it — whether text or illustration — is scrutinised, queried and discussed threadbare before being imbibed and becoming a critical part of their mental furniture. One can only hope that the future titles meant in this series are created with due care.

Raghu Rai Saint Teresa of Calcutta Aleph Book Company, 2017.  Hb. Rs 1499

Sonia Mehta Mother Teresa Puffin Books, Penguin Random House, India, 2017. Pb. Rs 150 

11 May 2017 

 

 

14th Raymond Crossword Book Award ( 29 November 2016)

kinjalshahgulzar

(R-L) Gulzar with Kinjal Shah, CEO, Crossword

The Crossword literary award has been through many avatars but remains one of the most significant literary prizes to be given in India. For years there was decent prize money given to the winners. This year only gift vouchers were handed out.  Nevertheless at least books and writing is being recognised. Here is the list of prizes.) 

ranjit-lal

( L-R) Twinkle Khanna, Roopa Pai and Ranjit Lal

WINNERS: POPULAR AWARD

1.Fiction
Scion of Ikshvaku by Amish wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – popular – fiction category

2. Non-fiction
Mrs Funnybones by Twinkle Khanna wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – popular award – nonfiction category

sachin-tendulkar-c-boria-majumdar

Sachin Tendulkar with the Crossword trophy. (C) Boria Majumdar

3. Biography
Playing It My Way by Sachin Tendulkar (co-author Boria Majumdar) wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – popular award for best biography

4. Business and management
Chanakya in You by Radhakrishnan Pillai wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – popular award in Business and Management category

5. Health and fitness
Body Goddess by Payal Gidwani wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – popular award in health and wellness category

6. Children
Gita: For Children by Roopa Pai wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – popular award for Children’s writing

WINNERS: JURY
7. Fiction
Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – jury award for fiction

8.Non-fiction
Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India by Akshaya Mukul wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – jury award for best non-fiction

9.Translation
The Sun That Rose From the Earth by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi is the Raymond Crossword Book Award – jury winner for the best translated book

10.Children
Our Nana was a Nutcase by Ranjit Lal wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – jury award for the best book for children’s writing

1 December 2016