Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni Posts

An interview with Veera Hiranandani about her middle grade novel, “The Night Diary”

I had been hearing about Veera Hiranandani’s middle grade novel The Night Diary for a while. It had been impossible to get hold of in India when lo and behold, PRH India announced it was releasing the Indian edition of the book. Fantastic news! I read an advance copy and loved the novel. There is such little literature available for children explaining the freedom movement through fiction, allowing for dramatisation of events without making it too hard to understand. Of late the desi writers based abroad who have begun to feel the crying need for the lack of such literature and presumably been told stories about the Indian freedom struggle have begun to write novels for the younger generations. Three writers, who happen to be women and are based in USA, have written middle grade fiction. Chitra Bannerji Divakurni, Supriya Kelkar and Veera Hiranandani. 

After reading The Night Diary, I emailed Veera Hiranandani. Here is a lightly edited version of her interview. 

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Veera Hiranandani is the author of The Night Diary, which was featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition and is a New York Times Editor’s Choice Pick, The Whole Story of Half a Girl (Yearling), which was named a Sydney Taylor Notable Book and a South Asian Book Award Finalist, and the chapter book series, Phoebe G. Green (Grosset & Dunlap). She earned her MFA in fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College. A former book editor at Simon & Schuster, she now teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College’s Writing Institute and is working on her next novel.

She adds “I was raised in a small town in Connecticut. Growing up wasn’t always easy. My mother is Jewish-American, my father is from a Hindu family in India, and I didn’t know any kids like me where I lived. But coming from two cultures and not always fitting in has probably made me a stronger person. I was also pretty shy, so I spent a lot of time quietly watching other people.

​Maybe I wouldn’t have become a writer if I wasn’t forced to look at the world a little differently. Food was another thing that helped me connect with both sides of my family. I consider Jewish matzo ball soup and Indian samosas my favorite comfort foods. I love eating, cooking, and reading books about food. Nothing helps bring people together better than sharing a good meal. When I was younger, sometimes I wished I was different, but now I wouldn’t change my experiences for the world.”

What inspired you to write The Night Diary?

My own father was nine when he had to leave his home during the Partition. I heard him and my aunts and uncles tell the story as I was growing up–that several weeks after India’s Independence, my father, his four brothers and sisters, and his mother decided to leave Pakistan and made it over the new border by train. My grandfather had to stay behind. He was a doctor in the Mirpur Khas city hospital and they didn’t want him to leave until they found a replacement, but a few weeks after, he decided to leave anyway because he was worried about his family.  They lost their home, their community, but they made it safely. As we know, many people did not. When I got older, I became more curious, did more research, and wondered why I never learned much about the Partition in school in the US, such a significant event in our global history. When I became a writer, I knew I wanted to shape a story around this time, but it took me a while before I felt confident enough to do so.

Having lived in USA all your life, how did your family keep the memories of the freedom movement and Independence alive?

I think it was only through my father’s family that I learned about India’s independence and the Partition. Occasionally we would talk about the history surrounding this time if my cousins and I asked questions. But if I hadn’t been curious or interested on my own, these stories might have faded away. There was a desire to leave the difficult times in the past and focus on the future. I think that’s common for many families. But if that happens, then we will forget and not have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes that were made and honor those who were lost. Survivors of the Partition are in their last decades of life and I believe it’s up to my generation to preserve this history and pass the stories down to younger generations in whatever ways we can.

What are the stories you accessed for writing this book? 

I listened to my father and other relatives. I also read many historical accounts and novels. I read collections of oral testimonies and listened to several online. There’s a wonderful website preserving these oral histories called The Partition Archive of 1947. They have a wide variety of oral testimonies from people who lived in many parts of India before independence. Some had to leave, some stayed, some crossed into Pakistan, some crossed over the new border of India. There are stories mostly from Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. I tried to listen to as many point of views as I could. I wanted to create a story that wasn’t based particularly on one story, but could explore the many questions I had about the Partition and be representative of many experiences.

Was there much literature to read? If so in which language ? Or did you rely mostly on oral narratives?

I relied on books in English (I only speak English), but I wanted to read historical analyzations or novels of the Partition by those who had South Asian origins and had more than just an intellectual interest in the history. I didn’t really find much out there for young readers, but some of the books that helped me were The Great Partition by Yasmin Khan, Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh, The Other Side of Silence by Urvashi Butalia, Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, and Midnight’s Furies by Nisid Hajari.

What are the back stories for this novel that you left out but undeniably built upon to tell the wonderful story of The Night Diary?

I knew I wasn’t trying to recreate the exact story that my father’s family went through. It wasn’t representative enough of more experiences and I was writing fiction. I began with the idea of family traveling in the direction a Hindu family would be traveling, because that’s what my father did, but I wanted to take a wider view. I decided the main character, Nisha, would come from an interfaith marriage (her father is Hindu and her mother was Muslim). I wanted her to be able to ask the questions I had about the Partition—why did diverse communities who lived peacefully before the Partition, break apart so quickly? Where did the violence and hate come from? I thought those questions would be quite powerful coming from the perspective of a character who feels ties to both her Hindu and Muslim identities. I’m also a product of an interfaith marriage. My father is Hindu and my mother is Jewish, so though it’s an entirely different context and a religion, I connected to the idea of having to navigate multiple identities. There were a lot of influences from details of my father’s story, but I was often shaping them in different ways for the story I wanted to tell.

To tell a story about a conflict and subsequent displacement is never an easy task. It is traumatic. Yet how did you manage to create such a simple and lucid while retaining the sensitivity and pain? Did this story go through many drafts?

Thank you and yes, it went through at least ten full drafts, and many smaller ones. It wasn’t an easy task. I hoped to stay truthful to the history, but also explore the questions I had and create as many connections as I could to survivor experiences. I knew there was no way I could write a book about the Partition and not include some of the violence, but I really wanted the younger generation to have access to it. I tried to strike a balance of what a young reader could handle and what actually happened. I think writing a diary from a young person’s point of view helped me render it in a more innocent and direct way. That’s how I felt Nisha would process and write about her experiences. The diary format at times was restrictive, but also helped me keep it in Nisha’s voice. I also thought it would be appealing and accessible for both young and older readers.

Was it a challenge to find publishers for The Night Diary

I was lucky enough to have some nice interest in the story and talk to a few editors about the project. I think people not only found the historical knowledge valuable, but the connections to current events as well–the global refugee crisis, and the discrimination against people of color and xenophobia felt in the US today. I ultimately was able to go with the editor, Namrata Tripathi, at Penguin who I felt was not only an experienced, extremely insightful, and detail oriented editor, but who also had an Indian background and family ties to the Partition. To have an editor who would be able to access this story on both an editorial level and a personal one only helped with the authenticity I was trying to achieve. It truly was a gift.

What was the editorial process like for The Night Diary? For instance did you have to explain much about the context to your editors or did the movement of #weneeddiversebooks ease the publishing process?

Because I was working with someone who knew a significant amount about the context and the culture I was writing about, I didn’t have to explain a lot. Therefore, we mostly focused on the strength of the story and she added to my knowledge at times. But we still had beta readers to help fill in our knowledge gaps. Penguin has been very behind this book from the beginning, but I think organizations like #weneeddiversebooks are hugely important and have paved the way for publishers and readers to understand the necessity and benefits of diversity on a global level.

Why did you feel it necessary to include a glossary of terms in The Night Diary? 

Publishing the book first in the US, after having many non-Indian American readers read the book, I found that many people did not know several of the South Asian terms I was using. I wanted young readers unfamilar with some terms have a resource right in the book. Now that the book is published in India, the glossary must seem irrelevant or readers might be able to improve the definitions!

What has been the response of audiences in USA to your book? What has been the response of the Indian diaspora to your book? 

I’ve had many positive responses and it’s very moving to me. When I decided to write this book, I wondered how much interest it would have, but I knew I needed to write it so I kept at it. I’ve had South Asian American adults express excitement at being able to share this story with their children because they also had parents who were affected by the Partition and now have a context to talk about it. I’ve had South Asian American kids tell me that they’re excited to see Indian/brown characters characters in a book given to them in school because they’ve that experience so rarely. I did a school visit with a large South Asian population and kids were literally cheering as I mentioned some of Nisha’s favorite foods in the book (especially for the sweets). I remember what it was like to feel that I was the only one who knew what dal, kaju katli, or gulab jamun was and I would never expect to see it mentioned in a book, so I understood their excitement.  It has definitely opened doors for some people and I couldn’t be happier about that! It seems to be getting a positive response in India as well, and that is truly humbling and gratifying.

3 October 2018 

India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today

I wrote a long essay on India’s women writers from the early 20th century to today for Bookwitty. Here is an extract from the essay:  

India has a tradition of fine women writers, and some of the earliest established names among them were also pioneers in fields beyond literature. Roekya Sakhawat Hossein (1880-1932) was a leading Bengali feminist in at the turn of the 20th century. Her sci-fi utopian novella, Sultana’s Dream (1905), was decades before her time and is a delight to read even now. Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954) was both the first woman to read law at Oxford, and the first Indian national to study at a British university. During her career as the first female lawyer in India, she advocated for women in purdah and children. She wrote a dozen books including her memoirs, India Calling (1934). Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) known as the “Nightingale of India,” was not only a poet, but also the first female governor of an Indian state, and the first woman president of the Indian National Congress. Her debut collection of poetry, The Golden Threshold, was published in 1905.

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Sarojini Naidu with Mahatma Gandhi

at the 1942 All India Congress Committee Session

Despite our strong tradition of women writers in the early 20th century, to my mind it was the 1974 publication of the “Towards Equality” Status of Women in India Report that marked a watershed moment for women’s movements, and in turn, women’s literature. Though Indira Gandhi, the first woman prime minister, had been in power for years, it was the Report that gave more women a voice and an opportunity to express themselves.

Another literary turning point came in 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and thousands of Sikhs were massacred in retaliation. For the older generations, this violence brought back memories of the 1947 Partition of India; young writers and social activists including Urvashi Butalia began recording their stories. Butalia eventually wrote a seminal book, Other Side of Silence (2000), based on these oral histories as well as her own family’s story of moving to India from Lahore, now in Pakistan. Around the same time Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin’s groundbreaking Borders and Boundaries (1998) was published, documenting women’s experiences of Partition, about which until then it seemed a collective amnesia had existed.

1984’s violence and revisiting of the past coincided with a maturation of the Indian publishing industry. In that year, Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon set up the first independent women’s publishing firm in India (and indeed, in all of Asia), Kali for Women. They looked at a range of literature from fiction to non-fiction, including reportage and oral histories. Kali for Women, and its founders’ subsequent projects, Zubaan Books and Women Unlimited, have published many women writers in original English and in translation, such as the brilliant short story and spec-fic writer Manjula Padmanabhan (Three Virgins, 2013) food and nature writer-cum-illustrator and delightful storyteller, Bulbul Sharma (Eating Women, Telling Tales, 2009), environmentalist Vandana Shiva (Staying Alive, 1998), and numerous other writers, historians and freedom fighters.

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Vandana Shiva at the 2009 Save the World Awards

Along with independent publishers, little magazines were on the rise, while multinational publishers like HarperCollins and Penguin also began establishing offices in India. Meanwhile, a growing recognition that the work of women writers had sales potential meant more opportunities for them to be published. In 1992, Oxford University Press (OUP) India published an unprecedented memoir by a Tamil Dalit Catholic nun, Bama, who had left the order and returned home. Karukku proved to be a bestseller, and has remained in print. At this time OUP India also published the seminal volumes on Women Writing in India: Volume 1: 600 B.C. to the Early Twentieth Century(1991) and Volume 2: The Twentieth Century (1993), a collection of hundreds of texts representing the rich variety of regions and languages in India.

Indian women’s writing hit a new high when Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for her 1997 debut novel, The God of Small Thingsexploring forbidden love in Kerala. (Roy’s second novel, 2017’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, addresses some of the most devastating events in India’s modern history. It has enjoyed a global release with enviable media hype, further demonstrating the remarkable progress in how women’s writing is received by critics and the public).

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Arundhati Roy in 2012

Soon, an increasing body of women writers representative of groups that have been marginalised on the basis of sexuality, language, caste, and religion began to be published. These included Urmila Pawar(The Weave of My Life, 2009), and Tamil Muslim poet Salma whose memoir The Hour Past Midnight (2009) was made into a documentary (Salma) and screened at the Sundance festival. Once housemaid Baby Haldar’s memoir, published in English 2006 as A Life Less Ordinarybecame an international bestseller, many more memoirs and biographies began to be published—including those of novelist and entrepreneur Prabha Khaitan, academic and activist Vina Mazumdar, actress and singer Kana Devi, trans activist A. Revathy, and activist and actress Shaukat Kaifi.

Such robust publishing by and for women has ensured that the contemporary generation of writers is far more confident of their voices, experimenting with form as they explore a range of issues.

In particular, these writers are exploring and interrogating the concept of the strong woman. Most of these stories depict an ordinary woman negotiating her daily space, thus defining herself and by extension living her feminism, whether she chooses to acknowledge it or not. Just a few of the modern writers who are contributing to this conversation in English are: Namita Gokhale (Things to Leave Behind, 2016), (Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni (Palace of Illusions, 2008), Balli Kaur Jaswal (Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, 2017), Scaachi Koul (The One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, 2017), and Ratika Kapur (The Private Life of Mrs Sharma, 2015).

Adding to this conversation, there are many relevant writers now becoming available in translation, including Malika Amar Shaikh (I Want to Destroy Myself, 2016—more on this memoir below), and Nabaneeta Dev Sen (Sheet Sahasik Hemantolok: Defying Winter, 2013).

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Nabaneeta Dev Sen in 2013

A number of women writers are addressing family and domestic issues with humor, notably Manju Kapur with Home (2006), her Jane Austen-like novel about family dynamics; Andaleeb Wajid with My Brother’s Wedding (2013), a gorgeous novel about the shenanigans of organising a Muslim wedding; celebrity Twinkle Khanna with Mrs Funnybones (2015), based on her delightful newspaper column; and Veena Venugopal with a powerful collection about The Mother-in-Law: The Other Woman in your Marriage (2014).

Meanwhile, other authors have been exploring the theme of the strong woman in harrowing—though by no means unusual—circumstances. Samhita Arni retells the Mahabharata war saga from a woman’s point of view in Sita’s Ramayana (2011). K R Meera’s multi-layered novel Hangwoman (published in English in 2014) is about a woman executioner who inherited the job from her father. Meena Kandaswamy’s autobiographical novel When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (2017) reveals devastating and isolating violence in a marriage. In the same vein, Malika Amar Shaikh’s aforementioned I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir explores the horror of living with a man who in his public life spoke out for the rights of the oppressed, but showed none of this humanity at home.

Building on the tradition of more than a century, today there is a long list of women writers in the Indian sub-continent who are feisty, nuanced in their writing and yet universal in many of the issues they share. They are fully engaged with themes such as independence, domesticity, domestic violence, professional commitments, motherhood, parenting, sexual harassment, politics, and identity. This is undoubtedly a vibrant space of publishing, and this article has just about explored tip of the proverbial iceberg.

For more recommendations, please explore the Related Books carousel below. And as always, please join the conversation: use the comments section to add any further books to the list.

India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today” , published on Bookwitty ( 3 August 2017) 

10 August 2017 

Theme of Independence in children’s literature in India

(The following article was commissioned in 2015 by Sarah Odedina for the Read Quarterly. With her permission I am posting it here.  On 15 August 2017  India celebrates it’s seventieth anniversary of independence from the British. )

15 August 1947 India won its independence from the British. It had been a long freedom struggle. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, “Father of the Nation”, is recognised as one of its leaders especially with his non-violent method of protest. His birthday, 2 October, is a national holiday. When the British decided to leave the subcontinent they did so after partitioning it into two nations—India and Pakistan.

The uprising of 1857[1] was influential in instilling in the Indians “a rudimentary sense of national unity” that when a genuine Indian freedom movement began within a few decades later it inspired the leaders with the hope that their British masters could be defeated. Significant highlights were the Partition of Bengal, new words such as Swaraj ( “self-rule”), Swadeshi (self-reliance) and Boycott ( of all foreign goods and products), Satyagraha, Jallianwala Bagh ( massacre of peaceful protestors by General Dyer in Amritsar), Chauri Chaura ( burning of a police station, killing 22 policemen on duty), rise of communalism with “parties based on religion like the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh …these parties only cared for their own communities, it was to their advantage if they could divide the country around religion.”[2]The Dandi March or the salt satyagraha, the Civil Disobedience Movement, Quit India Movement, and Independence.

It is now nearly 70 years since Independence, three generations removed from the momentous events. The freedom struggle still exists in living memory as it is not too far back in time. Yet for children, history is a mish-mash in their minds — the Harappan civilisation, the Mughals, Mauryan Empire and British India/freedom struggle are a blur. This is where literature plays a crucial role in offering perspectives.

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Globally children’s literature is understood to include fiction and non-fiction, a category distinct from literature used as textbooks and supplementary readers in schools. In India these fine lines are blurred. For the toddlers and primary school students there is variety of material available – fiction, folktales, mythology, non-fiction. As the pressure of school curriculum increases on students the focus shifts from reading for pleasure to textbooks. Till recently this attitude was deeply ingrained in society. Now the slow shift to reading for pleasure is perceptible. It is a coalescing of multiple factors –an increase in income of parents allowing disposable income available for purchase of books, a rise in publishing and retailing for children, establishment of specialist bookshops, increase in direct marketing efforts by publishers like book fairs and book clubs in schools and growth in popularity of children’s literature festivals like Bookaroo[3] has made the category of children and young adult book publishing the fastest growing and lucrative category in India. (It also helps when the target audience/market of less than 25 year olds constitutes 40% of the 1.3 billion Indians.)

Children’s literature with the theme of independence is found in school material and trade lists. In the 40s (actually from 30s onward if not earlier) the best children’s literature came out in Bal Sakha – a Hindi Magazine brought out by Bengalis settled in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. Some of the best writers, including Premchand, were first published here. This magazine dealt with the issue of independence, presenting it to children in what still seems a fairly contemporary way[4]. In 1957 two publishing houses were established – National Book Trust ( NBT) [5]and Children’s Book Trust ( CBT)[6]. According to Navin Menon, editor, CBT, every year in August Children’s World “publish[es] content related to Independence either written by children or stories/ articles contributed by adults.” Amar Chitra Katha (ACK)[7], specialise in comics, usually the first introduction to children on folktales, Indian mythology and stories about the freedom struggle published its first title on freedom struggle, Rani of Jhansi[8] on 1 Feb 1974, around the 25th anniversary of Independence. Historical accounts by writer and niece of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Nayantara Sahgal’s The Story of India’s Freedom Movement (1970) continues to be in print[9]. As she told me in an email, “The freedom movement is part of our modern history. Obviously it is important for young people to know their country’s history.”


Writing for children about the independence movement began to pick up pace in the early 1980s when CBT published writers like Nilima Sinha’s Adventure before Midnight[10]. In 1984 after the assassination of the prime minister, Delhi saw terrible communal clashes. It led to writers like Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon and Amitav Ghosh drawing parallels between their experiences with that of Partition. In the 1990s preparations for the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of Indian independence began. To commemorate it there were a deluge of books. For instance, Shashi Deshpande’s novel The Narayanpur Incident and Macmillan published The First Patriots (series editor, Mini Krishnan) consisting of short illustrated biographies[11]. Biographies, bordering on hagiographies, are the most popular genre for introducing children to this period in history. These books sell extremely well since it supplements school textbooks. Scholastic India with its Great Lives[12], Puffin India with Puffin Lives and Hachette India with What they did, What they Said? series have profiled freedom fighters registering steady sales too. Gandhi is a popular subject of biographies. From picture books ( A Man Called Bapu and We call her Ba on his wife, Kasturba), standard biographical accounts, profusely illustrated with photographs like DK India’s Eyewitness Gandhi and graphic novels like Gandhi: My Life is my message ( Gandhi – Mera Jeevan Hi Mera Sandesh). [13] An unusual book is Everyone’s Gandhi by Subir Shukla[14] which looked at Gandhi from children’s point of view. It asked provocative questions. It was syndicated in some 75 newspapers (English and regional languages) and the author used to get 500 postcards every week from children across the country, proving that it is possible to approach independence in a manner that generates serious response. Paro Anand, writer and founder, Literature in Action[15] says “I loved this book because it brought me closer to Gandhi. It took the capital letter out of it because made me see him like a human being who I could be not a saint or god who I could never aspire to be. I have used the book often with kids urging them to be a Gandhi for 5 minutes every day, in a single act of kindness or a single act of care. To me empathy is a very important component of kid lit.”

Now there are a variety of books available in terms of writing styles and formats. For instance late Justice Leila Seth’s fabulous book on the Preamble of the Indian Constitution – We, The Children of India[16]; graded readers with pictures like Bharati Jagannathan’s movingly told One Day in August[17], Nina Sabnani’s heart-warming animation film (later book) based on a true story Mukund and Riaz [18]and Samina Mishra’s Hina in the Old City[19] — all focused on Partition and Ruby Hembrom’s award-winning picture book Disaibon Hul on the Santhal Rebellion of 1855[20]. Young adult fiction inevitably has the story of one person caught up in the dynamics of the movement. So the author tries to take a micro level view and build upon that. For instance, Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s Neela: A Victory Song[21], Jamila Gavin’s Surya trilogy — The Wheel of Surya (1992), The Eye of the Horse (1994) and The Track of the Wind (1997)[22], Irfan Master’s A Beautiful Lie[23],[24] Siddharth Sharma’s award-winning debut novel The Grasshopper’s Run[25] which focuses on the Kohima war and Mathangi Subramanian’s Dear Mrs. Naidu[26] about a young girl who corresponds with Sarojini Naidu through her diary. Forthcoming is the retelling in English of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s Bharat Mata ke Paanch Roop ( Urdu) by his niece Syeeda Hameed[27]. Award winning historian-turned-writer, Subhadra Sen Gupta has written a clutch of biographies, historical fiction, picture books and nonfiction titles with the freedom struggle as the literary backdrop[28]. Roshen Dalal has published India at 70 ( 2017) chronicling the seven decades since Independence.

Some other examples of literature are listed by writer Deepa Agarwal, “Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s popular poem Jhansi ki Rani and Makhanlal Chaturvedi’s Pushp ki Abhilasha. Outstanding historical novels on patriotic themes were written by Manhar Chauhan, like Lucknow ki Loot (The looting of Lucknow) and Bihar ke Bahadur (Brave men of Bihar) both published by National Publishing Company in 1978. His series of sixteen novels about British rule Angrez Aaye aur Gaye (The British came and went) is a monumental work with each book standing alone and yet connected with the others. In Urdu Allama Iqbal’s collection Hindustani Bacchon ke Qaumi Geet and Zakir Hussain’s Abbu Khan ki Bakri are on the theme of freedom. Pandit Brij Narain Chakbast’s patriotic poems,  Hamara Watan dil se Pyara, Watan Ko Hum Watan Humo Mubarak, from the collection Subhe Watan were meant for children. In Marathi V.H. Hadap wrote patriotic stories ranging from historical to modern times; his Sattavanachi Satyakatha is about the heroes of the 1857 revolution like Mangal Pande, Tatya Tope and Rani Laxmibai. In fact the centenary … was celebrated in 1957 with many books for children about the people who participated. Vasant Varkhedkar’s Sattavancha Senani is a novel on the life of Tatya Tope.” In Telugu Komuram Bheem: A children’s Novel on a Tribal Hero by Bhupal is about the tribal rebel from Telengana, published by Vennela Prachuranalu (Telugu)[29]. CBT also has a book on Gunda Dhar/ Bhumkal revolt of the Bastar tribal area.

Apart from written literature in India oral histories play a very important role too. Target, a popular children’s magazine, started a comic strip in the mid-eighties called “Freedom’s Children”, where a freedom fighter was profiled based upon extensive interviews. Prominent writers and illustrators collaborated for this project. At the end of each strip a photograph of the actual person was published. Now some schools organise interactions between grandparents with students to recount their memories of independence movement. Many times it is discovered that the children are unaware of the trauma the older generation experienced as if the elders want to protect the younger generation from the horrors they witnessed.

Vatsala Kaul-Banerjee, Publisher, Children & Reference Books, Hachette India says, “General response to these books is quite good. Our children take their cues from USA/ UK, so they do not look at India too much. … I do not think there is enough experimentation in children’s writing to create fiction in this area, so far.” Tina Narang, publisher, Scholastic India adds “Since this is a period in our recent history for which a wealth of detail is available, relevant research material is easy to come by for authors[30] who have written Independence-themed stories. But that I think is the biggest stumbling block. Most such stories tend to become stereotypical in their portrayal of that period and of independence as a valiant struggle by a group of noble and brave souls. There is little or no independent analysis of this struggle or attempt to question the motives, methods or outcomes (partition included).” Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, (then) Editorial Director, Red Turtle echoes this, “We do need to do more books that present a more diverse view of  the independence movement and that talks about the role of women or tribals or gives other kinds of alternate views.” Radhika Menon, founder, Tulika Books agrees, “Now we would like to do something that includes the contemporary discourses on the freedom struggle. Something that reflects a more inclusive idea of the freedom struggle with all its complexities so that the reader is urged to think and question rather than be left with certainties about history in her/his mind which tend to be rigid. The challenge is of course to make such a book reader friendly for the pre-teen age group.” Ruby Hembrom, publisher, Adivaani is clear when she says, “If we were to do a book on this period, I wouldn’t feature the Indian Nationalists who have been done to death in textbooks first and have hijacked the ‘independence’ space. I would do Jaipal Singh Munda and his eclipsed role in the constituent Assembly for example.”

Writing about Indian independence and the freedom movement for children is a tricky area since it raises more questions than helps map it. There is an apparent shift in the styles of writing over the generations of writers. From the writer like their subject (usually evident in biographies) have a sense of pride at being an independent and self-reliant nation to contemporary writers whose fiction is based research for using history to comment upon the present politics and social status of marginalised groups. Disaibon Hul is ostensibly about the revolt as mentioned in the book, the introduction refers to “outsiders”, and the story is about the fight against the British. It concludes with “Almost 160 years have passed since the Hul. We are alive but still not the owners of our lives? What will it take for us to be really free?” The term “outsider” is left open-ended. Siddhartha Sharma says he wrote The Grasshopper Run because “I wanted to explain how the Assamese and Nagas got along earlier, unlike today. To contemporary Indians, I wanted to show what the people of the region are like, and how history turned out for us.” [31] Mathangi began writing Dear Mrs Naidu when working in government schools and angadwadis and discovered Sarojini Naidu whose letters she was reading. Mathani realised that Naidu was so human compared to the “demigods of independence” students learned about. She adds, “I think there is a lot of literature on the theme of independence that focuses on a couple of the male freedom fighters, and I’d like to see this change. History is such a powerful force: it shapes the way we think about ourselves, and the way we think about the possibilities for our futures. I want to see more histories of women freedom fighters, and freedom fighters who were not elite. I want to see more literature that helps children understands that heroes are just people with a lot of guts and passion, and that everyone has the capacity for greatness.”[32]

I asked eminent historian Romila Thapar, “What are the events/perspectives and aspects of the freedom struggle that you would recommend are also included in the narratives of the freedom movement?” She replied via email, “You have posed a difficult question. My reaction would be that we need to acquaint children with situations that went into the making of what one may call a ‘wholesome’ society. Not the stories that encourage divisiveness and violence but stories that underline in subtle ways the values of a plural society that we once were. This is disappearing fast and it will be an uphill task to retrieve this as we shall have to do in future years. The goal of the national movement was such that communities came together for a cause and set aside what separated them. It is these moments that need to be remembered in the present times. Often they can be more easily seen in activities related to regional and local history. It may be worth doing a little investigation into how people in rural areas and small towns remember the recent past.”

This observation gains significant urgency when a Muslim man is lynched by a mob on the outskirts of Delhi for his food habits[33]. Noted Hindi journalist Ravish Kumar’s who met a young man, Prashant, at the site says he showed no remorse at the death of Akhlaq, “Instead, he asked us that after the partition, when it had been decided that Hindus will stay here and Muslims will go to Pakistan, why did Gandhi and Nehru ask Muslims stay back in India?… These are the typical beliefs that keep the pot of communalism boiling.” Ravish says he lost the heated argument and could only wonder dismayed, “Who are those people who have left young men like Prashant to be misled by the purveyors of false histories?” Ironically this happened on 2 October, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, a man recognised worldwide for his belief in nonviolence.

[1] In A Children’s History of India Subhadra Sen Gupta refers to the events of 1857 and the widespread anger that ensued being an eye-opener for the British “who believed that they were ruling over a peaceful society reconciled to British rule”.

[2] – ibid-

[3] Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival 

[4] Email correspondence with Subir Shukla, Principal Coordinator, IGNUS-erg and formerly associated with NBT. He wrote a few books at this time too.

[5] National Book Trust (NBT), India is a part of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India. It was established in 1957 and publishes in English, Hindi and some other Indian languages. It also organizes the annual World Book Fair, New Delhi to which publishers gravitate from around the world and country.  NBT and CBT between them have published many books, many continue to be in demand such as The Story of Swarajya by Vishnu Prabhakar (Hindi), Jawaharlal Nehru by Tara Ali Baig, Stories From Bapu’s Life by Uma Shankar Joshi (Gujarati), Jallianwala Bagh by Bhisham Sahni (Hindi), Bapu by FC Fretus and How India Won Freedom by Krishna Chaitanya. Email from Rubin DCruz, Editor, NBT. He has also put together an invaluable annotated catalogue of select children’s books in India, Children’s Books 2014, published by National Centre for Children’s Literature, NBT.

[6] Children’s Book Trust ( CBT) established by cartoonist Shankar in 1957. Its objective is the promotion and production of well-written, well-illustrated and well-designed books for children at prices within the reach of the average Indian child. CBT publications include an illustrated monthly magazine in English, Children’s World. Shankar also set up the Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children (AWIC). Shankar started the Shankar’s International Children’s Competition in 1949, and as a part of it, the Shankar’s On-the-Spot Painting Competition for Children in 1952. He instituted an annual Competition for Writers of Children’s Books in 1978. Some of the CBT titles are Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose by Dr. Lakshmi Sahgal  & Col. P.K. Sahgal, Adventure before Midnight  by Nilima Sinha, The Return Home by Sarojini Sinha, The  Treasure Box by Sarojini Sinha, Kamla’s Story: The Saga Of Our Freedom by Surekha Panandiker, Ira Saxena, & Nilima Sinha,  A Pinch Of Salt Rocks an Empire by Sarojini Sinha and Operation Polo by A. K. Srikumar and the 12 volumes on freedom fighters Our Leaders or Mahan Vyaktitwa ( English and Hindi). Some of the original titles in Hindi are Aprajita, Hamare Yuva Balidani and Barah Baras ka Vijeta. Email sent by Navin Menon

[7] Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) founded by Anant Pai or Uncle Pai specializes in publishing comics. These comics are usually the first introduction to children about stories of the freedom struggle stories. The ACK titles are Rani of Jhansi (date of publication, 1 Feb 1974), Subhash Chandra Bose (1 March 1975), Chandrashekhar Azad (15 August 1977), the Rani of Kittur ( 1 July 1978), Bhagat Singh ( 15 March 1981), Rash Behari Bose ( 15 May 1982), Veer Savarkar ( 15 May 1984), Mangal Pande ( 1 June 1985), Jallianwala Bagh ( 1 June 1986), Beni Madho and Pir Ali (1st Sept.1983), Velu Thampi (1st May 1980), Senapati Bapat ( 1 February 1984), Surjya Sen (October 2010), Vivekananda (15th October 1977), Rabindranath Tagore (20th may 1977), Babasaheb Ambedkar (15th April 1979), Lokmanya Tilak (1st August 1980), Lal Bahadur Shastri (1st October 1982), Mahatma Gandhi – The Early days (1st June 1989), Jayaprakash Narayan (15th January 1980), Jawaharlal Nehru (November 1991), Subramania Bharati (1st December 1982), Deshbandhu Chitaranjan Das         (1st November 1985), The Story of the Freedom Struggle (August 1997)

[8] Rani Lakshmibai was one of the leaders of the uprising of 1857. She also became a symbol of the resistance to British Rule.

[9] Nayantara Sahgal The Story of India’s Freedom Red Turtle, an imprint of Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2013. First published 1970.

[10] Midnight refers to the coming of Freedom and this book describes the events that preceded it. It is about a group of teenagers who participated in the Quit India movement and tried to hoist the tricolour in Patna. It was selected for the International White Raven List for libraries.

[11] Tipu Sultan, The Rani of Jhansi, Kattabomman (the rebel of Pudukottai), Pazhassi Raja (Kerala) and Bhagat Singh. The idea for these series was to write about various legendary heroes and heroines who played a pioneering part in the un-enslaving of the country. According to biographer Shreekumar Varma, “Pazhassi Raja Kerala Varma was one of the earliest such freedom fighters. He fought the marauding armies of both the British and Tipu Sultan. His story is full of adventure and thrill, intrigue and treachery, a case-book of bravery. The book is profusely illustrated. It was heavily researched. The surviving members of the Raja’s family were interviewed at Pazhassi and information was gathered from many books and historical records. The text in the book is but a fraction of the material actually obtained.”

[12] Aditi De’s Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and illustrated by Pooja Pootenkulam in the Great Lives series published by Scholastic India has been released this month.

[13] Gandhi: My life is my message by Jason Quinn, illustrated by Sachin Nagar. It is available in English and Hindi. The translator is Ashok Chakradhar. It is part of Campfire Graphic Novels’s  Heroes Series that introduces readers to historical figures who led lives worth knowing, and whose stories are true life adventures.

[14] It is available freely for circulation since “Mahatma Gandhi cannot be any one person’s property, there is no ‎copyright of this publication.” First edition 1997.

[15] Literature in Action is a programme started by Paro Anand that seeks to bring young people and books together.

[16] It was co-authored by her writer-son, Vikram Seth and illustrated by the late Bindia Thapar, published by Puffin India ( English) and Pratham Books ( Hindi).

[17] Published by Pratham Books

[18]  In an email Nina Sabnani wrote, “Mukand and Riaz was initially an animated film that later became a book. It is a true story about my father Mukand and his friend Riaz. There were several things that brought this project together. My father told me the story of his life very late, close to his death. I wanted to share this with my siblings so I just wrote it up like a story and shared it with them and some friends. My friends persuaded me to think about it as a film. I was quite disturbed by the frequent riots in Ahmedabad that happened and me as a designer did not respond in any way. I thought it maybe  my way of protesting. But protests always forget children. So I wanted to reach children. Fortunately I also received some funds at NID as students were working towards making films on the rights of children for a UNESCO Israel project, Big Small People. Since my father had repeatedly said how much he missed his best friend and how the partition separated them, I thought I would create a film that focused on the rights to home and friendship. I also had a fond hope that if the film was made and Riaz happened to see it he would contact my dad. Of course that did not happen but my father was able to see the film one week before he passed away. I used cloth because he worked in the Textile Mills and was passionate about fabric and prints.” Mukund and Riaz  is published by Tulika Books.

[19] The reader shares moments with 10-year old Hina who lives in Purani Dilli, the walled city of Delhi. She comes from a family of zardozi embroiderers. This exquisite craft is, however, slowly dying as craftspeople find fewer takers for their work or are forced to compromise on care and quality to meet the prosaic demands of the times. Along the way, we get glimpses of life in Old Delhi – its lanes, its ancient mohallas which have seen the pain of Partition. Hina loves where she lives, and warm colour photographs take us right into her world. Guides for projects / discussions and a reading list are provided at the end as further avenues for exploring.

[20] To me it is an example of using history to comment on the present. It is ostensibly about the revolt (and the story calls it a revolt too whereas an uprising would be more accurate given it is written from the perspective of the adivasi), the introduction refers to the “outsiders”, the story is about the fight against the British and then it concludes with “Almost 160 years have passed since the Hul. We are alive but still not the owners of our lives? What will it take for us to be really free?” The term “outsider” is left open-ended. Ruby is the founder-publisher of Adivaani, a publishing house that focuses on  producing literature for an by the adivasis.

[21] Neela: A Victory Song is published by Puffin Books India.

[22] Jamila Gavin’s Surya Trilogy is published by Egmont.

[23] Beautiful Lie was published by Bloomsbury

[24] A book review article I wrote on Partition and Children’s Literature and I interviewed Jamila Gavin and Irfan Master.

[25] The Grasshopper’s Run was first published by Scholastic India and worldwide by Bloomsbury.

[26] Dear Mrs Naidu ( 2015) is a Young Zubaan publication.

[27] Forthcoming by Pratham Books is Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s Bharat Mata ke Paanch Roop ( The Five Forms of Bharat Mata) which are character sketches of five ordinary women whom he considered as the true faces of the Bharat Mata trope. These are originally in Urdu but have been done for us by his niece Syeda Hameed. According to Manisha Chowdhury, Editorial Head, Pratham Books “we see this as a good way to introduce the idea of subaltern narratives to children and expand the idea of history.”

[28] For instance, Saffron, White and Green: the amazing story of India’s independenceA Flag, A Song and a Pinch of Salt: Freedom Fighters of IndiaPuffin Lives: Mahatma GandhiLet’s Go Time Travelling; fictional biographies of Jahanara and Jodh Bai; a short story collection called History, Mystery, Dal Biryani and a novel called Give us Freedom and most recently the bestseller, A Children’s History of India, published by Red Turtle. Email from Subhadra Sen Gupta.

[29] There is also a book on Alluri Seetharama Raju in Telugu.  He led the ill-fated “Rampa Rebellion” of 1922–24, during which a band of tribal leaders and other sympathizers fought against the British Raj. He was referred to as “Manyam Veerudu” (“Hero of the Jungles”) by the local people

[30] It explains why authors like Deepak Dalal and Nandini Nayar have been able to write historical fiction set in 1857. Research is easy to come by. Deepak Dalal’s historical fiction set in the time of 1857 Sahyadri Adventure series – Anirudh Dreams and Koleshwars Secret. He says, “I have received good feedback about the books. Demand is ok, but nothing to thump my back about. We are into the 3rd edition now. Schools love the books and many have used them as readers. But then most of my books are picked up as readers.” Nandini Nayar’s When children make history: Stories of 1857 is a novel about two Indian children who befriend an English boy who considers India his real home. The three of them chance upon a bunch of soldiers making rotis and help them. So, basically, the novel ends with the beginning of the Uprising. In an email to me she wrote, “I wrote the book [since] I was reading a lot about 1857 and the British Raj and began thinking about how it would be if some Indian children were to befriend an English boy. “ The book was first published as an ebook, then print and has recently been translated into Malayalam by Mango Books, the children’s imprint of DC Books.

[31] In an email to me.

[32] In an email to me.

[33] According to rumours that spread like wildfire, fifty-year-old Akhlaq had stored beef (cow’s meat) in his fridge. The cow is sacred to Hindus. A mob gathered and lynched him and injuring many members of the family. On 2 October 2015, two days after the incident in a village in Dadri, 35 kms from Delhi, Ravish Kumar went to report. “A Sewing Machine, Murder, and The Absence of Regret”  (Published and accessed on 2 Oct 2015)

15 August 2017 

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows: an Interview with Balli Kaur Jaswal

My interview with Balli Kaur Jaiswal on her new novel Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows has been published on Bookwitty today, 8 May 2017. The interview is reproduced below. 

Balli Kaur Jaswal is a Singaporean-based author of Indian origin. She is the author of Inheritance, which won the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist Award in 2014, and Sugarbread, a finalist for the 2015 inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is her third novel, for which film rights have been acquired. The novel’s premise is a young girl under the impression she will be leading a creative writing workshop at a gurdwara, or Sikh place of worship, in Southall, London. Instead, she is confronted with a room full of mostly bored Punjabi widows, some barely literate, who have enrolled in classes to pass the time. In an unexpected turn of events, the women discover they are able to narrate and share raunchy stories which are quickly transcribed by a young educated widow amongst their midst. Before anyone realizes it, the stories are being copied and circulated around London. Exploring the Punjabi Indian diaspora community via this vibrant group of women unearths a Pandora’s box of social mores. Despite its incredible title, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is a fascinating exploration of how women fight for their space and how feminism is lived within the community today. Balli Kaur Jaswal kindly answered the following questions for Bookwitty:

What sparked this story?

I’ve had a lifelong fascination with questions surrounding identity, migration, women’s sexuality and notions of honor in close-knit communities, among other things. Those themes are prevalent in all of my writing. About ten years ago, I spent some time in Southall, London’s Punjabi enclave and I knew it was the perfect setting for a novel which explored these ideas. I was particularly interested in how elderly traditional women experienced and expressed desire in these male-dominated communities, and I started questioning what would happen if I got those women together and gave them a space to talk freely about what they wanted.

Bringing together the concept of the Brothers, a young band of men who have been indoctrinated with a militant version of religion, along with the rising confidence of women in the local Sikh community is well done. Was it inspired by real events?

This is one of the strangest things about writing – you create a fictional character or scenario and then you see it play out in real life and you’re either thrilled or horrified. In my case, it’s the latter. I made up the Brothers, and through multiple drafts of the novel, I kept pausing and thinking, “Would Sikh men do this? Has the policing gotten this zealous and organized?” I decided that I could afford to ask the reader to take that leap with me. Then, a few months after the novel sold, I read reports in The Guardian about groups of British-born Sikh extremists in the UK protesting interfaith weddings in the gurdwara and intimidating the family members. I remember thinking, “Oh my goodness, it’s the Brothers.” It was heartening to read responses from moderate Sikhs in the UK decrying these acts and calling upon these people to focus on the important issues that need urgent addressing in the community, like domestic violence and alcoholism.

Linking the deaths of Maya, Karina and Gulshan to honor killings in the story is impressive. Was the subject difficult to research?

It did hit a raw nerve. I actually read about honor killings when I lived in the UK because around that time, Jasvinder Sanghera’s memoir Shame had just come out and there was a lot of talk about it. What she went through to escape a forced marriage, and the advocacy work that she so bravely pioneered, are remarkable and inspiring. A few years later, she published a memoir of her experiences in supporting honor crime victims. The stories were heartbreaking, and they served as a reminder that her experience was part of a wider problem that still affects girls in this generation. I think what struck me most was the idea that loyalty to the community overrode common sense and conscience. In one of her books, she recalled giving a speech in a Punjabi community in England about being a victim of forced marriage, and she mentioned her work in raising awareness about honor crimes. Afterwards, women lined up to meet her and a few whispered into her ear that they had stayed silent while rebellious daughters or nieces had been sent to India and “taken care of.” I thought about this moment a lot when I wrote this thread into the narrative – it made sense to me that once the women found their voice to discuss their suppressed desires, they’d also find the courage to speak up and act on bigger injustices.

Offering different perspectives of women—modern, young and confident (Nikki), young and conservative (Mindi), young widow (Sheena), distraught mother and lonely wife ( Kulwinder), is a fascinating journey in understanding how women operate in a conservative patriarchal structure. How did you achieve this? Did you need to work on separate character sketches or did they all come together as you were working on the novel?

The best way to create a character is to think about how others would react to them. Nikki was easy enough to conceive because she was a lot like me and so many women I knew in my early twenties. For Mindi, I wanted a character from that same generation to counter Nikki and introduce us to the conservative and traditional “going back to our roots” subset. Mindi calls out Nikki on her one-sided take on social justice and liberalism, and actually reveals herself as somebody with more autonomy than we initially think. Sheena was a sort of bridge from Nikki to the widows. Quite literally: she did some translating, but also she was young and accessible and they developed a friendship which brought Nikki into the fold. Kulwinder was the anathema to Nikki, and I enjoyed alternating their perspectives because it really felt like a cat and mouse game between the protagonist and the antagonist. I would say all of the characters pivoted off Nikki, which is how I usually write – start with the main character and work out who everybody else is and how they help or hinder her.

Your novel seems to represent the second wave of feminism very well. From its references to Fem Fighters and feistiness as displayed by Nikki to the more moderate opinions offered by her sister who focuses on exercising her choice, even if it veers towards conservatism. Even with the bibis, the band of widows, different shades of women exist but they represent a range of women’s voices that could be representative of feminist movements. Did this involve research or did it happen naturally as a consequence of living your feminism?

The research in this area was experiential and anecdotal. I didn’t read up on feminist theory while writing this novel—it was definitely more about the day-to-day applications and how they become complicated by other facts of life. I attended a liberal arts women’s college as an undergraduate which forever changed the way I looked at the world. I found that in the years after, and even now, I’m drawn to people who have that perspective as well. I’m a little surprised when I meet people (women and men) who flinch when you bring women’s rights to the conversation because it’s 2017; who is still regarding “feminist” as a taboo word?

The contrast between the open-mindedness of the widows compared to the more politically correct and careful opinions offered by the younger women such as Mindi is striking. Were these at any point modeled on real conversations and experiences you may have witnessed?

I really wanted to convey the idea that feminism comes in different forms and that one character can be conservative in some ways but quite progressive in others. We can also define modernity and independence depending on our contexts and what balance works for our circumstances. There isn’t a prescribed way to be a feminist; this is the major lesson for Nikki in the novel. Mindi and Nikki have differing definitions of “choice” and they exercise their independence in ways that put them at odds with each other. The widows come from an interesting perspective because they have been marginalized by patriarchal structures but they are also powerful matriarchal figures in a culture that respects and fears mothers. This is why there is room for them to speak up through these classes. I can’t pinpoint any actual conversations or experiences but I know that throughout my adult years, I have observed the various ways in which the same women who command respect are also silenced when their voices become too inconvenient for people in power.

A classic straitjacketing comment often used by women to ensure no one strays from the flock is “Women like us”. You use it sparingly but well in the novel. How well does the phrase sit with you?

I find it worrying when women buy into this narrative about how they should behave, but even more so when they start reprimanding other women. It’s an insidious way to maintain compliancy, and it has its roots in the larger policing carried out by men, especially in conservative communities. The fathers, brothers and uncles who want to keep “their women” in line are aware that there are spaces exclusively for women that they cannot enter, so certain self-appointed women do their bidding for them. “Women like us” sounds deceptively inclusive as well but it’s still about ownership – you can be part of the club but we’ll be charge of what you wear and how you speak.

Given how you show widows as women with real feelings and not individuals to be ignored, silenced and discarded, do you think that writing this novel will have repercussions on your personal life?

So far, I’ve received very positive responses from readers. The only repercussion I’ve faced is becoming a confessional for other people’s secrets, especially Indian women. They come to book signings and then they lean in and whisper these stories from their lives about their mothers doing special prayers after finding their birth control pills or their husbands being turned on by some of the saucier scenes in the novel. But I’m happy to listen!

What are the challenges that lie ahead for women’s movements?

Awareness of intersectionality is an issue. That’s the idea that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to feminism and especially that women from certain backgrounds are vulnerable to other forms of oppression which influence and compound their experience of sexism as well. I’ve experienced this firsthand; people who rally for feminist causes being quite ignorant of the hurdles faced by women from minority races. I know some feminists who will say, “I didn’t get that promotion because I’m a woman” but if you said, “I didn’t get that promotion because I’m a woman and I’m a minority,” they are dismissive or they say you’re playing the race card. I’m not sure where this glitch in the system came from—where if someone mentions suffering from more than one kind of institutional oppression, instead of empathizing, people get indignant and protective over their own stake in the issue. I hope we can resolve it with more open and judgment-free conversations.

Do you think diaspora fiction needs to be pinned down in the “thingyness of things” such as illustrated by Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows and those of the Bengali women as seen in Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s novels to resonate effectively with readers across the world or would a more general form of literary fiction be equally powerful? 

Readers connect to novels that they can identify with, and I think the days of navel-gazing singular “who am I” narratives are probably over. That element exists in all diaspora fiction of course (and arguably in all literary fiction regardless of the audience or the cultural background of the characters) but it needs to converge with a larger narrative. I think it’s an exciting time for diaspora fiction because readers want to be challenged and they’re open to nuance. Some exoticism still exists but readers have a more savvy experience of other worlds now.

Who are the writers and other creative people who have influenced your writing? 

The list keeps growing but a very early influence was Judy Blume because she told those stories that we needed to know. Like most people who grew up with her novels, I felt as if there was finally an adult in my corner, somebody who understood and didn’t judge the confusion of growing up. A number of writers exploring the migrant experience in the UK have shaped my perspective as well – Andrea Levy, Nikita Lalwani, Zadie Smith, Sathnam Sanghera and Meera Syal to name a few.

Balli Kaur Jaiswal Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows HarperCollins 

8 May 2017 

Women In Publishing: Championing The Written Word

BusinessWorld magazine as part of Women Day celebrations did a special issue on Women ( 20 March 2017). Sanjitha Rao Chaini asked some of the prominent women in women in Indian publishing to share their views on one book that has inspired them. I spoke about Chitra Banerjee Divakurni. 

If there is one sector that celebrates women and is run by women, then it has to be the publishing industry in India. A Ficci report says that the Indian publishing industry is among the top seven nations in the world. Sanjitha Rao Chaini asked some of the prominent women in Indian publishing to share their views on one book that has inspired them


URVASHI BUTALIA is a publisher and writer. She is co-founder of Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publisher, and is now director of Zubaan

If I were to pinpoint one book that has been important to me as a feminist and a feminist publisher, it is a two-volume edited edition of Women Writing in India 600 B.C. to the Present Day, (1991) edited by Susie Tharu and Ke Lalita published by Oxford University Press India. The book is a compilation of the writings of hundreds of women from across many different Indian languages. Apart from being a stunning resource for those of us whose lives are shaped by feminism, it is also a book that gives the lie to the widespread belief that women do not and did not write. It shows that right from the time of Buddhism, women had been producing wonderful literary works, many of which did not see the light of day because of the male domination and hold of knowledge and knowledge production. There are many varieties of writing in the books, many genres, poetry, fiction, essay, memoir, dialogue… and you can go back to it again and again.

PRIYA KAPOOR is Editorial Director, Roli Books, co-owner, CMYK

Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day is a book that has stayed with me since I read it for the first time over 20 years ago. The book was first published in 1980 and I first read it as a part of literature class in high school and have read it twice since. The book stayed with me because it is subtle, delicate and it lingers much after you have finished reading it — like a great book should. The book is about childhood, family, loss, nostalgia, separation and forgiveness — universal themes that travel very well. You can relate to the characters, their impulses, thought process and weaknesses.

Desai describes the book as her most autobiographical to date and her power of observation is evident in the way she describes people, nature, her setting — Delhi (Old and New). Even though the novel doesn’t have a plot, it holds your attention and made me want to revisit it to find hidden gems.

PRIYA DORASWAMY is Founder, Lotus Lane Literary
Arshia Sattar’s Lost Loves: Exploring Rama’s Anguish (Penguin, 2011), is one of my all-time favourite books. The book is permanently on my bedside table. Her luminous exploration of Sita and Rama, particularly their motivations, and actions as mortals which are utterly inspiring, devastating, tragic and yet beautiful, is what makes this book so special.

The essays which are very much relevant to the now, but also timeless, brings to the fore notions of free will, complexity in relationships, and the universality of the human condition. To quote Sattar from Lost Loves, “by relocating Rama and Sita in a literary…universe”, she has indeed made “their existential conflicts and resolutions newly accessible and inspiring”.

Sattar is a PhD in South Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago.

RADHIKA MENON is Publishing Director, Tulika Books
What comes to my mind is a non-fiction book on gender issues called Gender Talk: Big Hero, Size Zero by Tulika. This book tackles the gender issues head on and demystifies them. The tone is conversational so as not to intimidate the reader. Interestingly, this is a collaboration between three young women — two writers with Gender Studies backgrounds (Anusha Hariharan and Sowmya Rajendran), and an illustrator (Niveditha Subramaniam) — who maintain a balanced and humorous counter-dialogue between the text and the illustrations. With a clear and gentle approach, they uncover truths, untruths, semi-truths and myths using everyday examples as well as references to popular media, and explore what it means socially and culturally to belong to a certain gender. Gender Talk: Big Hero, Size Zero is a much needed non-fiction book not just for teens and young adults, but also for parents and teachers to initiate discussions and dialogue on difficult issues.

PREETI SHENOY is an author and artist. Her last book It’s All In The Planets (Westland) was published in 2016

I First discovered Anita Nair about 10 years ago when I read Ladies Coupe. I loved the writing and how Nair emphasised the way Indian women are treated in society, very realistically, without any sugar-coating. If I had to pick one work of contemporary fiction, by an Indian woman, I would choose Nair’s The Alphabet Soup For Lovers (HarperCollins India, 2015). The prose flows as easily as the recipes, which Komathi —a character in the book, a cook through whose eyes the story unfolds — conjures up. Each chapter is named after a South Indian dish, with Komathi learning the English alphabets by comparing them to the dishes she makes. The loveless marriage that Lena is trapped in, the film star who comes to stay over, the coffee estates where the book is set, all of it comes alive, and it transported me to a world where I was happy to be lost in. When it ended I was left longing for more, just like a well-cooked meal, and therein lies the triumph of the writer.

MANJIRI PRABHU is an author and an independent film-maker for TV. Her last book The Trail Of Four (Bloomsbury) was published in February
My favourite contemporary Indian woman author is Sudha Murty. She has played several roles in her life — she is a prolific bestseller author, a social worker and a philanthropist amongst other things. She wants women to believe in themselves and to unleash the enormous power in them to achieve their goals. I like her writing because I think it comes straight from the heart. Her stories are interesting with a simple but engrossing and emotional narrative and touch a core inside you. Because they are stories about you and me. About characters we can relate to. I feel that her life’s experiences reappear in the form of stories, as well as people who have influenced her in her life, like her grandparents. Writers like Sudha Murty will always remain important to us. Her books propagate much-needed values in an entertaining manner and make it easy for us to understand life, which nowadays seems to be getting more and more complicated.

Photographer: Ritesh Sharma

Photographer: Ritesh Sharma Location: Bread & More, NOIDA

JAYA BHATTACHARJI ROSE is an international publishing consultant and blogger
For me, Chitra Banerjee 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). Her stories engage with the immigrant story specifically from the point of view of the woman. In Before We Visit The Goddess, young Tara epitomises the new generation of American-Indians, not ABCD (American Born Confused Desis) anymore but with a distinct identity of their own. The novel examines these many layers of cultures, interweaving the traditional and contemporary. It is also the first time men and women play an equal role in her story.

To her credit, Divakaruni 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. The popularity of her books is evident: The Palace of Illusions was among the top 3 bestsellers at the World Book Fair.


Divakaruni’s next book is going to be worth looking out, as it is about Sita.


This article was published in BW Businessworld issue dated ‘March 20, 2017’ with cover story titled ‘Most Influential Women 2017’

On Chetan Bhagat’s “One Indian Girl”

As a woman I seek justice in a patriarchal world. i-want-to-destroy-myself_website-480x748

Malika Amar Shaikh, I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir *

frontEnough outrage has been expressed on various platforms at Chetan Bhagat’s latest novel, One Indian Girl . Critics, readers, journalists etc have ripped the novelist apart for  his attempt at portraying a feminist protagonist, Radhika Mehta. The story has been told in first person for which Chetan Bhagat says he interviewed and spoke to more than a hundred women. But alas, portraying a “feminist” does not a feminist make. Feminism is a way of living and it cannot be possibly imbibed to tell a story particularly in an attempt to capitulate to the current trend of being just and aware of women’s rights. The fact is patriarchal structures are far too deeply embedded in society and if popular writers like Chetan Bhagat who too remain shackled to these interpretations it will be challenging to progress further. What is alarming is that there is the distinct possibility of much of the space fought for and won by feminists will be rapidly lost.

If One Indian Girl is analysed within its contemporary literary milieu it becomes evident that the novelist is fairly clueless about how far the idea of a powerful woman is being explored. In fact much of the progressive interpretations of what constitutes a strong woman (whom some may interpret as a feminist) is being explored in fiction published nowadays — available in English and in translation. Most of these stories depict an ordinary woman negotiating her daily space thus defining herself and by extension living her feminism whether they chose to acknowledge it or not.

ratika-kapurSome of the modern writers to consider who are questioning, portraying, and contributing a significant amount to the conversation about who is a strong woman kiran-manraland what can be construed as woman power are:  Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni, Sremoyee Piu Kundu, Kiran Manral, Ratna Vira, Kota Neelima, Sowmya Rajendran, Sakshama Puri Dhariwal, Trisha Das, Vibha Batra and Ratika Kapur write in English. In translation there are a many who are now being made available such as Malika Amar Shaikh, Ambai, Lalithambika Antharajanam, K. R. Meera, Bama, Salma and Nabaneeta Dev Sen. This is a list that can easily be added to and it will bems-draupadi-kuru-b_090816092030
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self-evident how far women writers have evolved to depict the ordinary and how challenging the most seemingly innocuous task can be — such
as asking a man to love her as K. R. Meera does in The Gospel of Yudas or the horror of living with a famous man like Namdeo Dhasal who in his public life spoke of rights and was concerned for others but showed least sympathy for his own family as narrated by his wife, Malika Amar Shaikh, in her memoir  I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir.  Another writer to consider is Rupi Kaur whose self-published Milk and Honey has sold more than half a million copies and yesterday ( 12 October 2016) she signed a two-book deal with Simon and Schuster. Milk and Honey is erotic fiction which is remarkable for the strong feminine voice and gaze employed with which she narrates the tale. Rupi Kaur is also responsible for the photo-campaign which went viral recently on social media about a woman whose clothes were stained with blood during her period.

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Ironically many of these women writers would fall into the same category of fiction as Chetan Bhagat of being commercial fiction writers and yet, there is a chasm of difference in how they view and portray women. But Chetan Bhagat is in good company of other commercially successful male writers like Novoneel Chakraborty who too employ the first person literary technique to write from a women’s perspective but alarmingly incorporating the “male gaze”. ( http://bit.ly/2eiUXuR ) Thereby regressing any gains the women’s movement may have made by getting women their due rights and space. It is a dangerous precedent being set in literature by male writers like Chetan Bhagat of appropriating women’s space in an insensitive manner with little understanding of how complicated women’s literature and writing is. It is irresponsible use of the immense influence these writers have upon new readers since they will create confusion in these minds about how to behave and respect women, what is right and wrong social behaviour amongst genders and not to undermine a woman’s choice by imposing a patriarchal construct on it. Good literature can only be seen as feminist through nuanced writing not via terrible conversation and aggressively marketing the protagonist as a feminist.

*Malika Amar Shaikh is the wife of Namdeo Dhasal, co-founder of the radical Dalit Panthers.

13 October 2016 

Note: All images are off the internet. I do not own the copyright to any of them. If you do or you know of anyone else who does please let me know and I will acknowledge them in this post.

Volga “The Liberation of Sita”

‘Till you take decisions for Rama’s sake and not yours, it will continue to pursue you, Sita. Look at yourself. You are enduring great pain. You think you are enduring for the sake of someone else. You think that you have performed your duty for the sake of someone else. Your courage, your self-confidence …you have surrendered everything to others. What have you saved for yourself?’

‘What is “I”, sister? Who am I?’

Ahalya smiled. 

‘The greatest of sages and philosophers have spent their lifetimes in search of an answer to this question. You means you, nothing else. You are not just the wife of Rama. There is something more in you, something that is your own. No one counsels women to find out what that something more is. If men’s pride is in wealth, or valour, or education, or caste-sect, for women it lies in fidelity, motherhood. No one advises women to transcend that pride. Most often, women don’t realize that they are part of the wider world. They limit themselves to an individual, to a household, to a family’s honour. Conquering the ego becomes the goal of spirituality for men. For women, to nourish that ego and to burn themselves to ashes in it becomes the goal. Sita, try to understand who you are, what the goal of your life is. It is not easy at all. But don’t give up. You will discover truth in the end. You have that ability. You haev saved Sri Ramachandra, can’t you save yourself? Don’t grieve over what has already happened. It is all for your own good, and is part of the process of self-realization. Be happy. Observe their lives. You belong to this whole world, not just to Rama.’ 

( Ahalya in conversation with Sita. p 40-41)

Volga’s Vimukta or The Liberation of Sita is a slim collection of five stories. It has been translated from Telugu by T. Vijay Kumar and C. Vijaysree. ‘Volga’ is the nom de plume for Popuri Lalitha Kumari.  These are five interlinked yet independent stories inspired by Valmiki’s Ramayana. In each of them Sita meets the minor characters of Valmiki’s epic — Surpanakha, Renuka, Urmila and Ahalya. With each interaction Sita learns a little more about herself and more importantly about what it means to be a woman, have her own identity rather than it being defined by the presence of a man in her life. As the translators say in their note: “The title story signals Sita’s emergence as the liberated one while the final story, ‘The Shackled’, shows Rama imprisoned in the bondage of Arya Dharma.” According to them Volga’s stories belong to a literary tradition of feminist revisionist myth-making but she takes it further and makes it her own.

Volga does not use re-visioning merely as a strategy to subvert patriarchal structures embedded in mythical texts but also as a means to forge a vision of life in which liberation is total, autonomous and complete. She also creates a community of women by re-presenting myths from alternative points of view, and by networking women across ages and generations. She achieves this through different narrative strategies: giving voice to women characters marginalized in the ‘master narrative’, extending the story of a character beyond its conventional closure; forging female bonds and creating a female collective; and redefining many conventional epistemes including liberation.

In fact reinvention of myths has figured prominently in Indian women’s writing. For instance, Mahashweta Devi’s ‘Dopdi’ and ‘Stanadayani’ ( Bangla), Yashodhara Mishra’s ‘Purana Katha’ ( Odiya), Muppala Ranganayakamma’s Ramayana Visha Vrikham ( Telugu), Sara Joseph’s Ramayana Kathakal ( Malayalam) and Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s magnificent Palace of Illusions. Now Volga’s brilliant 2015 Sahitya Akademi award-winning The Liberation of Sita can be added to the list.

Volga was an active member of the Communist Party of India ( ML) but quit it in 1980, frustrated by the party’s pink ladypatriarchal attitude towards women, she quit left politics and devoted herself to propagate feminism among Telugu readers through her activism and writing. Her favourite genre of writing are the short story and criticism. She has written over fifty books. For many years Volga was at the helm of the brilliant women’s organisation Asmita which is based in Hyderabad. Asmita were in fact responsible for creating the iconic “pink poster” which I fell in love with while curating Zubaan’s “Poster Women” — a visual mapping of the women’s movement in India.

It is commendable that HarperCollins India chose to print the name of the translators on the book cover rather than on the back cover or only inside. Translators names need to be displayed prominently too. A practice that has as yet not been widely adopted by publishers.

The Liberation of Sita is truly Volga at her feminist best. (For once I have to agree with the book blurb! )

Volga The Liberation of Sita ( Translated from the Telugu by T. Vijay Kumar and C. Vijayasree)  Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Noida, India. Pb. pp. 130 Rs. 199 

31 August 2016 

 

M. A. Orthofer’s “The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction”

My review of Michael Orthofer’s wonderful book The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction has been published in the award-winning website, Scroll, on 26 June 2016. Here is the link: http://scroll.in/article/810332/no-book-can-tell-you-about-all-books-but-this-one-comes-close . I am c&p the text below. 

The Complete Review website was established in 1999 by founder and managing editor Michael Orthofer. He has so far reviewed a staggering 3,760 books on that site. His goal is to read a book a day, but he averages about 260 a year. In a profile written for The New Yorker by novelist Karan Mahajan, Orthofer says, “A day in which I don’t read or write, I have trouble falling asleep.”

The Complete Review is a literary salon, gathering reviews and essays about books and literature from all over the world in a short, curated format. Orthofer launched the website after spending more than five months writing the code for it. His rationale for this website was to take advantage of the tremendous reach and connectivity of the internet. His manifesto is laid out in the book of his website:

Suddenly, book reviews from print publications, new online resources, and individual readers from across the world were just a link away. Beyond reviews, an enormous amount of literary coverage, in both local languages and English, has been made available, from traditional newspaper stories to discussions in online forums to blogs devoted to every imaginable facet of reading. Professional websites – publishers’ foreign rights pages, the sites of national organisations promoting local literature abroad such as the French Publishers’ Agency or the Finnish Literature Exchange, and the sites of international literature agencies – provide additional up-to-date information and insights into contemporary fiction from many nations. The Complete Review is designed to help connect readers to much of this information.

Literature nations

Ironically, though, this wide-ranging coverage, because it’s organised chronologically and minutely, does not offer a countrywise bird’s-eye view of the literary landscape. Hence The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction. It’s Orthofer’s attempt to provide an entry point as well as a foundation to help readers navigate the literatures of the world.

American readers, one might add, who live in a country where English is the super-dominant language of available books, and translated titles amount to the now legendary three per cent of all titles. One of Orthofer’s attempts in this extraordinary compendium of modern and contemporary fiction is to make these readers aware of what is being written right now in languages other than English.

Sensibly, therefore, Orthofer – who is an immigrant in the US of Austrian origin – has chosen to classify his encyclopaedic knowledge of literature geographically, with the books and authors arranged by nation and region. The sections are broadly divided into Europe; Sub-Saharan Africa; North Africa, Middle East, and Turkey; Asia; Oceania; Latin America and North America. “Because writers and their fiction move across many borders and languages, national origin, domicile, and language are only rudimentary categories by which to arrange writers,” he writes.

What is very obvious is that Orthofer’s intimate engagement with books has resulted in this crystal clear understanding of the manner in which literature may be mapped. His organisation underlines the close proximity between literature and socio-political factors, a link which is often denied by many.

Talking of books available across geographies makes this a reader’s guide for an English-speaking audience. Orthofer astutely observes that a major drawback of looking only at literature available in English is that it can distort the view of national literatures, as there are many languages from which only a limited number of texts have been translated. “Many nations’ fiction is highly evolved, but because only a tiny amount of it is available in English, it may seem underdeveloped,” he observes.

Orthofer admits that though he has tried to map literature mostly after 1945, there are historical gaps primarily due to some older literature being inaccessible in English. He also rues his inability to list all the translators of all the editions of world literature he has referred to, but he makes up for it by offering resource tools in the appendices.

The view from America

Obviously, the perspective on world literature is an American one. So his fascinating commentary on books and authors focusses on what he is accessible in the US. Despite this constraint, he is able to weave a magical literary web that impressively contextualises authors.

So, given this point of view, can Indian readers trust Orthofer’s pronouncement on the literatures of the world and his assessments of individual writers? One way of judging this is to examine his observations on Indian writers, with whom readers in the country are already familiar.

This is where Orthofer proves how perceptive his readings are. For instance, he says that Amitav Ghosh’s first novel The Circle of Reason embodies the restless ambition that has come to define his work. That Amit Chaudhuri’s fiction is evocative, focusing on expression rather than invention. That Arundhati Roy’s colourful The God of Small Things is undeniably affecting, but Roy has a few too many tricks up her sleeves. One cannot but agree.

What does Orthofer have to say about literature from India’s neighbours? He points out that Pakistan’s Uzma Aslam Khan paints broad portraits of life that are personal and family-oriented, but she also mixes political and social commentary into her fiction. Tahmima Anam from Bangladesh uses the experiences and attitudes of her characters to reflect on Bangladesh’s post-war transition, without reducing them to simplistic types.

Interesting insights

Of course, you might wonder at the rationale for inclusion or omission – but that will only occur to those already familiar with the literature of a region. Thus, while prominent authors of south Asian origin but living in the West, like Kamila Shamsie, Nadeem Aslam and Manjushree Thapa, are mentioned, Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni or the multiple-award-winning Akhil Sharma are not.

Orthofer’s insights make for rewarding reading. For instance, that the lack of translations from Ethiopia may be due to political factors such as never having being colonised or the long spell of dictatorial rule. He observes the rise of the cell-phone novel (keitai shosetsu) in Japan, the setbacks to Russian-language fiction after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the limited exposure to contemporary fiction written in other Indian languages. Orthofer also points out, perceptively, that Indian authors living outside India continue to situate their fiction in their homeland. In his survey of Arabic literature, Othofer focusses on the recent increase in fiction titles despite political censorship, an underdeveloped and fragmented market, and a small book-buying public.

The appendices are gloriously packed with information regarding translations into English and with supplemental resources. The latter includes lists of periodical and online resources, many of which are dedicated to cross-cultural exchange. He also lists publishers who have carved out niches for themselves with translations, among them AmazonCrossing, And Other Stories, Deep Vellum, Europa Editions, Hispabooks, Open Letter Books, Pushkin Press and Seagull Books.

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is that very rare thing: an extraordinarily detailed book where the information is easily accessed and understood. It is a splendid reference, a dependable guide, and a rich map of the world through its books.

M. A. Orthofer The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction Columbia University Press, New York, 2016. Pb. pp. 486  $27.95

26 June 2016

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

“Permit To Read” Unfortunately (or fortunately) the act of women reading still makes news, PubSpeak, Sept 2013

“Permit To Read” Unfortunately (or fortunately) the act of women reading still makes news, PubSpeak, Sept 2013

( My monthly column, “PubSpeak”, in BusinessWorld online has been published. Here is the original http://www.businessworld.in/news/economy/permit-to-read/1072156/page-1.html. This time it is on permission to read.)

PubSpeak, Jaya

I heard a lovely story (and true) from Aditi Maheshwari, publisher, Vani Prakashan. (Vani Prakashan have been publishing in Hindi for 55 years.) They participate in book fairs around the country. One of the biggest events for Vani Prakashan is to set up a large stall at the Patna book fair, with a long walk between the entry and exit points. At one of these events, Aditi noticed a married couple browse through their stalls. The wife paused when she spotted the Hindi translation of Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja. She nudged her husband and said, “I have heard about this book. I read a review in a women’s magazine. Could you please buy it for me?” The husband looked appalled and said, “No. I will not. This is a book I will not allow in the house. If you buy it and read it, I will throw you out of the house.” And then he pulled his wife away.

She followed him as she was used to. Aditi saw this exchange. She quickly picked up a copy of the book, slipped it into a paper envelope, rolled it up in a catalogue and asked a colleague to slip it into the wife’s hand as they were exiting out of the stall. A few weeks later Aditi received a few lines scribbled on a postcard from the woman. She said, “Thank you for the book. My life has changed after reading it. I did not realise that if anyone touches my body without my consent can be construed as rape, even if it is my husband demanding his ‘right’ at night. Could you please send me the author’s address? I would like to write to her as well.”

Aditi did. A couple of months later the publisher received an ecstatic phone call from Taslima Nasreen telling her about the beautiful note of 20-25 lines that had been sent to her by the wife in Bihar. The book had stuck a chord. (And it must have with many more. Since the Hindi translation was published in 1996, Vani Prakashan has sold over 5,00,000 copies of Lajja reasonably priced at Rs 150. The other Taslima Nasreen titles that they have published have also had equally extraordinary print runs.)

In order to access women readers women’s presses were established. Some of the better known names worldwide are Virago, Kali for Women, Zubaan, Women Unlimited, Persephone Books, Spinifex Press, Modjaji Books, and The Feminist Press. When these publishing houses first began — inevitably all of them were established after 1970 — they were not considered too seriously by their peers in publishing. The notion of creating a distinct list for women was unheard of, but a publishing house dedicated to creating books for women, by women and with women readers in mind was inconceivable.

The Game Changers
Slowly over a period of time it became obvious that this was a strong and healthy market segment. After about two to three decades mainstream publishing houses recognising the potential announced their own imprints dedicated to women or began collaborations. In India, Zubaan entered into a co-publishing agreement with Penguin Books. But as Urvashi Butalia, publisher, Zubaan (and co-founder, Kali for Women), said in an interview in April 2013: “Around the time Kali for Women came to be, there were very many feminist presses globally, with Virago being the most prominent. There are now only a handful; most of them have either scaled back or shut shop, and part of the reason has to do with feminism going ‘mainstream’.

There is a moment in Chitra Banerjee Divakurni’s Oleander Girl when Korobi advises her hostess in America, Seema Mitra, how to flee New York and return to India, in time to have her baby in Calcutta. “Flee” because her husband consumed completely by his addiction to gambling is being unreasonable and unable to look after her. Korobi assists the young, heavily-pregnant Seema to hatch a plan to leave New York City for India without the husband even getting a whiff of it. The plan is ridiculously simple and Seema escapes easily.  Oleander Girl has been published in India by Penguin Books India, but Divakaruni has been writing for many years, with many “mainstream” publishing houses, around the world, some of her books have been adapted into films — notably, the Mistress of Spices had Aishwarya Rai acting in it. The strength of Divakaruni’s writing lies in the finely etched women characters that populate her stories. Her retelling of the Mahabharata from the perspective of Draupadi in The Palace of Illusions continues to sell extraordinarily well. In India alone the sales in hardback and paperback have crossed 25,000 copies (probably is higher). It is said that the commercial success of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey can be attributed predominantly to the word-of-mouth recommendation by women readers who initially read the book on their electronic devices, reading in “secret” albeit in public spaces say, while commuting since the book cover was not visible. So, they were able to read, share and discuss erotic fiction without being condemned for the act of reading, let alone the genre. This anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a growing market amongst women readers.

The format in which it is delivered is immaterial, but it is the accessibility of it that is crucial when connecting with women readers. It could be in printed volumes, easy to handle slim volumes of large texts, creating audio books that are delivered via electronic mediums including fixed landlines and mobile phones, getting books to many book clubs that exist and meet regularly, selling books via newspaper vendors (as Harlequin is exploring in Kerala), and definitely marking the books at price points that are affordable for women, even if it means exploring a membership with the publisher or paying in installments for the books.

Many women now have expendable income especially those who are entering the workforce, young and single whereas the priority for many married women continues to be the family. But the fact is many do read and want to read. A significant fact since it affects the bottomline of publishing too. News about publishing is generally dominated by articles on digital and print conversations, self-publishing, emerging markets, language publishing, children’s and YA literature, new forms of electronic readers, the collapse of brick-and-mortar bookstores – all very relevant aspects of publishing but slowly the conversations about women readers as a distinct market is no longer centre stage.

Society Versus The Individual
Unfortunately (or fortunately) the act of women reading still makes news. It still upsets people. Akshay Pathak, writer, wrote in an article last month, “My mother was the only person in the family who had read some books. But she was married into a family where reading books was forcefully discouraged. And so gradually she stopped. Had to.” It is still not uncommon for women who are reading at home to hear, “Why are you lolling? Isn’t there any work to be done?”

Muneeza Shamsie, literary journalist, in her contribution to Fifty Shades of Feminism writes “… the last word belongs to my mother. [Jahanara Habibullah] In her last years, to try and cope with my father’s terminal illness, she began her very first book, a memoir. She was 84 when it was published as an English translation and later in the original Urdu. In 2003, after she died, I found stacks of Urdu classics – often written by her kinsmen – tucked away in the lower bookshelves. To me, my mother’s tenacity, her love for a literature and language that neither her husband nor her children could read, embody the suppressed voices of women. But my mother’s tale is one of triumph. On the last night of her life, she rang my paternal aunt Tazeen and said “All these years I was turned into a housewife and made useless! I should have been a writer!” Such a self-revelation, at 86, a few hours before dying! By her bedside table sat Kamila’s novels and my anthologies – a far cry from secretarial college where success depended on reproducing accurately someone else’s words.” Pink Poster, Asmita

There is a fabulous poster created during the women’s movement in India by an NGO, Asmita. It shows a woman dressed in a sari sitting in a chair, with her feet up and reading a book. The television is on and she has a couple of books open and scattered on the floor besides her. Basically she is looking very relaxed and is obviously in her own private space — a dream for many. But as William St. Clair says in The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, “Women’s reading, at any rate women’s reading of the upper-income groups, the commonplace books suggest, was by no means limited to writings regarded as suitable for women.” A fact that holds true two centuries later.

11 Sept 2013
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist

@JBhattacharji