conflict Posts

Interview with Gaël Faye on his debut novel “Small Country”

I read Gaël Faye’s book more than a year ago. Loved every word of it even though the story itself is horrific about the Rwanda genocide. The genocide began in April 1994 and lasted 100 days. Some 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi, were killed. Gaël Faye’s French-Rwandan wife’s Tutsi grandmother was also killed after taking refuge in a church. Small Country is a heartbreakingly painful story to read but it does not leave you in a hurry. It is magnificently translated into English by Sarah Ardizzone. For ever so long I had wanted to meet/interview Gaël Faye. In Jan 2020, Gael Faye was invited to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival. I did get the opportunity to meet him at the French Institute in Delhi. Unfortunately, due to a set of unusual circumstances I was caught in a traffic snarl and could not make it to the venue in time. Instead Isabelle Jaitly stepped in to interview Gael Faye on my behalf. She asked him the questions I had drafted and added some of her splendid ones as well. The interview was conducted in French since they are both fluent in the language. Isabelle has translated it from French into English. It has taken time as it is a long and complicated process. It involved first transcribing the interview from an audio recording and then translating it into English. The translation was also delayed by factors beyond our control — the Covid19 pandemic. It effectively forced the French government to cancel the Book Fair in Paris where India was going to be the guest of honour. Isabelle who works at the French Institute in Delhi was inundated with first the planning for the fair and then helping with the aftermath. It has been a surreal year. So I am truly delighted to publish on my blog this extraordinary interview with an extraordinary singer-cum-author and an extraordinary backstory!

Gaël Faye is an author, songwriter and hip-hop artist. He released his first solo album in 2013, with his first novel following in 2016. Born in 1982 in Burundi to a French father and Rwandan mother, Faye moved with his family to France in 1995 after the outbreak of the civil war and Rwandan genocide. His debut novel Small Country was published to international acclaim. Written in French it has been translated brilliantly by Sarah Ardizzone. A lot must have been called upon her to invest in this translation. To delve into another language, capture the rhythms and transfer them seemingly seamlessly from the language of origin to the destination language is never an easy feat but Sarah has done it brilliantly. I do not know French but am familiar with it sufficiently to know the softness of the spoken word in French is very different to the cadences that English has to offer. I do not know how else to say it since I only know English. Yet, while reading Small Country I could not get over the fluidity of the prose. At times one forgets it is a translated text that one is reading.

Gaël Faye is a poet, rapper, musician, so rhythm probably comes easy to him. It is in all likelihood a part of his being, his DNA. Those who have music in them walk, talk and breath music and rhythms. If you witness such musically talented people, then it is pure joy to see them move and talk. Even an ordinary conversation with them takes on a precision that is delightful to experience. And somehow this oneness of spirit with music makes them seem like free spirits too. It conveys itself beautifully when such talented souls express themselves. Murakami says in his conversations Absolutely on Music that rhythm is important the text.

In the case of Small Country the boy-narrator comes across as a medium for sharing many of Gaël Faye’s own experiences or perhaps events he has witnessed. Using the fictional literary device tends to distance the author from the event. Yet using the first person to narrate events makes it so personal but also continues with the fictional deception of something so horrific. The only time the mask seems to fall is when the narrator recounts his mother’s witnessing of the murders in Rwanda. And that is not even a technique. It just comes across as someone who must at all accounts convey what his mother witnessed. In fact if you read transcripts of testimonies of women traumatised by conflict, the tone is this. The only difference is that while the mother in the book never really slips into the third person, all women survivors of a conflict situation always speak in the third person especially when they come to that particular point of describing the actual trauma. It is extraordinary but this is a fact that has been documented over and over again through decades of research on gender and conflict. While absorbed in the story the turn of events are not questioned even the deadpan monotone manner in which the mother tells her story at the dining table. Even her slow descent into a “madness” is done brilliantly. It is later upon closing the book that so many questions come to my mind. For instance, this eye-witness account has to be true. Probably the mother is an amalgamation of many such witness accounts or perhaps it is someone extremely close to Gaël Faye. Then I wondered how on earth did Gaël Faye capture this deadpan manner of narrating the genocide? Did he record it? Did he revise this portion? The translation too would have been tough leaving its mark on the translator. This is not a passage easily forgotten.  

The fluidity of the prose is breath-taking. It is meditative so when the long passages on reading appear, the mind is sufficiently lulled to appreciate every moment of that experience…a trance-like space that seasoned readers will recognise. Then it is explosively disrupted with the accounts of lynching, the stench of death, hatred and sheer ugliness of the revenge violence unleased everywhere. It is frightening.

The maturity of the boy-narrator to express himself so clearly in his interior monologues can only come with time. A layered narrative if there ever was one. It is as if the adult-boy is reflecting back on the past without in any way undermining what he saw as a 10/11-year-old boy. It is a tough balance to achieve.  But I often got the sense while reading Small Country how did Gael know when to stop layering the memories? My apologies for intermingling the fictional and the real experiences but there are some moments in the book that are too real to be ever imagined by a sane human being. The description of the mother coming upon the rotting bodies of her nieces and nephews that her hand goes through the pieces while she attempts to gather their remains for a decent burial. Once the book is read the images of the genocide and the slaughter of the crocodile for a birthday feast merge into one. I had a zillion questions for Gael. So when presented with an opportunity to interview him, I posed some of them.

Here are lightly edited excerpts of the interview conducted by Isabelle Jaitly and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose.

1. Why write a novel, rather than a long poem?

That’s a form I had never tried and I had been wanting to write a novel for a long time. And as I already write songs, which are for me some kind of poems, I felt there was a certain limit to this form.  At the same time I imagine that this novel is in a way a long poem, because I tried to introduce poetry in it as much as I could, as indeed I try to put poetry in everything I write.

Was it unsettling going from a very constraining form to a very free form?

One has to find one’s bearing. I used some ‘devices’ to help myself in this. I wrote letters inside the novel; the narrator sends letters to someone and these letters acted in a way as milestones, which gave a sense of time and frame to the action. A little bit like rhymes in a song. That said, one never knows how to write a novel, it’s through trials and errors.

2. What do you prefer: prose or poetry?

It depends on the mood… I like to navigate from one to the other. But in a way, poetry is not a form in itself. Poetry can be found everywhere. There is such a thing as a prose poem! There is no tight limit, no frontier between the two.

3. Can reading a book change a person? How do you think your book may have impacted others?

Yes, a book can alter the way you see the world, alter things within oneself. I have been through it, and I imagine others have as well. About my book, it’s difficult to speak on behalf of my readers, but from what I have seen through the feedback I have got, it has helped many people unlock silences in their families, or admit things to themselves that they have been able to own, like the experience of exile, or a trauma from the war or genocide. I have received these kinds of feedbacks. In a lighter vein, many people have discovered a reality they had no idea about though my novel. I have received feedback from Afghan readers, from Iran. But not from India, and I am looking forward to it.

And you, have you ever been changed by a book?

Yes, and even by several books. One author who had a great influence on me is René Duprestre, from Haiti. I was overwhelmed when I started reading him. He was for me like a mentor, a sort of Pygmalion. Another book answered many questions I had in my childhood, about my metis, the book of ‘peau noire, masques blancs’ (Black Skin, White Masks) a book by Frantz Fanon, a writer from Martinique. it helped me come to terms with my origins without being in conflict with them. And the list can go on. I go on reading amazing books, which in a way change my outlook. But the books we read as teenagers have a very strong effect on us. As teenagers, we are in the process of being formed, so my strongest emotions as a reader happened during that time.

4.  Was it difficult to write about the genocide?

Not really. I spend part of the year in Rwanda, I come from a family who went through the genocide, who are survivors. We live with this. And I find that my novel, on the contrary, considerably minimizes what happened. I didn’t open a wardrobe full of memories I wanted to forget. These are things with which I live, because around me the society lives with it, the society in Rwanda lives with the genocide. So the biggest difficulty for me was to make this part of history accessible to those who have not gone through it. So, in a way, to bring it to a universal level. And avoid thinking: this is a genocide that concerns a far away country in Africa, so it’s not my story, it’s not my business. I wanted to make this story a topic of discussion to anybody anywhere

5. What about the pain?

No, there was no pain. I am always surprised to see how people want it to have been painful. No, this is work, so there are days when it’s harder than others, but not emotionally. It is painful for the narrator, but not for me, I am the writer! It is my job to make it feel real, to give the feeling that for the character, there are doubts, there is pain and suffering. But me, as a writer, I sit at my table, and some days the writing comes easily, and I am pleased, and some days, I am depressed, because I haven’t been able to express my thoughts the way I wanted. This is the daily life of any writer. It may be surprising, but I wrote this novel with a lot of joy, a real lightness. Only one scene was difficult for me to write, and that is the scene of the mother being violent towards her daughter. It wasn’t easy, this scene, because I have children, and somehow I did a transfer, of a parent hitting their child, and that was probably the hardest scene. Of course the scene of the mother who comes back from Rwanda and, sitting at the table with her family, tells about what she has seen there, that was not easy, but here again, it so much falls short of what really happened, of what I hear everyday, of the story told by those who have survived, that, in the end, writing about it was not as hard as one could think. The hardest for me is to find the form through which to express all this. The ideas are there. There are so many topics I want to write about in my songs, in novels. but the hardest for me is to find the angle, the right angle. And this, you can not learn, you have to try out, and that’s always the hardest thing, whether you write a song or a novel. Let’s say, I want to write about peace: It’s so cliché, everyone has written a song about peace! But actually, nothing is ever cliché, you just have to find the right angle. Same about love.

So what may be surprising here is to see that this novel is not an autobiography, it is a novel. Although the title Small Country refers to one of your most popular songs, “Petit Pays”.

Yes, that’s right, it’s not an autobiography. But here again, it’s complicated… I think every novel is a form of autobiography. Here, there’s a great closeness between me and the character: his origins, the context in which he spends his childhood, what he goes through during his childhood, this time of war, and indeed I have gone through this myself, the transition from a time of peace to war… but if you go into details, what happens to him is not at all what happened to me. Of course I used my feelings at the time to write about him, but everyone does that when writing a novel. It’s a material, and everything becomes a material.

7. What prompted you to write this book?

First it’s the frustration of not being able to put all this in a song. I wrote a song called ‘L’ennui des après midi sans fin’ (‘The boredom of never ending afternoons’), which was very long, with a long text, and I had the frustration of not having said everything: about childhood, about the time of insouciance. So that’s how I started the novel: I wanted to expand on this song. Then, there were the events, in my area of Paris, the attack against Charlie Hebdo. Suddenly, there were scenes of war in Paris. It took me back 20 years. Hearing the Kalashnikov, the atmosphere of fear, or terror even. I lived for two years in the war. So there was a feeling of déja vu, a feeling well buried which came back in the everyday setting of Paris, it was very strange. That also fed the desire I had to write about the cocoons one creates around oneself. In the novel, there is a space that is that of the impasse (dead-end). This is a symbolic space for me: it’s the space where one withdraws, a space which is a cocoon, and at the same time this space becomes a trap. So there’s a swaying between the two. And to me, life in France has this feature: a mix between the cocoon, the desire to see the world through an idealised typical image, as if everything is fine and going well. It creates a distance with the world and its violence. At the same time, the world and its violence catch up, because there is no frontier between human interactions, and a conflict that happens at the other end of the world can impact France. So there was this ambivalence. And this child, in the novel, finds himself in this desire to create a distance between him and the violence around him.

8. Why do you use a child, a boy-narrator, as a literary device? Does it make it any easier to cross boundaries within a disintegrating society and offer multiple perspectives that only a child can offer –more or less without judgement?

This too was through trial and errors. At the beginning, I wrote the novel through the voice of an adult, and actually this voice still comes through here and there. Finally, I chose the voice of the child. It gave me an angle, because it allowed me to unfold the story through the eyes of a character who doesn’t know the environment he is in, more than the reader. Adults tend to always be one step ahead. The child is innocent in the political environment; he will discover it at the same time as the reader. That allowed to be didactic without showing it. And it was essential for a story that speaks about a country, Burundi, about a history, the history of the Great Lakes region, that nobody knows anything about. This way, the character goes forward at the same time as the reader. This way I don’t have to explain and justify feelings and motives. Adults, especially on the issue of ethnicity, find reasons to explain even absurd situations. I liked the naive point of view of the child, who will ask questions, because he doesn’t understand, and actually there is nothing to understand, because it is absurd. This is what comes through at the beginning with the explanations about ethnicity being divided according to the shape of their noses. This is a reality. But it’s absurd of course Children don’t find excuses. They look at the world as it is.

Beforehand, I wasn’t conscious about it, but now, I am very aware of how much the reader looks for the writer in a book. It think it is a mistake (a flaw). Maybe it goes with the society we live in, where everyone stages himself, stages his life, this world of reality shows… for me, a novel is a novel, it’s a story. Whether the writer has lived this story or not, what matters is whether one is carried away, touched by the story. Being invented doesn’t, for me, affect the power of a story. But I do wonder… my book has been translated in more than 40 languages, I have travelled a lot, met a lot of readers, and this question keeps coming back.

10. If people believe so much that it happened to you, it’s a compliment to the power of conviction of your writing.

Yes, it maybe a compliment, but what if it hadn’t happened? What does it take away from the book? If everything had been invented from beginning to end, for me that wouldn’t take anything away from the book, from a story. Actually I am very shy about my life, I don’t share anything about it. Unless someone is an historic figure, like Mandela, or Martin Luther King, I don’t feel there is a point to write an autobiography, according to me at least. And real lives are always so much more complex that lives in novels. If I wrote about my life, nobody would believe me, because my life is 100 times more complex. A novel allows to give the broad lines, so that the reader can identify with the character or the story. Going into complexity, one looses the link we have with the reader. I believe this is the role of artists: what is the common denominator between human beings, that allows to bring human beings together. These are often banalities, such as love, friendship, hate, war, things that are experienced everywhere. The story has to be simple. If you go too much into complexities, you lose the distancing. And this is not what a novel is about; at least, it is my point of view.

11. With the intentional blurring of the lines between the lived and the fictional landscape, it becomes hard for the reader to separate the identities of the boy-narrator and the author. Why did you choose an opening to the novel with a bar scene, reflection and then a flashback to a conversation between father and son before plunging into a conversation? Why not begin the novel straightaway? Why the artifice? It is not as if it any way eases the shock and distress at seeing the violence erupt.

It is not a device. The voice of the adult at the beginning comes back at the end. I did it to speak about something that is close to my heart: the feeling of exile. If I had started with the voice of the child, this feeling would have not been there, and I wanted it to hang over the novel (suffuse?). I wanted it to be a novel about exile. Because I would never have written a book, if I had stayed in Burundi. I feel this very deeply. It is the distance with my country that allowed it. Actually, when I went to live in Rwanda, went back to the region where I spent my childhood, the writing dried up. I couldn’t write any more about the country, the environment: it was here, under my eyes, and I needed the distance. It’s like love letters. It fills a vacuum. Writing for me had this function for many years. So I wanted there to be a character that made the reader feel certain things. This character says things that are essential, for example about exile being a door that is left ajar. Saying that the exiled person is not the one who decides to leave, but the one who has to flee. Another important aspect is that we know, we guess from the beginning that this child is going to be confronted to war, and that either it will end badly for him, or he will have to flee. That’s what happens. But I wanted to show that the region I come from is not an open sky cemetery. Yes, there is war and violence, but life goes on. Businesses spring back on their feet, they go on. So it was important for me that the character should leave, and also come back. Africa is not a continent that the character leaves, and nothing else happens, it falls into oblivion. The link with one’s past is always there. So it was important for me to have this voice, this point of view too in the novel. It also shows, through this, what happens to a child who goes through all this, what kind of an adult he can become. If one stops at childhood, there is no hint about what this child may become later. And I am passionate about imagining the trajectory of people, where they come from and what they become. In my family, people have had incredible destinies. Born in a village, with nothing, they go on to live in world capitals, do long studies, get jobs. I am always fascinated to see how, in a few years, one can change one’s condition. So, emotionally, I find this interesting.

You say we can be changed by a book. What changes do you hope to see though this book?

My hope is simply to make life in Burundi human and tangible. It’s not just a statistic. Burundi, Rwanda, these are countries one only see through the prism of war and violence. So obviously the point of view is distorted. One cannot imagine that families there may live normal, simple, happy lives. There are no novels about Burundi. I certainly have never seen one. So this is like a manifest: we existed, we had simple, banal lives. I wanted to give it a voice. It’s not much, but it’s already something. I want to remove the exotic, the set images, set ideas. I am part of a new generation of writers writing about the region. And as such, we constantly have to go back to explain things from the beginning. We have to explain the history of the place, because it is unknown. When I got an award in 2016 from high school students (Prix Goncourt des Lycéens), many young people told me they didn’t know about the Great Lakes region. The hope is that one day we can write stories without having to go through this didactic process. I hope we will allow this to happen for the younger, next generation… They will be able to write about lighter, more banal stories, love stories, and science fiction.

12 Has the success of Small Country been paralyzing for you?

Writing has moments of epiphany, great joy, where I feel: this is why I write! But it is also great suffering. You have to give a part of yourself, to put part of yourself on the line. I need this to feel that the work is sincere. This is probably due to the fact that I started writing for reasons that were not light reasons: war, being a witness etc. So my pointer is always this: Am I being sincere? There is already so much noise on this planet, everywhere, non stop. Why add to it?  I need to feel that my writing is not gratuitous. If I take the attention of people, it is to bring something to them, not to say, hello, I exist. It is so tempting today to exist just for existing. When we open a book, we try to create silence around us, in us. Great songs are the same for me. They bring you something that you can’t hear otherwise.  The artist has to fight the urgency. We are pushed into it. But it’s like a child who needs nine months to be born. The artist needs a gestation period which cannot be dictated. It’s only an intimate feeling that can tell us that we are ready, we have found the right angle, the right voice. So I know that the process I am in at the moment, of writing a new novel, is complicated. There is an expectation: but that, I have to forget about. But mainly it is complicated because I want to put myself on the line. It’s fascinating, but it’s crazy, so much work! Put oneself on the line and at the same time remember that nobody is waiting for it, it remains something superfluous. Radicalism is dangerous. There is no radicalism; the most radical thing in the world is to find a balance — take it from a metis person!  

17 April 2020

On Gael Faye’s “Small Country”

I read Gael Faye’s extraordinary Small Country earlier this year. It left a powerful impact upon me and months later, after much other reading, I still cannot forget this slim book. At the time I had written to the brilliant translator, Sarah Ardizzone. Unfortunately Sarah is convalescing and is unable to reply to the questions at the moment. But she did manage to reply to the email I sent upon reading Small Country. This is what she wrote:

” Dear Jaya, What an amazing e-mail!
Thank you for your extraordinarily heartfelt response to
Small Country.
I’d be delighted to answer your questions once I’m back.

So while I wish Sarah a speedy recovery I thought it best to post on my blog edited excerpts of the email lest I forget that this was one of the fascinating books I read in 2019.

****

Dear Sarah, 

I simply had to write to you after reading Small Country. What an extraordinary book! I marvel at your translation abilities. A lot must have been called upon you to invest in this translation. To delve into another languages, capture the rhythms and transfer them seemingly seamlessly from the language of origin to the destination language is never an easy feat but you have done it brilliantly. I do not know French but am familiar with it sufficiently to know the softness of the spoken word in French is very different to the cadences that English has to offer. I do not know how else to say it since I only know English. Yet, while reading Small Country I could not get over the fluidity of the prose. At times one forgets it is a translated text that one is reading. 

Gael Faye is a poet, rapper, musician, so rhythm probably comes easy to him. It is in all likelihood a part of his being, his DNA. Those who have music in them walk, talk and breath music and rhythms. If you witness such musically talented people then it is pure joy to see them move and talk. Even an ordinary conversation with them takes on a precision that is delightful to experience. And somehow this oneness of spirit with music makes them seem like free spirits too. It conveys itself beautifully when such talented souls express themselves. Murakami says in his conversations Absolutely on Music that rhythm is important the text. 

In the case of Small Country the boy-narrator comes across as a medium for sharing many of Gael Faye’s own experiences or perhaps events he has witnessed. Using the fictional literary device tends to distance the author from the event. Yet using the first person to narrate events makes it so personal but also continues with the fictional deception of something so horrific. The only time the mask seems to fall is when the narrator recounts his mother’s witnessing of the murders in Rwanda. And that is not even a technique. It just comes across as someone who must at all accounts convey what his mother witnessed. In fact if you read transcripts of testimonies of women traumatised by conflict, the tone is this. The only difference is that while the mother in the book never really slips into the third person, all women survivors of a conflict situation always  speak in the third person especially when they come to that particular point of describing the actual trauma. It is extraordinary but this is a fact that has been documented over and over again through decades of research on gender and conflict. While absorbed in the story the turn of events are not questioned even the deadpan monotone manner in which the mother tells her story at the dining table. Even her slow descent into a “madness” is done brilliantly. It is later upon closing the book that so many questions come to my mind. For instance, this eye-witness account has to be true. Probably the mother is an amalgamation of many such witness accounts or perhaps it is someone extremely close to Gael Faye. Then I wondered how on earth did Gael Faye capture this deadpan manner of narrating the genocide ? Did he record it? Did he revise this portion? Then I wondered how on earth did you translate it, Sarah? This is not an easy passage to translate and the kind of engagement that is required of you will, I suspect, forever haunt you, Sarah. 

The fluidity of the prose is breathtaking. It is meditative so when the long passages on reading appear, the mind is sufficiently lulled to appreciate every moment of that experience…a trance-like space that seasoned readers will recognise. Then it is explosively disrupted with the accounts of lynching, the stench of death, hatred and sheer ugliness of the revenge violence unleased everywhere. It is frightening, Sarah. It is ever more real for us in the subcontinent as these are many of the incidents occuring here too. The video clips showing lynching of innocent people has resulted in WhatsApp changing its global policy of forwards. So instead of being able to forward messages to 250 people at a time there is a restriction — now messages can be forwarded to only 5 people at a time. Anyway, I digress.
The maturity of the boy-narrator to express himself so clearly in his interior monologues can only come with time. A layered narrative if there ever was one. It is as if the adult-boy is reflecting back on the past without in any way undermining what he saw as a 10/11-year-old boy. It is a tough balance to achieve.  But I often got the sense while reading Small Country how did Gael know when to stop layering the memories? My apologies for intermingling the fictional and the real experiences but there are some moments in the book that are too real to be ever imagined by a sane human being. The description of the mother coming upon the rotting bodies of her neices and nephews that her hand goes through the pieces while she attempts to gather their remains for a decent burial. Once the book is read the images of the genocide and the slaughter of the crocodile for a birthday feast merge into one. While I have a zillion questions for Gael on why this book? How did he come to write it? How did he choose the point of view? Why a boy-narrator? Does it make it any easier to cross boundaries within a disintegrating society and offer multiple perspectives that only a child can offer –more or less without judgement? Although this book has been launched as a debut novel the title refers to a song he wrote. When he is intentionally blurring the lines between the lived and the fictional landscape it becomes hard for the reader to separate the identities of the boy-narrator and the author. Why does he choose an opening to the novel with a bar scene, reflection and then a flashback to a conversation between father and son before plunging into a conversation? Why not begin the novel straightaway? Why the artifice? It is not as if it any way eases the shock and distress at seeing the violence erupt. 

While there are many questions to be asked of Gael Faye, I could not help but marvel at your professionalism too, Sarah. What extraordinary reserves of inner strength it must have required to translate this slim novel. In fact its slimness belies the powerful storytelling and the pure, senseless, mad hatred man has for man. Sadly this is seen everywhere now in the world. I truly am amazed at how you stayed with this book and translated it, Sarah. Some of the questions that I wanted to pose to you while reading the book were:

  1. How and why did you select this book to translate? 
  2. How long did it take to translate Small Country
  3. When you translate a book such as Small Country do you only focus on the text or do you also have to read around to ensure you have captured the nuances?
  4. Did you keep Gael Faye in the loop at every step of the translation? When do you begin your conversations with the author regarding your translations?
  5. What is the nature of these conversations? What are the topics that are discussed most often while translating a book? Were there some exceptional insights to the writing and translation process for Small Country
  6. Would you know if subsequent translations of this book in other languages rely upon the English translation or do they read the text in French? Have you had conversations with translators of other languages of this book? 
  7. What is it that you seek in a good translation? 
  8. How do you choose the books you wish to translate? 
  9. How did you become a professional translator? 
  10. Which are the translated texts that you would consider your gold standard in translation? Who are the translators you admire? Do you think the “rules” of translations change over time?  

While reading Small Country, I was reminded of Fiston Mwanza Majila’s Tram 83 which I reviewed some years ago ( after which the rights to it were bought and an Indian edition was published). His performances at various book events involved a lot of music — fascinating performance poetry. 

One day I hope we can meet in person, Sarah. 
With warmest wishes,
JAYA

8 November 2019

David Nott’s “War Doctor”

When I go to a war zone there’s a certain amount of my own equipment that I take with me. I take my own theatre scrubs and a gas mask, and I take my loupes, which are lenses with four-times magnification that help me perform intricate surgery on small blood vessels and flaps used in plastic surgery. I take a light source, a kind of headlamp, so that I continue to operate when the generators go down or the lights go off, and which also allow me to see deep into the crevices of a wound; and I take my Doppler machine, which allows me to hear the blood flow of the small distal vessels when the arteries do not have enough pressure to give a pulse. I carry it all around in a big, battered old suitcase.

David Notts is an NHS consultant surgeon specialising in general and vascular surgery. Since 1993 he has been taking two months unpaid leave every year from his job to volunteer his services in conflict zones mostly with Medicine San Frontieres (MSF). Over the years he has travelled to the most dangerous parts of the world where there is active conflict. He has worked in areas like Sarajevo, Kandahar, Chad, Gaza, Syria, Haiti, Libya, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Iraq. War Doctor is a memoir focussed primarily on his work as a surgeon in conflict zones though covers some disaster zones as well. He has performed the most complicated surgeries under the most incredible conditions such as with only one bag of blood, no lights, no staff in the operating theatre while the hospital was being bombed. He has witnessed the most horrific wounds perpetrated upon civilians in the name of fighting for a just cause to seeing the ghastly condition of patients in Syria who were being hit by snipers as a part of a game to see who could win a packet of cigarettes. Their choice of targets would vary from day to day. Some days it would be hitting the groins of passers by or another day the bellies of pregnant women. A bullet lodged in the skull of an in-vitro foetus is an unimaginably despicable act but David Nott has had to operate upon such unfortunate victims.

Though there has been no world war since 1945 but the continuously raging conflicts in different parts of the world especially since the 1990s has been relentless. There seems to be no respite with wars of various intensities erupting around the globe. In most cases the war zones Dr Nott has been to have been fiercely fought religious clashes resulting in chilling pogroms. The horrors described in every territory, in every conflict zone, in every nation are numbing. Over the years David Nott has learned to focus on healing and doing the best by his patients irrespective of religion or colour. Yet he has over the years also sensed the growing hostility towards a British/a white man working in the conflict zones while realising he is also exposing himself to the very real danger of being kidnapped and taken hostage, worse still being killed. Anything is possible. In these zones no known rules of civil or military conduct exist or are observed. What exists are enforcement of irrational and arbitrary orders by the two opposing sides of the conflict and this seems to hold true universally for all conflict zones.

David Nott became interested in helping people after he watching the film The Killing Fields about the Khmer Rouge and its pogroms in Cambodia.

What first inspired you to become a war doctor?
Two things. The first was Roland Joffé’s film The Killing Fields, which had a huge impact on me when I saw it as a trainee surgeon. There is a scene in a hospital in Phnom Penh, overrun with patients, where a surgeon has to deal with a shrapnel injury – I wanted to be that surgeon. The second big spur was watching news footage from Sarajevo back in 1993. There was this man on the television, looking desperately through the rubble for his daughter. Eventually he found her and took her to the hospital but there were no doctors there to help her. I thought, “Right, I’m off”.
( War doctor David Nott: ‘The adrenaline was overpowering’, The Guardian, 24 Feb 2019)

David Nott is a seasoned hand at performing surgeries under the most distressful conditions. It has undoubtedly had an impact on his psyche as the near-breakdown he had in the Syrian hospital when reviewing a case, or when a debriefing at the MSF office which should have normally taken 45 minutes took six hours, much of which was spent with him crying. Or when he famously was asked to lunch by the Queen to Buckingham Palace and was unable to speak:

My diminishing ability to cope was rather spectacularly exposed a week later, when I was invited to a private lunch with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. The contrast between those gilded walls and the ravaged streets of Aleppo began doing weird things to my head. I was sitting on the Queen’s left and she turned to me as dessert arrived. I tried to speak, but nothing would come out of my mouth. She asked me where had I come from. I suppose she was expecting me to say, “From Hammersmith,” or something like that, but I told her I had recently returned from Aleppo. “Oh,” she said. “And what was that like?”

My mind filled instantly with images of toxic dust, of crushed school desks, of bloodied and limbless children and of David Haines, Alan Henning and those other western aid workers whose lives had ended in the most appalling fashion. My bottom lip started to go and I wanted to burst into tears, but I held myself together. She looked at me quizzically and touched my hand. She then had a quiet word with one of the courtiers, who pointed to a silver box in front of her, which was full of biscuits. “These are for the dogs,” she said, breaking one of the biscuits in two and giving me half. Together, we fed the corgis. “There,” the Queen said. “That’s so much better than talking, isn’t it?” ( “David Nott: ‘They told me my chances of leaving Aleppo alive were 50/50‘” The Guardian, 24 Feb 2019)

War Doctor is an extraordinary memoir for it details the unforgiving violence that man can perpetrate on his own kind with absolutely no remorse. It does not seem to matter to the people leading the wars that innocent lives and entire cities are being destroyed. David Nott while stitching up patients, performing amputations, delivering babies, watching babies and adults die, visiting morgues that are piled high with bodies that the director of the hospital shows Nott in a matter-of-fact manner, or constantly being drenched in blood gushing out of wounds, collapsing on to the bed in a deep sleep only to wake up and put on shoes and the surgical gown that are caked in blood. After a while the gut-wrenching descriptions of the patients Nott operates upon seem to blur into one another except for the consistency of the massive trauma they have all experienced. The patients he operates upon range from civilians, military personnel to even mercenaries. Descriptions of entire families wiped out by bombs, children orphaned, little infants abandoned with gaping head wounds, teenagers bleeding uncontrollably due to shrapnel wounds, a little boy burning with heat with a possible diagnosis of malaria by Nott which is ignored by the local doctor who insists it is appendicitis and the next time Nott sees the boy with an incision in his abdomen but is in a black body bag parked in the doctor’s changing room for there is no where else to store it in the overflowing hospital! There are some success stories too. For instance when he argued on behalf of an infant to be evacuated to London if she had to survive but was denied permission by MSF, stripped of his credentials with the organisation and permitted to take the risk on his own. He did. The girl survived.

For most of these years spent in the conflict and disaster zones he has been a bachelor with only his parents to be concerned about. Once they too were gone Nott was lonely and was able to focus upon his work with his heart and soul. It was years later when at a fund raiser for Syria he met his future wife Eleanor, then an analyst at the Institute of Strategic Studies, did the enormity of his loneliness sink in. Most likely this manifested itself in his breakdown as for the first time in his life he finally had someone whom he loved dearly to return to in London.

Now he lives in London with his wife and two daughters. He has also established the David Nott Foundation. It is a UK registered charity which provides surgeons and medical professionals with the skills they need to provide relief and assistance in conflict and natural disaster zones around the world. As well as providing the best medical care, David Nott Foundation surgeons trains local healthcare professionals; leaving a legacy of education and improved health outcomes.

War Doctor is a firsthand account of the unnecessary manmade violence and chaos unleashed upon other humans in conflict zones. It is a sobering reminder of exactly how much irrational behaviour man is capable of. The devastating repurcussions on society, on families, on individuals, the wilful destruction of property and the enormous rehabilitation and reconstruction work required to rebuild civil sociey seems to be of no consequence to those who revel in war mongering and in all likelihood participate in it as well. This is a book that must be read by everyone, even those who believe that going to war, performing surgical strikes, are the only way to resolve disputes instead of finding resolutions through peace talks and exploring alternative soft diplomacy tactics such as civil engagement.

Read War Doctor. It will become a seminal part of contemporary conflict literature. It will probably in the coming year be nominated for a literary award or two.

26 February 2019

An extract from Radha Kumar’s “Paradise at War”

Dr Radha Kumar is a historian and a policy analyst who has written several well-regarded books on ethnic conflict and feminism. She was one of the interlocutors appointed for Jammu and Kashmir by the Manmohan Singh administration in 2010. Paradise at War is her latest book  on Jammu and Kashmir published by Aleph.

According to the book blurb:

Paradise at War is Dr Radha Kumar’s political history of Kashmir, a book that attempts to give the reader a definitive yet accessible study of perhaps the most troubled part of India. Beginning with references to Kashmir as ‘a sacred geography’ in the Puranas, Kumar’s account moves forward in time through every major development in the region’s history. It grapples with the seemingly intractable issues that have turned the state into a battleground and tries to come up with solutions that are realistic and lasting.

Situating the conflict in the troubled geopolitics of Kashmir’s neighbourhood, Kumar unpicks the gnarled tangle of causes that have led to the present troubles in the region, from wars and conquest to Empire and the growth of nationalism; the troubled accession of the state to India by Maharaja Hari Singh during Partition; Pakistani attacks and the rise of the Cold War; the politics of the various parts of the former princely state including Jammu and Kashmir, and the areas administered by Pakistan; the wars that followed and the attempts that Indian, Pakistani and Kashmiri leaders, starting with Sheikh Abdullah and Jawaharlal Nehru, made to find peaceful solutions, including taking the Kashmir issue to the UN, which had unintended consequences for India; the demand for plebiscite; the Simla Agreement, turning the ceasefire line into the Line of Control; communal riots in the 1980s and the growth of insurgency; increase in security forces in the state in the 1990s leading to public resentment; and the guerrilla occupation of Hazratbal, the fifteenth-century mosque. Showing that a changed Post-Cold War milieu offered new opportunities for peace-making that were restricted by domestic stresses in Pakistan, Kumar analyses the Lahore Declaration and its undoing with the Kargil operation; the morphing of insurgency into an Islamist jihad against India; India’s attempts to parley with separatist groups; and the progress made towards a Kashmir solution via peace talks by various Indian and Pakistani governments between 2002 and 2007.

Kumar’s descriptions of the contemporary situation—the impact of 9/11 and the war on terrorism; the Afghan war and the Mumbai attacks which created pressure on Pakistan to take action against radical Islamists; the blowback in Pakistan resulting in the growing radicalization of Pakistani institutions such as the judiciary and its spill over in Kashmir; the Indian government’s failure to move Kashmir into a peacebuilding phase; the trouble with AFSPA; the anti-India feelings that were triggered by counter-insurgency responses in 2010, the contentious coalition of 2014 and the killing of suspected terrorist Burhan Wani in 2016—underline the tragedies which ensue when conditions, timing and strategy are mismatched.

Drawing on her experience as a government interlocutor, Kumar chastises the Indian government for never failing ‘to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when it comes to the state’s political grievances’. Equally, she shows how Pakistan’s Kashmir policy has been ‘an unmitigated disaster’. While arguing that India can do a great deal to reduce violence and encourage reconciliation within the former princely state, she concludes that if Kashmir is ever to move towards lasting peace and stability, the major stakeholders as well as regional and international actors will need to work together on the few feasible options that remain.

Timely and authoritative, the book cuts through the rhetoric that cloaks Kashmir to give the reader a balanced, lucid and deeply empathetic view of the state, its politics and its people.

With the publisher’s permission here is an extract ( p. 339-341) from Dr Kumar’s concluding chapter entitled “Conclusion: Faint Hope for a Peace Process”.

****

Looking back over the history of Jammu and Kashmir, the last seventy years have seen a tragic collision between aspirations for democracy and the grim realities of war. After centuries of imperial rule, the territorial state of Jammu and Kashmir emerged in the nineteenth century and the political state only after India and Pakistan became independent countries. From 1947, two opposing trajectories were evident. On the one hand, India–Pakistan conflict devastated daily life and severely hampered governance in the former princely state. On the other hand, all parts of the state steadily improved economically, though their economies remained heavily aid-reliant. Their residents acquired education and healthcare where once, not so long ago, they did not. Roads and rail lines were built, enabling connectivity and trade. Natural resources such as water were developed, and even though these resources were shared with India and Pakistan, residents still had more than they did sixty years ago.

Politically, however, there was a steady decline, from the first flush of hope in a post-monarchical order to growing disappointment and anger spurred by war and conflict every fifteen to twenty years. Albeit in sharply divergent ways, each of the divided parts of the former princely state found that its status and rights were determined by conflict and its government’s powers varied according to security and economic dependence on India or Pakistan. It seems counter-intuitive to say that the people of the Kashmir valley suffered the most poisonous politics of the regions of the former princely state, when they had a greater measure of democracy and civil rights, on paper, than their counterparts across the Line of Control. But the Kashmir valley also suffered the most stifling conditions, because it was the arena of violent conflict.

Looking back over the past decade or more, it can be seen that the Pakistan Army’s hostility towards India has cumulatively increased rather than decreased after 9/11. Musharraf cooperated with the US against the Taliban on the grounds that if he did not, it would advantage India. The first few years following 9/11 saw an intensification of cross-border violence in Jammu and Kashmir. During the peace process that followed, with considerable international facilitation, violence decreased sharply in Jammu and Kashmir but terrorist attacks against India rose, both in other parts of India and in Afghanistan. Eventually, the peace process was put on hold by a beleaguered Musharraf in 2007.

The civilian government that took over in Pakistan did not build on the framework for Kashmir of the Musharraf backchannel. But they took cautious steps to improve trade, and developed customs and transit infrastructure at the Wagah border. Though the 26/11 attacks were the most horrific terrorist act in years, Pakistan-sponsored terrorism against India declined overall. When the Zardari administration was succeeded by the Sharif administration in 2013, the initial months were promising. Sharif and Modi did briefly try to revive a peace process, but guerrillas succeeded in disrupting their efforts and Sharif soon fell foul of the Pakistani military.

Clearly, each country has yet to come to terms with the other’s red lines. Pakistan’s red line was, and remains, that terrorism would not be curbed unless Kashmir was also discussed. For India, terrorism had to end. The hard facts were that Pakistan was unlikely to give up support for anti-India groups like the Lashkar and Jaish until conflicts over Kashmir, Sir Creek and Siachen were resolved. The best that could be expected was that the Pakistan Army, under pressure, might restrain them. Equally, India would not settle with Pakistan until convinced that its government was ending support for anti-India militancy, including by non-state actors. First Vajpayee, then Musharraf, and then Singh, Zardari and Sharif, learned these hard facts the hard way, through trial and error, but the learning curve in each country appeared to be individual rather than institutional or collective.

Most Indians believe that the Pakistani position would change were the military to accept civilian precedence, but the chances of that happening are nil. Many would further argue that a sustained military-to-military dialogue would also soften the hard-line attitude of the Pakistan Army. Thus far, however, such a dialogue has proved elusive. The fact that the Pakistani NSA appointed in October 2015 was a retired general gave hope of a direct line to the military. After Pathankot, the jury was still out on whether this access helped. The two countries’ chiefs of army staff do not meet and their DGMOs have met only occasionally to talk CBMs. There have been intermittent and secret NSA talks since 2016, with no discernible impact.

A large and growing new challenge for both countries has been how to deal with the media. In the past four years, the role of electronic media in both countries has been understandably but unforgivably negative. With little substantive information to go on, Indian and Pakistani talking heads resorted to such virulent slanging matches in the run-up to the India– Pakistan NSA talks in August 2015 that they had to be cancelled. Some anchors questioned whether Pakistan fell into a trap by reacting so strongly to the Indian media, but this begged the question of whether the Indian media themselves fell into a spoilers’ trap. The Indian media muted criticism to some extent in 2018, with most channels supporting the ceasefire and questioning the toppling of the Mehbooba administration.

Astonishingly, the Indian government has never failed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when it comes to Jammu and Kashmir. From Nehru taking the conflict to the UN and arresting Sheikh Abdullah, to Indira dismissing and replacing elected governments, to Singh shying away from taking CBMs to political resolution, to Modi withdrawing the ceasefire before it had time to take hold and the BJP toppling the state’s coalition government[i] —almost every Indian prime minister has shown the state pusillanimity at best and authoritarianism at worst.

Pakistan’s leaders have done no better. Some might argue they did worse. Expressions of dissent were severely repressed and the powers of the elected leaders of Pakistan-administered Kashmir were little more than municipal. Gilgit–Baltistan suffered decades of sectarian conflict. But neither entity was subjected to the gruelling and attritive violence that Jammu and Kashmir was. While the reason was clear—India did not target Pakistan-administered Kashmir in the way that Pakistan targeted Jammu and Kashmir—it did not mitigate the suffering in Jammu and Kashmir.

As I write this conclusion, the Jammu and Kashmir conflict is at its nadir. Levels of violence continue to rise and abduction, torture and murder of Kashmiris in the security and police forces is becoming a new normal. The people of the valley are more alienated from mainland India than ever before and Jammu’s communal polarization between Muslim- and Hindumajority districts is greater than ever before.

Ladakh is the one clear ray of hope despite the distance between its two districts, Leh and Kargil. But its light cannot be shed on the valley and Jammu since it has always been quite separate from the two, both physically and in its polity.

****


[i] Rajesh Ahuja and Mir Ehsan, ‘Ramzan ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir to end, security ops will resume, says Rajnath Singh’, Hindustan Times, 17 June, 2018; ‘Mehbooba Mufti resigns after BJP pulls out of alliance with PDP in Jammu and Kashmir’, Times of India, 19 June, 2018.

22 February 2019

Elizabeth Laird’s “Welcome to Nowhere”

Elizabeth Laird’s Welcome to Nowhere has been justifiably longlisted for the CILIP Carnegie 2018. It is about  twelve-year-old Omar who has to flee Syria soon after the war breaks out. Born and brought up in Dosra, Omar has four siblings including an older brother, Musa, who despite having cerebral palsy is very sharp. At times when he gets agitated no one can understand what he says except for Omar. The youngest sibling is a two-year-old girl Nadia. Their father works for the Syrian government and is most distressed when civil strife breaks out. He insists on referring to the citizens fighting against the government as “terrorists”. As the war intensifies the family has to cross the international border with Jordan and enter a refugee camp. It is a horrific experience for the family who have to make do in a makeshift shelter, live on the kits distributed by the United Nations and the food is rationed, unless one can afford to buy what is offered in the black market. To realise it is survival of the fittest at the camp, Omar takes the lead to do his best by the family, particularly after his father decides to return to Dosra.

There are descriptions in the book that seem authentic. They ring true. Apparently Elizabeth Laird researched this book thoroughly before writing it. Years ago she had lived in Lebanon during their shattering civil war. She says in the letter by the author that “I saw at first hand how lives were disrupted and families lived in fear”.  Later she was invited to Jordan to run writing workshops with teachers and youth trainers in two Syrian refugee camps, Zaatari and Azraq. It was while talking to the refugees that Omar’s story crystallised in her mind.

Welcome to Nowhere is a book that will remain relevant as long as conflict zones exist not just in Syria. This story is meant to be read by young adults and adults alike.

Elizabeth Laird Welcome to Nowhere Pan Macmillan, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 

11 March 2018 

Teresa Rehman “The Mothers of Manipur: Twelve Women Who Made History”

On 15 July 2004, Imphal ( Manipur), twelve women strip in front of Kangla Fort, the headquarters of the Assam Rifles, a unit of the Indian army. Soldiers and officers watched aghast as the women, all in their sixties and seventies, positioned themselves in front of the gates and then, one by one, stripped themselves naked. The imas, the mothers of Manipur, are in a cold fury, protesting the custodial rape and murder, by the army, of Thangjam Manorama, a 32-year-old woman suspected of being a militant. The women hold aloft banners and shout, ‘Indian Army Rape Us’, ‘Take Our Flesh’. Never has this happened before: the army is appalled.

Award-winning journalist Teresa Rehman’s The Mothers of Manipur is about the mothers and grandmothers who protested boldly. The trigger was the abduction and murder of Manorama but it was also against the Armed Forces ( Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) which gives the army extraordinary powers. Manorama, a weaver, was known in the local community for being a hardworking woman who had been supporting her family ever since her father had died while she was a young teenager. She had chosen not to marry but on 10 July 2004 troops of the 17th Assam Rifles barged into her home, accusing her of being a militant, questioned her and then took her away. The next morning her body was found. She had been raped, her vagina stuffed with cloth and bullets riddled into her genitals. Yet the army said she was shot while attempting to run away but there was no evidence to prove it.

Angered by this incident some of the local women who were also active members of the Meira Paibis (women torch bearers of Manipur) movement decided to do something about it. Some of the women had visited the morgue to see Manorama’s body. They were horrified by what they witnessed. Hurriedly and yet secretly the women put together a plan to disrobe at Kangla Fort. They had two banners painted ( the painter was sworn to secrecy) displaying the words “Indian Army Rape Us”. On the morning of 15 July 2004 they removed their undergarments but wore their phanek ( sarong) and shawls. Once at the gates of the fort they stripped and shouted. It immediately caused a stir. Within hours curfew had been clamped and there was a blackout across television channels. At the time the incident made headlines and was covered extensively but years later too it is viewed as a seminal form of protest by women in a conflict zone as in this BBC report ( March 2017).

More than a decade later Teresa Rehman decided to interview these women of whom all save one survived. What emerges from the interviews is that though these women were mostly from an impoverished background they were strong and had a firm idea of justice. The anger of the older women in the group was fuelled by their childhood memories of the occupation of Manipur by Japanese forces during World War II. At the time too the unannounced arrival of Japanese soldiers at their homes asking for young girls, particularly at night, made their families anxious. The imposition of AFSPA in Manipur decades later brought back those very same feelings of anxiety and fear for their daughters. During the course of the interviews it becomes evident that the women in July 2004 were only concerned with how to display their anger and frustration at the Indian Army and the inexplicable irrational violence it perpetrated upon the locals. Not a single woman thought of the consequences. Years later it becomes apparent that the twelve women had diverse experiences. From being shunned by their families to being idolised by their community. Yet the common factor amongst them all was the anxiety and fear had not abated and now they worried about the safety of their daughters and granddaughters.

The Mothers of Manipur documents the role of these women in an active conflict zone and the consequences of their actions. Yet it comes across as a book that is also a testimony of Teresa Rehman’s own growth as a feminist journalist. She does the balancing act well of being sensitive to the women and their issues without being an over zealous journalist who pries too much into the personal lives of their subjects. It also inadvertantly becomes a part-memoir of Teresa Rehman as she visits Manipur regularly from the neighbouring state of Assam.

Undoubtedly it is a gripping book to read but there is also some dissatisfaction. The fact is mothers forming groups to work within conflict zones or in fragile societies being reconstructed after war is a part of gender and conflict studies. The role of women in conflict zones across geographies is well-documented. Also it has been discovered that these groups share many characteristics. Though there is a competent introduction by renowned journalist Pamela Philipose giving the background to AFSPA and Meira Paibis there is little context given either by her or Teresa Rahman to the Kangla Fort incident in gender and conflict narratives. It has to be extrapolated from the various interviews included. For a newcomer to gender and conflict the book would be fascinating to read but they would miss completely the cues of sisterhood which form in war zones. For now these details are scattered through the interviews. An overarching essay that explained the methodology of how these oral history interviews were conducted, contextualising the action in the women’s movement and the active role mothers/women play in conflict zones would have definitely enriched the book.

Despite its shortcomings The Mothers of Manipur will be referred to for a long time as it not only documents the shocking incident of 15 July 2004 at Kangla Fort but also neatly encapsulates the troubled history of conflict-torn Manipur particularly since World War II.

Teresa Rehman The Mothers of Manipur: Twelve Women who Made History Zubaan, New Delhi, 2017. Pb. pp. 152 Rs. 325 

“The Bicycle Spy” & “Brave Like My Brother”

Of late there has been an increase in the amount of historical fiction set during the second world war by contemporary writers. These are two wonderful examples. The Bicycle Spy introduces young readers to the Resistance and German occupation of France. It is a story told from the perspective of a young boy who discovers his classmate is a Jew from Paris and needs protection. With the help of his parents he sets out on his mission. Likewise Brave Like My Brother is about a young American soldier who is recruited and within three days packed off to England and later, France. The story is told via letters he exchanges with his younger brother. As the writer says he did take some creative license to tell it but it’s embedded in facts such as Eisenhower’s visit to the Allied troops in Europe and the use of inflatable armoured vehicles to be used as decoy before D-day.

Both the books, published by Scholastic, are immensely readable and a great way to introduce children to different aspects of the war. Now for similar yalit fiction about conflict situations in other geographies.

17 February 2017 

Brahmaputra Literary Festival, Guwahati, Assam ( 28-30 Jan 2017)

In late January the National Book Trust of India, Government of India and the government of Assam decided to jointly organise the Brahmaputra Literary Festival in Guwahati. There were over 60 panel discussions, book launches, cultural events etc organised. More than a 150 writers, artists, thinkers and publishing professionals were invited to participate. The focus was on the “languages, literature, culture, society, politics, performance traditions, music, identity, media of the northeastern region of the country but also national and international elements packages in the three-day event”.

Shatrugan Sinha, Bollywood actor, speaking about his memoir published by Om Books

Given how hectic the litfest season can become in India this particular edition of the festival was a refreshing change. It was not the predictable handful of authors doing a Bharat darshan and along the way halting to make appearances at literary festivals. This festival was different. It had a crackling good mix of regional writers from all over India along with a few international delegates. It was heartening to note how all the guests were treated at par. The hospitality arrangements made by the organising committee were impeccable. Although this festival had been put together in less than a month it was commendable how well it had been curated.  Irrespective of ideological positions a range of people had been invited highlighting the flourishing Indian literary scene as well encouragement of literature instead of extending invitation to drawing room coteries. The sessions were engaging with intense conversations. The strength of the audience varied but irrespective of the numbers they were focused, courteous and listening attentively. There was pin drop silence. The Kalakshetra venue was well suited for being centrally located and vast. The venues were far apart making it trifle inconvenient for having to walk large distances but a big plus point was it was possible to hear panelists without being disturbed by other parallel sessions.

Panel discussion on “Demystifying publishing”. The panelists were ( L-R) Ravi Singh, Co-founder and publisher, Speaking Tiger Books, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Bhaskar Dutta-Baruah, Publisher, and Preeti Gill, Literary Agent.

Sanjoy Hazarika’s panel discussion which included Francois Gautier.

Though the focus was on showcasing Assam and other north eastern states of India the programming was impressive. There were poets, writers, dramatists, activists, cinematographers, essayists, translators, performance poets, singers, actors, publishers from across India giving a rich insight into the vibrant diversity of Indian literature.  From the hyper-local to the broader literary landscapes were represented. For instance ranging from a session on the local poets whose ancestors migrated from Bengal so now speak a mix of Assamese and particular kind of Bengali which makes them a distinct community to sessions on conflict and literature showcasing incidents such as the incarceration of the Indian-Chinese community by the Indian government in the 1960s to more recent instances have been preserved in contemporary literature. There were panel discussions on publishing such as children’s literature and understanding the publishing process. A testament to the crackling literary milieu was the heated discussions that took place between Sanjoy Hazarika and Francois Gautier during their panel discussion “The word in public space”. Sanjoy Hazarika posted a note about it on Facebook.

Lit Mart introduced by Dr Rita Chowdhury, Director, National Book Trust. Panelists included Preeti Gill, Nabin Baruah, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Bhaskar Dutta-Baruah, Ravi Singh and Srutimala Duara.

A fascinating experiment called Lit Mart was also inaugurated and conceived by the director of NBT, Dr Rita Chowdhury. It consisted of a panel of Assamese and English publishers, literary agents and publishing professionals  who listened to manuscript ideas and synopsis. The authors ranged from school children to experienced writers, translators, professionals who were also engaged in writing and even ex-insurgents. And yes, some contracts — mostly Assamese but one English too– were offered by the time the session was over.

There was a festive air and the locals had come dressed as if it were a special occasion especially on Sunday. Even when the school expeditions were organised the students were well behaved and trooping into listen to the panelists. There was little fidgeting and definitely no mobile phones ringing or flashing.

NBT book mobile

Sure there were teething problems — co-ordination glitches, lack of golf carts/ vans to fetch and carry people as is done at the world book fair held annually at pragati maidan, the food court was at the far end instead of being midst of hustle-bustle and since the dinners held for delegates were not well lubricated the participation was thin as people made their own arrangements.  Having said that this litfest was organised by NBT within two weeks of the conclusion of the world book fair. Hence the effort put in to put together this show by the team was impressive. In fact the undercurrents were positive and indicate potential in subsequent editions if the literary festival is managed well. Already there were understanding touches to the organising such as parking an NBT bookmobile at the venue where an entire row was dedicated to literature translated in to Assamese, having an independent bookshop that sold titles of participating authors and publishers, and author signing sessions.  There is a strong local reading culture with a thriving literary tradition in the north east. There is no reason why this festival cannot succeed.

6 February 2017 

Literati: A Spiderweb of Yarns ( 14 November 2015)

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online on 14 November 2015 and in print on 15 November 2015). Here is the http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/a-spiderweb-of-yarns/article7872752.ece. I am also c&p the text below. )

The old lady chuckled. “Each story that sinks into the book becomes a part of an ancient spiderweb full of stories.”

“As more stories are added in, the spiderweb gets bigger and bigger and bigger until it forms an invisible blanket that covers every city and town, every village and every forest. And when someone who is walking by touches the web accidently, stories will flow into their head and from their head to their fingers and from their fingers on to paper…”

(Suraya’s Gift: The Story Catcher Children by Malavika Nataraj. A chapter book published by Puffin Books)

Suraya's GiftSuraya has been given an exquisitely designed blank notebook by her aunt. She scribbles stories in it for a while only to abandon it. Later, unable to locate it she encounters the Story Catcher who tells Suraya the book has been passed on to another child who has better use for it. Malavika Nataraj’s is a stunning debut.

Ranjit LalThe importance of stories can never be stressed enough. Ranjit Lal’s new novel Our Nana was a Nutcase (Red Turtle) is about Nana, who is bringing up his daughter’s four children. (Their parents are busy diplomats.) It is a super brilliant, sensitively told novel about the children witnessing their Nana’s gradual decline with Alzheimer’s, their coming to terms with it and slowly realising they have to be the caregivers for their Nana. A similar story about the heartwarming relationship between grandfather and grandson is found in the bittersweet David Walliam’s David Walliamsbestseller Grandpa’s Great Escape (HarperCollins).

Stephen AlterStephen Alter’s slim novella The Secret Sanctuary (Puffin Books) is a little beauty too. It introduces three school children to the magic within a forest they tumble into while walking to school. It is a secret sanctuary where they can be in close proximity to the animals without the beasts being aware of their existence. They discover nuggets of information from the naturalist, Dr. Mukherjee.

MananManan (HarperCollins) by Mohit Parikh is an “odd little tale” as he calls it. Manan attains puberty and is fascinated how reaching this milestone changes his perspective on life, transforming him in more ways than one. It is a first novel about an ordinary family in a small town.

MunnuMunnu: A Boy from Kashmir (HarperCollins), a graphic novel by Malik Sajad with autobiographical elements, is already causing a stir internationally. Sajad anthropomorphises the Hangul deer to tell the chilling account of being a young boy in Kashmir when it was torn apart by conflict. Munnu capitalises upon his excellent drawing skills to draw political cartoons.

Some other examples of well-told stories are: Scholastic India’s annual offering For Kids by Kids featuring short stories by young writers between the ages of 10 and 16. Paro Anand’s Like Smoke (Penguin Books), a revised edition of her young adult stories Wild Child; Parismita Singh’s stupendous graphic story retelling the Naga folktale Mara and the Clay Cows (Tulika); Karishma Attari’s debut novel I See You (Penguin Books), a chilling horror set in Mumbai, and the gorgeously produced retelling of the Baburnama called The Story of Babur by Parvati Sharma, illustrated by baburUrmimala Nag (co-published by Good Earth and Puffin Books). Scholastic’s Branches book series like Dragon MastersThe Notebook of Doom and Owl Diaries ( http://www.scholastic.com/branches/), and Simon and Schuster’s travelogue series Greetings from Somewhere ( http://www.simonandschuster.com/series/Greetings-from-Somewhere) with helpful illustrations, easy-to-read text and simple plot lines designed for newly independent readers, are strong on storytelling Wimpy Kidtoo. Then there is the astoundingly popular Jeff Kinney, whose Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Old School within a week of its release has already sold 100,000 copies in India. Timed with its release has been the launch of the Puffin Car that will be used to build excitement about books and the habit of reading among children.

For Kids By Kids 2015

***

Stories have a way of working their way into becoming a part of one’s mental furniture and creating cultural landscapes that stay forever. A wonderful example to ensure stories continue to be shared is the “Libromat” in South Africa bringing together laundry and reading established by social entrepreneurs from Oxford University.  ( http://www.libromat.com/ )Inspired by a study that said dialogic book-sharing is an interactive form of shared reading (http://1.usa.gov/1MVTK7E), an early childhood development centre in Khayelitsha was outfitted with washers and dryers, and the women were trained to read with their children. libromat-inhabitots

( Note: Images used on this page are off the Internet. I do not own the copyright to them.)

15 November 2015 

Press Release, Literary event, Embassy of Ireland, India ( 16 Oct 2014)

Press Release, Literary event, Embassy of Ireland, India ( 16 Oct 2014)

Press Release

(L-R) Paro Anand, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Amandeep Sandhu, Samanth Subramanian and H.E. Ambassador Feilim McLaughlin

(L-R) Paro Anand, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Amandeep Sandhu, Samanth Subramanian and H.E. Ambassador Feilim McLaughlin

On Thursday, 16 Oct 2014, H.E. Ambassador Feilim McLaughlin of Ireland hosted a literary soiree at his residence. It was organized to commemorate the centenary of World War I.  The event consisted of an exhibition on the Irish poet W.B. Yeats and a panel discussion on “Conflict and Literature”. The panelists were three Indian authors/journalists—Paro Anand, Samanth Subramanian and Amandeep Sandhu and the discussion was moderated by Ambassador McLaughlin. Ambassador of Ireland Feilim McLaughlin said the event was intended to explore the role of the writer in portraying or interpreting conflict, drawing parallels between the experience in Ireland and South Asia. The evening was curated by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose.

Panel discussion on "Conflict and Literature", moderated by H.E. Ambassador Feilim McLaughlin

Panel discussion on “Conflict and Literature”, moderated by H.E. Ambassador Feilim McLaughlin

It was a one-of-a-kind evening with the lovely ambience and Irish music playing in the background. The three panelists were authors who had lived, worked with or interviewed persons in conflict zones in different parts of South Asia. Their personal stories and reading of relevant portions from their published works were straight from the heart. The invitees were handpicked. The three Indian authors who spoke were Paro Anand whose YA novel No Guns at My Son’s Funeral is being turned into a film; Amandeep Sandhu, author of the critically acclaimed testimonial fiction Roll of Honour and Samanth Subramanian who has recently published The Divided Island, reportage from Sri Lanka. The select audience were mesmerized silent by the readings and interaction ofAt the Irish Embassy, New Delhi. 16 Oct 2014 the authors. Several shed a tear or two. Most had a lump in their throat. The topics or narrated experiences hit a raw chord in many, especially those with a background or family from Partition, ’84 riots and communal conflicts. Author, Dr Kimberley Chawla says, “In this day and age, one tends to forget or ignore conflict past or present that may be occurring just a few hundred kilometres away, but it continues to be relevant. This literary event brought it right back home and reminded all present how lucky we were to have what we have and that we or our families managed to survive.” Many in the audience were seen congratulating the Irish embassy for pulling off such a topic which actually left the audience sentimental and empathic and there were no accusatory or aggressively political arguments or comparisons with other countries.  Remarkably there was pin drop silence throughout the event.

Keki Daruwalla, Novelist, Poet and Chairperson, DSC Literature Prize 2014: “I feel it was a very fine evening. The Ambassador Mr. Feilim McLaughlin had done his homework. (One normally doesn’t see Their Excellencies getting into the nitty-gritty of a cultural event). The mix was perfect with Paro Anand speaking of the handicapped children. It was very moving. Amandeep Sandhu spoke of 1984. Wish he had read more from his book.”

M. A. Sikandar, Director, NBT ( National Book Trust of India) “A wonderful evening with Authors who highlighted the flip side if real India. I amazed by the intense of reading by these authors who are from diverse background and culture. Credit goes to the Irish Ambassador and Jaya.”

Paro Anand : “Trying to make sense of a long ago war through today’s conflicts brought three writers together. IN the peace of Delhi’s Diplomatic Enclave, we wove words of wars and conflicts that do and don’t belong to us….each telling of our engagement with wars without as much as within. It was a journey that none of us would choose to make, but most of us have to.”

Amandeep Sandhu: “it was a brilliant evening curated by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose and hosted by the Irish Ambassador. I loved that I could meet and converse with a variety of writers, artists and people. I hope we have more such events in which we can discuss art and literature which is relevant to our times.”

Samanth Subramanian: “The event was a wonderful way to discuss the specificities of some conflicts, with the knowledge throughout that all conflicts have so much that in common. Even as we remember the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, we find its themes playing out in the world around us today.”

For more information, please contact:

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, jayabhattacharjirose@gmail.com

 *****

The featured panellists:

Paro Anand is one of India’s top writers. Best known for her writings for young adults, she has always pushed boundaries and challenged preconceived notions of the limits of writings for young people. She has been described as a fearless writer with a big heart. She works extensively for young people in difficult circumstances, especially with orphans of separatist violence in Kashmir. Using literature as a creative outlet, she provided a platform for the traumatized young to express their grief in ways that they had been unable to before. This release gave them the ability to move beyond and look into their future, instead of staying frozen in their very violent past. One of the over-riding feelings she came away with was the need to tell these stories to a wider audience and thus bring the alienated back into the mainstream consciousness.

Samanth Subramanian is a New Delhi-based writer and journalist. He has written op-eds and reportage for the New Yorker, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and book reviews and cultural criticism for the New Republic, the Guardian and Book forum. His first book, a collection of travel essays titled “Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast,” was published in India in 2010 and in the United Kingdom in 2013. “Following Fish” won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize in 2010 and was shortlisted for the Andre Simon Book Award in 2013. Subramanian received a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Pennsylvania State University and a Master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University. He has lived in the United Kingdom, India, Indonesia, the United States and Sri Lanka. “This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War,” his second book, was published in July.

Amandeep Sandhu is currently a Fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, Germany (2013-15) working on his third novel which deals with how art shapes the historiography of a land. His Master of Arts, English Literature (1994-96) was from the University of Hyderabad and Diploma in Journalism (1997-98) from the Asian School of Journalism. In the late 1990s he was a journalist with The Economic Times. He has been a Technical Writer with top Information Technology companies for more than a decade: Novell, Oracle and Cadence Design systems. Over the last few years he has been actively reviewing books for The Hindu, The Asian Age, The Indian Express, BusinessWorld and writing a column in Tehelka on issues related to Punjab.

21 Oct 2014