debut Posts

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 

An interview with Devashish Makhija

ForgettingDevashish Makhija’s debut collection of stories, Forgetting, has been published by HarperCollins India. It consists of  49 “stories”. After reading the book, I posed  some questions to the author via email. His responses were fascinating, so I am reproducing it as is.

 1.Over how many years were these stories written?

I always find it difficult to answer such a question. There are so many ways to measure the time taken to ‘create’ a body of work. Least of all is the time taken to physically ‘write’ the stories. So I’ll attempt a two-tiered response.

Literally speaking, these stories were written sporadically over a 6-8 year period. Creating stories in some form or the other keeps me alive. And it was in this time period that most of the screenplays I’d been writing (for myself to direct as well as for other filmmakers, from Anurag Kashyap to M.F. Husain) were not seeing the light of day. For some reason or the other those films weren’t getting made. So in the slim spaces in between finishing a draft of one screenplay and starting to battle with the next, I kept writing – short stories, flash fiction, children’s books, poetry, essays, anything. I didn’t have a plan for any of these back then. I wrote just so I wouldn’t slit my throat out of frustration!

But this writing turned out to be my most honest, brutal, personal, (dare I say) original. Because, here I wasn’t answerable to anyone – not producers, not directors, not audiences, not peers, no one. So as the years passed, and the shelved films kept piling up, my non-film writing output began growing exponentially. My personal pieces came together in my self-published Occupying Silence. Then a story (“By/Two”) got published in Mumbai Noir. Another (“The Fag End”) came out in Penguin First Proof 7. A third story (Red, 17) published multiple times in several Scholastic anthologies. Two children’s books (When Ali became Bajrangbali and Why Paploo was perplexed) became bestsellers with Tulika Publishers. My flash fiction found a dedicated readership with Terribly Tiny Tales ( http://terriblytinytales.com/author/devashish/ ). And before I knew it a ‘collection’ of sorts had formed. So if I have to put a fairer timeline to the creation of ‘Forgetting’ I will mostly be unable to because this unapologetic, personal story-writing found its seeds in writing I’ve been doing since my teenage years, and most of the themes / motifs in these stories have formed / accumulated within me over the last 20 years perhaps.

  1. Are these stories purely fictional? There is such a range, I find it hard to believe that they are not based or inspired by real situations you have encountered. 

That is a most acute observation. Although these stories have been placed in contexts fictionalized, often these are almost all lived experiences. In fact most of the first drafts of these stories were written in first person. When I began to see them as a ‘collection’ of sorts I went back to most of them and rewrote them as third person narratives, often fleshing out a central character removed from myself. It has been an interesting experiment, to have written something first as my own point of view of a very personal experience, then gone back and shifted the pieces around to see how the same would appear / sound / read if I were to be merely an observer, looking at this experience from the outside, in.

But this is not the case with all stories. Some of these stories were first film ideas / stories / screenplays that I couldn’t find producers for. I rewrote them as prose fiction pieces to attempt turning them into films once they found an audience of some sort through this book. I’m sure you can detect which these were… ‘By/Two’, ‘Red 17’, ‘Butterflies on strings’ – the larger, more intricate narratives in this collection. If I’m not too off the mark these particular stories read more visually too, since they were conceived visually first.

  1. How did you select the stories to be published? I suspect you write furiously, regularly and need to do so very often. So your body of work is probably much larger than you let on. 

That is yet another acute observation. You’re scaring me. It’s like you’re peeking into my very soul here, through this book. I used to (till last year) write ‘furiously’ and ‘regularly’, quite like you put it. Every time I’ve wanted to (for example) kill myself, kill someone else, start a violent revolution, tell a married woman that I love her (or experienced any such extreme anti-social urges) I’ve just sat myself down and WRITTEN. I have unleashed my inner beasts, exorcised my demons, counseled my dark side, purged myself of illicit desire by Writing. So yes, I have much, much more material than this anthology betrays.

But when a book had to be formed from the hundreds of diverse pieces I had ended up creating, a ‘theme’ emerged. And I used that theme as a guiding light to help me select what would stay in this book and what would have to wait for another day to find readership.

This ‘theme’ was ‘Forgetting’.

I found in some of my stories that they were about people (mostly myself reflected in my characters) trying to break out of a status quo / a pattern / a life choice that they’re now tired of / done with / tortured by. The selected stories are all about people trying to break loose of a ‘past’. And these stories – although frighteningly diverse in mood, intent, sometimes even narrative style – seemed to come together under this umbrella theme.

  1. Who made the illustrations to the book? Why are all of them full page? Why did you not use details of illustrations sprinkled through the text? Judging by your short films available on YouTube, every little detail in an arrangement is crucial to you. So the medium is immaterial. Yet, when you choose the medium, you want to exploit it to the hilt. So why did you shy away from playing with the illustrations more confidently than you have done?

I am now thoroughly exposed. You caught this out. All those illustrations are by me. Some of them are adapted from my own self-published coffee table book from 2008 –Occupying Silence (www.nakedindianfakir.com). That book had served as a catalogue of sorts for the solo show I’d had in a gallery in Calcutta of my graphic-verse work. Some of the writing from that book found its way into Forgetting as well. I hadn’t planned on putting these illustrations in. It was my editor Arcopol Chaudhuri’s idea. The anthology was ready, the stories all lined up, ready to go into print, when it struck him that some visuals might provide a welcome sort of linkage between the various sections of the book. And I jumped at the chance to insert some of my graphic illustrations. I did wonder later that if I had more time I might have worked the illustrations in more intricately. Perhaps even created some new work to complement the stories. But it was a last minute idea. And perhaps that slight fracture in the intent shows. Perhaps it doesn’t. But your sharp eye did catch it out.

What you suggest of detailed illustrations sprinkled right through the text is something I have done in Occupying Silence (http://www.flipkart.com/occupying-silence/p/itmdz4zfanzpcgg7?pid=RBKDHDVKJHW4QEAQ&icmpid=reco_bp_historyFooter__1). I’m a big one for details. It’s always the details that linger in our consciousness. We might be experiencing the larger picture during the consumption of a piece of art, but when time has passed and the experience has been confined to the museum of our memory, it is always the little details that return, never the larger motifs. And I thoroughly enjoy creating those details. In some subconscious way it always makes the creative experience richer / more layered for the reader / audience / viewer. And gives the piece of art / literature / cinema ‘repeat value’. And ‘repeat value’ is what I think leads to a relationship being forged between the creation and its audience. With no repeat value there is no ‘relationship’, there is merely an acquaintance.

So yes, I wish I could have worked the illustrative material into the book more intricately. Next time I promise to.

  1. In this fascinating interview you refer to the influences on your writing, your journeys  but little about copyright. Why? Are there any concerns about copyright to your written and film material? (  http://astray.in/interviews/devashish-makhija )

Always. Film writing almost always presupposes more than one participant in the process. Even if I write a screenplay alone, there will eventually be a director (even if that is myself) and a producer (amongst many, many others) who will append themselves to the final product. Unless I spend every last paisa on making that film from my own pocket (which happens very rarely, and mostly with those filmmakers who have deep pockets, unlike the rest of us) the final product will never be mine alone to own. Where this copyright begins, where it ends; what is the proportion this ownership is divided in; who protects such rights; and for what reasons – are all ambiguous issues, without any clear-cut rules and regulations. I, like everyone else, did face much inner conflict about whether I should go around sharing my written material with people I barely knew, considering idea-thievery is rampant in an industry as disorganized and profit-driven as ‘film’. But soon enough I gave up on that struggle. If my stories were to see themselves as films then they would have to be shared with as many (and as often) as possible, with little or no concern for their security.

What I started doing instead was dabbling in all these other forms of storytelling as well where the written word is the FINAL form, unlike in film, where the written word is merely the first stage, and where the final form is the audio-visual product. And the more output I created on the side that was MINE, the less insecure I felt about sharing the film-writing output I was freely doling out to the world at large.

Shedding the insecurity of copyright made me more prolific I think. Because I had one less (big) thing to worry about.

Also, I believe this whole battle to ‘own’ what you create is a modern capitalistic phenomenon. To explain what I mean let’s consider for a moment our Indian storytelling tradition of many thousands of years. We seldom know who first told any story (folktales for example). They were told orally, never written down. And every storyteller had his/her own unique way to tell it. They never concerned themselves with copyright issues. Our modern world insists that we do. Because today the end result of every creative endeavor is PROFIT. And we are made to believe that someone else profiting from our hard work is a crime. But for a moment if you take away ‘profit’ from the equation, the other big parameter left that we can earn is – SATISFACTION. And that can’t be stolen from us, by anybody. So what I might have lost in monetary terms, I more than made up by the satisfaction of being able to keep churning out stories consistently for almost a decade now.

Every time ‘copyright’ and ‘profit’ enters the storytelling discourse, I don’t have much to contribute in the matter.

 

  1. In this interview, I like the way you talk about imagination and films. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1ViW0qLvlo&feature=youtu.be&a Have you read the debut novel by David Duchony, Holy Cow and a collection of short stories by Bollywood actors called Faction? I think you may like it. Both of you share this common trait of being closely associated with the film world, but it has a tremendous impact on your scripts. There is a clarity in the simplicity with which you write, without dumbing down, but is very powerful. 

Yes, it is the only reason I considered film as a medium to express myself through. I wasn’t a film buff growing up. As I’ve said in that IFFK interview I in fact had a problem with my ‘imagination’ not being allowed free rein while watching a film. Everything was imagined for me. It was stifling. Unlike reading a book, or listening to music, where my imagination took full flight. I considered film only because I wanted to do everything simultaneously – write, visualize, choreograph, create music, play with sound, perform, everything. And, to my dismay(!) I realized only this medium that I had reviled all these years would actually allow me that.

You are right about the cross-effect prose and film writing has if done simultaneously. Not only have I seen my prose writing become more visual –  and hence less reliant on descriptors / adjectives / turns of phrase – but I’ve seen my screenwriting become less reliant on exposition through dialogue, because I find myself more able to express mood and a character’s inner processes through silent action. It’s a very personal epiphany, but it seems to be serving me well in both media.

I haven’t read Holy Cow or Faction but I will do so now.

Interestingly though I think I’ve learnt a lot from another medium – one that inhabits the space between prose and cinema – the graphic novel. Some American author-artists – David Mazzuchelli, Frank Miller; the Japanese socio-political manga master Yoshihiro Tatsumi; Craig Thompson; the French Marc-Antoine Mathieu – these are storytellers whose prose marries itself to the image to convey powerful ideas in a third form. They’re all master prose writers, but their visuals complement their prose, hence their prose is sparse. And since their prose does half the work, their images are powerful in the choices they make. Their work has gone some way in shaping my crossover journeys between film and prose, or vice-versa.

  1. Is it fair to ask how much has the film world influenced your writing? 

I think I have in some way answered this question. My film-writing has affected my writing yes. But since even today I’m not a quintessential film buff, very little cinema has really ‘influenced’ me. To date I have a conflicted relationship with the watching of films. Because a film is so complete in its creating of the world, and I have absolutely nothing left to imagine / add on my own while ‘watching’ a film, I’m left feeling cheated every time I watch a film. Even if it is a film I love. So cinema doesn’t inspire me. I consume it sparely. I respect what it can help a storyteller achieve. But it almost never influences my choices.

Instead, art, poetry, music, real life experiences, love lost, death, inequality, conversation, comics, illustration, the look on people’s faces when they are eating, fucking, killing someone, being denied, discovering a devastating secret, the looks in animals’ eyes when they’re startled by the brutality of man – these are some of my influences.

  1. Will you try your hand at writing a novel? 

Of course! I have to finish at least one before I die. I’m some way into it already. It is, once again, an adaptation of a screenplay I wrote 7-8 years ago, for a film that got partly shot, but might never see the light of day. On the surface of it it’s a story of three boys – one from Assam, one from Kashmir, one from Sitamarhi, Bihar (one of the earliest entry points into India for the Nepali Maoist ideology) – at times in the history of these regions when separatist movements are gaining momentum. Through their lives I seek to explore whether the nation-state we call India even deserves to be. Or are we better off as a collection of several small independent nation-states. It’s very experimental in form, jumping several first person perspectives as the story progresses and gradually explodes outwards. I don’t know yet when I’ll complete it. But I do want to. It’s the only other mission I have of my life. The first being to see my feature-length film release on cinema screens nation-wide. Don’t ask me why. I just do. I’ve tried too hard and waited too long to not want that very, very badly.

But if someone shows interest in my novel I’m willing to put everything else on hold to finish it first.

I guess everything’s a battle in some form or another. It’s about which one we choose to fight today, and which we leave for the days to come.

Devashish Makhija Forgetting HarperCollins Publishers India, Noida, 2014. Pb. pp. 240 Rs.350

1 March 2015

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar “The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey”

Rupi Bhaskey“…We are living in a free country now. Don’t we have the right to demand what is good for us?” ( p.71)

A debut writer inevitably strives to observe and write about a landscape that they are familiar with, but otherwise is little known about in fiction already available. It also helps in getting the book discovered once published. After all it is a new story, new voice and not necessarily new treatment of an oft-repeated theme. In The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar writes about Jharkhand, the Baskeys. It is about Rupi Baskey over a period of time, her relationship with the family and villagers, but what shines through is her fortitude and the choices she makes — many that seem to go against popular opinion, yet she stands by her decision. The book details a terrain, customs, people, beliefs, superstitions, faith healers and local history that Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is very well acquainted with, since he is a working as a doctor in the region. In fact the matter-of-fact descriptions of bodily functions including birthing can only have been written by a medical professional. Stories like these are revelatory since they give a perspective of which is little known at the national level like the impact of the Kharsawan massacre of 1948 , but is of significance to the locals.

The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2014. A well-deserved spotlight for Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar but an award will have to wait.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar  The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2014. Pb. pp. 220 Rs. 295

 

Ali Akbar Natiq, “What will you give for this beauty?”

BeautyWhat will you give for this beauty? is Ali Akbar Natiq’s debut collection of short stories. It is set in the Punjab countryside with tales about ordinary people, ordinary lives, with preoccupations of marriage, love, impact of Partition, feuds, religious differences and discontent, gossip, courtesans, storytellers, liars and cheats etc. Yet how everyone overcomes odds to survive.

Ali Akbar Natiq began working as a mason, specializing in domes and minarets, to contribute to the family income while he read widely in Urdu and Arabic. Somehow the flavour of Urdu short stories seeps through this particular collection. Its description of the common people, of commonplace occurrences, an exaggerated and embellished style of storytelling with unexpected twists to the story. Through it all there is a constant recognition and respect that this is God’s world we inhabit. It is never clearly spelled out but exists. It is evident in the book title, which seems to be a play on the innumerable references in the Quran and the Old Testament where it is constantly reiterated that this world’s splendour has been created by God, its beauty exists everywhere even when God seems to provide one only with sorrow, ashes and despair. The stories have been translated mostly by Ali Madeeh Hashmi, but also by Awais Aftab and Mohammed Hanif.

What will you give for this beauty? is a fine collection.

Ali Akbar Natiq What Will You Give for this Beauty? Translated by Ali Madeeh Hashmi. Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, India, 2015. Hb. pp. 215. Rs. 399. 

Guest post: Historicizing Myths, Mythologizing History, Sami Ahmad Khan

Guest post: Historicizing Myths, Mythologizing History, Sami Ahmad Khan

Sami Ahmad Khan( On 21 February 2014, during the World Book Fair, New Delhi, Sami Ahmad Khan was in conversation with thriller writer Aroon Raman and Sangeeta Bahadur. Aroon Raman had just released his latest novel, a historical thriller – The Treasure of Kafoor and Sangeeta Bahadur had published Jaal.  Both the authors are published by PanMacmillan India. Here is an account of the event sent by Sami Khan. ) 

Historicizing Myths, Mythologizing History

We’re a nation built around myths. Or maybe we’re just a myth built around a nation. Whatever the case may be, can we ascribe historicity to myths and study such mythologies as running parallel to certain socio-historical processes spawned by the material realities of their times? More importantly, where does mythology end and where does history begin?Aroon Raman

Similar questions raged in my mind as I strode towards the Authors’ Corner at Hall 10-11 of Pragati Maidan on February 21, 2014. The Delhi World Book Fair 2014 was in full swing and I was moderating a session scheduled to begin at 2.30 pm. Wading past Siren-esque stalls (that featured books on sale) and Charybdian crowds (replete with delightfully engrossed bookworms), I odysseyed to my destination to converse with two brilliant minds and wonderful writers – Sangeeta Bahadur and Aroon Raman.

I knew Aroon Raman from before, having read him earlier with much gusto. Raman had obtained his masters degree from JNU, Delhi, an MBA from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and was now an entrepreneur based out of Bengaluru. The Shadow Throne was Aroon Raman’s debut – an electrifying thriller involving the R&AW, ISI and an India-Pakistan nuclear standoff. The Treasure of Kafur, his second published novel, was incidentally written first. A fast-paced, historical thriller set in Mughal India, the novel fictionalized the treasure of Malik Kafur being sought after by contemporary figures such as Akbar, Rana Pratap, and (quasi-historical?) characters such as Asaf Baig (of Khandesh) to wage war for the control of Hindustan.

Sangeeta BahadurOn the other hand, it was the first time I was going to meet Sangeeta Bahadur, writer of Jaal and Vikraal. I was told she had graduated from Sophia College (Mumbai), an institution I admire a lot. Bahadur is an Indian Foreign Service officer who is currently posted as the Director of the Nehru Centre, London.  If Raman writes about politics, coming-of-age, and action, Bahadur too weaves a deep, engrossing web of inner conflict – this one around mythological fiction. She utilizes Indian spirituality and metaphysics, fuses them with the world created by her own mind, and comes up with a whole new mythos. Bahadur’s Jaal is the first of a trilogy – set in a syncretic, eclectic past where a young boy must train himself to become the ultimate fighting machine to combat the forces of Maya, the novel is a more spiritual version of LOTR set in a land that resembles India. A sequel called Vikraal will be out soon.

How do we comprehend, decode, and analyze mythological and historical fiction written by people from such varied backgrounds and visions? As Bruce Lincoln defines myth as “ideology in narrative form,” one of the first questions I asked Bahadur and Raman was how mythology and history interacted in their minds and in their texts – and if they chose their respective genres to enable them to fuse their narrative styles with the content, i.e. what (and how) they wanted to say.

Their answers were complementary to each other (an aspect that continued throughout the duration of the conversation) – both made me realize something I had so criminally overlooked – writers make genres, genres do not make writers. Both regarded writing as an act of unbridled creation – unfettered by the limitations of any genre. Yes, they wrote about mythology and history, but as fiction writers, they perceived both as two sides of the same coin. Both clarified that rather than being true to the narrative conventions of any genre, culture or style, they rather wanted to be true to the reader and to themselves. The end-result, for both Bahadur and Raman, was to use any template close to them that could give the readers a fast-paced, layered and interesting narrative for the reader.

I then raised the question of spirituality – both Bahadur and Raman draw upon Indian classical traditions. While Bahadur’s primary lens to synthesize different mythologies and traditions and further the plot is primarily aastik in its outlook, advaita-vedanta in particular (which becomes explicit at times), Raman has his implicit groundings in the naastik traditions of Buddhism. Both Jaal and Kafur have a dense spiritual/philosophical subtext that not only drives the plot further but also seeks to define why characters do what they do. It is their belief in fixed ideological structures that make these characters come alive – and shapes their behavioral patterns.

For individual questions, I asked Aroon Raman why his second book was markedly different from his first, and why he chose to jump across genres despite the commercial success of his debut venture. The Shadow Throne is a contemporary military/political thriller, whereas The Treasure of Kafur is historical fiction. Apart from reiterating that genres do not matter for a creator, and that thoughts and ideas rarely come to writers filtered and censored via the sieve of pre-existing notions and genres, Raman made me realize that the end-goal was to write a book that was fun to read, and that a writer should concern himself with creating without worrying about genre pigeonholing – and that the two books weren’t that different after all. Both his books have a central character caught in hostile surroundings and his constant striving to prevent evil from triumphing – the temporal dislocation does little to blunt this action-oriented narrative.

I then asked Bahadur that while Raman may write about ISI and RAW, she, as a serving government officer, cannot. So was this mythological fiction, replete with betrayals, realpolitik, machtpolitik, coups, warring kingdoms and political federations, actually a political allegory meant for the contemporary times? In response, while Bahadur graciously acknowledged that although historicity did shape some parts of Jaal, the novel was in no way a political allegory. She was not merely utilizing an already established ideological narrative, but creating a whole new ideating philosophy, politics, sociology and world in her head.

The two also talked about how, as writers, both were aware of the social implications of the outlooks of their characters. Raman talked about spending time in Tihar as a student-activist (and a member of the JNU Students’ Union) almost 30 years ago – but then accepted that now he was a capitalist entrepreneur, though that did not render him politically unconscious or reactionary. His characters, to prove a point, are strongly feminist, anti-casteist, pro-hoi polloi, progressive, and anti-parochial – people who speak up for the masses. Bahadur also has some similar characters who seek unity in diversity (rather than differences), and raise their voices against injustices and hegemony. This forms the basis for a layered characterization by both the writers.

The session concluded with both Sangeeta Bahadur and Aroon Raman giving the audience some tips about writing fiction. They urged budding writers to break free from the shackles of form and classification – and just go write a good story that was fun to read and did not spoon feed the reader what the writer thought.

It was great talking to these two thinkers – they just proved that to write one sentence, one must think an hour at least! Lastly, all this is based on my understanding on what the writers said and meant, not to mention a failing short-term memory – it may not wholly coincide with what they actually meant, but I hope I’ve been able to be true to their ideas.

I look forward to more such opportunities.

 Sami Ahmad Khan read Literature at Hindu College, Delhi University, completed his master’s in English at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and then went to the University of Iowa, USA, on a Fulbright grant. Currently, Sami teaches at IIT-Delhi, apart from being a Doctoral Candidate at JNU, where he is working on Techno-culture Studies. He has engaged in theater, writing, and teaching. His debut thriller Red Jihad won the “Muse India Young Writer (Runner-Up) Award” at the Hyderabad Literary Festival 2013 and Ministry of Human Resource Development/NBT’s “National Debut Youth Fiction Award – Excellence in Youth Fiction Writing” at the Delhi World Book Fair 2013. He is now working on a SF sequel to Red Jihad. He can be reached at sakhan1607@gmail.com

( On Sunday, 24 August 2014, Sheila Kumar wrote a lovely review of the novel in the Hindu Literary Review –  http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/more-than-just-a-treasure-hunt/article6344815.ece . On 26 August 2014, Aroon Raman will be in conversation with Sumeet Shetty at Literati, SAP Labs Book Club, Bangalore. http://bit.ly/1pazgf4 )

26 August 2014

Timur Vermes, “Look Who’s Back”

Timur Vermes, “Look Who’s Back”

hitler_looks_whos_back_ti-472027

Timur Vermes debut novel Look Who’s Back is about Adolf  Hitler returning to Berlin, 2011. It is written in first person. Adolf Hitler is who he says he is, but others mistake him for an actor who is method acting. Through a series of twists and turns, Adolf Hitler becomes a part of a satirical television show. The ratings of the show rise tremendously and Hitler wins the Adolf Grimme Prize–the top prize for television comedy. Everyone involved with the programme is ecstatic with joy. Fraulein Kromeier is deputed to work for Hitler, as a secretary. They get along well. In fact she is proud to be working with a real star, till her grandmother ticks her off:

‘What that man does is not funny. It’s nothing to laugh about. We can’t have people like that around.’ And I’m like, ‘But Nan, it’s satire? He’s doing it so it doesn’t happen again?’ But she’s like, ‘That’s not satire. He’s just the same as Hitler always was. And people laughed then, too.’ 

Fraulein Kromeier discovers that her Nan’s family had been gassed during the war.

Hitler is offended by the criticism of his “life’s work”. He decides to defend himself by taking the “path of eternal, unadulterated truth”.

“Fraulein Kromeier,” I began. “I don’t imagine that you’ll thank me for saying this, but you are mistaken in many things. The mistake is not yours, but it is a mistake all the same. These days people like to assert that an entire Volk was duped by a handful of staunch National Socialists, unfaltering to the very end. And they’re not entirely wrong; an attempt did in fact take place. In Munich, 1924. But if failed, with bloody sacrifices. The consequence of this was that another path was taken. In 1933 the Volk was not overwhelmed by a massive propaganda campaign. A Fuhrer was elected in a manner which must be regarded as democratic, even in today’s understanding of the word. A Fuhrer was elected in a manner which must be regarded as democratic, even in today’s understanding of the word. A Fuhrer was elected who had laid bare his plans with irrefutable clarity. The Germans elected him. Yes, including Jews. And maybe even your grandmother’s parents. In 1933 the party could boast four million members, after which time we accepted no more. By 1934 the figure might otherwise have been eight million, twelve million. I do not believe that any of today’s parties enjoy anything approaching this support.”

“What are you trying to say?” 

“Wither there was a whole Volk full of bastards. Or what happened was not the act of bastards, but the will of the Volk.”

Fraulein Kromeier looked at me in disbelief. “You …can’t say that! It wasn’t the will of the people that my nan’s family should die! Come off it, it was the idea of those who were found guilty. In, what’s it called, in …Nuremberg.”

“Fraulein Kromeier, I beg you! This Nuremberg spectacle was nothing more than a deception, a way to hoodwink the Volk. If you are seeking to find those responsible you ultimately have two options. Either you follow the line of the N.S.D.A.P., and that means the man responsible is precisely the one who bears responsibility in the Fuhrer state — i.e. the Fuhrer and no one else. Or you must condemn those who elected this Fuhrer, but failed to remove him. They were very normal people who decided to elect an extraordinary man and entrust him with the destiny of their country. Would you outlaw elections, Fraulein Kromeier?” 

( p. 292-4)

Look Who’s Back is a chilling and at the same time hilarious novel. As Die Ziet says, “shockingly plausible” too. According to Wikipedia, Timur Vermes was a professional ghostwriter and Er ist wieder da is his first novel. It has been a bestseller in Germany, selling over 1.3 million copies. The film rights have been sold. Translation rights have been sold to 35 countries.

It is interesting to have a novel revolve around the Adolf Hitler in modern Germany, given that his manifesto Mein Kampf is not easily accessed in the country. To read it, you require special permission and is only available in libraries. But in 2015 the state of Bavaria will allow the publication of the book  in Germany for the first time since the Second World War. According to a report in the Independent, “The state owns the copyright for the book and had blocked all attempts to publish a new German language edition because of fears that it would encourage a resurgence of the far right. However, the copyright, which transferred to the state of Bavaria after the Nazi party’s publishing house Eher Verlag was liquidated in 1945, expires next year.

Plans to republish the book with an academic commentary early in 2016 were approved in 2012, but last December the idea was blocked following complaints from Holocaust survivors. Bavaria then declared that the book was “seditious” and should never appear in print in German.

However, the state has now revised its ruling. “We have changed our minds,” said Ludwig Spaenle, the Bavarian Minister of Culture, …. He said Bavaria would not oppose the project because it was in the interests of “freedom of science”.” ( http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/mein-kampf-legalised-bavaria-drops-veto-on-german-edition-of-adolf-hitlers-manifesto-9081339.htm . 23 Jan 2014)

With his experience as a ghostwriter, Timur Vermes, has created a story with a fine balance between fact and fiction. This is a novel that must be read, especially at a time when we are surrounded by conflicts world over.

Timur Vermes Look Who’s Back ( Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch) Maclehose Press, an imprint of Quercus, London, 2014. Pb. pp. 380 Rs 499

31 July 2014 

 

 

Eimear McBride, “A Girl is a Half-formed Thing”

Eimear McBride, “A Girl is a Half-formed Thing”

Eimee McBrideOh my God I’m heartily sorry for having offended thee and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell but most of all because they offend thee my God who are all good and deserving of all my love I firmly resolve with the help of thy grace to confess my sins to do penance and to amend my life. 

Life. Death. Amend your death. Amen. I go in. Is there any chair for me? No one. Holy sitting next to thee. And I. Excuse me. Move out of my way I’m. My brother. I get there. That one. Give me his chair. Thanks she says to him. I say nothing. Don’t dare look at me. ( p.186)

Bailey’s Women Prize for Fiction 2014 was won by Eimear McBride for A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. The story is narrated by a young girl. She has an older brother who has been diagnosed with brain cancer. They are being brought up by their devout Catholic Irish mother. Their father has abandoned the family. The narrator and her brother are very close to each other. The story is also about the narrator’s relationship with her uncle, who rapes her when she is 13. It is also about her sexuality ( not necessarily promiscuous), tenuous relationship with her mother, but also about the tussle of a teenager with her Catholic upbringing.

It is a very powerful novel. But it is not at all surprising to hear that it took nearly a decade for Eimear McBride to find a publisher. It is an experimental novel, not necessarily in the content but the form of storytelling it adopts. The sentence structure mimics the Irish lilt; the best way to read the novel is in one fell swoop, preferably reading it out aloud. Listen to Eimear McBride reading an extract from it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=siKw6xpfSZk s . It takes a while to get into the novel, but once in, it is unputdownable. It is also  disturbing to read. 

It was Eimear McBride’s good fortune that she had bookseller Henry Layte believe in her book. She showed him the manuscript at his Book Hive bookstore. Her novel had been rejected umpteen times by publishers. A decade. Then she showed it to Henry Layte, for his newly established indie press, Galley Beggar Press.  ( http://www.thebookseller.com/news/bookseller-henry-layte-discovering-mcbride.html  ) He liked the experimental novel and decided to publish it. According to The Bookseller report of 6 June 2014, “Galley Beggar Press, formed by Layte and two of his bookshop customers, Guardian books journalist Sam Jordison and his wife, writer Eloise Millar, was established to “publish titles with potential that bigger publishers have shied away from taking a risk on.” From this perspective, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing was bang-on brief.” This was in 2010. On 17 March 2014, it was announced that Faber&Faber would partner with Galley Beggar to publish the mass market paperback edition of the novel. By then the novel had won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize  and the Kerry Prize, it was shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize and Desmond Elliot Prize too. After the Irish author won the Bailey Prize, Faber announced it would be publishing 25,000 copies.

A novel worth reading, if you have the appetite for experimentation.

Here are some links worth viewing:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1YkrS7rcC4 Meet the judges: Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4XRg0Fa1XT8  Eimear McBride Wins 2014 Kerry Prizehttp://www.elleuk.com/magazine/book-club/interview-with-baileys-womens-prize-for-fiction-winner-author-eimear-mcbride-2014#image=1 5 minutes with Eimear McBride

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jun/05/eimear-mcbride-serious-readers-challenged-baileys-womens-prize Eimear McBride: ‘There are serious readers who want to be challenged’

Eimear McBride A Girl is a Half-formed Thing Faber & Faber, London, 2014. Pb. pp. 210. Rs. 450.

24 June 2014 

 

Tara Dairman “All Four Stars”

Tara Dairman “All Four Stars”

allfourstars_finalGladys Gatsby is an eleven year old who has been cooking gourmet dishes since she was five. Her parents have not a clue even when she nearly burns the kitchen down while making creme brulee using a discarded blow torch found in the garage. Instead her parents ban her from the kitchen urging her to engage in activities more appropriate for her age like playing on the tablet and surfing the internet. Soon she finds an opportunity to pay for the damages and indulge in her passion by becoming a freelance restaurant critic for a well known New York newspaper.

All Four Stars is well-written, light and funny. The excitement that Gladys has at spotting a Larousse Gastronomique at her neighbour’s or savouring samosas and gajjar ka halwa at her friend Parminder Singh’s home are palpable. ( All though Sikh women are only referred to as ‘Kaur’ not ‘Singh’ which is reserved for men.) The novel does not get weary with adults interfering or sermonising too much. They are not monsters. The other characters in the books like Mr Eng and his wonderful store of exotic food ingredients, Miss Quincy the new teacher, the friendly neighbour Sandy Anderson,  the obnoxious and spoilt rich girl Charissa Bentley with a soft corner for delicious desserts, and her two girlfriends — Rolanda Royce and Marti Astin are equally entertaining.

All Four Stars is Tara Dairman’s debut novel. It has been brewing for ten years. It is due to be released in July 2014 with the sequel scheduled for 2015. It is book that will be enjoyed by young and older readers. It will be published by G. B. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Group, USA.

 

A conversation with Prajwal Parajuly

A conversation with Prajwal Parajuly

The Gurkha's daughterI first heard about Prajwal Parajuly in winter 2012. He had the book launch of his short stories, The Gurkha’s Daughter, in December 2012. He was being discussed as a new author to watch out for. In 2013 he was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize, world’s largest literary prize for young writers. It was extraordinary that his debut as a writer was marked by a collection of short stories. To top it he had signed a two-book deal with Quercus in London, UK and then launched in India by Penguin India. ( Quercus are known as the English-language publishers of Steig Larsson.) It is understood that he has sold the rights to his books in twenty-six countries, a dream run that any debut author would be pleased to have. In 2014, Prajwal Parajuly has already launched his novel, Land where I flee, and is promoting the book extensively in South Asia, USA and UK. Every time Prajwal and I meet, we have intense discussions about writing and publishing, but this conversation was conducted via email. 

prajwal-parajuly-land-where-i-flee1.  How do you visualise your stories? Do you create back stories or does an idea grip you? 

I don’t visualise my stories. I really don’t. I have tried doing it in the past, but the characters do crazy things and the plot sprouts wings of its own. I sit down to write and things happen. Wow, I am so pretentious. Ha.

2.  During one of our conversations about writers and writing, you mentioned that you write of the “very ordinary”, which may be true, but the detailing is minute. Do you take extensive notes while meeting and observing people or does storytelling come naturally to you?

No, I don’t. I am not one of those writers who think about writing every second. I am so far removed from writing most of the time that it never occurs to me to take notes. Observing people and their idiosyncrasies comes naturally to me – I don’t even ‘feel’ myself doing it – as I am sure it does to a lot of writers.

3.  In the recent article in New Statesmen “What use is Gross Domestic Happiness to Bhutan’s 106,000 global refugees?” ( http://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/2014/02/what-use-gross-domestic-happiness-bhutans-106000-global-refugees) you are not referred to as a successful author but someone who writes about “about Nepali-speaking people – the Nepalis of India, Nepal and Bhutan”. Isn’t this identity exactly what defines your writing?

Well, for now, yes. I am two books old, and both my books have been about the Nepali-speaking world. Perhaps my third book will be different? I don’t know.

4.  When and why did a copywriter, based in NYC, opt to write best-selling fiction? 

I wasn’t a copywriter. I was an advertising account executive. I am impulsive by nature. The job was fun in the beginning, but do it for three years, and you want to do more exciting things. Also, the idea of returning home was appealing at that time. It helped that I was gradually forgetting how to read and write in Nepali – that reads dramatic, but it once took me 45 minutes to read what I’d have normally done in 15. Writing just happened. I had traveled a bit and didn’t know what to do with my life. Telling the world I was working on a book meant I was semi-okay and not frittering my life away.

5.  What do you think is lacking in contemporary writing in, about and from the northeast and Nepal that makes your fiction and voice stand out so distinctly?

I don’t think there’s anything lacking. English writing from the northeast and Nepal continues to grow. Perhaps one reason I stood out was – and this has nothing to do with how good or bad a writer I am – because I garnered a lot of  (undeserved) press even before the books came out. That’s how it is in India – we still look at the West for approval. Had mine not been a multi-country book deal, chances are I’d have received very little press. So, yes, I stood out even before my books came out – I doubt my voice and fiction had anything to do with it.

6.  Your short stories and novel are linked yet can be read independent of each other. Was that a conscious decision or did it just happen? Also which came first in creation – The Gurkha’s Daughter or Land where I flee?

Yes, there are very, very minor links – so insignificant that the novel can survive without the references to the characters in the short-story collection. I call it my attempt to nudge-nudge-wink-wink at a very serious reader. I thought it would be fun. The Gurkha’s Daughter was written before Land Where I Flee.

7.   You have done a master’s in creative writing course from Oxford. Do you think it helps an author to enroll in at least one course while writing? Are these of any help?

It depends on your personality and the nature of the course. I joined my course because there was nothing to do. My course helped me become a better poet, a mediocre screenwriter (I knew nothing about screenwriting when I started the course) – which made me a better writer of fiction. And I didn’t have to go to class every day – definitely my favorite thing about the course.

8.   What next? Will it be more fiction about Nepali-speaking people or will you explore fiction? 

So many plans. Phew. I am tired of writing about the Nepali-speaking world, but I am tempted to write a sequel to the stories in The Gurkha’s Daughter. Or a Land Where I Flee prequel. Or a children’s book. Or an American-campus-based novel. I will be on tour almost all of this year. After I get done with the promotion of Land Where I Flee in India, the UK, South Africa and Ireland, I need to go to America, where The Gurkha’s Daughter comes out in June.

9.   Is it fair to ask if there are any autobiographical elements in these two books? Is Ruthwa loosely based upon your experiences as an author?

Ruthwa isn’t who I am, but some of his experiences are what I experienced as an author. When I was writing Land Where I Flee – which I did once the book deal happened and triggered a media frenzy – I’d often lie awake wondering what would happen if the same media declared I wasn’t worth the hype. That’s how Ruthwa’s character came about. I wouldn’t be very comfortable writing about my family the way Ruthwa does, though. I don’t understand the entire ‘your-first-book-is-almost-always-about-your-life-and-family’ claptrap. I lead too dull a life for it to translate into a good book.

10. Your fascination by strong women characters, is that a conscious choice made in writing? 

Female characters, especially strong women, are fun to write. I am tired of reading about the veiled, subservient Indian grandma.

11.  Your novel is one of the recent publications that seems to work like a novel and not with chapters in it that can work as “long reads” online. While drafting Land where I flee who was your ideal reader? The online or print reader?

I still don’t visualise an online reader. This is the first time someone has asked me this question. Interesting. Have writers begun thinking about whether they will be read online or print? Should I be mindful of it? Perhaps not.

4 March 2014 

Prajwal Parajuly’s “The Gurkha’s Daughter” on the 2013 Dylan Thomas shortlist

Prajwal Parajuly’s “The Gurkha’s Daughter” on the 2013 Dylan Thomas shortlist

Prajwal Parajuly, Gurkha's daughter Breaking news! 

Prajwal Parajuly is on the shortlist for the 2013 Dylan Thomas Prize for literature. The Gurkha’s Daughter is his debut collection of short stories. At £30,000 it is one of the richest prizes for young writers. The competition is open to any published author in the English language under the age of 30, and this year’s shortlist is made up entirely of debut works. Chair of the judging panel, Peter Florence, said: “We had such a strong short list this year that we had to include a seventh title, as they are all contenders. ( More at: http://www.walesonline.co.uk/whats-on/shortlist-revealed-2013-dylan-thomas-6149225 )

Prajwal Parajuly is the only Asian to be on this shortlist. Next month in November, Quercus ( UK) and Penguin Books ( India) will be publishing his novel – Land where I flee.

 

7 Oct 2013 

 

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