English Posts

Literati: “Catch them young”

Literati: “Catch them young”

From this month  I begin a new column in the Hindu Literary Review called “Literati”. It will be about the world of books, publishing and writers from around the world. Here is the url to the first column. http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/catch-them-young/article5969576.ece It was published online on 3 May 2014 and will be in the print edition on 4 May 2014. I am c&p the text below. 

Ghost BrideA friend called this morning expressing her delight that her 11-year-old son had finished the pile of books I had lent him. Now he was back to reading Calvin and Hobbes. A father worried about his tennis- and cricket-mad 10-year-old son says the kid only wants to buy sports almanacs.

The parents’ bewilderment is incomprehensible given the explosion of children and young adult literature. The focus is so intense that it has generated a lively intense debate along gendered lines. Should books meant for girls have pink covers? Dame Jacqueline Wilson says it is ‘pigeonholing’ and it is putting boys off reading. Of late, there have been articles wondering whether boys are not reading because they are simply unable to discover books that appeal to them.

An international imprint I have become quite fond of is Hot Keys, established by Sarah Odedin, formerly J.K. Rowling’s editor. Hot Keys is synonymous with variety, fresh and sensitively told stories and is not afraid of experimenting nor can it be accused of gender biases in content and design. Sally Gardner’s award-winning Maggot Moon, Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride and Tom Easton’s hilariousBoys Don’t Knit belong to this list.

Other recently released YA titles available in India are Andaleeb Wajid’s No Time for Goodbyes, which uses the time travel formula to contrast contemporary life with that of the previous generation; Ranjit Lal’s blog Tall Stories, a collection of 100 stories about 10-year-old Sudha and 12 1/2-year-old Lalit, being uploaded weekly; and Joy Bhattacharjya’s delightful Junior Premier League ( co-authored with his son, Vivek) about a bunch of 12-year-olds eager to join the Delhi team of the first ever Junior Premier League tournament.

Some imprints that publish books for children and young adults in India are Puffin, Red Turtle, Duckbill, Pratham, Walker Books, Macmillan and Hachette.

Creating cultural wealth for children ensures there is little or no loss of cultural confidence, and creates a reading community in the long term. Pratham Books in partnership with Ignus ERG with funding support from Bernard van Leer Foundation is launching a new imprint called Adhikani. These books for young children will be published in four tribal languages of Odisha-Munda, Saura, Kui and Juang.

The idea is to make literature in print available in an otherwise oral culture whose stories are not normally visible in “mainstream” publications. They have already brought out 10 books and four song cards with Saura mural art based illustrations. Bi-lingual editions are also being considered in English with Marathi, Kannada, Telugu, Urdu and Tamil.

The Pratham-IGNUS ERG experiment is not uncommon. The Good Books Guide: How to Select a Good Book for Children (published by NBT and PAG-E) cites other examples and introduces 800 titles from English, in translation and available in other Indian languages.

Today there are so many choices/distractions and readers are increasingly used to personalising their environment to their tastes and interests. Increasingly it is being done in classrooms, so why not in trade literature as well?

Readers versus writers?

Eighty per cent of readers ‘discover’ a book through word of mouth and 20 per cent through social media. The Malayalam edition of Benyamin’s award-winning novel Aadujeevitham (Goat Days) has gone into the 75th edition (it was first published in 2008) and Anurag Mathur’s Inscrutable Americans has gone into the 50th edition (first published in 1991).

Internationally, India is a dream destination for publishers. The overall market in physical books was up 11 per cent by volume and 23 per cent by value in 2013 over 2012 (Nielsen, London Book Fair, 2014). Production of books is increasing, but is there a corresponding increase in readers too?

Rahul Saini — whose Paperback Dreams is a tongue-in-cheek fictional account of publishing in India — discovered to his dismay that an author friend wanted the synopsis told. Apparently he did not have the time to go through the whole book.Rahul Saini

Saini says, “Everyone wants to write but no one wants to read. I think this is a dangerous phenomenon. If we don’t want to read then is it really fair to write and expect others to read our books?” Writing takes time and effort and for it to be recognised it has to be of high calibre.

Translation award

The inaugural V. Abdulla Award for translation from Malayalam into English will be given on May 10, 2014 in Kozhikode by writer M.T. Vasudevan Nair. V. Abdulla was the first translator of Basheer.

@JBhattacharji

jayabhattacharjirose@gmail.com

3 May 2014 

 

Cancer and literature for children and young adults

Cancer and literature for children and young adults

Seeing a child, even a teenager, ill has to be one of the most unpleasant experiences of life. Somehow the big C or cancer gets The Yellow World by Albert Espinosawritten about more than other diseases. In 2012, The Yellow World by Albert Espinosa was published and became an NYT bestseller. It charts the experiences of the young boy developing cancer and then battling the disease through much of his “young adult” life. It has been translated from Spanish into English. The first half of the book is far more readable as it documents his getting cancer, the treatment, the jokes shared with other patients, the friends who pass away etc. But this is a memoir. Quite unlike John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, another NYT bestseller and soon to be made in a Hollywood film. This is fiction but based on meticulous research done by Green. ( An example of his knowledge is evident in this YouTube where Green discusses the costs of American healthcare: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qSjGouBmo0M )  Fault in our starsThe Fault in Our Stars is a story about teenagers affected by cancer. To put it simplistically it is told through the friendships Hazel makes with Augustus Waters and Isaac and the other kids at Cancer Kid Support Group. The matter-of-fact manner in which the young cancer patients manage themselves and help each other is an eye opener. John Green also manages to get the nervousness, concern, worry of the adults very well too. The tone adopted by the writer is not surprising given that he spent a long time with Esther Earl, to whom the book is dedicated to as well. Esther Earl developed cancer at a very young age. Along with the support of her family and friends like John Green. As John Green says in the introduction to Esther’s book/memoir/diary This Star Won’t Go Out that she was EstherEarlterminally ill with cancer but she made the treatment for it seem “very standard and casual”. For instance one day they were  typing to each other when John Green realised Esther Earl was actually in the ICU with tubes coming out of her chest to drain fluid that had accumulated in her lungs. 

And then there is Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls. A powerful novel with three short stories A Monster Callsembedded in it about a young boy who is worried about his very sick mother and is unable to utter the truth to anyone. This is a novel about loss, fear and courage. It is a story told with sensitivity, compassion and powerful storytelling. Ness wrote the novel based on an original idea by the late Siobhan Dowd ( who died of cancer), he and illustrator Jim Kay won Britain’s prestigious Carnegie Medal and Greenaway Medal in 2012, presented to the year’s best children’s literature in the UK.  (Unfortunately the edition I read did not have a single illustration in it.) Recently it was announced that Ness is adapting the screenplay from his novel. The film is slated for released in 2016 and will be directed by Juan Antonio Bayona.

Every one of these books has been selling exceptionally well. The two books of fiction by John Green and Patrick Ness are being converted into films as well. Every time one reads books like these the power of literature to share, describe, comment, analyse or just present a situation is confirmed. It is as if the words on the page speak to the reader quietly, taking them into confidence and exploring a world that is otherwise frightening.

27 March 2014 

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 

Wild Girls, Wicked Words

Wild Girls, Wicked Words

Wild GirlsAt the recently concluded World Book Fair, New Delhi, Kannan Sundaram of Kalachuvadu publications gave me a copy of Wild Girls, Wicked Words.  An anthology of four women poets who write in Tamil –Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani. The poems have been translated from Tamil into English by well-known translator, Lakshmi Holmström. This book is a joint publication of Sangam House and Kalachuvadu Publications. It can be ordered online from Flipkart: http://www.flipkart.com/search?q=wild+girls+wicked+words&as=off&as-show=off&otracker=start . 

I enjoyed reading the poems. Powerful poetry. The themes range from love, war to oppression. With the women poets included in this anthology they write about the feelings commonly shared by women. Poetry is a form of expression that helps them to articulate their feelings and experiences. I can only read the poems in English but the Tamil versions have also been made available. 

Given below is an extract from the exquisite introduction to the book. In it Lakshmi Holmström gives a nuanced and sensitive context to the poets featured, and places them within the traditions of Tamil literature and poetry. It is being reproduced with permission of Lakshmi Holmström, Sangam House and Kalachuvadu Publications.

Wild Girls, Wicked Words

Introduction

Lakshmi Holmström

In 2003, at a time when politicians and other establishment figures of Tamil Nadu were caught up in a surge of Tamil chauvinism, a group of men and women, setting themselves up as guardians of Tamil culture, objected publicly to the language of a new generation of women poets, particularly in the work of Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani. They charged the women with obscenity and immodesty.Malathi Mythri

These women poets came into prominence at the same time; their first collections of poetry were published between the years 2000 –2002, when they were in their late twenties and early thirties. Though each of these poets is unique in what she has to say in her poetry, there are some themes which are common to all of them, notably the politics of sexuality, and a woman’s relationship to her body. For the moral police, such language was not permissible for Tamil women. So the poets were condemned and vilified. The debate gained focus with the publication of Kutti Revathi’s Mulaigal (Breasts, 2002). The poets received abusive letters from individuals as well as literary organizations. The media had a field-day. A popular song writer for films gave a much publicised interview to a literary journal condemning women writers in general. This was followed by another film-song writer, Snehithan, who appeared on television declaring that these women should be lined up on Mount Road in Chennai, doused with kerosene oil and burnt alive.

kutty revathiIt might have been easy for these self-appointed moral guardians to assume that the young women poets were all ‘powerless’ and, therefore, particularly vulnerable: none of them comes from a privileged background. Salma comes from a conservative Muslim family based in a small town near Madurai; Sukirtharani is a school teacher in Lalapet, and a Dalit. On the contrary, despite considerable persecution and even death threats, the women refused to be intimidated, insisting on their freedom to write as they chose. Malathi Maithri sought legal advice, and made a complaint to the Women’s Commission against Snehithan.

The Tamil literary world was divided in its response. Kalachuvadu, a literary-cum-political journal which has always engaged with political and literary issues, called a meeting in Chennai on 21 November 2004 to debate the issues that had been raised by the violent response both towards the poetry written by these four women poets, and towards the women personally. The meeting was chaired by Indira Parthasarathy, and attended by well-known writers such as Prapanjan, Ambai and Ravikumar, and older women poets Krishangini and Thaamarai. Rajasekaran reports in Kalachuvadu that the discussions were mostly to do with the larger issues of freedom of expression: Ravikumar spoke at length about the need to struggle against all oppressions, Prapanjan about patriarchy’s various and subtle workings, and Krishangini about why men find it so difficult to accept it when women write in specific and personal terms about their sexuality. However, Rajasekaran also pointed out that none of the critics and writers present analysed in any detail the specific poems which were at the root of the controversy.Sukirtharani 1

Meanwhile, by 2005, the national press more generally was taking up the issue of moral censorship of Tamil women by all the political parties of Tamil Nadu. About this time too, two film-makers, Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar, made a documentary on our four poets, entitled SheWrite. The film was important in that it brought to the notice of the nation at large the courageous stand the four women had taken; it also served to bring out many insights about their personal lives and backgrounds. However, in the film, the poetry was shown mostly as the focus of a controversy, and not examined in any detail for its own worth and value.

It is now ten years since the publication of Mulaigal. During this decade, each of our poets has published more than one further collection, continuing to write and publish as courageously as before. Each of them has won national and international acclaim. However, the grumbling against the language and thrust of their poetry goes on, while the wider issue of what Tamil women are allowed to wear, say, and where they choose to socialize continues to be raised from time to time and debated by the politicians, and in the press.

salmaWhen we look back at the history of Tamil poetry, the marginal status of women in the literary canon and their relatively meagre output is evident since classical times. It is true that, in modern times, Tamil women have been writing and publishing in various genres, but as far as poetry is concerned, we have seen a gradual change only since about 1970. Women such as R. Meenakshi and Sugantha Subramaniam were being published throughout the 1970s and 80s, yet it was only in the late 80s that their poems appeared in significant numbers, both in anthologies and single volumes. Then, suddenly, in the 1990s, the contribution of women to Tamil poetry became notable. This was a poetry that had to be noticed, not because it was written by women, but because it was different from what appeared in the mainstream.

As V. Geetha points out in her Introduction to an anthology of poetry by women from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, Paratthal Athan Sudandiram (Flight is its Freedom, 2001), not all the contributors to the book are feminists, nor even necessarily sympathetic to feminism, yet they bring completely new themes into Tamil poetry: an engagement with the minutiae of everyday life, new perceptions of familial lives, the truth about a sudden end to childhood, about bleak marriages, the joys and sorrows of childbirth and motherhood. And some women, at least, were writing with boldness about their inner lives in very different terms, using an awareness of their bodies and their sexuality. Drawing attention to an overall tendency in the anthology towards inwardness and the inner world, V. Geetha calls upon the Tamil women poets of her time to engage more with the outer world and its politics; to consider social and cultural oppressions and inequalities more widely. She suggests that the difference between the Sri Lankan women and those from Tamil Nadu lies in the political engagement of the former; that as far as the Sri Lankans are concerned, even when they write about ‘myself’, ‘my love’, ‘my sorrow’, there is an underlying political discourse that pushes the individual story into a wider context.

That was in 2001, and it was important to say it at the time. Since then, we have seen another generation of women poets whose poetry does indeed engage with a wider political discourse and a more nuanced feminism. Yet, in the case of Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani, ever since the events so publicised by the media in 2003, their poetry has been grouped together and discussed only in terms of their engagement with questions of sexuality. It is also clear that a deep divide persists in the way readers and critics perceive women poets as a whole, today. The editor of a well-known literary journal observed to me that for these past years, Tamil women poets have been categorized into ‘Bad Girls’ who write ‘body poetry’ and ‘Good Girls’ who refrain from doing so.

This anthology, then, celebrates four women poets, Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi, and Sukirtharani, and showcases, through English translation, a small sample in each case, of their work over a decade. My attempt has been to bring out the beauty, originality, and above all the individuality of each of these poets. It is perhaps useful to remember that the traditional values prescribed for the ‘Good’ Tamil woman were accham, madam and naanam (fearfulness, propriety, modesty or shame). Our poets have chosen instead, the opposite virtues of fearlessness, outspokenness, and a ceaseless questioning of prescribed rules. It is surely significant that at different times and variously, they have claimed as their foremothers, role models and equals, Avvai, Velliviidhi and Sappho; Anna Akhmatova, Sylvia Plath and Kamala Das. And Eve, above all, who defied divine authority to pluck the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Bad Girls indeed, all of them.

***

There are many common themes and tropes among the poems presented here: light ‘prowls like a cat’, the tiger stalks within the bedroom and along the imagined mountain landscape. But there are also profound differences, which the reader will note. Each poet has struggled to find a language of her own to express her particular vision. ‘Language must be redeemed from the grave of its own inadequacy’, Malathi Maithri wrote in 2001, in her Editor’s Note to Paratthal Athan Sudandiram, putting forward, later on, the possibility of a pey (demon) language. Sukirtharani seeks an ‘infant language’, with all the rough and physical reality of new birth, still sticky with blood. Kutti Revathi invents a blazing language of love. Salma reaches out, even to the ‘rust of silence’.

Above all, in this anthology, I have wanted to celebrate the courage of each of these poets in breaking out of and defying easy categories. As Sukirtharani puts it in her magnificent poem, ‘Nature’s fountainhead’ (Iyarkaiyin peruutru):

I myself will become
earth
fire
sky
wind
water.
The more you confine me, the more I will spill over,
Nature’s fountainhead.

***

Wild Girls, Wicked Words Poems of Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani. Edited and translated by Lakshmi Holmström. Kalachuvadu Publications and Sangam House, Nagercoil, India, Dec 2012. Pb. pp. 240. Rs. 295

26 Feb 2014

“The Scatter Here is Too Great” Bilal Tanweer

“The Scatter Here is Too Great” Bilal Tanweer

THe scatter here is too greatMy father was particularly fond of stories from the long epic fantasy, Tilism Hoshruba. In these stories about evil sorcerers and good tricksters, when a sorcerer was killed, his head would split open and a bird sprung out announcing the sorcerer’s name and the murderer’s name one by one. ‘In this city, a part of us dies each day, and a bird springs out of our open skulls each day announcing our death and the addresses of our murderers,’ he said to me once while were taking a walk on the beach, ‘but nobody listens. The air is thick with the chorus of these birds of death. Listen.’ 

My father imagined the world and each object as part of continuous stories. In his stories the universe answered his questions, the past was visible and the future illuminated. Things had reasons and they all connected. 

But unlike my father, when I looked back into the past, all I saw was pitch black darkness and heard unnamed voices trying to override each other in their attempts to reach me–and I felt indifferent to all of them. That’s when I concluded that my father’s way of imagining the universe was naive, simplistic, and wrong, just plain wrong. He was wrong about the world. The world and its stories did not continue or cohere. We were all just broken parts and so were our stories. True stories are fragments. Anything longer is a lie, a fabrication. 

Bilal TanweerBilal Tanweer’s debut novel, The Scatter Here is Too Great, is set in Karachi, Pakistan. It is a string of perspectives about a bomb blast at a station in the heart of the city. A situation not unfamiliar to this seaside town. It is the telling that is so special. The English used is so sophisticated and yet, remarkably, it seems to captures the cadences of Urdu, the language  that is spoken locally. While reading the novel you can hear it, without it disrupting or distracting the reader from the story. The details in the story, the gentle but powerful manner in which the characters are created, slowly and steadily, they leave a lasting impression. Notably the description of the breakdown nineteen-year-old Akbar is moving. He is the younger brother of the narrator, three days away from his wedding but was the ambulance driver at the scene of the bomb blast and was horrified by what he saw. The story comes together despite the chaos — in the city and in the lives that are turned topsy-turvy. It is as if the author is writing about the events in Karachi as an insider with an outsider’s perspective. He is an insider since he writes sensitively, with empathy, a bit of emotion and an understanding but has the detachment to write it as an outsider. No wonder it took him eight years to write this slim novel.

A novel worth reading.

Bilal Tanweer The Scatter Here is Too Great Random House India, Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 204 Rs. 350

 

Landays

Landays

pix by Seamus Murphy, Landays, Poetry Foundation, 2013In my dream, I was the president. 

When I awoke, I was the world’s beggar. 

In Afghan culture, poetry is revered, particularly the high literary forms that derive from Persian or Arabic. But the poem above is a folk couplet – a landay – an oral and often anonymous scrap of song created by and for mostly illiterate people: the more than twenty million Pashtun women who span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Traditionally, landays are sung aloud, often to the beat of a hand drum, which, along with other kinds of music, was banned by the Taliban from 1996 to 2001, and in some places, still is.

A landay is a kind of poetry that has few formal properties. Each has twenty-two syllables: nine in the first line, thirteen in the second. The poem ends with the sound “ma” or “na”. Sometimes they rhyme, but more often not. In Pashto, they lilt internally from word to word in a kind of two-line lullaby that belies the sharpness of their content, which is distinctive not only for its beauty, bawdiness, and wit, but also for the piercing ability to articulate a common truth about war, separation, homeland, grief, or love. Within these five main tropes, the couplets express a collective fury, a lament, an earthy joke, a love of home, a longing for the end of separation, a call to arms, all of which frustrate any facile image of a Pashtun woman as nothing but a mute ghost beneath a blue burqa.

Landays began among nomads and farmers. They were shared around a fire, sung after a day in the fields or at a wedding. More than three decades of war has diluted culture and displaced millons of people who can’t return safely to their villages. Conflict has also contributed to globalization. Now people share landays virtually via the internet, Facebook, text messages, and the radio. It’s not only the subject matter that makes them risque. Landays are mostly sung, ….women singers are viewed as prostitutes. Women get around this by singing in secret — in front of only close family …Usually in a village or a family one woman is more skilled at singing landays than others, yet men have no idea who she is. … . (p.195-6)

One leading theory of landays’ origin traces back to the Bronze Age arrival of Indo-Aryan caravans to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India around 1700 BCE. These poems could have evolved out of a communication through call and response back and forth over a long caravan train. Many of the poems refer back to this nomadic way of life, as well as to the moon, flowers, nature. As ancient songs, they are thought to be related to the Vedas, the Hindu scriptures at least five thousand years old and comprised of couplets called slokas, not unlike landays, except that they are sixteen rather than twenty-two syllables long. (p.221)

The call and response nature of landays has morphed into teasing and sparring love poems between men and women; a kind of stichomythia that rivals that of ancient Greece. Although it’s possible that a woman might sing one part and a man another, they’re not really antiphonal. …

These opening paragraphs are extracts from the special issue of Poetry ( http://www.poetryfoundation.org/media/landays.html) put together by Eliza Griswold with the help of Ilya Kaminsky and the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute, Catherine Halley and poetryfoundation.org, Jonathan Galassi and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and the Pulitzer Centre. It is a slim volume that consists of many examples of landays, but is a wonderful account of Eliza Griswold’s attempts at gathering the landays, interacting with a women’s literary group on the radio in Afghanistan called Mirman Baheer and a generous amount of pictures taken by Seamus Murphy. As she notes in the introduction ” finding, collecting, recording, and translating these little poems word by word posed an extraordinary challenge. Gathering them led Seamus and me through the pages of out-of-print collections, and in secret into refugee camps, private homes, a horse farm, and several weddings. Since landays belong to the hidden world of Afghan women, many won’t share them in front of one another out of fear that they’d later be gossiped about. Some requested that their names be changed or that I not record how I came by the landays that they whispered to me. One husband hurried up to me after I’d had tea  with his wife and asked the subject of the landay that she’d given me. ‘Separation’, I told him. The poem was about sex.” (p.198-9)

Her description of the translation process is also fascinating. This is what she has to say on p.200-1

“Translating these poems was an intricate process. I collected most of them in person with two native Pashto speakers, both of whom were, of necessity, young women. Over gallons of green tea …we transcribed the poems in Pashto, which has the same characters and sounds as Arabic, so I could sound out words although I had no clue of their meaning. On the fly, we’d rough out an English version in the car or during lunch to gauge whether the landay merited the time it would take to render properly in English. Then, along with a translator, I translated the selected poems word by word into English. Working from that frequently nonsensical literal translation, I sat with a handful of native Pashto speakers — academics, writers, journalists, and ordinary women — and went over each poem to make certain the translations made sense. My versions rhyme more often than the originals do, because the English folk tradition of rhyme proved more effective way of carrying the lilt of the Pashto cover into English. The most useful note on translation came from Mustafa Salik, one of Afghanistan’s leading novelists: “Don’t worry so much about being faithful to the Pashto. Get them right in English so that people can enjoy them.”

If you can, buy this slim volume of Poetry. It is well worth every penny spent. A treasure. A document that will exist for a long time. I have to thank Dipika Mukherjee for having sent this edition to me from Chicago. I am so glad she did!

1 Oct 2013 

Poetry ( vol CCII, No 3, June 2013) Poetryfoundation.org

$3.75 USA $5.00 CAN £3.00

Guest post: Rohini Chowdhury, translator of “Bosky’s Panchatantra”

Guest post: Rohini Chowdhury, translator of “Bosky’s Panchatantra”

( I invited Rohini Chowdhury to talk about her experience in translating Bosky’s Panchatantra for Red Turtle. She translated Gulzar’s verse rendition of Panchatantra.

She is a widely published children’s writer, and an established literary translator. As a children’s writer, she has more than twenty books and several short stories to her credit. Her published writing is in Hindi and English, and covers a wide spectrum of literary genres including translations, novels, short fiction, comics, and non-fiction.

Rohini’s primary languages as a literary translator are pre-modern (Braj Bhasha and Avadhi) and modern (Khari Boli) Hindi, and English. She has translated the seventeenth century Braj Bhasha text Ardhakathanak, into modern Hindi and into English; both translations were published by Penguin India. Ardhakathanak is the autobiography of the poet, merchant and philosopher, Banarasidas; written in 1641, it is widely regarded as the first autobiography in an Indian language. Her translations include the Hindi novel Tyagpatra [The Resignation] by Jainendra, one of the leading Hindi novelists of the modern period, into English, also published by Penguin India.

Rohini was born and educated in India, and was a management professional before moving to London in 1997. She is widely travelled and brings in the nuances of the cultures of Asia, Africa and the West in her writings.

Bosky's Panchatantra by Gulzar, Rupa Publications, Rohini Chowdhury (transl)Gulzar Bosky’s Panchatantra Translated by Rohini Chowdhury, illustrated by Rajiv Eipe. Rupa Publications (2013)  Pb. Rs. 195

 When I was first asked to translate Gulzar’s verse renditions of stories from the Panchatantra, I was both excited and curious. Excited because I would be translating Gulzar, and curious because these were familiar tales, that I had grown up listening to; also, I had earlier translated several of these stories from the original Sanskrit Panchatantram. Moreover, these stories had been told and retold a hundred times before, in varying forms and formats, by writers and translators of all colours, and I wondered what new twist or angle Gulzar could possibly have given them. The excitement and curiosity were soon replaced by apprehension: Would I be able to do justice to the tales, or would my own familiarity with them stand in the way of my translation? And then, it was Gulzar that I was translating, and translating the work of a living poet of his stature brought its own demands— the quality of my translation had to match the greatness of his reputation, and please the poet as well!  As if these doubts were not enough, the tales were meant for children, and children, as anyone who has had anything to do with them will tell you, are far more demanding and discerning than adults. So there I was, faced with a trio of unprecedented challenges— an overly familiar subject, the text written by a famous and much-revered poet, and meant for children!

But I need not have worried, not about the ‘overly familiar’ at least! As I worked through the tales, I was drawn into their magic once more, and this time the magic came with the added sparkle of Gulzar’s wit and lively humour. Gulzar’s gentle imagination had fleshed out the original tales with dialogue and descriptions, and added events and happenings the way one does when telling a well-loved story to a child several times. The humour and the detail made these stories uniquely Gulzar’s, familiar yes, but new as well!

Gulzar Sahib approved my translation of the first story, and I breathed a sigh of relief. So the second worry was gone too! I could now focus on what, in any case, is any translator’s primary concern— to transmit the original in as accurate and as interesting a manner as possible to her audience, which, in my case, would be made up mainly of children.

Gulzar’s Panchatantra stories are in Hindustani, that inimitable mix of Hindi and Urdu that is so rarely heard these days, the tales related as he would have related them to his daughter, Bosky, when she was little. My main challenge now became to transmit the tones and nuances of his sparkling, softly flowing, idiomatic Hindustani into the much staider, crisper English.

Each language brings with it its own context, social, historical, cultural, so that when we move from one language into another, we also move worlds.  Translation therefore becomes a negotiation between languages and cultures, and the translator, as mediator, must address the issues that arise in such a negotiation: How accurately must the translation follow the original? Which words may be kept, which must be discarded? How best may an idea that is intrinsic to the original culture but alien to the other be transmitted? Can it be transmitted at all? I, too, asked these questions as I sat down to translate Gulzar’s stories.

Gulzar’s use of idiom makes the stories easy to read, but difficult to translate without taking some liberties with the original. Take, for example, the Hindi phrase, ‘jhoot ke pair nahin hote’ which translates literally into  ‘falsehood has no feet’.  In Hindi the phrase makes perfect sense, in English, not so much, not without further explanation of some sort. We finally settled upon ‘A lie never goes very far/For it has no feet at all’.

Certain cultural and social norms which are easily conveyed in Hindi, are almost impossible to convey in English, and compromises are inevitable. Consider the Hindu practice whereby a woman may not address her husband by name. This is conveyed perfectly in Hindi but in English translation, the cultural context is by and large lost. Take the tale of Manram Swaroop, the Brahmin. Though he had a wonderful name, no one ever used it: the entire village called him ‘Panditji’, and his wife, of course, would never address him by name:

His wife would call him

‘Hey, sir!’

‘Ho, sir!’

‘Do you hear me?’

That’s how she would address him…

Though technically correct and adequate for the purpose of telling the story, the translation does not and cannot in itself capture the social and cultural implications that are implicit in this tradition, unless it be accompanied by further explanation, either in the main text itself or in footnotes. But any such explanation would have made the text heavier, and given that my translation was not a scholarly exercise but aimed at young readers, I decided to skip the explanation.

Puns and double meanings are ever the translator’s bane and Gulzar’s gentle and clever play on words throughout the text presented another challenge in translation. Unfortunately, in some instances, this was inevitably lost in translation, though sometimes English actually enhanced the humour of the original. In the tale of the singing donkey, for example, English gave me the facility of playing with two words ‘donkey’ and ‘ass’ to convey the two meanings (the animal, and a fool) of the single Hindi word ‘gadha’.

Gulzar’s stories are in free verse, and therefore, to stay as close to the spirit of the original as possible, I wanted my translation to be in free verse as well.  Translating into verse constrains the translator even further for verse demands economy in the use of words, so that the translator must use words not only effectively, but both efficiently as well. I found myself writing and rewriting, cutting and pruning and editing, till the lines fell into place just so. An arduous exercise, but worth the effort.

Of course, as I worked, every decision I made— the words I used, the phrases I chose to explain or leave to the readers’ understanding, the ideas I chose to convey or glossed over briefly – was influenced by the fact that this work was meant for children.

One might ask, and I asked myself this: why should a translation aimed at children require more care from the translator than a translation aimed at adults? The answer, I realized, lay in the responsibility I feel when writing for children. Children are demanding readers, they absorb and observe, criticize and comment with a great deal more engagement and involvement than do most adults. They are also our future, and therefore, whether it is an original novel or story, or a translated work, children deserve the best that I can give.

London, 11 Sept 2013

(C) Rohini Chowdhury

Email: rohini.chowdhury@gmail.com

 

Guest Post: Aditi Maheshwari, publisher, and Tomoko Kikuchi, translator discuss “Neerav Sandhya Ka Shahar: Sakura Ka Desh”

Guest Post: Aditi Maheshwari, publisher, and Tomoko Kikuchi, translator discuss “Neerav Sandhya Ka Shahar: Sakura Ka Desh”

neerav sandhya ka shahar cover

Last month I heard about an interesting translation project — Neerav Sandhya Ka Shahar: Sakura Ka Desh. It was a Hindi translation (2013) of a Japanese publication (2004)– Yunagi No Machi Sakura no Kuni. It had won the Grand Prize for manga at the 2004 Japan Media Arts Festival and, is probably the only manga comic that deliberates upon continued suffering of the second and third generation victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings in the year 1945. It has been published by Vani Prakashan in India. Aditi Maheshwari, Publisher, Vani Prakashan and the translator, Tomoko Kikuchi, have shared their thoughts about this process. Aditi will be participating in the Book Souk, Jumpstart. ( http://www.jumpstartfest.com/home ) Logo

 

 

 

Aditi Maheshwari, Publisher, Vani Prakashan 

Three challenges entail a literary translation project undertaken by any publisher. The first and the most basic is staying true to the core and the essence of the original text under translation. The second is doing justice to the cultural idioms and paradigms as expressed in the original, while maintaining its relevance in the new audience. Third and most importantly, ensuring that the original text does not turn out to be anachronous for the new audience, who most likely do not share a similar history. The third challenge naturally applies to historical works from another culture, language or era or those dealing with long lasting impacts/influences of historical events.

Having worked extensively on translations in various world languages (including but not limited to English, Swedish, Norwegian, Polish, German, French and Japanese) and with world renowned literary stalwarts (such as Zwigniew Herbert, Wislawa Szymbroska, Tadeusz Rozewicz, Tomas Tranströmer, Herta Müller, Salman Rushdie, Tasleema Nasreen et al) in the past, one would assume Yunagi No Machi Sakura no Kuni would have been a fairly standard affair.

However, just like every translated work which is a product of extensive research, meticulous referencing and sheer volumes of literary acumen,Yunagi No Machi Sakura no Kuni proved no different. In fact, it unveiled a fourth and new challenge, hitherto not faced by us. This had to do with the art form that Manga comics are and the added visual dimension which they brought to the table. All of a sudden, ‘being true to the original’ developed a new meaning. With visuals being the ready reckoner window to the heart and souls of characters in the comic, the treatment of cultural idioms, anachronism had to be more accurate with very little scope for exercising literary liberties. Page

Yunagi No Machi Sakura no Kuni is a ‘slice of life’ account of the far reaching social, psychological and physical setbacks for the Japanese youth caused by the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 68 years ago. The culmination of journey from Yunagi No Machi Sakura no Kuni to Neerav Sandhya Ka Shahar: Sakura Ka Desh required meeting the aforementioned challenges. It was imperative to have a translator on board who had a deep understanding of the Japanese culture and also had exposure to the Indian cultural paradigms and Hindi language itself. The translator of the book, Tomoko Kikuchi, a young Japanese woman who studied Hindi at JNU and completed her Ph. D. in Hindi literature at Kendriya Hindi Sansthan, Agra was the steering force behind the project.

Even with the right translator on board who could translate sans use of a bridge language like English, we often found ourselves standing on the crossroads with the cultural idioms of Japan and India during the project. For example, the female protagonist in the first part of comics refers to her same-aged male friend with a Japanese pronoun that translates to ‘aap’ and not rather casual ‘tum’ in Hindi. Despite the awkwardness of the formality that the use of ‘aap’ would bring in, the translator chose it over ‘tum’ because according to her, it reflected the real dynamics of such friendships among young people in Japan fifty years ago. As the story continues in the second part, ‘Sakura ka Desh’, the new gen-Y Japanese girls are not shown referring to their male friends with an ‘aap’, exerting their equality by using their names or ‘tum’.

We discussed this and many similar issues at length with linguistic experts like Dr Rekha Sethi (Assistant Professor, Hindi, Delhi University). We finally concluded that although we were well intentioned in remaining honest to the original text and avoiding superimposition of indigenous reflections over it, the possibility of linguistic improvisation at few places, could not be overlooked. Translating a Manga comics in Hindi was a daunting yet fulfilling task for our editorial department. Publishing prose or poetry is always much easier than comics. We treat comics as an art form that involves synchronizing the editorial team towards exploring deeper layers of narration, conducting intensive research on the subject matter and above all, paying attention to what translator has to say. Neerav Sandhya Ka Shahar: Sakura Ka Desh is the result of this process.

Authored by Fumiyo Kono, Neerav Sandhya Ka Shahar: Sakura Ka Desh (2013) is originally published as Yunagi No Machi Sakura no Kuni (2004).

(C) Aditi Maheshwari 

Tomoko Kikuchi, Translator 

Tomoko Kikuchi, skv No2, GBSSS Gblock, GBSSS DDAFlat, 22 Aug 2013दो साल पहले मैंने सुप्रसिद्ध जापानी सचित्र पुस्तक “हिरोशिमा का दर्द”(NBT) का हिन्दी अनुवाद किया, जो छोटे बच्चों को परमाणु बम की त्रासदी को बताने के लिए सर्वोत्तम पुस्तक है । उसके बाद मैं सोचने लगी कि उसी संदेश को भारत के युवा पाठकों तक कैसे पहुंचाया जाए । अक्सर युवा पीढ़ी युद्ध या विश्वशान्ति के विषय से विमुख रहती है । उन दिनों मुझे संयोग से जापानी कॉमिक “नीरव संध्या का शहर, साकुरा का देश” का परिचय हुआ । 2004 में जापान में प्रकाशित उस कोमिक ने मुझे सहसा आकर्षित किया और मुझे लगा कि कॉमिक्स का रूप भारतीय जवानों को भी जरूर आकर्षित करेगा ।
अनुवाद की पुस्तक को प्रकाशित करने के लिए पहली शर्त है कि यहाँ के प्रकाशक को ढूंदना, जो बहुत मुश्किल काम है । इस पुस्तक के लिए मैंने कई प्रकाशकों के साथ बात की, आखिरकार वाणी प्रकाशन से मुलाक़ात हुई । माहेश्वरी जी ने मुझे सहसा यह जवाब दिया, “जापानी कोमिक्स का हिन्दी अनुवाद एक नई कोशिश है, बहुत दिलचस्पी है ।” यह सुनकर खुशी से ज्यादा मुझे हैरानी हुई, क्योंकि तब तक मैंने एक भी प्रकाशक से ऐसे सकारात्मक और स्नेही बात नहीं सुनी थी । इस प्रकार माहेश्वरी जी की कृपा से पहली शर्त पूरी हो गई । बाद में जापान फाउंडेशन की सहयोग योजना के तहत प्रकाशन के लिए कुछ आर्थिक सहायता भी मिल सकी ।
अनुवाद करते समय दो भाषाओं से संबंधित संस्कृति और इतिहास का पूरा ध्यान रखना होता है । पाठकों को अपरिचित संस्कृति से परिचित कराने के लिए अनुवादक को दोनों को जोड़ने वाले पुल की भूमिका निभानी होती है । सीमित जगह में पूरी सूचना डालना बहुत मुश्किल है । इतना ही नहीं, कोमिक्स में एक विशेष प्रकार का प्रयोग भी है, जिसमें आवाज और भावना को लिपिबद्ध किया जाता है।
मसलन, जब कुत्ता आवाज़ देता है तो हिन्दी में भौ भौ कहा जाता है, पर जापानी में वन वन । ऐसी आवाज भी है, जिसका जापानी भाषा में शब्द उपलब्ध है और हिन्दी में नहीं । जब कोई हैरान हो जाता है, तो जापानी में उस मनोभावना को “गान” उच्चारण से अभिव्यक्त कर चित्रों के साथ अंकित किया जाता है , परंतु हिन्दी में इस प्रकार का कोई प्रयोग नहीं है । जापानी कोमिक्स के अनुवाद में इस प्रकार की बहुत सारी समस्याओं का एक एक हल निकालना पड़ा, आपको भी पुस्तक देखने पर जिसका अंदाज होगा ।
अनुवाद में एक संकट यह भी था कि एक तरफ कोमिक्स का संवाद एकदम बोलचाल का होता है, परंतु दूसरी ओर मेरी भाषा एकदम पीएच. डी. की है । इस स्थिति में समन्वय लाने के लिए डॉ रेखा सेठी जी ने मेरी बहुत मद्द की । कभी उनके घर में, कभी आई. पी. कॉलेज में लंबे समय तक बैठकर हमने एक एक संवाद का सही रूप ढूंढ़ निकाला । उसी दौरान अनजाने में हमारे बीच भारतीय और जापानी संस्कृति का काफी आदानप्रदान हुआ होगा ।
(C) Tomoko Kikuchi 
28 Aug 2013 
Guest post: Paro Anand, storytelling in multiple tongues to children

Guest post: Paro Anand, storytelling in multiple tongues to children

 

In Nov 2003, Paro Anand and I were invited by the French Government to attend the salon de livre jeunesse. It was a wonderful trip. While there Paro was invited to tell stories in a French bookstore. I was fortunate to attend the session with Paro. It is nearly a decade ago and I have some wonderful pictures from that particular evening, including one of a child sitting under a table listening to Paro with his mouth open. Subsequently Paro has narrated stories on various platforms, to multi-lingual audiences. In the post below she shares some of these experiences.

Logo I decided to ask Paro Anand to write this note after realising that Jumpstart 2013 would focus on “Speaking in Tongues”.( http://www.jumpstartfest.com/home) It is a platform meant to discuss children’s literature across languages and address the idea of bibliodiversity. What better way to do it than hear from a practitioner of the trade, who has done exactly this…told stories in multiple languages to various audiences around the world. Unfortunately Paro Anand will not be attending Jumpstart this year.

 

Paro Anand telling stories in English, Hindi and Punjabi to a French-speaking audience in a Parisian Bookstore, Nov 2003.

Paro Anand telling stories in English, Hindi and Punjabi to a French-speaking audience in a Parisian Bookstore, Nov 2003.

Storytelling is all about language, about words – right? I thought so too. And if someone told me that it was possible to tell stories to an audience who did not understand a word of what you were saying, well, that would be absurd. I thought so too.

Except that I have been put into this situation on several occasions – four times, in fact. The first time was early in my storytelling career where I was faced with an audience of Telugu-speaking children to whom i was a ‘firangi’. I flung my body into service and mimed and acted out every word. They got it. Well, most of it.

The next time was in a bookstore in Paris. I had a few animal stories prepared, but the young, French-speaking audience was totally unfamiliar with English. So i told the story in Hindi – and Punjabi. I peppered it with a handful of French words and the kids were singing Punjabi songs by the end of the session! Armed with that success, I repeated the experiment in Geneva, Switzerland, this time along with an Indian storyteller who also spoke German and French. I performed in Hindi and Punjabi and she answered my questions in German and French. It’s not as if the kids only understood half the session. They had a grip on the story as a whole and many said they’d enjoyed hearing a story in another language. I asked which part they liked best and they said the lion’s part. Not the French part, just the lion’s part!

But the crowning glory in multi-language crown was doing a session with a Zulu South African performance teller called Gcina. We met for the first time on stage with the audience already assembled. I had no idea which stories she was going to tell, I did not know her work and she did not know mine. But the kids were Hindi speaking so she needed a ‘go-between’. We were both game, though and that’s all that mattered. She launched into her story using English with a bit of Swahili where it would be apparent what the words were and I mirrored her action for action, word for word. It was magical, for me most of all. By the end, the audience was shouting out the Zulu words and Gcina was answering in Hindi!

Which only goes to show that it’s the heart and soul of a story that we absorb, the words are only a vehicle. I have personally enjoyed hitching a ride on an unknown vehicle and discovering where that journey will land me.

27 Aug 2013

(C) Paro Anand

Prof. Alok Rai, writer and translator

Prof. Alok Rai, writer and translator

Alok Rai 2Prof. Alok Rai, Ex Faculty, Department of English, University of Delhi.

Born and bred in Allahabad, Prof. Alok  Rai grew up in an affluent Hindi – Urdu environment which explains his strong linguistic background. He holds a graduate degree in modern English literature and became a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. At, the University College of London, he had written a Ph.D. dissertation on George Orwell and later he has also published books on the said author while also writing on the formation of modern Hindi. As a translator his translation of Nirmala was published by Oxford University Press many years ago. He has been involved with the business of writing, with language in society. His interests include, Modern English Literature; cultural processes in modern North India, with particular reference to issues of language and literature.

He is also the grandson of the legendary Hindi writer Premchand. Years ago when I was guest-editing the special issue of Children’s and Young Adult literature of The Book Review I asked him for a review of series of biographies that had been published in Hindi by Children’s Book Trust. ( Chirsmaraniya Mahaan Vyaktitva Vol 1-9, Illustrator: Sahana Pal Children’s Book Trust, 2001) I no longer have the bibliographical details with me but I discovered that the review had been posted online. ( http://www.orchidapps.com/goodbooks/node/5968#.Uhs0T5Jgdsl ) . I am reproducing the review as is. 

We hate poetry, Keats wrote, that has a design on us. This set of short “inspirational” biographies, published by the Children’s Book Trust – with an average of 5 or 6 worthies per each one of nine volumes – goes well beyond design. This is, as the criminal lawyers say, “intent”- as in “loitering – and the intent is deadly serious. Because of course the underlying purpose of the series, indeed of such series, is nothing less than the abduction of the young, seizing their minds well before they have reached the age of consent. Even more crucially, of dissent.

There is a tendency in our gerontocratic civilization to treat matters pertaining to children as being not very important. There is no reason, here, to run through the familiar complaints about the priorities that enable aging gentlemen to acquire toy phalluses at enormous state expense even as they can’t find the funds to provide schools, or meals, or medicines for millions of children. And yes, of course, I know that there is a distinction to be made between the said aging gentlemen and the good men and women who have collaborated in this CBT project of providing these inspirational biographies – and of course I’m joking when I accuse them of “criminal” intent. But there is a serious argument here: what we do to our children, whether with the connivance of the NCERT or without it, is crucially important. And while this CBT series might seem a somewhat modest vehicle to bear the burden of a serious argument, at least there is no danger here of offending Their Lordships, and so understating the seriousness of the issues on which They have pronounced breezy obiter dicta.

But let us get over the grosser matters first. No one can assemble a list that is universally acceptable, and while one may quibble about why X or Y is or isn’t one of the persons chosen for such hagiographic, inspirational treatment, the actual CBT list is, for better and worse, catholic and random. There are sundry 19th century figures – Gokhale, Dadabhai Naoroji, Sir Syed – and lots of the other kind. Muslims? – aforementioned, and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Kidwai, Azad –and I wouldn’t expect Jinnah here anyway! (No Nehru or Gandhi, either, by the way.)  Women? – Vijayalakshmi Pandit (!), Annie Besant, Kamla Nehru, Ba. Writers – Bankim, Bharati, Iqbal – and scientists – Meghnad Saha, Bhabha, Visweshwarayya. Lots of politicians, of course: whatever would we do without them? More importantly, whatever shall we do with them?  I might have said that the inclusion of Savarkar and Shyamaprasad Mukherji in this august company is surprising – but it isn’t, is it?

It is also not my case that there is no room for inspirational stories in the necessary socialization of the young. Indeed, I would argue that it is the neglect of this essential dimension of education in our schools that is both a cause and a symptom of the coarsening of our society, the rampant desensitization that emboldens a Modi or a Singhal or a Togadia to gloat over the grief of the victims of Gujarat in the hope of reaping an electoral advantage. Persons – and so, a collective, a civilization of persons – is distinguished by the texture of their moral anxieties, by their unique sense of moral occasion, and by the narratives in which the implications of their defining moralities are laid bare. Nothing very complicated, this is Arjuna at Kurukshetra, being lectured to by his charioteer – endlessly kitschified, this still fulfils an essential sustaining function. Just as the moral conflicts that are regurgitated by Bombay melodrama do. We are the kind of people who notice, so to speak, moral conflicts. And that indeed is exactly where my problem with this inspirational gallery assembled by the CBT lies. Quick clarification: whether or not our society is rapidly descending into anomie, into a moral vacuum, is not at issue. The question is, how is this situation to be addressed? Are the self-proclaimed and much-touted doctors really equipped with a cure – essentialized religion, 100% proof ! – or are they themselves only symptoms of the malady, and more likely than not, will only exacerbate the situation by their crude ministrations? My answers to these question are, respectively and respectfully, no, yes, and yes.

Elizabeth Taylor, the well-known philosopher, once said, “The problem with people who have no vices is that generally you can be pretty sure they’re going to have some pretty annoying virtues.”  Well, there aren’t many vices on offer here – but there is a serious danger of OD-ing on virtue!  OK, cut to the chase – obviously, every “life” is a selection – children discover very early on that you can’t even tell a single day in its entirety. So, my problem is not with the fact that the biographies here assembled are selective – but rather with the understanding that motivates the selection. The way I understand it, inspirational narrative works through the common narrative experience of identification: above a certain minimal level of complexity, the reader/listener is enabled to identify with a number of characters or, modishly, subject positions, with good and bad, with high and low, so that one can experience moral difficulty, because it is only out of moral difficulty that one develops a sense of moral complexity. Children’s fables about always  being good and always telling the truth and always always respecting your elders are treated by children with the contempt they deserve.  The trouble with these monsters of goodness is that no one can identify with them – one may be forced to admire them, or one admires them, but one cannot identify with them: they inhabit a mythic realm far above the muddled worlds in which we must live. So, what’s wrong with that? They are models of goodness, towards which we aspire, right?

Wrong! In fact, such “heroic” biography has been the staple of fascist pedagogy: larger than life characters who never never do anything wrong, except to draw some significant moral lesson from it, so that their narrated lives are a relentless accumulation of virtue – virtual money in a virtuous bank, so to speak. However, this dread moral lesson works rather paradoxically, because its highly coloured universe succeeds only in communicating not the possibility of virtue for us mere mortals, but its impossibility. The humanist alternative to such fascist “heroic” biography is biography that enables us to identify with the common humanity – common to reader and narratee, to mahaan vyaktitva and child reader – by showing the great man also as being vulnerable to human frailties etc. The possibility of virtue. We are enabled, ideally, to redeem the ordinary life we live by aspiring to live it differently. “Heroic” biography – the mode that I have designated as fascist, both by association and tendency – on the other hand, encourages one to turn to such biographies as necessary and necessarily mythical for a life that is rendered unredeemed and unredeemable. That is the sense in which such simple-minded, direct reaching after unalloyed virtue, through the instrumentality of selective biographies is not just naïve and pointless, it is positively harmful:  even worse than the TV that our poor children would rather watch. And who can blame them?

26 Aug 2013

(C) Prof. Alok Rai

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Prof. Alok Rai will battle it out along with three other renowned experts at the forthcoming JumpStart festival

( http://www.jumpstartfest.com/home ) during the session entitled ” The Great Language Debate”. It promises to be provocative – even revolutionary – ideas about the future of our languages and cultures. Are we building a healthy and sustainable ‘bibliodiversity’ for the next generation? Or are we creating a whole generation of linguistic exiles, neither ‘at home’ in their mother tongue nor in English? Can we move towards a common language without ‘flattening’ culture?