fantasy Posts

“Malamander” by Thomas Taylor

Malamander by author and illustrator, Thomas Taylor is a fantastical book about two (approx.) 12yo — Violet Parma and Herbert Lemon. The unlikeliest team who set off to find the truth about the mysterious disappearance of Violet’s parents from the Grand Nautilus Hotel. An event that occurred 12 years ago when Violet was found abandoned in a cot in the hotel room. Herbert Lemon is the Lost-and-Founder at the hotel. He is in charge of collecting abandoned articles and returning them to their rightful owner except that at times decades, even a century, passes by and no one comes forth to claim the lost articles. Then Violet (literally) tumbles into Herbie’s life through an open window in his cramped space. She believes that Herbie is the only person in the world who can help her —- “Because I’m lost…And I’d like to be found.” Brilliant opening line for a fabulous plot for middle grade fiction. And off the two of them go on an adventure plotted marvelously well in Eerie on Sea that seems forever to be encased in thick sea mist or snowfall. It involves wheelchair bound owner of the hotel, Lady Kraken and her cameraluna which operates well on a full moon night to give her a bird’s-eye view of the town in 3D; the charmingly eccentric beachcomber Mrs Fossil, the local celebrity, an author, Sebastian Eels who freaks everyone with his creepy presence, a mysterious character who has a boat hook for a hand and a few more equally fascinating characters. Local life is enriched by local legends that some may believe and some may not. One particular story is about the mythical amphibious creature, Malamander, who lives in the sea but when it emerges on land can walk upright like man. It’s egg is known to possess magical powers of being able to grant any wish.

“Malamander” is the first of a trilogy by Thomas Taylor, who is perhaps better known for his book cover illustrations of the UK edition Harry Potter novels by a then relatively unknown author called J K Rowling. This particular novel of his has a wonderful book trailer and the good folks at Walker Books have been kind enough to create a standalone website recreating the map and landscape of Eerie on Sea . Unsurprisingly, the film rights to this book have already been sold to Sony whilst the author is still working on his second novel in the series.

I cannot praise this book enough for its crisp storytelling, wonderful use of visual imagery without it becoming too overpowering and the fabulous descriptions that are sufficiently sketched to tickle the imagination without being too stifling for the reader. It conjures up a magical space that is seemingly in present day but could for all practical purposes of storytelling be set in any time dimension. It is vague enough in its location details to be not too hyper-local.

Read Malamander and you shall not be disappointed. ( with @Walker Books)

29 October 2019

Book Post 47: 14 – 21 Oct 2019

Book Post 47 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.

22 Oct 2019

The Booker 2019 shortlist

The Booker Prize is to be announced on Monday, 14 October 2019. This time it consists of very well established writers and previous Booker winners like Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie. The other writers shortlisted include Elif Shafak, Chigozie Obioma, Lucy Ellmann and Bernardine Evaristo. Every single title shortlisted is unique and that is exactly the purpose of a shortlist — to highlight the variety of writing, experimentation in literary forms and the author’s ability to tell a fresh new story.

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie is a modern enactment of Cervantes Don Quixote and involves a salesman of Indian origin, Ismail, who travels across America on a quest — in search of his beloved, a TV show host. It is at one level a bizarre retelling of the popular story with big dollops of magic realism also thrown in. But most importantly it is the commentary offered on the global rise of despots, notion of dual identities, migrations, what it means to be a refugee in modern times, status of women, patriarchal ways of functionining, sexual harassment etc. It is like a broad sweep of events set in three nations — USA, UK and India. At the same time it is a commentary that is very relevant to the socio-political turmoil evident globally. These are also the three countries that Rushdie has lived in and migrated to. So Quichotte in many ways is a triumphant storytelling but it is also a sharp commentary on contemporary events that are taking a horrific turn. In many ways this is a sad reminder for someone like Rushdie, a Midnight’s Child, born soon after India gained independence from the British in 1947 and wrote about it in his Booker winner and Booker of Bookers The Midnight’s Children. He has witnessed modern history for more than seven decades and to see history more or less come full circle with the rise of fascism and blatant acts of genocide, construction of concentration camps in the name of detention centres for migrants is a more than unpleasant. It requires a storyteller of his stature who has himself lived under the very real threat of death while the fatwa issued against him for writing The Satanic Verses existed, to write confidently and offer his commentary on modern times. If the garb of magic realism, a quest and relying upon many literary references that at times allow Rushdie to offer his thoughts while making Quichotte seem disjointed, well, ce’st le vie — it is a reflection of our reality and needs to be articulated. Read this extract from the novel. Also listen to this fascinating podcast on the Intelligence Squared website where Salman Rushdie spoke to BBC journalist Razia Iqbal in front of a live audience in London on 29 August 2019.

Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds is a reference to the time the brain waves continue to be sent after a person has been declared clinically dead. This is the duration during which the novel’s protagonist, a prostitute called Tequila Leila, who has been killed and whose body has been placed in a sil, reflects upon her life and her friendships. It is a stunning book for its immediate preoccupation with refugees as epitomised by the small circle of friends of the narrator. It is also a story that touches upon gender issues, patriarchy, censorship, rise of fascist despots, freedom of expression, marginalised groups, sexual freedom etc. While it is a novel that raises many issues, it is unlike Quichotte, restricted to Turkey and its immediate vicinity. In an interview to the Indian Express, Shafak said, “The novel is one of our last democratic spaces“.

Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport is described as a one-sentence, 1000-page novel, which seems daunting to read, but it is the interior monologue of a woman. A narrator who merges her thoughts as most women do while contending with their daily mental load of managing responsibilities and offering commentaries upon the world around them. She flits between her immediate preoccupations with general reflections upon global politics, especially Trump. While reading the novel there are moments that one punches a fist in the air to say, “Yes! Ellmann got this right about women and their reflections.” Then there are other moments where one wishes that like James Joyce’s Ulysses manuscript written in colour-coded crayons, Lucy Ellmann too had figured a way of colour coding her novel by making the perceptive observations of a woman being highlighted for at times the meanderings into political landscapes and beyond can be a tad tedious. Lucy Ellmann’s writing style in this novel has often been compared to James Joyce by critics for whom the author had a fantastic reply in an interview she gave to The Washington Post:

Thrilled. But again, to me the connection seems remote. Many reviews have mentioned that my father was a Joyce scholar. Actually, my sister’s one too. But . . . I’m not! My father [ Richard Ellmann] did talk a lot about Joyce when I was growing up, when my mother didn’t put her foot down. But mostly, I tuned it out. I regret that now — especially when people come to me with their Joyce questions! Still, I think it’s weird for reviewers to bring up what my father did for a living. How often is the parentage of male novelists in their 60s mentioned?

James Joyce’s colour coded manuscript of Ulysses

Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is a “novel” about 12 black women characters, most of them British. As an example of literary experimentation in terms of form, using blank verse as prose, to tell loosely interconnected, intergenerational, stories is fascinating. There is a rhythm that is mesmerising and lends sections of this novel to performance poetry. These are voices that suddenly make apparent the distinctions that exist amongst individuals in that “broad” spectrum of “black British women”. There are many instances in the book that make the women across generations offer their opinions about living in a patriarchal society, the position of women and the challenges it offers on a regular basis. Many of these questions are often raised and discussed even by feminists and many other ordinary women who do not necessarily wish to be labelled as feminists. The fact remains these are issues linking women across the world. Yet while the author’s heart is in the right place of creating this landscape, too much energy seems to have been invested in crafting the form rather than ensuring that the women’s conversations are at par with the magnificent form. At times, their observations sound too thin or as the Guardian review puts it aptly, “naive”. This mismatch in quality of craftsmanship and getting the tenor right of the women character’s preoccupations was not to be expected in such a talented writer. Evaristo is widely tipped to be one of the favourite of bookies and critics, like John Self in The Irish Times, in tomorrow’s announcement of the Booker Prize.

The only other writer on this year’s shortlist, apart from Rushdie, to have won the Booker Prize is Margaret Atwood with The Testaments. It is a sequel to her iconic book The Handmaid’s Tale which went through an immense revival achieving almost cult-like status in the wake of the #MeToo movement. It led to a TV adaptation where Atwood had a cameo role too. The red and white dress rapidly became a symbol of resistance in many a young woman’s mind. Atwood wrote The Testaments while the buzz around The Handmaid’s Tale was rife. It is undoubtedly a smoooooooooooth read and is justifiably so the “dazzling follow-up” to The Handmaid’s Tale as affirmed by Anne Enright in her review in The Guardian. Nothing less is to be expected from Margaret Atwood, the High Priestess of modern sisterhood, as she so marvellously creates this story even with its painful moments. It is a story that can be read as a standalone or in quick succession after The Handmaid’s Tale but the skill of Atwood’s storytelling comes to the fore in this novel. It is also probably easier to read, stronger in the punches it delivers and richer for its details, given that it is very much a product of modern times where many debates regarding women, their rights and freedoms within a patriarchal social structure are being questioned. The audience is now receptive to such tales. Hence it is no surprise that bookies are tipping this to be the favourite to win tomorrow’s Booker Prize.

Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities is a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey in the form of Igbo storytelling. It is a kind of storytelling associated mostly with male storytellers. It merges many well known traditions of storytelling and is mostly anecdotal, relying a lot on folklore elements. It is a form that was used by Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart too. Obioma has been referred to in a New York Times article as the “heir to Chinua Achebe”. Nonso, a chicken farmer, is the protagonist in An Orchestra of Minorities who travels out of Nigeria and gets involved in many adventures including becoming the victim of a scam. It can get a little convoluted as presumably this Igbo art form is mostly meant for oral performances and not meant to be read as the printed word, a form that exerts its own set of rules and demands upon the reader — most noticeably being that of making limited allowances for digressions and purple prose. This constant tussle between the two forms of storytelling — Igbo and the English literary tradition of the novel— makes for a challenging read with only flashes of brilliance. Perhaps Obioma who has been most fortunate in having both his novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize will win this prestigious literary accolade with his third novel and not succumb to being “three times bridesmaid never bride”.

Literary shortlists serve many purposes. Most noticeably of showcasing the variety of literature available in that particular year of the prize announcement. These shortlists are increasingly becoming relevant to the socio-political events that seem to influence writing and reading patterns too. Within this context, the 2019 Booker shortlist is a formidable gathering of experienced writers. Everyone, even the most seasoned of writers, likes a win and the value of this prize is £50,000. Irrespective of how the bookies are placing the writers for tomorrow’s win, it will in all likelihood be a close call between Rushdie and Shafak. If Evaristo wins, it will only be because of the jury taking into consideration hyper-local factors of being a black woman writer in UK particularly during the Brexit phase. It would be perfect if Rushdie wins this prize once more, making it a hat trick for him at the Booker. He deserves to win for his literary fiction such as The Midnight’s Children and now Quichotte have not only documented critical moments in modern history but these novels are timely and relevant for the wisdom they impart. The characters in Quichotte are migrants like Rushdie and many others, “the broken people …are the best mirrors of our times, shining shards that reflect the truth“. Quichotte offers much more than just looking at a narrow canvas of one topic or one region but broadens the horizons to highlight many of the issues gripping the world are not bound to a nation state but are spread like a rash globally. What is even more horrific is that Rushdie has in his lifetime of three score years and ten witnessed crimes against humanity that one thought were rid off but seem to have returned with despicable vengeance. Quichotte is a triumph of literary craftsmanship as Rushdie is writing about these moments in history that he has witnessed while maintaining a firm grip on imbibing and merging many forms of literary traditions and storytelling to formulate a new one. There are far too innumerable to list in this round up. Suffice to say that if any novel in the shortlist deserves to win, it is Quichotte.

13 October 2019

Interview with Ashok Kumar Banker

Ashok Kumar Banker began writing stories at the age of nine. He is the author of over seventy books, including the internationally acclaimed Ramayana Series and the recent Burnt Empire Series which is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in USA and in the sub-continent by Simon and Schuster India. Ashok Banker’s works have all been bestsellers in India, and have been published around the world. He lives in Los Angeles and Mumbai. He has returned to the genre with which he first made his publishing debut – children’s fiction – with his first chapter book series released by Scholastic India. It is called the Secret School Mysteries. The first story called The Invisible Spy was released in July 2019. The second story in the series arc is called Aliens Ate My Homework! It is slated for release in early 2020.

  1. The Invisible Spy is a far cry from your mythological stories that you are better known for. So why venture into children’s publishing? Also why did you choose to tell a school story and not retellings of mythology? 

It’s actually the other way around. I started my career as a children’s book author and only ventured into mythology much later. As the headnote above says, I began writing at the age of 9. Now, that may seem like childish scribbles, but that’s when I became serious about writing as a vocation. I started my first novel at that age. It would be considered a children’s book today and was several times the length of The Invisible Spy. I never completed it because it was too ambitious and I had bitten off more than I could chew. It was titled Childworld and was about a plane full of children that crash on an island and learn that all the adults in the world have mysteriously died of an unknown virus, and only the children are left alive. I was reading my way through the classics at the time and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was a powerful influence. Today, looking back across the distance of five decades I would describe it as Lord of the Flies meets Lost meets The Stand.

I never finished Childworld but I continued writing stories (and poems and essays and novels) at feverish speed, filling dozens of ledger books with small cramped handwriting. (Ledger books were the biggest blank notebooks I could find, and I wrote small to make maximum use of the space.) I was recently contacted by an old neighbour from that time, Bianca, who now lives in Canada, and she told me that she remembered me sitting at the dining table in my grandmother’s house filling page after page, completely intent on the task. That was when I was ten. Almost five decades later, I’m still writing.

I wrote at least one book-length work every single year from the age of nine, several books – and stories, poems, songs, essays, scripts – and the vast majority of them were what would be classified as children’s books. I didn’t work up the confidence to actually start sending them out to publishers till I was 15, at which point, I would carry the manuscript of my science fiction YA trilogy (The Man Machine, The Ultimatum, The Last of the Robots) to publisher’s offices in Mumbai, in the hope of getting someone to read my work.

I was a published poet by that time – I published a lot of poetry in my teen years, in journals ranging from Jayanta Mahapatra’s Chandrabhaga in Bhubhaneswarto Menke Katz’s Bitterroot in New York, was interviewed on AIR and other outlets. When I was around 19, Doordarshan Mumbai even did a half hour interview-based feature showcasing my work as one of the youngest emerging poets in the country. I was published at the age of 14 and was a regular contributor to the children’s section of almost every newspaper and magazine that would take my work, from Illustrated Weekly to Evening News, The Afternoon, Free Press Journal, JS, and I don’t even remember all the other names now. I also self-published my first book of poems Ashes in the Dust of Time and it was selected to represent Young India at the World Book Fair in Paris, France, that year. There’s probably copies of it in the National Archive, Asiatic Society, and elsewhere. I had some wonderfully encouraging rejection letters from TLS, The Atlantic Review, and New Yorker. (I also never stopped writing poetry, by the way, and am planning to start sending out some of my more recent works to literary journals here in the US soon.)

Anyway, coming back to my children’s books. I found the addresses of Indian publishers and wrote to them. The first and only one to reply was Zamir Ansari of Penguin Books India. It was basically just a distribution office back then and I think he was the only employee. He was kind enough to meet me on a trip to Mumbai and was the first, and one of the kindest, people I ever met in Indian publishing. You can imagine a teenager in school uniform (I would take off my school tie and my Headboy badges in the hope that I would look older than my age, which I did – I looked mature enough to be allowed into The Exorcist when I was 13), sitting in the coffee shop of The Oberoi with this elderly gentleman, discussing publishing. I had done my homework, spending hours in the USIS and British Council Library, reading every book on publishing, every copy of Bookseller and he must have been impressed by me. He didn’t read my manuscript but he gave me some insights into Indian publishing.

Anyway, I persevered, still writing at least one children’s book and one novel every year, and eventually in my 20s, I finally got accepted by a small imprint called Better Yourself Books. It was the children’s imprint of the Daughters of St. Paul, also known as the Pauline Sisters, and my editor was a wonderful nun named Sister Nivedita. She offered me a small advance and they published what was my first fiction book, Amazing Adventure at Chotta Sheher. It sold over 10,000 copies, which in the 1990s was a huge number, and went in for reprints. I received royalties from it which was more than I ever expected.

I also adapted it to a feature film and it won a prize for the Best Children’s Film Script from the CFSI (Children’s Film Society of India). I was invited to a meeting with the jury, headed by chairperson Shabana Azmi, and I earned even more money for the adaptation rights. (I was already working in advertising as a copywriter, quite successfully, and writing scripts for some of the earliest TV shows such as Saanp Seedi and docudramas, winning a number of awards in both advertising and scriptwriting and making a decent living.) The film never did get made but it was such a zany, fun book that I wish I had a copy to see if it holds up even today.

(One of my quirks is that I never keep copies of my own books, I give them all away. I always believe that I can write much better and keeping my work around seems like an exercise in vanity. I also give away the books I buy to read, since I believe books should be passed on, not hoarded.)

By that time, Penguin had started local publishing headed by David Davidar, and he published another children’s book by me under the Puffin India imprint. It was titled The Missing Parents Mystery and while it was just as much fun as my earlier book, they simply couldn’t sell any of their titles in the market. I began my career as a children’s book author, and the mythological books, while great fun to write, comprise only about a small part of my total output as a writer. So, in a sense, I never really stopped writing children’s books.

Then I met my editor at Pan Macmillan India, Sushmita Chatterjee. Later Sushmita joined Scholastic who then commissioned a chapter book series — the Secret School Mysteries. The first three titles are The Invisible Spy, Aliens Ate My Homework, and The Haunted Centre.

Now, for some unknown reason, the dam seems to have broken.

I have picture books coming out from Lantana Publishing (I Am Brown, illustrated by the amazing Sandhya Prabhat) coming in March 2020, Tiny Tiger to be illustrated by Sandhya’s sister Chhaya Prabhat coming in late 2020, a baby book series called Superzeroes illustrated by Abhijeet Kini coming in late 2020/early 2021, graphic novel adaptations of my Ramayana Series from Campfire Graphic Novels starting with Prince of Ayodhya coming in September 2019, a graphic novel YA series on Shiva starting with The Legend of Rudra coming in October 2019, a YA graphic novel on the Gita in early 2020, an adventure series featuring an SC/ST protagonist called Bhumia Adventures from Tulika, a YA version of the Ramayana from Speaking Tiger, an original middle grade fantasy adventure series starting with Pax Gandhi, Sorceror Supreme, also from Speaking Tiger, and much much more. And those are only my children’s books, of course.

And I’m only getting started. As you can see, I have a lot of lost years to make up for! Besides, I LOVE writing and few books give me as much pleasure as a zany, fun children’s story. So expect many more. 🙂

2. What is your writing routine? How many words can you get done in a day? 

Oh, I don’t write every day. In fact, I don’t write most days. I never have a word target. You see, I have a problem of too much focus. I’m the kind of person who could write in a war zone. (I speak from experience, having written an entire book while reporting from Kargil in 1999 for Sunday Mid-Day and Rediff.com.) I have to be careful not to let myself get sucked into writing otherwise you would find me someday, with a miles long beard, filling my 100th Terabyte sized hard disk! I spend most of my reading, day dreaming, exercising, with my family. My wife and I take care of our grand-daughter Leia most days of the week, and she loves to read too. I take a very long time to live with a book and story before setting fingers to keypad, so when I do sit to write, it comes out fully formed. When you read a book or story by me, you are reading the result of several decades of gestation and several hours of actual writing. I’ll talk more about this when answering your other questions below.

3. You are a phenomenally well-read and an eclectic reader. So do you have a reading routine? What format do you prefer reading — print or digital (eBooks/audio)? In fact, any tips on what makes an individual a reader? 

It’s kind of you to say so. I read for pleasure, and am lucky (as well as unlucky) that I have such variegated reading interests. I think I actually read about 50 books a month, but that doesn’t include old favourites I dip into now and then, books I reference for my work, and books I start but don’t care to finish. It includes children’s books, which I love because they’re pure story vehicles. I prefer to read in print, hardcover ideally. (Thanks to the incredible library system here in the US, I’m able to indulge my love for reading like never before, ordering as many new hardcovers as I wish, all free. It’s a miracle!) But I also love to listen to audiobooks – also available here free through the library apps. I listen to audiobooks in the morning, while checking my email, cooking my breakfast, eating, and before I sit down to work. Later in the day, I’ll read a print book. And that doesn’t include the picture books I read with Leia.

Speaking for myself, I think growing up in a house full of books (my mother, grandmother, and grandfather were all avid readers) makes a huge difference. Books and reading are like blood and oxygen. You can’t get one without the other. Even as a parent, I was the first one in the house to get hooked on Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, you name it. I would buy those books, read them and leave them for my children to discover. They would ignore them or pass them off as “Dad’s latest obsession” until suddenly one day, years later, all their friends were talking about the book and they would come to me and say “Dad, where’s that Harry Potter book?” I was one of the first people in India to register for an internet account and I spent almost all my time (and still do) browsing for books! I think it’s something in your blood.

Leia, as you can see, is fascinated by all my bookshelves and by seeing me reading all the time. But she loves looking at books and being read to, and I have no doubt that she will grow up with books as part of her eco-system. It also helps that almost all my children’s books are dedicated to her!

Leia, Ashok Banker’s granddaughter.
(Picture used with permission of her parents and grandparents.)

4. This year is a first for you in many ways — many new book releases, spanning age groups and spanning continents. If the publications originate on different continents, does it inform your writing style, bearing in mind that you may be writing for slightly different sets of readers who perhaps different expectations? 

Oh yes, it changes completely. American editors have a completely different attitude. In India, editors still consider a book to be the author’s work. Children’s book authors here, by and large with a few famous exceptions, are essentially delivering what’s acceptable to their editors.

For instance, we have a wonderful boom in Indian’s children publishing right now, with such amazing books such as the h0le series from Duckbill, books like A Firefly in the Dark by Shazaf Fatima Haider, Calling Muskaan by Himanjali Sarkar, Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Amra and the Witch by Arefa Tehsin, The Hidden Children by Reshma Barshikar, to name just a few.

Yet, they’re all incredible, amazing books. In the US. I’m incredibly lucky to have found a great editor in John Joseph Adams, and publisher in Bruce Nichols. Having said that, as I said, I’ve had a little luck and somehow managed to slip one through the cracks. The critical and reader response is wonderful and universally laudatory. The book is doing well and I’m very happy with my editor and publisher.

5. How do you work upon a series arc? Does the plot take shape as you write it or do you create an outline beforehand? 

I simply daydream about it. Over time, it all coalesces in my head. It just comes together somehow. I accumulate details, characters, writing styles, structure, all in my mind, and one day, I feel the urge to sit down and “write a little”, and it all comes out in a torrent, pretty much fully formed. It’s a gift from an unknown place and I don’t question or analyse it. I simply accept it with grace and piety.

6. Writing three different kinds of series arcs — chapter books, retelling of the Mahabharata and a yalit trilogy based on Indian mythology — must require a fair amount of mental agility. How do you keep track of all the story plots? Do you make extensive notes? 

I read. At some point, a story comes along. It’s all somewhere in my head. I generally have several dozen going at the same time, and I have no idea how I keep track of them all. I just do. No notebooks, no computer files full of notes, no assistants, secretaries, nothing. Just me and my laptop. Sometimes I write. Mostly, I read. Always, I dream.

7. Has dividing your time living in Mumbai and Los Angeles changed your perspective on writing or is context immaterial to your writing? 

Living in America makes it easier to see India in a different perspective. I’m finally approaching the completion of a literary novel set in Mumbai which I first started almost 40 years ago. It’s called The Pasha of Pedder Road and is one of those mammoth realistic literary novels that I aspired to write as a young author, but never had the life-experience to attempt. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, I had to leave Mumbai (where I was born, grew up and lived for 51 years) before I could write about Mumbai again. On the other hand, I no longer feel the slightest bit interested in writing about the US.

8. How/ where do you find ideas for your stories?

Oh, I could never find them. They always find me. I believe there’s a Human Directory that’s secretly handed around by the Story community. My name must feature right at the top, since my first and last names are A and B. So they constantly come calling, at all hours of the day. I often have to pretend I’m not home, otherwise I’d never get any sleep or rest!  

9. How did you come up with these five delightful characters — Google baba Peter, gamer Sania, identical twins Usha & Asha, and aspiring scientist Arun? When creating characters, do you work on their backstory or is it sufficient to see them develop as the story moves ahead?  (I am always curious whether the character comes first or the plot or is it a bit of both and then it evolves.) 

Good question. I wish I had the answer. As I said, I simply write the whole thing. All fully formed. More or less the way you read it. When I hold a copy of one of my books in my hand, I read it and it’s all just as new to me as it is to you. I remember these words passing from my mind to the screen, but have no clue how they came to be there. As Erica Jong once wrote: “We write as leaves breathe: to live.” I simply breathe, and the air comes out as perfectly shaped stories, characters and all.

10. It is early days as yet but do you have any idea what is the response, particularly amongst children, to Invisible Spy?  

It’s my first book ever to receive five star reviews, and to be loved by everyone who reads it. The response is overwhelming. I think for the first time in my 72-book career I have a book that’s universally loved. It is a wonderful feeling!

11. Who are the writers you admire and may have influenced your writing as well? 

They change every few days. I read so much, it’s like pointing to one fish in the ocean and say, that one. It’s gone almost instantly, and then there’s another, and another. Hundreds. Thousands even. More than writers, it’s individual books. Often, I pick up a book at random in a library and if I like the first page, I keep reading. I may not even look at the title or author name until much later. I’ve often thought I would prefer that my books be published without my name mentioned anywhere. After all, all art is ultimately a collective creative experience. It takes a village to create a story. A writer merely jots it down.

12. Do you have any all-time favourite stories? Does this list change over time? 

Too many to count or name. Ever changing, ever expanding list. A monster with a bottomless appetite, that’s me as a reader! As a young kid, I used to read my way through entire circulating libraries. I can devour whole series like guzzling water. Books are life to me.

Thank you for these wonderful questions!

Happy Reading!

Ashok Kumar Banker

Los Angeles, July 2019

21 August 2019

Interview with Siddhartha Sarma: “I have found no greater joy in life than in the process of writing a story”

Siddhartha Sarma is a journalist, writer and historian. He has covered insurgency, crime and law in the Northeast and other parts of the country and written for newspapers and magazines as an investigative journalist. His debut novel, The Grasshopper’s Run (Scholastic India, 2009), received the Sahitya Akademi Award for children’s literature in English in 2011 and the Crossword Book Award in 2010. His second novel, Year of the Weeds (Duckbill, 2018) is based on the land rights agitation in the Niyamgiri Hills of Odisha. His latest published work, Carpenters and Kings (Penguin Random House India, 2019) is a history of Western Christianity in India.

  1. Why and how did you get into writing? Where do you find your stories? How long does it take from inception to completion?

A.:  When I was seven, my school was bringing out a commemorative magazine to celebrate an anniversary. I was told anybody could contribute anything they liked for it, so I wrote an approximately 400-word story based on real events. A bit of a tragedy. They printed the story with no edits on the first page, with my name on it. But what I remember now and in the intervening years is not the feeling of seeing my name in print, or of reading my story in printed form, but the joy of writing it, the process of slowly putting things together in my head and of banging it out, over several hours, on my father’s old typewriter, literally sitting on his desk because I was too short to type from the chair. The fear of making a typo (which is such a frustrating experience on a typewriter, unlike on a computer where a typing error is merely an inconvenience). I have found no greater joy in life than in the process of writing a story, of entering or discovering a world, and of narrating it for myself and for any reader I might find. That is how I began writing, and what I still try to do.

I began my career in journalism as a reporter. It is a much-repeated saying in the newsroom that a good reporter never runs out of story ideas. I have never had a problem thinking up story ideas. The problem is deciding which are worth taking up. One does not have this luxury of choice as a reporter, but a writer has to be very selective about which idea she will devote her time and energies to. If my time as a journalist has helped me as a writer in any manner, it is in two: I can be objective in deciding which stories to write and which to shelve, temporarily or permanently. And second: I can be objective in editing my own work. One of the criteria I have for deciding on a story is whether I have the competence to write it. There are many genres that I have a bit of an interest in, but I know I might not be able to execute a story in them very well. Such as fantasy or science fiction.

The complete arc from story idea to research to writing and editing and the final draft depends on the length of the work, its complexity, scope of research and treatment. My first novel, The Grasshopper’s Run, took me a year and half to research and seven months to write. My newest non-fiction book, Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the Idea of India took up nine years of research and eight months of writing. So it varies. But I do seem to spend more time thinking about a story than in actually writing it.

2. Is it only the long form of a novel that appeals to you? Would you ever consider other structures such as short stories or a series arc?

A.: My first work published in a book was a short story, in a humour anthology by Scholastic. Some other commissioned short stories have also been published. But, yes, I find the novel’s longer form more suitable for the kind of stories I have to tell. I have not yet thought of a series of books, although I can’t rule it out in the future. A standalone novel, however, suits the way I want to tell a story for one major reason. While working on a story, I spend a lot of time building the narrative arcs of individual characters. I go back in time, and also forward, into their futures. I create their backgrounds and populate it with other characters and circumstances. Most of these never get written in the final novel, but they do exist. So for me writing a novel is like baking a whole cake and cutting out just a slice of it for publishing. Or creating a tapestry and (again) cutting a slice of it. A short story might give me a much smaller, possibly unsatisfactory slice, while a series might need tough decisions about how many slices to make, or from which part of the cake or tapestry. So far, novels have worked for me.  

3. How much research do you delve into before you begin writing a book? How do you organise your notes? What is your writing routine?

A.: Researching for a book is among the most interesting parts of the writing process for me. Over time, I think I have become a bit more organized in my methodology. The Grasshopper’s Run caused me a lot of anxiety during the research process because I was not accounting for the volume of material I would end up having. For instance, I asked my sources for visual material to base my description of events and topography on, from the China-Burma-India theatre of World War II. I asked for un-curated photographs. I received some 1,800 photos, and most were directly relevant to my research. I had to sift through about 6,000 pages of correspondence and records from that theatre. For Carpenters and Kings, I examined 46 medieval and ancient manuscripts and translated seven of them from Latin because the previous translations were themselves dated. So gathering material is not a problem, particularly in these times. The more difficult part is knowing when to stop researching, or learning to leave out the peripheral or marginally relevant. Otherwise every book becomes a doctoral thesis.

I begin with a basic idea about the plot, in case of non-fiction the general outline of my argument. The notes I take from my research are based on their direct relation to this bare plot or argument. The most directly connected bits of evidence or material gets the highest weightage. Additionally, for fiction, any bit of non-fictional material which can help flesh out a character’s story arc or background (that part of the background which will get written rather than get left on the cutting room floor) also gets priority.

I have no particular routine. My best time is late in the night, but the slow cooking that happens before the physical act of writing can happen at any other time during the day.  

4. How did you decide to write historical fiction set in Nagaland during the Japanese invasion in WWII? And why write it for young adults?

A.: I wanted to base my first novel in the Northeast, as a mark of respect for my homeland. I thought a coming-of-age story during a conflict might work, because I had been asked to write a young adult novel by Sayoni Basu, then editor of Scholastic India. I did not want to base the story during any of the region’s numerous insurgencies, although I have covered them, because the political aspects of those insurgencies were too complex for a novel of the size I had in mind. That left the 1962 war and WWII. The actual fighting in 1962 took place in rather remote places where the human interest aspect did not play out much. WWII was, for my purposes, more suitable.

5. Did winning the 2011 Sahitya Akademi Bal Puraskar and the 2010 Crossword Award for Best Children’s Book for your debut novel The Grasshopper’s Run apart from pleasantly surprising you also put undue pressure on you to excel with your next book?

A.: ‘Pleasant surprise’ is very appropriate. I was surprised and gratified that readers and people who know a lot about children’s and YA literature liked the novel. It was very encouraging, and I met some noted writers afterwards and received valuable advice on writing from them. It was a very pleasant experience.

There has been no pressure. I have always been fortunate in the publishers and editors I have worked with. I just try to work on each story on its own merits, and don’t think much about expectations. The only expectation I have from myself is to write, at each stage, a better story than I have written before. If that happens, I am content. Ultimately, I have to write stories that I would like to read, and re-read.

6. Your second young adult novel, Year of the Weeds, is written nearly a decade later. The plot of the novel is reminiscent of the Niyamgiri movement of the Dongria Kondh Adivasis in Odisha who fought mining company Vedanta’s attempts to exploit their land and emerged victorious. How do you achieve this fine balance between journalistic writing and creating fiction for young adult readers?

A.: Year of the Weeds is indeed based on the Niyamgiri movement and was inspired by it, although the novel ended up containing elements from other similar peoples’ movements, while the workings of the government and companies is based on what I have seen across the country as a reporter. I follow peoples’ movements and Niyamgiri was inspirational and unexpected, so I wanted to commemorate it, even though I suspect it was just a provisional victory. While writing it, I was conscious that my treatment had to be that of a YA novel. However, I have also tried to include in it ideas and insights I have had as a journalist covering different aspects of India, such as how most Indians in the hinterland live, how the government interacts and often exploits or victimizes them, and what the true face of development is in these parts of the country. So, while it remained a YA novel throughout, with the frame of reference being mostly that of the two YA protagonists Korok and Anchita, I also tried to make sure these insights and ideas were properly written into the plot.

Around the time that I began researching for The Grasshopper’s Run, I realised I could not continue as a reporter and simultaneously as a writer of fiction and non-fiction. I was increasingly not content with the limitations (as I saw it) of a reporter, at least in terms of autonomy. I wanted to tell stories which could not be accommodated within my work as a reporter. So I shifted to the desk and have worked as an editor ever since, while writing books. I chose writing at the expense of reporting. I have not regretted it.

7. You have an enthusiastic passion for the Crusades and yet your first narrative nonfiction was Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the Idea of India. Why?

A.: I have studied the Crusades, and my thesis for an M Litt degree was on strategy during the Later Crusades. I find the Crusades very significant in understanding world history in general and European history in particular, because those conflicts sit at the centre of a wide range of connected events, including the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Age of Exploration.

There is a number of good, accessible and recent works on the Crusades by scholars from the West, so I did not intend to write a work of my own, which would not have made any significant contribution to the subject. However, something interesting happened during my research for the thesis, which was a study of three proposals for crusades by scholars in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. One of these scholars, a Dominican monk, wanted to launch a crusade from India. My supervisor suggested that I could refer to a secondary source on what these Europeans were doing in India in the period before the Age of Exploration. We discovered that there was no work which explained the political history of Western Christianity in India in the pre-colonial period. In December 2017, I realized I had enough material for a book which dealt with this subject, so I wrote Carpenters and Kings. And yes, I did include a brief history of the Crusades in it, and one of the chapters is about the Dominican who wanted a crusade from India, because all these are connected events. What was the Dominican doing in India? Also, much later, what was Vasco da Gama doing here? The answer to both questions is the Crusades.

8. You write young adult literature, travelogues and non-fiction. This is a diverse range of genres. How did this happen?

A.: Each book happened in a specific context and for unique reasons. The Grasshopper’s Run was meant to be a YA novel. While researching it, I travelled in the Northeast and Myanmar, and afterwards wrote a series of emails describing my travels, which I sent to friends. These were read by a publisher, who asked me to expand them into a travelogue, from which East of the Sun (Tranquebar, 2010) happened. Meanwhile, I wrote two books for the popular 103 series by Scholastic, one on great travellers I admire and the other on historical mysteries. And then I wrote Year of the Weeds followed by Carpenters and Kings. I guess one reason why this is an eclectic mix is I follow a story to its natural place and write it accordingly. So we have a situation where, although history is what I am academically suited to writing about, Year of the Weeds is contemporary political fiction. I am comfortable with chasing a story wherever and to whichever genre it leads. I think the only concern for a writer should be whether the story is told well or not. Having said that, I am still learning, so if I discover that I should stick to specific genres, I shall do that.

9. Do the methodologies of research and writing for young adult literature and narrative nonfiction vary?

A.: It is possible that some researchers might have different research methodologies depending on what genre they are planning to write in. I do not have different methodologies. I choose a subject, start reading about it, examine primary and secondary sources, select those sources which are suitable for the story I have in mind, and then sift through the material I obtain.

There are certainly differences in writing YA fiction and narrative nonfiction for general readers, including tone, scope, complexity of ideas, presentation of this complexity. In some ways, like channelling all the research into suitable concepts, narrative nonfiction is more challenging. In several other ways, like writing in a manner which holds the reader’s attention, and creating believable characters and plots, YA literature has its own set of challenges. Both are very rewarding genres to write in.

10. What are the kinds of books you like to read? Any favourites?

A.: I have followed several genres over the years, although now because of demands on my time I have to limit myself to those genres which I have consistently read. Of these, apart from literary fiction, I seem to have read crime and espionage fiction fairly consistently. Fantasy, which I was reading a lot of till some years ago, seems to have dropped off. I do not know if this is a temporary phase.

11. Who are the writers you admire and may have influenced you?

A.: These are among the writers I have liked almost consistently. In literary fiction: Peter Carey, JM Coetzee, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Nelson Algren, John Steinbeck. In crime: Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes, Henning Mankell, Elmore Leonard, PD James, Janwillem van de Wetering. In espionage: John le Carre, John Buchan, Len Deighton.

12. What next? 

A.: Perhaps a dark story. One of the problems with India after 2014 has been we have been affected by the doings of the ideology and the people in power on a daily, personal level. On a daily, personal level, one finds it increasingly difficult to feel joy in most things, or to happily coast along choosing stories to read or tell at a leisurely, whimsical pace. I would have liked to write a story I was working on in 2013, but that will have to wait for some time. At the moment, we need stories that deal with or are related to the situation we have in India, or which go some way towards explaining things. We can’t ignore that. So, perhaps something dark, something angry.

17 August 2019

Scholastic India stand at the World Book Fair, New Delhi ( 5- 13 Jan 2019)

Scholastic India ( Hall 7, stalls 76-90) at the ongoing #worldbookfair#PragatiMaidan#NewDelhi. It is a stall bustling with crowds which is unsurprising given the fantastic collections of #childlit and #yalit available. Some of the international stock has been made exclusively available for duration if the fair and is NOT available anywhere else. Their selection of fiction and nonfiction international and local titles are worth looking at particularly #Ahimsa#Horror#GrasshoppersRun#Puu#JalebiJingles and #NoTouch. So are the selection of #gradedreaders#picturebooks, briliant collection of #graphicnovels and #educational material for schools. Also on sale are fantastic #homelibrary kits for young readers. Besides this magnificent selection are the usual favourites of which no child or #schoollibrary can ever have enough are #GeronimoStilton#DavPilkey‘s #DogMan#LizPinchon‘s #TomGates, and #Clifford — perennial favourites!

The #bookfair is on for THREE more days. It concludes on Sunday, 13 Jan 2019.

“The Serpent’s Secret” by Sayantani Dasgupta

“Dark energy. It’s the energy that helps the universe keep expanding. You might call it a part of the universal life force.” 

That sounded vaguely familiar. 

“My Baba always tells me we’re all connected to energy — trees, wind, animals, people, everything.” I tried to get my ragged breathing under control. “He says that the life energy is a kind of river flowing through the universe.”

And that our souls are just a bit of that river water held inside the clay pitcher of our bodies?” Neel smiled at my surprise. “Year, I know that story too. They say that when our bodies give out, that’s just the pitcher breaking, pouring what’s inside back into the original stream of universal souls.”

“So no one’s soul is ever really gone,” I finished, repeating the words that Baba had said to me often. 

Sayantani Dasgupta‘s The Serpent’s Curse is a delightful fantasy story about a twelve-year-old girl, Kiranmala, who sulks at the idea of being dressed up as a princess for Halloween. She refuses to believe her parents when they claim Kiranmala is a genuine princess and on her birthday ( which alas falls on Halloween) she must dress up appropriately. It is on her twelfth birthday that all sorts of odd things begin to happen. She discovers her parents have disappeared leaving a moving map in their wake for her assistance, two princes have arrived on winged horses to escort her, there are monsters in her backyard and much, much more. It is an exciting adventure she sets off on to locate her parents while trying not to get entangled in the affairs of the Serpent King and the Rakkhoshi Queen.

The Serpent’s Curse is a mish-mash of desi folklore and myths combined with the American experiences of an immigrant family told at a brisk pace. Even though the fantasy elements are familiar and many of the stories told are retellings of well-known Indian folklore, it really does not matter. The beauty of age-old stories is that they can be told once more by a master storyteller and still be magical. The same holds true for The Serpent’s Curse. The fight between good vs evil, the Serpent King / Naga, the Rakkhoshi Queen / Evil Queen, the Underworld, princes and princesses etc.

Book review

While this is being promoted as YAlit an eight-year-old reader I met was absolutely charmed by this book. The little girl told me solemnly “I picked up this book at the school book fair because the cover was so lovely. I am now enjoying the story too.” Then at my request she proceeded to write a short book review as well though in her note on the left hand side says it is an “interview”. This is what she wrote:

Interview of The Serpent’s Tail

I enjoyed the book a lot because there were spells, snakes, mysterious parentage and magical lands. 

The story is about a girl who had annoying parents and one day she realized that her parents were gone and she set off with two princes one half demon other human and she realizes that her mum is actually someone else and so was her dad. Her mum is actually a moon maiden and her dad is the king of serpents! 

I picked the book because it had a cool cover and serpents are cool. 

I rate this book: 0/4 serpents and 4/4 moons 

The action in The Serpent’s Curse moves swiftly. The dialogue is never dull despite incorporating a lot of “Indianisms”. Having grown up on a feast of stories and desirous of sharing this rich storytelling tradition prompted Dr Sayantani Dasgupta to create her own books that retell Indian myths and folklore for the youngsters of the Indian diaspora. Having said that the book works equally well for everyone! The author is a pediatrician by training but now teaches narrative medicine/health humanities at Columbia University. It probably explains the chatty and accessible style of her storytelling. There is a lovely rhythm to the pace without a word out of place. She acknowledges her colleagues for inculcating in her that “stories are the best medicine”.

The Serpent’s Tale is well worth checking out!

Sayantani Dasgupta The Serpent’s Tale Scholastic, New York, USA, 2018. Hb. Pp. 350 Rs 495

31 May 2018 

 

A. F. Harrold’s “The Song from Somewhere Else”

It was music of a short she’d never heard before.

She was suddenly filled with shoals of fish, darting and moving like one great whole, darting and flowing this way and that, darting and flashing, hundreds and hudnreds of silver fish all moving as if they shared one brain. That was what she saw as she heard this faint, distant music. 

No piece of music she’d ever heard on the radio or in the background of a TV show had ever made her feel so special, had made her feel so cared for, so improved.

The smell of the house, the foresty smell, was stronger now. The air was cool on her face. She heard birdsong, smelt moss, rivers, evening. 

But it was unfair, wasn’t it, keeping such beautiful music, such kind and forgiving music, such perfect and clear and mysterious music, to himself? 

It wasn’t his music now though, was it? It was hers. It was in her ears, in her brain, sparking electricity through synapses in ways that made her unable to resist it. She was hooked like a fish.  

A. F. Harrold’s The Song from Elsewhere is about Francesca Patel or Frank as she is often called and her unlikely friendship with her classmate Nick Underbridge, who is often shunned by others for various reasons, probably because he is a large child, quiet and smells odd.  During the summer break Nick rescues Frank from a bunch of boys who have been bullying her for more than a year now. Afterwards Frank accompanies Nick to his house where she encounters this extraordinarily soothing piece of music.

The Song from Elsewhere may be about fantastical creatures and wormholes or leechways opening a passage to another dimension but is also about friendships, exploring boundaries, relationships and bullies. It is an astonishing novel for young readers with a touch of magic realism. Although having said that the novel is positioned well in that space for impressionable minds for whom imaginary friends, elements of the fantastic and other dimensions run in continuum with their reality. It is beautifullly illustrated by Levi Pinfold.

The longlisting of this book for the CILIP Award 2018 is well deserved.

A. F. Harrold The Song from Somewhere Else ( Illustrated by Levi Pinfold) Bloomsbury, London, 2016. Pb. pp. Rs 299

22 February 2018 

 

“Amulet” series by Kazu Kibuishi

The Amulet series is about two siblings Emily and Navin who after losing their father in a car accident move into an old house that belonged to their great-grandfather. While browsing through the dusty library of their ancestor the children discover an amulet which Emily promptly puts on. She soon discovers it has magical powers. It is in this house that their adventures begin once their mother is kidnapped by an odd tentacled creature. The set of seven books is about the children giving chase to the creature, coming upon their dying great grandfather, rescuing their mother but also stumbling across a parallel fantasy world which is a cross between steampunk and the fantastic. Classically there is the tussle between the good and the evil that the children have to combat but it is also about the importance of an individual’s will power against external forces. In this case it is Emily not only leading the motley group of creatures and her brother into battle while simultaneously battling the force  of the Amulet which is trying to overpower her and control her.

It is a series of books that will appeal to 8+ readers onwards. The illustrations are complex and crowd every page. At times there are frames that would work ideally as a flip book and not necessarily as a segment of a graphic novel. Kazu Kibuishi is primarily an animator who abandoned the comic form to become a professional animation artist. After a few years he returned to the comic book form — telling stories through words and still pictures on the printed page. It is fascinating to see how the artist/storyteller attempts to bring his experiences on to the page. Undoubtedly it is a long series with the eighth volume expected later in 2018. Yet I could not help but feel that the artist is experimenting by converting his animation skills to a comic strip. At times this works at a disadvantage for the books since the storytelling becomes thin at times in favour of the fancy foot work of the artist.

Having said that the young readers are utterly charmed by the books and this series is a steady seller. It was evident at the World Book Fair, New Delhi, Jan 2018 with youngsters crowding around the graphic novel section. Copies of this particular series were flying off the shelves.

 

Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi, Scholastic India, Pb. 

5 February 2018 

Saad Z. Hossain, “Escape from Baghdad!”

EFB-front

( Aleph sent me an advance reading copy of Saad Z. Hossain’s debut novel, Escape from Baghdad!  Upon reading it, Saad and I exchanged emails furiously. Here is an extract from the correspondence, published with the author’s permission.

I read your novel in more or less one sitting.  The idea of Dagr, an ex-economics professor, and Kinza, a black marketeer, make a very odd couple. To top it when they discover they have been handed over a former aide of Saddam Hussein who persuades them with the promise of gold if they help him escape from Baghdad is downright ridiculous. But given the absurdity of war, it is a plausible plot too. Anything can happen. Escape from Baghdad! is a satirical novel that is outrageously funny in parts, disconcerting too and quite, quite bizarre. I do not know why I kept thinking of that particular episode of Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce and his colleagues trying to make gin in their tent while the Korean War reached a miserable crescendo around them. The micro-detailing of a few characters, inevitably male save for the chic Sabeen, is so well done. It is also so characteristic of war where there are more men to be seen, women are in the background and play a more active role at the time of post-conflict reconstruction. They do exist but not necessarily in the areas of combat. It is a rare Sabeen who ventures forth. Sure women combatants are to be seen more now in contemporary warfare, but it was probably still rare at the time of Operation Desert Storm. Yet it is as if these characters are at peace with themselves, happy to survive playing along with the evolving rules (does war have any rules?), not caring about emotions and learning to quell any sensitivity they had like Dagr remembering his wife’s hand on her deathbed.

Saad: Thanks for the kind words, and for getting through the book so fast. Aleph has been amazingly easy to work with, they are clearly good people 🙂

JBR: Why did you choose to write a novel about the Gulf War?
When I started writing this, it was before Isis, or Syria, or the Arab Spring. The Gulf War was really the big war of our times, and looking back at Iraq now, I feel that it still is. I wanted to tell a war story, and the history of Baghdad, with all the great mythology, and just the location next to the Tigris and Euphrates was really attractive. I think I started it around 2010. I wasn’t very serious about it at first. The book was first published in Dhaka in 2013 by Bengal Publications.
According to an interview you did with LARB, you never went to Baghdad, and yet this story? Why?

I wrote the story as more of a fantasy than an outright satire or war history. For me, large parts of it existed outside of time and logic. Much of it too, was set in closed spaces, like safe houses and alley ways, and this was just how it turned out. In the very first chapter I had actually envisioned a sweeping, circuitous journey from Baghdad to Mosul, but I couldn’t even get them past two neighborhoods.

But isn’t that exactly what war does to a society/civilization? 

Yes, that’s why I prefer using fantasy elements/techniques to deal with war itself. The surreal quality represents also the mental state of the observer, who is himself altered by the horrible things he is experiencing. I’m also now beginning to appreciate the long term after effects of war on a population’s psyche. For example Bangladesh is still so firmly rooted in the past of our 1971 War, almost every aspect of life, including literature is somehow tied to it. The damage is not short lived.

Bangladesh fiction in English is very mature and sophisticated. Much of it is set in the country itself, focused on political violence, so why not write about Bangladesh? Not that I want to bracket you to a localised space but someone like you who obviously has such a strong and nuanced grasp of the English language could produce some fantastic literary satirical commentary on the present. In India Shovon Choudhary has produced a remarkable satirical novel — The Competent Authority, also published by Aleph.

You are right, of course, Bangladesh is ripe for satire, as are most third world countries. I’m a bit afraid because I want to do it right, and I know that if certain things don’t ring true, I’ll face a lot of criticism at home for it 🙂 Technically, I am still struggling to develop a voice that I’m comfortable with. I need my Bengali characters to operate in a certain way, yet I still want them to be authentic, and plausible. I also rely on mythology and fantasy a lot, and this poses a linguistic challenge. I’ve found that sometimes the flavor of mythology doesn’t really translate very well. Each language has a lot of mythology built into it, like English uses a lot of Norse and Greek mythology, for example in the way the days of the week are named after Odin, Freya, Tue. There are situations where you are trying to describe an Asian fantasy element in English, and it doesn’t quite work. It is necessary, in a way, to rewrite mythology from the ground up, which is a very big job.

Fascinating point. Now why do you feel this? Is there an example you can share? 

Well just the word djinn, for example. The English word is genie. A genie is a cute girl wearing harem pants granting wishes to Larry Hagman. How can I get across the menace, the fear, the hundreds of years of dread our people have of djinns? How much space do I have to waste on paper trying to erase the bubble gum connotation of genie? Will it be successful in the end, or will the English reader just be confused? What about a word like Ravan, which has an instant connotation for us, a name like a bomb on a page, but in English, it’s just a foreign sounding word that requires a footnote, something alien that the eye just blips over. For me to convey the weight of Ravan, I’d have to build that up, to recreate the mythology for the reader, to act out everything.

Isn’t the purpose of a writer to disturb the equanimity?  Will there be a second book? If so, what? Btw, have you read The Black Coat by Neamat Imam?

I haven’t read it. I just googled it, it looks good, I’m going to find a copy. There isn’t a second book, this was not designed to have a serial, the ending is left open to allow the readers to make their own judgments for the surviving characters. I am writing a second novel on Djinns, which is set in Dhaka, so I hope to address some of the issues facing us there.

The story you choose to etch is a fine line between a dystopian world and a war novel. Is that how it is meant to be?

Yes, in my mind there is not one specific reality, but rather many versions which exist at the same time, and if we consider war as a pocket reality, it would certainly reflect a very dystopian nature. While we do not live in a dystopia, there are certainly pockets of time and space in this world which very strongly resemble it.

It is particularly devastating to consider a people who believed in economics, and GDP growth, education, houses, mortgages, retirements and pensions to suddenly be pitched into a new existence that has neither hope, nor logic, nor any use for their civilian skills.

True. I often think we are living a scifi life. It makes me wonder on what is reality?

My understanding is that the human brain uses sensory input to create a simulation of the world, which is essentially the ‘reality’ we are carrying around in our minds. This is a formidable tool since it allows us to analyze situations, recall and recalibrate the model, and even to run mental games to predict the outcome of various actions. For a hunter gatherer, the brain must have been an extremely powerful tool, like having a computer in the Stone Age. But at the same time, because these mental simulations are just approximations of what is actually there I can see that reality for everyone can be subtly different, and if we stretch that a little bit, it makes sense that many different worlds exist in this one.

The Indian subcontinent is a hotbed for political nationalism and neverending skirmishes, with peace not in sight. Living in Dhaka and writing this novel at the back of car while commuting in the hellish traffic Escape from Baghdad! seems like a strong indictment of war but also builds a case for pacifism. Was that intentional?

War is a complex thing. It’s easy to say that we are anti-war, and for the most part, who would actually be pro-war? I mean what lunatic would give up the normalcy of their existence to go and bleed and die in the mud? Even for wars of aggression, the math often doesn’t work out: the cost of conquering and pacifying another country isn’t worth the consequences of doing so. Yet, for all that, war has been a constant companion of humanity from ancient times. It is, I think, tied into our pack animal mentality. The very quality which allows us to freely collaborate, to collectively build large projects, is the same thing which leads to organized violence as a response to certain trigger situations. I believe that the causes of wars have all been minutely parsed and analyzed, broken down into the actions and motivations of different pressure groups, but all of this still does not explain the reality of battalions of ordinary people willing to strap on swords and guns and armor and commit to slaughtering each other. That willingness is a psychological problem for the entire human race to contend with, I think.

JB: As long as you raise questions or leave situations ambiguous, forcing readers to ask questions about war, the novel will survive for a long time.

The creation of old women especially Mother Davala are very reminiscent of those found in mythology across the world. It is an interesting literary technique to introduce in a war novel.

Mother Davala is one of the three furies of Greek myth, the fates whom even the Gods are afraid of. They are also in charge of retribution, which was apt for this particular scenario. This was one of the things I was talking about earlier, with the mythology built into the language. The Furies have such a resonance in English, such a long history in literature, that they carry a hefty weight. I could have used, instead, someone like Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love and conflict, but that name has no real oomph in English, and so it would be a wasted reference.

So if you find it challenging to work mythological elements from other cultures into your fiction, how were The Furies easy to work with? 

I think the challenge is to use non English mythology while writing in English. English mythology kind of covers Norse, Greek, Arthurian, as well as Christian mythology, of course. To use elements of any of those is very easy because there is a lot of precedent, and the words already exist in the lexicon. The problem arises when you are writing in English about a non western culture. Then you are forced to describe gods, goddesses, demons, etc, which sound childish and irrational, because they have no linguistic resonance in English. If I say the words Christ and crucifixion, there is an instant emotional response from the reader. If I describe the story of the falcon god Horus who was born in a strange way from his mother Osiris, and performed magical acts in the desert and then eventually died and returned to life, it just sounds quaint, and peculiar.

Have you written fiction before this novel?

I’ve been writing for a long time, since I was in middle school, and my earlier efforts have produced a vast quantity of bad science fiction and fantasy. It started with a bunch of friends trying to collaborate on a story for some class. We each picked a character, and made a race, history, etc for them. The idea was to create a kind of mainstream fantasy story. I remember we all used to read a lot of David Eddings back then. The others all dropped out, but I just kept going. Writing a lot of bad genre fiction helps you though, because you lose the fear of finishing things, plus all that writing actually hones your skills.

How long did it take you to write this story and how did you get a publication deal? Was it an uphill task as is often made out to be?

I took a couple of years to write this. It started when I joined a writers group, and I had to submit something. That was when I wrote the first chapter. The group was very serious and we had strict deadlines, so I just kept writing the story to appease them, and then I was ten chapters in and growing attached to the characters, so I decided to go ahead and finish it. This was a group in Dhaka, it was offline, we used to physically meet and critique stuff. A lot of good work was published out of that. It’s definitely one of the critical things an author needs.

Publishing seemed impossibly daunting at first, but when it happened, it was easy, and through word of mouth. I knew my publisher in Bangladesh, and when they started a new English imprint, they were looking for new titles, and I was selected. Some of my friends knew the US publisher, Unnamed Press, and I got introduced, they liked it, and decided to print. Aleph, too, happened similarly. You can spend years querying and filling up random people’s slush piles, and sometimes things just happen without effort. My philosophy is that I am writing for myself, with a readership of half a dozen people in mind, and I am happy if I can improve my craft and produce something clever. The subsequent success or failure of it isn’t something I can necessarily control.

Saad Z Hossain Escape from Baghdad! Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2015. Pb. pp 286. Rs. 399

28 August 2015