The Time Of The Peacock by Siddharth Chowdhury is fabulous. It is published by Aleph Book Company. Fiction that is thinly veiled account of contemporary Indian publishing is always very welcome. But a story/s like this that smartly begins like a “straightforward” story in English, slowly disappears into a fascinating literary rabbit hole of diverse landscapes and cultures and conversations that India has to offer. It requires extraordinary skill sets as a writer to put the spotlight on publishing as we know it today in India and then make mincemeat of it by upturning the smooth English narrative style by slipping into dialects. The plot is deftly contextualised within the disturbing socio-political landscape of India where the publishing world becomes an excuse to dip in and dip out of stories and socio-economic classes, thereby at times highlighting the narrowness of the books being published that at times fail to mirror their society. It is a story that is very reminiscent of Elif Batuman ‘s magnificent novel The Idiot, in which the author transformed not just the protagonist but the reader too with the astonishing storytelling, a combination of the plot and literary techniques that slowly developed, layer by layer, as the student in the novel acquired the requisite academic skills. Similarly with The Time of the Peacock, the reader is left emotionally drained but in a satisfying way. In all likelihood it will be a book that will be read, critically analysed, dissected and assume academic importance in the years to come.
When I first heard aboutKratu ( PanMacmillan India), I wanted to read it. I wanted to know what a Hindu monk, as the author describes himself, had to say about mortality, spiritual awakening and perhaps even about “moh-maya” that we are taught about in Hindi poetry. But it all came to a grinding halt when I read the book blurb. I have been unable to process the description of the book especially when it describes the protagonist of the novel “burdened by deathless memory”. I am so lost as to what it means. I was advised to read the book and understand what the author is conveying. But this phrase instead of making me curious has just left me baffled. Life is too short to read an entire book-length exposition on the subject when the blurb itself fails to communicate clearly. I am deeply disappointed.
I strongly urge those with a spiritual bent of mind or who are keen readers of MBS ( Mind, Body, Spirit) literature to pick this book up. They are probably the intended audience.
Debut novelist Sandeep Raina will be in conversation with literary stalwarts Anita Nair and Omair Ahmad on Monday, 11 Jan 2021 to discuss his novel A Bit of Everything. It is a conversation organised by Westland Books and India International Centre, New Delhi. The moderator will be Janani Ganesan. It should be interesting to hear the panelists as this is probably Anita’s first public appearance since she was appointed #UNHCR’s high profile supporter, to help create trust, awareness, and advocate about the situation of refugees in India. It could not be at a more relevant discussion since a significant proportion of Sandeep’s novel is about refugees, circumstances that make people leave their homes in search of “better” pastures, unexpected situations they find themselves in and attitudes of others towards refugees. Ultimately how does it affect the refugees themselves. So many questions are raised and need to be addressed. Omair too is known for his astonishingly powerful and award-winning novel Jimmy The Terrorist. Although writing ten years apart, Sandeep Raina and Omair Ahmad share much common ground in their literary creations on what affects them as writers, what exists as realities and how do ordinary folks negotiate these violent landscapes and learn to survive. They do it in their inimitable gentle, courteous and pleasant way but are equally passionate about how painful and senseless many of these events are.
Gitanjali Kolanad was involved in the practice, performance, and teaching of bharata natyam for close to forty years. Hershort story collection Sleeping with Movie Stars, published by Penguin India, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Prize. She has written numerous articles on aspects of Indian dance for well-known Indian publications. She co-founded IMPACT, which teaches and promotes Indian martial art forms.
Girl Made of Gold is Gitanjali Kolanad’s debut novel, published by Juggernaut Books. It is historical fiction set in Thanjavur in the 1920s. It revolves around the mysterious disappearance of a young devadasi called Kanaka and, as if in her place, a statue of a woman in pure gold mysteriously appears in the temple to which she was to be dedicated. Many villagers assume tht Kanaka has turned into the girl made of gold. Others are determined to search for her. It is a novel that certainly leaves an impact. Even award-winning author Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni was moved to say ‘Girl Made of Gold is an exquisitely written novel, bejewlled with authentic cultural details and characters who take up permanent residence in the reader’s heart. This story of love, loss and discovery will keep you turning the pages until the astonishing end.’
Now the author is completing her second novel, set in Tanjore in the 1930s.
Q1. How long did it take to write Girl Made of Gold? Which was the initial idea in the plot that gripped you and developed into a story?
The initial idea is exactly as I tell in my Afterword: I had a few friends visiting from the UK staying with me in my flat in Madras, so I’d invited VAK Ranga Rao to meet them. He’s a great raconteur, simply full of stories, especially given his multi-faceted life experience, born into a royal family, being a dancer, music critic, film afficionado, well-read, well-travelled. He told us all this story that a devadasi had told him: a girl of her own illustrious family had turned herself into a gold statue in order to escape the attentions of a man. That story raised so many questions – why didn’t she want the man to become her patron? What was so awful about him, or about her situation that she would want to escape from it by means of such a drastic step? And if you don’t believe in girls turning themselves into gold statues, then what really did happen to the young devadasi? That story, from the moment I heard it I knew it was going to occupy my thoughts for a long time. I remember that I actually felt a shiver down my spine.
Then I discovered that such stories of devadasis are in the stalapuranas of many temples – when a man takes a devadasi’s half-chewed paan into his mouth, he becomes a great poet; when a king has a devadasi’s long beautiful hair shaved off, it grows back overnight. Within that world, a devadasi turning into a gold statue is accepted.
Q2. How many drafts did you need to create before completion?
Getting to even one full draft that I could hand to someone else to read was a long laborious process. Clearly, I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. By the time I actually completed my first draft, I’d been researching and writing bits and pieces of the novel for more than five years. But finally, I had managed to get the characters alive in my mind, and I could then record their actions and sentiments almost effortlessly. Or at least, with real enjoyment rather than struggle. So I didn’t need to completely rewrite many sections. The first draft felt like a huge achievement, to get the words onto the page so you can see what’s wrong, what needs editing, what needs to be filled out. It still took a year from the first draft to the finished version that is in print.
Q3. What is the writing schedule you follow?
You have to remember that I didn’t know what I was doing when I started writing. I was a dancer. What does a dancer do? Well, we warm up, do some basic exercises, and that’s what I try to do as part of a daily practice. I write every day for no purpose whatsoever. I don’t care if it’s good, bad or indifferent, it’s just for the feel of my pen moving across the page. I have established rituals of practice that work for me, just as I did as a dancer. I write in long hand, the early stages are never on a computer. The pen has to be just right – black ink, fountain pen, cheap, so I don’t cry if I lose it, since I carry it with me everywhere. The paper has to be just right – squared paper in an A5-sized spiral notebook so it can fit in my bag. I can get very attached to a particular notebook and then if the company stops making it, it’s a tragedy – I worry that I’ll never be able to write again. It has happened to me several times over the years, so now when I find a good notebook I buy ten. No Moleskins or anything expensive – I have to feel that I can write pages and pages of the most utter nonsense without fear of wasting money.
Then, when there’s a germ of a story, I have to let myself be consumed by it, I need time with no fixed appointments of any kind. Then I’ll write intensely and with great focus for hours and hours, early in the morning, late at night, until the story is done. At some point I will feel it settle into a still vague but somewhat coherent shape. At that point I go on the computer and start transcribing my notes. After that all the writing is a process of rewriting, editing, word choice, much more analytical and conscious because the unconscious, creative work has already been done. During this second stage I go back to behaving like a human being, bathing, brushing my teeth, doing chores. I can drop into and out of this part of the process and go back to meeting the world’s demands.
Q4. Do you develop backstories for your characters? I ask as at times it seems as if you are very familiar with the characters, almost as if you are clear about their movement, their emotions, their inner thoughts. Much like you would expect a dancer to internalise a story in order to give it a strong expression.
I don’t think of it as ‘back story’, because during the time when I’m writing in long hand, I have no idea whatsoever as to what will be useful and what not. So yes, there is a great deal that turns out to be back story, but it is at a much later stage of the writing process where decisions like that are made and I come to know what goes into the story and what remains in the notebook, what needs to be foregrounded and what is there simply to make the character real for me. It’s very true that it’s like bringing a padam to life in dance, thank you for noting that. I develop a feel for the nayika as young or mature, as quick to anger, or always calm, as the kind of woman who hides her tears, or one who weeps openly, by embodying her again and again in practice. That’s how I come to know her very well, from the inside out, as it were. That’s the only method I know to make the facial expressions cohere into a nayika that has life on stage.
Q5. Devadasis occupy an unusual space in society. Social rules accord them respect and status while giving them social mobility as well. It is a complicated relationship but as you have shown in the novel, it also makes the devadasis very vulnerable. Why did you choose the devadasi storyline as the basis of your novel?
I didn’t choose that storyline so much as it entered and planted itself in me. But I was fertile ground for that kind of seed, because the repertoire of bharata natyam that I’d been immersed in for so long, was the devadasi’s bodily experience. I’d already learned padams like the one which says, ‘Why should I be afraid of anyone’s gossiping/ with a great man like him as my lover?’ or ‘Where is the nose ring you promised me?’ or ‘That cunning woman has trapped him/he won’t come back to me’. The songs suggest a world of jealousy, illicit relationships and intrigue – what could be a better inspiration for a novel?
Q6. In Girl Made of Gold there is a lot of brutality, a murder and the violent patriarchal attitude of the men towards to their women. Was it hard to write these portions of the story?
When I was working on the novel in London, newspaper stories about the rape and murder of the young girl, only eight years old, in Kashmir, were everywhere, and at unexpected moments, a sudden image of her suffering would come out of nowhere to blindside me, and I could do nothing but weep. What are verbal descriptions compared to real life cruelty? So yes, it is difficult to write of pain and violence, but at the same time, once it’s on the page, there is some semblance of relief. Those scenes of brutality in my novel are written from my own experience, or the experiences of women I spoke to. Which woman in India, or in any other country for that matter, has never been molested? I’d really like to meet her. I was molested when I studied dance in Madras, not as violently as in my novel, but it certainly gave me a point of entry into the scene. And when I went to Gokak to talk to the devadasi women there, they described with extreme frankness the horror of being forced as young girls to have sex with much older men. It’s no fun for the girl, I can tell you. And yet she would often fall in love with the man. I was always conscious that emotional truth is often messy and difficult and complicated.
Q7. Was it easy to transit from a being professional Bharatnatyam dancer to a novelist? What were the pros and cons?
I can’t regret being a bharatanatyam dancer, even though I never had much of a career. Being a dancer requires such discipline – what you eat, when you go to bed, how you sleep, all the care that is required – no high heeled shoes for example, no make-up daily, so that my skin could recover from the stage make-up. And since I wasn’t ever a well-known dancer, my performances were few and far apart, yet I still had to stay in practice, because the deterioration is so quick – miss two or three days and then take twice that long to get back to the same level. I was lucky: my two gurus Nana Kasar and Kalanidhi Narayan made the process of practicing the end in itself; they taught me to give up performance as a goal, and instead make daily practice an end in itself. This is a lesson I took with me into writing.
I felt very lucky to be a dancer when I saw the struggle my friend the painter Vasuddha Thozur had to store her work. A space had to be found to keep her beautiful paintings, while my work left no residue, stopped weighing on me the minute I was finished with it. I loved that feeling of not being tied down by what I’d already done. And the masterpieces weren’t hung on the wall, they were within me – ragamalika varnum, a Jayadeva ashtapadi, a thillana in Mohana raga, they became part of my cellular structure. On the other hand, when I stopped dancing, I had nothing much to show for decades of work. A dance piece that no one was interested in when I first performed it, can’t find a more sympathetic audience in the next generation, as books sometimes do. So that’s the big difference – a book has a life separate from the writer, while the dance and the dancer are indivisible.
Q8. In a Bharatanatyam performance, the onus is upon the dancer to tell a story from multiple perspectives. In a riveting dance performance the multiple characters stand out. In some senses, it holds true for a novelist as well. What was your experience in writing the novel, telling a story using words as opposed to being a dancer telling a story using visual expressions and hands to emote?
The experience of dancing is so immediate and flowing that is it is hard to describe exactly what’s happening in those moments of eyes, fingers, arms, legs, torso, moving in stylized ways. Not only that, an analytical approach to what’s going on can inhibit the process, and for me, the attempt has always been to silence that part of my consciousness that watches and comments, usually critically, on what I’m doing. That movement in and out of characters is an embodied melting of consciousness like a stream around rocks, and no surprise, the word for that state is ‘flow’. It’s very exciting but also risky, and what it means is that sometimes, it’s not going to be a riveting performance at all.
In my writing, I try to do the same thing, get into that state of flow, but with the advantage that once the words are on the page that critical faculty can be exercised to get rid of whatever isn’t working.
Q9. Did you at any time find that the characters were in control of the story rather than you or were you always sure how the plot would develop?
It’s a strange kind of magic the way the characters take on a life of their own – many writers have made the phenomena central to their fiction, as in Jorge Luis Borges story ‘The Other’, where there is a confusion between the character and the author, or in Peter Carey’s novel, ‘My Life as a Fake’ where the character tries to kill his creator. Those are doppelganger stories, but the experience is the same even when the character is very different from the author. All of us who love reading know that feeling, otherwise why visit Baker St. to see where Sherlock Holmes lived? And if the characters in other people’s books can be so alive, then it’s no surprise that one’s own characters take on a life of their own and do exactly as they please. The plot develops out of their behaviour, and I have to wait for them to do something, and watch and listen, and write it down, rather than move them around like pawns on a chessboard, or puppets. That’s why it’s so time consuming! Characters are very stubborn and don’t take kindly to hints from the author, at least in my experience.
Q10. What were the challenges in writing historical fiction? What did the research for this novel entail? What are the examples of historical fiction that appeal to you?
The challenge of historical fiction is to be true to as many facts as you can ferret out about the times you’re writing about, and it’s very difficult to figure out very simple things – like when did people in a small village in South India start having clocks on their walls, or watches on their wrists? How would people talk about time if there wasn’t a clock? Or when cars were introduced to India, how did they get gas? There were no petrol stations. I read about a rich man who’d sit in his car and have it pushed along the street by his servants. Try as I might, I couldn’t work that wonderful little detail into Girl Made of Gold. Maybe into the next one. Little things like that make it both treacherous and great fun to write about a time period that is outside one’s own experience.
I tried to read newspapers and magazines written in exactly the times I was writing about, as well as novelists who were contemporary then. I read the District Manuals for Tanjore, Puddukottai and the Madras Presidency for the relevant years, at the British Library, and I actually went to the District Collector’s Office in Tanjore, and they let me sit at a desk, while a clerk brought me boxes of papers which I could read, actual letters about the daily affairs – droughts, harvests, crimes, the weather. I lived in an agraharam near Tanjore, and spoke to old people who remembered the period. I could do research forever if I let myself, because there is endless information that can be unearthed.
I read ‘War and Peace’ when I was a student at Kalakshetra in the early 1970s, when there was literally nothing else to do and books from the Russian Cultural Centre were cheap; I skipped over the history at first, but then I’d have to go back and read those parts too, out of boredom with staring at the walls of my room in the hostel.The voice of the geisha Sayuri in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ held me in its thrall, I was completely transported into a different culture, values and time period that became vivid and real. I’m also an avid reader of the Judge Dee murder mysteries, set in the Tang dynasty, by Robert van Gulik. Hillary Mantel has made historical fiction newly popular, but the period, place and people she writes about are simply not of interest to me, so I haven’t read anything by her, though I’ve been very inspired by her fearlessness in going against prevailing versions of history.
Q11. A mesmerising aspect of your storytelling in the novel are the sentences. I had to put the book down many times as I kept getting the sense that you were trying to replicate a dance performance in the manner in which the words were strung. Did you play with the structure of the sentences consciously?
Thank you for saying that. Whenever I get stuck I use structure as a force to make something happen. So if everything on the page is tedious, I use the rhythms of the dance korvais as a constraint: That – dit – tha num – num – num – di. Afterwards, I don’t necessarily keep that pattern in the finished sentence, but at least it gets my pen moving, and maybe some of that rhythm has left a trace in the finished novel.
Also, the most famous analogy about the bharata natyam performance, the margam, is that it’s structured as a temple. Balasaraswathi said that alaripu is like entering the temple; by the time the padams are danced, one has reached the dark interior of the sanctum sanctorum. That mapping of dance onto temple stayed with me, and I brought it to mind while I wrote the novel, it was a potent image, so if some resonance of that has struck you, I’m very gratified.
Q12. Nowadays the trend is to get stories adapted to film but do you think Girl Made of Gold can be adapted into a dance performance?
Can I confess that I would love to see the Netflix series of Girl Made of Gold? I can imagine a girl like the beautiful 14-year-old Aparna Sen in Satyjit Ray’s ‘Teen Kanya’ playing Kanaka. Someone, please, make this happen.
The dance performance would have a very different shape and purpose than the novel. For example, if it was done like a Kalakshetra dance drama l don’t think it would work. But of course there is a way to do it, concentrating on communicating not plot but emotion – so much of the emotion is drawn directly from the padams and javalis of the bharata natyam repertoire anyway. Let those songs tell the story of desire and its power, not in a linear narrative, but in a more impressionistic and multidisciplinary layered story-telling. That’s probably how I would do it.
On 24 March 2020 invoking the Disaster Management Act (2005) the first phase of the lockdown to manage the Covid-19 pandemic was announced. “Disaster Management” is considered to be a part of the Concurrent List under “social security and social insurance”. With the announcement all but the most essential economic activity halted nationwide. Only 4 hours’ notice was provided, insufficient time to plan operations.
Demand and supply existed but all cash cycles dried up — because bookstores were not operating. Brick-and-mortar stores had to close while online platforms focused on delivering only essential goods and books were not on the list. Priyanka Malhotra says “When Full Circle reopened in mid-May, there was a great demand for books. Mid-June, supply lines are still fragile, so getting more books regularly is uncertain. Well-stocked warehouses are outside city limits and are finding it difficult to service book orders to bookstores. We are mostly relying on existing stocks.”
In future, the #WFH culture will remain particularly for editors, curation of lists, smaller print runs, the significance of newsletters will increase, exploring subscription models for funding publishers in the absence of government subsidies and establishment of an exclusive online book retailing platform such as bookshop.org. Introducing paywalls for book events as the lockdown has proven customers are willing to pay for good content. Distributors and retailers will take less stock on consignment. Cost cutting measures will include slashing travel as a phone call is equally productive, advances to authors will fall, streamlining of operations with leaner teams especially sales teams as focused digital marketing is effective, With the redefining of schools and universities due to strict codes of physical distancing and cancellation of book fairs, publishers will have to explore new ways of customising, delivering and monetising content.
In such a scenario the importance of libraries will grow urgently. Libraries benefit local communities at an affordable price point. They are accessed by readers of all ages, abilities and socio-economic classes for independent scholarship, research and intellectual stimulation. The nation too benefits with a literate population ensuring skilled labour and a valuable contribution to the economy. By focusing upon libraries as the nodal centre of development in rehabilitation and reconstruction of a nation especially in the wake of a disaster, the government helps provide “social security and social insurance”. Libraries can be equipped without straining the limited resources available for reconstruction of a fragile society by all stakeholders collaborating. As a disaster management expert said to me, “Difficult to find a narrative for what we are going through”.
After a disaster, the society is fragile. It has limited resources available for rehabilitation and reconstruction. To emerge from this pandemic in working condition, it would advisable for publishers to use resources prudently. It is a brave new world. It calls for new ways of thinking.
Given this context, the Economic Times, Sunday Edition published the business feature I wrote on the effect of the pandemic on the publishing sector in India. Here is the original link on the Economic Times website.
As the first phase of the sudden lockdown to manage the Covid-19 pandemic was declared on March 24, the timing was particularly unfortunate for the books publishing industry. End-March is a critical time in the book publishing industry.
End-March is a critical time in the book year cycle. It is when accounts are settled between distributors, retailers and publishers, enabling businesses to commence the new financial year with requisite cash equity. Institutional and library sales are fulfilled. The demand for school textbooks is at its peak. But with the lockdown, there was a severe disruption in the production cycle — printing presses, paper mills, warehouses and bookshops stopped functioning. Nor were there online sales as books are not defined as essential commodities.
“Publishing in India is estimated to be worth $8 billion in annual revenues,” says Vikrant Mathur, director, Nielsen India. “Trade publishing has seen four months of near-zero sales which straightaway knocks one’s revenues off by at least 25-30%,” says Thomas Abraham, MD, Hachette India.
Profit protection became key. Firms either reduced salaries or laid off employees, and unaffordable rentals forced closures of offices and bookshops. Arpita Das, founder of Yoda Press, says, “After three months of almost zero print sales, and low ebook sales, we decided to move out of our office space.”
In mid-May, bookshops and online portals resumed selling books. Bookstores delivered parcels using India Post, Zomato, and Swiggy. Sales of children’s books exceeded everyone’s expectations, averaging 30% more than pre-Covid sales. Shantanu Duttagupta, publisher, Scholastic India, says, “The ecosystem of children’s books and content comprises mainly of parents, educators and children. While print is traditionally preferred, it has to be recognised that content of any sort has to be format-agnostic. Whether it’s digital solutions for parents and children, helping educators through professional development or providing curated, age-appropriate books for children, being agile and nimble is key.”
Publishers announced curated digital content for schools engaged in remote learning. Scholastic Learn at Home, Collins Digital Home Learning, DK’s Stay Home Hub and StoryWeaver’s Readalong** were among such initiatives. Paywalls were introduced for creative writing workshops and were fully subscribed. Academic publishers noted an increase in inquiries from universities regarding bundle subscriptions.
To remain relevant with readers, there was an explosion of hashtags and promotions on the internet: #ReadInstead, #BraveNewWorld, #Reset, #MacmillanReadingSpace, #PenguinPicks, #KaroNaCharcha and #MissedCallDoKahaaniSuno. Book launches and lit fests went digital, with viewers across time zones. Brands like JLF ( Jaipur Literature Festival) got a viewership of over 700,000 worldwide*, while Rajpal & Sons got a viewership of over 300,000 — both hosted an equal number of events (50+) in the same time frame.
According to Meru Gokhale, publisher, Penguin Press, Penguin Random House India, “India’s reading consumption patterns during the lockdown consisted of ‘bucket list reads’ of classics, voluminous works and series fiction; self-help and mind-body-spirit lists.” Publishers launched frontlists (new and current titles) as ebooks , deeming that preferable to tying up cash in inventory. Interesting experiments by editors have involved crowd-sourcing new ebooks, usually kickstarted with an opening by a literary star. Vikas Rakheja, MD, Manjul Publishing, says, “We have seen a 300-400% growth in sales of our ebooks in April-June, over the same period last year, in both English and Indian regional languages, on Amazon Kindle and other online sales portals.”
Chiki Sarkar, publisher, Juggernaut Books, says their titles saw greater time spent on ebooks during the lockdown. Audiobooks also sold. Yogesh Dashrath, country manager, Storytel India, says, “Globally there was doubling of intake. In India, it accelerated exposure to audiobooks.”
But India is firmly a print book market. So it will take some time for patterns to change. Kapil Kapoor, MD of Roli Books and owner of CMYK bookstore in Delhi, says, “In Unlock 1, we have not yet seen a significant spike in the demand for books. For now, sales figures hover around 40–50% of pre-Covid-19 days, largely driven by online sales — an accurate reflection of consumer preference of wanting home delivery and not venturing out to markets due to a fear factor, which is understandable.” A concern is book piracy will increase in direct proportion to economic stress in households.
As for lasting trends, work from home culture will continue, particularly for editors. Experimentation with curated lists, smaller print runs and subscription models will be seen. Some publishing firms, imprints, bookstores, retailers and distributors may go out of business. Increasingly, finance and legal will join sales departments to ensure “correct” decisions are made. Cost-cutting measures may include slashing travel, relying more on digital tools for efficiency, such as negotiating book rights online, employing leaner sales teams and expanding business horizons beyond the Anglo-American book market, without travelling. New platforms capitalising on professional expertise and fostering creative synergies have emerged on social media, like Publishers’ Exchange, an initiative by language publishers across India, Mother Tongue Twisters, Roli Pulse, Independent Bookshops Association of India and Publishers Without Borders. With the redefining of schools and universities, publishers will explore new ways of customising, delivering and monetising content. Could book events go behind a paywall? Perhaps libraries will regain significance?
As the industry negotiates this disruption, it’s clear that it will take a lot of ingenuity to emerge largely unscathed on the other side. Everyone is hoping for a happy ending to this particular saga.
* At the time of writing the article, this figure of 700,000+ held true for JLF. But on the day of publication of the article, the number has far exceeded one million.
** Storyweaver’s Readalong are multilingual audio-visual storybooks.
On 30 June 2020, I was in conversation with the eminent and award-winning Franco-Moroccon author, Tahar Ben Jelloun. It was to celebrate the launch of Tamil translation of Le mariage de plaisir ( A Marriage of Pleasure). The book has been translated by S. A. Vengada Soupraya Nayagar and published by Thadagam Publications. Dr Christine Cornet, French Book Office, was the moderator. The digital book launch was organised by Oxford Bookstore and French Institute in India.
This was a unique experience. I had the privilege of participating in a book launch which involved three languages — English, French and Tamil. Tahar Ben Jelloun comes across as a gentleman who is a deep thinker and an “activist” with words. Reading him is a transformative experience. Something shifts within one internally. It was memorable!
To prepare for the launch, Dr Cornet and I exchanged a few emails with the author. Tahar Ben Jelloun is fluent in French but has a tenuous hold over English. Hence he prefers to communicate in French. Whereas I am only fluent in English. Dr Cornet is profficient is bilingual. All of us were determined to have a smooth digital book launch with minimal disruptions as far as possible. Tough call! So we decided that I would send across a few questions to the author to answer. Given that the Covid19 lockdown was on, it was impossible to get the English translations of the author’s books. Fortunately, I found ebooks that coudl be read on the Kindle. Thank heavens for digital formats! I read the novel and then drafted my questions in English. These were then translated into French by the French Institute of India. This document was forwarded via email to Tahar Ben Jelloun in Paris. He spent a few days working on the replies. Once the answers were received, these were translated into English for my benefit. It was eventually decided that given the timeframe, perhaps it would be best if we focused on only five questions for the book launch. So we went “prepared” for the launch but only to a certain degree. While we were recording the programme, something magical occurred and we discussed more than the selected five questions. In fact, at a point, Tahar Ben Jelloun very graciously opted to reply in English. We discovered not only our mutual love for Mozart and Jazz musicians such as Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane etc but that we play their music in the background while immersed deeply in our creative pursuits — painting and writing. Coincidentally the conversation was recorded on Ella Fitzgerald’s death anniversary, 17 June. How perfect is that?!
Born 1944 in Fez, Morocco, Tahar Ben Jelloun is an award-winning and internationally bestselling novelist, essayist, critic and poet. Regularly shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature, he has won the Prix Goncourt and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His work has also been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. He received the rank of Officier de la Légion d’honneur in 2008. Some of his works in English translation include About My Mother (Telegram), The Happy Marriage, This Blinding Absence of Light, The Sand Child and Racism Explained to My Daughter. He won the Goncourt Prize in 1987 for La Nuit sacrée. His most recent works published by Éditions Gallimard include Le Mariage de plaisir (2016) and La Punition (2018).
Q1. Why and when did you decide to become a writer? Did the internment at the age of 18 years old have anything to do with your decision?
When I was a child, I didn’t dream of being a writer, but a filmmaker. At the same time, I wrote short stories, I illustrated them with drawings.
When I was sent to an army disciplinary camp in July 1966, I never thought I would get out. Everything was done to mistreat us and it gave us no hope of liberation. So, I clandestinely started writing poems with lots of metaphors so I wouldn’t be punished in case they were found. Nineteen months later, in January 1968, I was released and I had little papers in my pocket on which I had written poems. It was the poet Abdelatif Laabi who published them in the magazine Souffles that he had just created with some friends. He himself was thrown in jail a few years later, where stayed for 8 years!
This was my debut as a writer.
Q2.You learned classical Arabic while learning the Quran by heart and yet you choose to write books in French. Why?
Yes, I learned the Quran without understanding it. But my father changed my birth date so that I could join my older brother at the bilingual Franco-Moroccan school. That’s where I learned the French language and I started reading a lot of the classics and also a few novels of the time like The Stranger by Camus, The Words by Sartre or Froth on the Daydream by Boris Vian. But I preferred poetry above all else.
Q3. Your books have been translated into multiple languages. At last count it was 43. Now Tamil too. Is your writing sensibility affected knowing that readers across cultures will be reading your books? Or it does not matter?
For a writer, being translated consolidates his legitimacy as a writer, he is recognized, it helps him to continue; to be more demanding with himself. It’s a source of pride, but you can’t rest on your laurels, you have to work, you have to pursue your writing with rigor. For me, each translated book is a victory against the current trend of young people reading less literature. It is true that they are solicited by easier and more attractive things.
Translation is a gift of friendship from an unknown language and culture. I am happy today to be read in Tamil, just as I was happy to be read by blind people thanks to an edition in Braille, just as I was happy and surprised to be translated into Esperanto, that language which is meant to be universal, but which remains limited to some 2000 readers.
Q4. Your preoccupation with the status of women is a recurring theme in your literature. Why? The two points of view presented by Foulane and Amina about their marriage is extraordinary. At one level it is the depiction of a marriage but it is incredible art, almost like a dance in slow motion. Did you write The Happy Marriage in reaction to the Moudawana law passed in Morocco? If so, what was the reaction to the novel in Morocco?
For me, as an observant child, everything started from the condition of the women in my family, my mother, my sister, my aunts, my cousins, etc., and then went on to the condition of the women in my family. I could not understand why the law ignored them, why one of my uncles had two wives officially and why both women accepted this situation. From childhood, I was interested in the status of women. Later, I had to fight for my mother to be treated better by my father, who didn’t see any harm in her staying at home to cook and clean. Then I discovered that it is all women in the Arab and Muslim world who live in unacceptable conditions. Wrestling has become essential for me. My first novel Harrouda is inspired by my mother and then by an old woman, a prostitute who came to beg in our neighborhood. It is a novel that denounced this condition of women not in a political and militant way, but with literature, with writing. The novel then became stronger than a social science essay. This struggle is not over. Things have changed in Morocco today; the Moudawana, that is to say the family code has changed, it has given some rights to women, but that is not enough. This change is due to the will of King Mohammed VI, a modern and progressive man.
In Morocco, people don’t read much. I never know how my books are received. In general, I tour high schools and universities and try to encourage young people to read. Let’s say my books are circulating, but illiteracy is a tragedy in Morocco where more than 35% of people cannot read and write, especially people from the countryside.
Q5. Have you tried to replicate the structure of Mozart’s Concerto for piano and orchestra No. 16 in D major, K 451? I read somewhere that you liked the composition very much. I felt that there were many similarities in your form for The Happy Marriage and K451. Something about the predictable opening of the story/concerto which develops smoothly, almost intoxicating, and then the last movement, a complete surprise, a triumph. Was this intentional? ( Aside: Here is a recording that you may have already heard. I play it often while working. Barenboim & Argerich : Mozart Sonata for Two Pianos, K.448)
This similarity comes as a surprise to me. I love Mozart’s music, which I listen to a lot. But I never associated his music to this novel. I’m also a big jazz fan. I listen to jazz when I paint, but I need silence when I write. In any case, thank you for pointing out this link, which makes me proud.
Q6. Do you think fiction is a more powerful tool to communicate with readers about commenting upon society and suggesting reform rather than a straightforward narrative non-fiction?
Yes, fiction has a more effective power for information or statistics. During the confinement here in Paris, it was Albert Camus’ The Plague that was most commissioned and read. TV was overwhelming us with often contradictory information. A novel allows the reader to identify with the main character. Literature and especially poetry will save the world. In the long term, especially in these times when cruel, stupid and inhuman leaders rule in many countries. Against their violence, against their vulgarity, we oppose poetry, music, art in general.
Q7. Do you think the function of an artist is to be provocative?
An artist is not a petit bourgeois in his slippers. An artist is an agitator, an impediment to letting mediocrity and vulgarity spread. Some people make a system out of provocation, I am for provocation that awakens consciences, but not all the time in provocation. It is necessary to go beyond and to create, to give to see and to love. You don’t need to be sorted, but you don’t need to be provocative either. Beauty is a formidable weapon. Look at a painting by Turner or Picasso, Goya or Rembrandt, there is such strength, such beauty, that the man who looks at it comes out of it changed by so much emotion. Look at Giacometti’s sculptures, they’re enough on their own, no need for a sociological discourse on human distress, on stripping.
Q8. As a writer who has won many prestigious awards, what is it that you seek in promising young writers while judging their oeuvre for The Prix Goncourt?
When I read the novels submitted for the Prix Goncourt, I look for a writing style above all, a style, a universe, an originality. That’s very rare. It’s always hard to find a great writer. You look, you read, and sometimes you get a surprise, an astonishment. And there, you get joy.
Q9. You are a remarkable educator wherein you are able to address children and adolescents about racism and terrorism: India is a young country, today what subject animates you and what message would you like to convey to Indian youth?
The subjects that motivate me revolve around the human condition, around the abandoned, around injustice. There is no literature that is kind, gentle and without drama; Happiness has no use for literature, but as Jean Genet said “behind every work there is a drama”. Literature disturbs, challenges certaines, clichés, prejudices. It makes a mess of a petty, hopeless order.
To Indian youth, I say, don’t be seduced by appearance, by the fascination of social networks, by addiction to objects that reduce your will power and endanger your intelligence. We must use these means but not become slaves to them. To do this, read, read, read and read.
Q10. You are one of the most translated contemporary French-language authors in the world. In India, French is the second most taught foreign language, what is the future for the Francophonie?
France has long since abandoned the struggle for the Francophonie. The Presidents of the republic talk about it, at the same time they lower subsidies of the French institutes in the world. Today, French is defended by “foreigners”, by Africans, by Arabs, by lovers of this language all over the world. France does little or nothing to keep its language alive and lets English take more and more space.
Q11. What next?
What more can I say? Poetry will save the world. Beauty will save the world. Audacity, creation, art in all its forms will give back to humanity its soul and its strength.
Krishnan worked with Macmillan India (1980-2000) and with Oxford University
Press (2001-2018) to source, edit and promote translations into English of
works by Indian writers from 13 languages many of which won national prizes and
are included in study courses both in India and in universities overseas.
She is currently co-ordinating multiple publishers to build a programme of Tamil-English translations. This is an initiative designed by the Tamil Nadu government and located in their Textbooks and Educational Services division.
1.How did you begin your career as an editor of texts translated from Indian languages into English?
it is fair to say that it began as both an accident and an affinity for things
Indian long submerged by training in English Literature! I always felt a vague
dissatisfaction with the texts I was reading / studying but had no clear idea
of how to access materials written by Indians. Nor how to relate them to what
seemed to be important intellectual tools gained in UG and PG degrees in English
Literature. In the late 1960s-early 70s when I was a student, books were not
that easily available. Because my father was with the Deccan Herald (Bangalore) I got to read the books he received for
review and that was about all. My college and university libraries did not
stock books by Indian authors.
after my post-graduation I got an opportunity to freelance with Macmillan India
in Madras. I was put to work on anthologies of prose, poetry, fiction and so
on. Quite dull work really but I kept asking my editor why she couldn’t include
some Indian writers other than Nehru, Sri Aurobindo and Tagore. “The members of
Boards of Studies do not even consider other Indian writers worth teaching,” she
said. I thought to myself that if I ever got a chance I would campaign for the inclusion
of Indian writers in foundation English courses.
I got my
chance when my editor (Viji Sreenivasan) left, creating a vacuum which I
filled. I was a square peg in a square hole. A week later the Kerala Sahitya Akademi
and Macmillan India signed agreements to produce a two volume publication
titled Comparative Indian Literature
edited by KM George; with 16 chief editors and 200 contributors, it was a
stupendous work. The entire chronology of Indian literature was catalogued and described.
Ancient Poetry (all the languages recognized at that time) Modern Poetry.
Ancient Theatre, Modern Theatre. Fiction. Short and Long. And so on and so on.
It was 4000 pages and took five years to push into shape. I worked on nothing
might all those Indian language works, described in this publication be
accessed? Only a very small number of them were available in English
translation. So, since fools rush in, I designed a project of modern novels
from eleven Indian languages and tried to persuade Macmillans to invest in the
idea. They were astounded. They were textbook
publishers and I was their golden goose publishing for the school and college
market. Why waste editorial time and money on translation? So I set about
looking for support outside Macmillans. If I secured funding I would be allowed
to do the project. For seven years I went from door to door trying to convince
powerful institutions to part with some money for Indian literature. Mind you I
had nothing to show anyone as a promise of what might be possible. Only a
single failed translation by V Abdulla of Malayatoor Ramakrishnan’s Verukal.
Finally, in March 1992, my friends Valli Alagappan, her father, Mr AMM
Arunachalam and her aunt Mrs Sivakami Narayanan who jointly ran the MR AR
Educational Society of Madras agreed to fund me. I still do not know why they
decided to help me. I had nothing to recommend me but my enthusiasm and
determination. I received a letter saying that they would set aside Rs 80,000
per book for 50 books.
No one was more surprised than my highly commercial management but there
was trouble. Though my Vice President R Narayanaswamy supported me, my Managing
Director Sharad Wasani was unwilling to let me spend a lot of time on what he
saw as an unsaleable project. When he received the forms seeking his approval
he refused to sign. I wrote him, “You are the only person in the world who will
refuse funding for his country s literature”and closed by offering to resign.
Only two people from that time left — Jayan Menon and Sukanya Chandhoke—
who will remember this.
Anyway, after Wasani changed his mind, I invited eleven eminent writers to be the chief editors for the languages I had selected for the project ( Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Gujarati, Marathi, Oriya, Bengali, Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi) and they helped to make up lists of five post-Independence novels from their respective langauges. Because I had been dealing with 16 chief editors on the C.I.L volumes I didn’t think this strange at all but anyone who discussed the project with me was astonished at the volume of work I had undertaken. It didn’t seem like work at all to me ! At last I was getting to do what I had really wanted to do when I entered publishing 12 years before.
Many important works were published in full for the first time in English: Brushte ( Outcaste) by Matampu Kunhukuttan, Randamoozham ( Second Turn) by MT Vasudevan Nair, Bharathipura by UR Ananthamurthy, Danapani (The Survivor) by Gopinath Mohanty, Subarnalatha by Ashapurna Debi, Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki and Karukku by Bama.
In all, between 1996 and 2000 when I left Macmillans I published 37 volumes. They went out of circulation a year or two after I left the company and the C.I.I.L Mysore bought the whole project including unsold stocks in 2007 with a view to republishng the entire list. It never happened because the Director (UN Singh) whose dream it had been, left the Institute.
2. What were the languages you first worked on? How many languages have you worked upon so far?
The first scripts I worked on were translations from Malayalam and Tamil. In all, I’ve worked on translations from Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Konkani, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, Odia, Hindi, Kashmiri, Punjabi, Urdu, and just one from Dogri.
3. How do you select which book is to be translated especially if it is a language you are unfamiliar with?
As I said because of the work I did on Comparative Indian Literature it wasn’t difficult to identify what needed to be translated particularly if the Sahitya Akademi had not already commissioned translations. Then again once the Macmillan project took off I was flooded with advice and suggestions. The difficulty was what to leave out. A great disadvantage is that I could not and therefore did not read the critical material on any of these works. I rely a great deal on the advice of others. But when it comes to translators I use a process of running trial drafts of different kinds of passages from the selected work — one might be a descriptive paragraph, a second something very emotional or lyrical, a third passage would cover conversation – to check the translator’s strengths and where s/he might back off, or skip or be lazy. The editing process can take anything from two drafts to six depending on the competence of the translator and the cooperation between all parties. Long silences, gaps in the process are not healthy for the project nor is impatience or being a speed queen the answer. As for the reception of a translation! Much depends on how well the publisher promotes the finished product. Publishing is only 50% of the responsibility. The other 50% depends on promotion and follow-up.
4. Do you think it is necessary for an editor to be familiar with the source language? If not, how can the editor ensure that the translation is true to the original text?
Of course it is important for the editor to know the source language but then in how many languages can one gain proficiency? The editor/ publisher must appoint reviewers who will read the translation carefully to ensure (as far as possible) that nothing has been left out or distorted. Then the editor can take over and polish in consultation with the translator and author.
5. What are the kind of guidelines you think an editor of translations should be bear in mind while working on a manuscript?
Listen very carefully to the voice of the author. Does it chime with the
translator’s? It helps to have someone read out the original even if you do not
know the language while you follow the English in a parallel reading. You
cannot but help hear the inflexions and emotions as the reading proceeds.
Be respectful. Very important to gain the confidence of the translator. Make suggestions tactfully. Once the translator is convinced you are not out to destroy his work or appropriate it, he will breathe easy and work and redraft willingly. It helps to read other works from the same period and familiarize oneself with the language – bank of that time. You need to enter that world emotionally through images and atmosphere not just intellectually through words.
6. What is your definition of a “good translation”? What are the qualities it must have?
This is something I have been trying to figure out for 30 years! Sometimes a smooth read will fail to capture the imagination of the reader. Sometimes even if a translation is jerky and appears to be rushing along, it will work. I think it is a combination of inspiration and zeal on the part of the translator and very patient work on the part of the editor. The qualities? The language must bring the author alive. It must make you think “If XY had written in English instead of in Marathi this is how he might have phrased it”. Now it is all very well to say this to ourselves but to someone who is not Indian, this might still not work at all. Basically I think we should be translating first for our Indian market before trying to reach spaces and minds outside India.
7. When you began translating texts into English for the Indian market, at the time, most publishing houses ignored translations. Today the reality is very different. Most publishing houses have dedicated translation lists and even the local literary awards are recognising translators. What in your opinion are the pros and cons of this deluge of translations in the market — locally and globally?
It is extremely encouraging to see the increased interest in translations and the care with which they are produced but a worrying feature is the way publishers are responding to criteria laid out by the big literary bursaries and prizes for translation. There is a growing tendency to ignore works published more than 20 or 30 years ago and no one seems to want to do a fresh translation of a classic. Then there is the secret craving on the part of publishers to promote a translation as not a translation. So the translator’s name disappears from the cover page, a most unfair practice. I put this down to the second-classing of translations—as if they are something inferior and not worthy of being viewed as works of art in themselves.
8. Recently machine translations such as Google’s neural technology are making an impact in the space of translation. How do you feel about the impact of machine translation in the literary sphere?
Any technology which helps the human translator will be of enormous help I’m sure but I doubt whether it can supplant imagination and nuanced word choices. For mundane passages for instance this interview can be processed by Google translation but — a poem full of feeling and fire? I doubt it. An approximation would surely be possible but would it be good enough? I’ve always maintained that the translator is as much an artist as the writer of the original work.
9. Your name in Indian publishing is synonymous with translation evangelism. You have been responsible for kick-starting many notable projects. The current one being the Translation Initiative of the Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University (TEMU). Please elaborate more on this project.
Actually I did not initiate the TEMU project. That was designed by K
Jayakumar the first VC of the University. It was a simple plan: an advisory
committee selected works, I commissioned the translations and marketed the idea
with multiple publishers. In some cases, the publishers already had scripts on
hand; in other cases, I found the translators and did some light editing before
handing over to the concerned group. The University signed agreements with the
publishers to buy 300 copies at a discounted price and the publishers agreed to
carry the logo and mission statement of the University in the selected works. I
did not initiate any project other than the Macmillan list. In OUP I enlarged
and diversified an already extant list which had not — till I began work in
2001— published a single woman writer. Nor had Dalit or Adivasi writers been
considered. That was an arm I grew for OUP India and it has done well.
For a year now, I’ve been working with the Tamil Nadu Textbook Educational Services on a Tamil- English translation project modelled on the TEMU plan. Our collaborators in the first phase are OBS, Niyogi, OUP, Ratna Books, Harper Collins and Vitasta.
10. Can the art of translation and editing a translation be taught or is it a lived experience?
Commitment, determination and passion are crucial to sustained work in
this area. To find a forgotten work, to convince people that it must appear in
English, to struggle with the translator at its rebirth and to learn that a
major publisher in the language of the original work decided to reprint the
book (which had lain in a rabbit – hole for four decades) —- that is the best
thing an editor of translations can hope to enjoy.
Strategies in translation can certainly be taught. Translator training is certainly possible and necessary but finally the translator is on her own except for her editor and together they complete the phantom work. It might succeed. It might not. It might succeed as an aesthetic product and bomb in the sales department. But then that is the fate of any human product which is judged by both ignorant people and by those who know far more than you do. No amount of reading about tennis or watching it on television can help you to be a good player on the court!
11. Translations are most often construed as being undertaken as a labour of love with little financial resources being available for underwriting the costs involved in the task. What are the economics of publishing translations in India? What has been your experience?
Love is great but it won’t put food on the table. Translations need financial support either from a patron or from another line of books from the same publisher who sets aside resources for the translations list.
12. What do you think is the future of literary translations in the world of publishing?
The world literary mart is only just waking up to the hidden power of translations and what they do to cross-pollinate creativity across cultures and civilizations. Consider all the talk about world peace! How can this happen if cultural understanding isn’t an organic process? One way to ensure this is to expose children and young adults to writing from different parts of the world at an impressionable time in their lives. Translation can help the humanities to make a brilliant comeback in a global sense. Comparative literature is impossible to teach without discussing the central role of translation. If we are to survive all the artificially orchestrated hatred and violence and misunderstandings created by politicians and power –mongers, venues of mutual understanding need to be very deliberately developed. Cultural competence, soft –skills — these are words one hears very often but what are we doing to build that theatre of human understanding? I think that if literary translations can be included in academic programmes and introduced into high-interest professions like management, finance and public policy it would help humanize these professions and give publishers the big print runs and inflow they need to keep doing what only they can do.
Note:Women Writing in India edited by Susie Tharu and K Lalitha (OUP) was a reprint of the Feminist Press publication, 1993, NY and not commissioned or developed by Oxford University Press.
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)
Book Post 48 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.
Akin by Emma Donaghue is about a retired professor and widower, Noah Selvaggio, who is looking forward to visiting Nice after decades. It is his 80th birthday present to himself. He was born in Nice but after emigrating to USA with his parents, he had never returned to France. Nor had he spoken French in many decades except while conversing with his mother and even then it was a one-sided conversation as she spoke to him in French and he replied in English. A couple of days before his departure he is suddenly saddled with the responsibility of his 11-year-old grand-nephew, Michael. Michael’s father is no more and his mother is in prison. Noah is his nearest kin who is capable of looking after the child. Akin is about Noah and Michael tied by blood, learning to live and be responsible for each other. It is a stunning novel told by a writer who is mostly known for her historical fiction. The last “contemporary novel” which Emma Donaghue wrote to critical acclaim was Room. This is her second after that and is so worth reading. It has been written by someone who is extremely familiar with childish behaviour, pre-teen angst, with its glimpses of pure, innocent babyness. Michael is “difficult”, seemingly stubborn and brash, but it requires a great deal of emotional reserves on Noah’s part to remember that Michael has had a tough childhood and is behaving the best way he has learned to survive. The behaviour of the boy juxtaposed with the very similar tantrums that an elder is capable of throwing or watching the energy levels of the older and younger peaking and ebbing at more or less the same time reveals that they are not only akin in familial ties but in temperament too. It is part of life. Of course Noah being the older of the two manages most effectively to mask his feelings and reveal them only to the reader. But the intuitiveness of the elder in his caregiving of the boy are heartbreakingly sweet and tender. A transformation that seems to take place rather quickly given the few days they have spent together.
He watched Michael sleep, that reassuring regular rise and fall fo the ribs. Not cute at all; powerful. A tiny sound, as if he was sucking his tongue. The extraordinary thing about children was that they changed all the time, Noah thought, but not by attrition, the way adults did. Kids were always growing, moving up, away from their only ever temporary carers.
At the same time there are moments of learning that the little boy gives to the older man when discussing contemporary politics. This odd couple with nearly sixty-one years of age difference between them is in Nice also to revisit places that Noah recalls or his mother photographed and remain preserved in his collection of black and white pictures. While in Nice they realise that Nice was a Nazi base and Noah’s mother seemed to have had very easy access to the German forces. It is not clear for a while what her intentions were or was she sympathetic to the Resistance, but whatever the case may be it leaves Noah rattled. This revelation is not helped in any way by Michael’s awareness of contemporary events around the globe such as about Isis and Boko Haram that are equally distressing for Noah. Michael is constantly searching for news and images on his phone. Noah is unable to comprehend why, till Michael replies with a wisdom beyond his years, “If the world’s like that, I’d rather be ready.” Although Michael admits that after browsing through such terrifying images he does have to resort to “eye bleach” of cute pictures of kittens and similar stuff. Unfortunately Michael is too young to realise that memory does not work in such a manner, horrifying information cannot be erased at will. And this is borne by their holiday in Nice where there are constant reminders of the German occupation in the city as well as meeting survivors of the period who remember events of the past clearly. Soon it transpires that Noah’s mother was responsible for photographing and whisking away Jewish children hidden in secret around Nice and helping provide documentation for them in triplicate to ensure their safe passage out of the country. This is based on a true story as acknowledged by Emma Donaghue who says that this novel is her “homage to Marguerite Matisse Duthuit. Apparently the real Marcel Network managed to save 527 children from the camps by hiding them in and around Nice from 1943 to 1945. Only two were captured and sent to their deaths in Auschwitz. For the rest of their lives, the surviving members of the network preferred not to speak publicly about what they’d done.”
Akin by literary stalwart Emma Donaghue is a fine example of what literary fiction must be. It is a stunning piece of work that delves into a slice of history but at the same time remains focussed on the unlikely relationship of Noah and Michael. It is a beautiful novel that puts the spotlight on caregiving and its various aspects. For example, Noah’s mother during the war too took care of children who needed to be rescued and saved from fascist forces. At the same time this parallels Noah’s own life where he has to fend for a great nephew whose mother is incarcerated in prison and Noah has to provde the security blanket, love and emotional and physical sustenance. In both scenarios the children are for all practical purposes orphaned and need to be taken care of. While describing these stories, Emma Donaghue is able to portray a sensitive and empathetic portrait of the relationship between and older man and a young boy, who is on the cusp of growing up. It is a tough situation for any parent to be in but for an eighty-year-old to suddenly have this responsibility foisted upon him is startling but Noah does rise up to the occasion and towards the end of the story promises the sceptical boy a number of things who merely screws up his nose as if in doubt. But as caring adults know that promises given to children are meant to be kept and Noah vows to do so for Michael — as long as he can. Of course the story raises questions about “faux fatherhood” and what it means to be a parent, the feminisation of parenting whereas in this case it is only about the men, but it is portrayed with so much sensitive understanding that very soon the reader forgets there is nothing unusual in this single parenting or the lack of a physical presence of a mother in the immediate family. Instead as Noah quietly says to himself about Michael, “He is just a little boy”, a fact that one tends to forget when the child is being abrasive and brash.
Akin is an extremely beautiful book that is meant to be treasured, shared, read, and discussed. It is an extraordinary portrait of an odd couple who despite their moments of friction find their comfort levels and with it contentment with each other’s presence.