Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter. Today’s Book Post 25 is after a gap of two weeks as January is an exceedingly busy month with the Jaipur Literature Festival, Jaipur BookMark and related events.
In today’s Book Post 25 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks as well as bought at the literature festival and are worth mentioning.
Supriya Kelkar’s debut YA novel Ahimsais about 10-year-old Anjali who is unexpectedly pulled into the Indian Freedom struggle in 1942 when her mother leaves the family to become a freedom fighter. A brisk pace and an alignment with current social sentiments makes the book particularly apt for our times. It highlights communal tensions, riots, lynchings, prison conditions, the Quit India movement, Gandhi, and the beginnings of Indian nationalist fervour. In the process, it also steps into the vacuum that is literature on the freedom struggle for children.
Supriya Kelkar was born and grew up in the USA, learning Hindi by watching Bollywood films. After college she got a job as a screenwriter for Hindi films. Ahimsa is inspired by her great-grandmother Anasuyabai Kale’s role in the Indian freedom movement. Kelkar spoke to Scroll.in about her book and her writing in general. Excerpts from an email interview:
Why did you choose to write an activist-oriented novel from the perspective of ten-year-old Anjali? I actually first had the idea to write this story as a biopic screenplay of my great-grandmother’s story about fifteen years ago. I tried and the script just wasn’t working and then decided to try it as a fictional story. I realised the more interesting point of view in the story wasn’t that of someone who already believed in the cause. It was of someone who was privileged and not yet ready to confront that privilege.
So I decided to tell the story from the point of view of a ten-year-old girl whose mother joins the freedom movement. I’m really happy with the choice. It allowed Anjali to grow and change so much over the course of the story from a young girl who is happy with the status quo, who loves her fancy clothes, and who doesn’t really understand fully her relationship with her colonisers, to one who is ready to make personal sacrifices, be an ally, and stand up for what is right, strong and confident that her voice can make a difference. It’s a pretty big arc and big awakening for Anjali.
The title, Ahimsa, is synonymous with Gandhi and the Indian freedom struggle. Yet it resonates decades later with the younger generations. What made you think of it The title was one of the first things that came to me when writing this story as a novel, and is one of the few things that has remained from the first draft I wrote back in 2003. Since it was one of the themes of the book, it was an easy choice as a title. But my hope is that the true meaning behind the word really resonates with young readers today, as they realise how powerful their voice is, and how they can make a difference through words and peaceful action and not violence.
What changes did you make in the book over these years? I think other than the very first moment and the last paragraph, everything in the story has changed over the fourteen year-long journey to publication. It took me a long time to be able to figure out what the crux of the plot should be. And that’s the beauty of revision. Once I was able to become detached from my words and hit the backspace key with abandon, I was able to throw out large chunks of the story that weren’t working and figure out what was. I think my characters and their arcs became stronger with each draft, and they definitely became more realistic, as I worked hard to make sure Anjali was flawed and had a chance to grow, and Captain Brent was able to grow and change too. I write on the computer, but will initially brainstorm on paper by hand. But all my outlining and writing is done on the computer.
Navigating historical landscapes at the best of times is tricky and yet you do it with such deftness. How many revisions did this manuscript require? I wrote the first draft of Ahimsa in 2003. It was terrible and I was ready to give up, so I set it aside and went back to working on screenplays. But every year, between screenplays and other novels I was writing, I would remember Ahimsa exists and go back to it, throwing subplots and characters and scenes out and adding new things in. This went on until 2016, when it got a publishing contract. And after those thirteen drafts, I did four more revisions with my editor, so there were seventeen drafts in total.
In her memoir Ants Among Elephants, Sujatha Gidla quotes her uncle, Satyam, remembering an incident soon after India achieved independence. “A short, chubby dark boy…had a strange question for Satyam, one that Satyam had no answer to: ‘Do you think this independence is for people like you and me?’” Do you think this question remains valid even today for Dalits? That is a really powerful quote. While I cannot speak for the Dalit community, I can speak from my experiences growing up and living in America. Here, although equality is a right and on paper everyone should be equal, it is very clear things are not the same for everyone. Systemic racism exists. Discrimination against people based on the colour of their skin or sexual orientation or religion or zip code exists. Hate crimes exist. I think the same can be said in India and in many countries.
Privileged people have to work to confront their privilege and be allies to others. Young readers and older readers alike should be aware that not everyone has the same start in life because of centuries of oppression and discrimination be it based on their skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, last name, etc. When that basic premise is accepted, people can work to address and correct inequality and injustice.
The issues of untouchability, social exclusion and women empowerment are as relevant now as they were in 1942. How did writing historical fiction help you discuss modern instances of these? It really wasn’t until about a decade into revisions that I realised just how relevant historical fiction can be. I was stunned when things I was writing about in 1942 India were being mirrored in 2016 in America. It made me realise we have come a long way and yet we haven’t.
Women are still not considered true equals everywhere, be it in the way girls and women are sometimes treated in India or how women still do not get paid the same amount as men for doing the same job in America. People are still writing narratives for their countries, be it India, America, or anywhere else, and deciding who is included and who is excluded in their nationalism, and who is being centered. And people are still being treated as less-than all over the world. For me, writing historical fiction helps bring light to all these issues, and it is really incredible to see young readers making these connections as they read Ahimsa and see how the story can be applied to their world.
How much research did Ahimsa require? A whole lot! I read many books and went to academic websites for the timeline and historical facts. I used my great-grandmother’s biography, Anasuyabai Ani Me, to help me fill in the gaps for the way some people thought and how they acted at the time. I consulted professors. I spoke to older family members who lived through the time period. And I relied a lot on my parents to help me fill in cultural details. I actually have several of the pictures of the real-life people, places, and things that inspired parts of Ahimsa on my website for educators and readers.
Historical fiction as a genre requires a ton of research. You have to ensure your book works on a narrative level but you also have to make sure the clothing, the food, and the facts are right. And since India is so diverse, what may be true in one part of India for one family may not be true for their relatives in a different part of India. It was part of what made the editing process so challenging. I felt like we were constantly catching mistakes, which is good, because then they could be corrected. The fact-checking was a combination of my own research, my parents and other beta readers pointing things out, and my editor’s questions that helped navigate the fact-checking.
For instance, I had based Anjali’s house on my dad’s childhood house, because much of it was like it had been in the 1940s. But because my memories of that house were from my childhood visits in the 1980s and 1990s, there were mistakes. I had always described people standing to cook in that kitchen in the book. But my dad caught that mistake and told me although the stove was on a counter when I saw the house, back in the 1940s, the cooking was all done on the floor. So I went back and rewrote the kitchen scenes to reflect that.
Writing historical fiction in the age of the internet and fake news can also be challenging because you have to make sure the online sources you use are real. It wasn’t until one of the last edits before publication, when I was double and triple checking everything, that I realised that the Gandhi quote I used in the book, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” was incorrect. There was no proof that he ever said that, but thanks to pop culture, the saying can be found all over America on T-shirts and mugs and written on school walls, attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. I had to research a lot to find a quote that there actually was a record of that could still work in the book.
It is well-documented that atrocities against Dalits persist in India. Ahimsa is not strident, however, leaving it to the judgement of the reader to form an opinion about Dalits. How critical do you think it is as a writer to exercise one’s artistic expression in making stories available that are of utmost social concern to sensitise young readers? I think authors of children’s book authors have a great responsibility in presenting real world issues in an age-appropriate way. As parents, we often want to shield our children from the bad parts of life. But when they are old enough to handle the information, if we continue to shelter them from reality, I think we are doing a disservice to their generation.
In America, there was (and is) a prevailing way of thinking when I was growing up, called being “colour-blind.” We were taught in school that there is no difference between people based on their skin colour and it isn’t polite to talk about race because we shouldn’t see race.
Although that may seem like a really wonderful way to think about the world, studies have shown that teaching kids to be “colour-blind” leads to children who cannot accept that there is systemic racism, or that someone with a different skin colour than them would have a different life experience than them, be treated by the police differently, or be treated by society differently.
I have experienced that first hand, where so many of my classmates walked the same hallways in school as I did but were utterly unaware of racist incidents happening every day in school. And I witnessed those same kids being unable to accept that people who weren’t white got treated differently in America. So it’s actually doing children a disservice to not talk about race and how the colour of your skin in America does affect how you are treated and the opportunities you have.
That’s why I think it is really important for children’s book authors to not gloss over real-life issues. Young readers are smart and shaping their world view at the middle-grade reader level, so it is absolutely critical that we don’t talk down to them or ignore issues of social justice, and other important issues, in books for them.
What has the response of students been like? Have the reactions varied depending upon the audience? For instance, do Americans have a different response to that of Indians or the Indian diaspora? Or do all young readers respond to the book in similar ways? I’ve actually found that readers in America, both from the diaspora and not, and readers in India have all been able to deeply connect to the story. Not only that, so many of them have been able to apply the themes of social justice in the book to the real world, regardless of where they live. I’ve had young readers in America tell me they have been inspired to speak up because of Anjali, that they have decided to get more involved in a cause they believe in because of her, and that the story has opened their eyes to injustice around them. And I have had young readers in India tell me they know they can use their voice to change the world because of Ahimsa.
One reader in Delhi told me that she had never really paid attention to how privileged she was until she read Ahimsa. She was chauffeured to school and often tuned out any suffering she saw outside her car window because she was so used to seeing it her whole life. She told me that, thanks to the book, she will no longer ignore others’ suffering and wants to make a difference and knows she will. So although the issues children in different parts of the world (or often the same country) can relate back to Ahimsa may be different, I have found they can all find a way to connect to the story.
Ahimsa moves at a crisp pace while being packed with details, many of which are noticed on a second reading. How did you develop a love for storytelling? Who are the storytellers who have influenced you? Thank you very much. I developed a love for storytelling thanks to the hundreds of books I read as a child, and thanks to Hindi movies. With each book I read and movie I watched, I was learning about plot and pacing and what works in a story and what doesn’t. Being surrounded by books and movies as a child, I couldn’t think of doing anything else in life but telling stories.
There were several authors whose stories I loved and learned from, like Holly Keller and Beverly Cleary. But the first storyteller who influenced me in person was my dad. He is an engineer but also wrote a lot on the side and was always introducing me to the power of words through the plays he acted in and directed for the Indian-American community we lived in. When I was growing up I saw him writing a script weekly for his Indian radio programme which airs in America and now thanks to the internet worldwide. He also wrote stories and even wrote a couple of screenplays for Hindi movies decades ago.
The other storytellers who have influenced me are people I consider myself so lucky to have got the chance to learn from. I had the great fortune of being taught screenwriting at the University of Michigan by Jim Burnstein. He is a Hollywood screenwriter and incredible teacher who taught me everything I know about structure and outlining and making sure there is logic in your writing.
I had the privilege of working for Vinod Chopra Films right out of college. Vidhu Vinod Chopra taught me so much about making sure your stories are entertaining while saying something. It was through working with him that I learned to really be ruthless in revisions, and go from an impatient novice to a writer who knows the value of revising, even if it takes years to get things right. Abhijat Joshi taught me how to shape a story, and how to really dig deep to get to the crux of a scene and make sure it hits emotionally. And I learned from Rajkumar Hirani how to fill my writing with heart and do justice to each character’s arc, while always keeping the theme in mind.
Did writing for Bollywood films inform the very visual narrative of Ahimsa, or do writing styles vary? Do you find writing for young readers is vastly different to writing scripts for movies? I actually had to unlearn some of my screenwriting training to write novels. In screenwriting you don’t waste time describing the way someone dresses or the way a room looks or the physical way a character responds unless it is absolutely vital to the plot. That’s because the screenplay isn’t the final product.
A costume designer will decide what clothes characters wear, a set designer will decide how rooms should look, and a director and the actor will decide how they physically react to moments. Because of this, through many drafts of the book, I did not describe how my characters interact with their world to show their emotions other than in basic ways like their shoulders slumping or their smile turning down. It was only in the later edits, when my editor pointed this out, that I was able to momentarily let go of the screenwriter in me and really describe what a character was doing physically.
Other than that, I don’t find writing children’s books that different from writing screenplays. I still use a three-act screenwriting structure in all my novels, and find that the basics of plot and character are really the same in both forms of writing.
Was it challenging to find a publisher, or was it an easier process with the “We Need More Diverse Books” movement? It was challenging. I had tried for over a decade to get an agent in the publishing world for Ahimsa and other books but I just kept getting rejection after rejection, despite my screenwriting credits. Growing up never seeing myself in a book, I never really thought a children’s book set in India could get published in America. Other than Ahimsa, for almost fifteen years, I only wrote stories featuring white families because I thought that was all that could sell.
As an adult, I saw a couple of children’s books set in India being published and it gave me hope. I’m so grateful to We Need Diverse Books and everyone involved in speaking out for the importance of diverse stories. I was lucky Ahimsa was published by Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books, the largest multicultural publisher in America. And I’m lucky it’s been published in India by Scholastic. But there is still much work to be done to make sure every child gets to see their story reflected in a book.
How did the striking cover design come about? Unusually, both the American and Indian editions have used the same design. Did you have a say in it? Yes! I love the gorgeous cover so much. It is by a UK-based artist named Kate Forrester. I love the way she uses intricate design and symbolism and hand-lettering in her book covers. I believe I mentioned that peacock feathers would be nice in the design because of their symbolism in the book and I just adore the way Kate worked them in. I also love Baba’s clenched fist, Ma holding the flag, the spinning wheel, and the plants and the reference to the garden and growth throughout the cover.
Supriya Kelkar Ahimsa Scholastic India, Gurgaon, India, 2018. Hb. pp. 308 Rs 295
Well known publisher Pramod Kapoor, founder, Roli Books, has published his first book as author — Gandhi: An Illustrated Biography . It is a scrumptiously designed edition with plenty of photographs laid out throughout the book. More importantly it is lucidly written and immediately immerses the reader into the narrative. Writing biographies is not an easy nor an enviable task as the author is always trying to balance the narrative between being in the footsteps of their subject or stressing on only a few aspects leaving out large chunks of facts. Pramod Kapoor in his book Gandhi achieves the fine balance with panache. There is a grace with which he documents Gandhi’s life as well delves into uncomfortable subjects such as Gandhi’s sexuality, troubled relationship with his eldest son or even the vow he took of celibacy aged 37 and yet opted to sleep naked at night with young women including his beloved niece in his bed. Historian Sunil Khilnani has endorsed the book saying ” Pramod Kapoor’s book is a personal and wonderfully intimate photographic journey through Gandhi’s life. Even those familiar with Gandhi’s story will disocver things with surprise, delight, and inform them in this moving book.”
As of 22 September 2017 the book will be released internationally with editions available in Russian, German, French, Italian, Dutch, UK, and USA. Here is a longish book trailer of 11 minutes but its time well spent watching it:
Pramod Kapoor Gandhi: An Illustrated Biography Lustre Press, Roli Books, New Delhi, 2016. Hb. pp 326
( I interviewed Sam Miller on his memoir Fathers for Bookwitty. It was published on 13 June 2017.)
Veteran journalist Sam Miller was born and brought up in London but chose to spend the better part of his life in India. His father was the renowned literary journalist, Karl Miller, who co-founded the London Review of Books. His mother, Jane Miller, is a writer who has also worked as a publisher, translator and teacher. Miller joined the BBC World Service and was stationed as the BBC TV and radio correspondent in Delhi and then as Managing Editor, South Asia. His love for India runs deep as is evident in the many books he has published: Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity (2009), Blue Guide: India ( 2012) and a Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes (2014).
His elegant essay for Granta, “Gandhi the Londoner” makes for a compelling read. It was propelled in large part by Sam Miller’s curiosity about the years Gandhi spent in London upon his arrival in 1888, a period glossed over in Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning film. What comes through clearly is Sam Miller’s obsession to know more about the past, in particular that which is less remembered in the popular imagination, and to weed out historical inaccuracies that may have crept into modern retellings of this period in Gandhi’s life. It is this remarkable quality as a discerning writer and historian that comes together beautifully in Sam Miller’s recent memoir Fathers. In early 2014 Miller returned to his childhood home in London to spend time with his father, who was dying. Shortly after his death, Miller began to write about his father, investigating a family secret that he had been told about years ago, involving his parents and a close friend. With his mother’s help, his father’s documents, and interviews with people from the large circle of his parents’ friends, he put together a heart-warming memoir that explores childhood, marriage, and friendship, as well as exploring the personal relationship each of his parents had with their closest friend from Cambridge, Tony White.
Miller kindly answered questions for Bookwitty:
How many drafts did this memoir take? It flows smoothly as if it just wrote itself. There is almost magically ethereal quality to it.
It was the easiest thing I’ve ever written; it just came pouring out of me. There were one and a half drafts really. I’d written about half the book in conventional chapters, with long passages of prose. It felt a bit stodgy and linear to me, with all those ‘joining together’ sentences that often feel artificial. At the time, I was reading a French book called HHHH by Laurent Binet, and he uses short numbered chapters—and I tried it out, breaking up the text, inserting a few mini-chapters that enabled me jump more easily in time and place. I hope it allowed the text to flow more smoothly, more naturally—bringing it a little closer, in my view, to the way we talk and the way we think. I read my words out loud to myself as I write, and it is important that the text sounds right, as if I were writing for radio.
The elegant manner in which you write investigating your paternity also conveys the immense love you grew up with. Was Fathers emotionally tough to write?
It felt good for me, as if it were a kind of therapy, a way of releasing something that I’d half-buried. But it also was about dealing with grief, and a more specific sense of anger with myself for having not been there when my father died.
This story is as much yours as it is your parents’ and their close friend Tony White. How did you feel about your mother supporting you on this project? Would you have written this memoir if it had not been forthcoming?
I write anyway, not always for publication. So I think I would have written this tale, for myself at least. But my mother was always part of the story, and the telling of the story. I wouldn’t have published it without her support.
How closely involved was your mother with this manuscript? Were you required to make any critical changes in the drafts—sections you felt needed to stay and your mother thought otherwise or vice versa?
I would talk to her as I was writing, but only showed it to her in larger chunks. We did discuss minor changes, but nothing I would describe as critical. I know so much of the story through her anyway (and she is a writer too); that it has a strong Jane Miller imprint on it, though the final version is very much mine in style and content.
The forgiving nature of your father is an extraordinary quality to have just as the calm acceptance of your presence in the lives of the three adults: Karl and Jane Miller and Tony White. While writing Fathers did you ever wonder about the evolution of the institution of marriage? It seems to have been far more accommodating in your parents’ generation than it is today.
I don’t feel very well equipped to comment on the institution of marriage, but I do think that almost every couple’s relationships are pretty different from each other. And therefore simply following convention and ideas of normality are not a great basis for forming a relationship. I’m not quite sure that ‘forgiving’ is the right word here; I think my father’s response was more complicated than that and related to his own upbringing, and to his own ideas about the (un) importance of fidelity.
Does the crucial family secret your mother shared make you ever wonder about the popular debate about genetics vs environment being influencing factors in the growth of an individual?
Yes, I do. But I’ve not come up with any useful conclusions. I’ve been intrigued to notice the ways in which I am similar to Tony White, but these are not necessarily genetic. They could be learned, from what I know of Tony—and more indirectly and even subconsciously via my parents.
Many times in the memoir you allude to your father’s poems describing his friends bordering on the homoerotic or comment often on his close male friendships which, for his generation, seem nothing out of the ordinary. “Karl Miller struggled to reconcile close male friendship with the possibility or reality of homosexual love. My father was not, I think, a homophobe, but was sensitive to accusations that he might be.” Do you think it’s fair to your father and his generation to read in to their relationships what is a popular 21st century concept of homosexuality?
I’m not so sure that it was so different in the fifties; it was just talked about less. I would distinguish homoeroticism from homosexuality, as think my father would, and as I think Thomas Mann would have even before my father was born.
While writing this memoir were there any others you referred to as literary examples to emulate?
Not really. It was written for me, and then my mother. I was pleasantly surprised when the earliest other readers liked what I had written—I had been expecting them to suggest changes, particularly to the structure.
Of all the diverse genres you have published, travelogue, translation and memoir, which has been the most challenging and why?
I’ve written a history (A Strange Kind of Paradise) and a guidebook (Blue Guide India) as well! The guidebook was most exhausting. The history book involved the most research—and that was probably the most challenging—I wanted it to be interesting for people who think they aren’t interested in history. The publication (rather than the writing) of Fathers was quite a challenge – a nerve-racking experience. I was apprehensive about the response to what I had written. But the response has been largely positive.
Sam Miller Fathers Jonathan Cape, London, 2017. Hb.
I reviewed for The Wire, Fiston Mwanza Majila’s wonderful debut Tram 83, translated by Roland Glasser from French into English and originally published by Deep Vellum ( USA). It has been published in the Indian subcontinent by Speaking Tiger Books on their exciting new list for International Literature. Here is the original url: http://thewire.in/2016/06/02/review-waiting-for-godot-in-the-congo-39893/ . This was published online on 2 June 2016. I am c&p the text below.
Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 is a bold experiment in form, set in an anonymous ‘City-State,’ which unnervingly parallels the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Credit: Speaking Tiger Books.
These recorded sounds are historical monuments, works of literature, poems, tragedies. Through the rust and other elements, you can feel history, the history of peoples, the memory of migration.
Fiston Mwanza Mujila burst upon the international literary landscape with his debut novel Tram 83. It was originally published in French in 2014 by Éditions Métailié and translated into English by Roland Glasser in 2015. Tram 83 is inspired by the city of Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where the local economy is driven by diamond mining. The story is about ‘City-State,’ which could be anywhere, yet is distinctly a mining town. In City-State, one of the most popular restaurants and hooker bars is ‘Tram 83,’ and it is frequented by:
Inadvertent musicians and elderly prostitutes and prestidigitators and Pentecostal preachers and students resembling mechanics and doctors conducting diagnoses in nightclubs and young journalists already retired and transvestites and second-foot shoe peddlers and porn film fans and highwaymen and pimps and disbarred lawyers and casual labourers and former transsexuals and polka dancers and pirates of the high seas and seekers of political asylum and organised fraudsters and archeologists and would-be bounty hunters and modern day adventurers and explorers searching for a lost civilisation and human organ dealers and farmyard philosophers and hawkers of fresh water and hairdressers and shoeshine boys and repairers of spare parts and soldiers’ widows and sex maniacs and lovers of romance novels and dissident rebels and brothers in Christ and druids and shamans and aphrodisiac vendors and scriveners and purveyors of real fake passports and gun-runners and porters and bric-a-brac traders and mining prospectors short on liquid assets and Siamese twins and Mamelukes and carjackers and colonial infantrymen and haruspices and counterfeiters and rape-starved soldiers and drinkers of adulterated milk and self-taught bakers and marabouts and mercenaries claiming to be one of Bob Denard’s crew and inveterate alcoholics and diggers and militiamen proclaiming themselves “masters of the world” and poseur politicians and child soldiers and Peace Corps activists gamely tackling a thousand nightmarish railroad construction projects or small-scale copper or manganese mining operations and baby-chicks and drug dealers and busgirls and pizza delivery guys and growth hormone merchants, all sorts of tribes overran Tram 83, in search of good times on the cheap.
This long passage is best read aloud and that is the distinctive breakthrough in the novel. It is less a novel than an oral performance. There is absolutely no point in trying to read it as a classically structured novel. The writing has a structural rhythm defined by the punctuation. In an interview, Glasser said that while working on the translation he would spend some time walking around in the garden reading the text out aloud to himself.
Mwanza Mujila is a performance poet, something that gives him a natural feeling for the song in the words. The fabulous performance that he and Glasser gave at Malvern Books, accompanied on the saxophone by Chris Hall, shows how in tune he and his translator are. Ever since he was a child, Mwanza Mujila wanted to learn how to play the saxophone, but was unable to get one so instead he taught himself to use his voice as the instrument. He demonstrated it at the Brooklyn Book Festival. Woven along with these musical influences is the very strong impact of evangelical Christianity. The way that the words and lists build up to crescendos in the book are very similar to a tub-thumping pastor’s sermons.
It is fascinating to discover that Mwanza Mujila is pursuing a PhD in Romance languages & literatures. Romance literature emerged out of the textual recording of oral forms of storytelling like the Arthurian cycle. It is also phonetically written, lending itself to varying rhythms when read aloud. These stories also served a definite purpose of recording contemporary socio-political-economic events like the tin trade between France and Glastonbury but were also thoroughly entertaining. Obviously a form of storytelling that many centuries later continues to be popular.
A Beckettian relationship
This is not to say that the plot is unimportant. Tram 83 is primarily about two characters – Lucien, a writer, and Requiem, a hustler, who were close friends but drifted apart. Lucien is upright and ethical, while Requiem is wonderfully amoral, minting money however he can, from illegal sales to blackmail. Lucien returns from the “Back-Country,” having completed half of a “stage-tale” entitled “The Africa of Possibility: Lumumba, the Fall of an Angel, or the Pestle-Mortar Years…Characters include Che Guevara, Sékou Touré, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Lumumba, Martin Luther King, Ceauşescu, not forgetting the dissident General”. He moves in with Requiem, who continues to flourish with his disreputable activities, but their relationship is now imbued with a deep-seated love/hate resentment towards each other. It is a particularly Beckettian relationship reminiscent of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot especially with the refrain peppered throughout the text – “Do you have the time”. Many times the conversations do not make any sense unless read aloud. Out of nonsense emerges a narrative.
Around Lucien and Requiem swirl people and conversations, with a plethora of walk on parts. A few characters remain throughout the story, such as the publisher Ferdinand Malingeau. It is like a well-constructed theatrical performance, an opera, but it is surreal given the unnerving parallels with the DRC. In an interview with Asymptote the author said, “…the “City-State” could be anywhere; a non-place, in the same way that, in his view, DRC is a non-country — no stable government, borders constantly breached by armies from neighbouring states”.
Women are marginal to the story. Mwanza Mujila defended this decision in an online interview, saying, “Anyone who has spent at least one day in a quarry or mine knows that masculinity is a necessity (for the diggers) in this environment, and that this particular masculinity is constructed differently to that found in cities or out in the countryside, often to the detriment of women”.
Tram 83 has already garnered significant literary prizes, such as Grand Prix SGDL, the Literary Prize of Graz, Austria, 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature and had been longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2015. It is a bold experiment in form and an absolutely marvellous debut – tough to read but intelligently crafted.
Buy it. Read it. Become a fan.
Fiston Mwanza Mujila Tram 83 Translated by Roland Glasser, Speaking Tiger Publishing, Delhi, 2016, 210 pages, Rs. 350.
The process of translating the literature of the Dalits, among India’s most oppressed classes, brings one face-to-face with the bitter realities of our society. …The situation changed significantly with the advent of printing technology. Books became available to every Indian, irrespective of caste and creed. As a result, a number of important voices began to find a wider audience. While social reformers like Jyoti Ba Phule, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr B.R. Ambedkar brought to the fore the injustices inherent in a social order designed to perpetuate caste-based exploitation, the freedom movement, launched to liberate the country from its British colonial rulers, played a vital role in the social awakening of communities that had, so far, been denigrated as the lower classes. These simultaneous developments would go a long way in contributing to the creation of a specific literary genre that eventually came to be identified as Dalit literature — the literature of the oppressed.
( p. ix “A Note from the Translator”)
Ratan Kumar Sambharia Thunderstorm: Dalit Stories ( Translated by Mridul Bhasin) Hachette India, Gurgaon, India, 2015. Pb. pp. 246 Rs350
Even the terms used to describe the famous Indian uprising against the British in 1857 are political positions. Was it a mutiny, or India’s First War of Independence? Rebellion or uprising? A nationalist movement or a string of local protests?
p.243, “Lakshmi Bai, Rani of Jhansi: Bad-ass Queen (1828-1858)”
‘A society, almost necessarily, begins every success story with the chapter that most advantages itself,’ the American public intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates recently argued regarding mythic constructions of liberation all over the world. ‘[C]hapters are almost always rendered as the singular action of exceptional individuals.’ In modern India’s myth of finally, formally confronting its brutal history of case, Bhimrao Ambedkar is that exceptional individual. But every Great Man story is also a story of circumstance. Had India not been devastated by Partition, the formidable lawyer and scholar who led the untouchables might not have become the founding father most meaningful to ordinary Indians today.
p.468 “Ambedkar: Building Palaces on Dung Heaps (1891-1956)”
Sikri’s battlements, palaces, shrines proclaim imperial grandeur. But its airy pavilions and halls share little in common with the heavy monumentalism of Versaille or the Habsburg seats of power. Parts of the city have the feeling of a tent encampment, except that the animal skins and wood frames have been replaced by stone and marble, carved with great skill by local craftsmen. Walking through this now desolate cityscape in the dry heat, you might feel, at certain turns, as if you were in one of M.C. Escher’s drawing, reworked with the stark surrealism of Giorgio de Chirico. It’s like touring the physical manifestation of a mind — the expansive, syncretic mind of its creator: Akbar, the greatest of the Mughal emperors.
p. 165 “Akbar: The World and the Bridge ( 1542-1605)
Sunil Khilnani’s magnificent Incarnations: India in 50 Lives gives a bird’s-eye view of history via the short account of people through their ages. The fifty people profiled are those who left a significant stamp in the socio-cultural-political and economic make-up of this land evident in modern India –a nation state that is very complicated, multi-layered. These biographical accounts written like “non-fiction short stories” detail the life and achievements of the person being profiled while placing them neatly in their historical and contemporary context. Incarnations has been published to coincide with the BBC Radio 4 series http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05rptbv. The principle of arrangement of this book is probably borrowed from another extremely popular BBC Radio 4 series + sumptiously produced book by Neil MacGregor, then director of the British Museum, on A History of the World in 100 Objects ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00nrtd2/episodes/downloads ).
Yet Incarnations is very much in the tradition of books written trying to make history accessible to the lay reader. To document history in this fashion probably began with Jawaharlal Nehru’s Glimpses of World History to many accounts at chronicling this fascinating sub-continent by authors like Amartya Sen, Jean Dreze, Shashi Tharoor, Ramachandra Guha, Patrick French, Bipin Chandra, Romila Thapar, Percival Spear, Narayani Gupta, Subhadra Sen Gupta ( for children) et al. There were many volumes that were published to coincide with the fiftieth year of Independence but it is for the first time that a historian like Sunil Khilnani has put together an account that incorporates even lesser known individuals such as Malik Ambar the African slave who become powerful political force to contend with.
We live in a noisy, reactionary and surprisingly ahistorical world where lies and misinterpretations get amplified rapidly using social media platforms. So to have a book recount landmark moments in history through well-written biographies is a crucial and much appreciated contribution to social discourse. The style of writing is wonderfully catchy beginning with the chapter headings. For instance, Rani Lakshmi Bai, the queen who is almost revered for her resistance to the British colonial rulers in the nineteenth century with Indian school children even today being taught to memorise poems extolling her heroism; she is simply referred to as the “Bad-Ass Queen”. The list of contents is a delight to read. Similarly are the introductory paragraphs to every chapter –packed with facts, information and incorporating the broad spectrum of views on how the moment in history being discussed in the chapter has been perceived. It is a remarkable example of immense scholarship with a fine sensibility of being able to communicate with a non-academic audience. Peppered in the book are cross-references to other chapters illustrated by the names being marked in bold, a neat technique taken from academic publications and inserted into a trade title.
Outlook magazine’s 19 February 2016 issue focussed on Sunil Khilnani’s book with generous extracts from the book along with an in-depth interview by Satish Padmanabhan. Here is a link to the special issue and interview: http://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/issue/11449 and http://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/self-criticism-and-not-glib-self-congratulation-is-the-deepest-form-of-patriotis/296684 .
For all the stupendous historical detailing in each biography there are some disturbingly puzzling glossing over historical facts. For instance not referring to General Dyer by name instead saying “the officer” ( p.437) or referring to the campaign of installing Gandhi’s statue in London ( 2015) led by Lord Meghnad Desai and his wife, Lady Kishwar Desai but once again not pinning it in history by taking any names. Baffling since General Dyer is well-remembered in India and the topiary at Jallianwala Bagh nevers allows anyone to forget the dastardly massacre. Similarly, the campaign to instal Gandhi’s statue was a very political and public event splashed across worldwide media with David Cameron PM, UK and Arun Jaitley, Union Finance Minister, India, Gopal Krishna Gandhi, Amitabh Bachchan, Lord Meghnad Desai and Lady Kishwar Desai attending the unveiling of the statue. So it does leaves a tiny lingering of doubt about the other bits of history that may have been silenced. Even so, this is is a splendid book and must be read.
Sunil Khilnani Incarnations: India in 50 Lives Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, Penguin Random House, UK, 2016. Hb. pp. 636 Rs. 999
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi or Mahatma Gandhi ( 2 October 1869 – 30 January 1948) was a lawyer who turned to politics after experiencing apartheid in South Africa. He returned to India and became a leader of the Indian struggle for Independence. His unique style of resisting the British colonial rulers was through non-cooperation and other peaceful means. He did not believe in violent opposition. There are many, many accounts available about “Father of the Nation” as he is fondly referred to in India. Mahatma Gandhi inspired political leaders in other countries, most notably, Martin Luther King. Recently there have been a some books published for younger readers, introducing Mahatma Gandhi to children who have been born four generations after Independence. So the stories about the freedom struggle and this incredible man are no longer a part of living history, but relegated to dry textbooks. Two biographies were published by Puffin India and Scholastic India. The Puffin Lives edition has been written by noted historian and award-winning children’s writer, Subhadra Sen Gupta. The Scholastic India edition is by Lushin Dubey. But the latest book to join these two is a heavily illustrated account of Gandhi’s life and his involvement with the freedom movement. Given how profusely illustrated the book is, with photographs, documents, sketches etc, it is quite reasonably priced at INR 299. This is the first in a local programme announced by the DK India. It is a welcome addition in the fortieth year of Dorling Kindersley’s establishment.