Granta Posts

Interview with journalist Snigdha Poonam on her award-winning book “Dreamers”

Snigdha Poonam is a journalist with The Hindustan Times (HT) in Delhi. Her work has appeared in Scroll, The Caravan, The Times of India, The New York Times, The Guardian, Granta and The Financial Times.  Her article ‘Lady Singham’s Mission Against Love‘ was runner-up in the Bodley Head / Financial Times Essay Prize, 2015. She won the 2017 Journalist of Change award of Bournemouth University for an investigation of student suicides that appeared on Huffington Post ( 1 June 2016). Dreamers is her first book. It won 2018’s Crossword Book Award (Jury) for nonfiction and was listed by various publications, including Financial Times and Hindu, as one of the best books of the year. It was also longlisted for the 2019 PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction ($10,000) announced by PEN America. ( Read an extract published in the literary magazine, Granta: “The Fixer”, 9 Feb 2015).

Dreamers is a collection of essays of reporting from India’s small towns. The people profiled in it are young and ambitious — representative of nearly 50% of India’s 1.3b population born after 1991. They are confident and want to make their dreams happen as soon as possible and not while away their entire lives boxed in by social indicators such as gender, caste, socio-eco class etc. For many of the individuals profiled in Dreamers these are mere notional barriers meant to be broken. They think for themselves rather than be intimidated by traditional rules of social engagement. As Snigdha says the same themes are repeated of “aspiration, self-improvement and anxiety about their place in the world”. The profiles range from that of a young milkman who became a teacher of conversational English and established a coaching centre to that of a young girl who decided to become a feisty student politician, making history with her election to the Allahabad University student council. These extraordinary profiles were written by Snigdha Poonam after shadowing her subjects over some years.

Snigdha Poonam’s trademark is longform reportage which mostly focuses on investigative stories of issues concerning young India. Stories that hurtle you into the heart of the issue, forever creating a sharply etched mental image for the reader of the places and people Snigdha visits and meets, respectively. Stories that she selects would in all likelihood be missed even when they make front page news like that of the little boy murdered in a school. The slightly different peg chosen by her is to follow the story of the bus conductor wrongly accused of the boy’s murder. A story that not only creates empathy for the impoverished family of the bus conductor but also offers an alternative way of looking at the horrific story that many were chattering about. She seeks stories that should be the hallmark of all journalists but only the brave engage in. Some of her astonishing stories that are available online are written hot on the trail of the predominantly young, aggressive, male Hindu pilgrims called Kanwariyas ( HT, 24 July 2017);  on the women journalists of Khabar Lahariya, rural India’s first feminist newspaper who speak up for women in a notoriously patriarchal belt  ( The Guardian, 30 March 2015), “How the fake-jobs industry scams Indians” ( co-authored with Samarth Bansal, HT, 21 Aug 2017), or on the horrendous clashes that take place over electricity and water in urban pockets ( HT, 30 May 2018).

Here are excerpts of an interview with Snigdha Poonam:

JBR: What prompted this book? Has it been translated?

SP: Starting in 2009-10, I had been writing a series of stories looking at non-urban young Indians’ efforts to adapt to a rapidly changing world. I wrote, for example, about commercial Hindi and Hinglish fiction (OPEN magazine, “The New Heroes of MBA Lit”, 17 Oct 2014), personality development classes ( New York Times, “Developing India’s Personality”, 5 July 2013), and online dating ( Caravan, “Casting the Net”, 1 March 2012). I found the same themes repeating: aspiration, self-improvement and anxiety about their place in the world. In 2014 this led to the idea for a book that would follow the lives of a set of people in small towns: what they want, how they are trying to get there, and what that means for their future and ours.

Dreamers hasn’t yet been translated. It’s out in the US and UK and awaiting publication in China.

JBR: How do you find your stories/subjects?

SP: Other than reading a range of newspapers — Hindi and English, regional and national– I keep an eye out for unusual things everywhere, from SMS spam to wall posters to advertisements nailed to trees.  I travel widely across the country for work and let people tell me stories outside of the reporting framework. I also spend a lot of time digging into the lives of strangers on the internet: on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok.

JBR: How many stories did you write/ follow in order to publish the few mentioned in Dreamers?

SP: I wrote at least ten profiles. Among those that didn’t make it to the final draft were the stories of an FM star in Ranchi, a crime reporter in Lucknow, and a wedding planner in Ahmedabad. I wanted to prioritise stories that showed the effect of time on the people and their actions, so only those made it into the book.

JBR: Has your writing style evolved after having published this book?

SP: Yes. I am far more receptive to details. I try more consistently to draw out the nuances in people’s characters, politics, and actions. I play much more with the material until I have the right narrative structure for a story.

JBR: What do you think are the qualities of a listener? I find it remarkable how you channel the stories with minimal judgement but then offer an opinion/perspective.

SP: I have no other real interest in life than other people, so I can listen to anyone who is telling me anything, and if you listen to people at such length, you are forced to acknowledge that they are more than just good or bad. People are genuinely complicated, with so many intersecting forces driving their views and actions, and the most interesting stories you can tell about them are in the space between the extremes.

JBR: How do you record your interviews?

SP: I no longer record interviews unless it’s more than one person talking to me. Taking notes keeps me more grounded in the moment.  I have a decent shorthand, and I flesh out the whole interaction – from what people said to what I observed – before that day is over.

JBR: Do you in any way feel or become responsible for the people you interview or does everyone move on?

SP: I am more attached to the people in Dreamers than those I meet for regular stories. I talk to them about all kinds of things going on in their lives, from wedding plans to job changes. They, too, ask me about what’s going on with me, my work and my family.  

As a journalist, it’s often not people you keep track of but the issue you wrote about. For example, because I wrote an investigative story about job scams, people write to me from across India about having paid someone money for a job they didn’t get. Every once in a while, I have to chase the police in their respective areas to take action.

JBR: Have you ever followed up on these stories?

SP: Not deliberately. I feel exhausted with the issues of young men and want to engage more with women in the upcoming projects.

JBR: Who is your ideal reader? Have any of your subjects in this book read Dreamers?

SP: My ideal reader is curious and patient.

Some of the people featured in Dreamers have read it. One of them presented a copy to a leading politician, another keeps up with its sale at his local bookshop.

24 February 2019

Mark O’Connell’s “To Be a Machine”

Religion, more or less, arises out of divine wreckage. And science, too — religion’s estranged half sibling — addresses itself to such animal dissatisfactions. In The Human Condition, writing in the wake of the Soviet launch of the first space satellite, Hannah Arendt reflected on the resulting sense of euphoria about escaping what one newspaper report called “men’s imprisonment to the earth.” This same yearning for escape, she wrote, manifested itself in the attempt to create superior humans from laboratory manipulations of germ plasm, to extend natural life spans far beyond their current limits. “This future man,” she wrote, “whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere ( secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.” 

A rebellion against human existence as it has been given: this is as good a way as any of attempting to encapsulate what follows, to characterize what motivates the people I came to know in the writing of this book. These people, by and large, identify with a movement known as transhumanism, a movement predicated on the conviction that we can and should use technology to control the future evolution of our species. It is their belief that we can and should use technology to augment our bodies and our minds; that we can and should eradicate aging as a cause of our death; that we can and should use technology to augment our bodies and our minds; that we can and should merge with machines, remaking ourselves, finally, in the image of our own higher ideals. They wish to exchange the gift, these people, for something better, something man-made. ( p.2) 

….

In philosophy of mind, the notion that the brain is essentially a system for the processing of information, and that in this it therefore resembles a computer, is known as computationalism. As an idea, it predates the digital era. In his 1655 work De Corpore, for instance, Thomas Hobbes wrote, “By reasoning, I understand computation. And to compute is to collect the sum of many things added together at the same time, or to know the remainder when one thing has been taken from another. To reason therefore is the same as to add or subtract.”

And there has always been a kind of feedback loop between the idea of the mind as a machine, and the idea of machines with minds. “I believe by the end of the century,” wrote Alan Turing in 1950, “one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.” 

As machines have grown in sophistication, and as artificial intelligence has come to occupy the imaginations of increasing numbers of computer scientists, the idea that the functions of the human mind might be stimulated by computer algorithms has gained more and more momentum. In 2013, the EU invested over a billion euros of public funding in a venture called the Human Brain Project. The project, based in Switzerland and directed by the neuroscientist Henry Markram was set up to create a working model of a human brain and, within ten years, to simulate it on a supercomputer using artificial neural networks. 

( p.55-56)

Wellcome Book Prize 2018 winner Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death  is an incredible account of the journalist’s investigation into what is transhumanism and who are these people actively engaged in this movement, in their search for the Holy Grail of longevity with the help of technology. It is an astonishing book for the amount of research involved, the innumerable meetings, the conferences attended, ideas shared, all of which are pretty amazing given that money is being poured into researching this niche area of how the human life span can be increased. It it is the underlying, very human, deep fear of death that is propelling this research forward with entrepreneurs like Peter Thiel also involved in funding these activities. There are famous centres like the centre maintained by the Alcor Life Extension Foundation which is experimenting with cryogenics in keeping humans “alive”.

In this interview with The Irish Times, Mark O’Connell says “Transhumanism really is for me the displacement of yearnings and anxieties that have traditionally been the preserve of religion. But, overwhelmingly, that’s a sore point for transhumanists. They see themselves as the heirs to enlightenment. In their kind of hyper-rationalist thinking, any notion of spiritualism or mysticism is a complete anathema.”

In another interview with The Verge he says “When you talk to transhumanists, in one way or another, they all aspire to knowing everything and to being gods basically. And I just sort of thought, this is actually something I can’t relate to at all. The idea of being that all-powerful and omnipresent, it’s almost indistinguishable from not existing and I can’t quite justify that.

They’d say, you’ve got Stockholm syndrome of the human body. But that kind of idea is very unappealing to me. I can’t see why that would be your idea of your ultimate human value. I was always trying to come to grips with these ideas and come to grips with what it meant for these people to be post-human, and just wind up getting more confused about what it meant to be a human at all in the first place. I can identify with wanting to not die, but I can’t with wanting to live indefinitely.”

It is a surreal world that the transhumanists believe in, with almost an evangelical fervour for defeating mortality. The reason Mark O’Connell embarked upon this quest of his was because he had become a father for the first time and suddenly questions of mortality and death became very real. ( On a related note. Here is a superb article in The Paris Review of Mothers as Makers of Death by Claudia Dey, 14 August 2018.) But he is very clear, even after one a half years of research for this book, that he will never be a cyborg or a transhumanist. A fact he reiterates in the book as well as in an interview to The Millions. His deep dive in to the subject makes him an expert in the field so he recommended five books to understand transhumanism for The Guardian too (10 May 2018).

Whether you agree or not with the transhumanists, To Be a Machine must be read to understand how man is pushing the known boundaries of knowledge using technology to try and find an answer to the eternal question “How to overcome mortality?”. It is like reading science fiction except that all that is written in the book is very real — very real people, very real experiments in very real facilities. For now it may seem like a fanciful playground of a bunch of well-funded individuals ( mostly male) who may or may not find their Holy Grail, but a possible offshoot of this innovative research may have other more practical applications. Who knows?! Only time will tell.

To buy the book published by Granta on Amazon India:

Paperback

Hardback

Kindle

17 August 2018 

Richard Ford “Between Them”

I know he didn’t take pleasure in books — where he could’ve found what we all find if we don’t have faith: testimony that there is an alternate way to think about life, different from the ways we’re naturally equipped. Seeking imaginative alternatives would not have been his habit. 

Between Them by Pulitzer prize winning author Richard Ford is a warmly told elegy to his parents — Parker Ford and Edna Akins. The title “Between Them” can be misleading for it implies that Richard Ford was a disruption in his parent’s lives. Whereas the portraits he creates via the two essays written decades apart about his parents is of the warmth, love and laughter that existed in their home. His father was a salesman selling starch and had to be on the road every week, returning home for the weekend. His parents were very close to each other having fallen in love at a very young age, married soon thereaafter and always remained together. For years they travelled together on the road selling starch. Fifteen years later their son was born. With the birth of Richard his parents had to make a few adjustments to their lives particularly as his schooling began, the biggest change for the close couple was to live apart for five days of the week.

Yet as Richard Ford writes in this excerpt published in Granta:

As time went on, did I ever sense that something was wrong between them? No. It was my child’s outlook to think most things were right. And yet if life’s eternal drama is of events seeking a more perfect state, their life and mine was not that. My recalled feelings over that time – my little-boy life, in Jackson, on Congress, in my first years, in the forties and beginning fifties – are of a hectic, changing, provisional existence. They loved me, protected me. But the experience of life was of events, of things and people in motion, and of being often alone and to the side of things. Which did not make me sorry and does not now.

Richard Ford wrote the essay remembering his father fifty-five years after his death whereas the essay about his mother was written soon after she passed away in 1981. Yet he published the essays in 2017 arranging the later written essay about his father first and that about his mother second. A telling arrangement since his memories about his father come through as being crystal clear. It is a straightforward narrative about a young boy recollecting his relationship with a more or less absent father since he was on the road mostly and then to lose him entirely when Richard was merely sixteen. It helps the reader considerably to get a narrative about America of the 1930s and the undeniable achievement of Ford Sr. to hold a job through the Depression. The account of his mother with whom he seems to have had a  closer relationship is a bit fuzzier with the adult Richard Ford tweaking his boyhood memories vis-a-vis his mother.

These tenderly written essays are memorable for not only being a deeply personal account by Ford of his family but also for the meditative aspect — for making the reader too introspect on the idea of family, love, memories.

Richard Ford Between Them: Remembering my Parents Bloombsury Publishing, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 180 Rs. 499  

Maid in India

On 12 July 2017 a terrible incident happened in Noida, a suburb of Delhi. It involved the alleged illegal confinement overnight of a maid, Zohra, accused of having stolen money from her employers living in one of the recently constructed gated communities.  Early next morning people from the village where Zohra lived surrounded the housing complex where she was supposed to be. After that it became ugly — events on the ground and the narratives being circulated and published. One version says she says her employers had not paid her for months. Another one says she asked for a loan against her unpaid wages. Another version says the employers had suspected her of stealing earlier but were only able to confront her now and Zohra had confessed. Whatever the truth in this case ( as it is still under police investigation) the fact is such events expose the vast socio-economic divide which exists between employers and domestic staff, particularly the maids. There are many stories such as this that happen every day, most of which go unreported.

With growing demands and increasing number of nuclear families there is an exponential rise in the demand for maids. Also women from poorer families are being sent to work in middle-class homes as it is perceived as a “win-win” situation where the woman not only earns an income, saves money since her food is taken care of by the employer and she is also “safe” in the employer’s home. But it is far, far more complicated than that; impossible to analyse in one article or book.

Of late there have been books and articles published in India exploring the status of maids. These range from memoir, non-fiction to fiction. The first of these books about maids was Baby Haldar’s memoir A Life Less Ordinary. Baby was working as a maid in Delhi when her employer gave her a notebook and pen to write her story. She wrote it in Bengali and it was translated from Hindi to English by Urvashi Butalia to resounding international acclaim in 2006. Earlier this year Speaking Tiger Books published Pooranam Elayathamby’s Perhaps Tomorrow: The Memoir of a Sri Lankan Housemaid in the Middle East. Pooranam has co-authored it with her husband Richard Anderson.

Recently there have been other perspectives published as well. A seminal book is Tripti Lahiri’s Maid in India just published by Aleph. It is a sobering and disturbing account of maids. It is based on innumerable interviews.

Award-winning fashion designer Wendell Roderick’s extraordinary collection of short stories Poskem: Goans in the Shadows It is about the Poskim of Goa. These were young children taken in by wealthy families and retained most often as servants. Through a bunch of short stories focused on events which he says are “all tragically true” though the names and characters are his creations Wendell Rodericks shows another side to this complicated relationship.  In the Winter 2015, Granta 130 issue which focused on writing from India, Deepti Kapoor wrote a hard-to-forget story, A Double-Income Family,  about a Mrs Mehra and her domestic living in a gated community. And then there is award-winning children’s literature writer Payal Kapadia’s first “grown-up” book Maidless in MumbaiIt has been published by Bloomsbury India and promoted with the blurb: “A funny, irreverent, tongue-in-cheek look at the maid-memsahib relationship on the cusp of social change: the horrifying prospect of being wholly dependent on those we employ; the terrifying notion that maids are a dying breed; and the spectre of surviving in a world without them!”

It is an extremely tangled socio-economic relationship that exists in Indian society today. As Veena Venugopal, journalist and author, wrote recently in “Pop goes the class bubble” ( Hindu Blink, 30 June 2017) :

Class and caste difference are, of course, endemic to India. Yet, never before in our history have so many people managed to employ so many others in their service. Predictably, we are unsure about the exact terms of that engagement. An Indian upbringing instinctively teaches us to negotiate for everything. And so we do, browbeating the maid to take ₹1,000 less in her salary, offering the driver an overtime and then arguing about the calculation of it. And then we go shopping, and hey! everything’s on sale, and we don’t even realise when the bill gets to ₹15,000. The maid sees this. She knows enough mathematics to calculate how many months’ salary that is. But we carry on — consumption is our entitlement, social parity is not our problem. Until, one day, we turn around and find two decades of resentment standing in our kitchen, bearing a knife that is not intended to be used for dicing potatoes. “Shocking”, we’ll all say when we hear that account.

For a while, a couple of years ago, with the intention of writing a book, I researched stories of housemaids in India. The accounts of employers — people like us — that I heard were horrific. No holidays, no food, no increments, no healthcare and, more often than you’d think, no pay even. In an ad that was running on television those days, Amitabh Bachchan scolded his help for buying the wrong brand of bulb, and said, “Please stop this habit of thinking”. Several helps I spoke to referred to this ad. “It’s bad for you when we think,” one said, “because in your hearts you know that you haven’t done anything to deserve happy thoughts from us.”

In this uneasy, mutually suspicious cohabitation lies the real future of the country’s social fabric. 

13 July 2017 

 

An Interview with Sam Miller on his Tribute to his Fathers

( 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.

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Karl Miller and Tony White at a Christmas party, 1960

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. 

13 June 2017 

Interview with Pakistani Author Bilal Tanweer on his recent translation of the classic “Love in Chakiwara”

( This interview was first published in Bookwitty on 7 January 2017. The book has been published by Pan Macmillan India. ) 

Muhammad Khalid Akhtar (1920–2002), modern Urdu literature’s great master, worked as an electrical engineer in Karachi and began writing while still in service. He was a prolific writer whose oeuvre consisted of novels, short stories, essays, reviews, parodies and travelogues. His short story Khoya hua ufaq (written in 1943) was published by noted writer Saadat Hasan Manto in 1953. He is also known for his translations into Urdu of Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass. He was awarded the Aalmi Farogh-e Urdu Award for lifetime achievement by Majlis Farogh-e-Adab, Doha. Although he is known as an Urdu writer, Dawn newspaper published an article in which in a letter to his friend Mohammad Kazim dated July 11, 1954, when Khalid Akhtar was in his mid-30s, he wrote ‘Urdu is my darling, but after so many years, I have yet to learn the craft of using it properly. My vocabulary is limited. Even today the thought comes in English and has to be delivered in Urdu. I have to make a conscious effort to convey an idea in Urdu. Every sentence is an effort, an agony.’

According to well-known Pakistani writer, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Khalid Akhtar’s earliest writings were parodies written in English. When they first met, Farooqi was 24 and Khalid Akhtar 72. Khalid Akhtar quietly began to mentor Farooqi by encouraging him to read and lending him books from his personal library and later being his first reader/critic. Farooqi recalled that Khalid Akhtar “mentioned to me that some well-meaning people who had read my Urdu prose, and knowing of his influence with me, had suggested to him that he should persuade me to write in Urdu. I told him that I had decided to write in English be­cause most of the fiction I read was either originally written in English, or was translated into it, and when I thought of writing something it became difficult not to think in the language I read all the time. He knew the problem and told me that his first writings were in Eng­lish too, but persuaded by friends to write in Urdu, he gave up writing in English.”

Nearly fifty years after Chakiwara main Visal (1964) was published, the English translation along with three other stories, The Smiling Buddha, The Love Meter and The Downfall of Seth Tanwari, based in Chakiwara, a Karachi neighbourhood, was just published by PanMacmillan India as Love in Chakiwara and other misadventures. The smooth translation of these stories from Urdu to English is by noted Pakistani writer Bilal Tanweer. In the title story (which is more a novella), Love in Chakiwara, the writing is reminiscent of Jonathan Swift’s satirical wit. Oddly enough, Swift’s humorous writing style perfected to an art form a few centuries earlier is a befitting literary technique used by Khalid Akhtar when recreating the sights, sounds and conversations of a Karachi neighbourhood. The credit for these stories in pitch perfect English translation, seemingly Swiftian, most definitely goes to Bilal Tanweer who labored long and hard with this collection of stories.

Tanweer teaches creative writing at Lahore University of Management Sciences. His short stories, essays, and poetry have been published by Granta, Critical Muslim, Life’s Too Short Literary Review: New Writing From Pakistan, Vallum, Dawn, The Express Tribune, The News on Sunday, and The Caravan (India); his translations from the Urdu have appeared in Words Without Borders and The Annual of Urdu Studies. In 2010 he received the PEN Translation Fund Grant for Chakiwara chronicles; in 2011 he was selected as a Granta New Voice.

Following are excerpts of an interview conducted with Bilal Tanweer.

Bilal Tanweer
Bilal Tanweer

Why did you select Chakiwara main Visal to translate? Which of the stories included in this collection did you enjoy translating the most?

Credit goes to [noted Pakistani writer] Musharraf Ali Farooqi who recommended that I read the book and take on the project. I translated an excerpt from another story by Muhammad Khalid Akhtar, which was published in Words Without Borders, and received a positive response from the readers. That encouraged me to undertake a longer project, which has taken some six years.

How many times did you read the original story in Urdu before you began the translation?

During my last translation project, I realized that the translated text becomes choppy and loses its flow if you continually pause to look up words. So now I begin by reading the whole text first to get a sense of the tonality of the text. Then I read the chapter which I have to translate, underlining all the words that are confusing to me, or that could be translated several ways. Then I look up unknown or confusing words. I also try to find solutions for words whose translation could be difficult or tricky. Once all this is done, I begin translating. I try to work quickly without taking too many breaks; it really helps preserve the flow of the text.

What is your translation routine? Do the methodologies of writing and revising differ considerably between translated literature and original fiction?

Yes, they do. With translation you are focusing mostly on language. So revisions are limited to make the best linguistic choices. With writing, everything is up for revision.

When and why did you venture into translations?

I was a student in New York living on a slim stipend when I saw an advertisement for a $5000 translation prize. I thought I should have a crack at it. I did not win the prize but I realized translating was a lot of fun—much more than I had imagined. So I carried on.

Urdu literature is known for its rich embellishments and exaggerated descriptions. Are these easily translated into English?

Usually these poetic flourishes are not easy to translate. These were particularly a problem in my last project of Ibn-e Safi’s work where prose is playful, and contains many allusions from Urdu poetry. With Khalid Akhtar, the problem did not arise because he writes in a more “urban” prose where the use of poetic exaggerations are ironic, which can be communicated to the reader.

Fictional landscapes such as Thomas Hardy’s Wessex and R K Narayan’s Malgudi become permanent fixtures in a reader’s mind. Muhammad Khalid Akhtar’s Chakiwara is similar. As a novelist yourself would you ever consider creating such a landscape and use it consistently in your fiction? What are the pros and cons of doing so?

I am a strong believer in the dictum that great fiction is fiction of place. Great writing emerges from deep engagement with specific places, and Chakiwara is no exception to this.

14 February 2017 

On “Dying” and “In Gratitude”

jenni-diski51hmou4betl-_sx311_bo1204203200_I’m writing a memoir, a form that in my mind plays hide-and-seek with the truth. It contains what I imagine and what I remember being told. Absolute veracity is what I am after. 

Jenni Diski In Gratitude 

Two women writers, Jenni Diski and Cory Taylor, are diagnosed with cancer and its inoperable. Trying to come to terms with the doctor’s grim prognosis is not easy. Suddenly time takes on a different meaning. Jenni Diski began a column for the London Review of Books once her cancer was diagnosed. It was a series a essays that were published reflecting on her life, her birth family, her writing, her school and most significantly her complicated relationship with the Nobel Prize winner, Doris Lessing, who took fifteen-year-old Jennifer Simmonds under her wing. The Australian writer Cory Taylor too spends a while in her memoir, Dying, remembering her mother and the choices she made. In both the memoirs what comes across clearly is that the two dying writers are reflecting upon their past but are also hugely influenced by and acknowledge the presence of the women who made the writers what they are. Jenni Diski had always nursed a desire to be a writer but had not been very focused about it till she met Doris Lessing and was introduced to her world of writers and other creative minds who always made interesting conversation and had ideas to offer. Cory Taylor discovered that her mother had had a dream to be a writer but never achieved it. She writes in Dying : “Writing, even if most of the time you are only doing it in your head, shapes the world, and makes it bearable. …I’m never happier than when I’m writing, or thinking about writing, or watching the world as a writer, and it has been this way from the start.” Three Australian writers including Benjamin Law wrote a beautiful obituary for Cory Taylor in the Guardian terming Dying as a “remarkable gift” for providing a vocabulary and invitation to speak about that “unmentionable thing”, a “monstrous silence” — death. ( 6 July 2016, http://bit.ly/2dPq0Mx ) These sentiments on writing and the gift of the memoir can probably be extended to Jenni Diski and In Gratitude too.

Apart from Jenni Diski’s and Cory Taylor’s preoccupation with writing and their evolution as writers what comes 41vdphgesjlthrough strongly in both memoirs is the tussle between secular and religious modes of coping with death and its rituals. Also how ill-prepared a secular upbringing makes an individual in understanding burial rites or managing one’s grief once a loved one departs. How does one mourn? The structures of religious rituals seem to take care of the moments of sorrow. There is much to do. Yet the challenge of speaking of death and the process of dying is not easy. Cory Taylor had even contemplated euthanasia and ultimately passed away in hospice care.

In Gratitude and Dying: A memoir put the spotlight on the magnificent leaps medicine and technology have made, in many cases it has prolonged life but with it is the baggage of ethics — whether it is possible to go through the agony of pain while dying a slow death or to end it all swiftly by assisted suicide or euthanasia. These are critical issues not necessarily the focus areas of both books although Cory Taylor confesses in having contemplated euthanasia. While reading the memoirs innumerable questions inevitably arise in a reader’s mind.

Some of the literature  published recently has been seminal in contributing to the growing awareness and need to discuss death increasingly in modern times when advancement in medical technology seems to prolong human suffering. Also in an increasingly polarised world between the secular and religious domains bring to the fore the disturbed confusion that reigns in every individual on how to deal with the dying, the finality of death, disposal of the mortal remains and the despair it leaves the distraught survivors in. Some links are:

  1. “Daughters of Australian scientists who took their own lives reflect on their parents’ plan” http://bit.ly/2dDfvc8 ( Jan 2016)
  2. Amitava Kumar’s essay “Pyre” published in Granta ( https://granta.com/pyre/ ) and recently republished in Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen.
  3. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal ( 2015)
  4. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air ( 2016)
  5. Aleksander Hemon’s moving essay on his infant daughter’s brain cancer ( “The Aquarium: A Child’s Isolating Illness” JUNE 13 & 20, 2011 ISSUE http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/06/13/the-aquarium )
  6. Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture  ( 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji5_MqicxSo )
  7. Andrew Solomon’s essay on his mother’s decision to opt for euthanasia ( “A  Death of One’s Own” 22 May 1995 http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1995/05/22/a-death-of-ones-own )

In Gratitude and Dying are strangely comforting while being thought provoking in raising uncomfortable questions about mortality, importance of time, maintenance of familial ties and doing that which pleases or gives the individual peace. Both the memoirs have a confident writing style as if by capturing memories in words the writers are involved a therapeutic process of facing their mortality while the urgency to their writing has an unmistakable strength to its tenor as if no one will have the time to dispute their published words.

Read these books.

Jenni Diski In Gratitude Bloomsbury, London, 2016. Pb. pp. 250 £12.99 

Cory Taylor Dying: A Memoir Canongate, London, 2016. Pb. pp. £12.99 

24 Oct 2016 

 

 

Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”, translated by Deborah Smith

image

Deborah Smith (left), translator of the winning book, The Vegetarian, with author Han Kang at the Man Booker International Prize in London. Photograph: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images. ( Taken from the Internet)

She was crouching, still wearing her nightclothes, her dishevelled, tangled hair a shapeless mass around her face. Around her,  the kitchen floor was covered with plastic bags and airtight containers, scattered all over so that there was nowhere I could put my feet without treading on them. Beef for shab-shabu, belly pork, two sides of black beef shin, some squid in a vacuum-packed bag, sliced eel that my mother-in-law had sent us form the countryside ages ago, dried croaker tied with yellow string, unopened packs of frozen dumplings and endless bundles of unidentified stuff dragged from the depths of the fridge. There was a rustling sound; my wife was busy putting the things around her one by one into black rubbish bags. …She kept on putting the parcels of meat into the rubbish bags, seemingly no more aware of my existence than she had been last night. Beef and pork, pieces of chicken, at least 200,000 –won of saltwater eel.

The Vegetarian or Chaesikjuuija by Han Kang was published in Korean in 2007. The Vegetarian is about Yeong-hye who decides to become a vegetarian. She is discovered by her husband quietly and methodically removing all the meat products from their refrigerator and putting them into garbage bags. A horrifying proposition as her father points out, “It’s preposterous, everyone eats meat!” Yeong-hye is reserved and rarely speaks even to her husband. She prefers to remain confined to a room in their apartment reading and reflecting. After deciding to turn vegetarian despite being more than a competent cook she inexplicably imposes the dietary restriction on her husband too. He seeks assistance from his in-laws in the hope they will be able to get some sense in to their daughter but to no avail. Slowly the mental well-being of Yeong-hye deteriorates when she begins to believe that she is photosynthesising like a plant and has to be institutionalised.

The Vegetarian sub-heading declares it to be a novel. But the published version consists of three interlinked stories told from three different points-of-view: Yeon-hye’s husband, brother-in-law and sister. While they tell the story there are marginal overlaps of the narrative but slowly and steadily the plot does move ahead in time. It covers the time from the moment Yeon-hye decides to turn vegetarian to her institutionalisation, abandoned by her husband, returns to society to live alone albeit under the supervision of her sister and then back again in an institution. During the course of this time supposedly in the name of an art installation she agrees to her brother-in-law’s suggestion to have her body covered in paint and then filmed having sex with him only to be discovered by her sister. Despite the betrayal by her sister, In-hye, does not stop caring for Yeon-hye and regularly visits her, “despite the probing gazes, that mix of suspicion, caution, repugnance, and curiousity” that she encounters from her fellow passengers en route to Ch’ukseong Psychiatric Hospital, Maseok.

It was first published as three separate “novelettes” and then compiled into a “novel” as described on the copyright page of the English edition. This is how it was published in English too in 2015. An early version of the story that developed into The Vegetarian can be read on the Granta website:http://granta.com/the-fruit-of-my-woman/ .  This curiously mesmerising example of a contemporary magic realism novel went on to win the Man Booker International Prize, the first after it had been combined with the Independent Prize for Foreign Fiction.  Han Kang beat other powerful contenders such as Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk, Elena Ferrante and Kenzaburō Ōe. From this year the prize is now awarded to a single foreign novel translated into English, the money involved—£50,000 ($72,000)—being shared equally by author and translator. Till the win Han Kang and Deborah Smith were little known in international literary circles. Interestingly enough translating this book was one of Deborah Smith’s first professional attempts and she literally struck gold. She has said many times on social media since the win that she was translating the book while learning Korean. It was pure luck that this particular book went on to achieve international acclaim. In an interview, Smith explains how, having completed a degree in English literature, she decided to become a translator. Monolingual until then, she chose Korean “pragmatically,” because she had heard there was a lively literary scene in Korea and far fewer translators than for European languages. But she also very graciously acknowledged in an article how publishing is an industry and translation is a community – “nobody’s in it for the money, largely because there usually isn’t any”. (http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/deborah-smith-publishing-is-an-industry-but-translation-is-a-community-1.2688760) She herself proposed The Vegetarian to an English publisher who accepted it. It is the first novel she has translated. Yet there has been criticism regarding the quality of translation from critics such as Tim Parks who refers to them as “translation niggles”.  (http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/06/20/raw-and-cooked-translation-why-the-vegetarian-wins/ )

For someone so passionate about the translated literature it is apt Smith has inaugurated her independent publishing press, Tilted Axis Press, with Bengali writer Sangeeta Bandhopadhyay’s Panty, translated by Arunava Sinha. To commemorate Women in Translation Month* ‪ (#‎WITMonth ) observed in August, Deborah Smith published the second title, a South Korean novel One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun, translated by Jung Yewon.

*The Women in Translation month is an annual ritual started as recently as three years ago to address the gender imbalances in literature by blogger Meytal Radzinski at Biblibio.  (http://biblibio.blogspot.in/2016/08/witmonth-2016-day-1-ready-set-go.html )

Han Kang The Vegetarian: A Novel ( Translated by Deborah Smith) Portobello Books, London, 2015. Pb. Pp. 184 Rs 499

Max Porter “Grief is the thing with Feathers”

‘If your wife is a ghost, then she is not wailing in the cupboards and corners of this house, she is not mooching about bemoaning the loss of her motherhood or the bitter pain of watching you boys live without her.’

‘No?’

‘No. Trust me, I know a bit about ghosts.’

‘Go on.’

‘She’ll be way back, before you. She’ll be in the golden days of her childhood. Ghosts do not haunt, they regress. Just as when you need to go to sleep you think of trees or lawns, you are taking instant symbolic refuge in a ready-made iconography of early safety and satisfaction. That exact place is where ghosts go.’

I look at Crow. Tonight he is Polyphemus and has only one eye, a polished patent eight-ball.

‘Go on then. Tell me.’

We sit in silence and I realise I am grinning. 

I recognise some of it. I believe him. I absolutely blissfully believe him and it feels very familiar. 

‘Thank you Crow.’

  ‘All part of the service.’

  ‘Really. Thank you, Crow.’

  ‘You’re welcome. But please remember I am your Ted’s song-legend, Crow of the death-chill, plase. The God-eating, trash-licking, word-murdering, carcass-desecrating math-bomb motherfucker, and all that.’

  ‘He never called you a motherfucker.’

  ‘Lucky me.’

( p.68-70)

In 2015 a buzz began about a promising debut by Max Porter. He is an editor at Granta Books and was due to publish Grief is the Thing with Feathers a novel about an English widower and his two sons. It is a brilliant meditation on grief, loneliness,  death and Ted Hughes. It is a novel that is written from three perspectives — the dad, the sons and the crow. The latter is a psychic manifestation of the dad who also happens to be writing a book on the poet Ted Hughes called Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis but the symbolism of the bird works at multiple levels too. For instance the crow is associated with grief, intelligence, personal transformation, believed to be a spirit animal, a creature presumed to have mystical and magical powers, is a steady presence in folklore, mythology and to have personal insight. The Crow in Grief is the Thing with Feathers is no less. Surprisingly in this magical fable Max Porter with gentleness and supreme craftsmanship is able to weave in the mystical and modern with a personal tribute to a literary giant, Ted Hughes. It works splendidly not just in words but with a keen eye on the layout of text designed on each page seemingly in-step with the sentiment expressed. It won the International Dylan Thomas Prize 2016 where the judges commended it for its “imaginative prose”. The prize is for the best work of English-language literary fiction – poetry, drama or prose – by a writer of 39 or under, marking Thomas’s own death shortly after his 39th birthday.

According to the Bookseller, Granta where Max Porter works promoted him to editorial director of Granta and Portobello Books. Porter, who has published authors including Man Booker Prize-winning Eleanor Catton along with Han Kang, Tom Bullough, Caroline Lucas and Sarah Moss, will continue to acquire fiction and non-fiction for both lists. Sigrid Rausing, publisher of Granta, said: “I’m thrilled to announce Max Porter’s promotion. Max is a valued member of Granta’s editorial team – there is no part of publishing that he doesn’t do extremely well, and being a writer himself he understands the writing process from all angles.” Porter added: “I am delighted to be taking on this new role at Granta and Portobello. This is a remarkable team of people, dedicated to publishing outstanding books. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be here.” ( 31 May 2016 http://bit.ly/1su3hdE )

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is an exquisitely complex novel that is a must have.

Max Porter Grief is the Thing with Feathers Faber & Faber , London, 2015. Hb. pp. 115 Rs 799

6 June 2016

Sunjeev Sahota, “The Year of the Runaways”

Sunjeev Sahota‘It really is a pathetic thing. To mourn a past you never had. Don’t you think?’ 

p.216

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is his second novel. According to Granta in 2014, he was one of the promising writers from Britain. I have liked his writing ever since I reviewed his debut novel, Ours are the Streets, for DNA in 2011. The first chapter of The Year of the Runaways was extracted in Granta, Best of British novelists. It is about a few men from India who choose to migrate to the UK. They are from different socio-economic classes. Tochi is a chamar, an “untouchable”, from Bihar who had gone to Punjab in search of a job, but with his father falling ill, returned to the village. Unfortunately during the massacres perpetrated by the upper castes his family was destroyed too. So he gathered his life-savings and left India. The other men who leave around the same time are Avtar and Randeep, migrants from Punjab. Randeep is from a “better” social class since his father is a government officer and he is able to migrate using the “visa-wife” route. But when these young men get to Britain, they are “equal”. It is immaterial whether they are working as bonded labour or on construction sites or cooking or even cleaning drains. They are willing to do any task as long as it allows them to stay on in the country. Apparently living a life of uncertainty and in constant fear of raids by the immigration officers is far preferable to life at home.

The women characters of Narinder, Baba Jeet Kaur and Savraj are annoying. Maybe they are meant to be. Given how much effort and time has been spent figuring out the male characters, the women come across as flat characters. Narinder, Randeep’s visa-wife, seems to have the maximum social mobility in society as well as amongst these migrants but she remains a mystery. It is only towards the end of the novel that just as she begins to find her voice and asserts herself, the story comes to an abrupt end.

I like Sunjeev Sahota’s writing for the language and sensual descriptions. He makes visible what usually lurks in the shadows, confined to the margins. He makes it come alive. It is remarkable to see the lengths a storyteller can go to tell a story that has a visceral reaction in the reader. Also it is admirable that while living in Leeds, UK, Sunjeev Sahota has written a powerful example of South Asian fiction that is set in Britain without ever really showing a white except for the old man Randeep had befriended while working at the call centre. Sunjeev Sahota admires Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. ( It was also the first novel he read as he admits in the YouTube interview on Granta’s channel.) Rushdie too has given a glowing endorsement to The Year of the Runaways saying, “All you can do is surrender, happily, to its power”. ( http://granta.com/Salman-Rushdie-on-Sunjeev-Sahota/) True. The only way to read this novel is to surrender to it. But has Sunjeev Sahota broken new ground as his literary idol, Rushdie did with his award-winning novel? The purpose of literary fiction is to make the reader unsettled rather than just hold a mirror up to the reality. As a tiny insight into the hardships economic migrants experience this novel is astounding. But it falls short of being thought-provoking and disturbing or breaking new ground in literary fiction. I doubt it.

Sunjeev Sahota’s gaze on India is an example of poverty porn in literature. He has got the migration patterns, the hostility at ground level in Bihar and Punjab and the nasty descriptions of the Ranvir Sena or the Maheshwar Sena as they are referred to in the novel accurately. ( I think the novel alludes to these massacres as described in this wonderful article by G. Sampath in the Hindu, published on 22 August 2015 http://www.thehindu.com/sunday-anchor/sunday-anchor-g-sampaths-article-on-children-of-a-different-law/article7569719.ece ) Disappointingly Sunjev Sahota’s voice is clunky at times and comes across as well-researched but a trifle jagged in the Indian parts. The British bits are brilliant as if to the Manor born, which Sunjeev Sahota is! Much is explained by what he hopes to explore in this novel in an interview he gave Granta ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65mtLCbODCk : 23 April 2013) :

What does it mean being unmoored from your homeland and what does that do to a person and subsequent generations? What happens to that hold that is created? What fills it? Then where does one go from there? 

This is a strong and fresh voice. Sunjeev Sahota must be read even if this novel ends with a bit of a convenient ending. This is an author whose trajectory in contemporary literature will be worth mapping.

The Year of the Runaway is wholly deserving to be on the ManBooker longlist 2015 but I will be pleasantly surprised to see it on the shortlist.

Sunjeev Sahota The Year of the Runaways Picador India, Pan Macmillan India, New Delhi, 2015. Hb. pp. 480 Rs 599 

27 August 2015