Hamish Hamilton Posts

Interview with Daisy Rockwell regarding her translation of Khadija Mastur’s “Aangan” / “The Women’s Courtyard”

Daisy Rockwell is a painter, writer and translator of Hindi and Urdu literature living in the United States. Her translations include Falling Walls, by Upendranath Ashk, Tamas, by Bhisham Sahni, and The Women’s Courtyard by Khadija Mastur. Her recent translation of The Women’s Courtyard  is fascinating since it comes across as a very confident translation as if fiction about women and their domestic spaces is completely acceptable. A translation of the very same novel done nearly two decades earlier is equally competent but for want of a better word, it is far more tentative — at least reading it now. When I first read the translation of Aangan in 2003 it did not feel amiss in any manner but today comparing the two translations it is as if Daisy Rockwell’s translation of The Women’s Courtyard  is imbued with a strength influenced by popular sentiments which is in favour of women particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement. It may not have been done consciously by Daisy Rockwell but it is evident in the tenor of the text. The Women’s Courtyard is a pleasure to read.

I interviewed Daisy Rockwell via email. Here are excerpts:

1.       Why did you choose to translate Aangan?

A friend had suggested I read it because of my interest in literature of that period and I was also shifting my attention to novels written by women. I was struck by the delicate, clean prose and the complex portrait Mastur painted of a young woman’s life.

2.       How long did it take to translate and edit the text?  I wonder how many conversations you must have had with yourself Daisy while translating the book?! Or was it just a task to be finished in time?

I don’t think frankly that anyone is usually sitting around impatiently waiting for one’s translation of a classic literary work. My deadlines are all my own. A project of that size usually takes about a year. I usually set myself a daily page quota which I don’t always meet. I had many conversations with myself about this book, and continue to do so. One of the great strengths of Mastur’s novels is that she doesn’t ever reveal everything. One is left pondering and questioning for a long time after. I still have questions that I can’t answer, and that I keep turning over in my mind. Translation issues less so than thoughts about Aliya’s interior universe and motivations. 

3. While translating the text did you refer only to the original manuscript or did you constantly read other translations and commentaries on the text?

I consulted heavily with my friend Aftab Ahmed, who is also a translator, and who grew up in the same general area where the novel is set. I would check his responses with the previous translation in English when I was unsure of what was being said. Retranslation is interesting because the previous translation gives you an interlocutor. Even if you don’t agree with the choices the other translator(s) made, you learn to look at words and sentences from a different perspective if you are stuck on something confusing. Every translation is different, word for word, paragraph for paragraph, so sometimes just rearranging things jogs one’s ability to understand. Mastur’s style is not that difficult in terms of grammar, but there are historical items that are hard to find dictionary definitions for and that I had to research. Usually it has to do with terms for items of clothing or architectural details.

4. Do you feel translating works from Hindi/Urdu into English involves a translation exercise that is very different to that of any other language translation? 

I think there would be parallels from translating into English from other South Asian languages. A big challenge is that the syntax is the opposite—English is what is known as a ‘right-branching language’ syntactically. Indic languages are left-branching. This is also true of Japanese. When the syntax has to be flipped it can be a challenge, because sometimes that syntactical difference can even be reflected at the paragraph level and one has to switch the order of some of the sentences in the paragraph. Indic languages also tend to have many impersonal constructions whereas English prefers active verbs and subjects. Think of ‘usko laga jaise…’ as opposed to ‘she felt as though…’. Because of this one has to continuously change voice without trampling on the original meaning.

5. Why did you translate the title “Aangan” as “The Women’s Courtyard” when the literal translation of “Aangan” is “inner courtyard”? 

The translation of the title is ultimately up to the editor and the publicity team. I get to veto options I dislike, but ultimately they choose the title based on concerns that are sometimes outside of the translator’s purview. “Aangan” couldn’t be called ‘The Inner Courtyard’ because that is the title of the previous translation and they wanted to distinguish them. An ‘aangan’ is not technically just for women, but in this context, it is the domain of women. I assume they added in ‘women’s’ to invoke the importance of women’s experiences to the novel. 

6.       While translating Aangan did you choose to retain or leave out certain words that existed in Urdu but did not use in English? Is this a conundrum that translators often have to face — what to leave and what to retain for the sake of a clear text? 

AK Ramanujan, with whom I was fortunate to take a graduate seminar on translation shortly before his death, pointed out to me that in a long novel you have the opportunity to teach the readers certain words. I take this as my maxim and add to it the notion that you cannot teach them many words, only a few, so you must make a choice as to what you are going to make the readers learn and grow accustomed to. There has been some discomfort with the fact that I translated many kinship terms into English and left only a few of the original terms. I did this because there are way more kinship terms in literature by men than in literature by women. Kinship terms are all ‘relative’ in the sense that one person’s bahu is another person’s saas is another person’s jithani is another person’s bari mausi. If all these are left in and no one has any given names it is extremely perplexing to readers who do not know the language fluently. I will often leave a word in and teach it by context but not refer to that person by myriad other kinship terms. For example the main character’s mother could be ‘Ma’, or ‘Amma’, but I am not going to give the mother all her other kinship terms because that’s too much to ask. I want the reader who knows no Hindi or Urdu to feel comfortable enough to keep reading the book. Adding a glossary of terms doesn’t really help because most people don’t sign up for a language and kinship lesson when they pick up a novel to read. Readers that do know these terms fluently tend to speak a style of English in their homes that incorporates the Hindi and Urdu kinship terms, so they think of these as a part of Indian English, but it’s not at all the case for Tamil speakers or Bangla speakers, who all have their own kinship terms that they use in English. My goal is to create a translation that can be enjoyed by people not just in India and South Asia, but all around the world. It’s a tricky business but I attempt to cater to everyone as much as I can.

My policies on what to leave in the original language are not created on behalf of readers who are fluent in these languages, but for people who are not. My Bangladeshi friends, for example, do not know what the words saas and bahu mean. We have these words in English—mother-in-law and daughter-in-law–so I translate them. An example of a word I did not translate was takht. A takht is a platform covered with a sheet where family members sit/sleep/gather/eat/make paan, and generally do everything. I decided that this was a word the readers would need to learn from context. Why? Because it occurs on almost every page, is the center of the action, and most importantly, it has no English equivalent.

7. How modern is your translation of Aangan? For instance did you feel that the times you were translating the novel in where sensitivity and a fair understanding of women’s issues exists far more than in it ever did in previous decades helped make your task “easier”? 

I try to inhabit a linguistic system that is non-anachronistic when I translate the voice of a novel. I did not use #metoo-era language, I used a more formal register and kept it less modern. I think infusing the language with a contemporary sensibility would ruin the finely drawn portrayals in the original text.

8. In your brilliant afterword you refer to the first English translation of Aangan done by Neelam Hussain for Simorgh Collective and later republished by Kali for Women/ Zubaan. Why do you refer to your translation as a “retranslation” and not necessarily a “new translation”? 

No particular reason—I guess I think of them as the same thing. If I say ‘retranslation’ I am nodding to the hard work done by the path-breaker. The first translation will always be the hardest one.

9. You are a professional translator who has worked on various projects but have also translated works by women writers. What has been your experience as a translator and a woman in working on texts by women writers?

I have translated this novel by Khadija Mastur as well as her later novel, Zameen (earth); my translation of Krishna Sobti’s most recent novel is soon to come out from Penguin India’s Hamish Hamilton imprint as A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There. I am working on a translation of Geetanjali Shree’s 2018 novel Ret Samadhi (tomb of sand) and Usha Priyamvada’s 1963 novel Pachpan Kambhe Lal Divarein (fifty-pillars, red walls).

When you translate a text, you spend way more time on it than most other people ever will, sometimes including the author him or herself! I got tired of translating patriarchy, misogyny and objectification of women, which are all par for the course in men’s writing. For the past year, I have mostly stopped reading male authors at all, because the more I read and translate women, the lower goes my tolerance for the male gaze. We don’t realize how we’ve been programmed to accept objectification and silencing of women in men’s writing until we stop reading it. It has been very fulfilling translating these fine works by women and inhabiting the detailed layers of female subjectivity that they offer readers.

10. Do you think that the translation in the destination language must read smoothly and easily for the reader or should you be true to the original and incorporate in your translated text as far as possible many of the words and culturally-specific phrases used in the original text?

I think I partially answered this above, but I do not believe that a translation should be so difficult or “under-translated” that a reader puts it down out of frustration. Difficulty and cultural specificity in the original text suffuses many aspects of the writing and is not limited to certain pieces of terminology.  

11.   The explosion in translated literature available worldwide now has also coincided with the rise of technological advancements in machine translation and neural networks. Thereby making immediate translations of online texts easily available to the reader/consumer. Do you think in the near future the growth in automated translation will impact translations done by humans and vice versa? How will it affect market growth for translated literature?   


To be honest, machine translation is horribly inaccurate because it misses nuance and does not understand human experience, culture or history. I do not believe that AI will ever replace human translators, at least when it comes to literature.

JBR: Interesting since I have come across arguments that say making texts available is the only factor that matters. Nothing else. This is where Google ‘s neural technology is breaking boundaries. But I agree with you — the human brain will continue to be the supercomputer. It’s a beauty!] 

3 January 2019 

Taslima Nasrin’s “Split: A Life”

…the director general [ of the Bangla Academy] raised his eyebrows and turned to me…’Despite being a woman why do you try and write like a man?….’

‘Why should I write like a man? I write what I feel,’ I countered immediately. 

This exchange between the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin and the Bangla Academy director general Harunur Rashi takes place at a book fair where a procession had been organised by the Taslima Nasrin Suppression Committee, “to quash the nefarious ‘sex writer’ Taslima Nasrin”. This incident happened on 17 February 1992.

On 6 December 1992 after the destruction of the Babri Masjid there were communal clashes in India and Bangladesh. Taslima Nasrin was deeply disturbed by the riots and wrote Lajja ( Shame). It was a book which made her an international name even though it was banned in Bangladesh shortly thereafter.

Her memoir Dwikhondito ( 2003) now translated as Split: In Two by Maharghya Chakraborty met a similar fate when it was banned in West Bengal, India. It was banned by the West Bengal government for allegedly hurting sentiments of the Muslim community. The government lifted injunction after the ban was struck down by the Calcutta High Court in 2005. Yet in the English edition of the memoir published by Penguin Random House India there is a blank page with a note by the author.

Split is a memoir by an author who achieved fame fairly early on in her literary career. It is not very clear if the memoir was written at one go or over a period of time. There is no author’s note or a translator’s note in the book making it a little challenging to figure out the context. The memoir is presented as more or less a chronological narrative of a writer’s awakening, not necessarily an autobiographical account of Taslima Nasrin. Reading it from cover to cover a confident tenor to the writing is discernible particularly after Taslima Nasrin wins the Ananda Puraskar in early 1990s. It is a watershed moment in her literary career not least because she was the first writer from Bangladesh to have been awarded what is considered to be the Nobel Prize of Bengali literature. Writers senior to her in age and work had been ignored. The change in her writing style is apparent not only in the manner in which she asserts herself in company with other writers, shares her views on a variety of subjects and takes the social responsibility of an author seriously. She is at the same time grappling with the very serious threat to her life on the basis of her writing and despite her mother’s pleas Taslima Nasrin never tempers her tone.

A snippet from her acceptance speech of the Ananda Puraskar illustrates why her feminist views were not being tolerated in an increasingly conservative society.

Our scriptures and ther rules governing our society would like to reinforce one primary fact: that women cannot have independence. But a woman who is not physically and mentally independent cannot claim to be a complete human being either. Freedom is primary and a woman’s freedom has now been put under arrest by the state, with religion being the chief impediment to her natural growth. Because religion is there most women are still illiterate, deprived of property, more are married off when they are children and are victims of polygamy, talaq and widowhood. Because men wish to serve only their own ends, they have defined and valourized a woman’s feministy, chastity and maternal instincts. 

There are many sections in the book that are fascinating to read for the insight it offers in the evolution of a woman writer particuarly when Taslima Nasrin chooses to reflect. There is an almost meditative quality to her writing in those passages that haunt her writing. These are the better parts in Split as compared to the long sections about her relationships and her family which tend to meander. These instances are significant for her growth as an individual and as a writer since with each relationship she realises what exactly she desires, and it is not always male companionship. Unfortunately these sections are not as well written as those in which she comments upon literature, Bengali literary society in Bangladesh and West Bengal and reflects upon what interests her as a writer.

Split will probably be viewed in coming years as seminal as the writing by other women writers from the subcontinent such as Salma’s Hour Past Midnight and Bama’s Karukku. Taslima Nasrin’s Split‘s relevance to contemporary politics in the subcontinent and not just Bangladesh for the issues it raises about censorship, women’s rights, religious intolerance, freedom of speech, right to live and equality among men and women are critical particularly in this age of religious fundamentalism blowing across nations.

Spare some time and read it.

Taslima Nasrin Split: A Life ( translated by Maharghya Chakraborty) Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House India, 2018. Hb. pp. 502. Rs. 599

19 March 2018

 

 

Arundhati Roy’s “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”

Award-winning writer and social activist Arundhati Roy’s second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is primarily about Anjum, a eunuch/hermaphrodite, and the relationships she forges over many decades. The story about Anjum is fascinating but the narrative is often interrupted by long expositions about modern India. The history lessons begin from the Emergency till present day after covering regions such as Kashmir, Chattisgarh, Gujarat etc. There are most certainly two narratives operating in this novel pulling it in different directions.  Laura Miller writing in The Slate ( 19 June 2017 ) refers to it as a “deeply rewarding work, if you can let the novel wash over you rather than try to force it into shape. ” Parul Sehgal writing in The Atlantic calls it a “fascinating mess”.  Ellen Battersby writing in the Irish Times ( 3 June 2017) refers to it as a “Rushdie-like concoction” but where “Roy prefers to overdescribe and overexplain”. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is most certainly written in the style popularised by Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children ( 1981). What is truly fascinating to realise is that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has been published in the seventieth year of India’s independence from the British and picks up from where Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children concluded.  Midnight’s Children discussed Partition and the creation of two nations — India and Pakistan and contemporary history before it was published in 1981. Ministry of Utmost Happiness begins its political history with a description of the imposition of Emergency ( 1975) by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and later the turbulent 1980s with rise of communalism, the political and civil strife in Punjab and Kashmir which led to the imposition of President’s Rule and reverberations of which are felt even now, pogroms in Gujarat to the Maoist turmoil in Chhatisgarh and more.

Creating a transgender person as a character is also an effective literary tool. Despite being acknowledged in Hinduism and Islam by their existence in the religious stories eunuchs remain on the margins of society while having the ability to flit in and out different socio-economic classes. Eunuchs like Anjum by being at the crossroads of socio-political activity are able to participate and/or witness significant contemporary events. Though there has always been a social stigma attached to that of being a hijra in South Asian cultures and they have been ostracised yet they are expected to attend major social events like births and weddings to bless the family.  It is a curious space the eunuchs inhabit in society and it exactly this vantage point which is exploited by Arundhati Roy to bring her two passions — activism and writing fiction — to comment upon India in 2017. The legitimacy of Anjum’s viewpoint on contemporary India is further strengthened by the Supreme Court of India’s landmark judgement in 2014 on declaring transgender people to be a “third gender”.

There has been some speculation that the character of Anjum is loosely based upon Mona Ahmed who was introduced to the world by well-known photographer Dayanita Singh. In fact Arundhati Roy acknowledges Dayanita Singh for the “idea”. If that is the case then feminist-publisher Urvashi Butalia who interviewed Mona for her book The Other Side of Silence also wrote a long piece about Mona in Granta (2011). Later Urvashi Butalia was  interviewed as well about her profile of Mona Ahmed.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness had an enviable global release with a publicity campaign that would be any author’s dream come true. There were reviews of the English version pouring in from all over the world. The social media was abuzz for weeks with comments about the book. People who were not voracious readers were reading the book and posting their comments online. The media blitzkrieg has been phenomenal and the author herself has over summer travelled in Europe and Canada to promote the book. The production quality too is rich and elegant with a gold filigreed embossed hardcover, an equally sumptious dust jacket using the image of a grave and ivory-cream pages that are heavy and delicious to turn. The manuscript it is rumoured sold for an extraordinary sum of money and a few translations are already planned but it is not easy to confirm this fact. At the end of the day Midnight’s Children and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness will go down in the annals of history as being pathbreaking examples of literary fiction that keep the spotlight on modern India displaying its ugly violent side co-existing with the incredibly syncretic and humane side. While it exists in this manner there is hope.

Read The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. It may not be to everyone’s liking but it will certainly be a book which will be much discussed for a long time to come.

Arundhati Roy The Ministry of Utmost Happiness Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House India, 2017. Hb. pp 450. Rs 599

Sarvat Hasin, “This Wide Night”

They lived across the road from me for fifteen years without us ever having a conversation, something that seems impossible to me now. I’d built up the Malik sisters in my head before I really knew them. The combination of being at a boys’ school and Dada’s dislike for other people meant that these were the only real girls I ever saw. From the window in my bedroom, you could look through the trees and into their garden. I learned valuable things about the girls: how Maria played cards every evening with her mother, or that Ayesha always read and Bina sewed, and that the littlest, Leila liked to draw.

Jimmy lives with his paternal grandfather who is a prosperous export businessman. He is alone and spends a lot of his time watching the Malik house. The Malik family consists of four sisters- Maria, Bina, Leila and Ayesha/Ash . Their father is “a navy captain, whose name was on the silver plaque outside their gate, spent most of his time away from home”.  Their mother Mehrunissa supervises the home and by all accounts is quite lenient in her daughters’ upbringing. It is never spelled out by Sarvat Hasin in her debut novel The Wide Night but there is a shift in dynamics from the freedoms available in a women-only home as compared to one in which there is a man’s presence. For instance when the Captain returns from the war – it is a challenging period of adjustment for both sexes:

How could her father come home to a place that did not feel like it belonged to him? The switch of energy during his visits, the house worked into a dark frenzy. It could only work in small bursts, the spikes of energy of reordered lives. There was no space for him in the larger sweep of their lives – how long could Ash keep wearing her dupatta over one shoulder and pinning back the tufts of her hair that escaped from their short nest. How many nights could Leila hold her tongue at the dinner table and bite it against her usual chatter of boys and money and pretty things. In her father’s presence she was washed out, a paler version of herself, hands folded in her lap and her voice only murmuring to ask for more roti, a glass of water. Even Bina was required to modify herself: fewer hours spent volunteering, and no more bringing her stitching into the living room to sit cross-legged on the carpet by her mother’s feet, listening to her stories with the soft brush of her hand against her hair. The sitting room would become a man’s world.

Mehrunissa is primarily responsible for the family and allows her daughters freedom such as reading.  whenever and whatever they desired. She does not subscribe to the belief that books and ideas were harmful for girls and that daughters were meant to be groomed for marriage. Jimmy describes the Malik home with fascination: “It was the first house I had ever been in with books in every room. Even in a room with no shelves, there were books under cups or hidden behind pots; Barbara Cartland novels tucked in the slots of the swings. Books in other houses were rare, precious thing, tucked out of reach or behind walls of glass, leather-bound and glossy. These tangible tattered things with dog-eared pages and tea stains were remarkable. I shifted my cup of tea on its coaster, knocking over a mystery novel that Mehrunissa kept beside her sewing.” Mehrunissa’s determined stand against social norms and even in the presence of her husband, in an overtly patriarchal society, is exemplified by refusing to slaughter goats for Eid: “Mehrunissa and her daughters were particularly sensitive about the slaughters. They never participated, had not done so even on the rare holidays when Captain Malik was home. On Eid, theirs was the only house with no goats or cows lined up outside—another thing among many that set them apart from everyone else he knew, another thing about them that people thought was strange.”

People called the Maliks “strange” because of it being primarily a female household living alone, happily, unheard of in an otherwise overtly patriarchal society. It was also odd that the father “permitted” the women to have their say as in the case of doing away with the practise of getting a sacrificial goat as it was an inhumane act.  But love runs deep as testified by the Captain while recounting to Jimmy the kindly advice he had received about the challenges his marriage may pose: “These things are meant to work better when the differences aren’t so big, your families should come from the same place, you should speak the same languages and pray the same way – you’ll have heard all this, I know. They’d even chosen a girl for me. I never told Mehrunissa that. Baat pake se pehle—I saw her. And that was it.”

 Their mother’s strong personality had a deep influence on the four daughters. They grew up with distinct identities. Maria who as a teacher’s assistant in the school mesmerised the boys: “The trick was not in her words, but the way she spoke them. She was not lightning but slow honey, womanliness pouring into the classroom, making us all sit up a little straighter.” Ayesha, the voracious reader who fantasised about her European trip with her aunt was the most level headed and practical of the sisters. For example, her unsentimental detached views on death is revelatory, “Death isn’t this big drama everybody makes it out to be… It’s – a person being there one minute, and not the next. It’s the passing of a second.” The laidback Bina’s “wishes were never for herself”. And finally Leila, who, “built her houses in gold. She wanted a rich husband, a studio of her own. I want a wardrobe the size of Marie Antoinette’s, she would say. Decadence was the only thing she took away from history lessons. She was a tiny Cleopatra, Nur Jehan, a queen in a miniature.” After Maria’s wedding “the house shrank without her, tightening around the family. There are some people who leave the room and you stop thinking about them right away. None of the Malik sisters were like that. Their absence took up room, a seat at the table.”

This Wide Night although a novel is structured like a three-act play with a shift in the voice from first person of Jimmy to the third of the authorial narrator in the second section and back to Jimmy. It is a curious literary technique to employ for it is not fully exploited by the author providing little insight such as in the sisters suicide pact.  Usually the narrator brings in a perspective giving the reader a little more information than the characters are aware of but nothing of that sort happens here.

Renowned writer and critic Muneeza Shamsie says in Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English ( OUP, Pakistan, 2017, p 601)  that in today’s globalised world the new generation of Pakistani writers have either “lived, or been educated in, Pakistan and the West, and often divided their time between the two. … As a result, the distinction between diaspora and non-diaspora began to blur too.” This underlying desire to be accepted globally as a new South Asian writer who is extremely familiar with Western canons of literature is evident in This Wide Night too for its adaptation of Little Women albeit in a desi setting. Pakistan-born now living in UK Sarvat Hasin wrote This Wide Night after enrolling in a creative writing workshop project wherein she transplanted the characters created in nineteenth century America into modern-day Karachi. So Amir, Maria’s husband, is a mujahir who lost his parents during Partition but he comes across as a flat character who, “seemed to just appear, a sum of all the stories people told about him” with little else being said about him. Whereas if a little bit of the socio-historical background was woven into the novel it would have made a significant difference to the quality of storytelling. This is illustrated further in the sanitised “literary” description of the 1971 War, a conflict zone: The way tensions rose in our house and in the city, the way the whole country seemed to teem with a dull thickening heat – the days before monsoon storms. By the time war broke out, we were almost relieved. It gave the feeling a name; something that couldn’t be quantified when it was just curfews and military men stationed outside schools or people sent back past the border. Contrast this with contemporary literature worldwide which creates a rich texture filled with details taking care to not culturally alienate the reader too much but at the same time retaining a strong regional character — acceptable traits of a global novel.

Sarvat Hasin is a writer with promise. This Wide Night is a commendable first effort.

 Sarvat Hasin This Wide Night Hamish Hamilton/ Penguin Random House India, 2016, 312 pp., Rs 499 (HB) 

 

A new Zadie Smith, a new set of difficulties in reading, a new pleasure


( My review of Zadie Smith’s new novel, Swing Time, has been published in Scroll today. Here is the original url: http://scroll.in/article/824448/a-new-zadie-smith-a-new-set-of-difficulties-in-reading-a-new-pleasure . I am also c&p the text below.)

 

The baby was surrounded by love. It’s a question of what love gives you the right to do.

Zadie Smith’s latest novel Swing Time is about two young girls, Tracey and a nameless narrator, who live in council housing of 1980s London. These young girls are of mixed parentage who have been born different shades of brown as a result. They are not exactly social misfits but are not entirely accepted by their classmates as is apparent when they get invited to Lily Bingham’s tenth birthday party. The two girls are completely out of their depth as are their mothers who are clueless on how to guide the youngsters.

Was it the kind of thing where you dropped your kid off? Or was she, as the mum, expected to come into the house? The invitation said a trip to the cinema – but who’d pay for this ticket? The guest or the house? Did you have to take a gift? What kind of gift were we getting? …It was as if the party was taking in some bewildering foreign land, rather than a three-minute walk away, in a house on the other side of the park.

Swing Time is narrated in first person bringing to the story an intimacy, a close involvement between the reader and narrator, which would otherwise be missing if it was narrated in third person. This intimate relationship between narrator and reader helps particularly if Swing Time is read as a bildungsroman. The firm childhood friendship of the narrator and Tracey seems to peter away in adulthood. Yet the narrator’s flashbacks focus inevitably on the time she spent growing up in Thatcherite London with Tracey, to a large extent informing her adult life — emphasising the quality of “shared history“, an important aspect of friendships to Zadie Smith.  (Friendships are a characteristic trait of her fiction.) Swing Time zips particularly once the billionaire singer, Aimee, hires the narrator as one of her personal assistants. The storytelling pace matches the heady life of the superstar who flits through her own life juggling various roles such as of being a mother, her performances, recording music, and charitable “good work” in Africa by sponsoring schools.

Amongst the early book reviews of the novel there is a common refrain that the story fails to match the potential of a writer like Zadie Smith, deteriorating into contrived, formulaic and predictable storytelling. Trying to read Swing Time in the traditional manner is an excruciating task. The sentences are structured in such an unpredictable manner – sometimes running on in a Jamesian style for pages on end in an uninterrupted paragraph. The swift shifts in tone from meditative introspection to commentary and sharp judgement by the narrator can be disconcerting. But if you shift the classical expectations of what the book should deliver to that of a novel written by an artist AND a mother — it suddenly transforms. It is more about an artist being a successful professional while managing her time as a mother too. Here is the narrator talking about her mother who puts herself through college while her daughter is still in school, later the mother becomes a prominent politician.

Oh, it’s very nice and rational and respectable to say that a woman has every right to life, to her ambitions, to her needs, and so on – it’s what I’ve always demanded myself –but as a child, no, the truth is it’s a war of attrition, rationality doesn’t come into it, not one bit, all you want from your mother is that she once and for all admit that she is your mother and only your mother, and that her battle with the rest of life is over. She has to lay down her arms and come to you. And if she doesn’t do it, then it’s really a war, and it was a war between my mother and me. Only as an adult did I come to truly admire her – especially in the last, painful years of her life – for all that she had done to claw some space in this world for herself. When I was young her refusal to submit to me confused and wounded me, especially as I felt none of the usual reasons of refusal applied. I was her only child and she had no job – not back then – and she hardly spoke to the rest of the family. As far as I was concerned, she had nothing but time. Yet still I couldn’t get her complete submission! My earliest sense of her was of a woman plotting an escape, from me, from the very role of motherhood.

There are portraits, references and pithy observations on mothering or the relationship between mothers and children. There are the mothers of the two girls – Tracey and narrator, the grandmothers in the family compound of African schoolteacher Hawa, the mothers of the African school children, Aimee and her children and Tracey and her brood. In some senses this novel too with its overdone cultural references especially of the recent past also becomes a record of events for Zadie Smith’s children’s generation.

In June 2013 Zadie Smith along with Jane Smiley objected to the suggestion made by journalist and author Lauren Sandler that they should restrict the size of their families if they want to avoid limiting their careers. Writing in the Guardian, Zadie Smith said, “”I have two children. Dickens had 10 – I think Tolstoy did, too. Did anyone for one moment worry that those men were becoming too fatherish to be writeresque? Does the fact that Heidi Julavits, Nikita Lalwani, Nicole Krauss, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vendela Vida, Curtis Sittenfeld, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison and so on and so forth (I could really go on all day with that list) have multiple children make them lesser writers?” said Smith. “Are four children a problem for the writer Michael Chabon – or just for his wife, the writer Ayelet Waldman?” Smith added that the real threat “to all women’s freedom is the issue of time, which is the same problem whether you are a writer, factory worker or nurse”. A sentiment echoed in Swing Time when she writes: “The fundamental skill of all mothers [is] the management of time”.

In the end the narrator learns to appreciate Tracey’s balancing act as a professional and a mother  — like a dance.

She was right above me, on her balcony, in a dressing gown and slippers, her hands in the air, turning, turning, her children around her, everybody dancing.

Swing Time is a mesmerising if at times a challenging read. It is the portrait of an artist AND a mother.

Zadie Smith Swing Time Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, Penguin Random House, London, 2016. Pb. Pp.454 Rs. 599

Siddharth Mukherjee “The Gene: An Intimate History”

( This blog post was picked up by the award-winning news website, Scroll. An edited version of this review was published by Scroll’s literary editor, Arunava Sinha, on Sunday, 19 June 2016. The original url is: http://scroll.in/article/809971/six-hundred-pages-that-will-tell-you-more-about-yourself-and-your-future-than-anything-else . )

The real magic was imagination.  

( p.148)

( L-R) Chiki Sarkar, Siddharth Mukherjee, Nirmala George and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

( L-R) Chiki Sarkar, Publisher, Juggernaut, Siddharth Mukherjee, Nirmala George, journalist and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, IIC, New Delhi, April 2014

Siddharth Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History is an extraordinarily riveting book. It is easy to forget you are reading a densely packed account of the gene. In 600+ pages Pulitzer prize writer Siddharth Mukherjee narrates the discovery of genes, evolution of genetics as a scientific discipline and the rapid strides this science has made in about a century. Consider this. The term “gene” coined by Mendel in the nineteenth century was all but lost for more than six decades only to be revived in early twentieth century and then became a common term. A few decades later it led to the coining of “genocide” in Nazi Germany. Half a century later the helical structure of DNA & RNA were discovered. Two decades later questions were being raised about the ethics of genetics and tinkering with genes. Yet recombinant genes were put to use in commercial production for insulin to a resounding success. By 2000, about a century from when the word “gene” was revived, the Human Genome project was announced. There is a phenomenal amount of technical information packed in the book with a few anecdotes, some personal, inserted judiciously into the narrative.

From the time of Pythagoras, Aeschylus and Plato who were convinced that the “likeness” of a human being passed on via the “mobile library” preserved in the semen to Aristotle who rejected this notion by astutely observing that children can inherit features from their mothers and grandmothers too. The Gene details over the centuries the manner in which people pondered over what carried information across generations without really understanding the mechanism or even having a name for it till Mendel and his pea experiment and Darwin’s theories. It was Mendel, a monk, who first used the term “gene” except it was lost for a few more decades till resurrected in the early twentieth century. This was a watershed moment in the history of genetics as suddenly there were a concatenation of events that led to a furious progress in understanding the gene mechanism. From coining the word, understanding the structure, the mechanism, the potential, exploiting applied genetics as was done by the Nazis to enable Rassenhygiene or “racial hygiene”, using this branch of “applied biology” to justify their policy of lebensunwertes Leben  or “lives unworthy of living” and justifying the establishment of extermination centres such as Hadamar and the Brandenburg State Welfare Institute. It was based on the premise that identity was fixed. Curiously enough another ideological position in existence at the same time in Soviet Russia viewed the principle of heredity as having its basis on complete pliability.  In both cases science was deliberately distorted to support state-sponsored mechanisms of “cleansing”. Rapid advancement in genetics led to discovery of recombinant DNA to create crucial medicines such as insulin and its commercial production by biotechnology industries,  the ability to clone as was done with Dolly the Sheep, to questions being raised about the ethics of genetics, to the establishment of the Human Genome Project. It has been a phenomenal few decades for curious and imaginative scientists trying to understand the principles of heredity, what makes it tick, what information gets passed on from generation to generation, what is gained and what is lost in evolution — always striving to push the boundaries to ask more and more questions.

To a lay reader The Gene is a brilliant historical overview but it also does a fantastic job of reinstating Rosalind Franklin as one of the four scientists responsible for discovering the helical structure of DNA. A fact that had been lost in history for some decades even when the Nobel Committee conferred the prize on Watson and Crick for discovering the helical structure. It is only recently that Rosalind Franklin’s name has been mentioned in the same breath as Watson and Crick. Siddharth Mukherjee lays down the facts of their experiments and analysis in such a way that it is evident the scientists were working simultaneously on the same subject, albeit not together.

I heard Siddharth Mukherjee deliver a public lecture two years ago when he came to India to receive the Padam Shri from the President of India.  At the time he was still working on the manuscript of The Gene and here is an account:  http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/siddharth-mukherjee-27-april-2014/ . In 2015 he gave a fascinating TED Talk followed by a brilliant exposition on the subject published as a TED Book by Simon & Schuster. Here is the link: http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/siddhartha-mukherjee-the-laws-of-medicine/

What began as an attempt to understand the reasons for “madness” that seems to exist in his family, Siddharth Mukherjee embarks upon an absorbing account of the “triggers” that are responsible for mapping information and carrying it from generation to generation. The Gene is phenomenal for the manner in which it weaves together the author’s precise scientific temper offering technical information against the backdrop of factually accurate and significant contemporary events of the time. Siddharth Mukherjee puts forth a magnificently rich historical narrative of the gene accessible even by an ordinary reader.

Siddharth Mukherjee The Gene: An Intimate History Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, London, 2016. Hb. pp. Rs 699 

14 June 2016 

 

Ali Akbar Natiq, “What will you give for this beauty?”

BeautyWhat will you give for this beauty? is Ali Akbar Natiq’s debut collection of short stories. It is set in the Punjab countryside with tales about ordinary people, ordinary lives, with preoccupations of marriage, love, impact of Partition, feuds, religious differences and discontent, gossip, courtesans, storytellers, liars and cheats etc. Yet how everyone overcomes odds to survive.

Ali Akbar Natiq began working as a mason, specializing in domes and minarets, to contribute to the family income while he read widely in Urdu and Arabic. Somehow the flavour of Urdu short stories seeps through this particular collection. Its description of the common people, of commonplace occurrences, an exaggerated and embellished style of storytelling with unexpected twists to the story. Through it all there is a constant recognition and respect that this is God’s world we inhabit. It is never clearly spelled out but exists. It is evident in the book title, which seems to be a play on the innumerable references in the Quran and the Old Testament where it is constantly reiterated that this world’s splendour has been created by God, its beauty exists everywhere even when God seems to provide one only with sorrow, ashes and despair. The stories have been translated mostly by Ali Madeeh Hashmi, but also by Awais Aftab and Mohammed Hanif.

What will you give for this beauty? is a fine collection.

Ali Akbar Natiq What Will You Give for this Beauty? Translated by Ali Madeeh Hashmi. Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, India, 2015. Hb. pp. 215. Rs. 399. 

Who will win the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature? (13 January 2015)

DSC shortlistAccording to the vision statement, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature celebrates the rich and varied world of literature of the South Asian region. Authors could belong to this region through birth or be of any ethnicity but the writing should pertain to the South Asian region in terms of content and theme. The prize brings South Asian writing to a new global audience through a celebration of the achievements of South Asian writers, and aims to raise awareness of South Asian culture around the world. This year the award will be announced on 22 January 2015, at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Diggi Palace, Jaipur.

The DSC Prize for South Asian Shortlist 2015 consists of:

1. Bilal Tanweer: The Scatter Here is Too Great (Vintage Books/Random House, India)
2 Jhumpa Lahiri: The Lowland (Vintage Books/Random House, India)
3. Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone (Bloomsbury, India)
4. Romesh Gunesekera: Noontide Toll (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, India)
5. Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: The Mirror of Beauty (Penguin Books, India)

( http://dscprize.com/global/updates/five-novels-make-shortlist-dsc-prize-2015.html )

The jury consists of Keki Daruwala (Chairperson), John Freeman, Maithree Wickramasinghe, Michael Worton and Razi Ahmed.

All the novels shortlisted for the award are unique. They put the spotlight on South Asian writing talent. From debut novelist ( Bilal Tanweer) to seasoned writers ( Jhumpa Lahiri, Romesh Gunesekera and Kamila Shamsie) and one in translation – Shamsur Rahman Faruqui, the shortlist is a good representation of the spectrum of contemporary South Asian literature in English. Three of the five novelists– Jhumpa Lahiri, Romesh Gunesekera and Kamila Shamsie–reside abroad, representing South Asian diaspora yet infusing their stories with a “foreign perspective”, a fascinating aspect of this shortlist. It probably hails the arrival of South Asian fiction on an international literary map. The three novels — The Lowland, Noontide Toll and A God in Every Stone are firmly set in South Asia but with the style and sophistication evident in international fiction, i.e. detailing a story in a very specific region and time, culturally distinct, yet making it familiar to the contemporary reader by dwelling upon subjects that are of immediate socio-political concern. For instance, The Lowland is ostensibly about the Naxalite movement in West Bengal, India and the displacement it causes in families; A God in Every Stone is about an archaeological dig in Peshawar in the period around World War I and Noontide Toll is about the violent civil unrest between the Sinhala and Tamils in Sri Lanka. Yet all three novels are infused with the writers’ preoccupation with war, the immediate impact it has on a society and the transformation it brings about over time. The literary techniques they use to discuss the ideas that dominate such conversations — a straightforward novel (The Lowland), a bunch of interlinked short stories narrated by a driver ( who is at ease in the Tamil and Sinhala quarters, although his identity is never revealed) and the yoking of historical fiction with creation of a myth as evident in Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone. All three novelists wear their research lightly, yet these novels fall into the category of eminently readable fiction, where every time the story is read something new is discovered.

Bilal Tanweer who won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2014 for his wonderful novel, The Scatter Here is Too Great. Set in Karachi, it is about the violence faced on a daily basis. (Obviously there is much more to the story too!) Whereas Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s novel The Mirror of Beauty, translated by him from Urdu into English is primarily about Begum Wazir Khanam with many other scrumptious details about lifestyles, craftspeople, and different parts of India. It is written in a slow, meandering style of old-fashioned historical fiction. The writer has tried to translocate the Urdu style of writing into the English version and he even “transcreated” the story for his English readers—all fascinating experiments in literary technique, so worth being mentioned on a prestigious literary prize shortlist.

Of all the five novels shortlisted for this award, my bet is on Kamila Shamsie winning the prize. Her novel has set the story in Peshawar in the early twentieth century. The preoccupations of the story are also those of present day AfPak, the commemoration of World War I, but also with the status of Muslims, the idea of war, with accurate historical details such as the presence of Indian soldiers in the Brighton hospital, the non-violent struggle for freedom in Peshawar and the massacre at Qissa Khwani Bazaar. But the true coup de grace is the original creation of Myth of Scylax — to be original in creating a myth, but placing it so effectively in the region to make it seem as if it is an age-old myth, passed on from generation to generation.

13 January 2015

 

Being MortalIf we shift as we age towards appreciating everyday pleasures and relationships rather than towards achieving, having, and getting, and if we find this more fulfilling, then why do we take so long to do it? Why do we wait until we’re told? The common view was that these lessons are hard to learn. Living is a kind of skill. The calm and wisdom of old age are achieved over time.  ( p.95)

…Three Plagues of nursing home existence: boredom, loneliness, and helplessness. (p.116)

Reading award-winning writer and practicing general surgeon Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal was such a cherished reading experience. His basic premise is that the conversation with people who are severely ill, with slim chances of recovery is one of the most difficult tasks a medical practitioner has. His insights into caregiving, an analysis of the US healthcare system, assisted living and an understanding of the Indian family social structure offering support similar to hospice care abroad are sharp. For instance something that is often noticed in practice, but rarely uttered is how many daughters look after their ageing parents. Yet the mantra in society, at least in India is, a son is important to have since he will care for you in your old age. Whereas Atul Gawande points out quite rightly too, “your chances of avoiding the nursing homes are directly related to the number of children you have, and, …having at least one daughter seems to be crucial to the amount of help you will receive.” I marked the book extensively and scribbled comments since it resonated with me. Having been a caregiver for my ailing grandfather, familiar with the excruciating conversations about enemas, maintained a funeral notebook where he had detailed the arrangements and been responsible for telling my surviving grandparents that their spouse had died, Being Mortal is a godsend. Atul Gawande’s perceptive observations about caregiving, mortality, longevity, quality of life as opposed to honouring the Hippocratic oath echo conversations heard often amongst caregivers. There is much, much more to read and discover in this book. Read it. Buy it.

Atul Gawande Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 282. Rs. 599 

12 Nov 2014 

Naseeruddin Shah, “And Then One Day”

Naseeruddin Shah, “And Then One Day”

Naseeruddin ShahThe same year I watched a play for the first time, in the Sem concert hall. It was called Mr Fixit and has faded from my memory almost entirely but while watching it the only thing I wanted was to be up there with those people. When a long limousine, which I later discovered to be plywood cutout on wheels, came gliding on to the stage, I was back in the same universe of wonder where I had watched ‘that man’ dancing on that stage a hundred feet high. And I have since steadfastly believe that the only magic that happens in this world happens on the stage. Films take you captive, they feed you everything on a plate, the legerdemain they create transports you into a state where you may as well be dreaming, but theatre takes you into a world where your imagination is stimulated, your judgement is unimpaired, and thus your enjoyment heightened. It is only in the theatre that there can be this kind of exchange of energies between actor and audience. The finest definition of theatre that I have come across is ‘one actor-one audience’. Implying of course that any meaningful interaction between two people anywhere fits the definition of ideal theatre, with the same qualities needed of both participants as are required from them in an actual theatre. Theatre really is a one-on-one experience.” ( p.13-14) 

Renowned actor Naseeruddin Shah’s memoir, And Then One Day, is a fabulous example of what a memoir should be –an insight into the personal life of the man/memoirist combined with the vast understanding with their life/passion. A good memoir should not consist entirely of personal details and who said what to whom, where and when; given that it is about an individual who is admired and looked up to for the success they have achieved in their career, a reader wants to know more about the industry/niche the author represents. This is what Naseeruddin Shah does. This is a smartly written memoir which is not a necessarily sugar-coated description of success having come easily to the actor. He attempts to be as realistic in his telling with his love for theatre and films being apparent from childhood.

A life of performance is what he yearns for, knows it is hard work and is willing to do it. For instance after the disastrous workshop of Grotowski held in Poland, that Naseeruddin Shah fled from, made him realise “no one at all could in fact help, and whatever I wanted to learn I’d have to do on my own”. It is a love for films and theatre that seeps through the pages of the memoir, Naseeruddin Shah does not merely rattle off names of films he has seen, plays he has acted in or actors he has hobnobbed with, there is a reason why every person mentioned in the book is present. Whether it is Mr Kendal and his love for staging Shakespeare or Captain Hook in the animated Peter Pan, Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea, Jose Ferrer in I Accuse!,  Peter O’Toole in Becket or appreciating Shammi Kapoor and “Hindi cinema’s certified nutcase Mr Kishore Kumar” and Mehmood, “one of the most skilful actors I’ve ever seen, was not quite up there with Chaplin in terms of ability but much ahead in terms of self-love”. Every description and analysis is filled with a love and understanding of the profession, it is as if being in the world of cinema is like oxygen to Naseeruddin Shah.

Also as a good memoir should be the historical background of newly-independent India, the growth of Bollywood, the emergence of alternative cinema and changing tastes of the audiences is neatly woven through And Then One Day. This is a book which will continue to sell well beyond the immediate buzz of a beloved and admired actor having written his memoirs since it is a rich repository of information about the profession, the literature and theories around it, without being dull.

Of the many, many news stories, reviews, blog posts about the memoir, so far the best interaction has been between Barkha Dutt in conversation with Naseeruddin Shah, NDTV, 14 September 2014 ( Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai) – http://www.ndtv.com/video/player/we-the-people/watch-master-s-take-in-conversation-with-naseeruddin-shah/338122 . As of this week, the publishers, Penguin Books India have collaborated with the Hindustan Times to release a series of short films called “Naseer on Naseer”. The first one was released on 22 September 2014 – http://www.hindustantimes.com/audio-news-video/AV-Entertainment/Naseer-on-Naseer-How-and-why-I-became-an-actor/Article2-1266974.aspx . These short films echo the sentiments of the actor as recorded in his memoir – his love for acting and the stage.

“I wanted more, I could happily have stayed on that stage forever, and in a sense I have. Whether I’d done well or badly was of no consequence. As an imitation of Mr Kendal it wasn’t too far off the mark, but the real revelation for me was the charge of energy I felt that day, and have continued to feel whenever I am onstage. I found myself doing things I hadn’t planned and doing them with complete certainty and to the approval of the audience. It was as if another hand was guiding me. This feeling has stayed with me till today; and therefore, though I am grateful for compliments, I never take full responsibility for either my successes or failures but do try to make sure that they ‘theatre god’ does not turn his back on me. ” (p. 60-1) 

Naseeruddin Shah And Then One Day: A Memoir Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, Gurgaon, India, 2014. Hb. pp. 330 Rs 699