Here is a short clip on fanfiction. It was triggered by a conversation I had with a friend upon reading Keshav Guha’s debut novel Accidental Magic ( Harper Collins India ) and Stephen Alter’s Feral Dreams ( Aleph Publications). This is a new space for modern literature especially as access to the Internet and new forms of edevices proliferate. As I say in the video, The Wired noted in 2015 that more than 1 billion minutes per month were being spent either creating or reading material on fanfiction websites such as Wattpad. Of these 90% of the users accessed the websites using their mobiles. Fanfiction is a modern literary phenomenon whose popularity is astonishing and understandable. It permits people who are infatuated with the books that they have read, characters, plots and/or literary landscapes to explore the oft asked question, “What If?”. It is also permitted to flourish by the original creators as long it sticks within the purview of the fair use clause of copyright laws and is not commercially exploited. It is a win-win situation as it allows the readers to exercise their writing skills, get feedback in real time from other users and it allows the writers to see their stories/characters remain in focus. In fact in a Bookseller article discussing Rainbow Rowell writing Harry Potter fan fiction, quoted a spokesman for Rowling’s literary agency, The Neil Blair Partnership, to say: “Our view on Harry Potter fan fiction is broadly that it should be non-commercial and should also not be distributed through commercial websites. Writers should write under their own name and not as J K Rowling. Content should not be inappropriate – also any content not suitable for young readers should be marked as age restricted.”
Fanfiction writing has spawned some bestselling authors in the West such as E L James of Fifty Shades of Grey and Cassandra Clare who wrote the Shadowhunter series. In India, it is still restricted to online spaces but in print there are a few examples. Not exactly in the definition of what constitutes fan fiction, a tribute, an imitative act, an exploration but Keshav Guha writes a form of fiction that is pays obeisance to Pottermania but also investigates what it means to be in this mostly online world. Stephen Alter’s Feral Dreams extends the story beyond the original and makes it his own but in his case the original work is out of the copyright domain, so these literary creations using the original characters are absolutely acceptable.
Sherlock Holmes is another literary character who has given rise to many, many fan fiction stories — offline and online. People have explored this for years and publishers regularly commission stories for young and older readers.
Book Post 48 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.
The Women in Translation (#WiT) month is celebrated annually in August. There was a flurry of activity online with a number of gems being unearthed and discussed. It is a really fascinating time to discover new writers, new translators, new publishers etc. Whilst I enjoyed reading the various articles, interviews, profiles and even book extracts that were made available online, I realised there was a deafening silence from the Indian subcontinent.
Another fascinating aspect of the Indian publishing industry is that as it grows, the market grows, and so does the interest in the craft of writing. For long writers have written and published their works in various literary magazines, “women’s magazines”, newspapers etc. Of course there are now online literary spaces, discussion forums and sometimes even in the print media where writers are interviewed and their craft discussed. But interviewing writers, especially women, is an art unto itself. Women writers inevitably have to find the time to write amongst the rhythm of many other duties and commitments they need to fulfil. This was more so in the past than now when increasingly there are more and more “professional writers”. Even so, reading about the craft of writing by women writers continus to be an exciting world since irrespective of socio-economic class, many writers share the same concerns and have similar pressures. Women Unlimited, an associate of Kali for Women, has for years published interviews with women writers. Their latest publication is Lifescapes: Interviews with Contemporary Women Writers from Tamil Nadu. The Tamil publishing landscape is not an easy one to understand with many interesting threads running through it, all of which were influential upon the seventeen women writers interviewed by the editors — K. Srilata and Swarnlatha Rangarajan. While the interviews themselves are insightful, it is the structural arrangement of each entry that is fascinating for it has the mandatory biography about the author, a sample of her writing, a head note by the editors introducing the writer and why they chose her specifically to be included in the anthology and finally, the interview. Every detail adds just sufficient information creating an image of the writer that the reader definitely wants to know more about.
Ever since World Literature began to open new publishing horizons in the Anglo-American book market as well as the growth of the desi diaspora as a lucrative readership, did the spotlight on translations from regional languages into English become an attractive proposition for many firms. As a result there is a feast of offerings particularly as the multi-national publishers expand their fare. Be that as it may there are some fabulous publishers such as Women Unlimited, Zubaan, Orient Black Swan, Speaking Tiger, Permanent Black ( on occasion), Aleph Book Company, Yoda Press, Westland/Amazon and Oxford University Press that have been publishing translations for a while. It is impossible to list all but here some of the wonderful titles published recently.
The Solitary Sprout: Selected Stories of R. Chudamani ( translated from Tamil by C.T. Indra and T. Sriraman) is a fabulous collection of short stories. In fact, R. Chudamani (1931-2010) has often been considered as an early feminist among Tamil writers. The Solitary Sprout is a wonderful selection of Chudamani’s short stories with “No fury like a mother’s”, “Herself” and “Not a stepfather” standing out as very modern stories. It is hard to believe that these were written many decades ago. The sharp insight and clear ideas that the writer shares can take one’s breath away even now. For instance, “No fury like a mother’s” is about three mothers of young schoolgirls who are furious at how their daughters are ill-treated by their school teacher. The punishment meted out to the young girls by the teacher is to strip the girls publicly. The three mothers team up and pressurise the teacher to resign otherwise they threaten to mete out the same treatment to her as she did to their daughters. “Herself” is about a mother who once her children are married and settled with families of their own, discovers her trueself and becomes a music teacher as well is a voluntary worker at the Primary Health Centre in her village. Much to her visiting daughter’s dismay who had expected a month’s vacation at her parent’s home free from all responsibilities including babysitting her own son. Instead the daughter discovers she has to pitch in with household chores at her parents home and continue to look after her own son. She is deeply disappointed and upset as her memories of her mother was one who was always free and available for the family. It rattles the daughter. More so as her father supports his wife’s actions and sees no wrong. “Not a stepfather” addresses issues like widow remarriage, single parenting, stepfather etc. It is beautifully told from the perspective of the disgruntled mother of the bride who is not amused that her daugther has remarried and expects the new husband also to take care of her young son. It is complicated but within the first visit of the newly married couple to the mother’s house, the son warms up to his new father and gets the blessings of his mother-in-law too. It is a powerful story as it raises so many questions about gendered and social expectations of a woman and a man. The Solitary Sprout is worth reading, sharing and discussing in more forums. These are stories that need to be told more often.
Prolific and powerful writer K. R. Meera has a new collection of three novellas called The Angel’s Beauty Spots. As often is the case with K. R. Meera’s stories, she explores love and its various angles. Sometimes well meaning and powerful love for all intents and purposes can go horribly wrong as in the title novella. K. R. Meera’s stories have this remarkable quality of taking the wind out of the reader’s sails with the horrific and at times inexplicable sequence of events except that some bizarre form of love propelled many of the decisions taken by her characters. Somehow the team of author and translator, K. R. Meera and J. Devika, works well. It is difficult to pinpoint an exact reason but the translation reads smoothly without losing any of the cultural characteristics of sharing a story set in Kerala and written in Malayalam. It just feels perfectly satisfying to read.
The Diary of Manu Gandhi ( 1943 – 44) are the diaries written by Manubehn ( Mridula) Gandhi, who was the youngest daughter of Mahatma Gandhi’s nephew, Jaisukhlal Amritlal Gandhi and Kasumba. These diaries are preserved in the National Archives of India and for the first time are being translated and edited from Gujarati into English by Tridip Suhrud. Manu Gandhi as a young girl had been encouraged by Mahatma Gandhi to maintain a diary. Manu Gandhi was the one walking beside Mahatma Gandhi at Birla House before his would-be assassin, Nathuram Godse, pushed her aside, so as to be able to shoot his target.
Diary-keeping of Gandhi was an essential duty for all those engaged in pursuit of truth and hence obligatory for Ashramites and satyagrahis. He constantly urged the Ashram community and constructive workers to maintain one. ….A daily diary,he believed, was a mode of self-examination and self-purification; he made it an obligatory observance for all those who walked with him on the Salt march.
While The Diary of Manu Gandhi ( 1943 – 44) is of more academic and historical interest to many readers, it is accompanied by a fine commentary by Gandhian scholar Tridip Suhrud. He offers insights about maintenance of a diary, the translation process, making available critical empirical material such as these diaries which till now many knew of its existence but not many could access. It also documents the growth of a young, under-confident girl to a mature person as evident in the style of her writing, longer sentences, more time spent describing incidents rather than restricting it to scribbles as many of the early entries are. Interestingly, as Tridip Suhrud points out in his introduction, Mahatma Gandhi or Bapu as he was known, would often read and scribble his thoughts in the margins of Manu Gandhi’s diaries. Ideally though it would have been a preferable if in this volume an interview with Tridip Suhrud with a leading gender/oral history expert had been included. It would then give some critical insights in what it means to translate a young girl’s diary many decades later by a highly reputed Gandhian scholar. With due respect even the best academic scholars tend to gloss over certain gender issues that irrespective of how many times they are repeated continue to be important and need to be highilghted. At the same time it would be fascinating to see what emerges from the conversation of a Gandhian expert with a gender expert to see how much Gandhian ways of living influenced the minds and hearts of those in the Ashram or did the basic gendered ways of seeing also get scrubbed away.
Speaking of memoirs, Rosy Thomas’s He, My Beloved CJ about her life with her husband and well-known Malayalam writer and critic, C. J. Thomas. It has been translated by G. Arunima. C.J. Thomas died young. His wife wrote this memoir much later. While it is a very personal account of her courtship, her marriage and the brief time she spent with her husband during which he opposed her desire to seek employment. Apparently in the Malayalam text, Rosy Thomas often refers to her husband as moorachi ( a colloquial term for conservative). Hence within this context it is quite amazing to read an account of a life that does not necessarily romanticise the couple’s love but is able to subvert the prevalent notions of wifehood. It has descriptions of their homes, their families, their circle of friends and at times some of their discussions on art, creativity and politics. At least in the memoir she comes across at times an equal participant despite his conservative mindset on having a wife who earned a living. Be that as it may, the monotone pitch at which the memoir is written or has been translated in —it is difficult to discern the difference — does not make He, My Beloved CJ easy to read. Of course it is a seminal book and will for a long time be referred to by many scholars interested in knowing more about the literary movement in Kerala or about the legend himself, C. J. Thomas — a man who seems to have acquired mythical proportions in Kerala. How many will access it for being a woman’s witnessing of a fascinating moment in history, only time will tell. Meanwhile the translator’s note is worth reading. G. Arunima writes:
…this biography is as much about C J Thomas and their marriage, as it is about Rosy as a writer. The act of remembrance is also about fashioning her own self and subjectivity, both as a ‘loving’ subject, and as a ‘writer’ and raconteur, observing, weighing, annotating and narrating their life as a text. Rosy Thomas grew up in a literary home; her father, M P Paul, was an intrinsic part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, the Sahitya Pravarthaka Sahakarna Sangham ( Literary Workers’ Cooperative Society) and had also set up the tutorial college that was named after him. Writers, books and a culture of reading were a central part of her life. Even though these reminiscences do not dwell too much on her own literary or political formation, it is evident that CJ’s world wasn’t alien to her. In her later life she was to become a published writer and translator in her own right; such creativity is obvious even in this text where the nuances of a remembered life are testament to her wit and literary flair.
There are many, many more titles that one can discuss such as Sharmila Seyyid’s Ummath: A Novel of Community and Conflict. It is set during the three decades of the Sri Lanka’s civil war. It is told through the lives of three women, Thawakkul, Yoga and Theivanai — one a social activist, the other a Tamil Tiger forced into joining the movement as a child, and the third a disillusioned fighter for the Eelam. The novel has been translated from Tamil by Gita Subramaniam. While it immerses one immediately into the strife torn landscape, it is also puzzling as sometimes the voices of the three main characters seem to acquire the same pitch, making it seem as if the author’s own devastating firsthand experiences of the conflict are making their presence felt throughout the narrative. It is impossible for the English readers to ever solve this puzzle but there is something that comes through in the translation and is not easy to pinpoint. While promoted as fiction, it is easy to see that Ummath with the insights it offers, nature of conversations documented and descriptions of the landscape make this novel a lived experience. This is a challenging story to read but is worth doing so as the conversations about women/gender and conflict are relatively new in public discourse and need to be share more widely.
The final book in this roundup is a translation from Bengali of Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s The Children’s Ramayana by first-time translator Tilottama Shome. It is the Ramayana told with its basic story sans the many digressions and minor tales. It is the epic with many of the popular stories retold that many generations of Indians are familiar with. It does not come across as a novice’s attempt at translation. In fact as she says in her translator’s note, “I have tried to retain that delightful quirky tone and the hint of humour told with a straight face that has endeared Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s works to readers for generations” seems to be true. Again it is impossible for English readers to confirm this fact or not but there is something about the zippy pace, ease of reading, a rhythm to the storytelling, making it immensely attractive to read. Perhaps Tilottama Shome being a trained singer ably assisted her in finding the rhythm to this translation. There is something to be said for a trained musical ear and discovering the cadences of a written text making the translation from one language/culture to the next a pleasurable experience!
Last week I announced that I am going to post every Monday a list of all the book parcels I have received in the past few days. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.
In today’s Book Post 2 I have included some titles that I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.
For some peculiar reason poetry is quoted and used extensively everywhere but rarely does it get a regular space in a publishing house. It is often said poetry is too complicated to publish and to sell. It is subjective. Also many customers prefer to read poetry at the store and put the book back on the shelf. For many poets in India, self-publishing their poems has been popular. For generations of poets the go-to place was Writers Workshop begun by the late P. Lal. Some of the poets published by Writers Workshop included Vikram Seth, Agha Shahid Ali, Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolatkar, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Jayanta Mahapatra, Keki Daruwalla, Kamala Das, Meena Alexander, Nissim Ezekiel, and Ruskin Bond. Some of the other publishing houses published occasional volumes of poetry too.
Having said that the self-publishing initiatives still continue. For instance a young poet and writer ( and journalist) Debyajyoti Sarma launched the i, write, imprint, press to publish poetry. Some of the poets published ( apart from him) include noted playwright Ramu Ramanathan, Uttaran Das Gupta, Sananta Tanty and Paresh Tiwari.
Now there are more opportunities for poets to publish in literary magazines as well. For instance well-known poet Sampurna Chattarji has been appointed the poetry editor of IQ magazine and is looking for submissions and hoping to be read as well! She writes about it on her blog. Another active space for poets is Poetry at Sangam which is edited by Priya Sarukkai Chhabra. It showcases poetry in English and translations as well as essays on poetics and news of new releases. Another vibrant space for poetry especially Urdu is the Jashn-e-Rekhta festival.
There are plenty more initiatives in other local languages, meet ups, open mike sessions etc where poets can recite/perform their work. In the past decade there has been a noticeable increase in these events whether informal groups that meet at local parks or coffee shops to more formal settings as a curated evening.
Undoubtedly poets and their poetry is thriving, just more publishers are needed to publish the poets.
On 1 July 2017 the Government of India replaced the existing tax system with Goods and Services Tax or GST. I wrote in Scroll the impact this new tax will have on the publishing industry. My article was published on 8 July 2017. The text is c&p below.
Update ( 8 July 2017): At the time of writing the GST for author’s royalties was 18% and that of printing was 5%. Subsequently after the article was published reliable sources said these figures had been revised. The GST on author’s royalties had been reduced to 12% and that of printing increased to 12%. This is a situation which is in flux and the numbers have to be constantly monitored on Government of India notifications before the new taxation system stabilizes.
On the face of it, the fact that no Goods and Services Tax has been imposed on books – there was no excise either earlier – should have been good news for publishers and readers alike. The new tax system, which replaces the older, multi-layered version, envisages zero GST on books of all kinds. However, there’s a catch.
While books attract no GST, many of the components of a book do. All along the value chain, from paper to printing to author royalties, GST payments have kicked in from July 1 onwards, which means that the cost of putting together a book will now be higher. Ananth Padmanabhan, CEO, HarperCollins India said, “GST does have an impact on input costs.”
And, to maintain their margins – which have already been under pressure – publishers may have no choice but to increase prices. With most individual titles – barring textbooks and mass market bestsellers – already seeing dwindling sales, higher prices are not welcome right now.
Why prices will rise
What goes into a book? The intellectual property comes from the writer, in the form of the manuscript. The physical components include paper, ink, glue, etc., required for printing and binding a book. And the services are in the form of printing and delivery to the publisher’s warehouse. Now, with GST slapped on each of these components, the paper-supplies and the printer, for instance, will add this tax to their cost. In other words, it will be the publisher, who buys the products or the service from them, who will have to foot this additional expense.
The publishing industry uses the services of freelance experts for many aspects of editing and production – copy-editing, proofreading, type-setting, cover design, illustrations, and so on – all of whom will now have to pay 18% GST instead of 15% service tax. Since they will pass this cost on to the publisher, the expenses will rise further.
Explained Manas Saikia, co-founder, Speaking Tiger Books, “There is an 18% GST on all service providers. If they are registered under GST then they will charge it with their bills. If they are not registered, then there will be a reverse tax charge so the publisher will pay. The exact cost increase will vary and I would say production, pre-press, and royalty costs will go up by 5% to 6% in total.”
But why will publishers not get the same benefit that other industries will get? As with the older Value Added Tax, the GST also includes the concept of Input Tax Credits (ITC). Put simply, this means that the seller of the final product has to pay GST at the prevailing rate, but can claim credits on all the GST already paid by his suppliers. In this scenario, the publisher would have been able to claim ITC on the GST paid its suppliers – had there been a GST on the books it’s selling.
However, since there is no GST on books, the question of claiming such credits does not arise. So, the publisher will find their costs increasing because of the GST paid by its suppliers, which range from 12% on paper to 18% on printing. Said Thomas Abraham, CEO, Hachette India: “Printers have told us that there is a 5% plus increase in material cost due to GST.”
The impact on royalties
Royalties are the payment that a publisher makes to the writer of a book. It is usually calculated as a percentage of the cover price of the book – usually between 7.5% and 15%, depending on the stature of the writer, the format of the book, and the number of copies sold. This form of payment means that the author’s earnings are proportionate to the number of copies sold. However, some royalties are usually paid as an advance, to be adjusted against actual earnings later. But since publishers do no ask writers to return their advance even if they have not sold enough copies to justify that advance in the first place, this first tranche is thus a sunken cost.
Now, for the first, royalties have come under the indirect tax ambit, attracting a GST of 18%, versus zero earlier. So, an advance royalty to an author of, say, Rs 1 lakh, will now mean a tax payment of Rs 18,000. Who will pay this? As things stand, publishers are preparing to foot this cost as well, using a mechanism called reverse tax, paying the tax on the writer’s behalf as the writer may not have registered for GST.
Another option for publishers as they struggle to contain costs might be to reduce royalty payments to offset the 18% additional tax. That would be bad news for writers – but it may not be a strategy that any publisher will adopt willingly.
Summed up Abraham, “As it appears now, books are poised to become more expensive. Ironic for a category that has been kept ‘GST exempt’, but all the raw materials that make up books have gone up. So publishers may be left with no choice, but to pass on the inflationary increase from GST. Something the government may need to look into, if it kept books exempted so that prices could be held.” Added Neeraj Jain, Managing Director, Scholastic India, echoing a more optimistic view, “It’s difficult to measure the impact of GST on the publishing industry immediately. It is best to wait and watch.”
On 12 February 2016, the elected president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union ( JNUSU) , Kanhaiya Kumar, was picked up by the police from the campus. The arrest of two more students followed. During the three weeks that the arrested students, including Kanhaiya Kumar, remained in jail before securing bail, the JNUSU president, teachers and media persons faced physical attacks and intimidation at the court premises, even in the presence of the police. All this was perpetuated in the name of ‘nationalism’.
…With each passing day, more and more citizens came out to ‘Stand with JNU’ to defend the ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘autonomy of academic institutions’. These two became the rallying points for the protest movement that continues in one form or the other.
( From the Acknowledgements to the book)
What the Nation Really Needs to Know: The JNU Nationalism Lectures consists of the set of public lectures organised by the JNU Teachers Association (JNUTA) on various perspectives on nationalism and on different meanings of freedom to defend the heterogenous intellectual tradition that is today under threat. Hundreds of students and teachers from different disciplines gathered in the evening at the protest site, called Freedom Square, to listen to scientists, philosophers and social scientists speaking on issues of nationalism, academic autonomy and freedom of speech. Some of the contributors were Shashi Tharoor, Prabhat Patnaik, Gopal Guru, Achin Vanaik, Tanika Sarkar, Lawrence Liang, A. Mangai, G. Arunima, Nivedita Menon, Suvir Kaul, Jayati Ghosh et al.
The lectures were uploaded on YouTube and the transcripts were published by HarperCollins India. Interestingly the lectures were printed as they were delivered — in English or Hindi. Also for a seminal collection such as this the paperback is reasonably priced at Rs 299 making it within accessible reach of many readers. There are many fascinating lecturers. One of those invited was eminent historian and founder members of JNU — Prof. Romila Thapar. She spoke on ” The Past as Seen as Ideologies Claiming to be a Nationalist” ( 6 March 2016).
Here is an extract:
…the reading and interpretation of the past requires a trained understanding of the sources and a sensitivity to understanding what has been written. The political requirements of today cannot be imposed on the history of the past. To maintain a generalized statement that the period of the last thousand years was one of the victimization and enslavement of the Hindus by the Muslims is historically unacceptable. This kind of generalization feeds communal nationalism. That is why I am cautioning against it. Unfounded generalizations have to be replaced by analytical history.
At the time of Independence and soon after ( when none of you were born!), we had no problems defining nationalism and the definition was widely accepted. Nationalism meant declaring every Indian as an equal citizen of India and upholding the rights of every citizen to that equality. Today, efforts are being made to obfuscate it. Nationalism draws on reliable history and not on the contorted history that feeds communal ideologies. Reliable history demands critical enquiry which, as we all know, is essential to the advancement of knowledge. It is expected of a university to critically enquire into what publicly may be claimed. Nationalism gives an identity to the citizen. The citizen is pre-eminent but no citizen or group of citizens can claim superiority over others as citizens, irrespective of what may be the basis of the claim. Citizenship is founded on the equality of all and the equal rights of all. Incisive debates on this are part of the nationalist enterprise, and this is an ongoing enterprise in the relationship between history and nationalism. Universities are the obvious places for such debates. We in India have had a head start due to our Constitution and with our commitment to making the nation a secular democracy. This is what we are committed to as Indians and what we are committed to when we became independent, and this commitment has to continue as the hallmark of our nationalism.
This is a fascinating anthology which will be a keeper. Amazon India has termed it as a “bestseller” but at the time of writing print editions of the book were unavailable on the website. Anyhow it is worth possessing and mulling over the lectures delivered. Ideas can only begat more ideas — for better or for worse, only time will tell.
Today the Hindu carries a front page photograph of a woman devotee at devotional gathering on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram. This is for Attukal Amma or the people’s Goddess as she is popularly known. According to Lekshmy Rajeev who has written an illustrated book ( HarperCollins India) on the goddess Attukal Amma is Bhadrakali, the all-pervading and protecting Mother.
The book blurb says:
Legend has it that the Goddess chose the spot at Attukal, near Thiruvananthapuram, for an abode. Millions of women devotees the world over repose their unalloyed love and trust in Attukal Amma, and they throng Attukal during the annual Pongala festival. Attukal Amma: The Goddess of Millions familiarizes the reader with the Bhadrakali cult in Kerala and provides a ringside view of the Pongala festival and the various rituals associated with it, even as it raises doubts about the authenticity of the myth of Kannagi, the heroine of Chilapathikaram, associated with the temple. The pages of this book are interspersed with rare photographs and paintings, some of them depicting candid moments of the awe-inspiring rituals of the worship of Goddess Bhadrakali. It introduces the reader to the esoteric world of rites and rituals of daily worship at the temple.
( My review article on Vasudhendra’s fantastic short story collection, Mohanaswamy, was published in Bookwitty.)
Recently translated into English, Mohanaswamy, by the Kannada-language author Vasudhendra, is a collection of short stories that revolve around the central character, Mohanaswamy, who is gay.
Vasudhendra, who has published more than 12 books on a variety of subjects with impressive print runs of 12-18,000, had never before written openly about homosexuality. Mohanaswamy is his first collection of gay stories, which, he admits, was a courageous act that he undertook while tackling depression. It took him more than three years to write, but turned out to be therapeutic. He said, “I am very happy these days that I wrote Mohanaswamy. It was a kind of liberation for me. No other book has given me such joy.”
Over five years ago, Desha Kala, the Kannada literary magazine edited by noted writer Vivek Shanbhag, ran a 6,500-word story titled “Mohanaswamy” by an author whose pseudonym was ‘Shanmukha S’. In an article that appeared in the Hindustan Times, Shanbhag says the story was fascinating, and not because it spoke of gay love. “The central aspect of ‘love and longing’ was well beyond the social and anatomical construct in the story. Its emotional energy was very high because it was deeply autobiographical,” he said. Several years later Shanmukha S revealed himself to be Vasudhendra.
Vasudhendra quit working as a software professional to become a full time writer. He also founded a publishing house called Chanda Pustaka which has developed a formidable reputation for encouraging new writing in Kannada. So far, Chanda Pustaka has published more than 70 books garnering more than 100 literary prizes, including the National Academy of Letters Sahitya Akademi award, in the process.
Mohanaswamy is a young man from a village in Karanataka who has been considered a misfit since his childhood when he preferred playing with his sister and her friends than with boys his age. The stories are not arranged chronologically but roughly cover the lifespan of Mohanswamy from early adolescence to middle age.
The collection opens with a heartrending story, ‘The Gordian Knot’. Mohanswamy has been living with Karthik for five years when he discovers unexpectedly that Karthik is getting married to a woman and moving to another city. Another powerful story is, “Bed Bug” which explores the challenges of being gender fluid and the devastating consequences of trying to live one’s true identity in a firmly patriarchal world. When the protagonist, Shankar Gowda, a childhood friend of Mohanaswamy’s, disappears from his village, it transpires that Shankar was a victim of an honor killing carried out by his father and brothers. The title does not hint at the tragedy to come but when the story ends it’s easy to draw a parallel with the discomfort a bed bug causes and the similar effect Shankar’s presence has on his family. The story is even more powerful when one discovers that the character is based on a real-life classmate of Vasudhendra’s. The anguish a gay Indian male lives is once again illustrated when Mohanaswamy, while struggling to come to terms with his own sexuality in college, hardly ever discusses homosexuality with other students. He chooses not to reveal his true self, fearing “that would give rise to unnecessary doubts in his friends’ minds. So when gay sex did come up in their conversations, he would pass a snide remark as a defence mechanism.”
Story after story addresses a different challenge of being gay while living in a conservative, patriarchal society such as India. It is worthwhile to note that the Delhi High Court, in 2009, decriminalized homosexuality between consenting adults, to the joy of the LGBTQ community. Ironically, on December 11, 2013, the day the original Kannada edition of Mohanaswamy was published, the Supreme Court overturned the previous judgement of the Delhi High Court, leaving the matter of amending or repealing the Act to the Parliament. It has yet to be resolved.
Mohanaswamy is a remarkably bold debut collection not only for writing explicit scenes of gay sex in India but also for a wise commentary via fiction of how homosexuals are perceived and treated in India. There is a quiet dignity in the tenor without a shrill activist voice. The arrangement of the stories with the carefully selected titles is admirable in marking the life of Mohanaswamy from adolescence to middle age, repeatedly facing social ostracization, his exploration for love, and coming to terms with the transition from lust to companionship. Mohanaswamy is an extraordinary collection of fiction which will hopefully travel far especially if it helps speak to parents of the LGBTQ community and farther.