imagination Posts

Oliver Sacks “Everything in its Place”

British neurologist, naturalist, historian of science, and author Oliver Sacks died in 2015. A huge loss to the world particularly to the world of writing and reading. He read voraciously, wrote beautifully and with a precision that is a sheer delight to behold. Fortunately after his passing, some of his unpublished writings were published in a collection called River of Consciousness and now Everything in its Place puts together his contributions to various magazines and newspapers. As always there is plenty to mull over. Sacks has the astonishing ability to make many light bulbs go on inside one’s head and think, “Exactly! This is it! He got it!” In Everything in its Place there are two particular instances when this happens. One when he wistfully records the demise of print collections in libraries in favour of digital books thereby losing the opportunity of serendipitous gems such as the 1873 book Megrim. This is what he writes in his essay “Libraries”:

When I was a child, my favourite place at home was the library, a large oak-paneled room with all four walls covered by bookcases — and a solid table for writing and studying in the middle. …The oak-paneled library was the quietest and most beautiful room in the house, to my eyes, and it vied with my little chemistry lab as my favourite place to be. I would curl up in a chair and become so absorbed in what I was reading that all sense of time would be lost. Whenever I was late for lunch or dinner I could be found, completely enthralled by a book, in the library. I learned to read early, at three or four, and books, and our library, are among my first memories.

When I went to university, I had access to Oxford’s two great university libraries, the Radcliffe Science Library and the Bodleian, a wonderful general library that could trace itself back to 1602. …But the library I loved the most at Oxford was our own library at the Queen’s College. The magnificent library building itself had been designed by Christopher Wren, and beneath this, in an underground maze of heating pipes and shelves, weere the vast subterranean holdings of the library. To hold ancient books, incunabula, in my own hands was a new experience for me … .

I first came to New York City in 1965, and at that time I had a horrid, poky little apartment in which there were almost no surfaces to read or write on. I was just able, holding an elbow awkwardly aloft, to write some of Migraine on the top of a refrigerator. I longed for spaciousness. Fortunately, the library at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where I worked, had this in abundance. I would sit at a large table to read or write for a while, and then wander around the shelves and stacks. I never knew what my eyes might alight upon, but I would sometimes discover unexpected treasures, lucky finds, and bring these back to my seat.

But a shift was occurring by the 1990s. I would continue to visit the library frequently, sitting at a table with a mountain of books in front of me, but students increasingly ignored the bookshelves, accessing what they needed with their computers. Few of them went to their shelves anymore. The books, so far as they were concerned, were unnecessary. And since the majority of users were no longer using the books themselves, the college decided, ultimately, to dispose of them.

I had no idea that this was happening — not only in the Einstein library but in college and public libraries all over the country. I was horrified when I visited the library recently and found the shelves, once overflowing, now sparsely occupied. Over the last few years, most of the books, it seems, have been thrown out, with remarkably little objection from anyone. I felt that a murder, a crime had been committed: the destruction of centuries of knowledge. Seeing my distress, a librarian reassured me that everything “of worth” had been digitized. But I do not use a computer, and I am deeply saddened by the loss of books, even bound periodicals, for there is something irreplaceable about a physical book: its look, its smell, its heft. I thought of how this library once cherished “old” books, had a special room for old and rare books; and how in 1967, rummaging through the stacks, I had found an 1873 book, Edward Liveing’s Megrim which inspired me to write my own first book.

The second instance is when Sacks rues his failing eyesight is robbing him of the pleasures of reading print books. For him it was the print book that held the greatest appeal and no amount of technological innovation such as audio books could persuade him to think otherwise. He has a point when he writes in “Reading the Fine Print”:

In January of 2006, when my vision began to decline, I wondered what I would do. There were audiobooks — I had recorded some of them myself — but I was quintessentially a reader, not a listener. I have been an inveterate reader as far back as I can remember — I often hold page numbers or the look of paragraphs and pages in my almost automatically, and I can instantly find my way to a particular passage in most of my books. I want books that belong to me, books whose intimate pagination will become dear and familiar. My brain is geared towards reading — …

We each form unique neural pathways associated with reading and we each bring to the act of reading a unique combination not only of memory and experience, but of sensory modalities, too. Some people may “hear” the sounds of the words as they read (I do, but only if I am reading for pleasure, not when I am reading for information); others may visualize them, consciously or not. Some may be acutely aware of the acoustic rhythms or emphases of a sentence; others are more aware of its look or its shape.

there is a fundamental difference between reading and being read to. When one reads actively, whether using the eyes or a finger, one is free to skip ahead or back, to reread, to ponder or daydream in the middle of a sentence — one read’s in one’s own time. Being read to, listening to an audiobook, is a more passive experience, subject to the vagaries of another’s voice and largely unfolding in the narrator’s own time.

Writing should be accessible in as many formats as possible — George Bernard Shaw called books the memory of the race. No one sort of book should be allowed to disappear, for we are all individuals, with highly indivualized needs and preferences — preferences embedded in our brains at every level, our individual neural patterns and networks creating a deeply personal engagement between author and reader.

This is so true! Any true-blooded reader would identify wholeheartedly with the sentiment expressed. For me it rings true at another level too. My nine-year-old daughter prefers print to audio books for she claims “audio interferes with her imagination!” Till I read this essay I attributed it to a child’s quirk. Now I know better.

Read Everything in its Place! There is so much to discover.

1 July 2019

Ken Spillman “The Great Storyteller”

Creatures of the forest gathered to hear The Great Storyteller for the last time. 

‘My life has been full of wonder,’ he tells them. ‘The greatest gifts are stories, pictures, songs and play. Remember this! We can ALL imagine the world as wild and wonderful as this forest.’

Ken Spillman’s The Great Storyteller is a picture book about the grief at the passing of a wise and great storyteller, the elephant, which leaves his friends in the forest devastated. For a while they are incapable of doing anything except to mourn his passing by sharing memories and participating in what can be considered one long wake.

‘When we lost The Great Storyteller, we lost his stories. Every story gives us a new beginning. Each story took us on a fantastic journey. Our imagination made them real.’ 

Slowly with time they realise they can make their own stories and “imagine colourful worlds”. It works! Laughter and cheer returns to the forest.

Ken Spillman‘s The Great Storyteller is a hauntingly moving tale about stories, loss and new beginnings. Incredibly sensitively the concept of death is introduced to little children but also how crucial it is to grieve, to come to terms with the loss of a dear friend, and yet life goes on. It is not as if the memory of the beloved friend is ever forgotten. It exists. It remains in one’s heart as a circle of grief, if you like, with life’s experiences creating layers around it, encompassing it and couching it. The illustrations by Manjari Chakravarti accompanying the story are absolutely stupendous! The effect of using watercolours and pastels create a warm feeling. Beginning with the fabulously tactile book cover which has the elephant and the monkey illustration in matt finish; it is an excellent introduction to young readers to immerse themselves into this story. It is the only way to experience it. Something shifts inside for an adult reader, it can only have a more powerful effect on young impressionable minds.

Magnificent story!

Ken Spillman The Great Storyteller ( illustrations by Manjari Chakravarti) Scholastic India, Gurgaon, Delhi, 2018. Pb. Rs 250

6 May 2018 

Interview with Shikhandin

My interview with Shikhandin was published in Scroll on Sunday, 10 September 2017 as “‘The writer in me doesn’t have a gender, or is made up of all the genders’: Shikhandin“. 

Immoderate Men by Shikhandin is a remarkable collection of stories published by Speaking Tiger Books. These stories meander through the minds of men giving a perspective on daily life which would ordinarily be dismissed. For instance stories like  “Room Full of Presents”, “Salted Pinkies”, “Hijras on the Highway” and “Old Man Sitting on a South Kolkata Park Bench, Ruminating” if taken at face-value are regular stories with a mild twist. On the other hand these stories also dissect with finesse the preconceived notion of “What is masculinity?”  By delving into the mental makeup of the protagonists the author explores bewildering scenarios; thereby brilliantly subverting notions of patriarchical norms by blurring gender lines as often this confused state of mind is attributed to women and not men.

Here are edited excerpts of an interview with the author:

  1. How did these stories come about?

Mostly from the world around me, past and present. A couple are from dreams and visions. Some from newspaper articles, photographs, a conversation overheard, a person observed in a crowd, and so on. My stories usually come from life itself, whether dreamt or experienced or watched. “Room Full of Presents” came to me in a pre-dawn dream, all of it, more than a decade ago. I still remember waking from it, the sensations of the dream falling off me like water droplets as I sat up on my bed, trying to stay still, just feeling the story over me, around me. Dreams have their roots in reality, regardless of their form and shape. I was sure I had seen/met the characters somewhere, sometime. “Ahalya” came from a vision of a girl with cascading black hair running up a hill. I was half asleep, but I could see her clearly; the hill felt mysterious; this story crept up on me at first without any specific shape, smoky, yet tangible. Most of my stories run like little movies on a little screen before my eyes – that is my first sighting of the story. I write what I see and hear in that mental screen. This is how it has always been for me, even when I wrote press ads and ad films for a living, years ago.

  1. How long did it take to write these stories?

The stories in this collection, and others too, were written over a period of almost two decades. I love short stories (and novellas and novelettes), but everybody keeps saying there isn’t a market for them. So for many years I didn’t put together a manuscript of short stories, though I continued to submit and be published in journals, mostly abroad. The earliest story in this collection was written in 2002 and first published in an American Magazine the same year. Individual stories have their own pace. Some, like “Mail for Dadubhai,” was written in one sitting. Ditto for “Ducklings”, “The Vanishing Man” and “Black Prince”. They were edited/fine-tuned after what I call the resting/roosting period. In general, a single story may take me anything from one or two days to a week. I leave them alone after that for as long as it takes, before I revisit. Some may take longer, like “Salted Pinkies”. I was inhabiting the minds of young men, the kind who loiter in Calcutta’s cheap cafes. Even though I was confident of their language and mannerisms, I kept stopping to check, which was difficult because I no longer lived in Calcutta. At times I literally had to mentally transport myself to North Calcutta, walk the streets in my mind. Watching the boys and men all over again. The writing time, I would say, really depends on the story. There is a story that I have left incomplete for almost two decades, because I have imagined several alternative endings for it; one will rise up and push out the others I know. For me, it’s the story that dictates. I am merely the conduit.

  1. Are they pure figments of imagination or are borrowed heavily from life or inspired by events? (I ask because there is a tone to them that makes me feel as if there is a pinch of reality infused in the stories)

They are both and neither. Like dreams, our imaginings are also based on reality, grounded in the material world. Even a fantasy-scifi movie like Avatar, is at the end of the day, a story about thwarting colonial intrusion. If my stories are relatable, I have succeeded in writing a true one. By true I don’t mean factually correct or historically acceptable. Truth, as I see it, in fiction is about emotional sincerity, that kernel that makes you weep, laugh, sing or rage with or against the character or situation; the narrative that makes you walk through to the end, because it is probable, plausible, relatable, even when the world the story brings forth seems impossible or in the case of literary stories, unfamiliar and totally strange or even shocking. Having said all of the above, yes, there are stories that were inspired by something almost physical. Like “Ducklings” for instance, which is from a photograph I had seen in a newspaper. Avian flu was sweeping across Bengal and Orissa and also Bihar. It was around 2006 I think. There was this black and white photograph of a Bengali woman, weeping as she clutched ducklings, her pets, to her breast. The ducklings were looking innocently back at the camera/photographer. Having grown up with many animals and birds, and experienced the pain of loss, I am not ashamed to say that I wept for that woman, mourned her loss for days. And then I re-imagined her life.  “Old Man Sitting on a South Kolkata Park Bench, Ruminating” is inspired from an actual conversation, part of it, that I had heard while passing through a similar park in that city. A few old men were gossiping, about the young girls they had seen or knew, and their daughters-in-law. An incident in the story (kissing a baby boy in the crotch) was actually witnessed by me during my college days in the early eighties, and it is still practised. These traditional Bengali men didn’t/don’t think they were/are doing anything wrong. Saluting a baby boy like that is acceptable; displaying a boy baby is a matter of pride. I stitched that incident into my story. And I became an old man in my head when I wrote it.

  1. Curiously you chose to write about the world of men while inhabiting their minds. With this technique it is fascinating the multiple layers of reading it lends itself to. How did you train yourself to write in this manner?

For this I really must thank my rigorous advertising training. One of the exercises copywriting entailed was mentally switching places with the consumer. I discovered it works quite well for fiction when you are writing as someone else, seeing things from another’s perspective. My short experience with theatre also helps. That apart, since my childhood, I’ve had this tendency to feel things intensely- be inside the book I am reading or the music I am listening or the movie I am watching, the food I am cooking. Once my mother tore my drawing book into shreds because I hadn’t replied when she’d called me. I wasn’t ignoring her or being disrespectful, I actually hadn’t heard, but of course I wasn’t believed. Similar problems would crop up in school too. Be that as it may, it’s great fun becoming someone or something else even momentarily! Adventure and action, madness and mayhem all in the safety of your own mind. It helps that I am mostly by myself on any week day. I can laugh or cry without being seen as a lunatic! Right now, a part of my head is a dog, doing doggie things; two dogs actually in two totally different stories, so I had to apportion off my grey cells!

  1. Why use a nom de plume?

Actually in my case, it is not so much as a nom de plume, as acknowledging to myself and everyone, that the writer in me doesn’t have a gender or is made up of all the genders. I ought to have used Shikhandin right at the beginning, but felt shy about it; didn’t want to come across as pretentious. It’s hard enough replying “I write” when folks ask me what I do.

I could have picked up any other gender nonspecific name or initials. There are several versions to the Shikhandin narrative in the Mahabharata. The common thread running through all is that Shikhandin, who was princess Amba of Kashi, in a previous birth, through deep penance and austerities and after several rebirths and a Yaksha’s boon, became a male, Shikhandin, and succeeded in destroying the man (Bhishma) who was responsible for her humiliation and ruin in her first life. Whichever version you read, Shikhandin’s life is a fascinating story of grit, determination and resolve against all odds. For most people Shikhandin represents members of the LGBT community, or those who have rejected gender stereotypes. For me, Shikhandin represents a mind so strong that it can overcome physical boundaries and frailties. It doesn’t matter what you are born as, but who you can become.

I had heard about Shikhandin as a young child listening to tales from the epics. Later, while still in school, I read a bit. Shikhandin has been with me for decades. And because of Shikhandin I questioned male-female roles as dictated by society, and the kind of character and personality ascribed to each as acceptable. I wondered then, and still do, how gender specific are we in the purely intellectual or cerebral sense. How much of our gendered lives are in fact centuries of conditioning. I think it is nonsense that only women can understand women and likewise for men. Physical violence is not a male characteristic, just as daintiness is not a female thing. As a writer, I don’t want to belong to any specific place or slot. I don’t matter, the story does. At the time of writing, I should have the freedom to become whatever is necessary, whatever is required of me, for the story to unfurl as truly as it can.

  1. When did you gravitate from writing children’s stories to stories for adults?

It’s the other way round actually. I have been writing for adults ever since I can remember.  I wish I had started writing children’s stories earlier. That’s another regret, and hope I can make up for lost time now. I was afraid I wouldn’t be good enough. But the Children’s First Contest curated by Duckbill, Parag (an initiative of Tata Trust) and Vidya Sagar School has boosted my confidence . I enjoy reading children’s fiction a lot, even today, after my own children have grown up. And every time I have written a story or poem for children I’ve come away feeling so euphoric – the sheer joy of being a child is like an elixir. I enjoy listening to children’s patter too. Their sense of logic and observation astounds me. They also know more than many grownups about many things.

  1. Do you think there is any difference in your methodology while writing for children or adults?

Yes, certainly. There is a poem that I’d written and published several years ago, which I think can give you an idea about the kind of heart needed when writing for children:

WHAT THE CHILD DOES

When gossamer tufts come cascading down

From the silk-cotton tree’s bright scarlet crown

Who chases the tufts? Say who does?

The child does

When plump raven clouds thundering their refrain

Suddenly shed weight in vast feathers of rain

Who raises a fountain? Say who does?

The child does

When dew beads strung across blades of new grass

Glisten like rows and rows of glowing elfin glass

Who sees the rainbow? Say who does?

The child does

When within that pupa clinging to a tree

A butterfly softly struggles to be free

Who hears the cry? Say who does?

The child does

When deep down in winter’s icy waters

A timid sun’s shy white ray quivers

Who feels the arrow? Say who does?

The child does

Ah! Everywhere in this world, a new world unfolds

And unwraps and unfurls, expands and grows

Who stands in wonder, then? Say who does?

We do! We do! Yes. But first the child does!

  1. At times you hold yourself back from describing in greater detail the surroundings or situations. Why?

In short stories less is more – usually, because there are always exceptions to prove the rule! The best are those that without shouting, slip inside your head and start to niggle, urging you, the reader, to create possible endings and solutions, extend the surroundings or simply stay on with the story. I try to emulate that standard. I try.

Shikhandin Immoderate Men: Stories Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2017. Pb. pp. 190 Rs 299 

12 Sept 2017 

Neil Gaiman, “The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Non-Fiction”

Neil Gaiman is the superstar of storytellers and one of the leading influencers on social media with his strongly voiced opinons. He is incredibly generous while sharing his knowledge, he has bundles of energy, oozes with charisma and can pack quite a powerful punch while speaking his mind. He comes across as straightforward and can be blunt when he wants as in the essays — “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming: The Reading Agency Lecture, 2013” or “The PEN Awards and Charlie Hebdo ” ( 2015). He is charming in his hero-worship when he writes about meeting legends such as Fritz Leiber and magnanimous with his compliments such as on illustrator Charles Vess with whom he often collaborates. Gaiman is passionate about his love for reading, letting the imagination roar and creativity blossom as evident in the innumerable speeches he has delivered. One of them being “Good Comics and Tulips: A Speech”or after his visit to a Syrian refugee camp, Azraq refugee camp, Jordan — “So Many Ways to Die in Syria Now: May 2014”. Here is a typical Gaiman straight-from-the-heart observation:

I realise I have stopped thinking about political divides, about freedom fighters or terrorists, about dictators and armies. I am thinking only of the fragility of civilisation. The lives the refugees had were our lives: they owned corner shops and sold cars, they farmed or worked in factories or owned factories or sold insurance. None of them expected to be running for their lives, leaving everything they had because they had nothing to come back to, making smuggled border crossings, walking past the dismembered corpses of other people who had tried to make the crossing but had been caught or been betrayed. ( p.506) 

Most of the essays and speeches collected in this volume have gone viral on the Internet recently. They have developed a life of their own for the ideas they spawned. As Gaiman says in “Credo”, “I believe that it is difficult to kill an idea because ideas are invisible and contagious, and they move fast. He also firmly believes that “Literature does not occur in a vaccuum. It cannot be a monologue. It has to be a conversation, and new people, new readers, need to be brought into the conversation too.” The title essay refers to his appearance at the Oscar ceremony when the film adaptation of his book Coraline had been nominated and he walked the red carpet but was given a seat in one of the top balconies.

The articles included in this collection may over a period of time vanish from their original place of publication in cyberspace or disappear behind pay walls as business models of media websites evolve. This is an anthology that is must have that will constantly be read and re-read for its thought-provoking ideas, its analysis of the changing game of publishing, the relationship between writer and readers but most importantly it will be remembered for Gaiman’s fervour in infecting others with his passion for reading and allowing the imagination to run wild.

Buy it. Treasure it. Preserve it. Share it widely. Pass it on to the next generation.

Neil Gaiman The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Non-Fiction Headline Publishing Group, London, 2016. Pb. pp. 532 . Rs 599

Hachette India distributes it in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. 

19 June 2016

Literati: “Ink on the Brink”

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300(My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 17 October 2015) and will be in print ( 18 October 2015). Here is the http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-india-coping-with-book-bans/article7770216.ece. I am also c&p the text below. )

It remains to be seen how India, despite its business potential, copes with cultural policing, muzzling of free speech, and book bans

According to Nielsen’s The India Book Market Report 2015, released at Frankfurt Book Fair on October 14, the print book market in India is worth Rs. 261bn (£2.5bn), making it the sixth largest in the world, and the second largest of the English language markets. U.K. publishers’ revenues, including e-books, home and exports, are worth £3.3bn. India is the second most populous country in the world, with 1.28 billion people. The literacy rate is rising rapidly, from 65 per cent in 2001 to 74 per cent in 2011; it is predicted to reach 90 per cent in 2020. One quarter of young people define themselves as book readers, comprising by themselves a larger group than the population of the U.K. which is 65 million.

It explains why, for some time now, publishers worldwide are keen to explore strategic partnerships with their Indian counterparts in English and regional languages. According to a 2010-12 report Rebalancing the Economy from the House of Commons, Parliament of Great Britain, “40 per cent of U.K. publishing revenues are derived from exports”. Though the statistic is three years old, it will hold validity in 2015 since the links between British publishers and India are amongst the oldest given the colonial past.

But what happens when a market like India with huge business potential mutates into a territory synonymous with cultural policing, muzzling of free speech, book bans and intolerance of ideas? Does it still remain an attractive market to invest in? Increasing number of writers from various Indian languages are returning their Sahitya Akademi awards and Punjabi writer Dalip Kaur Tiwana returned her Padma Shri in protest against the assassination of rationalist scholars like Kalburgi. For some writers, this form of intellectual censorship is linked to the horrific lynching incident in Dadri. Noted Hindi writer, 90-year-old Krishna Sobti, said while returning her award that India did not need any more “Dadri or Babri”.

***

I have contributed an article on the theme of Independence in Indian Children’s Literature for the inaugural issue of
The Read QuarterlyThe Read Quarterly
. It is a journal on children’s literature, founded by Sarah Odedina and Kate Manning; the Kickstarter campaign has been endorsed by Neil Gaiman. Some of the other contributors include Nury Vittachi, Eoin Colfer, Gita Wolf (Tara Books) and Daniel Hahn. My article maps the literary inheritance of independence/partition of Romila Thaparsubcontinent. Much of it is inadvertently focused on hagiographies written to suit a specific ideological position, reinforcing communal Public Intellectual in Indiapoints of view that took root in British India. Fortunately, there are noticeable positive shifts in contemporary fiction, but as Romila Thapar, the eminent historian, wrote to me, “The goal of the national movement was such that communities came together for a cause and set aside what separated them. It is these moments that need to be remembered in the present times.”

Pigeons of the DomeCultural pluralism, democracy and secularism, the defining traits of India, are now under severe threat. Two collections of short stories published this past month address the complexities of Indian culture and ethos being intimidated by communal forces. Deeply disturbing but essential reading is the Pigeons of the Domes: Stories on Communalism edited by Rakhshanda Jalil (Niyogi Books). It was put together with the sole intention of “tracing the secular thread in the fabric of modern India, a thread that goes back many centuries.” It consists of stories by Gulzar, Ajeet Caur, Asghar Wajahat, Deepak Budki and Keki Daruwalla.

‘They Eat Meat!’ is the opening story in Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, 2015 winner,the-adivasi-will-not-dance-cover-for-kitaab-interview Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s new short story collection The Adivasi Will Not Dance. In ‘They Eat Meat!’ Panmuni and Biram Soren go to live in Gujarat, and are surprised to learn that they would have to stop eating non-vegetarian food to be accepted as citizens. According to the author, “The impetus behind the short story was the experience a Santhal family had in Vadodara during 2000-02. …the things I have mentioned are all as they were told to me by this family. I just changed the names. I wasn’t there in Gujarat in 2002 when the riots happened, but I was curious to know what happened, the insider-outsider equation, the pure-impure thing, the veg-non-veg thing, and so I wanted to write this story….This story first appeared in the literary magazine from Kathmandu, La.Lit. Prawin Adhkari and Rabi Thapa, the editors, published it in August 2014 with the title, ‘DON’T MIX WITH THEM, THEY EAT MEAT!’…It read more like an eyewitness report (in the third person) than a fiction based on facts. For the Speaking Tiger version, my editors and I took the report-like feel out and turned it into more story-like. … In the La.Lit version, imagination was minimum; in the Speaking Tiger version, there is more imagination.”

tram_83_301This fine line between fact and fiction is well summed up in the astounding debut novel, Tram 83 by performance artist and poet, Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated from the French by Roland Glasser, published by Deep Vellum Publishing. Lucien, the protagonist, while reflecting upon his work, asks: “Is there a limit to the imagination of a writer who takes real facts and uses them to construct a world where truth and fiction coexist?” It is not surprising that Indian writers are protesting intellectual censorship by returning state awards.

17 October 2015 

Literati – Kids and reading ( 1 February 2015)

Jaya Bhattacharji RoseMy monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 31 January 2015) and will be in print ( 1 February 2015). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati-a-look-at-the-world-of-books-publishing-and-writers/article6842119.ece. I am also c&p the text below. )

One day a mother asked me how she could get her sons to read. I wondered if the children were off picture and pop-up books too. The mother said, “They are too old for pop-up books! They are in kindergarten.”

In January, Scholastic Inc. published Kids & Family Reading Report (Fifth edition) based on a survey conducted in the US.., but some of the results are valid worldwide. Reading out aloud to children regularly kindles an interest in books, unleashes their imagination, makes them curious and introduces them to a variety of cultural indicators. Children aged six and above began to show signs of easing away from reading for pleasure. A possible reason is that adults want the children to be “independent readers” and so stop reading out aloud. Eighty-three per cent of children across age groups say they love(d) or like(d) being read to a lot — the main reason being it was a special time with parents. With an older age group of children (ages 12-17) who are frequent readers, it was noticed that they read a book of choice independently in school, relied upon e-reading experiences, had access to a large home library, were aware of their reading level and had parents involved in their reading habits.

Ninety-one percent of children aged 6-17 say, “my favourite books are the ones that I have picked out myself.” The majority of kids aged 6-17 (70 per cent) say they want books that “make me laugh.” Kids also want books that “let me use my imagination” (54 per cent), “tell a made-up story” (48 per cent), “have characters I wish I could be like because they’re smart, strong or brave” (43 per cent), “teach me something new” (43 per cent) and “have a mystery or a problem to solve” (41 per cent). While the percentage of children who have read an e-book has increased across all age groups since 2010 (25 vs. 61 per cent), the majority of children who have read an e-book say most of the books they read are in print (77 per cent). Nearly two-thirds of children (65 per cent) — up from 2012 (60 per cent) — agree that they’ll always want to read books in print even though there are e-books available. Heartening news for publishers!

At Digital Book World Conference 2015 (January 13-15, 2015), New York, Linda Zecher, CEO, Houghton Mifflin, said, “You can’t serve content to children, you have to curate.” Mixing a variety of books for younger readers is important — picture books, pop-up books or even explosive pop-up books and poetry. Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, Editorial Director, Red Turtle, says, “With simple words that may have repetitions or rhymes and pictures, these books are easy to reread and even remember by heart. Even as a child grows older, trickier concepts are easier introduced through picture books (where do babies come from, how people/things are same and different, concepts of diversity, human emotions etc.)”. Imprints that specialise in graded reading are Puffin India, Hole Books/Duckbill Books, Read it yourself with Ladybird, Banana Storybooks/Egmont Publishing, Usborne Young reading, Let’s read!/Macmillan, I Can Read!/Harper, Step into Reading/Random House, and Scholastic Reader.

In India, children are fortunate to be exposed to a multi-lingual environment. It is not always easy to locate a single publishing list that will whet all appetites. Instead it has to be “curated” from the moment infants are given cloth and board books and flash cards. Some books for all ages that “work” splendidly are the late Bindia Thapar’s Ka Se Kapade Kaise (Tulika Books); Anushka Ravishankar, Sirish Rao and Durga Bai’s One, Two, Three! (Tara Books), Devdutt Pattanaik’s Pashu: Animal Tales from the Hindu Mythology, Puffin Books; H.S. Raza’s Bindu with Ritu Khoda and Vanita Pai (Scholastic India); What a song! A Bundelkhandi Folk Tale (Eklavya Publication); Rabindranath Tagore’s Clouds and Waves (Katha); Ruskin Bond’s Tigers for Dinner: Tall Tales (Red Turtle) and Nury Vittachi’s The Day it Rained Letters (Hachette India).

As adults we like books that have “pictures”. Few like to admit to the truth. So we disguise it with our preference for heavily illustrated books, photo books, coffee table books and to some extent graphic novels. So why is it with our children we are in a hurry for them to read books that border on the “educational”?

31 January 2015

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

 

Neil Gaiman, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”

Neil Gaiman, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”

Neil Gaiman

I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.

Adult stories never made sense, and they were to slow to start. They made me feel like there were secrets, masonic, mythic secrets, to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?
p.71-72

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Neil Gaiman’s latest offering. A delight for Gaiman devotees, and a treat for those who are yet to discover this fantabulous storyteller. He tells a story about a few days in the life of a seven-year-old boy, being recounted by the adult version, forty years later. Gaiman so casually pushes the limits of conventional storytelling. Visiting a farm, watching a garden patch with overgrown foliage or visiting a placid lake, will probably never be the same experience once you are done with this story!

It is worth remarking upon how Gaiman seems to write for a young reader just discovering fantasy and the magical world of literature, while at the same time giving an adult, a seasoned reader, the same pleasure of reveling in a good story. Gaiman retains a child-like, illogical wonder of the world around. His imagination is stupendous, combined with the wisdom of age and maturity makes the text so rich and memorable. At the same time he is able to weave in very pertinent issues of child abuse, death, adults “ganging” up against children, age, discussing family structures– the conventional and the unconventional.

Read. You will be disappointed that the story ends as quickly as it does.

Neil Gaiman The Ocean at the End of the Lane Headline Publishing Group, Hachette, London. Pb. pp. 250 Rs. 399
( An e-book and an audio book are also available. Price not mentioned.)