Over a decade ago I did a regular column for Business World. It was on the business of publishing. Here is the original url.
The question most often asked these days in the literary world and beyond is, “Are you going to Jaipur?” I know of authors, publishers, agents, aspiring writers and even friends who have nothing whatsoever to do with literature (not even to read a book) heading off to the Pink City. The attraction ranges from seeing authors “in the flesh” to gawking at talk-show celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey. That said, I wonder how many would actually know what a phenomenal impact Oprah’s Book Club had on book sales in America — termed as the Oprah effect. She single-handedly recommended books that she enjoyed reading on The Oprah Winfrey Show. It is estimated that the 69 books she recommended over a 15-year period, saw the sale of 55 million units. But as with popular literary spaces, she too has had her fair share of controversies. Most notably being of her recommending James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, only for it to be revealed that the book was a complete hoax, but that is another story.
Literary festivals are spaces to have a great time — good conversation, plenty of ideas swirling about, good company, especially if accompanied by good weather, food and facilities. What more can one ask of a long weekend break? It is a mela time to listen to panelists, to be able to ask questions directly of one’s favourite authors and discover new ones. It is also a space that provides opportunities for aspiring writers to contact publishers, word-doctors, and literary agents. Rohini Chowdhury, author and freelance editor says, “I think literary festivals serve an important function in providing writers and publishers a platform on which they can come together, particularly writers who often need the visibility. It also provides them with a sense of community and turn into exclusive clubs.” William Dalrymple, director, Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), says when he gets invited to international literary festivals as an author, he is always on the lookout for new voices or to connect with established names. It is easier to do it over breakfast than send off an impersonal email request.
A Costly Affair But there is no such thing as a free lunch. It is never clear from the media stories that bear the cost of putting up this extravaganza. Often the stories are about celebrities attending a festival, the political and literary controversies surrounding some participants (it helps to pull in the crowds!), but rarely about the investments involved. At most there will be references to “breaking even”, but hardly any numbers are mentioned. Yet, there is a cost, and a substantial one at that to the organisers of the festival: financial and human resources and infrastructure. There is also a cost to the city that hosts the festival; although, both parties stand to gain in the long run.
Internationally, festivals are ticketed and are not the norm in India. (This is set to change with JLF announcing modestly-priced tickets for the musical events this year.) The income from ticket sales is rarely enough to cover costs of producing a festival — in fact, it is not even close, probably only 15 per cent of the total budget. So donations and sponsorship end up paying most of the costs. In addition to these, corporate sponsorship and individual donations are incredibly important to enable the literature festivals to run. A great deal of time is spent developing proposals, targeting potential sponsors (including big businessmen, bankers and financiers), sending out those proposals and following up. A festival director can send out 50 or more proposals and get only 5 or 10 responses most of which are polite rejections. Most people who generally do respond are those that already know the core team, especially the festival director’s work, so one needs to spend a great deal of time making and developing contacts. Add to this are other “hidden” costs that involve huge amounts of labour and are not easily quantified. They include planning and organising the events, particularly bearing in mind the ratio of local to international authors, as well as the linguistic ratios; keeping abreast of backlists and forthcoming titles; networking with publishers and authors; and putting together a judicious mix of ideas and entertainment. Also important are building confidence amongst participants and audience, timing the participation of authors if they are going to be in town (it helps to have information in advance as it differs the costs of running the festival). Additional costs to be factored are an honorarium or an appearance fee to be paid, especially to the star performers; organising cultural events where the artistes are paid their fee; media and publicity; salaries of the staff (permanent and volunteers); rent of the space; catering at the venue; transport and accommodation; and infrastructure. In fact, every person who walks in has a cost — registration tags (electronic or bar-coded), brochures, chair, and a system to buy a book. According to Adriene Loftus Parkins, Founder/Director of the Asia House Festival of Asian Literature, “I think it’s fair to say that no one realistically goes into this business to make a lot of money. It is very important that we raise enough to cover costs, so that we can pay our suppliers and keep going, but we are running a festival for reasons other than profit. I rarely have the funds to produce the kind of festival I’d ideally like to and to do the marketing and PR that I feel I need, so I do the best I can with what I have.”
Fundraising is a crucial aspect of organising a literary festival. An efficient team will stick to the budget and realise it is organic. Part of the fundraising is in kind – offering accommodation, free air tickets, conveyance, sponsoring a meal or an event. If it is in cash, then it is by networking with businesses, financiers, cultural and arts agencies like the British Council, Literature Across Frontiers, multi-national corporations etc. But it is crucial to find the relevant links between the festival being organised and the agency’s mandate. For instance, the British Council literature team promotes UK’s writers, poets and publishers to communities and audiences around the world, developing innovative, high-quality events and collaborations that link writers, publishers and cultural institutions. Recent projects include the Erbil Literature Festival, the first international literature festival ever to be held in Iraq; the Karachi Literature Festival; and a global partnership with Hay Festivals that has seen UK writers travel to festivals in Beirut, Cartagena, Dhaka, Kerala Nairobi, Segovia and Zacatecas amongst others. This ongoing work with partners helps provide the opportunity for an international audience to experience the excitement of the live literature scene in the UK. And for businesses it is a direct investment into the community. According to image guru Dilip Cherian of Perfect Relations, “Corporates find that they can reach otherwise with Lit Fests. It’s also an audience that captures influentials who otherwise have little space for corporate Branding. The danger though is that literary festivals may be going the way of Polo…Money too easily caught, could stifle the plot.”
The Host City Makes Hay The business model of a literary festival depends upon who is it for — the city or the festival. According to The Edinburgh Impact Study released in May 2011, the Edinburgh “Festivals generated over a quarter of a billion pounds worth of additional tourism revenue for Scotland (£261 million) in 2010. The economic impact figure for Edinburgh is £245 million. Plus the festivals play a starring role in the profile of the city and its tourism economy, with 93 per cent of visitors stating that the festivals are part of what makes Edinburgh special as a city, 82 per cent agreeing that the festivals make them more likely to revisit Edinburgh in the future. The study calculates that Edinburgh’s festivals generate £261 million for the national economy and £245 million for the Edinburgh economy. To put this in to context, the most recent independent economic impact figure for Golf Tourism to Scotland is £191million. The festivals also sustain 5,242 full-time equivalent jobs. Although the festivals enjoy over 4 million attendances every year, the lion’s share of additional, non-ticket visitor expenditure is attributable to beneficiary businesses, such as hotels and retailers. 37 per cent (or £41 million) goes to accommodation providers, 34 per cent to food and drink establishments, 6 per cent to retailers and 9 per cent is spent on transport.”
Says Peter Florence, director, Hay-on-Wye Festivals: “We have done a hundred and fifty festivals over 25 years around the world. Just when you think you know how to do them, a new googly comes at you. The fun of it is working out how to play every delivery… .” He adds that since story telling is the basis for festival, they are open to exploring good writing in any form. Songwriters, comedians, philosophers, screenwriters and even journalists are treated with the same respect as are poets and novelists. It is all about great use of language. He clarifies that “We aren’t in business. We are a not a for-profit educational trust. We are the only part of the publishing-reading chain that is not out to make money. We simply aim to break-even and keep costs as low as possible.” Festivals grow only if the participants have a good time there. There has to be a word-of-mouth publicity for the festivals to get popular.
Frankly, it is very difficult to say that there is one clear business model for a literary festival. It changes from region to region. Yet it is obviously growing, otherwise why else would Harvard Business School be doing a case study on the Jaipur Literature Festival that is being studied over two semesters.
On 20 Dec 2020, I wrote an article for the Asian Age on how various governments are supporting their cultural sectors. The article was published in the Deccan Herald on 21 Dec 2020 as well. Here is the original url: https://www.asianage.com/life/art/201220/is-govt-listening-culture-fillip-can-fast-forward-post-pandemic-recovery.html . The longer version of the article is reproduced below.
Creative economy refers to a range of economic activities where value is derived from the generation or exploitation of knowledge and is copyright relevant— music, writing, art, fashion, design, and media. Also, a wider range of production activities including goods and services that rely on innovation, research and development such as film, museums, galleries and photography. UNESCO’s Cultural Times (2015), the first global map of the cultural and creative industries, acknowledges the societal value of arts and culture. It assesses the contribution of cultural and creative industries to economic growth. It estimates that they generate US$250 billion in revenue a year, creating 29.5 million jobs worldwide.
On 11 March 2020, the WHO declared a Covid19 pandemic; drastically impacting national economies. Essential industries were permitted to function but other sectors suffered terribly. Many governments did not offer any support and certainly not for the creative industries. But there were some exceptions to the rule like Germany. In June 2020, under a programme called New Start for Culture, it earmarked €1bn for arts. In Nov 2020, under Germany’s infection protection law, culture has a new legal status and is no longer classified as entertainment. Hence, cancelling arts events in the pandemic might become difficult. On 19 March 2020, France did something similar by modifying the rules of the country’s specific unemployment scheme for artists and technicians. It announced that artist-authors could benefit with a lump sum from a solidarity fund. Italy set aside €130 million for authors and audio-visual sectors etc. On 11 December 2020, the UK’s Arts Council announced that the Culture Recovery Fund marked its £1 billion milestone, with £654 million being invested in arts and cultural organisations, part of its £1.57 billion support package. On 30 Nov 2020, Germany approved a culture budget of €2.1 billion ($2.5 billion), nearly at par with the European Union’s budget for culture of €2.8 billion to be distributed over the next seven years.
In the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill announced in the USA, approximately $75 million was for the National Endowment for the Arts. In South Africa, where 7% of the workforce are in this sector, 45% are informal, and contribute 1.6% to their GDP. The National Arts Council committed its support to the artists by continuing to pay them during the pandemic.
In May 2020, Jacinda Ardern, the PM of New Zealand, announced a $175 million package for ‘decimated’ arts – a resilience grant. The creative sector contributes nearly $11 billion a year to NZ’s GDP and employs 90,000 people. So, the New Zealand Libraries Partnership Programme (NZLPP) with a funding package of $58.8 million will support librarians and library services and assist them to support community recovery. Ardern said “A healthy cultural sector has many positive flow-on effects for other important parts of our economy, such as technical production, hospitality, venues and domestic tourism.”
According to the World Bank (Aug 2020), in 2013, creative industries around the world generated revenues of over $2 billion and employed 29 million people. The market for creative goods is estimated to be $508 billion as of 2015. In 2015, developing economies exported more than 250 billion creative products including design goods, fashion, and films. Top exporters included China, Turkey, India, Mexico, El Salvador, and Pakistan. In the United States, the non-profit arts and culture industry generated $166.3 billion of economic activity in 2015, supporting 4.6 million jobs, while receiving only $5 billion in arts allocations by the public sector. A phenomenal ROI at 3326%!
According to Megha Patnaik’s Measuring India’s Creative Economy report (May 2020), it is estimated that approximately 1.1 million workers are employed in this sector, contributing 0.58% of the GDP (2016-17). This is less than the international average as measured by WIPO where the mean contribution is 5.48%. But in India this can be partially attributed to the lack of comprehensive data outside the formal manufacturing sector. Patnaik states that with the right growth impetus through policy and markets, the creative economy can create a large share of jobs in the future. Sanjoy Roy, co-founder Jaipur Literature Festival, confirms this by estimating that during the six days there are more than 500,000 footfalls (approx.) and 110,000 unique visitors, and the local economy benefits manifold. Apart from the immediate impact on the hospitality industry, craftspeople, jewellers etc, the long-term benefits have been the revival of the restoration of heritage buildings, reopening of museums, promoting Rajasthan as a tourist/wedding destination.
In fact, culture can accelerate socio-economic recovery from the pandemic as stated by the World Bank and UNESCO in “Culture in City Reconstruction and Recovery” (2018). The framework, entitled CURE, offers principles and strategies to apply in city reconstruction and rehabilitation in post-crisis situations. There are four prominent ways in which culture positively impacts community resilience – by building social cohesion; there is a direct relationship between the arts and culture and social and psychological well-being; fostering diverse cultural expressions offers effective ways of dealing with post-crisis trauma and reconciling affected communities; and finally, the arts and culture offer critical tools for narrative expression, community engagement, and creating experiences of collaboration. These are critical insights that policymakers need to recognise in promoting sustainable and inclusive recovery with full ownership from communities particularly after the devastating effect of the pandemic. Investing in creative industries and developing cultural capital may be worth exploring.
On 24 March 2020 invoking the Disaster Management Act (2005) the first phase of the lockdown to manage the Covid-19 pandemic was announced. “Disaster Management” is considered to be a part of the Concurrent List under “social security and social insurance”. With the announcement all but the most essential economic activity halted nationwide. Only 4 hours’ notice was provided, insufficient time to plan operations.
Demand and supply existed but all cash cycles dried up — because bookstores were not operating. Brick-and-mortar stores had to close while online platforms focused on delivering only essential goods and books were not on the list. Priyanka Malhotra says “When Full Circle reopened in mid-May, there was a great demand for books. Mid-June, supply lines are still fragile, so getting more books regularly is uncertain. Well-stocked warehouses are outside city limits and are finding it difficult to service book orders to bookstores. We are mostly relying on existing stocks.”
In future, the #WFH culture will remain particularly for editors, curation of lists, smaller print runs, the significance of newsletters will increase, exploring subscription models for funding publishers in the absence of government subsidies and establishment of an exclusive online book retailing platform such as bookshop.org. Introducing paywalls for book events as the lockdown has proven customers are willing to pay for good content. Distributors and retailers will take less stock on consignment. Cost cutting measures will include slashing travel as a phone call is equally productive, advances to authors will fall, streamlining of operations with leaner teams especially sales teams as focused digital marketing is effective, With the redefining of schools and universities due to strict codes of physical distancing and cancellation of book fairs, publishers will have to explore new ways of customising, delivering and monetising content.
In such a scenario the importance of libraries will grow urgently. Libraries benefit local communities at an affordable price point. They are accessed by readers of all ages, abilities and socio-economic classes for independent scholarship, research and intellectual stimulation. The nation too benefits with a literate population ensuring skilled labour and a valuable contribution to the economy. By focusing upon libraries as the nodal centre of development in rehabilitation and reconstruction of a nation especially in the wake of a disaster, the government helps provide “social security and social insurance”. Libraries can be equipped without straining the limited resources available for reconstruction of a fragile society by all stakeholders collaborating. As a disaster management expert said to me, “Difficult to find a narrative for what we are going through”.
After a disaster, the society is fragile. It has limited resources available for rehabilitation and reconstruction. To emerge from this pandemic in working condition, it would advisable for publishers to use resources prudently. It is a brave new world. It calls for new ways of thinking.
Given this context, the Economic Times, Sunday Edition published the business feature I wrote on the effect of the pandemic on the publishing sector in India. Here is the original link on the Economic Times website.
As the first phase of the sudden lockdown to manage the Covid-19 pandemic was declared on March 24, the timing was particularly unfortunate for the books publishing industry. End-March is a critical time in the book publishing industry.
End-March is a critical time in the book year cycle. It is when accounts are settled between distributors, retailers and publishers, enabling businesses to commence the new financial year with requisite cash equity. Institutional and library sales are fulfilled. The demand for school textbooks is at its peak. But with the lockdown, there was a severe disruption in the production cycle — printing presses, paper mills, warehouses and bookshops stopped functioning. Nor were there online sales as books are not defined as essential commodities.
“Publishing in India is estimated to be worth $8 billion in annual revenues,” says Vikrant Mathur, director, Nielsen India. “Trade publishing has seen four months of near-zero sales which straightaway knocks one’s revenues off by at least 25-30%,” says Thomas Abraham, MD, Hachette India.
Profit protection became key. Firms either reduced salaries or laid off employees, and unaffordable rentals forced closures of offices and bookshops. Arpita Das, founder of Yoda Press, says, “After three months of almost zero print sales, and low ebook sales, we decided to move out of our office space.”
In mid-May, bookshops and online portals resumed selling books. Bookstores delivered parcels using India Post, Zomato, and Swiggy. Sales of children’s books exceeded everyone’s expectations, averaging 30% more than pre-Covid sales. Shantanu Duttagupta, publisher, Scholastic India, says, “The ecosystem of children’s books and content comprises mainly of parents, educators and children. While print is traditionally preferred, it has to be recognised that content of any sort has to be format-agnostic. Whether it’s digital solutions for parents and children, helping educators through professional development or providing curated, age-appropriate books for children, being agile and nimble is key.”
Publishers announced curated digital content for schools engaged in remote learning. Scholastic Learn at Home, Collins Digital Home Learning, DK’s Stay Home Hub and StoryWeaver’s Readalong** were among such initiatives. Paywalls were introduced for creative writing workshops and were fully subscribed. Academic publishers noted an increase in inquiries from universities regarding bundle subscriptions.
To remain relevant with readers, there was an explosion of hashtags and promotions on the internet: #ReadInstead, #BraveNewWorld, #Reset, #MacmillanReadingSpace, #PenguinPicks, #KaroNaCharcha and #MissedCallDoKahaaniSuno. Book launches and lit fests went digital, with viewers across time zones. Brands like JLF ( Jaipur Literature Festival) got a viewership of over 700,000 worldwide*, while Rajpal & Sons got a viewership of over 300,000 — both hosted an equal number of events (50+) in the same time frame.
According to Meru Gokhale, publisher, Penguin Press, Penguin Random House India, “India’s reading consumption patterns during the lockdown consisted of ‘bucket list reads’ of classics, voluminous works and series fiction; self-help and mind-body-spirit lists.” Publishers launched frontlists (new and current titles) as ebooks , deeming that preferable to tying up cash in inventory. Interesting experiments by editors have involved crowd-sourcing new ebooks, usually kickstarted with an opening by a literary star. Vikas Rakheja, MD, Manjul Publishing, says, “We have seen a 300-400% growth in sales of our ebooks in April-June, over the same period last year, in both English and Indian regional languages, on Amazon Kindle and other online sales portals.”
Chiki Sarkar, publisher, Juggernaut Books, says their titles saw greater time spent on ebooks during the lockdown. Audiobooks also sold. Yogesh Dashrath, country manager, Storytel India, says, “Globally there was doubling of intake. In India, it accelerated exposure to audiobooks.”
But India is firmly a print book market. So it will take some time for patterns to change. Kapil Kapoor, MD of Roli Books and owner of CMYK bookstore in Delhi, says, “In Unlock 1, we have not yet seen a significant spike in the demand for books. For now, sales figures hover around 40–50% of pre-Covid-19 days, largely driven by online sales — an accurate reflection of consumer preference of wanting home delivery and not venturing out to markets due to a fear factor, which is understandable.” A concern is book piracy will increase in direct proportion to economic stress in households.
As for lasting trends, work from home culture will continue, particularly for editors. Experimentation with curated lists, smaller print runs and subscription models will be seen. Some publishing firms, imprints, bookstores, retailers and distributors may go out of business. Increasingly, finance and legal will join sales departments to ensure “correct” decisions are made. Cost-cutting measures may include slashing travel, relying more on digital tools for efficiency, such as negotiating book rights online, employing leaner sales teams and expanding business horizons beyond the Anglo-American book market, without travelling. New platforms capitalising on professional expertise and fostering creative synergies have emerged on social media, like Publishers’ Exchange, an initiative by language publishers across India, Mother Tongue Twisters, Roli Pulse, Independent Bookshops Association of India and Publishers Without Borders. With the redefining of schools and universities, publishers will explore new ways of customising, delivering and monetising content. Could book events go behind a paywall? Perhaps libraries will regain significance?
As the industry negotiates this disruption, it’s clear that it will take a lot of ingenuity to emerge largely unscathed on the other side. Everyone is hoping for a happy ending to this particular saga.
* At the time of writing the article, this figure of 700,000+ held true for JLF. But on the day of publication of the article, the number has far exceeded one million.
** Storyweaver’s Readalong are multilingual audio-visual storybooks.
I read Gaël Faye’s book more than a year ago. Loved every word of it even though the story itself is horrific about the Rwanda genocide. The genocide began in April 1994 and lasted 100 days. Some 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi, were killed. Gaël Faye’s French-Rwandan wife’s Tutsi grandmother was also killed after taking refuge in a church. Small Country is a heartbreakingly painful story to read but it does not leave you in a hurry. It is magnificently translated into English by Sarah Ardizzone. For ever so long I had wanted to meet/interview Gaël Faye. In Jan 2020, Gael Faye was invited to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival. I did get the opportunity to meet him at the French Institute in Delhi. Unfortunately, due to a set of unusual circumstances I was caught in a traffic snarl and could not make it to the venue in time. Instead Isabelle Jaitly stepped in to interview Gael Faye on my behalf. She asked him the questions I had drafted and added some of her splendid ones as well. The interview was conducted in French since they are both fluent in the language. Isabelle has translated it from French into English. It has taken time as it is a long and complicated process. It involved first transcribing the interview from an audio recording and then translating it into English. The translation was also delayed by factors beyond our control — the Covid19 pandemic. It effectively forced the French government to cancel the Book Fair in Paris where India was going to be the guest of honour. Isabelle who works at the French Institute in Delhi was inundated with first the planning for the fair and then helping with the aftermath. It has been a surreal year. So I am truly delighted to publish on my blog this extraordinary interview with an extraordinary singer-cum-author and an extraordinary backstory!
Gaël Faye is an author, songwriter and hip-hop artist. He released his first solo album in 2013, with his first novel following in 2016. Born in 1982 in Burundi to a French father and Rwandan mother, Faye moved with his family to France in 1995 after the outbreak of the civil war and Rwandan genocide. His debut novel Small Country was published to international acclaim. Written in French it has been translated brilliantly by Sarah Ardizzone. A lot must have been called upon her to invest in this translation. To delve into another language, capture the rhythms and transfer them seemingly seamlessly from the language of origin to the destination language is never an easy feat but Sarah has done it brilliantly. I do not know French but am familiar with it sufficiently to know the softness of the spoken word in French is very different to the cadences that English has to offer. I do not know how else to say it since I only know English. Yet, while reading Small Country I could not get over the fluidity of the prose. At times one forgets it is a translated text that one is reading.
Gaël Faye is a poet, rapper, musician, so rhythm probably comes easy to him. It is in all likelihood a part of his being, his DNA. Those who have music in them walk, talk and breath music and rhythms. If you witness such musically talented people, then it is pure joy to see them move and talk. Even an ordinary conversation with them takes on a precision that is delightful to experience. And somehow this oneness of spirit with music makes them seem like free spirits too. It conveys itself beautifully when such talented souls express themselves. Murakami says in his conversations Absolutely on Music that rhythm is important the text.
In the case of Small Country the boy-narrator comes across as a medium for sharing many of Gaël Faye’s own experiences or perhaps events he has witnessed. Using the fictional literary device tends to distance the author from the event. Yet using the first person to narrate events makes it so personal but also continues with the fictional deception of something so horrific. The only time the mask seems to fall is when the narrator recounts his mother’s witnessing of the murders in Rwanda. And that is not even a technique. It just comes across as someone who must at all accounts convey what his mother witnessed. In fact if you read transcripts of testimonies of women traumatised by conflict, the tone is this. The only difference is that while the mother in the book never really slips into the third person, all women survivors of a conflict situation always speak in the third person especially when they come to that particular point of describing the actual trauma. It is extraordinary but this is a fact that has been documented over and over again through decades of research on gender and conflict. While absorbed in the story the turn of events are not questioned even the deadpan monotone manner in which the mother tells her story at the dining table. Even her slow descent into a “madness” is done brilliantly. It is later upon closing the book that so many questions come to my mind. For instance, this eye-witness account has to be true. Probably the mother is an amalgamation of many such witness accounts or perhaps it is someone extremely close to Gaël Faye. Then I wondered how on earth did Gaël Faye capture this deadpan manner of narrating the genocide? Did he record it? Did he revise this portion? The translation too would have been tough leaving its mark on the translator. This is not a passage easily forgotten.
The fluidity of the prose is breath-taking. It is meditative so when the long passages on reading appear, the mind is sufficiently lulled to appreciate every moment of that experience…a trance-like space that seasoned readers will recognise. Then it is explosively disrupted with the accounts of lynching, the stench of death, hatred and sheer ugliness of the revenge violence unleased everywhere. It is frightening.
The maturity of the boy-narrator to express himself so clearly in his interior monologues can only come with time. A layered narrative if there ever was one. It is as if the adult-boy is reflecting back on the past without in any way undermining what he saw as a 10/11-year-old boy. It is a tough balance to achieve. But I often got the sense while reading Small Country how did Gael know when to stop layering the memories? My apologies for intermingling the fictional and the real experiences but there are some moments in the book that are too real to be ever imagined by a sane human being. The description of the mother coming upon the rotting bodies of her nieces and nephews that her hand goes through the pieces while she attempts to gather their remains for a decent burial. Once the book is read the images of the genocide and the slaughter of the crocodile for a birthday feast merge into one. I had a zillion questions for Gael. So when presented with an opportunity to interview him, I posed some of them.
Here are lightly edited excerpts of the interview conducted by Isabelle Jaitly and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose.
1. Why write a novel, rather than a long poem?
That’s a form I had never tried and I had been wanting to write a novel for a long time. And as I already write songs, which are for me some kind of poems, I felt there was a certain limit to this form. At the same time I imagine that this novel is in a way a long poem, because I tried to introduce poetry in it as much as I could, as indeed I try to put poetry in everything I write.
Was it unsettling going from a very constraining form to a very free form?
One has to find one’s bearing. I used some ‘devices’ to help myself in this. I wrote letters inside the novel; the narrator sends letters to someone and these letters acted in a way as milestones, which gave a sense of time and frame to the action. A little bit like rhymes in a song. That said, one never knows how to write a novel, it’s through trials and errors.
2. What do you prefer: prose or poetry?
It depends on the mood… I like to navigate from one to the other. But in a way, poetry is not a form in itself. Poetry can be found everywhere. There is such a thing as a prose poem! There is no tight limit, no frontier between the two.
3. Can reading a book change a person? How do you think your book may have impacted others?
Yes, a book can alter the way you see the world, alter things within oneself. I have been through it, and I imagine others have as well. About my book, it’s difficult to speak on behalf of my readers, but from what I have seen through the feedback I have got, it has helped many people unlock silences in their families, or admit things to themselves that they have been able to own, like the experience of exile, or a trauma from the war or genocide. I have received these kinds of feedbacks. In a lighter vein, many people have discovered a reality they had no idea about though my novel. I have received feedback from Afghan readers, from Iran. But not from India, and I am looking forward to it.
And you, have you ever been changed by a book?
Yes, and even by several books. One author who had a great influence on me is René Duprestre, from Haiti. I was overwhelmed when I started reading him. He was for me like a mentor, a sort of Pygmalion. Another book answered many questions I had in my childhood, about my metis, the book of ‘peau noire, masques blancs’ (Black Skin, White Masks) a book by Frantz Fanon, a writer from Martinique. it helped me come to terms with my origins without being in conflict with them. And the list can go on. I go on reading amazing books, which in a way change my outlook. But the books we read as teenagers have a very strong effect on us. As teenagers, we are in the process of being formed, so my strongest emotions as a reader happened during that time.
4. Was it difficult to write about the genocide?
Not really. I spend part of the year in Rwanda, I come from a family who went through the genocide, who are survivors. We live with this. And I find that my novel, on the contrary, considerably minimizes what happened. I didn’t open a wardrobe full of memories I wanted to forget. These are things with which I live, because around me the society lives with it, the society in Rwanda lives with the genocide. So the biggest difficulty for me was to make this part of history accessible to those who have not gone through it. So, in a way, to bring it to a universal level. And avoid thinking: this is a genocide that concerns a far away country in Africa, so it’s not my story, it’s not my business. I wanted to make this story a topic of discussion to anybody anywhere
5. What about the pain?
No, there was no pain. I am always surprised to see how people want it to have been painful. No, this is work, so there are days when it’s harder than others, but not emotionally. It is painful for the narrator, but not for me, I am the writer! It is my job to make it feel real, to give the feeling that for the character, there are doubts, there is pain and suffering. But me, as a writer, I sit at my table, and some days the writing comes easily, and I am pleased, and some days, I am depressed, because I haven’t been able to express my thoughts the way I wanted. This is the daily life of any writer. It may be surprising, but I wrote this novel with a lot of joy, a real lightness. Only one scene was difficult for me to write, and that is the scene of the mother being violent towards her daughter. It wasn’t easy, this scene, because I have children, and somehow I did a transfer, of a parent hitting their child, and that was probably the hardest scene. Of course the scene of the mother who comes back from Rwanda and, sitting at the table with her family, tells about what she has seen there, that was not easy, but here again, it so much falls short of what really happened, of what I hear everyday, of the story told by those who have survived, that, in the end, writing about it was not as hard as one could think. The hardest for me is to find the form through which to express all this. The ideas are there. There are so many topics I want to write about in my songs, in novels. but the hardest for me is to find the angle, the right angle. And this, you can not learn, you have to try out, and that’s always the hardest thing, whether you write a song or a novel. Let’s say, I want to write about peace: It’s so cliché, everyone has written a song about peace! But actually, nothing is ever cliché, you just have to find the right angle. Same about love.
So what may be surprising here is to see that this novel is not an autobiography, it is a novel. Although the title Small Country refers to one of your most popular songs, “Petit Pays”.
Yes, that’s right, it’s not an autobiography. But here again, it’s complicated… I think every novel is a form of autobiography. Here, there’s a great closeness between me and the character: his origins, the context in which he spends his childhood, what he goes through during his childhood, this time of war, and indeed I have gone through this myself, the transition from a time of peace to war… but if you go into details, what happens to him is not at all what happened to me. Of course I used my feelings at the time to write about him, but everyone does that when writing a novel. It’s a material, and everything becomes a material.
7. What prompted you to write this book?
First it’s the frustration of not being able to put all this in a song. I wrote a song called ‘L’ennui des après midi sans fin’ (‘The boredom of never ending afternoons’), which was very long, with a long text, and I had the frustration of not having said everything: about childhood, about the time of insouciance. So that’s how I started the novel: I wanted to expand on this song. Then, there were the events, in my area of Paris, the attack against Charlie Hebdo. Suddenly, there were scenes of war in Paris. It took me back 20 years. Hearing the Kalashnikov, the atmosphere of fear, or terror even. I lived for two years in the war. So there was a feeling of déja vu, a feeling well buried which came back in the everyday setting of Paris, it was very strange. That also fed the desire I had to write about the cocoons one creates around oneself. In the novel, there is a space that is that of the impasse (dead-end). This is a symbolic space for me: it’s the space where one withdraws, a space which is a cocoon, and at the same time this space becomes a trap. So there’s a swaying between the two. And to me, life in France has this feature: a mix between the cocoon, the desire to see the world through an idealised typical image, as if everything is fine and going well. It creates a distance with the world and its violence. At the same time, the world and its violence catch up, because there is no frontier between human interactions, and a conflict that happens at the other end of the world can impact France. So there was this ambivalence. And this child, in the novel, finds himself in this desire to create a distance between him and the violence around him.
8. Why do you use a child, a boy-narrator, as a literary device? Does it make it any easier to cross boundaries within a disintegrating society and offer multiple perspectives that only a child can offer –more or less without judgement?
This too was through trial and errors. At the beginning, I wrote the novel through the voice of an adult, and actually this voice still comes through here and there. Finally, I chose the voice of the child. It gave me an angle, because it allowed me to unfold the story through the eyes of a character who doesn’t know the environment he is in, more than the reader. Adults tend to always be one step ahead. The child is innocent in the political environment; he will discover it at the same time as the reader. That allowed to be didactic without showing it. And it was essential for a story that speaks about a country, Burundi, about a history, the history of the Great Lakes region, that nobody knows anything about. This way, the character goes forward at the same time as the reader. This way I don’t have to explain and justify feelings and motives. Adults, especially on the issue of ethnicity, find reasons to explain even absurd situations. I liked the naive point of view of the child, who will ask questions, because he doesn’t understand, and actually there is nothing to understand, because it is absurd. This is what comes through at the beginning with the explanations about ethnicity being divided according to the shape of their noses. This is a reality. But it’s absurd of course Children don’t find excuses. They look at the world as it is.
Beforehand, I wasn’t conscious about it, but now, I am very aware of how much the reader looks for the writer in a book. It think it is a mistake (a flaw). Maybe it goes with the society we live in, where everyone stages himself, stages his life, this world of reality shows… for me, a novel is a novel, it’s a story. Whether the writer has lived this story or not, what matters is whether one is carried away, touched by the story. Being invented doesn’t, for me, affect the power of a story. But I do wonder… my book has been translated in more than 40 languages, I have travelled a lot, met a lot of readers, and this question keeps coming back.
10. If people believe so much that it happened to you, it’s a compliment to the power of conviction of your writing.
Yes, it maybe a compliment, but what if it hadn’t happened? What does it take away from the book? If everything had been invented from beginning to end, for me that wouldn’t take anything away from the book, from a story. Actually I am very shy about my life, I don’t share anything about it. Unless someone is an historic figure, like Mandela, or Martin Luther King, I don’t feel there is a point to write an autobiography, according to me at least. And real lives are always so much more complex that lives in novels. If I wrote about my life, nobody would believe me, because my life is 100 times more complex. A novel allows to give the broad lines, so that the reader can identify with the character or the story. Going into complexity, one looses the link we have with the reader. I believe this is the role of artists: what is the common denominator between human beings, that allows to bring human beings together. These are often banalities, such as love, friendship, hate, war, things that are experienced everywhere. The story has to be simple. If you go too much into complexities, you lose the distancing. And this is not what a novel is about; at least, it is my point of view.
11. With the intentional blurring of the lines between the lived and the fictional landscape, it becomes hard for the reader to separate the identities of the boy-narrator and the author. Why did you choose an opening to the novel with a bar scene, reflection and then a flashback to a conversation between father and son before plunging into a conversation? Why not begin the novel straightaway? Why the artifice? It is not as if it any way eases the shock and distress at seeing the violence erupt.
It is not a device. The voice of the adult at the beginning comes back at the end. I did it to speak about something that is close to my heart: the feeling of exile. If I had started with the voice of the child, this feeling would have not been there, and I wanted it to hang over the novel (suffuse?). I wanted it to be a novel about exile. Because I would never have written a book, if I had stayed in Burundi. I feel this very deeply. It is the distance with my country that allowed it. Actually, when I went to live in Rwanda, went back to the region where I spent my childhood, the writing dried up. I couldn’t write any more about the country, the environment: it was here, under my eyes, and I needed the distance. It’s like love letters. It fills a vacuum. Writing for me had this function for many years. So I wanted there to be a character that made the reader feel certain things. This character says things that are essential, for example about exile being a door that is left ajar. Saying that the exiled person is not the one who decides to leave, but the one who has to flee. Another important aspect is that we know, we guess from the beginning that this child is going to be confronted to war, and that either it will end badly for him, or he will have to flee. That’s what happens. But I wanted to show that the region I come from is not an open sky cemetery. Yes, there is war and violence, but life goes on. Businesses spring back on their feet, they go on. So it was important for me that the character should leave, and also come back. Africa is not a continent that the character leaves, and nothing else happens, it falls into oblivion. The link with one’s past is always there. So it was important for me to have this voice, this point of view too in the novel. It also shows, through this, what happens to a child who goes through all this, what kind of an adult he can become. If one stops at childhood, there is no hint about what this child may become later. And I am passionate about imagining the trajectory of people, where they come from and what they become. In my family, people have had incredible destinies. Born in a village, with nothing, they go on to live in world capitals, do long studies, get jobs. I am always fascinated to see how, in a few years, one can change one’s condition. So, emotionally, I find this interesting.
You say we can be changed by a book. What changes do you hope to see though this book?
My hope is simply to make life in Burundi human and tangible. It’s not just a statistic. Burundi, Rwanda, these are countries one only see through the prism of war and violence. So obviously the point of view is distorted. One cannot imagine that families there may live normal, simple, happy lives. There are no novels about Burundi. I certainly have never seen one. So this is like a manifest: we existed, we had simple, banal lives. I wanted to give it a voice. It’s not much, but it’s already something. I want to remove the exotic, the set images, set ideas. I am part of a new generation of writers writing about the region. And as such, we constantly have to go back to explain things from the beginning. We have to explain the history of the place, because it is unknown. When I got an award in 2016 from high school students (Prix Goncourt des Lycéens), many young people told me they didn’t know about the Great Lakes region. The hope is that one day we can write stories without having to go through this didactic process. I hope we will allow this to happen for the younger, next generation… They will be able to write about lighter, more banal stories, love stories, and science fiction.
12 Has the success of Small Country been paralyzing for you?
Writing has moments of epiphany, great joy, where I feel: this is why I write! But it is also great suffering. You have to give a part of yourself, to put part of yourself on the line. I need this to feel that the work is sincere. This is probably due to the fact that I started writing for reasons that were not light reasons: war, being a witness etc. So my pointer is always this: Am I being sincere? There is already so much noise on this planet, everywhere, non stop. Why add to it? I need to feel that my writing is not gratuitous. If I take the attention of people, it is to bring something to them, not to say, hello, I exist. It is so tempting today to exist just for existing. When we open a book, we try to create silence around us, in us. Great songs are the same for me. They bring you something that you can’t hear otherwise. The artist has to fight the urgency. We are pushed into it. But it’s like a child who needs nine months to be born. The artist needs a gestation period which cannot be dictated. It’s only an intimate feeling that can tell us that we are ready, we have found the right angle, the right voice. So I know that the process I am in at the moment, of writing a new novel, is complicated. There is an expectation: but that, I have to forget about. But mainly it is complicated because I want to put myself on the line. It’s fascinating, but it’s crazy, so much work! Put oneself on the line and at the same time remember that nobody is waiting for it, it remains something superfluous. Radicalism is dangerous. There is no radicalism; the most radical thing in the world is to find a balance — take it from a metis person!
Jaipur BookMark is a critical component of Jaipur Literature Festival . The tag line for JBM is “where books mean business”. It is certainly one of the largest literary festivals organised globally and has developed a brand identity that is synonymous with fascinating conversations and emergence of new ideas. It is inevitable that Jaipur BookMark was established as an independent B2B platform while being closely aligned to Jaipur Literature Festival. It makes perfect sense to capitalise upon this fantastic congregation of publishing professionals at the literature festival enabling a cross pollination of experiences and perhaps new synergies developing. It is also attaining critical significance in the global publishing calendar for Jaipur BookMark is held approximately four months after the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is the mecca of rights sales. Shifting the base from Europe to Asia, to a significant book market such as India, enables publishing professionals to review their conversations of Frankfurt as well as explore new ideas before buckling down for the next few months and working on their lists.
So far there have been six editions of Jaipur BookMark consisting of more or less the same format. It is a mix of panel discussions, business panels and focused group discussions. There are plenty of networking opportunities worked into the programming. For instance, the event begins on the eve of the main literature festival enabling participants to have key conversations without any distractions on the business of publishing. There are plenty of coffee breaks and a longish lunch enabling conversations to happen unhurriedly. The weather is good. The winter sun is perfect. There is a crispness in the air that is welcome. The impeccable hospitality arrangements enable speakers and participants to mingle, sit at various tables and chat leisurely. Emphasising these aspects of the interactions is as important as the business angle of the conclave. As Jeremy Trevathan, Publisher, Macmillan says “From the evidence before me in Jaipur the Indian book publishing scene is obviously developing rapidly and the JBM was a perfect snapshot of the diverse challenges and exciting opportunities this affords. Whether it was a panel on diverse retail models or the commercial health of conglomerate publishing versus independents the discussion was lively, engaged and, yes, thrilling. “
The Jaipur BookMark management ensures that there is a crackling good mix of professionals. The impressive 2019 edition had:
Delegations from 20 countries: Australia, USA, Canada, France, Nepal, Lithuania, Paraguay, Switzerland, Tunisia, Argentina, UK, Ireland, Norway, Germany, UAE, Egypt, Pakistan, India, amongst others.
In fact the keynote address for the 2019 edition was given by Juergen Boos, President and CEO, Frankfurt Book Fair on “Freedom to publish“. He referred to JBM and JLF as “confluence of cultures” and after expressing his concern about the growing threats on freedom of speech and expression around the world, he urged those publishers present in the audience who “As discoverers and disseminators of ideas and free thought, we, as a community, have a greater responsibility to uphold freedom of expression. At the same time, we cannot withhold our criticism of its misuse.”
All the discussions are fascinating. On the third day of the 2019 business conclave, Friday 25 Jan 2019, I moderated a session on “Indies vs Giants”. The scope of the discussion was: “Independent publishers with lower overheads are finding their niche position in the publishing industry around the world, even as publishing giants are consolidating their positions. This session talks about creative risk taking and the tools brave, new publishers adopt.” The panellists were publishers Vera Michalski-Hoffman (Libella group), Karthika VK ( Westland/Amazon), Jeremy Trevathan (Macmillan), and Anna Solding (Midnight Sun Publishing). Vera Michalski-Hoffman also delivered the keynote address. Born in Basel, Switzerland, in a family with Swiss, Russian and Austrian roots, Vera Michalski-Hoffmann spent her childhood in France, studied in Spain and has a degree in Political Science from the Graduate institute of International Studies in Geneva. She established a foundation named after her late husband, The Jan Michalski Foundation for Literature and Writing to actively support literary activities in different countries. She is now the publisher of the Libella group that comprises the following imprints: In France: Buchet/Chastel, Phébus, Le temps apprivoisé, les Cahiers dessinés, Libretto. In Switzerland: Noir sur Blanc, with a new line called Notabilia, Editions Favre. And in Poland: Oficyna Literacka Noir sur Blanc. She also acquired The Polish Bookshop in Paris. Her keynote address was a fascinating account of the emergence of the Libella group and its publishing history, including some of its A&M. Jaipur BookMark offers such opportunities that are to be treasured.
The panel discussions are varied and interesting such as this one on children’s literature: “Writing for Children, Writing as Children”. The panelists included Anoushka Sabnis, Maja Lunde, Paro Anand and Rohini Chowdhury in conversation with Manisha Chaudhry.
JBM has various components such as platforms to present unpublished manuscripts iWrite where book deals can be signed. It is a platform where authors have been known to find literary agents too.
The Jaipur BookMark 2020 edition promises to be equally, if not more, exciting for while it offers many spaces for established professionals to meet, it also enables new and emerging authors to participate.
On Tuesday, 24 Sept 2019, Neeta Gupta hosted a wonderful evening to welcome the delegation of EU Prize for Literature winners led by Alexandra Buchler, Literature Across Frontiers. The three writers touring India were — Irish writer Jan Carson, Turkish writer Ciler Ilhan and Polish writer and filmmaker Marta Dzido. Neeta Gupta wears many hats as a publishing professional. Three of her responsibilities including managing the Hindi publishing firm, Yatra Books; her newly launched English publishing firm, Tethys and of course as Co-Director, Jaipur Book Mark — a B2B conclave that is held alongside Jaipur Literature Festival.
It was a small but select gathering of publishing professionals and diplomats which included EU Ambassador-designate to India, Ugo Astuto. But the evening highlight was to hear the three writers introduce and read out extracts from their books.
Irish writer, Jan Carson, offered a fascinating perspective of the Troubles as she is a Protestant. As she said, one month short of her eighteenth birthday she grew up surrounded by violence and then the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Her adult life has been spent in peace. But of late she has been questioning her identity a lot as being a Protestant she is considered a Britisher and has a British passport but her ancestors came to Ireland more than 300 years ago. Her accent is Irish. Her sense of belonging is Irish. And now with Brexit on the cards, she has applied for Irish passport. Having said that The Fire Starters offers her perspective, a Protestant’s witnessing if you like, of the troubles. It has led to some fascinating encounters at public readings where unamused members of the audience have walked away realising she would be offering a Protestant perspective as in their minds it is a view of the coloniser and yet a rarity amongst much contemporary Irish literature that tends to focus on the Catholic viewpoint.
Turkish-Dutch writer, Ciler Ilhan read extracts from her novel Exiles that won the EU Prize for Literature 2011. It is a collection of stories based upon newspaper clippings and witnessing some of the stories herself. So it sort of blurs the lines between truth and fiction but lands a mean punch in her sharp and incisive commentary about the shifts in Turkish society. She touches upon topics like gender violence, gender segregation, gender biases, honour killings, growing nationalism and with it the impact it is having on society. Powerful stories. Worth reading.
Here is the link to the TED Talk she gave earlier this year. It is an extract from her book:
Marta Dzido, is a Polish writer and filmmaker, whose works are only now being translated into English by Kate Webster. In fact, on this evening, Marta read out for the first time the English translation of some extracts from her award-winning novel Frajda. It is about two characters, both in their forties, named only as Him and Her. There was something in the manner she read as well as what she read that seemed to explore the intersections of her writerly and filmmaking strengths, by allowing her to write about the particular and yet by not really naming the characters, creating a space for universality. It was quite a remarkable experience.
Teamwork, the producers of Jaipur Literature Festival, create JLF in Belfast or thereabouts from 21-23 June 2019. Jaipur Belfast has announced an exciting programme. These are being organised at two venues: The Lyric Theatre (22 June) and Seamus Heaney Homeplace (23 June). Tickets may be booked at the official website for JLF Belfast.
The curtain raiser for the event was organised on 4 June at the British Council, New Delhi. Speaking at the event Sanjoy Roy, Managing Director, Teamwork Arts said, “This is a living bridge — it’s about people, ideas, sport, books and above all, about literature. Today, dialogue is becoming more and more important. We have to continue what we do best that without political affiliation people come together to discuss and disagree peacefully. In Belfast people wear their wounds on their sleeves much as we Indians wear it.” He expanded on this sentiment in an article for the Irish Times, “Jaipur Literature Festival comes to Belfast: celebrating each other’s stories” ( 7 June 2019)
Namita Gokhale, co-director, JLF, said “JLF Belfast looks at shared histories through themes of identity and selfhood. Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee, Mahatma Gandhi’s granddaughter, discusses the nature of non-violence. We ponder the puzzles of identity, the power of poetry, the mysteries of word, the flavours of Asian cuisine, the future of AI by Marcus du Sautoy. We revisit the poetry of Yeats and Tagore and explore the echoes of each in the other.”
William Dalrymple, co-director, JLF, added that JLF Belfast attempts to look at the scars of these different partitions.
At the curtain raiser a wonderful discussion was organised on Kalidas and Shakespeare. It was moderated by translator Gillian Wright. The panelists included academics Dr R. W. Desai and Prof. Harish Trivedi. Here is the recording I made with Facebook Live.
Meanwhile as the weekend draws near Irish writer Paul McVeigh has been posting fabulous tweets on the prepatory work. Here is a glimpse:
Go for it, people! This sounds like a promising event.
The Begum: A Portrait of Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s Pioneering First Lady by Deepa Agarwal and Tehmina Aziz Ayub is a good account of a fascinating woman. Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan’s life mirrors the history of the subcontinent. Namita Gokhale, writer and co-director, Jaipur Literature Festival, wrote a wonderful introduction to the book. The following extracts from the introduction have been published with permission of the publisher, Penguin Random House India.
Reflecting on how and what to write
while introducing this important biography, I wonder once again if it is one or
two books I have before me. This collaborative account, co-authored by Deepa
Agarwal and Tahmina Ayub, mirrors the fissures and fault lines that divided
Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan’s life into two astonishingly symmetrical halves.
A well-researched portrayal of an intrepid and passionate woman, it presents
her personal narrative and political convictions, and mirrors the history of
the subcontinent, in a timeline truncated by the uncompromising contours
of the Radcliffe Line.
Sir Cyril Radcliffe arrived in
India on 8 July 1947. The eminent barrister was given all of five weeks to
divide up a nation, a culture, a people. His brief was to ‘demarcate the
boundaries of the two parts of the Punjab on the basis of ascertaining the
contiguous majority areas of Muslims and non-Muslims’. A handful of men—five
persons in each ‘boundary commission’ for Bengal in the east and Punjab in the
west—worked day and night on a hurried and ignominious exit from an
increasingly precarious and unstable empire. Equal representation given to
politicians from the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, each
hostile and intractable in their positions, only added to the tensions.
In New Delhi, at 8 Hardinge Road, a
sprightly forty-three year-old woman, all of five feet tall, was hastily
putting together some personal belongings. Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan was
preparing to depart in a government aeroplane for Karachi airport, where her
husband Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan was soon to be sworn in as the first prime
minister of Pakistan.
The future first lady was leaving her
magnificent double storeyed home, set in three acres of garden, for an unknown
and uncertain life in a newly formed nation. This elegant colonial bungalow
(now 8 Tilak Marg) had been her home since her marriage. Both her sons, Ashraf
and Akber, had been born here. 8 Hardinge Road had become the focal hub for the
activities of the Muslim League. Her husband had been appointed finance
minister of the interim government, and indeed the papers for the interim
budget presented on 2 February 1946 had been taken directly from his home to
Not so far away, at 10 Aurangzeb
Road, Muhammad Ali Jinnah had also made preparations to depart Delhi, and
India. However, he had been more pragmatic than the idealistic and high-minded
Liaquat Ali and had sold his house to the industrialist Ramkrishna Dalmia for
Rs 3 lakh. Liaquat and his wife Ra’ana, on other hand, had decided to gift
their home to Pakistan—it was to become the residence of the new nation’s
future high commissioner. ‘Gul-i-Ra’ana’, the bungalow that her adoring husband
had named after her, would henceforth be known as ‘Pakistan House’. Their vast
and eclectic library was also gifted to the new nation in which they had
invested their hopes and lives.
What were the thoughts and emotions
that jostled in her mind and heart as she observed all that she had struggled
for come to fruition, even as the looming shadow of Partition prepared to bathe
the two nations in a fierce spasm of blood and sacrifice?
Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, born
Irene Ruth Margaret Pant on 13 February 1905, to an apostate Brahmin lineage,
was a practising Christian until 1933. After her marriage, she converted to
Islam and was renamed Gul-i-Ra’ana. This fiercely independent lady, who carried
her myriad identities within a core self of unchanging conviction, departed
this world on 13 June 1990, by which time she was known, recognized and
honoured as ‘Madar-e-Pakistan’ or ‘Mother of Pakistan’.
The first half of her life was
spent in undivided India, where she transited two religious identities, and
repudiated a third, albeit through her grandfather. With almost mathematical
precision, her eighty-six years were divided into forty-three years plus some months
in each of her two lives. She was an intimate witness to history—the two
nations, the bifurcation of East and West Pakistan, the creation of Bangladesh,
the course of the Cold War, the rise of Gorbachev, and the increasingly
unequivocal hold of the army in Pakistan. From Jinnah, through Zulfikar Bhutto
and to General Zia-ul-Haq, she spoke her mind and held her own.
Before her marriage, she was a
professor of economics in Delhi’s prestigious Indraprastha College. Her
doctoral thesis had been on women in agriculture in rural Uttar Pradesh. Begum
Ra’ana was an important, even crucial, catalyst to Jinnah’s return to politics
and the unfolding of the ‘two-nation theory’. In the summer of 1933, she and
her husband met Jinnah in his home in Hampstead and appealed to him to return
to India. Unafraid to champion difficult causes, she was radical in her
attempts to bring about gender equity within the Islamic State of Pakistan and
unflinching in her defence of her friend Zulfikar Ali Bhutto when he was facing
the gallows. And at all times, she was charming and gracious as an accomplished
diplomat and stateswoman.
Where then did she get her steely
resolve and infinite reserve of strength? How did she negotiate the transitions
and transformations of history with such seeming ease? I have always been
fascinated by this formidable woman, and her ability to stand tall in an
overwhelmingly patriarchal society even after losing her husband, with no grown
male—or indeed female—relatives to support her in the newly birthed nation of
Begum Ra’ana was born Irene Pant.
We share maiden surnames, and a common ancestry. I was born Namita Pant, and a
faded family tree documents these connections, with a branch of it
cryptically cut off. With his conversion to Christianity, her grandfather
Taradutt Pant had placed himself outside the pale of caste and kinship. Yet
whenever I encountered the half-told stories of Begum Ra’ana, I could sense the
mountain grit in her, the legendary strength that comes so naturally to Kumaoni
women. There was also a strong family resemblance—to my sister, to several of
my aunts. I wanted to know more about her, to understand her as a determined
woman, a thinking, feeling human, a creature of her times and circumstances.
Best-selling and prize-winning writer of history and fiction Simon Sebag Montefiore ‘s Written in History: Letters that Changed the World is a fantastic addition to his list of publications. It is a selection of correspondences between eminent people at significant moments in history. Matching form for form, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s introduction too is in the form of an epistle addressed to the reader. In it he describes the principle upon which his selection of letters has been arranged. He also gives a crisp and informative account of the various purposes letters have served over the ages. “Some letters were intended to act as publicity, some to remain absolutely secret. Their variety of usage is one of the joys of a collection like this.” This collection consists of letters that are public letters ( like Balfour promises a Jewish homeland), letters that were designed to be copied out and widely distributed in society such as the public letters of great correspondents ( Voltaire and Catherine the Great were enjoyed in literary salons across Europe) or official letters announcing a military victory or defeat. Or letters that were political and military in nature revolving around negotiations or commands and could not be read out in public. For instance Rameses the Great’s disdainful note to the Hittite king Hattusili or Saladin and Richard the Lionheart negotiate to partition the Holy Land. This is a fine selection of letters originally written in cuneiform, on papyrus, then letters written on parchment or vellum, until paper was created in China around 200 BC. Letter writing belonged to all spheres of life. The beauty of letter writing is that nothing beats the immediacy and authenticity of a letter.
Written in History is a splendid anthology. It is a fabulous introduction to different moments in history made ever more delightful by the short notes written by Simon Sebag Montefiore preceding every letter. It is a wonderful, wonderful book which balances the act splendidly between providing information, being sensitive to the correspondents and being a sophisticated performance of a walk through history.
In March 2019, London-based Intelligence Squared’s acclaimed events on great speeches and poetry presented an event based on Letters That Changed The World. Joining the author on stage were No 1 bestselling novelist Kate Mosse. Together they discussed letters by Michelangelo, Catherine the Great, Sarah Bernhardt, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Virginia Woolf, Alan Turing and Leonard Cohen.
A cast of performers, including Young Vic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, rising star Jade Anouka, Dunkirk actor Jack Lowden, and West End star Tamsin Greig, brought the letters to life on stage.
In January 2019 Simon Sebag Montefiore attended the Jaipur Literature Festival. He gave a splendid public lecture-cum-performance on the Romanovs. Here is a recording of the event where he held the audience spellbound. Much like the reader is with Written in History.
Bridge of Clayby Markus Zusak is an extraordinary book. It
is a story about a family of five brothers and their parents. Penelope
Lesciuszko, and then Penny Dunbar, the mother is an immigrant who is dearly
loved by her second husband, Michael Dunbar, and father of the boys. One fine
day it all falls apart with the discovery that the mother has cancer. It is a
slow death. A grief so searing that it tears the family apart. The father
drifts away, abandoning the boys, expecting them to fend for themselves. It is
a story told slowly, flipping back and forth in time, by one of the sons –
Michael Dubar. Bridge of Clay is
about the Dunbar family, Michael returning to the boys seeking their help to
build his dream bridge and the younger son, Clay, offering to help.
Bridge of Clay is quite unlike Markus Zusak’s previous novel, The Book Thief. Yet, Bridge of Clay is a fabulous novel for
its craftsmanship, its unique form of storytelling, its pacing, its brilliant unexpectedness.
It builds upon expectations of the readers of The Book Thief but as Markus Zusak says in the interview, “the
challenge was always to write this book the way it needed to be written,
despite The Book Thief’s success, and
readers wanting the same experience. And that’s something I know I fought for.”
I met Markus Zusak at the Jaipur
Literature Festival where he was a part of the delegation of writers and publishers
brought across by the Australian High Commission. It was then he kindly agreed
to do an interview for my blog.
Here is an edited version of the interview
conducted via email.
JBR: Bridge of
Clay can only be read if one places oneself in that fog which comes
with grief and numbness of sorrow. What prompted this story? How do
you work out the voices of the characters?
MZ: I had this story in my mind since I
was twenty years old…I was walking around my neighbourhood back then, in
Sydney, and I had this vision of a boy who was building a bridge and he wanted
it to be perfect – one beautiful, perfect, great thing.
The voices of the characters came the way
all ideas do – from spending time with the book, getting to know it. After I’d
written The Book Thief, I realised it
was finally time to take on the boy and his bridge. And as soon as I did that,
I thought, ‘Well, you can try to write a smaller, quieter book…or you can bet
everything.’ I decided to bet everything, and the first part of that was seeing
Clay, the protagonist, as one of five brothers. Next came the
multi-generational story, and I took it from there.
JBR: This kind of fluid writing, languid, placid,
calming tone of the narrator, all the while creating a disruptive
narrative is very emotionally draining to craft. Yet it feels special
in Bridge of Clay. Did it
take many revisions to achieve? What was your routine to write this book?
Did it differ from your other books?
MZ: Routine is everything. I actually have
a friend whose first question to me when we meet is, ‘How’s your routine
going?’ The idea of the writing in Bridge of Clay was very exact. Matthew is
trying to make order of the chaos in the epic, sprawling and sometimes shambolic
history of the Dunbar family, and I was trying to write in the spirit of Clay’s
bridge-building. I feel like that was one of the reasons it took thirteen years
to write this book. I was writing for the world championship of myself.
JBR: Did this book involve research?
MZ: It took a lot of time researching this
book – not only bridge building and the artworks of Michelangelo, and
horseracing, and details of Eastern Europe during communism, but also the
biggest research of all – which is getting to know the characters themselves.
Being with the characters and working for them is what gets a book over the
line, I think. In the end you’re not writing for the audience anymore – you’re
writing for them – the characters
inside the book. In this case I was writing for Clay and all the Dunbar boys,
and the animals in their household, and for Michael…but especially for Penny
Dunbar, who is the true heart of the book.
JBR: Why jumble the sequence of events?
MZ: The structure of this book works in two ways: one is that it continually builds, which
is why each part is still titled with the previous part. For example, Part Two
is called Cities + Waters, rather
than just Waters. Part three is Cities + Waters + Criminals. I did this
because it replicated the building of the bridge, but also because we don’t
just live things and leave them behind. We carry our stories with us.
The second part of the structure is tidal – where
the past and present come back and forth like the tide coming in and going out.
I like the idea that we start becoming who we are long before we’re even born.
Our parents’ stories are embedded in us, and so are their journeys and
sacrifices, their failures and moments of heroism. I wanted to recognize those
stories. I wanted to write a book about a boy in search of his greatest story
whilst recognizing the stories that got him to that point.
As Clay is makes his way outwards in the world, the
history of the Dunbar family is coming in…and I think that’s how our memories
work. We are always caught in the current between looking forward and behind
JBR: Pall of death looms large. It is not discussed
easily in families. Yet a nickname soon takes on a proper noun —
“Murderer”, a terrible reminder of Death. Why choose this horrific
MZ: Matthew Dunbar names Michael, his
father, the Murderer because he left the family after their mother, Penelope,
died. He claims that he killed their family by doing this, so it’s really a
play on words. I also used it because I think we all know when we see a
nickname like that, that there must
be more to it. Is he really a murderer? Or is he taking the blame for someone
else – and in what capacity has a crime been committed?
We spend this entire novel getting to know
its characters (and especially Clay), and when we finally understand the irony
of the nickname, we have one of the last pieces to understanding its
JBR: Why have such a slow paced novel at a time when
every else is writing fast paced detailed novels? Is this novel about the
creation of art, creating something unique? How did you decide upon the chapter
titles? A piece of artwork that is only completed with the complete
engagement of the reader otherwise the story glides past.
MZ: Why follow a trend of continually
making this easier, faster, and too easily known? We live in a world now where
we feel like we deserve to know everything right
now – and I see the role of novels as a saving grace where we can still
say, ‘Come on – do some work. Think a little bit. I promise you’ll be
rewarded.’ Maybe novels are one of the last frontiers where the pay-offs aren’t
instant. You can be offered a whole world, but it also demands your attention.
They’re the sort of books that have always become my favourites.
JBR: What came first — the story or the
MZ: The story was always there. I had
several different attempts at narrators, and settled on Matthew about seven
years into writing the book…In the end he deserved it – he does so much to keep
the Dunbar family together, and he’s telling the story to understand and
realise just how much he loves his brother, and how much he wants him to come
JBR: How did it feel to create the character of Clay?
MZ: Clay was always there. He was always
there, attempting to be great. He kept me honest writing the book. I wrote this
book to measure up to him.
JBR: Who is Penelope modelled upon? Why does it seem
that she is not necessarily based on her namesake from the epic?
MZ: All characters become completely
themselves from the first time you fictionalise something about them. In the case
of Penelope, she was based on my parents-in-law, who came to Australia from
Poland. When they got here they were shocked by the heat. They’d never seen a
cockroach before. They were horrified…but they had made this epic journey to
start a new life – and that was the first seed for Penelope’s story – but from
the moment I saw her practising the piano and being read to from The Iliad, she was only ever Penelope
Lesciuszko, and then Penny Dunbar.
As for not being a based on the exact
template of Penelope in The Odyssey,
she’s certainly patient, and determined – but I also wanted her to be more. All
of the characters in this novel are heroic in their own way. Penelope, as I
said, is the heart of the book, and I wanted her to be stoic, and deceptively
strong. She’s perennial – a survivor and mother, and certainly a formidable
opponent in the Piano Wars with her sons
JBR: Which edition of the Odyssey and Illiad did
you read? When did your love for the epic start? What prompted you to reimagine
MZ: My editions are the Penguin classics,
translated by E.V. Rieu. I never studied them at school or university, but I
decided one day that I needed to read The
Iliad. I always loved the bigness of them – the larger-than life characters
and language…the overwroughtness of it!
As for it’s thread in Bridge of Clay, it came to me when all of the characters started
having nicknames, and when Clay is training – the start of the novel is like the Games in Ancient Greece. Then, when
I thought of Penelope being called The Mistake Maker, I immediately saw her
practising the piano in Eastern Europe, which I called a ‘watery wilderness’,
which was a direct quote from Homer’s description of the sea. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what Bridge of Clay is. It’s a suburban
epic that pays tribute to the bigness of our everyday lives.’ We all think we
have dull, drab existences, but we all fall in love, We all have people die on
us. We all fight for what we want sometimes. It all just seemed to fit, and
then I thought of Penelope being sent to Australia with a copy of The Iliad and The Odyssey. I never doubted that part of the story.
JBR: What was it like to interact with readers in
India when you visited the country in January?
MZ: To be in India with a book is like
being with your fiercest friends. Indian readers are special in that they love
showing you how much they love you, and as a reading culture it is like no
other place in the world. I loved every minute.
JBR: Why release the book for two types of readers
across the world particularly in an important book market like USA where it has
been labelled as #yalit?
MZ: I’ll often answer this question by saying it
really doesn’t matter because a book will find its true audience. I had a
choice to release this book with a different publisher to place it firmly in
adult territory, but I love the people I work with, and I wanted to stay with
them. That’s the only reason it was released as a young adult novel there. I
think that was possibly an easier proposition with The Book Thief, because it’s an easy book to love – but I think Bridge of Clay does makegreater demands of its reader. It’s a
tougher book to read. Liesel is given to you on a plate; she’s easy to love –
orphaned, in a book about loving books – but Clay is a character to fight for.
You almost have to prove that you can withstand all he goes through to fully
In short, a reader almost has to earn the right to
love him – and so maybe it’s more a novel for true believers in my writing,
which makes it a harder book to market for teenagers.
Either way, the challenge was always to write this
book the way it needed to be written, despite The Book Thief’s success, and readers wanting the same experience.
And that’s something I know I fought for. Every decision was made to make the
book exactly what it needed to be, and follow its vision completely.