Jeet Thayil Posts

The JCB Prize for Literature

 

Creative installation at the launch of The JCB Prize for Literature

Lord Bamford, Chairman, JCB

Recently the Rs 25 lakh JCB Prize for Literature was announced. It is not the first literary prize in India nor is it the first of such a large value. Before this the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature offered a cash prize of $50,000 which was drastically cut by 50% to $25,000 in 2017.  The generous JCB Prize will focus on a distinguished work of fiction and consider translations too. Self-published works will not be eligible. Authors must be Indian citizens. The longlist of ten will be announced in September, and a shortlist of five in October, with the winner to be declared at an awards ceremony on November 3. Each shortlisted author will receive Rs 1 lakh ($1500). The winning author will receive a further Rs 25 lakhs (approx. $38000). An additional Rs 5 lakhs ($7700) will be awarded to the translator if the winning work is a translation.

The Literary Director is award-winning author Rana Dasgupta. The advisory council consists of businessman Tarun Das (Chairperson), Rana Dasgupta, art historian Pheroza Godrej, award winning writer Amitava Ghosh and academic and translator Prof. Harish Trivedi. The jury for 2018 consists of filmmaker Deepa Mehta (Chairperson), novelist and playwright Vivek Shanbhag, translator Arshia Sattar, entrepreneur and scholar Rohan Murty, and theoretical astrophysicist and author Priyanka Natarajan.

Rana Dasgupta, Literary Director, The JCB Prize for Literature

To formally announce the prize an elegant launch was organised at The Imperial, New Delhi on 4 April 2018 where the who’s who of the literary world gathered. It was by invitation only. Those who spoke at the event were Lord Bramford, Chairman, JCB, and Rana Dasgupta, Literary Director.  Lord Bramford spoke of the fond memories he had of his travels through India in the 1960s. Rana Dasgupta underlined the fact that most of the prestigious literary awards are not always open to Indian writers and especially not for translations, a gap that the JCB Prize wishes to address. He also announced a tie-up with the Jaipur Literature Festival (details to be announced later). In fact, all three directors of JLF were present – Namita Gokhale, William Dalrymple and Sanjoy Roy.

Namita Gokhale, writer and publisher; Rajni Malhotra, books division head, Bahrisons with Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, International publishing consultant

Literary awards are very welcome for they always have an impact. They help sell books, authors are “discovered” by readers and the prize money offers financial assistance to a writer. Prizes also influence publishers’ commissioning strategies. The biggest prize in terms of its impact factor are the two prizes organised by the Man Booker – for fiction and translation.

Lady Bamford, founder of Daylesford and Bamford with William Dalrymple, art historian and writer

Keki N. Daruwalla, poet, with David Davidar, co-founder, Aleph Books

Amitabha Bagchi, novelist with Vipin Sondhi, CEO, JCB India

Recognising the importance of financial security for a writer Lord Bramford told the Indian Express “Money often is a good motivator…Creative people like writers or artists often don’t get much reward. And we wanted to reward them.” This is borne out by award-winning writer Sarah Perry who wrote in The Guardian recently about winning the East Anglian book of the year award in 2014, it gave her not only legitimacy for her work but enabled her to afford a better computer to write upon; she “felt suddenly at ease. … I felt like an apprentice carpenter given the tools of the trade by a benevolent guild.” Poet and novelist Jeet Thayil too echoed similar feelings on stage when he won the $50,000 DSC Prize in 2013 for Narcopolis. Just as novelist Jerry Pinto did when he won the 2016 Windham-Campbell Prize of $150,000.

Ira Pande, editor and translator; Diya Kar, publisher, HarperCollins India with professor Harish Trivedi, member, Advisory Council, The JCB Prize for Literature

Lord Bamford, Chairman of JCB; Neelima Adhar, poet and novelist, Arvind Mewar, 76th custodian of Mewar dynasty

The JCB Prize for Literature is a tremendous initiative! It will undoubtedly impact the Indian publishing ecosystem. If publishers do not have eligible entries to send immediately particularly in the translation category, they will commission new titles. The domino effect this action will be of discovering “new” literature in translation and encouraging literary fiction by Indian writers, which for now is dwindling. By making literature available in English and giving it prominence there has to be a positive spin-off especially in terms of increased rights sales across book territories and greater visibility for the authors and translators.

( Pictures used with permission of the JCB Prize for Literature)

3 May 2018 

Poetry in India

For some peculiar reason poetry is quoted and used extensively everywhere but rarely does it get a regular space in a publishing house. It is often said poetry is too complicated to publish and to sell. It is subjective. Also many customers prefer to read poetry at the store and put the book back on the shelf. For many poets in India, self-publishing their poems has been popular. For generations of poets the go-to place was Writers Workshop begun by the late P. Lal. Some of the poets published by Writers Workshop included Vikram Seth, Agha Shahid Ali, Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolatkar, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Jayanta Mahapatra, Keki Daruwalla, Kamala Das, Meena Alexander, Nissim Ezekiel, and Ruskin Bond. Some of the other publishing houses published occasional volumes of poetry too.

Of late the practice has continued. Only the rare volume or two is published. Aleph Book Company has published some fine volumes of poetry which has included translations ( Mirabai and Tirukkal) and contemporary poets such as Jeet Thayil, Sridala Swami and Vikram Seth. Some years ago Harper Collins India published The HarperCollins Book Of English Poetry (ed. Sudeep Sen) and recently the excellent collection of poems by Tishani Doshi Girls are Coming Out of the Woods. Also that of  Sharanya Manivannan ‘s The Altar of the Only World which is considered as well to be a very good volume. Penguin Random House India has a reputation for publishing good volumes of poetry particularly of established poets such as 60 Indian Poets edited by Jeet Thayil. A volume to look forward to in 2018 will be Ranjit Hoskote’s Jonahwhale . The feminist publishing house Zubaan books published a fascinating experimental volume Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess edited and translated by Priya Sarukkai Chhabra and Ravi Shankar.

Speaking Tiger Books has begun to actively publish poetry — at least far more frequently than the other firms. In the past few months alone some of their titles include Rohinton Daruwala’s The Sand Libraries of Timbuktu: Poems  ; Manohar Shetty’s Full Disclosure: New and Collected Poems (1981-2017) ;  C.P. Surendran’s Available Light: New and Collected Poems ; Guru T. Ladakhi’s Monk on a Hill: Poems ; Ralph Russell’s translations and edited by Marion Molteno A Thousand Yearnings: A Book of Urdu Poetry & Prose  ; Ruskin Bond’s I Was the Wind Last Night: New and Collected Poems ; Michael Creighton’s New Delhi Love Songs: PoemsLater this year the Sahitya Akademi is publishing what looks to be a promising collection of poetry by “younger Indians”, edited and selected by noted poet Sudeep Sen.

Having said that the self-publishing initiatives still continue. For instance a young poet and writer ( and journalist) Debyajyoti Sarma launched the i, write, imprint, press to publish poetry. Some of the poets published ( apart from him) include noted playwright Ramu Ramanathan, Uttaran Das Gupta, Sananta Tanty  and Paresh Tiwari. 

Now there are more opportunities for poets to publish in literary magazines as well. For instance well-known poet Sampurna Chattarji has been appointed the poetry editor of IQ magazine and is looking for submissions and hoping to be read as well! She writes about it on her blog. Another active space for poets is Poetry at Sangam which is edited by Priya Sarukkai Chhabra. It showcases poetry in English and translations as well as essays on poetics and news of new releases. Another vibrant space for poetry especially Urdu is the Jashn-e-Rekhta festival. 

There are plenty more initiatives in other local languages, meet ups, open mike sessions etc where poets can recite/perform their work. In the past decade there has been a noticeable increase in these events whether informal groups that meet at local parks or coffee shops to more formal settings as a curated evening.

Undoubtedly poets and their poetry is thriving, just more publishers are needed to publish the poets.

6 January 2018 

 

 

 

 

Jeet Thayil “The Book of Chocolate Saints”

If this is a story about art then it is  a story about God and the gifts he gives us. Also the gifts he takes away. God has it in for poets, that’s obvious, but the Bombaywallahs hold a special place in his dispensation. Or so I believe, with good reason. Much has been taken from the poets of Bombay. Bhagwan kuch deyta hai toh wapas bhi leyta hai. 

Let me ask you a question. Why has no one written about the Bombay poets of the seventies and eighties, poets who sprouted from the soil like weeds or mushrooms or carnivorous new flowers, who arrived like meteors, burned bright for a season or two and vanished without a trace? It had never happened before, poets writing Marathi, Hindi, English, and combinations thereof, writing to and against each other, such ferment and not a word of documentation. Why not?

The fiction has been done to death, features and interviews and critical studies and textbooks and not one of the novelists is worth a little finger of the poets. They were the great ones and they died. All of them died. If you want a moral, here it is: what god giveth, he taketh away. In this story art is god. And if god is art, then what is the devil? Bad art of course. But we’ll talk about that in a minute or we won’t. Kuch bhi ho, yaar. 

Award-winning writer and poet Jeet Thayil’s second novel The Book of Chocolate Saints  is about the fictional character Newton Francis Xavier  ( perhaps loosely modelled on Dom Moraes to whom the book is dedicated). It is also a commentary by an insider on the Bombay poets — Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawalla and Arun Kolatkar. The novel is a witness’s testimony as much as that of a practising poet’s acknowledgement to the rich literary tradition he belongs to. Recently one of the surviving members of this group, Ashok Shahane, in an interview while referring to the medieval Marathi saint-poet Dnyaneshwar, spoke of him

…regarding the relationship between the word and the world. Dnyaneshwar said that when we look for the sliver of the moon, the branch of a tree becomes useful as a guide to our eyes. Words are that branch, not the sliver of the moon itself.

“What is literature? Literature has nothing to do with the real world. I mean, at the same time it has everything to do with the real world,” he said. “You need readers who can maintain this balance. Literary matters will stay in literature, and the interpretation will stay in your mind. You won’t come out and fight in the street. At least this much I expect. But I don’t think I can expect that. Someone will take offence, and then, things will unravel.”

Likewise with The Book of Chocolate Saints which has taken the art form of a novel to new heights and yet is undeniably grounded in reality. There are very real people such as the poet Philip Nikolayev, and Jeet Thayil’s father, the author and journalist, T.J.S.George, or seemingly fiction which are thinly veiled references to actual incidents and people. It is a novel that marks a milestone in modern Indian literature particularly the Indian novel in English. This form of writing had begun to make its presence felt in 1980s with the publication of novels by I, Allen Seally, Shashi Tharoor, Rukun Advani and Mukul Kesavan; but it was with the publication of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy that truly cemented the arrival of the Indian novel in English worldwide. No longer did it seem out of place to have a smattering of Hindi words in English prose— it was considered as acceptable as reading the French phrases in a Wodehouse story, the story itself about an ordinary person selling shoes for a living and looking for the ideal marriage partner was familiar to readers as someone like them and not fiction set in some faraway land. More than two decades later The Book of Chocolate Saints bursts upon the scene with its detailed literary landscape taking the Indian novel in English to another level — of high culture. It focuses on a literary group that is known for its unique style of literature, influenced by international culture, and writers like Baudelaire, James Joyce, the Beat poets including Allen Ginsberg who came and spent time with them, Auden and the Hungryalists instead of navel gazing as much of local literature was tending to become — each form has its relevance but by breaking the traditional shackles of “Indian literature” and bringing different strands together to create something new was revolutionary. The Bombay poets were producing literature well before the Internet happened  so accessing different cultural elements and learning from them was a far more challenging process than it is now. They travelled, they conversed, they learned from each other, they had weekly addas, disagreed and yet remained steadfast companions whose influence upon literature is going to tell for generations to come. Jeet Thayil exemplifies this in his novel by paying homage to the Bombay poets by experimenting happily with the art form to create unique piece of literature that can only give the reader joy by engaging fully with it. At times the prose seems like poetry, there are portions that are like investigative journalism, at times it flows beautifully like straightforward classical prose and at other times seems broken — yet all the while masterfully controlled by the genius of a storyteller.  Coincidentally the same editor and eminent publisher, David Davidar, published both the novels — A Suitable Boy and The Book of Chocolate Saints.

This cross-pollination of art and reality is what literary craftsman Jeet Thayil attempts in The Book of Chocolate Saints while chronicling a significant time in contemporary Indian literature and history. It is a magnificent pastiche!

Jeet Thayil The Book of Chocolate Saints Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2017. Hb. Rs 799 

31 Oct 2017 

 

Eunice de Souza: A Tribute by Salil Tripathi

This morning poet Adil Jussawala posted on his Facebook page: 

Image from the Internet

Eunice de Souza
(1 August 1940 – 29 July 2017)
Gone suddenly.

Social media exploded with shock. Very soon some extraordinary tributes began being pouring in for an extraordinary woman. One of the earliest tributes posted on his Facebook page was by noted journalist Salil Tripathi. It is published below with his permission. 

Those who did not know her thought she was temperamental, but those who knew her knew she was generous. She was encouraging and warm if she thought what you wrote deserved to be read more widely, sharp and incisive if she thought you needed to work harder, and candid without being cruel if she thought you should not try writing.

Ammu Joseph edited Post Script, the wonderful weekend magazine of the Indian Post, which we were all part of when it was launched in 1987, and Eunice De Souza edited the books page, and as Ammu reminds us below, she brought her own ideas and was receptive to other ideas to make it what was easily the best weekend magazine of its time. Eunice discovered new voices and gave recognition to some old ones among critics. Jeet Thayil was our poetry editor.

Those were heady days for English poetry in Bombay – Dom Moraes had returned to writing, Nissim Ezekiel ran PEN and organised readings at Theosophy Hall, Arun Kolatkar could be found at Kala Ghoda at Wayside Inn, Dilip Chitre was a regular feature at readings, Adil Jussawalla was at Debonair and with Udayan Patel published poetry under the imprint Praxis, Saleem Peeradina taught at the Open Classrooms in Sophia (where I was a student, as was Arshia Sattar), Gieve Patel wrote poems, plays, and found time to run a medical practice, and there was Newground and Clearing House and OUP still published poetry.

And among all those male voices, there were strong women voices present – Eunice De Souza and Melanie Salgado.

Along with Jeet, Ranjit Hoskote, and Menka Shivdasani had begun writing their early poems then, and it was a small circle, and I’m probably missing out some names, but it was one of those moments where it felt like saying – bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!

Eunice was terrific at spotting young talent. I was one of two editors who edited the op-ed page of the Indian Post, and she introduced me to some of her bright students, many of whom went on to write for the Indian Post. I remember in particular Dinyar Godrej, who is now at the New Internationalist and the late Alan Twigg who we lost so tragically and too early, who reviewed films (and wrote a fine piece on Brodsky when he won the Nobel). She also wrote for my page, on literature, feminism, and occasionally, the city itself.

Her poetry was funny, sharp, bold, and strong. I remember Fix, her first collection, with which she announced her presence. I particularly liked the next collection, Women in Dutch Painting. She had at least two more collections to follow.

She read my poems, and urged me to continue, asking me to avoid sentimentality that she though crept into my poems because when I started writing poems, I wrote in Gujarati. She stressed I should write in a more ‘clean’ way.

Many years later, in her columns, she wrote two fine pieces about my recent books – reviewing them with care and attention, and reading the pieces this morning I feel that impulse of hers again. Urging me to go on. I will, as will many others who were lucky enough to have known her. She won’t be with us in one sense, but in many ways, she will always be. Miss you, Eunice.

Salil Tripathi 

29 July 2017 

JLF 2017 Preview

My article on the preview for JLF 2017 was published on Bookwitty.com on 30 December 2016.)

Get Ready for the 10th Anniversary of the Jaipur Literature Festival  - Image 1

The first time I attended the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) at Diggi Palace Grounds, Jaipur it was small enough so that once could drive the car straight up to the main steps of the building. Today, the parking is a fair distance from the palace and the only way to reach the venue is through multiple barricades and a screening counter. Once inside though, there is a wonderful, festive air with an explosion of colours in the décor, the happy buzz of excited people milling about and conversations streaming through various marquees. Termed one of the greatest literary events, it is also a free one. Since it began, the JLF has welcomed 846,000 visitors, 1874 speakers, conducted 1272 sessions and partnered with more than 1400 organisations.

The JLF is also crucial because it is situated in a geographical space that is at the heart of a significant book market. It is planned soon after the Christmas break and a few months after the Frankfurt Book Fair (FBF) so publishing professionals flying in from around the world can follow up on their FBF conversations and combine them with a holiday in India.

In January 2017, it will be the 10th anniversary of the Jaipur Literature Festival. The three directors since its inception are Sanjoy Roy, Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple. The festival has evolved over the years to include different elements such as Jaipur BookMark – a B2B platform for publishers, a children’s section and a cultural event every evening. The Festival has expanded internationally to host annual events at London’s Southbank Centre (2014 onwards) and Boulder, Colorado (2015 onwards). In 2017 the Jaipur BookMark will launch a new scheme to support emerging writers and budding authors are invited to apply for a New Writers’ Mentorship Programme: The First Book Club.

The Festival has celebrated and hosted writers from across the globe, ranging from Nobel Laureates and Man Booker Prize winners to debut writers, including Amish Tripathi, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Eleanor Catton, Hanif Kureishi, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Ian McEwan, JM Coetzee, Margaret Atwood, Mohammed Hanif, Oprah Winfrey, Orhan Pamuk, Pico Iyer, Salman Rushdie, Stephen Fry, Thomas Piketty, Vikram Seth and Wole Soyinka, as well as renowned Indian language writers such as Girish Karnad, Gulzar, Javed Akhtar, MT Vasudevan Nair, Uday Prakash, the late Mahasweta Devi and U.R. Ananthamurthy.

Get Ready for the 10th Anniversary of the Jaipur Literature Festival  - Image 2

This January, the Jaipur Literature Festival expects to welcome over 250 authors, thinkers, politicians, journalists, and popular culture icons to Jaipur. Sanjoy Roy said “Our prime focus is on history of the world, given that it was the 70 years of India’s Independence [in 2016]. In a new collaboration with the British Library they have loaned us a version of the 1215 AD Magna Carta which will be on view at Diggi Palace. A series of sessions on freedom to dream will look at inspiration for the future. We have a new partnership with The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) that will look at sessions on art and migration.”

Namita Gokhale added that at the JLF “We are always trying to listen in as many languages as possible. This time there will be speakers from all over Europe and more than 20 Indian regional languages will be showcased.”

Controversies and the JLF also seem to go hand in hand. In 2012 Hari Kunzru, Ruchir Joshi, Amitava Kumar and Jeet Thayil read out passages from Salman Rushdie’s banned book The Satanic Verses and had to leave Jaipur hurriedly before the police arrived to arrest them. Another time the Shell oil company was one of the sponsors, which created a stir since, among other things, it is infamously associated with the tragic execution of Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. At the time, the JLF administration said they do not look at the color of money. This year too, there is disappointment already being expressed at representatives of the Hindu fundamentalist group RSS being invited to speak at JLF but as the organizers point out they stand for diversity.

Be that as it may, the 2017 edition of JLF promises to be as exciting as ever. The magnificent line-up of authors includes Paul Beatty, Alan Hollinghurst, Valmik Thapar, Amruta Patil, AN Wilson, Alice Walker, Mark Haddon, Ajay Navaria, Mrinal Pande, Richard Flanagan, Arshia Sattar, Arefa Tehsin, Eka Kurniawan, Tahmima Anam, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Marcos Giralt Torrente, Kyoko Yoshida, David Hare, Margo Jefferson, Deborah Smith, Jeremy Paxman, Hyeonseo Lee, Francesca Orsini, John Keay, Jon Wilson, Kate Tempest, Mihir S. Sharma, Neil MacGregor, Rishi Kapoor, Sholeh Wolpé, Sunil Khilnani, and Vivek Shanbhag. Sessions have been planned on translations, revisiting history, conflict, politics, memoirs, biographies, nature, poetry, spirituality, mythmaking, women writing, travel writing, freedom of expression, children’s literature and book releases.

Some of the prominent sessions are:

Writing the Self: The Art of Memoir: Bee Rowlatt, Brigid Keenan Emma Sky and Hyeonseo Lee in conversation with Samanth Subramanian

Lost in Translation: Francesca Orsini, Deborah Smith, Paulo Lemos Horta and Sholeh Wolpé in conversation with Adam Thirlwell

Migrations: Lila Azam Zanganeh, NoViolet Bulawayo, Sholeh Wolpé and Valzhyna Mort in conversation with Tishani Doshi

The Tamil Story: Imayam Annamalai and Subhashree Krishnaswamy in conversation with Sudha Sadhanand

In Search of a Muse: On Writing Poetry: Anne Waldman, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Ishion Hutchinson, Kate Tempest, Tishani Doshi and Vladimir Lucien in conversation with Ruth Padel

Lost Kingdoms: The Hindu and Buddhist Golden Age in South East Asia: John Guy introduced by Kavita Singh

Before We Visit the Goddess: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni in conversation with Shrabani Basu

Kohinoor: Anita Anand and William Dalrymple introduced by Swapan Dasgupta

The Dishonourable Company: How the East India Company Took Over India: Giles Milton, John Keay, Jon Wilson, Linda Colley and Shashi Tharoor in conversation with William Dalrymple

Brexit: A.N. Wilson, Andrew Roberts,, Linda Colley, Surjit Bhalla and Timothy Garton Ash in conversation with Jonathan Shainin

Rewriting History: The Art of Historical Fiction: Adam Thirlwell, Alan Hollinghurst and Shazia Omar in conversation with Raghu Karnad

Civil Wars: From Antiquity to ISIS: David Armitage introduced by Raghu Karnad

The Biographer’s Ball: A.N. Wilson, Andrew Roberts, David Cannadine, Lucinda Hawksley, Roy Foster and Suzannah Lipscomb in conversation with Anita Anand

Ardor: On the Vedas: Roberto Calasso in conversation with Devdutt Pattanaik

Things to Leave Behind: Namita Gokhale in conversation with Mrinal Pande and Sunil Sethi

That Which Cannot be Said: Hyeonseo Lee, Kanak Dixit, Sadaf Saaz and Timothy Garton Ash and in conversation with Salil Tripathi

The Art of the Novel: On Writing Fiction: Adam Thirlwell, Alan Hollinghurst, NoViolet Bulawayo and Richard Flanagan in conversation with Manu Joseph

Footloose: The Travel Session: Aarathi Prasad, Bee Rowlatt, Brigid Keenan, Nidhi Dugar and Simon Winchester in conversation with William Dalrymple

The JLF 2017 will run from January 19-23rd.

    Press Release: Jeet Thayil announces a new book with Aleph

    aleph-logo

    Aleph Book Company is delighted to announce that it will be publishing Jeet Thayil’s new novel, The Book of  Chocolate Saints, in 2017. This book is a follow-up to his celebrated novel Narcopolis which won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2012 and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, the Man Asian Prize and the Commonwealth Prize.

    ~

    jeet-thayil_web_46In incandescent prose, award-winning novelist Jeet Thayil tells the story of Newton Francis Xavier, blocked poet, serial seducer of young women, reformed alcoholic (but only just), philosopher, recluse, all-round wild man, and India’s greatest living painter. At the age of sixty-six, Xavier, who has been living in New York, is getting ready to return to the land of his birth to stage one final show of his work (accompanied by a mad bacchanal). As we accompany Xavier and his partner and muse Goody on their unsteady, and frequently sidetracked, journey from New York to New Delhi, the venue of the final show, we meet a host of memorable characters—journalists, conmen, alcoholics, addicts, artists, poets, whores, society ladies, thugs—and are also given unforgettable (and sometimes unbearable) insights into love, madness, poetry, sex, painting, saints, death, God and the savagery that fuels all great art.

    ~

    Jeet Thayil was born in Mamalasserie, Kerala, and educated in Bombay, Hong Kong and New York. His first novel Narcopolis won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2012 and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, the Man Asian Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. His five poetry collections include Collected Poems, English and These Errors Are Correct, which won the 2013 Sahitya Akademi Award for poetry. He is the editor of 60 Indian Poets and The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets. Jeet Thayil wrote the libretto for Babur in London, which toured Switzerland and the United Kingdom in 2012.

    For further information please contact:

    Vasundhara Raj Baigra, Director, Marketing and Publicity, Aleph Book Company

    Email: vasundhara@alephbookcompany.com

    Akhil Sharma, “Family Life”

    Akhil Sharma, “Family Life”

    Before we came to America, I had never read a book just to read it. When I began doing so, at first, whatever I read seemed obviously a lie. If a book said a boy walked into a room, I was aware that there was no boy and there was no room. Still, I read so much that often I imagined myself in the book. (p.30)

    I was always lost in a book, whether I was actually reading or imagining myself as a character. If bad things happened, like Birju developing pneumonia and having to wear an oxygen mask, I would think that soon I would be able to go back to my reading and then time would vanish and when I reentered the world, the difficult thing would be gone or changed. ( p.153)

    Akhil Sharma, Family Lif eFamily Life is Akhil Sharma’s second novel. It took nearly a decade to write, but the wait has been well worth it. Family Life is about his family moving to America in mid-1970s. Unfortunately his brother with a promising future, hit his head n a swimming pool, and slipped in to a coma. This incident changed the life of the family.

    It is a stunning novel. Not a spare word is used. The flashbacks  to their time spent in India are recorded faithfully, yet referred to in such a manner that an international reader would not get lost. For instance a description from his early days in America recounts how they received ads on coloured paper in their mailbox regularly. But “in India coloured paper could be sold to the recycler for more money than newsprint.” It is rare to find a writer of Indian origin who writes painfully accurately on what it means to be an Indian living in America. He captures the bewilderment and confusion marvellously and it is not necessarily having the god men visit them at home, in the hope of looking for a cure for his sick brother. It is in everyday life.

    It is a pleasure to read Family Life since it tells a story, also observes and analyses in a matter-of-fact tone. Yet the clarity of writing, the manner in which it resonates with the reader, does not always mask the anguish and torment Akhil Sharma must have put himself through, to write this brilliant book. And then I read  this article he wrote in The New York Times, “The Trick of Life” where talks about the agonizing experience of writing this novel:     http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/06/opinion/sunday/the-trick-of-life.html .  Well it was worth it.

    It is a novel worth reading.

    Here are a few more related links:

    9ihttp://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/97jan/9701fict/sharma.htm ( “Cosmopolitan”, short story, The Atlantic, 1997)

    http://www.guernicamag.com/daily/akhil-sharma-when-despair-and-tenderness-collide/

    http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/04/book-review-podcast-akhil-sharmas-family-life/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/04/akhil-sharma-on-writing-family-life.html&mbid=social_twitter

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/01/this-week-in-fiction-akhil-sharma.html

    https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/akhil-sharma/

    http://www.londonreviewbookshop.co.uk/blog/2014/4/tender-and-funny-em-family-life-em-by-akhil-sharma

    On 20 June 2014, it was included in a list of the 54 best novels from India published by Brunch, Hindustan Times: http://www.hindustantimes.com/brunch/brunch-stories/greatest-indian-novels-ever-part-i/article1-1231662.aspx The jury members were Amitava Kumar, Chiki Sarkar, David Davidar, Harish Trivedi, Jeet Thayil, Jerry Pinto, Ravi Singh and Sunil Sethi.

    Akhil Sharma Family Life Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 240. Rs. 499 

    Siddharth Mukherjee, 27 April 2014

    Siddharth Mukherjee, 27 April 2014

    Siddharth Mukherjee, 27 April 2014Last night I attended a public lecture at the India International Centre, New Delhi. It was delivered by Siddharth Mukherjee entitled “First they came for Rushdie: Scientific Ambitions in an Age of Censorship”. It was organised by Penguin Books India to celebrate the occasion of Siddharth Mukherjee having received the Padma Shri.  He is a physician, scientist and writer. His book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize. He is currently an assistant professor medicine at Columbia University in New York. Chiki Sarkar, Publisher, Penguin Random House India, announced that her firm would be publishing his forthcoming book–on genes. Penguin invite

    The lecture consisted of three distinct sections. He read out two papers. An essay, “The Perfect Last Days of Mr Sengupta”, published in Granta 124: Travel (http://www.granta.com/Archive/124/The-Perfect-Last-Days-of-Mr-Sengupta). It is about his visit to the Cancer centre of All India Institute of Medical Sciences ( AIIMS) based in New Delhi, where he meets a terminally ill patient Mr Sengupta. A precisely written, sensitive and thought-provoking essay about mortality, disease, care giving, and death.

    ( L-R) Chiki Sarkar, Siddharth Mukherjee, Nirmala George and Jaya Bhattacharji RoseHe followed it up by reading an extract from an unpublished essay. ( I suspect it is from his forthcoming book.) It was about science, scientific thought and research, especially genetics, in Nazi Germany. In a measured manner, calmly Siddharth Mukherjee read out his paper. Not once did his voice waver while he patiently retold the well-known facts of medicine as practiced in Germany.  He talked about Berlin in 1931 and the close link between science and literature. He spoke of the Nazi scientists such as eugenicist Alfred Ploetz who coined the term Rassenhygiene or racial hygiene, Josef Mengel or the Angel of Death who was responsible for the gas chambers in the Auschwitz concentration camps, physicist and Nobel Prize winner ( 1905) Philipp Eduard Anton von Lenard who advocated “Deutsche Physik” as opposed to the ideas of “Jewish physics”, by which he meant chiefly the theories of Albert Einstein, including “the Jewish fraud” of relativity. He spoke of the influence many of these scientists had upon Hitler, even when he was in prison and he wrote of his admiration of them in Mein Kampf. He commented upon the close relationship between the legal wheels that were constantly turning to justify and legitimize these absurdly illogical “scientific” theories, resulting in the enactment of the anti-Jewish statutes called the Nuremberg Race Laws ( 5 Sept 1935) institutionalizing many of the racial theories prevalent in Nazi ideaology. He mentioned the establishment of the Aktion T4 or the euthanasia programme that led to the establishment of  extermination centres where inmates were gassed in carbon monoxide chambers. He cited examples and read out extracts of contemporary accounts by scientists and men of letters such as Christopher Isherwood, of how slowly German society was being slowly and steadily cleansed, sloughing of genetic detritus. He argued that there was sufficient evidence of how this young science propped up a totalitarian regime and the cycle was completed by producing junk science. He  documented the muzzling of free expression, books, media, radio, cabaret were slowly brought under Nazi doctrine. Music such as jazz and swing or the “negro noise” were stopped. There was a slow and methodical decimation of intellectual and cultural freedom. Audience at the Siddharth Mukherjee public lecture

    The concluding part of the lecture, Siddharth Mukherjee cited the example of Salman Rushdie not being permitted to attend or even speak via satellite link at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2012. He received death threats. At the time three writers — Hari Kunzro, Ruchir Joshi and Jeet Thayil — tried reading out extracts from the banned text The Satanic Verses but were not permitted to do so. Instead they were advised to leave Jaipur immediately. At the time this episode was met by a “galacial silence” by the powers that be. It was as “all realism without magic”. Since then this kind of literary censorship, a capitulation to bullying, according to Siddharth Mukherjee has become a predictable pattern in Indian society. Wendy Doniger  is the latest victim of literary censorship. For Siddharth Mukherjee there is a symbiotic relationship between science and literature since they co-exist in the same ecosystem. “Science happens in the same fragile place where books happen and plays are enacted. You spoil the ecology of one, you tarnish the soil of the other.”

    28 April 2014 

    Meghna Pant, “Happy Birthday! And other stories”

    Meghna Pant, “Happy Birthday! And other stories”

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    Sitting in the mall day after day, like mannequins on public display, we have become objects of ridicule, especially in the easy black-or-white judgement of the young. We have to stay as invisible here as we do in our homes.

    “Lemon and Chilli”

    Happy Birthday is Meghna Pant’s second work of fiction in as many years. The first was a novel, One and a Half Wife. It was received very well — critically and commercially. With her collection of short stories she has strung together a series of vignettes dealing with the Indian middle class. They may be in Mumbai or non-resident Indians (NRIs) settled in America. They are competently told, but as Jeet Thayil says, the stories are “merciless”. The loneliness and despair that permeates through the stories is very depressing. ( My favourite is probably “Lemon and Chilli”.) Surprisingly despite these negative feelings it makes you want to read the next story and the next, till you reach the last page. Her sensitivity in describing the life of an elderly, retired person is devastatingly chilling, for it is so true. Some of these stories seem to have been inspired by events reported in the newspapers, like “Friends” and “Dented and Painted Women”, but Meghna Pant has most certainly made the stories her own by spinning intricate yarns.

    I did like reading Happy Birthday! but to shirk off the overwhelming sense of sadness will take a while, merely because the stories are so well told and believable. But read you must. This is a new voice that will leave a stamp on Indian fiction in the years to come.

    Meghna Pant, Happy Birthday! And other stories
    Random House India, New Delhi, 2013. Pb. pp. 290 Rs. 299. An ebook also available.

    <strong>Mind your words: Who decides what we should read?</strong>

    Mind your words: Who decides what we should read?

    Mind your words: Who decides what we should read?

    The Jaipur Literature Festival 2012 did not slink by unnoticed. It is a literary extravaganza which reaches out to the masses, rather than being reserved for the upper echelons of society or the intelligentsia. Everybody is welcome to mingle and rub shoulders with the glitterati of literature. It is easy to spot Gulzar, along with Tom Stoppard or as this year proved, even Oprah! The one event that overshadowed the entire festival and its rumbles continue to be heard even now, was the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie’s presence — will he, won’t he come was the question on everyone’s lips. What were the legal repercussions for the four writers—Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil, Hari Kunzro and Ruchir Joshi — who attempted to read out passages from Satanic Verses? When it was finally announced that Rushdie will not attend in person, but will address the gathering via a video conference, it was little consolation. But then that too was scuttled, leaving a fuming Rushdie having to address a television audience later that evening, via a link up with NDTV.

    Curiously the ban on Satanic Verses is a customs ban that does not allow the book to be imported into the country. The larger question then left for everyone to tussle with – was this a form of censorship? Are we not at a liberty to read what we like? Do we have the freedom to read what we like? Or shall there be those who sit in judgment upon what we can or should not read? Questions that are not always easy to answer. It has spawned various forms of protests, signing of online petitions to most notably “flash reads” which included reading passages from works on 14 Feb – the day, 23 years ago, when the fatwa against Rushdie was announced. Plus a day in that has in recent times become synonymous with the harassment inflicted upon young lovers by vigilantes, based upon the absurd argument that Valentine’s Day is a Western intrusion upon Indian culture. According to Salil Tripathi, one of the participants of flash reads, it was organized “at different locations in five cities, Bangalore, Kochi, Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi, about a hundred people—readers, writers, artists, engineers, lawyers, professionals, students, and consultants—came with sheets filled with words and ideas that someone somewhere wanted suppressed. We were at Lodhi Gardens, on the bridge overlooking the duck pond, in the shadow of the ruins of another era, where writers who defied the state and those in power often met a ghastly end.”

    But bear in mind the reception to a book in different countries. In Germany, more than sixty years after World War II is over, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf is a banned text. It is not available in bookstores. If anyone wishes to read it, it can only be accessed by special permission, providing a valid reason, from a library. Unlike in India, where for many years it is a bestseller. It is always amongst the most popular titles in pirated editions, and only recently has begun to be visible in bookstores. It is available in English and other regional languages.
    Today, India is the largest democracy in the world, but it is also considered to be a large book market, with a voracious appetite in print and electronic formats and in any language, not just English. Controversies like those surrounding Satanic Verses open larger debates like pertaining to censorship, how far can one go without hurting the religious sentiments of another group, the impact of such an action on institutions and of course being responsible for the consequences of one’s action — is it to be those who are the catalysts of such change or the festival that inadvertently provided a platform for these readings? With the Internet, many of these bans become counter-productive as exemplified by Oscar-nominated director Ashvin Kumar who uploaded his latest film, Inshallah, Kashmir: Living Terror, on 26 Jan 2012, within 24 hours, he struck 50,000 views. In Dec 2011, it was estimated that India is the third largest Internet user population in the world, with over 120 million users. So it is ironical there is such a hullaballo around Satanic Verses being read in public, since the entire text is available online.

    (This article was first published in Books & More, April-May 2012, p.58

    Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing and literary consultant. She may be contacted at jayabhattacharjirose@gmail.com Her twitter handle is @JBhattacharji