This important Twitter thread was written by Sunny Singh after Naomi Wolf was banned from the microblogging platform. Naomi Wolf had been spreading misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccines. Prof. Sunny Singh is the co-founder of the Jhalak Prize.
It is a tough choice to select the books I wish to mention in this newsletter. There is so much good literature being published — a delight to read. Many times the ideas and motives for a book are also tremendous. But sometimes the execution of the idea or perhaps even the production in the book fails. Sadly such moments leave the reader in a pall of gloom.
But let us begin with the first book, a gorgeous, gorgeous collection of essays by the late Oliver Sacks. British neurologist, naturalist, historian of science, and author who passed away in 2015. Fortunately he was a prolific writer and left a magnificent literary estate. His posthumous publications have included two collections of essays. Everything in its Place is the second of these books. It consists of his contributions to various magazines and newspapers. As always there is plenty to mull over. Sacks has the astonishing ability to make many light bulbs go on inside one’s head and think, “Exactly! This is it! He got it!” Read on more in this blog post.
The second book which I read ages ago but was unable to write about since there was so much to dwell upon was debut writer Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City. It is impossible to put in a nutshell the feeling that this book leaves you with. It is a mix between disturbing and thought-provoking narrative. Perhaps it is best to reproduce the book blurb:
For Selvon, Ardan and Yusuf, growing up under the towers of Stones Estate, summer means what it does anywhere: football, music and freedom. But now, after the killing of a British soldier, riots are spreading across the city, and nowhere is safe.
While the fury swirls around them, Selvon and Ardan remain focused on their own obsessions, girls and grime. Their friend Yusuf is caught up in a different tide, a wave of radicalism surging through his local mosque, threatening to carry his troubled brother, Irfan, with it.
Unsurprisingly this book has won or been shortlisted for many awards including the prestigious International Dylan Thomas Prize and Jhalak Prize. It has been a remarkable run for the filmmaker-turned-writer Guy Gunaratne. In Our Mad and Furious City is a tremendous book but it will be Guy Gunaratne’s third book ( if he ever does publish it) that will be the one to watch out for.
The last book isThe Churches of Indiaby Australian Joanne Taylor. It is a heavily illustrated book with an interesting collection of churches in India. This book is an attempt to put together a history of some of the better known churches of India. Unfortunately the definite article in the title raises expectations of it being a comprehensive overview of the churches in India, which it certainly is not. It is a book that is focused very much on the churches found on the well-established tourist circuit of Goa, Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi, Puducherry and Chandannagar. The influences of the Portugese, British and French colonial rulers is evident in the architecture. So the churches showcased are definitely magnificent and some of the buildings are many centuries old. Yet, the glaring gaps in the representation of churches even within the National Capital Region of Delhi such as of St. Johns Church, Meerut is unforgivable. It is a church that was consecrated by Bishop Heber when he visited India in the early nineteenth century. It is also the church associated with the events of 1857. It is about an hour and a half drive from the capital city of Delhi so its exclusion is surprising. Similarly by focusing predominantly on magnificent colonial structures with a scrumptious display of images gives the impression that Christianity came to the subcontinent with colonialism and that is far from the truth. Christianity came to the subcontinent with the arrival of one of Christ’s disciples, St. Thomas, nearly two millennia ago — mentioned briefly in the book’s introduction. Subsequently congregations are known to gather in different parts of the country with churches as simple and bare as mud floors and thatched roofs to the more elaborate colonial buildings as documented in this book. The vast silences of churches that exist in central India, north east India with its wide variety of churches belonging to different denominations or the northern states of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir, to name a few, is inexplicable. Finally, glaring errors such as referring to The Cathedral Church of the Redemption as “Roman Catholic” (p.230) is preposterous. As stated accurately in the book it was built for the Viceroy in 1931 by Henry Medd. Given that the British designed and built it for their Viceroy, a representative of the British Crown, it has to be an Anglican or Protestant church — a fact misrepresented in the entry. While the hardwork of the author is evident in putting together histories of the churches profiled, the reader’s trust in the facts presented is weakened considerably by these errors. Books like this while fulfilling a wonderful requirement of documenting these beautiful buildings mar their very own credibility by being slipshod in factchecking. Perhaps this is something the editorial team could have assisted the author with rather than the entire onus resting upon the author alone?
‘If one lives in a foreign country,’ he said with some pride, and felt as he had felt when they championed the cause of his conchie son, warmed by the experience of tolerance and sanity. ‘My country,’ he repeated. ‘I feel at home in it, more so than I would in my own.’
‘All the more reason not to offend,’ she said bluntly.
‘Which country?’ demanded Abdul.
‘Well, England,’ admitted Srinivas.
‘England! What’s the matter with you, man, you can’t think about anything else?’
‘I suppose I could, but why? This is where I live, in England.’
‘It’s your country like?’
‘You think so? You think they’ll let you?;
‘Then you better stop,’ said Abdul, ‘because they won’t. the British won’t allow it. First thing that goes wrong it’ll be their country, and you go back, nigger, to yours, back from where you came from.’
Kamala Markandaya’s The Nowhere Man is about an ageing Brahmin Sriniwas who emigrated to Britain in the early part of the twentieth century. Later his wife, Vasantha, joined him. His two sons were born and brought up in the country. He was a spice trader. During the second world war, he “lost” his sons. The younger one, Seshu, literally when he died in a bombing attack. The older one, Laxman, found himself a wife and moved to Plymouth where he preferred to be more “integrated” than his own parents had ever been able to achieve. Soon after the war Vasantha succumbed to TB. And then the story continues about how Sriniwas the lonely widower tries to navigate the changing socio-political landscape of this country where he has spent nearly half a century.
I re-read The Nowhere Man in complete disbelief. When I read it at first many years ago, it was a story about an Indian immigrant growing old in UK facing some racism and being shunned by his own son. Published in 1973, set in Nov 1968, a few months after Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech and a year after the Beatles song “Nowhere Man”. By all accounts that I have dug up on the Internet it was not exactly well received yet the book paved the way for a manuscript like Rushdie’s Midnight Children to be accepted. But reading Nowhere Man now makes it seem so prescient. No wonder it is being republished by Pete Ayrton, formerly of Serpent’s Tail, now at Small Axes in August 2019. Some of the dialogues in it are sharp — much like the racist slurs one hears being shared on social media. Kamala Markandaya did not mince any words when it came to writing about the immigrant experiences in the early 1970s. It is a novel that sweeps through the twentieth century. For us now it will be considered a “classic”, a “historical” novel but at the time of publication it was most certainly a contemporary novel. There is a whiff of the old given the time it was written in too. Writing today is edgier, faster paced, many more details about etched in but this is a cross between the nineteenth century novel and the emerging modern novel. Also upon reading it at in 2019, years after the aggressive promotion of immigrant voices, diversity and inclusivity, our reading sensibilities are little dulled. We no longer seem to expect “English Literature” to be all white but to be inclusive of diverse voices. There is colour. There is Women’s Prize, BAME, Jhalak Prize, Kit de Wal promoting publishing and encouraging new writers etc. And this is a radical change in publishing in the last decade or so, not much earlier than that. So within this context to be re-reading Kamala Markandaya is quite an eye-opener about the immigrant experience. Of course after that there have been many more but this particular book is a great example! Here are two fabulous links about The Nowhere Man: Paris Review( 2018) and London Fictions ( 2013, 2018).
On the day the winner of Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 is to be announced in London, perhaps it is befitting to remember this extraordinary novelist who would have probably won such an award hands down, if it had existed then!