Kashmir Posts

Aleksander Hemon, “The Book of My Lives”

Aleksander Hemon, “The Book of My Lives”

Aleksander HemonThe situation of immigration leads to a kind of self-othering as well. Displacement results in a tenuous relationship with the past, with the self that used to exist and operate in a different place, where the qualities that constituted us were in no need of negotiation. Immigration is an ontological crisis because you are forced to negotiate the conditions of your selfhood under perpetually changing existential circumstances. The displaced person strives for narrative stability– here is my story!–by way of systematic nostalgia. p.17
I first came across Aleksander Hemon when I read his moving (and painful) essay, “The Aquarium”, in the New Yorker. ( http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/06/13/the-aquarium, 13 June 2011) It was about the loss of his second daughter, an infant, from a brain tumour. Then I read a brilliant interview by John Freeman published in How to read a Novelist: Conversations with writers ( First published in the Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/feb/23/aleksandar-hemon, 23 February 2013 ). In it John Freeman observes that “Hemon has been widely praised for the unexpected images [ his] style creates, but it was not, he says, the hallmark of a writer trying to bridge here and there. It was deliberate, honed, and in some cases mapped out. ‘I wanted to write with intense sensory detail, to bring a heightened state.’ He is a sentence writer who counts beats as a poet does syllables.”

Aleksander Hemon was born in Sarajevo and has lived in Chicago since 1992. The Book of My Lives is his fourth book, but first nonfiction. It follows A Question for Bruno ( 2000), Nowhere Man ( 2002), The Lazarus Project ( 2008) and Love and ObstaclesThe Book of My Lives consists of 16 essays that were originally published elsewhere, such as The New YorkerGranta, and McSweeney’s. There were revised and edited for the memoir. The essays vary from time spent in Sarajevo, being with the family, eating his grandmother’s homecooked broth, to participating in a Nazi-themed birthday party for his younger sister and disappearing off to the family cabin on the mountain called Jahorina, twenty miles from Sarajevo, for weeks on end to read in solitude and peace. On one such visit, the American Cultural Centre called him to say he had been invited to America for a month. While he was there, the war broke out in Sarajevo and he could not return for many years. The second half of the book consists of essays documenting/coming to grips with the new life/experiences — of being an immigrant in America. 

The funny thing is that the need for collective self-legtimization fits snugly into the neoliberal fantasy of multiculturalism, which is nothing if not a dream of a lot of others living together, everybody happy to tolerate and learn. Differences are thus essentially required for the sense of belonging: as long as we know who we are and who we are not, we are as good as they are. In the multicultural world there are a lot of them, which out not to be a problem as long as they stay within their cultural confines, loyal to their roots. There is no hierarchy of cultures, except as measured by the level of tolerance, which, incidentally, keeps Western democracies high above everyone else. ….p.16

I read this book while travelling through Kashmir. In fact it took me a day to read, completely engrossed in it. It was a little surreal reading the essays while on holiday in Kashmir, especially those describing the conflict in Sarajevo, since the presence of the security forces, the freewheeling conversations with the locals about recovering from many years of conflict, or the tedious security checks at the airport are constant reminders of how fragile any society affected by conflict is. It is a memoir I would recommend strongly. A must.

Here are some links related to Aleksander Hemon that are worth exploring: Gary Shteyngart in conversation with Hemon http://chicagohumanities.org/events/2014/winter/little-failure-gary-shteyngart-aleksandar-hemon

Aleksander Hemon interviews Teju Cole, Bomb http://bombmagazine.org/article/10023/teju-cole

An interview in the Salon http://www.salon.com/2013/03/23/aleksandar_hemon_i_cannot_stand_that_whole_game_of_confession_i_have_nothing_to_confess_and_i_do_not_ask_for_redemption/

Q&A in the NYT http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/20/waiting-for-catastrophes-aleksandar-hemon-talks-about-the-book-of-my-lives/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

Review in The Economist http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21575736-essays-exile-writing-survive

Aleksander Hemon The Book of My Lives Picador, Oxford, 2013. Pb. pp. 250 Rs 450 
11 Sept 2014 



( This is an email invitation I received from Namita Gokhale, Co-Director, Jaipur Literature Festival. I am circulating the invitation with permission.)


Dear All,
Join us for the launch of a special website at the Oxford Book Store, New Delhi– N 81 Connaught Place, New Delhi on Tuesday, the 5th of August, 6:30 pm onward. 
Bolbosh in Kashmiri means communication in a very endearing way, such as that of birds and children. 
Created by Asiya Zahoor, the website, Bolbosh is an archive of aesthetically rich and culturally significant literature from the Baramulla region written in languages such as Balti, Pahari, Ladakhi, Shina and Dorgi, Gujri and Kashmiri. Apart from this, it also contains an online Kashmiri dictionary, which has been compiled with the diligent efforts of various scholars and students from Kashmir University and Baramulla Degree College.
Warm regards,
Namita Gokhale

1 August 2014 

“The Siege: The Attack on the Taj”

“The Siege: The Attack on the Taj”

The Siege

When 26/11 happened it was unnerving to see the drama that was being shown live on televisions. During the attacks I was with a colleague at a national security agency to discuss an academic journal. Before beginning the meeting, we spent a few minutes watching the drama being shown on the television. It was a little disconcerting to get a running commentary from the security experts on the tactics, the guns being used by the armed forces etc. They were analysing the situation and figuring out what to do next. They had been trained to assess and act under such situations. But what happens when many ordinary citizens are ambushed by armed gunmen? You get a glimpse of it in The Siege. The panic and chaos exists, but also how well individuals can behave under extraordinary pressure.

Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark have written a “non-fiction thriller” called The Siege. It is a reconstruction of the events of 26 November 2008 (or 26/11 as it is popularly referred to) attacks in Mumbai. This is a book based upon innumerable interviews, reports, conversations, audio files, mobile phone text messages etc. They even obtained “audio files and transcripts from the wiretaps placed on the gunmen’s phones from India, US and British security sources, the most complete to be assembled, which includes matter never published before.” (p.297) Later they add — “Inevitably, some of these reconstructed events will jar with individual memories that placed a person somewhere else, at a different time, as might some of the dialogue, although we have tried to show some accuracy. A few quotations have been compared to or directly extracted from interview survivors gave at the time to cable news channels and newspapers, so as to capture the authenticity of that moment – the thoughts that they had back then, rather than with the benefit of hindsight.” (p.299)

In an interview to the Outlook ( http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?288414 ) they say “It would be wrong to rewrite the truth but one thing is clear that a whole lot more of the threat was known than anyone let on. Incredible details were provided because, as we now know, the US intelligence community, was all over Lashkar-e-Toiba. Hotels, especially wonderful historic hotels, like the Taj, are theatres. They need to balance the desire for spectacle, being the House of Magic, with the safety of their guests. In this case, the hotel, the upper echelons of the police, and the intelligence services fought each other, and undermined the value of the early warnings they received. That is undeniable….A truth that emerges here is the police on the ground did what they could with the resources they were allocated. But in reality there were insufficient — shoes, bullets, helmets, guns jackets and patrol boats — to protect this one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world, where private money builds sky scrapers and is not ploughed back into the municipality — that teeters.”

The Siege is not easy to read. The writing in the first few pages is stodgy, but after a while it is forgotten, and it is easier to read. For a lay reader it is a fascinating document that reconstructs the events of 26/11. Of the many recent attempts (including accounts in newspapers and magazines) are retelling or attempting to fathom what happened in the terrorist attacks of 26/11, this is a book that will often be referred to since it marshals together evidence in one place. A technique that the authors are familiar with, having applied it in their previous book, The Meadow which was on the kidnapping of the ten western journalists in Kashmir. But The Siege needs to be read/reviewed by security experts for their comments.

Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark The Siege: The Attack on the Taj Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2013. Pb. pp. 320 Rs. 499

“Our moon has blood clots” Rahul Pandita

“Our moon has blood clots” Rahul Pandita

Read. Stunned. Disturbed. Worried.

Enough said.

Rahul Pandita Our Moon has Blood Clots: The Exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits Vintage Books, Random House India. Hb. pp. 260 Rs. 499. Published in association with the New India Foundation.

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