literary fiction Posts

“My Father’s Garden” by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

…on each trip home, I found my father working unrelentingly in his garden. And under his loving care, it flourished more than ever. A hibiscus tree, which had been falling over on one visit, would be propped up with bamboo staves on the next, covered with pale orange blossoms. The lime and lemon bushes woudl hang heavy with fruit in season. As would the mangoes, guavas, bananas and jackfruits. Before we left our quarters, my father had carefully plucked a litchi sapling from the premises as a memento. That, too, was flourishing. And just behind our kitchen, my mother and aunt cultivated their own little patch of earth. Thick, deep green vines of pui leaves climbed the iron grille of the verandah outside our kitchen. Tusli, dhania and pudina grew lush in the cool space near the tubewell where the water keeps the earth always moist. Birds made their home in our garden. The caws-caws and the chee-chees would start at dawn and wake us up. At dusk, their raucous homecoming would tell us that the day was at an end.

I once read somewhere that the single-minded pursuit of one course over a lifetime can only be justified if one engages in two enterprises — building a garden, or raising a child. I now understand that my father’s garden is truly his child. And this child gives him the happiness and peace of mind that nothing else could ever give him.

Award-winning writer Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s My Father’s Garden is narrated in first person by an unnamed medical student (later doctor) and is set in Jharkhand. It is divided into three sections of unequal lengths — Lover, Friend and Father.

“Lover”, set in Jamshedpur, is a self-obsessed, narcissistic, self-centred portrayal of a young medical student for whom sex is liberating, needy and satisfying but it is also self-consuming when he is rejected by all his lovers for heterosexual relationships that are socially acceptable. It pushes the narrator to depression and a suicide attempt when he slashes his wrists only to wake up the next morning to discover the blob of blood congealing near his bed. He returns home to his parents.

“Friend”, set in Pakur, while ostensibly about a colleague Bada Babu — a successful man if measured by his genial generosity, his popularity and his ever welcoming home with a lavish party organised at every festival or birthday. The unnamed narrator becomes a permanent fixture at these parties. Yet “Friend” is also about the socio-economic horrors that plague society, particularly one where most of the locals are gullible, innocent and absolutely ignorant of their rights. There are also easy prey to be economically exploited by the very same person, in this case Bade Babu, who while being politically shrewd turns out to be the the victims’ benevolent benefactor as well. It is illustrated by the horrendous episode of evicting the people from the land where Bade Babu also has built a house, although his did not have a permanent roof. The poor people had invested their savings into buying the land not realising that they had been conned and were actually illegally squatting on government property. Bade Babu’s house is also demolished on the day everyone else’s is but to the narrator’s chagrin he discovers that Bade Babu has secretly managed to build himself quite a magnificent mansion, many times bigger than his present home, and the new place has a permanent roof. Many of those evicted had no one to turn to except Bade Babu for help which he magnanimously promised to provide. It is an age-old vicious cycle that can also be perceived as the Survival of the Fittest.

“Father”, set in Ghatsila, is about the narrator’s return home and witnessing his father’s entry into politics. It is an eye-opening journey of self-discovery not just for the father but for his family too. They watch the father become a trustworthy footsoldier in the Hindu India Party. With this is a brief encapsulation of the political history, the rifts created for political gains between the Adivasis, Santhals etc. The narrator’s grandfather was a prominent Santhal leader and an associate of Jaipal Singh. The father’s political spark probably stems from this inheritance. So he continues to give it his best including running successful campaigns at the ground level allowing unknown candidates to make critical inroads into the voter base and slowly transforming local politics. All the political ambitions that the father may have nursed come to a griding halt the day the father discovers he has been outsmarted by the very same leaders he trusted and hoped would one day support his candidature too. He gives up his political existence. After a period of self-reflection he takes to gardening with enthusiasm. With his nurturing it is vibrant, alive and bursting with health.

The garden as a metaphor is a classic literary trope. Whether it is used knowingly in this manner by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is uncertain but it certainly works very well in this story. The garden becomes the paradise everyone yearns for, and it is no less hard work than any other activity one engages on a daily basis. It is equally hard work for it is nurturing life.

And here I have to digress with a personal anecdote to emphasise the significance of a conversation about gardens and political commentary. My grandfather, N. K. Mukarji, was Union Cabinet Secretary when Mrs Indira Gandhi returned as prime minister of India for the first time after Emergency. At the first Union Cabinet meeting held after the new government had been sworn in my grandfather took his place in the room. According to the story he would tell recount all eyes were upon him and Mrs Gandhi rather than the agenda to be discussed. Everyone was watching expectantly to see how Mrs Gandhi would engage with Mr Mukarji given their past. When Mrs Gandhi had wanted to impose the Emergency she knew it could not be done while N. K. Mukarji was the Union Home Secretary. He would never have agreed to sign such an unconstitutional move. In a swift move she moved him to the Civil Aviation Ministry and did exactly what she wanted to. Rest is history. So when they met again a few years later in the cabinet meeting everyone present was naturally curious. Before beginning the meeting Mrs Gandhi had a quiet word with my grandfather which to all those watching seemed as if she had made her peace with Mr Mukarji and thus she very smartly and with all her politcal savviness set the tenor for a new working relationship with her Cabinet Secretary. And what did she discuss? Gardening matters!

My Father’s Garden is in all likelihood part-memoir for there are similarities between the life of the author and the narrator especially that of being a doctor in Jharkhand. But unless otherwise confirmed it is perhaps not wise to attribute too much into the fiction. Nevertheless as with his previous books Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar writes powerfully, borrowing heavily from real experiences, combining it with his remarkable ability of transforming these episodes into fine literary fiction. A fantastic mix of the personal, political and literary always makes for a great story. It also allows for precise detail about the local landscape. The eye for precision makes its presence felt even in the unapologetic use of borrowing phrases from other Indian regional languages such as Bengali and Hindi and letting them flow naturally in the conversations — without italicising them!

My Father’s Garden is a tremendously confident piece of writing and an absolute pleasure to read.

15 February 2019

Tabish Khair’s “Night of Happiness”

I was trying to hide behind stories, to construct fictions, instead of facing facts. I asked myself: how are facts faced? I knew the answer: facts are faced with evidence, with data, with numbers. Fiction cannot be outnumbered; it cannot be proved. But facts, yes, I have known all my working life, I have built my business on it — facts can be proved. 

Tabish Khair’s Night of Happiness is about Anil Mehrotra, a businessman, and his right hand man, Ahmed. Anil Mehrotra relies completely on Ahmed irrespective of whether it was day or night or a holiday. The added advantage for Anil was that Ahmed was a polyglot and the astute businessman Anil knew “People are generous when you speak to them in their language. They are nicer, happier; ‘Their hearts unlock a room for you in their distant homes.’ ” This was an asset in the import/export business.

Night of Happiness is about Anil trying to find out more about Ahmed’s past life particularly after one stormy night of working late in the office Anil had offered to drop Ahmed home. Ahmed invites Anil to have tea and maida ka halwa ( a sweet dish made out of flour and sugar), a special dish made on Shaab-e-baraat or “Night of Happiness”– a day when the departed souls are remembered by Muslims, much like other faiths too set aside a similar period of time to honour their dead such as All Souls Day for the Christians or the period of Shraadh for the Hindus or Dia de los Muertos ( Day of the Dead) as is observed in Mexico. Anil has an unnerving experience at Ahmed’s home and decides to investigate further. He hires a private detective to dig up facts about Ahmed’s past. During the course of investigation a string of details emerge that Ahmed had never hinted at in all the years he worked with Anil Mehrotra.

The story itself is crafted in a manner that distances the author from the sentiments being expressed in the story as the narrator says he found the manuscript in a hotel drawer and proceeds to read it. Be that as it may the first person narrative of the makes the plot very powerful and the pace sharp. Ostensibly it is a story about Anil trying to ferret out facts about his trusted colleague and yet it is thinly veiled fiction about a dialogue between Hindus and Muslims calling out the popular held myths about a Muslim. It rings so true because it can very well be a real conversation. Both the Hindu narrator of the manuscript, Anil Mehrotra, and Ahmed, a Muslim, are portrayed sensitively. While  the investigator works like the chorus of a Sophoclean drama supplying the necessary information to the main action while gently rebutting Mehrotra’s assumptions of Ahmed’s life.

When Ahmed served Anil at his home, he insisted he had offered halwa prepared lovingly by his wife, Roshni, who never makes an appearance. Anil is perplexed since there is no halwa on the plate and Ahmed seems to be relishing an imaginary dish. Tabish Khair neatly introduces the element of madness in the novella with this simple act. Witnessing Ahmed’s odd behaviour at home prompts Anil to hire the private investigator. It is then the personal history of Ahmed comes tumbling out—the time he spent as a guide of Buddhist monuments in Bihar to earn a little extra income to support his widowed mother and himself, meeting his wife Roshni, their shift to Surat, the Gujarat riots of 2002, and his final move to Mumbai.   So Ahmed’s mental turmoil viewed as madness by his employer or the mental agitation of Anil himself may be interpreted in many ways. It can be very real while being a comment on the horrifically disturbing times we live in leading one to ask existential questions like “Who is actually mad? What is madness?”

The further distancing of the authorial voice by presenting facts from the investigator’s report further lulls the reader into accepting the “make-believe world” of the “literary thriller”. Whereas Night of Happiness is much more than that! For one it is using fiction to remind people of the pogrom orchestrated in living memory and how its long shadow is still cast upon modern India.  It’s within this century and less than a generation old but sufficiently long for many people, particularly the young and the diaspora,  to have conveniently forgotten about it. More likely been brought up in an ahistorical environment  so these dastardly facts have no impact.

Tabish Khair is a well-known novelist but is also increasingly known for his opinion pieces published regularly in the Indian newspaper Hindu. These are well-argued, thoroughly researched, thought-provoking commentaries on socio-political events playing out in different parts of the world. It is quite possible that much of the preliminary work involved for these articles laid the bedrock of Night of Happiness. Certainly the publication of Night of Happiness close on the heels of the widely acclaimed novel by Mohsin Hamid Exit West raises the bar of literary fiction by many notches as both novels are able to focus on the horrific sectarian violence sweeping through the world. It is as if lessons from history were never learned. Both the authors, Tabish Khair and Mohsin Hamid, are writers of subcontinent origin who are also widely respected on the global literary stage. So when such powerful literary icons raise disturbing questions of a socio-political nature through their art, they must be heard.

Tabish Khair’s Night of Happiness begs the question if it is really “Art for Art’s Sake”? Whatever the reasons for the existence of Night of Happiness, it is unputdownable.

Read it. Share it.

Tabish Khair Night of Happiness Picador India, Delhi, 2018. Hb. pp. Rs. 450 

18 April 2018 

Amitava Kumar’s “The Lovers”

My review of Amitava Kumar’s The Lovers was published in OPEN Magazine on 25 August 2017. Here is the original url titled “A Passage to America” . I am also c&p the text below. 

An immigrant finds his place of mind—like the author himself

The Lovers | Amitava Kumar | Aleph | 255 Pages | Rs 599

AMITAVA KUMAR’S The Lovers is about Kailash, born in Ara, Bihar, who moved to the US in 1990. At college he met his mentor Ehsaan Ali when Kailash enrolled in his ‘Colonial Encounters’ class. To earn a few extra dollars, Kailash worked in a university bookshop. Some of the women he met on campus became good friends, some his lovers. With every woman— Jennifer, Nina, Laura, Maya and Cai Yan—he learned a little more about himself as a man, a lover, a student, a reader and of his culture, whichever one it may be at a given moment. The Lovers works at multiple levels. Superficially the novel explores different shades of love— puppy love, sexual love and marital. At another level it is the platonic and nurturing love between teacher (Ehsaan Ali) and student (Kailash) that is the bedrock of the novel. Ever so slowly and gently, the promising student Kailash blossoms as a teaching assistant and later, writer. ‘The main questions now were about the fiction of the past, the idea I had of myself as a person, and what it meant for me to become a writer.’ The narrator relies heavily upon memory to plot his journey and define his identity—tough since ‘he had become a translated man, no longer able to connect completely with his past.’

The Lovers is an autobiographical novel documenting the trajectory of Kailash aka Kalashnikov or AK47 or AK from the burning plains of India to an intellectual in America, a path very similar to that of the author himself. Kailash may not be Stephen Dedalus but he certainly grows in confidence, wherein his tastes in literature are concerned. It is evident in the structure of the novel. Over the years, from being an Indian student unsure about the literary canon he grew up with, Kailash becomes familiar with examples of international literature such as Gramsci, Tagore, Wittgenstein, Hanif Kureishi, Luis Borges, Agnes Smedley, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Judith Butler, Virginia Woolf, Nazım Hikmet et al. Slowly he incorporates desi writers such as Ismat Chughtai too. He realises that the India he left in the 1990s has changed to become a new India which is disconcertingly unrecognisable and is now part of the global village.

The immigrant novel is in a category of literary fiction which straddles two cultures—the author’s land of birth and adopted country. In The Lovers, despite having had the privilege of getting an American citizenship, Kailash continues to feel lost in his adopted country. ‘My father had grown up in a hut. I knew in my heart that I was closer to a family of peasants than I was to a couple of intellectuals sitting in a restaurant in New York.’ He tries to fit in, but falters at times. Even world literature that exposes him to various cultures fails to help, and leaves him yearning for the holy grail of the ‘hybrid culture that groups of people scattered across the world, removed from their roots, have created in response to alienation and a kind of collective loneliness?’ This is unlike his adventurous friend Pushkin Krishnagrahi, a Brahmin from Gwalior, a member of the new India who was now at home anywhere in the world.

It is significant that The Lovers has been released in the 70th year of Independence for India and Pakistan. As with two lovers, there is an intensely passionate relationship between the two countries which has historically been hostile. In the novel the two countries are represented by its citizens —Ehsan Ali (Pakistan) and Kailash (India) who away from their countries do not harbour any ill feelings towards each other and live in harmony. Ehsan Ali is probably modelled upon the intellectual Eqbal Ahmed, a prominent anti-war activist.

The Lovers is extraordinary craftsmanship, charting the blossoming of a timid new immigrant into a confident writer.

25 August 2017

‘It isn’t autobiography, but it’s a daughter’s book in every way’: Madeleine Thien

madeleine-thien(My interview with award-winning author Madeleine Thien was published in Scroll on 29 Oct 2016. Here is the original url: http://scroll.in/article/819960/it-isnt-autobiography-but-its-a-daughters-book-in-every-way-madeleine-thien . I have c&p the interview below. )

‘It isn’t autobiography, but it’s a daughter’s book in every way’: Madeleine Thien

The author talks about her extraordinary novel ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’.

Madeleine Thien is the author of the story collection, Simple Recipes, and three novels, including Dogs at the Perimeter, which was awarded the Frankfurt Book Fair’s 2015 Liberaturpreis. It is, of course, her most recent novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The youngest daughter of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants to Canada, Thien lives in Montreal. Excerpts from an email interview with Madeline Thien, conducted before the prize-winner was announced:

Please tell me more about the title – Do Not Say We Have Nothing?
The title comes from a line of music – the Chinese translation of a Russian translation of Eugène Pottier’s original French lyrics of The Internationale – which has resonated across 20th century China. The French line, “Nous ne sommes rien, soyons tout” (“We are nothing, let us be all”) became 不要说我们一无所有 (Do not say that we have nothing). The translation is by Qu Qiubai, a Communist Party leader, tragically executed in 1935, who is said to have sung The Internationale as he walked to his death. The anthem was also sung by the students in the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, as they left Tiananmen Square while the massacre was still unfolding.

Of all the composers why did you choose Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach almost like a chorus in your novel? How does Beethoven fit into the spectrum of Soviet composers you choose to mention – Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich?
Between the composer, Sparrow, who is the conscience of the novel, and me, this was the piece of music that anchored us. It’s a set of 30 variations and canons, all derived from a very simple theme in the opening aria, found not in the melody but in the bass line; and the entire piece begins and ends with the same aria, though by the time we arrive at the end, we have journeyed across timescapes. The Goldberg Variations are just one example of Bach’s extraordinary compositions which are built from strict form and structure, and yet somehow give rise to astonishing freedom, individuality, polyphony and range. In other words, they break you open and remake you.

The musicians in Do Not Say would have had ready access to the works of the Russian composers, as well as to Russian musicians and teachers, up until the Sino-Soviet split in 1960, so they would be foundational to the life and work of Sparrow. Beethoven’s renown in China is a separate story, and a fascinating trajectory, recently told by Sheila Melvin and Jindong Cai in their new book, Beethoven in China.

How long as the book been a part of you? How many drafts did it take to write?
Once I began writing, it took about five years, and probably 8-10 drafts, and that is quite little for me. The first third was, in some ways, the most challenging because of the foundation that needed to be created, and the strength (physical, artistic) to set a relatively large object into motion. I think the book has been part of me since childhood.

Somehow I had an inkling this was the case. The manner in which the story has been written and details mentioned suggested you had been thinking about it a lot, probably well before the book began its life as a manuscript. Also there was a sense that the book was like a witnessing. As if it was crucial for you to share your experiences in this manner with the younger generations who are probably not as well-informed about the transformations wrought to Chinese society.

In a way, I think of it not necessarily as a book written for younger generations, but as a book written to the older one. It isn’t an autobiographical novel, but it is a daughter’s book in every way. It tries to say that the daughter has grown older, and in living her life, with all its joys, heartbreaks, betrayals, wonder, has finally come to understand something of what her parents lived.

How much research and fact-checking did it involve?
A great deal, about history and music and mathematics and language, and about simply paying attention to life and living. But very few things, perhaps nothing, ever feel to me like pure research. Thinking about the world of the novel was my life, and so reading, asking questions, travelling, wandering, listening to music, and just being in China, was my life. It was expansive and challenging and also joyful, and of course, at times, it was devastating. The middle of the book, which slows down into the summer of 1966, was very difficult for me, and I had to stop writing for a few months after those sections were written. I had to come back to myself so that I could eventually return to the characters.

The pain you describe in the story and then acknowledge having found it tough to contend with makes absolute sense. Writing those words could not have been easy. Even as a reader I had to keep pausing as it was devastating to read the descriptions.
I’m so glad to hear that you paused, Jaya. Sometimes what the writer can’t work into the text are these spaces, pauses and rests, the moments that haven’t quite run their course even though the text had reached the end of the line.

Parts of the story ring true. Did you record oral histories and testimonies for this or referred to some archival material?
No, I didn’t record interviews. I had a lot of conversations, but they ranged from hanging out with composers to unexpected encounters on the street to visiting the small memorial at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, wandering in and out of practise rooms, going overnight into the desert in Gansu province, visiting my grandfather’s village in southern China, or just returning, year after year, to Tiananmen Square and Chang’an Avenue, and trying to absorb all the details. I read widely (the unrelated books are sometimes as important as the related ones) and travelled widely, and I just took the time I needed, as slow as it sometimes seemed. Being in China was humbling, provocative, and life changing.

Did you often make trips to China while working on this manuscript?
Yes, many trips, some longer (several months) and some brief (a couple of weeks). I was fortunate in that, for six years, I was coming to Hong Kong once or twice a year to teach a week-long workshop, and so could regularly add time in China. I was also writer-in-residence at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore for one semester, which allowed me to make frequent trips to China.

Do you think this book will be sold in China?
Yes. Not in the present moment, one day in the future that we can’t yet foresee.

I recommended your book to a couple of friends currently in China and Japan and both replied, “Sounds fascinating but we are not very sure if it will be available.”
I hope a translation will be possible sooner than we think. The untranslated book (UK edition) is available in Hong Kong and Japan, but not China.

How do you feel having written it?
As if I have been given something by the book itself. It allowed me to live in ways I could never have imagined on my own.

Why is there no genealogy tree or a timeline of events in the novel? Why are the annotations not starred?
There will be a family tree in the US edition of the novel, but it was never something that came up for the Canadian and UK editions. As a work of literature, a reader comes to know the characters or, to put it another ways, comes to live in the world the characters know. As the pages turn, the circle of that world expands. The annotations are not starred because, for me, the endnotes are a part of the literary work itself. Do Not Say is a book of books, and the endnotes continue the story. They are all open doorways within the novel, because no book exists in solitude.

Interesting that the US edition will have a genealogy. How did that decision come about?
The US publisher requested one. They did a beautiful job, and the design reminds me of notes on a stave.

Is this pure literary fiction or is it a cross between memoir and historical fiction? Why did you choose a writing style that sometimes seems to lapse into a meticulous historical account rather than fiction?
This is literature, in the sense that the novel is a relatively young form, and its borders are still contested. The world exists in storytelling just as storytelling exists in the world; I wouldn’t know how to extricate one from the other. For me, and perhaps this is an artistic failing of mine, I don’t think of it as meticulously historical. We are always with the characters, in their diction and register, in their conflict between public expression (Zhuli’s arguments with herself as she tries to align her thoughts with Chairman Mao’s discourse on the dangers of art for art’s sake) and private expression – in other words, between public and private languages, and public and private selves. All I can say with any confidence is that this is not memoir, as it has almost no overlap with my own family’s history; but I do think of it as a novel of intimacy.

After sending you this question I read that you had categorically denied this is a work of historical fiction. So my apologies. But I do love your description of it as a “novel of intimacy”.
Please don’t worry at all! I’m not sure I’m super categorical about it, but have lingering questions about what we mean by a work of historical fiction, how far back is the historical, etc. I don’t feel that we would call a work partially set in 1960s New York a work of historical fiction.

Madeleine Thien Do Not Say We Have Nothing Penguin, 2016. Pb. pp. 

3 November 2016 

Hanya Yanagihara, “A Little Life”

Hanya Yanagihara“Contracts are not just sheets of paper promising you a job, or a house, or an inheritance: in its purest, truest, broadest sense, contracts govern every realm of law. When we choose to live in a society, we choose to live under a contract, and to abide by the rules that a contract dictates for us… .” ( p.116) 

Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel A Little Life is a strong contender for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2015. It will be announced on Tuesday, 13 October 2015. Meanwhile it has created a more than a little storm in literary circles around the globe. Inevitably comments are being posted about how powerful it is, the incredible writing and not a single reader has been left unscathed, many dissolving into tears while reading it. Needless to say it rocks you emotionally. It has to be one of the most exhausting novels from contemporary literature and this is not a testimony to the time spent reading the 700-odd pages. It is the story itself. Four young men, friends from their days as undergraduates at a prestigious New England University, who try finding their feet as professionals as adults. The novel spans their lifetime but instead of it being a straightforward old-fashioned bildungsroman, it delves into their past particularly their formative years as children focusing primarily on Jude St.Francis. There is forward movement, it is hard-hitting, at times a painfully descriptive yet grippingly told narrative. It is a book that demands to be read at one-sitting ( read minimum three days) without getting distracted by anything else, otherwise it will be impossible to finish reading.

A Little Life is already being termed as a “queer classic” within a few months of its publication. It is a devastating look at adult male relationships primarily through the prism of love that the four men have for each other. The story is mapped from their days as students to old age. A time when most people have mellowed or come to terms with the life they live except for Jude who continues to be consistent in his personality –notably his physical self-flagellation whereas Hanya Yanagihara sees Jude as being “consistent in his hopefulness”. ( Hear the Guardian podcast.) If it were not for the immense love, tenderness and understanding his inner circle has for him, Jude would have long been dead. Somehow this inexplicably violent aspect of his personality overshadows his brilliance as a lawyer. Along the way other forms of love are also explored — the love between parents ( biological, foster and adopted) parents for their wards, the expression of love ( at times horrifically warped — between lovers, rapists, perpetrators of child sexual abuse) and how the bonds of love are forged over time? The factor of trust is also explored in many ways. Trust is an essential part of the foundation upon which love between two individuals is built, so should it be ever taken for granted or does it require constant nurturing?

Hanya Yanagihara is a journalist who has been with Conde Nast and New York Times. She spent a few years writing this novel.  Here is an interview between her editor, Gerry Howard and her, published in Slate. ( 5 March 2015. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2015/03/hanya_yanagihara_author_of_a_little_life_and_her_editor_gerry_howard.html ) There have been a deluge of articles, reviews, interviews, podcasts with the author, coming to terms with A Little Life. It is no mean achievement when a writer is able to create a work of art that has a phenomenal reaction. Over and over again readers are responding to the manner in which it transformed them. The only consistent element evident in the media buzz about A Little Life  is the astonished reaction at encountering this work of literary art. The fact that it is a work of fiction, but so magnificently detailed to make it powerfully moving and yet, as Hanya has discovered, young men have approached her saying this is remarkably true to their lives. But she clarifies in the interview with Claire Armistead that she has never known a Jude or a person who could have inspired the character. It is a novel that has created a new benchmark of literary fiction. Yet I cannot help feeling it is an example of a new form of decadence in the craft of writing. It rips apart the known “limits” of literary fiction immersing the reader in a vortex of pain, suffering, love, and relationships making it a harrowing experience but strangely addictive too — akin to the fascination upon discovering a mind blowing new art form. Even the author confirms that “this book is extravagant, its highly artificial, its large in its emotions…I want to push way up against the line almost of melodrama …and so I really wanted to push every single emotion, every single sensation as far as I could and I don’t think that is a very fashionable way to write fiction any more. Not that I was concerned about that.” ( Excerpt quoted from the Guardian podcast with Claire Armistead.)

Read it.

Some links to read:

  1. The Guardian Books Podcast with Claire Armistead, 28 August 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2015/aug/28/novels-books-podcast-hanya-yanagihara-andrew-miller
  2. James Kidd talks to Hanya Yanagihara, 23 August 2015. http://thiswritinglife.co.uk/e/episode-27-hanya-yanagihara-a-little-life-part-1/
  3. Lucy Scholes  in Bookanista “Hanya Yanagihara among friends” http://bookanista.com/hanya-yanagihara/
  4. Jon Michaud ” The subversive brilliance of A Little Life” 28 April 2015 http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-subversive-brilliance-of-a-little-life
  5. A interview and a review in The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/26/hanya-yanagihara-i-wanted-everything-turned-up-a-little-too-high-interview-a-little-life and http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/18/a-little-life-hanya-yanagihara-review-man-booker-prize
  6. An interview in the Bookseller http://www.thebookseller.com/insight/hanya-yanagihara-interview

Hanya Yanagihara A Little Life Picador, London, UK, 2015. Pb. pp. 734. Rs. 699

Zia Haider Rahman, “In the Light of What We Know”

Zia Haider Rahman, “In the Light of What We Know”

( My review of Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel, In the Light of What we Know, has been published in the Hindu Literary Review on 6 July 2014. Here is the url: http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/two-worlds-apart/article6180418.ece . I am also c&p the text below.)

in the light of what we know - zia haider rahmanBefore 9/11, I was invisible, unsexed. How is it that after 9/11 suddenly I was noticed – not just noticed, but attractive, given the second look, sized up, even winked at? Was that the incidental effect of no longer being of a piece with the background of being noticed, or was it sicker than that? Was this person among us no longer the meek Indian, the meek Pakistani, the sepoy, but fully man? Before 9/11, I was hidden behind the wall of colonial guilt after having been emasculated by a history of subjugation. ( p.20)

Many people do know quite a lot about Bangladesh. They happen to be living in the region. I don’t think Indians and Pakistanis are quite ignorant about Bangladesh as the people you have in mind, and they make up a fifth of the world.

What about writing for a Western audience? I asked.

Bridging two cultures?

Why not?

How well will a book about modern India sell to a Western audience, a  non-fiction book about this shocking economic trend-bucking phenomenon, if it were written by an Indian?

You could write against that, with one foot in the East and the other in the West. ( p. 320-1)

In the Light of What We Know is about two male friends, an unnamed narrator and Zafar, who first met as students at Oxford. Zafar is of Bangladeshi origin and his family is not very well off; unlike the narrator is from an affluent Pakistani family whose parents are academics, equally comfortable with the intelligentsia, politicians and high Society of New York as they are in Cambridge. The two friends after graduation went on to become bankers, soon to go their separate ways and lose touch with each other. The book consists of a long, meandering conversation with the men exchanging notes about their past, their careers, their families and their experiences since they last met in New York, when they were colleagues with bright futures at a financial firm. This meeting takes place in London, September 2008. There are moments when the narrator supplements the information with extensive notes he has read in Zafar’s diaries. At times it seems to meander into digressions (also lengthy epigraphs and extensive footnotes) that are packed with discussions revolving around cartography and the quality of translations (“Both of them face the same problem, namely, that they cannot capture everything exactly and they have to give up some things in order to convey anything at all.”); about war, atrocities committed during conflicts, experiences of an insider ( irregular) dealings in trading derivatives with the bankers who were the brains of these operations becoming collateral damage,  discussions about philosophers such as Erich Fromm the Jewish German American philosopher, Western Classical music, science and mathematics such as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, a theorem of mathematical logic about the impossibility of proving certain truths.

There is a story, albeit a thin one. It is about the relationship between two friends, a Pakistani and a Bangladeshi, two nationalities, belonging to two different parts of society yet it is a sense of belonging to the Indian subcontinent that keeps them together. Otherwise they have very little in common. Urdu, spoken in Pakistan and by Zafar’s parents, is not the narrator’s “mother tongue” so they resort to using English. These young men are representative of their generation—a South Asian professional of the diaspora—a close attachment and understanding of their own history, but acquire the sophistication required to move with grace in different societies. Along the way these young men become intellectual jukeboxes with sufficient bytes of information and cultural titbits to be accepted in various pockets of the world. It is like being a participant of a cultural tsunami. They encounter people of other nationalities who are like them too—Arab Muslims, Wahabi, Sunni, Israeli and Russian, Pakistani Christians, Arab Christians, Palestinian Christians, Coptic Christians, Englishmen who were in the Burma War—who in all likelihood have an equally complicated mixed bag of religious, cultural and nationalistic considerations to think about.

Read In the Light of What We Know as a middle class reader of twenty-first century experimental literature. Have no expectations of it being a novel of the classical form—a structured, chronologically told, multi-layered story. It is not. It is probably a biography, but even the narrator is not quite sure what to term it—“current enterprise” or “present undertaking”. The Internet is creating a new kind of fiction where sections of a novel that would work very well as an independent digital long read are being embedded in the architecture of the printed story. Zia Haider Rahman’s first fiction is a sound example of South Asian literature becoming a global novel, not necessarily an immigrant novel. It is at the cusp of the Anglophone novel infused with the confidence and characteristic of South Asian literary fiction. It is unapologetic about its style and is best read like a stream of consciousness set in an absurd drama. The novel could have been reduced by at least 100 pages without any harm done, yet it is a forceful debut—definitely one of the new and promising writers of 2014.

6 July 2014 

Zia Haider Rahman In the Light of What We Know Picador India, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. Pp. 560 Rs. 599 

Kamila Shamsie, ” A God in Every Stone”

Kamila Shamsie, ” A God in Every Stone”

Kamila Shamsie, A God in Every StoneA God in Every Stone is Kamila Shamsie’s fifth novel.  It is set at the time of World War I and before the partition of the Indian sub-continent into India and Pakistan. It is about an Englishwoman archaeologist, Vivian Rose Spencer, and her meeting with her discovery of the Temple of Zeus and Ypres war veteran, twenty-two-year-old Qayyum Gul who is returning home to Peshawar. But the story is much, much more than that.

A God in Every Stone will be classified as “Pakistani Literature”. It may have been written by Kamila Shamsie but it could even work as literature of the subcontinent or South Asian literature, with sufficient sprinkling of historical facts that makes it intriguing and interesting for a global audience. It is so clearly positioned in a time of history that it is sufficiently far removed from the present times for the writer to be able to present, analyse, teach and comment–uninhibited. Placing the story during World War 1 and in undivided India is fascinating. It is a story based on some historical facts like the massacre of Qissa Khawani Bazaar (the Storytellers Market) on 23 April 1930, the Khudai Khidmatgars and of the freedom fighter, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. More importantly I liked the placing of it in a time of history when people of undivided India are shown fighting together against the British. ( In this telling of history/fiction, it is immaterial whether they were Pakistanis or Indians, they are fighting against the colonial rulers.) It is as if the novel is showing a “history from below” much like Subaltern Studies did in academics. For instance giving characters such as Najeeb, the assistant at the Peshawar museum; the soldiers hired by the British to figure in the Great War such as Lance-Naik Qayyum Gul; the young prostitutes–girls of mixed lineage; the storytellers; the letter-writer — are people who would barely have figured in previous fictional narratives.

It is a story set so firmly in the city of Peshawar, but makes the wonderful connect of this region with Greece, the rich history of Peshawar and Gandhara art. The forays into Europe of World War 1, the “betrayal” of Tahsin Bey by Viv, the recuperation of soldiers of Indian origin in Brighton, the VAD etc. Even the subtle transformation of Viv’s mother from being horrified by her daughter dispatched to an archaeological dig in Turkey to encouraging her to make a trip to Peshawar. ( ” The truth was, the war had sloughed off so many rules that no one seemed to know any more what counted as unacceptable behaviour in women.” p.75)

Positioning the story in Peshawar is stunning since much of the problems of early twentieth century such as tribal warfare, being a part of NWFP, Swat valley continue to be relevant in the twenty-first century. What also shines through in the novel is that this region has been alive, settled and of crucial geo-political significance for centuries, something that locals tend to forget or maybe are too absorbed in their daily life. What comes through in the novel is that the locals may be active participants ( willing or unwilling is not the question right now) but local dynamics have a powerful impact on their lives. This is evident through the fascinating badalas that are shared. Of these the one that attracts the most crowd is that of the Haji. Well it could be just a comment of the times but it assumes a different dimension if read with a knowledge of what is happening today in world politics –the Islamisation of Terror.

Even the descriptions of the Gandhara artifacts, the archaeological digs etc criss-cross history marvelously. They bring to play not only the political significance of important regimes of the past such as Darius, the Mauryan empire, Alexander etc but of more recent developments such as what is happening in Afghanistan and the Taliban ( i.e. blasting of the Bamiyan Buddhas). But the inextricable link between culture/cultural expressions and politics. The politicians and kingmakers may no longer be alive but their presence is marked by sculptures, pottery shards, etc that have been left behind or excavated. The connection between Gandhara and non-violence is also striking when one recalls that Ashoka who quit fighting after the battle of Kalinga, became a Buddhist and a staunch believer of non-violence, his first “posting” was at Gandhara. Whereas this novel involves Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who too believed in non-violent forms of action. Centuries apart sharing similar beliefs in the same region.

The flitting between the imagined and real worlds. Creating the myth of circlet of Scylax so convincingly could only have been done by a person who is passionate  about Greek mythology and loves research. It meshes beautifully in this story.

A God in Every Stone is exquisite. With this novel Kamila Shamsie has set a very high benchmark for literary fiction–worldwide.

                                     *****
( After reading A God in Every Stone I posed some questions to Kamila Shamsie via e-mail. )

Q1 Have the film rights been sold to this book? Who chose the extract for the Granta special?
No. And I chose the extract.

Q2 How did do you decide upon this story?

I didn’t. I had decided on a very different story which started with the massacre in Qissa Khwani/the Street of Storytellers in 1930 and continues until 2009. But my plans for novels always end up going astray. It did have both archaeology and the anti-colonial resistance in Peshawar as elements right from the start so the germ of the novel was always there but finding the story was a slow winding process which involved lots of deleting and quite a bit of re-writing.

Q3 Where was the research for this book done?

Mostly in the British Library where they keep colonial records – and also have a wonderful photography collection. I also went to some of the novel’s locations in Peshawar. And the Internet is an invaluable tool for research, of course.

Q4 How did the idea of a woman archaeologist,  Vivian Rose Spencer, strike you? I wish she had more of a presence in the book.

The idea of an English archaeologist struck me first – originally the archaeologist was going to be male but while reading a piece of travel writing by the Englishwoman Rosita Forbes who was in Peshawar in the 30’s I became interested in the experience of Englishwoman in Peshawar. At that point the structure of the novel was very different and there were more primary characters. I’m pretty sure that, regardless of Rosita Forbes, I would have made the archaeologist female once it became clear that the soldier and archaeologist were the two primary characters. I wasn’t about to write a novel in which both the main characters are male. Male writers do more than enough of that!

As for wanting her to be more of a presence – she has more pages in the novel then anyone else. But her story is more the focus of the first half of the book. The anti-colonial story has to shift it’s focus to the Peshawaris.

Q5 How much history did you delve into? Did the historical research come before the writing or specific research happened after the story took root?

Lots. And lots. I research and write as parallel processes – and the research doesn’t really stop until I’ve finished the book.

Q6 This is literary fiction similar to what Subaltern Studies is in academics–telling the histories from “below”. You made heroes of figures who were considered rebels in “mainstream” narratives. Did this happen consciously?

Whose mainstream?, would be my first response to that.
What I am interested in, which relates to your question, is the stories that have received less attention than other stories. Whether it’s women archaeologists rather than men archaeologists, Indian soldiers in WWI rather than English soldiers, the non-violent Pashtun rather than the one who picks up a gun.

Q7 What is the difference between literary fiction, historical fiction and fiction set in history?  Would  A God in Every Stone even fit into any of these categories?

It’s not something to which I give any thought when writing a novel. Which category will make people want to read it?

Q8  There are many women characters in your novel, who only serve purpose for that particular moment in the story, no more. Yet their fleeting appearances are powerful, almost like a painting, they leave a deep imprint on one’s mind. For instance the infant bride and the teenage prostitute, are they figments of imagination or based upon sketches that you came across?

I certainly see then serving a purpose beyond a single moment. Everything in a novel has to serve the entire novel. (The infant bride grows up to be a very important part of the novel – she’s the green-eyed woman.) They aren’t based on sketches. I know there were prostitutes in the Old City and I know very young girls were given away in marriage. Beyond that, I worked out the particular stories that best suited my purpose.

Q9 Why did you choose to write about Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan or “Frontier Gandhi” ?

I grew up barely even hearing his name which is why I wanted to write about him. He’s been written out of Pakistan’s history, except in KP, which is a terrible shame. Also, he was such an important figure in his own right that it seems only correct that we should call him by his own name or honorific – Ghaffar Khan or Bacha Khan – rather than by reference to anyone else, regardless of who that anyone else is.

Q10 Are the badalas yours or recorded?

Mine.

Q11 Have you ever worn a burqa. The confusion that you show the young girl to be in can only come from an experienced moment.

No I haven’t. Novelists imaginations fortunately often thrive quite happily without experienced moments!

Q12 Now that you have British citizenship, how do you see yourself? British-Pakistani writer, Pakistani writer, of South Asian origin?

Pakistani. I’ve only been British for 6 months!

13 April 2014